Comparing Religions V: Historical Accounts

In this installment of Comparing Religions, we will tackle two of my proposed questions in a single post, which has the nice side effect that it brings the post numbers and the question numbers into synch with each other.

4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?

Sometimes a document that purports to be from the distant past is simply an outright forgery.  For example, the Book of Mormon's anachronistic description of American cultures that somehow left no archaeological evidence, supernaturally preserved in a nonexistent language on invisible golden plates.  Some supernatural claims really are more obviously bogus than others!

Other times, a book may be a collection of mythological stories from an even earlier era.  For example, the Bhagavad Gita consists of a dialogue with Krishna, who is supposed to have lived around 3,000 BC.  Since this was thousands of years before writing came to India, that's obviously much too early for this text to be a historical record, even leaving aside the obviously mythological content.  (There was some discussion of this in the comments to another post.)  The Gita is one part of the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic which (like Homer) involves gods living among men in various shapes and guises.  Although traditionally the Mahabharata was believed to be authored by the Vyasa (a sage mentioned in the story), in fact the earliest known possible external reference to the Mahabharata dates to the 4th century BC, and it might have continued to change significantly until the 4th century AD.

(The Vedas, a more foundational set of Hindu religious texts, include hymns that are probably significantly older than the Mahabharata; I gather that these were composed during the Vedic period c. 1500 – c. 500 BC, but I have not studied them enough to comment intelligently about them.)

In Judaism, the traditional date of the Exodus/Torah is around 1400 BC, give or take a century or two.  This is significantly later than the supposed date of Krishna, and postdates the invention of the alphabet.  Even so, there is difficulty confirming the events in question from archaeology or other written sources.  Although there are a few corroborating details, they are hard to fit into a consistent chronology with e.g. Egyptian histories.  While I personally accept the historicity of the Exodus (and its accompanying dramatic miracles) this is mainly because I am already a Christian for other reasons, and also because some parts of the Torah (especially all the boring bits!) sound rather like the minutia of real historical documentation.  It is not because I think there is strong extrabiblical evidence for it.

Other parts of the Old Testament were written significantly later, and some of these parts do have confirmation from other ancient historical records.  Notably, the miraculous defeat of Sennacherib is in both Isaiah/Kings and in Herodotus' Histories.  Herodotus was the father of Greek-style investigative history, although sometimes he is often a bit overcredulous.  His version of the event is significantly different from the biblical account: in it the Assyrians are defeated because mice eat all of their bowstrings.

On the other hand, the New Testament comes after Greek historical methods were widely disseminated (this was because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, which spread Greek culture all over the place).  There are many other histories generally regarded as reliable, written at around the same time in the same culture, and some of them mention Jesus as a historical figure.  We know pretty much when he was born (c. 4 BC), and when he died (30 or 33 AD).  He fits into the 1st century Jewish context and makes sense in that context, etc.

Similarly, no reasonable person can deny the historical existence of Mohammad, or that we have at least some accurate accounts of what he said and did.  (There are unreasonable people who subscribe to Mohammad mythicism just as there are unreasonable people who subscribe to Jesus mythicism, but they are regarded as crackpots by the greater scholarly community.)  And of course the same goes for most founders of modern religious movements.

5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?

Reading fictional myths about great heroes like Achilles or Beowulf or Frodo is a very different experience than reading actual historical documents, which fit into the historical context of the real world, talk about circumstantial details in the right way, provide plausible and realistic reportage of people's reactions, and so on.  For the most part, we can tell which books in the library are fiction and which are nonfiction by their literary style.

Educated ancient Greeks knew perfectly well that Homer and the other ποιητης (poets, but the word literally means "makers") were writing fiction about the gods; the Athenians laughed at people who actually took them literally.  Sure, the Greeks thought the Trojan War was an actual historical event, but Homer's description of it was their equivalent of Shakespeare, not the Bible.  Which is why the poets began by invoking the Muse, who is the goddess of literary inspiration, not historical accuracy.

It is true that a religious fanatic like Euthyphro might answer affirmatively when Socrates asked him if he took the myths literally:

And do you believe that there really is war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles, and other such things as are told by the poets, and other sacred stories such as are embroidered by good writers and by representations of which the robe of the goddess is adorned when it is carried up the Acropolis?  Are we to say that such things are true, Euthyphro?

(Plato's Euthyphro, Grube translation)

but we know from earlier in the dialogue that Euthyphro was generally regarded by other Athenians as being nuts!

No sensible person could believe that the myths about e.g. Hercules are sober documentary histories, comparable to e.g. the history of Thucydides (the first really excellent Greek historian).  This is not to say that the Greeks disbelieved in their gods, or that you wouldn't get into trouble for completely denying their existence; but their actual religion was not really identical to their mythology; still less was it the same as their philosophy or their history.  These things were kept somewhat separate.

But Christianity brings historical claims and theology together.  At the level of literary genre, the Gospels (and Acts) read much more like actual accounts of real events; they talk about contemporary historical individuals (such as St. John the Baptist, Joseph Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, the Herods, etc.) whom we know existed from other historical writings.   Not to mention St. Peter and the other Apostles, who founded an organization that is still around and left written records.  There are numerous miracles, but they are pretty firmly embedded in this particular historical context.

The New Testament fits into its historical context

One of the Gospels opens its account of Jesus' ministry with the following words:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  (Luke 3:1-3)

In other words, these are events whose beginning can be dated precisely based on the political administration in a particular year (AD 29), and which took place at a known geographical location.

The New Testament includes practical details

And throughout the Gospels, the sense of being actually present (e.g. having to deal with logistical concerns related to bustling crowds) is often quite palpable:

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed.  When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.  Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him.  For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.
....
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.
(Mark 3:7-10, 20)

These are not the sort of practical details that one would expect to be included in purely mythological fiction (any more than an ancient poet would bother to tell us where Perseus stopped to use the restroom on the way to kill Medusa).  Yet this sort of texture pervades the canonical Gospel narratives.

(The Fourth Gospel, attributed to St. John the Apostle, has a noticeably different style from the other three "synoptic" Gospels; for example there are long conversations between Jesus and his interlocutors, and his claims to have divine status—while not unique to John—are more frequent and explicit.  However, there is still a significant overlap with the events of the Synoptic Gospels, and its narrative parts show detailed knowledge of 1st century geography, architecture, and Jewish feasts.  And in several places, the Gospel of John actually reads the most strongly of any gospel as if it were written by an eye-witness of the events in question, who sometimes even seems eager to "correct the record" regarding quite minor circumstantial details of events reported by the other 3 Gospels.)

The New Testament Jesus is recognizably Jewish

Unlike later Gospels that were rejected by the Church, the Gospels portray Jesus and his contemporaries as Jews, with Jewish concerns.

While this fact may seem obvious (Jesus was in fact a Jew, so his Jewishness ought to be obvious in any historically accurate representation of him), it provides a sharp criterion for distinguishing the historically informed primary source material from all the unreliable legends composed later (after Christianity became detached from its parent religion and there was no incentive or ability to portray Jesus in this way.)

As another Christian blogger St. Anne / "Weekend Fisher" writes at her blog:

In my research on the history of the liturgy, I came across a book described by its dust jacket as "the most complete scholarly study of Jewish liturgy in existence today."  Naturally, I couldn't resist getting a copy.  The book is Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Ismar Elbogen.  The original edition (1913) was in German.  At the time of the 1993 English translation, it was noted (again, from the dust jacket), "Eighty years after its first appearance, Elbogen's magisterial work remains the most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written."  His primary sources are many and varied, including the Talmud, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, a host of Jewish writers through the ages, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul's letter to the Galatians, the Didache, Justin Martyr, and the Apostolic Constitutions, among others.  Curiously (or not so curiously), I have not been able to find any references in this book to the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Philip, or any of the non-canonical gospels.

Before we look at why this might happen, I should mention why this work takes so much notice of certain Christian writings: it uses them to establish historical facts about Jewish liturgy and worship, especially as it is practiced in the synagogue.  The canonical gospels contain first-century evidence of what Jewish worship was like.  There is a record of Hanukkah being celebrated in Jerusalem under the name the Feast of Dedication; it is applicable to the discussion of the history of Hanukkah. The book considers parallels between traditional Jewish prayers and other prayers recorded in the canonical gospels, and uses that to show how far traditional Jewish prayers were already developed at that point in time.  The canonical gospels were referenced for peoples' reactions to the practice of giving scholars preferred seats in the synagogues, for whether the Jewish synagogue worship already included readings from the prophets and sermons on those readings, for whether the twice-weekly fast was already in place before the fall of the Temple.  There is evidence on the development of the role of the synagogue leader in speaking to people who were out of order; when Jesus heals on the Sabbath, the fellow who objects has the proper title for the person who was supposed to maintain order in the synagogue.  There is even evidence in the New Testament for some very detailed aspects of the Jewish liturgy: that the person who gave the sermon was first called to read, that the reading occurred while standing, that the sermon occurred while sitting.  The gospels are used as evidence for the location of certain particular synagogues, and for the practice (also known elsewhere) that non-Jews might contribute to building a synagogue.  All these very Jewish facts in the New Testament are placed alongside a continuum of Jewish writings to form a coherent whole of which they are an integral piece.  (The historical Jesus is Jewish)

The fact that the canonical Gospels are useful historical sources for a Jewish liturgist with no interest in Christianity, besides the desire to gain period knowledge about Judaism, shows that they are not mere legends but contain significant quantities of historically accurate information.

It's hard to make a good fake

Neither do the Gospels have the same character as forged historical texts, a process which tends to give itself away through tell-tale signs.  As Richard Feynman wrote (about a fake Mayan astronomical codex):

Those people who copy things never have the courage to make up something really different.  If you find something that is really new, it's got to have something different... In addition, there should be a number of things in it that are not understandable, and are not exactly like what has been seen before.  That would be a good fake.  (Bringing Culture to the Physicists)

Most forgers have very little historical sense, and their forgeries end up being transparently obvious.  They are derivative where they should be original, yet somehow fail to partake of the spirit of the things which they are copying, and they are missing the little details which ought to be to provide a sense of reality.  There is not enough "roughness around the edges", showing the cut of the original unpolished wood.

To illustrate this point, here's some nice examples of pseudo-apostolic frauds: The Gospel of Mary and 3rd Corinthians.  The former being a Gnostic gospel fragment, and the latter an anti-Gnostic piece of correspondence purportedly between the Corinth and St. Paul.  Just reading the texts makes it instantly clear, to the trained eye, that neither is authentic.  They try to copy the mannerisms of the New Testament, but it sounds forced: it is clearly not the sort of thing which an actual person at the time would ever have written.  I'm not going to say that fakes are always this obvious, but usually they are!

A slightly better example, but still obviously biblical fan-fiction, is the Protoevangelium of James, which supposedly describes the birth and childhood of Mary the mother of Jesus, but is generally dated to the 2nd century.  It shows little evidence of compatibility with known Jewish customs of the 1st century BC.  Most shockingly, it describes the child Mary as being allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, yet it does not describe angry mobs demanding her execution (as would inevitably have happened if people thought she had profaned the holiest site in the Temple, which not even the priests were allowed to enter, except for the High Priest once a year).  It is not as though the Jews already believed she was going to be the mother of the Messiah.  It reads exactly like the sort of text that a later Christian would make up, in order to fill in the disappointing lack of detail regarding Jesus' parents.

As St. Lewis pointed out, when people make up legends, it's actually really hard to make them sound like historical reportage (and mostly forgers didn't even try very hard).  Speaking of the canonical Gospels, he writes:

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know that not one of them is like this.  Of this text there are only two possible views.  Either this is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.  If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind.  The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read.

It took until modern times for novelists to figure out how to make fiction sound like history, and even then, it usually doesn't.  (Modern novels, whether "realistic" or "fantastic", tend to deviate from documentary reportage in the opposite direction, by giving far more circumstantial detail than anyone would ever remember about an event unless there was a camera-man following them around.)  It seems like it should be easy (just write whatever you would have written if it had really happened), but it is actually quite tricky, since the little details give you away.  It's a bit like how you can easily tell whether a picture hanging in an art gallery is a painting or a photograph, just by looking at it.

I suppose I should go on in this post to describe some examples of non-Christian religious scriptures whose style and content clearly indicates that they are legends.  But, it turns out that it will be more convenient to give some examples in the following post, which concerns dating.  So stay tuned for the next installment!

Next: Early Sources

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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One Response to Comparing Religions V: Historical Accounts

  1. Anne K says:

    Thank you for the kind mention of my research.
    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF

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