Ross Douthat’s Curious Reasoning about the Historical Jesus

Ross Douthat, in a recent New York Times piece, says that scholars would evaluate the documentary evidence for Jesus’s sayings and doings far more sympathetically if the New Testament had no miracles in it:

If the letters of Saint Paul (the earliest surviving Christian texts, by general consensus) and the synoptic gospels (the second-earliest) didn’t make such extraordinary claims about Jesus’s resurrection, his divinity, and so forth, no credible historian would waste much time parsing second-century apocrypha for clues about the “real” Jesus. They’d thank their lucky stars that the first-century Christians were such talented narrative writers, and spend most of their time trying to reconcile the discrepancies and resolve the contradictions in Matthew, Mark and Luke, while arguing amongst themselves about how much historical weight to give to the events and sayings recorded in John’s gospel. The gospel of Thomas would attract some modest attention; the later “lost gospels,” very little, save as evidence of how intra-Christian debates developed long after Jesus’s death.

In other words, Douthat suggests that, save for the supernatural intrusions, scholars would have no more qualms about the historicity of New Testament texts than your average street-corner evangelist.

I doubt it. The New Testament displays numerous signs that at least some of its authors did not mean to be read as if they were writing straight history. This is true even absent the miracles. And I don’t think that this would have fallen beneath the radar of attentive scholars (no matter how little was at stake). For example, see here for a book by a scholar who discerns parallels between Mark and Homer.

But I digress. The reality is that the miracles about Jesus render incredible the narratives generally, and so we can’t entertain them as historical in ways that nonmiraculous narratives can be entertained as historical. Douthat’s hypothetical about a life of Jesus absent miracles is akin to positing a similar hypothetical about UFO testimony: the details that the witnesses attest to would be so much more convincing if they didn’t also include those parts about aliens bringing them into spaceships and probing their privates! Extraordinary claims, in other words, require extraordinary evidence. You simply cannot get around Hume’s famous razor and still own the designation of one devoted to critical thinking.

And Douthat’s conclusion is equally dubious:

[T]here’s nothing wrong with saying that the supernaturalism of the Christian canon makes it an unreliable guide to who Jesus really was. But if we’re honest with ourselves, then we need to acknowledge what this means: Not the beginning of a fruitful quest for the Jesus of history, but the end of it.

Again, I disagree. Scholars say lots of plausible things about what the historical Jesus must have been like. These plausible things, however, often do not accord with Orthodoxy, and so Douthat doesn’t like them. But in calling an end to the quest for plausible things, Douthat is not inviting us to agnosticism, but to a return to faith in implausible things. Isn’t that a clever way to short-circuit your rationality?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Ross Douthat’s Curious Reasoning about the Historical Jesus

  1. raphaelzaratustro says:

    “Isn’t that a clever way to short-circuit your rationality?”

    Why would faith cancel reason?

  2. St. John the Baptist says:

    “The reality is that the miracles about Jesus render incredible the narratives generally”

    is better written :

    The reality about the miracles of Jesus generally render the narratives incredible.

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