Bad History and the Historical Jesus

I have been listening to an audio course on iTunes on the Historical Jesus, taught by Thomas Sheehan.  You can find the course on iTunes here.

I can’t believe how offended I have been as I have listened to this course.  I am not offended as a Christian just because Sheehan has a different theology, I am offended as a historian at the horrible historical mistakes he makes and as a communicator at the way he misuses rhetoric.  I share the link to what he says, not to send people looking for an introduction to the historical Jesus to find good information, but so that you can check up on what I am responding to.

There is so much that bothered me about these lectures.  Sheehan puts forth Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as typical evangelical Bible teachers.  Since you probably do not want to be like them, you might as well ignore evangelical scholarship.  He holds up the Scofield Bible as being typical of evangelical scholarship.  These things are brought up from time to time to remind the listeners of how laughable evangelical scholarship is.

Sheehan has a very specific view of who Jesus was and what he did.  Of course there is room for people to disagree.  However, Sheehan basically says that preachers and pastors who proclaim in their churches the story of Jesus based on a plain sense reading of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are guilty of malpractice.  He jokes that they deserve to be sued for suggesting that Jesus really did die for sins and that he really did rise again.  There is no excuse for pastors to teach such nonsense since scholarship has long ago dismissed such ideas.  Sheehan is far from open minded when it comes to people he disagrees with.

One of the things Sheehan does is talk a lot about the scholarly consensus.  He will make some comment about what Jesus said or did (or did not say or did not do) and base confidence  in this because there is a strong consensus.  But what does he mean by consensus?  Does he mean that all scholars or at least a great majority of scholars accept such a view?  Not really.  Does he mean that most people who have good Ph.D.s from respected research universities agree with him?  Not really.  As you listen to him, he will acknowledge that there are educated professors who hold to more traditional understandings of who Jesus was.  He accuses these people of refusing to give in to the consensus.  Sheehan tries to specify that the consensus is made up of those scholars at the good universities who receive the chairs and receive the grants.  Of course there would be many such scholars who would strongly disagree with Sheehan’s interpretations.  What Sheehan really means is that you if take those scholars who take a liberal position and hold to a Jesus Seminar understanding of Jesus and if you ignore all dissenters, then you have a consensus of what New Testament scholars are saying.  That is not my understanding of consensus.

Of course Sheehan is free to have his interpretations.  He tries to argue that we have to move beyond positions of faith and loyalty to traditions and get into the actual history.  That is fair but Sheehan goes on to do some very bad history.  Sheehan keeps holding up the limitations of the Gospels because they are sacred history and not secular history.  And where exactly would you find secular history?  You would almost get the impression that much of ancient histories are secular and unbiased and among that we are stuck with the Gospels as theological propaganda.  The truth is that the Gospels are no more biased than any other ancient writing.  Every ancient history is immersed in religious, philosophical or political interests.

Beyond their bias, another limitation of the Gospels is that they hopelessly contradict each other.  For example two of the Gospels say Jesus was virgin born, two do not.  One says there were shepherds, one says there were wise men, and two say there were neither.  One says an angel spoke to Joseph, one says an angel spoke to Mary, the other two say neither.  Are these really contradictions that should make us question the historical reliability of the Gospels?  Perhaps if Mark and John specified that Joseph was Jesus’ biological father and that Jesus was conceived in the natural way.  But they don’t.  The same is true of the other examples.  Matthew does not deny that Mary received a vision, nor does Luke deny that Joseph received a vision.  When a writing picks and chooses what stories to share, it is bad history to interpret that silence as an explicit denial of those events that were not recorded.

Another example of bad history also involves the virgin birth.  Sheehan says the Gospels contradict each other when they say that Mary was a virgin and yet they also say that Jesus had brothers and sisters.  Sheehan rightly dismisses the ideas that the brothers and sisters were really cousins or that they were children from Joseph’s previous marriage.  But then Sheehan is left with a contradiction.  Perhaps this is because Sheehan comes from a Roman Catholic background which teaches the perpetual virginity of Mary.  The New Testament never mentions such a doctrine.  Sheehan completely ignores the common interpretation that Jesus was conceived while Mary was a virgin and that after his birth Joseph and Mary had other children according to normal marital relations.

There is so much more that I could say but I will focus on Sheehan’s interpretation of the resurrection.  Simply put, Sheehan denies the resurrection of Jesus and he is quite upset that pastors continue to preach it, seeing such sermons as an example of negligence.  I could understand if someone denied the resurrection just because of a naturalist presupposition.  But Sheehan goes far beyond that.  One of the reasons that Sheehan denies the resurrection is that the word resurrection is not found in the New Testament as it is related to a Latin word and did not appear until the Latin translation.  Really?  What does that prove?  I could also argue that the Bible never mentions God, since in the Hebrew it really uses elohim and in the Greek it uses theos.  That is nonsense.

Sheehan prefers to interpret the resurrection language as an awakening after death in the presence of God, sort of like waking up in heaven.  One of the Greek words for resurrection does refer to waking up, but a study of the Jewish understanding of resurrection shows that they really expected people to have new resurrection bodies.  Plus there is the whole idea of the other word for resurrection being about standing up.  Sheehan, however, believes that Jesus died and that was it.  Sometime later, some of the disciples developed the conviction that somehow Jesus was awake with God up in heaven.

How does Sheehan come up with this interpretation?  Sheehan sees the resurrection as being the result of taking late doctrines and inserting them back into earlier texts that do not have it.  Sheehan says we have to start with the earliest texts and move on from there.  Sheehan claims that Paul never mentions the resurrection.  Then we have Q (the hypothetical source that includes what is common between Matthew and Luke but not in Mark), which is silent about the resurrection.  Then we have Mark, which never mentions the resurrection.  Then we have Matthew and Luke that can be interpreted without the resurrection but have some resurrection imagery that can be misunderstood.  So the resurrection comes from misunderstanding Matthew and Luke and inserting those ideas into the earlier texts.

There are so many problems here.  First of all Paul most definitely believed in a physical resurrection of Jesus.  Paul speaks in Jewish terms of the resurrection which was a physical bodily resurrection.  First Corinthians 15, despite Sheehans’s claims, suggests that there were actual eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus who could be interviewed.  By the way, Sheehan has an interesting interpretation of how Paul was converted.  Obviously Paul could not have experienced the risen Jesus.  Instead, while Paul was persecuting the Christians, he went undercover and sat in with Christians in a synagogue and observed Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians eating together and loving each other and that moved him to convert.  What sort of historical method ignores the written accounts in Acts and Paul and relies completely on conjecture with no support?  As for Q, he knows that Q is silent about the resurrection how?  No one has ever seen Q, so how can we make judgments about what it does not say?  Perhaps Q did have something about the resurrection and Matthew and Luke preferred their own traditions.  Perhaps Q really was only about the sayings of Jesus and the resurrection was left out not out of denial but because it did not fit with the purpose of the text.  We do not know.  And Mark?  It is true that Mark ends with Mark 16:8 and what we have after is a later addition.  Does that mean Mark denies the resurrection?  Mark 16:7 seems to provide a clear message of the bodily resurrection.  Sheehan interprets the command to go back to Galilee as being about going back to the old life.  But the angel specifies the journey was to see Jesus.  If Jesus’ resurrection was just an internal conviction of Jesus being awake in heaven, why bother travelling to a specific place?

There is so much more I could say.  Sheehan denies that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.  What about those apocalyptic sayings of Jesus?  They were later inserted.  Sheehan denies that Jesus claimed to be the Christ.  What about those moments when we acknowledges that we was the Christ?  They were later inserted.  What kind of historical method is that?  What Sheehan does is start with a specific picture of Jesus and then accepts, rejects, rearranges or reinterprets passages to make them fit his Jesus.  It is just bad history.

I understand that Thomas Sheehan is not a historian nor a New Testament scholar.  He is a philosopher and he is an admirer of liberal New Testament scholarship such as found in the Jesus Seminar.  But he should know better.  He pretends that liberal scholarship is all there is, he ignores good evangelical scholarship by mocking televangelists and he just generally does bad history.  Unfortunately Sheehan is far from unique.  This is why I do what I do.

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