Archive for the 'Historical Jesus' Category

Crossan’s buddies are his scholarly support

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

11 08 6972 John Dominic Crossan.jpg

(John Dominic Crossan, courtesy

By Spencer D Gear

John Dominic Crossan, eminent historical Jesus scholar, has a one-eyed view of calling on those who principally are his ‘intellectual debt’.

Crossan is clear (at least to me) about his view of which scholars he should call on for support and critique of his views. It is important to note Crossan’s perspective regarding those who offer a contrary opinion: In quoting ‘secondary literature, I spend no time citing other scholars to show how wrong they are’. Instead, he only quotes those who ‘represent my intellectual debts’ (Crossan 1991:xxxiv; emphasis in original). Why would he want to preserve his opinion and scholarship and retain it in-house? Is there a possible presuppositional bias coming through??[1]

However, he breaks with his scholarly ideal by citing the ‘secondary literature’ of people such as N T Wright (Crossan 1998:44, 49, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 104, 258), Luke Johnson (Crossan 1998:30-31, 103, 114) and Dorothy Sayers (Crossan 1998:91, 92, 93, 98, 99). He doesn’t practise what he preaches on this principle he advocates in his writing.

Is this being unfair to Crossan?

One responded:

I think this is unfair. He’s explaining why he includes the references he does. There are several approaches to references. The ones I see in scholarly work are (1) acknowledging the source of information and arguments that appear in the text, and (2) citing everyone relevant. The second tends to lead to extensive footnotes, because if citations go beyond the views shown in the text, many authors feel the need to talk about what’s in those sources. After all, a long list of references isn’t that useful unless you give the reader an idea of what the position of each is.
I don’t think it’s showing bias to use the shorter approach, where you show only the sources actually used in the text. If a viewpoint is important enough that you really have to engage with it, presumably it will be discussed in the text, in which case there will be appropriate footnotes.[2]

My reply[3] was that that was a false assertion and one of my PhD examiners agreed with my assessment of Crossan’s bias towards his own ilk. In fact, this examiner considered that I was somewhat gentle in exposing Crossan’s biased approach to sources. My examiner is one with an international reputation in historical Jesus’ studies.
When one favours only those of his own persuasion and does not want to get into discussion of secondary sources that disagree with him, one can see he is going uphill with scholarship. This is especially so when he cannot consistently maintain his position. N T Wright gave him a fair run for his money and he dared to violate his own persuasion of referring only to those who are his intellectual debt.
I asked: Are you a supporter of J D Crossan’s postmodern interpretation of Jesus?

Is this being semi-popular?

This fellow’s comeback was:

No. I’m closer to Wright.[4] But my problem with him isn’t his footnoting policy, with which I’m sympathetic. I’d rather see people engage with other scholars in the text, rather than putting half the book in footnotes. So for me, the issue is what appears in the text. Partly because he doesn’t really review a very full range of scholarship, I think of “The Historical Jesus” (the work you’re citing) as a semi-popular synthesis of his position, not a real scholarly work like Wright’s Christian Origins series. A similar work, Wright’s “How God Became King,” has virtually no footnotes, with a very selective bibliography. I haven’t read much of Crossan, so I don’t know whether he has written something more scholarly or not.[5]

[6]I would not regard Crossan’s, The Historical Jesus (1991), as ‘a semi-popular synthesis of his position’. This is what Crossan states in the book:

I knew, therefore, before starting this book that it could not be another set of conclusions jostling for place among the numerous scholarly images of the historical Jesus currently available. Such could, no matter how good it was, but add to the impression of acute scholarly subjectivity in historical Jesus research. This book had to raise most seriously the problem of methodology and then follow most stringently whatever theoretical method was chosen (Crossan 1991:xxviii).?

That is hardly a ‘semi-popular’ approach to the historical Jesus. I’ve spent 5 years analysing Crossan in my PhD dissertation-only research (503pp, 1.15 spacing) and his 1991 publication is not meant for the popular level. For the general populace, you’ll need to go to Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Crossan 1994), which is a popularised, abridged edition of Crossan (1991).

After this kind of challenge to him, at least he acknowledged that he had not fully re-read Crossan (1991) ‘to see where I might have gotten the impression that it was a summary presentation’. Then he adds: ‘When Crossan begin to build his picture of Jesus, he uses lots of historical background, but I don’t see him seriously considering alternative pictures and showing how his methodology leads to his conclusion. (This is close to your own objection, except that my concern is with the text, not the footnotes.) In some cases his arguments are obviously missing necessary detail.’ Then he spun off on a tangent of Crossan’s view of the ‘kingdom of God. [7]

Crossan is ‘almost entirely wrong’

NTWright071220.jpg(N T Wright, courtesy Wikipedia)


How would another eminent historical Jesus’ scholar evaluate Crossan’s contribution to historical Jesus’ studies? N T Wright’s assessment of Crossan (1991) was:

John Dominic Crossan is one of the most brilliant, engaging, learned and quick-witted New Testament scholars alive today. He has been described by one recent friendly critic as a “rather skeptical New Testament professor with the soul of a leprechaun”. He seems incapable, in his recent work at least, of thinking a boring thought or writing a dull paragraph….

It is all the more frustrating, therefore, to have to conclude that the book [Crossan 1991] is almost entirely wrong (Wright 1996:44, emphasis added).?

‘Almost entirely wrong’ is a stunning assessment by an eminent historical Jesus’ scholar (Wright), with which I have to agree, as Crossan’s presuppositional postmodernism causes him to engage in question begging fallacies where his conclusion agrees with his starting premises.

Since you [Hedrick] admit you haven’t read much of Crossan, I suggest that you take a read of larger chunks of Crossan (1991; 1998) to realise that these two publications are meant to be serious scholarly works. I consider that Wright (1992; 1996; 2003) has annihilated Crossan’s postmodern interpretation of the historical Jesus.
Crossan’s, The Birth of Christianity (1998), is a 651 page examination of ‘what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus’ (sub-title of book) but it lacks substantive historical precision when his postmodern presuppositions so dominate his premises and conclusions.

Crossan’s definition of history fails

This is Crossan’s definition of history and he repeats it in several of his publications: ‘This, then, is my working definition of history: History is the past reconstructed interactively by the present through argued evidence in public discourse’ (Crossan 1998:20; 1999:3 emphasis in original). However, he doesn’t consistently apply this definition throughout his publications. He mixes it with a traditional approach to history like that described by Wright: ‘History, I shall argue, is neither “bare facts” nor “subjective interpretations”, but is rather the meaningful narrative of events and intentions‘ (Wright 1992:82, emphasis in original). Wright admits that this involves a point of view by historians (they cannot be ahistorical observers), ‘a massive programme of selection’, and ‘such a process inevitably involves a major element of interpretation. We are trying to make sense of the world in which we live‘ (Wright 1992:82-83, emphasis in original).

1. Crossan’s use of a logical fallacy

How does one respond to a person who claims that Crossan uses ‘lots of historical background’ and ‘in some cases his arguments are obviously missing necessary detail’?[8]

This writer’s lack of exposure to Crossan, in my view, has led to this selective and imbalanced perspective.[9]

When Crossan starts with this definition of history: ‘This is my working definition of history: History is the past reconstructed interactively by the present through argued evidence in public discourse…. History as argued public reconstruction is necessary to reconstruct our past in order to project our future’ (Crossan 1998:20; emphasis in original), and then concludes with his reader-response, interactive content of history, this is a begging the question logical fallacy in its historiography, especially in light of the consensus of historians that I examined in my PhD dissertation. Crossan’s statement points to a worldview of postmodern deconstruction that imposes another perspective on the historical data that so skews the data to accommodate Crossan’s reader-response philosophy.

Crossan wrote that ‘by historical study I mean an analysis whose theories and methods, evidence and arguments, results and conclusions are open, in principle and practice, to any human observer, any disciplined investigator, any self-conscious and self-critical student…. The historical Jesus is always an interpretive construct of its own time and place but open to all of that time and place’ (Crossan 1994:199, emphasis in original). He was pointed in his challenge that historians should say, ‘This, in my best professional reconstruction, is what happened; that did not’ (Crossan 1995:37).

So, his postmodern interpretation of history as the past recreated interactively has these ramifications. How this works for Crossan is that the description of the historical Jesus will vary with each generation as ‘an interpretive construct’. The view of Jesus is open to all that that time and place provides. In other words, we create our view of the historical Jesus, based on what is happening in our time, city, country and world. This is nonsense historically.

Could you imagine the history of George Washington, the pilgrim fathers, Captain James Cook and Captain Arthur Phillip being based on Hedrick or my ‘interpretive construct’ in the USA or Australia in the 21st century? Did George Washington and James Cook say and do what is recorded or is that open to your or my interactive, deconstruction? That’s what we are dealing with in examining Crossan’s approach to history. Imagine doing that with the ‘facts’ contained in Crossan’s autobiography (Crossan 2000)? Did he grow up in Ireland or is that only a metaphor to be deconstructed by me in the 21st century – deconstructed with inventions I want to make?
Imagine reading Crossan’s other books with that view. Surely he wants me to read his books so that I understand the content of what he means with English grammar and syntax, rather than imposing 21st century Brisbane environment and my reader-response on his texts. If I read the Brisbane Times (BT) like that and passed on my postmodern, reader-response, interactive, contemporary interpretation of today’s BT stories to the people in my church on Sunday, they would think I was going over the edge mentally.

Since Hedrick provided no references to which parts of Crossan’s works he referred, regarding the “Kingdom of God”, I have no way of checking if what you are saying is correct or not.

However, he did admit he had not read much of Crossan.

2. Crossan teams up with an archaeologist

To overcome some of this historical imbalance (in my view), Crossan teamed up with archaeologist, Jonathan L Reed, in writing (1) Excavating Jesus (Crossan & Reed 2001), and (2) In Search of Paul (Crossan & Reed 2004). However, both authors have a presuppositional bias towards postmodernism in their interpretations.

This proves nothing more than a postmodern deconstructionist can be found also among a historical Jesus scholar and an archaeologist. This is how this postmodern philosophy overwhelms their interpretations with these kinds of explanations:

  • Resurrection is not equivalent to resuscitation, apparition or exaltation.
  • Rather, ‘to say that God raised Jesus from the dead was to assert that the general resurrection had thereby begun. Only for such an assertion was “resurrection” or “raised from the dead” the proper terminology. That is very clear from a reading of 1 Corinthians 15, a commentary by Paul on an earlier and presumably second or traditional layer of text’ (Crossan & Reed 2001:259-260, emphasis in original).

Crossan & Reed push the lack of uniqueness about Jesus’ resurrection with emphasising two directions in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘If there is no Jesus resurrection, there is no general resurrection; if there is no general resurrection, there is no Jesus resurrection’ (Crossan & Reed 2001:260). There authors are correct in showing the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the general resurrection, but this is where the damage enters with this kind of assumption, ‘The resurrection of Jesus is the start of the general resurrection, that is to say, with Jesus’ resurrection the general resurrection has begun’ (Crossan & Reed 2001:260, emphasis in original). They claim that this ‘proclamation is stunningly creative and profoundly original’ on at least four counts which involve a choice among alternatives. One of those differences is that ‘it is profoundly original in its distinction between the general resurrection as instantive moment or durative process in apocalyptic consummation’ (Crossan & Reed 2001:161).

a. Let’s check the evidence from 1 Corinthians 15

Does 1 Corinthians 15 teach that Jesus’ resurrection is the start of the general resurrection and there is a distinction between instant moment versus durative process (the Crossan & Reed view)? Paul was dealing with a particular objection in Corinth: ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?’ (1 Cor 15:12 ESV). To that question his response was: ‘But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Cor 15:13-14 ESV).

Note that 1 Cor 15:12-14 does not teach what Crossan & Reed state that the resurrection of Jesus is the start of the general resurrection. What these verses do teach is that there will be a resurrection of dead people because Christ has been raised from the dead. Yes, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor 15:20). When will this resurrection of the dead take please? It is in the future as indicated by this language: ‘So also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end….’ (1 Cor 15:22-23).

The evidence is convincing from 1 Cor 15 and it is not in agreement with Crossan & Reed. There will be a general resurrection of the dead at ‘the end’, at the Parousia when ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor 15:26). So, Crossan & Reed have imposed their own postmodern interpretation on 1 Cor 15 to make it fit with their agenda.

b. Postmodern performance by Crossan & Reed

The essence of resurrection, according to N T Wright, is: ‘What the creator god did for Jesus is both the model and the means of what he will do for all Jesus’ people’ (Wright 2003:216; emphasis in original). Crossan & Reed’s emphasis on I Corinthians 15:12-13, 15b-16 is that ‘the argument is very clear: no Jesus resurrection, no general resurrection; no general resurrection, no Jesus resurrection’. They continue with interpretation of I Corinthians 15:20, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’ (NRSV) as meaning, ‘Jesus’s resurrection is to the general resurrection as first fruits are to the rest of the harvest. There is no possibility of Christ’s resurrection as a special, unique, peculiar privilege accorded to him alone’ (Crossan & Reed 2004:342-343).

It is true that this passage teaches that Jesus’ resurrection and the general resurrection are connected, ‘If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised…. If the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised’ (1 Cor 15:13, 16). However, Crossan & Reed’s statement that ‘there is no possibility of Christ’s resurrection as a special, unique, peculiar privilege accorded to him alone’ needs challenging because of these facts:

(1) Preaching is vain and faith is futile ‘if Christ has not been raised’ (1 Cor 15:14). This verse does not say, ‘If Christ has not been raised and there is no general resurrection, your preaching is without content and ineffective and your faith is pointless’.[10] Christ’s resurrection is unique in order to provide content and foundation to preaching and faith. This is related to another unique necessity of Jesus’ resurrection,

(2) ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor 15:17). This is explained further in Romans 4:25, ‘He was delivered up for our sins, and rose again for our justification’. The unique, peculiar, and special mission of Jesus’ resurrection was to provide justification for sins so that people are no longer in their sins. They are declared righteous (justified) before God. Of this verse, Thomas Aquinas wrote: ‘In order to complete the work of our salvation: because, just as for this reason did He endure evil things in dying that He might deliver us from evil, so was He glorified in rising again in order to advance us towards good things’ according to Romans 4:25 (Aquinas 1947:3.53.1). The death of Jesus ‘for us’, as articulated in Romans 4:25 and 5:10 includes both justification and sanctification and ‘they are inextricably bound together with his resurrection’ (Fee 1987:743-744). For Crossan to denigrate this unique role of the resurrected Son in salvation is to deny an essential Christian doctrine. The uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be detached from eternal salvation itself. Crossan’s reconstruction of Jesus’ resurrection to exclude its uniqueness is tantamount to a denial of Christian existence for the sake of a postmodern view of human beings and reconstruction of the meaning of the resurrection.

Crossan & Reed continue with their metaphorical imposition on the text in pursuit of a postmodern agenda:

Recall the discussion of Jewish and of Christian-Jewish “resurrection…. Those who claimed Jesus had begun the terminal moment of apocalyptic climax would have to present some public evidence of a world transformed from injustice and evil to justice and peace. It would not and could not suffice to claim one or many empty tombs and one or many risen apparitions. That might all be well and good, but where was the evidence, any evidence, of a transformed world? For that they had only their own communal lives as evidence. This is how we live with God and on this basis we seek to persuade others to do likewise. This is our new creation, our transformed world. We in God, God in us, and both together here below upon this earth.

Paul claimed in 1 Corinthians that, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” 15:14). As stated, that comment is true for Christianity, but so also is its reverse. If Christian faith has been in vain, that is, has not acted to transform itself and this world toward the justice of God, and if Christian proclamation has been in vain, that is, has not insisted that such is the church’s vocation, then Christ was not raised. Christianity could certainly still claim that Jesus was exalted and had ascended to the right hand of God. But resurrection [the argument of this chapter] presumes the start of cosmic transformation, not just the promise of it, not just the hope of it, not just talk about it, and not just theology about it. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher can be easily seen in all its marbled past and disputed present within today’s Jerusalem. But the Church of the Blessed Resurrection can only be seen in a world under transformation by Christian cooperation with divine justice and by Christian participation in divine justice (Crossan & Reed 2001:270).

This is a Crossan & Reed metaphorical deconstruction of Christ’s resurrection to make it mean what they want in the 20th century – resurrection meaning a world transformed from injustice and evil to justice and peace, a Christian participation in divine justice.

The biblical evidence is that Jesus’ death and resurrection make justification by faith possible for all who believe in Jesus for salvation. This is affirmed by Romans 4:25, ‘He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification’ (NIV). For a further explanation, see R C Sproul on ‘Resurrection and justification’.

This unique resurrection was the firstfruits, guaranteeing that there will be a resurrection of the dead at Christ’s second coming. There is no postmodern deconstructionist agenda in that view. It is based on the plain meaning of the biblical text.

If history does not involve postmodern deconstruction by deconstructionists like J D Crossan and Jonathan Reed, what then is it?

3. What is history?

By contrast, eminent Yale University professor of missions and oriental history, Kenneth Scott Latorette, defined Christian history this way:

The distinctively Christian understanding of history centers upon historical occurrences. It has at its heart not a set of ideas but a person. By a widespread convention historians reckon history as b.c. and a.d. They are aware of many other methods of recording dates and know that this particular chronology has acquired extensive currency because of the growing dominance during the past few centuries of a civilization in which Christian influences have been potent. To the Christian, however, this reckoning of time is much more than a convention. It is inherent in history. In Jesus of Nazareth, so the Christian holds, God once for all disclosed Himself and acted decisively. The vast majority of Christians believe that Jesus was God incarnate (Latourette 1948).

(Kenneth Scott Latourette, courtesy Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity)


This definition is parallel with that of N T Wright, a scholar of the historical Jesus and early Christian origins in the 20th and 21st centuries, whose understanding was that ‘history is neither “bare facts” nor “subjective interpretation”, but is rather the meaningful narrative of events and intentions’. Wright stresses that ‘for statements to be made about the past, human beings have to engage in a massive programme of selection’ along with ‘a major element of interpretation’ (Wright 1992:82-83 emphasis in original).

By way of methodology, Wright is of the view that the ‘historical method is just like all other methods of inquiry. It proceeds by means of “hypotheses”, which stand in need of “verification”. A good hypothesis in any field must,

(a) ‘Include the data’;

(b) ‘Construct a basically simple and coherent overall picture’, and

(c) Mean that the proposed explanatory story proves to be fruitful in other related areas (Wright 1992:98-100).

Crossan adopts Wright’s view of history in his autobiography, A long way from Tipperary (Crossan 2000), in which Crossan adopts Wright’s definition of history – the meaningful narrative of events in the life of J D Crossan in Ireland, along with interpretations and his intentions. One example can be seen in Crossan’s own words, ‘“I am curious,” the doctor said. “How can you as a Catholic theologian undergo a vasectomy?” “Because,” I replied, “I am a bad Catholic, but a good theologian, and that makes a vast difference”’ (Crossan 2000:79). What about this evaluation, ‘I maintain that the mode of authority, the style of leadership, the primacy of obedience demanded by the Roman Catholic hierarchy is a crime, if not against humanity, then at least against divinity’ (Crossan 2000 199)?

Is that meant to be a literal or metaphorical statement? Does it contain facts that Crossan considers to be true and his intentions to expose his theological understanding of Roman Catholicism? It sure doesn’t sound like his definition of history: ‘This, then, is my working definition of history: History is the past reconstructed interactively by the present through argued evidence in public discourse’ (Crossan 1998:20; 1999:3 emphasis in original).


A scholar who only wishes to include the views of his intellectual buddies (mates is the Aussie language) is engaging in a biased view of history – but all in the name of scholarship.

This investigation has found that it doesn’t matter whether Crossan is writing alone or in conjunction with an archaeologist, Jonathan Reed, he imposes a postmodern understanding on the text. This is in harmony with his presuppositional bias of a postmodern approach to history. When he concludes with his premise – a postmodern explanation of history – he is using a question begging logical fallacy.

History that doesn’t deal with the facts of the past is not history. However, these facts need interpretation, not with a presuppositional, postmodern imposition on the text, but with consideration of the cultural and other issues taking place in that society. That’s exactly what Crossan did in his autobiography. It was not a postmodern exposition of his life but an account the involved facts, intentions and interpretations from his earlier life.

So Wright’s view that history involves ‘the meaningful narrative of events and intentions’ of the past is realistic and does not come with Crossan’s presuppositional understanding of imposing a postmodern interpretation on the facts.

Works consulted

Aquinas, T 1947. Summa theologica (online). Tr by the fathers of the English Dominican Province. Available at Sacred Texts: (Accessed 1 February 2013).

Brown, C 1975. kenos, in Brown, C (ed) The new international dictionary of New Testament theology, vol 3, 546-549. Exeter: The Paternoster Press.

Crossan, J D 1991. The historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Crossan, J D 1994. Jesus: A revolutionary biography. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Crossan, J D 1998. The birth of Christianity: Discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Crossan, J D 1999. Historical Jesus as risen Lord, in Crossan, J D, Johnson, L T & Kelber, W H, The Jesus controversy : Perspectives in conflict, 1-47. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.

Crossan, J D 2000. A long way from Tipperary: A memoir. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Crossan, J D & Reed, J L 2001. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the stones, behind the texts. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Crossan, J D & Reed, J L 2004. In search of Paul: How Jesus’s apostle opposed Rome’s empire with God’s kingdom. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Fee, G D 1987. The first epistle to the Corinthians (The new international commentary on the New Testament, F F Bruce gen ed). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Latourette, K S 1948. The Christian understanding of history. American Historical Association (online). Available at: (Accessed 23 October 2015).

Oepke, A 1965. kenos, in Kittel, G (ed) Theological dictionary of the New Testament, vol 3, 659-660. Tr and ed by G W Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Wright, N T 1992. The New Testament and the people of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 1).

Wright, N T 1996. Jesus and the victory of God. London: SPCK / Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 2).

Wright, N T 2003. The resurrection of the son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 3).


[1] I included this in Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, Do I have a ‘Flawed’ library of study material? September 20, 2015. OzSpen#6, available at: (Accessed 23 October 2015).

[2] Ibid., Hedrick#24.

[3] Ibid., OzSpen#25.

[4] He’s speaking of N T Wright, the British historical Jesus’ scholar.

[5] Christian Forums, Hedrick#26.

[6] This is my response at ibid., OzSpen#27.

[7] Ibid., Hedrick#28.

[8] Ibid., Hedrick#28.

[9] The following is my response to him in ibid., OzSpen#29.

[10] The Greek is kenos, for which Arndt & Gingrich provide the meaning, ‘without content, without any basis, without truth, without power’ of preaching and faith for 1 Cor 15:14a (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:429). Albrecht Oepke’s study concluded that it meant ‘”empty”, “futile”’, that is, ‘without content and also ineffective’ (Oepke 1965:659-660). Colin Brown’s understanding was that ‘under certain circumstances certain things would be pointless, fruitless, or in vain’ and that applies to preaching and faith in I Corinthians 15:14 (Brown 1975:547).


Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 31 October 2015.

The Bible: fairy tale or history?

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Bible closed by crisg - closed Bible book with bookmark     magical by evaline02 - Two princesses in fairy tale illustration style, with a slug and grass in front.

(images courtesy Openclipart)

By Spencer D Gear

I asked a fellow on a Christian forum on the Internet: ‘Why are you not taking Jesus seriously and the challenge of what happens at death?[1]

His reply was: ‘I don’t take fairy tales seriously’.[2]

When I asked him to provide evidence that The Bible contains fairy tales, there was a total silence. He likes assertions but not evidence.

Secularists think that way

That is not an uncommon response from unbelievers. There’s a webpage that asks, ‘What is your favorite bible fairy tale?’ On this page, people name their favourite Bible fairy tales as including: ‘An all-powerful perfect being creates the world, but he screws it up so bad, he wipes it out with a flood and starts over’; Noah’s Ark, creation, Daniel & the lions, those who live to be over 600 years old, Jesus lets people kill him, and unbelievers tossed into the Lake of Fire. Another is titled, ‘Fairy tales in the Bible’.

How does one know if the Bible contains fairy tales or is of some other genre?

How to assess the Bible as history

This is how I responded to the fairy tale assessment:[3]

With that kind of statement, you obviously do not know how to study history. I’m writing my PhD dissertation on an aspect of ‘the historical Jesus’ – not an aspect of the ‘fairy tale Jesus’. I’ve had to develop an entire chapter on methodology for investigating history and that included what is in the NT.

When you get out of your presuppositions and into an examination of how to do historical study, then we’ll have an opportunity to examine the Scriptures from an historical perspective.

Dr Paul Barnett (photo courtesy Patheos)

Ancient historian and Christian exegete, Dr Paul Barnett, who has taught history at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, has written:

Provided that we accept the limitations in the Gospel of Mark, in its brevity and single focus, we have good reason to believe it provides a historically credible account of Jesus’ activities in Galilee, the regions of Tyre and Sidon, Ituraea-Trachonitis, and the Decapolis. The words of Jesus, which are weighty and wise, are singularly applicable to the pericopes in which they occur. The parables in Mark as well as in Matthew and Luke are arguably authentic, based (in particular) on the cogent double criteria of similarity and dissimilarity. In any case, we argue that the gospel writers would neither invent nor omit a word of the Lord, though they felt free to adapt a word appropriately.

The narrative of Mark and the synoptics is set within the complex jurisdictions of the thirties, but not those as they would be altered in the decades following. As the narratives unfold we note the inconspicuous ways in which Jesus’ movements cohere with the political realities of those times. Furthermore, Jesus’ own path crossed the paths of the notables of that time, whether John the Baptist, the tetrarch Antipas, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, or the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. In the course of the narratives we encounter those who were eschatologically excited (‘the men of violence’) as well as the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus aligned himself as a lawbreaker. Furthermore, we see Jesus as the worker of mighty deeds, including in those towns where most of his mighty works were done.

In brief, we have in Mark a gospel that is a useful source of information about Jesus’ words and actions in Galilee and adjacent regions in the north (Barnett 2009:247).

I’m sticking with the assessment of a long-time university ancient historian (and a Christian to boot) who knows his product about ancient history and how to assess historical documents.

And I’m not going with Matt and his throw-away line, ‘I don’t take fairy tales seriously’.

What qualifications do you have to assess any historical document? I find it disappointing that you are the one engaging in trifling mass media style sensational lines, instead of an examination of the biblical documents from an historical perspective – using historical criteria.

Jesus, logic and history

Paul Barnett, in examining the logic regarding Jesus and history, has stated that there are at least two senses in which Christianity is a historical religion. These include firstly, ‘that it has been continuously part of world history for a long time’, and secondly, because ‘Jesus was a real man who was born, lived and died at a particular time and place’ and this can be demonstrated by the same methodology used to investigate other significant persons from history (Barnett 1997:11).

Jesus’ resurrection as myth, fairy tale or history

There has been academic and popular controversy over whether the resurrection of Jesus should be regarded as an historical event. Should the NT records of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus be regarded as historical or of some other genre?

At the popular level, there are people like Joel Hoffmann who have written for The Huffington Post,

Some stories in the Bible were meant to be history, others fiction. But modernity has obscured the original distinction between the two kinds of biblical writing, depriving readers of the depth of the text.

Perhaps surprisingly, this confusion lies at the heart of the History Channel’s miniseries “The Bible,” which continues the pattern of blurring history and fiction, and thereby misrepresenting the nature of the Bible to its viewers (Hoffmann 2013).

Notable German, liberal, Lutheran theologian Rudolph Bultmann, had this view that was a supposed academically respectable way of evading the historicity of the resurrection:

If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the risen [sic] of faith in the risen Lord, since it was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection. The historian can perhaps to some extent account for that faith from the personal intimacy which the disciples had enjoyed with Jesus during his earthly life, and so reduce the resurrection appearances to a series of subjective visions. But the historical problem is not of interest to Christian belief in the resurrection. For the historical event of the rise of the Easter faith means for us what it meant for the first disciples – namely, the self-attestation of the risen Lord, the act of God in which the redemptive event of the cross is completed (Bultmann 1953).

However, another German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, took a very different view. He claimed that Jesus’ resurrection needed to be investigated as a historical event. He stated that ‘whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead is a historical question insofar as it is an inquiry into what did or did not happen at a certain time’ (Pannenberg 1967:128). Craig Nessen’s assessment of Pannenberg’s view was,

Wolfhart Pannenberg powerfully contends for the historical character of Jesus’ resurrection based on the sources that commend it, both the testimony of original witnesses to the risen Jesus and the tradition of the empty tomb. Jesus’ resurrection has more credible historical evidence than many ancient events whose occurrence we don’t question, for example, some incidents in Julius Caesar’s life (Nessen 2004).

Leading NT historian and scholar on Jesus’ resurrection, N T Wright, considered that ‘we can and must discuss the resurrection as a historical problem’ and that there is no reason in principle why what happened at Easter ‘cannot be raised by any historian of any persuasion’. His view was that even from a Christian perspective, it ‘does not mean that there is no access to Jesus and his death and resurrection in the public world. Peter did not need to appeal to Christian writings when reminding the crowd of what they already knew about Jesus’ – see Acts 2:22 – and Wright suggested that ‘historical knowledge about the resurrection’, without presupposing the Christian faith, ‘cannot be ruled out a priori’ (Wright 2003:14, 21-22).

For a fuller explanation of the historical nature of both Old and New Testaments and how to establish their historical credibility and reliability, I recommend:

  • Craig B Blomberg 2009. The historical reliability of the Bible, 2nd edn. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
  • Walter C Kaiser Jr. 2001. The Old Testament documents: Are they reliable & relevant? Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
  • K A Kitchen 2003. On the reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


See my other articles on Christianity and history:


Those with a flair for the sensational and speculation may call the Bible a book of fairy tales.

Those like Bultmann who are committed to a liberal and sceptical worldview do not want to acknowledge the Bible as history but a metaphorical event.

Nevertheless, there are substantive Christian theologians and historians such as Pannenberg, Barnett and Wright who are prepared to conclude that the Bible can be investigated as an historical document.

Works consulted

Barnett, P 2009. Finding the historical Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Barnett, P W 1997. Jesus and the logic of history. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Bultmann R 1953. The mythological element in the message of the New Testament and the problem of its re-interpretation Part 2. In Bultmann, R (and five critics), Kerygma and myth (e-book). Tr by R H Fuller. London: SPCK. Available at religion-online: (Accessed 17 September 2013).

Hoffmann, J 2013. The Bible isn’t the history you think it is. The Huffington Post (online), 3 April. Available at: (Accessed 15 March 2014).

Nessen, C L 2004. The reality of the resurrection. The Lutheran magazine, Augsburg Fortress, beliefnet (online), available at: (Accessed 15 March 2014).

Pannenberg, W 1967. The revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, in Robinson, J M & Cobb Jr., J B, New frontiers in theology: Discussions among Continental and American theologians, vol 3, 101-133. New York: Harper & Row.

Wright, N T 2003. The resurrection of the son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 3).


[1] Christian Fellowship forum, The Fellowship Hall, ‘Why I avoid discussing life after death’, ozspen #267, March 10, 2014, available at: (Accessed 15 March 2014).

[2] Ibid., Matt #268.

[3] Ibid., ozspen #270.


Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 1 August 2016.