Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Socratic Problem: HJA (28)

Classicists seem reluctant to express any degree of certainty about what the real historical Socrates said or did despite having writings from three different perspectives from men who knew him personally. New Testament scholars, on the other hand, routinely express high degrees of certainty about what the the real historical Jesus said and did despite having only the accounts of unknown authors who all shared the perspective that Jesus had become an exalted supernatural being and who based their accounts on decades of oral tradition which may or may not go back to anyone who ever had any personal contact with Jesus when he walked the earth. And yet, I am routinely derided as a "denialist" because I decline to accord the consensus of these scholars the same weight that I accord the consensus of evolutionary biologists or historians of the Holocaust.

Although I consider myself agnostic about the historicity of Jesus, I'm quite open to the possibility of  someone making a convincing argument that the existence of a historical Jesus is objectively more likely than not. Nevertheless, I think it highly unlikely that that someone will be anyone who thinks that the things that Jesus said and did can be known with more certainty than the things Socrates said and did.


  1. Good points, arghhhh

  2. It seems to me that you're using "Classicists" in quite a broad sense, whereas New Testament Scholars in a very limited sense, i.e. as equivalent to "Historical Jesus Scholars".

    It's worth remembering that there are an awful lot of NT scholars who have relatively little interest in the Historical Jesus, being more concerned with e.g. textual criticism, Paul, the NT apocrypha, Biblical languages, the wider historical/religious background of the NT etc.

    A more valid comparison would be "do people who write books and articles about the historical Jesus express more certainty than those who write books an articles about the historical Socrates?". It's quite possible, and would make an interesting study, but I don't think you could just assume that they do, and proving it either way would be difficult.

    PS: It's taken a while, but I've finally had time to respond to your most recent comment on my blog.

  3. It seems to me that you are looking for nits to pick.

    I am aware that there are many New Testament scholars whose specialty is not the historical Jesus. By the same token, I am sure that there are many classicists whose concentration doesn't include Socrates or Plato. Nevertheless, I think those are reasonably accurate terms for the general fields of study in which scholars are found who do examine those topics.

    If I were to say "Economists have have found a relationship between income levels and longevity," I wouldn't be suggesting that this is a topic that more than a few economists had examined.

  4. It's not nit picking Vinny, it's attempting to clarify the nature of the comparison you're trying to make, which seems a fair thing to do in a discussion. It seemed to me that you might be thinking of classicists in quite a broad sense, and NT scholars in quite a specific sense.

    To be clear, I think it's perfectly fair to compare the methodology of HJ scholars with those interested in Socrates, and NT scholars should either be able to show that their methodology is as good, or that they are capable of learning from classicists. From what I've seen, some of the criteria used to find the "real" Socrates look pretty similar to those used by HJ scholars, and suffer from similar problems.

    However, I'm interested to know what evidence you have to support your claim that scholars who study the historical Socrates are as a whole more agnostic about what Socrates did and said than is the case for historical Jesus scholars, because it seems a pretty vague assertion. It *might* well be true (and again, if it is, HJ scholars may need to learn a thing or two), I just don't see that you've provided any evidence to justify your claim.

  5. If you are interested Paul, you could google "the Socratic problem." You will find plenty of articles, many of which appear to be written by people with the relevant credentials. I couldn't find any that expressed any optimism about isolating the genuine Socrates.