Historian of Early Christianity waiting for school to start . . . ask me anything!


I didn’t see a response to this question. I will check again after sleep.
Thanks, TOm


I am really missing the “go to first unread post” buttom on the thread. I find I miss huge chunks of posts because there is no way for me to go back to where I left off. If anyone knows a way to do this, please educate me!


I’m using the “unread” page: https://forums.catholic.com/unread
It seems to do what you want.


That’s where mine goes every time. I assumed it was the default setting.
Sorry I can’t be more helpful.


The Temple used either Jewish Shekels, or the preferred Tyrian Shekel. The Tyrian Shekel was preferred because it contained more silver than the Jewish Shekel, even though it was nominally a pagan coin.

I have to confess, this doesn’t ring a bell with me. Even if were true, it was highly ineffective, because both Jewish and Tyrian Shekels were produced throughout the era.


@guanophore, I will attempt to answer your questions about methodology in this post in one go. Apologies in advance for my shortcomings.

You’ve asked a series of excellent questions on sourcing and ancient historical methodology. In an attempt to keep this post to a reasonable size, I will have to summarize some concepts that ancient historians have been debating for over two centuries. As you can imagine, thousands of books have been written on the subject.

When trying to evaluate ancient sources we typically only have fragmented data on the source. Take, for example, the Gospel of Mark. There are some very critical things we don’t immediately know: the gospel is not signed (no author), there is no publication date given, since we don’t have the earliest version - we don’t know what language it was written in, it doesn’t say where it was written, etc. Scholars used a wide array of methods to try and come up with reasonable answers to these questions. That array of methods is sometimes called “higher criticism,” but more typically just “criticism.” Please note that the word “criticism” isn’t being used in a pejorative sense, it is more akin to “evaluation.”

The forms of criticism that exist under that umbrella are far too broad to explain in a forum post, but you can find some articles on higher criticism or Biblical criticism if you are really interested in the gritty details. In brief, taken together, these techniques allow historians to attempt answers to questions about the source material that otherwise, we would just be guessing at.

Take for example the question of the ending of the Gospel of Mark. The earliest manuscripts we have (from roughly the late 300s), end at the verse ending in “they were afraid.” They have no mention of resurrection appearances. Only later manuscripts contain resurrection appearances. Through a variety of methods - particularly by examining the precise language used - historians broadly agree that the new longer ending is not original. The debate is now focused on whether there was an earlier ending that has now been lost, or if Mark really intended the gospel to end without resurrection appearances.


Continuing from the previous post (I ran out of space):

When writing about the historical Jesus, historians typically used a specialized methodology that has been refined over the past century or so. This methodology applies a series of criteria to various sources about Jesus’ life and attempts to determine their historicity (that it, whether they actually happened or not). The specific criteria will vary from historian to historian, but many of the core criteria are generally agreed upon.

A few examples:

The criterion of multiple attestation claims that any incident found in more than one independent source is more likely to be historical than an incident only found in one. Since both Mark and John (two independent sources) wrote about the crucifixion, historians give it a lot of historical weight. But since only John writes about the wedding at Cana, most historians believe it is an rhetorical device of John.

Another one commonly used is the criterion of embarrassment. Essentially this claims that if early Christian authors write something embarrassing about Jesus, it is likely to be true. Why would they invent something that was embarrassing? Again, the crucifixion fits well here. Why would early Christians invent it, if it wasn’t historical?

There are many other criteria that historians use to work through this material, but I think I gave you a brief idea. Hopefully this helps answer some of your questions.


Isn’t that the truth!


Not being a theologian, I really don’t know. I suspect the main differences are doctrinal rather than historical.

Their opinions varied widely. Some of the early church fathers appear to have accepted gospels and views of Christianity that are radically different than those accepted now. They were a diverse set of men, who lived before the Church was able to exert strict doctrinal orthodoxy. They were literally building Christian orthodoxy.

As I’ve mentioned above, they are our best sources. Different historians will give you different answers, but without them, we would be lost.

You mean outside the New Testament? I believe a couple of early church fathers mention a miracle or two, but there is nothing contemporaneous with his life.


I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but to be fair this is outside my area. I will take a look at a couple of books I have to see if there is anything there that can be helpful. My suspicion is that Christians didn’t get concerned about the “end of revelation” until certain groups - like the Gnostics - tried to argue in favor of additional revelation. Certainly Paul had no problem with additional revelation!

I will see what I can come up with.


Very early on. I’m no theologian or cannon lawyer, but I always get a little amusement over the fact that the Shema and “Love your neighbor as yourself” has managed to get turned into an enormous catechism.


Thank you, Bill! My next question is about the hypothetical documents thought by some to have been in circulation in the first century, to which the name “testimonia” has been given.

In one of his books about the Dead Sea scrolls, Edmund Wilson mentions a hypothesis that the authors of the NT books, when they quote from “the Law and the Prophets,” were not quoting directly from the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, either in the original or in translation. Instead, they were probably using a compilation of snippets from the OT arranged under headings such as “messianic,” “legal,” “apocalyptic,” and so on. This would explain—according to Wilson—why all too often it turns out that the OT passage seems to have been misquoted or misattributed or, worse still, is simply untraceable. Justin Martyr drew attention to this problem as early as the mid-second century. In his Dialogue with Trypho he accuses “the Jews” of tampering with the Hebrew text so as to omit or distort the passages quoted in the NT.

Wilson concedes that up until the time of writing (in the 1960s) researchers had failed to identify any Christian compilation from such an early date, though one of the first Dead Sea scrolls to be pieced together and published was just such a reference work, evidently intended for the use of the Qumran community. My question now is this: In the fifty years or more since Wilson published his book, what has happened to the “testimonia” hypothesis? Is it still around? Has anyone attempted to take the research any further? Or has it disappeared down the memory hole?


Paul’s death isn’t mentioned in Acts. Different authors give different explanations for the omission. Have you ever looked into this question?


Thank you! I was asking because I took a course at seminary in historical theology and we used a literary criticism text as one of the require reading (there was about 15 pounds of books, or so it seemed!). I think there are other influences for theological criticism (comparing the content to other content that has been found to be valid in varying degrees).

The criteria used to select the New Testament Canon was of particular interest to me. I did not realize what a heated debate there had been.


In one of your answers to @guanophore, you mention the criterion of multiple attestation. The raising of Lazarus is found in only one Gospel, which I suppose must mean that it ranks pretty low down on the historicity scale.

On the other hand, there are some authors who claim that it was this event, rather than Palm Sunday or the cleansing of the Temple or anything he said in his preaching, that prompted Annas and Caiaphas to lose no more time and to have Jesus arrested and handed over to Pilate to be crucified. Does that make sense to you? If not, what exactly, in your view, was the Temple authorities’ main charge against Jesus, calling for urgent action?


The Jefferson bible: could it be said that it encapsulates the “Historical Jesus” person?


I guess SO!!! It’s just huge. I finished reading the new one, and remain amazed at it. Again, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I concluded that I should just keep on saying my prayers, and doing my best, and leave it at that.

I can’t help but think that Christ must be somewhat irritated at what His beautiful gospel has been turned into by so many!


Some Nestorian monks reached China at around the 7th century (the first recorded one was a Syriac known in China as “Alopen” in 635) and again in the 13th century (7th to 10th and 13th to 14th centuries according to Wikipedia)


Thank you very much for your response (all of your responses). I have enjoyed reading this thread. I will look back to see if you thought of a book or two, ans for other answers. Thanks!
Charity, TOm


I’m Jewish and so I tend to read the NT as literature rather than scripture (obviously).

My question is about the construction of the narratives themselves.

One of the things that has struck me is that many NT scenes are theatrical (in the way of Greek drama) which makes me wonder whether drama/performance was seen as means of conveying the story and the message?

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