Establishing Truth That’s Trusted in the Gospels and Today

Ramsay MacMullen

A front-page feature of the NY Times Science section recently (March 3, 2020) explained how social animals, from primates down through wild dogs to ants and bees, manage to hang together. They decide things as groups. But any choice has to begin with one individual, and then spread. As we know, among elephants, it’s likely the senior female that gives the lead. Among meerkats, it may be an individual noticing how the morning’s foraging has tapered off, so a better locale should be sought. A couple of the individual’s friends join in, giving a signal that somehow carries authority, perhaps simply because they appear so confident. They whole group moves together. A governing “fact” — where best to feed — is thus a social product confirming a cognitive one. The individual may act from observation, as we would say, rationally, but the group judges by a critical number signing on. The authors of this study believe such a process “will show up in human decision making, too.”

The term in quotation-marks, “fact,” is of course a tricky one. Another name for it would be a “truth.” We know all about them, we live by them; truths fill our encyclopedias, millions of tiny propositions strung together, that have been agreed to. Trillions more float about in the Cloud, “factoids” and “memes.” The defining of them has been a choice for each of them, by the agreement of authorities (governmental, academic, religious . . .) and credited by the group — ourselves. No doubt the substance of these digital creations was once at some point doubted, declared to be only a hoax by some on Twitter; or Twitter declared them to be a mistake, a downright lie, according to Times investigative journalists. The question, which authority speaks the truth, is of existential importance.

How exactly are discordant views expressed to establish which one to believe? For illustration, I choose an area of debate the longest-lived and still the most alive in hundreds of millions of people’s minds: those decades during which Christianity separated itself from Judaism and became itself, treated historically. If this is not contested territory, what is?!

I recall the familiar words of the provincial governor Pontius Pilate in his courtroom, asking Jesus (Jhn 18:38), “Are you a king, then?” and receiving the answer, “It is you that says so. I was born for this, and for this came I into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth hears my voice.” This, Pilate simply dismissed: “What is truth?” — and walked out on the hearing; so likewise did another eastern governor, Gallio, some dozen years later, who couldn’t be bothered with the Jews’ arguments (Acts 18:14f.). The official response is easily understood if the names and setting are changed to secularize them entirely; for, if this can be imagined and if the scene were instead in some modern court, busy with a recent rash of agitators, we would have to see the claim by the accused to be no better than circular: the asserted “truth” was indeed only truth because “everyone” called it so. What counted was only the plain number of believers; by this it must be judged “probable,” that is (literally) approved. No objective reasoning need be offered; and in fact the only way to look at the matter has changed little since Morton Smith reminded us, with acerbic calm, “for hundreds of years scholars have been studying the gospels with minute attention; they have thus arrived at general disagreement about the gospels’ central character” (Jesus the Magician, 1978, 3).

As to the style of Pilate’s words, it was just such as would be natural in someone of that educated elite for whom important governorships were reserved. Such folk were exposed in their adolescence to lessons and practice in courtroom argument, through advocates’ speeches. Instruction served to show them how a position on either side of any question could always be invented for clever display. It was a tradition familiar from Plato’s generation to Latin handbooks like that of Pilate’s slightly older contemporary, Seneca the Elder, Gallio’s father. Quintilian, another writer in this genre, came a bit later, and Plutarch a generation afterwards. He enjoyed the recall of many such dinnertime conversations in a tradition of many centuries, a back-and-forth among guests of superior learning, in what was no more than a game. Hence, Pilate’s airy, dismissive tone.

Superiority had its uses, of course, besides the appeal to numbers. Truth was also commonly accepted as such because it was offered by someone of “authority.” Jesus like Pilate though in a different way could command this acceptance thanks to his manner of speech, so we are told. It was distinctive and recognizable, not any ordinary way of talking. “Unlike their own teachers he taught with a note of authority” (Mk 1:22 with the same again at Lk 4.32, and yet a third time in the Nazareth synagogue, where those who listened “in amazement” wondered where he “got his wisdom from”). The priests and scribes were the ones who talked this way. They drew their style and authentication from the words of scripture; what Torah taught was by definition true; but interpretations and applications naturally needed training and expertise. This was offered first and foremost to establish Jesus’ lineage, spelt out by the Gospels in its terms (Mt 1:1ff.; Lk 3:21-28) — his descent both in its divine origins and, “as people thought,” through Joseph, deriving from Abraham. It could be verified through close reading in the local synagogue among persons qualified in such studies (Acts 17-11). This was the response Paul met with at Beroea in response to his teaching, where his audience in the synagogue straightway turned to their books and discussions and, finding them satisfactory, so reported to the pious around them, and “many of them therefore became believers.” However, at Thessalonika in the synagogue, the audience was hostile. Such a difference in welcome, being many times repeated, as is familiar, defined the early separation of Christianity from Judaism, Jews more often than not finding Jesus’ claims not true.

The crux of the disagreement lay, not in the idea of a coming savior of the Jewish people but in the claim that Jesus was that person. What of past claimants to this role who had arisen, only to be commonly rejected as false? Were not Jesus’ quite ordinary birthplace, family, siblings, parents, and upbringing all as well attested, and similarly, too, as those of quite ordinary persons? So any claim to more than they indicated was simply improbable?  Pointed reference to this reaction can be found both in Mark (6:4f.) and Matthew (13:57f.).  Even the learned would modify or abandon their interpretative positions in the face of general popular rejection, “perforce … since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them,” as Josephus says (Antiquities 18.1.4). The Jewish historian writes at a point in time not far removed from these perplexities, with a good modern guide to them in Irving Zeitlin (Jesus and the Judaism of His Time, 1988, 12f.).

Ultimately, the attempt to determine the truth of any such finding could only seek its validation in his supernatural powers. To repeat, reports of his acts in themselves deserved belief because they were so many, witnessed by such great throngs. It was just not probable that so many would be so wrong. Even those who challenged the source of Jesus’ powers accepted their reality. Witnesses to them were remembered not just as “many” or “masses” in “whole crowds” (for example, at Acts 3:11), but could be counted: they were entire villages and towns, “five thousand,” the number in common use as we use “million” to signify some huge total — for example, at Mt 14:21, Lk 9:14, Acts. 6:15 or Jhn 6:2. Or they were petitioners for healing, well known to the surrounding population, sufferers who had been beset by their afflictions over a known certain length of time, for example, 18 years, Lk 13:11; Jhn 5:6; or Acts 4:22. In the world of those days, such specifics could settle such questions, whatever it was that should be believed, no matter how close to incredible. The same respect for quantification pervades our argumentation to this day.

Moreover, Jews were familiar with the possibility of an apparently normal person performing acts beyond normal powers — a possibility familiar through their Scripture. It was their prophets who had established this fact as such, beyond challenge. The wording of the four biblical accounts could hardly be more specific: Jesus’ claims were “the truth” because, after all, “was it at all probable that the Messiah would perform more miracles?” (Jhn 7:31). Through these, a claimant to the status of prophet was even “dispensed from the need to demonstrate the truth of his teaching” through Torah texts, as a modern historian puts it. Geza Vermes is quoted, bringing forward into our millennium the accumulated argument of centuries prior (Jesus in His Jewish Context, 2003, 5ff.; Christian Beginnings, 2012, 95, 120; and add, Acts 4:13f.). The acknowledgement of Jesus as like to the prophets appears in his followers’ seeing in him a “son of God,” the term not understood in any way literal but which rather “indicated the holiness of a person, the particular closeness of a human being to the Almighty.” I quote Zeitlin again (123-125).

To the modern reader, miracles as the ultimate foundation of belief confront an alternative truth, the scientific. This, we seek through our five senses applied to the natural world. We measure what they tell us and go on to attack or defend our resulting propositions until some consensus emerges. “Consensus” equals “truth.” The only difference from Jesus’ day lies in our understanding of sensory evidence, that is, Nature, in our testing of what seems inexplicable in natural terms. In Antiquity, whatever recourse to testing was occasionally attested came to be seen in the fourth century as meddling into God’s creation, and so, impious. Augustine was the authority. In a Festschrift volume recently I had a chance to stress the significance of this familiar fact, this prohibition (The Past as Present. Essays of Roman History in Honor of Guido Clemente, 2019, 257-77).  Our modern truth must thus wait for a millennium and more, until Galileo’s stubborn muttering to himself about Earth could be heard aloud, “E pur si muove.” Yes, our planet Earth does move.

The Age of Enlightenment re-directed the testing of truth to the surviving written word, to make it more perfect. Only then should one get into questions of interpretation. For the attainment of this perfected text, “the better reading” of Scripture “was to be found in the most manuscripts … a rational procedure … on the basis of multiple manuscripts … objective evidence that can be mathematized”, aiming more accurately at what is “highly probable” because born of “numerous apographs,” that is, derived copies. The method here was outlined a century and a half ago and became immensely influential, as Glenn Most showed (Genesis of Lachmann’s Method, 2005, 9f.). It amounted to the test of numbers; it joined in a very similar resort to numbers in what Classicists called (of course, in Latin), the lectio difficilior. This, “the less obvious reading” among variant editions, deserved respect precisely because the text had been copied and survived in spite of its deviance.

The search for and development of consensus — majoritarian, never perfect — must of course be a diachronic process, that is, historical. It must also be selective, given the infinity of factoids of which our human story is compounded. We can form our general impressions, we have our electronic search engines, we can test for historical significance in order to identify rewarding targets of curiosity. They will be defined in terms of numbers of persons affected in their behavior, in areas of effect that they care about. I emphasize quantification yet again. In a dictum or mantra, it may thus be said that “history is a democrat” in what it focuses on, as it is again, in evaluating the probability of its practitioners’ propositions. Numbers count.

Respect for practitioners as authorities is plain in scriptural scholarship (to end where my argument began). Witness the method of so influential and well-received a student as Geza Vermes (Religion, 3f., 6f., 14; Jesus 13). He directs attention to the best known scholars’ works, as their readers are tallied, being most likely to be “plausible,”and of one scholar in particular, E. P. Sanders, in grading propositions “as certain, highly probable, probable, possible”, that is, well supported by others or less so. And further: authority in judging should be respected if it is relevant, that is, respected by “historians” who are “professionals.” Here — if not among theologians — is where the story seems to end.

Ramsay MacMullen, emeritus Dunham Professor of History at Yale, retired in 1993, but in retirement added another ten scholarly books to the previous ten. His fields of interest include U. S. women’s history (1997; 2003); how to understand history (2003; 2014); religion in the Roman empire, including the early Church (1981; 1984; 1992; 1997; 2006; and 2009); and ancient Roman history from the eighth century BC to the fifth century AD. His site on Academia gives details.