The historical Jesus and the genetic fallacy

Posted on December 9, 2009


One of the courses I am teaching this year is a translation workshop for doctoral students. However, instead of simply giving the students a text that they are supposed to translate into another language (be from Polish into English or the other way around) I have been treating this class as an opportunity for them to work with texts in English. For the first few weeks the doctoral students have been bringing texts in English they are interested in and we’ve been discussing them in class. The effect has been quite interesting in that we’ve looked at quite a broad spectrum of pieces and looked at them from a variety of points of view. The group is small – only five PhD students – which makes it possible to really work intensively and allows us to take into account everyone’s interests without the class becoming a senseless mishmash, somehow.

The most interesting meeting for me, thus far, was last week’s. The text we were given was a fairly traditional historian’s thoughts about the way in which we can investigate the person of Jesus. As such, the article started from making the usual claims about the fundamental divide between the Geisteswissenschaften and the Naturwissenschaften – which, immediately, set my teeth on edge and got me motivated to ‘engage’ with the text. The actual discussion we had in class focussed around a number of issues apart from the question of the differences between various sciences. Perhaps the main question was set by the student who suggested the text. His stated aim is to look at the historical figures of Jesus and Buddha and try to understand why it is that these particular individuals came to be thought of as deities by other people. Clearly, his intention is to try to look for explanations in the personalities of those individuals. A couple of us, however, pointed out to him that he is assuming that the relevant factors lie in the personalities of Jesus and Buddha as opposed to such things as the social, historical or, as I kept on suggesting, cognitive context. As he said, it would be very surprising for him if there was nothing special about Jesus or Buddha. Yet, special people are born every day and the fact that some of them come to be thought of as deities by some others can only be understood if we consider the cognitive processes of the believers.

An important element of the student’s assumption seems to be a version of the genetic fallacy, i.e. that to understand Christianity we must understand what the historical Jesus was like. This claim is doubly problematic. The first problem is that the nature of Christianity, including its success, must be understood in terms of its beliefs and institutions, as they existed over time. The medieval Church was not central to society throughout much of Europe because of what Christ was like but because it was able to maintain its power throughout that period due to a number of cognitive and cultural factors. This is why the genetic fallacy is a fallacy. The second set of problems is specific to the history of early Christianity. Firstly, from what we know, the historical figure of Christ actually had a very limited amount of influence upon the development of Christianity, with Paul playing a much more significant role. Secondly, the only sources of information we have regarding what Jesus was like come from the various gospels, including the apocrypha. Those documents, however, were written well after Jesus’ death and by people who in all likelihood had not actually met him but were, at best, writing down stories they had heard about him. What is more , it is clear that the gospels are full of elements that are not historically accurate but which were introduced for various political or doctrinal reasons. Of course, there are scholars who are trying to sort through the available information to get at the ‘real’ Jesus but it is very much debatable to what degree this is even possible given the very poor quality of our sources.

We suggested that his methodology should be to try to identify generally the kinds of factors that determine whether people consider someone to be a deity, factors that will primarily be cognitive, and then to consider the degree to which Jesus’ or Buddha’s personality would have been relevant to those factors. Indeed, in a way, this approach might allow us to make some educated guesses about the personality of Jesus if there are certain traits that do make it generally more likely that a person will be deemed a deity. Of course, even if successful, such an investigation will not necessary reveal anything significant about the nature of Christianity, as already pointed out.

Posted in: History, religion