Metaphysics and the Historical Jesus

(N.B.: I have no solid data on the religious and metaphysical beliefs of historians beyond my own impressions of the American, Canadian, and English academies. This means that I have to generalize substantially. Nevertheless, I feel that this will not detract significantly from my argument. If anyone knows of any evidence that would contradict my claims about historians, I would love to see it.)

Most scholars of the historical Jesus who believe that he rose from the dead are theists. Most historians who do not share this belief are non-theists. Makes sense, right?

Yes - and no. Of course, theism seems to be a "prerequisite" for belief in Jesus' literal resurrection - but the inverse is not true. One need not be committed to atheism to disbelieve the resurrection; one could be, for example, a Jew or a Muslim.

Why I find this interesting is that the vast majority of historians (as far as I know) who leave Christianity do not become non-Christian theists, but atheists or agnostics. In other words, they are modifying not only their historical views but also their metaphysical views - their belief in God, belief in the soul, &c.

Why? What is the connection between metaphysics and history?

Some thoughts:

1. If we think of the evidence for the resurrection probabilistically (which we can only do as a heuristic for quantifying different degrees of certainty), then one connection between metaphysics and this particular (alleged) historical event becomes clear.

Belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus presupposes a few metaphysical beliefs (e.g., belief in a personal, loving God). Let us suppose that we can "calculate" the "probability" of the resurrection's having happened by multiplying the "probability" that the metaphysical requirements are met by the "probability" that the historical evidence is sufficient. (I am not at all saying that this probabilistic meanas of thinking is how we should think of the resurrection; it is simply one means of illuminating the role metaphysics plays in our evaluation of the evidence.)

If that is the case, then the probability that the literal resurrection happened varies directly with the probability that these metaphysical requirements are met. If we double the chances that the metaphysical requirements are met - say, from 40% to 80% - we also double the chances that the resurrection happened. In the case of the resurrection, our metaphysical beliefs should - and do - influence our historical analyses.

2. Why do many historians who leave Christianity leave it for atheism? Are their historical beliefs motivating a change in their metaphysical beliefs or vice versa?

As I noted above, our historical beliefs concerning Christianity are largely dependent on our metaphysical beliefs. If God does not exist, then the resurrection is impossible; if God does exist, then the resurrection is not only possible, but (in my unscholarly opinion) very likely. (Of course, the relevant metaphysical discourse goes beyond the mere existence of a "god" to a discussion of such a being's qualities.)

However, I do not see that our historical beliefs should influence our metaphysical beliefs to a similar extent - or at all. If I were to reject the resurrection, I would still be some sort of theist. Some of my idea of Who God - the part that is specifically Christian - would change. But the core belief would remain. This is because I believe in God on philosophical grounds, not on historical grounds. I do not see that there is any reasonable alternative.

Therefore, when Christian historians abandon the faith for atheism or agnosticism - in other words, when they simultaneously reject both historical and metaphysical propositions - I cannot help but question their philosophical approach.

(Of course, this transition may not always occur simultaneously. I may disagree with a former Christian who comes to believe that God cannot exist and then, on the basis of that belief, rejects the resurrection - but at least I can say that he has not put the historical cart before the metaphysical horse. The same reasoning would apply, mutatis mutandis, to a Christian who came to believe that the historical evidence for the resurrection was lacking but remained a theist.)

3. One interesting possibility this leads me to consider: Perhaps Christians should evaluate the historical treatment of the resurrection given by atheists quite differently from the historical treatment of the resurrection given by non-Christians who nevertheless believe that the resurrection is at least metaphysically possible.

I say "Perhaps" because I only think that would really be true in an ideal world in which historians always had their philosophy on straight.

4. Another thought: In a way, there isn't that much of interest that an atheist can say about the resurrection. Consider, as an analogy, the following "blurb" from a fictional scholar:
"Many people believe that a round square appeared two thousand years ago. They believe this based on certain historical evidence such as eyewitness testimony. But obviously, no round square appeared...because the eyewitness testimony is shabby."
Perhaps the eyewitness testimony truly is shabby - but the main grounds for the scholar's skepticism of the appearance is not historical, but metaphysical. Assuming that the scholar doesn't believe that round squares can exist, he will have to analyze the putative "eyewitness testimony" presupposing that no appearance happened.

The point is not that atheists and non-Christians are shoddy historians. They are often excellent historians. The point, rather, is that one's metaphysical framework has a tremendous impact on one's historical opinion concerning the resurrection - even if that historical opinion is a scholarly one.

Thus, when an atheist historian challenges a Christian historical claim, I must meet his challenge - but I must also remember that he is operating within a (faulty, in my opinion) philosophical framework that prejudices him against certain interpretations of historical events.

5. An interesting question for non-theist historians: "If God existed, how plausible would Jesus' resurrection be?" I'm not sure a non-theist could answer that question very well; I say that because I know that is difficult for me, a theist, to consider "If God did not exist, then..." questions.

(6. At this point, you might be thinking, "What about Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christian theists?" For the most part, this post does not apply to Jewish and Muslim scholars of the historical Jesus. The main reason for this is that almost all of the people who study the historical Jesus are either Christians or former Christians. However, I will briefly note that Jews and Muslims, though they are monotheists, might still have metaphysical scruples with Christianity related to concepts such as the Trinity. This means that they may, for all intents and purposes, be as committed to the metaphysical impossibility of the resurrection as atheists would be.)