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Historiography 3: Motivation, Explaining the Confusing, and Double Dissimilarity - Episode 5

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

This is the last episode in the historiography mini-series for you! In this episode, Jon uses Author Motivation, Coherency through Other Events, and Double Similarity to further prove the reliability of the New Testaments historical record of events.


0:30 Reminder and Overview

1:00 Author Motivation explained

3:00 NT and motivation

5:00 Counter-arguments using 9/11

7:45 Coherency through other events

9:05 Making sense of the crucifixion through other events

15:00 Double Dissimilarity explained

18:20 “Son of Man” example

19:45 Jesus’ baptism example

20:20 Criticisms of Double Dissimilarity

21:15 Next time and an encouragement.


Hello, I’m Jon Topping and you’re listening to the Ultimate Questions podcast. In our last episode, we continued with another three methods of evaluating the truth of historical texts like the New Testament, and this episode we’re going to be diving into another three. As a reminder, historiographical methods are tools that historians use to evaluate the truth claims found within historical texts. Today, we’ll be looking at the motivations of authors, whether the historical accounts help explain something difficult, and then lastly, the issue of “double dissimilarity”. These three methods can help historians add some extra justification to thinking some claims are likely reliable in historical documents, and for our purposes, we’ll be looking at the New Testament documents.

Motivation First up, we have the method of looking at the motivations of the authors. What we do here, is we examine what sorts of motivations the authors might have for writing what they do. If we find bad motivations, that can actually take away some reliability from the text, and if we find that they lack any motivations at all, then it can be reasonably said that they are likely just trying to give an accurate account of the events they’re describing.

As an example of this, if we find a piece of historical writing where the author would get famous, or rich, by writing a text, then we have some reason to at least cast some doubt on the claims being made. For example, suppose we look at Julius Caesar, and his Gallic Wars. He wrote about his own military expeditions, so already, we recognize there’s probably a bit of bias in his favour. A clear example of this is that Caesar writes that his military actions were defensive and preemptive. However, by studying other aspects of history, most historians will agree that this is likely not the case. It seems more likely that Caesar was invading these Gallic tribes as a way to gain power and money. So here, Caesar’s motivations help us discern the likelihood of some of the claims he was making in what he wrote.

There are also times where a political leader will actually commission a historian to write about his leadership. In these cases, considering the historian is literally being paid by the person he’s writing about, obviously the text is going to swing far more in favor of the benefactor than the historian would if he wasn’t being paid by him. In this way, the motivation of getting paid heavily influences the reliability of the texts involved, so we have to read them with a grain of salt. Now all that said, if we find a text, and we don’t see these kind of selfish motivating factors, that gives us extra reason to think the text is reliable, because it seems the true motivation for writing the text is merely to give an accurate depiction of those historical events. When we look at the New Testament writers, the concept of motivation becomes very interesting. They weren’t getting rich, in fact, in many cases they left their livelihoods behind, and entered into poverty for the sake of the Gospel. In a sense they were gaining some power, because they were getting religious followers for Jesus’ religious ideas, but in reality, they were persecuted by both the government and the religious leaders of the time. So really, they weren’t getting real power, in fact, they were being squashed by the powers at the time. There really doesn’t seem to be any practical gain for the writers to be spreading the Gospel, writing the books of the New Testament, or even to be Christian at all! Because we see a lack of practical motivation for the writers of the New Testament, it seems as though their motivation was quite likely, simply to tell the truth of what happened. To make this point even further, not only were they lacking practical motivations, but in fact, they actually had strong motivations to NOT write what they wrote, and to not preach the Gospel. By writing the New Testament, and spreading the Gospel as much as they could, they were severely persecuted. We have good reasons to think that all of the disciples of Jesus, with the possible exception of John, were eventually killed for spreading the Gospel. So why would these people lose their wealth, get ostracized from their community and religion, get literally tortured at times, and eventually be killed, all for the sake of spreading the Gospel, and writing these documents? It’s because their goal really was to tell the truth. They weren’t spreading lies, because no one in their right mind would allow themselves to be harshly punished just for the sake of spreading false information. That would make no sense. People spread falsities because they gain something out of it. People would only allow themselves this kind of persecution if they really believed in the cause, and were trying to spread the truth of the matter. In this way, the motivations of the New Testament writers actually give us good reason to think what they wrote was reliable.

I’ve had a counter example brought up to this point before, and that’s to look at things like the 9-11 terrorists. In this case, you have people who were willing to die (and even kill) for their cause, and yet, we would say their cause was bad, and based on falsity. So does the fact that the terrorists were willing to die somehow give credibility to their beliefs? In a sense yes, and in a sense no. It gives us good reason to think that they really did strongly believe in what they believed. It would be ridiculous to accuse the terrorists in these scenarios of not being genuine believers, because, after all, they were willing to kill and die for their beliefs. So we would definitely see this as good support for them strongly believing their beliefs. However, it doesn’t give us reason to believe their beliefs are actually true. After all, people strongly believe false things all the time. If nothing else, Christianity and Islam can’t both be true, so clearly one group is wrong, even though both were willing to die for their beliefs. The difference comes in with this; the terrorists merely strongly BELIEVE their beliefs, whereas the disciples of Jesus were actually present for the events they describe. To elaborate this point, suppose for a moment the claims of Islam are totally false. The terrorists in the 9-11 attacks wouldn’t know the claims are false, and they could still very easily believe the claims of Islam to be true. However, if we presuppose that the claims of the New Testament are false, for example, suppose Jesus didn’t really do miracles, and didn’t really rise from the dead, then out of everyone in all of human existence, the people that would know these claims are false would be the people who followed Jesus. After all, they were there, walking with Him, and would have witnessed everything. If Jesus never did a miracle, His followers would have known this, because they never would have observed a miracle, even though they were walking with Jesus every day. If He didn’t really rise from the dead, and then obviously did not appear to the disciples, then the disciples would be the ones that would know this. Therefore, if the disciples are the ones that would be the most aware of whether the events literally took place, for them to be willing to die for these claims is far more meaningful, because if the claims are false, they would know it. The terrorists of 9-11 merely believe strongly, while the disciples of Jesus were present for the events they described. Being willing to die for something you strongly believe is quite different than being willing to die for something you personally witnessed. You could easily be wrong about your beliefs, but it becomes a different story when you were present for the events. If the disciples of Jesus were persecuted and killed for the Gospel they were spreading, then the issue of motivation ends up giving some incredible support for the reliability of the claims they were making.

Helps answer why Jesus was crucified Another quick method of evaluating the truth of historical claims, is whether it helps you explain some further historical event. This is similar to coherence, but goes a step further. Basically, if you’re trying to understand why some confusing event occurred, and you find a few other historical details that would help explain that confusing event, then these new details seem to add coherence to the story, and thus, seem to be likely true.

For an example of this, suppose your friend’s life goal has been to win a gold medal in the Olympics, and they finally enter the Olympics, but at the last moment, they drop out. This event is incredibly confusing to you, and you can’t make sense of it. Suppose then, after some digging, you learn that some other country had sent your friend a threatening later, telling them to drop out. All of a sudden the confusing event makes far more sense. In this way, you would then have good reason to believe the new detail that helps explain the situation. Normally, it might be difficult to believe that a country sent your friend a threatening letter, but under these circumstances, because it helps you understand something difficult to explain, it all of a sudden becomes quite a likely scenario, and helps you make sense of the situation as a whole.

As for the New Testament, a common way this method is employed is by examining the crucifixion of Jesus. The execution of Jesus doesn’t really make too much sense. After all, He didn’t do anything illegal, and He wasn’t really political. He wasn’t causing riots, or preaching against the Romans. In fact, when Jesus’ enemies tried to entrap Him into speaking against the government, so that they could have something to accuse Him with, He ends up speaking in FAVOUR of the government. One example of this is when His enemies asked Jesus whether they should pay taxes to the Romans, and He basically says, yes, you should. Another case is when Jesus speaks explicitly about how we should all submit to our authorities in the government, which is a hard message to hear, even for us today! So why then would the Romans command His execution, if it makes so little sense? Any time we discover some further reason for this confusing event, it helps shed light on the scenario as a whole, and adds credibility to the details that help the situation make sense.

One example of a detail that helps make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion, is the fact that Jesus challenged the Jewish laws. A good example of this is in Matthew 5, where Jesus brings up different laws, and then corrects the interpretation, and even changes the meaning of these laws. Another case is all the times when Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath, and He flips the idea of the Sabbath on its head, showing the religious leaders that they have misunderstood what the Sabbath is all about. We also see more cases like this, where Jesus challenges the religious leaders at the time. As I’ve mentioned before, there was a time where He publically called the religious leaders a “brood of vipers”, and essentially told them all off. Obviously that would make them a little upset. Another major detail we can see in the New Testament that would cause some hatred towards Jesus is the fact that He made divinity claims. Now this point is quite contested by different people, often by Muslims, but I do think we have some good reasons to think Jesus made divinity claims. One of the most popular examples of this is found in at the end of John 8, where Jesus seems to imply He’s been around longer than Abraham, so someone asks Him explicitly, do you think you’re older than Abraham? Jesus’ response is key, He said, “Before Abraham was born, I Am!” Now not only is this important because He is saying that, yes, He’s been around since before Abraham, which would have been about two thousand years at least, but more importantly, Jesus refers to Himself as “I Am”, which is a title only given to God. The interesting part here is the response of the crowd. They actually picked up stones to stone Jesus to death. Why? Because they understood exactly what He was saying; He was claiming to be God.

Another great example of this is found in Mark 14. Jesus is brought before the religious leaders and questioned. The high priest asks Him if He is the Messiah, the “Son of the Blessed”. For us today, we might hear that and think he’s talking about Mary as being the “blessed”, however, those at that time didn’t think of Mary as the blessed. Not only that, but this term only ever applies to God. So really, what the high priest is asking Jesus is, are you the Messiah, the son of God? To this, Jesus answers, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Firstly, Jesus is admitting, yes, I am the Son of God. Secondly, He is calling Himself the Son of Man, which is an important divinity title that, again, we’ll go into in another podcast. Thirdly, Jesus says that He will be sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One, in other words, having authority with God, which is an extreme claim that no prophet could make. Lastly, Jesus claims He will be coming on the clouds of heaven. That point is interesting, because in religious lore at that time, the one who comes riding on the clouds is always the divine. This was actually a part of divine titles for pagan deities around that time, where God is the one that rides on the clouds. This is also found biblically in places like Deuteronomy 33:26, Isaiah 19:1, and others. In other words, to say that He will be riding on the clouds, Jesus is making a divinity claim here as well. So He’s making multiple claims to divinity, all within this one breath. Now what makes this even more telling, is to see the response of those who were present. The ones that were challenging Jesus in this situation were His enemies, and when He says this, the high priest tears his clothes, and says that Jesus is uttering blasphemy. To merely call yourself a prophet is not blasphemy, for something to be blasphemy means it’s an offence against God. The leader here knew exactly what Jesus was saying, He was claiming to be God, and so, he gets incredibly upset, and accuses Him of blasphemy.

Again, we’ll be diving more into this idea in a future episode, when we evaluate Jesus’ claims about Himself, and who He really was, but for now, the important thing here, is that Jesus made the religious leaders upset, and was fighting against them, and this gives us some insight as to why they plotted His murder. However, religious leaders didn’t just go around plotting the death of everyone they didn’t like. The divinity claims and apparent “blasphemies” of Jesus are the real kicker here, where this point makes good sense as to why the religious leaders would push the Romans so hard for His crucifixion. Because the divinity claims of Jesus help make sense of the confusing event of His execution, this adds some reliability to the fact that He really did make these grand claims about Himself.

Double Dissimilarity Another method of evaluating the truth of claims in a text is called “double dissimilarity”, which is also called the “criterion of dissimilarity”. This historiographical method is a way that we can give extra credibility as to whether some saying or phrase of Jesus can reliably be said to have come out of Jesus’ mouth. What “double dissimilarity” means is that the phrase doesn’t look Jewish, and it doesn’t look Christian. I realize that seems like a really weird set of parameters. What this concept means is this; suppose we find something that the Gospel writers claim Jesus said. It’s quite easy for someone to put words in someone else’s mouth when they write down an account. For example, if you’re telling a story to someone, are you really sure that you always quote people perfectly? Or do you think at times you might change the wording a bit, or even add an idea or two? Quite likely, everyone has inserted their own ideas into stories, and basically put words into someone’s mouth. For example, if I’m relaying a story to my wife about a conversation I had, I might say the other person said something, and I’ll use some phrase that is common to my speech patterns. So, as an example, I often use the phrase “it’s the case that”, because I was trained in philosophy, and the literature tends to use that phrase a lot more than anyone else ever does. I’ve even had someone make fun of the way I talk before, because I use phrases like that which “normal” people don’t use. If I were to convey a story, I may accidentally insert a phrase like this into the story, even though the person I’m quoting obviously didn’t use that phrase. I insert it, not to deliberately misquote them, but just because that’s how I talk.

Now, on the other hand, if I were to convey some story of what someone said, and I use phrases that are not common to my speech patterns, nor are they even common to my cultural context, then it would seem far more likely that I’m quoting the person directly. As an example, suppose for a moment we were to hear a story from the 60s, and the eyewitness was telling a story of what someone said, and they use the term “groovy” in their rendition of what someone else said. Because this is a cultural term that was common to that era, it would be perfectly fair to say that the term “groovy” could possibly not have been in the original conversation. So for example, suppose a hippie met the Queen of England in the 60s, and later on the hippie is telling the story to his buddies, and he says that the Queen said to him, “you got some groovy sandals on man”, we would be well within our rights to assume the Queen didn’t say this, and instead, that the hippie was inserting cultural language into his quotation. The Queen likely said something like, “I like your sandals young man”, but the hippie, in repeating the story to others, puts his own cultural spice into it, whether intentionally or unintentionally. On the other hand, suppose the hippie quotes the Queen, and tells his buddies that she told him that she was “knackered”, which is a British expression for being tired. Considering the hippie never uses this kind of terminology, it’s likely he is directly quoting the Queen, and that she actually said that.

Now to apply that biblically, suppose you find a story being told, and a quote within this story contains a phrase that is not culturally common, it adds credibility to the idea that this is a direct quote, and not an addition made by the author. So as an example from the New Testament that we’ve already looked at, the term “Son of Man” is used by Jesus in many occasions. In terms of double dissimilarity, the Jews did not use that type of language; no Jew would refer to themselves as the “Son of Man”. In fact, this ends up being part of the reason the Jews condemned Jesus, because you just don’t call yourself that. Additionally, we see in the writings of the Early Church outside of the New Testament that this wasn’t a popular Christian way to speak either. In fact, we don’t really find the early Christians referring to Jesus by that name. It just seems like the title “Son of Man” just wasn’t a popular way that Christians referred to Jesus. Because of this, it seems perfectly reasonable that the term “Son of Man” wouldn’t be inserted into the New Testament stories of Jesus, because that’s just not how they referred to Him. So, because both the Jewish and Christian cultures didn’t use that term, and we find Jesus using it quite often in the New Testament, when the writers quote Him, it seems fair to say that Jesus really did use this term to refer to Himself. By the historiographical method of double dissimilarity, we can confirm with strong reliability that Jesus really did refer to Himself as the Son of Man, which ends up being an important title.

Another New Testament example that we’ve looked at is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Traditionally, it is understood that the one baptizing someone has more authority than the one being baptized. When Jesus gets baptized by John, the author makes a clear effort to show that this wasn’t the case, that Jesus was not less than John. A leader being baptized by a follower is the sort of thing that no Jew nor Christian would invent, because it is too dissimilar from their culture. The fact that the story includes this, and then tries to explain why this is happening, gives us good reason to think this is a real historical event that occurred.

Now there are some criticisms against this method, because some take the idea to mean that, if something is NOT doubly dissimilar, then it isn’t reliable. I think this is hugely problematic. Just because a quote from Jesus sounds Jewish does not mean that He must not have said it, because, Jesus WAS Jewish! Also, just because a quote sounds Christian cannot imply it wasn’t said by Jesus, because Christianity is founded upon the words of Jesus, so obviously the things He said will be similar to Christianity! I don’t think this method works this way, in terms of showing what sayings are NOT reliable. However, I do think double similarity can give us more reason to think that some sayings have even MORE reason to think they ARE reliable, as we see with the case of Jesus calling Himself the Son of Man, and the idea that the baptism of Jesus was a literal event.

Next time, we’ll be looking at our last historiographical method, which is eyewitness reports, so that we can begin piecing together an argument from all of this. I recognize this was probably a lot to throw at you, and it’s all likely completely new ideas, so it might have been hard to follow. Next time, when looking at eyewitness reports, all the pieces start to come together nicely. I wanted to make sure to go through these points with you, so that you as the listener can get a good grasp of the historical methods being employed by scholars, to give you a good background for the great historical arguments we’re going to be looking at in future episodes.

So on that note, I hope that you’ll tune in next time and join me as we look at how to evaluate eye witness reports, on the Ultimate Questions podcast, from Power to Change – Students.


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