One might almost wonder if Finley (born Moses Isaac Finkelstein) would direct a half-sympathetic wink at Jesus mythicists if he were alive today. What he published not too many years before my own graduation certainly belies the claims of Jesus historicists who insist that they abide by normative historical methods.
What hit me between the eyes was his use of a phrase that I myself have used from time to time and suffered as a consequence, the need for "external controls" in order to establish the historicity of any datum. (The bolding in the following is my own.)
In other words, how can a historian conclude that the gospel narratives are not entirely born of myth? How can a historian claim that there is a shred of historical datum in any of the gospel narratives about Jesus?An Oxford historian, Mr A. N. Sherwin-White, has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. ‘Not’, he adds, ‘that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.’ Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek verb at the root of ‘history’ is historein, to inquire, which is what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,
The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century and a half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls. Goguel’s way, if I may oversimplify, is first to sort the traditions into strands (or to demon-case) and then to apply logical and psychological tests. One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for ‘a sign from Heaven’, Jesus replied, ‘There shall be no sign given unto this generation’ (Mark viii, 11-12). Goguel comments:theocratic history ... means not history proper ... but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest
It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are ‘extremely doubtful’. His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, ‘it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.’This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus ... This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.
This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied.
The material available to the historian does not of itself justify any conclusion of historicity at all, period.