In my last post on Fabricating Jesus I discussed Craig Evans’ put-down of sceptical conclusions on the grounds that “no-one trained in history” would entertain such “extreme” doubts as to whether we can know anything historical about Jesus at all or even if he existed. Evans isn’t the only bible scholar who has made such a comment, and my last post was not my final word on the subject. Will elaborate a little on that earlier post here. I’ve included Bauckham in the heading because his “historical” reconstruction of the gospels in another series of posts I submitted here also displays an abysmal ignorance of the most basic historical “training”. Since my last post began with von Ranke, a natural segue would be a discussion drawn from Niels Peter Lemche in The Israelites in History and Tradition. He, too, begins with von Ranke. (See earlier post for discussion of one of von Ranke’s contributions to historiography.)
Fundamentalists will dismiss Lemche because his methods do not lead to conclusions supporting their beliefs, but I challenge them to find historiographical, or even simply logical, rationales for overturning the historical principles he works by. But Lemche is by no means a one-off. After I finish with Lemche I hope to dig out a list of other names from my notes and edit them to post here with similar discussions about valid historical methodology, from both ancient and modern history.
Primary and Secondary Sources
“According to Leopold von Ranke, the historian who intends to re-create the past should always concentrated on the acknowledged contemporary sources and delegate all other kind of information to a second place.” p.22
An acknowledged contemporary source is also known as a primary source.
A primary source is one which:
- can be dated without problems
- physically belongs to the period about which it is taken to be firsthand information
Example 1: A stone statue with an inscription found where it was originally placed by someone to commemorate events in his own day.
Example 2: An inscription found in Augustus’s temple in Ankara, and that relies on an official document from the days of Augustus (the Res Gestae), and that was placed in the temple shortly after his death, can be considered a primary source.
Example 3: An inscription from the days of Kamose, last pharaoh of the Seventeenth Dynasty of Egypt, will be a firsthand source of the expulsion of the Hyksos.
It should be noted here that the gospels and Acts cannot “be dated without problems”. A scholar may argue vehemently that Acts was written by a companion of Paul who failed to finish his account before Paul was tried and executed. But he can do nothing more than argue and argue. There are simply too many other arguments for a later date. There is nothing but conjecture and hope and faith and one of many interpretations of the data to substantiate a contemporary date.
A text describing the same statue as in Example 1 above is not a primary source if the text was written, say, in a later generation.
Livy’s history of the Punic war is not a primary source because Livy wrote about 200 years after the events.
Suetonius’s life of Augustus Caesar is not a primary source because it is written about a 100 years after Augustus.
Manetho’s description of the expulsion of the Hyksos is a secondary source, removed by some 1200 years after the event, and preserved in sources even centuries later (Josephus, Africanus, Eusebius).
Documents from the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt are closer to the Hyksos expulsion event, but are still not contemporary sources to it.
Gospels about Jesus widely thought to be from a generation or more after Jesus.
Confusing the primary and secondary sources
Sometimes a secondary source will appear to say it contains a document, say a letter, that belongs to a much earlier time. (This is the case in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.) Is that letter a primary source? No. The only way that such a letter embedded in a secondary source can be elevated to primary source level is if there is some confirmation from contemporary sources that it, beyond doubt, really belongs to that earlier period.
“This is a fact often overlooked by biblical scholars who sometimes think that late books like [Acts (my example, not Lemche’s)] include primary documentary material going back to [James of Acts 15 or Claudius Lysias of Acts 23].” (p.29)
Which sources assure us “what really happened”?
This may be a trick question. It is not asking how or why something happened. But what. The difference is huge.
Primary sources may come from a directive of the royal court. They may come from a general in the field. Or from a merchant writing a letter. It does not matter if the evidence is from an emperor or a peasant. Both a king and a peasant will, if writing a letter or inscription for another, be writing with a distinct purpose in mind. We can expect the purposes and information and spin to be different in every case. The slant and point of view will be different.
But still, “contemporary documents may probably refer to events that in some form or the other ‘really happened.'” (p.23)
That is not to say that primary sources — contemporary documents — are infallible. From time to time historians discover they misinform. Lemche refers to a contemporary document from 1167 c.e. proclaiming the foundation of Copenhagen in that year. But archaeologists have since found that the city was there a hundred years earlier. So even contemporary — primary — sources must be used with analytical care.
The Gospels and Acts as Historical Sources
These are not primary sources of Jesus or the founding of the church since they are not preserved in a condition that physically goes back to those times.
The events and persons in the Gospels and Acts in the New Testament, in theory, may all have really happened or existed, but that is a completely separate question from the status of the sources themselves: are they primary or secondary?
Historians indeed often find that a secondary source is a more reliable source for an event than a primary source. Sometimes a king who sets up a monument to commemorate his deeds stretches the truth a little bit. Lemche refers by way of example to the statue of King Idrimi (ca. 1500 b.c.e). The inscription is more fairy tale, narrating how a stereotypical male hero, youngest of brothers, leaves his family, wins a kingdom and princess . . . Historical reconstruction has long since demonstrated Idrimi was really a gangster-like foreign usurper.
“It is . . . almost always the modern historian — and only this person — who is endowed with the methodological remedies to analyze a story like Idrimi’s and to extract historical information and distinguish between this and . . . a ‘screen’ put up by the ancient author to conceal the brutal and unwelcome fact of the assumption of power by a tyrant of dubious origins” (p.25). Fundamentalists note: the critical acumen and methodology is applied to secular research and subjects as much as it is to claims of biblical history!
Lemche then discusses the embarrassing situation of some modern historians who have taken contemporary sources at face value, failing to recognize the realities that provoked propagandistic messages. Biblical historians do have some company in other history departments.
Of course a late text may well contain genuine historical information, even after a series of editors have had their way with it. “However, the criteria necessary for judging whether or not such a late textual witness may provide information must be severe, as it is unlikely that the producer of a late written source from antiquity would be in the position to present a kind of systematically correct picture of the past. At least such an example has still to be found.” (p.25)
The complaints of Evans and Bauckham (et al)
Craig A. Evans note. So too Richard Bauckham. Here is a historian, Lemche, justifying a “severe” criteria of historicity in a late document in the field of secular history. Evans complains about overly “rigid” and “cramped” methods. Bauckham complains about a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. What they really want is the freedom to toss aside true and genuine “historical training and method” and be free to proclaim that supernatural events and secondary sources are as equally valid as natural events and primary sources. They want to put myth and legend on the same status as valid history – but only if the myth and legend are about things they believe are not myth and legend.
Evans and Bauckham really are complaining about methodological standards. They don’t like the standards that are applied to secular history, because if the same are applied to their biblical history, they will lose their foundation for their beliefs. So they appear to misrepresent the historical method and accuse it of being overly “rigid” or overly “suspicious” — but only when it is applied without fear or favour to their pet topics.
They want to replace historical rigour with a “hermeneutic of trust” (read “Faith!”) — that is, a face-value reading of texts. But only if the texts in question are those they believe in religiously. Not the ancient heretical texts also posing as gospels and acts of apostles.
Quaintly, Evans and Bauckham subscribe to the common hypothesis that the Gospels in particular are composed by authors drawing on oral or hand-me-down “traditions” that were born with eyewitnesses. Trouble is, there is no evidence for this hypothesis. It is an assumption. The evidence that does exist shows modern readers that many of the gospel narratives have echoes in Old Testament and other narratives. The simplest explanation would therefore seem to be that there was literary borrowing going on. But of course scholars who object to this call down their own “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “rigid” criteria to “show” that a few differences mean that all possibility of borrowing is completely out of the question. (Of course, if there were no differences at all, there would be no borrowing or adaptation, only 100% copying, names and settings and all.)
Applying the standards consistently, without fear or favour
To paraphrase Lemche (pp. 29-30):
Although it certainly creates problems for the assumption that the Gospels are sources for the historical Jesus, this verdict has nothing to do with denying the historicity of the events narrated by the Gospels. Everything narrated by them may in principle be historical, but the biblical text cannot in advance be accepted as a historical source or documentation; it has in every case single to prove its status as a historical source. Although it is sometimes maintained that a certain part of New Testament scholarship is at the present characterized by a negative attitude toward the biblical texts as a historical source, this opinion is false. The texts of the Gospels and Acts are, for the simple reason that they are old documents, historical sources. The question is only about what. It might be that the description of the mission of Jesus contained in the Gospels is historically correct, as seen from the perspective of their late authors. It cannot be excluded. However, it has to be proved that the narratives in the Gospels are historically reliable as far as the period and generation in question is concerned. It is not something that can be assumed in advance.”
It is traditionally believed to be a respectable enterprise to try to show that a certain event narrated in the Gospels or Acts really happened and that the narrative is for that reason a valuable source. It is at least as respectable, however, to try to show that the text does not carry any information about the period worth speaking about. In both cases the scholar should employ an identical set of methods and proceed from the same basic assumption, that the text of the Gospels and Acts is not a primary source of the history of Jesus and the church. These are later than the events mentioned in them and therefore secondary sources to the past, the historical value of which has to be demonstrated and not accepted in advance of the historical analysis.
To assume the historicity of a biblical narrative in advance is unscholarly and cannot escape influencing the analysis in a negative direction.
(paraphrase of a paragraphs pp. 29-30)
Two opposing but classic starting texts on the nature and practice of history that are essential reading for anyone wishing to seek a “training in history”.