by Neil Godfrey
In preparing to compose a post on literary criticism and contributions of David Clines, I turned to check a contrasting reference in James McGrath’s The Burial of Jesus and unfortunately got sidetracked with the following blurring of opposing concepts (sorry, Rich — I know, I’ve done this one to death, and I cannot outdo my comprehensive treatment of the methodological issues here, but I’ll hit this button just once more before returning to my literary criticism discussion):
Historical study deals with evidence, with the question of what we can know about the past, and with what degree of certainty. Christians cannot afford to ignore or bypass such historical investigations. And yet many of Christianity’s traditional claims, including (but not limited to) the resurrection of Jesus, may not be able to be proven with certainty, “beyond reasonable doubt”, from our perspective in time and space. (p.13)
It is a pity that logic and clarity of thought are not prerequisites for doctorates in all fields of study. Here we read the language of the courtroom, such as the idea of being unable to prove that something happened “beyond reasonable doubt”. But at the same time he blurs the distinction between the concepts of “evidence” and “claims”. The content of a mere claim is not evidence. Evidence is an indisputable fact that you might make a claim about. The claim itself is distinct from the evidence.
The idea of proving beyond reasonable doubt that a suspect murdered his mother must first start with evidence that is itself without any doubt as to its existence. A fingerprint, a bloodstained knife. There can be no possible doubt about the existence of these. Even more, a cadaver with mortal wounds. Now that is evidence of a murder. Where the “beyond reasonable doubt” bit kicks in is over the guilt of a particular suspect. Now that means that the visible, tangible evidence about which there can be no doubt whatsoever must be interpreted according to certain rules.
Now what each witness says or claims is not a fact or evidence in the same sense that the fingerprint or the cadaver itself is a fact or evidence. But we need to have real evidence that gives us a number of starting points from which to test these claims of witnesses.
Without some tangible indisputable certain evidence to begin with, claims bear no necessary relation to the real world at all. Merely claiming that a mother was murdered without any evidence that there was a murder at all is gossip, rumour, slander, fiction, fantasy, wishful thinking, paranoia, suspicion, but it is not evidence.
And this is what other (nonbiblical) historians generally understand and how they work. They have primary evidence for Julius Caesar, his nephew Augustus, the Roman empire, the Senate. Coins, epigraphical evidence, archaeological remains. From this indisputable set of absolutely certain evidence we have a starting point for interpreting certain texts as making historical claims. Literary criticism can assist us in sifting out narratives that are fictional from those that are historical. Some claims are “factional” — fiction written in the guise of fact (so Clines). But the starting point that always gives historians some basis for knowing when a text is at least addressing genuine historical events is primary evidence that is tangible, real.
McGrath refers to the study of this tangible and real evidence as “sub-disciplines” of history.
Obviously there are sub-disciplines such as archaeology that must be mentioned alongside the study of texts and historical records. There are likewise scientific methods (such as forensics and radiometric dating) that can be used to aid historical inquiry. All of these, however, can be considered components of, or tools to be put to use in the service of, historical investigation. (pp.8-9)
Here is the central fallacy of the biblical historian. The evidence of archaeology is relegated to a “sub-discipline” that can be “put to use in the service of” what he calls historical inquiry. Not so. Wrong. The only rational and justifiable approach of a genuine historical inquiry is to begin with the hard physical evidence, and then to test the claims of witnesses in the light of that tangible evidence.
This biblical (or at least Jesus- and early Christianity-) historian has it completely backwards.
It was Albright who led this erroneous backwards methodology in the study of the Old Testament. He went looking for archaeological data to be used “in the service of” his interpretation of the Biblical texts. If there was no evidence to come to this service then that was a disappointment, but no reason to doubt the historicity of the text’s claims.
Old Testament historians have since learned, or are well on their way to learning, that this really is backwards. One must begin with an interpretation of the primary evidence, and then make assessments in the light of what can be understood from the primary evidence on if and in what manner written narratives are of relevance.
The content of a claim by a witness is hardly evidence in the same sense as a fingerprint, or archaeological remains.
So when McGrath compares his work as a historian with that of a prosecuting attorney, he is making a false comparison. He is confusing claims of witnesses with genuine real evidence.
If there is no hard physical evidence to begin with at all, then there can be no trial and no business for a prosecuting attorney — or historian — to begin with!
So McGrath’s analogy is false with respect to the approach of mainstream history of Jesus and Christian origins:
The aims of a historian may usefully be compared to those of a prosecuting attorney, and indeed we shall explore this analogy further at many points throughout this book. The question of whether someone is guilty or not guilty can rarely if ever be proved or disproved so thoroughly and so convincingly that new evidence could never change things and lead to an appeal and a different verdict. The attorney aims to prove his case beyond reasonable doubt, based on the evidence available. The historian has a similar task: to set forth what can be known or hypothesized with reasonable certainty, based on whatever evidence there is available that can withstand careful, critical inspection and scrutiny. (pp. 22-23)
This is a false analogy because the historian that McGrath has in mind is not proving anything from evidence. His historian is like a prosecuting attorney trying to prove a case from competing claims but who has no evidence at all to work with, not even a body, not even a birth certificate to prove that the supposed victim ever existed! Mere “claims”. No prosecuting attorney works like that. If they did they would be in Kafka’s Trial where the state conducted the investigation without any evidence of any crime, yet in full certainty of the guilt of the accused. Yet this is how McGrath is saying historians work!
Even in the Alice in Wonderland trial there was the evidence of the stolen tarts that enabled a trial to proceed in the first place. The subsequent evidence bore no relation to the matter, but not even Lewis Carroll could imagine something so silly as having a trial with no starting evidence that could give some confidence that the said tarts really existed and there was a real knave to put on trial:
the Knave was standing before them, in chains, with a soldier on each side to guard him; and near the King was the White Rabbit, with a trumpet in one hand, and a scroll of parchment in the other. In the very middle of the court was a table with a large dish of tarts upon it (Who Stole the Tarts?)
Historians do not treat the content of claims as “evidence” unless there is some external evidence by which to make a reasonable assessment of their authenticity.
Pick the odd one out:
- Bismarck edited or wrote a dispatch of a meeting between the French ambassador and the Emperor of Germany. No historian takes his claims as “evidence” of what happened at the meeting. They are merely claims. Belief that they were “evidence” led to a war. (What the claims are evidence of is Bismarck’s preparedness to lie to start a war.)
- No historian takes the Donation of Constantine as evidence that the emperor gave the Pope the right to rule Rome. It is a forgery. Yet enough people did believe it once as “evidence”.
- No-one since today believes the eyewitness claims of Dictys Cretensis about the Trojan War. Yet in late antiquity and early medieval times many did. (Read the introduction to see all the “criteria for authenticity” being repeated in this work of fiction.)
- Very few historians today take the Biblical claims about the Exodus or the kingdom of Solomon as historical evidence. But it was not long ago when many did.
- Many biblical historians, just like late antiquity readers of Dictys and Albrightian readers of the Old Testament, still treat the gospels as “evidence” of the events they “claim” to narrate.
Of all major ancient historical inquiries, one with some of the least amount of primary evidence might be those that relate to Alexander the Great. Yet historians have reasonable grounds for believing that certain claims about Alexander are about a real historical person. This is because of the evidence of coins, of epigraphy, and such. So although we no longer have any narrative primary sources, we can have some justifiable reason for confidence that the tertiary sources we do have are a distillation of primary historical claims. Examples:
- Greek Epigraphy
- Babylonian Chronicles (follow the links from here to see alternative translations and discussions on dating)
For a discussion of the relation of the late narrative sources and their claimed genealogy back to the era of the primary evidence see “the good sources“. (This is without addressing other generally related archaeological evidence, cities, coins.)
But to take a set of claims someone and study them as if they are history despite
- the absence of any primary evidence to supply any reason to think they address historical events or persons, and
- literary criticism establishing clear links with the motifs, themes, rhetoric, structures of known fictional works, and
- those claims producing such implausible inanities as Jews suddenly turning in large numbers to believe a contemporary who was crucified as a criminal was the “window to God” and deserving of being worshiped alongside God himself
- those claims being anonymous and not being externally witnessed until a century after the supposed events they speak of
is to live in a let’s pretend world of make-believe.
McGrath in the same section writes about biblical historian thus:
And if one wants to assess and evaluate competing claims about the past, then one has to have tools to use and ground rules that are generally agreed upon. The tools in question are the methods of historical study, and they work precisely because they proceed by assessing evidence in a way that, while not capable of being completely unbiased or impartial, can nonetheless be considered fair, and treats all sources and all claims about the past on an equal basis. (p.9-10)
Once again, he confuses “claims” with “evidence”. And his conclusion is false. No historian treats the Alexander Romance “by” Pseudo-Callisthenes on an equal basis with Arrian’s history. That is in part because literary criticism has first say in order to inform the historian what is the nature of the narrative claim we have in hand. But here I am jumping ahead of a future post topic I am drafting. No historian treats (or should treat) primary sources on an equal basis with secondary or tertiary ones. Different rules and different questions apply.
Does this mean, then, that the alternative is to assume a priori that the gospels have no historical basis? Of course not. There is nothing wrong with suspending judgment till we can find evidence (not claims) to help us decide one way or the other.
So McGrath is setting up and demolishing a straw man when he writes of those who do embrace this alternative:
Doubt . . . taken to its extreme, becomes a kind of faith. . . . Extreme unwillingness to believe anything that is not proven can also be viewed as faith that our rational capacities, our senses, our knowledge and understanding are not only adequate, but the only legitimate sources of knowledge. . . . There are many questions that we cannot answer with absolute certainty, and yet we find ourselves willing to accept some things in the absence of absolute proof. (pp.11-12)
Again McGrath is blurring different concepts, and this time he does it to set up a false dilemma. There is nothing “extreme” about being “unwilling to believe anything that is not proven”, or for taking a position that our “only legitimate sources of knowledge” are “our rational capacities, our senses, our knowledge and understanding”. What is wrong or extreme about any of that? None of that implies we must necessarily “believe” all that our sources of knowledge tell us — we can still treat our much of our understanding and knowledge as tentative.
None of that contradicts, as McGrath implies, our “willingness to accept some things in the absence of absolute proof”. Of course everyone must be willing to accept some things in the absence of absolute proof merely to survive. But accepting such things is not the same as “believing” them as a result of a process of investigative inquiry.
It is not extreme to treat the Gospels as a set of claims that cannot be verified as having any historical basis until some evidence is found to help us decide either way. It is circular reasoning to try to find that evidence within the claims themselves. I think that there is external evidence to help us decide either way, but that, also is another post.
But before signing off there is still one more detail worth raising to show the falsity of McGrath’s analogy of the historian with a prosecuting attorney. Before any cross examination begins in a court room there are all sorts of preliminaries to ensure that a witness really is the person they identify themselves as being. Testable details are recorded. Claims are considered worthless without such prior clarification and assurance of their provenance. Yet historians have no idea who wrote the gospels, for whom, when or where. They have the testimony, but would a prosecuting attorney first start with such testimony and then seek to work out the identity of whoever might have given it? Add to this the absence any evidence to show that the presumed victim ever existed . . . .