2010-09-20

The Refreshing Honesty of Jim West

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by Neil Godfrey

Well this is bizarre. I find myself in agreement with a very substantial bulk of a recent article by Jim West in “The Bible and Interpretation”, A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism: From The Chronicler to the Present. Jim West argues that biblical studies of the history of early Christianity are largely circular, following the same flawed methodology that lay at the heart of the Albrightian approach to the history of Israel.

Jim West sums up so much of what I have been attempting to argue for some time now:

Most “histories” of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many historians use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a history which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as historical because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life.” That “history of Jesus’ life” is then utilized to prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s “History of Israel” or Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus” to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available)- but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.

What can I say? Will Crossley, McGrath and others tell Jim this is “bloody weird” stuff and arguing “like a creationist”? It’s what Thomas L. Thompson has said, and Robert M. Price, and I have quoted the same understanding in publications dating back a century to E. Schwartz and Albert Schweitzer. It is where biblical historians differ from nonbiblical historians.

So what’s the catch?

None that I can find. The catch is all on the side of the historical Jesus scholars. The gospel authors were not interested in historical reconstruction. They were only interested in theology. Scholars who attempt to learn “what”, “when” and “how” of the Gospel narratives are asking the wrong questions of the Gospels. Their authors had no interest in such questions. The same was true of Paul.

Not that Jim West and I are now sitting on the same side of the fence. Not at all. He is a theologian and a Christian believer and I am far from being either of those. We have a similar understanding of the nature of the Bible. It is a theological narrative from Genesis to Revelation. Jim West understands the implications of this more clearly than some scholars, it would seem.

I do differ on some of Jim’s points in this article, but they have more to do with perspective than the essential substance of what he writes.

Jim defines minimalism like this:

“Minimalism” is the supposition that the biblical text cannot rightly or honestly be mined for historical reconstructions of ancient Israel or earliest Christianity. The underlying assumption here is that the biblical text is not historically oriented. That is to say, the purpose of the Bible is not to offer 21st century historians fodder for their reconstructive mills; it is to speak theologically to ancient (and I would also say, modern) communities of faith.

I think what has been branded “minimalism” by critics is really a methodology, an approach to the evidence, primary and secondary, archaeological and biblical. What Jim here defines as minimalism is really the conclusion that is reached as a result of following that methodology. The methodology is essentially the study of a region or era by applying normative methods to the primary (archaeological) evidence and interpreting the biblical literature in the light of that primary evidence. The alternative, “maximalism”, has been more or less to reverse this process and to begin with the assumption of the historicity core of the biblical narrative, and so interpret the archaeological evidence through that narrative.

But that’s academic for the purposes of this post, since Jim is the one making the point and he clarifies the definition he hangs it on.

A more significant disagreement between us arises when he writes:

Do points one [the one about circular methodology] and two [the vain reliance on the bible as history] imply, as some souls would have us believe, that there really was no historical Jesus or ancient Israel? μὴ γένοιτο! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; absence of evidence is evidence of absolutely nothing at all. What points one and two illustrate is that the Bible as Bible cannot be used for grandiose historical projects: nothing more, and nothing less. Something happened. We just aren’t in a position to say what. Not historically.

Absence of evidence is at an abstract logical level “evidence of absolutely nothing at all.” But that is not necessarily the way it works in historical and scientific inquiries. The absence of evidence for a Jewish world conspiracy as claimed by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is evidence that that publication is a false propaganda anti-semitic tract. The absence of evidence for alien involvement in the construction of the pyramids is significant. The absence of evidence for rabbits in pre-cambrian rocks is vitally significant for the case for evolution. Doherty is quite right when he says that an argument from silence is significant in certain circumstances:

How compelling to the writer would the subject have been? . . . .

[T]he more we have reason to expect that something would be mentioned and yet it is not, the more we are invited to conclude from the silence that the subject is not known to the writer. . . .

If that strange and unexpected silence extends to many different writers and many documents, indeed to all writers and documents available from that period, if it extends to a multitude of elements on the subject, the greater becomes the evidential force of that silence. If the silence covers every single element, the conclusions to be drawn become compelling.

Doherty uses an analogy to demonstrate when an argument from silence is clearly valid. If the family of a deceased man claimed he won the lottery, yet there was no record of that win, no large entry in his bank statements, no mention of it in his diary or any of his correspondence, no memory of a spending spree, and if on his deathbed he told his family that he never had a break in his life, then the argument from silence is compelling. We can be confident that the claim of his lottery win is mistaken.

But what if we could go further and see that the way the writers speak of certain things virtually excludes any room or note for the subject in question? In other words, we not only have a negative silence, we have filling it, occupying its space, a positive picture which is sufficient in itself a picture which by its very nature precludes the things it is silent on. In that case, logic would compel us to postulate that the subject, in these writers’ minds and experience, could not have existed. (p. 26 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man)

So Jim West, being a man of faith, begins with the assumption that the Bible is nonetheless talking about “something that happened”. If scholars cannot ask “what”, “when” and “how”, they can nonetheless ask “why” and “who”.

The refreshing thing about Jim’s approach is that he has a much clearer understanding of where he stands and why in regards to questions of historicity and the Bible than some other biblical historians.

At least he acknowledges, or so it seems to me, that his belief that the Bible testifies to “something that happened” is a matter of faith.

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20 Comments

  • 2010-09-20 14:47:55 UTC - 14:47 | Permalink

    I found that rather refreshing. However, I can’t buy into West’s conclusion that the Chronicler was the first minimalist. The author of Chronicles simply had a different definition of history. For many people even today and especially in my country (the US) the purpose of history is to tell the noble story of one’s nation. Whether it’s objectively true or not is immaterial. For the Chronicler and the modern pious liars who write text books that please Texas school boards, history is supposed to (1) show the right factions in the right light, (2) blame all ills — past, present, and future — on the sins of hated factions, and (3) provide an edifying story for the young. It’s a propaganda tool, not some disinterested scholarly endeavor.

    Minimalists, on the other hand, do care about the truth. It’s just that they don’t tolerate the notion that the Bible is different from any other ancient religious tract. It can’t be given special status and treated as primary evidence.

    And I’m not sure that the early church fathers who hammered out the Nicene Creed would agree with Jim that “what,” “when,” and “how” didn’t matter. But that’s another rant.

  • 2010-09-20 15:30:00 UTC - 15:30 | Permalink

    Agree, Jim’s definition is not kosher. So his idiosyncratic use of the word that follows will leave his post high and dry as a curious oddity for mosst scholars, I imagine. Did Churchill say something about people once in a while stumbling over the truth only to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and continue on their way as if nothing had ever happened.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-09-20 16:05:47 UTC - 16:05 | Permalink

    James Crossley has just responded , paraphrasing James Allison ‘Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.’

    So Washington did not chop down that cherry tree, but we can glean from the story the true sense that Washington was an honest man.

    • 2010-09-20 19:12:45 UTC - 19:12 | Permalink

      Where is this response? Could not see it on Jim West’s or the Sheffield blog. A link?

      • Steven Carr
        2010-09-20 20:34:10 UTC - 20:34 | Permalink

        It is not a response as such, but it is a remarkably apposite reminder of what West criticises.

        It is at the http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/

        • 2010-09-20 21:54:57 UTC - 21:54 | Permalink

          Ah, James McGrath, not Crossley. Thanks

          http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2010/09/review-of-dale-allison-constructing.html

          McGrath’s helpful response to your query is noted, too, and his by now all too predictable way of saying you are the one scoffing when a quick perusal will show it is JM who is the primary scoffer, usually laced with a disingenuousness befitting a Christian scholar.

          Comparing the two prayers descriptions, the one in Hebrews 5 and the other in Gethsemane, I think the real difference is in what the two are each praying for.

          Hebrews 5 is a prayer asking to one who can save him “ek” or “out of” death. We can understand that this was heard when the resurrection happened.

          Gethsamene is a prayer asking to avoid death in the first place. This was not heard — as is the implication of the resigned acceptance of “okay, if you don’t hear my special personal request, then I will accept whatever.”

          But I suppose there is enough wiggle room here (especially with certain silences) for an implied harmonization so long as one sticks to decontextualized verses and assumes a priori a “common tradition”.

          But McGrath’s review was interesting in its indication of what he means by using ‘historical tools’. He speaks about “cross cultural studies” and “research into memory” — very sophisticated tools requiring a lot of study — and then proceeds to apply them to the Chronicles of Narnia.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-09-20 16:08:14 UTC - 16:08 | Permalink

    More importantly, mainstream historian scholars should read stories of Washington chopping down that cherry true and use them as evidence about the character of Washington, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

    That is what true scholarship involves.

    People who don’t do that kind of scholarship are basically wacky creationist nutjobs.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-09-20 16:17:50 UTC - 16:17 | Permalink

    My apologies, that should be ‘Dale Allison’.

    The book James Crossley is reviewing seems awful in its methodology.

    Is this really an echo of Gethsemane ‘For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”‘

    Allison claims on page 418 that because Mark uses Abba only once, Paul must be referring to Gethsemane traditions.

    And the urgency of Paul saying ‘cry’, suits the description of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

    WTF?

    This is just garbage. There is no logic here at all.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-09-20 16:24:47 UTC - 16:24 | Permalink

    Jesus prayers to be saved from death are heard (Hebrews 5, which Allison cites as referring to Gethsemane).

    But Jesus’s prayer was not ‘heard’. The cup was not taken away from him.

    How can Allison claim that Hebrews 5 is about Gethsemane when it claims that Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death and his prayer was heard.

    When Mark has Jesus praying to be saved from death and realising that his prayer was futile?

    Just where is the primary data?

    All Allison is doing is matching up adjectives in a literary analysis ‘cry’, ‘distressed’, ‘agitated’, and claiming he is an historian.

    • 2010-09-20 19:14:59 UTC - 19:14 | Permalink

      This reminds me of the proof-texting of fundamentalists and cultists. The bible is like a jig-saw puzzle they are told — here a little, there a little — and the task of the spiritually discerning is to know how to find keywords that tie the said cult’s or church’s doctrines together across the many verses of the 66 books.

      Example, if we read the word “locusts” in Revelation, and the word “locusts” in Joel where it referred to Assyrian troops, then we concluded that Revelation was speaking of the Assyrian armies. And other keyword links suggested to us that the Assyrians were now the modern-day Germans.

      Is the Dale Allison/James Crossley scholarship a more refined version of this sort of nonsense?

  • mcduff
    2010-09-20 17:13:56 UTC - 17:13 | Permalink

    Steven Carr

    A somewhat ironic choice of analogies.

    Its the same one chosen by I reckon it was Bart Ehrman in one of his early books to distinguish between historical truth and, I dunno cos I never followed the logic or lack of, essential truth or some such concept.
    Whoever the writer was, and I’m fairly confident it was Bart, has his children ask him if it is true that Washington did chop the cherry tree down and daddy says that whilst it is true that the incident never happened it is still true because it records an essential truth about the nature of Washington, his honesty.
    Or something like that.

    Maybe someone can recall the precise book/author/logic?

    • pearl
      2010-09-20 21:42:15 UTC - 21:42 | Permalink

      Yes. McDuff, that would be Ehrman’s Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pp. 30-31.

    • 2010-09-21 00:56:53 UTC - 00:56 | Permalink

      The difference is that we have sufficient primary source material to know that Washington was in fact an honest man, or was viewed as such by his contemporaries.

      On the other hand, we also have sufficient primary source material to know that General James Longstreet was a very good general even though other ex-Confederates portrayed him as incompetent in the years after the Civil War after he cooperated with reconstruction and criticized Robert E. Lee.

      The problem in the case of Jesus is that we have no primary sources with which to determine which fabrications were intended to capture his true character and which were intended to serve the propaganda purposes of the fabricator.

  • Bill Warrant
    2010-09-20 17:18:26 UTC - 17:18 | Permalink

    Perhaps the catch is that Jim West citicizes historical studies of the Bible, because more often than not they undermine the authority of scripture. Sola Scripura allows one to ignore historical issues.

  • mcduff
    2010-09-21 02:54:28 UTC - 02:54 | Permalink

    Yes Vinny, the real problem with ‘Jesus’ is that we have no primary sources to determine that there was a true character at all.
    All may have been, after all much is clearly and transparently so, fabrications which clearly serve the propaganda purposes of the fabricators.
    So we have no grounds or evidence to presume that there is ‘something’ or someone behind the fabrications, there is no reason to presume there was any character at all, except of course, one that that was fictional or mythical.
    Unlike Washington there is nothing left outside the anonymous stories and propaganda.
    No substance.

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