by Neil Godfrey
In response to my post in which I cited the Game of Avoidance as one played by some HJ scholars in relation to mythicist arguments, one such scholar has posted a series of comments with each one ironically avoiding my argument. Irony seems to be lost on some people.
So when challenged to address my statements on nonbiblical historical methodologies, the same biblical historian chose to avoid my argument completely and respond by going back to his own blog and posting up a discussion and link to a Wikipedia article titled Historical Method.
Aside on the insulting manner and false accusations of the scholar: The same gentleman and scholar also took the pains to explain how respectful he has been in his exchanges with me — (calling me a pretender, a bait-and-switcher, ignorant of what I am talking about or attempting to address, selectively cherry-picking supporting sources, and of complaining about things I have never uttered anywhere, all fall within the ambit of “respectful” dialogue in his view) — proceeded to insult me and anyone else who argues for a mythicist view as deserving to be ignored and being one with young-earth creationists. He also proceeded to infer that I am unaware of religious conservatives complaining about secularization of biblical studies and implies that I argue that nothing but religious dogma keeps mythicism from gaining a foothold in mainstream biblical studies. Of course he provides no evidence for these views he attributes to me because he will not find them. He will find in my blog several posts that belie his charges if he cares to look or ask.
So what to make of the Wikipedia article to which he refers and which he seems to claim fully supports the methodology of HJ historians as being just like that found in any other field of history?
Firstly, one cannot avoid noting the irony of the scholar’s having poo-poohed me in the past for referencing Wikipedia. His post comments make it clear he feels a little of the irony here. So it seems that a sense of irony is not totally lost on him.
Well, the reason I so often link to Wikipedia is because I do not share the cynicism about it that I sometimes encounter, even from those who like to boast how web-savvy they are. I’ve even been a donor. Research that was published in Nature in 2005 showed that it is comparable in accuracy and thoroughness with Encyclopedia Britannica. There were round about the same number of mistakes in each. Wikipedia responded by correcting its mistakes. EB, on the other hand, responded with a furious rebuttal and even threatened to sue Nature or the authors of the research. But Nature published a pretty strong rebuttal.
Anyone interested who missed this study can follow it up:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html (and see related links)
I don’t think Wikipedia is any worse than EB. One can always see the history of the articles, who is doing the editing and the reasons for changes, and check up on the biases that creep in to the more controversial articles, etc. But the point is not that Wikipedia is to be consulted as “an authority”. It is a useful reference, and hopefully in most instances accurate enough to be authoritative as far as it goes. But the same rules apply as have always applied with any encyclopedia. No-one ought to rely on them as their only or absolute final authority for information. They are a helpful resource. A good starting point for many topics.
Newly discovered material by our good doctor?
The Wikipedia article seems to have been newly discovered by this scholar who seems to have been at a loss to know how to respond to my discussions contrasting NT history with nonbiblical history. Scot McKnight discusses the poverty of historiographical awareness and understanding among New Testament scholars in chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death, and I have discussed in this post McKnight’s points alongside the (nonbiblical) historians he argues NT historians are closest to in philosophy. But for some reason this article — which addresses McKnight’s criticisms and major nonbiblical historians in the development of modern historiography — is flatly ignored. A Wikipedia article is hauled out instead. The Avoidance Game continues.
Another irony emerges here. I happened to have been kind of in the loop when that particular Wikipedia article was first posted, and knew the books it referred to reasonably well. I was at the time dismayed that the whole article took such a narrowly confined and antiquated selection of materials on historical method — and reading on you will soon see why — but resigned myself to accepting it for what it was. (One of those responsible for the early days of that Wikipedia article at the time was open to the Christ myth view too, which disappointed me as far as approach to method went.) Which leads to the next section of this post . . . .
The answer to the doctor’s question about the Wikipedia article
Is there anything in the method outlined there (or better yet in the books cited if readers know them well or have time to consult them) that is not in keeping with the practices of historians working on the historical figure of Jesus? Or is there any point at which this survey and summary (or the method set forth in the sources the article cites) is at odds with what most historians do?
Answer to question one: Yes
Answer to question two: Yes
Once again McGrath has unfortunately only managed to demonstrate Scot McKnight’s point about many NT historians not having a basic knowledge of historiography outside their own field.
Another aside: I say “once again” because in earlier exchanges he offered to take time to ask his nonbiblical historian colleagues at Butler about their methods to see if they were any different from what he was doing, or something to that effect. He returned to announce that one of the historians had said “History is an art.” Had he any 101 awareness of the nature of secular historiography as it has developed since the nineteenth century up to today, he would have recognized that this is the famous maxim of one sometimes called the “father” of modern history, Leopold von Ranke. What he meant by this was not what McGrath appeared to understand by the expression. It means that the way a historian imposes or weaves a narrative out of the data he or she has is the real art of the historian.
And this is from a scholar who insultingly infers others do not know or understand the nature of history.
I would also advise McGrath to read some of the texts cited in that Wikipedia article for himself. He says he has “read or consulted” a “couple” of them and is confident enough to suggest they contain nothing that is at odds with the way modern historians — biblical and nonbiblical — do business.
If McGrath was more of a gentleman and not so insulting I would take time to point out to him which of the titles cited there include arguments that reports of miracles — biblical miracles — are reasonable historical evidence. Not just belief in miracles, but among the Wikipedia sources it is argued that it is “scientific” to believe in biblical miracles. I will leave this observation as a lesson to him to check his sources before making public pronouncements about them and insulting others he likes to think don’t know much of what they are talking about.
Further, the sources cited in this Wikipedia article include arguments that it is proven beyond doubt that St Peter was martyred and buried in Rome.
One can begin to understand my dismay at the nature of the texts used as the basis of this Wikipedia article.
Our good scholar would have been wiser to have persisted with his contemptuous dismissal of Wikipedia in this instance.
The positive side
Some of the references also insist on the priority of textual criticism being applied to narratives before accepting them as containing any historical value. After getting around to reading and consulting more than a couple of the books cited, McGrath might like to issue a revised edition of The Burial of Jesus in which he insists that textual criticism has next to nix to do with historical inquiry into what lies “behind” the text.
Again, I encourage anyone interested to read the books from which the article draws for understanding the context of the rubrics or dot-points in the article. Note the distinctions made between primary and secondary sources.
Aside on primary and secondary sources: Biblical scholars often seem to use “primary source” to refer to the gospels or epistles of Paul. I don’t mind what terms people use so long as they make their definitions clear and are consistent. But one will find on a detailed reading of various of those references the distinction between a primary source or evidence in the sense of something contemporary with the event under investigation, and a secondary source or evidence that is later. In this sense the gospels are not primary sources for Jesus, because they are not contemporary with Jesus or written by eyewitnesses. Other historians go further and define a primary source as one that is physically situated in the time and place under investigation. This is how I have used the term most often. Thus a letter by George Washington is a primary source or primary evidence for a history of George Washington. But if the letter mentions an event that happened a generation earlier, it is not a primary source or piece of primary evidence for that event.
In nearly every case where those books discuss “evidence” and “sources” as used by the historian they are referring to primary sources, primary documents or primary evidence. When they speak of assessing the value of secondary sources they always specify strict conditions by which to judge their value, and these conditions relate at some point to primary evidence.
This is where HJ historians break company with other historians. Other historians work with the primary evidence or sources that make up the factual data that needs to be pieced together into some explanatory narrative (an art). HJ historians are still struggling to find some facts to begin with. Did Jesus do anything at the Temple or not? Was he a teacher or a healer or neither or both? Was he a rabbi or a rebel? There are no facts to work with. Only a narrative and conceptual tools (e.g. criteriology) to subjectively assess plausibility of this or that detail fitting (or fitting too well and thus disqualifying itself) into the plot of that narrative. Well, that might be a slight oversimplification, but only slightly.
When oral tradition is discussed, the rules are even more stringent. One of the books cited says an event recorded a mere 20 years after the supposed event and with a partisan intent is untrustworthy and dismissible. So much for the mainstream paradigm regarding the oral traditions behind the gospels! But again, I will leave the scholar to do his own homework on this since he has not been very nice with his insulting jibes that people such as myself don’t know what we are talking about.
McGrath could have saved himself the embarrassment of appealing to this Wikipedia article and encouraging readers to go even further to consult the books the article referenced by simply being open to the grandmotherly truisms that are at the heart of nonbiblical historical inquiry: don’t believe every story you are told till you find some reliable independent corroboration for it. The story might be true at some level, but it is not wise to assume it is without some (primary) evidence. I have quoted the historians — biblical and nonbiblical — who have declared this simple point so often it is tedious to repeat the quotations here. (Many of them are found in my post of 24/04/2010 anyway.)
Now there are cases where all we have is secondary evidence and which nonetheless do give us good reasons for accepting the historicity of certain events and people, but such cases are rare and meet conditions not met by the gospels (e.g. genuinely independent corroboration, known provenance and authorship, positive text critical evaluations).
But this is not the place to repeat my arguments that I have made many times and from various perspectives. I have summed up the problem of HJ historical studies in my post Games HJ Scholars Play, and have linked in comments there, and again 2 paras above in this post, my main post dealing with the issues. To date the only response to those has been avoidance and the above-discussed Wikipedia article.