History for Dummies (and Biblical Scholars)

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by Neil Godfrey

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A biblical scholar earlier this year publicly asked:

Any recommendations on reading about the philosophy and methods of historical research, written by someone with no connection to Biblical studies?

I did provide that professor with a number of suggestions (the post included major figures in the field of twentieth century historiography and readings that would lead to others not discussed in detail in that post), and no doubt he will read them as soon as opportunity permits.

The same biblical scholar in the same public comment demonstrated his eagerness to learn how “history” as practiced by historical Jesus scholars is viewed by historians in nonbiblical areas when he wrote:

I don’t know – I asked a colleague in the history department about methods and the “criteria” used in historical Jesus research, and he basically said that history, once you get beyond the groundwork of trying to date sources, is “an art.”

The meaning and significance of History being an Art

That saying, that history is an art, did not originate with the biblical scholar’s colleague. No doubt the historian who used that expression knew that it originated with Leopold von Ranke, of whom the Wikipedia entry explains:

Leopold von Ranke (21 December 1795 – 23 May 1886) was a German historian, considered one of the founders of modern source-based history. Ranke set the tone for much of later historical writing, introducing such ideas as reliance on primary sources (Empiricism), an emphasis on narrative history and especially international politics (Aussenpolitik).

I have discussed the importance of primary sources in the post linked above (“a number of suggestions”), and the problem this poses for historical Jesus studies. (There are no primary sources – as defined by von Ranke – for historical Jesus studies. Historical Jesus studies must therefore change the rules for historical inquiry, but it hides this fact by calling the process “adapting” historical methods for their unique speciality. Historical Jesus scholars are frantically trying to find “facts” by various criteria that in other historical studies are actually used to analyze known empirical facts, not “find” some!)

But to get back to what is meant by history being an art —

Here is what von Ranke wrote in the 1830s (taken from The Theory and Practice of History, pp.33-34)

History is distinguished from all other sciences in that it is also an art.

History is a science in collecting, finding, penetrating; it is an art because it recreates and portrays that which it has found and recognized. Other sciences are satisfied simply with recording what has been found; history requires the ability to recreate.

As a science, history is related to philosophy, as an art, to poetry. The difference is that, in keeping with their nature, philosophy and poetry move within the realm of the ideal while history has to rely on reality. . . .

History is distinguished from poetry and philosophy not with regard to its capacity but by its given subject matter, which imposes conditions and is subject to empiricism.

And I have no doubt that this is what the historian colleague of the biblical scholar understood by this expression. The “art” of history lies in constructing the story, the narrative, from the sources and historian’s interpretations of them.

This is the basis of much of the philosophical discussion that preoccupies historians about the nature of their discipline. It leads to questions like “What is (historical) truth?” Historians also discuss the philosophical and epistemological issues relating to “What is a (historical) fact?” It is a fact, for example, that in 1850 at Stalybridge Wakes a gingerbread seller was kicked to death by an angry mob. But is that “history”?

Subject to empiricism, and changing the rules

But there is one thing that all the discussions about historical methodology (at least among nonbiblical historians) take for granted: they are dealing first and foremost with primary sources. That is, sources that are physically located within the time and place of the subject of inquiry. This is much easier for historians of modern times because there is such an abundance of primary source material available. This fact enables historians of modern history to make the sorts of investigations and studies that are simply impossible for historians of ancient times for which the same types of evidence is limited. (Ancient historians don’t change the rules the same way historical Jesus “historians” so often do.)

Secondary sources are also used, of course. And they are subject to rigorous analysis to assess their worth as sources of historical information. In the case of “literary” sources, that assessment must necessarily include some form of literary analysis and criticism.

Literary analysis is the gateway

Before one knows how to read a piece of literature, before one can understand how to use it as an historical source, one must first understand what it IS, what is its purpose, what is its function, what is its provenance. And that means studying it as literature.

I recently demonstrated how literary criticism is the prerequisite gateway to historical inquiry with the study by (a good) biblical historian from Sheffield University, David J. A. Clines.

One biblical scholar (whom I won’t embarrass by naming) is on record as insisting (even teaching others!) that literary criticism and analysis have nothing to do with historical inquiry. The former studies the literary qualities of a work, while the latter digs beneath the surface to uncover historical facts. But this understanding is naive in the extreme and simply false. One cannot separate the historical value of a literary document from some level of literary analysis  and criticism. This may be done at a subconscious level, as when one makes certain assumptions about factual significance based on the genre in which the words appear. One will interpret information in a personal diary differently from that found in an official dispatch.

In fact many biblical historians use literary criticism to guide them in deciding what parts of a narrative in the gospels are historical. If a narrative appears to have been copied from another story in the Old Testament, and the narrative arguably fulfils a doctrinal or literary agenda of the author (e.g. the cleansing of the Temple), then some historians (e.g. Mack, Fredriksen) will declare on that literary basis that the narrative is not historical.

To decide that the gospels are of value as historical source material for a particular event at a particular time and place is to have made a literary judgment about them.

Gullibly swallowing the internet

Since posting the names and works of some historians not connected with biblical studies as, in part, a response to the biblical scholar’s public request for these, the same scholar has turned to the internet to attempt to learn about historical methods in nonbiblical areas. Now there is a lot of excellent information on the internet, and much of it is to be found in Wikipedia. A Nature study in 2005 found that Wikipedia was comfortably comparable with the Encyclopedia Britannica. But amateurs and (biblical) scholars alike are well advised to learn how to assess the value of what they read in any source, even Wikipedia. But this is covering ground on which I’ve posted only recently.

Scholars specializing in Divinity and Christology and Science Fiction love this

One thing is certain about the difference between nonbiblical and historical Jesus historians. I am fairly confident that one will never find a statement like the following among serious historians in nonbiblical studies:

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.

(From a scholarly review of a chapter of a book discussing historical methodology)

Scholars who write such circular and fatuous tripe have no right to call themselves “historians”. They are misleading their readers and students if/when they claim to be historians.

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  • Steven Carr
    2010-10-13 15:53:35 UTC - 15:53 | Permalink

    I’m not sure what you are saying Neil.

    Are you claiming there is something wrong with using ‘fabricated material’, admitting it is fabricated and then still saying that it provides the ‘true gist’ of what somebody is about?

    What are Biblical historians supposed to do if they can’t use fabricated material and claim it provides a true sense of the gist of mythicism, ‘no matter how inauthentic’ the details are in the material they have fabricated?

  • 2010-10-14 09:35:23 UTC - 09:35 | Permalink

    Thank you for your question, Steven.

    I have not read the Dale Allison book in question myself, so I can only address the statement as presented by the reviewer. It turns out that I had long naively believed that the reviewer was himself a historian, and I did so because this is how he explicitly describes himself in one of his self-published books for a specifically Christian audience.

    I have since learned that his claim is fraudulent, and that he has no background in history at all. He is, rather, a bachelor of divinity and doctor of christology. He has also been known to express some uncertainty about how we might know if we are living in something like a computer matrix rather than anything “real”.

    So what I think we need to understand here is that the reviewer, being a divine christologist and confused about the nature of the real world, and having specialized in sacred and secular fantasies that at base are ethereal and utterly irrelevant to the real world, is unsurprisingly confused about what his qualifications do enable him to competently address in the real world. We can also understand his confusing other disciplines like history (that are in fact real) being subject to the same woolliness as we have come to associate with things divine and the vagaries of ancient christologies.

    You need to remember we are in a postmodernist era, and if fabricated material has real meanings for one’s faith, then what right do we have to question that reality?

    You also need to understand that the history of HJ studies has left us with a wealth of positive findings about who Jesus really was. We now can select from a rich smorgasbord of options: he was a revolutionary, a magician, a healer, a teacher, a rabbi, a mystic, a cynic sage, an apocalyptic prophet, rich, poor, carpenter, tinker, candlestick maker. The beauty of embracing fabricated material enables the historian to find material that supports whatever one of the Jesus identity options he personally finds meaningful. It is fabricated, yes, but you need to understand that even myths are “true” in the deepest sense of that word, not in the shallow externals of empiricism and logic. This is the poverty of mythicism. Mythicists think a myth is simply something that his not real.

    I am looking forward to a very healthy future of Historical Jesus studies and the contributions divines and christologists, and their singling out of fabricated (meaningfully true) material, as they uniquely adapt the rigours of historical methodology to advance contemporary understanding of the mysteries the man behind our faith.

  • Pingback: History as Science, not only Art. (History for dummies, 2) « Vridar

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