In online discussions and posts about “historical method” in connection with the study of Jesus and early Christian history I often come encounter confusion about what history really is. New Testament scholar Scot McKnight notes that this confusion begins with many biblical scholars themselves:
In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p. 20, Jesus and His Death)
An uninformed view of history is that it is “just one damned thing after another.” But a list of events and dates is really more like a chronicle or almanac. If one’s experience of history stopped in early high school then it is understandable for one to think this sums up what history is all about.
Who or what is a fact of history?
My introduction to some sort of philosophy of history was E. H. Carr’s What Is History? He startled me as an undergraduate by thinking to ask “What is a historical fact?” I had always taken “historical facts” for granted and it had never crossed my mind that there could be a question about it.
And I think a number of New Testament scholars who think they are doing history when they research and write about the historical Jesus would profit from grappling with the question.
Carr himself pointed to the example of a gingerbread vendor at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850 who was kicked to death by an angry mob. It had been recorded by an eyewitness but up till a certain time Carr had never seen it used by any historian. Was that a historical fact?
Most of us might say “yes” if it really did happen, because we tend to think of anything that has truly happened as “history”. Fair enough. But what about the next example.
Socrates is reputed to have said, “I know I don’t know anything”. But suspect the same words or sentiment has been expressed many times before and since that moment by others. Was one occasion of the saying a historical fact and not the others? But it was Plato who wrote the saying attributing it to Socrates, and it is only known to us as a lesson from Plato about Plato’s own teachings. So if it is a historical fact, whose fact is it? How do we know Plato did not just make up the words as part of his own argument and creatively attribute them to Socrates?
So is it really a historical fact that Socrates said “I know I know nothing” or is it the historical fact that Plato said Socrates said “I know I know nothing”?
But the most important question really, here, for the philosophers and practitioners of history is:
Does it make any difference if Socrates really did say it and Plato copied his words, or if Plato made up the words and attributed them to Socrates?
What difference can the answer possibly make to the historian of ideas?
I think most historians would answer that they don’t care. It makes no difference to their studies of Socrates and Plato and Greek philosophy in general.
Ditto even for historical figures for which we have a lot of evidence. Was Suetonius reporting true fact when he declared that Julius Caesar had inscribed the words “Veni Vidi Vici”? Who cares? It’s a great line. But it doesn’t make any difference as far as historians are concerned.
Now a handful of scholars have even asked if Socrates himself was a literary invention. Let’s suppose for a moment that that were true and Socrates was not a historical person. What difference would it make to the historian of ideas?
It would make no difference at all to her understanding of Plato’s dialogues or what we know as the Socratic method of argument. It would make no difference to our understanding of Greek philosophy or the overall historical origins of Plato’s contribution and influence.
One might even say it does not matter if Socrates existed, or not, as far as the historian of ideas is concerned, because everything in the sources relating to Socrates is all there in the sources for the philosophical ideas under historical investigation. It doesn’t really matter if Socrates was a literary invention of Plato’s and never existed as far as the ideas historian is concerned.
The historical interest, even the historical fact as we have it, is in Plato’s use of the words he attributes to Socrates. It makes no difference to that historian if Socrates really in fact said the words or not, nor even if Socrates was a literary fabrication.
Now I happen to think the probability is on the side of Socrates having been a historical person. From what I understand of the evidence I am quite prepared to accept his historical reality. But it is really a non-issue. The real issue is the nature, influence, etc of Greek philosophical ideas.
It is the same with many persons in the ancient sources. Rabbinical literature has attributed various teachings to rabbis of the first century, and we can only assume they were real historical persons. But again, what difference does it make if their names were later inventions?
Especially when historians explore the history of ideas they run across many instances where names and sayings are of this nature.
So what do historians care about?
Mostly they care about explaining the facts. That means they try to figure out the best way to weave the facts into narratives that have some relevance for modern audiences. (It is this act of constructing a narrative out of a manageable selection of facts from a vast range of data and information that is sometimes called the “art of history”.)
There are many things in the ancient literature that are “facts” in the sense that they are real names and events described, but there is absolutely no way a modern historian can ever determine if it is a fact. What about some of the other characters used in dialogue with Socrates by Plato? Are they all historical, too? We know some are. But all? How could we possibly know?
So what are the facts and how can we know?
It is an indisputable fact that the Apology by Plato has Socrates saying “I know I know nothing”. That is the fact that historians of ideas work with.
What about Hillel? It is a fact that the name appears in rabbinical writings and is said to be the source of various sayings. That is the fact that historians work with. The context (including genre of the sources) in which he appears informs us that authors expected his name to be understood as an authority. Was he a literary creation or did he really go back to the first century? In other words, was he an eponymous figure for a particular school of thought? I simply don’t know. Others more familiar with the evidence may have more to offer here. But I’m quite prepared to accept he was “historical” if that’s what most specialists in the field say. But does it matter? What is the real historical interest here?
New Testament scholars sometimes ask how we can explain “the fact of the empty tomb“. But the empty tomb is not a fact. What is a fact is that there are narratives in Gospels about an empty tomb. A more meaningful question would be to ask how we might explain someone writing a narrative about an empty tomb.
What of Honi the Circle Drawer we read about in Josephus? Did he really live? Josephus tells us about many people we know from other sources did exist, but he also speaks of other people as true yet we know them to be mythical (e.g. Adam, Moses). Does it really matter if there are a few other names in there that we can’t be sure about either way? Is not what is important the fact that there were stories about such people?
But in this case I am quite prepared to accept the probability that Honi existed (How can anyone be absolutely sure?) for the same reasons I have explained often enough before. Genre and external attestation. We have much external evidence that Josephus writes about real events and real people in his lifetime. We also have the genre of his works. It is genre that informs us of how the author wants us to understand his work. It is not foolproof, since genres can be, and often were, fabricated to deceive readers. I don’t mean this was always malicious deceit. One reason was entertainment. We have many letters from the ancients that appear to be describing real situations, but are in fact written to simply entertain — like soap operas today. Another reason to deceive was to persuade readers that ideas really were inspired by an authority greater than the real author.
But in the case of Josephus we do our literary analysis and we check the external controls and we can conclude with some confidence that he really was writing about events that he believed true and that he wanted to write a genuine enough history that would impress his Roman audience. We can have some confidence that he used sources that would serve this purpose and that therefore characters he speaks of such as Honi the Circle Drawer probably existed.
How can anyone possibly say any more? There are some things that simply do not allow us to be 100% certain — especially in ancient history.
John the Baptist? I don’t know. The Gospels narratives have created a literary John the Baptist out of texts from the Old Testament. The passage in Josephus contradicts the Gospels both in terms of chronology and his teaching. It also breaks the flow of thought in Josephus. How can I know?
And Muhammad? There is a contentious scholarly debate about his historicity for anyone interested in this.
The twelve disciples? Well, I am far from convinced by Meier’s arguments for their historicity. Against Meier’s arguments we have the literary and theological arguments in favour of them being a fabrication.
Judas? No. We have the narrative but a literary analysis of this source demonstrates that Judas is as literary as they come.
Julius Caesar? No doubt. We have primary evidence (by which I mean sources that are physically situated in the time and place of JC — statues, coins, . . .); and multiple independent literary sources whose genre and independence establish with as much certainty as we can get that we are faced with a real historical person. (When it comes to ancient history we can rarely anything other than varying degrees of probability for the lesser names — some are very probable and others we simply can’t know. Those that are very probable are those that appear in the same literary sources that we have reasons — genre and external controls — to believe contain a reasonable amount of genuine history.)
Jesus? Well, we have nothing comparable. I suppose that’s why Albert Schweitzer wrote:
[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)