Edited conclusion and added the last paragraph since first posting this.
This is not about mythicism versus the historicity of Jesus. It makes no difference to me if Jesus was a revolutionary or a rabbi, lived 100 b.c.e., 30 c.e. or was philosophical-theological construct. All of that is completely irrelevant for assessing the validity of the fundamentals of how historians [ideally/should] work with sources. From what I have read of mythicist literature I think that few mythicists are any more informed of the basics of how a historian ought to approach sources than are most theologians and other historical Jesus scholars. Theologians have taken the lead in biblical studies and others approaching this field have fallen in step with the methods they have bequeathed.
Unfortunately theologians generally have the most to lose ideologically from any change in their methods and so are likely to be the most antagonistic to any criticism of their methods that comes from outside their guild. Not that valid historical methods will necessarily mean the demise of the historicity of Jesus. Far from it! But I do believe that valid historical methods will at least open up the question to potentially greater respectability; they will also make greater intellectual demands on theologians to justify their hypotheses and assumptions. Maybe there lies the great fear.
Recently I have posted a few extracts from historians giving basic advice on how historians should approach their sources. “From Reliable Sources” by Howell and Prevenier looks primarily (not exclusively) at written sources and Vansina is an authority on history derived from oral sources. Since I placed these quotations beside those of a theologian who asserts strenuously (though consistently with zero supporting evidence) that theologians do just what other mainstream historians do, I was accused of misrepresenting both the historians’ works I quoted and his own words that I quoted in full. It was even suggested I had not even read the books along with the sly hint that since I was a “lowly librarian” I was not qualified to quote anyone or comment on an academic question anyway. Such are the cerebral (intestinal?) responses from those who reluctantly look into a verbal mirror placed before them by one whose otherwise unrelated conclusions they despise (fear?).
The touchstone of all historical interpretation of a source is knowing its provenance. Yet this is the first hurdle historical Jesus scholars crash into. Historical Jesus scholars bypass the basic standards historians normally apply when approaching their sources and rely entirely on circular reasoning to establish what they need to support their hypotheses.
Let’s look again at what are the basics any historian worth his or her salt should first establish in order to know how to interpret a document and understand what sort of information can be validly gleaned from it.
Two caveats to the above, though.
- An increasing number of scholars, no doubt theologians among them, are now embracing valid historical methodology in relation to the Old Testament.
- Further, there are good histories and bad histories, diligent historians and lazy historians. My yardstick in this post for what constitutes good history is taken from works I have discussed in recent posts — an introduction to graduate students about to undertake serious historical research and various editions of an authority on oral history.
Certain Basic Matters
Here is some of what I quoted from Howell and Prevenier in my earlier post:
In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. (p. 43, emphasis mine)
What are some of these basic matters? They explain:
[T]he source must be carefully located in place and time: when was it composed, where, in what country or city, in what social setting, by which individual? Are these apparent “facts” of composition correct? — that is, is the date indicated, let us say, in a letter . . . the date it was actually written? Is the place indicated within the source the actual place of composition? . . . .
[T]he source must be checked for authenticity. Is it what it purports to be . . . Can we tell . . . that the document was not composed where it presents itself as having been composed? . . . .
And again on page 63:
The identifications [of time, place, author] provided by the source itself are . . . often misleading. . . . [S]ometimes authors are deliberately faking a source, sometimes they are disguising the real place and date of issuance.
This is repeated by the oral historian Vansina who points to the common approach historians must use for both written and oral sources that are written down by the researcher:
The task of a historian working with written documents starts when he or she finds or takes up such a document and begins to read it. . . . [T]he classical rules of evidence are straightforward. What is this document both physically and as a message? Is it an original, written by the person who composed it? Is it authentic, truly what it claims to be or is it a forgery? Who wrote it, when, or where? Once the answers to these questions are known an internal analysis of the content can proceed. As long as they are not known one does not know to what any analysis of content they relate. So the analysis of the document itself comes first.
But to historians dealing with oral tradition the situation is very different. Some of these are indeed faced with a piece of writing that claims to be the record of a tradition. The usual questions must be asked, but will refer only to the record not to the tradition itself. In most cases, however, the relationship of the historian to the documents is totally different. He or she did not find the piece of writing, but rather created it. He or she recorded a living tradition. The questions now are: what is the relationship of the text to a particular performance of the tradition involved and what is the relationship of that performance to the tradition as a whole? Only when it is clear how the text stands to the performance and the latter to the tradition can an analysis of the contents of the message begin. This means that the questions of authenticity, originality, authorship, and place and time of composition must be asked at each of these stages. (pp. 33-34, Oral Tradition As History, my emphasis)
Vansina (as referenced in my earlier post) makes it clear that only by means of external controls, that is information based on sources external to the oral source itself (including an intimate knowledge of the people, culture and institutions that are the matrix of the oral source), and that can normally only be acquired by the diligent effort of the researcher. Howell and Prevenier repeat this fact:
Historians can place trust in oral sources only to the extent that they can be verified by means of external evidence of another kind, such as archaeological, linguistic, or cultural. (p. 26)
There is nothing new here, at least not for historians. At least one New Testament scholar was crying out for these basics to be understood and applied by his peers as long ago as 1904:
The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.
It is no different with Christian authors.
This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski, “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.
In other words, how is a historian to know how to read a document like the Gospel of Mark? Especially one like the Gospel of Mark because even its very genre — and genre is generally a guide to the implied intent (one cannot be so confident as to claim it is always a sure guide to real intent) of the author — is debatable? How do we know it was meant to be read literally or symbolically? (Origen at times thought the latter.)
Let’s look at this Gospel a bit more. One of the basics a historian must establish in order to know how to approach a source is its date. But the way Mark is dated by most theologians is entirely circular. They rely entirely on internal referents within the Gospels narrative itself. Yet look again at those basics listed by the advisers of historians:
The identifications [of time, place, author] provided by the source itself are . . . often misleading. . . . [S]ometimes authors are deliberately faking a source, sometimes they are disguising the real place and date of issuance. . . .
The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication . . . . It is no different with Christian authors.
When theology is confused with history
The Hitler Diaries looked for all the world like they were written in the 1940s. Neo-Babylonian scribes doctored “early” chronicles in order to fill a gap between the earliest period of Mesopotamian history and the rise of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty (Van Seters, 2009). The late first or early second century novel Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton was sprinkled with a mix of historical and fictional persons for the sake of verisimilitude. The narrative in Mark sets Jesus in the time of Pilate and scholars interpret Mark 13 as providing evidence the Gospel was composed around the year 70. But all of this is based entirely on the narrative within the Gospel itself. What controls are there to assure the historian that these referents do indeed relate to external realities? Yes we have the external testimonies and archaeological evidence of a conquest of Jerusalem. Two conquests, actually, separated by 60 years. If the narrative is suggestive that Jerusalem had not yet fallen, but was about to, or that it had just fallen and people were awaiting the imminent return of Jesus, we need to ask if we have any controls or reason to believe that this was indeed the reality of the social setting of the composition of the Gospel or whether this was an intentional narrative design that takes on a different meaning in another social and theological-literary context or even in the context of the second destruction of Jerusalem. Only by external controls can the historian know how to assess the self-testimonies of documents.
Some signs of hope from the neighbours
I mentioned above that some Old Testament scholars have moved on from the circularity that once bedeviled their field. Recently I posted some basics on how to date a document scientifically by one of the leaders in that development. New Testament scholars have not yet begun to move in this direction with respect to the canonical literature. The epistles of Paul are taken at face value, despite warnings being issued at least since 1904 and despite Rosenmeyer informing scholars that epistolary fictions were a popular and formally taught art-form of the time. I am not saying that Paul’s epistles are not genuine. I think they are genuine and from the mid first century but the question is by no means fatuous. My reasons for thinking they are genuine do not rely on the self-testimony of the letters themselves, however. That is naivety that has no place in the lessons of either Howell and Prevenier or Vansina. And though I think the evidence for authenticity outweighs any other, the arguments for a second century provenance are nonetheless valid because they are in fact a “scientific dating” as outlined in the link in the first sentence of this paragraph. That is, the arguments are examples of sound historical methods that begin with the most secure (externally attested) data as the starting point.
Dismissal is easier than reflection and engagement
But all of this is blithely brushed aside as “misrepresentation” by some theologians who mistakenly think they are doing history. Social anthropologist Philippe Wajdenbaum, I suspect, would argue that all they are doing is constructing new versions of the Bible myths (rationalized versions):
The question of the provenance of Mark is a relatively simple one, as long as one does not wish to get caught up in fruitless debates about who the precise author may or may not have been. Is this a work that provides evidence about the views of the same religious phenomenon we learn of through the epistles Paul wrote a decade earlier? Does it show evidence of being involved in a radical revision of what that group believed? Or is it an expression of the same religious movement and its views – not necessarily precisely the views of Paul or anyone else, but part of a common phenomenon with identifiable shared beliefs and practices? (McGrath)
In another comment the same theologian said that “Christianity” was the provenance as if that’s all we need to know — and as if ancient Christianity can only mean one thing!
How can we answer those questions with any degree of objective confidence (without circular argument) without first knowing something of the culture, interests, beliefs of the group or person from which the Gospel was produced? And how can we know where to look for that group unless we have some idea of the time period they occupied? The flippancy quoted here is totally reliant upon a naive and tendentious reading of the texts themselves. It assumes the texts can be interpreted and understood at their face value as seen through the eyes of the cultural and religious traditions of the scholars. Sure those scholars study to grasp what they can of “original meanings” of certain words and concepts, but all of those findings are contextualized within the fundamental hypothesis of Christian origins that is nothing more than a distilled or slightly modified version of the religious myth itself. For most this hypothesis is built around the “great man” view of history; for others the same hypothesis is structured around economic and social causes, etc. External controls are not considered necessary because the self-testimony of the texts is so supportive of all they believe about them and Christian origins to begin with.
That is, genuine historical inquiry, taking a step outside our cultural heritage and belief systems for a moment and applying rigorous historical methods in our approach to source documents, is not considered necessary. Those who do are often enough ridiculed. So the institutional pressure to continue with the tail-chasing status quo continues.
The above was my initial comment and in hindsight I see I was confusing two different concepts at the time. Dr McGrath of course is assuming in his questions that everything points to a historicity of the Christian myth — whether Mark’s or Paul’s — and it was on that understanding that I made my above remarks. But more importantly, provenance is not about whether two texts overlap in their concepts, beliefs, etc. but how we are to interpret the contents of those narratives, whether expressed in epistles or novels. What I have argued is that given that we cannot know provenance all that we can therefore do legitimately is compare the texts as literature and theologies. From there we can understand something — even if very limited — of the thought world, the beliefs, expressed in those texts. But we cannot know from this whether or not the self-witnesses of a text is true or how the authors always understood or meant it. Many studies address the difference between implied and real narrator/author, for example. The mere existence of a narrative in a community is not evidence that the narrative has a genuine historical factness about it. That’s why external attestation and provenance are essential for knowing how to interpret texts and to gain some idea of what motivated or interested the (real, not implied) authors and why they wrote as they did.