Theologians Reject Basics of History: A Way Forward

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by Neil Godfrey

Reproduction of a coloured copperplate engraving of the Czech edition of a book by German theologian and historian Heinrich Bünting

From Czech Parliament: I can forgive a historian cum theologian who makes Prague the centre of the world

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.

  1. An increasing number of scholars, no doubt theologians among them, are now embracing valid historical methodology in relation to the Old Testament.
  2. 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.

  • 2012-01-20 01:09:46 UTC - 01:09 | Permalink

    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)

    I actually appreciated this comment by McGrath very much because it seems to me that these are very relevant questions. I was also pleased with my response to these questions. “It seems to me that there are identifiable shared beliefs and practices. However, the focus on the pre-crucifixion life and ministry of Jesus is certainly a dramatic difference between Mark and Paul. Couldn’t that be some evidence of a radical revision? I don’t think we have enough pieces of the puzzle to know whether it was or not.” I wish that McGrath had responded.

    I think that the reason I am agnostic about a historical Jesus is because I cannot see any way for the historian to eliminate the possibility that the shift in focus from Paul’s exalted heavenly Christ who manifests himself through revelation and appearances to Mark’s pre-crucifixion Jesus who teaches and works miracles actually represents revision rather than continuity.

    BTW, I also appreciated McGrath’s unprompted differentiation of agnosticism and mythicism.

    • 2012-01-20 05:08:34 UTC - 05:08 | Permalink

      The questions are so vague that all they are asking is “Is Mark a Christian document?” He is merely finding new ways to re-word his initial claim that their provenance is “Christianity” as if that answers everything. The questions leave wide open the matter of purpose and interests of whoever produced Mark. The same questions would be answered in the affirmative if it turned out that Paul and Mark were both second century products or if Paul’s letters were written after Mark or if both Paul and Mark were addressing mystical symbols or if Paul’s letters were Marcionite forgeries . . .

      (Subsequently changed the wording of the above from “same questions would apply” to “same questions would be answered in the affirmative”)

      • 2012-01-20 05:45:29 UTC - 05:45 | Permalink


        I appreciate your skepticism, but I think that the questions frame some very important issues. Not whether Mark is a Christian document, but whether Mark reflects the same basic understanding of Christianity as Paul. To get at that we have to let each stand on its own and consider both the differences and the similarities before considering the possible explanations. The problem with these discussion is that both sides believe they already know how the writings are connected and they simply point to the similarities which they believe demonstrate that connection.

        • 2012-01-20 06:22:18 UTC - 06:22 | Permalink

          I think I understand your point a bit better and I have not been clear about distinguishing between studying the texts to compare their ideologies or theologies and knowing how to use their contents as sources for historical information. It doesn’t matter if the texts are mid first or late second century in order to do this.

          What I have argued is that we should — it is in fact all we can legitimately do — study such texts for their ideas and compare and study the ideas and concepts expressed. This means treating them as literary narratives — that is, imputing nothing more into them than they clearly are.

          The problem I mean to address is whether it is legitimate to take a text’s testimony as a pointer to a literal situation in history. This is where the circularity kicks in. As McG himself is fond of saying, just because someone says it’s so doesn’t mean it really is so. Biblical scholars for long assumed the “obvious” about the OT — that it told the history of ancient Israel. By shifting to using normative historical methods more scholars are now seeing that there is no evidence for this (apart from the self-witness of the texts themselves). But that “self-witness” was misinterpreted by scholars because they assumed it was true. (Why would anyone make it up?)

          • 2012-01-20 07:37:29 UTC - 07:37 | Permalink


            I thought that was probably your point, which is why I appreciated your skepticism. I was just trying to come at things from a little different angle.

            • 2012-01-20 08:47:24 UTC - 08:47 | Permalink

              I am too close to all of this at the moment and need a breather and come back to it fresh another time. But I appreciate the exchanges — I do learn something, sometimes only a little I admit, each time and I trust my views have not proved to be static over the years. I’ll be away on vacation in another week in a land where computers should be a sin. Will do me good.

              • 2012-01-20 09:25:10 UTC - 09:25 | Permalink


                Speaking as one who lost all perspective in a usenet newsgroup (on a completely unrelated subject) several years back, it is my opinion, that you have so far avoided going over to the dark side. I do think you flirt with it sometimes though and I know how easy it is to be consumed by these discussions. Have a nice week away.

  • Evan
    2012-01-20 05:24:47 UTC - 05:24 | Permalink

    It has been reasonably postulated that a text like Metamorphosis and Cleitophon and Leucippe were sacred allegories for the mystery religions (Isis for Metamorphosis and Dionysus for C&L). Is there any reason to discount the possibility that Mark served the same role for a “Jewish” flavored mystery religion?

    • 2012-01-20 08:55:55 UTC - 08:55 | Permalink

      I was thinking this morning that I should post my thoughts on the best way to account for the narrative in Mark:

      1. If it were a record of past historical events, even if exaggerated, then what would we expect to find in its stories? (Since reading Vansina I realize now one also has to ask why the stories would have been preserved — orality is not performed for the sake of preserving the past but for meeting the needs of the present.) This is where I believe is a serious weakness in the view that the narrative reflects historicity at some level. We can see from Suetonius and Plutarch etc what to expect the interests in real persons and events to cover. We simply don’t find the same sorts of interests in personal details in Mark. Jesus is a mouthpiece or mime for doctrines and messages and parables. The historicity of the events and people does not well account for the narrative we see in Mark, I think.

      2. Moreover, the narrative in Mark is riddled with clear symbolisms, numbers, puns, cryptic sayings, double-actions that call out for spiritual interpretations, etc. And the evidence for adapting OT and other stories is clear.

  • 2012-01-20 06:50:33 UTC - 06:50 | Permalink

    Does McG know what “provenance” means?

  • Steven Carr
    2012-01-24 17:31:21 UTC - 17:31 | Permalink

    http://tandtclark.typepad.com/files/foreword_hooker.pdf is a great example of how a True Historian uses fictional stories to find out the truth about a person.

    As a True Historian, and a New Testament scholar, Hooker does not ever once refer to mere facts in her discussion of what Biblical historians should use as raw materials.

    And McGrath has the sheer audacity to state that his profession uses nothing more nor less than standard historical tools, when such articles as this are in the public domain.

    • 2012-01-24 18:36:36 UTC - 18:36 | Permalink

      The article is not alone. Dale C. Allison argued exactly all of this in his first chapter of “Constructing Jesus”. And of course McGrath is impressed. Good old postmodernism has come to the rescue of those once plagued by the desperate need to concoct logically fallacious criteria to try to satisfy the misguided demands of positivism. Down with the Enlightenment!

      I’m sure New Testament scholars are right now revolutionizing the whole concept of History at mainstream conferences. I always wanted to know about the lives of the later Roman emperors but the Augustan history didn’t allow readers to find an anchor into any reality. Now I know I can return to that work and be confident that though all the tales in it may be fictions they are nonetheless true. We should bring back the Hitler Diaries, too. What were historians thinking when they threw them out as forgeries? They may have been untrue but at the same time they surely conveyed truths about Hitler. And Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Arthur — how picky to fault its tales for being make-believe. The point is even that make-believe gives us the truth of Britain in those lost dark ages.

    • 2012-01-25 02:16:52 UTC - 02:16 | Permalink

      Biblical scholars certainly are a restless lot, aren’t they? After overgrazing on the fields of the Synoptics, they stand disheartened, regarding the muddy mess. “Oh, look over there! It’s the Gospel of John. Maybe there’s some delicious history on that side of the fence.” And the herd begins to move.

      Similarly, NT scholars working at the “subatomic level” eventually become discouraged, because in the end they realize they aren’t getting anywhere. “Hey! Maybe we need to stand back and get a more ‘gestalt’ view of this thing. Somebody go rent a weather balloon.” And hope returns.

      • Evan
        2012-01-25 02:36:59 UTC - 02:36 | Permalink

        Here’s a post I put up on the “endless thread” on the Rat/Skep forums:

        We have been repeatedly told, in spite of evidence given to the contrary, that the scholarly consensus about the historical Jesus is based on rational historical principles and nothing else. Believers in Jesus (the historical one, that is) want us to understand that if we jettison belief in him, we will have to jettison figures who show up in Civilization games like Boudicca, and this would be a fate that would lead to a slow erosion of the thing the game simulates.

        Already, a quote from the Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology has shown that the majority of biblical scholars are in fact believing Christians who wish to bolster the faith, but when this is pointed out, people like Bart Ehrman are trotted out as supposedly agnostic/atheistic scholars who in fact accept the historicity of Jesus. Well, he gives the game away in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium:

        “There can be little doubt that whether or not there exist supernatural evil spirits that invade human bodies to make them do all sorts of vile and harmful things, Jesus was widely thought to be able to cast them out, restoring a person to health. Scholars who believe in demons, of course, may well actually think that Jesus did exorcise them. Scholars who don’t believe in them have come up with their own explanations …”

        There you have it. Bart Ehrman’s scholarly world is dichotomized at least at some level, into the demon-believing scholars and the non-demon believing scholars. No scholarly consensus reached by a field in which a minority large enough to receive this kind of deference to its viewpoint can possibly be considered definitive by a rationally skeptical message board member. I would argue that for the inhabitants of this message board, belief in demons disqualifies someone from both the rational and the skeptical descriptions.

        So please, let’s hear no more about this supposed consensus and deal with the evidence alone.

        • 2012-01-25 05:50:33 UTC - 05:50 | Permalink

          As McG says all the time, competent NT scholars are just like good scientists who accept evolution as a fact. Some these same NT scholars, of course, believe that demons cause mental illness, that sin causes disease, and that an invisible, all-powerful being raised his son from the dead. Similarly, while some scientists think natural selection drives evolution others believe in flying pink unicorns that shit rainbows.

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