On 14th January I posted How Historians Work – Lessons for Historical Jesus Scholars in which I demonstrated that at least some biblical scholars are unaware of normal historical practices by quoting key sections from works recommended to me by Dr McGrath. On 16th January Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, responded by accusing me of being a fool, either ignorant or obtuse on the one hand or wilfully misrepresenting and wishing to deceive readers whom I believe are gullible and foolish on the other.
Unfortunately Dr McGrath’s reply only further convinced me that he has not read both books in question even though he recommended them to me — though he does appear to have at least read sections (only) of one of them — and that his smearing of my character and intelligence is unwarranted.
Dr McGrath began his reply with:
I sometimes wonder if mythicists realize when they are making fools of themselves. If they do, then they are presumably akin to clowns and comedians who provide a useful service in providing us with entertainment. If they are unintentionally funny, then their clowning around in some instances may include misrepresentation of others which, however ridiculous, requires some sort of response.
Presumably this sort of ad hominem is intended as filler in place of reasoned responses to virtually the whole of the arguments and demonstrations of my post since he repeats such accusations often while never engaging with all but a couple of my points, and even those only tangentially.
Dr McGrath then lands another character attack that he says he will not deliver or will ignore so I will ignore that for now, too — although I did respond to it on his blog at the time.
So to the main point:
But on the misrepresentation of Vansina, and of Howell and Prevenier, a few brief points are in order, which I suspect will show clearly to anyone interested that Godfrey either is either failing to comprehend Vansina, Howell, and prevenier, or is willfully misrepresenting them.
This introduction at the very least leads me to expect that Dr McGrath will demonstrate by quoting Vansina and Howell and Prevenier — just as I had done to make my points about their arguments — and thereby demonstrate that I had quoted them out of context or had misquoted them. I expected from this intro that Dr McGrath is going to point specifically to their arguments that will expose all I said about them to be a blatant misrepresentation.
First, Godfrey quotes Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources and their discussion of Vansina’s work in oral history: “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). He then ignores the question of what sort of linguistic and cultural evidence is being referred to and proceeds as though these points had not even been mentioned. He seems to think that his readers are foolish and gullible, and perhaps some are, but not all.
This is, I regret to say, either obtuseness or blatant misrepresentation of Howell and Prevenier by Dr McGrath himself. Neil Godfrey ignored nothing of the context of the quotation from page 26 of H&P. H&P nowhere make any reference here to any limitation or qualification of a particular type of linguistic or cultural evidence. H&P make it very clear they are speaking generically of principles that cross the broad spectrum of cultural and linguistic types.
In the paragraph preceding my quotation, for example, H&P explain that a major contribution of Vansina to oral historiography was methodology. Specifically, H&P address V’s contribution to methodology that can help an oral historian make reasonable assessments of the historical reliability or accuracy of oral reports. They point out that V says oral accounts can be considered reliable if they “meet several tests”.
Vansina’s tests concerned both matters external to the text (is the narrator [or witness] a member of the group that controls the transmission of the narrative? does the narrative come to the researcher via a social institution or via a closed caste?) and those internal (is the narrative stylistically coherent, that is, does the witness’s or reporter’s tale conform to the linguistic, stylistic, ritualistic, and juridical norms of the period and the place from which his tale is told [or pretends to originate]?
Now those external tests are exactly what H&P elsewhere (see my previous post) identify as information about the provenance of a narrative. Dr McGrath, I suspect on the grounds of other claims about provenance, insist that we do know the provenance of the Gospel of Mark, for example. It is Christianity! Well, sorry, but “Christianity” is terribly vague — it subsumes multitude of possibilities — and tells us nothing of what we need to know about Mark’s origin. I can’t imagine V being content with “West African tribal culture” being assigned as the provenance of any of his oral narratives.
H&P then explain that V points out that pre-literate societies that rely heavily on oral transmission of certain memories and oral witnessing of agreements as part and parcel of their social functioning are often tightly stable societies and far from being anarchic.
In other words, H&P are discussing the generic contributions that Vansina has made to the study of oral history. When I quote their reference to Vansina himself saying that external corroboration of some sort is always necessary to confirm the reliability of an oral narrative, then I am quoting them in context and directly in accord with what Vansina himself has written — and I even quote Vansina’s own words to this effect quite independently of H&P.
No, Dr McGrath’s assertion that I failed to understand or accurately reflect the words and arguments of H&P is mistaken.
Godfrey then writes, “The chapter thus refers to “oral reports”, “oral evidence”, “oral sources”, “oral communication”, “oral acts”, “oral witnessing”. HJ scholars do not have any evidence like this for Jesus. The early Christian evidence is all written and literary, not oral, and it is all secondary, not primary.” At this point, Godfrey is either being obtuse or deceptive, or has not actually read Vansina’s books (the fact that they are books but he placed their titles in quotation marks, even though Godfrey is a librarian and should know better, is indeed suspicious).
This is a strange accusation. There is no question that the Gospels are not oral reports. They are literary works and scholars studying their literary artifices and structures have well enough pointed this out many times. Sure most scholars understand the stories are adapted from oral reports in many cases. But the works we have are literary products.
What Vansina speaks of when he refers to written accounts of oral reports or oral traditions is nothing like the literary works of the Gospels. He is referring always to scholarly recordings of oral performances and stories. No scholarly recording or copying of an oral performance will ever look like a literary work that we find in the Gospels.
But most significantly, Vansina is referring always to literary works that declare themselves to be — and are verifiably so — records of oral performances. We have absolutely no external or tangible evidence that the Gospels are themselves this sort of literature. We have only hypothesis. The evidence we do have from the Gospels themselves is that many of their stories are clearly influenced by other OT phrases and plot and thematic ideas. So the tangible evidence that we do have actually points to them as being literary creations from the get-go.
Vansina studies the oral histories of African tribes including for periods before the living memory of those he interviewed. In such cases, the same situation exists as in the Gospels, except that the Gospels can be shown to be closer in time to the events they purport to record than some of the African oral traditions discussed in Vansina’s book.
As I have pointed out in replies to Dr McGrath and in other posts, Jan Vansina is very clear about the difference between oral traditions and oral reports.
The sources of oral historians are reminiscences, hearsay, or eyewitness accounts about events and situations which are contemporary, that is, which occurred during the lifetime of the informants. This differs from oral traditions in that oral traditions are no longer contemporary. They have passed from mouth to mouth, for a period beyond the lifetime of the informants. The two situations typically are very different with regard to the collections of sources as well as with regard to their analysis. . . . (p. 12-13 of Oral Tradition as History, 1985, my emphasis)
Oral traditions do not exist, according to his working definition, within the life-times of eye-witnesses. Why do historical Jesus scholars always speak of “oral traditions” being alive during the lifetimes of eye-witnesses and at the same time invoke Vansina as an authority to support their views?
Dr McGrath has laughed this off by saying that an oral tradition can emerge in an area without access to eye-witnesses. This is surely special pleading. If a community heard of remarkable stories they knew happened in a region where witnesses were still living I imagine that would always have to be considered as a factor in how far oral traditions can mutate from the original reports.
So when Dr McGrath attempts to bolster his case by saying the Gospels are closer in time to the original events than some of the case-studies of Vansina, it appears he is advertizing his failure either to read or to recall the earlier chapters of Vansina’s works himself. (I do not believe he is being deliberately deceptive. Lazy or careless perhaps.) But worse, by placing the “oral traditions” closer to the time of the events they are supposed to speak about, he is falling into a whole lot worse mess when it comes to the interpretation of such stories through the literary works of the Gospels. See my earlier post on the Hopi for the nature of this difficulty — it in facts makes the entire Gospel narrative far more probably a mythical construct from the beginning and not a historical memory at all! — Unless all the miracles, the resurrection, and the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus while alive, etc etc were all literally true as told.
What exactly are the external controls of the sort Godfrey thinks are needed? How does he know that the stories being told by a tribe’s storyteller to Vansina were not originally about celestial rather than terrestrial figures? How does he know that they were not concocted in a conspiracy to rewrite history at some earlier date?
Here, unfortunately, Dr McGrath is not dismissing my arguments but Vansina’s as well as Howell and Prevenier’s. Vansina is clear about the external controls that are needed and so are H&P. Does Dr McGrath even know what their arguments are? He gives us no evidence that he does. My argument is that historical Jesus scholars should be consistent and apply the same standards expounded by these historians.
Vansina says that the sorts of external controls required are known events or reports external to and independent from the narrative in question. This includes a knowledge of the provenance of the narratives: what particular social group and individual, with a knowledge of their relations with others, produced or transmitted the tradition or report. All Dr McGrath has been able to say is that the provenance is the same religious idea that produced gnosticism, orthodoxy, docetism, adoptionism, Syrian Christianity, Roman Christianity . . . the counterpart to Vansina’s reference to “West African culture”.
What Dr McGrath is suggesting here is that external controls are not needed at all in the case of the Gospels — thus contradicting the clear and direct insistence of Vansina and H&P. He seems to be saying that we can assume the Gospels were written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses so we have no need for external controls for verification.
This is, of course, nothing but empty and unsupported assumption.
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, Howell and Prevenier. See also quotes from Vansina in Confessions of a Theologian)
Dr McGrath does not accept that this is necessary in the case of the Gospels but still wants to claim that he does history the same way any other historian does, so he accuses me of misrepresenting H&P. I have not misrepresented either H&P or V but have quoted them and Dr McGrath did not even attempt to demonstrated from either of these authors that my quotations or summaries were out of context or misleading.
There is more, but I will finish here rather than bother to address mere unsupported accusations. The point I have hoped to get across here is that no matter how much a historical Jesus scholar or teacher like Dr McGrath protests otherwise, he has failed to provide any evidence that I am wrong when I point out from sources he himself recommends that HJ scholars don’t do history like any other (non-HJ) historian.
(Of course I am not suggesting that all other historians are perfect. I have pointed this out many times — that there are good and bad, lazy and diligent, professionals in all fields. But we see from works like those by H&P and V what the ideals really are, and how far so many HJ scholars fall short.)