2013-02-06

Passing thoughts on historical Jesus studies as sorcery

by Neil Godfrey
Stanislav Andreski

Stanislav Andreski

Updated — a new final two sentences were added 7th Feb. 6:30 pm Central Australian time.

If you happen to be a student, you can apply the same test to your teachers who claim that what they are teaching you rests upon incontrovertible scientific foundations [/historical methods]. See what they know about the natural sciences and mathematics [/historical methods] and their philosophical foundations. Naturally, you cannot expect them to have a specialist knowledge of these fields; but if they are completely ignorant of these things, do not take seriously grandiloquent claims of the ultra-scientific [/historical] character of their teachings.

Furthermore, do not be impressed unduly by titles or positions. Top universities can usually get the best people in the fields where there are firm criteria of achievement; but at the present stage of development of the social sciences [/biblical studies?] the process of selection resembles, as often as not, a singing competition before a deaf jury who can judge the competitors only by how wide they open their mouths. (Social Sciences as Sorcery, p. 86, my formatting)

That is from Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery, 1972. I have added to Andreski’s words the alternative text in square brackets.

This quotation reminds me of the times I have challenged New Testament scholars (in particular McGrath, but also a few others) on their knowledge of historical methods after they insist that historical Jesus scholars are doing history in the same way other historians work. Yet the McGraths have proven completely ignorant of the landmark names and key methodological and philosophical developments, even the fundamentals of document and source analysis, in the field of history, whether oral or written, as it is practiced outside biblical studies. Names like von Ranke, Carr, Elton, White, (even Hobsbawm!), leave them staring like the proverbial rabbits in the spotlight. Quote from any of the many standard works on how postgraduate history students need to analyse documents or oral reports and they can only turn to sarcasm and insult to defend themselves. In my next post on the historical Jesus and demise of history I will be exploring one case study that illustrates well the very real gulf between historical Jesus studies and what history really means for nonbiblical scholars.

There is another quote from a much older source in the same book that reminded me of some of Hoffmann‘s posts arguing for the historicity of Jesus — in particular his latest one (to which Tim’s post yesterday links, you know — the one where he points to Hoffmann’s source for his term ‘mythtic’) in which he (Hoffmann) waxes eloquently, lost in his own echo chamber, shouting his knowledge of naturalism in modern literature and the philosophical debates surrounding Hegel — all presumably intended to impress readers that here, surely, is the final word on the historicity of Jesus:

There are four chief obstacles to grasping truth, which hinder every man, however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to win a clear title to knowledge; namely,

  1. submission to faulty and unworthy authority,
  2. influence of custom,
  3. popular prejudice,
  4. and concealment of our own ignorance accompanied by the ostentatious display of knowledge.

– Roger Bacon (my formatting and bolding)

There are other gems in the same book. One of these is what we can learn about an author from whether or not they have a sense of humour. I have never seen this from Hoffmann, and as soon as one attempts to join the spirit of a laugh on McGrath’s site by bouncing a joke off him, his laughter is immediately lost and out come the knives. Hoffmann is less patient. He simply bans any comment he does not like and for which he has no quick sarcastic reply.

andreski

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  • Jason Goertzen
    2013-02-06 18:32:08 UTC - 18:32 | Permalink

    “One of these is what we can learn about an author from whether or not they have a sense of humour. I have never seen this from Hoffmann…”

    Oddly enough, having no sense of humour is one thing I can’t fault Hoffman for. It’s probably hard to see it when on the receiving end, but Hoffman definitely has a sense of humour. It’s just…vicious…when he gets on his high horse about mythicism (as is apparent from his comment policy, where he seems to only allow critical comments he has some sharp joke to reply with.

    He certainly takes *himself* too seriously. Perhaps that’s what you meant.

    • 2013-02-06 19:14:11 UTC - 19:14 | Permalink

      Should we draw a distinction between a propensity to scoff, mock and ridicule opponents on the one hand, and a sense of humour that is more broadly encompassing, able to see and laugh at the foibles on one’s own side as well as the other’s, on the other hand? Perhaps your “taking oneself too seriously” is the true indicator after all, as you suggest.

      A sense of humour, in my books, means ability to laugh at oneself as well as the foibles of humanity generally. Twice, I recall, McGrath has posted humour directed at mythicists. On at least one of those occasions I joined in the laugh at mythicists, but in the course of the discussion I also added another laugh at a foible in the historicist camp. McGrath’s smile turned to a snarl in an instant. He was not amused. I don’t see McGrath as having a sense of humour at all. Only a love of ridicule.

      Tim once posted some limericks here mocking historicists, and I asked him to do the same of mythicists, including myself if I recall. Hoffmann responded with disdain.

      If humour is a measure of our humanity then I suggest we will find it on both sides of our ideological fences.

  • Jonathan Burke
    2013-02-06 19:28:47 UTC - 19:28 | Permalink

    I note my comment was deleted. It was a politely phrased request for information, yet it was censored completely.

  • Jonathan Burke
    2013-02-07 09:24:24 UTC - 09:24 | Permalink

    “This quotation reminds me of the times I have challenged New Testament scholars (in particular McGrath, but also a few others) on their knowledge of historical methods after they insist that historical Jesus scholars are doing history in the same way other historians work. Yet the McGraths have proven completely ignorant of the landmark names and key methodological and philosophical developments, even the fundamentals of document and source analysis, in the field of history, whether oral or written, as it is practiced outside biblical studies. Names like von Ranke, Carr, Elton, White, (even Hobsbawm!), leave them staring like the proverbial rabbits in the spotlight. Quote from any of the many standard works on how postgraduate history students need to analyse documents or oral reports and they can only turn to sarcasm and insult to defend themselves.”

    Do you have any evidence for these claims?

    • 2013-02-07 09:55:21 UTC - 09:55 | Permalink

      Yes.

      • Jonathan Burke
        2013-02-07 10:07:30 UTC - 10:07 | Permalink

        Please present it.

        • 2013-02-07 11:55:39 UTC - 11:55 | Permalink

          Is that “a politely phrased request for information” or a demand?

          • 2013-02-07 13:43:06 UTC - 13:43 | Permalink

            I certainly read it as a request; after all this claim is the centrepiece of your article. I also would be interested in examples.

            • 2013-02-07 18:16:56 UTC - 18:16 | Permalink

              “Fortigurn” (Jonathan Burke’s erstwhile alias on this blog) does not have a history of being a gentleman or polite in his exchanges with me. We shall see how long he can maintain his facade of civility. As long as his comments comply with our comments and moderation guidelines I am happy to post them here.

          • Jonathan Burke
            2013-02-07 14:48:47 UTC - 14:48 | Permalink

            That is a politely phrased request for information.

            • 2013-02-07 16:02:22 UTC - 16:02 | Permalink

              Well since you are so keen to engage in a polite conversation I will oblige by first telling you that anyone who has been a follower of this blog the last couple of years, and in particular of the exchanges between McGrath and me both here and on matrix will know that what I wrote is nothing more than a summing up of what everyone has witnessed for themselves. There is nothing controversial in my statement. I invite you to ask Dr McGrath yourself with a polite effort to ask him for unequivocal, evidence-based and civil answers.

              McGrath’s first response in relation to Hobsbawm clearly indicated he knew nothing of Hobsbawm’s methods or even what Hobsbawm’s status had been in the historians’ community. He subsequently did read parts of a Hobsbawm book.

              He had never heard of von Ranke when I raised the name with him. And had never heard of the claim “History is an Art” until, by his own admission on his blog in a conversation there, he asked one of the historians at his university. McGrath attributed the saying to his colleague. I had to explain to him that it was the famous line from von Ranke, and who von Ranke was. I can’t search McG’s blog but I spoke of that conversation here and from there you may be able to track it down on McG’s matrix.

              In several conversations with McGrath I have raised the names of Carr, Elton and White — and he has never been able to respond. I raised these names because his own professional peer, Scot McKnight, himself wrote in Jesus and His Death that few biblical scholars are aware of such names of the history of historiography. (I didn’t just make up the claim that New Testament scholars are ignorant of these things. I first read it in Scot McKnight’s book and have since confirmed his words with my own experiences.) McGrath has responded that the new biblical historiography is all about superseding postivism with postmodernism, thus demonstrating his ignorance of what the history of history-writing is and how it is done.

              In more recent conversations I have attempted to engage McGrath on methods. McGrath himself has written that literary analysis has nothing to do with the evaluation of a document as a historical source, and he has stressed that claim in conversations with me. When I pointed out to him from books on historical method the importance of literary analysis — genre, provenance, style/contents as they relate to broader literary and philosophical context — to evaluate the nature and worth of a document as an historical source he refused to respond.

              He told me I should read Prevenier and Howell on historical inquiry methods and I did. He told me that there was a discussion on oral methods in history in a certain chapter, and when I quoted back to him from that chapter that what was said contradicted his claims, well, he did not respond like a gentleman. He had not read the book himself but relied on some keyword search in an index or online, presumably. Ditto when he told me to read Jan Vansina — McG had quoted him in an article. I did so and found that McG had quote-mined Vansina and that Vansina’s general argument was completely contrary to the point McG was trying to make with his quote. Check posts on Oral History here — and on McG’s blog, or conversations for details.

              I am sure your response will continue in a most gentlemanly and polite tone.

              • Geoff
                2013-02-08 12:30:47 UTC - 12:30 | Permalink

                Teeple’s discussion of Vansina in his paper “The Oral Tradition that Never Existed” is very good. Here is the citation:

                Teeple, H. (1970). Oral tradition that never existed. Journal of Biblical Literature, 89(1), 56-68.

              • Geoff
                2013-02-08 12:48:03 UTC - 12:48 | Permalink

                ooop, this isn’t the right citation, but the paper is nonetheless worth reading. I had another paper in mind and will have to look through my archives to find it.

              • 2013-02-08 12:35:50 UTC - 12:35 | Permalink

                Just in case anyone else might find this useful, I’ll respond in public.

                If you ever want to search a particular site for specific strings of words, just go to Google and enter this search:

                site:[site_name] "[string]"

                Here’s a specific example:

                site:www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix "von Ranke"

                One of the hits turned out to be the one in question. Unfortunately, I think the comments are a bit screwed up at patheos.com right now. They appear to have been wiped. I think at some point they switched over to Disqus — perhaps the old ones just got nuked.

                Fortunately, there’s more Google magic that might help us. We can search in the Google cache by hovering over the hit until we see a double arrow (>>). Over to the right you’ll eventually see a link to a “cache” — i.e, a copy of the site as it looked the last time Google crawled the site.

                But sadly(!), the cache doesn’t have the comments either. All I can find is this snippet that appears in the Google hit preview:

                “You might be interested to learn that the History is Art saying goes back to Von Ranke. You have misunderstood badly what he meant. He was . . .”

  • 2013-02-08 13:12:41 UTC - 13:12 | Permalink

    I discussed in several posts here Jan Vansina’s argument in relation to Dr McGrath’s claim that — iirc — biblical scholars can call upon Vansina as an authority to confirm the role of the criterion of embarrassment in oral traditions. I did the same on McGrath’s blog, too, so anyone interested enough can search there for more details. The posts here are at:

    * Confessions of a Theologian — Bible scholars really do do history differently

    * Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

    * Theologians Reject Basics of History: A Way Forward

    * Historian Demolishes Historical Jesus – Gospel Paradigm

    * Historical Jesus Scholarly Ignorance of Historical Methods

  • 2013-02-09 17:30:04 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

    ‘He simply bans any comment he does not like and for which he has no quick sarcastic reply.’

    Hoffman and Steph often post quick sarcastic replies to comments they have not allowed through moderation!

    • 2013-02-09 17:50:51 UTC - 17:50 | Permalink

      I should take this chance to mention that Jonathan Burke/Fortigurn has been attempting to post further comments in this thread. I have chosen to trash them. No doubt he will take my banning of his posts as a sure sign of hypocrisy on my part, and a demonstration, in his eyes, that I am completely unfair and inconsistent, etc etc. Tough. I have no time for the Fortigurns or the Tim O’Neills of this world. They can have their say but once the continue in their same old form I’ll turn off the tap.

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