Dr McGrath posts a brief comment on the criterion of embarrassment at Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment? He makes the following statement that I believe strikes at the core of the methodological flaw in scholarly inquiries into the historical Jesus and Christian origins:
As with a trial in a courtroom, the fact that flawed deductions are sometimes drawn does not mean that the methods we use ought to be discarded. Doing our best with evidence, reason, and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything that has to do with the past. Wouldn’t you agree?
The courtroom analogy is a false one. Courtroom trials deal with known historical events. Something bad happened to someone. The only questions are ones such as “who did it?” and “why?” The courtroom analogy begs the question of historicity.
The next sentence sets up another fallacy — the false dilemma. It goes without saying that “doing our best with evidence, reason and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything”. Of course I agree and everyone else does, too. The question is rhetorical and falsely portrays the alternative as unreasonable silliness.
The core question is summed up perfectly by Todd Penner in his In Praise of Christian Origins when he wrote of the Stephen episode in the book of Acts:
Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.
The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.
Shelly Matthews (Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity) picks up from Penner’s point and goes one step further to a more positive view of what can be done by the historian. We have no way of knowing if the Stephen story is based on an historical event or if it was a literary construction from the get-go. But that does not mean the historian cannot do history. What it means is that the historian is obliged to ask questions of the evidence that it is capable of answering. Historical enquiries must be framed according to the nature of the evidence available. That’s why historians of ancient times cannot explore in depth the same sorts of questions historians studying recent events can. The latter have much more evidence and are therefore in a position to explore a wider range of questions.
First of all, Matthews, like Penner, shows that scholarly efforts to “peel away” supposed authorial redactions in order to uncover supposed historical data beneath the narrative is, ultimately, a rather arbitrary exercise in this instance. I began to discuss her work recently and will continue to do so again soon.
Secondly, Shelly shows us that the historian needs to work with the documents as the primary evidence — to treat Acts itself, its narrative, as the evidence that needs explanation. If we try to find our way behind the narrative, to find what bits of the narrative we can toss out, and supposedly find some bedrock event beneath, we are, really (in my view) playing a fool’s game that is — as Matthews and Penner seem to recognize — unique to biblical studies.
The historical questions to be asked of the evidence are:
- What sort of document is the Acts of the Apostles (or Gospels)?
- What does its narrative content and artifice, and the relationship of these to other literature known at the time, tell us about the historical circumstances of the author and his presumed audience?
- What is the meaning of the narrative to the people of the time? What is its function in the history of Christian origins?
If the answer to the first question can, by means of external controls of some kind, lead us to believe that the narrative does indeed attempt to portray real historical events, then we have an added bonus and can open gateways to new historical questions.
That is what happens when we look at the sorts of documents produced by Polybius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, Livy, and so forth. But Acts (and the Gospels) leave us with more questions than answers and are not supported by controls in a way that can lead us to conclude they are based on historical events.
That does not mean, as Penner says, that there is no history behind them. It means that we have no way of knowing. And that does not mean, as McGrath unfortunately concludes, that we are left in a nihilistic agnosticism. It means the sorts of history we can do is different from what we expected or from what our personal faith my desire.