2016-08-08

Anti-Historical History in Biblical Studies

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by Tim Widowfield

I came across this today and thought I’d share it with Vridarians. Prof. Steve Mason of the University of Groningen writes:

Especially in biblical and religious studies, whose professors are among those most interested in Roman Judaea, there is a notable tendency to see history as a matter of conclusions or beliefs, no matter how those conclusions are reached. Do you believe that the Pharisees were the most influential pre-70 sect, that there was a standing Sanhedrin, that the James ossuary is genuine or a forgery, or that Essenes lived at Qumran? These kinds of questions one encounters all the time, though it is difficult to imagine similar camps forming in other areas of ancient history: over the reasons for Tacfarinas’ revolt in Africa or debating whether Boudica was motivated more by financial or sexual outrage. I do not know where this inclination comes from, but it seems to me inappropriate to history and indeed anti-historical . . . (Steve Mason, “What Is History?”, emphasis mine)

https://www.academia.edu/2978438/What_is_History_Using_Josephus_for_the_Judaean-Roman_War

6 Comments

  • Neil Godfrey
    2016-08-09 00:29:21 UTC - 00:29 | Permalink

    It’s crazy that we have heated arguments over Q, over questions of interpolations in the epistles, over first century messianic movements, over the arrays of questions related to “minimalism” in OT studies, over the historical value of the Gospels and Acts, — rather than exploratory discussions with an acute awareness on all sides of just how tentative the nature of the data we work with allows us to be. Didn’t Jonathan Swift write a satire about this sort of thing?

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-08-09 02:04:41 UTC - 02:04 | Permalink

      I, for one, always eat my eggs little end first.

  • Timothy Bagley
    2016-08-09 20:52:12 UTC - 20:52 | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this excellent article by Prof. Mason. This is a scholarly methodological presentation of high caliber.

  • Bob de Jong
    2016-08-10 06:49:03 UTC - 06:49 | Permalink

    “I do not know where this inclination comes from”. I can make a guess: it has to do with the role that these (historical) issues play in our belief systems. What ever Boudica did or say has very little impact on our view of the world. But events described in the bible are linked strongly to – western/Judeo-Christian – thinking.

    As reflected in the Nicene creed “We believe in Jesus ….who … came down and was incarnate and was made man; ….He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; “.

    So it is part of the belief system that these things ‘really happened’, or at -at least – some of it really happened. Any ‘reasonable doubts’ shake the belief boat vehemently.

  • Blood
    2016-08-11 11:59:23 UTC - 11:59 | Permalink

    Mason’s feigned ignorance on “where this inclination comes from” is actually a large part of the problem — the extreme reticence in academia to recognize and loudly criticize the corrosive effect Christian apologetics has on all levels of historical research.

  • Timothy Bagley
    2016-08-11 21:41:37 UTC - 21:41 | Permalink

    From pg. 165 of Mason’s article (quoting collingwood’s Idea of History)

    It is puzzling and rather shocking to face the fact that the writers whom one has regarded as authoritative and incorruptible channels of truth are completely misapprehending the events which they describe, or deliberately telling lies about them; and when experienced historians assure us that all sources are tainted with ignorance and mendacity, we are apt to ascribe the opinion merely to cynicism. Yet this opinion is really the most precious possession of historical thought. It is a working hypothesis without which no historian can move a single step. . . .

    I would agree with de Jong’s suggestion that the religious scholar committed to texts regarded as “authoritative and incorruptible” would have a very difficult time accepting this “most precious possession of historical thought”.

    I am not sure that historians and academics need to place themselves in the role of “loudly criticizing” Christian apologetics (pace Blood). What benefit would that bring? Patient, careful historical research as Mason exemplifies will win the day.

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