Search Results for: external controls


2007-03-17

Subjecting Papias to external controls. A first step

by Neil Godfrey

This relates to my previous post on Bauckham’s chapter 16. I addressed the issue of “naive readings” of texts, explaining what I mean by that term. I won’t repeat the details here. (Any text can claim to be written by so and so and at a certain time. Scholars know that when it comes to the bulk of apocryphal “new testament” writings.)

So what external evidence do we have for the time when the Papias text was written? read more »


2017-10-31

An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

by Neil Godfrey

Moses I. Finley (1912-1986)

What do ancient historians think of the efforts of biblical scholars to inquire into “the historical Jesus” and the origins of Christianity?

M.I. Finley was an influential historian of ancient history who found time out from his studies on the classical (Greco-Roman) world and methodological problems in ancient history more generally to write a handful of articles on problems facing biblical scholars attempting to reconstruct Christian origins. Finley compiled three of these articles into a single chapter, “Christian Beginnings: Three Views of Historiography” in his small volume, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies (1968).

Interestingly (to me, certainly) Finley zeroes in on the same methodological problems faced by scholars of Jesus and Christian origins that I have often addressed on this blog and in other online forums. It is nice to find agreement in a scholar so highly regarded as Finley was.

Vridar and related discussions of Maurice Goguel:

In the second part of his chapter and in the course of discussing Maurice Goguel’s methods in arriving at some detail about the historical Jesus, Finley comes across an all too common point in the work of another well-known name, A.N. Sherwin-White:

An Oxford historian, Mr A. N. Sherwin-White, has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. ‘Not‘, he adds, ‘that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.’ (Aspects, p. 177)

One is reminded of works by Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham attempting to show how similar the gospels are to ancient biographies and histories. But Finley knows better than to allow Sherwin-White’s statement a free pass (my own bolding in all quotations):

Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek verb at the root of ‘history’ is historein, to inquire, which is what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. (Aspects, p. 177)

So we see that Finley called out the rhetorical sleights of hand we find are in fact all too common in the works of too many biblical scholars.

Finley then turned to another historian’s work exploring the nature of history:

In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,

theocratic history … means not history proper … but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest

The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century and a half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls(Aspects, p. 177)

“With no external controls”? That is the very phrase I have been using in my own criticisms of the methodology at the heart of historical reconstructions based on the gospels. To verify that claim type the words external controls and/or independent controls in the Search Vridar box in the right-hand column of this blog page.

Finley expands on this problematic point in other essays collated in The Use and Abuse of History (1975) and Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1999) but before I address any of that elaboration let’s keep with his focus on Goguel as an example. Goguel worked before terms like “criteria of authenticity” became commonplace but he understood and worked with the same principles or methods. He might call them “logical and psychological” tests (= criteria of coherence, plausibility…) applied to gospel passages to “uncover” probable “facts” about the historical Jesus.

One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for ‘a sign from Heaven’, Jesus replied, ‘There shall be no sign given unto this generation’ (Mark viii, 11-12). Goguel comments:

This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus … This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.

It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are ‘extremely doubtful’. His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, ‘it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.’

This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell. Therefore it does not follow that it always avoids inconsistency: it is capable of retaining, and even inventing, sayings and events which, in what we call strict logic, undermine its most cherished beliefs. The difficulties are of course most acute at the beginning, with the life of Jesus. One influential modern school, which goes under the name of ‘form-criticism’, has even abandoned history at this stage completely. ‘In my opinion,’ wrote Rudolph Bultmann, ‘we can sum up what can be known of the life and personality of Jesus as simply nothing.’ (Aspects, p. 178)

It does not appear that Finley was prepared to go along with the methods, let alone conclusions, of biblical scholars in their efforts to establish what was historical about Jesus. A gospel narrative is merely a gospel narrative. We have no way of testing whether any of its narrative was genuinely historical or based on historical memory.

Sometimes one hears how accurate are the details of geography or social customs in the gospels as if such details add any weight to the historicity of the narrative. Finley responded to that rejoinder in the third part of his chapter in Aspects of Antiquity. He begins with a reminder of the point just made above:

[T]he Gospel accounts . . . are the sole source of information about the Passion – that cannot be said often enough or sharply enough – and all four agree on the responsibility of some Jews. . . .

What, then, actually happened? Not even the Synoptic Gospels provide a clear and coherent account, and there are added confusions and impossibilities in the Fourth Gospel. There is one school of thought, to which I belong, which holds that no reconstruction is possible from such unsatisfactory evidence. (Aspects, p. 182)

Finley then returned to Sherwin-White’s misleading comparison of the gospels with Greek histories:

Even if one could accept the view recently re-stated with much vigour by A. N. Sherwin-White in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, that the Acts and Gospels are qualitatively no different as historical sources from Herodotus or Tacitus, one does not get very far. Mr Sherwin-White has been able to demonstrate that the New Testament is very accurate in its details about life at the time, whether about geography and travel or the rules of citizenship and court procedures. Why should it not be? It is made up of contemporary documents, regardless of the accuracy of the narrative, and so reflects society as it was. That still does not tell us anything about the narrative details, and they are what matters. For that Mr Sherwin-White must, in the end, select and reject, explain and explain away, just as every other scholar has done for as long as anyone has felt the urge (and the possibility) of a historical reconstruction of the Passion. (Aspects, pp. 182f)

And that’s exactly what we read so often even among biblical scholars — that background details somehow lend historical credibility to the gospel narrative.

He is probably right, but it still does not follow, as he seems to think, that the veracity of the Gospel narrative has thereby been substantiated, or even been made more probable in a significant sense.

Far be it from me to suggest, no matter how faintly, that it is ever unimportant to get the historical record right. But the feeling will not go away that there is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it all. (Aspects, p. 183)

Enter the deus ex machina of oral tradition to strengthen faith in the literary sources . . . 

read more »


2014-03-26

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

by Tim Widowfield

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

read more »


2014-01-28

Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?

by Neil Godfrey

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. read more »


2013-08-22

Introducing Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Neil Godfrey

aslanReza Aslan’s book about Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, opens its prologue like an historical novel:

The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak. (p. 3)

Addressing the reader in the second person Aslan draws her into the colourful world Jewish worship at the Jerusalem temple and shocks her after half a dozen pages by having her witness the assassination of the high priest there in 56 C.E. One knows one is in for a dramatic read.

For the more academically minded reader there are over fifty pages of endnotes detailing sources and additional explanations for what appears in the main text. To Aslan’s credit, he makes abundantly clear in his introductory “Author’s note” that

For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it. (p. xx)

That’s a refreshing change from the way some scholars introduce their own work or criticize the works of others. Aslan explains that his footnotes attempt to present some of the arguments of those who oppose his views in the body of the book.

Why this book about Jesus?

By way of preliminaries, however, Reza Aslan recounts how, after migrating from Iran, he became a Christian at fifteen years of age and how this new identity happily served to strengthen his identify as an American.

In the America of the 1980s, being a Muslim was like being from Mars. My [Muslim] faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American. (p. xviii)

Not that his conversion was a matter of convenience,

On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith. I was presented with a Jesus . . . with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship.

Not “convenience” perhaps, but Reza might as well have added that he converted to the American way of devotion to the American religion.

And again like (most?) well educated Americans Aslan lost his naive fundamentalist beliefs as he learned more about the Bible, while at the same time becoming

aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history. (p. xix)

Not being an American I was unaware of Reza Aslan’s prominent public profile as a Muslim scholar. If I had never seen the Fox interview with Aslan about this book but relied upon the book alone I would have assumed Aslan had left the Muslim religion and was writing as a liberal Christian (American and still evangelizing) scholar. He writes: read more »


2013-06-26

The Making of a Mythicist, Act 1, Scene 1 (Thomas Brodie’s Odyssey)

by Neil Godfrey

memoirDominican priest Thomas Brodie has written an autobiographical narrative of how he came to the realization that the New Testament writings about Jesus, in particular the Gospels, do not derive from reports about the life and teachings of an historical person at all but are entirely sourced and re-created from other theological writings. The Jesus of the Gospel narratives was created as a kind of parable or theological symbol.

Eventually Brodie’s literary studies of the New Testament led him to go even further than realizing the Jesus narratives were entirely theological-literary creations. The same even had to be concluded of the persona behind the bulk of the New Testament epistles.

His book, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, is a recounting of how his ideas developed and also of the lessons he learned along the way as he attempted to share and subject his research to independent scholarly criticism.

More, it is also a survey of the history of scholarly interpretations of the Bible, sweeping the reader through a panoramic view of how we got to where we are today with how we critically read the Bible.

Anyone not aware of Brodie’s background can learn a little more from my earlier posts in relation to Beyond the Quest. (Check the Index of Topics drop-down list in the right margin to see posts on other works by Brodie.)

Beyond the Quest is divided into five parts. Below are the intellectual themes of each part. These are narrated within the context of Brodie’s own life-experiences, exchanges with other (sometimes highly prominent) scholars, personal aspirations and challenges. He also reveals the background to each of his major publications.

  • Part 1
    • Learning the fundamentals of historical criticism. . . .
  • Part 2
    • Discovering literary sources of the Gospels
  • Part 3
    • Discovering the practices of the wider literary world and how they illuminated the New Testament writings in unexpected ways
  • Part 4
    • Grasping the first rule in historical inquiry (see my earlier post for an outline of Brodie’s chapter here), understanding the flaws in the oral tradition arguments (posts one, two, three, four detail his arguments from his earlier book), and the fate of Paul.

The book concludes with an epilogue reviewing Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

In this post, Act 1, Scene 1, I’ll highlight the principle intellectual discoveries in Brodie’s early career as a student. These in themselves are well-known today among most readers with a critical interest in the Bible. They do not themselves directly lead to Brodie’s mythicist views. But we need to start at the beginning. There is much of Brodie’s own personal experiences that form the background to his education, and I encourage anyone interested to read his book to appreciate a little the personal odyssey this proved to be for Brodie. There is much of human interest as he relates his intellectual journey to his personal and wider social experiences.

And more than that, the reader will likewise begin to share Brodie’s learning and understanding of the sweep of critical biblical studies since the eighteenth century and even earlier.

Part 1

The First Revolution: Historical Investigations

Chapter 1

At one moment in his high school years Brodie was struck by the “extraordinary experience of depth and calm and truth” in Jesus’ farewell speech in the Gospel of John. He went on to learn by heart that entire Gospel.

One day an older Dominican remarked casually that the words of Jesus in the Gospels were not necessarily the exact words Jesus spoke. Brodie describes the slightly disheartening feeling that probably many other young believers have felt on first learning this.

But that is the sort of stuff most of us go through in our teen years. We learn to understand more the ways of the world, accept reality, and move on with faith unshaken or even cemented.

Ecole Biblique

Ecole Biblique

Then in the 1960s Brodie was taught in the tradition of Jerusalem’s Dominican-run biblical school, Ecole Biblique, a school that emphasized history and archaeology. Here is where Brodie was introduced to the historical-critical method.

“Historical” means trying to establish the facts.

The process is like that of a wise court-room where the facts of a case are in doubt, or of a calm history department in a university. The various biblical accounts of an event or life are examined individually, compared with one another, and compared also with other accounts or with other pertinent evidence. (p. 4)

Example. The Book of Jonah. read more »


2013-02-25

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3a: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Scholarly Perdition (Part 1)

by Neil Godfrey
Michael Grant

Michael Grant

Sometimes when attempting to demolish the arguments of the Christ myth theory historical Jesus scholars point to a popular biography of Jesus, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, by a scholar situated well outside the faculties of theology or biblical studies, the classicist Michael Grant. The reason they point to Michael Grant’s book is to be able to say, “See, even a non-theologian, a secular historian, knows Jesus really existed.” The implication is that the normal methods of everyday historical inquiry (quite apart from anything theologians might bring to bear on the topic) are sufficient to “prove” that the person Jesus is a fact of history.

So this post looks at what Michael Grant himself said about the evidence, his methods and why he believed Jesus to be an historical person.

I wonder how many of these Jesus scholars have taken the time to read Grant’s book since none, as far as I am aware, has ever pointed to Grant’s own argument in that book against the Christ Myth view and his own justification for believing Jesus to have been historical. Or maybe it is because they have read it that they choose to remain quiet about Grant’s arguments.

Who was Michael Grant?

Michael Grant was a classicist specializing in the study of Roman coins who was responsible for over 70 books on historical topics.

Immensely prolific, he wrote and edited more than 70 books of nonfiction and translation, covering topics from Roman coinage and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the Gospels. He produced general surveys of ancient Greek, Roman and Israelite history as well as biographies of giants such as Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, Cleopatra, Nero, Jesus, St. Peter and St. Paul. (Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

His reputation as an historian of ancient history was mixed:

As early as the 1950s, Grant’s publishing success was somewhat controversial within the classicist community. According to The Times:

Grant’s approach to classical history was beginning to divide critics. Numismatists felt that his academic work was beyond reproach, but some academics balked at his attempt to condense a survey of Roman literature into 300 pages, and felt (in the words of one reviewer) that “even the most learned and gifted of historians should observe a speed-limit”. The academics would keep cavilling, but the public kept buying.

(Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

The work of his that I remember most clearly as an undergraduate was a collection of translated readings of Roman literature. This was supplemented by many other more comprehensive readings.

The “notoriously hard and challenging task”

At the end of Grant’s book on the life of Jesus he asks how we know if anything he has written is truly historical. read more »


2013-01-31

That chart of mythical and historical persons — with explanations

by Neil Godfrey

I have added to my table some quick off-the-top-of-my-head references to the sources I was thinking of when I constructed my original table (see previous post). Some people on Jim McGrath’s site have chosen not to register any problems with my chart here, but have opted for a giggle-and-poke session on Jimmy’s blog and Doctor James McGrath even said my entries on the chart I myself devised were “arbitrary”. But I think everyone who knows the history of this Explodingourcakemix scholar knows he knows nothing outside a few set texts in theology classes, some Mandean texts that need translating, and all the Dr Who scripts. Here in this post I add to my original chart some quick references to the sources that were on my mind at the time I designed it.

Some people have even challenged me for my entries and asked what I would assign for this or that other historical person. In doing so they have missed the point entirely. Who cares what I enter into the table? If I made some mistakes, then fine, tell me and I’ll change my choices. What matters is what most people who know anything about the historical sources for any supposed historical person choose to enter. It’s not a subjective exercise. Choices of Yes or No etc are open to discussion and correction.

Gosh, some people seem to think that “mythicists” are just like “historicists” — that they have some ideological or professional interest to defend and are prepared to construct bogus charts with “arbitrary” entries somehow thinking that everyone will be fooled. 🙁

Here is the chart again, along with my introductory explanation, and some names added to indicate the sources that guided my initial decisions.

read more »


2013-01-29

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 2: The Overlooked Reasons We Know Certain Ancient Persons Existed

by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post in this series I concluded by pointing out the fundamental difference between the sources used by historians concerning nonbiblical historical figures such as Napoleon, Alexander or even Socrates, and those used by New Testament scholars for Jesus. In the former, the sources leave no doubt at all that certain individuals lived and certain events really happened — that is, that there are certain facts that historians can work with. Not even the most extreme postmodernists deny that Governor Philip established a settlement in Australia in 1788. However much they may be subject to interpretation, historical sources confirm as fact that certain people did certain things in the past.

This is not the case with the sources we have for Jesus. The sources we have for Jesus provide not a single datum of which it can be said, “This is a universally recognized, bedrock, indisputable fact about Jesus.” (See the box at the end of this post for comments on even the death of Jesus in this context.)

Now I am not saying that this situation forces anyone to conclude that there was no historical Jesus. Of course not. But it is a situation that should be recognized, understood and explained.

How do we know anyone existed?

I am sure that no historian undertaking a study of ancient Rome seriously pauses to ask, “How do I know if Julius Caesar really did exist?” The sources have been studied, analysed and dissected intensively for generations and certain information from them has long been taken for granted.

But because history is filled with such “facts” (such as that Julius Caesar conquered and was assassinated in the BCE era) that are part of our cultural heritage, it is worth taking time out to think through exactly how we can know that something really happened or that a particular person really did exist in ancient times.

You’d think that a scholar writing about the past could tell you how we know famous ancient persons existed without even having to think about it. Bizarrely, however, we find New Testament scholars really struggling when attempting to grapple with the question of how we know anyone in any period of history ever existed. It’s clear some have never before thought about it until challenged by mythicism.

Look, for example, at Bart Erhman’s unfortunate confusion in Did Jesus Exist? when he begins by saying photographs are evidence for the historical existence of Abraham Lincoln. That’s nonsense. All photographs can do is identify someone whom we already know exists or existed. Someone has to put a name to a photograph and someone has to link that name with an identity known from other testimony or experience.

Historians can appeal to many different kinds of evidence to establish the past existence of a person. First, there is a real preference for hard, physical evidence, for example, photographs. It is rather hard to deny that Abraham Lincoln lived since we have all seen photos. . . . [F]or most of us, a stack of good photographs from different sources will usually be convincing enough. (pp. 39-40)

I submit that a photograph of Abraham Lincoln would be meaningless unless we already knew who Lincoln was, that is, that he existed and what he did. (The ancient counterparts of photographs would be portraits and statues.)

Ehrman’s final point is just as confused: read more »


2013-01-19

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 1: What Has History To Do With The Facts?

by Neil Godfrey

RottenDenmarkThere is something rotten in the state of historical Jesus studies. Ideology has long trumped inconvenient questioning. Postmodernist flim-flam has recently trumped any hope of sound methodology. Some on that side of New Testament studies have curiously accused me of being “a fact fundamentalist” or an antiquated positivist or one who has unrealistic demands for certainty. So before I justify my claim that HJ studies have fallen hostage to ideology and methodological nonsense, let me lay all my cards out on the table and tell you what history means to me.

History for me has never been “about facts and dates”. It has never been “one darned thing after another.” That’s a chronicle or an archival record. Not history. In hindsight I have come to appreciate so much my senior high school years as a history student when I was taught by two pioneers in the way history was to be taught throughout Australian secondary schools, J.H. Allsopp and H.R. Cowie.

challengeThe first thing we were taught was that history was an enquiry. It was a debate. It was all about exploring questions. We began our studies with the French Revolution and we were confronted with questions: Why did it happen in France? Why then? And instead of being given answers we were given competing explanations. We were forced to study up on the facts in order to try to answer these questions. Inevitably we soon discovered that the importance of certain facts varied according to the different points of view of the authors. One of the questions we were asked to test at our senior high school level of competence was historian Toynbee’s thesis that all history followed a pattern of “challenge and response”.

pirenneThen I took up history at university. We had been well prepared. First topic, the rise of feudalism. First book to read: The Pirenne thesis; analysis, criticism, and revision. We weren’t “taught” what led to the rise of feudalism in Europe. We were challenged and guided to explore the possible reasons, the competing explanations, and to show competence in the way we pursued historical questions.

What is history? What is an historical fact?

It was in the 1960s and we were required to engage with E.H. Carr’s radically challenging book on the nature of history, What Is History? His thesis — that history is essentially whatever the historian makes of it — was the hot debate of the day. One of his most famously quoted passages is found on the Wikipedia page and I copy it here: read more »


2013-01-02

What Happens to the Documentary Hypothesis if the Pentateuch was written 270 BCE?

by Neil Godfrey

BerossusGenesisWhat happens to the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) if, as outlined in recent posts, the Pentateuch was first written in the third century BCE? That’s the first question that comes to most of us when first hearing a thesis like this. This post outlines Russell Gmirkin’s chapter on the DH, and is thus a continuation of my summary of the early sections of his book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch.

(Other posts where I have discussed the DH, including other criticisms of it, are archived in the Documentary Hypothesis Category.

See Who Wrote the Bible? The Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis for the history of the DH’s origins.

For Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, the sacred-texts site contains one of the easiest-to-read online versions.

Another modern book worth reading in defence of the DH is Friedman’s The Bible With Sources Revealed.)

The different sources identified in the DH are not in dispute in Gmirkin’s thesis:

This book does not take issue with the Higher Criticism’s identification of different sources in the Pentateuch, each with its own consistent vocabulary, interests and theological outlook. (p. 22)

Gmirkin describes the DH as presented by Wellhausen. Its primary fault, he argues, is that it dates the hypothetical sources by means of what is in reality an unsupported construct of Israel’s history.

The entangling of dating issues with subjective historical constructs was a major flaw in Wellhausen’s approach. The Documentary Hypothesis as developed by Wellhausen illustrates the grave danger of circular reasoning inherent in dating texts by means of a historical construct to facilitate the dating of these same texts. (p. 5)

Gmirkin’s method of dating is, as explained in previous posts in this series, a separate and independent process.

In chapter 2 Gmirkin discusses the DH in some detail. He examines its function and development as a literary and as a historical theory, then considers the historical assumptions underpinning the thesis and finally looks at the external evidence impinging upon the validity of the DH.

The Documentary Hypothesis was both a literary theory (regarding identification and dating of Pentateuchal sources) and a historical theory (regarding the evolution of Jewish religion). The authors of the DH based its history of the Jewish religion directly on the biblical account, accepting that the cultic practices successively described in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings reflected sequential historical periods in Jewish history. (p. 24)

Step One: identifying the sources read more »


2012-11-10

Comments on Eric Zuesse’s Christ’s Ventriloquists: The Event that Created Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

I recently posted on Eric Zuesse’s Christ’s Ventriloquists: The Event that Created Christianity with a link to David Hamilton’s views of the book. The book also comes with nice endorsements from Richard Dawkins and James Crossley and others.

The author had sought a similar endorsement from me and I sent him my conclusion of his thesis:

Given the assumptions on which your thesis rests, it is a consistent and valid argument.

So when David Hamilton finds the thesis interesting but not quite convincing, and when other readers, scholars and non-specialists, find the book’s thesis likewise interesting, I can understand and respect where they are coming from, and to some extent I share their viewpoint. I am quite open to the possibility that some of the assumptions underlying the author’s case — assumptions shared by many scholars, too — will eventually prove to be established certainties. But I’m not ready to take that leap yet.

Unfortunately Eric Zuesse turned upon me with some hostility when, after pressing me to spell out the reasons for my reservations about his thesis, I attempted to clarify why I was not ready to accept the assumptions upon which he builds his argument. So I have little personal interest in writing a formal review for Eric’s sake now, but readers know my stake in this argument and can judge the following in that light.

I post here my criticisms of Eric Zuesse’s book that I wrote him under pressure from him to explain my reluctance to embrace his thesis. Keep in mind that this was written at at time I was attempting to avoid offending Eric who was becoming increasingly acerbic in his replies. But I give most space to trying to clarify what I think is the essence of his own viewpoint and how the studies of Christian origins should be pursued.

First, here is the book’s introductory outline of its argument:

Christ’s Ventriloquists is a work of investigative history. It documents and describes Christianity’s creation-event, in the year 49 or 50, in Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey), 20 years after Jesus had been crucified in Jerusalem for sedition against Roman rule. On this occasion, Paul broke away from the Jewish sect that Jesus had begun, and he took with him the majority of this sect’s members; he convinced these people that Jesus had been a god, and that the way to win eternal salvation in heaven is to worship him as such. Paul here explicitly introduced, for the first time anywhere, the duality of the previously unitary Jewish God, a duality consisting of the Father and the Son; and he implicitly introduced also the third element of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost.

This work also explains and documents the tortuous 14-year-long conflict Paul had had with this sect’s leader, Jesus’s brother James, a conflict which caused Paul, in about the year 50, to perpetrate his coup d’état against James, and to start his own new religion: Christianity.

Then, this historical probe documents that the four canonical Gospel accounts of the words and actions of “Jesus” were written decades after Jesus, by followers of Paul, not by followers of Jesus; and that these writings placed into the mouth of “Jesus” the agenda of Paul. Paul thus effectively became, via his followers, Christ’s ventriloquist. read more »


2012-10-02

Historical Method Versus Jesus Research. Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

by Neil Godfrey

I touched on one brief passage in the chapter by Jens Schröter in my recent post, Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically from Other Historical Studies, and it’s now time to return to his chapter from Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [JCDA] in more depth. Jens Schröter appears at several points to come so close to advocating use of the methods of other historical studies for the study of Jesus, but each time falls agonizingly short of what only those with eyes wide shut will miss.

Introduction

Historical Jesus research in recent decades has dwelt heavily upon the social, political and religious life of Judaism, Palestine and Galilee in the first century in order to explore the environmental factors that must have contributed to the personal make-up of Jesus and his mission.

A historical presentation of Jesus’ mission has to explain why it caused a new movement circled around his name and venerating him as “Lord Jesus Christ.” . . . . (p. 49, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Right here is the first problem of historical Jesus studies. Recently Larry Hurtado even declared that part of this proposition — that a new movement erupted from Palestine in the 30’s — was “data”* that the historian was required to explain.

But that is not data. What is data is the existence of narratives — the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John and the Book of Acts — portraying a faith movement spreading from Palestine in the 30s. But narratives are not necessarily history.

Nor do we have any data to confirm that there was a Jesus mission in Palestine that caused a new movement. The data we have are stories about such a Jesus mission. But stories are not necessarily history.

  • Question: How can we know if a story is based on history?
    • If a story begins with, “This is a true story”, is that enough to rely upon?
    • What if the tale is told from the perspective of an all knowing authoritative narrator who speaks with authority. Is that the clue?
    • What if the tale is plausible and coherent and “rings true” — that is, is rich in verisimilitude? Is that a sure sign it really is true?
    • How many biblical scholars have ever stopped to think through questions like these in relation to historical figures (ancient, medieval and modern) generally?
  • Answer: We need some evidence external to the story itself that confirms for us that there were real events and persons upon which the story was based. For example: read more »

2012-09-28

Criteria’s Demise and the Black Hole of Historical Jesus Studies: Concluding Chapter 1 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

by Neil Godfrey

Continued from the previous post . . . .

We have a problem

Chris Keith explains that the serious problem for the criteria approach to historical Jesus studies is that the assumptions about the “nature of the gospel tradition” upon which those criteria (and form-criticism itself) were built upon “have now been shown to be untenable.”

My own view is that it is a mistake even to speak of “gospel tradition” at this stage since such a concept is itself an untested assumption. What we have are gospels. Scholars generally assume they are products of authors compiling traditions. But I don’t know if this has been argued with reference to evidence by anyone — though I have seen many arguments for it that are based entirely upon the hypothesis (or cultural tradition) that the core narratives ultimately originated with the life of an historical Jesus.

Keith points out that studies since the time of the classical form critics have shown that scholars may have overestimated the extent to which the Gospel authors reshaped the traditions they inherited. Further, the form-critical assumption that the Gospels can be dissected into various layers of traditions is now in serious doubt.

More specifically, Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism demonstrated conclusively that the distinction between early Palestinian Christianity and later Hellenistic Christianity, which the form-critics took as axiomatic and Bultmann even acknowledged was “an essential part of my inquiry,” was a false dichotomy. This distinction provided for the form critics the foundational justification for separating the written Gospel texts. Scholars now routinely note its widespread rejection. (pp. 37-38, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Surely this fact (that Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianities are a false dichotomy) leaves us with less reason to assume that the Gospel authors were garnering and weaving “traditions” into narratives that so clearly appear to be creative imitations and adaptations of other literature.

But this assumption of “pre-gospel traditions” is not questioned by Keith. Another tool must be found to study these assumed traditions:

[I]n the words of Kirk, “Little of this tradition model can survive scrutiny in light of advances in research on the phenomenology of tradition.” In view here are those Gospels scholars working in the increasingly-overlapping areas of oral tradition and social/cultural memory-theory. (p. 38)

So the problem with the criteria approach is not only that criteria are the wrong tools to uncover history (see previous post for details), but that “the Gospels are not the type of ground in which one can dig.”

It is now widely accepted that

one cannot peel through the layers of faith to an “original”: “We can never succeed in stripping away that faith from the tradition, as though to leave a nonfaith core. When we strip away faith, we strip away everything and leave nothing.”

Thomas L. Thompson has said essentially the same in another context:

Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach. (The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past, p.44)

Historical Jesus scholars appear to be on the way to replacing one set of failed tools with a lot of postmodernist mumbo jumbo.

At this point Keith writes on behalf of many historical Jesus scholars when delves into abstract complexities that appear to be necessary solely because there is no evidence for Jesus that is comparable to the sorts of evidence historians generally study. The idea of first analysing the documentary evidence to assess what questions can be asked of it (as is correctly done in other historical studies) remains far from scholarly consciousness here. The tradition shapes the question and the evidence must be made to answer it no matter what. read more »