Category Archives: Henige: Historical Evidence & Argument


Testing (or not) Historical Sources for Reliability

by Neil Godfrey
The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a rape and murder are all different.

The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a rape and murder are all different. — Wikipedia

Continuing from the previous post. . . .

Fallibility of eyewitness accounts

Eyewitness accounts are not necessarily more reliable than other sources. Timothy Good compiled 100 eyewitness accounts of the assassination of President Lincoln and its immediate aftermath in We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts. David Henige comments in Historical Evidence and Argument (2005):df

Reading these reminds us of the omnipresent Rashomon effect, and also that a secondary account that collects and evaluates a number of primary sources might actually be preferred to these, even when it paraphrases them, as long as it does this well, and as long as it allows access to all the evidence. (2005: 48 — Formatting and bolding mine in all quotations)

We have all heard of the studies that demonstrate the depressing unreliability of memories of events witnessed and experienced. Henige cites several articles addressing many of these studies and I attempted to follow up a few to flesh out details. One common theme is the way false memories can be implanted as a byproduct of others asking a witness questions that introduce the possibility of details that were not originally seen (e.g. Wells and Olson).

Here are a few pertinent sections from Toward a Psychology of Memory Accuracy by Goldsmith, Koriat and Pansky:

  • Although thinking about a perceived event after it has happened helps maintain its visual details, thinking about imagined events also increases their vividness, and may therefore result in impaired reality monitoring for these events (Suengas & Johnson 1988). Goff & Roediger (1998) found that the more times subjects imagined an unperformed action, the more likely they were to recollect having performed it. . . . .
  • The fact that people know at one time that a certain piece of information was imagined, dreamt, or fictional does not prevent them from later attributing it to reality (Durso & Johnson 1980, Finke et al 1988, Johnson et al 1984). . . . ;
  • In comparing the results for an immediate test with those for a test given two days later, the proportion of accurate recall declined over time, whereas false recall actually tended to increase (McDermott 1996).

Nor does the research support the belief that false memories are necessarily the product of trauma and psychological repression:

Many cognitive psychologists, however, doubt these assertions (Lindsay 1998, Loftus et al 1994), pointing instead to evidence suggesting that false memories may arise from normal reconstructive memory processes.

Henige’s conclusion:

We can hardly re-enact the life experiences of eyewitnesses from the past to judge their capacity with respect to memory. The alternative is to conduct large-scale and repeated experiments that test various kinds of memory. As noted, hundreds of these have been carried out and in general the results have not been encouraging for any historians who might wish to believe eyewitnesses implicitly.

Testis unus, testis nullus, One witness is no witness

Testis unus, testis nullus, runs the Roman legal dictum: “one witness [is] no witness.” 

Or as a less exalted source [Granger, Shades of Murder] put it: “Unsubstantiated? It means that no other person than yourself has claimed to have witnessed these things or been able to show that they existed.” — (2005: 49)

In ancient history scholars can find themselves depending more often than not single sources for what they know. One would expect this difficulty to make historians more cautious about how they interpret and rely on this solitary pieces of data for various arguments but unfortunately the opposite is found to be the case far too often.

There is a natural tendency to treat unique evidence with kid gloves.22  (2005: 49)

Henige’s footnote no. 22 brings us to a biblical scholar as a negative example:

22 Or even attempt to turn it to advantage, as R.N. Whybray does when he writes: “[t]o regard as useless for the historian’s purposes the only account of a nation’s history written by its own nationals is, to say the least, extraordinary.” Whybray, “What Do We Know,” 72.

Naturally an “only find” does deserve preservation. No-one disputes its importance. However,

that fact by itself should persuade the historian to apply every form of internal criticism possible. (2005: 49)

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Understanding Historical Sources: Primary, Secondary and Questions of Authenticity

by Neil Godfrey
There is no need, when I have found the source, to follow the streams (John Bolland in Acta Sanctorum 1845: vol. 1, xx). — cited by Henige (2005)


In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (McKnight 2005, p.16)


henigeIn my recent post Comparing the sources for Caesar and Jesus I referred to Historical Evidence and Argument (2005) by the historian David Henige. It contains an excellent chapter on the problems historians face with various kinds of source materials. It’s the sort of work not a few theologians who regard themselves as historians yet who have had little formal training in history beyond their field of biblical studies would do well to read. As for the rest of us, it can help clarify our understanding of the sources that lie behind the stories and arguments we read about the origins of Christianity.

Sources are commonly said to fall into two types. (Henige discusses more than two but I focus here on the main ones.)

1. Primary sources

Confusion sometimes arises depending on whether the historian is referring to “absolute” or “relative” primary sources.

The latter approach [i.e. primary in the relative sense] allows considerably more latitude, perhaps too much, in that whichever sources we have that are — apparently — closest to the events we are interested in are duly termed “primary,” even though they might be separated by centuries from these events. By this way of thinking, historians would always have access to something called “primary” because each historian can define the term idiosyncratically. (Henige 2005: 43)

What is meant by primary in the “absolute” sense?

Leopold von Ranke, and before him John Lingard, held a more stringent view; only a source that was at least “contemporary” can justly be considered primary.1 This sounds reasonable and would help provide consistency . . . (pp. 43-44)

The footnote is to the following: read more »


The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.37.57 pmTo continue the theme of fundamental principles of historical reasoning this post selects points from Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). They all come from the fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots”.

Pyrrhonist scepticism

To begin, notice what scepticism means to Henige. He explains:

Skepticism takes many forms—I am concerned with pyrrhonist skepticism. In theory, and often in practice as well, the pyrrhonist doubts but seldom denies. Instead, he prefers to suspend judgment about truth-claims on the grounds that further evidence or insights might alter the state of play. Pyrrhonists demand that, to be successful, all inquiry must be characterized by rhythms of searching, examining, and doubting, with each sequence generating and influencing the next in a continuously dialectical fashion.7

As a result, issues are visited and revisited as often as needed. The result can be to strengthen probability or to weaken it — odds that might seem too risky for those who believe that progress must be inexorable.

The considered suspension of belief does not ordinarily pertain in matters that are self-evident or trivial, but expressly applies to cases where more than one explanation is possible.8

Given this caveat, the practical advantages of pyrrhonism are patent.

The most important is that declining to accept or believe keeps questions open as long as necessary. Practitioners learn to flinch when they meet terms like “certainly,” “without doubt,” “of course,” or “prove/proof” in their reading, seeing them as discursive strikes designed to persuade where the evidence, or its use, prove insufficient. They have learned that, since new evidence and new techniques are constantly coming forth, they are sensible to withhold final judgment.

7 Discussions of pyrrhonism include Naess, Scepticism; Vansina, “Power of Systematic Doubt;” Wlodarczyk, Pyrrhonian Inquiry.

8 For such practical limitations see Ribeiro, “Pyrrhonism.”

(My formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Anathematizing of doubt and doubters

In scolding his most persistent critic, Marshall Sahlins asks: “[w]hy, then, this stonewalling in the face of the textual evidence?

Probably because [Gananath] Obeyesekere’s main debating game is a negative one, . . . the object being to cast doubt.


I’m sure anyone who has read some of the intemperate responses of scholars outraged by Christ Myth or “mythicist” challenges to the traditional reading of Paul’s letters will hear clear echoes here. I’m also reminded of Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology Larry Hurtado’s complaint that my questions were only designed to sow doubt and served no constructive function.

Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere draw upon the same body of evidence — the accounts of the various eyewitnesses among Cook’s crew that were published on their return to England. read more »


Failure of the Logic of History in Christian Origins Studies

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 4.37.11 pmI have finally found two books on the practice of history, each by a scholar (other than Richard Carrier), that address the core questions I have often raised with respect to flawed methods of New Testament historians dealing with Christianity’s origins. Both works address historical studies in general and only one from time to time casts a glance at what certain biblical historians are doing.

One is The Logic of History by C. Behan McCullagh (2004). McCullagh is a philosopher of history responding primarily to the postmodernist challenges to traditional historical practices in the field of history generally. Some of his arguments apply not only to postmodernist approaches, however, but equally to a number of flawed arguments by more traditional biblical scholars.

The other is Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). In my next post I will address his fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots” where he applies his criticism to sentiments we find expressed repeatedly throughout New Testament historical works — and especially in regard to many New Testament scholars’ attacks on the Christ Myth hypothesis.

This post addresses a few excerpts from C. Behan McCullagh’s The Logic of History. 

Why has no-one else argued these points before?

The points have been argued before but apparently rarely applied to the methods of scholars specializing in the history of Christianity’s origins and early growth. Nonetheless, when I first tried to think through how we came believe certain persons and events in the ancient past were historical and others not I was a little surprised that so little appeared to have been directly addressing this question.

Happily I have now found an explanation for my inability to find what I was looking for back then. On page one McCullagh writes:

Historians often learn how to assess their hypotheses by studying debates in history in the course of their education. They acquire a capacity to evaluate their hypotheses critically, without always being aware of the standards of rationality they are applying. Awareness of those standards, however, will make it easier for historians to ensure that their work is rationally defensible.

There are many good books which explain how students of history should undertake their inquiries, but they contain very little guidance as to the logic of historical reasoning. They are almost entirely about searching for answers to one’s questions, and writing up the results. Yet the point of all the good practical advice is to gather information from which sound inferences about the past can be formed. Those inferences and arguments are at the heart of historical practice. (my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

And in the conclusion of his Introduction on page 4:

I hope that this introduction to the logic of history will quicken historians’ interest in the rational justification of their accounts of the past. It should help guide historians in the rational assessment of their own work and that of others.

So McCullough appears to be acknowledging that most of the current works on the practice of history have overlooked and taken for granted “the standards of rationality” being applied and “logic of historical reasoning”. 

How to be sure we are reading a text the right way

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