Category Archives: Historiography


The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory & And What’s This All About Anyway?

by Neil Godfrey

The third paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) was by Richard Bauckham: “The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory”. Helen Bond followed with her paper on the Gospel of John’s use of Mark (see previous post) and then there was a discussion between the two presenter and audience. It was the discussion that I found most interesting.

Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham’s talk was indeed about the psychology of eyewitness memory and with little in the way of specific applications to biblical studies. His primary concern appeared to be to assure the audience that though one often hears how unreliable our memories are, including how unreliable eyewitness testimony so often can be in courtroom situations, nonetheless, when it comes to the sort of episodic memory we are talking about when we think of Jesus’ followers, memories are generally pretty sound for most purposes.

Events that are remembered well are those that

  • are unique or unusual
  • are consequential, salient
  • involve us emotionally

And of course such memories are cemented in our brains the more often we rehearse them.

Very broadly we can speak of three types of memory: procedural, semantic or conceptual, and episodic.

  1. Procedural memory refers to remembering how to ride a bike, etc.
  2. Semantic or conceptual memory refers to remembering concepts, book learning, etc.
  3. Episodic memory refers to events that happen to us, the stuff that makes up major events in our lives.

It is the third type of memory that we are addressing when discussing gospel narratives and their eyewitness source material. That type of memory is more stable than the other two. If you are injured in a car crash you are not likely to think back years later and wonder if your injuries resulted from falling off a mountain.

Many stories highlighting the unreliability of memory derive from laboratory conditions and involve semantic or conceptual memory exercises. There is little real-life relationship to these findings. You life-situations are not so vulnerable to forgetting major or unusual events in your life.

All of that makes sense to me. But of course it does not address directly the reliability of the Gospels. For that question Bauckham referred occasionally to his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

The Discussion — and Tough Questions

I should say that I considered them tough and I thought the answers were very slight, as if they had no solid response at all. But that may just be my bias so I have copied the discussion below for you to see for yourself. read more »


The Reception of Jesus Tradition in Paul

by Neil Godfrey

The second paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) is “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi.

In sum, to the best of my understanding (and there is considerable external noise in the video) here is Christine Jacobi’s main argument.

Paul’s was indebted to a Jesus tradition conveyed by eyewitnesses and others but what impressed him the most and formed the foundation of his and his community’s identity was the Christ Event itself. This enabled him to justify certain rulings that were in keeping with the meaning of that event and the needs of his churches as they identified themselves with that Christ event, even if those teachings contradicted specific sayings that the tradition attributed to Jesus himself.

Christine Jacobi

Christine Jacobi

Christine Jabobi’s thesis: Pauline letters are part of the early Christian memory of Jesus although Paul was not interested in the earthly Jesus. With traditional materials and his own reasoning, the apostle subordinated the Jesus tradition that was known to him to a comprehensive overarching interpretation of the Christ Event. Paul did not care for historical distinctions between early original material and later interpretations.

Romans 12:14-21 is believed by many scholars to indicate that Paul did know of the Jesus tradition that later found its way into the gospels. The NIV translation:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Jacobi explains that many scholars believe Paul took these ideas from those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus and who were preserving and teaching the words they had heard Jesus speak, the evidence for this being found in the gospels; Luke 6:28

28 Bless those who curse you . . . .

Did Paul take the words of Jesus that he heard from the eyewitnesses of Jesus and did those eyewitness traditions eventually catch up with the gospel authors who set them in writing? Jacobi rightly argues that the evidence can just as validly support the argument that Paul adapted the teachings from other traditions, especially Jewish wisdom literature such as the Book of Proverbs, and that the evangelists who wrote the gospels took the words from Paul and adapted them to make them the words of Jesus.

One scholar, Dunn, argues that Paul could mix the “remembered” words of Jesus with his recollections of Jewish Scripture and use them both as if they had equal authority. Jacobi thinks it unlikely that Jesus’ words would have had such authority so early.

But Jacobi points to other passages in Paul’s writings that explicitly contradict the words of Jesus that the gospels indicated came from the “Jesus tradition”. We are familiar with Paul’s disagreement with Jesus over marriage and divorce. Paul additionally rejected the right, even thought it had been made explicit by Jesus, to be supported by the people he served in his ministry.

I Corinthians 9

14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.

Compare Luke 10

7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages.

What is going on here? If Paul knows of the same Jesus tradition that is said to emerge later in the gospels then why does he short-change it? Notice that even in the Romans 12 passage on blessing one’s enemies Paul does not appeal to the same carrot that Jesus held out to motivate his readers. Jesus promised those who acted this way a great reward in heaven. Paul, rather, in other passages in his writings appeals to his followers to identify with God himself and to be like the God who revealed himself in the Christ event — that is, to be like the God who revealed himself in the flesh and forgave others before and after ascending to heaven.

In other words, Paul subordinated the words of Jesus to something far more important, far bigger, than discerning their exact form.

What is surprising to Christine Jacobi is that such a hypothesis would mean that the earliest accounts available to us that contain memories of Jesus are highly interpreted and adapted for contemporary needs while the later evidence, the gospels, contain the words of Jesus in a less interpreted and a more original form. One would normally expect to find the reverse in the extant evidence: the earlier containing the more primitive account and the later evidence the more highly interpreted and adapted forms.

Such in summary is my memory of Christine Jacobi’s conference presentation. Jacobi’s hypothesis is built upon the assumption that the gospel authors inherited memorized traditions from eyewitnesses of Jesus. There is no reference in her paper to any arguments that challenge the view that the gospels have written down oral recollections rather than having borrowed from other literature (e.g. Henaut 1993; Brodie 2004). (Although Jacobi does claim, if I caught her words correctly, that Paul’s/Jesus’ teaching to “Bless those who persecute/curse you” is a new form of pre-existing teachings and not directly found outside the Jesus tradition.)

Is it not a simpler hypothesis that Paul adapted teachings from Jewish and Hellenistic literature and that the gospels reframed many of his words and placed them in the mouth of Jesus? Does not this simpler hypothesis account for the same data we find in both the letters of Paul and the Gospels while raising fewer questions about why Paul went to such extreme lengths to distance himself and his words from any acknowledgement to “the historical Jesus of Galilee” whose life was, after all, integral to “the Christ Event” that so completely consumed Paul’s focus?



Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity, Conference. Some Questions.

by Neil Godfrey

Lectures from the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) have been made available at Biblical Studies Online. I look forward to updating myself with these talks and have already listened with interest to the first two, “The Memory Approach and the Reception of Jesus” by Chris Keith (though read by Steve Walton) and “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi.

Chris Keith’s paper essentially outlined the introductory points he has published previously about the nature of the social memory approach to Jesus studies but with an emphasis on defending the originality of what it has to offer New Testament scholars today. Much of the criticism of memory theory in New Testament studies, he begins, even criticism that has passed through the peer-review process, has been inaccurate. It has mischaracterized what the approach is about and failed to engage with the theory and its methodology.

The main point Keith emphasizes is that past events are not remembered (individually or collectively) in a “pristine” state as if preserved whole in a time capsule for our benefit, but are always remembered through the filters of earlier interpretation of the event that we have inherited and our present interests, needs, circumstances, environmental or cultural influences. As a long-time student of history I see nothing controversial about this statement. It strikes me as little more than a truism for any serious historian.

brueghel_ii_pieter_-_christ_and_the_woman_taken_in_adultery_1600However, I do wonder what such a process of “remembering” means for Chris Keith when he cites as a case study by David Parker(?) the pericope adulterae or passage in the Gospel of John about the woman taken in adultery. The manuscript evidence informs us that this story was not part of the original Gospel yet the story is such a part of our heritage that it inevitably influences the way we read and think about the gospels and the historical Jesus. Knowing that it was not part of the original accounts does not remove its influence over the way we think about Jesus.

I question that claim. If I understand the point correctly, I cannot accept that it is true. Surely scholars have written their own views on the historical Jesus that have no place at all for this story. Traditionally many scholars have attempted to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus entirely by means of comparing data in the synoptic gospels and leaving the entire Gospel of John (not just the pericope adulterae) out of their view completely.

Parker’s (and Keith’s) claim that the story inevitably influences how we think about Jesus is true at a general cultural level; Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman is part of image of Jesus that has come to us through our cultural heritage. But anyone who is interested in a serious study of the gospels by normative scholarly means can indeed construct a “historical Jesus” that allows no place for it.

Or perhaps I misunderstand the point. I am open to being corrected.

Misunderstanding Historical Positivism and Mnemohistory

Later Keith argues that memory theory turns traditional historical positivism on its head. Again, I find myself questioning his presentation. To begin with, he offers what to me is an inadequate definition of what positivism means as an approach by historians to the past. In Keith’s view as I understand it historical positivism is the belief that the historian can and should “get behind the sources” to recover a purely objective truth or fact of what actually happened. From this point Keith argues that since the past must always necessarily be interpreted to be remembered at all, then it can never be “truly objective reality” but always some form of narrated “myth”.

To justify this view Keith refers to the work of Jan Assmann on mnemohistory. I have addressed Jan Assmann’s interest and what he means by mnemohistory in Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies and show why comparing Assmann’s history of how historical figures were remembered with other historical tasks such as understanding, say, the origins of the French Revolution (or the origins of Christianity) is seriously misguided.

What Jesus scholars aspire to do (however unrealistic their hopes) is comparable to what Egyptologists do when they uncover and analyze the data in order to find out as far as possible “what happened” in the days of Akhenaten; Assmann’s interest is entirely different. His mnemohistory is a survey of the various cultural myths that appear to have arisen in the wake of the Akhenaten revolution. The two types of historical inquiry are completely different. Both are valid, but they each have quite different agendas.

To see a fuller explanation of historical positivism and how historians have both embraced and moved away from it see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, originally published 1946 but printed and released many times since.

It seems to me that with an oversimplified view of historical positivism Chris Keith has thrown out the baby with the bath water. Historical positivism originated as an attempt to set historical inquiry on a scientific footing. To this end historians believed that they should first establish the “facts” as a scientist establishes the facts, and from that starting point hypothesize and test laws to explain the relationships between those facts. By turning to Assmann it looks to me as if Keith has begun with a view of history that has no interest in the historical origin of a myth, that is, uncovering “the original facts” (this being considered an impossible quest), but only in the various ways the myth came to be “remembered” and mutated through the generations and again in his own time.

But even when mainstream historians rejected positivism (the belief that they could establish historical laws or principles from “the facts”) they did not reject the belief that they could find some form of real substance or “true events” in the past. Of course everything is necessarily interpreted. That again is a truism that needs no elaboration — at least to most historians I know of. (It only seems to be “big news” among some New Testament scholars, it seems to me.) But interpretation of an event does not mean that the event does not have some form of objective reality. We all have our interpretations of World War 2, of Churchill and Hitler. We cannot avoid them. But that does not remove the possibility of knowing that Churchill and Hitler really did do and say certain things, made certain decisions, and that very real and objective events that we can know about did follow as a result. Yes, we view those events through our interpretations. We know that people in other cultures and nations will have different interpretations, but no-one can deny that certain events are real and really did happen.

If I have misunderstood Chris Keith’s point I am more than willing to be better informed.

The difficulty with historical Jesus studies that has given rise to this misguided view of history as being completely beyond reach is that our earliest sources for Jesus, the letters of Paul, write about nothing but the myth of Jesus. Jesus, and what is sometimes referred to as “the Christ event”, is to Paul an entirely theological construct. The same is true of the later sources, the Gospels.

We only come to historical constructs (as distinguished from theological/mythical ones) in the next lecture in the conference, “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi. However, as we shall see, those earliest historical constructs — the model of Jesus teaching and his words being remembered and passed on in various forms until they are set down in the Gospels — are entirely hypothetical. They are entirely extrapolations from the myth itself.

I suspect Chris Keith would respond by saying that all records of history are by nature, inevitably, some form of myth because they must be interpreted in order to be narrated. My response is that yes, but interpretation does not deny the reality of events or persons. Recall my example above referencing the facts and persons of World War 2. We can know there was a real person Akhenaten and series of events that really happened around him — independently of the myths that those events generated.

It does not logically follow that there was no historical Jesus at the start of it all or that Jacobi’s historical construct is wrong. What does follow, in my view, is that it is pointless to ask questions about what the historical Jesus was like or what he said. We simply have nothing beyond the myths to inform us. The only question that the available evidence allows us to ask, as I see it, is how are we to understand the nature of the earliest evidence and how do we account for its origins.

To answer that the historian needs to inquire into not only the character of the world from which our sources emerged but also into attentive literary, redactional and other analyses that deepen our understanding of the nature of those sources.


Bayes, Schizophrenia, Autism and Brain Chemistry

by Neil Godfrey

A fascinating essay, even if speculative, by Scott Alexander on the brain chemistry behind Bayesian, deductive and inductive reasoning, and light it possibly sheds on conditions like schizophrenia, autism, and being stoned.

It’s Bayes All The Way Up


Historical Methods: How Scholars Read the Gospels – An Outsider’s Perspective

by Neil Godfrey

Professor James D. Tabor (The Jesus Dynasty) has done his field of biblical studies and, most especially, the wider public a great service by setting out the historical methods by which he and critical scholars more generally approach the gospels. The public deserves to know and the field of biblical studies can only benefit from a more informed public. In Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospel Tabor explains that scholars don’t merely “pick and choose” details in the different gospels according to what they feel supports their theories about the historical Jesus or other questions: they apply critical analysis. Example:

Why do we have differing versions of many of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark . . . ? Rather than picking ones “favorite” version, and using it arbitrarily for ones own purposes, what critical scholars attempt to do is analytically account for the various strands of tradition, carefully comparing the similarities and differences, in an effort to get at why our traditions differ, when and where they originated, and which might more reliably go back to Jesus himself – if such can be determined.

Notice something else, though. The entire explanation is couched in the an assumption that the gospels contain traditions that in some cases and in some form go back to the historical Jesus himself. In fact, one significant purpose of the critical analysis is to discover what gospel material “might more reliably go back to Jesus himself”.

That is, the gospels are assumed to contain records, however flawed, of event or sayings that emanated from Jesus and/or his followers. The gospels are assumed at some level to be based on a “true story”.

Reasonable assumptions

That is a very reasonable position to take. After all, the gospels are written in an authoritative tone from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. The narrative voice conceals the real identity of the true author and in doing so removes any sense that we are reading a narrative limited by human bias and perspective. Of course, scholars especially are keenly aware that the stories are definitely, even inevitably, written from personal perspectives, and that’s the reason for their need to critically analyse their contents. But the problem is we have grown up in a culture that has taken for granted the authoritative character of the Gospels. Western religious and broader cultural tradition is grounded in the assurance that Jesus was the most important influence on our religious ideas and cultural values. To question this “fact” is as crazy as questioning the rotundity of the earth. Institutions have been built on the belief in Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. The “fact of Jesus” and “Gospel Truth” are part of our everyday metaphors and consciousness. Jesus is held up as a legitimizing symbol for a whole range of social, political, ideological causes.

Further, we have the date of the earliest gospel grounded in our conventional understanding:

Mark seems to have been written around 70 CE – within forty years of Jesus’ lifetime.

This is taken as a given, again quite reasonably, because it is a near-consensus among New Testament scholars. There are some outliers who place it considerably earlier, even decades earlier, but most (not all) of those who do so are apologists. Even fewer mavericks place it much later.

The problem is that these assumptions are not facts and really are open to question.

Look first at our assumption about the nature of the Gospels, that they are at some level records of a “true story”. Some scholars have argued that many of the narrative units about Jesus are re-writes of Old Testament passages. The raising of the daughter of Jairus is seen by some to be a re-write of similar miracles by Elijah or Elisha. Other scholars (the best known one is Dennis MacDonald and his The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) have even argued that both anecdotes and entire themes in the Gospels are drawn from popular Greek literature. Now other scholars have challenged such interpretations but the point is that such arguments can be reasonably made by specialists who know their stuff. In other words, it is not a bed-rock unquestionable certainty that what we read in the Gospels necessarily at some level owed its origin to “traditions” that were believed to have come from the historical Jesus.

It is not beyond possibility that at least parts of the Gospels originated as creative writing, as literary inventions. Of course some parts were definitely drawn from genuine historical tradition, too. We know that Pilate really was the governor, etc.

So given such a possibility, how do historians decide what is drawn from “historical memory” or even “historical imagination” on the one hand and “literary creativity” on the other?

This question is going one step further than Tabor has addressed. We are not asking what accounts in the Gospels can be traced to Jesus, but how we can tell if anything in a text owes anything at all to history as opposed to being entirely creative literature.

I believe there are ways. Not ways that will guarantee certainty, but that will certainly give us some measure of confidence one way or the other.

How we can write ancient history — breaking through cultural assumptions

The first is to look for independent corroboration. Some scholars see corroboration for their view that Gospel stories such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter above are literary fabrications by pointing to similar accounts in the Hebrew Bible. The critical point is that the corroborating evidence must be genuinely independent.

A second condition is to look at the provenance of both the narrative under investigation and of the corroborating testimony. Do we have clear reasons to trust that a piece of writing is derived from someone who “knew his history” or at least “the historical traditions”? Or do we have reason to believe the author was creative — for whatever theological or parabolic or edifying or entertainment reasons — from the start? So we may not have contemporary written accounts of Hannibal or Alexander the Great but we do have accounts by persons known who identify their sources from the times in question. Of course in theory they could all be lying, but their accounts do cohere with other evidence we see and do explain a lot about the way we can see the world changed so I think they are entitled to have at some measure of our confidence.

Unfortunately we have no idea who wrote the gospels or why or for whom or when (I’ll discuss the “or when” below). They don’t even identify their sources. The prologue introducing the Gospel of Luke is too vague a formula to be useful, and it is also questionable whether it is even meaning to say what most people seem to think it means. That’s never a good start for any historian. The reason we can write a history of the ancient world is precisely because we do have sufficient sources of the type that can be verified or give us some confidence in their historical reliability (imperfect though it may be). We can talk about Socrates as a historical figure because we do have such evidence for him.

When it comes to the Gospels, however, we have no comparable corroborating evidence nor the sort of information that should assure us that they really are attempts to record historical traditions and memories.

We do have evidence that supports the view that they were cut from the cloth of other literature, however.

The ideological influence on the dating of the Gospels

As for when the first Gospel was written, again we see cultural assumptions guiding our interpretations of the evidence. We assume, as we have always assumed and as everyone around us has always assumed, that at some level they are based on genuine history. Given that we believe this is what the Gospels are, it follows that they become the more reliable the closer we can legitimately place their origin to those historical events.

Therefore when we read about the prediction of the fall of the Jerusalem temple in the Gospel of Mark, it is again reasonable to date that Gospel to some time after that event. But of course we can infer that historical reliability as a rule tends to diminish the further away it is placed from the time it relates. In fact there is no reason I know of (I can be corrected, of course) that the Gospel of Mark might not have been written some time in the early decades of the second century. The earliest independent evidence of its existence appears to be found in a writing by Justin Martyr dated shortly after the Bar Kochba war of the early 130s.

The outsider perspective

James Tabor has done everyone a service by setting out so clearly the critical approaches and assumptions at the core of studies exploring Christian origins. I think we as outsiders can use his post as a springboard to identify more clearly the cultural assumptions embedded in the scholarly methods of critical New Testament scholars.



Anti-Historical History in Biblical Studies

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)


A Must Read! Steve Mason’s A History of the Jewish War

by Neil Godfrey

mason-warGentle reader, you must promise not to tell my wife what I am about to confess to you. Yesterday I threw thrift behind me and recklessly purchased an electronic copy of A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 by Steve Mason. And I do not regret the guilty pleasure.

Extremely rare among historical works we tend to associate with topics related to biblical studies, this work is written by an author who clearly understands what history is and how to use historical sources. Steve Mason laments his publisher’s insistence that he remove an entire chapter explaining all of this to an audience he acknowledges will belong primarily to departments in “religious studies, Jewish studies, archaeology, biblical studies, or theology.” He knows that

If even those who understand themselves to be historians and nothing else differ significantly in method, the potential for disagreement over aims and methods is likely to be all the greater in this field. On top of that lie all the potential stakes in this period held by Jews and Christians of various kinds, religious and non- and anti-religious scholars, Zionists, post-Zionists, and anti-Zionists.

So the excised chapter was replaced by a shorter discussion in his second chapter, and I would love every biblical scholar and theologian who thinks she or he is a historian yet who has never read R.G. Collingwood or E.H. Carr. Too often I have seen a theologian mocking what he calls an old positivist view of history yet ironically failing to realize that he only has a superficial grasp of what historical positivism really is. I myself have been lampooned for discussing the problems raised by E.H. Carr for historians by theologians who only know that Carr had communist sympathies and accordingly seem to think that anyone who refers to him must be seeking to undermine every good and decent value in modern society.

But here is Steve Mason discussing the problems facing historians as they are addressed by Carr.

To get to the point: Mason explains the importance of first knowing and understanding what our sources actually are. A historian cannot simply read Josephus, for example, at face value. One must understand the type of world that had produced him and the type of writing he has given us. One must understand the worldview he shares with his contemporaries. And one must understand why he wrote the way he did and what he did.

Moreover, one must understand what history is and what it is not. The past is dead. It is gone. It no longer exists. So how can we know anything about the past?

The past is not a set of facts that exist “out there” and that the historian can look at and talk about. The past really is dead. It is not preserved in some sort of hologram or series of floating imprints for our imaginations to look at and learn.

What we read in history books are the creations of historians. Creations.

I hesitate to use the detective analogy because it has been done to death before even though it is very often misapplied or misunderstood or not understood nearly well enough.

But in one sense history really is like detective work in that it seeks to understand what happened/a crime — who, how, what — from whatever bits and pieces left at the scene might be able to convey. That sounds banal, but the principle is not often understood among many historians tied to theology and biblical studies. Here is the difference:

All detectives start with some known facts that are indisputable. A cadaver with a knife in its back, a diary of a missing heiress, invoices and tax records. They then seek to uncover more evidence from these established facts. Interviews are recorded and attempts are made to independently corroborate them, etc.

But if detectives work like historical Jesus scholars they would not work like this at all. They would read a few popular anonymous publications about a long-ago murder at a nearby uninhabited hill that locals believed to be haunted. They would dismiss most of the anecdotes about hauntings, but they would study the publications to try to determine who the murder victim was and what was the motive for his murder.

That’s from an older post of mine.

In other words, far more often than not, scholars familiar only with biblical studies all too often do not understand the relationship between their sources, the events narrated in them, and what really happened.

Steve Mason, at least as far as I have read since yesterday, does understand. I feel like I am reading the work of a “real historian” so rare in this particular field of research.

I hope to be able to share my guilty pleasure over coming months and longer as time and opportunity are both kind to me.



Unfair to Compare Jesus Scholars with Regular Historians

by Neil Godfrey
It may be unfair to hold Jesus scholars to the standards of regular historians, since they have been trained in interpretation of sacred texts, not in the methods of historical investigation.
Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013, 9.

Richard A. Horsley

What is the context of that comment? Distinguished Professor Richard Horsley is talking about the practice of Jesus scholars to take individual sayings out of the gospels and attempting to “excavate” their origins instead of studying the gospels as literary works.

One of the first and most basic responsibilities of historians is to critically assess the character of their sources. Literary and rhetorical analysis of the sources is necessary to discern how they may be used for investigation of historical events, actors, and circumstances. Historians would not separate individual statements or short anecdotes from a source, categorize them by key words or apparent subject matter, and then seek the meaning of each statement by itself or assess the likelihood that particular anecdotes provide reliable attestation of actual historical incidents. (p. 9)

Historical Jesus scholars are very well aware that the Gospel are not regular histories but documents composed for the purpose of promoting faith in a wonder-working and resurrected Jesus. They therefore work with the assumption that if they extract certain pieces from such documents and subject them to “historical tests” they can arrive at some approximation of the “real historical Jesus”.

Jesus scholars recognize the “rhetorical” perspective of the Gospels. But precisely because the Gospels express the Easter faith of the “early Christians,” these scholars attempted to cut through or move underneath them by focusing on individual sayings (and stories) as their sources (or “data”), thus treating the Gospels as mere containers or collections. Work in other sub-fields of New Testament studies and related fields, however, is making this view of the Gospels untenable. (p. 9)

Horsley explains the process on the preceding page:

[T]he meaning of a saying depends on its meaning context, from which it cannot be intelligibly isolated. By extracting the sayings of Jesus from their literary context, Jesus scholars dispense with the only indication available for what that meaning context may have been. The analogy drawn recently that scholars are “excavating” the Gospel sources for Jesus such as Q or even “excavating Jesus” may be more telling than they realize. This suggests that the sayings are precious artifacts that must be excavated from the piles of dirt and debris in which they have become buried. Then, like museum curators of a generation or two ago, interpreters of Jesus arrange those decontextualized artifacts by type (“apocalyptic” or “sapiential”) and/or topic (children, meals, kingdom, wisdom), like fragments of lamps, vases, and pots in museum cases. Individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them. As isolated artifacts, however, they do not have or convey meaning, and they beg the question of context. The result is Jesus as a dehistoricized “talking head,” devoid of life circumstances.

With their various “databases” of atomized Jesus sayings isolated from any meaning context, the Jesus scholars then supply the meaning context themselves, often from the constructs of New Testament studies. It has become standard among critical liberal scholars, for example, to isolate Jesus’s admonition on what (not) to take for a/the journey from its immediate context in the “mission discourses” in both Mark 6:8-13 and Q/Lk 10:2-16. But what can this isolated saying about staff, sandals, bag, and so on mean in itself? Evidently nothing. So liberal interpreters recontextualize the saying in the modern scholarly construct of an itinerant vagabond lifestyle that Jesus was supposedly advocating to his individual disciples. (p. 8)

It is no different with scholars who work with memory theory in an attempt to reach back to the supposedly earliest “interpreted saying”.

I’ve addressed this point several times before — see, for example, Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything — so it is interesting, even encouraging, to see the same point being made by one of the more prominent biblical scholars today.



The Motiveless Behavior of Fairy-Tale Characters

by Tim Widowfield
A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose read...

A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose reading written (literary) fairy tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In true stories, as well as most conventional fiction, when characters move about, do things, say things, and interact with one another or with their environments, they operate logically. That is, we understand their motivations. The chicken crosses the road not simply to get to the other side, but because she wanted something over there.

Motiveless motion

On the other hand, characters in fairy tales operate differently. They don’t act like real people. In their book, Social Memory: New Perspectives on the Past, James Fentress and Chris Wickham explain that within folk tales (of which fairy tales are a subset), everything follows convention — the setting, the plot, the characters — all of it must follow the formula. And so people do things that in real life would raise serious questions. However, in their fairy-tale setting, we suspend disbelief.

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, the mother does not ask how and why she has become pregnant, nor how or why she is to die in giving birth. Similarly, there is no particular reason why Ann-Marie gathers her brother’s bones and buries them under the juniper tree; she just does so. The father is given no personality at all; he merely serves to accomplish the thematic business of eating the ‘beast’.

This motivelessness is typical. The behaviour of fairy-tale characters is governed by a set of themes which specifies the way in which a particular series of actions must be performed, and it is this thematic logic, rather than a character’s psychology, that is frequently behind the character’s action. Even though there is nothing in the story that gives Ann-Marie reason to know this, she must bury her brother’s bones at the foot of the tree that marks his mother’s grave because this is the way the particular narrative motif works. Unless the bones of the slaughtered beast are gathered in its ‘skin’ and placed beside its mother, it cannot be resuscitated. (Fentriss and Wickham, 1992, p. 65, emphasis mine)

Essentially, in these stories people serve functional purposes. As the authors put it, they are “embodied functions.” In fact we would be committing a categorical mistake if we focused on their psychological motivations. It’s much the same in the stories we read in the gospels. Consider the tale of the disciples walking through the wheat fields, deciding on the spur of the moment to eat some of the grain. read more »


The Memory Mavens, Part 10: Memory and History (1)

by Tim Widowfield
Jorge Luis Borges en 1963

Jorge Luis Borges en 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ireneo Funes, the eponymous character in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Funes, the Memorious,” lived the first part of his life completely in the moment. Recalling his first encounter with the enigmatic figure, the narrator relates an incident from long ago when he and his cousin Bernardo were racing on horseback, trying to outrun a storm. They heard, suddenly, the sound of footsteps on the brick footpath above. It was Funes.

Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to him: “What’s the time, Ireneo?” Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo replied: “In ten minutes it will be eight o’clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco.” The voice was sharp, mocking. (Borges, 1967, p. 36)

In those days, Funes always knew the exact time; he knew about now, but remembered nothing of the past. Later, when the narrator meets Funes, he explains how an accident changed everything.

For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. (Borges, 1967, p. 40)

A garbage disposal

The fall left Funes unable to walk, and that paralysis becomes a metaphor for the crushing weight of all remembrances, which immobilize and suffocate. For while he can remember everything, his mind is inundated with every detail about every moment that he has ever experienced — and not only the event itself, but the clear recollection of each time he has recalled that event. read more »


Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 5: Memory Distortion

by Tim Widowfield

Mnemosyne, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In our last post, we discussed the genre of the gospels. We saw that Bart Ehrman, at least for this book (Jesus Before the Gospels), chooses to gloss over the issue of genre, and simply assumes that the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus. Of course, he concedes that those memories may be distorted.

But what exactly do we mean by “memory distortion”? And is it a big deal, or is it just a minor annoyance?

Human memory can fail in two ways. First, we can simply forget the past. Second, our memories of the past can become changed and distorted. These inaccurate memories can contain false details, or they can represent incidents that never happened. Our capacity for distortion affects not only our personal recollection but social memories as well.

The nature of collective memory

In the introductory chapter to Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Daniel Schacter writes:

A prominent theme in this area of study is that societies often hold beliefs about their pasts that are based on stories and myths that develop and change over time, often bearing little resemblance to the events that initially gave rise to them . . . 

Thus, understanding the nature of collective memory is inextricably intertwined with understanding the nature of memory distortion. Yet here, too, issues pertaining to memory distortion are of more than purely academic concern. For example, recent attempts by various fringe groups to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust have alerted scholars and the lay public alike to the extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory . . . (Schacter, 1995, p. 3, emphasis mine)

At the end of the same book, Lawrence E. Sullivan offers some closing remarks in an essay entitled “Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences.” He writes: read more »


Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 4: Genre

by Tim Widowfield

In the last installment, we covered oral tradition. As I look over the post now, I see that I missed several opportunities to add the adjective, “rich.” Biblical scholars love to write the words “rich oral tradition.” How, you may ask, do they know such details about something based mostly on conjecture? Watch out! If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll earn yourself demerits for skepticism.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman naturally considers it important to expound upon the rich oral tradition™ behind the gospels, because it connects the historical Jesus to the written New Testament. Serious scholars would probably also care about how the evangelists assembled that material. They would ask themselves what the authors intended. Did they think they were writing biographies, histories, hagiographies, novels, or what? Were authors of the gospels even conscious of what they were doing; did they have a plan?

What is a gospel?

An actual historian would most likely start with the written work first, and work back from there. He or she would want to determine the type of document we’re dealing with — i.e., the genre of the gospels. We’ve covered this topic many times on Vridar, including my series about how the consensus changed dramatically over the past century.

As we learned previously, the form critics cared about genre, too. Rudolf Bultmann called it the first task of form criticism. Until we confirm that the gospel of Mark is not a story about Jesus, but a collection of stories about Jesus, we have no solid grounds for dividing the book into individual pericopae (that supposedly came from distinct oral streams).

Oddly enough, the scholar credited as the father of Formgeschichte, Hermann Gunkel, never used the word. Rather, he focused on the Gattung or genre of the literature in the Old Testament. He well understood the need to identify the book of Genesis as a large collection of individual traditions assembled under the guiding hand of gifted redactors. He accepted the prevailing Graf-Wellhausen theory that the Pentateuch is composed of four main separate, written sources: J, E, D, and P. But he also argued that the individual source documents reflect much older oral tradition.

Are the gospels written “memories”?

However, in Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman sidesteps the entire issue, preferring instead to treat the gospels as memories. At least in the case of their readers, the gospels certainly became memories. But he does not provide any sustained credible argument that the gospel stories had been actual memories of their communities, let alone give us any reason to believe that such memories go back to real events that occurred in the life of Jesus.

He introduces his discussion of the canonical gospels not by telling us they are biographies, histories, or whatever. Skipping over the unpleasant task of trying to place the gospels in their literary setting, he simply asserts they are writings that contain memories. Ehrman explains: read more »


Euhemerism Is Not “Doing What Euhemerus Did”

by Tim Widowfield
The Family Shakespeare

The Family Shakespeare

Imagine for a minute that you’re administering a test on the history of English literature, and one of your questions asks the students to explain in a short essay the meaning of word bowdlerize. Now imagine I’ve taken your test, and my essay begins:

“To bowdlerize something means doing what Thomas Bowdler did.”

I’m off to a bad start. But it gets worse. I continue:

“We can debate about why he expurgated Shakespeare’s plays, but what matters is what not why he did it.”

Then, oddly, I cite Aristotle’s four causes as if they have any relevance to the meaning and history of a word. Next, I veer off into a discussion about what other bowdlerizers have done.

“Some were offended by sexual innuendo, while others were put off by curse words and impiety. But it doesn’t matter why they did what they did, nor does it matter what the effect was. What they all did in common is the same one thing: expurgate works of literature. A trend begun by Bowdler. And thus so called.”

If I were you, I wouldn’t give me any points. The tiny part I happened to get right is overshadowed by the rest. We’ll see why as we go on.

Euhemerism, again

Richard Carrier, in his recent “Brief Note on Euhemerization,” provides a helpful TL;DR, which begins:

Euhemerization is doing what Euhemerus did: convert a non-historical deity into a deified historical man (in contrast to deification, which is when an actual historical man is converted into a deity).

Everything after the colon is generally correct, albeit incomplete. But in the first part of the sentence Carrier commits the same error I did concerning the word bowdlerize. He has demonstrated a rather extreme case of the etymological fallacy. Usually, that would mean that he knew the original meaning of the word and discounts the current meaning. However, in this case, he has gone all the way back to the word’s eponymous roots.

That isn’t how English works. That isn’t how any language works. Words gain meaning through usage, which explains why Oxford, Collins, Merriam Webster, et al. keep vast repositories of lexical citations. You can’t understand what a word means without knowing how people use it. Living languages are not prescribed; they are described. read more »


What Does “Probably” Mean to Historians and Forecasters?

by Neil Godfrey

We often hear it said that historians deal with probabilities, not certainties. Thus Bart Ehrman explains in his latest book:

Historians, of course, can ask what probably happened in the past, for example, in the earthly ministry of Jesus with his disciples. And historians can establish with relative levels of probability that this, that, or the other tradition is likely something that happened or didn’t happen. But history is all a matter of such greater or lesser probabilities. When dealing with a figure such as Jesus, these probabilities are established only by critically examining the memories that were recorded by later authors.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 31). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. [My bolded emphasis in all quotations.]

Interestingly Ehrman assumes as a certainty (not probability) that the gospel narratives were sourced from “memories” of Jesus (whether personally experienced or fabricated memories) and sidesteps an entire area of biblical scholarship that argues the evangelists themselves imaginatively created the narratives of Jesus inspired by analogous tales in the Jewish Scriptures and other writings. He also uses the language — e.g. “that were recorded by” — we associate with historical “reports” or “records” thus further entrenching his bias in the mind of the reader. But we’ll leave Ehrman’s own contradictions aside for now and focus on the more general principle.

Anyone who has read scholarly works relating to Christian origins is familiar with the language of probability, possibility, maybe, likelihood, etc. Too often, however, this same language magically transforms itself as the argument proceeds into certainty. As Jacob Neusner in Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament complained of “pseudocritical” scholarship, it is commonly characterized a number of faults including

the use of “presumably,” “must” or “may have been,” and “perhaps,” a few sentences later magically converted into “was” and “certainly.” (p. 88)

A serious possibility

tetlsLet’s start with the reverse of history: forecasting the future. The past is past and gone but reverse our perspective for a moment and problems with vague and loose language become immediately obvious. The following cases are taken from Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner. In early 1951 the CIA published a National Intelligence Estimate warning that a Soviet Union attack on Yugoslavia “should be considered a serious possibility.” What does that phrase mean to you?

But a few days later, Kent was chatting with a senior State Department official who casually asked, “By the way, what did you people mean by the expression ‘serious possibility’? What kind of odds did you have in mind?” Kent said he was pessimistic. He felt the odds were about 65 to 35 in favor of an attack. The official was startled. He and his colleagues had taken “serious possibility” to mean much lower odds. Disturbed, Kent went back to his team. They had all agreed to use “serious possibility” in the NIE so Kent asked each person, in turn, what he thought it meant. One analyst said it meant odds of about 80 to 20, or four times more likely than not that there would be an invasion. Another thought it meant odds of 20 to 80— exactly the opposite. Other answers were scattered between those extremes.

Tetlock, Philip; Gardner, Dan (2015-09-24). Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (Kindle Locations 858-864). Random House. Kindle Edition.

A fair chance

When in 1961 President Kennedy sought to know the chance a small army of Cuban expatriates landing at the Bay of Pigs would have in toppling Fidel Castro his Chiefs of Staff concluded that the plan had a “fair chance” of success.

The man who wrote the words “fair chance” later said he had in mind odds of 3 to 1 against success. But Kennedy was never told precisely what “fair chance” meant and, not unreasonably, he took it to be a much more positive assessment.

Tetlock, Philip; Gardner, Dan (2015-09-24). Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (Kindle Locations 872-873). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Sherman Kent of the CIA’s Office of National Estimates sought a remedy by setting out more precise meanings: read more »