Category Archives: Historiography


The “Nugget” Theory

by Neil Godfrey

[S]ound historical method must lead a scholar to distrust any source much of which can be shown to be false — unless truly reliable material exists outside that source as a check. 

Sometimes, however, we find that a scholar writes history

on the principle that a historian can safely mine “nuggets” out of otherwise worthless ore.

Both quotations are from Chester G. Starr in “The Credibility of Early Spartan History”, (Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte Bd. 14, H. 3 (Jul., 1965), pp. 257-272) ….

Chester G. Starr



Can we extract history from fiction?

by Neil Godfrey

Can scholars study fictional tales and extract historical events from them?

Richard Elliott Friedman, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, says, in effect, “Yes, they can!” He says that he himself can . . . and does. It is even possible to find genuine historical data in the fairy tale of Cinderella and his wife did just that, he writes. Professor Friedman is very clear: a scholar can certainly find the historical truth behind the biblical narratives such as that of the Exodus.

This is the process of literary-historical method. We can read a story that we think is fiction, or even know to be fiction, and still extract historical information from it. At a meeting on the exodus in San Diego . . . , the American biblical historian Baruch Halpern stirred things up saying that the Bible’s story of the exodus should be read as a fairy tale. My wife’s reaction was precisely to look at a fairy tale: Cinderella. It has mice become horses, a pumpkin a coach, and a poor oppressed girl a princess because a glass shoe fits only her. The story is fiction. It is not history. But the element of the shoe at least reflects that shoes were a real thing in the culture that produced that story. Everyone who heard the story understood it. So eliminate much of the biblical story from the category of history if you wish. The ten plagues may be a fairy tale. The staff that becomes a snake may be a fairy tale. But we shall see that the exodus itself is not the fairy tale. It is the shoes. (Friedman, R.E. (2017) The Exodus. New York, NY: HarperOne. pp. 11f – my bolding)

I believe that there is a problem with Friedman’s argument here.

His example of the shoes is a poor one since shoes are found among most human cultures throughout history, surely. It is hardly a ‘historical datum’ except in the very broadest sense. It is easier to think of shoes as a cultural item. All the other items in the Cinderella story are also “real things” (except the fairy godmother, of course). Mice are real; so are horses, and pumpkins, and coaches, and princes, and step-sisters, and palace balls. They are all historical items if we immerse ourselves in the interpretations of the Friedmans.

Yet not one of them is really historical, of course.

In other words, there is a difference between the events and persons of history and the cultural, political, social, economic, geographic settings of stories. Most stories, I presume, have settings. Settings themselves do not make a story “historical” or “fictional”.

A setting does not make a fictional story even partly true. Think of the novels with realistic and “true” historical settings by Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Ken Follett and hundreds of others any of us could list if we took a moment to dig.

I once read a children’s book about King Alfred. It was a novel, a historical novel. Although it narrated some events that were historical it was still a children’s novel and shelved with the fiction on the library shelves, not the history section.

The only way anyone could know what parts of the novel were historical would be by turning to the history section and comparing. A fictional story can be set in real places, reference historical customs (palace balls), involve the flora and fauna of the historical places (horses and pumpkins) and even borrow historical characters for certain scenes. But the stories do not become historical. They are fictional narratives in historical settings.

If there are genuinely historical persons or real historical battles or true historical murders in a novel, I think they should be thought of as historical data that has been fictionalized.

No-one can pick up such a fictional story and with that information alone unravel the details to find what persons and details are drawn from history.

The only way anyone can know what is historical is by consulting studies found on the history shelves or information that points to the archival and other primary sources.

In other words, we can only determine what is historically “true” by reference to the historical sources.

Fictional narratives can tell us what their authors told, the customs and characters they wrote about, but they, by themselves, cannot tell us what happened in the past. They cannot tell us what cities fell to conquerors or what kings ruled or what tribes moved from Germania to Iberia. They may tell us about places and fashions and social classes known to the authors, but those are not historical events. And if they do tell details of true stories by true kings, we only know that they do so because we consult other sources — the same sources that were ultimately relied upon by the author of the tale.

Cinderella’s shoes are just as historical as are mice and horses and princes and balls and pumpkins. In other words, they are entirely fictional — unless and until we find in some long forgotten chest in a palace boudoir a pair of squirrel fur slippers stylish enough for a ballroom dance function and with the soles branded with the words “Prince Loves C.E.”.




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 »


The Fallacy Few Historians Have Avoided

by Neil Godfrey

Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as

  • most historians agree . . .
  • it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .
  • in the judgment of all serious students of this problem . . . 

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification. This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true. If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. I witnessed one such occasion (circa 1962) as a student at the Johns Hopkins University. A scholar who was baffled by a knotty problem of fact literally called for a show of hands to settle the question. An alienated minority of callow youths in the back of the room raised both hands and carried the day, in defiance of logic, empiricism, and parliamentary procedure.

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, in some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . . ” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of this problem . . . .”

When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

A historian has written, for example, “While the role of dope in damping social unrest in early industrial England has not been extensively investigated, every historian of the period knows that it was common practice at the time for working mothers to start the habit in the cradle by dosing their hungry babies on laudanum (‘mother’s blessing,’ it was called).” This statement is often made, and widely believed. But it has never, to my knowledge, been established by empirical evidence. The reader should note the hyperbole in the first sentence. When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form–deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples. One will suffice here, for the sake of illustration. Every schoolboy knows, and most schoolmasters, too, that Mussolini made the trains run on time. But did he? Ashley Montagu observes that “there was little or no truth in it: people who lived in Italy between the March on Rome (October 22, 1922) and the execution at Como (1945) will bear testimony to the fact that Italian railroads remained as insouciant as ever with regard to time-tables and actual schedules.” And yet, the myth still runs its rounds, with a regularity that Il Duce was unable to bring to his railroads.

The above is from Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought (pages 51-53) by the renowned historian David Hackett Fischer. (That title link is to an open access copy of the book on

David Hackett Fischer




Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’

by Neil Godfrey

“Rages” in the title is a bit of poetic licence. I don’t really think either of the two chapters by classicists discussing the arguments for and against the historicity of an ancient philosopher can be considered “rages”.

My point was to alert potential readers that this post is not a repeat of my post of less than a week ago about the historicity of Demonax : Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? That post addressed the views of Tomas Hagg as published in 2012 in The Art of Biography in Antiquity. I was really playing catch-up with that one since one year and two months ago I posted a more recent (published 2016) discussion of another classicist, Mark Beck, addressing the same thorny question: If Biblical Scholars Were Classicists. I was sharing my reading of “Lucian’s Life of Demonax”, a chapter in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen.

Would we have to deny the historicity of most other ancient persons if we reject Demonax?

It is interesting to compare the two different discussions of the question of Demonax’s historicity. How do non-biblical scholars, those dedicated to the study of ancient times, address questions of historicity in those cases where we lack the testimony of monuments, public inscriptions, coins, etc.? The question is of some interest, I suspect, to those who follow what biblical scholars might have to say about certain arguments of the historicity of, let’s say at random, Adam, or Abraham, or Moses, or Jesus.

Do independent contemporary sources decide the question?

In both discussions a primary and very weighty consideration is the absence of contemporary notices. If the person really was so influential as the biography claims, then how do we account for the absence of contemporary witnesses? Why do we have to wait for a person claiming to be a student and eyewitness of the famous person writing something long after the teacher was dead?

Does fictional storytelling decide the question?

It is also interesting that in both discussions the above question is of considerable import, while the fact that it is clearly evident that the extant biography of Demonax contains much fiction is not so important. If someone tells tall tales about a famous teacher, so what? That seems to be the approach. It’s to be expected. Fictional details do not mean the subject did not exist.

Does an eyewitness claim decide the question?

But we have a writing by one who clearly says he was an eyewitness and a student of Demonax! No dice, apparently. That does not count as decisive in either discussion. Anyone could say that about the person they were writing about.

Do independent references decide the question?

In both discussions, the one by Hãgg and the one by Beck, the independent testimony of sayings by Demonax is a significant point. The biographer of Demonax did not make use of what we know of an independent collection of sayings by Demonax. Beck considers these independent sayings attributed to Demonax as enough to tilt the scales in favour of the historicity of Demonax. Hägg is not convinced; for Hägg, such a collection only raises more questions than it answers with respect to the historicity question. Those independent sayings are just a little “too” independent and appear to have no real relevance to the person of Lucian’s biography, according to Hägg. So scholarly opinions differ — interestingly without any apparent need for abusive language and all sorts of ad hominem attacks.

Does a namesake at the right time and place decide the question?

But Hägg does concede that there was a historical Demonax in Athens at the right time. He just does not think that Demonax had much in common with Lucian’s portrait. Beck agrees with the problematic nature of Lucian’s portrait by adding that it is evident that a source for that portrait was Lucian’s own life. Lucian was writing about himself!

Does the function of the biography decide the question?

Both classicists acknowledge that the fact that Lucian’s biography had a clear purpose of teaching readers virtuous principles is itself a point against the historicity of any of the biography’s anecdotes. The author, they agree, wrote with the purpose of teaching virtue and creating a moral exemplar for readers, not with any specific intent to preserve genuine historical memories for posterity.

Back to that question about independent contemporary sources

So the bottom line is that the question of historicity stands or falls on the point of testimony independent of the biography and contemporaneous with the person of interest.


Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?

by Neil Godfrey

If the Life of Aesop is riddled with obvious fiction yet it is concluded that Aesop really existed, what does Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) do with the question of the historicity of Demonax, a figure whose biography contains only sober and believable accounts and is said to have been written by an eyewitness? Ironically, Hägg is far less confident that Demonax is historical than he is about Aesop!

You can read the Life of Demonax by Lucian at the sacred-texts site. (It is fewer than 4000 words.)

To begin Hägg addresses doubts among some scholars that Lucian was the real biographer. Life of Demonax does not have the same cutting, satirical tone as his other biographies, but actually approaches Demonax reverentially and creates an idealized portrait. However, on the strength of the attestation Hägg accepts Lucian as the genuine author.

Lucian states that he has two reasons for writing about Demonax:

This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view:

  • first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies;
  • and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers.

Continuing with Hägg:

Demonax’ background is rapidly sketched . . . His ‘urge to noble things and innate love for philosophy from early childhood’ is stated, but there is no actual account of that childhood; nor is his physical appearance described here or elsewhere in the Life. His blameless life and exemplary honesty are lauded, as is his excellent education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. As a philosopher, he is a professed eclectic. He has most in common with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope . . . but is described as an unchangingly polite and social person who lacks both Socrates’ irony and Diogenes’ exhibitionism — in short, we are made to understand, a godlike (isotheos) man. . . . (p. 295)

Certainly an idealized portrait. And short on specifics to demonstrate the idealized qualities.

The first description of a specific event in Demonax’s life comes three pages in, with his trial:

It starts in the same mode: ‘So it was that all the Athenians, from the populace to the magistrates, admired him tremendously and never ceased regarding him as a superior being (tina tōn kreittonōn)’; but then some critical words are unexpectedly heard. Like a second Socrates, Demonax is brought to court because he has caused offence to and incurred hatred from the common people . . . through his Cynic . . . ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘licence’, and his . . . ‘independence’. Men similar to Anytus and Meletus (the accusers in Socrates’ trial) charge him with not taking part in the sacrifices or letting himself be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He manages, however, to refute the accusations by using his habitual outspokenness and wit . . . and the Athenians, who had first been prepared to stone him, ‘from that time showed him honour, respect, and eventually admiration’. (pp. 295f)

One sees in the above account several features that may well justify our asking questions about the genuineness of the narrative: the evident influence of the trial of Socrates, again the idealizing portrait and the most remarkable turnabout of the Athenians from being ready to execute him to admiring him.

The literary structure of the Life is also addressed: read more »


Did Aesop Exist?

by Neil Godfrey

Short answer, the one I would give if I had to bet my house on being right: I don’t know.

Short answer, but one I would offer at no risk of damages to myself if I am wrong: Probably.

In two recent posts I was commenting on thoughts arising as I was reading about the Life of Aesop in Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity (2012). I first learned about the Life of Aesop in another work, one exploring the origins of gospel genre, The quest of the historical gospel: Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre by Lawrence M. Wills (1997): Wills does not suggest that the Gospels of Mark and John (the two canonical gospels most similar to Life) borrowed from or were influenced by the Life of Aesop, but that the gospel genre was derived from a type of narrative about hero-cults of which Life and the gospels are examples. Both kinds of literature told the tale of a hero founder of a cult who

  • is introduced to the narrative as an adult (no birth or childhood details)
  • undergoes a dramatic change in personal identity or abilities and role (baptism and the Holy Spirit; being miraculously given the gift of speech)
  • tells a long tale of short episodes in which the hero challenges those about him and “turns the world upside down” with his superior wisdom and parables or fables
  • is often described through the literary technique of inclusio or sandwiching one story between two parts of another
  • travels to the site of a major national temple (Jerusalem, Delphi)
  • offends hearers by his “truth telling”
  • utters parables or fables to convey lessons for his audiences, some of them condemning his hearers
  • is condemned for blasphemy and arrogant claims
  • was such a help to others with his wisdom but cannot save himself
  • is condemned to execution, and so dies

After the deaths of both Jesus and Aesop many people are remorseful and a cult was established in honour of the wronged hero. Both Life and the gospels are believed to have been written around the same time — the first century CE or possibly second century CE.

It is little wonder, then, that Wills begins his discussion with

The most important novelistic biography for the comparison with the gospel genre is the anonymous Life of Aesop. (Wills, 1997. p. 23)

If we are doing comparisons one question that will interest many of us will be just how historical the respective narratives are. I won’t attempt to discuss that question in relation to the gospels and Jesus in this post for obvious reasons, so let’s look at Aesop. Wills is looking at origins of gospel genre but Tomas Hägg gives us a more comprehensive survey of Life as an ancient biography so from this point on I rely upon Hägg. read more »


Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference?

by Tim Widowfield

While reading Michael Licona’s recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, I came upon this little nugget.

[Richard] Burridge and [Graham] Gould say Bultmann was correct in asserting that the Gospels do not look anything like modern biography. What Bultmann neglected to observe, however, is that neither do any other ancient biographies. Differing from modern biography, which is a product of the nineteenth century, ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer. (Licona 2016, p. 5, emphasis mine)

Is that true? Did Rudolf Bultmann really not know the differences between a modern biography and an ancient biography? Further, did he embarrass himself in public by confusing the two while no one until the late twentieth century dared to speak up? And finally, is it possible that Vizzini was smarter than the classical Greek philosophers?


If you’ve read a lot of modern scholarship, you might think that. Still, you may have a lingering, nagging suspicion that Bultmann might have known better. After all, students of his generation would have read Greek and Latin classics while attending the gymnasium. And it seems hard to believe he wouldn’t have had a passing familiarity with the longstanding debates around historiography, and the fact that ancient authors of βίοι had far different goals in mind compared to modern biographers. read more »


Catchup — for you latecomers the history-basics lecture

by Neil Godfrey

Just for the record and for easy future reference I want to post here two more points Leopold von Ranke is famous or infamous for as the “father of modern history”. Not that this is some mere antiquarian interest on my part; my real interest is in the way historical studies are practised in biblical studies, especially in relation to the historical Jesus and Christian origins but also with respect to history behind the Old Testament — and very often in these discussions quite misinformed references are made by postmodernists to the legacy of Ranke and the way history was supposedly done before Hayden White.

The formatting, insert and emphasis is my own:

Ranke’s contribution to historical scholarship was threefold.

Finally, in tracing the beginnings of the opposition of a political party in Germany against the Emperor and of an ecclesiastical party in Europe against the Pope, this chronicle seeks to pave the way for a more complete insight into the history of the great schism brought about by the Reformation. . . . This book tries to comprehend in their unity all these and the other related histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples. To history has been given the function of judging the past, of instructing men for the profit of future years. The present attempt does not aspire to such a lofty undertaking. It merely wants to show how it essentially was (wie es eigentlich gewesen).

But from what sources could this be newly investigated? The foundations of the present writing, the origins of the subject matter, are memoirs, diaries, letters, reports from embassies, and original narratives of eyewitnesses. Other writings were considered only when they seemed either to have been immediately deduced from the former or to equal them through some kind of original information . . . .

— From Ranke’s Preface to the First Edition of Histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples, October 1824. (Translator, Georg G. Iggers.)

First, he helped establish history as a separate discipline, independent from philosophy or literature. ‘To history,’ he wrote in the preface to one of his works, ‘has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened.’ This last phrase is perhaps Ranke’s most famous, and it has been widely misunderstood. The German phrase which Ranke used –Wie es eigentlich gewesen’ – is better translated as ‘how it essentially was’, for Ranke meant not that he just wanted to collect facts, but that he sought to understand the inner being of the past.

One sees this misunderstanding painfully repeated over and over among biblical scholars who think they are denigrating an approach to history they believe to be old-fashioned yet which they really seem to scarcely understand at all first hand. They scoff at the notion that the old “positivists” thought they could just find and record “the facts” while they, the more sophisticated moderns, on the other hand, more modestly admitted they could only deal in “probabilities”, what “probably happened”, not “facts” or “what actually happened”. There is a deep misunderstanding here that I will cover in future posts. Suffice to say for now that I don’t think very many biblical scholars will be content to yield genuine room for doubt by declaring “Rome probably ruled the Mediterranean world” at the time of Jesus; or that Rome “probably destroyed Jerusalem in the war of 66-70 and Josephus probably wrote an account of that war”; or that “Jesus probably existed and was was probably crucified”…..

Next, we come to Ranke’s second “contribution” that does indeed enter the nebulosity of divine territory, but we have an interesting teacher in Richard Evans and he turns the lemon into lemonade for our benefit:

In pursuit of this task, said Ranke, the historian had to recognize that ‘every epoch is immediate to God.’4 That is, God in His eternity made no distinction between periods of history; all were the same in His eyes. In other words, the past could not be judged by the standards of the present. It had to be seen in its own terms. This was the second major contribution which Ranke made to historical scholarship: the determination to strip away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past by philosophizing historians such as Voltaire and to reveal it in its original colours; to try to understand the past as the people who lived in it understood it, even while deciphering hieroglyphs of interconnectedness of which they had been largely unaware.

One conclusion that followed from this doctrine was that at any given time, including the present, whatever existed had to be accepted as divinely ordained. Ranke was a profoundly conservative figure, who equated the actual and the ideal and regarded the European states of his day as ‘spiritual substances … thoughts of God’.5 This distanced him from the Prussian school of German historians, from nationalists such as Treitschke, who condemned his impartiality and regretted his universalism. The fact that he regarded all states, not just Prussia, as supreme examples of God’s purposes working themselves out on earth, gave him on the other hand a reputation for impartiality that greatly helped the spread of his influence abroad.6

Evans, Richard J. In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 416-436). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

Hence our need to guard against the all-too-easy tendency to interpret the past through the way we perceive our own world today. read more »


The Basics of History — They’re Still the Basics

by Neil Godfrey

Richard J. Evans (Wikipedia)

Postmodernism has been making its inroads into historical Jesus studies with what I think are most convenient results. This post is a plug for the old-fashioned rules for the proper way to do history. We can’t get any more old-fashioned than the nineteenth century founder of modern history, Leopold von Ranke, who has become a byword in many circles for doing history badly. It’s been a long time since I’ve discussed his contribution to historical studies and their relevance to biblical studies in particular so let’s do another post now. Previously I deferred to the Old Testament biblical scholar Niels Peter Lemche’s for the positives that Ranke still necessarily offers the modern historian. This time I’m inviting the modern historian (a specialist on Hitler’s Germany), Richard J. Evans, to take the floor.

We’re a bit late for the start of his talk because he’s already into the third significant contribution Ranke made for the modern study of history.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Ranke introduced into the study of modern history the methods that had recently been developed by philologists in the study of ancient and medieval literature to determine whether a text, say of a Shakespeare play or of a medieval legend like the Nibelungenlied, was true or corrupted by later interpolations, whether it was written by the author it was supposed to be written by, and which of the available versions was the most reliable. Historians, argued Ranke, had to root out forgeries and falsifications from the record. They had to test documents on the basis of their internal consistency, and their consistency with other documents originating at the same period. They had to stick to ‘primary sources’, eyewitness reports and what Ranke called the ‘purest, most immediate documents’ which could be shown to have originated at the time under investigation, and avoid reliance on ‘secondary sources’ such as memoirs or histories generated after the event. Moreover, they had to investigate and subject to the critical method all the sources relating to the events in which they were interested. They should not be content, as for example Gibbon had been, to rely on printed documents and chronicles generally available in libraries. They had instead to sally forth, as Ranke did, into the archives, to work their way through the vast unpublished hoards of original manuscripts stored up by the state chancelleries of Europe. Only then, by gathering, criticizing and verifying all the available sources, could they put themselves in a position to reconstruct the past accurately.

The application of philological techniques to historical sources was a major breakthrough. Ranke’s principles still form the basis for much historical research and teaching today. History Special Subjects in many British universities, for example, offer a basic training in source-criticism; students are examined on extracts or ‘gobbets’ from set documents and are expected to comment on them in terms of their internal consistency, their relationship to other documents on the same subject, their reliability and their usefulness as a source. Questions of authenticity and attribution continue to be vitally important in historical research. Forgeries, as the lamentable case of the ‘Hitler Diaries’ showed over a decade ago, are still regrettably common; outright falsification and doctoring of the evidence abound in printed collections of documents and other publications relating to subjects such as the origins of the First World War and the Third Reich. They are even more common in medieval history.

And we know, don’t we, just how prevalent forgeries were in the ancient world, too, right? read more »


What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?

by Tim Widowfield


Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »


Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

by Tim Widowfield

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »


Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths?

by Neil Godfrey

The Red Sea Exodus certainly did not happen as the Bible relates it, but many find a way to keep the story as “true” by rationalizing it: a smaller number of Israelites waded through at low tide, for example.

King David may not have ruled over a great kingdom as the Bible tells us, so he was probably a local bandit warlord at the very least.

Jesus surely did not heal merely with a command, so we believe he healed by means of ancient rituals which had some psychosomatic power.

The disciples obviously could not have literally seen Jesus alive after his death, so we must conclude that they had either some sort of hallucinatory experience or an inner conviction that convinced them he was resurrected.

In such ways many of us today find ways to cling to mythical tales. We discard anything that is contrary to our everyday experience and find a natural way to more or less explain how less sophisticated people came up with such mythical tales that are so important to us.

One example of an ancient philosopher doing just that very same thing is Palaephatus, someone who had been taught by Aristotle.

Look at how he rationalized the myth of Pandora:

The story about Pandora is intolerable — that she was fashioned out of earth and imparted her shape to others. It hardly seems likely to me. 

Pandora was a wealthy Greek woman: whenever she went out in public, she would dress up in her finest and rub her face with a cosmetic made of earth [i.e. white lead that Athenian women used to whiten their faces]. It was she who first discovered how to apply such cosmetics to her skin. Nowadays, of course, many women do so, and none of them gains any special renown because the practice is so common. 

This is what happened; but the story was twisted in an impossible direction. 

(Palaephatus, 34.Pandora, in J. Stern (1996), translator and commentator, On Unbelievable Tales / Palaephatus. Wauconda, IL, Bolchazy-Carduzzi.)

Only a fool would believe a human being could literally turn to stone:

They say that Niobe, a living woman, turned into stone on the tomb of her children. Anyone who believes that a human being turned into a stone or a stone into a human being is a fool. The truth is as follows. 

When Niobe’s children died, someone made a statue of Niobe out of stone and set it on the tomb. Passersby would say: “A stone Niobe is standing on the tomb. We saw her ourselves.” . . . . That is how it was, but Niobe herself did not turn into stone. 

(Palaephatus, 8:Niobe)

And so on and so forth.

Interesting to note the assumption that there must have been historicity, something historical, behind the myths. It is as if it were inconceivable that anyone would “just make up” such stories. Some form of evolving “social memory” is surely the source of significant cultural heritage. A wise man like Palaephatus would analyse the narrative and “discern” the most plausible “historical reconstruction” behind it.

And theologians have continued the tradition up to the present day, yes?




Biblical Scholar Watch #1

by Neil Godfrey

There are many excellent biblical scholars whose works are discussed here as often as opportunity arises. Check out the Categories list in the right column here to see the extent of our coverage.

But as with any profession there are some rogues who need to be exposed. A few hours ago on the Religion Prof blog appeared a post in effect leading the public to believe that mainstream biblical scholars have published far, far more on the topic of the historicity of Jesus than anyone who doubts Jesus’ historicity. Here is the screenshot:

The link is to the following page on Amazon:

Scrolling down one sees the number of pages is said to be 3300.

I have access to the electronic edition and can confirm that the number of pages is closer to 4000 than 3000.

But is it honest to claim that these four volumes under the title Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus address the question of the historicity of Jesus itself? After all, that is the clear message and point of the “religion prof’s” post. His message is that mainstream scholars have published far more on the topic that is addressed by, say, Richard Carrier.

But open up the pages of those four volumes and one soon discovers that this claim is misleading.

Of the over 3700 pages contained in these volumes there are exactly 29 pages that appear on first glance to be devoted to the question of whether Jesus existed or not. They are by Samuel Byrskog in a chapter titled “The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?” — pages 2183 to 2211.

The four volumes are not about the question of Jesus’ historicity but in fact presume the existence of Jesus and from that starting point address scholarly questions relating to how we can learn what kind of person this Jesus was. Let me show a few more screen shots from the table of contents so you can get the idea:  read more »