Category Archives: Historical Methodology


2016-05-15

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 »


2016-04-05

Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome?

by Neil Godfrey

Josephus lays the blame for the Jewish rebel movement squarely on the shoulders of Judas the Galilean who led some sort of movement to oppose Roman taxes around the time of the infancy of Jesus — 6 CE. From this Judas arose what Josephus labels the “Fourth Philosophy”. The other three were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Fourth Philosophy is depicted as an undesirable conglomeration of upstart rebels who brought down ruin upon their nation.

Professor-James-McLaren1

Professor James S McLaren

Recently I was posting about my doubts concerning the evidence for Jewish messianic movements prior to the First Jewish War (66-73 CE) and Giuseppe alerted us to a study by James S. McLaren in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire. McLaren’s chapter is “Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas“, pages 90-107. Thanks, Giuseppe. Until I read that chapter I never quite knew what to make of Judas the Galilean because though scholars often say he led the first military rebellion against Rome I have not been able to find unambiguous evidence for that claim in Josephus. It seemed some historians were simply repeating the hearsay of their guild. Hence I have held back from commenting on him when I have discussed other rebels and bandits on the Judean stage either side of the time of Jesus. McLaren’s chapter is the first work I have read that squarely confronts and addresses the ambiguities and inconsistencies that have bothered me in Josephus’s account.

Conclusion: Josephus created Judas the Galilean as a foil to bear the responsibility for the humiliation of the Jewish defeat. I’m not saying that Judas did not exist (though he may not have) but that Josephus has been forced to modify his account with each retelling of his role in starting the rebellion. These variations indicate that Josephus is creatively rewriting history to deflect blame for the war from his own class of aristocratic priests.

This study shows that we can no longer assume that this Judas presented by Josephus is an historical figure who engaged in some activity in 6 CE. It is not simply a case of claiming that Josephus may have exaggerated the account of Judas’s career and its impact by adjusting a few details here and there. Rather, Josephus’s apologetic has constructed Judas, making him a vital part of the explanation of what happened in Judaea in 66-70 CE. Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities. (108: bolded emphasis is mine in all quotations)

Now McLaren is working like a real historian — a welcome change from some of the tendentious works we have discussed elsewhere. He examines the nature of his source material before deciding to take its claims at face value — and that means literary analysis . . .

This discussion will be presented in three parts. In the first, I offer an analysis of the textual location of the references to Judas.

and study of provenance:

The second part will be devoted to a reassessment of the geographical and socio-political location of Josephus in 66 CE and in the years that followed the revolt. The third and final part will outline how these locations result in Judas being presented as a scapegoat by Josephus. 

Further, he understands the necessity of evidence external to his source material for corroboration.

Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities.

These are the methodological principles I have been saying ought to be applied to the gospels even if the result might lead to the conclusion that a central character has possibly been a creation of the author rather than a true historical figure. I notice that McLaren’s background is strong in ancient history and not restricted to biblical studies.

So what are McLaren’s arguments? I’ll take them in the same order as McLaren with this post covering McLaren’s analysis of the respective locations of Josephus’s references to Judas.

Warning: the following post is for those with a serious interest in the question of Josephus as a historical source. read more »


2016-03-21

Getting Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Historical Evidence Backwards

by Neil Godfrey
fundamentalist atheists who embrace mythicism . . . cannot tolerate the kind of uncertainty that historical inquiry . . . must treat as par for the course.

Those words were posted by a respected New Testament scholar and professor who should remain nameless to avoid personal embarrassment.

There certainly is room for ambiguity and varying interpretations of much of the evidence we have for Christian origins.

Hence Raphael Lataster writes:

it is ambiguous as to whether an earthly or celestial Jesus is being referred to [in the NT epistles] (Jesus Did Not Exist, loc 229, Kindle Edition)

Further on the evidence in Paul’s epistles, with alternative readings possible and with interpolations apparent,

it should leave us with agnosticism. We simply don’t know that Jesus existed. . . . If the evidence is not good enough to conclude, either way, then so be it. We ought to be agnostic. (loc 5591)

And then on Richard Carrier’s conclusion in On the Historicity of Jesus,

[The scholar] must demonstrate why their hypothesis is probably true. And Carrier is the only one to have done so. (loc 7610)

Carrier concludes his book in part with

I intend this book not to end but to begin a debate about this, regarding both its methods and its conclusions. (p. 617)

Yet the New Testament Professor in question would insist that ambiguous and less than certain evidence should lead one to conclude that without any doubt at all Jesus did exist and to continue to question this conclusion is the sign of a crank.

What the Professor means by an ability to accept the ambiguity and uncertainty involved in historical inquiry is that when it comes to Jesus then the historian must acquire the ability to draw dogmatic conclusions from debatable evidence.

I think our Professor has misconstrued the truism about historical inquiry dealing with probabilities and uncertainties.

 


2015-10-15

Historians Asking Why — Or Not Why But How

by Neil Godfrey

historiansFallaciesWhy did Christianity begin and why did it become the primary religion of the West? Why did Islamic terrorism become a major concern of the West? . . . . In senior high school I was taught that the real interest of historians is to ask why things happened. Memorizing dates and facts missed the point. Some biblical scholars today stress the importance of asking the “why” questions about Christian origins.

But ever since I came across historian Fischer’s Historian’s Fallacies I’ve not been so sure. To some extent I can understand what is meant by the appeal to dig into finding out “why”, but at the same time, and in the interest of clarity, I also find myself reflecting on this passage in Historian’s Fallacies:

In my opinion — and I may be a minority of one — that favorite adverb of historians should be consigned to the semantical rubbish heap. A “why” question tends to become a metaphysical question. It is also an imprecise question, for the adverb “why” is slippery and difficult to define. Sometimes it seeks a cause, sometimes a motive, sometimes a reason, sometimes a description, sometimes a process, sometimes a purpose, sometimes a justification. A “why” question lacks direction and clarity; it dissipates a historian’s energies and interests. “Why did the Civil War happen?” “Why was Lincoln shot?” A working historian receives no clear signals from these woolly interrogatories as to which way to proceed, how to begin, what kinds of evidence will answer the problem, and indeed what kind of problem is raised. There are many more practicable adverbs-who, when, where, what, how-which are more specific and more satisfactory. Questions of this sort can be resolved empirically, and from them a skilled historian can construct a project with much greater sophistication, relevance, accuracy, precision, and utility, instead of wasting his time with metaphysical dilemmas raised by his profound “why” questions, which have often turned out to be about as deep as the River Platte. (p. 14)

Alas, Fischer was not hopeful that his minority view would ripple out to move the entire pond:

It is improbable that this will happen, among historians, in the foreseeable future. “Why” questions are rooted in the literature and institutionalized in the graduate schools. . . .

I do wonder, however, if many modern historians have indeed seen the light — but I am basing this on only a small handful of recent historical works I’ve happened to read. I do see the concern for “why questions” to be at the forefront of inquiry among a handful of biblical scholars investigating Christian origins, however.

 

 


2015-10-01

What Biblical Scholars Say About Historical Jesus Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Dale C. Allison (November 25, 1955-) is an American New Testament scholar, historian of Early Christianity, and Christian theologian who for years served as Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is currently the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. — Wikipedia (2nd Oct 2015)

historicalchristI like reading Dale Allison. He is open and forthright about his methods. When some biblical scholars indignantly insist that their field is faith-neutral (after all it includes atheists and agnostics and Jews!) and that they are as on the level as any other historians could possibly be, I wonder if they have ostracized Dale Allison from their community.

Allison acknowledges the circularity at the heart of historical Jesus arguments and that the Gospel narratives are largely midrashic parables. But he is a serious historian nonetheless (according to the lights of historical studies within theological circles) and does the best he can to know “the historical Jesus” despite the challenges thrown up by the nature of the sources:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (See Dale Allison on Memory and Historical Approaches to the Gospels)

In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus Allison clarifies what he means by the above:

What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 839-841). Kindle Edition.

(Think that “historical method” through for a few moments.)

With thanks to Anthony Le Donne for alerting me to Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus here are a few more of Allison’s insights worthy of note:

I have never been without theological motives or interests. Until a few years ago, however, I had not attempted to pursue those interests with much diligence or to examine my motives with much care. Recent circumstances have pushed me out of my historical-critical pose. After accepting a teaching post at a Protestant theological seminary, I soon discovered that future pastors are not interested in undertaking historical labor without the prospect of theological reward. In order, then, to keep my audience, I was compelled to complement my critical inquiries with theological deliberations.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 20-23). Kindle Edition.

Don’t misunderstand. Dale Allison firmly believes he is professional enough to recognize (at least in hindsight) when his historical reconstructions of Jesus have been guided by theological interests as the following quotations will demonstrate. Before making those acknowledgments, however, he draws on his experiences in the wider field to recognize what his peers are also doing.

In recent years we have seen works by Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham arguing for the earliest “Christians” attributing to Jesus a very high divine Christology from the very beginning of their faith. If you have wondered if these professors might be influenced by their own conservative faith, Allison encourages your suspicions. He tells us we can also predict the personal beliefs of scholars who flatly reject any form of high christology:  read more »


2015-06-18

If Scepticism Does Not Come Naturally. . . It’s Worth Fighting For

by Neil Godfrey

Whatever you do, don’t just believe everything you’re told; every statement should be taken apart and scrutinised before, reluctantly, you accept that it might conceivably be true.

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When a reader once tried to advise me that New Testament scholars of Christian origins were not unique among historians of the ancient world for their resistance to sceptical approaches I failed to appreciate the extent to which he was right. By no means is virtually the entire field of ancient history plagued by the same malaise in the same way New Testament scholarship appears to be but it is depressing to read in David Henige’s Historical Evidence and Argument so many illustrations of the anti-sceptical attitudes we normally associate with NT scholars among historians of ancient and early medieval times. (This post concludes my little trio on McCullough and Henige.)

Doubt has always been the underdog

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Historically, doubt has been deplored more often than deployed. 

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Skepticism is not inborn, but an ineluctable product of watchful experience.

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If you don’t have a better argument to explain the Bible stories. . . 

Recall from my previous post Norman Walker’s insistence that academics should not be about criticizing arguments unless they can produce better hypotheses in their place.

Is it really always more important to build than to destroy? This, after all, is the fundamental question that describes the disdain with which much skepticism is regarded. Should the skeptic feel bound to replace discredited ideas with better ones? Walker and the others are far from alone in thinking so.

Zvi Yavetz, for instance, argued that “scholarly reassessments are legitimate only if new evidence that invalidates the old is discovered, if a new method of research is applied, and/or if a new outlook emerges.”

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...

The Three Wise Men”  Detail from: “Mary and Child, Photo credit: Wikipedia)

H.W. Montefiore agrees: “[i]f the story of the Magi is unhistorical (in the sense that it is not based on what actually happened), then some satisfactory account must be given of the origin and development of the tale. (pp. 36-37)

So this is how the (ultimate) historicity of the gospel narratives becomes the unchallengeable conventional wisdom. If we are unable to convince Montefiore and his peers of a better explanation for the Magi story at the birth of Jesus then we are to conclude that the story must have had a historical basis.

This ridiculous stipulation cannot be carried out; nothing like the necessary information is available. In fact, Montefiore went on to offer a few half-hearted suggestions, only to disown them: “[n]one of these explanations seem to be adequate to explain Matthew’s tale, and the possibility must be investigated that Matthew based his story on historical events.”

Such indulgent policies are disastrous for progress, since restricting the grounds for such reassessment all but grants immunity to much of the work already done. It actually favors those who have produced no evidence for their interpretations. (p. 37)

read more »


2015-06-17

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

Pyrrhonist scepticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Anathematizing of doubt and doubters

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

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

cookDebate.001

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

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


2015-06-16

Failure of the Logic of History in Christian Origins Studies

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

Why has no-one else argued these points before?

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

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

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

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

And in the conclusion of his Introduction on page 4:

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

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

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

read more »


2015-05-31

Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

Akhenaten refresher

  • Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled for 17 years in middle of fourteenth century, up till around 1336 or 1334 BCE
  • originally known as Amenthotep IV (or in Greek, Amenophis IV); changed his name to Akhenaten
  • opposed the orthodox priests of Ammon-Re; redirected their income to his new god Aton
  • abolished traditional cults and idols of Egyptian polytheism
  • established the sole worship of a new god of light, Aton, (variously described as monotheismmonolatrism and  henotheism)
  • depicted Aton as sun disc with rays ending in hands, understood to be a universal god incapable of true representation
  • established new centre of worship at Akhetaten (today known as Amarna)
  • temples to Aten stressed worship in open sunlight (contrary to earlier custom of darkened indoor temples)
  • Akhenaten was the sole mediator between Aton and earth
  • affinities between Hymn to Aton and Psalm 104
  • son was the famous Tutankhamen

Unlike Moses, Akhenaten, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, was a figure exclusively of history and not of memory. Shortly after his death, his name was erased from the king-lists, his monuments were dismantled, his inscriptions and representations were destroyed, and almost every trace of his existence was obliterated. For centuries no one knew of his extraordinary revolution. Until his rediscovery in the nineteenth century, there was virtually no memory of Akhenaten.

Moses represents the reverse case. No traces have ever been found of his historical existence. He grew and developed only as a figure of memory, absorbing and embodying all traditions that pertained to legislation, liberation, and monotheism. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 23)

This current series of posts has arisen out of Professor Chris Keith’s references to Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s comments about social memory theory in history. Keith uses memory theory to “answer questions about the historical Jesus”. By starting with the gospel narratives as memories of Jesus that have been necessarily reinterpreted he attempts to uncover those narrative details that most likely point to a past reality about Jesus. In Jesus’ Literacy, for example, he judges the Gospel of Mark’s implication that Jesus was was not scribally literate to be more likely a memory reflection of the real historical Jesus than the Gospel of Luke’s suggestion that Jesus was able to competently read the Jewish Scriptures.

However, when I read the first two chapters of Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I read an approach to social memory that is the opposite of the one used by Chris Keith. Keith begins with the Gospels that are assumed to record certain memory-impressions and attempts to work backwards to what those original events more or less looked like to observers. But as I wrote in my earlier post that’s not how the Egyptologist works:

The Egyptologist begins with “hard evidence” and originally genuine historical memories and works his way forward into the later literature to find out what must have become of these memories. The historical Jesus scholar, it appears to me, begins with the later literature and tries to guess what memories came before it.

The two methods look to me to be like polar opposites rather than “similar”.

It is a pity Chris Keith is too busy to engage with Vridar (no reason given in his personal email, just a copy of a cordial invitation to respond to a Nigerian banker-benefactor asking me for my account details) at the cost of public religious literacy. I would love to discuss these questions with him seriously but he’s clearly not interested. (Slightly revised)

The difference is potentially very significant. Take the different versions of the Moses-Exodus narratives that we have seen in the recent posts — each one a differently interpreted memory — and apply Keith’s method to those in order to arrive at information about “the historical Moses” and the “historical Exodus” and see what happens. As we saw in that first post Assmann has doubts that there even was a historical Moses in the first place and he does not believe there ever was a biblical-like Exodus led by such a figure. Applying Keith’s method to “answer questions about the historical Jesus” to these memory-narratives would produce a very false notion of Egyptian and Jewish history.

Assmann starts with something we lack in the case of the historical Jesus. The known events of Egyptian history according to the contemporary inscriptions. These are used to interpret the later “memory literature”. The “memory literature” is not used in an attempt to uncover past historical events. The past historical events are used to interpret the subsequent stories.

Keith may object that he does use what is known of the historical past in order to assess what is closest to historical reality in the Gospels. He does, for example, in Jesus’ Literacy delve into what we can know about the nature and extent of literacy in ancient Palestine. But this tells us nothing new or relevant to the actual historical Jesus. It is comparable to uncovering details about the historical Pilate, or the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, or the geography of Galilee. No-one would believe we are coming any closer to “the historical Moses” by learning all we can about the Egyptian religious customs and beliefs, the social structures, ethnic groups or literacy in ancient Egypt and Palestine and applying this knowledge to any of the stories we have about Moses.

So here’s how Assmann uses social memory. read more »


2015-05-13

“Common Sense” Ways to tell (Historical) Fact from Fiction

by Neil Godfrey
quote_begin In the real world we know the importance of confirming the truth of important information. Does it come from a source we have good reasons to trust? Can we find independent verification? quote_end

Someone recently asked me if I could recommend readings that address the point I have made about how we (or historians) decide some person or event is a historical “facts” or a historical “maybes” or an outright fabrication. If there exists an abundance of literature explaining this with any sort of rigour it has eluded me. I’ll try to explain here how I came to my own understanding of this question. I’ll also make clear that there is nothing mysterious or technical about it but it’s nothing more than an application of how we approach any question seriously.

I have posted HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins as a cogent explanation of how I believe historians do generally distinguish fact from fantasy whether they make their approach explicit or (more usually) undertake it as a matter of almost subconscious routine. On a reader’s recommendation this link is kept in the right margin of this blog for easy reference. My first attempt to address this question was a much lengthier Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies posted in 2010.

kempWhen I first stopped to seriously ask myself this question quite some years ago I was frustrated to find so little in scholarly books, usually nothing, to help answer this specific question: How do we know a figure of the past existed if there are no surviving trustworthy contemporary sources to tell us so?

What I found helpful as I continued to think about this question was book by D. Alasdair Kemp, The Nature of Knowledge, that I had studied years earlier in a post-grad librarianship course. That is an excellent introduction to help one think clearly about the differences between scientific, social and personal knowledge and differences between data, information, knowledge, and so forth.

Forget ancient history for a moment. Kemp’s explanations pulled me up to rethink how we know for certain about anything in this world.

In the real world we know the importance of confirming the truth of important information. That confirmation can come from establishing the source of the news. Is it from a person or institution we have good reasons to trust? Or it can we find some independent means of verification?

Trust, but not blind trust read more »


2015-05-05

From a single source? Disguising hermeneutics as history?

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve been re-reading Propp’s work on the structure of folk tales (Morphology of the Folktale) and this passage struck me this time:

[I]f all fairy tales are so similar in form, does this not mean that they all originate from a single source? The morphologist does not have the right to answer this question. At this point he hands over his conclusions to a historian or should himself become a historian. Our answer, although in the form of a supposition, is that this appears to be so. However, the question of sources should not be posed merely in a narrowly geographic sense. “A single source” does not positively signify, as some assume, that all tales came, for example, from India, and that they spread from there throughout the entire world, assuming various forms in the process of their migration.

Propp, V. (2010-06-03). Morphology of the Folk Tale (Kindle Locations 2049-2053). University of Texas Press. Kindle Edition.

Propp then goes on to raise our awareness of other possible common sources:

The single source may also be a psychological one.

Family life is one such possible single source. Daily living another.

This passage jumped out at me probably because not long before I was re-reading parts of Childs’ book The Myth of the Historical Jesus, in particular his criticism of the assumptions of scholars who study the historical Jesus. He uses Crossan as a typical example:

[I]n a 1998 article, Crossan seems intent on finding and locating a kind of “cause,” or at least the source, for multiform manifest versions of Jesus’ sayings in the original voice of Jesus. He proposes the “criterion of adequacy” to replace the criterion of dissimilarity as the first principle in historical Jesus research. He defines it thus: “that is original which best explains the multiplicity engendered in the tradition. What original datum from the historical Jesus must we envisage to explain adequately the full spectrum of primitive Christian response. (p. 50)

Childs later suggests:

Crossan . . . seems to verge on what is a kind of concretistic historical fallacy in assuming that “the full spectrum of primitive Christian response” can only have its origin in, and therefore must be traced to, the original words and deeds of Jesus. read more »


2015-05-02

More Thoughts on Minimal Historicity: When Bigger Isn’t Better

by Tim Widowfield
U-2 over California

U-2 over California

Many years ago, I had what I still consider the best job in the world. A second lieutenant in my twenties, I found myself in charge of operational maintenance on the swing shift for the entire “black side” of the flightline at Beale Air Force Base. Back then, the tankers were on the north side of the flightline, while the U-2s (including their TR-1 cousins) and SR-71s sat on the south side.

Of course, the real work depended on experienced NCOs. As the old joke goes, the job of an OIC (Officer in Charge) is to listen to the NCOIC, then nod and say, “Oh, I See.” But I did serve at least one crucial function. Only an officer could sign off on a “Red X” and clear a plane to fly.

One night we were driving around in the little blue pickup truck assigned to the maintenance officer on duty, when we stopped at one of the U-2 shelters. The senior NCO and I were checking on the status of some repair; I forget exactly what it was now. At any rate, we got to talking and one of the guys asked the crew chief about a car he’d been looking at. The young buck sergeant told us that he did almost buy one vehicle. It looked nice, he said, and the payments seemed reasonable. But then he noticed something fishy.

“When I added up all the payments,” he said, “it was more than the price of the car!”

I felt compelled to explain. “If . . . I mean . . . Suppose . . . Hmm.” And then I realized there wasn’t enough time to explain how interest works, and it wasn’t clear it would do much good anyway. I gave a wide-eyed look at the senior NCO, offered some excuse about needing to get over to the SR-71s, and we quickly departed.

I had a similar feeling of helplessness reading Dr. Matthew Baldwin’sA Short Note on Carrier’s ‘Minimal Historicism.'” One’s first inclination is to want to help someone who’s thrashing about wildly, but where to start? Baldwin writes in his post, “This game is more than somewhat suspect: it is rigged from the start.” And he followed up with the same sentiments in his comment on Neil’s recent post, where he wrote: read more »


2015-04-08

Evangelical Scholars and the Limits of Historical Criticism

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 5.03.44 pmTwo evangelical scholars declare as an article of faith that historical criticism has a place in their study of the Bible:

The scholars in this volume believe that we should approach Scripture as a collection of historical texts. . . . As evangelicals, we believe that there needs to be space for an approach to Scripture that is historical critical. 

That credal statement comes from Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism by Christopher M. Hayes and Christopher B. Ansberry.

I really don’t quite know how to respond to a claim that historical critical analysis should be enshrined as a statement of belief. Where does one start?

The contradiction would be mitigated a little if the authors meant that the Bible’s books should themselves be approached as historical artefacts that required historical examination and explanation. How do the letters and gospels in the New Testament , for example, compare with other literature of the day? When do they first appear to be independently acknowledged in the historical record How can we best account for their contents and any “traditions” surrounding them?

But reading further it is very clear that what Hays and Ansberry really mean is that the stories found in those books are “believed” to be in some literal sense historically true:

This endeavour ought well to be historical, because we believe that God has chosen to reveal himself in history, to Abraham, to Israel, and ultimately through Jesus.

This leaves no room to question the fundamental core of the Bible’s stories of Abraham, Israel or Jesus. Yet a number of scholars without such faith constraints have indeed used historical critical tools to reject completely any truth underlying the stories of the patriarchs and to reshape the Biblical story of Israel beyond all recognition to anyone brought up on Bible stories.

It would appear then that historical criticism is only permissible if it serves to support the faith:

And this endeavour should be critical because, in the footsteps of the great Reformers, we do not want to confuse our human traditions with God’s own revelation. . . . 

In fact, refusing to engage in historical criticism at all can only have the effect of preparing the next generation for apostasy — or at least preparing them to leave evangelicalism. 

I’m not exactly sure what defines an “evangelical” but I do suspect that this is the approach of a good many biblical scholars. The difference with many is that they have a more liberal faith that does not require Jesus to have been born of a virgin, have performed miracles and have been literally (and physically) resurrected.

Theology always trumps historical criticism:  read more »


2015-04-01

Memories of Jesus? (Or False-Memory Syndrome?)

by Neil Godfrey

The Jesus historian’s proper task is to explain the existence of the Jesus memories in the Gospels. (Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, p. 66)

literacyThe question Chris Keith appears to overlook is how we know the Gospels do in fact contain “Jesus memories”. In fact, Keith’s book demonstrates, at least to my mind, just how far removed “Jesus historians” are from the mainstream of nonbiblical historical studies. (I am aware many biblical scholars would either deny or excuse this but that’s a topic I won’t address again in this post.)

Keith rightly leaves aside the tool of authenticity criteria as a means of determining “what happened” (I have addressed core aspects of Keith’s argument on such criteria before) but has left a gaping hole at centre of his attempt to reconstruct the origins of Christianity.

While some would argue that Jesus did not “start” Christianity that seems not to be Keith’s view. As I read him he associates Christianity’s beginnings with the impact Jesus had in his (pre-resurrection) lifetime on his disciples. Indeed, he even blurs the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith:

The overall implications of the Jesus-memory approach are significant. They challenge nothing less than the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. . . . [T]he Jesus-memory approach denies scholars’ abilities to separate cleanly the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith and properly returns historical investigation to why early Christians remembered Jesus in the manners they did. (pp. 69-70)

Keith’s colleague, Anthony Le Donne, at least acknowledged the necessity to somehow establish with some degree of independent verification (not just assumption) the existence of Jesus and reality of certain types of things he did. Le Donne admitted he had nothing but authenticity criteria to accomplish this, however, and Keith expresses some dismay over this return to a flawed method:

I disagree with Le Donne’s surprising appeals to criteria of authenticity. (p. 67 — Keith does acknowledge, however, that Le Donne modifies the claims he makes for these criteria by conceding they “cannot verify what actually happened” – p. 65 — only what “may have” happened, in effect)

Here is where I find biblical scholarship to be so removed from historical studies more generally. Ever since my undergraduate days I took it as a truism that all “facts” are at some level interpretations. Yet Keith attempts to explain at length why he believes that an “interpreted” event is somehow not, per se, necessarily “authentic”. He stresses what I and I am sure many historians have taken to be an obvious point — that every event we know about is transmitted through interpretations. Of course they are, but that does not deny the possibility of some sort of “objectivity” to the reality of those events. All we know about the Holocaust has come to us through interpretations of experiences and observations. But that does not mean we can say nothing stronger than that the Holocaust “plausibly happened”.

Keith speaks of our inability to have any “objective apprehension of past reality” and how the historian is always reduced to assessing “what is more or less plausible” (p. 66). I think Holocaust survivors have wanted something more than a claim like this in their defence.

Of course all human experience is interpreted, but that does not deny its objective reality at the same time. read more »