Category Archives: Historical Methodology


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.




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 »


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.


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


Historically, doubt has been deplored more often than deployed. 


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


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 »


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

by Neil Godfrey

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

Pyrrhonist scepticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Anathematizing of doubt and doubters

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

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


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

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


Failure of the Logic of History in Christian Origins Studies

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

Why has no-one else argued these points before?

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

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

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

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

And in the conclusion of his Introduction on page 4:

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

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

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

read more »


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

by Neil Godfrey
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the A...

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 »


“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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


A Historian’s Explanation for Bible Contradictions

by Neil Godfrey

David Fitzgerald has been reading through Matthew Ferguson’s post on the Κέλσος [=Celsus] blog and has singled out this one from 2013:

Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?

It is a refreshing read for anyone who has become mired in the sorts of apologetic nonsense too many believers who like to call themselves “historians” write. Here is a sample from his post:

The biographer Suetonius Tranquillus (Vit. 17.2) records the following [about the death of emperor Vitellius]:

“At last on the Stairs of Wailing he was tortured for a long time and then despatched and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber.”

However, the historian Cassius Dio (64.21.2-22.1) writes:

“At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city. His wife later saw to his burial.”

Wait! What happened to Vitellius’ body? Was his body thrown into the Tiber like a condemned criminal or did his wife have the opportunity to bury his body?  read more »

When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?

by Neil Godfrey

PhD student Matthew Ferguson on Κέλσος blog has just posted When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?. It’s reassuring to see some of the same fundamental principles that we have expressed here for some years now. But now you can read the fundamentals from someone in the process of completing his PhD in the classics and ancient historiography.

His article begins

One of the most misunderstood methodological issues that surrounds debates over the historical Jesus is the relevance of contemporary or early written sources to reconstructing a reliable biography of Jesus’ life. Very often comparisons are made to other historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who (allegedly) do not have any contemporary sources for their lives, despite the reliability of our historical information about them. Apologists thus argue that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus, and the fact that all ancient writings that mention Jesus date to a gap of decades and centuries after his death, do not make the historical Jesus more obscure or less knowable than other famous figures from antiquity.

As I exposed in apologist Lee Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in The Case for Christ, this mistake is usually made by apologists confusing the earliest extant sources (those that have survived medieval textual transmission) with the earliest sources that were written (and available to subsequent historians) in antiquity.

Thanks to Leucius Charinus on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum for drawing attention to this blog article.


“The Jesus Story Cannot Possibly Have Been Fabricated”

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier presents a “mock analogy” to illustrate the absurdity of so much of the reasoning that lies at the heart of the bulk of serious historical Jesus scholarship today. In fact the analogy is similar to ones Tim and I have independently made here. (One scholar who took himself far too seriously was so offended that he even accused me of extreme disrespect for drawing the analogy. I was reminded of the embarrassed crowds shushing and scolding the boy who dared yell out “The king is not wearing any clothes!”)

Here is Carrier’s version (with my formatting and bolding):

Imagine in your golden years you are accused of murdering a child many decades ago and put on trial for it. The prosecution claims you murdered a little girl in the middle of a public wedding in front of thousands of guests. But as evidence all they present is a religious tract written by ‘John’ which lays out a narrative in which the wedding guests watch you kill her.

Who is this John?

The prosecution confesses they don’t know.

When did he write this narrative? 

Again, unknown. Probably thirty or forty years after the crime, maybe even sixty.

Who told John this story?

Again, no one knows. He doesn’t say.

So why should this even be admissible as evidence?

Because the narrative is filled with accurate historical details and reads like an eyewitness account.

Is it an eyewitness account?

Well, no, John is repeating a story told to him.

Told to him by an eyewitness?

Well . . . we really have no way of knowing how many people the story passed through before it came to John and he wrote it down. Although he does claim an eye witness told him some of the details.

Who is that witness?

He doesn’t say.

I see. So how can we even believe the story is in any way true if it comes from unknown sources through an unknown number of intermediaries?

Because there is no way the eyewitnesses to the crime, all those people at the wedding, would have allowed John to lie or make anything up, even after thirty to sixty years, so there is no way the account can be fabricated.

(On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 251)

It does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation

Below is a comparable absurdity set out by Tim back in 2011. For me his punch line is “Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation.” read more »