Category Archives: Historical Methodology


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 »


2015-01-07

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.


2014-11-13

“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 »


2014-10-11

A Secular Approach to Christian Origins Compromised by Faith and Theology

by Neil Godfrey

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This post concludes my series on Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE).

The previous post is here.  All posts on this book, both the recent ones from 2014 and those from 2010-11, are archived here.


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Misguided equivalence

How is one meant to respond to the words of a secular historian who says it would be “foolish and arrogant” to claim that his approach is “inherently superior” to one used by a Christian apologist? How is it possible for a secular rationalist to engage with a faith-grounded apologist as if both perspectives should be evaluated on an equal footing? Does the virtue of ”mutual tolerance” require persons with opposing intellectual agendas to somehow find a way to exchange views constructively and productively? Does the pointlessness of ”preaching to the converted” mean one’s efforts to exchange ideas among others with a similar philosophical outlook is also pointless?

Imagine the impact if more and more nonreligious, secular-minded historians were to become NT scholars. But if such a hypothetical collection of scholars were to make its impact felt, there must be mutual tolerance and the avoidance of . . . preaching to the converted. It would be foolish and arrogant to claim that one approach is inherently superior to opposing ones. . . . (p. 32)

How can a nonreligious, secular-minded historian possibly not claim his or her approach is inherently superior to an opposing one that “proves” the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

How can a leopard change its spots? How can the Christian apologists ever agree that their methods and faith-assumptions are not superior to those of the secular-minded nonreligious rationalist? What would be the point of being a secular-rationalist if one did not believe that such an outlook was indeed superior to the methods that are justified by faith?

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.13.56 pmCrossley confuses particular historical methods and approaches with the philosophical underpinnings most of them have in common: a belief that testable knowledge is more reliably accumulated through secular-rational methods rather than through enquiry guided by and seeking to serve the agenda of religious faith:

Richard Evans has pointed out that the history of history is littered with examples of different hegemonic claims by a given historical theory or practice wanting to dominate the world of historical study but usually ending up as legitimate subspecialities. 

Richard Evans was not addressing faith-histories versus secular histories. He was referring to the various approaches within secular history: postmodernists, psychohistorians, Marxists, feminists, social historians. Crossley has badly misunderstood and misapplied Evans’ point. (See Kindle version of Evans’ In Defence of History, locations 2744 and 3688)

It is not a question of one new method claiming hegemony only to be sidelined to a subspeciality. The real issue is well expressed by Niels Peter Lemche: read more »


2014-10-08

Good Bias, Hidden Bias and the Phantom of Jesus in Christian Origin Studies

by Neil Godfrey

whychristianityhappenedThis post continues on from The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias) and addresses the next stage of Professor James Crossley’s discussion on what he believes is necessary to move Christian origins studies out from the domination of religious bias and into the light of secular approaches.

In the previous post we covered Crossley’s dismay that scholarly conferences in this day and age would open with prayer, look for ecumenical harmonizations through all the differences of opinions and tolerate warnings against straying from the basic calling to feed Christ’s flock with spiritual nourishment. Theologians can even seriously publish arguments that would never be found in other fields of history as we see with N.T. Wright’s arguments for the historicity of the bodily resurrection and the widespread acclaim that his scholarship has attracted among his peers.

Crossley argues that the solution to Faith’s domination of Christian origin studies is for more practitioners to take up a solid secular approach. There should be more scholars in Theology or Religion departments doing history the way other historians do. Or more specifically, they should take up social-scientific methods of history.

In fact, however, the social scientific approach to historical inquiry is only one of many types of historical studies open to other historians but Crossley does not address these alternatives in this book. Crossley is concerned with applying only models of economic and social explanations for the rise of Christianity. He wants to avoid the common current approaches that explain Christian origins as the accomplishments of a unique man or the inevitable victory of a superior belief system.

Having addressed the way Christian bias (or more politely, partisanship) has produced “unnatural” historical explanations for Christianity Crossley turns to two examples of how “partisanship” has actually worked to produce positive results and taken historical studies a step closer towards a more “human” or “natural” account.

A Tale of Two Scholars

Two biographies are his primary exhibits.

What I will do here is show how details and biases of a given scholar’s life can affect the discipline — in other words, how partisanship can work in practice. . . . I think the [biographical] details are important because they provide crucial insights into the ways in which the discipline has been shaped and can be shaped. I also feel a bit naked without them. (p. 27)

read more »


2014-09-23

Why Christianity Happened – The Secular Approach, 2

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins

James Crossley seeks to explain what he calls the “puzzle” of the nearly complete failure of biblical scholars to apply “social-scientifically informed approaches” (p. 3) to the study of Christian origins between the 1920s and 1970s. Crossley is actually addressing two types of historical explanation: those that cover the social context of emerging Christianity and those that apply what would more correctly be called “social-scientific” — the application of “social-scientific methods, models and theories”.

Behind the several reasons he offers for the failure of biblical scholars to take up either of these historical inquiries stands one constant:

the need to make sure that Christianity is not explained away purely in human terms. (p. 17)

Karl Kautsky

Karl Kautsky

One of the two exceptional authors whom Crossley singles out as being responsible for a theoretically based social-economic explanation for the rise and spread of Christianity was Karl Kautsky. Crossley doesn’t quote Kautsky on this point but his words are worth noting in order to demonstrate that the ideological interest of theologians has been recognized from the beginning of ‘scientific’ historiography as the reason for their resistance to it:

It is no wonder then that secular historiography feels no great need for investigating the origins of Christianity if it starts from the view that Christianity was the creation of a single person. If this view were correct, we could give up studying the rise of Christianity and leave its description to our poetic theologians.

But it is a different matter as soon as we think of a world-wide religion not as the product of a single superman but as a product of society. Social conditions at the time of the rise of Christianity are very well known. And the social character of early Christianity can be studied with some degree of accuracy from its literature. (Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity, 1908, 1923, translated by Henry F. Mins, 1953, my bolding in all quotations)

read more »


2014-09-20

Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins

by Neil Godfrey

whychristianityhappenedJames Crossley is to be highly commended for attempting in Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE)  to adapt to the study of Christian origins approaches taken directly from history departments. The task of explaining how Christianity began has generally been the preserve of theologians many of whom (according to scholars like Scot McKnight, Beth Sheppard and Crossley himself)have not been familiar with methods used by professional historians outside the field of biblical studies. Crossley testifies from his personal experience that these methods are not always welcome among his colleagues and he prefaces his book with ”predictable hostility” that has come his way as a consequence of his work.

Now I like to back the underdog and anyone who attempts to displace a “faith-based discipline” with secularist methods so I was eager to read Crossley’s book. Moreover, Chris Keith, a prominent advocate of a “(social) memory theory” approach to the historical Jesus, has praised Crossley’s work as

some of the most interesting . . . in the field right now, some of which, really, no one else is doing. (James Crossley Joins the Criteria of Authenticity Skeptics)

As I proceeded, though, questions arose and I came to wonder if what Crossley was doing was building a magnificent edifice upon a foundation of sand. So in this post I will address what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of Crossley’s approach as he himself explains it in his Introduction and opening chapter, “Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins: The Use of the Social Sciences in New Testament Scholarship”. (I have addressed other aspects from the main body of Crossley’s work before and I will not revisit those here.)

Before starting: The Question

Crossley provides the contextual framework for his book in his Introduction. His argument is set within the basic framework of the traditional Acts-Eusebian model of Christian origins. As I understand it this model means the following: read more »


2014-09-13

How Ideology Creates a Historical Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

sanders-bultmannAmong biblical scholars today are those who quite rightly are concerned with the ideology and values that are implicitly exprestext the sed in what otherwise seem to be works of objective fact and analysis.

One such problematic theme that has often been expressed in publications about Christian origins is the portrayal of Christianity in terms that suggest that it originated as a superior religion to Judaism. Judaism of the early first century has too often been portrayed an imposition of painful restrictions upon its followers while Jesus is by contrast depicted as a high-minded innovator who offered spiritual and even physical liberation. E. P. Sanders (author of Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus) is reputed to have been a significant pioneer in breaking down this ideology of Christian superiority:

1. E.P. Sanders contributed significantly to demolishing the explicit anti-Jewish tendencies in New Testament and the over-emphasis on the Law versus Gospel distinction.

2. E.P. Sanders downplayed historicity of the conflicts between Jesus and his opponents as presented in the Gospels.

(James Crossley, Rudolf Bultmann, E.P. Sanders, and Curious Legacies)

I applaud the intention behind such discernment. Many of us have been taught in Sunday schools and churches that Judaism was dominated by a narrow-minded legalism from which Jesus came to deliver us. There is no doubt a good measure of unhelpful stereotyping going on here. The Gospels themselves, especially those of Matthew and John, are largely to blame for this.

Professor Crossley is addressing the positives and negatives of the Bultmann legacy. The particular example he singles out to illustrate his point is coincidentally critical to his own argument – and Maurice Casey’s — for dating the Gospel of Mark to within 5 to 10 years from Jesus’ crucifixion.)

We might, in fact, turn Sanders’ suspicions of twentieth-century German scholarship on Sanders’ use of Bultmann, in this case the handling of Mark 2.23-28 and Mark 7.1-23.

Sanders argued that these have ‘extraordinarily unrealistic’ settings.

Pharisees ‘did not organize themselves into groups to spend their Sabbaths in Galilean cornfields in hope of catching someone transgressing’. Similarly, according to Sanders, it is not credible that scribes and Pharisees journeyed from Jerusalem to Galilee to inspect the disciples’ hands.

‘Surely’, he concludes, ‘stories such as these should not be read as describing actual debates between Jesus and others’ (Sanders,Jesus and Judaism, p. 265; cf. Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 74, 215-16; Sanders, Jewish Law, pp. 19-23, 84-89. Meier would also stand in this scholarly tradition). As might be expected to follow from this position, such stories were deemed to be church creations in response to Jewish criticisms.

(Rudolf Bultmann, E.P. Sanders, and Curious Legacies, my formatting and bolding)

I find myself agreeing with Bultmann and Sanders here. Later in the post Crossley refers to Bultmann’s well-known point that in Mark 2 the Pharisees are not questioning Jesus but his disciples — i.e. the church. This was seen as a pointer to the cornfield-sabbath controversy being an invention by the church to address criticisms it was facing over the sabbath.

Crossley is somewhat ambivalent, however. read more »


2014-09-10

Lost and Bereft: The Quest (not) for the historical Jesus — Crossley style

by Neil Godfrey

Professor James Crossley on his blog last month justly critiqued various criteria biblical scholars traditionally apply in their efforts to extract some form of historical Jesus from the gospels and finally concluded:

So what can we say in (what is hopefully) a post-criteria world? To some degree, we are simply left with an old fashioned view of historical interpretation:

  • interpretation of the material . . . ,
  • guesswork about contexts
  • and the combining of arguments to make an argument of collective weight.

But an argument for what? Certainly not proof of what Jesus said or did. Jesus may or may not have said word-for-word what some of the Gospel passages claim but we have no idea if this is in fact the case.

All we can do is make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition. (My formatting)

This is not the way one does history. I am even reminded of the popular evangelical line of delivering a message that is hoped to bring audiences to despair, to thinking they have no hope, that they are helpless — all with the aim of motivating them to turn to the messenger for The Answer of hope and salvation. That just comes to mind but I would never suggest Crossley is deploying a similar rhetoric to entice readers to his own view of the way history should be done.

Let’s analyse these words.

“Interpretation of the material”.

That goes without saying no matter what one is studying. Of course historical inquiry is interpretation of the material. One can never avoid interpretation of some kind. Even understanding a claim to be an ”uninterpreted plain fact” is an act of interpretation. I would expect most senior high school students of history and beyond to understand that history is about the interpretation of evidence, data, “facts”.

“Guesswork about contexts”. read more »


2014-09-06

Why Historicist/Mythicist Arguments Often Fail — & a Test Case for a Better Way

by Neil Godfrey
Ananus [the high priest] . . . thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Antiquities, Book 20 [9,1])

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about a recent comment by a reader taking an opposing position to a statement of mine:

I don’t think Carrier is non-falsifiable (in the looser sense we have to consider non-falsifiability in the social sciences) — in fact, I happen to think it is pretty much falsified by the James passage in Josephus (not, of course, simply taking the passage’s authenticity for granted but considering all the evidence for and against it). I realize my viewing the James passage in Josephus as authentic is not a popular opinion around here, but it isn’t a stupid or ill-considered opinion; I’ve read Carrier and Doherty on the matter and don’t find them convincing at all. (my bolding)

I’ve addressed this sort of response before. One finds such grounds for rejecting opposing views all too frequently in the scholarly literature of biblical scholars. In response to a point made by Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado I wrote

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

Then when Professor Hoffmann offered a bizarre argument that Paul was fighting against a rumour that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary I refused to play the same game:

It is easy to dismiss his explanation as “not persuasive” or “speculative” but it is also important, I think, to be able to put one’s finger on precisely why a proposition is “not persuasive” or insubstantial. The effort of thinking it through may even lead one to appreciate that perhaps there is more to the argument than first appears on the surface. But even if one finds nothing of value in it, the exercise of examining it methodically can only be a good thing. Scoffing, saying something is bunk or absurd, relying on a vague feeling that something is “not persuasive”, are cheap substitutes for argument.

If a professor can’t explain to you how we know evolution is true or how we know ancient claims that Alexander the Great really conquered the Persian empire are true or the reasons we should be suspicious of paranormal claims you would be right to think there is a problem somewhere.

Another form of proof-texting

Back to the statement about “the brother of Jesus, called Christ, whose name was James” that is found in the writings of Josephus. So often we find defenders of the historicity of Jesus using these words in Josephus the same way different religious sects use proof texts to prove they are right and others are wrong. One professor frequently uses this approach in an attempt to refute young-earth creationists. The professor adheres to an old-earth form of creationism (via evolution — an oxymoron to anyone who correctly understands that the scientific theory of evolution has no room for a divinity at all) and posts regular “proof texts” from the Bible as an “argument” that “proves” his rival religionists are wrong. (The most recent instance of this: Psalm 148:4 Disproves Young-Earth Creationism. It does? Not to a young earth creationist.) He uses the same basic technique to argue against mythicists. Among other arguments he proof-texts from the Bible references such as Paul’s claim to have met the “brother of the Lord” or that we read somewhere else that Jesus was “born of a woman”.

Proof-texting doesn’t work because different people have different ways of interpreting such “proof-texts”. read more »


2014-04-13

Why Today’s Theologians Call Themselves Historians

by Neil Godfrey

symbolicjesusIn The Symbolic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity, William Arnal gives us a reasonable explanation for why Historical Jesus scholars today are characterized by:

  • a general assumption that the gospel narratives reflect at some level genuine historical events;
  • a minimizing of the criterion of dissimilarity;
  • a preference for a criterion of plausibility;
  • an explicit, even strident, emphasis on Jesus’ “Jewishness”;
  • a preference to present themselves as historians more than theologians.

In other words, whatever happened to Rudolf Bultmann and good-old scholarly scepticism?

Arnal’s discussion is a broad one encompassing scholarly, political, religious and cultural identities. This posts focuses on only the scholarly identity. I give some of the background relevant to this new scholarly identity formation since the 1970s and 1980s since it helps us understand more completely what has been going on that has led theologians to stress their apparent credentials as historians.

Up until the 1970s and 1980s New Testament scholarship was dominated by “Bultmannian, post-Bultmannian, or Bultmann-trained scholars”.

The “New Quest” for the Historical Jesus is traditionally said to have begun in 1953 with a publication by Ernst Käsemann arguing that the only way to be assured a saying of Jesus was authentic was that it stood distinct from both Christianity and Judaism. This was called the criterion of double dissimilarity. It did not mean that Jesus said nothing that overlapped with distinctively Jewish or Christian ideas but that the only ones we could be reasonably confident came from Jesus were those that were dissimilar to both.

Ernst Käsemann was a student of Bultmann.

Other scholars prominent in this “New Quest” (that is, the apparent revival of Historical Jesus studies after Albert Schweitzer is said to have closed the curtain on the “First Quest”) have been

  • James M. Robinson — an American, but whose D. Theol was from Basel;
  • Norman Perrin — an American, not a student of Bultmann but a student of Jeremias.

This “New Quest” throughout the 1950s and 1960s, in both Europe and North America, could be most distinctively described as follows:

  • A focus on the sayings of Jesus as the key to understanding Jesus;
  • Emphasis on the criterion of double dissimilarity as the key to identifying authentic sayings of Jesus;
  • A “considerable skepticism about the historicity of any of the gospel material, especially narrative but also sayings materials’ (The Symbolic Jesus, p. 41).

But Arnal points out that all of that changed “with a vengeance” in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The Third Quest”

read more »


2014-03-16

Historical Method and the Question of Christian Origins

by Neil Godfrey

TheHistorianLet me recap my take on “historical method” in the context of historical Jesus studies and the Christ Myth theory. A question about this was raised at an online video session today with Phil Robinson, Richard Carrier, Dave Fitzgerald, Raphael Lataster and me. It was in response to Maurice Casey’s chapter that he titled Historical Method in his recent book. “Regrettably”, Casey manages to avoid telling readers anything at all about historical method but he does tell you a bit about the private lives and shocking political leanings of some dead historians.

So here’s my take on it.

A historian needs to establish some fundamental facts about the sources at hand before he or she starts pulling out data from them to make a historical narrative or argument. Let’s take the gospels as one set of sources to be used in investigating the question of Christian origins. What does any historian need to establish about these — or any — sources?

  • We need to know when they were written.
  • We need to know by whom and why. (“By whom” means more than the name of the person: it refers to where the person is from, to what social or political entity he or she belongs — “Who is this person?” — that is more important than a mere name.)
  • We need to know what they are, what sorts of documents they are. Their genre, if you like. This will include knowledge of how they compare with other literature of their day.
  • We need to know something about their reception at the time they were written and soon after.
  • We need to know something about the world in which they were written — both the political and social history of that world and the wider literary and philosophical cultural world to which they belonged.
  • We need to know a little how the documents came into our possession. Through what authorities or channels were they preserved and what sort of manuscript trail did they leave.

That’s the first step. We can very broadly classify all of this knowledge as the provenance of the documents.

If we draw blanks on any of these questions then we need always to keep those blanks in the foremost of our minds whenever we read and interpret the gospels. Those blanks will help remind us of the provisional nature of anything we draw from the gospels.

So for the first point above, the date of the gospels, we can do no better than accept a range of year in which they were written. A combination of internal evidence and the evidence that they were known by others leads us (well, me at least) to a period between 70 CE and the mid second century (possibly known to Justin, certainly to Irenaeus).

Those who argue for a date prior to 70 CE fail to take into account the apocalyptic character of the gospels. Apocalyptic literature (e.g. Daniel) is known to be about events in the recent memory of the readers. The pre-70 date also fails to take account of the internal evidence for an audience facing persecution, including persecution from Jews. There is no confirmable evidence for such persecutions of Christians until post 70 CE. If some dispute this and argue for a much earlier date then I’m happy to address those arguments, too; I would be willing to change my view if they proved to be plausible and if the scare Caligula gave with his threat to install a statue in the Temple was the best explanation for other features in the Synoptics.

The question of who wrote the documents is of primary importance. Just saying the author was a Christian is way too broad and tells us nothing except the obvious. It’s no more useful than saying a work of history was written by a Greek historian. So what? We need to know what sort of Christian, where, when and why — whom was he writing for? why? Since we know none of these things — speculations and educated guesses change with the tides of fashion — we are at an enormous disadvantage in knowing how to interpret or understand the gospels.

Is what we read a composite document composed over several editorial hands? That, too, is a most important question to answer. Again we are at a real disadvantage here.

The above gaps in our knowledge of the gospels ought to pull up every historian short and make them wonder if it is worth even continuing to work with these documents. Certainly any historian worth his or her salt will always be tentative about any conclusions and data taken from them.

The second step. read more »