Category Archives: Historical Methodology


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 »


2014-01-28

Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?

by Neil Godfrey

Dr McGrath posts a brief comment on the criterion of embarrassment at Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment? He makes the following statement that I believe strikes at the core of the methodological flaw in scholarly inquiries into the historical Jesus and Christian origins:

As with a trial in a courtroom, the fact that flawed deductions are sometimes drawn does not mean that the methods we use ought to be discarded. Doing our best with evidence, reason, and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything that has to do with the past. Wouldn’t you agree?

The courtroom analogy is a false one. Courtroom trials deal with known historical events. Something bad happened to someone. The only questions are ones such as “who did it?” and “why?” The courtroom analogy begs the question of historicity.

The next sentence sets up another fallacy — the false dilemma. It goes without saying that “doing our best with evidence, reason and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything”. Of course I agree and everyone else does, too. The question is rhetorical and falsely portrays the alternative as unreasonable silliness.

The core question is summed up perfectly by Todd Penner in his In Praise of Christian Origins when he wrote of the Stephen episode in the book of Acts:

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises. read more »


2014-01-05

Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything

by Neil Godfrey
Owens1This post is best read in the context of the earlier posts on Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, in particular Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”. This post considers the different genres qualities (verbal categories, discourse types) between Gospels and historical writings and concludes the Gospels are characterized by language typical of make-believe narratives.

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One would expect that it would go without saying that one must first understand what one is reading before one knows how to assess its value as a historical source. But the field of historical Jesus research is graced with many exceptions and methods found in no other field of historical inquiry. One of these is the belief that literary analysis has no relevance to the study of the historical Jesus.

James McGrath even publishes a diagram to show why literary analysis is irrelevant for historical inquiry. It is assumed that the literary approach does nothing more than explain the literary qualities and narrative structure of the work. It appears in The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith:

hislit.
McGrath is not alone in this understanding of the difference between literary and historical studies of the Gospels, which is to say that a good number of Christian history scholars do not really understand the nature of historical source material or the fundamentals of how to undertake historical research. I am not saying all biblical scholars fall into this trap, nor that all other types of historians avoid it, since there are indeed a few biblical scholars more critical than their peers and some sloppy historians in other fields who build upon unexamined assumptions.

miles1Jack Miles (born 1942) is an American author and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. His work on religion, politics, and culture has appeared in numerous national publications . . . . Miles treats his biblical subjects neither as transcendent deities or historical figures, but as literary protagonists. His first book, God: A Biography, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1996 . . . . (Wikipedia)

What is wrong with the above model? Jack Miles, another scholar discussed by Clarke Owens in Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, strongly disagrees with the notion that one can validly “see through” the Gospel narratives to history below. He draws the analogy of the text as a stained-glass window: not to be looked through but looked at. According to Clarke Owens this is only “half right”. Owens identifies the flaw in Jack Miles’ analogy: Miles is embracing as a universal what “literary critics would recognize as [only] a theory” of literature — that of “autotelic literature“. That is, the idea that literature can and must be interpreted only within its own boundaries is only one theory among a number of valid ways of reading and understanding literature.

According to Owens, while it is correct that we cannot “look through” a text on the assumption that it is some sort of window to a real world of past persons and events, it must be recognized that there are ways literature can serve as historical sources — only not in the way biblical scholars too often assume.

The message of the stained glass window

Clarke Owens, writing as a literature scholar, reminds us that there are certain types of literature (e.g. allegory) acknowledged as taking their meaning and intended interpretations from reference points outside themselves. (One might call this type heterotelic, referring to something outside itself, as opposed to autotelic.) So Owens disputes the idea of Jack Miles that literature must be read exclusively “as literature” and without reference to history. read more »


2013-11-30

Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

by Neil Godfrey
davidhacketfischer

David Hackett Fischer

Professor of History, David Hackett Fischer, has long been known for his book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he amasses copious examples of fallacious historical analysis and argument committed (at least on occasion) even by otherwise highly reputable historians. Unfortunately, critical fallacies that he identifies as periodic blights on the work of his peers are standard practice among works of theologians writing about Christian origins.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

Here is one that many readers will recognize, and it is one that unfortunately does too often extend beyond the limits of subgroups. On pages 51 and 52 Fischer writes (my bolding in all quotations):

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification.

This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.* If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. . . .

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

[* Reference: see page 102 of Vansina's Oral Tradition]

historiansFallacies

Most historians agree . . .

. . . that a genuine historical event lies behind the story of Stephen

I could just as easily have written “most historians agree that genuine historical events like behind the stories in Acts.” But let’s limit the discussion here to Stephen’s martyrdom. (This post is, after all, my follow-up to my Stephen post.)

Shelly Matthews (also a theologian but who seems to be one of the relatively few who happily demonstrates a clear understanding of sound historical-critical method and writes history with a clear understanding of the philosophy undergirding her approach) admits she stands against what has been the traditional consensus of her peers over the historical value of Acts.

Firstly, however, Matthews correctly explains how her peers have traditionally attempted to glean “kernels of history” from the Book of Acts:

Biblical scholars employing methods of historical criticism do recognize that the coherence of various aspects of Acts is ahistorical, imposed by Luke upon his sources because of his theological concerns, his apologetic tendencies, and/or his aim to delight his audience. For more than two hundred years, historians of Christian origins have approached the book of Acts presuming that its author’s intrusive hand can be pulled away, freeing his sources to bear unencumbered witness to the historical events that occurred in the earliest decades of the church.

Applying methods captured by metaphors of winnowing and digging, they have attempted to distinguish Acts’ redactional/theological/fictional elements from the actual history presumed also to reside in the text.

From these “kernels of history,” from this “bedrock,” scholars have then constructed their own versions of a coherent narrative of Christian origins understood to correspond with events that happened in history. (p. 15, my formatting)

Theologians have thus generally assumed that “real history” lies “beneath” the text and that all they have to do is apply tools like redactional criticism to know what parts of the text to pull away (e.g. the theological or literary creations of the author) and thereby expose the original source. And that source material is for some reason often presumed to point to “bedrock history”. read more »


2013-11-28

History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”

by Tim Widowfield

Yet Another Ehrman-Evans Debate

In a recent Bart Ehrman blog post, he referred to a debate he had with Craig Evans on the reliability of the New Testament, which took place back in January of 2012. If you watch it (perhaps you already have) and you’re familiar with these guys, don’t expect to see or hear anything new. I’ve come to realize that whenever Bart starts a sentence with, “I tell my students at Chapel Hill,” he’s going to tell a story I’ve heard at least ten times already.

However, Evans did say something that caught my ear. If you click on the start button on the video below, it should cue up to the 14:04 mark, at which point Evans says . . .

Second, New Testament scholars, historians, and archaeologists view the gospels as essentially reliable, because they exhibit verisimilitude, a Latin word that means “they resemble the way things really were.” That is, the contents of these writings match with what we know of the place, people, and period described in the document.

Their contents cohere with what is known through other written sources and through archaeological finds. Their contents give evidence of acquaintance with the topography and geography of the region that forms the backdrop to the story. The authors of these documents exhibit knowledge of the culture and customs of the people they describe. Ancient narratives that possess these characteristics are used by historians and archaeologists.

The New Testament Gospels and Acts exhibit a great deal of ver-ee-similitude. They speak of real people — Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, Caiaphas, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Felix, Festus — and they speak of real events — the death of John the Baptist, the death of Agrippa I. They speak of real places — villages, cities, roads, lakes, mountains — which are clarified and corroborated by other historical sources and by archaeology.

read more »


2013-11-19

Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . Did Jesus Model Himself on Elijah?

by Neil Godfrey

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Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

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Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailBrodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.

Having begun by identifying the two key problems of Meier’s work as (1) reliance upon the oral tradition model and (2) misreading the sources as windows to historical events as a result of failing to appreciate the true nature of those sources by means of literary analysis, Brodie next showed how these two problems misled scholars into the daunting task of attempting to sift the genuinely historical elements from the Gospel narratives.

That task of divining the historical from the non-historical has led to the development of criteria. But Brodie argues that all of those criteria are flawed in some way (a point few of Brodie’s peers would disagree with; that is why they believe they are on stronger ground if they use several of them, never just one, and use them “judiciously”) but that several of them in particular are best and most simply and directed answered by a deeper and wider understanding of how ancient literary artists worked. Contradictions and discontinuities are a pervasive feature of the literary makeup of the Biblical texts and function in consciously planned ways.

To add another illustrating example from the one I gave from Brodie himself in my previous post, this one not from Brodie but from my own reading of scholarly works comparing Herodotus’ Histories with the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings), a number of scholars have argued that the contradictory accounts of such events as David’s rise to power are set side-by-side just as Herodotus likewise pairs contradictory accounts of certain events in Greek history. The notable difference with the biblical literature is that in the work of Herodotus the author has intruded into the narrative the voice of a narrator to comment on these differences. The Gospels are following the style of the OT “histories” of removing, for most part, the directly intrusive narrator’s voice.

The criterion of multiple attestation also fails since, according to Brodie, the various sources are not at all independent but are re-writings of one another. Re-writing and transforming texts was a singular feature of the literary compositional techniques of the day.

Disastrous consequences

So when some scholars see the clear allusions in the Gospels of Mark and Luke to the stories of Elijah, failing to understand the how ancient authors more generally imitated and emulated other writings, they conclude that Jesus himself was deliberately (historically) modeling himself upon Elijah! John Meier, for one, concludes that Jesus historically saw himself as standing in the line of Elijah and Elisha (Marginal Jew, III, 48-54). But as Brodie points out,

To claim that Jesus modeled his life on Elijah or Elisha may be a very welcome idea, but it goes beyond the evidence. It is not reliable history. (p. 158, my bolding)

meier-brodie

Jesus’ call of his disciples as a case study

read more »


2013-11-18

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 6 (Two Key Problems with Historical Jesus Studies)

by Neil Godfrey

marginalJewBrodieContinuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

Chapter 17

A MARGINAL JEW: RETHINKING THE HISTORICAL JESUS —

THE MONUMENTAL WORK OF JOHN P. MEIER

Thomas Brodie selects for discussion John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best work that has been published on the historical Jesus by a range of great scholars (Wright, Dunn, Levine, Freyne, Crossan, Theissen “and many others”). The five volume Marginal Jew was singled out because it is so well-known and among “the most voluminous”. To begin with, Brodie clarifies that he is not at all writing a “polemic”. That he apparently feels a need at this point in his book to stress such an obvious thing is a sad commentary on the forces he knows he is facing with the scholarly establishment. If anyone was left wondering if the mood of that establishment was softening they should be pulled up by Bart Ehrman’s recent comments:

As most of you know, I’m pretty much staying out of the mythicist debates. That is for several reasons. One is that the mythicist position is not seen as intellectually credible in my field (I’m using euphemisms here; you should see what most of my friends *actually* say about it….) . . . . and my colleagues sometimes tell me that I’m simply providing the mythicists with precisely the credibility they’re looking for even by engaging them. It’s a good point, and I take it seriously. . . . . . The other reason for staying out of the fray is that some of the mythicists are simply unpleasant human beings – mean-spirited, arrogant, ungenerous, and vicious. I just don’t enjoy having a back and forth with someone who wants to rip out my jugular. So, well, I don’t. (They also seem – to a person – to have endless time and boundless energy to argue point after point after point after point after point. I, alas, do not.)

In other words, the encounters this blog has experienced with the likes of James McGrath, Joseph Hoffmann, Larry Hurtado, Maurice Casey and a few others — encounters characterized by sarcasm and insult and avoidance in response to mythicist arguments — are apparently the norm to be expected, according to Bart Ehrman. He expresses frustration over the failure of the standard answers to answer newly engaged questioners. The answer is to despise those who are not persuaded and rather than seriously engage them in depth retreat into the authority of his ivory scholarly tower. This is not how evolutionists publicly respond to Creationist arguments in their publications that do address the serious Creationist questions. Meanwhile, Bart is effectively admitting what is clear to many of us, and that is that he is simply ignoring the mythicist counter-arguments to his claims and repeating the standard catechisms for historicity as if anything contrary or seriously challenging should be shunned as the work of intellectual lepers. Accept the arguments of the first point and don’t question the assumptions or the logic or the evidence of those answers, because the likes of Ehrman do not have time or energy to re-examine such “point after point after point” of their Conventional Wisdoms. It is interesting, too, that Ehrman uses the language of a persecution-complex, as if “mythicism” — that is said to be so marginal as to be irrelevant — is nonetheless a serious threat to the status and credibility of scholars of early Christianity. It seems that the language of persecution, with its consequent polarizing of the debates into some sort of war between good and evil, and the lurid dehumanizing of those challenging the status quo (Ehrman speaks of mythicists as “unpleasant human beings, . . . vicious . . . who want to rip out his jugular”; Hoffmann speaks of mythicists as “disease carrying mosquitoes”; etc.) has been with these scholars ever since the fourth century. But no-one can accuse Thomas Brodie of having some sort of anti-Christian agenda. Brodie in fact seeks for Christianity a deeper understanding of God. He invites Christians to courageously come to acknowledge that Jesus is something far more than any historical person could ever be: he is Truth, Reality, expressed as a literary parable or metaphor revealing great truths about God. Brodie reminds me of Albert Schweitzer’s wish for Christianity to abandon a faith based on some contingent historical event or person that would always remain open to question and to establish itself upon a deeper metaphysic. (He expressed this wish for Christianity at the conclusion of his critique of mythicist arguments of his own day.) So into the Circus to face the lions walks Brodie, pleading his innocence and freedom from polemic. read more »


2013-09-15

How Historical Imagination Destroys the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey

Most of us understand that the Gospels are theological narratives and do not report literal history. At the same time, probably most critically inclined readers believe that those theological narratives are ultimately inspired by historical persons and events. Their authors (or those responsible for their source information) are so “spiritually overwhelmed” by the inexpressibility of the wonder of these historical events that they are compelled to write about them through a language of theological surrealism.

Jean Fouquet: Caesar Crossing the Rubicon (Wikipedia)

Jean Fouquet: Caesar Crossing the Rubicon (Wikipedia)

Comparisons are even drawn with ancient historiography. Ancient historians regularly introduced supernatural events and persons into their accounts of historical persons. It is worth looking at a few examples. We are meant to be assured that the Gospel narratives are of a similar ilk.

As he [Caesar] stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast,” said he. (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 32)

No one doubts the reality of Augustus Caesar despite it being “recorded” of him by Philo that he stilled storms and healed diseases:

This is Caesar, who calmed the storms which were raging in every direction, who healed the common diseases which were afflicting both Greeks and barbarians . . .(Philo, Embassy to Gaius, 145)

The stilling of the storms may have been a metaphorical synopsis of Augustus putting an end to the wars that had long ravaged the empire but the philosopher Empedocles was reputed to have done as much literally:

Ten thousand other more divine and more admirable particulars likewise are uniformly and unanimously related of the man: such as infallible predictions of earthquakes, rapid expulsions of pestilence and violent winds, instantaneous cessations of the effusion of hail, and a tranquillization of the waves of rivers and seas, in order that his disciples might easily pass over them. Of which things also, Empedocles the Agrigentine, Epimenides the Cretan, and Abaris the Hyperborean, receiving the power of effecting, performed certain miracles of this kind in many places. Their deeds, however, are manifest. To which we may add, that Empedocles was surnamed an expeller of winds (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, 135-136)

And of course we know of the tales of miraculous births of Alexander the Great and Plato. Both were conceived by a god. There are many more. King Pyrrhus healed by touching a reclining patient with his foot. Emperor Vespasian healed a withered hand and restored the sight of a blind man.

So there we supposedly have it. The gospels, we are assured, are no different from other ancient accounts of famous historical persons, mixtures of fact and fable.

I don’t think so. read more »


2013-09-10

Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry”?

by Tim Widowfield

Dr. McGrath has taken me to task for my last post on “Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem.” Actually, he’s unhappy about several things. You can tell he’s upset, because he calls me a canard-repeatin’ mythicist. That’s like a Tea Party guy calling you an atheist-Muslim or a communist-Nazi. It’s so bad.

I think I’d rather be called a Jesus minimalist or a Jesus agnostic. But in any case, the issue at hand wasn’t the existence of Jesus but the state of the evidence and what you can and cannot justifiably claim based on that evidence.  Look, I’m willing to entertain the idea that Matthew was embarrassed by what Mark wrote. I don’t think he was, but if you want to argue that, go ahead. But you can’t leap from the theory that Matthew was embarrassed by Mark to the “fact” that the early Church was embarrassed by a historical event.

I gather he didn’t like my crack about quote-fishers either. He thinks I’m doing “some dubious things with Jan Vansina’s work in the realm of oral tradition and history.”  McGrath writes:

The last point is somewhat new and so worth commenting on further. Widowfield suggests that Vansina’s adoption of something like the criterion of embarrassment is radically different than its use by historians working with texts, because in recitations of oral traditions, the embarrassment of the reciter might be seen in their speech and behavior. Historians can respond to this by pointing out that texts too can indicate an author’s discomfort with material, indicating that it did not originate with them. Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition, our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when writing certain things notwithstanding.

First, for clarification, by “historian” I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the theologians and doctors of divinity who write books on the historical Jesus. Jan Vansina, who earned his doctorate in history back in 1957, did in fact write about something that sounds like the criterion of embarrassment. A quote-fisher like McGrath could easily have mistaken it for just the sort of thing that John Meier was talking about in volume 1 of A Marginal Jew.

Are they radically different? Yes, radically and categorically. Here’s why.

read more »


2013-09-04

A dichotomy fallacy in historical Jesus studies

by Neil Godfrey

Anthony Le Donne has published works arguing for a new type of historical study, one that draws upon memory theory, to be applied to the Gospels. He and a number of scholarly supporters believe this new approach can open up a more valid way of approximating the historical Jesus behind the Gospels.

historiographicalJesusIn the opening pages of his opening chapter of The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (2009) Le Donne zeroes in on what he believes is a prevalent fallacy among scholars addressing historical questions in the Gospels and Acts. This is that a good number of well-known scholars have argued that an event in the Gospels-Acts that is expressed as some “typology” or fulfillment of an Old Testament passage should not be thought of as historical, or that it should at least be relegated to a status of questionable historicity. On the other hand, events written as facts and that contain no striking overlay of such Old Testament framing should, rightly, be considered historical, or at least be acknowledged as historical in the mind of the author.

Anthony Le Donne quotes Michael Goulder’s explicit expression of this principle:

Where . . . we find passages with no apparent root in symbolism, or with unimportant traces of types, we shall be justified in assuming that St. Luke was setting down a factual story. . . . This will be our first criterion: where there are no types, Acts is intended to be factual.

Where an incident can be accounted for wholly, or almost wholly, on typological grounds, we shall have to be very wary indeed of giving it weight as history. This gives us a second criterion: the thicker the types, the less likely is the passage to be factual.

I agree with Anthony Le Donne completely that scholars who argue for or against the historicity of a passage in the Gospels and Acts on such are basis are succumbing to fallacious and invalid reasoning. But I also believe that Le Donne has succumbed to an unsupportable assumption of his own and that what he proposes as the correction to this wrong argument is just as baseless.

Where Anthony Le Donne is right

It is quite reasonable to suggest that an event that has been framed or crafted in terms of Old Testament passages was originally an historical happening that was later reinterpreted by others through Old Testament prophecies.

Gosh, the emperor Hadrian used to present himself as Hercules, and the even more illustrious Alexander the Great was presented as the conquering god Dionysus. Mythical overlay of historical events and persons calls for historical explanation, not denial of historicity. read more »


2013-04-29

Building a Hedge around the Historical Jesus

by Tim Widowfield

Please don’t eat the Bible

I was glancing over at the Exploding Cakemix recently, keeping abreast of the latest mythicist-bashing, and I happened to notice a story about a guy who said:

[I]f anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1. (Dr. John Dickson, PhD, Ancient History)

Now I’ve heard of people using the Bible for rolling papers in a pinch (not recommended), but it never occurred to me to eat it. I know that if you’re stuck on a disabled bus in the wilderness you should eat your boots and the seats before you eat your fellow passengers. But the Bible? I’d need loads of ketchup.

Dr. John Dixon

Dr. John Dickson: Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University

Anyhow, it turns out this John Dickson guy is a real professor with a doctorate and everything. He teaches real students at a real college university for real cash money. So we should sit up and take notice.

The historical Tiberius versus the historical Jesus

Dickson’s post is the usual litany of supposedly solid evidence that we’ve all seen before. Most of it is of the “throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” variety. But there was something new there, at least for me. He writes:

The [sic] Tiberius provides a good example (he was the emperor when Jesus was crucified). Our best sources for Tiberius are Tacitus and Suetonius, both composed eighty or so years after the emperor’s death in AD 37. The New Testament writings were composed much closer in time to their central figure. Several of its sources – Mark, Paul, Q, L and James – date to within 25 years of Jesus, and one crucial passage is dated to within a few years of the crucifixion, ruling out the suggestion that even the basic details of Jesus were part of a process of legendary accumulation.

My interest is piqued. I like Roman history. But what’s this claim from our expert about the “best sources” for Tiberius? Emperors, even mediocre or bad ones, leave big footprints. But sometimes it’s the smallest bits of evidence that persist. Like this one:

Roman Coin: Tiberius Caesar

Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus
Pontifex Maximus

Moving the goalposts

If you take a few minutes to read the comments, you’ll see that someone mentions the fact that the Romans minted coins during Tiberius’s reign, and that we actually have some that we can pick up and hold in our hands. In the ancient history trade they call that “primary evidence.” He or she goes on to explain why it’s important to corroborate claims in texts with primary evidence.

And certainly the coin is persuasive physical evidence, but, as some guy who goes by the initials RMW explains, it’s like totally unfair. He responds:

 

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2013-03-18

How to Think and Write Like an NT Scholar: Part 1

by Tim Widowfield

This post inaugurates what I hope will be a long-running, informative (albeit tongue-in-cheek) series. In it, we’ll attempt to shine some light on the inner workings of the New Testament scholar’s brain.

There is no reason to doubt . . .

New Testament scholars fall back on stock phrases when they’re pushing a weak argument, presenting poor evidence, or stating an opinion as fact. Ironically, the stock phrases they pull out of the old filing cabinet usually have the opposite effect from what they intended. That is, they draw attention to the problem.

Not in This Stove

He’s not in this stove!

We might call this the Oz Distraction Disorder (ODD), as in: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” It could be an act of desperation, or perhaps it’s a subconscious thing. Maybe they want us to figure it out, much as Bugs Bunny purposely drew attention to the bank robbers he’d stashed in the gas stove.

One of the most common ODD phrases is: “There is no reason to doubt . . .” (TINRTD) Whenever you see this phrase, you should be on the lookout — the author is probably about to describe something you ought to doubt. We’re apparently supposed to shut off the skeptical parts of our brains when we hear this magic formula, triggering a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion.

Here are some fine examples.

Lukan parables that “must be” authentic

Klyne Snodgrass, in his book, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, writes:

With Jülicher and most others there is no reason to doubt that these two parables are genuine words of Jesus. (p. 385, emphasis added)

Snodgrass pulls the TINRTD card when considering the authenticity of Luke’s parables of the Tower Builder and the Warrior King. Snodgrass snorts:

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2013-03-16

Who’s the scholarly scoundrel? Scholars of Christian origins bound by bias, immured in myth.

by Neil Godfrey

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I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened! (Daniel Boyarin)

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Most of us [biblical scholars] are just trying to follow the evidence. (Larry Hurtado)

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just-the-factsForget mythicism or the Christ myth debate. That’s irrelevant. Or should be. What matters is the evidence we have, understanding it and explaining it. The evidence we have from the early days of Christianity is a literary and a theological Jesus. No-one I know of in my circle gloats or thinks they are scoring points over whether they can prove or disprove the existence of the historical Jesus. What interests them is understanding the best way to explain both the nature of early Christianity and Christianity’s origins. What matters is making the best sense of the data available. But first we need to have a clear and valid understanding of what constitutes the data to be explained.

In my previous post I noted what should be a simple truism: scholars of Christian origins generally are doing little more than paraphrasing (in scholarly language and with their own qualifying preferences) the Christian myth we have inherited from the Bible.

I have no doubt the bulk of them are very sincere and would sincerely censure me for suggesting that their scholarly pursuits are trapped in the myth itself. This blog has frequently posted observations of the ineptitude of some biblical scholars who seem to fall very short with respect to rigour and understanding of questions of historical methods, awareness of what their peers and foundational predecessors have written, and even the very nature of scholarly bias and the meaning of evidence.

The second of the quotes above struck me at first as a caricature. Surely a professor would know something about the nature of bias in any scholarly pursuit and especially in one as ideological as biblical studies.

Apparently not. I attempted to post a comment addressing the naivety of this view but my comment was rejected. The same professor even remarked that my suggestion of bias in the scholarly field amounted to charge of a “conspiratorial agenda”. Does a professor really believe that the alternative to freedom from bias is deliberate conspiracies? Or is this a defensive response against lay critics who can see the emperors are scantily clad?

So I post here the message that the professor did not appear to want others to read on his blog:

I do not believe biblical studies is unlike any other academic discipline and institution when it comes to questions of institutional (let alone personal) bias. Bias is a necessary part of the human condition and without it we cannot function. Surely everyone knows that the trick is to be aware of our biases and that that is not always a simple matter.

We don’t need to go beyond Albert Schweitzer’s observation that up till his own day scholars had produced an array of historical Jesus figures, each one in the image of his scholarly creator.

The latest historical Jesus figure I’ve encountered was only a few months ago and he, too, is very much the spitting image of his maker, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann (i.e., all his scholarly peers are failures, only he can rescue them, but they don’t listen to him, he is without a place, and he sure as blazes doesn’t love everybody). I think we can conclude little has changed since Schweitzer’s day in this respect.

No one “simply follows the evidence” read more »