Category Archives: Historical Methodology


Catchup — for you latecomers the history-basics lecture

by Neil Godfrey

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

The formatting, insert and emphasis is my own:

Ranke’s contribution to historical scholarship was threefold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Basics of History — They’re Still the Basics

by Neil Godfrey

Richard J. Evans (Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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


Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity, Conference. Some Questions.

by Neil Godfrey

Lectures from the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) have been made available at Biblical Studies Online. I look forward to updating myself with these talks and have already listened with interest to the first two, “The Memory Approach and the Reception of Jesus” by Chris Keith (though read by Steve Walton) and “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi.

Chris Keith’s paper essentially outlined the introductory points he has published previously about the nature of the social memory approach to Jesus studies but with an emphasis on defending the originality of what it has to offer New Testament scholars today. Much of the criticism of memory theory in New Testament studies, he begins, even criticism that has passed through the peer-review process, has been inaccurate. It has mischaracterized what the approach is about and failed to engage with the theory and its methodology.

The main point Keith emphasizes is that past events are not remembered (individually or collectively) in a “pristine” state as if preserved whole in a time capsule for our benefit, but are always remembered through the filters of earlier interpretation of the event that we have inherited and our present interests, needs, circumstances, environmental or cultural influences. As a long-time student of history I see nothing controversial about this statement. It strikes me as little more than a truism for any serious historian.

brueghel_ii_pieter_-_christ_and_the_woman_taken_in_adultery_1600However, I do wonder what such a process of “remembering” means for Chris Keith when he cites as a case study by David Parker(?) the pericope adulterae or passage in the Gospel of John about the woman taken in adultery. The manuscript evidence informs us that this story was not part of the original Gospel yet the story is such a part of our heritage that it inevitably influences the way we read and think about the gospels and the historical Jesus. Knowing that it was not part of the original accounts does not remove its influence over the way we think about Jesus.

I question that claim. If I understand the point correctly, I cannot accept that it is true. Surely scholars have written their own views on the historical Jesus that have no place at all for this story. Traditionally many scholars have attempted to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus entirely by means of comparing data in the synoptic gospels and leaving the entire Gospel of John (not just the pericope adulterae) out of their view completely.

Parker’s (and Keith’s) claim that the story inevitably influences how we think about Jesus is true at a general cultural level; Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman is part of image of Jesus that has come to us through our cultural heritage. But anyone who is interested in a serious study of the gospels by normative scholarly means can indeed construct a “historical Jesus” that allows no place for it.

Or perhaps I misunderstand the point. I am open to being corrected.

Misunderstanding Historical Positivism and Mnemohistory

Later Keith argues that memory theory turns traditional historical positivism on its head. Again, I find myself questioning his presentation. To begin with, he offers what to me is an inadequate definition of what positivism means as an approach by historians to the past. In Keith’s view as I understand it historical positivism is the belief that the historian can and should “get behind the sources” to recover a purely objective truth or fact of what actually happened. From this point Keith argues that since the past must always necessarily be interpreted to be remembered at all, then it can never be “truly objective reality” but always some form of narrated “myth”.

To justify this view Keith refers to the work of Jan Assmann on mnemohistory. I have addressed Jan Assmann’s interest and what he means by mnemohistory in Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies and show why comparing Assmann’s history of how historical figures were remembered with other historical tasks such as understanding, say, the origins of the French Revolution (or the origins of Christianity) is seriously misguided.

What Jesus scholars aspire to do (however unrealistic their hopes) is comparable to what Egyptologists do when they uncover and analyze the data in order to find out as far as possible “what happened” in the days of Akhenaten; Assmann’s interest is entirely different. His mnemohistory is a survey of the various cultural myths that appear to have arisen in the wake of the Akhenaten revolution. The two types of historical inquiry are completely different. Both are valid, but they each have quite different agendas.

To see a fuller explanation of historical positivism and how historians have both embraced and moved away from it see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, originally published 1946 but printed and released many times since.

It seems to me that with an oversimplified view of historical positivism Chris Keith has thrown out the baby with the bath water. Historical positivism originated as an attempt to set historical inquiry on a scientific footing. To this end historians believed that they should first establish the “facts” as a scientist establishes the facts, and from that starting point hypothesize and test laws to explain the relationships between those facts. By turning to Assmann it looks to me as if Keith has begun with a view of history that has no interest in the historical origin of a myth, that is, uncovering “the original facts” (this being considered an impossible quest), but only in the various ways the myth came to be “remembered” and mutated through the generations and again in his own time.

But even when mainstream historians rejected positivism (the belief that they could establish historical laws or principles from “the facts”) they did not reject the belief that they could find some form of real substance or “true events” in the past. Of course everything is necessarily interpreted. That again is a truism that needs no elaboration — at least to most historians I know of. (It only seems to be “big news” among some New Testament scholars, it seems to me.) But interpretation of an event does not mean that the event does not have some form of objective reality. We all have our interpretations of World War 2, of Churchill and Hitler. We cannot avoid them. But that does not remove the possibility of knowing that Churchill and Hitler really did do and say certain things, made certain decisions, and that very real and objective events that we can know about did follow as a result. Yes, we view those events through our interpretations. We know that people in other cultures and nations will have different interpretations, but no-one can deny that certain events are real and really did happen.

If I have misunderstood Chris Keith’s point I am more than willing to be better informed.

The difficulty with historical Jesus studies that has given rise to this misguided view of history as being completely beyond reach is that our earliest sources for Jesus, the letters of Paul, write about nothing but the myth of Jesus. Jesus, and what is sometimes referred to as “the Christ event”, is to Paul an entirely theological construct. The same is true of the later sources, the Gospels.

We only come to historical constructs (as distinguished from theological/mythical ones) in the next lecture in the conference, “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi. However, as we shall see, those earliest historical constructs — the model of Jesus teaching and his words being remembered and passed on in various forms until they are set down in the Gospels — are entirely hypothetical. They are entirely extrapolations from the myth itself.

I suspect Chris Keith would respond by saying that all records of history are by nature, inevitably, some form of myth because they must be interpreted in order to be narrated. My response is that yes, but interpretation does not deny the reality of events or persons. Recall my example above referencing the facts and persons of World War 2. We can know there was a real person Akhenaten and series of events that really happened around him — independently of the myths that those events generated.

It does not logically follow that there was no historical Jesus at the start of it all or that Jacobi’s historical construct is wrong. What does follow, in my view, is that it is pointless to ask questions about what the historical Jesus was like or what he said. We simply have nothing beyond the myths to inform us. The only question that the available evidence allows us to ask, as I see it, is how are we to understand the nature of the earliest evidence and how do we account for its origins.

To answer that the historian needs to inquire into not only the character of the world from which our sources emerged but also into attentive literary, redactional and other analyses that deepen our understanding of the nature of those sources.


Historical Methods: How Scholars Read the Gospels – An Outsider’s Perspective

by Neil Godfrey

Professor James D. Tabor (The Jesus Dynasty) has done his field of biblical studies and, most especially, the wider public a great service by setting out the historical methods by which he and critical scholars more generally approach the gospels. The public deserves to know and the field of biblical studies can only benefit from a more informed public. In Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospel Tabor explains that scholars don’t merely “pick and choose” details in the different gospels according to what they feel supports their theories about the historical Jesus or other questions: they apply critical analysis. Example:

Why do we have differing versions of many of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark . . . ? Rather than picking ones “favorite” version, and using it arbitrarily for ones own purposes, what critical scholars attempt to do is analytically account for the various strands of tradition, carefully comparing the similarities and differences, in an effort to get at why our traditions differ, when and where they originated, and which might more reliably go back to Jesus himself – if such can be determined.

Notice something else, though. The entire explanation is couched in the an assumption that the gospels contain traditions that in some cases and in some form go back to the historical Jesus himself. In fact, one significant purpose of the critical analysis is to discover what gospel material “might more reliably go back to Jesus himself”.

That is, the gospels are assumed to contain records, however flawed, of event or sayings that emanated from Jesus and/or his followers. The gospels are assumed at some level to be based on a “true story”.

Reasonable assumptions

That is a very reasonable position to take. After all, the gospels are written in an authoritative tone from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. The narrative voice conceals the real identity of the true author and in doing so removes any sense that we are reading a narrative limited by human bias and perspective. Of course, scholars especially are keenly aware that the stories are definitely, even inevitably, written from personal perspectives, and that’s the reason for their need to critically analyse their contents. But the problem is we have grown up in a culture that has taken for granted the authoritative character of the Gospels. Western religious and broader cultural tradition is grounded in the assurance that Jesus was the most important influence on our religious ideas and cultural values. To question this “fact” is as crazy as questioning the rotundity of the earth. Institutions have been built on the belief in Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. The “fact of Jesus” and “Gospel Truth” are part of our everyday metaphors and consciousness. Jesus is held up as a legitimizing symbol for a whole range of social, political, ideological causes.

Further, we have the date of the earliest gospel grounded in our conventional understanding:

Mark seems to have been written around 70 CE – within forty years of Jesus’ lifetime.

This is taken as a given, again quite reasonably, because it is a near-consensus among New Testament scholars. There are some outliers who place it considerably earlier, even decades earlier, but most (not all) of those who do so are apologists. Even fewer mavericks place it much later.

The problem is that these assumptions are not facts and really are open to question.

Look first at our assumption about the nature of the Gospels, that they are at some level records of a “true story”. Some scholars have argued that many of the narrative units about Jesus are re-writes of Old Testament passages. The raising of the daughter of Jairus is seen by some to be a re-write of similar miracles by Elijah or Elisha. Other scholars (the best known one is Dennis MacDonald and his The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) have even argued that both anecdotes and entire themes in the Gospels are drawn from popular Greek literature. Now other scholars have challenged such interpretations but the point is that such arguments can be reasonably made by specialists who know their stuff. In other words, it is not a bed-rock unquestionable certainty that what we read in the Gospels necessarily at some level owed its origin to “traditions” that were believed to have come from the historical Jesus.

It is not beyond possibility that at least parts of the Gospels originated as creative writing, as literary inventions. Of course some parts were definitely drawn from genuine historical tradition, too. We know that Pilate really was the governor, etc.

So given such a possibility, how do historians decide what is drawn from “historical memory” or even “historical imagination” on the one hand and “literary creativity” on the other?

This question is going one step further than Tabor has addressed. We are not asking what accounts in the Gospels can be traced to Jesus, but how we can tell if anything in a text owes anything at all to history as opposed to being entirely creative literature.

I believe there are ways. Not ways that will guarantee certainty, but that will certainly give us some measure of confidence one way or the other.

How we can write ancient history — breaking through cultural assumptions

The first is to look for independent corroboration. Some scholars see corroboration for their view that Gospel stories such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter above are literary fabrications by pointing to similar accounts in the Hebrew Bible. The critical point is that the corroborating evidence must be genuinely independent.

A second condition is to look at the provenance of both the narrative under investigation and of the corroborating testimony. Do we have clear reasons to trust that a piece of writing is derived from someone who “knew his history” or at least “the historical traditions”? Or do we have reason to believe the author was creative — for whatever theological or parabolic or edifying or entertainment reasons — from the start? So we may not have contemporary written accounts of Hannibal or Alexander the Great but we do have accounts by persons known who identify their sources from the times in question. Of course in theory they could all be lying, but their accounts do cohere with other evidence we see and do explain a lot about the way we can see the world changed so I think they are entitled to have at some measure of our confidence.

Unfortunately we have no idea who wrote the gospels or why or for whom or when (I’ll discuss the “or when” below). They don’t even identify their sources. The prologue introducing the Gospel of Luke is too vague a formula to be useful, and it is also questionable whether it is even meaning to say what most people seem to think it means. That’s never a good start for any historian. The reason we can write a history of the ancient world is precisely because we do have sufficient sources of the type that can be verified or give us some confidence in their historical reliability (imperfect though it may be). We can talk about Socrates as a historical figure because we do have such evidence for him.

When it comes to the Gospels, however, we have no comparable corroborating evidence nor the sort of information that should assure us that they really are attempts to record historical traditions and memories.

We do have evidence that supports the view that they were cut from the cloth of other literature, however.

The ideological influence on the dating of the Gospels

As for when the first Gospel was written, again we see cultural assumptions guiding our interpretations of the evidence. We assume, as we have always assumed and as everyone around us has always assumed, that at some level they are based on genuine history. Given that we believe this is what the Gospels are, it follows that they become the more reliable the closer we can legitimately place their origin to those historical events.

Therefore when we read about the prediction of the fall of the Jerusalem temple in the Gospel of Mark, it is again reasonable to date that Gospel to some time after that event. But of course we can infer that historical reliability as a rule tends to diminish the further away it is placed from the time it relates. In fact there is no reason I know of (I can be corrected, of course) that the Gospel of Mark might not have been written some time in the early decades of the second century. The earliest independent evidence of its existence appears to be found in a writing by Justin Martyr dated shortly after the Bar Kochba war of the early 130s.

The outsider perspective

James Tabor has done everyone a service by setting out so clearly the critical approaches and assumptions at the core of studies exploring Christian origins. I think we as outsiders can use his post as a springboard to identify more clearly the cultural assumptions embedded in the scholarly methods of critical New Testament scholars.



Anti-Historical History in Biblical Studies

by Tim Widowfield

I came across this today and thought I’d share it with Vridarians. Prof. Steve Mason of the University of Groningen writes:

Especially in biblical and religious studies, whose professors are among those most interested in Roman Judaea, there is a notable tendency to see history as a matter of conclusions or beliefs, no matter how those conclusions are reached. Do you believe that the Pharisees were the most influential pre-70 sect, that there was a standing Sanhedrin, that the James ossuary is genuine or a forgery, or that Essenes lived at Qumran? These kinds of questions one encounters all the time, though it is difficult to imagine similar camps forming in other areas of ancient history: over the reasons for Tacfarinas’ revolt in Africa or debating whether Boudica was motivated more by financial or sexual outrage. I do not know where this inclination comes from, but it seems to me inappropriate to history and indeed anti-historical . . . (Steve Mason, “What Is History?”, emphasis mine)


A Must Read! Steve Mason’s A History of the Jewish War

by Neil Godfrey

mason-warGentle reader, you must promise not to tell my wife what I am about to confess to you. Yesterday I threw thrift behind me and recklessly purchased an electronic copy of A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 by Steve Mason. And I do not regret the guilty pleasure.

Extremely rare among historical works we tend to associate with topics related to biblical studies, this work is written by an author who clearly understands what history is and how to use historical sources. Steve Mason laments his publisher’s insistence that he remove an entire chapter explaining all of this to an audience he acknowledges will belong primarily to departments in “religious studies, Jewish studies, archaeology, biblical studies, or theology.” He knows that

If even those who understand themselves to be historians and nothing else differ significantly in method, the potential for disagreement over aims and methods is likely to be all the greater in this field. On top of that lie all the potential stakes in this period held by Jews and Christians of various kinds, religious and non- and anti-religious scholars, Zionists, post-Zionists, and anti-Zionists.

So the excised chapter was replaced by a shorter discussion in his second chapter, and I would love every biblical scholar and theologian who thinks she or he is a historian yet who has never read R.G. Collingwood or E.H. Carr. Too often I have seen a theologian mocking what he calls an old positivist view of history yet ironically failing to realize that he only has a superficial grasp of what historical positivism really is. I myself have been lampooned for discussing the problems raised by E.H. Carr for historians by theologians who only know that Carr had communist sympathies and accordingly seem to think that anyone who refers to him must be seeking to undermine every good and decent value in modern society.

But here is Steve Mason discussing the problems facing historians as they are addressed by Carr.

To get to the point: Mason explains the importance of first knowing and understanding what our sources actually are. A historian cannot simply read Josephus, for example, at face value. One must understand the type of world that had produced him and the type of writing he has given us. One must understand the worldview he shares with his contemporaries. And one must understand why he wrote the way he did and what he did.

Moreover, one must understand what history is and what it is not. The past is dead. It is gone. It no longer exists. So how can we know anything about the past?

The past is not a set of facts that exist “out there” and that the historian can look at and talk about. The past really is dead. It is not preserved in some sort of hologram or series of floating imprints for our imaginations to look at and learn.

What we read in history books are the creations of historians. Creations.

I hesitate to use the detective analogy because it has been done to death before even though it is very often misapplied or misunderstood or not understood nearly well enough.

But in one sense history really is like detective work in that it seeks to understand what happened/a crime — who, how, what — from whatever bits and pieces left at the scene might be able to convey. That sounds banal, but the principle is not often understood among many historians tied to theology and biblical studies. Here is the difference:

All detectives start with some known facts that are indisputable. A cadaver with a knife in its back, a diary of a missing heiress, invoices and tax records. They then seek to uncover more evidence from these established facts. Interviews are recorded and attempts are made to independently corroborate them, etc.

But if detectives work like historical Jesus scholars they would not work like this at all. They would read a few popular anonymous publications about a long-ago murder at a nearby uninhabited hill that locals believed to be haunted. They would dismiss most of the anecdotes about hauntings, but they would study the publications to try to determine who the murder victim was and what was the motive for his murder.

That’s from an older post of mine.

In other words, far more often than not, scholars familiar only with biblical studies all too often do not understand the relationship between their sources, the events narrated in them, and what really happened.

Steve Mason, at least as far as I have read since yesterday, does understand. I feel like I am reading the work of a “real historian” so rare in this particular field of research.

I hope to be able to share my guilty pleasure over coming months and longer as time and opportunity are both kind to me.



Unfair to Compare Jesus Scholars with Regular Historians

by Neil Godfrey
It may be unfair to hold Jesus scholars to the standards of regular historians, since they have been trained in interpretation of sacred texts, not in the methods of historical investigation.
Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013, 9.

Richard A. Horsley

What is the context of that comment? Distinguished Professor Richard Horsley is talking about the practice of Jesus scholars to take individual sayings out of the gospels and attempting to “excavate” their origins instead of studying the gospels as literary works.

One of the first and most basic responsibilities of historians is to critically assess the character of their sources. Literary and rhetorical analysis of the sources is necessary to discern how they may be used for investigation of historical events, actors, and circumstances. Historians would not separate individual statements or short anecdotes from a source, categorize them by key words or apparent subject matter, and then seek the meaning of each statement by itself or assess the likelihood that particular anecdotes provide reliable attestation of actual historical incidents. (p. 9)

Historical Jesus scholars are very well aware that the Gospel are not regular histories but documents composed for the purpose of promoting faith in a wonder-working and resurrected Jesus. They therefore work with the assumption that if they extract certain pieces from such documents and subject them to “historical tests” they can arrive at some approximation of the “real historical Jesus”.

Jesus scholars recognize the “rhetorical” perspective of the Gospels. But precisely because the Gospels express the Easter faith of the “early Christians,” these scholars attempted to cut through or move underneath them by focusing on individual sayings (and stories) as their sources (or “data”), thus treating the Gospels as mere containers or collections. Work in other sub-fields of New Testament studies and related fields, however, is making this view of the Gospels untenable. (p. 9)

Horsley explains the process on the preceding page:

[T]he meaning of a saying depends on its meaning context, from which it cannot be intelligibly isolated. By extracting the sayings of Jesus from their literary context, Jesus scholars dispense with the only indication available for what that meaning context may have been. The analogy drawn recently that scholars are “excavating” the Gospel sources for Jesus such as Q or even “excavating Jesus” may be more telling than they realize. This suggests that the sayings are precious artifacts that must be excavated from the piles of dirt and debris in which they have become buried. Then, like museum curators of a generation or two ago, interpreters of Jesus arrange those decontextualized artifacts by type (“apocalyptic” or “sapiential”) and/or topic (children, meals, kingdom, wisdom), like fragments of lamps, vases, and pots in museum cases. Individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them. As isolated artifacts, however, they do not have or convey meaning, and they beg the question of context. The result is Jesus as a dehistoricized “talking head,” devoid of life circumstances.

With their various “databases” of atomized Jesus sayings isolated from any meaning context, the Jesus scholars then supply the meaning context themselves, often from the constructs of New Testament studies. It has become standard among critical liberal scholars, for example, to isolate Jesus’s admonition on what (not) to take for a/the journey from its immediate context in the “mission discourses” in both Mark 6:8-13 and Q/Lk 10:2-16. But what can this isolated saying about staff, sandals, bag, and so on mean in itself? Evidently nothing. So liberal interpreters recontextualize the saying in the modern scholarly construct of an itinerant vagabond lifestyle that Jesus was supposedly advocating to his individual disciples. (p. 8)

It is no different with scholars who work with memory theory in an attempt to reach back to the supposedly earliest “interpreted saying”.

I’ve addressed this point several times before — see, for example, Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything — so it is interesting, even encouraging, to see the same point being made by one of the more prominent biblical scholars today.



The Memory Mavens, Part 10: Memory and History (1)

by Tim Widowfield
Jorge Luis Borges en 1963

Jorge Luis Borges en 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ireneo Funes, the eponymous character in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Funes, the Memorious,” lived the first part of his life completely in the moment. Recalling his first encounter with the enigmatic figure, the narrator relates an incident from long ago when he and his cousin Bernardo were racing on horseback, trying to outrun a storm. They heard, suddenly, the sound of footsteps on the brick footpath above. It was Funes.

Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to him: “What’s the time, Ireneo?” Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo replied: “In ten minutes it will be eight o’clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco.” The voice was sharp, mocking. (Borges, 1967, p. 36)

In those days, Funes always knew the exact time; he knew about now, but remembered nothing of the past. Later, when the narrator meets Funes, he explains how an accident changed everything.

For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. (Borges, 1967, p. 40)

A garbage disposal

The fall left Funes unable to walk, and that paralysis becomes a metaphor for the crushing weight of all remembrances, which immobilize and suffocate. For while he can remember everything, his mind is inundated with every detail about every moment that he has ever experienced — and not only the event itself, but the clear recollection of each time he has recalled that event. read more »


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

by Neil Godfrey

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


Professor James S McLaren

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

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

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

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

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

and study of provenance:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Getting Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Historical Evidence Backwards

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

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

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

Hence Raphael Lataster writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Carrier concludes his book in part with

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

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

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

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



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 »