Tag Archives: Historical Method

Anti-Historical History in Biblical Studies

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)

https://www.academia.edu/2978438/What_is_History_Using_Josephus_for_the_Judaean-Roman_War

Historical Method and the Question of Christian Origins

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 »

Maurice Casey Fails His Historical Method Essay – Monday

Caprichos, No. 23

Caprichos, No. 23 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maurice, Maurice, Maurice, what are we going to do with you!

You have written an 8000 word essay that you titled Historical Method. You included it in your portfolio titled Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?

Can I ask how much research you did in preparation for this? Ah, so you say you used all the notes supplied you by Stephanie Fisher. Did you do any checking of source material for yourself? Oh, I see, mostly what Stephanie supplied you. Well, Maurice, I’m afraid that’s no excuse. This was your assignment and you are responsible for what goes into it.

No, Maurice, you didn’t pass. I gave you an F. You’re going to have to do it all again. . . .

Yes, Maurice, an F. If you carry on like that I’ll make it an F minus.

That’s better.

And for your next effort I insist you throw away everything Stephanie fed you and do your own fact-finding and make it your own work for which you alone are responsible.

No, Maurice, it’s not because I don’t like you. Come up and sit down here and I’ll go through it with you and show you why you need to do the whole lot again.

Look. You’ve titled it “Historical Method”. Now show me where in the essay you explained what “historical method” is. . . . No, it’s no good just gazing at the paper. You didn’t explain it anywhere. You didn’t even say what any mythicist thinks historical method is. From reading your paper I’m none the wiser on what New Testament scholars think is their historical method and I have no idea what any mythicist thinks it is or what it should be either. read more »

Take Two: Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Continuing from Historical Method versus Jesus Research: Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity. . . .

Jens Schröter reminds us of flaws with the criteria approach to find the historical Jesus. They encapsulate what I have covered in my posts on Chris Keith’s chapter one:

  1. Criteria were designed as a tool to assist with form criticism
  2. Form criticism assumed that Gospels could be peeled apart layer by layer to find sections originating with the Church, sections originating with Judaism and other sections that originated with the earlier oral tradition about Jesus independent of Judaism and the Church.
  3. Criteria were designed to assist with arriving that the earliest Jesus traditions.
  4. The earliest Jesus tradition was defined as “authentic” if it did not overlap with traditions that could be identified as belonging to Judaism or the early Church.
  5. Historical Jesus scholars came to reject form criticism but continued to use criteria of authenticity, but they used them to supposedly discover the historical Jesus. The criteria were originally designed only as a literary tool to locate the earliest traditions surviving in the Gospels — not as historiographical tools to find historical persons and events.
  6. So the criteria approach has been criticized as invalid as a tool to unearth the historical Jesus. (Criteria were originally part of the package of the literary study of form criticism.)

In response to the failure of the criteria approach have been those who advocated a “memory approach”, and I have discussed this also to some extent, in particular with respect to Le Donne’s presentation in a popular publication.The justification and the problem of this approach are that it does not claim to arrive at an “authentic” picture of the past, but only to some understanding — through the haze of “subjective recollections and interpretations” and potential “misperception, wrong information, oblivion and projection” — of “what might have happened”

One of the must fundamental principles every historian learns to apply before studying a source for the “memories” it contains or any other “historical information” that it writes about, is to analyse the source to ascertain exactly what it is, where it came from, who put it together and for whom. read more »

Historical Method Versus Jesus Research. Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

I touched on one brief passage in the chapter by Jens Schröter in my recent post, Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically from Other Historical Studies, and it’s now time to return to his chapter from Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [JCDA] in more depth. Jens Schröter appears at several points to come so close to advocating use of the methods of other historical studies for the study of Jesus, but each time falls agonizingly short of what only those with eyes wide shut will miss.

Introduction

Historical Jesus research in recent decades has dwelt heavily upon the social, political and religious life of Judaism, Palestine and Galilee in the first century in order to explore the environmental factors that must have contributed to the personal make-up of Jesus and his mission.

A historical presentation of Jesus’ mission has to explain why it caused a new movement circled around his name and venerating him as “Lord Jesus Christ.” . . . . (p. 49, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Right here is the first problem of historical Jesus studies. Recently Larry Hurtado even declared that part of this proposition — that a new movement erupted from Palestine in the 30’s — was “data”* that the historian was required to explain.

But that is not data. What is data is the existence of narratives — the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John and the Book of Acts — portraying a faith movement spreading from Palestine in the 30s. But narratives are not necessarily history.

Nor do we have any data to confirm that there was a Jesus mission in Palestine that caused a new movement. The data we have are stories about such a Jesus mission. But stories are not necessarily history.

  • Question: How can we know if a story is based on history?
    • If a story begins with, “This is a true story”, is that enough to rely upon?
    • What if the tale is told from the perspective of an all knowing authoritative narrator who speaks with authority. Is that the clue?
    • What if the tale is plausible and coherent and “rings true” — that is, is rich in verisimilitude? Is that a sure sign it really is true?
    • How many biblical scholars have ever stopped to think through questions like these in relation to historical figures (ancient, medieval and modern) generally?
  • Answer: We need some evidence external to the story itself that confirms for us that there were real events and persons upon which the story was based. For example: read more »

Miracles and Historical Method

Is the sun a ball of dung?

Unknown species of Aphodius (Dung-beetle).

Image via Wikipedia

The ancient Egyptians believed that Kephri, a god with the head of a sacred scarab, pushed the sun along its path, just as the dung beetle pushes a ball of dung across the ground. They were convinced that the beetle existed in male form only, and reproduced by fertilizing its dung ball with beetle semen. This life-giving attribute relates to Kephri’s ability to resurrect the sun each morning.

The irrational anti-supernaturalist would dismiss these beliefs out of hand, while the credulous, unlearned person might simply accept them without question. But the reasonable, wise, modern scholar takes the middle road and declares, “How do I know? Neither the scientific method nor the historical-critical method can account for miracles.”

Methodological Naturalism

We call this perspective “methodological naturalism.” It skirts the issue of whether the world in reality is affected by supernatural forces. Rather, it asserts that having only naturalistic tools in our bag, the only things we can measure and be sure of from a scientific standpoint are natural phenomena. We don’t assert radical materialism; we just operate that way.

But let’s be honest. We’re not talking about just any supernatural forces. Egyptologists don’t have to calm down their students by telling them “we’re just not sure” about how the sun moves and whether dung beetles have no wives. No, we invoke methodological naturalism only when existing religions with existing beliefs in the supernatural intersect with historical studies.

We don’t do it for other ancient gods and defunct ancient religions. We don’t do it in modern forensic science. We don’t do it in scientific research. We only do it when we look at ancient texts that are revered by modern people.

If we don’t drill a hole in your head, then how will the demon get out?

Close-Up: Trepanning in Neolithic times

Close-Up: Trepanning in Neolithic times (Photo credit: NeuroWhoa)

Many conservative scholars (e.g., Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd) argue strongly for a new “Open Historical-Critical Method,” wherein we give our ancient “witnesses” the benefit of the doubt when it comes to little things like the resurrection of the dead, but surely they do not also argue for an “Open Theory of Disease.”

Maybe you have a chemical imbalance, or maybe you have a demon. Perhaps you have cataracts, but let’s leave open the possibility of some supernatural creature that’s living inside your eyes.

They wouldn’t argue that, would they? I mean, this is the 21st century, right?

Right? Guys? read more »

Historical Jesus Scholarly Ignorance of Historical Methods

On 14th January I posted How Historians Work – Lessons for Historical Jesus Scholars in which I demonstrated that at least some biblical scholars are unaware of normal historical practices by quoting key sections from works recommended to me by Dr McGrath. On 16th January Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, responded by accusing me of being a fool, either ignorant or obtuse on the one hand or wilfully misrepresenting and wishing to deceive readers whom I believe are gullible and foolish on the other.

Unfortunately Dr McGrath’s reply only further convinced me that he has not read both books in question even though he recommended them to me — though he does appear to have at least read sections (only) of one of them — and that his smearing of my character and intelligence is unwarranted.

Dr McGrath began his reply with:

I sometimes wonder if mythicists realize when they are making fools of themselves. If they do, then they are presumably akin to clowns and comedians who provide a useful service in providing us with entertainment. If they are unintentionally funny, then their clowning around in some instances may include misrepresentation of others which, however ridiculous, requires some sort of response.

Presumably this sort of ad hominem is intended as filler in place of reasoned responses to virtually the whole of the arguments and demonstrations of my post since he repeats such accusations often while never engaging with all but a couple of my points, and even those only tangentially.

Dr McGrath then lands another character attack that he says he will not deliver or will ignore so I will ignore that for now, too — although I did respond to it on his blog at the time.

So to the main point:

But on the misrepresentation of Vansina, and of Howell and Prevenier, a few brief points are in order, which I suspect will show clearly to anyone interested that Godfrey either is either failing to comprehend Vansina, Howell, and prevenier, or is willfully misrepresenting them.

This introduction at the very least leads me to expect that Dr McGrath will demonstrate by quoting Vansina and Howell and Prevenier read more »

New Testament scholars are pioneers in historical methods

New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers. The attempt to define criteria of authenticity was in fact an attempt to articulate more precisely and rigorously things that in most other areas of history were determined in much the same way, but with a far greater degree of intuition and instinct. (Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis, Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity Among Friends and Enemies . . . )

In the same post, Dr. McGrath explains that the pioneering method of applying more clearly defined criteria of authenticity can be used to hopefully understand the great mystery that started Christianity:

While it is surely true that an attempt to find an uninterpreted Jesus amid the interpretation of the Gospel authors is implausible, it does not follow that criteria of authenticity are useless. What we seek to catch glimpses of are Jesus as he interpreted himself, and Jesus as his disciples interpreted him prior to the changed perspective resulting from Good Friday, and from whatever subsequent experiences and reflections persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand.

My earlier post complaining about the absence of known facts about the life of Jesus and the consequent need for historical Jesus scholars to try to find some through criteriology was misguided. It appears that historians who are so backward as to seek explanations for known public facts are “fact fundamentalists” and have much to learn from New Testament pioneers.

. . . . . the issues Allison and others raise are fatal for the historical Jesus enterprise, but are fatal for the misguided and futile quest for certainty that “fact fundamentalists” have brought with them into the discussion. (Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity . . .)

What is one of the issues raised by Allison according to Dr McGrath that is fatal for “fact fundamentalists”?

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. (Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus) read more »

Two misunderstandings in biblical studies: the nature of “scepticism” and “evidence”

Mascot of the Australian Skeptics. This is the logo of theAustralian Skeptics which is interested in assessing the claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience — not the “historical Jesus”. But the logo, and the statement of aims of this organization capture the nature of scepticism: to test claims against the evidence.

Image via Wikipedia

Deane Galbraith has listed on the Religion Bulletin blog a the early Sheffield Biblical Studies blog posts discussing Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth, and he adds a note about mine, too. But the presentation goes to the heart of why mainstream biblical studies on the historical Jesus are very often not comparable with genuine historical studies. Here is how Deane refers to my posts:

Sheffield Biblical Studies commences a select chapter-by-chapter review of what is probably the major historical Jesus work of the decade, Maurice Casey’s magnum opus, Jesus of Nazareth (T&T Clark, Oct 2010 UK; Dec 2010 U.S.). Michael Kok reviews Chapter One, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” where Casey critiques the historical (or as is more typical, theological) contributions of earlier Jesus scholars. Christopher Markou reviews Chapter Two, “Historically reliable sources,” where Casey defends the key importance of Mark and the Q materials as historical materials for understanding Jesus, and the relative uselessness of John. But Neil Godfrey (who I have never met, and may not really exist) thinks Jesus is a myth, and so he adopts a level of skepticism towards the evidence that would make even Sextus Empiricus appear gullible (Vridar: here, here, here, here, here, and here). (with my emphasis)

Now that’s putting me in my place! Three sentences including full titles for links to describe two posts on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog, and a single sentence with a parenthetical notice of “here” “here” “here” . . . to point to my series of posts. ;..(

The nature of scepticism (and the impossibility of having different “levels” of it)

I have long believed that scepticism is a healthy thing, the beginning of verifiable knowledge and the assurance of learning more verifiable things over time. It enables one to consider all knowledge tentative pending the discovery of new information. It keeps one alert to the need to test information before going too far with it.

But Deane reflects here a common approach, a sceptical approach, to scepticism itself. The phrase “level of scepticism” suggests there is a scale of degrees from gullibility to scepticism, and that a student or scholar of things biblical is advised to find an appropriate position somewhere fairly well away from either end of that scale . read more »

Casey’s historical method (2): Aramaic and the fallacy of ‘historical plausibility’

Bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) by k...
Image via Wikipedia

Maurice Casey considers historical plausibility to be “of central importance” (p. 106).

Our early and primary sources are unanimous and unambiguous in placing Jesus within a context of first-century Judaism. It follows that our picture of Jesus should be comprehensible within that cultural framework, and further, when a piece of information about Jesus or those present during the historic ministry fits only there, that is a strong argument in favour of its historicity.

Surely this is begging the question. Casey has declared what is historical before he begins the inquiry, and then writes the rule to justify it. The Gospels place Jesus within a context of synagogues and Pharisees but external evidence indicates that these are anachronisms, not becoming features of the Galilean landscape till after the year 70. Casey has simply declared them by fiat to be historical of early first century Galilee.

Hellenism and regional contrasts (Galilee and Judea are only two) were a reality of first century Palestine. See, for example, Hellenism in the Land of Israel. Scholars like Crossan and Mack, whom Casey dismisses, grapple with the evidence for these realities. read more »

Maurice Casey’s Historical Methods for Historical Jesus Studies

Maurice Casey (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Nottingham, UK) in his 2010 book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching devotes his third chapter to a discussion of his historical method, and becomes the latest New Testament scholar to demonstrate (once more) how studies of the “historical Jesus” follow their own idiosyncratic rules and are unlike any other studies of ancient historical figures.

Unfortunately, Casey also demonstrates in this chapter the all too familiar tendency of biblical scholars to carelessly misrepresent arguments and authors they do not like. In this case, Casey’s representation of Crossan’s methodology and arguments is, at best, a little unfair, as I will demonstrate by setting Casey’s and Crossan’s words side by side.

read more »

Scholarly attempts to “explain” historical methods for Jesus studies (1)

Scot McKnight of recent controversial article fame, devotes an entire chapter in his book Jesus and His Death to a discussion of the historiography of New Testament scholars, and writes:

In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p.16)

Biblical scholarships’ ignorance of the significance of different types of evidence

This unfortunate state of much scholarship of Christian origins is aptly illustrated throughout many studies of the historical Jesus, but I focus in this post on statements by one such self-professing “historian” of the New Testament who makes a point of explaining what he understands by “the historical enterprise”:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly. read more »

Historical Jesus scholarly quotes on historical methodology

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.

(From a scholarly review of a chapter of a book discussing historical methodology)

In a discussion of a Wikipedia article on Historical Method:

Is there anything in the method outlined there (or better yet in the books cited if readers know them well or have time to consult them) that is not in keeping with the practices of historians working on the historical figure of Jesus? Or is there any point at which this survey and summary (or the method set forth in the sources the article cites) is at odds with what most historians do?

I ask because mythicists regularly claim that what scholars investigating the historical Jesus do is different from what mainstream historical study does.

In those books cited in that Wikipedia article, and that are appealed to in order demonstrate that biblical historians use the same methods as nonbiblical historians, appear gems like the following:

The author of a historical source may be God, as well as man. Hence the distinction between divine and human sources.

The procedure of critics who reject the possibility of miracles is manifestly unscientific.

I know of course that most mainstream biblical historians do not openly admit to the supernatural when dealing with historical inquiry, but the fact that an associate professor of religion is blithely confident enough to make such a claim about books he obviously has never read and only thinks he understands demonstrates just how out of touch some biblical scholars are with the historiography outside their own ivory tower. This was a key point in Scot McKnight’s chapter on historiography in his Death of Jesus, and which I discuss in relation to key names in nonbiblical historiography that he sees as relevant for biblical scholars. The scholar who refuses to address this is the one who responded with the ignorant remark about sources for methodology on the Wikipedia article.

(I know I know. Someone said this is like shooting fish in a barrel with a shotgun. Let’s move on.)

Oh, just one more. . . .

I’ve tried being reasonable and respectful

(comment 11491)

Agreed, he is very trying

Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies

Missed it by that much

Missed it by that much

Thomas L. Brodie has a chapter (“Towards Tracing the Gospels’ Literary Indebtedness to the Epistles” in Mimesis and Intertextuality) discussing the possibility of the Gospel authors using the NT epistles among their sources, but what I found of most interest was his discussion on methodology and criteria. The difference between Brodie’s discussion of historical methodology and that espoused by James McGrath comes close to being starkly different as day is from night. But it is not clear that Brodie is fully aware of what I think are the implications of what he writes. read more »