Tag Archives: Historiography

Searching for a Good Fantasy: A Postmodernist’s Historical Jesus

My copy of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity arrived today. I had the impression that there is some curiosity “in internet land” as to whether this work will be of interest among Christ Myth theorists. If I am not judging too hastily, I will say, “No”. Everyone knows that the criteria used to establish “historicity” of a saying or deed of Jesus are shot through with logical fallacies. This has surely been well enough publicized by many mainstream and minorstream scholars by now. Or perhaps I don’t wear the same blinkers as many theologians who confuse apologetics with historical research.

The book does not address historicity. Note the title. It says “Authenticity”, not “historicity”.

There’s an interesting Introduction by Anthony Le Donne that I’d like to post on some time. He surveys the history, especially “American” meaning U.S. history, of historical research related to the Bible and Jesus. It reminds me of the title of a book by Ashleigh Brilliant, I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy. (Ashleigh Brilliant, I have read, is always on the warpath against anyone who uses one of his epigrams without first paying him for the privilege, so I hope he doesn’t object to my freely promoting one of his many published titles for him here instead.)

I have long looked forward to doing posts on historiography again, and in the process place the postmodernist historiography in its context. In that series I would certainly refer to Anthony Le Donne’s earlier book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?. That little volume is a handbook for theologians on how to save or redirect a new quest for the “historical Jesus” through a postmodernist approach to sources.
It contains a foreword by Dale C. Allison Jr. He was the scholar, some will recall, cited by James McGrath as being one of the pioneers responsible for paving the way for a whole new revolution in historical studies across the board. (See my post, New Testament Scholars Are Pioneers In Historical Methods.) McGrath learned from Allison the following:

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)

Here is one way to illustrate how postmodernist historical research into the ‘historical Jesus’ works. The illustration is taken from Anthony Le Donne’s Historical Jesus. Le Donne spices up the explanation with geometric and arboreal diagrams and phrases like “moving on from positivism”, “patterns of memory”, “thought-categories”, “memory refractions” and “spiraling memory traditions”. This is a Good Thing™, because it shields the reader from direct exposure to the befuddling logical circuitry behind it all.

First, find two contradictory Jesus “traditions”.

Next, place these two “traditions” 5 centimeters apart on a sheet of plain white paper on a flat table.

Thirdly, sprinkle lightly with extra-fine grade authenticity powder.

Now, with some geometry tools and an HB pencil, draw straight lines from those two “traditions” to a third point so as to form an equilateral triangle. (Don’t worry about the powder. That will add to the final effect.)

Now erase those straight lines and replace them with spirals. (Replace the scattered authenticity powder.)

You have now recreated the original memory refraction that was further refracted through spirals to reach our extant contradictory evidence.

Finally, focus one eye on the start of each of the spirals, roll each eye back through the spirals to their other point, and you will come to understand how we arrived at our extant contradictory evidence.

Ergo, Jesus existed.

Okay, that was tongue in cheek. But it is not far off what Le Donne writes anyway, seriously. Only in Theology Departments!

Le Donne’s case-study read more »

Historical Jesus Studies As Pseudo-History — Bart Ehrman As a Case-Study

First let it be clear where I am coming from. This is not an attack on any scholar or the scholarship of theologians in general. It is an attempt to address what strikes me as very muddled thinking in many works about the historical Jesus. That is not a denigration of the scholars in question or the works they have produced. It is forthright attempt to address an assumption or understanding that appears to be generally overlooked. If my views are wrong then I would expect someone somewhere who knows better can point out in a reasoned explanation where and why they are wrong. That would cause me some embarrassment, no doubt, but at least I would be given the opportunity change my views. I resolved long ago to be prepared to take the consequences of striving to be honest with myself in place of living a lie. But if the only response continues to be ridicule or insult or silent dismissal I will have no reason to think my criticism is invalid.

Often when I read a scholarly study of the historical Jesus I am a little dismayed at the woolliness of the ideas addressed. I have slowly become convinced that very few scholars who have written about the historical Jesus have ever studied what history even is. Very often historical evidence is confused with stories or an assumption that a story must be derived from real happenings.

Now I do understand that when Bart Ehrman wrote Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet for a New Millennium (=JAPNM), he wrote it not for his scholarly peers but for a wider public:

Scholars have written hundreds of books about Jesus . . . . A good number of these books, mainly the lesser-known ones, have been written by scholars for scholars to promote scholarship; others have been written by scholars to popularise scholarly views. The present book is one of the latter kind . . . . (p. ix)

The woolliness of thinking about the distinction between the narrative of an event and evidence for a real historical event, and even about the nature of history itself, is a critical consideration given that Ehrman also writes in the same preface:

The evidence itself plays a major role in this book. Most other popular treatments of Jesus rarely discuss evidence. That’s a particularly useful move — to avoid mentioning the evidence — if you’re going to present a case that’s hard to defend. Maybe if you just tell someone what you think, they’ll take your word for it. In my opinion, though, a reader has the right to know not only what scholars think about Jesus . . . but also why they think what they think. That is, readers have a right to know what the evidence is. (p. x)

Since my first draft of this post a new book by Ehrman has appeared (Did Jesus Exist? =DJE) in which he underscores the same fallacies running through JAPNM and adds a raft of new ones. For example, he lists a number of sources that he says historians can rely upon to establish the historical existence of a person while failing to notice that a number of the sources he lists can just as easily be used to argue for the historical existence of several pagan gods and demi-gods. (No wonder he finds they conveniently support the historicity of Jesus!) Equally bad, almost all of them ultimately beg the question of historicity rather than confirm it. I will discuss the logical fallacies inherent in his list in a future post.

What is history?

There are two fundamentals that I learned in about history in my senior history classes.

  1. The first thing I learned in my history class at senior high school was what history is not. History is not a list of facts, dates and events. A list of events is a chronicle, not history. History is the study of past events, an exploration in understanding those events, the composition of a narrative to convey some story or meaning from those past events. Such a narrative invests the “facts” with interpretation and meaning.
  2. The second was that when it comes to ancient history historians can only study questions for which we have enough raw material to research. We can’t write a biography of Socrates examining the range of formative influences upon his thinking and assessing how much of his contribution to Greek philosophy was unique to his own genius, for example.

Let’s unpack these a little. read more »

Response to James McGrath’s Argument from Wikipedia

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Image via Wikipedia

In response to my post in which I cited the Game of Avoidance as one played by some HJ scholars in relation to mythicist arguments, one such scholar has posted a series of comments with each one ironically avoiding my argument. Irony seems to be lost on some people.

So when challenged to address my statements on nonbiblical historical methodologies, the same biblical historian chose to avoid my argument completely and respond by going back to his own blog and posting up a discussion and link to a Wikipedia article titled Historical Method.

Aside on the insulting manner and false accusations of the scholar: The same gentleman and scholar also took the pains to explain how respectful he has been in his exchanges with me — (calling me a pretender, a bait-and-switcher, ignorant of what I am talking about or attempting to address, selectively cherry-picking supporting sources, and of complaining about things I have never uttered anywhere, all fall within the ambit of “respectful” dialogue in his view) — proceeded to insult me and anyone else who argues for a mythicist view as deserving to be ignored and being one with young-earth creationists. He also proceeded to infer that I am unaware of religious conservatives complaining about secularization of biblical studies and implies that I argue that nothing but religious dogma keeps mythicism from gaining a foothold in mainstream biblical studies. Of course he provides no evidence for these views he attributes to me because he will not find them. He will find in my blog several posts that belie his charges if he cares to look or ask.


So what to make of the Wikipedia article to which he refers and which he seems to claim fully supports the methodology of HJ historians as being just like that found in any other field of history? read more »

Lazy historians and their ancient sources

Though I refer to “lazy historians” here, this piece is really written for “lazy readers” of “biblical history” — not that many are really lazy. But not all are aware that modern critical techniques applied to the Bible are not a reflection of anti-religious bias but are rather an application of modern critical historical tools to biblical texts. It is the biblical apologist who is often the one wanting specialist treatment of his texts, not the secular critic.

“Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.” — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

read more »