Contrasting methods: “nonbiblical” historians vs “Jesus” historians

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by Neil Godfrey

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm

I have argued (repeatedly) — and demonstrated — that mainstream historians of “the historical Jesus” do not follow the basic procedures in evaluating evidence practiced by regular “nonbiblical” historians. Here is another specific case that illustrates this fact, and demonstrates once again the validity of Thomas L. Thompson’s claim that “historical Jesus” scholars have “always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.” I came across this particular case when doing some background reading on a nonbiblical historian, Eric Hobsbawm, whom James Crossley draws upon in his study of Christian origins.

The point of the following quotations is to demonstrate that “mainstream historians of nonbiblical topics” understand the basic premise that a narrative cannot be assumed to be based on historical persons or events. In all cases there is a need for external attestation or “controls” to establish this.

Yet “Jesus” historians have ignored this basic principle and assumed there is a historical Jesus to describe. They then proceed to assess what parts of the Gospel narrative are more plausible given plot analysis and reference to ancient customs, etc. This is called “digging beneath the text” to find its “historical core”. This is NOT how renowned historians like Eric Hobsbawm have worked when handling both the literary evidence and first hand reports in their attempts to understand the historical nature of bandits, or any particular bandit, in South America.

In all cases we need independent evidence

Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

Exactly like “the minimalists” (& Schweitzer & Schwartz) said

The above read like echoes of the methods “the minimalists” insisted upon for how historians should approach the “Old Testament” narratives as a historical source. Of course, it was really the “minimalists” who were echoing these fundamental basics of historical methodology that are taken for granted, without controversy, by historians like Eric Hobsbawm.

Without external controls we have no way of verifying whether a narrative contains an historical core. I have quoted Davies, Lemche, Liverani and Thompson so often in this connection already so I won’t do it again here. I’ve quoted Schweitzer often enough, too, but maybe not quite as often as the others so here he is again:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus,. . .  there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

And my other favourite quote from a biblical scholar back in 1904:

only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123).

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Contrasting methods: “nonbiblical” historians vs “Jesus” historians”

  1. Pleased to find someone else lobbying on behalf of arguing with evidence. Natural scientists cannot “imagine” an experiment with projected felicitous results. They must construct, test, and evaluate. So too must any honest scholars, regardless of topic. Faith is exactly that–belief without evidence–a matter of individual taste and need. Fact is established by evidence, and I vastly prefer the latter approach. regards, Rich Slatta (as quoted above)

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