Biblical history, literary criticism and logical method

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The comments originally sent to my previous post, and my replies to them, were lost. I have retrieved the comments of others but my own are lost (unless someone reading this did catch them in an email — if you can forward them to me that would be great, thanks — my address is in the contact info on the right margin.)

A big thanks and free virtual beer to the subscriber who was able to email me my original comment. It was written early in the morning when I was alert, unlike the ponderous and detailed response of this post that was written late at night at the end of a long day. My original brief response is now returned and reunited with the comments of the previous post.

Anyway, I am replying here more fully to James McGrath’s original comment on the off-chance that there are others also reading this who share his criticisms of my original post. James wrote in his first paragraph:

Two things, neither of which has to do with Crossley’s or Seeley’s arguments but which have to do with methodology. First, you wrote “Crossley does not like literary criticism when it counts against historicity (as it so often does).” I’ve never encountered a literary critic who considered their method as a means to answering historical criticism. Literary criticism treats a text as a piece of literature and sets aside historical questions. Historical criticism asks historical questions. To say that literary criticism counts against historicity sounds to me like utter nonsense, but perhaps you wish to clarify.

Literary criticism and history

Certainly. I was responding to what I understood were James Crossley’s views on the role of literary criticism in history. In my original post I quoted part of a sentence of his in Dating Mark that spoke negatively of those approaching historical questions from a literary-critical perspective, and this jells with what he writes in a book Crossley co-edited, Writing History, Constructing Religion:

Some historians have been completely unaccommodating to all things post-modern. One of the most famous critics was G. R. Elton who claimed that historians are, in a way, fighting for their lives in the face of ‘people who would subject historical studies to the dictates of literary critics’.

So it looks as though post-modernists and a few others do at least acknowledge an overlap between literary criticism and history. But I had only read that sentence of Crossley’s in its original context in his “Writing History, Constructing Religion” book after I published my blog post. I had originally encountered that quote in a context that led me to think Crossley himself was as opposed to the role of literary criticism in history as was Elton. But that is clearly not so, as I have since learned. Live and learn. Always check sources for oneself even/especially if they’re from your grandmother!

But literary criticism at some level is inevitable in the historical process — even in biblical historical studies.

If a historian reads a text as a factual historical account she is bringing to that text a certain literary-critical perspective or judgment. Conversely, if she reads it as a totally fictional piece of escapism, she is bringing to her reading a different literary-critical judgment. Neither perspective means that the text is 100% historical fact or 100% fictional. Actual historical data might still be a matter of a second-layer of judgment, but the initial literary-critical assumptions brought into play will inevitably steer the way a historian analyzes the text.

And at a more micro level, we can take the Temple Action of Jesus as a case in point. Seeley, Mack and Fredriksen all question the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus. And they do so on the grounds that the narrative details of this pericope are best explained by broader literary-thematic interests of the author when compared with the rationales offered for it as an historical event. Fredriksen (as originally quoted here along with Mack et al) sums up the literary-critical basis for denying its historicity:

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly

If one can see an immediate tangible literary explanation for a detail in a narrative and has to balance the odds of its historicity against a number of layers of assumptions (with no visible means of support) of oral transmission, theological interests and genuine historical events, then what does Mr Occam advise?

I side with Seeley, Mack, Fredriksen and a few others I am sure who believe it is literary critics who beat the historicists in the detail of the Temple Action of Jesus.

In my original (previous) post I pointed to Crossley’s use of literary criticism in coming to his estimation that the author of Mark’s gospel was exaggerating with respect to point X rather than narrating a literal exact fact. Crossley, and no doubt most historians, acknowledge that some degree of literary criticism is necessary in order to sensibly determine what an author is really intending to convey.

So literary criticism works at several levels of reading in any text, and each one is to some extent unavoidable in any endeavour to assess the historical value of a text. We may not always be conscious that we are making literary-critical assumptions or judgments when we read a text, but it is always inevitable that we are in fact doing so whether we realize it or not.

Part Two of James’ comment

Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

External controls and lack thereof

I have attempted several times now to explain that “texts” and “external controls” are not synonyms. I have never said that and have attempted several times to remind anyone who thinks this that I have never said this. Texts from so long ago are almost inevitably going to be secondary evidence anyway. None of this is radical. It as conservative as one can imagine. It goes back to the so-called “father” of modern history, Leopold von Ranke, I believe. Thompson, in fact, virtually denies flat out that texts can ever be external controls for the question of the Jesus character in the Gospels.

My quote from Hobsbawm has been used here in contexts that demonstrate that it applies as much to oral histories as it does to literary texts. Hobsbawm and at least one of his critics affirm this.

As for being “unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events” in the absence of “external controls”, I have never said this. Hobsbawm and his critics do not say this. I cannot and do not say this. The only persons I think I have ever heard say this is what I mean is you. 🙂


To adapt a sentence from Philip Davies as originally cited in an earlier post:

“Now let me be clear: I am not as yet saying that the literary [Jesus] must be assumed a priori to be unhistorical. What I am saying is that it is literary and that it might be historical.”

Just because we lack external controls to establish the historicity of the basis of a narrative does not mean that it is not historical. It simply means that we have no means of determining that it is historical. That does not mean it is fiction. We can no more decide it is fiction than we can that it is historical, — on the basis of its lack of external controls.

The best we can hope to achieve in the absence of any external controls is to compare the text with other texts, and its contents with other narratives and settings. By analogy that can help us assess something of its genre, its intellectual provenance, etc. We can also find it a valuable source of historical information, but it will be historical details of the world of the author’s beliefs or imaginations, his background settings, etc., and possibly his relationship or place within the context of other texts.

But to understand the provenance of the text means we need to date it with more justifiable tools than the mere assumption that it was itself written near the time of its narrative setting. We cannot slip into the circularity of assuming the historicity of its narrative and then dating it accordingly. Once again, we need external testimony as a key (but not exclusive) tool for dating. External testimony can be in a number of forms — either direct testimony by a person to the title of the text, or some other key data within the text that compels us to link it with some other external data.

None of this is to be sniffed at. It is all very interesting and valuable historical information. Yep, it may mean shutting down one avenue of historical enquiry. But it will also open up an entirely new one with new questions and answers to be uncovered. And it will have a secure justifiable foundation — not mere assumption, tradition and circular reasoning.


But as for your associating the simple logical method of establishing the probability of what is evidence with Communist ideology – – – ??

I cited Hobsbawm because Crossley himself uses one of Hobsbawm’s models to explain the rise of Christianity in his “Why Christianity Happened”. But while he attempts to run with one of Hobsbawms sophisticated models of peasant movements, he overlooks the basic ABC’s of Hobsbawm’s logical deteminant for what can be decided is probably a fact.

I quoted Hobsbawm here, and I have quoted him along with Albert Schweitzer and others who have argued the exact same logical methodological point! (More quotes arguing for the same in this post here.)

Hobsbawm’s quote was occasioned by his critics who took him to task for (being too much like a “biblical historian”? and) too readily assuming the historicity of central characters in both written and oral sources. Unlike some biblical scholars, however :), he took this criticism to heart, and admitted he needed to be more cautious and rely on a justifiable method rather than assume the reality of any of the characters he read and heard about. Hence his quote. (Commies! They are squirmy characters! No principles at all! 😉

I am sure you are not really suggesting that a basic logical method for deciding that is shared by Schweitzer and Hobsbawm and others is really some nefarious plot to undermine true historical values. 😉

Someone else on this blog also rebutted with Hobsbawm’s political views when I attempted to elicit a response to the very same logical basis for deciding a fact from assumption. Is this really how biblical “historians” work? If someone does not pass the philosophy or politics “like” test, then they are rejected a priori as having nothing to contribute?

Okay, let’s forget Hobsbawm. As I said, I only introduced his quote because Crossley draws on Hobsbawms’ model for peasant rebellions.

Let’s stick to Schweitzer and Schwartz and Davies et al. They say the same thing. It is such a simple and elementary logical point, like 1+1=2. It is so easy for biblical historians to recognize it when exchanging knife-thrusts over secondary arguments. But as I said in my previous post — they never look down to apply it to the very foundation of what they are debating.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “Biblical history, literary criticism and logical method”

  1. Neil,

    My least favorite articles or your are the ones where you argue with supernaturlists like James McGrath. I find that your most enjoyable articles are the ones where you lay out your ideas, and/or introduce us to work being done by others that are not completely tied to traditonal acceptance the prior unexamined assumptions that have been carried over into NT studies from earlier church dogma.

    As you noticed earlier, and specifically with McGrath, that sometimes they will pose “questions” to you, and after you take a great deal of time with them, you find that they were not actually asking an honest question, but where using the “question” as a method for promoting the supernaturalistic ideas.

    There are plenty of places where people can read apologetical writings or want to fend traditional ideas. What I like about your writings is that it helps use become aware of new ideas, and helps focus the study of the NT in a more scientific or historical way.

    I encourage you to keep focused on showing us the new ground, and staying away as much as possible arguing with supernaturalists.


    1. I should add that, having read James’ discussion of “historical method” in his “Burial of Jesus”, I really do think he does really believe that literary criticism has nothing to do with historical enquiry. He sets up a very simplistic dividing line between the two. And it seems he has never heard of postmodernism in relation to historiography. So I wonder if there are many others in that same sort of cocoon there among the U.S. bible “scholarship”.

  2. Yeh, I know. You know how hard it is to try to write something a second time around after you lost the first copy (a quick comment). I excused myself for continuing with the thought that some issues were raised by JM that are sometimes raised by others in sincerity. Maybe I should learn to keep personal names out of it altogether. But hey, I can’t write a good post all the time, and some people like watching train wrecks. 🙁

    Hearing you (again).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading