The purpose of this post is to add an illustrative footnote to my earlier post on the nature of history and historical facts by showing how a prominent historical Jesus scholar redefines the nature of history and historical facts to mean something quite different from anything understood by other historians of ancient, medieval or modern history. Many biblical historians do not practice history as it is known and understood by nonbiblical historians, but myth-making, as I explain below.
Most historians acknowledge that there are very real facts of the past for which we have tangible evidence, and there is no dispute about these facts. Different interpretations or views of these facts does not change the reality of the facts themselves:
No matter how many observers may concern themselves with such questions as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, who the eldest surviving child of Henry VIII was, or where Napoleon confronted the allied armies on a given day in 1813, they will all come up with the same answer. There is, in short, a very large body of agreed historical knowledge on which no dispute is possible . . . . (Elton, The Practice of History, p. 54)
We may not know precisely why William the Conqueror decided to invade England; we do know that he did invade and had a reason for doing so. We may argue over his invasion and its motive; we cannot argue them away. Nine hundred years ago they had existence . . . . Thus while history will rarely be able to say: this is the truth and no other answer is possible; it will always be able to say: this once existed or took place, and there is therefore a truth to be discovered if only we can find it. (p.49)
So in history there are many hidden facts we do not know (e.g. why a particular war started) about the public and undebatable facts for which we do have primary and corroborated secondary evidence (e.g. the fact that there was a war or invasion). But there are publicly known facts for which we have primary evidence and corroborated secondary evidence.
Note that the very foundation of historical enquiry is a set of questions about the public, undebatable facts and events known (from primary and/or tested and corroborated evidence) and about which there can be no doubt or revision. Those facts — the fact of a war, of the settlement of a new country, a person for whom we have clear evidence of real existence (e.g. letters, diaries, contemporary reports) — are the starting point of the historian’s questions. The historian begins investigations — and the uncovering of new evidence, generally more debatable — with questions about such facts.
But see how John Dominic Crossan puts a subtle twist on the above truisms about history: Continue reading “How Crossan redefines history and sets up more false analogies”