Having interacted with historians who do not agree with me, as advised . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

Associate Professor of Religion, James McGrath, helpfully offered me the following advice:

Perhaps your time would be better spent interacting with those historians and philosophers of history who don’t agree with your presuppositions, and seeking to understand why and address those issues, rather than insulting those who have understandably not written a full-fledged monograph in response to your blog-only self-published proclamations on history.

Well I have spent quite a bit of time reading historians who do not agree with me, and I have responded to quite a few of them. James McGrath himself is one of them. I have responded to aspects of his own little volume in which he sets out for the lay reader exactly how biblical historians work. I have demonstrated that his analogies with prosecuting attorneys or detectives are false, and actually make a mockery of how those professions really work.

McGrath also challenged me to read the discussions of historical method by historians such as E.P. Sanders. So I did. And I wrote some detailed responses demonstrating that the methodology was nothing other than another example of “biblical exceptionalism”. I was a little disappointed that James failed to respond to my efforts that I had undertaken at his request, but he did eventually say he simply disagreed with me when I finally pushed him for a comment.

I have also studied Paula Fredriksen’s methodology and discussed the logical flaws in that, too.

I have also read and responded to key aspects of John P. Meier’s historical enquiries, in particular to his historical evidence for the twelve disciples.

I have discussed Borg and Crossan’s work on the apostle Paul.

I have discussed in chapter by chapter detail the methodology of Richard Bauckham in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

I have also discussed some of Maurice Casey’s Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, and James Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened.

(Someone else — one who used to comment on my blog — also challenged me to address Crossley, but that person has also disappeared when he saw that I had indeed done as he requested.)

I have discussed April DeConick’s publication on the Gospel of Judas.

And some works by Crossan, I think, from time to time. And Spong.

Others I have read and discussed include Dunn, Eddy and Boyd, Engberg-Pedersen, Funk, Hoffmann, Hurtado, Pervo, Evans, Robinson, Tyson, and Wright.

I am sure I am forgetting a few that could be added here. I know I have throughout my blog references to many more scholarly works. What I have written on each of these can be found by checking the Categories in the right margin of this blog, or a keyword search in the search box.

I have found I have learned something from most of these.

I have not included any whose “methodology” reflects my discussions in recent posts. I don’t know I have read any who do actually discuss the themes of my posts as applied to NT studies. Yep, I have to admit it. My ideas have not come from any NT scholar I know. I’m a layman with a hobby who thinks a lot about what he reads, who engages in dialogue with just about every author he reads, and asks questions. My readings have led me to ask questions about methodology over the years, especially of the academics themselves. And it took me quite a few years before I felt I finally understood enough to have the confidence to post what I have come to understand about how NT historical studies works. That is, the assumptions that are made, and how it compares with history as practiced in non religion departments.

Now if my conclusions were crackpot, I would have expected to have at least one person who might be able to explain their logical fallacies or misunderstandings. But when I sometimes, not often, but sometimes, see a scholar as highly regarded as Thomas L. Thompson applying the same methodology to NT literature in one part or section of his writings, I am encouraged to think I’m not necessarily totally off-track.

I can fully understand NT scholars dismissing Thompson because he is not a NT specialist. But what they would be dismissing in part, here I think, is a methodology that transcends NT or OT or any particular area of historical studies. Thompson’s “problem” as far as NT scholars are concerned, I suspect, will be that he deploys a methodology that robs biblical historical studies of their exceptionalism.

As for McGrath’s advice that I also consult philosophers of history, this suggests to me that he does not understand the point I am making. (Oh dear, there I go again — I just gave him another reason to accuse me of thinking like a creationist! How dare I suggest he does not understand or respond to my arguments. What a pin-headed chap I must be!)

What philosophers would he think are appropriate reading in this context? My argument is not about the philosophy of history, per se, but about the basic common sense logical method for distinguishing between primary evidence, secondary evidence, claims and facts. Okay, I know, postmodernist history will cry that I am committing the most outrageous howlers to suggest historians might always be able to distinguish between these in their histories, but I will have to leave postmodernism to itself.

But James McGrath’s failure to recognize the famous line from von Ranke about history being an art, and failure to understand what he meant by it, is evidence that biblical historians simply are ignorant of the basics of history, and the origin and development of that discipline, as applied outside biblical studies. I feel confident in making this claim partly after reading a NT scholar (Scot McKnight) make the very same indictment.

I have given up asking James to actually read and respond to any of my arguments, because he never does. He will usually find one word or name in there somewhere, or some turn of phrase, that he can leap on and use to either ignore my central point or turn it inside out.

I don’t blame him. He has invested his life in a faith-based historical method. Just as creationists take the Genesis account on faith as containing real history, so James and many of his peers take on faith the Gospels as containing real history.

Even Albert Schweitzer said, in effect, that the Gospels, just like the Book of Genesis, come with no external controls that can be used to establish anything historical about them at all.

It is instructive that McGrath will opt to reject a post in which I discuss methodology (along with the understanding of the nature of evidence, claims, etc by renowned nonbiblical historians) simply on the grounds of a name or two who have published in NT studies and with whom he disagrees sharply. He will seize on the names of Price and Thompson, but ignore totally the core arguments that are cited with the support of von Ranke, Elton, Carr, and others (one unfortunately a socialist so McGrath rejects him too!) and even his own Albert Schweitzer.

As for those last couple of lines in his advice as quoted above, they are, of course, scarcely worthy of a gentleman and a scholar, and I will not hold my breath waiting for the good professor to support his insinuations with evidence — though I do concede to one misdemeanor that I am happy to withdraw if the good professor should ever demonstrate integrity and civility in responding to my posts.

Of course, such a course is not likely, given his propensity to accuse me of “being like a creationist” on the grounds that I have dared suggest he has either not understood or not responded to my actual arguments, or that he has repeatedly twisted my words. If I don’t accept his responses to my statements, then he charges me with being like a creationist! I suggest that this suggests a certain intellectual arrogance, but let’s move on.

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Neil Godfrey

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