2010-07-27

Lessons from Wikileaks for Historical Jesus “Historians”

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by Neil Godfrey

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How do professionals go about assessing the veracity (let’s say historicity) of very detailed reports that claim to be classified official documents?

With thanks to the person who emailed me notice of this, here is an excerpt from an interview with Guardian reporter Declan Walsh:

Walsh: “There are reports that an insurgent commander had created a poison powder that could be added to the food of coalition soldiers, and he called that ‘Osamacapa’”.

NPR: “That particular report, the detail of the person who was distributing this powder not only has his name and height, the appearance of his eyes, the address of his store, which he locks whenever the police are around, remarkable detail about the person who was allegedly distributing ‘Osamacapa’”.

Walsh: “That’s right, experts who have looked over these reports for us have told us, paradoxically, that sometimes the more detail you see in a report the less likely it is to be true because the people who are giving this information are painting very elaborate stories in order to affect an air of plausibility, whereas, in actual fact it may have not been true at all”.

The audio file of the interview can be accessed on NPR’s site here. It is less than 5 minutes long (mp3 file) and worth listening to in its entirety.

I first encountered this recognition of “abundance of detail” in the book “Propaganda” by Jacques Ellul some years ago now. Ellul studies cases where propagandists dull the critical senses of their audiences by overloading them with details. When more detail than any one person can thoroughly digest at a time is barraged at them, the target audience tends to find it easiest to assume that where there is smoke there must be fire. This does not necessarily, or even usually, mean enormously lengthy reports or stories, but more usually comes in the form of many shorter news clips, each with its own details, to impress targets with impressions of “something true there somewhere”. So on that principle the propagandist has succeeded in his task. (I am speaking here of psychological principles at work. No-one can compare the details of modern information gluts with the gospel narratives. The point is the psychological effect of hearing details. They are there for both plausibility and to hold interest.)

Hence the importance of independent verification and sourcing of all details at all times. Without this, there is no basis from which to decide if what we are reading is “smoke from fire” or nothing but staged “smoke and mirrors”.

And this is what we hear at work in the interview with Declan Walsh.

There are really two points here worth noting. One is the presence of “eyewitness detail”. The other is the analysis of sources and verification of these.

So primary evidence, even primary evidence claiming to be from eyewitnesses, that comes from classified official sources, must be independently assessed for its factualness or “historicity”.

If this sort of rigour is required for contemporary primary sources, how much more cautious must anyone claiming to be a researcher of Christian origins be with respect to his or her sources?

Reliable independent verification of narratives contained in our sources is the prerequisite for justifying confidence in the historical core of the narratives — according to historians from Schweitzer to Hobsbawm.

Using criteria as a substitute to manufacture evidence just doesn’t cut it! By contrast with “real life” and the sort of historical research applied by scholars of nonbiblical topics (including ancient ones), many “historical Jesus historians” seem to be playing in a world of make-believe, pulling out this or that detail from gospels or rabbinical sources at it fits their whims in order to publish some will-o’-the-wisp variation of an iconic, and therefore unquestionable, orthodox tale.

(Aside: NPR’s approach to Wikileaks and the Afghan papers is not what I am addressing here. I have other views on that as everyone does. The point here is to bring to the fore a detail of method and approach to “historicity” of events from a source someone kindly forwarded me recently.)

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Neil Godfrey

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