Historical facts and the nature of history — exchange with Rick Sumner

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by Neil Godfrey

Rick has posted an interesting discussion titled What is History? The Nature of “Facts” in response to my Historicist Hocus Pocus post. This follows a short exchange between us in the comments beneath my own post, and is an extension of earlier blog posts of his own on the same theme. I appreciate Rick’s response and the opportunity it gives me to explore my own argument in a little more depth.

If I understand Rick correctly, he disagrees with my view of the nature of facts when I assert that biblical studies have no “historical facts” to work with that are comparable to what are generally conceded as facts in relation to, say, the history of Julius Caesar.

In my own discussions of historiography I have generally been very conscious of any time I have used the “fact” word, and have generally been very careful in how I use it. The most times I have used it have been allusions to its use by biblical historians themselves. I think my own arguments have mostly been expressed in terms of “evidence”, which is not necessarily the same thing as a “fact”.

I have also attempted to speak of degrees of how certain we can be of certain “facts” or events. When it comes to “knowing Julius Caesar was assassinated” we simply cannot have anything like the same certainty about this as we can have about “knowing Kennedy was assassinated”. The difference lies in the immediacy and extent of the primary evidence and the nature and extent to which the secondary evidence is linked to this. By the time we go back to ancient times we are working with very scant primary and secondary evidence indeed. (I am avoiding here getting into a lengthy discussion of the nature of knowledge, belief, data, evidence, social knowledge, scientific knowledge, etc.)

When I read Rick’s discussions about historical facts I find myself in agreement with quite a bit of what he says. He combines his discussion of the nature of facts with the nature of history itself. This is natural enough, but at the same time there is a distinction between the two that I have attempted to maintain, and Rick also appears to agree with this difference.

History is essentially a weaving of facts and interpretations into a story. My complaint about much historical Jesus historiography is that the facts it claims to weave into a story are very often nothing more than conclusions derived from a range of a priori assumptions and uncorroborated interpretations of unprovenanced data the nature of which is uncertain and debatable. And I will argue that this is very unlike the material used by other historians of ancient history.

To illustrate:

Most historical Jesus historians agree that Jesus did something major in the Temple, and whatever this was, it is ‘a fact’ of his life. The “fact” that Jesus performed some sort of temple action (cleansing of the temple) rests entirely on

  1. the unsupported assumption – without any reliable external (non-Christian) corroboration – that there was a historical Jesus;
  2. the assumption that the variant Gospel narratives of the temple act derive from oral tradition;
  3. the assumption that that oral tradition originated with a real historical event;
  4. the assumption that the Gospel authors were concerned to record historical events, and further, that they would not depart from what is assumed to be common knowledge among their contemporaries, and this assumption is adhered to despite the frank admission that the primary interests of the authors was theological;
  5. the assumption that the literary and theological details in which the temple action is presented are not the source of the story, but merely the decorative application of the authors to a real event independent of those literary and theological trappings — even when no details of the narratives exist independently of such literary or theological coincidences;
  6. the assumption that no significant impact on the question of historicity need follow from the way the Synoptic authors and John flatly contradicted each other in the way they used the temple action for very different plot and theological functions;
  7. the assumption that such an action that many argue led to the crucifixion of Jesus would in no way impact on the view of Josephus who is also assumed to have made favourable remarks about Jesus;
  8. the assumption that the fact that prominent mainstream biblical historians do not even agree that the temple action was historical (e.g. Paula Fredriksen, Burton Mack) need not detract from the otherwise general acceptance that it is based on “something historical” anyway;
  9. the assumption that a few select criteria (e.g. historical coherence in relation to three related gospels) are almost all that are required to establish strong grounds for its historicity;
  10. the assumption that the other major plank for historicity is the right of historians to apply a hermeneutic of charity to the sources, which itself rests on the assumption that the sources are indeed attempts to record historical events.

Facts — or evidence for certain facts — in relation to Julius Caesar, on the other hand, have far more substantial justifications for acceptance among historians.

Firstly there is primary evidence for the existence of Julius Caesar and some of his deeds. Primary evidence is at one level meaningless “data” (e.g. a coin), but we find general agreement that there are reliable reasons to interpret this data (coin) as a genuine relic of a leading Roman by the name of the famed Julius Caesar, and the study of numismatics and other related primary evidence enables us to infer reasonable interpretations of what the coin indicates: it indicates a person in authority, it indicates a certain propaganda interest, etc.

Secondly, as for what I refer to as the secondary evidence, in this case the surviving literature by and about Julius Caesar, we have something quite different from the Gospel documents.

What we have is literature that we can relate to primary evidence. We also find among the literary records a number of clearly independent writings, and they are not all “histories” either (e.g. Cicero). The documents come with the identities of their authors clearly indicated in their opening passages. Many include explanations for readers about sources, and how contradictory information was sifted. We can read a number of such writings and get a feel for the different biases and reliability of each author. We can see where they corroborate each other, where they are derivative, and where they are of dubious or better quality as information sources. None of this makes the sources as reliable as our sources for the bare details of modern major news events. But it does give historians a reasonable measure of assurance that they have something to work with from which they can “distill” a range of data (ranging from fairly certain and very likely through to maybe possibly or unsupported.) Which of these are call “facts” might be up to the individual historian.

We cannot ever be as certain of anything they say as we can that Obama is now president of the US. To apply to both types of knowledge the label “fact” seems to me to render the word of limited use for purposes of discussing the question of historicity of just about any topic in ancient times.

But if we are to use the word “fact” in connection with Julius Caesar, then we have reasonable grounds for applying it to a few details that we can glean from the above sources: that there was a Julius Caesar, that he defeated Pompey, that he was assassinated, etc.

Now I am at the point where I meet Rick’s disagreements with me, I think.

Rick speaks of “distilled facts” — facts distilled from the evidence and about which most would agree it is silly to deny their truth. If I am not misreading him, he refers to these as “pseudo-facts” to distinguish them from the sort of “substantial fact” that we know about, say, Kennedy’s assassination. Rick writes that these softer limits (pseudo-facts) “almost always reflect the narrative of the historian.” I think he says that the facts about Julius Caesar that I have discussed above are “distilled facts”. (I might be misreading him, so I am open to being corrected.)

Now in that same secondary evidence for Julius Caesar we read many stories connecting these more or less cornerstone ‘facts’ about Julius Caesar (e.g. his assassination, his defeat of Pompey). There are many narrative details that vary from source to source. Some narrative details are common among many sources, but they are clearly nonetheless expressions of what contemporaries believed, not more certain facts that happened or were spoken or were intended. In many cases we find that such details tell us more about the historian than anything independently and reliably verifiable.

This is where the historians need to make judgments about the nature of their sources, including judgments about the biases, interests, competence, sources and reliability of their authors.

Any history that is woven out of this material will necessarily have at least two types of data or evidence or ‘facts’ to work with. First there will be the “facts” that are most reliably supported, which we have reasonable grounds to accept as “facts” (even if “distilled”) because they are justifiable from a range of viewpoints like their relationship to primary evidence and their relationship to reliable independent controls.

Secondly, there will be the less reliable data. This will include details found in only a few or one of the sources. The historian will have to make a special argument to justify his or her use of this particular data to support his or her story (history). But even when a special argument like this is found in ancient histories, the data being argued is nonetheless drawn from sources that themselves have been awarded a certain degree of credibility for the reasons stated above: relationship to primary evidence; reliable independent controls; the confidence derived from the identities of the authors (who often are independently verifiable) and their discussion of sources and their motives for writing.

Historians also generally work with a post Enlightenment “hermeneutic of suspicion”. The claims within the sources are often tested for their reliability as historical information. Tacitus, Suetonius, the Augustan History, are not routinely accepted as historically reliable unless and until good reasons can be found to question their claims. Rather, ancient historians argue for the varying extents of their reliability or unreliability not only with reference to their internal evidence, but also in relation to external controls.

A very good number of biblical historians appear to reject the hermeneutic of suspicion on ideological principle. Many argue for a hermeneutic of charity. This enables them to treat documents of a clearly different genre from ancient historiography as if they are (at least in part) ancient historiography, and even as if they deserve to be treated a priori as reliable as the best of ancient historiography without meeting any of the conditions those ancient histories in fact had to meet.

The result is that when “facts” are “distilled” from the Gospels, those “facts” are as reliable as any of the many assumptions I listed numerically above.

In other words, there is really no comparison between “facts” distilled from the Gospels and “facts” distilled from, say, a Tacitus or a Livy.

The “facts” that are widely agreed upon in the Gospels are not unanimously agreed upon. See, as one example,  my note on Fredriksen and Mack with respect to the Temple Act of Jesus. The reason for this is that such details are judged to be “facts” by the application of criteria that come with a built in assumption of a core level of historicity to the narrative. There is no reliable external controls or corroboration. This was the point of Eric Hobsbawm’s admission of a fundamental error when he acknowledged that no narrative — not even a first hand one — can be accepted as historical without independent verification.

The “facts” that are widely agreed upon in the case of Julius Caesar are unanimously agreed upon. There is no reasonable room for doubting Caesar’s victory over Pompey. Admittedly there is a minute chance we might be wrong given the nature of the evidence compared with our evidence for Obama being elected President. But historians have decided that that level of doubt is something they can live with. If a whole library of contrary evidence was ever uncovered that exposed our current sources as being fallacious, then historians will have room to move with the evidence. But till that day, historians can loosely say that it is certain that Caesar defeated Pompey because the nature of the sources from which the fact is distilled are of an entirely different order from the Gospels.

The narrative that the ancient historian can weave from “facts” or “pseudo-facts” distilled from evidence of varying degrees of reliability and justifiability will have some level of tentative credibility. New narratives will continue to emerge, and some of the “pseudo-facts” will drop from the scene and maybe new ones appear. The stories will certainly vary. But the “facts” all agree on will remain constant. The reason they will remain constant is because the scholarly community has built up a corpus of research and argument that has over many years tested the historical reliability of its many points of evidence on both internal and external criteria. Primary sources and multiple (genuinely) independent attestations of known provenance, and content that gives historians some reasonable measures of confidence in its historical reliability, are all mutually supporting to give secular historians a relatively sound starting base. Add to that the hermeneutic of suspicion and we have a very disciplined approach to making assessments about what is reliable evidence to support the various stories that quilt the data and various interpretations together.

Historical Jesus studies work with documents that have no controlling primary evidence or reliable,  independent corroborations for any of their narratives or leading characters. (Of course they have more or less historical geopolitical settings, but so does fiction.) The Gospels are of unknown authorship, of unknown sources, of unknown date (anywhere between 40 and 140 ce is possible — the “current consensus” for 70-80 notwithstanding since there is little to commend this except ideological and circular reasoning). They are almost universally agreed to be theological tracts and unlike secular histories. Their contents have been shown to show clear affinities with literary structures, stories and phraseology from other nonhistorical literature. Historians rely on “criteriology” to distill what is factual in them, and the lack of unanimity among scholars over such “facts” is evidence of the dubiously subjective — and uncontrolled — nature of the process.

Obviously there is subjectivity in all history. Selection of facts, interpretation of facts, all involve subjective value judgements. But with the history of Julius Caesar (the control case used in Rick’s argument) there is also a truckload of controls and parameters that enable historians to unanimously agree on a range of basics on the testing the historical reliability of the evidence and sources themselves.

Historical Jesus historians, by contrast, have little more to fall back on than criteriology and a hermeneutic of charity.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Historical facts and the nature of history — exchange with Rick Sumner”

  1. Neil: …the assumption that no significant impact on the question of historicity need follow from the way the Synoptic authors and John flatly contradicted each other in the way they used the temple action for very different plot and theological functions…

    My HJBS-detector starts beeping when I hear new pericope titles that serve the historicist and apologist agenda. For centuries, we called it The Cleansing of the Temple, but now it’s the The Temple Disturbance. They’ve squeezed the Synoptic and Johannine stories together, removed the improbable parts, and called what remains a fact. When they argue over whether John’s or Mark’s chronology is right, it reminds me of Creationists arguing over why the universe “looks” millions of years old when it isn’t — Did the speed of light change over time or did God create the universe in a mature state? (Hmmm. Could there be another possibility?)

    If I understand the mainstream position, it goes like this. John and the Synoptics have independent accounts of a temple disturbance (TD). Mark’s TD seems to be the precipitating event that forces the hand of the Sanhedrin. (For John, that event appears to be the raising of Lazarus.) The Jerusalem Temple area was much larger than Mark realized, and the TD probably happened in a remote corner. It may have even been a symbolic act. That is, he turned over one table, made a pronouncement, then left. In any case, it’s a fact, so deal with it.

    Their argument partly depends on the independent attestation of John and Mark. I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to how we “know” the writer of John’s gospel wasn’t aware of Mark. Crossan lays out well reasoned arguments for why we should think John knew Mark and used parts of his gospel as a source. On the other hand, all I keep finding are allusions to arguments about John’s independence. “We have good reason to believe John didn’t use Mark,” they say, “but we don’t really have time to get into that right now. Trust me on this.”

    So is the TD a pseudo-fact? I don’t see what this new term buys us. No, the Cleansing of the Temple is a story in a theological treatise. It is presented as an event that we are exhorted to believe in as part of the overall good news of Jesus. On the other hand the Temple Disturbance is a rendered concoction. The resulting TD story makes the Temple event plausible. And, to beat that dead horse again, a plausible story becomes a probable historic event, which is then labeled as “fact.”

    When historians relate uncorroborated stories about Alexander (and there are many!), they’ll tell you up front that it’s a story. We don’t know if Alexander really did this, but people later started telling this story and they seem to think it was true. Did he really do X, Y, and Z? Maybe, but we’ll never know for sure. This is what honest historians do. They tell the reader up front how much we know, how much we don’t know, and why some things may always be shrouded in legend.

    1. When I read about HS scholars talking about the cleansing of the temple, I’m kind of reminded of a scene in The Simpsons where Lionel Hutz, the incompetent lawyer, rewrites his business card to make it sound more realistic. The analogy probably doesn’t match completely, but I always have the image of HS scholars looking at the Temple scene and thinking “That doesn’t sound very likely, does it! But what if we take this bit out and that bit out and ignore the that the whole thing is plagiarised from the Hebrew Bible, then maybe it will then become more realistic, and therefore historical”. I imagine the faces of scholars whilst doing this careful exegesis, their tongues poking out the side of their mouths in fierce concentration, like Hutz in the above scene, or whenever Homer is writing down something very important. I also get this image when thinking of scholars who wish to rescue the Testimonium Flavianum from the historical trashcan.

      I really don’t want to denigrate the immense leaning of many scholars of the historical Jesus. In fact, I envy it a great deal. But as Neil has constantly shown, a lot of their historical methodology is deeply suspect and can probably only yield invalid results.

    2. Sometimes,… well, a lot of the time, being upfront can be influenced by the extent of cultural investment and what one stands to lose. I personally don’t know any followers of Alexandrianity.

      But it is heartening to see the message about honesty reiterated over and over again here. Hopefully, integrity still counts for something.

      Some might say that Jesus was a man of integrity, after all.

  2. It’s a long time since I’ve read a serious historical history dedicated to a single ancient person: the three I recall best are Alexander, Hadrian and Constantine. One thing is for sure, those histories read nothing like the methodology of any “history” of Jesus. Biblical historians who assert their methods are comparable (really the same as) those of other historians need to be pushed to justify their claims. James McGrath has gone silent since my efforts to expose his intellectual dishonesty in particular over his review of Bob Price’s chapter. Crossley could bring himself to utter nothing more substantial than “bloody weird”, and Casey puts out through his acolytes that he will publish a resounding rebuttal in a few years time. Public intellectuals in these and other quarters need to be challenged vigorously. The bulk of the discipline only exists by virtue of little more than 1500 year old religious tradition.

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