Charity, suspicion and categorization — exchange with Rick Sumner contd

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by Neil Godfrey

Rick has posted another constructive response, “Charity,” “Suspicion” and the Dangers of Categorization. Or, What I Learned from John Hughes, to my posts on historical method in the context of NT historical studies. Another is expected to follow discussing the nature of facts. (Previous post addressing Rick is here.)

I suspect we are drawing closer together in understanding of our respective positions, and perhaps even not far from a point where we might be able more comfortably accept our mutual disagreements. Or maybe I’m presuming too much here.

Rick has pointed out that I at least give the appearance of “rhetorical excesses and false dichotomies” and that I “grossly overstate the case”. He sums up the message that apparently comes across in my posts:

Biblical Historian/Bad Historian/Hermeneutic of Charity
Other Historians/Good Historian/Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I have not re-read my posts to check whether or not I did attempt to qualify my statements well enough, but obviously this is the impression they have conveyed to Rick and no doubt someone else who might have read them, too.

To begin with, the terms “hermeneutic of suspicion” and “hermeneutic of charity” are not mine. They are used by NT historians themselves. If I had more time and access to my books I could give a few examples, but at the moment only one comes to mind, Richard Bauckham. He discussed these “hermeneutics” at length in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and since then I have been more sensitive to noticing how frequently these “hermeneutics” are contrasted by biblical scholars as “bad” (being associated with “rationalist Enlightenment values”) and “good” (being associated with Christian charity).

It is in the literature of biblical studies that the two are juxtaposed. I will look out and mark examples in future — but since writing the above, another has come to mind: Gilbert Bilezikian, The Liberated Gospel, quoting another NT scholar justifying the approach with “In this country it is a principle of justice that a man is innocent until proved guilty. So we may regard the works and words attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics as authentic, unless cogent arguments are adduced to show they are not so.” (p.141)

McGrath, also, without using the phrases as far as I recall, does argue along similar methodological lines as Bauckham who does use them. On page 12 of his introduction to historical method (The Burial of Jesus) he epitomizes the same idea Bauckham’s rationalizes at length from what I consider a misapplication of Paul Ricouer, that acceptance of the authenticity underlying the gospel is of the same logical nature as accepting many other things in daily life without absolute proof. He rejects the idea that “our rational capacities, our senses, our knowledge and understanding” are “the only legitimate sources of knowledge” (p. 11). He states this as a point of relevance to historical studies and methodology. I don’t know how to interpret that as anything other than a rejection of rationalist Enlightenment values as applied to historiography.

I’m rambling. I only wanted to make the point that the dichotomy between the two hermeneutics is not mine, but is found among the publications of biblical historians themselves.

As for a dichotomy, I don’t intend to say that nonbiblical historians by nature are somehow “good” or that they all apply more sceptical approaches to all their sources.

I have referred in a post or comment recently to Michael Grant (Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels). This is little more than a regurgitation of arguments found in mainstream textbooks by biblical scholars themselves. Grant was more widely known for his ability to sell popular history than for his more serious work on numismatics.

I have quoted several times a line from Mario Liverani that was most immediately addressing ancient historians of the Hittites:

When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.— Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

I have also quoted recently a biblical scholar who does think of the “hermeneutic of suspicion” as a necessarily positive approach for the biblical historian as much as any other historian:

There has been a very strong tendency to take the Biblical writing at its face value and a disinclination to entertain a hermeneutic of suspicion such as is a prerequisite for serious historical investigation. It is shocking to see how the narrative of the Nehemiah Memoir has in fact been lazily adopted as a historiographical structure in the writing of modern scholars, and how rarely the question of the probability of the statements of the Nehemiah Memoir have been raised. (Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help, p. 164)

And another of my favourite frequent quotations is from the economic and social Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who was faulted for failing to follow the hermeneutic of suspicion in his Bandits. Hobsbawm in response to the critical reviews conceded his fault:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

This quote comes from Richard W. Slatta discussing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

So mainstream historians do not always live up to their ideals. There are obviously good and bad in every field. Rick mentioned some scholars accepting the last words of Augustus in Suetonius as probably true sayings. But my experience with academics who lectured and tutored me on Suetonius leaves me believing that many historians will smile or raise eyebrows with justifiable condescension over such claims emanating from some of their peers. Having read recently two historical biographies on the emperor Hadrian (Speller, Boatwright) I don’t recall any such credulity with the sources discussed.

When I pointed out this willingness on the part of a renowned nonbiblical historian (Hobsbawm has a high enough reputation as a historian to make naive mistakes potentially costly to him — witness Hugh Trevor-Roper over the Hitler Diaries) to admit his basic methodological error, his failure to apply (one might say) the post-Enlightenment hermeneutic of suspicion, to two biblical historians, their responses were instructive:

Here is how McGrath responded:

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?

And here was “independent historian” James Crossley’s comment:

The Hobsbawm stuff you discuss in relation to me was so weird I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading and re read what I wrote on partisanship before you make such daft misrepresentations on that . . . These reviews of yours are so bloody weird!

That’s my point. Historians of the Hittites or of social banditry in Latin America can be criticized when they fail to live up to the basics of post-Enlightenment rational historical inquiry, and the better histories in such areas will no doubt be of more lasting value.

Albrightian studies of the Old Testament have since the “minimalist” challenge (Davies, Thompson, Lemche et al) been moving to a similar position now. Even Dever is succumbing to increasingly publishing increasingly critical reviews of the evidence in accordance with “hermeneutic of suspicion” principles addressed in particular by Lemche and Davies (and that I’ve discussed in various posts).

But the responses by McGrath and Crossley to the example of Hobsbawm’s own self-criticism as a historian suggest to me that NT historians have not even got anywhere near the starting line yet.

Sure there are some NT historians who are more sceptical. The quote from Bilezikian above was in set in opposition to a more critical view expressed by Norman Perrin:

The nature of the synoptic tradition is such that the burden of proof will be upon the claims to authenticity.

I have attempted to argue that even such statements as this so often — perhaps not always — come with a built-in assumption of historicity. But that takes us to the next part of what I think Rick will be addressing in a future post — the nature of evidence.

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8 thoughts on “Charity, suspicion and categorization — exchange with Rick Sumner contd”

  1. Other quotations from biblical historians who address the flaws in mainstream biblical historical methods have been listed at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/the-relevance-of-minimalist-arguments-to-historical-jesus-studies/

    Three of these are by minimalists whose arguments on method have impacted Old Testament studies, and one is by a New Testament scholar from 1904 — and who is still waiting to be heard!

    (McGrath has dismissed the relevance of the methods of the minimalists because, he says, they only apply when there is a huge time gap between the texts and the events “recorded”. He fails to see the circularity of his objection. The time-gap hypothesis was one of the results of the inquiry that was directed along “hermeneutic of suspicion” principles!)

  2. Several years ago I was forced to take on the role of mediator in some panel discussion groups. The outcome of the panel recommendations would eventually affect policy decisions for a worldwide organization (to remain nameless). The panels consisted of around 20 people from various locations and with wide-ranging personalities. They were all decision-makers, and in general they had strong opinions based on years of experience. It was my job to (1) keep them from killing one another, (2) make sure everyone participated, and (3) try to get “buy-in” from all members.

    One of the techniques we employed to maintain civility and work toward consensus was to force opponents to recapitulate before gainsaying the previous speaker. One couldn’t simply stand up and say, “You’re wrong.” Instead, he or she would have to summarize the previous speaker’s points and then refute them logically. Not only that, but the original speaker had to agree with the summary, which tended to promote honesty and crank down the harsh rhetoric. Here’s a hypothetical example of how it might work in the present situation:

    Miss Jones: “I don’t think we can call the Cleansing of the Temple an undisputed fact, because there isn’t any external corroborating evidence. In addition, the internal evidence seems contradictory and self-serving.”

    Mr. Smith: [Shouting] “That’s just bloody weird!”

    Moderator: “Now, you know the rules. State Miss Jones’ case to her satisfaction, and then rebut the case with logically and calmly.”

    Mr. Smith: [Regaining composure] “Miss Jones says that unless she has some sort of evidence other than texts, she is unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events.”

    Moderator: “Miss Jones, is that what you meant?”

    Miss Jones: “Um… No.”

    Mr. Smith: “Miss Jones is trying to redefine the methods of a scholarly discipline in order to accomplish an ideological agenda.”

    Miss Jones: “Say what?”

    Moderator: “Hey, let’s break for lunch!”

    What seems to be going on here with the few NT scholars who have halfheartedly engaged mythicists and minimalists is not just a disagreement as to forms, goals, and methods, but a complete misunderstanding of the whole enterprise. I would venture to say that I suspect disunderstanding — i.e., the active and deliberate misunderstanding of such contrary positions as offend their sensibilities.

    1. So it’s not only me who sees the nature of certain HJ scholar replies this way. There is a clear avoidance of the central arguments challenging their paradigm. I think you sum it up well.

      Of course, one out for anyone who does manage to concisely recap the arguments of their opponent is avoid logical rebuttal with the excuse that it would require nothing less than “a whole book” to expose what’s wrong with their case. Another is to say that the arguments were dealt with and put to rest long ago and there’s no need to go over them again.

      The human creature is a clever little devil when it comes to perpetuating disinformation and living with denial.

      1. I’ve been browsing on Google Books for works that describe the process of authenticating a saying or act of Jesus so that I can understand it. Because, to be quite honest, if I had to explain it to their satisfaction, I’m not sure I could. The problem for me is that so many times they don’t “show their work,” so I’m usually confused as to how we went from conjecture to a cold, hard fact.

        Getting back to Google Books, I came across Chilton and Evans’ Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. In the first essay (with the same name as the book’s title), Craig A. Evans makes an interesting case for focusing on acts rather than sayings, as E.P. Sanders does. He argues that in the case of sayings, we’ve lost the original context. So even if we’re fairly sure that sayings are authentic, “we are seldom certain of the original setting in which they were uttered and, therefore, of what precisely they originally meant.” Not to put words in Evans’ mouth, but I think he’s pointing out that (as has been said many times by scholars) the sayings preceded the narrative, and the bits of story that surround the saying are just so much window dressing.

        In the rest of Evans’ essay, he lists Sanders’ “facts” along with N.T. Wright’s “facts,” following up with some arguments as to why certain acts are authentic. Especially instructive, I think, is his treatment of the Temple Controversy. If I understand him correctly, Mark’s citation of the Temple as a house of prayer for all people would be an embarrassment to the early church. (Matthew and Luke omit “for all people” when copying Mark.) Then he argues that if Mark is quoting Isaiah 56 after 70 CE, then it’s further proof, because of Jesus’ “restorative theology.” He finishes with an underwhelming appeal to Josephus.

        First of all, I don’t see how embarrassment over Mark indicates authenticity. It does indicate that Mark is the oldest gospel. Good for Mark. For that matter, why should the early church be embarrassed? Their gospels were telling them that Jesus warned about how the priests were defiling the temple; no wonder it was destroyed! It could have been a beacon of light to the world, but “those Jews” ruined it. Now, the church could say, Jesus is the only way to get right with God.

        On the side of non-authenticity, I would point out that for all we know, Mark had a saying of Jesus (perhaps from tradition, perhaps invented) that went something like — “You have made my father’s house a den of thieves!” — and he fabricated the context, grafting on the prophecy from Isaiah. It’s a great line, and it gives Mark an explanation for why the chief priests and scribes set about to kill him. With no external corroborating evidence, I don’t see how it’s possible to assign more probability to authenticity versus inauthenticity, except to say that the literal story in which Jesus “would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple” seems highly unlikely.

  3. James McGrath referred me to “a scholar like E.P. Sanders” to grasp how the methodology of “establishing facts or authenticity” “really works”. My first response to Sanders was his reference to the Temple Action of Jesus as an established fact: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/02/13/why-the-temple-act-of-jesus-is-almost-certainly-not-historical/

    Unfortunately McGrath failed to respond to my taking up his challenge, except eventually to say simply that he “disagreed” with me.

    Thompson, I have come to believe, is absolutely correct when he says that NT scholars have merely assumed there is a Historical Jesus behind the Gospels. My understanding is that he sees NT scholars making the same methodological errors we once saw with Albrightianism with respect to David and the history of Israel.

    I was recently reading another interpretation of Mark’s “den of thieves” saying in respect to the Temple Cleansing. Wish I could recall who it was now. But he pointed out that the word for “thieves” is not the normal word for a thief, but is the word used for bandit rebels such as those who occupied the Temple during the first Jewish War against Rome. — The point was that this is more than a mere semantic coincidence.

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