Well this is bizarre. I find myself in agreement with a very substantial bulk of a recent article by Jim West at The Bible and Interpretation, “A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism: From The Chronicler to the Present.” Jim West argues that biblical studies of the history of early Christianity are largely circular, following the same flawed methodology that lay at the heart of the Albrightian approach to the history of Israel.
Jim West sums up so much of what I have been attempting to argue for some time now:
Most “histories” of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many historians use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a history which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as historical because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life.” That “history of Jesus’ life” is then utilized to prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s “History of Israel” or Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus” to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available)- but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.
What can I say? Will Crossley, McGrath and others tell Jim this is “bloody weird” stuff and arguing “like a creationist”? It’s what Thomas L. Thompson has said, and Robert M. Price, and I have quoted the same understanding in publications dating back a century to E. Schwartz and Albert Schweitzer. It is where biblical historians differ from nonbiblical historians.
So what’s the catch?
None that I can find. The catch is all on the side of the historical Jesus scholars. The gospel authors were not interested in historical reconstruction. They were only interested in theology. Scholars who attempt to learn “what”, “when” and “how” of the Gospel narratives are asking the wrong questions of the Gospels. Their authors had no interest in such questions. The same was true of Paul.
Not that Jim West and I are now sitting on the same side of the fence. Not at all. He is a theologian and a Christian believer and I am far from being either of those. We have a similar understanding of the nature of the Bible. It is a theological narrative from Genesis to Revelation. Jim West understands the implications of this more clearly than some scholars, it would seem.
I do differ on some of Jim’s points in this article, but they have more to do with perspective than the essential substance of what he writes.
Jim defines minimalism like this:
“Minimalism” is the supposition that the biblical text cannot rightly or honestly be mined for historical reconstructions of ancient Israel or earliest Christianity. The underlying assumption here is that the biblical text is not historically oriented. That is to say, the purpose of the Bible is not to offer 21st century historians fodder for their reconstructive mills; it is to speak theologically to ancient (and I would also say, modern) communities of faith.
I think what has been branded “minimalism” by critics is really a methodology, an approach to the evidence, primary and secondary, archaeological and biblical. What Jim here defines as minimalism is really the conclusion that is reached as a result of following that methodology. The methodology is essentially the study of a region or era by applying normative methods to the primary (archaeological) evidence and interpreting the biblical literature in the light of that primary evidence. The alternative, “maximalism”, has been more or less to reverse this process and to begin with the assumption of the historicity core of the biblical narrative, and so interpret the archaeological evidence through that narrative.
But that’s academic for the purposes of this post, since Jim is the one making the point and he clarifies the definition he hangs it on.
A more significant disagreement between us arises when he writes:
Do points one [the one about circular methodology] and two [the vain reliance on the bible as history] imply, as some souls would have us believe, that there really was no historical Jesus or ancient Israel? μὴ γένοιτο! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; absence of evidence is evidence of absolutely nothing at all. What points one and two illustrate is that the Bible as Bible cannot be used for grandiose historical projects: nothing more, and nothing less. Something happened. We just aren’t in a position to say what. Not historically.
Absence of evidence is at an abstract logical level “evidence of absolutely nothing at all.” But that is not necessarily the way it works in historical and scientific inquiries. The absence of evidence for a Jewish world conspiracy as claimed by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is evidence that that publication is a false propaganda anti-semitic tract. The absence of evidence for alien involvement in the construction of the pyramids is significant. The absence of evidence for rabbits in pre-Cambrian rocks is vitally significant for the case for evolution. Doherty is quite right when he says that an argument from silence is significant in certain circumstances:
How compelling to the writer would the subject have been? . . . .
[T]he more we have reason to expect that something would be mentioned and yet it is not, the more we are invited to conclude from the silence that the subject is not known to the writer. . . .
If that strange and unexpected silence extends to many different writers and many documents, indeed to all writers and documents available from that period, if it extends to a multitude of elements on the subject, the greater becomes the evidential force of that silence. If the silence covers every single element, the conclusions to be drawn become compelling.
Doherty uses an analogy to demonstrate when an argument from silence is clearly valid. If the family of a deceased man claimed he won the lottery, yet there was no record of that win, no large entry in his bank statements, no mention of it in his diary or any of his correspondence, no memory of a spending spree, and if on his deathbed he told his family that he never had a break in his life, then the argument from silence is compelling. We can be confident that the claim of his lottery win is mistaken.
But what if we could go further and see that the way the writers speak of certain things virtually excludes any room or note for the subject in question? In other words, we not only have a negative silence, we have filling it, occupying its space, a positive picture which is sufficient in itself a picture which by its very nature precludes the things it is silent on. In that case, logic would compel us to postulate that the subject, in these writers’ minds and experience, could not have existed. (p. 26 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man)
So Jim West, being a man of faith, begins with the assumption that the Bible is nonetheless talking about “something that happened”. If scholars cannot ask “what”, “when” and “how”, they can nonetheless ask “why” and “who”.
The refreshing thing about Jim’s approach is that he has a much clearer understanding of where he stands and why in regards to questions of historicity and the Bible than some other biblical historians.
At least he acknowledges, or so it seems to me, that his belief that the Bible testifies to “something that happened” is a matter of faith.
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