2010-11-07

The Role of Faith in Historical Research

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by Neil Godfrey

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...
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In a 2005 review article of Jens Bruun Kofoed’s Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text Thomas L. Thompson observes (my emphasis):

The conclusions themselves of an historian’s research and their accord with belief, rather than argument or method, are perceived as indicative of legitimacy. Adjectives, on the other hand, judging them as “extreme” or “radical” have been thought sufficient for dismissal . . . . Such faith-supported scholarship typically expresses itself in the form of protests to what is perceived as “excessive” scepticism or unspecified, “ideologically motivated distortion” engaged by any who might be thought to distinguish too sharply between arguments of faith and history.

One reads the same criticisms made by New Testament scholars against those who argue against the historicity of Jesus. To question the reliability of a narrative as a historical source is to find one being viewed as “hyper-skeptical” and even driven by an “anti-Christian vendetta”.

The faith of New Testament scholars in their sources is justified on the grounds that it is “not impossible” that any particular narrative in the Gospels, say, was taken from oral tradition going back to a real event.

The slippery slope justification

Thompson describes Kofoed’s monograph as an effort to support the assumption that the narrative of 1-2 Kings has the character of a historical report and the “possibility of an implicit authorial intention to write history”.

His conclusions are twofold: on one hand that the transmission of reliable historical information through oral tradition from a very early time has not been shown to be impossible, and on the other that it is not unreasonable to believe that the intention of the author of Kings is to render history.

More recently, Kofoed has expanded his carefully qualified conclusion to claim that the oral transmission of biblical traditions had, in all likelihood, actually taken place, as written texts did exist from that period and that, therefore, “the biblical authors were authentic and reliable witnesses.” Consequently, we needed to approach these biblical texts as primary sources.

The argument is the slippery slope justification:

It is possible

even plausible

thus it is probable

therefore it is certain

One might better find ways to play with the same idea in terms of the old false syllogisms:

A Gospel narrative is Plausible

History is Plausible

Therefore a Gospel narrative is History

Or,

History is Possible

Fiction is Possible

Therefore History is Fiction

Thompson continues (my emphasis):

Rather than presenting an argument, Kofoed reformulates his conclusion in a negatively worded expansion: “There is nothing on the explanatory and representative levels that prevents us from regarding them (i.e., The Books of Kings) as history writing.” . . . . Rather than addressing that debate, Kofoed veils the absence of both argument and method. . . . . he argues, in spite of concluding assertions, that the seeming verisimilitude of the texts is “suggestive of historical intent.”

I posted recently on “avoidance games” played by some critics of those who question the historicity of Jesus. Arguments for the mythicist position are often deftly avoided. Doherty demonstrates the failings of even Christ Myth critic Maurice Goguel in this respect. My own discussion of historical methodology has been based on the critiques of biblical scholars Scot McKnight and Thomas L. Thompson as well as prominent historians of nonbiblical topics. The strongest responses I have received are that Thompson is not a “New Testament” scholar, and one of the nonbiblical scholars I cite is a communist.

The debate is avoided. Arguments are not necessary. It is often enough that a Gospel narrative (stripped of its supernatural components) “rings true”.

If you don’t like the sound of it, don’t read it, read only its critics

Kofoed’s evaluation and understanding of these earlier works is almost entirely dependent on the judgment of others.

Ah yes. How familiar. A certain Dr Jeffrey Gibson who has leveled some of the most vicious attacks against Earl Doherty has been frequently challenged to actually read what Doherty has written, or simply asked what of Doherty’s works he has read. Not once has he offered an unambiguous response as far as I am aware. This is an issue that touches on a couple of academics who have left comments on this blog.

It also takes me back to my recent post, The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship in which the game of name-calling and image-management is shown to have a higher priority than debating the actual issues.

Thomas Aquinas

I have focussed in this post on just a few echoes from New Testament scholars in relation to the question of Jesus’ historicity. Thompson frames his discussion through the famous argument of Thomas Aquinas that arguments from reason need to be sharply distinguished from arguments of faith.

The latter of which, based on authority as they are, it is not his interest to prove in the manner of scientific argument, but rather to show them not to be in conflict with natural reason. For Thomas, the essential function of apologetics — and of his Summa contra gentiles as wone of the finest works of the genre — can be epitomized as “faith seeking understanding.”

The boundaries recognized by Thomas Aquinas centuries ago have been blurred by those scholars today who fail to

measure up to the critical principles of both theology and science . . . the centuries’ old distinction between faith and reason.

To quote the abstract of this article, while Kofoed

attempts to demonstrate that the biblical history of his evangelical faith is not unreasonable . . . Thompson, on the other hand, thinks it is necessary to hold the line between faith and science, which St. Thomas drew some seven centuries ago.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “The Role of Faith in Historical Research”

  1. I kind of see historical Jesus research as analogous to debates about the existence of God: if neither can be 100% absolutely blown out of the water, then its adherents feel justified in continuing to believe, no matter how the evidence might seem weighted in favour of other explanations. Ok, it’s not exactly the same situation (although as its Jesus, perhaps it is?)

    So it doesn’t really matter if there are no primary documents for Jesus, that the earliest documents there are (Paul) hardly mention a historical figure and that the evidence outside the NT is abysmal. Similarly it’s probably not that important that there may have been no Nazareth, no synagogues or Pharisees in Galilee and the gospels swarm with contradictions, anachronisms and absurdities. For the most part, these things nary make a dent in the ongoing quest because none of them completely torpedoes the idea of a historical Jesus. There’s always a chance that the evidence is unrepresentative or that someone may uncover a document or find signs of habitation at the right time in Nazareth, etc. All these things are possible, so therefore, the historical Jesus remains viable. I’m not sure if there’s another field of study that clings to ‘possibility’ in such a way.

    I don’t pretend to have even a tenth of the knowledge of most NT scholars (or those who peruse this website) , but the more I learnt about the field of HJ research, the more I could no longer keep giving the historical Jesus the benefit of the doubt. There could have been one, for sure, but I think there’s a pretty good chance there wasn’t.

    1. Hi Daryl,

      I will be following up this post with another that I think hits the central point a bit more directly, and perhaps brings your reflections into even sharper focus. If I had more time I’d be able to sit down and collect all these thoughts together to express it all in a single post, but reality means I have to spin it out piece by piece.

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