Theologians Who Mistakenly Think They Are Historians

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by Neil Godfrey

Morton Smith

Some theologians (I won’t mention any names) continue to call themselves historians despite never having majored in any historical studies. One renowned (or infamous to some) biblical scholar understood this as a serious problem in historical Jesus studies. He wrote of the anomaly of Jesus-studies supposedly having so much “primary documentation” yet being so fraught with unknowns, uncertainties and unresolvable disputes:

Yet Jesus should be one of the better known figures of antiquity. We have at least half a dozen letters from Paul, who perhaps knew Jesus during his lifetime (II Cor. 5:16), and joined his followers within, at most, a decade after his death. We have four accounts of Jesus’ public career – the canonical gospels – written anywhere from forty to seventy years after his death; these are generally thought to rest, in part, on earlier written material. Few public figures from the Greco-Roman world are so well documented, but none is so widely disputed. This suggests that there is something strange about the documents, or about the scholars who have studied them, or both.

Probably both. Most of the scholars have not been historians, but theologians determined to make the documents justify their own theological positions. This has been true of liberals, no less than conservatives; both have used “critical scholarship” to get rid of theologically unacceptable evidence. But not everything can be blamed on the scholars. They could not have performed such vanishing acts had there not been something peculiar in the evidence itself.

(pp. 3-4 of Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? by Morton Smith, my bolding)

I suggest that if the scholars were trained well in history they ought to have recognized what was strange about the documents and structured their inquiries accordingly and in a way that would have eliminated much of the ensuing confusion.

But theologian Maurice Casey who has written a “history” of Jesus does not have a high opinion of Morton Smith. He even criticizes Smith for “accusing” (sic) Jesus of being a magician as if Smith’s academic study is somehow all one and the same as ancient critics of Christianity who used the word of Jesus as a label of contempt. But, of course, Smith’s real fault is that he reaches his conclusions as an atheist, and therefore by definition must be filled with malice and hostility:

His accusations that Jesus was a magician appears to be due to malicious hostility to Christianity. (p. 278, Jesus of Nazareth)

Now Morton Smith might deserve to be stripped of his academic honours if he did indeed forge the Secret Gospel of Mark. But Casey does break the rules of a fair trial by bringing up the accusation (not the proof) that he did forge this document when attempting to argue with smear against his study that argued Jesus was a magician.

So what should a real historian look like? How might a real historian look at narratives and assess them for historical reliability?

Luckily enough (almost enough) there are two “historians” (really theologians!) who do actually quote the work of a real — that is, nonbiblical or non-theologian — historian. John Dominic Crossan in both his The Historical Jesus and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, cited Eric Hobsbawm and his work on social bandits as having something to contribute to the understanding of the world of Jesus and even of Jesus himself. James Crossley also used the work of Eric Hobsbawm in chapter 2 of his book Why Christianity Happened.

Eric Hobsbawm’s work was considered most relevant to Jesus studies because it consisted of considerable historical research into the phenomenon of social banditry, something that was believed (largely on the strength of Josephus) to have been common in Jesus’ time. Hobsbawm was seeking to understand such underclass movements.

But sadly the theological hats of both Crossan and Crossley come out in the way they selectively use the work of Hobsbawm. They fail to understand his historical methods — and flaws. Though welcomed by theologians, Hobsbawm’s work on social bandits suffered some criticism among his historian (non-theologian) peers. Hobsbawm conceded to his peers that he had at times made the mistake of accepting as historical certain narratives about (in)famous persons, purportedly even by eyewitnesses, without first seeking independent, external corroborating evidence to support the historicity of those narratives.

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)

Without belaboring the point well known to some who have read earlier posts on this blog, one of the above theologians considered my review “bloody weird” when I made this point to critique his uncorroborated assumption that the gospels contained any historical material at all. Another theologian obliquely referenced above poo-poohed even using Hobsbawm at all since he was a “Red”! And a doctoral student insisted that Hobsbawm had no relevance for historical Jesus studies since Jesus was not a “social bandit”! So much for clear thinking about historical methodology among theologians!

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Theologians Who Mistakenly Think They Are Historians”

  1. “And a doctoral student insisted that Hobsbawm had no relevance for historical Jesus studies since Jesus was not a ‘social bandit’! ”

    Does this guy not accept the four canonical gospels or something? No a social bandit? What about the ‘cleansing’ of the temple? (Oh, I’m sorry, ‘temple action.’) This doctoral student must be one of those bloody weirdos who only goes by the gospel of Thomas.

  2. quote:-Some theologians (I won’t mention any names) continue to call themselves historians despite never having majored in any historical studies.unquote

    Some historians call themselves historians although they have majored in historical studies. Others have a different opinion.

    1. I unfortunately cannot say that all trained historians are “good” historians. Some of them even detest any attempt to introduce discussions of philosophical underpinnings of their craft into a critical discussion of what they do. Some indeed are “lazy” in that they roll with naive readings of sources. Look at Michael Grant, an extremely prolific author of popular history books. When he writes about Jesus he swallows wholesale with scant critical discussion the views of cherry-picked scholars to write yet one more popular book.

      1. Hi, Neil, one of my areas of interest is in Australian colonial history. Current ‘historians’ are so narrow in their focus that you would think they are paid propagandists. Who said that if you torture facts long enough you will get the answer you require? Same with theological historians. Stick to an agenda long enough and you will achieve a reputation among the like-minded. All we can do is hammer away at their conclusions and hope the numbers grow. On our side.

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