How doing real (nonbiblical) history compares with historical Jesus studies: a case study

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by Neil Godfrey

In the process of moving recently I discovered one of my long-boxed copies of a history book researching the lives of renegade leaders of small bands generally considered to be Robin Hood type bandits. What is interesting about this particular field of history, and that is worthy of note among those interested “how history works” in fields other than among theologians and other biblical scholars studying the historical Jesus, is the way the historian treats literary evidence of legendary tales of famous outlaws.

The earliest figure in the literature referenced is Robin Hood himself. But the historian does not discuss Robin Hood as a historical figure at all.

For the purposes of this book Robin Hood is pure myth. As it happens, though ballads about him go back to the fourteenth century, he was not commonly regarded as a hero until the sixteenth century. The question whether a real Robin Hood existed, or what medieval English bands were like in the greenwoods, must be left to experts in the history of the Middle Ages. (p. 46, Bandits, 2000)

This historian is interested in investigating the careers of real people who can be established as having existed and acted in real history quite apart from the legends told about them.

The bandit legend among the peasants themselves is peculiar, because the immense personal prestige of celebrated outlaws does not prevent their fame from being rather short-lived. As in so many other respects, Robin Hood, though in most ways the quintessence of bandit legend, is also rather untypical. No real original Robin Hood has ever been identified beyond dispute, whereas all other bandit heroes I have been able to check, however mythologized, can be traced back to some identifiable individual in some identifiable locality. (p. 139, my emphasis)

None of the evidence for the reality of these bandits is taken from the legendary tales told about them. All of the evidence in this book comes from police records, journalists’ publications and interviews, and other published documentation.

My previous post was the  nine-point summary of the “noble bandit myth” by this historian. That summary was taken from a chapter in which he discusses the extent to which certain bandits really did live up to that myth.

What this historian does is compare and contrast the evidence available for the reality of the bandits — from police records and news reports, etc — with the legendary tales.

The legendary tales are not used to assess the realities of the actions of these outlaws. What such tales are source documents for is, rather,

for what people believed about, or wanted from, or read into, banditry . . . . (p. 182)

Not that such legendary tales are totally useless in all cases, but

insofar as anything can be inferred, it can only be after a close and critical study of their textual history (p. 182)

Textual history is not the same as starting with a single text (for which there is no available recorded earlier history) and divining or fabricating historical events from it by means of criteriology. There is not a single line in this history book that concludes an event is historical on the basis that it passes the criterion of embarrassment or multiple attestation or double dissimilarity! Facts are established quite independently from primary sources — sources contemporary to the bandits — such as newspaper stories and police records.

What the legendary material does is inform the historian of why myths are created, including mythical bandits such as those appearing in novels.

The traditional “noble robber” represents an extremely primitive form of social protest, perhaps the most primitive there is. He is an individual who refuses to bend his back, that is all. . . . They cannot abolish oppression. But they do prove that justice is possible, that poor men need not be humble, helpless and meek.

That is why Robin Hood cannot die, and why he is invented when he does not really exist. Poor men have need of him, for he represents justice, without which, as Saint Augustine observed, kingdoms are nothing but great robbery. (p. 61)

Busy, busy, so no time to write a complete post on this topic for now. So will continue this in a day or two hopefully.

Perhaps someone might like to notify Dr James McGrath of this post on renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm’s book. McGrath has had an unhappy track record in attempting to overturn anything I have to date said about the differences between historical methods as practices in nonbliblical fields of study and those of the biblical historians who attempt to create historical data out of criteriology and literary analysis. He once even posted what he claimed was his understanding of Hobsbawm’s methods from reading the first edition of Bandits, and glibly asserted that any revisions to that book were “minor”. But no, they were major, since the whole point of the quotation I used from his second edition was to address some serious flaws in his first edition in which he did naively rely on legendary literature as a source of historical reality of the bandits.

The clash between what this historian does (though I am more familiar with his work on Britain’s industrial revolution) is as different from what historians of the historical Jesus do as night is from day.

To be continued.










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Neil Godfrey

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