What is history? What is a historical fact?

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by Neil Godfrey

Plato and Socrates in a medieval depiction
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In online discussions and posts about “historical method” in connection with the study of Jesus and early Christian history I often encounter confusion about what history really is. New Testament scholar Scot McKnight notes that this confusion begins with many biblical scholars themselves:

In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p. 20, Jesus and His Death)

An uninformed view of history is that it is “just one damned thing after another.” But a list of events and dates is really more like a chronicle or almanac. If one’s experience of history stopped in early high school then it is understandable for one to think this sums up what history is all about.

Who or what is a fact of history?

My introduction to some sort of philosophy of history was E. H. Carr’s What Is History? He startled me as an undergraduate by thinking to ask “What is a historical fact?” I had always taken “historical facts” for granted and it had never crossed my mind that there could be a question about it.

And I think a number of New Testament scholars who think they are doing history when they research and write about the historical Jesus would profit from grappling with the question.

Carr himself pointed to the example of a gingerbread vendor at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850 who was kicked to death by an angry mob. It had been recorded by an eyewitness but up till a certain time Carr had never seen it used by any historian. Was that a historical fact?

Most of us might say “yes” if it really did happen, because we tend to think of anything that has truly happened as “history”. Fair enough. But what about the next example.

Socrates is reputed to have said, “I know I don’t know anything”. But suspect the same words or sentiment has been expressed many times before and since that moment by others. Was one occasion of the saying a historical fact and not the others? But it was Plato who wrote the saying attributing it to Socrates, and it is only known to us as a lesson from Plato about Plato’s own teachings. So if it is a historical fact, whose fact is it?  How do we know Plato did not just make up the words as part of his own argument and creatively attribute them to Socrates?

So is it really a historical fact that Socrates said “I know I know nothing” or is it the historical fact that Plato said Socrates said “I know I know nothing”?

But the most important question really, here, for the philosophers and practitioners of history is:

Does it make any difference if Socrates really did say it and Plato copied his words, or if Plato made up the words and attributed them to Socrates?

What difference can the answer possibly make to the historian of ideas?

I think most historians would answer that they don’t care. It makes no difference to their studies of Socrates and Plato and Greek philosophy in general.

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle
Image via Wikipedia

Ditto even for historical figures for which we have a lot of evidence. Was Suetonius reporting true fact when he declared that Julius Caesar had inscribed the words “Veni Vidi Vici”? Who cares? It’s a great line. But it doesn’t make any difference as far as historians are concerned.

Now a handful of scholars have even asked if Socrates himself was a literary invention. Let’s suppose for a moment that that were true and Socrates was not a historical person. What difference would it make to the historian of ideas?

It would make no difference at all to her understanding of Plato’s dialogues or what we know as the Socratic method of argument. It would make no difference to our understanding of Greek philosophy or the overall historical origins of Plato’s contribution and influence.

One might even say it does not matter if Socrates existed, or not, as far as the historian of ideas is concerned, because everything in the sources relating to Socrates is all there in the sources for the philosophical ideas under historical investigation. It doesn’t really matter if Socrates was a literary invention of Plato’s and never existed as far as the ideas historian is concerned.

The historical interest, even the historical fact as we have it, is in Plato’s use of the words he attributes to Socrates. It makes no difference to that historian if Socrates really in fact said the words or not, nor even if Socrates was a literary fabrication.

Now I happen to think the probability is on the side of Socrates having been a historical person. From what I understand of the evidence I am quite prepared to accept his historical reality. But it is really a non-issue. The real issue is the nature, influence, etc of Greek philosophical ideas.

It is the same with many persons in the ancient sources. Rabbinical literature has attributed various teachings to rabbis of the first century, and we can only assume they were real historical persons. But again, what difference does it make if their names were later inventions?

Especially when historians explore the history of ideas they run across many instances where names and sayings are of this nature.

So what do historians care about?

Mostly they care about explaining the facts. That means they try to figure out the best way to weave the facts into narratives that have some relevance for modern audiences. (It is this act of constructing a narrative out of a manageable selection of facts from a vast range of data and information that is sometimes called the “art of history”.)

There are many things in the ancient literature that are “facts” in the sense that they are real names and events described, but there is absolutely no way a modern historian can ever determine if it is a fact. What about some of the other characters used in dialogue with Socrates by Plato? Are they all historical, too? We know some are. But all? How could we possibly know?

So what are the facts and how can we know?

It is an indisputable fact that the Apology by Plato has Socrates saying “I know I know nothing”. That is the fact that historians of ideas work with.

What about Hillel? It is a fact that the name appears in rabbinical writings and is said to be the source of various sayings. That is the fact that historians work with. The context (including genre of the sources) in which he appears informs us that authors expected his name to be understood as an authority. Was he a literary creation or did he really go back to the first century? In other words, was he an eponymous figure for a particular school of thought? I simply don’t know. Others more familiar with the evidence may have more to offer here. But I’m quite prepared to accept he was “historical” if that’s what most specialists in the field say. But does it matter? What is the real historical interest here?

New Testament scholars sometimes ask how we can explain “the fact of the empty tomb“. But the empty tomb is not a fact. What is a fact is that there are narratives in Gospels about an empty tomb. A more meaningful question would be to ask how we might explain someone writing a narrative about an empty tomb.

What of Honi the Circle Drawer we read about in Josephus? Did he really live? Josephus tells us about many people we know from other sources did exist, but he also speaks of other people as true yet we know them to be mythical (e.g. Adam, Moses). Does it really matter if there are a few other names in there that we can’t be sure about either way? Is not what is important the fact that there were stories about such people?

But in this case I am quite prepared to accept the probability that Honi existed (How can anyone be absolutely sure?) for the same reasons I have explained often enough before. Genre and external attestation. We have much external evidence that Josephus writes about real events and real people in his lifetime. We also have the genre of his works. It is genre that informs us of how the author wants us to understand his work. It is not foolproof, since genres can be, and often were, fabricated to deceive readers. I don’t mean this was always malicious deceit. One reason was entertainment. We have many letters from the ancients that appear to be describing real situations, but are in fact written to simply entertain — like soap operas today. Another reason to deceive was to persuade readers that ideas really were inspired by an authority greater than the real author.

But in the case of Josephus we do our literary analysis and we check the external controls and we can conclude with some confidence that he really was writing about events that he believed true and that he wanted to write a genuine enough history that would impress his Roman audience. We can have some confidence that he used sources that would serve this purpose and that therefore characters he speaks of such as Honi the Circle Drawer probably existed.

How can anyone possibly say any more? There are some things that simply do not allow us to be 100% certain — especially in ancient history.

John the Baptist? I don’t know. The Gospels narratives have created a literary John the Baptist out of texts from the Old Testament. The passage in Josephus contradicts the Gospels both in terms of chronology and his teaching. It also breaks the flow of thought in Josephus. How can I know?

And Muhammad? There is a contentious scholarly debate about his historicity for anyone interested in this.

The twelve disciples? Well, I am far from convinced by Meier’s arguments for their historicity. Against Meier’s arguments we have the literary and theological arguments in favour of them being a fabrication.

Judas? No. We have the narrative but a literary analysis of this source demonstrates that Judas is as literary as they come.

Julius Caesar? No doubt. We have primary evidence (by which I mean sources that are physically situated in the time and place of JC — statues, coins, . . .); and multiple independent literary sources whose genre and independence establish with as much certainty as we can get that we are faced with a real historical person. (When it comes to ancient history we can rarely anything other than varying degrees of probability for the lesser names — some are very probable and others we simply can’t know. Those that are very probable are those that appear in the same literary sources that we have reasons — genre and external controls — to believe contain a reasonable amount of genuine history.)

Jesus? Well, we have nothing comparable. I suppose that’s why Albert Schweitzer wrote:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “What is history? What is a historical fact?”

  1. You mean historians don’t use the criteria of embarrssment?

    They don’t look at writings and say that nobody would make up a story where their leader praised a crucified criminal who died a shameful death and who had even admitted to being justly punished ‘ We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.’?

    This is such a shock that I will have to lie down until I recover.

  2. Thank you Neil for this excellent summary.

    In the end, the Historical Jesus that people like James McGrath seem to be so anxious to defend, is such a reduced and dessicated character that he really is of no significance or relevance to us. The Jesus that really matters to that confessional powerhouse of history, the Christian Church, is clearly not historical. How about the Jesus that matters to the modern Catholic Church, the African exorcist or the Evangelical politicians of the USA? That Jesus is clearly not historical.

    Those who defend the minimalist Gospel Jesus seem to think that by accepting even the tiniest sliver of historicity for an otherwise unremarkable and obscure rabbi of Galilee, it makes the Jesus of the Gospels an historical entity. This is really just a ridiculous conflational leap. The two entities are not the same. The obscure rabbi means nothing to anybody in 2011. On the other hand, a fictional Gospel Jesus mistaken as historical, still has the potential to cause a lot of grief.


    1. Agreed. It would be an interesting exercise for those who minimize a historical Jesus so much to also attempt to quantify his impact. What would have been the biggest crowd he mustered “realIstically” or from how far did anyone really travel to hear him preach? What really happened when he reached Jerusalem? if such a remarkable and unique man could convince so few after his death that he was the fulfillment of all the Scriptures, how was it that that handful persuaded so many to think the same who never noticed him while still alive?

      It is easy for me to fall into the trap of creating a straw man so perhaps those who arge for a minimalist Jesus should be pushed on such questions.

  3. I’m persuaded by a lot of Robert Eisenman’s ideas, and since most other scholars are already well known and discussed here (for which I am thankful), I tend to make comments that are influenced by him, in the interest of offering a different perspective on the kind of topics you bring up, Neil. I’m a little one dimensional this way, but this is generally because I’ve never encountered anyone quite like him, and I’ve taken away a lot from his books. A lot of his ideas are not usually discussed to my satisfaction here or elsewhere, beyond the tip of the iceberg, and I’m interested in seeing how well they hold up in the forum of public opinion.

    That being said, I like the brief summary of his argument that if Jesus did exist, then “who and whatever James was, so was Jesus.”

    That’s a big if. But I’m satisfied with this answer. There may be late or legendary information about James, but a rough outline of what he and other Jewish Christians were like can be seen, and it seems fair to suppose that a “historical Jesus” would have been something like James and other Jewish Christians, if he existed. However late, fragmentary or legendary, I feel that Jewish Christian sources are where to shine the light anyway, instead of the NT gospels.

    I’m convinced that Paul’s Jesus was (at the very least mostly) based on revelation and scripture, but I’m not convinced that this was the case for Jewish Christians. It isn’t impossible, but as questionable as the sources are, this is what I think the discussion should be focused on. Otherwise, I am on board with the idea that Paul’s Jesus is essentially made up, and so is the gospel Jesus. It’s the Jewish Christians, even considering the questionable sources, that put me on the fence.

  4. With James having been brought up, I was caused to wonder what Kenneth Humphreys might have to say on the matter. One of the headings on his James page is A Plethora of James. He asserts that James the Just was the brother of Jesus bar Damneus, who was briefly head of the church as a consequence of the execution of James the Just. As I recall, others have argued that “James the brother of Jesus” meant brother in a non-genealogical sense. What can be said with certainty about any of this stuff?

    1. Who James was is a complicated subject (maybe it was “intended” to be), but perhaps less so than for Jesus, and I think Eisenman is able to make some sense out of it. He deals with everything Humphreys mentions in that article in great detail, with all the relevant sources given so you can decide for yourself. The most important thing, IMO, and the most controversial, is the relevance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He convinces me that they contain writings of the early “church,” and in this light they “clear up” a lot of the confusion about who James was and what he meant to early “Christians.”

      I first read what scholars like Vermes, Golb or Charlesworth had to say about the DSS, but I never read anyone who made the Scrolls seem “alive” or make as much sense out of them as Eisenman does, and I’ve never come across anything since that overturns or is more compelling than his idea. I’ve come across very few scholars who seem to “get” it, notably Robert Price and the people at History Hunters International. My impression is that his critics, like Painter, don’t seem to get to the “meat” of his ideas, or take issue with his style of writing or editing (which can be trying, but I generally don’t mind it).

      No one’s saying he has all the answers, but he has some good ones, some interesting ones. Anyway, this is now off topic. I just wanted to “defend” the idea that “knowing” James, as comlicated as that might be, might be the best way to know “Jesus.”

      1. Eisenman’s 1997 book is cited on the Humphreys’ page that I linked; evidently, he wasn’t persuaded. If knowing James is the best way of knowing Jesus, which James and which Jesus?

        1. I hadn’t noticed the citation, but maybe Eisenman would persuade you that James is “knowable.” As for which James, I would say that the trail starts with the “pillar” and “brother of the Lord” (whatever that may mean) in Galatians, though some have brought it to my attention recently that those passages could be anti-Marcionite interpolations. I don’t have any easier answers for you, I’m afraid, and I acknowledge the difficulty of finding them.

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