New Testament scholars are pioneers in historical methods

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by Neil Godfrey

New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers. The attempt to define criteria of authenticity was in fact an attempt to articulate more precisely and rigorously things that in most other areas of history were determined in much the same way, but with a far greater degree of intuition and instinct. (Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis, Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity Among Friends and Enemies . . . )

In the same post, Dr. McGrath explains that the pioneering method of applying more clearly defined criteria of authenticity can be used to hopefully understand the great mystery that started Christianity:

While it is surely true that an attempt to find an uninterpreted Jesus amid the interpretation of the Gospel authors is implausible, it does not follow that criteria of authenticity are useless. What we seek to catch glimpses of are Jesus as he interpreted himself, and Jesus as his disciples interpreted him prior to the changed perspective resulting from Good Friday, and from whatever subsequent experiences and reflections persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand.

My earlier post complaining about the absence of known facts about the life of Jesus and the consequent need for historical Jesus scholars to try to find some through criteriology was misguided. It appears that historians who are so backward as to seek explanations for known public facts are “fact fundamentalists” and have much to learn from New Testament pioneers.

. . . . . the issues Allison and others raise are fatal for the historical Jesus enterprise, but are fatal for the misguided and futile quest for certainty that “fact fundamentalists” have brought with them into the discussion. (Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity . . .)

What is one of the issues raised by Allison according to Dr McGrath that is fatal for “fact fundamentalists”?

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus)

I look forward to reading the outcome of future conferences where Dr McGrath shares the pioneering approaches of New Testament scholars with other historians who seek to understand more about the historical Socrates, the historical Hillel, the historical William Tell, the historical Ned Ludd, etc. They have till now relied entirely too much on “intuition and instinct”, according to Dr McGrath. One only hopes they have not shredded all that potentially valuable fabricated material in the meantime.


With thanks to Steven Carr for alerting me to these memorable achievements of New Testament scholars as publicized by Associate Professor James L. McGrath.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “New Testament scholars are pioneers in historical methods”

  1. You might need to read something by Marcus Borg to understand the “fact fundamentalist” reference. You seem to think that I was talking there about the historical enterprise, In fact (pun intended), Borg’s point is precisely that what he calls “fact fundamentalists” are those who insist that everything in the BIble must be factual, because facts are the only things that really matter. Borg emphasizes in response that many kinds of literature and many individual tales (e.g. Parables) are not aimed at communicating facts at all, and need to be approached and appreciated differently.

  2. People need to understand that JM is not a historian. He often talks about “what historians do…” but he is misleading. His degree in in the religion industry, not the history industry. This is important to understand. He is not the only one in the religion industry that try to pass themselves off as “historians” or talk about “what historians do”, but their information is not from knowledge, since they are talking about a profession other than their own.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    1. Rich, James has the appropriate credentials. I am not sure I approve of your criticism, either way, since you have none and you are criticizing James who has a more than appropriate CV to be analyzing ancient texts and offering commentary on them. If you are going to criticize James, criticize his arguments. Pretending as if his credentials don’t count is fallacious and intellectually dishonest at best. At worst, it is defamation of character.

      1. This is completely over the top, Tom. You may object to Rich’s style or his tone, but it is by no means “assassination of character” or “intellectually dishonest” to point out that a doctorate in theology is not a degree in history or historical methodology. Would you make the same criticism of NT scholars saying the same or similar thing? http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk/message/5254

        I suspect many NT scholars do sincerely believe they are “historians” though they are mostly really doing exegesis. Ignorance is not a sin, but arrogant boasting to be something one is not by training is not a virtue. And insulting boasts to ridicule those who do point out a few “facts” about how normative historiography works is a sin. One only has to look at the comical farce theologian “historians” can come up with in the post above to see that a theologian is not necessarily aware of anything about normative historiography as practiced outside NT studies.

        Compare also: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/how-modern-historians-use-myths-as-historical-sources-or-can-hobsbawm-recover-the-historical-robin-hood/

          1. You habitually reframe my comments into false dichotomies, James. Is it your natural penchant to find and settle in a “middle ground” that leads you to do this?

            (I certainly don’t “fault” you or any other theologian for not understanding historiography outside what is practiced in NT studies. But I can’t resist the occasional needling in special cases where a particlar person might resort to false boasts as part of a program to insult others.)

      2. TOM
        Rich, James has the appropriate credentials.

        A doctorate in theology are the appropriate credentials for an historian?

        Why do people study history in universities when we are now informted that theology is the appropriate subject that a historian should study to qualify himself as an historian?

  3. A curious twist is to see biblical scholars turning their hand to nonbiblical historical inquiries. I have been looking at Fictional Akkadian autobiography: a generic and comparative study by theologian Tremper Longman III. In particular I was reading his discussion of the Idrimi inscription — a royal autobiography — and his investigation into how much of it is historical and how much fictional. All the tools he draws on are tied directly to external information — comparative literature and genre studies in particular, anomalies in the textual inscriptions assessed through comparisons with other inscriptions, studies of the data available before, contemporary and subsequent to the inscription,

    I don’t know why he didn’t appear to use the criterion of embarrassment. He and other scholars have considered Idrimi’s claim to have been overthrown by a usurper and his subsequent trek alone into the desert as a folkloristic or even fairy tale motif. I would have thought criteria of embarrassment would have made that sort of detail the more likely to be historical.

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