How modern historians use myths as historical sources – or, Can Hobsbawm recover the historical Robin Hood?

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by Neil Godfrey

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Can criteria used by New Testament scholars to uncover the historical Jesus (i.e., it is probably true if it is embarrassing, multiply attested, etc etc.) also be used on early ballads to see if we can know anything “probable” about the historical Robin Hood? Some people have “entertained reasonable doubts” about Robin Hood’s historicity, but at least one New Testament scholar has argued that if we can establish the probability of a deed or saying of Jesus Christ then it follows that he did exist. And we must not forget that “even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus Christ [ergo Robin Hood?] was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” (from Dr McGrath’s review of Dr Dale C. Allison).

There is one modern historian who has much to learn from these pioneering advances in historiography made by historical Jesus scholarship, though since he is 94 years old now he had better hurry. Eric Hobsbawm has himself pioneered the historical study of social banditry (bandits who are accepted and honoured by societies as heroes) and, like the New Testament scholars, has made abundant use of mythical or legendary material. Unfortunately he never seems to have attended the same conferences as  Jesus historians and so has missed out on the methods they have pioneered:

  1. the rigorous application of precisely articulated criteria to dig beneath the surface of unprovenanced mythical tales to discover the probable historical nuggets at the root of them all
  2. the use of even fabricated material, however inauthentic its specific details, in order to arrive at the true historical “gist” of the historical person at the centre of the narrative. (See NT Scholars are Pioneers for details)

Here is what Eric Hobsbawm has explained about his use of mythical or legendary material across the three different editions of one of his more famous works, Bandits. His bandit and bandit myth subjects ranged from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

A rather tricky historical source: Continue reading “How modern historians use myths as historical sources – or, Can Hobsbawm recover the historical Robin Hood?”

hiatus, hopes, reflections

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve been having a break from real blogging since the past week. Need a breather and time for real life responsibilities. But when I return to the serious stuff that interests me most I want to address

  • Roger Parvus’s latest three posts on the “Ignatian” letters,
  • complete what I started with the study of George Athas’s arguments re Tel Dan,
  • have a closer look at that Nazarene word, especially in light of Rene Salm’s recent articles and translations,
  • finish notes from Horsley’s history of messianic movements up to the outbreak of the Jewish war,
  • return to studying Herodotus and the Primary History of Israel and the relationship between the two,
  • outline the evidence for the Persian and Hellenistic era provenance of the OT writings,
  • catch up on some publications about Marcion and Paul’s letters,
  • do more on the Lévi-Strauss model of myths and its application to Old and New Testament narratives,
  • continue doing chapters of Earl Doherty’s book,
  • try to finish my posts on midrash (if I can — I contacted one of the authors of one of the books I have been using to ask for clarification on a particular point I was about to address and have come away with more than I expected to think about),
  • and a whole lot more in the back of my head that escape me at the moment.

Hence my lazy off-the-top-of-my-head reflections on things I’ve covered a million times before and that still seem to bug  the arrogant and ignorant.

I was reading Richard Carrier’s comments that Dr McGrath pointed to recently and note him saying that a PhD is the equivalent of 10,000 hours of training. I wish I had the time and opportunity for that (my circumstances did not permit me to take up an invitation for higher studies at the end of my post grad educational studies degree) since I painfully aware of my limitations as an amateur hobbyist in the area of biblical studies. I know I often present a slapdash argument or statement assuming that what I have said somewhere else a week or more ago is on any other reader’s minds, too. And I look back and am embarrassed at how often I have presented a point very badly.

I get a lot out of reading many formal scholarly works from a range of disciplines, and Doherty’s works, and it’s not always the raw content — often I’m studying the argumentation, the logic, the presentation and structure of the argument, etc. (And yes, this is where I find a lot of historical Jesus works a very mixed bag of flashes of brilliant insights and absurdly baseless circular and incredibly blinkered arguments.)

Anyway, before I get back to what I love to blog about the most, I have at hand some notes I hope to do up soon – one on the way a historian of relatively modern history uses myths and legends as sources in his historical inquiries, and another on how a historian uses certain kinds of analysis of ancient inscriptions in order to reconstruct historical events. I believe both illustrations demonstrate the point I have made for some time now about the different approaches of New Testament historians (I hope that’s a valid term — I copy it from Dr McGrath after he chastised me for using the term “biblical historians”) to the Gospels for their inquiries into the historical Jesus and the way other historians handle material that is mythical or in need of close literary analysis to decipher its meaning.