Is history a trial?

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by Neil Godfrey

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Image by mtkr via Flickr

History as most generally practiced is about interpretation of the “facts” (or data or evidence — the distinction is important and was discussed at some length in comments here).

Historians seek out evidence from sources of identifiable provenance: diaries, police records, government papers, newspapers, etc. The nature of the sources, the provenance of the sources, are important for the historian in knowing how to assess the reliability or biases of those sources.

The debate among historians of Australian history over the extent of massacres of aboriginal peoples is about interpretation of the “facts” — the facts being the tangible documentary evidence.

It is the same with ancient history. An ancient inscription may be very clear in the tale it tells, such as the rise of Syrian king Idrimi. But how should that tale be interpreted? Is it a true narrative or a piece of mostly fictional propaganda? External witnesses are brought in — what do other texts, remains or monuments indicate? What do we know of the literary style and its purposes elsewhere?

So when we come to the gospels all we have are “reports”. But even “reports” is a prejudicial term presupposing genre and hypothesis of origins. It is better to call them narratives. Theological narratives that appear to demand belief despite a total absence of identifiable witnesses within those reports. They are evidence with which the historian must work. The historian cannot begin by assuming that the narratives they tell are historical. The historian must first assess the nature of the gospels, their provenance, authorship, reliability, purposes, etc. Do external witnesses support the “historicity” of their narratives or do they support their literary and theological creativity? What does the internal evidence — literary analysis — suggest?

It is putting the cart before the horse to begin by interpreting them as the products of oral transmission. That is one theory that would need to be tested and cannot be taken as a default. One way to test this would be to set out a list of what we might expect to find in documents that are collections of various oral reports and then compare this list with what we do in fact have.

James Crossley is spot on when he advocates doing history the same way it is practiced in areas outside Jesus studies. History, he insists, is really about explanations of the facts — explaining what happened and what it meant, etc. How and why did Christianity emerge is the real historical question. Not “did Jesus smoke”, “did he talk to women”, “did he pinch the temple collection money”, etc. Genuine history moves beyond questions like this. Crossley is right and history is not simply about finding out who killed Cock Robin or stole the tarts: that’s the business of a trial — and even some scholars confuse this process with historiography.

There is only one weakness in Crossley’s approach, however. There is scarcely a single thing Jesus said or did that is a universally agreed-upon fact. So how on earth can one build an interpretive study upon “facts” that may not be “facts” at all?

The reason there is scarcely a single unquestioned “fact” about Jesus is that Jesus studies are circular. And that is because they begin with the assumption that the narrative in the gospels is derived from memories of historical events. (Jesus scholars like Dale C. Allison Jr. and Stevan Davies and Jim West recognize this.) And being circular, the sort of Jesus you end up believing in — whether he cleansed the temple or not, was baptized by John or not, was a teacher or not, had twelve disciples or not, was a rabbi or a revolutionary or a cynic sage, was an obscurity or a fearful threat to the authorities — all depends on where you enter that circle.

One place to start is to treat the gospels for what they are: literary/theological narratives, provenance is a matter of educated guess, authorship unknown, genre and purposes debatable.

The historian needs to squeeze out of them all he or she can from their status as literary narratives first. That is not radical. It is recognized by mainstream scholars that the Christ in the gospels is a myth and the characters — even Jesus himself — is necessarily a literary construct. It does NOT follow that there was no historical Jesus behind the myth or literary portrayal in the Gospels. A historian should not bother worrying about that at this point. A historian ought to be able to study the gospels AS THEY ARE — as literature, as theology — and examine them by both literary analysis and through external witnesses who may be able to shed light on their make-up as literature.

This is what historians of Syrian and Hittite monuments do. The actual historicity of the narrative itself is something that is to be established. It is not taken for granted. Though in the case of a monumental inscription found in the context of a civic area near a palace one does have more of a clue about provenance than one has in the case of manuscripts that can be traced to originating somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean area between 40 and 140 c.e. So the job of the historian of Christian origins is a little more difficult. This historian needs to proceed even more cautiously than the historian of Idrimi.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Is history a trial?”

  1. In the above I referred to James Crossley’s views of history. One of his several statements on this topic can be found in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 7 (2009) 63–90, “Writing about the Historical Jesus: Historical Explanation and ‘the Big Why Questions’, or Antiquarian Empiricism and Victorian Tomes?” Here is a section from the abstract to that article:

    This article points out that lives of Jesus have been dominated by individualism, fact-finding, exegesis and description. This stands in contrast to the ways in which historical reconstruction has been practised in other disciplines in the humanities . . .

    Compare Anthony Le Donne’s words in “Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it?”, p. 34:

    History, as a discipline of knowledge, is not what happened in the past, it is an accounting of how the past was remembered and why.

  2. In a trial the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. However, in a sense, the prosecution’s arguments are guilty until proven innocent. And every historian is the prosecutor, prosecuting us (we’re the defendants) with his version of the events. His arguments are guilty until proven innocent so that we can be innocent until proven guilty. This is particularly the case with religious claims. When the prosecutor says “Jesus was God in the flesh” he means that we should be sentenced to hell for all eternity if we don’t believe that. He is prosecuting us, not history. “History” is his argument in prosecuting us. Therefore, his argument must be treated as guilty until proven innocent so that we can be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

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