Confessions of a Theologian — Bible scholars really do do history differently

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by Neil Godfrey

Jan Vansina

Recently a theologian helpfully advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work generally in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles as applied by historians generally. So I did. I shared what I read there about the basics of how historians ought to approach their documents in How Historians Work – Lessons for historical Jesus scholars.

The same theologian was even kind enough to subsequently recommend that I read a work by oral historian Jan Vansina in order to understand that historians “adapt” or “refine” standard principles in order to make them fit the special requirements where, say, written sources are very scarce. The point of this exercise was for me to learn that if I see theologians using something not exactly the same as I see in other history books, then I was to understand that if historians do not have a rich abundance of written materials they do indeed “refine” or “adapt” principles so that they can work with that scarcity of evidence.

So I did that, too. I chose Jan Vansina’s “Oral Tradition as History” (1985) and his earlier “Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology”.

Before I continue I should say that the idea that any historian “refines” basic methods such as “external attestation” or the need to establish provenance before knowing how to interpret a text for certain types of historical information quite confused me.  My own understanding has always been that historians merely limit and change the questions they can ask so that the tried and true tools they use can still be used validly. They don’t “refine” their tools to enable them to get more answers than the sources would otherwise allow. That has certainly been my understanding as a student of both ancient and modern history. From my experience there is nothing different in principle at all — no refinements or adaptations of what are really basic logical “tools” — but only the fact that historians of ancient times can never hope to know the sorts of details about events or people as they can know for the well-documented recent past.

But the theologian insisted I was in the wrong and that if I read Vansina I would see that historians do indeed “refine” and “adapt” their methods to fit their “needs”. They are applied differently, he has said.

So I approached Vansina with interest to see if there was something I had missed and needed to learn. Here are a few excerpts from what I read.

The task of a historian working with written documents starts when he or she finds or takes up such a document and begins to read it. There is no relation at all between the historian on the one hand and the ready-made document that confronts him or her on the other. Hence the classical rules of evidence are straightforward. What is this document both physically and as a message? Is it an original, written by the person who composed it? Is it authentic, truly what it claims to be or is it a forgery? Who wrote it, when, or where? Once the answers to these questions are known an internal analysis of the content can proceed. As long as they are not known one does not know to what any analysis of content they relate. So the analysis of the document itself comes first. (p. 33, Oral Tradition As History, my emphasis throughout)

But to historians dealing with oral tradition the situation is very different. Some of these are indeed faced with a piece of writing that claims to be the record of a tradition. The usual questions must be asked, but will refer only to the record not to the tradition itself. In most cases, however, the relationship of the historian to the documents is totally different. He or she did not find the piece of writing, but rather created it. He or she recorded a living tradition. The questions now are: what is the relationship of the text to a particular performance of the tradition involved and what is the relationship of that performance to the tradition as a whole? Only when it is clear how the text stands to the performance and the latter to the tradition can an analysis of the contents of the message begin. This means that the questions of authenticity, originality, authorship, and place and time of composition must be asked at each of these stages. (pp. 33-34)

Well, that looks to me as if Vansina is saying that the classical rules of evidence are not “refined” but that they must be applied more often and at more stages of the historical inquiry.

But what if this means we don’t get as much info as we’d like? Surely there must be some “refining” somewhere so we can see something supposedly analogous to the ways historical Jesus scholars do history?

Hence, where writing is widely used, one expects very detailed and very diverse sources of information, which also allow for a very detailed reconstruction of the past. Historians who work with the written sources of the last few centuries in any of the major areas of literacy should not expect that reconstructions using oral materials will yield as full, detailed, and precise a reconstruction, barring only the very recent past. The limitations of oral tradition must be fully appreciated so that it will not come as a disappointment that long periods of research yield a reconstruction that is still not very detailed. What one does reconstruct from oral sources may well be of a lower order of reliability, when there are no independent sources to cross-check, and when structuring and chronological problems complicate the issues. This means that particular research questions remain unsettled for much longer periods of time than when a reconstruction rests on massive and internally independent written evidence. It will take longer to achieve results that are reliable because they are confirmed by other sources. (pp. 199-200)

Now I’m really confused. Perhaps the theologian meant me to read another oral historian and this one, Vansina, is misleading me by saying what I had always thought and understood is correct all along. Methods are not “refined”. It is the questions and expectations of the historian that are refined and adapted to the methods — the methods, the questions asked, remain constant.

But historical Jesus scholars certainly do employ a raft of different methods and questions that are quite alien to other historical studies — or at least the way they are used is quite different.

A professor of the Bible once wrote:

If we dismiss everything that is given such interpretations in ancient texts, we will end up dismissing even those things that have so much evidence supporting them that no one in their right mind would question them.

I replied it was a fallacy to reject or to accept an argument on the grounds that we don’t like or do like its conclusions. Ancient historians, I remarked, have logically coherent and valid reasons for accepting certain ancient sources for certain types of ancient historical inquiry. They do not need to appeal to the consequences to justify their selection of sources.

The professor patiently replied that he was not guilty of a logical fallacy at all. So I asked him:

So, speaking as a historian, on what basis do ancient historians decide which sources are useful for certain types of historical reconstruction — without appealing to the consequent? I think commenters here would appreciate knowing.

He helpfully explained it this way:

Through careful examination.

To cut a long story short the professor eventually explained what this “careful examination” actually entailed. He did explain, most clearly, the methods used by historical Jesus historians and he began by explaining that they are indeed not the same as those used by other historians. Here is his confession:

And of course, let’s not forget the obvious example of historical Jesus research, which because of the fact that there are wackos of all sorts who wish to say every sort of thing possible about Jesus, or even claim he did not exist, [historical Jesus] historians have had to try to come up with objective criteria to defend minimal conclusions about matters that would, if it were any other figure from history, be considered obvious and beyond dispute.

One does wonder why if there were as much evidence for Jesus as for any other figure of ancient times  (e.g. Socrates, Mohammed) the question of Jesus’ historicity would have arisen in the first place. It helps to pull out the ad hominem card and to think of those who do question Jesus’ historicity as evil and dishonest atheists motivated by a mischievous desire to attack Christianity.

And as we saw in my earlier post in this series the methods used by other historians referred to above, at least as set out by Howell and Prevenier, do not support the historical existence of Jesus. So theologians must rely on these those para criteria to defend minimal conclusions. Here is the sum of all that consists of the “careful examination” according to the professor:

Between the evidence from Josephus and Tacitus, the evidence from the fact that some details of geography, architecture and persons are verifiable (one can see a marked contrast with later pseudepigrapha which contain nothing that plausibly fits the time in which they were set; almost all texts get some details wrong, but getting many things right was largely impossible without some reliable sources of information, since there were few records generally accessible to the public, and indeed few records of any sort that would allow one to right [sic] highly accurate historical fiction other than by drawing on actual accounts of the people and places in question, whether oral or written), and the unlikelihood of embarassing [sic] material being invented (Vansina uses that criterion, as I am sure you are aware if you have read the books you claim to have, other than frantically doing so in order to quote them in a comment that is). And so as you can plainly, what is described in Howell and Prevenier is precisely what historians investigating the figure of Jesus do in order to assess the reliability of their written sources.

  1. The Gospels could not have got so many geographic and personal names right unless they were writing reliably sourced historical narratives (but see my previous post for how Howell and Prevenier, contrary to the claims of the professor here, dismiss this as a valid method for assessing the historicity or truth of a narrative in a document);
  2. The criterion of embarrassment (see almost any other publication by a biblical scholar pointing out the logical flaw in this).

I posted more detail from Vansina in my reply to the professor elsewhere but enough has been covered here to make the point. I might make here just one remark in response to the above quotation on Vansina and the criterion of embarrassment. Vansina was addressing primary sources, oral sources, of known provenance. I pointed out the significant difference of these from what we have available for Christian origins in my earlier post (and see the links below). The difference when it comes to written sources of unknown provenance for unknown audiences and by unknown persons is as stark as day from night. With secondary written sources of unknown provenance the embarrassment is presumed to apply even though we know not who the persons involved were or what they thought. And historians have indeed turned those arguments based on embarrassment on their heads by showing the plausibility that no embarrassment was ever felt in the original sources.

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18 thoughts on “Confessions of a Theologian — Bible scholars really do do history differently”

  1. As related to this discussion, I’d like to present the text of Strabo (64/63 BC – ca. AD 24), the ancient Greek historian-geographer, where he discusses in “Geographica” his ideas of how to read Homer and separate historical transmission of facts from mythological invention.

    This is how Roger French, in his book “Ancient Natural History, Routledge, London 1994, on p. 98, and 99-100, summarizes Strabo’s argument:

    “Strabo’s world,then, was not governed by the gods. He saw that, historically, belief in the traditional gods and their means of vengeance like thunderbolts had been politically useful for the control of people, but as a Stoic he elevated nature or Providence above the gods, whose traditional activities he regarded as myths. Myths, he says, are used by poets, law-givers and those in control of states as expedients because they are attractive to men: as attractive as reasoning. The portentous and the marvellous — myths — make things easy to learn, and children can be spurred on by pleasant myths and deterred, that is, controlled, by unpleasant. But myths, insists Strabo, are essentially childish. Ignorant and half-educated men are as but children: this explains the use of myths by the early historians and even those who looked at physis (Note 32). Only philosophy, says Strabo (meaning of course Stoic philosophy), can rise above myth and the use of it by the politically powerful.”

    Note 32 by French refers to the key passages in Strabo, I.2.8 and X.3,23, which follow below:

    Strabo. ed. H. L. Jones, The Geography of Strabo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.
    Quoted online by LacusCurtius • Strabo’s Geography — Book I Chapter 2 (§§ 1‑23)

    I.2.7-8-9 (Loeb Classical 1917)

    7 Nor, indeed, is the statement of Eratosthenes true that Homer speaks only of places that are near by and in Greece; on the contrary, he speaks also of many places that are distant; and when Homer indulges in myths he is at least more accurate than the later writers, since he does not deal wholly in marvels, but for our instruction he also uses allegory, or revises myths, or curries popular favour, and particularly in his story of the wanderings of Odysseus; and Eratosthenes makes many mistakes when he speaks of these wanderings and declares that not only the commentators on Homer but also Homer himself are dealers in nonsense. But it is worth my while to examine these points more in detail.

    8 In the first place, I remark that the poets were not alone in sanctioning myths, for long before the poets the states and the lawgivers had sanctioned them as a useful expedient, since they had an insight into the natural affections of the reasoning animal; for man is eager to learn, and his fondness for tales is a prelude to this quality. It is fondness for tales, then, that induces children to give their attention to narratives and more and more to take part in them. The reason for this is that myth is a new language to them — a language that tells them, not of things as they are, but of a different set of things. And what is new is pleasing, and so is what one did not know before; and it is just this that makes men eager to
    learn. But if you add thereto the marvellous and the portentous, you thereby increase the pleasure, and pleasure acts as a charm to incite to learning. At the beginning we must needs make use of such bait for children, but as the child advances in years we must guide him to the knowledge of facts, when once his intelligence has become strong and no longer needs to be coaxed. Now every illiterate and uneducated man is, in a sense, a child, and, like a child, he is fond of stories; and for that matter, so is the half-educated man, for his reasoning faculty has not been fully developed, and, besides, the mental habits of his childhood persist in him. Now since the portentous is not only pleasing, but fear-inspiring as well, we can employ both kinds of myth for children, and for grown-up people too. In the case of children we employ the pleasing myths to spur them on, and the fear-inspiring myths to deter them; for instance, Lamia52 is a myth, and so are the Gorgon, and Ephialtes,53 and Mormolyce.54 Most of those who live in the cities are incited to emulation by the myths that are pleasing, when they hear the poets narrate mythical deeds of heroism, such as the Labours of Heracles of Theseus, or hear of honours bestowed by gods, or, indeed, when they see paintings or primitive images or works of sculpture which suggest any similar happy issue of fortune in mythology; but they are deterred from evil courses when, either through descriptions or through typical representations of objects unseen, they learn of divine punishments, terrors, and threats — or even when they merely believe that men have met with such experiences. For in dealing with a crowd of women, at least, or with any promiscuous mob, a philosopher cannot influence them by reason or exhort them to reverence, piety and faith; nay, there is need of religious fear also, and this cannot be aroused without myths and marvels. For thunderbolt, aegis, trident, torches, snakes, thyrsus-lances,— arms of the gods — are myths, and so is the entire ancient theology. But the founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simple-minded.

    Now since this is the nature of mythology, and since it has come to have its place in the social and civil scheme of life as well as in the history of actual facts, the ancients clung to their system of education for children and applied it up to the age of maturity; and by means of poetry they believed that they could satisfactorily discipline every period of life. But now, after a long time, the writing of history and the present-day philosophy have come to the front. Philosophy, however, is for the few, whereas poetry is more useful to the people at large and can draw full houses — and this is exceptionally true of the poetry of Homer. And the early historians and physicists were also writers of myths.
    9 Now inasmuch as Homer referred his myths to the province of education, he was wont to pay considerable attention to the truth. “And he mingled therein” a false element also, giving his sanction to the truth, but using the false to win the favour of the populace and to out-general the masses.
    “And as when some skilful man overlays gold upon silver,” just so was Homer wont to add a mythical element to actual occurrences, thus giving flavour and adornment to his style; but he has the same end in view as the historian or the person who narrates facts. So, for instance, he took the Trojan war, an historical fact, and decked it out with his myths; and he did the same in the case of the wanderings of Odysseus; but to hang an empty story of marvels on something wholly untrue is not Homer’s way of doing things. For it occurs to us at once, doubtless, that a man will lie more plausibly if he will mix in some actual truth, just as Polybius says, when he is discussing the wanderings of Odysseus. This is what Homer himself means when he says of Odysseus: “So he told many lies in the likeness of truth;” for Homer does not say “all” but “many” lies; since otherwise they would not have been “in the likeness of truth.” Accordingly, he took the foundations of his stories from history. For instance, history says that Aeolus was once king over the islands about Lipara, and that the Cyclopes and the Laestrygonians, inhospitable peoples, were lords over the region about Aetna and Leontine; and that for this reason the region about the Strait might not be visited by men of that time, and that Charybdis and the Rock of Scylla were infested by brigands. And from history we learn that the rest of the peoples mentioned by Homer lived in other parts of the world. And, too, it was on the basis of Homer’s actual knowledge that the Cimmerians lived about the Cimmerian Bosporus, a gloomy country in the north, that he transferred them, quite appropriately, to a certain gloomy region in the neighbourhood of Hades — a region that suited the purpose of his mythology in telling of the wanderings of Odysseus. The writers of chronicles make it plain that Homer knew the Cimmerians, in that they fix the date of the invasion of the Cimmerians either a short time before Homer, or else in Homer’s own time.

    Then, a second passage from Strabo, X.3.23

    I have been led on to discuss these people rather at length, although I am not in the least fond of myths, because the facts in their case border on the province of theology. And theology as a whole must examine early opinions and myths, since the ancients expressed enigmatically the physical notions which they entertained concerning the facts and always added the mythical element to their accounts. Now it is not easy to solve with accuracy all the enigmas, but if the multitude of myths be set before us, some agreeing and others contradicting one another, one might be able more readily to conjecture out of them what the truth is. For instance, men probably speak in their myths about the “mountain-roaming” of religious zealots and of gods themselves, and about their “religious frenzies,” for the same reason that they are prompted to believe that the gods dwell in the skies and show forethought, among their other interests, for prognostication by signs. Now seeking for metals, and hunting, and searching for the things that are useful for the purposes of life, are manifestly closely related to mountain-roaming, whereas juggling and magic are closely related to religious frenzies, worship, and divination. And such also is devotion to the arts, in particular to the Dionysiac and Orphic arts. But enough on this subject.

    Compare the robust knowledge of Strabo with the hot air dispersed to the four winds of the online universe by McGrath.

    Between the evidence from Josephus and Tacitus, the evidence from the fact that some details of geography, architecture and persons are verifiable…

    Translation into English,

    Not one single Christian in the first century put his name to a document saying he had ever even heard of Judas, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea , Arimathea itself, Thomas, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Barabbas, Bartimaeus, Jairus,Bartimaeus, Salome, Joanna, Simon of Cyrene,

    Which of these person are ‘verifiable’ to use McGrath’s criteria?

    I think McGrath’s claim boils down to that people in the Gospels are verifiable, apart from almost everybody that was claimed to have ever met Jesus.

    Outside the Gospels, even Christian sources can’t be used to verify almost the entire cast of Gospel characters.

  3. For nostalgia’s sake, I clicked back to take a look at one of the posts linked to this one, namely:


    This is back before Dr. Jimmy became Mr. Jim. He closes the first comment on the page with:

    “Thank you for the stimulating interaction!”

    Ah, the good old days.

    In today’s Exploding Cakemix post he writes, “. . . Godfrey either is either failing to comprehend Vansina, Howell, and prevenier, or is willfully misrepresenting them.” See, he knows you are wrong, Neil, (but fails to justify his case, as always), hence you are either a fool or a liar. Nice guy.

    1. McGrath explains that he doesn’t have access to the book. He is on holiday.

      Hence his lack of . shall we say, ‘precision’ in explaining exactly how Neil misrepresented this book.

      Only a really dumb mythicist would expect him to be able to quote from a book he doesn’t have access to.

      Gosh, if McGrath was able to smack down Neil at this moment in time, just think how much more devastating McGrath’s article would have been if he had been able to see the book, and read some of its contents..

  4. The good old days go back even further to the 8th June 2009 when the good professor wrote me:

    Thanks for this detailed interaction! I’ll try to offer something more substantial than “Thank you” in response at some point, but I didn’t want to wait until I had time to do that in order to express appreciation for your detailed interaction with what I’ve written!


    1. From a purely linguistic viewpoint, note the dilution of verbiage to express two simple ideas: “Thank you for now, more later.”
      McGrath repeats the same points two or three times in fully extended forms.
      Compare this with the focused, concise and precise language of Strabo. Modern academics have distorted the use of direct, meaningful language that the ancient Greek and Roman writers knew how to handle so well. Blame the low level of “universal elementary education” and the impact of school teachers who never gained the mastery of using words to express ideas, for this historic switch in the use of language.
      I am impressed that Neil Godfrey is willing to spend so much time arguing with McGrath, as it is clear that their discussions never reach an effective point, and are pure debating exercises allowing each sparring partner to sharpen his arguments and denounce the worthlessness of his opponent’s. Sparring partners are useful, but reading those long disputes with apologists such as McGrath (even worse with J.P. Holding) has limited, if any, value. The exercise is mostly meaningful for each of the two participants.

      1. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It would be good to ignore McGrath for what he says but the issue is that he speaks is his status as a professor and often his views do reflect the standards that are widely accepted in biblical scholarship and the wider community. Note the number of his peers who are quick to jump to his defence. It is for these reasons that I do sometimes address his posts and comments. McGrath will never change his mind about anything and will resort to personal attacks and outright fabrications if ever he senses he has no reasonable response at hand. But his views are those of a wider audience.

        1. Correct. You’re a crusader, and have the training, the sharp weapons, and the motivation to take them on and launch your attacks.
          You may be right that this could be a way to draw out a clarification of the beliefs prevalent in the established academic community, then your point is well taken.
          Still it takes a lot of patience and self-control to carry on such debates and confrontations. And yes, there may be a fallout in affecting the beliefs of some silent spectators in the wider audience of readers.
          But for us, who have some educated knowledge of the issues, reading McGrath is a Chinese torture of the mind. If at least once in a while he made some advanced, interesting points like Metzger, John Meier, Vermes, Maccoby, Ludemann, or Maurice Casey, but no, from McGrath we always get the same platitudes.
          And reading J.P. Holding is even a more monumental waste of time. I am impressed that Robert Price and Earl Doherty are willing to give him the time of day. For the same reasons that you invoked, probably.

  5. Relating to this Neil and I am sure you will like the story, I am currently doing a course called Discipleship Explored which explores Christianity. The guy running it has got an Ancient History degree and he said to me that a good friend of his, which was an australian professor of some sorts, had a challenge before Xmas which basically claimed that that no professor in ancient history and new testament studies (or something like that) in the world claims that Jesus didn’t exist. No one raised to the challenge. He put that as “evidence” for Jesus being a historical figure.

    Seeing as Vansina’s book is only £16 quid on Amazon and the other one is free to read online I am going to read both and make my mind up. They look like interesting reads anyway.

    1. Robert M. Price loves this kind of “evidence”, and usually corrects the conclusion by pointing out that the unanimity of all those “professors in ancient history and new testament studies” is only evidence of the BELIEF in “Jesus being a historical figure”, and certainly not “evidence” for the REALITY of such historical existence.
      Glossing over this key distinction is one trick often used by apologists.
      Again, Strabo would not fall for this kind of “evidence” without subjecting it to the shredding machinery of his Stoic “philosophy”.

      1. Philipe Wajdenbaum would argue from a social anthropological perspective that all HJ scholars are doing is creating a new (rationalised) versions of the Gospel myth. This is easy to establish — they all begin with the same assumptions as the myth does — that once upon a time there was a man called Jesus, etc.

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