There is something rotten in the state of historical Jesus studies. Ideology has long trumped inconvenient questioning. Postmodernist flim-flam has recently trumped any hope of sound methodology. Some on that side of New Testament studies have curiously accused me of being “a fact fundamentalist” or an antiquated positivist or one who has unrealistic demands for certainty. So before I justify my claim that HJ studies have fallen hostage to ideology and methodological nonsense, let me lay all my cards out on the table and tell you what history means to me.
History for me has never been “about facts and dates”. It has never been “one darned thing after another.” That’s a chronicle or an archival record. Not history. In hindsight I have come to appreciate so much my senior high school years as a history student when I was taught by two pioneers in the way history was to be taught throughout Australian secondary schools, J.H. Allsopp and H.R. Cowie.
The first thing we were taught was that history was an enquiry. It was a debate. It was all about exploring questions. We began our studies with the French Revolution and we were confronted with questions: Why did it happen in France? Why then? And instead of being given answers we were given competing explanations. We were forced to study up on the facts in order to try to answer these questions. Inevitably we soon discovered that the importance of certain facts varied according to the different points of view of the authors. One of the questions we were asked to test at our senior high school level of competence was historian Toynbee’s thesis that all history followed a pattern of “challenge and response”.
Then I took up history at university. We had been well prepared. First topic, the rise of feudalism. First book to read: The Pirenne thesis; analysis, criticism, and revision. We weren’t “taught” what led to the rise of feudalism in Europe. We were challenged and guided to explore the possible reasons, the competing explanations, and to show competence in the way we pursued historical questions.
What is history? What is an historical fact?
It was in the 1960s and we were required to engage with E.H. Carr’s radically challenging book on the nature of history, What Is History? His thesis — that history is essentially whatever the historian makes of it — was the hot debate of the day. One of his most famously quoted passages is found on the Wikipedia page and I copy it here:
“Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude’s, goes round to a friend at St. Jude’s to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.”
Carr illustrated what he meant with his now classic case of the gingerbread vendor being kicked to death in a riot at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850. This fact was reported in a newspaper of the day but it was ignored by historians until Kitson Clark picked it up and used it as evidence for the character of Victorian England. Other historians subsequently referred to it. Carr argued that this shows a fact never becomes “an historical fact” until an historian interprets it as such and uses it to make history. That is, for historians, it is interpretation of the facts that is everything.
Note also Carr’s admonishment always to listen for the buzzing of the bees in any work of history. There is no such thing as “the sole authority” on why or how something happened. If interpretation and points of view are unavoidable then by definition no single view of history can ever be the final word.
Note also that Carr is talking about interpretation of facts, not sources. Facts derive from sources. Sources also need to be evaluated and interpreted, of course. But HJ scholars, we will see, can go no farther than interpreting sources, and whatever facts they conjure from those sources are entirely subjective creations. Contrast Carr, for whom the death of the gingerbread vendor was not a subjectively derived fact from reading between lines of unprovenanced documents; it was a fact that remains universally acknowledged as having had a reality independent of the sources.
Facts are not like that in HJ studies, and that’s the problem.
One scholar finds reasons to argue that the scene of the Pharisees catching and criticizing Jesus’ disciples for plucking corn on the sabbath is based on a real historical event that informs the historian of important information about Jesus; another scholar finds reasons to argue that the same passage in the Gospels is complete fabrication and propaganda and is worthless as far as any real information about Jesus is concerned. This sort of thing can be shown for just about anything said about Jesus among HJ scholars.
Indeed, HJ scholars could re-write Carr’s words as follows:
and what the HJ scholar catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what fish he imagines are swimming in the ocean and what cloth and plastic he chooses to use to create them – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the HJ scholar will get the kind of facts he wants.
Now Carr’s views about the nature of history and historical facts were controversial and still are. Before Carr, historians largely believed that “the facts were just there” and simply waiting for the historian to pick them up and arrange them into a book. What happened in the past, how it happened and who were the principal actors were all in little doubt. Carr challenged all of that.
Historians have moved on since Carr. We have had Geoffrey Elton strongly attempting to overturn Carr’s influence. Today we have postmodernist historians who are changing yet again the way history is understood. (I hope one day to further discuss Elton and postmodern historians just as in the past I have discussed von Ranke. Each has his place in the history of historiography and in helping us understand how history works.)
But. There is a But.
I think it is fair to say that all historians who have been influenced by the debates about the nature of history do have a few things in common. They do all understand the importance of assessing, testing and understanding the nature of their sources. They all do work with certain “facts” that have been deemed to be facts as evidenced in tested sources.
What do I mean by “facts”?
By “facts” I mean here the information conveyed by different types of sources and that has a real existence outside the sources. A personal diary, for example, may give us the “facts” of what a person thought and believed about events in their life, whether or not those thoughts and beliefs were themselves objectively true or not. An ancient imperial inscription may give historians “the facts” about what a ruler wanted others to believe about his own rule, regardless of whether he was telling the truth or not.
Even a postmodernist can speak of a “fact” in the sense of the “constructed reality” found in the sources. The postmodernist historian might dismiss the possibility of arriving at any objective account of the early settlement of America but he/she will not dispute the testimony of the sources that inform us of the fact that the Pilgrims did settle in New England.
Where do facts come from?
They cannot dispute the arrival of those Pilgrims because historians learn to critically analyse sources and to classify them according to the sorts of information they can be expected to yield. A marriage certificate, a tombstone inscription, a newspaper report, a personal diary, a classified government document, a diplomatic telegram, a narrative about one’s nation’s past, a historical novel, all can be used as sources of information that an historian might find useful in answering different sorts of questions. The nature of a source, its genre, are vital clues to knowing how its contents are to be understood. And in a world where parody, deception, creativity and honest misunderstandings are not unknown, understanding the genre or message of a document can on occasion prove problematic.
Of course “the reality” behind the witness of our sources can never be objectively or directly grasped. All our information comes to us through interpretations within the sources and by the historians. By understanding all of this the historian approaches the sources with humility, understanding that by reading them carefully we can learn something “factual” about the past. That “fact” we learn from our sources might be that the author believed 9/11 was a Whitehouse-Zionist conspiracy or it might be documented information on how Al Qaeda cells functioned. Both are facts: one is the fact of a belief held by someone; the other is the fact of how something worked in the real world.
What about uncertainty and probability in history?
There is always room for uncertainty and probability but those uncertainties and probabilities arise as often or moreso from the known facts than they do from questions about the sources.
So an historians might ask and debate the question: Did Napoleon lose the Battle of Waterloo because he had hemorrhoids thus preventing him from supervising his army by riding back and forth to check what was happening on the field for himself? Historical answers may only be couched in terms of probabilities and uncertainty.
Another question that might remain unresolved: Did Australian settlers take possession of the land through regular massacres of the aboriginal populations? The problem in answering this question comes back to how historians interpret the surviving evidence. Widely different estimates of numbers killed are under heated dispute. There is dispute over what are the facts. Ideology gets mixed up with such questions. So it is important for historians to justify the methods they use to reach their different conclusions.
But all of these uncertain “facts” are assessed in terms of other facts that are secure. And that is where HJ studies part company from other historiography.
There is no doubt that Napoleon existed, that he rode a horse, and that he caused a lot of havoc across Europe before finally losing the Battle of Waterloo. We have abundant evidence — artefacts, monuments, surviving witness and testimonies of him and the things he did. We have no doubt that some aborigines were murdered by white settlers. The documented records — diaries, newspapers, official reports — leave us in no doubt.
Question: What sources do we have for the story of the crucifixion of Jesus? Where did they come from? What sorts of documents are they? Are they narratives sourced from oral traditions that can be traced back to historical events? Or are they something else? How do we know? Is there any “fact” about Jesus on which all historians agree is indeed a fact? Robert M. Price says no, not even the death of Jesus, since Muslim historians dispute his death by crucifixion. [See my comment in response to #8 below for details and how Western scholars are seeing the critical reasons underpinning this dispute.] One has to be extremely intelligent or an uninformed bystander to fail to notice that this is not how historians work in other fields.
With special thanks to Dr McGrath
Theologian Dr James McGrath helpfully recommends a book that is one of scores that help budding post-graduate historians to know how to work with sources. It is useful for all historians, whether nineteenth century von Rankeans, mid twentieth century Carr-ites, latter twentieth century “Eltonians” or postmodernists. Here is what chapter one of From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods advises:
For the historical archive, the most important principle of organization is place of origin, or provenance. No principle is more important because any isolated document, without such information, is practically worthless to the historian, just as a potsherd or a coin is of little historical value unless we can identify its provenance. We have to know where a document was found and where it was stored if we are to assess its import — its intellectual origins, its place and time of creation and use. (p. 36)
We saw the critical importance of this question being raised in 2006 when the National Geographic published the story of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas. But the concept of provenance encompasses more than the physical location of the document at the moment of its discovery. It includes a knowledge of who produced the document, where, when, for whom and why. The more vague and generalized the answers to these questions are the less certain we can be about what sorts of questions it can answer. So Howell and Prevenier add this to their list of fundamental precepts for historians:
It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that one of the historian’s principal tasks is to uncover the original purpose of functions of the relics of testimonies that have come down to posterity, to divine what use they were intended to serve and what purposes they actually served at the time they were created. (p. 18)
Historians must thus always consider the conditions under which a source was produced — the intentions that motivated it — but they must not assume that such knowledge tells them all they need to know about its “reliability.” They must also consider the historical context in which it was produced — the events that preceded it, and those that followed, for the significance of any event recorded depends as much on what comes after as it does on what comes before. . . . Thus, historians are never in a position . . . to read a source without attention to both the historical and historiographical contexts that give it meaning. This, of course, is the heart of historical interpretation. (p. 19, my bolding)
(New Testament scholars rely only on the documents themselves to speculate about such information. Their reasoning is thus inevitably circular.)
In the second chapter this requirement is discussed in more depth. It is important to understand that simply knowing the name of an author of a document is not the point:
Here we return to the question of where the source was produced, by whom, and when. . . . [T]he questions are not so much literally about time and place and author as they are about the significance of this information. What kind of institution or individual produced a source, with what authority, under what circumstances? What surrounding events gave the date or the place special meaning? (p. 62)
Even if we did learn that the author of the Gospel of Mark really was named Mark, we would be none the wiser about the value of this Gospel as an historical source. Who was this Mark? When did he live? The questions would just be beginning because it’s meaning we are looking for, not technical data.
New Testament scholars frequently make claims about the authorship and provenance of the Gospels. It is interesting to compare these efforts with those of their theologian forebears:
[Historiography, i.e. history writing] was co-opted by both sides in the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century. That century of reform produced, in fact, some of the most partisan, apologetic historiography western Europe has known. In Protestant circles [historians sought] to demonstrate the Roman church’s claim to be the direct heir of first-century Christianity had no historical basis. The Catholics answered . . . that the line of descent was in fact direct and pure. . . .
[Paradoxically] these debates helped produce a critical historiography, for each of the sides challenged the other by showing that the opponent had misused evidence, suppressed relevant information, reasoned illogically, and so on. They also advanced techniques of source criticism. . . learning to identity fraud . . . establishing editorial standards. . . . Thus a “rational” historiography was born, as it became no longer possible to authenticate a document simply by making claims about its authorship or provenance. (pp. 7-8, my bolding)
Two types of evaluation of sources are necessary for the historian. New Testament scholars are actually very good at one of these. But without the other, they have no ballast and it shows.
Sources must be evaluated not only in terms of those external characteristics on which we have been focusing, the questions of where, when, and by whom a source was created and whether it is “genuine” or not.
Traditionally, they have also been evaluated in terms of what historians have thought of an internal criteria. These include questions about the intended meaning of a source — was the author of the text in a position to know wha the reported? did he intend an accurate report? are his interpretations reliable? These are the kinds of questions on which nineteenth-century historians concentrated . . . (p. 60, my formatting and bolding)
Historical Jesus scholars have not had enough verifiable, independent sources to be able to make the external evaluations necessary to give the Gospels their original context. So they have focused on what the nineteenth century historians perfected — analysis of internal data. But of course without the external context they fell into the trap of assuming that their own traditional historicist interpretation of the internal narrative also indicated the external circumstances of the sources. That’s a bit like thinking Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe must be a near contemporary source for history in the Middle Ages because it writes about “historical events” at that time. But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Why the historical Jesus problem?
Yes, there are uncertainties in history. But Historical Jesus scholars have not been able to make much progress and are plagued with a sense of uncertainty more than most. Historians know who Socrates was, who Cicero was, who Caesar was. But they have no consensus at all on who or what Jesus was.
This is because they have failed to recognize that their uncertainties are the consequence of doing one-dimensional history. They have not had the external controls or the ballast that only “external characteristics” and a knowledge of the provenance of sources can provide. They have been trapped in a methodological circularity. Now they are turning to postmodernism for an answer. Postmodernism offers them a theoretical rationale for being able to dispense with the need for “facts” and to create a new history out of theoretical reconstructions of “constructed realities”!
Such extreme postmodernism spells the death-knell of history. Yes, as I said, there are uncertainties in history. But the uncertainties that arise in historical inquiries arise within the matrix of known hard facts and abundant evidence. It is the established facts that generate questions.
Who killed Cock Robin might remain a mystery but his body and line-up of suspects remain facts.
The debates among historians are primarily about how to select and arrange facts into a story that we call history. (This is why history has been called “an art”.) Postmodernists argue that the facts have been so filtered through interpretation before they get to us that what historians are working with are “impressions” or “interpretations” rather than objective data. (To a degree they are quite correct.) But they do not deny the absolute “facts” of Napoleon or that white settlers did kill aborigines. They do not deny that voting registers and parish records contain the names of real people, or that there really was a Julius Caesar or Roman Empire.
Now here is where the rubber hits the road.
It’s one thing to say we know Napoleon existed and who he was and that there was conflict between white settlers and aborigines in Australia. Yet Historical Jesus scholars cannot even go that far with the history of Jesus. To repeat, this is because they begin and end with the assumption (reinforced by subjective internal source analysis — not external assessments) that they are dealing with narratives that somehow point to historical events beneath.
But how do we know anything for sure about the ancient past? Do historical methods become qualitatively different the further back in time the historian goes?
Let’s make that the subject of a second post. I’ll address specifics in Hoffmann’s recent posts and also the Classical historian Michael Grant’s explanation of the method he used to write about Jesus. I need to take a break for now.
- Historical Facts and the Very Unfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies (vridar.org)
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Another Angle on Paul - 2023-03-20 05:40:12 GMT+0000
- Jesus’ Unheroic Moment in Gethsemane – and a return to Vridar/Vardis Fisher - 2023-03-17 09:12:36 GMT+0000
- From Humble Beginnings: A Tale of Two Divinities — Jesus and Apollo - 2023-03-15 09:09:56 GMT+0000
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71 thoughts on “The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 1: What Has History To Do With The Facts?”
Thank you for this.
Historians know who Socrates was, who Cicero was, who Caesar was. But they have no consensus at all on who or what Jesus was.
They have a consensus that Jesus existed.
Historical Jesus scholars have not had enough verifiable, independent sources to be able to make the external evaluations necessary to give the Gospels their original context.
Which context are we talking about here, the context in which they were written or the context of the story they describe? Regardless, if that is the case, neither do mythicists. Since establishing either an historical or mythological Jesus with absolute certainty is impossible, plausibility must suffice.
[NT scholars] begin and end with the assumption (reinforced by subjective internal source analysis — not external assessments) that they are dealing with narratives that somehow point to historical events beneath.
They may be operating under that assumption, with the caveat that NT historians would dispute they use no external assessments (Josephus and so on).
> They have a consensus that Jesus existed.
The notorious HJ consensus is of little value, if all those scholars are unable to comprehensibly articulate why. If the base of the consensus amounts to nothing more than a collective “gut feeling” then it is basically worthless.
> plausibility must suffice.
So HJ proponents have to change their wording from the very certainly sounding “he existed” to “it is plausible that he could have existed”. You cannot turn plausibility into a probability and claim that he probably existed because he could have existed.
Your trivialization of the consensus as “gut feeling” discredits you.
Neal writes that NT scholars lack enough credible independent sources to evaluate the historical veracity of the Gospels. Of course historians deny this. I thought it clear that “plausibility must suffice” referred to what Hoffmann wrote below (again):
Without establishing that Jesus in one stratum of the tradition about him–namely, the gospels– is a plausibly historical figure there would be no sense saying that he is arguably historical.
His point is obvious. Plausibility is the opening statement, not the verdict. Doherty hasn’t gotten much traction because, for example, his theory that Paul believed in a celestial crucifixion of Jesus is implausible compared to the historicist consensus. He can argue till the cows come home.
Sure, perhaps historians should qualify their statements about the historical Jesus, but they speak their convictions.
You keep you using that word “historian”. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
I don’t know many scholars with proper training as historians that have weigheted on the question of the existence of Jesus. The only one I’m aware of, Richard Carrier, with a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University, thinks that the methodology used in “Historical Jesus” studies is not valid.
Think what you like.
Yes, yes, Carrier doesn’t like the methodologies. I know, thank you.
He does sound good on the radio.
I don’t understand this. Are you giving me permission to have my own opinions or are you suggesting that what my comment was nothing but my opinion? In the first case thank you but your permission is hardly needed, in the second I would appreciate to hear why you think so.
I didn’t say that he doesn’t like the methodologies, I said that he finds them invalid. Of course, that probably implies that he doesn’t like them, but that’s not the important thing; what’s important is the reason he doesn’t like them: they are not valid historical methods.
Think what you like.
No, this has nothing to do with “permission.” No, I was not suggesting that you are spouting “opinion.” The subtext was my awareness that many of you who live and breathe mythicism seem to think that NT historians are nothing more than hacks for the religion industry. I may have been presumptuous in suspecting you of being one of these people, in which case I apologize. Otherwise I’ve read Carrier’s boasts about his superior credentials; he makes the very same appeals to authority as any historicist in the academy. My impression is that there is an ongoing interest among NT scholars in refining methodology, but I don’t follow the HJ debate that closely. Hoffmann’s on a tear right now so my interest is revived for the moment.
Of course, that probably implies that he doesn’t like them, but that’s not the important thing; what’s important is the reason he doesn’t like them: they are not valid historical methods.
I got that, thank you.
I don’t “live and breathe mythicism”. FWIW my stance on whether Jesus existed or not is “agnostic” (sorry Tim), perhaps with a slight leaning towards mythisism.
I don’t think that NT scholars are hacks, but they are not historians. So their consensus on whether Jesus existed or not, an essentially historical question, does not seem to me to carry that much weight. It’s not a point of credentials, it’s a point of methodology. Credentials are most of the times sufficient but by no means necessary. If somebody has a PhD in history I can reasonably assume that they have an understanding of historical methodology and are competent in its application., That doesn’t mean that somebody without a PhD in history cannot use historical methodology competently, it just means that that competence cannot be assumed without further evidence. To the extend that I’m competent to judge, NT scholars do not use standard historical methodology, nor do they display an understanding of it.
Of course, the methodology used in NT studies to settle historical questions like the existence of Jesus may be valid even though it’s not the standard methodology used by historians. This validity though needs to be demonstrated, this has not happened to my knowledge. On the contrary, what has been demonstrated is the inadequency of those methods, for example by Carrier (and many others of course, just browse through this blog).
Now if the consensus among academic historians, and I mean those with a PhD in history, was that the NT methodology is valid, then I would be more willing to accept that there is a consensus among historians that Jesus existed. As far as I know this is not the case though.
To my knowledge New Testament scholars haven’t rushed to drop “historian” from their titles because Richard Carrier has a problem with their methodology.
It must never have occurred to NT scholars that their methodology is “invalid” since they never interact with “real” historians. Boggle.
Most don’t have “historian” among their titles. They have “theologian”. Most only say they are historians because they think they are. You don’t have to believe anything I say, but just listen to what NT scholars themselves say. NT scholars themselves criticize their peers for not using normative methods:
See Jens Schroter’s criticisms published in a recent book on methods of HJ studies.
Even James McGrath says NT scholars are pioneers in the field of history. You can’t be a pioneer unless you do things differently.
I find your use of quotation marks, strange.
Do you understand what valid methodology means?
Stop being so hung up on “consensus”. Accept the fact that biblical studies is probably about the most ideological of all academic “disciplines” so it has no objective, repeatably testable foundations like the sciences do. In biblical studies a consensus comes and goes like any other fashion statement. If you want to know what the latest consensus is just have a look at the broader society to which the academics belong. As that society changes so will the consensus of those whose positions depend upon the trust and respect of that society.
Example: Before World War 2 the consensus was that Judas was nothing but the arch villain without any redeeming features. After WW2 the consensus gradually changed and now there is a widespread acceptance of the view that Judas was just misguided, meant well, or whatever.
Before WW2 there was a strong emphasis on the place of Hellenization in Christian origins; since WW2 if you promote Hellenism and diminish the place of Judaism in Christian origins you run the risk of being branded an anti-semite.
Before WW2 Josephus was useless as far as any evidence for Jesus went; since WW2 he has become the mainstay of the proof of Jesus’ existence.
Why all this change? Since WW2 we have seen a reaction against anti-semitism and a promotion of ecumenicalism — so the pendulum has swung to favoring all things and explanations Jewish.
The evidence has not changed. It’s the same as it was before WW2. The only thing that has changed is that the new generation of scholars has been brought up to think “appropriately” according to the social expectations of the day.
There are always shifting trends in the humanities! Biblical studies is hardly unique in that respect. But I appreciate the synopsis.
The evidence has not changed. It’s the same as it was before WW2 Except for the post WW2 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi library, you mean?
You’re right. I forgot about that new Josephus manuscript they dug up at Masada.
(Or maybe you can tell me what extra-Josephan evidence has impacted the post WW2 interpretation of the Testimonium Flavianum . . . . I’d love to learn but I won’t be holding my breath for anything pertinent from the Regnier quarter.)
P.R. has this astonishing ability to read paragraphs the way mantic-artists read tarot cards, hand palms and tea-leaves. One line here a word there ripped out of the context will give him just the prognosis he is looking for.
I was more thinking about the shift in emphasis from Hellenism to Judaism. It was an example you cited of a change within Biblical Studies despite the fact that the evidence is the same as it was pre WW2. In this instance, the evidence is plainly not the same.
Ah, yes. I was thinking of the evidence that has persuaded scholars to reject Hellenistic influences in favour of Jewish ones and was thinking in particular of authors like Maurice Casey who is very free with his accusations of anti-semitism against anyone he suspect of not attributing enough Jewishness to Jesus. He grounds his arguments in the Gospels, OT and Talmudic literature. Sanders, too, makes scant use of DSS in his book on the historical Jesus. Charlesworth doesn’t list the DSS as among the sources for the historical Jesus but he does explain that the Nag Hammadi collection is too late to be a source, thought of course we know about the Gospel of Thomas. But Vermes does cite the DSS more than others, it seems. So I stand corrected on that point — that some scholars have found in the DSS some reason to advance the Jewishness of Jesus.
Interestingly, however, there has been another shift in recent years with increasing numbers of scholars now reviving the critical role of Roman and Hellenistic influence: in particular Hellenistic philosophy and literature, as well as Roman emperor-worship. It may be too early to see where this will lead, but it should be noted that this trend is not related to any discoveries of new evidence, but is due entirely to new interpretations of evidence that has been long with us.
Neil, two points.
Firstly, what do you mean by “sources for the historical Jesus”? The DSS are not a source for Jesus in the way that the gospels or Paul are. Nonetheless, they do help us understand the broader context in which he lived and Christianity emerged, and I think your comment doesn’t really do justice to the impact the DSS have had on HJ studies. For example, Charlesworth (who you say doesn’t list the DSS as a source for Jesus) does argue that the DSS enable us to understand some features of e.g. the gospel of John as Jewish in origin rather than Greek. In fact, didn’t he edit a book on Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls?
Similarly, although Charlesworth doesn’t cite the Nag Hammadi texts as a source for Jesus, the likes of Mack and Crossan have argued for a very early date for the Gospel of Thomas, pre-dating the synoptics if I recall correctly. I can’t say I agree with them, but it’s obvious that that Nag Hammadi texts have influenced the “cynical Jesus” strand of Jesus scholarship.
Secondly, you say that the pendulum might now be swinging back towards a more Hellenistic view of Jesus, and that no new evidence has emerged to justify this. To back up Claude’s point, there are always shifting trends in the humanities. What’s wrong with that? And in any case, what makes you think that NT studies is unique in this? If you don’t mind I’d like to quote a fairly big chunk from Evans’ “In Defence of History”
“Historical knowledge and understanding can surely be generated both by the discovery of new documents and by the imaginative reinterpretation of old ones. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, for instance, imposed a new agenda of interpretation irrespective of contemporary political assumptions [ironic choice of example, huh?]. At the same time, Charles Beard’s reinterpretation of the American constitution owed little to newly discovered documents, yet transformed our knowledge and generated massive debate that led to a real advance in historical understanding. Historians are always led by their present-day concerns; the truth does not simply emerge from an unprejudiced or neutral reading of the sources, even if such a thing were possible”.
This isn’t special pleading for Bible Studies and Evans isn’t a Bible specialist. It’s just the way History works.
“In which he lived”? Question begging.
The Pentateuch also “helps us understand the broader context in which he lived”. Is that, too, a “source for Jesus”? We have an inscription for Pilate. That, too, “helps us understand the broader context in which he lived”. And we have archaeological remains of a boat in Galilee. This, too, “helps us understand the broader context in which he lived”. Ditto for the crucifixion nails and depictions of crucifixions from that period. And we have the stones and temple walls of Jerusalem, even.
By sources for the HJ I am meaning anything that throws light on his actual person, who and what he was. Is there anything from that place and era that is NOT a source for Jesus, according to what appears to be your way of defining “sources for the HJ”?
I addressed the Gospel of Thomas in my previous comment. Did you read it?
Can you explain the point of your passage from Evans? I thought you’d understand by now that I do know a little of how history works. If there is something in there that you think contradicts anything I have said then you’ll have to point out explicitly what it is. I could as easily have used it in my own post to advance my own point.
(I usually find it’s at times like this in discussions that I think it’s a good idea to ask my challenger to demonstrate he has grasped my own argument that he claims to be refuting. It can save a lot of wasted time.)
The following replaces an earlier premature attempt to reply: (Updated 6:45 am)
Forgot to address this point of yours in my previous comment, Paul:
You have lost me completely here, Paul. I never did say it is “wrong” that there are “shifting trends in the humanities”. You really are beginning to show your agenda now — imputing to me your own fabrications that you believe must be my agenda.
The humanities are far more ideological than the “hard sciences” so shifting trends to reflect societal shifts are inevitable. Scholarship asks questions that are meaningful for the day, so naturally there will be shifts. But it is important to be aware of this simple fact when it comes to questions of the “certainty” of any knew interpretations. That should be obvious. No new evidence has emerged to overturn the old scholarly view that Josephus had nothing to offer historians about Jesus. We are witnessing a subjective change of wind-direction, that’s all. Ditto for the de-demonization of Judas.
I said that the new revival of the importance of Hellenistic influence was “not related” to new evidence but to reinterpretations of existing evidence. — By recent I was referring to very recent decades. I was referring to what I have posted on quite regularly here on this blog. I was referring to studies of Engberg-Pedersen being taken up by the likes of Huttunen, Lee, exploring the Stoic influence on Paul’s theology, conversion-model and teaching. I was referring to the spate of recent studies on the influence of Hellenistic literature on the Gospels. I don’t know any recent studies that say that Jesus himself was influenced by Hellenistic philosophy and literature or emperor-worship. (Crossan’s and Mack’s Cynic Jesus idea are hardly “recent” studies in my books and seem to have fallen by the wayside now.) I was speaking of emperor-worship in that sentence. How did you come to think I was therefore referring to Jesus? I was speaking of Hellenistic literature in that sentence. How did you come to think I was referring to Jesus?
(I grant that when I re-read my sentence it does follow on from a previous paragraph in which I mentioned Jesus. But at the same time, the context of my own new paragraph and that sentence referring to “literature” and “emperor worship” should have made it clear I was not referring to Jesus in the new paragraph. And even the paragraph in which I mentioned Jesus was about the way scholarship has downplayed Hellenism and emphasized Jewishness since WW2 — it was about scholarly interpretative frameworks.)
Your misinterpretation of what I wrote may be symptom that you are reading me with a negative intent, imputing your own fabrications that you presume to be my agenda into my words.
Neil, I was responding to your comment above where you stated that “In biblical studies a consensus comes and goes like any other fashion statement. If you want to know what the latest consensus is just have a look at the broader society to which the academics belong.”
You then gave examples of where the consensus in Biblical studies had shifted after World War 2, even though, (at least as you argue) “the evidence has not changed. It’s the same as it was before WW2.”
One of the examples you gave was the shift in emphasis from Hellenism to Judaism in understanding Christian origins.
To re-iterate my point, you originally overlooked that in this instance the evidence surrounding Christian origins has changed, and changed quite considerably too.
[Hence, by the way, my reference to Mack: just to show another strand of HJ thought where post WW2 discoveries have fed into scholarly thought. And since we were talking about post-WW2 changes, it hard matters if you don’t consider Mack bang up to date (I don’t either), since he is still post WW2.]
You say that Charlesworth doesn’t cite the DSS as a source for Jesus, but that’s completely beside the point. We’re not discussing evidence for Jesus here. That’s why I wanted to clarify your use of the term, because reverting to discussing evidence for Jesus seemed so irrelevant to the discussion. Your original point wasn’t about a changing consensus about Jesus’ existence but about why there’s been a shift in emphasis from Hellenism to Judaism. Again, Charlesworth plainly does see the DSS scrolls as relevant here, so I don’t see what citing his views about whether they are sources for Jesus’ existence really adds to discussion.
There’s nothing remotely question begging in my comments. My argument is that the scholarly shift along the Hellenistic-Jewish continuum consensus does owe something to a shift in the evidence, and isn’t purely down to ideological changes. Where’s the circularity in that? My argument is either valid or it isn’t, but its validity plainly doesn’t depend upon Jesus’ existence. You actually agree with me that the consensus has changed. This change can’t be dependent upon Jesus’ historical existence or non-existence since this has presumably remained constant the whole time!
As for why I included the quote from Evans. Again, you wrote “biblical studies is probably about the most ideological of all academic “disciplines” so it has no objective, repeatably testable foundations like the sciences do. In biblical studies a consensus comes and goes like any other fashion statement.”
In the light of Evans’ statement, how do you justify your view that Biblical Studies is “about the most ideological of all disciplines, given that the features you apparently criticise could equally be common to other areas of historical enquiry” ? Evans actually notes the impact of WW2 on historiography. And perhaps more pertinently, Bernal actually makes some very similar points to yours about anti-semitism among scholars of ancient history in Black Athena, if I recall correctly.
Submitted on 2013/02/01 at 4:40 am | In reply to Paul Regnier.
PS: How did you come to think I was referring to Jesus? (I grant that when I re-read my sentence it does follow on from a previous paragraph in which I mentioned Jesus.)
That and your reference to “another shift”, when the only shifts we’ve been talking about are in HJ scholarship.
To the extent that any consensus has changed as consequence of the DSS and Nag Hammadi texts (and obviously their discoveries have led to new understandings of many things — I have never denied that) then my statement does not apply. I have already attempted to explain to you what was on my mind when I made my statement. You have not addressed that emerging shift in view that stands quite independently of the DSS and Nag Hammadi finds.
To the extent that one of the examples I gave can be interpreted as an overstatement (if you believe that all the shift in view towards Hellenistic influences can be attributed to the DSS and Nag Hammadi texts?) then it was clearly poorly worded and I should withdraw it. But if you are trying to impute to me a claim that the DSS and Nag Hammadi texts have not changed any broad understandings of any area of NT scholarship you are wrong.
My other examples relating to interpretations of Judas and Josephus certainly do stand. The recent shift in emphasis on Hellenistic influence on early Christian thought as expressed in Paul and the Gospels themselves is, as far as I am aware, not the consequence of the DSS and Nag Hammadi finds. I know of no pivotal or significant dependence upon either of these finds in any of these relatively recent arguments. As far as I am aware they all rely upon a reinterpretation of evidence that has been with scholars for a century or two.
My statement about biblical studies probably being the most ideological of disciplines does not imply that history generally is free from ideology. Of course it is. Some nonbiblical historians are also very bad and some biblical scholars addressing history are very good. I have addressed examples of both here. But my statement was addressing a general state of affairs that transcends individual exceptions.My statement was a general one and I do not believe individual exceptions overthrow the main point.
My other examples relating to interpretations of Judas and Josephus certainly do stand. The recent shift in emphasis on Hellenistic influence on early Christian thought as expressed in Paul and the Gospels themselves is, as far as I am aware, not the consequence of the DSS and Nag Hammadi finds.
So your point is that reassessment of Josephus and Judas are purely down to a post WW2 ideological shift and there’s nothing else to it?
OK Neil, if I could show you that you’re wrong on at least one of those points, will you promise to kiss and make up with Bible Studies?
So is that what this is about to you? A fight needing a kiss and makeup? No, Paul, if you wish to engage in a discussion then do so. Stop your silly games of point-scoring. In order to avoid the nonsense of the last few exchanges I would suggest you first of all attempt to summarize what you believe my argument is. That way we don’t have to meander through your selective quotations (would you not cry blue murder if I made a point against your argument by quoting just half a sentence?!) only to come back to a clarification of the original point and nothing more.
It sounds like you have no wish to discuss anything further unless you can get a promise from me that I award you some points for an argument I have not yet heard. Get real, what new definition of scholarly discussion is this?
If I am wrong, mistaken or overlooking anything in my arguments I am always open to being shown. You have not yet shown me where or how the DSS and Nag Hammadi discoveries have been responsible for the recent shift towards Hellenistic explanations for early Christianity. I welcome you showing me where I am wrong in that point, too.
Plausibility is the opening statement, not the verdict
Hoffman has a point.
After all, Josephus tells us about an apocalyptic prophet, whose name actually was Jesus, who was killed for his troubles.
You can’t get demonstrate plausibility much better than by pointing to real-life examples of exactly the kind of person you are talking about!
Of course, Josephus puts this person much later than the Gospels, but perhaps Josephus was just misinformed, or wanted to move the existence of such people nearer the destruction of Jerusalem for his own propagandistic reasons.
But what are the odds of there being TWO apocalyptic prophets both being called Jesus,and both being killed?
Hoffman (unless Steph is acting as a moderator) has refused to allow any comments mentioning this preacher called Jesus.
I wonder why he does not want his readers to know that his idea that there was a first-century apocalyptic preacher called Jesus is not only plausible, but an actual fact – there really were apocalyptic first-century preachers called Jesus (assuming Josephus can be believed)?
But I am impressed that he appears to be the first scholar to realize that modern realism in literature demolishes all those arguments of his peers and others of classicists who have studied the techniques of verisimilitude in ancient literature.
And especially we must be impressed by his discovery that Hegel and the debates fanned by his philosophy of history actually enable us to identify the Jesus-moment in history: that anything identifiable in the world is by definition both like something else and unlike something else. A remarkable breakthrough! My thoughts turn to a book an old philosophy professor of mine enjoyed reading: Social Sciences As Sorcery.
My post about the existence of an apocalyptic preacher named Jesus has been posted, and the response is that I have a closed mind 🙂
As America’s only saint said, “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”
“. . . except,” I would add, “to pay attention and respond to what Steven Carr actually says, rather than what you imagine he says.”
Steven, if you want to prove your mind is open, you must “get your mind right.”
The odds of there being TWO apocalyptic prophets both being called Jesus, and both being killed? About the same of the odds of there being more than one 20th century Brit called David who lead a political party AND became prime minister, I should think…
Indeed, Jesus was just as common a name as David, probably more so.
BTW, what was the names of the two 20th century Prime Ministers both called David? LLoyd George was born in the 19th century, and Cameron became Prime Minister in the 21st century.
I think Hoffman wants his Jesus to be a special person, the sort of person worthy enough to be investigated by a Hoffman. The Jesus of Josephus is not worthy enough for a Hoffman blog, let alone a Hoffman book.
Let’s not forget that Hoffmann’s Jesus is against everyone and does not demean himself by teaching “love thine enemies” — he just coincidentally happens to be the very sort of person Hoffmann would have been back in the early first century, rejected and misinterpreted by all, whether in Galilee or Judea, one who is not worthy of that world, though if they only knew they would see he was the true light to lead the entire discipline out of its humiliation from the “mythicist” onslaught.
Lloyd George was still a 20th century prime minster, even if he was born 19th. But yeah, Cameron, oops my bad! How about we say “in the last 100 years”? Or If I chuck in Steel and Owen as 20th century party leaders named David (though not PMs), does that make ammends?
(So am I right to interpret your reply here to be a signal that you have no intention of replying with a “proof” that I am supposedly wrong on the other thread re scholarly consensus in relation to Judas and the TF? Do you only comment if you feel secure enough to score a point regardless of the interest of furthering of the discussion itself for the general public who may be looking on?)
So am I right to interpret your reply here to be a signal that you have no intention of replying with a “proof” that I am supposedly wrong on the other thread re scholarly consensus in relation to Judas and the TF?
No, you’re wrong. Some comments take a bit of thought, others you can dash off in a minute or two. Though actually my Cameron booboo shows that maybe it’s best to take time over that.
Incidentally, there’s a pretty long comment of mine over on the Matrix you’ve not replied to. People in glass houses and all…
Matrix is not my blog and I only visit it very occasionally. I left comments there recently but every one of the comments to which I was responding were the “giggle and poke” type that were clearly not interested in serious discussion on the issue. My comments were left there for the record but I had no intention of engaging in a serial to and fro with people who are only interested in mocking and not in thoughtful discussion. I have not been back since. If you really wish to engage with me on a topic I suggest you do so where you know I am likely to take the time to be on a daily basis.
If people are genuine in wanting to engage in my arguments I expect they will do so where I make the arguments. I do not bother keeping up with all the sites where people are dedicated to scoffing and insult.
By the way, no one is having a go at you for not responding to a question. But you have surprised me several times now for issuing challenges and then failing to follow through as you indicated you were about to do. I am sure I am not the only one who interpreted your last reply to me here as a claim that you “knew” I was wrong and that you were only waiting for me to start putting my hands up in surrender before you dropped all the evidence on me that was going to prove me wrong. Now you seem to be saying you need to think about it all some more.
Neil, I’m not criticising you for not responding to my comment either. I’m sure we’re both busy people with plenty to do besides engaging in banter on blogs. It just seemed an odd point to make when there was a comment of mine you hadn’t responded to. I’ll repost my comment on your blog when I get chance and perhaps you can respond then.
Re my comments. I wasn’t issuing some kind of a challenge with a view to scoring a quick point. Quite the reverse actually. Any change in scholarly assessments of Judas or the TF are obviously of interest, and I don’t have some immediate “stick that myther” comeback. You might be right of course, but I do wonder if such changes are motivated by rather more than change in the direction of the ideological wind.
I have a couple of inititial thoughts, but giving either of these points a really thorough response would require me to spend a fair amount of time (and possibly a bit of money) doing a bit of reading and research that I wasn’t particularly planning on doing (I have an MA to get reading for).
If I thought that changing your mind would change your overall assessment that Biblical Studies is about the most ideological of disciplines, then that would be more than worthwhile. Even if I could get you to rate it above, say,i Sociology or Women’s Studies on the ideological neutrality front, I’d have a crack. (You seem like a bright bloke. I genuinely think there are more useful things you could spend your time ding than promoting mythicism). But if it was just to score a point in the comments section of a blog I don’t read all that often, then I really wouldn’t waste my time.
Hope you take this comment in the spirit it’s intended.
The ideological nature of historical Jesus studies surely goes without saying when we see that their very foundations rest upon such vacuities as “no-one would make up a story about a betrayal of a hero” or “about the humble beginnings of a great person” etc — as I commented on the Christopher Columbus post.
I take your comment as being expressed in the spirit of condescension [e.g. (You seem like a bright bloke. I genuinely think there are more useful things you could spend your time ding than promoting mythicism)] typical of your past comments though appreciative that they are no longer couched in the cruder ad homina.
I invite you to acknowledge the regularly stated reasons for this blog — see the “About Vridar” page — and register the fact that the primary focus of this blog is to explore the questions of Christian origins and the nature and origins of the Bible — and my reasons for doing so. “Mythicism” (I have said before that I find the term meaningless) is not my focus. I am interested in mythicism, however, in those instances where its arguments throw explanatory power upon the evidence we have. But “mythicism” per se is of no interest to me. The question of the HJ, as I have often said, is not in itself the sort of question that is of interest to historians. Historians find it more useful to ask questions like the causes of Christianity. That’s my interest. (Some scholars have expressed doubt over the nature of Hillel and Socrates, suggesting they may be nothing more than literary figures. Does the scholarly world split over “mythicism” and “historicism” whenever that happens? Obviously not because no major ideological issue is at stake, and it is quite likely that scholars may change their minds without any loss to any historical question.)
You would make “more useful” use of your time if you actually bothered to seriously address the arguments presented “for mythicism” instead of focusing on what you take for granted are psychological irregularities of anyone who “promotes” it. Isn’t that how dissidents were treated in the old Soviet Union?
Incidentally, Hoffmann made a good point in his recent post — though he did it in a boorishly ignorant manner — about the terms “mythicism” and “historicism”. Contrary to Hoffmann’s claim, my understanding is that it is those opposed to the Christ Myth theory who coined the term “mythicism”, — and “historicism” was an inevitable, and unfortunate, consequence of that. (That’s just my impression based upon the use of those terms by some of the most virulent anti-“mythicists” I have encountered.) Historicism was originally a word to describe belief in history in the sense of belief in the inevitable working out of history such as understood through Marxist ideology. It is obviously not an appropriate companion for the way people use the word “mythicism”. But it is usage that governs the meaning of the words and no doubt dictionaries will be obliged to reflect what has happened to these two words in future.
Fwiw, my copy of “The Son of God In the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context” by Michael Peppard arrived today. It’s yet one more modern approach to Christian/Gospel origins that is stretching beyond Jewish concepts and into the Roman-Hellenistic milieu. No reference to DSS or Nag Hammadi texts anywhere in its index.
There was no condescension intended in my comment.
The ideological nature of historical Jesus studies surely goes without saying when we see that their very foundations rest upon such vacuities as “no-one would make up a story about a betrayal of a hero” or “about the humble beginnings of a great person” etc”
What’s your point here Neil:
1) That arguments from embarrassment are invariably fallacious?
2) That non-NT historians never employ arguments from embarrassment?
3) That NT scholars apply the argument from embarrassment incorrectly or over-rely upon it?
4) That the use of the argument from embarrassment proves that NT scholarship is ideological in nature (rather than just in need of better methods)?
You don’t seem interested in discussing the TF or Judas, so would a discussion of any of these points be more productive?
You would make “more useful” use of your time if you actually bothered to seriously address the arguments presented “for mythicism” instead of focusing on what you take for granted are psychological irregularities of anyone who “promotes” it. Isn’t that how dissidents were treated in the old Soviet Union?
Neat argumentum ad Stalinum Neil. Again, over on McGrath’s blog I posted a series of questions around your 4 criteria of historicity table. The questions were aimed at addressing your view that a judgement of non-historicity in the case of Jesus wouldn’t involve a large scale re-evalution of the historicity of other figures. I’ll repost them here shortly. Perhaps you could respond to those questions?
I invite you to acknowledge the regularly stated reasons for this blog — see the “About Vridar” page — and register the fact that the primary focus of this blog is to explore the questions of Christian origins and the nature and origins of the Bible — and my reasons for doing so. “Mythicism” (I have said before that I find the term meaningless) is not my focus.
You’re quite welcome to blog about anything that you like Neil. However, a brief look at the word tags on the right hand side of your blog and the relative sizes of these tags suggests that you spend an awful lot of time discussing the work of prominent mythicists, prominent anti-mythicists, and Christ myth theory.
Finally, what’s your point about Peppard’s work? Do you have some evidence that ideology, rather than evidence, has shaped his conclusions?
Ah, so I present concrete evidence but you appeal to ethereal intent. A bit like the saying that all one needs is a bit of faith and mountains (of awkward evidence) can disappear. ‘But officer, I know I’m holding the smoking gun, but honestly, I didn’t intend it to go off.’
The answer is actually in point 5). You seem to wish to avoid what I said because it does not fit in with one of your 4 points that you seem to believe I must be meaning. I invite you to re-read what I wrote and try a new multiple choice option (5) — one that actually addresses the point being made. If after re-reading it you really can’t grasp what I’m saying then you are welcome to ask for clarification.
?? I have written posts discussing these in some detail and because I did not repeat all those details again just for you (I think I linked to a post or two) you say I am “not interested in discussing” them? You are the one who I understood was refusing to address them as evidence for wider social ideological/cultural shifts impacting biblical studies — you seemed to suggest you were going to produce a knock-down argument in response. You haven’t done that and now seem to be blaming me for your inability to produce the counter-evidence! Yes?
Well that’s a neat comeback from someone who has regularly compared mythicists with all sorts of crackpots. The moment I remind you that dealing with intellectual dissidence as a mental problem was a State policy of Stalinist Soviet Union you cry foul? But dealing with the mental state of intellectual critics is not a valid counter-argument to their criticisms and theses, is it.
I am more likely to respond to questions that are addressed to me. If you really wanted me to respond to something and posted it on a blog that I only ever bother to look at now when I see links from it to mine, or when someone points out to me something of interest, and where most readers are only interested in ridicule and scoffing, then you exercised poor judgement. If you really posted something there for me in sincere hopes I would answer then why not just copy and paste it here. That wouldn’t take a lot of time and effort would it?
Yes, I do squirm at some aspects of that cloud sometimes. Tags like that are selected from tags already existing in the internet and there are very often there is simply no existing tag presenting itself that covers the topic of my post. And some terms that are in existence are duplicates so one post might get “Christ Myth” AND “Christ Myth Theory”, for example. I would love to make time some day to go through my posts and re-index them all. I suggest a more accurate indicator of the weight of my posts is to be found by looking through the Index of Topics. First, note the numbers of posts against the various books/authors addressed, and then go through the topics listed and see how many posts are counted against each. It’s not perfect, in some instances it needs breaking down, but those tags are ones that I create myself and are a more accurate indicator of what is discussed here.
I explained my point about Peppard in the final two sentences of the short paragraph in which I mentioned him. I was responding to your claim or suggestion that DSS and Nag Hammadi texts had been responsible, iirc, for the recent shift away towards the greater role of Hellenism over Judaism in Christianity’s origins.
I invite you to re-read what I wrote and the thread of conversation that you seem to have forgotten.
Gosh, keep going. We’ll be well and truly able to say all these coincidences of Davids are enough to establish a sure coincidence of Hoffmann’s Jesus with that very same “Jesus the apocalyptic prophet” of whom both Josephus and Carr speak.
For those new to this topic, the Jewish historian Josephus (who lived through the Jewish-Roman war of the late 60s that culminated in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and who wrote in the 90s CE) speaks of a Jesus who was a spirit-possessed prophet who warned Jerusalem of its doom, was handed over by the Jews to a Roman authority for judgment, was scourged as a consequence, and then later killed by the Romans. The many sequential parallel details are surely enough to impress Hoffmann and Regnier. This is the truly historical evidence of the Jesus they are convinced really existed. See http://vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm
Ted Weeden has had the audacity to opine that these two Jesus’s are really the one and the same: http://vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm
(So am I right to interpret your reply here to be a signal that you have no intention of replying with a “proof” that I am supposedly wrong on the other thread re scholarly consensus in relation to Judas and the TF? Do you only comment if you feel secure enough to score a point regardless of the interest of furthering of the discussion itself for the general public who may be looking on?)
I would be very suprised if that was true. Are the populations of 20th Century Brits and first century Palestine comparable? How did you calculate those odds?
Of course, this is a non-sequitor. One unlikely event happening does not increase the probability of an unrelated event also happening.
Great post, Neal.
I’m a bit confused by your definition of “fact”, even though I greatly appreciate your defining your terms. If I understand you correctly “fact” is a concept of historiography not history. Imagine a past event for which we have no eventidence, say Alexander the Great scratched his left ear at a particular hour of a particular day in 327 BCE. Even though this event happened we have no evidence for it, so according to your definition it’s not a “historical fact”. Yes?
A fact is whatever is, well, a fact, whether its a fact of life, science or whatever. If we have no evidence of something ever happening we cannot discuss it. We simply don’t know if it happened or not. And historians only write about what interests them and what they interpret as significant in relation to some question they are exploring.
A hell of a lot more “history”* has happened in the time of the human species than has ever been recorded, so I guess we can say all the facts about what happened to others peoples has been lost to us. It all happened, but the facts died with them.
But “history” in the sense of an investigation to explain in naturalistic terms the course of human affairs is a very modern idea.
“…create a new history out of theoretical reconstructions of “constructed realities”!
Say. That’s the same methodology used by the New Testament writers.
Thanks for continue to champion the actual use of historiography in the study of the origins of christianity.
Excellent article, and thanks
Thankyou. It’s something that needs to be said, I think, and I enjoyed writing it. Glad someone else finds it worthwhile, too.
Once upon a time I was a senior school history teacher.
I luckily found 2 books which I used to illustrate the importance of knowing about the author of your source – as Carr says “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts”.
Teaching Chinese history I gave half my class extracts from a book, “Destination Chungking” by an author, Rosalia Chou, describing the life and times of Chiang-Kai-Shek’s KMT government in Chungking during the Japanese invasion in the 1930’s.
She was the wife of a high placed official in CKS’s circle and was fulsome in her praise of CKS, the KMT, and the stout resistance of the people.
The other half of the class received extracts from “Birdless Summer” [or perhaps it was “Mortal Flower’, I’m not sure] which described the same scene from the same vantage point as the other book but was written by Han Suyin who described the appalling corruption, incompetence of CKS and his regime and the low morale of the people and the desperate conditions in Chungking.
2 totally disparate versions.
Class discussion followed the reading and the writing of answers to leading questions.
Who was right?
The class was confused, dare I say, skeptical [which was the hidden agenda of the exercise].
But wait, there’s more.
Han Suyin and Rosalie Chou were the same person.
In her later book she describes how and why she wrote the apologia to CKS in “Destination Chungking”.
Of course all of that exercise was managed by myself, through my lens, but the students were given the opportunity to see the value of knowing about and questioning their sources one of which was me.
This new book shows how a sceptical historian approaches a legendary figure: http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk/ .
“Is there any “fact” about Jesus on which all historians agree is indeed a fact? Robert M. Price says no, not even the death of Jesus, since Muslim historians dispute the resurrection.”
Damn, second time I’ve broken my don’t comment on Vridar rule, but this really is a shocker. Why on earth would the views of Muslim historians, writing 600 plus years after the events they describe (and likely derived from late Christian texts), have any relevance here? That’s about as sane as dragging up the Christian legend of Josaphat to cast doubt on mainstream scholarly views on Buddhism.
Hi Paul and welcome back. Nice to see you again. It sounds like you haven’t had the chance yet to read Price’s argument but that hasn’t stopped you from dogmatically commenting on it. (Thanks, by the way, for drawing my attention to my typo using “resurrection” instead of “crucifixion”. Have since corrected it.)
So for others who may be curious, Price argues that modern narrative criticism has led to western scholars seeing the hints in the Gospels that they are derived from an earlier narrative in which Jesus himself escaped crucifixion, being replaced on the stake by another — thus coming to the conclusions (and the literary hints) that Muslim scholars have long observed.
So not all Western scholars share your misinformed imperialist knee-jerk dismissal of the Oriental’s view.
Price points to this possibility in the context of the research by Burton Mack, Crossan and others that Gospel Passion story derived from motifs and earlier narrative forms that told a more traditional story of the wise man being rescued from his tormenters. For what it’s worth, he also sees the Sufi sayings of Jesus as evidence supporting Burton Mack’s thesis of a pre-Christian community who saw Jesus as a Cynic-sage type of figure and for whom the death of Jesus was of no interest. I myself wonder if we also see evidence of a very early alternative Christian view of Jesus’ “end” in the teachings of Basilides who taught that Simon the Cyrenian replaced Jesus on the cross, noting also that the Gospel of Mark was associated with Basilides’ “following”.
I myself have questions about these views, but it is undeniable that they are nonetheless on the scholarly menu.
not all Western scholars share your misinformed imperialist knee-jerk dismissal of the Oriental’s view.
Neil, I’ll respond to the bulk of your post later, but I think you need to have someone check you posts for irony as well as sarcasm.
You do, after all, run a blog that windowshops any and every half-baked attempt to cast doubt on the existence of Jesus. That’s Jesus, whose historicity is, like, kind of important to Muslims.
You did, after all, write a post on this blog suggesting that the non-existence of Muhammad is “plausible”. That’s Muhammad, whose historicity is, like, kind of important to Muslims.
You did, after all, mock a perfectly intelligent Muslim for accepting a perfectly mainstream Muslim belief “an otherwise very intelligent interviewer who, it turns out, believes Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse!”. Ho ho! That was a good one Neil.
Because apparently when you make fun of other people’s religious beliefs it’s really clever but when I point out that Muslim traditions are too far too late to be used to trash the mainstream scholarly consensus on Jesus, apparently I’m some kind of deranged Western imperialist pig dog.
It’s a shame Jesus didn’t exist: if he had then he might have said something apposite about motes and beams…
When you “point out that Muslim traditions are far too late to be used to trash the mainstream scholarly consensus on Jesus” you are demonstrating the very point I made.
1. You appear to be assuming an equation between Muslim “traditions” 600 CE with those of current Muslim scholars. How else am I to understand your criticism?
2. You are repeating your knee-jerk assumption that this is about “late sources”. It isn’t. You just assumed that and went in with guns blazing. I pointed out it has to do with identifying an earlier narrative source behind the gospels.
3. Edward Said did not argue Orientalism is a form of “deranged Western pig doggery”. It is a subtle, little recognized assumption underlying Western attitudes and perceptions. Your knee-jerk assumptions to what was said in both my own post and comment are a classic illustration of the sort of thing he identifies in his book.
Oh, and by the way, you terribly offend my sensitive feelings when you say I “windowshop any and every half-baked attempt to cast doubt on the existence of Jesus”. Oi there! It is the half-baked attempts to cast doubt on the existence of Jesus that I studiously ignore and at times criticize.
I will piggyback on Paul Regnier’s reference in your text to note that I don’t think you meant to write what you wrote in the sentence that follows:
One has to be extremely intelligent or an uninformed bystander to fail to notice that this is not how historians work in other fields.
As you know, the gospels are considered a goldmine by that mob of the extremely unintelligent, historians of antiquity. Hoffmann wrote: …as all scientists know, theories are susceptible to grades of proof based on types of evidence. The same goes for historical inquiry.
You go to the matter with the manuscripts you’ve got, not the DVD you wish you had.
Hoffmann is talking through his hat again and has either not read or has completely forgotten his Karl Popper. All scientists know that theories must be susceptible to falsifiability, not “grades of proof”.
As for the other, I meant what I wrote. I advise you to re-read it to try to understand it.
One has to be extremely intelligent or an uninformed bystander not to notice that this is not how historians work in other fields.
One has to be stupid or a well-informed insider to notice that this is not how historians work in other fields.
I suppose you meant this as sarcasm, but the sentence is confusing, sorry.
Yes, I did not have my usual proof-reader available to pull me up and remind me my sarcasm does not always translate well in print. I have often compared HJ scholars with the emperor wearing what he wants to believe are the finest of new clothes — it usually takes an outsider to draw attention to the obvious fallacies, the circular reasoning, the unfounded assumptions, at the heart of their work.
Neil said “Before Carr, historians largely believed that “the facts were just there”
Not entirely. The aphorism attributed to Winston Churchill, history is written by the victors, and Orwell’s observation in 1984 that who controls the past controls the future indicate the strong ideological function of historiography as a tool of power and justification. The Marxist debate over the role of economic class versus individual agency illustrates that history has long been contested terrain.
Practitioners of history, those who make events and exercise power, are focussed on the utility of claims, how a story can serve their temporal interests. By contrast, scholars should focus on the accuracy of claims, understanding what is really the case.
In Christianity, the claim of Christ literalism has served to bolster the power of the church. Apologists have an agenda of the proclamation of faith, serving the power interest of the church, and therefore behave as historical practitioners, not as scholars.
EH Carr crystallised how history is constructed to serve politics, but this fact was well known at least since Machiavelli.
Well, a basic and intractable problem is that the Bible was considered to be literally true in most or all respects until very recently. No other ancient text brings with it such cultural baggage. So the modern Biblical scholar is constantly having to play this bizarre game of using contemporary historical-critical analysis to demolish the reliability of the texts, but then pretend that the texts haven’t been demolished at all, and there is still history at its core, somehow.
It’s comical and sad the great lengths scholars go to in rationalizing these ancient myths. Jesus cursing a fig tree out of season (Mark 11:12-20 = Matthew 21:18-22), we are told with great seriousness, was a “strange episode” in the life of the historical son of God. F.F. Bruce went on at great length explaining how fig trees grow, etc. At no point was the most parsimonious explanation offered: that the evangelists simply copied an episode out of Hosea.
“I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the firstfruits on the fig tree in its first season. But they went to Baal Peor, and separated themselves to that shame; They became an abomination like the thing they loved.”
@Godfrey 2013/01/23 @ 6:09 am
Most don’t have “historian” among their titles. They have “theologian”. Most only say they are historians because they think they are.
(The latter: what?!) But those that do must be considered historians. Though it occurred to me that I’m not current with whatever controversies are rocking the academy. Is there an outcry among historians that NT scholars are cheapening their brand? Are the university presses cranking out refutations of the scholarly consensus on HJ? Is the Letters section at The New York Review of Books groaning with complaints about “invalid methods”? It’s entirely possible I’ve missed the boat.
Thank you for the link. I don’t get the objection; close scrutiny of an ancient text to try and reconstruct the backstory seems like a legitimate historical exercise (from here in the peanut gallery). And I am pretty sure James McGrath would deny that NT scholars aren’t historians.
@Nikos Apostolakis — 2013/01/23 @ 6:39 am
(I appreciate your civility during this exchange btw.) I used quotation marks because I was quoting you.
Do I understand what valid methodology means? Yes.
Scholars say lots of things that contradict one another. You can’t believe them all. My experience with scholars outside the fields of theology is that many of them just think they’re a bit of a joke. It’s not polite or politic to say so publicly, though. (I do work in a university environment and know many academics, by the way. I don’t speak from the peanut gallery. Why do you seem to proudly identify yourself as a fool? You’ve done it more than once now.
I wasn’t talking about you in the peanut gallery, Neal. You misread.
I know many academics, too, so no need to offer nuggets like “Scholars say lots of things that contradict one another. You can’t believe them all.”
Claude, I’m beginning to wonder what to make of your posts. I was referring to you identifying yourself with the peanut gallery. We are looking for reasoned argument from you and an indication you do follow the pros and cons at the level of logical argument, not just what people like or what so and so says etc.
I’m asking because you seem to believe that whether a certain methodology is valid or not is a matter of opinion (you say thinks like “Carrier doen’t like their methodology” or “he thinks their methodology is invalid”). It’s not. Whether a given set of methods are valid or not is an objective fact.
You’re being quite literal. “Carrier doesn’t like their methodology” was an informal way of acknowledging what you said: “Carrier thinks that the methodology used in ‘Historical Jesus’ studies is not valid.” You yourself expressed his position as an opinion.
If you wish to discuss Bayes’ Theorem, you should probably engage with someone else.
I’m just trying to make sure that we understand each other. I have no problem with using imprecise language when there is a common understanding of the context and the subtext. In our exchange so far though, I don’t get that impression.
I have lost all patience with Claude and after a recent exchange with him I don’t think he will have any stomach for returning here, or that I will have the stomach to let him.