Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

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by Neil Godfrey

David Hackett Fischer

Professor of History, David Hackett Fischer, has long been known for his book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he amasses copious examples of fallacious historical analysis and argument committed (at least on occasion) even by otherwise highly reputable historians. Unfortunately, critical fallacies that he identifies as periodic blights on the work of his peers are standard practice among works of theologians writing about Christian origins.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

Here is one that many readers will recognize, and it is one that unfortunately does too often extend beyond the limits of subgroups. On pages 51 and 52 Fischer writes (my bolding in all quotations):

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification.

This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.* If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. . . .

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, to some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of the problem. . . .”

[* Reference: see page 102 of Vansina’s Oral Tradition]


Most historians agree . . .

. . . that a genuine historical event lies behind the story of Stephen

I could just as easily have written “most historians agree that genuine historical events like behind the stories in Acts.” But let’s limit the discussion here to Stephen’s martyrdom. (This post is, after all, my follow-up to my Stephen post.)

Shelly Matthews (also a theologian but who seems to be one of the relatively few who happily demonstrates a clear understanding of sound historical-critical method and writes history with a clear understanding of the philosophy undergirding her approach) admits she stands against what has been the traditional consensus of her peers over the historical value of Acts.

Firstly, however, Matthews correctly explains how her peers have traditionally attempted to glean “kernels of history” from the Book of Acts:

Biblical scholars employing methods of historical criticism do recognize that the coherence of various aspects of Acts is ahistorical, imposed by Luke upon his sources because of his theological concerns, his apologetic tendencies, and/or his aim to delight his audience. For more than two hundred years, historians of Christian origins have approached the book of Acts presuming that its author’s intrusive hand can be pulled away, freeing his sources to bear unencumbered witness to the historical events that occurred in the earliest decades of the church.

Applying methods captured by metaphors of winnowing and digging, they have attempted to distinguish Acts’ redactional/theological/fictional elements from the actual history presumed also to reside in the text.

From these “kernels of history,” from this “bedrock,” scholars have then constructed their own versions of a coherent narrative of Christian origins understood to correspond with events that happened in history. (p. 15, my formatting)

Theologians have thus generally assumed that “real history” lies “beneath” the text and that all they have to do is apply tools like redactional criticism to know what parts of the text to pull away (e.g. the theological or literary creations of the author) and thereby expose the original source. And that source material is for some reason often presumed to point to “bedrock history”.

Is there anything else? Scholars of Christian origins would certainly say there is. As I pointed out in my previous post on Stephen, the argument goes as follows:

  • How else to explain the sudden propulsion of Jesus followers beyond the limits of Palestine?
    • (Recall that the Acts story tells us it was the death of Stephen that instigated the wider persecution of the “church”, and persecution led to the scattering of the believers, and that scattering led to the proclamation of the message beyond Judea.)
  • How else to explain the conversion of Paul?
    • (Recall that Paul — originally “Saul” — was one of those persecutors and it was his “Damascus Road” experience that brought him to heel and turned him from persecutor to missionary.)

That’s not very different from arguing, “Of course Peter Pan is real. How else to explain the adventures of Wendy and the Lost Boys?” or “Of course Adam and Eve were real. How else to explain sin and suffering in the world?”

All the argument is doing is saying the later parts of the story would make less sense without the earlier incident. The assumption is that the story itself is somehow derived from real events.

Shelly Matthews shows us that the stoning of Stephen has always been acknowledged as “bedrock history” even by scholars with reputations of being the most critical:

Strong confidence in the historical truth of this event is expressed not only by biblical scholars who read large swaths of the Acts narrative as historically reliable but also by those whose skepticism concerning Luke as historian is widely recognized. This is as true for the principal early nineteenth-century critic of Acts, F. C. Baur, as it is for Gerd Lüdemann, a contemporary scholar famously known for questioning Christian orthodoxy. . . . . Up unto the present day, it is near impossible to identify a biblical scholar who departs from this historical judgment.

While Baur insists more than once in his work on Acts that the martyrdom of Stephen wears the “indubitable stamp of historical reality,” he does not provide a rationale for this judgment. (p. 17)

Eduard Zeller (Inspiration for the first Dr Who?)

Baur’s son-in-law, Eduard Zeller, is often thought to have provided that rationale in his nineteenth century commentary of Acts where he was the first to express what I called above the twin “Peter Pan” rationales:

“The death of Stephen is beyond dispute the clearest point in the history of Christianity before Paul. With this event we first find ourselves on undeniably historical ground. Evidence for that would already be the one decisive fact which was occasioned by the persecution of Stephen, namely the conversion of Paul, if any further proof were needed of the fact of an event which according to all sides had such a visible effect on the development of the Christian cause.”

I have added emphasis to the Zeller quotation to underscore phrases that strike me as suggesting a shrillness of tone belying the supposed objectivity of this Enlightenment critic. Zeller protests too much. Yet, while these two assertions— that Stephen’s death must be historical because of the effect it had on the development of Christianity and that the historicity of Stephen’s death is proven by Saul’s subsequent conversion—may be considered nothing more than prima facie arguments, they continue to circulate. (p. 17, italics original)

Gerd Lüdemann, Matthews informs us, justifies his own classification of the Stephen episode as historical by referring to that same quotation by Zeller.

Notice, now, how these assumptions lie at the foundation of “scholarly consensus” and how this consensus in turn becomes its own justification for insisting on the historicity of this episode in Acts:

As another means of illustrating the impasse at which historical critics find themselves when trying to probe the Stephen pericope for its historical kernel, consider a recent article by N. H. Taylor. In his introduction to the article, Taylor indicates that one aim of his argument is to demonstrate that the historicity of Stephen can be affirmed. Rather than developing such an argument, however, Taylor merely asserts this historicity as the consensus reading, by offering a long footnote to a line of scholars who have also affirmed that there is a historical kernel to the story. (pp. 17-18, Taylor reference: Taylor, N. H. “Stephen, the Temple, and Early Christian Eschatology.” Revue biblique 110 (2003): 62–85, esp. 62, 64-65.)

Testing for historicity

The first place Shelly Matthews looks in order to test for historicity is the evidence external to Acts. I won’t repeat the details that are in the previous post.

After drawing a blank from the external evidence Matthews turns to the arguments from redactional criticism (peeling away the literary and theological bits that are identified as being added by the author to some original “bedrock” event) and demonstrates the logical fallacies at work there, too.

But are these the ways other historians work or is Matthews being perversely hyper-sceptical?

Unfortunately it seems that theologians have taken the embarrassing gaffes of ancient historians and turned them into SOPs.

The sins of the historians

Mario Liverani (Not too much like Davros?)

Here is a Professor of Ancient Near East History, Mario Liverani, chastising early historians of the Hittites in his book, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography:

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation. No one would recommend such a procedure on a theoretical level, but nonetheless it continues to be used, especially in fields where awareness of the methodology and aims of history is not great. (p. 28)

The specific instance he had in mind at that time was the history of the Old Hittite Kingdom. There was only one known apparent source for this, the Edict of Telipinu, so even though this monument was itself from a later period, it did claim to tell the story of the Old Kingdom. And there was nothing else that did that. Ancient historians needed that Edict or else they could say nothing at all about the politics of the Old Kingdom period. And since they had nothing to contradict it, their histories of that period were little more than outright paraphrases of the Edict’s contents. When additional tidbits from other sources could be added they did so, as if all sources were “equally reliable and equally important”. History was just a matter of piecing all the data we had together into a coherent whole. Simple.

Only it was dead wrong. Historians had NO primary evidence at all. They were working entirely from secondary documents that had ideological tales to tell for their own contemporaries and that really revealed more about the values and beliefs of later eras and precious little about what happened earlier.

Same with the way many ancient historians also used Herodotus (and as some still do). In 1978 O. Kimball Armayor wrote in Did Herodotus Ever Go To Egypt?

Perhaps we scarcely need to be reminded of the Egyptologist’s reliance on Herodotus. For the Old Kingdom we are obliged to account for much of his evidence on the pyramids, and we like to notice that he almost gets the names right. . . . For the 26th Dynasty, we read him into the very sherds and ditches of Naucratis. . . . For the 27th Dynasty (Persian) we have not only Herodotus’ portrait of Cambyses but also his own impressions of Egypt and the Egyptians. Breasted came to rely on Herodotus as a substitute for the lost monuments of the Delta, as did Gardiner. Russell Meigs gauged the extent of the fifth-century Greek and Phoenician wine trade with Egypt in accord with [a story by Herodotus]. . . .

Why? Because we make allowances for Herodotus. We tend to accept his authority, because it purports to rest on his own experience of Egypt. Yet we have nothing more than Herodotus’ own word for his travels, in Egypt and elsewhere, and we can only assess them in the light of inadequate archaeological control. (p. 59)

fehlingTo make matters worse, Detlev Fehling, philologist and Professor of Classical Archaeology and author of Herodotus and his ‘Sources’, has persuaded many classicists and ancient historians that the evidence indicates Herodotus invented many of the ‘sources’ he speaks of (both oral and supposed inscriptions) and did not even travel to Egypt (nor anywhere else, as he claimed.)

Notice Armayor’s reference to “controls”. A control is a known source external to the narrative being tested. It can be archaeological or it can also be literary, but if literary, then we must have demonstrable reasons for interpreting it as a control. No-one expects an external control to support every detail in a narrative. But controls can help guide us in knowing how much trust to place in the narrative.

So when ancient historians resort to assuming a text is narrating something that has genuine history behind it they stand to be chastised by their peers. I have the impression that the criticisms of the likes of Shelly Matthews tend to be isolated voices in the wider world of the studies related to Christian origins, however. Many of us who read blogs by theologians no doubt know a number of them really do argue strenuously that there is nothing fallacious whatsoever about relying upon the “mass opinion” of scholars. They do it all the time so what right do the unwashed have to differ!

But Acts is all we have . . . And if we lose Acts. . . ?!

Unfortunately I cannot recall the scholar who bluntly pointed out that scholars know they cannot afford to lose Acts and that this fear accounts for what Shelly Matthews sees as their sometimes “shrill” insistence that it must contain history. It’s the only source they have for the earliest history of post-ascension Christianity and without it they could write nothing at all.

Matthews’ quotes Todd Penner (In Praise of Christian Origins) to express the problem and dismay many scholars must feel if they cannot rely upon the assurance that there must be some bedrock history beneath the narrative of Acts:

“Could the narratives be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely. The problem of course is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.”

Does this uncertainty mean it is impossible to write a history of Christian origins?

Is Shelly Matthews “attacking” Christianity and her fellow scholars?

If there are no “objective” criteria or (external) controls by which to confirm the historicity underlying the narratives in Acts, how can we explain the scholarly consensus that real history does lurk beneath the narrative surface of Acts?

These questions will be addressed in a future post, along with some more “Historians’ Fallacies” from Fischer’s book.


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33 thoughts on “Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof”

  1. “No one would recommend such a procedure on a theoretical level, but nonetheless it continues to be used, especially in fields where awareness of the methodology and aims of history is not great.”

    I can think of a field where such awareness is almost nonexistent.

  2. The most hilarious example is the “consensus” frequently cited regarding the historicity of the empty tomb narrative or the analogue “consensus” in other circles that the beauty of the Qu’ran implies its divine origins. After much painstaking research and debate, I’m sure.

  3. Thanks for mentioning Mario Liverani’s “Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography.” Just that one quote (“Laziness is common among historians … They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation”) was enough to make me want to read it, and fortunately, copies can be found at cheap prices on Amazon.

  4. In a comment to a post about social memory theory, I asked Chris Keith “how do you justify the assumption that the interpretive trajectory started with Jesus’s life rather than in the inventions of some community that only knew the risen Christ through revelation and scripture?” He responded “Easily. I assume that there was a historical Jesus and that the post-Easter reflections are not creations ex nihilo.” That’ll do it.

      1. Can you find the comments and link here again? When I look for them (including my own comment I left a few days ago) I see names and dates but the comments themselves are gone. . . ?

        1. I’m not seeing the comments any more either, but there is a rather odd notice posted: “Note: all comments are moderated by an anonymous third party.” Since when do blogs have anonymous moderators?

          1. I posted a comment there a few days ago so returned this evening to see if it had been cleared and if Chris Keith had responded. Nope, it’s not there, not even a record that I did leave a comment — and then that strange message about “anonymous moderators”! If I were paranoid and egotistical I’d begin to wonder if this had anything to do with the comment I attempted to post in response to Chris’s summary of his reasons for believing Jesus had an historical existence. Indeed, the whole discussion (your comments, his replies) has vanished.

    1. I notice the way Chris Keith frames the question as a choice between false alternatives. No-one that I know of has ever suggested the “post-Easter reflections” that gave us the Gospel Jesus were “creations ex nihilo”. One might even suspect Chris is subtly associating mythicism with creationism. Yet he does know about intertextuality, midrash, and the rest.

      Scholars like Brodie are merely drawing the simplest conclusions from the literature instead of embracing more complex arguments that reconcile the scholarship with cultural memory. Even his colleague Anthony Le Donne concedes that he must rely upon the good old criteria to justify his belief in a historical Jesus.

      Speaking of Brodie, I cannot help but notice the way scholars of intertextuality and the Bible (most recently, especially Richard Pervo) repeat the word “parallels” in their detailed studies over and over. Perhaps the charge of “parallelomania” is only ever laid against those who use the method of literary comparisons to question the foundational assumptions of the academy.

      1. It occurs to me that there were likely any number of devout Jews in 1st century Palestine praying that God would send a champion to liberate his people from the Romans and that such men might have been reduced to depression and despair as each potential challenge to Roman rule was mercilessly crushed. Any one of these men might be receptive to the idea that everything was actually happening according to God’s plan, i.e., that the anointed one must first suffer for Israel’s sins before he returned from the dead. By the same token, any one of these men might be susceptible to a vision of one of these crushed challengers returning from the dead.

        My point is that it is easy for me to imagine that the earliest visions of the risen Christ were associated with a particular historical individual without that giving me any reason to think that any of the people who had the visions were associated with the individual during his life or that any of the stories that came to be told actually originated with anything that the individual said or did.

  5. Worse than just Acts, we are forced to rely on Eusebius for all, except for a few nuggets from polemical screeds, a.k.a the apologetic writings, of the Early Church Fathers.

    If Eusebius is also unreliable, ditto the Early Fathers, then the penny drops that we really cannot know with any certainty the history of Christianity prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, apart from extant archaeological evidence.

    1. Perhaps not that only. Even an unreliable narrator can reveal his own prejudices in his own time. Contemporary scholarship already mines the pseudepigrapha for the development of ideas in Judaism and in Christianity.

  6. There is another principle involve here in the study of Acts that seem not to have entered the minds of scholars excruciatingly trying to draw out “kernels” of historical data from it. This is the Principle of Contamination. (Sorry but I cannot recall the source. It’s in a philosophy professor’s blog).

    Suppose I wrote an article (tract, book, polemic, whatever) containing many statements of claims, and you caught me out in a couple of contradictions. What makes you think that my remaining claims have any value? You would be more cautious, would you not? Yet this does not seem to bother anyone searching for nuggets of truth in Acts.

    The author of Acts claimed to have read a lot of material and he seeks to make an orderly account of all the sources he studied. But straightway he contradicted Jesus message to his disciples to meet him in Galilee, but instead stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit visitation. He contradicted Paul’s version of his visionary experience. What sources did Luke consult? Or was he trying to change the storyline?

    So what value is there in looking for the “true” story behind Stephen’s stoning?

    This reminds me of John Maier’s painstaking deconstruction of the Testimonium Flavianum in The Marginal Jew. All it tells me is that Maier would make a better forger than Eusebius, just doesn’t make the story true. Same with all the scholarly works on Acts.

  7. Sorry. I was a bit cavalier with my last sentence. It should read “Same with all the scholarly works looking for bedrock historical data on Acts” . Richard Pervo is probably right. Acts is fiction. We need to come out with a better way to search for the origins and spread of Christianity.

  8. I had expected to complete my next (and final) post in this series today or yesterday but in my preparation I have instead found myself ordering four more books online (x Penner, x Schoeps, x Pervo, x Woodman) since their online texts omit the pages I need to read to be sure of stuff. So hope I don’t forget to return to this series and complete it before the end of the year.

  9. Whatever historical kernel behind the story of Stephen in Acts…he is made to speak words by someone who didn’t know their Old Testament/Torah/Tanakh properly.

    When he speaks before his death by stoning of Abraham and the buying of the burial plot for Sarah to be buried in, his version of it puts the burial plot in Shechem instead of Hebron and he is made to say that Abraham bought the plot from characters out of the Dinah story of a much later time, of Jacob.

    Some possibilities arise. Either Stephen wasn’t that bright in his own reading…and inaccurate enough he’d probably be stoned for bad quoting…or the writer of Acts really wasn’t that great a writer and not too bright at looking for the proper information. This is also the same writer of Acts who can’t tell that Judas the Galilean was historically before Theudas when ripping off a section of Josephus that had Theudas first.

    There is the possibility the writer of Acts was deliberately making errors to draw our attention to something…

    1. Hi George, I haven’t checked the details yet myself, but till then I am wondering if you are basing your criticism on the Hebrew or Greek text of the OT. We have reason to think that “Luke” was using the Septuagint (Greek OT) that has variations from the much, much later Masoretic (Hebrew) text that we use (in translation) today.

  10. Even the English versions. It’s a simple matter of locations and times.

    If you read any version of the OT, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, it’s clear that Abraham bought the plot in Hebron. Also, the part of Genesis talking about that is clear who sold the plot to Abraham.

    If one’s read Genesis, then Stephen’s view is clearly wrong. If one also reads Genesis, it’s easy to see Stephen (or the writer of Acts) has mistaken the prince of Shechem’s father in the Dinah story (Jacob’s time) as selling Abraham the burial plot.

    Even if the writer of Acts was using the Septuagint…it’d have to be a really bad copy of the Septuagint that can mistake Shechem for Hebron.

    1. The Septuagint and Masoretic texts are in some places quite different and go beyond direct translation options. However, in this case you are quite correct in that the Septuagint does indeed agree that Abraham bought the plot at Hebron. I suspect that what we are seeing with Luke’s Acts is popular “history” writing of the day — tales to entertain, to inspire, to persuade, to demonize. “Accuracy” of detail was very rarely part of the agenda. That’s something more expected by moderns than it ever was by popular “historians” and their audiences.

  11. “The death of Stephen is beyond dispute the clearest point in the history of Christianity before Paul. With this event we first find ourselves on undeniably historical ground.” (Eduard Zeller)

    Perhaps the most annoying thing about overconfident ex recto assertions like this one is how they tend to evolve into unquestionable “facts” over time by later theologians — as if the assertions were themselves “scriptural.” Theologians like Zeller become magically transformed into “historians” during this process. And so you end up with people in seminary school in the 21st Century being told, “The consensus among *historians* is that the stoning of Stephen was a decisive event in early Christianity.” It’s all very self-affirming — and false.

    By chance, I picked up a book today germane to this topic: Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, edited by Christopher Gill (1993). Here’s a quote from Strabo that caught my eye: “For the most part, those who have written about India are liars (pseudologoi).” I think we can safely include the author of Luke-Acts in that category.

  12. Thanks, Neil. I think the best discussion I’ve ever seen on the mistake about Sarah’s burial spot pointed out that the Holy Spirit should have been consistent in knowing the difference between Hebron and Shechem, an earlier story and a later story. So there goes the supposed accuracy of the Stephen incident. I’m reading Blood’s first paragraph…quoting Zeller. “The death of Stephen is beyond dispute…” “we find ourselves on undeniably historical ground…”

    If it’s not the Sarah burial mistake…I’ve seen many a Christian who can’t even read Acts and identify Stephen as a Hellenic Jew in the narrative and who think of him as the first gentile martyr.

    Nope…accuracy never seems to come into the topic, does it? And how can something be considered truth if accuracy is tossed out the window?

  13. I’ve started reading Detlev Fehling’s “Herodotus and his ‘Sources.'” Everything he observes about Herodotus scholarship goes double for Biblical scholarship:

    “There is ample evidence that these very features [source citations] are a matter of literary technique. If scholars have failed to see this, it is owing to an understandable inhibition: they imagine that accepting the fictive character of Herodtus’ source-citations would mean characterizing one of Greece’s greatest authors as no better than a liar and a fraud. They thus exclude any possibility of fiction from the start, and having once taken up that position a priori, they are unable to learn from empirical facts (which is not an uncommon thing in the world of scholarship). They prefer to explain away the many false source-citations by making liars out of all his informants instead. They are like novel-readers so anxious for their hero that they forget the tribulations of many minor characters. They willingly sacrifice whole hecatombs of ancients no longer able to speak for themselves on the altar of the author whose text has survived.” (Detlev Fehling, Herodotus and his ‘Sources,’ [1971], translated by J.G. Howie in 1989. Francis Cairns edition, pp. 8-9.)

    1. Yes, glad you’ve been able to access Fehling. I would like to do a post on Fehlilng’s work — and tie it in with Katherine Stott’s “Why Did They Write This Way?” — just a matter of time, if only we had the time to do all we wanted! (Fehling, it should be noted, is not universally accepted — there are classicists who argue against his thesis. But I will of course bring their objections into any such post or series of posts.)

    2. Yes, and despite scholars’ reservations about Herodotus even today, some still accept his account of the alleged suspension of the Persian eunuch Sandoces, as evidence for the Persians “inventing” crucifixion or crucifixion-like suspension — even Gunnar Samuelsson. The verb Herodotus used was anastaurow which for those times, apparently meant “impale”. Seems to me old ‘dotus either swallowed a fishy story, exaggerated what his sources told him, or just made the whole thing up.

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