From a single source? Disguising hermeneutics as history?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve been re-reading Propp’s work on the structure of folk tales (Morphology of the Folktale) and this passage struck me this time:

[I]f all fairy tales are so similar in form, does this not mean that they all originate from a single source? The morphologist does not have the right to answer this question. At this point he hands over his conclusions to a historian or should himself become a historian. Our answer, although in the form of a supposition, is that this appears to be so. However, the question of sources should not be posed merely in a narrowly geographic sense. “A single source” does not positively signify, as some assume, that all tales came, for example, from India, and that they spread from there throughout the entire world, assuming various forms in the process of their migration.

Propp, V. (2010-06-03). Morphology of the Folk Tale (Kindle Locations 2049-2053). University of Texas Press. Kindle Edition.

Propp then goes on to raise our awareness of other possible common sources:

The single source may also be a psychological one.

Family life is one such possible single source. Daily living another.

This passage jumped out at me probably because not long before I was re-reading parts of Childs’ book The Myth of the Historical Jesus, in particular his criticism of the assumptions of scholars who study the historical Jesus. He uses Crossan as a typical example:

[I]n a 1998 article, Crossan seems intent on finding and locating a kind of “cause,” or at least the source, for multiform manifest versions of Jesus’ sayings in the original voice of Jesus. He proposes the “criterion of adequacy” to replace the criterion of dissimilarity as the first principle in historical Jesus research. He defines it thus: “that is original which best explains the multiplicity engendered in the tradition. What original datum from the historical Jesus must we envisage to explain adequately the full spectrum of primitive Christian response. (p. 50)

Childs later suggests:

Crossan . . . seems to verge on what is a kind of concretistic historical fallacy in assuming that “the full spectrum of primitive Christian response” can only have its origin in, and therefore must be traced to, the original words and deeds of Jesus. This becomes an inadvertent historical materialism if the only conceivable historical agent for the great variety of cultural creativity that did have the figure of Jesus Christ at its center are the words and deeds of the original person of Jesus of Nazareth. The symbol of Jesus Christ has inspired the individual and cultural imagination in a tremendous variety of creations and directions for two thousand years quite independently of the historic Jesus. (p. 50)

And then I recollected the more recent works of the memory-theorist scholars, in particular recent works I have read by Chris Keith (Jesus’ Literacy) and Anthony LeDonne (The Historiographical Jesus) and realized that they are engulfed in the same process: trying to find new and better ways to explain how the different words of Jesus we read in the gospels can be explained as products of the experiences and memories of eyewitnesses of a single historical person.

The quest is ideological. Childs’ would say it is psychological or social-psychological.

I’m not here disputing the possibility of a “single historical person” as a source for at least a fair number of gospel sayings. I am simply noting the assumption underlying the historical exercise.

Childs goes further and argues that what is presenting itself as history is really a disguised form of hermeneutics. The “historical reconstruction” is in fact another way of interpreting what we believe Jesus said.


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Neil Godfrey

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31 thoughts on “From a single source? Disguising hermeneutics as history?”

  1. John Fiske in his “Myths and Mythmakers” cites the tale of William Tell and how the same basic story appears all over the world but with considerable variations and having no obvious connection between them.

    1. William Tell, probably no real person originally. Arthur(s) and Robin Hood(s) probably original heroes.
      The Sleeping Hero myth takes various forms in Europe, and the Divine Hero in Cosmic Conflict with the Evil Reptile even earlier in both Indo-European and Semitic cultures, with obvious implications for the Christ story as developed. No real Jesus at all, I still find difficult to believe.

      1. David Ashton, you find it “difficult to believe” because — ? I’ve been following vridar now for some time, and have been watching the historical Jesus scholars, and it seems clear to me that the enterprise consists of imagining the figure of Jesus as distinct from the literature in which he appears. This practice seems highly unusual, although perhaps someone could give examples of other disciplines in which it occurs. Ancient history, of course, not being bound to post Enlightenment concepts of physical law and reality, would sometimes present fantastic episodes as historical (Herodotus the prime example), but even ancient authors (Lucian, e.g.) laughed at these episodes as absurd fantasies. No modern historian or scholar would ordinarily go to a work of myth or fantasy (walking on water, turning water into wine, rising from the dead, etc. etc) and conclude that a character in that narration had some historical reality, unless that historical reality found some corroboration in a different kind of work, such as a factual history, however unreliable. We would not seek to find the “historical Odin,” although, come to think of it, scholars do write about the “historical Buddha,” and they even speculate about a historical Gilgamesh. I still think that if you want to talk history, you need a historical work, and even the priests and NT scholars who write about the HJ– particularly them–acknowledge that the NT is not history. So, is it just habit that makes it hard for us to imagine that J never existed? If not habit, custom, culture, practice, what is it? Is there some evidence somewhere that the rest of us have overlooked?

        1. Habit, maybe, possibly because Jesus strikes me as a credible, coherent and charismatic personality, and not simply the creation of ancient novelists of consummate literary skill. I became intrigued in NT apologetics (Conybeare, Felder, Grandmaison, &c) during adolescence, but also read a lot of mythicist material (Robertson, Couchoud, &c), and Vridar has been a factor in reviving that early interest. I have no personal religious belief.

          The textual material doesn’t just consist of fantastic episodes like the three “nature miracles” cited. There is an abundance of alternative activity “recorded”, including parables and kingdom proclamation, set in a traceable topographical and socially credible context. The exorcism and healing data have non-supernatural explanations, where they are neither staged events nor OT parallels. No-one thinks that well-known figures in medieval or modern history to whom wonders have been ascribed are ipso facto imaginary. Your Buddha example answers your own objection. References in Tacitus, Josephus and Celsus, of course, have to be dismissed altogether as corroborative by mythicists.

          1. The personality of Jesus is not coherent, in my view, largely because he is at least four characters, depending on which gospel one is reading. The character in John is quite a nasty personality, rather antisemitic. He is not well-rounded in any of the gospels, but consists only of, as you say, sayings and parables. The sayings and parables are what stay with readers, because they introduce new approaches to Judaism, and they have that counterintuitive emphasis on nonviolence. As a character, Jesus has (noted elsewhere in Vridar) no physical attributes, no ordinary interests, no visible humanity outside the context of the spiritual interest in the kingdom and the precepts that follow from that. He is an interesting spiritual teacher, composed of interesting spiritual teachings, no more. Perhaps that’s enough?

            1. I was thinking mainly of the Synoptics, though some of his traits are utilized later by John in a transcendental dramatized form. What I particularly noticed is his mordant sense of humour and triumphalist repartee (as observed also in populist orators of modern times). It is inaccurate to say he has “no physical attributes”, but refrain from listing contrary verses, however few. Real people cannot execute a real offender; and if Jesus was not just a “myth” but a wandering teacher, we would need to explain why his death figured so prominently in the earliest Christian material; I doubt he would have been killed simply because of some possibly novel spiritual aphorisms, even “pacifism” towards the Roman authorities.

        2. Lucian…perhaps he did us a favor pointing out there was someone in the early-to-mid 2nd century who wrote/forged a high number of Christian books, who had one failed martyrdom before his successful Peregrinus Proteas one. I’m partial to the idea Lucian was describing a single man as both Ignatius and Polycarp.

            1. Don’t mistake me for Huller. Though i do include him on my reading list as he brings in perspectives that do help…like pointing out about the Samaritan liturgies.

              But separately from reading Huller on Polycarp, I did read an English translation of Lucian’s Peregrinus. Here’s the thought. While Christians might consider Lucian “biased,” being Pagan, his “independent” or hostile witness on this major 2nd century Christian-then-Cynic personage gives us something to work with.

              Even WITHOUT Huller, I’ve read various people noting it’s weird Ignatius did a “grand tour” on his way to matyrdom. But tie in Lucian’s account, that would fit with the person Lucian called “Peregrinus.” I’m not really personally wanting to go with Ignatius being everything he claimed to be.

              Regardless, Lucian at least provides some hostile or independent testimony to the fact someone with a huge association to Christianity at that time was a showman/huckster and forger and prolific writer, who after his second and more successful “martyrdom” still had his assistants write “letters from the dead” for him.

              Considering how certain types of research are clear the Pastorals don’t really fit will with other Pauline letters…

              …we are expected to IGNORE the best darn testimony independently of the Christians which actually says half the NT was FORGED?

              Bad CSI if that’s the case.

              Huller does NOT have the idea of a Mary Magdelene who in John wandered in the dark of pre-dawn into what possibly was Lazarus’ own empty tomb.

              I don’t mind the odd off-the-wall idea, because it’s usually such ideas that show us what the “propaganda” does not.

            2. My line of thinking on the whole subject started from taking a good hard look at Judas the Galilean and reciting “Galilean rabbi starting off the only new stream of Judaism that century” three times fast until it sank in you really can’t have TWO rabbis starting off the only new stream of Judaism that century…then realizing that Judas can’t be the Jesus we know because because he founded the zealots and also died 19-21 C.E.

              Then looking at the OTHER group not mentioned in the gospels, the Essenes (love seeing them in the Dig drama even though the basis for that plot might still be off on its own tangent). Essenes don’t look to have been going on about a real or factual Jesus, but make good candidates for an ALLEGORICAL one. Huller’s viewpoint help tie the Alexandrians and Samaritans into the Essenic view.

              The Christian viewpoint from Acts doesn’t fit at all consistently with that.

              Then I recently looked at two Talmudic references to Herod Agrippa II and the only Talmudic reference to the Ewan Gilyon.

              Herod Agrippa II in one reference as a “standing one” which ties back to Simon Magus (Shimon and Shmone do bring up the idea of the perfect number 8 as Justin told it)…and in the other talks as a general (post-70a.d by the looks of it) talking Two Powers in Heaven and seeing the God of the Old Testament as jealous of the Good god.

              Reference to the Ewan Gilyon. Would have to be after 70a.d. and tells that by that stage the “gospel” is replacing the Torah in the Land. So factor the timing in and it means as a ROMAN tool.

              Herod Agrippa II pretty much after 70a.d. being very anti-jewish and more pro-Roman.

              Bring in Memar Marqeh as more a 1st century A.D. document (Marqeh son of Tute (Titus?).

              Factor in the fact Philo was related to not only Herod Agrippa II but also Tiberius Alexander…and pretty much Philo as the intellectual engine of Alexandrine Hellenic Judaism which would KEENLY fit the idea of a Gnostic-first Christianity.

              Nope, can’t exactly treat Acts as that real any more. Especially not if I know that the earliest version of Acts might have come from the Pen of Pereginus Proteus.

              1. Who were our early authors?Many names in the Bible etc. appear to have been scholarly reconstructions. “Polycarp” means “many hands” or writers. “Peregrin” means wandering. Protean means constantly shifting his shape. So both terms indicate an ever-shifting source, containing several persons or personalities. Where you would expect inconsistency and even duplicity. And multiple personalities.

              2. Looks like there were many undocumented or inconsistent contributors to the Canon. Only a polymath or schizophrenic MPD like Bishop Peregrinus, and his predecessors,would herd all these cats into the polysemic night dreams we call our holy books.

    1. No question about the emperor Vespasian, of course, but I learned in Minas Papageorgiou’s book “Jesus Mythicism” that I reviewed recently, from the scholar authority on Apollonius, Maria Dzielska, that the earliest source for Apollonius, Damis, was a fictitious biographer of the sage. The existence of Apollonius, Dzielska says, lies somewhere between myth and history.

      1. Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History by Prof. Maria Dzielska

        Prof. Dzielska has an Appendix that is entitled “Modern Polemics over Apollonius of Tyana” (unfortunately is not part of the preview).

        I am perplexed when Prof. Dzielska asserts on the one hand that “historical sources contemporary with Apollonius keep silent about him…” but in the very same instance we are told he “lived in the first and at the beginning of the second centuries…” (p. 9 introduction) . How do we know he lived at that time?

        Philostratus of Lemnos wrote the first biography of Apollonius. Subsequent studies by others have shown this to be a work largely of fiction and forgery.

        It refers to other key works to follow up – Apollonius of Tyana: Tradition and Reality by Bowie.

          1. I think as Neil says, he is in that grey zone between legend and history. The link provided will give you a far better answer.

            It will be good to see how the authority on Apollonius – Marai Dzielska approaches the evidence for this figure.
            Then just for argument sake, i would see how this approach works if Jesus was substituted for Apollonius.

        1. I am perplexed when Prof. Dzielska asserts on the one hand that “historical sources contemporary with Apollonius keep silent about him…” but in the very same instance we are told he “lived in the first and at the beginning of the second centuries…” (p. 9 introduction) . How do we know he lived at that time?

          Lucian wrote of Apollonius before Philostratus did, and positioned him in roughly the same time frame.

  2. There is something in writings about Vespasian’s visit to Alexandria that has him meeting Basilides, think, one of the key and later a 2nd century Christian (gnostic version thinker). If I remember this reading correctly it also talks of Serapis and the statue of Serapis that was brought from Pontus. I find that curious because of Basilides’ own career (told through the lens of the anti-heresy brigade)…and the connection to Pontus that crops up in anti-heretical tracts about Marcion origins.

    1. It takes a lot to counter the massive weight of 20 centuries sworn to faith, and not to objective rational evidence, in ethical matters.

      2,000 years of bias. Which often presented itself as rational.

      1. This dispute is about the historicity of Jesus not the validity of his alleged ethical teachings if accurately reported, internally consistent and correctly understood. Atheist ethical systems are rationally feasible: Friedrich Nietzsche, Julian Huxley, Raymond Cattell, Ayn Rand…. And one can still appreciate Bach or Bruckner, Stanley Spencer or Salvador Dali, the Notre Dame or Canterbury Cathedral, Milton or Eliot, Alasdair MacIntyre or Roger Scruton.

          1. Christian exegesis can often provide illuminating guides to interpretation (e.g. the unusual use of metaphor in Revelation) because of the accumulation of scholarly studies over many years, but I agree that “faith bias” must be taken into account; and research requires an “atheist” but ALSO PLAUSIBLE alternative methodology. We cannot clear out the Augean stables with varieties of different rubbish.

            1. Well, the nice thing about labelling an origin as “myth,” acknowledges it is all at best, absurd rubbish. So we are at least one small step closer to honesty. Though myths sometimes link to deep psychology, cultural universals.

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