Fundamentals of historical research and the difficulties faced by historical Jesus studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Some readers may have come across a very long list of ancient writers who “could or should” have made some mention of Jesus. That list surfaced in another forum discussion today and I found myself faithlessly writing a response to it there instead of spending my time on Vridar. To make amends, hoping Vridar will not feel offended or as if being treated second-class, I copy below what I wrote in the Afa forum.

Such a list serves as a reminder of the riches in sources that are available for the early Roman empire period compared with many other periods of ancient times.

What is fundamental to historical research is the necessity to independently corroborate sources and their claims. It’s not the only requirement but I have a hard time thinking of many ancient figures that are securely known to have existed without meeting that benchmark in the records.

I have listed below what I think are the fundamentals that historical researchers look for when examining the documentary sources. Independent corroboration is left to last

  • Documents need to be assessed for authenticity;

— that includes being able to trace their provenance, assess when they were possibly written, where, etc.

  • their authors ideally need to be identified in order for the investigator to have some idea of how likely they were to have access to certain information, what biases and agendas they may have had, etc;

— We have such information for a good number of ancient authors

  • the literary culture that forms the matrix of the document needs to be understood in order to guide analysis and interpretation;

— we need to understand the conventions of ancient historians and the proclivities of individuals: e.g. their tendency to invent historical accounts drawing upon classical epics and plays when their sources failed them

  • we need to be able to identify and evaluate the probable sources of ancient documents;

— were they relying upon historians before them and if so, which ones, when did they live, what reasons do we have for thinking their work to be reliable, etc

— part of this requirement is the acknowledgment that contemporary sources must form the basis of historical reconstructions. Sometimes later sources can be more reliable or act as checks but they can only rarely be a trusted starting point for historical inquiry

  • and claims made in the documents need to be independently corroborated

— e.g by archaeology, by ancient monuments and inscriptions, by contemporary documents by unrelated authors, etc.

These are the fundamentals. Obviously such processes leave the historian with less data than historians of more recent times have at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean that historians of ancient world lower their standards, however. It means instead that they ask broader questions or the sorts of questions that they know their sources will help them answer.

It also means there is often less certainty in some of their conclusions.

When it comes to the study of Jesus, historians are on the back foot with almost all of the above:

  • Authenticity:

There was a time when critical German and Dutch scholarship questioned the authenticity of all of Paul’s letters. I think it is generally since American scholarship has dominated the field that their critical inquiries have been shelved. My point is not that we have no genuine letters of Paul but the fact that such a question can be asked should be of at least some concern to historical researchers.

The canonical gospels are of unknown provenance. We have a range of educated guesses but nothing more secure. The earliest they could reasonably have been written according is around 70 CE because three of them contain a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem in that year; the earliest possible (not certain) attestation of them in the literature is around the middle of the second century; it is only in the later second century that we have definite knowledge of them in the sources.

  • Author identification:

We have no idea who wrote any of the canonical gospels. The names assigned to them (“according to Matthew” etc) were attached in the later second century and even then they do not unambiguously claim authorship. (They are “gospels according to Matthew, Mark…”)

  • Literary matrix

We know ancient schools taught the art of writing fictional letters with marks of verisimilitude. A letter is not, therefore, necessarily what it might seem. We know ancient authors wrote biographies and histories that had all the trappings of authenticity (claiming eye-witnesses etc) but that were in fact fabricated for didactic reasons, or for entertainment, or for less noble reasons. Even otherwise reputable historians would sometimes resort to fabrication.

  • Narrative sources:

In the case of the canonical gospels scholars have assumed that the stories of Jesus derived from oral traditions that originated with the historical events of Jesus’ life. But this assumption, it turns out, is based on the conviction that there is some kernel of truth to the stories so they must have been passed on from accounts of eyewitnesses, however much they were later embellished by theological messages and exaggerations.

However not one of the gospel authors identifies any of their sources (they don’t even identify themselves) which is unusual for ancient biographies and histories. Luke has a prologue with vague references to sources but they are never identified. Some have compared his prologue to a common fiction and one scholar has even argued that the Greek words actually mean Luke was referring to custodians of writings.

It is evident that many of the gospel narratives are adaptations of Old Testament and other tales. Example, Jesus raises the dead in scenes very similar to those of Elijah and Elisha performing the same type of miracle.

  • Independent corroboration:

Moses I. Finley was a highly reputable historian of ancient times who wrote quite often on methods of research. One essential he stressed was the need for independent corroboration. (I have even quoted Albert Schweitzer saying the same thing — that the narratives of Jesus have no independent controls that can serve as confirmation of anything — though he was a theologian who argued against the mythicists of his day.) I have posted a fuller discussion and quotations relating to this particular point see at An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies. I cite that now because this post is long enough even though it was intended as only a bare-bones outline of the problem historians are faced with when it comes to Jesus and Christian origins.

Kapyong’s list of names only underscores the central question of how to apply valid and normative historical methods to the question of Jesus. My own view is that historians simply lack the fundamentals required of the sources say prima facie yea or nay regarding his historicity.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Fundamentals of historical research and the difficulties faced by historical Jesus studies”

  1. Your post made me think of a John Prine song, “Angel from Montgomery”, that I sort of imitated. I don’t know if I’ll actually sing it for a Youtube clip so I’m posting it here. It’s basically about the Gospel’s uncorroborated history.

    1. Richard Carrier’s comment in OHJ (p304, 5) was an eye-opener for me and led me to write the lyrics. He highlights the suspicious loss of certain volumes of Philo that would have dealt with Judean affairs at the time of Jesus’ alleged existence. The “loss” of those particular volumes occurred under the aegis of those who were careful to preserve all else of Philo. That heightens the probability that it was an embarrassment to them that Jesus wasn’t mentioned in the volumes they neglected to preserve.

  2. Well said, Neil!

    As I say in “Nailed” and “Jesus: Mything in Action,” when it comes to lines of evidence that we can use to verify an ancient text, in almost every category you can name, Jesus has nothing to show at all, and in the one category he does, written evidence, it is not the best but the worst kind: anonymous, biased, repeated edited, heavily theological and allegorical writings written long after the fact and prob. far removed from the scene, by non-eyewitness authors being false presented as eyewitnesses in the hopes of selling a religion to new converts.

    All this is true, regardless of whether there was an actual historical Jesus or not…

    -Dave Fitzgerald

  3. Hans Delbrück warned against treating sketchy sources from antiquity as “acceptably trustworthy” simply because no reliable alternatives exist. He advocated a methodology that “distinguishes clearly and definitely what can be regarded as accurately passed down, and what is not” based on the source’s internal content. (He drew inspiration from the philologists and even referred to his process as Sachkritik.) Delbrück acknowledged that we must sometimes admit we just don’t know.

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