Just what do you mean… HISTORY?

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by Neil Godfrey

I am posting here an off-the-cuff comment that I hope to develop more completely (and with citations by historians) in future posts.

I love Matthew Ferguson’s posts on Κέλσος. Many of his interests overlap with mine, especially his studies on ancient literature as a comparative backdrop to the study of the gospels. His two recent posts are

In the first of those posts Matthew rightly points out that historical accuracy of itself can hardly be a criterion by which to judge a literary genre. There are badly written “histories” that get a lot of things wrong either through incompetence or ideological motivation; there are historical novels that can accurately inform anyone seriously interested in “how the past was”.

But when Matthew, in step with New Testament scholar Christine Thomas, appears to suggest that a historian’s focus must be on a point of reference that is outside the text itself, to events “out there” that the text references, I find myself running into difficulties. Such a claim, seemingly obvious enough on the surface, raises a host of questions in my mind.

Where to begin? Firstly, yes, it is certainly true that such a view of how historical research is done does indeed apply to the way many biblical scholars seem to study the canonical gospels and Acts. It certainly applies to the way many “Old Testament” scholars have traditionally approached the “history of biblical Israel”. And there lies the first difficulty or question that pulls me back from fully accepting Matthew’s and Christine’s apparent claims (assuming I have understood them correctly). Much of what scholars have done in attempting to write a history of “biblical Israel” has in recent decades been sharply challenged by a a number of scholars that have come to be known, cynically by many, as “minimalists”. The approach of “minimalists” has been to do history by being careful not to go beyond or behind the textual sources, not to try to divine the identities, contexts and intentions of authors through assumptions leaping off and away from the texts themselves, but to bring historical reconstruction into line that hews to the textual evidence itself. One such “minimalist”, Philip R. Davies, did express the hope that one day the same method might be applied to the study of Christian origins, even the “historical Jesus”.

The past is dead and gone. What happened in the past does not exist out there like a disembodied horde of persons acting out what they did in the past like ghosts. We cannot study the ancient texts in the hopes that they can serve as windows to “real events” just as they were but that are no longer present, no longer there to be seen.

The ancient texts are not windows through which we can see what no longer exists. It is a romantic dream to think that we can somehow find magic formula that will open up to us visions or even just glimpses of “how it was” or “what happened”.

No, the historian’s task has moved on from such romantic assumptions, at least in large swathes of the areas of historical research outside the realm of theology and biblical studies. The historian’s task is far closer to interpreting the texts in their own right, for their own sake, and not so much to try to recreate something external to them, than I think many biblical historians have as yet come to accept.

I recently posted a point by the philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker, in which he pointed out that the historian does not (or at least should not) ask, “Did this recorded miracle really happen?” No, the correct historical research question to ask is, “What is the best explanation for this source that speaks of a miracle?”

The difference may seem merely semantic on the surface but it is in fact profound. We also saw how deceptively even a knowledgeable historian can be beguiled into eliding the difference and how even Tucker himself contradicted his own principles by asking “Did X happen as stated in the gospels?”

The correct approach of the historian is to ask “How do we explain these documents, these texts, these writings, and the contents of their narratives?”

To answer such a question requires reference to other texts, sometimes texts in stone, or artefacts. But it is a mistake to attempt to answer it by reference to some ghost of a past that is no longer there as if a name or event in the texts is a cipher or magic code that potentially points to that ever-present ghost always acting out the past, “out there, back then”.

When we stop to think about it carefully we will come to see Philip Davies’ point that such a view of history, assuming that narratives somehow must be magic mirrors dimly reflecting a past reality, is in fact an entirely circular exercise.

To understand Christian origins we must understand and explain the texts. That study is far closer to understanding the nature of the texts themselves than it is to assumed reference points outside the texts. The only reference points with which a historian can validly concern herself are those that are just as tangible as the gospels themselves, or whatever other works are the target of study.

Yes, that does mean that much that has been written till now becomes obsolete, the product of a romantic era that itself becomes a topic of historical interest. It has happened in the field of ancient history; it has happened in the study of “biblical Israel”; it may be a lot longer, I fear, before it will happen in the area of the New Testament and Christian origins.


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Just what do you mean… HISTORY?”

  1. We approach the Grundbegriffe: What is a “Gospel”?

    I think Carrier makes a good point in the documentary “The God Who Wasn’t There” that Mark didn’t think he was writing history, but rather a “gospel”: The Good News.

    Helms makes the point that “euaggelion” basically meant writing something analogous to a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda. For example, Helms writes:

    Mark writes: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” – which closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE) regarding Augustus: “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.”

    I think (and this is just me) Mark is basically a propaganda document full of exaggerations about Jesus (eg., miracles, pithy one liners, etc) meant to win converts: “If you thought Caesar was great, take a look at Jesus!”

    Mark’s gospel seems to function on an exoteric level to lure the masses with enticing miracle stories, and on an esoteric level to convey deeper spiritual truths of loving neighbor, widow, orphan, alien, and enemy, to those who have ears to hear.(compare. Mark 4:11). Mark’s was a mystery religion with an inner and outer circle, or even like shamanism, where the neophyte is taken in with ‘magic’ to attract their attention and then is taken to the Truth, and the understanding that what they initially thought was magic was simply deception, and the recognition of how early they were deceived.

  2. Well I hope this means you are reading my book, because I couldn’t agree more and this is exactly the approach I have taken.

    Of course I disagree with the 2005 statement from Carrier, as I don’t think that “Mark” was writing a gospel, I think he was a writing a farce. I don’t think the author of Mark had any intention of his work being taken literally or even being seen as divinely true. I don’t think the author of Mark was writing a religious document at all, I think they were writing a political allegory. The point of the story was not to tell any truths about Jesus at all, it was to condemn the Jews. It’s really a satirical commentary on why the Jews deserved the destruction brought down on them by the First Jewish -Roman War.

    I think there is so much evidence that the author of Mark was making it overtly clear that his story was not literally true. “Jesus’s teachings” in the story aren’t so much teachings in their own right, they are all digs at either the leaders of the Jesus cult (the disciples) or at the Jewish leadership. The point was never to convey they wisdom of Jesus, it was to humiliate the people, as perceived by the author, who caused the war.

    And as I show, the author left an overwhelming number of clues as to the symbolic and fictional nature of the work. There was no attempt made to hide the fact that the story wasn’t true, in fact it’s totally in your face. The author tried to make it as obvious as possible that the story was “fictional”.

    The whole trial and crucifixion scene is a farce that should never have been taken seriously. The literary allusions are obvious and all over the place. That Jesus was supposed to represent Paul is glaringly obvious. That the story is borrowed from Elijah and Elisha from Kings is also intentionally make exceedingly clear. The author wasn’t trying to hide the fact that the story is a take on Kings. The story of Elijah is also, of course, one of a prophet condemned by his own people.

    The problem was that the Greeks and Romans thought they understood Jewish literature better then the Jews did. I think the reality is that there has been massive misunderstanding of Jewish literary by non-Jews all along. But my book explains why Jewish mythology was ever taken seriously by the Greeks and Romans, which it never should have been. It was all mythology all along.

    I mean Justin Martyr said it himself. The Jews don’t understand their own writings because they weren’t the actual authors of their writings, God was. It was like the ultimate cultural appropriation. No no Jews, let us Romans tell you what your mythology really means… And of course, as Jews suffered at the hands of Christians they gave up on trying to explain their errors to them.

        1. I think in casting John the Baptist as the new and greater Elijah, Mark is pointing out just how great John the Baptist was, and was to be held in even greater esteem than Elijah (compare Matthew 11:11). Mark does something similar when he recapitulates the story of Odysseus in the pericope of the Gerasense Demoniac with Jesus as the central character, healing the demoniac rather than using violence as Odysseus did. Matthew does something similar casting Jesus as the New and Greater Moses. It’s called Haggadic Midrash or Mimesis. I don’t see this as sarcasm or satire (although I think Joseph Atwill does).

          1. No, casting JtB as Elijah isn’t the sarcasm, that’s just the lead in to the discussion that deals with the sarcasm. It’s really the references to Malachi that I’m talking about. The literary references show that the “hidden meaning” of the opening is that the “good news” of Jesus is an omen of destruction. The “gospel of Jesus Christ” is that God will destroy the Jews. That’s the sarcasm.

            1. Hmm, did anybody think of the fact that a destruction of the temple is bad news for most Jews, but good news for other inhabitants who were only waiting for the Romans to restore order in what just looked and felt like a prolonged period of civil war and anarchy. If the kingdom of God is the kingdom of Vespasian restoring order that is good news indeed for the large populations of Hellenists and other gentiles.

  3. McGrath (26 August 2018). “The Gospels and Comparable Ancient and Modern Literature“. Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath:

    In his “part 1” post on this topic, Matthew also explains that ancient Greek readers and authors had different genres than we do, more of them, and those they had did not consistently overlap with our own ideas of fiction and nonfiction. If the fact that the Greek term for one of those genres was plasma doesn’t persuade you to read the post, probably nothing will.

    In his “part 2” post, Matthew explores how the Alexander Romance provides parallels to the work that source and redaction critics engage in with respect to the New Testament Gospels (and others).

  4. A timely comment on the existence of Muhammad has been posted and following the link I read in the middle of the article:

    Skepticism is useful in academic study up to a point, since people who hold a particular view of what happened are pressed to clarify how exactly they know what they think they know, and what their sources are, and how primary they are. But there is a difference between healthy skepticism and denialism.

    Now that hits the bulls eye of my post. That resort to the term “denialism” there indicates the struggle some historians have long held about truly understanding the nature of their enterprise. There is no “Muhammad” there to deny. The point is to explain the evidence, the data. Sometimes that means coming to acknowledge that we have no grounds for believing common stories of the past. That’s called “denialism” by some. It appears that the author of the above quote is saying that scepticism is useful so long as it does not undermine our foundational cultural myths.

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