Monthly Archives: January 2019

What Is a Historical Fact? – How Historians Decide

Gingerbread vendor (Victorian Picture Gallery)

When I was an undergraduate history student the one book anyone doing the honours course was required to address was What Is History? by the renowned “red” historian of Soviet Russia, Edward Hallet Carr. One claim Carr made in the book was particularly controversial. It was his idea of what counted as a “historical fact”. For those who are rushing through, the gist of what he said was that X is not a historical fact unless and until a historian writes about it and uses it to successfully support a hypothesis that is accepted by his academic peers. For those who are not so pressed for time, here are Carr’s own words:

Let us take a look at the process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history. At Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob. Is this a fact of history ? A year ago I should unhesitatingly have said ‘no’. It was recorded by an eye-witness in some little-known memoirs2; but I had never seen it judged worthy of mention by any historian. A year ago Dr Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford.3 Does this make it into a historical fact ? Not, I think, yet. Its present status, I suggest, is that it has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical facts. It now awaits a seconder and sponsors. It may be that in the course of the next few years we shall see this fact appearing first in footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books about nineteenth-century England, and that in twenty or thirty years’ time it may be a well-established historical fact. Alternatively, nobody may take it up, in which case it will relapse into the limbo of unhistorical facts about the past from which Dr Kitson Clark has gallantly attempted to rescue it. What will decide which of these two things will happen ? It will depend, I think, on whether the thesis or interpretation in support of which Dr Kitson Clark cited this incident is accepted by other historians as valid and significant. Its status as a historical fact will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fact of history.

(Carr, p. 12)

E. H. Carr

Our interest is generated by the context of asking questions about ancient history and particularly the Bible. I have addressed the question from several angles relating to what we know of how historians (e.g. Thucydides) who lived in ancient times worked and in how historians (e.g. Finley) of ancient times make judgements about the ancient sources. Here we look at a more general discussion of how historians decide what is a fact.

Did It Actually Happen? (Getting Muddled with Philosophy)

Notice that Carr does not deny the “fact” of the murder of the Stalybridge gingerbread seller. He is simply disputing its status as a “historical fact” without doubting its status as a “mere fact about the past”.

And his evidence?

An eyewitness record, he says.

2. Lord George Sanger, Seventy Years a Showman (2nd ed., 1926), pp. 188-9.

He cites the second edition but the Amazon kindle preview tells us it was first published in 1910. Even that appears incorrect because the earliest Worldcat record I see places its earliest appearance in 1908.

That’s an eyewitness account 58 years after the event.

Carr was engaged in a philosophical discussion of the nature of history and accordingly took us a step further, to its use by a historian, Kitson Clark, in his lectures at Oxford:

3. Dr. Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian England (1962).

It is at this point that Carr arouses the ire of many of his more conservative peers. What Carr believes historians should understand is that every “historical fact” comes with some ideological baggage. It is always used to support or dispute a historian’s hypothesis.

To set out a simplistic example: Does the historian use the murder of the gingerbread vendor as evidence in arguing the hypothesis that there existed a class war of the kind Karl Marx said is the fundamental dynamic of history? Or perhaps the historian uses that fact as part of a larger case to argue against the class struggle hypothesis. It is in that sense that history is “relative” and “ideological” and that the “facts of history” can be said to be “relative” to a historian’s point of view and “ideological” in nature.

It does not mean that the fact of the past itself depends upon the historian’s whims or ideological beliefs. Carr was talking about how a “mere fact about the past” was used in a historical narrative or argument. The “mere fact of the past” was not in dispute per se.

In the words of the historian Richard Evans,

Carr engages in lively arguments with many other historians about the nature of history. He challenges and undermines the belief, brought to university study by too many students on leaving high school, that history is simply a matter of objective fact. He introduces them to the idea that history books, like the people who write them, are products of their own times, bringing particular ideas and ideologies to bear on the past.

(Evans, p. 1 f.)

Did It Actually Happen? (Getting Irate with Ideology)

read more »

Waco (the background story)

James Haught of Daylight Atheism has posted the historical pathway that led to the Branch Davidians and the Waco disaster beginning from the Millerite movement of 1843 and 1844.

The Story Behind Waco’s Tragedy

David who had a thing for feet sees Bathsheba washing her . . . .

It’s a story of dashed idealism, sordid and cruel moments, the power of belief, and too much that I can personally relate to. I watched the TV mini-series on the Waco story late last year and, as I expected, found myself too easily able to identify with some of the followers. My experience was with the Worldwide Church of God. Not that that was my only experience with religion, but it was the one that echoed aspects of the Branch Davidians history.

One moment in the movie that left me shaking my head in all too believable “disbelief” was when one of the most loyal followers of Dave Koresh was challenged by an outsider pointing to some of Koresh’s blatant moral failings. With unshakable faith the loyal follower replied that he wished with all his being that God had chosen anyone else except Vernon Howell (who took the name Dave Koresh) to be his prophet because he could scarcely imagine a less likeable person, . . .  BUT, he was the one God had chosen, and he had to accept that, and submit to God’s will.

How often did the ministry in the Worldwide Church of God, especially the upper leadership, find opportunities to preach the message of King David, a “man after God’s own heart”, chosen by God, and David’s moral failings, his adultery, his murders, made no difference. Those who rebelled against this David when he was getting older and losing his grip on the kingdom were the ones led by Satan against “God’s anointed”.

The hypocrisy, the self-serving message, it’s all sickening in hindsight. But that’s how many of us were. If it hadn’t been the Armstrongs I suppose in another time and place it could have been Vernon Howell and it could have been me there. The one “saving grace” for the Worldwide Church of God was that it’s top leader was old and had no desire to give up his comforts or put himself in any serious physical risks. Those things come so much more easily to one in his early 30s. (For a number of years we were seriously expecting our leader to be given a vision or sign that would be the signal for us to “flee” to a “place in the wilderness”.)

James Haught rounds off his post

it’s unsettling to realize that some people among us are capable of believing far-out fantasies, enough even to die for them

I think there’s a slight misunderstanding in there. The processes that lead some of us to join extremist political groups responsible for terrorist attacks, I believe, are very similar to those that lead some into extremist religious cults. The radicalization processes are the same. It’s not that some people are somehow predisposed to believe or act out bizarre things (maybe some are, but they aren’t usually the ones who are accepted into extremist groups) but that so much depends on a person’s background experiences, close integration with a supportive social group, and circumstances at the time. Thankfully many people find that hard to believe because they cannot imagine themselves in the sort of condition and circumstances that begin to subtly lead them into a gradual acceptance of “the bizarre”.


The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Heracles

We used to be taught that the first invasion of a Greek people into the Greek peninsula was the Dorian invasion. (Today that event appears to be generally regarded as mythical.) The Dorians of Greek myth were the Heracleidae, the descendants of Heracles, who undertook an “exodus” from the Peloponnesus and some generations later returned to reclaim and conquer their “promised land”. (Image from Wikimedia)

How reliable as historical records are the genealogies of patriarchs and the different tribes of Israel?

1977 saw the publication of Robert Wilson’s thesis, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, a work that set the main framework for further studies of biblical genealogies. Wilson used two different studies of genealogies as a basis for comparing and understanding what the biblical ones were all about:

  1. Anthropological studies of oral tribal cultures, African and pre-Islamic Arabian;
  2. Amorite dynastic lists of Babylon and Assyria.

The genealogies found among African and Arab oral cultures were considered relevant because the biblical genealogies were believed to have derived from oral traditions. Wilson concluded that such genealogies preserved historical memories:

Although we have seen no anthropological evidence indicating that genealogies are created for the purpose of making a historical record, genealogies may nevertheless be considered historically accurate in the sense that they frequently express actual domestic, political relationships.7

7 Genealogy, p. 189

The use of oral traditions among current and recent tribal societies as a doorway into the biblical genealogies was rejected by John Van Seters who set out his reasons in several works. In In Search of History, for example, he wrote in response to Wilson’s Genealogy

It is, to my mind, highly questionable whether functional explanations of variations in genealogies based on anthropological analysis of oral societies can also apply to literary variations. Wilson does not examine the many contemporary literary genealogies in the Greek world.

(p. 48n)

If you took no notice of the title of this post then the predicate in the last sentence just alerted you to where this post is headed, at least if you are already aware of this blog’s interest in the relationship between the “Old Testament” and Greek literary culture (e.g. posts on books by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, Wesselius…). Expect in coming months another author to be added to those, Andrew Tobolowsky, author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles.

Andrew Tobolowsky

Tobolowsky points out that there is a significant structural difference between Babylonian and Assyrian royal genealogies on the one hand and those genealogies found in Genesis and the books of Chronicles on the other, is that the former are “linear”, that is, lists from father to son, while the latter are “segmented”, that is, following “multiple lines of descent, forming a kind of family tree.”

As Van Seters points out specifically about Wilson’s treatment:

On the one hand his Near Eastern linear genealogies, which derive from highly structured literate societies, bear very little resemblance to the segmented genealogies found in the book of Genesis. On the other hand, his discussion of the segmented genealogies and their comparison with Genesis is based upon anthropological studies of oral traditions in illiterate societies and this has created an artificial social and form-critical dichotomy.

Abraham Malamat, who generally embraces Wilson’s formulation, nevertheless adds:

Biblical genealogies represent a unique historical genre within the literature of the ancient Near East. I have here in mind not the so-called vertical lines of individuals such as the royal or priestly pedigree, which are common anywhere, but rather the ethnographical tables contained in the Book of Genesis… even more so… the ramified and wide-spread genealogies of the various Israelite tribes, assembled in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles. All these have no equal anywhere else in the ancient Near East.

As a result, as Van Seters pointed out and others have since confirmed, the better comparison with biblical genealogical discourse, especially as it is found in the book of Genesis, is neither the traditions of preliterate cultures nor linear king lists but the complex, literary genealogies that were particularly popular in the world of Greek myth.

(p. 4 — my highlighting)

Tobolowsky dates the creation of these biblical genealogies to the late Persian period. I suspect Russell Gmirkin whose books we have discussed here would suggest a later time, that of the Hellenistic era.

Tobolowsky, Andrew. 2017. The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles: The History of the Tribal System and the Organization of Biblical Identity. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Van Seters, John. 1983. In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History. New Haven: Yale University Press.


How Did It All Come to This?


We loved one another when we met. I had left religion behind but still had an intellectual passion to understand the origins of the Bible and Christianity. I loved joining your company in online forums and you excited me a little each time you indicated some appreciation for any small contribution I could make. There was Mahlon Smith, Stevan Davies, Mark Goodacre. . . Even when James McGrath and I first met over his little volume The Burial of Jesus we expressed sincere appreciation for the opportunity to have had our thought-provoking exchanges. The main motivation for starting this blog was to share the fascinating things I was learning from specialist scholars. One of the first books I read and loved was John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. If only I had known years ago what I now knew after reading his book how much saner and less tortured my life could have been. I had the opportunity to meet Spong in the flesh one year and thank him for the doors he had opened for me. Then there was Marlene Winell’s Leaving the Fold. I loved the opportunity to share what I was learning from scholars about my past experiences, and my new understanding of the real nature of the Bible.

So what happened? Why, now, do we find ourselves being scorned and dismissed with contempt by the James McGraths, the Jim Wests, the Roger Pearses, the Larry Hurtados, the James Crossleys? Anthony Le Donne loved what he read on this blog until one of his colleagues tapped him on the shoulder and took him aside for a private talk. The list goes on. Fortunately there are also scholars, some in the field of biblical studies, who I have met and who continue to express appreciation for what Tim and I are doing here, and I sometimes think that without them as sanity checks I might have given up well before now. One well respected academic asked that I keep our correspondence confidential and I have respected that with all who have offered a supportive word. It really is too easy to arouse a hostile environment in some parts of the academy.

So what happened to bring this blog into . . . “controversy” seems too mild a word. It is clear that some of the most spiteful critics have never read or attempted to engage with the posts here. Maybe at best they skimmed (fast enough to avoid contamination) a few lines with hostile intent.

There surely was one turning point all would agree on. read more »

What Do We Mean by “Historical Hypothesis”?

Neil has already discussed Jonathan Bernier’s post, “Critical Realism and the New Testament,” here (The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)) and here (Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History), but I’m just now catching up. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride as soon as I found out Dr. McGrath had awarded his seal of approval.

Honestly, my first reaction was my second, as well as my third, reaction: Despair — and not only the despair of realizing how bad things have gotten, but also the grim recognition that we have not yet hit bottom. McGrath writes:

What Bernier writes really is a great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.

Oh, goody. What wonderful things did Bernier write? Well, buckle up. Here we go!

All historical argumentation is probabilistic. This is also to say that any and all historical hypotheses are subject to revision or dispute.

The Polish Cavalry at the Battle of Mokra, 1939

So far, so good. Unfortunately, he has left too much unsaid. He doesn’t give us a working definition of the term historical hypothesis, nor does he explain what sorts of evidence would lead to revisions or disputes of such hypotheses. Given what follows, we have reason to believe Bernier has a peculiar understanding of the term.

Hypotheses subject to revision are hypotheses whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0 that we can treat them as virtually certain.

I must be reading this wrong. In the preceding sentence, Bernier wrote that all hypotheses are subject to revision. But then he implies that the subset of hypotheses that are subject to revision are ones “whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0.” I don’t understand this sentence, but I can set it aside for now — except to say that Bernier doesn’t really explain how and why revision should occur nor how we calculate the probability of a hypothesis. We have everything we need but the what, the how, and the why.

He continues:

Such hypotheses include the hypothesis that Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, or that Jesus of Nazareth existed.

read more »

Comparing Philo’s and the Gospel of John’s Logos (The Word)

The consequences of this point are formidable. Philo was clearly writing for an audience of Jews devoted to the Bible. If for these, the Logos theology was a virtual commonplace (which is not to say that there were not enormous variations in detail, of course), the implication is that this way of thinking about God was a vital inheritance of (at least) Alexandrian Jewish thought. It becomes apparent, therefore, that for one branch of pre-Christian Judaism, at least, there was nothing strange about a doctrine of a deuteros theos, and nothing in that doctrine that precluded monotheism.  — Boyarin, 249


The table sets out my distillation of Deborah Forger’s four points of comparison between the Logos of Philo and the author of the Gospel of John in her doctoral thesis, Divine Embodiment in Jewish Antiquity: Rediscovering the Jewishness of John’s Incarnate Christ.


Alexandria, Egypt, during time of the Jerusalem Temple


Probably Asia Minor, after destruction of the Temple

Logos is a “constitutive element of the Creator God’s identity…. Just as a person cannot exist without his or her cognitive abilities, so too Philo claims that God cannot exist without God’s logos. This is because . . . the logos functions as the very “thoughts,” “rationality,” “creative logic,” and “mind” of Israel’s supreme God. . . [Philo employs] the same titles to describe God and the logos.” “John similarly presents the logos as being integral to the divine identity. . . Whereas Philo establishes a temporal distinction between God and the logos, John makes no such differentiations between the two. . . Instead, John presents the logos as being divine and co-eternal with the Israel’s supreme God. The difference
Logos is personified and thus … able to act independently of God. . . To preserve the absolute transcendence and otherness of God, he depicts the logos in this intermediary role.”

God is immutable. The divine logos is mutable. The logos can enter the corporeal realm.

God is unknowable. The divine logos is made known.

Logos pleads with God on behalf of humankind, and Logos is the ambassador from God to humankind. Though technically a part of God (=the mind of God) the Logos stands on the border between God and everything he has made.

Logos is personified and thus … able to act independently of God.

The Septuagint depicts the world coming into being directly by the act of God, but for John the Logos is personified and becomes the means by which God creates the world.

Goes one step further than personifying the Logos and claims that the Logos becomes flesh in the person of Jesus.

The Logos is always subordinate to the Creator God.

Though sharing the divine identity with God, the logos is subordinate as indicated by being “the eldest of all created things” ((Leg. 3, 61, 173; Migr. 6), “the first-born of God” (Agr. 12, 51),, the “man of God” (Conf. 11, 41; cf. 14, 62; 28, 146), the “image of God” (Conf. 28), the “second God” (QE II, 62, Marcus, LCL).

The Logos is always subordinate to the Creator God.

Jesus as the logos is one with the Father but also subordinate to the Father. The Father “has given all things into his hand”, “has given him authority to judge” yet for all he does he needs the Father’s permission; also as an indicator of Jesus’ subordinate role, he always calls God his Father — even though he and the Father are one from the beginning of time.

The logos is able to enter into the created, corporeal world that God has made.

The logos is thus the judge and mediator of the human race, and the interpreter of God to the world. The logos thus interacts with the world in a way the supreme God cannot. “The logos thus functions as both a tool by which God creates the sense-perceptible world and as an intermediary figure whose immanence in that same realm enables him to exert God’s divine providence in every aspect of it.”

Philo never claims the logos becomes flesh. Rather, God has placed the logos within creation to be the agency of divine providence in every part of it.

Similarly, God implanted the logos within the created realm, but John goes one step further and has the logos actually becomes flesh in a specific person and is part of the created realm itself.

For Philo the logos embodies God’s presence in the world by acting as the mediator, but for John the logos becomes part of the created world in the person of Jesus.

The Gospel of John is unique among Jewish texts (including the other gospels) of the first century CE in declaring that the logos became flesh.

The Incarnation started out as a Jewish thought.

read more »

Gospel of John as the turning point in a New Religion and a New God

Eight years ago I posted Starting a New Religion with The Gospel of John. In that post the punch line was: 

Where the Gospel of John is different:

Where the fourth evangelist differs from all of these [books written in the names of other prophets], as well as from those who exploited the Moses tradition, is in his conscious substitution of this tradition by the story of Jesus: ‘You search the scriptures,’ Jesus tells ‘the Jews’, ‘and I am the one to which they bear witness’ (5:39). The deliberate replacement of one founder-figure by another (the same step would be taken centuries later by Mohammed) is effectively the proclamation of a new religion. We may compare John with Matthew here, for whom Jesus is a second Moses, refining and purifying the law, but not replacing it (5:17). John, by contrast, puts the law aside, offering instead, in the name of Jesus Christ, ‘grace and truth’ (1:17). Similarly the Temple, the second pillar of contemporary Judaism, was for Matthew a place where Jesus’ disciples continued to offer their gifts: whereas in John the locus of Christian worship has shifted to a place of ‘spirit and truth’ (4:23)

(Ashton, p. 448)

Gabriele Boccaccini

This year I have read a proposal for another dramatic innovation that we find in this same fourth gospel. Gabriele Boccaccini picks up the recent publications of Larry Hurtado and Bart Ehrman that have sought to explain when and how “Jesus became God”.

Bart Ehrman and Larry Hurtado are the scholars who in recent years have more directly tried to address the question. For Ehrman [How Jesus Became God], the attempt to identify when and how Jesus “became God” is not the clear-cut divide that one would expect, but a much subtler discourse about how and when Jesus became “more and more divine,” until he climbed the entire monotheistic pyramid (almost) to share the top with the Father. Jesus, argues Ehrman, was first regarded as a human exalted to a divine status (like Enoch or Elijah before him), and then as a preexistent heavenly being who became human in Jesus and then returned to heaven in an even more exalted status.

Answering the same questions some years earlier, Larry Hurtado [Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity] traced the origin of such a belief by asking when Jesus began to be worshiped by his followers. In his view the devotion to Jesus marked a unique development within Jewish monotheism, even before the emergence of an explicit theology of the equality of Jesus with the Father. Jesus “became God” in the very moment in which he was worshiped.

(Boccaccini, p. 337)

Boccaccini finds both arguments problematic. Ehrman, for instance, does not really explain how Jesus is different from other figures in the Jewish “pantheon” who are also “divine” (e.g. Enoch, Elijah) and “preexistent”. “Being divine” and “being God” were not identical concepts in Second Temple Jewish belief systems. Angels were superhuman “divine” beings and divine beings could become human and humans could become divine. Preexistent divine beings like the Son of Man figure in the Parables of Enoch were not God; that figure was created at the beginning along with the angelic hosts. Thus in 1 Enoch 48:2-6 we read:

At that hour, that Son of Man was given a name, in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits, the Before-Time; even before the creation of the sun and the moon, before the creation of the stars [i.e., the angels], he was given a name in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits. He will become a staff for the righteous ones in order that they may lean on him and not fall. He will be the light of the gentiles and he will become the hope of those who are sick in their hearts…. He was concealed in the presence of (the Lord of the Spirits) prior to the creation of the world, and for eternity.

Hurtado is correct in pointing out that

Jesus was the only person in Judaism of whom we have evidence that he was worshiped by his followers;

But . . .

nonetheless, the force of the argument is somehow diminished by the fact that “veneration” was a common practice toward people of authority. Even within the Jewish monotheistic framework, different degrees of veneration could apply to divine beings other than, and inferior to, God.

Note, therefore, in the Life of Adam and Eve (13-16) the archangel Michael called on all the angels to worship Adam as the image of God: read more »

Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History

I don’t mean “ha ha” funny; I mean “something fishy” funny.

I posted not so long ago a biblical scholar’s sophistry in order to effectively erase any difference between a historian’s “facts” and a historian’s “hypothesis”. Clearly not having read even some of the most foundational discussions about the relationship between a historian and his/her facts (e.g. Collingwood, Carr, Elton, Finley, Evans) our biblical scholar argued that it was a “hypothesis”, an “argument”, that Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “justifying” the claim by resorting to theoretical models of probability. Well, the argument sounded good enough for another biblical scholar to write up praise of such an “informative” post and encourage others to read it by bizarrely declaring the post to be a

really . . . great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.

Doing History Fearfully or Intelligently

The same scholar encouraged readers to take in a lesson set out by another blogger, Steve Wiggins, who did have a more serious and saner message than the one confusing real-world facts with arguments and hypotheses. We move on now from the fishy funny and get to something more serious. Wiggins is writing as a believing Christian and the problems such a person faces when trying to recover the original faith as it was first delivered:

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  [The Bible is] a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

That is from a post aptly titled The Problem with History. I have no intention of arguing against Steve’s faith or the dilemma he faces, but what I find interesting is the opposite approach to history, one that I much prefer to embrace, in an article by Philip R. Davies that I read not long ago. (Some readers may recall that a Martin Lewadny offered to post an article for other readers and I am linking to it here: Reading the Bible Intelligently.)

just as no modern expert on Plato is expected to be a Platonist (even of the Middle or Neo-sort), no Bible expert should be expected to accept the ideas it puts forth, far less believe in its god(s) or its divine origin. . . .

The Bible is far too interesting and enjoyable — too important, even — to be left to the religious, who have done as much damage as good with it.

Davies is speaking specifically of the Old Testament but exactly the same point applies for readers of the New Testament:

(there is no need to treat the narrative as historical unless you want to miss the point entirely).

Of the contradictions one finds in the various “historical” narratives Davies says

Again, these separate visions do not argue with each other, but are laid out side by side, inviting — requiring — the reader to discriminate, interrogate, decide on what the perfect society might look like. It is both a more eloquent and a more open presentation than, say, Plato’s Republic: it is, as followers of Bakhtin would declare, dialogic. Thus, its multiple voices demand intervention from the reader. They are not presented as authoritative, even though each comes from the mouth of the same god. They demand to be discussed! . . . 

The Bible is rich in philosophy: only the unintelligent, or those let down by the experts, think that it is merely myth, history, or divine law, or oracles, or sacred poetry.

. . . . it is more comfortable to view the Bible as obsolete mythology or merely as wonderful literature.

Parachuting Before the Plane Takes Off

And one more example of “two ways of doing history”. . . . read more »

The Righteousness and the Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way

Yes, indeed. Not only Social Justice Warriors, but I am sure I am not the only one who has experienced the same in other political, social and religious groups, too…

The Righteousness and the Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way / Valerie Tarico

It occurred to me recently that my time in Evangelicalism and subsequent journey out have a lot to do with why I find myself reactive to the spread of Woke culture among colleagues, political soulmates, and friends. Christianity takes many forms, with Evangelicalism being one of the more single-minded, dogmatic, groupish and enthusiastic among them. The Woke—meaning progressives who have “awoken” to the idea that oppression is the key conceptexplaining the structure of society, the flow of history, and virtually all of humanity’s woes—share these qualities.

To a former Evangelical, something feels too familiar—or better said, a bunch of somethings feel too familiar.

. . . .

Reaction points:

Two kinds of people, black and white thinking, shaming and shunning, evangelism, hypocrisy, . . . . and the list grows.


Even so, social movements and religions—including those that are misguided—usually emerge from an impulse that is deeply good, the desire to foster wellbeing in world that is more kind and just, one that brings us closer to humanity’s multi-millennial dream of broad enduring peace and bounty. This, too, is something that the Righteous and the Woke have in common. Both genuinely aspire to societal justice—small s, small j—meaning not the brand but the real deal. Given that they often see themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, perhaps that is grounds for a little hope.

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

Let us now turn to a famous story found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Taanit 5b. While sitting together at a meal Rav Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhaq to expound on some subject. After some preliminary diversions, Rabbi Yitzhaq said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Our father Jacob never died.”

Rav Nahman was taken aback by this claim and said,  “But he was embalmed and buried.” How is possible to do such things to someone who has not died?

Rabbi Yitzhaq responds and says, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and he then cites Jer 30:10, “Therefore fear not, my servant Jacob, says the LORD; be not dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” He continues, “Israel is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.”

At first sight, it appears that the midrashic statement denying Jacob’s death is being derived from Jer 30:10. However, if we look closer at the passage, we will find a fascinating distinction between the biblical deathbed scenes of Abraham (Gen 25:8) and Isaac (35:29), on the one hand, and that of Jacob (49:33), on the other. In the former scenes, two verbs, . . . “expired,” and . . . “died,” and one phrase, . . . “was gathered to his people,” are used to describe their deaths. Regarding Jacob, however, only two verbs appear: expiring and being gathered to his people. For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die.

According to the story, Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement to Rav Nahman was made in a completely neutral context — that is, outside of any context whatsoever. Consequently, Rav Nahman understood this claim as being functionally parallel to a claim such as “Elijah did not die.” The characteristic position of rabbinic Judaism is, of course, that Elijah never died but is still alive; indeed, according to the rabbis, he is the heavenly recorder of human deeds. Rav Nahman therefore asked Rabbi Yitzhak: But Jacob was embalmed and buried, so how can you claim he did not die. Rabbi Yitzhak’s response, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and the citation of Jer 30:10, is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement, for as we have just seen, its source is the absence of any mention of death in Jacob’s deathbed scene. What he is doing is saying the following:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained to Rav Nahman by Rabbi Yitzhaq’s citation of Jeremiah. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for Rabbi Yitzhaq, Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever.

This midrash and its surrounding narrative are important because they give what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context. The original misunderstanding by Rav Nahman and the final exposition by Rabbi Yitzhak show, as clearly as possible, that midrashic narrative is explicitly demarcated from the historical-literal reconstruction of past events. Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past.

(Milikowsky, pp. 124 f.)

The Bible’s stories are never questioned. They are always bed-rock “true history”.

But the rabbis added stories to those Bible events that are clearly not factual, but nonetheless meaningful and explantory.

Why should the rabbis develop a mode of discourse that tells the truth by means of fictional events, when the only literature they have in front of them is the Bible, which tells the truth by means of true historical events?

For the answer to that question Milikowsky finds a significant discussion on the importance of “good fiction” in Plato’s Republic. At this point, return to the previous post: Why the rabbis . . .

Now what we see in the Gospel of Mark at one level looks like midrashic narrative. For example, we have quotations from Malachi mixed with quotations from Isaiah and Exodus. In the opening scene we have re-enactments of a “man of god” spending time in the wilderness and returning to call out a certain people and performing miracles. It is all familiar to anyone familiar with the Old Testament narratives.

So what is going on here? The question inevitably arises: Does the author of the earliest gospel expect hearers to believe the story as genuine history or as a “message from God” which the Bible texts assert to be “valid” or “true” without necessarily being “historically true”? If the latter, it is surely easy to see why it would be understood and accepted as true on both levels: as a message from God and as genuine history.

Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — Duplicate Post

Looks like I cleverly managed to publish the same post twice instead of deleting one of the copies. I have deleted the contents of this post and add this redirection:

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Chaim Milikowsky

Chaim Milikowsky gives his answer to the question in the title, or at least he answers the question with respect to rabbinical literature. I have added the connection to our canonical four gospels, and I could with equal justice add Acts of the Apostles.

I read CM’s answer in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, but I see that the author has made the same work freely available online. (Oh, and I posted on CM’s chapter five years ago this month: Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation. I think that first post was less technical than what I intend this time round.)

Let me begin with the conclusion this time. The answer to the question in the title is found in a work once again by one of the most influential Greek thinkers in history: Plato. We have been looking at the influence of Plato on the Old Testament writings through the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum, but CM sees his influence on rabbinic midrashic story telling. I suggest that the evangelists have carried through the same fundamental type of story telling.

Here are the key passages in Plato’s Republic. After deploring mythical tales of gods that depict them lying, cheating, harming others, Socrates sets out what is a far more noble curriculum for those who would become good citizens. Myths of conniving and adulterous gods had no place. God must always be shown to be pure and good. Stories depicting the gods as immoral were to be removed from society; stories that had an edifying message for their readers were to be shared widely.

For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

There you are right, he replied; but if any one asks where are such models to be found and of what tales are you speaking –how shall we answer him? 

I said to him, You and I, Adeimantus, at this moment are not poets, but founders of a State: now the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them, but to make the tales is not their business. 

Very true, he said; but what are these forms of theology which you mean? 

Something of this kind, I replied: — God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given. 


(Republic, 378e-379a Benjamin Jowett trans.)

God himself will be portrayed as incapable of lying, but there will be a place for story tellers to fabricate stories that teach goodness and lead people to righteous character: read more »

Gathercole Dabbles with Counterfactual History

Let me state at the outset here that I fully understand the actual merits of Simon Gathercole’s recent article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus do not matter. Its mere existence suffices for the task at hand. In other words, it is not necessary for mainstream scholarship to demonstrate that Paul’s writings prove the existence of the historical Jesus; it is only necessary to assert it.

We saw the same sort of effect back in 2017 after Gullotta’s swing-and-a-miss treatment of Carrier’s magnum opus. For example, Gathercole writes, with no hint of irony:

One of the best recent critiques is that of Daniel Gullotta, who notes some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume. (Gathercole 2018, p. 185)

Do you believe?!

Tinkerbell tries to open a cabinet.

Despite the laughably bad anti-mythicist works offered by Casey and Ehrman, both scholars got a pass from their friends, colleagues, and sycophants. More than a pass, really, since both enjoyed backslaps and cheers for participating. They showed up and wrote down some words, by golly. It’s the Tinkerbell Effect in full bloom. Biblical scholars can claim they have refuted mythicism in all its forms as long as enough of them clap their hands and shout, “I believe! Oh, I do believe in the historical Jesus!

So what I have to say here will make no difference in the big picture, but I suppose somebody, somewhere, should say something, before Gathercole’s article inevitably takes its rightful place among “solid refutations” future scholars will point to.

If we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus?

At the start of the new year, I started reading a book by Judea Pearl called The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect. In it, he devotes an entire chapter to counterfactuals (see Chapter 8 — Counterfactuals: Mining Worlds That Could Have Been). I had already read Gathercole’s article before that, and it rang a bell. Hadn’t he said something about counterfactuals? Yes, he did.

This article aims to adopt a kind of counterfactual approach to history, in which all of early Christian literature is set aside except the undisputed letters of Paul, in order to try to glean what can be learned from them alone. . . . The only exception is that the New Testament is occasionally used as evidence for Greek idiom. Otherwise, the letters of Paul are not interpreted in the light of, or even in tandem with, the Gospels, but are taken as far as is possible only against the backdrop of non-Christian sources. (Gathercole 2018, p. 187, bold emphasis mine throughout)

I confess I’d forgotten this tidbit, possibly because in the paragraphs that followed he appeared to be taking up arms against docetism rather than mythicism. Or perhaps Gathercole’s supposed commitment to the counterfactual approach had slipped my mind, just as it had clearly slipped his.

I have from time to time tried to imagine what our conception of early Christianity would look like if we had, say, only the Gospel of Mark or only the Gospel of John. Gathercole’s basic idea makes sense — if we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus? What are some things we wouldn’t know for certain or, perhaps, at all? Let’s take a look. read more »

If we are going to move the Gospel of Mark to the second century . . . .

Bronze head of Hadrian found in the River Thames in London. Now in the British Museum. – Wikipedia

When we settle on a date for the composition of the Gospel of Mark soon after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple by the armies of Vespasian and Titus, then it is only natural that we will want to study the lives and times of Vespasian and Titus. Perhaps the most significant political development that formed the backdrop of the generation that was the first to hear and reflect upon the Gospel of Mark was the dynamic thrust of Vespasian’s propaganda machine to demonstrate to the world that he was the rightful new emperor (burying in the hype the uncomfortable fact of his lowly and foreign origins), and a major plank of his propaganda efforts was the building up of the conquest of Judea into a major victory against a significant eastern threat to the empire.

Against such a backdrop our understanding of the Gospel of Mark as a counterimperial narrative, and our interpretation of the procession of Jesus to the cross as a mock-triumph.

If we prefer to see the Gospel being written at a time of persecutions, or at least fear and threat of persecution, then we may wish to place it in the 90s when and where some see the introduction of the Jewish synagogue curse being directed at Christians and where we may further see Domitian’s revival of the imperial cult.

But if we are toying with placing the Gospel in the second century, what we focus on then will depend how far into the second century we are prepared to go.

If we are working on the suggestions that our evangelist (let’s place him in Rome) was incorporating into his narrative some of what he had heard read in Josephus’s Antiquities, then we can place him anywhere in the mid and late 90s or early 100s. (We may prefer to settle on that date if we are persuaded by a reference found in Justin’s writings — let’s say as early as the 130s — that “memoirs of the apostles” spoke about Jesus nicknaming James and John “Sons of Thunder”, a detail found only in our Gospel of Mark.)

We may prefer to opt for a date closer to the mid century, let’s say later 130s or around 140s, if we think the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 makes best sense as a reference to Hadrian’s efforts to set up a pagan temple complete with statue of Jupiter on the site of the old Jewish temple and to Bar Kochba’s “messianic” war supported by the rabbi Akiba.

If we are going to explore where different threads end up by placing the gospel so “late” then another background worth studying is Hadrian’s rule more generally. Hadrian was renowned for more than crushing the the Bar Kochba rebellion. More generally Hadrian promoted himself as a restorer and even second founder of the Roman empire itself. In the beginning of his reign he promoted himself as the god Mars and then in the later years he presented himself (through coins, for example) as the new Romulus, founder of the original Rome. Romulus was also believed to have been the son of the god Mars. Hadrian loved to travel, but he was doing more than site-seeing. He was presenting himself as a second founder of major cities such as Athens. Temples and monuments and processions and such pomp drove home his message about both himself and what he was doing in his restoring of the Empire and the Pax Romana. The imperial cult became especially important. People were expected to turn up and demonstrate their piety when his image was entering a city. When he entered a city or a temple he did so as a god manifesting himself to his subjects. He even identified himself with Jupiter himself, the head god of the pantheon. As Jupiter ruled Olympus, so the emperor, an embodiment of Jupiter, ruled the “world”.

We can look for the time period where we find the most bits of the puzzle seeming to fit and settle on that for the date of the earliest gospel. But such a method will always remain open to question. We need to do more than simply look for pieces that fit, or more likely look for ways to fit as many pieces as possible. Remember our ever-present bane of confirmation bias.