Can Historians Develop a Valid “Feel” for a Reliable Source?

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by Neil Godfrey

Ruth Morse

While preparing my next post on the Trump movement’s analogues to cult experiences I tripped over a page by another historian, Ruth Morse, addressing what modern readers need to understand whenever reading works of pre-modern historians. Once again anyone aware of the methods of New Testament or early Christianity historians must surely wonder why historians of medieval and ancient times don’t embrace the methods of NT historians (e.g. criteria of authenticity, memory theory) or why NT scholars don’t ditch their own methods and emulate those of their peers in other history departments.

‘Common report’, essentially rumour, has never been thought to be an accurate source or a sceptical witness, and historians have always known this.

But don’t biblical historians, or more specifically, historical Jesus historians, have criteria and tools to enable them to dig down and assess with some measure of reasonable probability how common reports (biblical historians use the term “oral tradition” which perhaps connotes a more stable notion of what is being passed on) have mutated over periods through memory refractions and back to something close to an original saying through various criteria of authenticity? Have other historians not yet caught up with these “advanced techniques’?

Loathe to lose any remnant of evidence, loathe to relinquish a way of inserting non-authorized opinions which could be attributed to anonymous sources, medieval historians themselves argued about ‘common report’ and how it might be used. Even sceptical historians might accept that if oral traditions offered nothing else, they gave important testimony to what people had traditionally believed (which itself presented a topic for discussion, because such beliefs could be weighed and compared, where comparing might offer an opportunity to the rhetorically alert).

Yes. Oral reports do tell us what the people sharing them were saying to one another. Were they telling stories of Robin Hood, or Jesus? What grounds do historians have for concluding that those tales had any decades old historical basis?

Would a historian ever rely upon suspect sources?

An allegiance to truth never precluded the use of suspect material; nor did history exclude certain embellishments of that material. One embellishment might be an ostensible rejection of suspect material which, by its very existence, retained precisely what it pretended to discard. What kind of representation of what understanding for which audience are essential questions to ask when evaluating medieval and renaissance history. How far it is either any more than testimony to current opinion, or whether it can be trusted as a reliable account are questions which raise other issues.

But cannot historians develop some sort of sense or feel for what is a reliable source?

Most modern historians of the Middle Ages develop what they characterize as a ‘feel’ for when medieval historians can be trusted.

But did not early historians, ancient and medieval, know how to apply their learning in rhetoric to draw out sympathy and confidence in readers to that they would feel loathe to question the truth of what was being written?

Since the encouragement of some kind of intuitive sympathy was itself one of the rhetorician’s goals, early warnings about ethos may help readers coming to medieval historians for the first time. The seductive experience of wanting what a favourite medieval historian says to be true sometimes to the detriment of one’s better judgement continues to be part of the experience of many case-hardened researchers.

Or perhaps a careful study of historians of old (and medieval historians did learn and emulate the techniques and aims of ancient historians) will alert modern readers to the possibility that much of what they encounter may indeed by fiction.

By analysing individual topoi and situating them within a system of rhetorically manipulated reference, I hope to demonstrate how pervasive ‘literary’ habits of embellishment were, that ‘realism’ is a constantly shifting style which is constantly remade, not a guarantee of a true depiction, and that however convincing, charming, fresh, or intelligent an account, it may be no more (but no less) than a plausible construction which refers to known patterns of human character, behaviour, and event. The styles chosen by historians involve multiple reference: to the particular past narrated; to earlier models of writing history; to other, early literary models (like epics or fictions, or poems of many kinds); and to over-arching (or perhaps underpinning) eschatological ideas of human history.

Morse, Ruth. 2005. Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation and Reality. Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. 95


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Can Historians Develop a Valid “Feel” for a Reliable Source?”

  1. Yes, but what’s more, the Gospels are never claimed to be “common report” or “oral tradition”. It is modern scholars who have tried to conclude that such in their source. But the Gospel writers themselves don’t say (with the possible exception of Luke), “This is a record of what I have been told about Jesus from so and so.”

    If that were the case then we would have reason to believe that maybe these narratives weer based on oral traditions, but we find nothing like that at all.

    There really isn’t one single bit of evidence or anything to suggest that the Gospels are record of some kind of running oral tradition. That whole claim is just grasping for straws.

    There is ample evidence that the Gospel of Mark is a wholly invented story, invented by the writer of the story, and nothing within the work even suggests otherwise.

      1. The whole of John 21 is known to be a later addition by a different writer. But there are other places in John where the writer also claims to be a witness to what he’s writing, for example in the crucifixion scene. The writer was just lying basically.

        1. r.g.price – If the writer is claiming to be a witness then other things can be concluded. He could be telling the truth but then that might preclude him as being the writer of the rest of the gospel. If he is lying then that should indicate the purpose of the documenting a lie. That is – there must have been an audience in his time that believed the contrary and he was impressing the point to alter that opposing belief. So something can be said other than throwing the whole subject out as a sophisticated fraud.

  2. If we detect a polemic in an ancient writing that is shown to be authentic – then we don’t conclude that the writing is completely manufactured. We should conclude however that there must have been at least two opposing opinions at the time when the polemical writing was documented.

    That is the limit of what should concluded I think. Of course one may entertain the possibility of fabrication but then must also entertain the possibility of faithfully documenting an oral tradition too.

  3. I was addressing the mainstream biblical scholarly interpretations of the gospels and sources for the historical Jesus, or “biblical historians”. Ruth Morse was addressing what had been a common approach among her contemporary or near contemporary historians of medieval times and the (often presumed) sources of medieval historians themselves, the subtext being the application of this criticism of a common practice to historical Jesus studies.

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