Professor James McGrath continues to take an interest in my discussions about historical methods in the context of the “quest for the historical Jesus”. I was surprised to read the following words of his earlier today:
Reading certain blogs and discussion boards on the internet, you would think that laypeople were being called upon to invent methods for historical study for themselves, and to do so from scratch no less. I think a post (or series of posts!) on basic methodology, and particularly source criticism, could be helpful for a lay audience, especially in light of the misinformation being spread in certain corners of the internet.
I had never heard of anyone on any discussion board or blog attempting to work out methods for historical study “for themselves”. So I had to click on the link to see who could possibly be doing such a thing. Lo and behold, the link is to a post on the Biblical Criticism and History forum more than a year ago that was written by yours truly. So what did McGrath mean by suggesting there was some fatuous lay attempt to “invent methods for historical study for themselves”? My post was in fact a presentation of what professional historians themselves explain about their methods.
Interestingly, McGrath’s post continues by quoting others who express disdain for amateurs who don’t show due deference to certain responses from biblical scholars and then reminding readers of the methods of biblical historians who study questions relating to the historical Jesus. Of course, my point was that nonbiblical historians work by different rules. The title of McGrath’s post included “Reinventing the Wheel” but I don’t believe any historian outside biblical studies uses the criteria or other methods specifically characteristic of biblical scholars to determine historicity. There is no reinvention but stark contrast.
McGrath has asked me not to engage with any of his posts on his blog so I can only trust fair minded readers will click on the “discussion boards” link and see that there has been some no doubt inadvertent confusion. I am not quite sure what the relevance of the second link is to form criticism and other tools used by biblical historians unless it is a reference to a point made before on the Religion Prof’s blog that biblical historians are pioneers leading the way in techniques of historical inquiry.
Here is my discussion board post that was confused with a layperson inventing methods for himself:
From Mark Day, The Philosophy of History, 2008, pp. 20-21.
Mark Day bases the following “rules” on
‘historiographical manuals’ – those books written for the student of history, and in particular postgraduate or PhD students of departments of history 4. . . .
- Arthur Marwick’ The Nature of History (1970)
- John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History (1991/1984)
- Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources (2001)
Day writes that
….All historiographical claims should be based on the source…. What follows are five points concerning the use of sources, each of which is consistently emphasized by pedagogical material of the above kind.
The first rule:
(1) ….. the historian should prioritize primary sources, though should nonetheless be critical of these sources.
Primary sources are those which
transport the historian directly back to the past that the documents describe and of which they were a part, permitting the historian knowledge of that past without the accretion of subsequent interpretation and tradition.
It follows that we have no primary sources for persons or events in Galilee in the 20s/early 30s.
(2) Criticism of sources is two-fold; not only with regard to the claims of those sources concerning their intended topic, but with regard to the implicit claims of those sources concerning themselves. The second sort of criticism is the investigation into the document’s authenticity, established by asking whether the author could have written it, whether they could have been where they claimed to be, whether the paper, authorial style and handwriting permit the truth of the self-proclamation of the author. …
The historian of Christian origins who wishes to start in Galilee in the 20s is behind the eight-ball at the start. None of the above basic criticism can be applied to primary sources because there are no primary sources.
So we move to secondary sources: we still cannot apply the above rules to our gospels because we don’t know who their authors were or claimed to be, and we have in the case of the epistles only a name, Paul, with no independent means of assessing any of the internal claims.
(3) Source criticism is extended beyond the establishment of the identity of the author, to so-called ‘internal’ features of the source: the author’s aim, their ideological background and their intended audience. It is assumed that knowledge of these facts will aid the historian’s use of the source. (Exemplification of this point has already been suggested, in the case where the historian would be wise to find out whether the author had reason to lie, and why they might have done so.)
Again, fundamental questions that historians normally apply to primary sources cannot be asked by anyone wanting to address events in Galilee in the 20s. If we apply this rule to secondary sources we still find ourselves in something of a circular trap given that we do not know the authors apart from the self-testimony of one of them. But still, we can make some tentative assessments of the internal features of the sources.
(4) Source criticism should also trace the path connecting the source with the historian, asking why it has survived and in the form that it has. …
(5) The historian is warned not to depend too much on a single document, but rather to utilize a wide range of evidence. This warning is to some extent implicit in the demand for source criticism, since it is obvious that no serious source criticism can proceed without employing knowledge gained from other sources.
Again the historian who wishes to explore persons in Galilee in the 20s is greatly disadvantaged since not only do we have no primary sources at all, but even the secondary sources all derive from a common ideological bucket. The first gospel written was in dialogue, it seems, with Paul, and the other three gospels were in dialogue with that first gospel. We do not have a “wide range of evidence”. It is all very incestuous.
Yet some historians claim to be able to do better without any of the above rules and that they can even go right back to the gist of words spoken between X and Y etc by means of going “beneath” the secondary (not even primary) sources by means of criteria and memory theories. One does have to wonder at why other historians bother with any of the above rules when biblical scholars can bypass all of that and get more detailed information from late secondary sources by means of totally different methods.
There was some discussion following on the discussion board site.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!