Rules of Historical Reasoning — Still Controversial Among Religion Profs

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by Neil Godfrey

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:


Rules of Historical Reasoning

Post by neilgodfrey » Mon Sep 18, 2017 11:14 am

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.

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32 thoughts on “Rules of Historical Reasoning — Still Controversial Among Religion Profs”

  1. Reminder: personally insulting ridicule is not acceptable here. Years back there was a time (very brief) when I did stoop to fighting fire with fire but I soon afterwards apologized and have always attempted to remain above that sort of thing since.

  2. The ‘quote’ from Hurtado is odd. Hurtado is explicitly exaggerating about the Christian codex specifically and not historical enquiry in general. And he’s wrong about the codex if taken literally of course.

    1. Comment by R. G. Price—18 March 2019—per “Methods of Historical Study (Reinventing the Wheel)”. Patheos. Religion Prof. 17 March 2019.

      [M]any real historians simply defer to the “biblical scholars” when it comes to understanding Christian origins. They don’t themselves engage in primary research in the field, because they treat their fellow PhDs as real scholars. But the problem is that they aren’t, they are theologians posing and [as] scholars, or perhaps theologians who believe they are scholars. And so almost all of the “academic work” around biblical studies ends up being garbage, thus there is nothing left to do but for the amateurs to pick up the pieces and figure it out. It’s a sad state of affairs really.

      • Ehrman opines on Carrier per later comments and questions: “Which historians use this methodology?” @ Ehrman (10 April 2018). “The Thinking Atheist Interview: The Triumph of Christianity“. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

      Ehrman (13 January 2017). “Can Biblical Scholars Be Historians?“. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

      I would say that most biblical scholars in fact are not historians. But some are. It depends on what their interests and expertise are.

      In most PhD programs in biblical studies – for example, those provided in seminaries and divinity schools – the training is focused principally on the texts of the Bible and their meaning. The emphasis, in those circles, is on “exegesis,” that is, the interpretation of the Bible. People trained like that are often adept at literary criticism of various kinds (or often of just one kind). Often there is also a secondary emphasis on the theology of the Bible. Theological training (at least outside of fundamentalist circles) is more closely related to philosophy.

      1. Well you got a part of my post before ti was taken down anyway :p

        Yes, that may be a true acknowledgement of Ehrman’s, but this is like a manufacturer saying that skateboards are only intended to be ridden with all 4 wheel on the ground at all times, knowing of course that everyone who rides a skateboard won’t follow that practice.

        Sure, Ehrman can say that, and yet, watch the “History Channel” shows about Jesus. Everyone quoted talking about the “real things Jesus did” has a degree in divinity or theology. Look at the books about the life of Jesus. Almost all written by people with degrees in theology or divinity.

        Challenge various claims about Jesus, and what will people do? Cite “scholars” with degrees in divinity and theology as the authorities on the subject.

        And as I said, when we do hear from historians, they either A) also have degrees in divinity and theology and are really theologians who got a history degree for credentials, or B) they haven’t engaged in primary research themselves, they have just read the consensus view of biblical scholars and use as as the basis of their knowledge of Christian origins.

        1. Your case in point, per a comment I recently read:

          Much as I was at least tempted by the idea that Jesus may be a total myth, I have decided that, much like other areas where my actual knowledge is far less than that of the experts in the field, I have to go with the consensus opinion of those experts, though I do still love to follow the debate.

    2. Well apparently they deleted my post. I made another one talking about the temple cleansing scene, but the first post was more general, calling into question the qualifications of those with degrees in “biblical scholars”, and stating that biblical scholars are not historians, but they are treated as if they are, and professional historical don’t do primary research on Christian origins because they rely on biblical scholars, whom they tread as real scholars, which they aren’t. But that post appears to be taken down.

      1. It appears scholars like Religion Prof simply find it impossible to conceive that their foundations could possibly be questioned with any serious intent so anyone who does appear to do is is by definition “beyond the pale”.

  3. • Some scholar(s) appear to hold “Anti-history” viewpoints.

    Per Carrier (28 February 2019). “The New Gathercole Article on Jesus Certainly Existing“. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    [Simon Gathercole] makes an inexplicable argument that we should not interpret Paul’s statements in light of common knowledge in antiquity, nor allow any possibility of other teachings outside what Paul says in his letters. This is an extremely bizarre thing to say. And it’s exactly 100% the opposite of valid historical reasoning.

    Gathercole is worried about “appeals to very particular passages” in the body of texts Christians regarded then as scriptures “which neither Paul nor his readers can be presumed to have known,” but on what basis can he know they “didn’t know” particular passages? Obviously there was an extensive amount of scriptural exegesis, study, and teaching Paul and other Apostles disseminated to all his congregations that isn’t mentioned in Paul’s letters. He repeatedly reveals this when he cites obscure passages in scripture making his points, all in ways that clearly indicate his audience well knew what he was talking about. I should hardly have to cite examples. They exist in nearly every chapter of every letter.

  4. Lol, so all my posts aren’t getting removed now. It’s so absurd because all I’m doing to addressing the topic. What a joke.

    Here is my most recent post, before it gets deleted:

    “Since my other post got deleted, I’ll provide a simpler summary of the point:
    The problem with the history of Christian origins is that the field is dominated by theologians. Virtually everyone in the field has a degree in divinity or theology, not history, and yet these theologians are treated as if they are historians.

    And when it comes to real historians, almost none of them actually engage in real primary research in the field, they just refer to biblical scholars, all of whom are theologians. So the reality is that there are virtually no real historians that have done any meaningful research on Christian origins.

    When you read about Christian origins you are almost always either A) reading the work of a theologian or B) reading the work of a historian who is citing theologians.

    The problem is that historians treat theologians with PhDs as if they are real peers, when in fact they are not. Yes, they have a PhD, but it has nothing to with with the study of real history, and certainly nothing to do with the learning of proper historical or analytical methodology.

    The first step is in acknowledged that a PhD in divinity or theology gives you just as much authority on the subject of Christian history as a degree in basket weaving, because that’s the truth of the matter. Theologians are not historians, and in fact, training in theology provides a significant bias against real knowledge and real understanding of history or even proper historical methodology.”

    1. A number of wikipedia articles once included references to this Vridar blog. Someone took exception to that and I understand a careful combing of Wikipedia was carried out to remove all citations of Vridar. The reason given was that a blog is not considered a valid citation. I would be interested to know if they have combed Wikipedia to remove all citations to any and every other blog.

      1. I hardly ever come across a Wiki article I’m interested in without some boilerplate disdaining “original research” and asking for more “secondary sources”. Their disdain of Vridar does mean I will have more spare cash to spend on friends and relatives at Yuletide. Their loss.

        Speaking of spare cash, is there any way of directly supporting this site? The labourer is worth his wage as pseudo-Paul has it.

        1. I think the irony is that Vridar cites and alerts readers to secondary sources in abundance.

          Thank you for the offer of support. But I myself still contribute from time to time to Wikipedia, despite its many faults – which are outweighed by the greater good.

          Our regular expenses are for site hosting, interlibrary loan fees, and an unlimited zotero resource database. What I’d love is a volunteer who could assist in repairs to old posts (e.g. lost images) and organizing them into categories.

    2. • Religion Profs certainly have overcome many challenges:

      Durant, Will; Durant, Ariel (1944). “XXVI — Jesus — 4 B.C.-A.D. 30”. Caesar and Christ, a history of Roman civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325. The Story of Civilization III. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 558. ISBN 978-1-4516-4760-0.

      [I]t is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church. The evangelists shared with Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus the conception of history as a vehicle for moral ideas. And presumably the conversations and speeches reported in the Gospels were subject to the frailties of illiterate memories, and the errors or emendations of copyists.

      NB: The Durants asserted the historicity of Jesus despite these issues.

      1. • Schweitzer, Albert (1910) [1906 in German]. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. p. 342.

        Paul shows us with what complete indifference the earthly life of Jesus was regarded by primitive Christianity.

        NB: Schweitzer asserted the historicity of Jesus despite this issue.

        • Hoffmann, R. Joseph (15 May 2009). “The Jesus Tomb Debacle: RIP”. The New Oxonian.

        In the light of Paul’s complete disregard for the “historical” Jesus . . . it is unimaginable that he would assert a biological relationship between James and “the Lord.”

        NB: Hoffmann asserts the historicity of Jesus despite this issue.

              1. But it’s not just Paul. The letters from James and Jude are even more indifferent and so is the Apocalypse of John.

                Indeed really ALL of early Christian literature, except the Gospels, is indifferent to the life of Jesus.

                I’m still blown away from the epistle of James. To me this letter is an absolute smoking gun. I can’t believe more people don’t talk about it.

                I mean, the fact that the author talks extensively about suffering and doesn’t even mention Jesus, instead talking about the suffering of the ancient prophets. IMO, there is no way to explain that other than that the author did not conceive of Jesus as having suffered (which implies that the crucifixion of Jesus is a Pauline invention).

              2. the crucifixion of Jesus is a Pauline invention

                Burton Mack argued that a Greek “myth of martyrdom” and the “noble death” tradition influenced hellenized Jews per the crucifixion of Jesus.

              3. Godfrey, Neil (20 July 2018). “The Tyrannies of Paul and Jesus’ Death in Modern Studies of Christian Origins”. Vridar.

                The eucharist is an important instruction in the Didache but it is a thanksgiving meal without any suggestion of association with a sacrament commemorating the death of Jesus.

                Other scholars have also noted Q’s absence of interest in a crucified Jesus.

                So to make a judgement that a saying in a gospel is not “distinctively Christian” because it does not conform to Paul’s preaching is to limit one’s view of the landscape of earliest Christianity.

        1. The reply button has gone awol further down. This is re the last about Didache and Q. Strip out G.Mark and the birth narrative from G.Mtt and what is left is far too similar in my opinion to Didache to be coincidence. We catch this act in the NHM: the text of the letter/revelatory epistleEugnostos the Blessed is put into the mouth of Jesus in The Sophia of Jesus Christ. We don’t need to invent a “Source”: we’ve had a more than plausible one available to us for seventy-odd years.

    3. RG Price, I agree with you that a historical bias is built into orthodox Christian theology, and that one should be cautious in accepting the grand and rather snobbish claims of historical authority often asserted by New Testament scholars and their adherents. However, I think you overstate your point to say that “training in theology provides a significant bias against real knowledge.”

    1. Comment #9 – John MacDonald – 09/25/2015 per McGrath (2015). “The Bible and Interpretation – Mythicism and the Making of Mark”. http://www.bibleinterp.com.

      What can we know for sure about Jesus?

      (1) Regarding the historicity of Jesus, the only two events subject to “almost universal assent” among New Testament Scholars are that (A) Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and (B) was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate. (A) can somewhat be put into dispute because the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist (as I said in a previous comment) seems to serve a theological function, and so can’t be traced back to the historical Jesus: Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.). He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). And it would make sense Mark would model John the Baptist on Elijah because Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” And, as Price argues:

      “Jesus’ Baptism ( Mark 1:9-11)

      The scene has received vivid midrashic coloring. The heavenly voice (bath qol) speaks a conflation of three scriptural passages. “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11) combines bits and pieces of Psalm 2:7, the divine coronation decree, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you;” Isaiah 42:1, the blessing on the returning Exiles, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;” and Genesis 22:12 (LXX), where the heavenly voices bids Abraham to sacrifice his “beloved son.” And as William R. Stegner points out, Mark may have in mind a Targumic tradition whereby Isaac, bound on the altar, looks up into heaven and sees the heavens opened with angels and the Shekinah of God, a voice proclaiming, “Behold, two chosen ones, etc.” There is even the note that the willingness of Isaac to be slain may serve to atone for Israel’s sins. Here is abundant symbolism making Jesus king, servant, and atoning sacrifice. In view of parallels elsewhere between John and Jesus on the one hand and Elijah and Elisha on the other, some (Miller) also see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior.”

      (B) can somewhat be put into dispute because Paul says Jesus died “According to scripture (1 Cor 15:3),” which could either mean that (i) Jesus’s crucifixion was fulfilling scripture, or (ii) that Paul discovered Jesus’ crucifixion through an allegorical reading of Hebrew scriptures. In either case Jesus’ crucifixion in Paul serves a theological function, so it can be doubted as to whether it can be traced back to the historical Jesus. Paul also doesn’t mention Pilate, so this may be a Markan invention.

      (2) Elements whose historical authenticity is almost universally disputed include the two accounts of the Nativity of Jesus, the miraculous events including the resurrection, and details about the crucifixion (because of the apparent exegetical use of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 by Mark to construct the crucifixion narrative).

    2. Is not Carrier a Dr. also? I find that the math weakens Dr. Carrier’s arguments (distracting with numbers as they are) – but then, math is not my strong suit.

      1. You can ignore the maths; Richard’s argument is more than adequately delivered in words. It is, after all, more or less the Doherty Thesis tidied up to meet PhD standards.

        You and Rene Salm (sp.?) have drawn attention to paralells in your own philosophy’s (well previous?) tradition. Much of Christian “revelation” is shared and pre-empted across many religious philosophies and religions. You are probably within your rights to sue the Pope for copyright infringement: of the shared commonalities; your’s are almost certainly the prior art!

  5. I am heartily sick of this mantra of theirs. For me it is a matter of “simple” reading comprehension; a skill I’m told I aquired reading the Guardian (!) and Manchester Evening News when I was three and reinforced haunting libraries as soon as I was able to get a ticket. I was confirmed in the Roman Catholic church when I was eight. This involved catechism classes. I may be retrojecting memory here but it was always obvious from my experience as a catechumen that Roman Catholicism was originally a mystery cult. I was in my early ‘teens when I read G. A. Wells, took his advice, and read Paul without R.C. spectacles. Well, duh! Jesus had left the building.

    I have no idea what New Testament these folk are reading; but it isn’t the one I’ve been familiar with for nigh on fifty years. Here I stand; I can do no other. Just as Luther resented and rejected having his Bible “interpreted” to him by prattling “prelates”; I resent and reject having my Bible “interpreted” for me by “scholarly” scoundrels. No man shall come between Book, Word and I, for such are Reified and Sacred to me; AND I WILL NOT THOLE IT.

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