How To Do (and not do) History – by Historians Biblical and Non-Biblical

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by Neil Godfrey

I said I needed to add a complementary post to Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?, one that presented the positive side of historical research showing what is a valid approach by way of contrast with the often fallacious methods and unjustified assumptions of much scholarly research into Christian origins and the historical Jesus.

But soon afterwards I remembered that I have already set out that post and pinned it as one of the Pages in the right hand column of this blog: HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins. There is little more that I can add to what I wrote there.

Christoph Heilig

As for the question or relevance of Bayesian analysis in historical research reasoning I recommend a post by Christoph Heilig, author of Hidden Criticism? The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul, What Bayesian Reasoning Can and Can’t Do for Biblical Research on the Zürich New Testament Blog. (Of course there is Richard Carrier’s book, Proving history: Bayes’s theorem and the quest for the historical Jesus, and I do get the impression that compared with responses to On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, few critics have actually engaged with that presentation by Carrier. So if you are one of those who are ad hominem focused so that you treat anything by Carrier as wrong I suggest you read Heilig’s discussion instead.)

Historical research methods are really not difficult in principle, though. Niels Peter Lemche sums it all up most succinctly in something of his that I quoted in another post:

The question about historical information in the OT is a classical historical-critical issue. Here the only demand is that any investigation must be complete and take into consideration every piece of evidence, and there is no question that should not be asked (such as the alleged historicity of David and Solomon). 

This should be rather evident, and it is remarkable that is to many people is not, and then begins another project: to find out why it is so difficult for many biblical scholars to go all the way with their critical studies which in this way turn out to be not critical at all but faith based.

Lemche, Niels Peter, 2019. “28392SV: [biblical-studies] What is Minimalism?Biblical Studies – Yahoo Groups.

That was posted on a scholarly biblical studies discussion list. I cannot help but strongly suspect that had Lemche also referenced the words of his recently departed peer, Philip R. Davies, and included the name Jesus beside David and Solomon, his post would not have been accepted so quietly there.

Philip Davies

[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past (recte: The Messiah Myth) shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored.Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012

Just one final point. Lemche has also pointed to the unscholarly tone of certain criticisms:

. . . .  in creating an image of a scholar who does not know his stuff. It can be done in a gentle way, as in Long’s introduction. It can be sharpened as in the quote by J.K. Hoffmeister, cited in Long’s introduction, or it can be rude as found in several publications by W.G. Dever and other scholars on the same line like G. Rendsburg. The meaning is the same: do not discuss the points made by these people; just say that they are incompetent.

Richard J. Evans

Those words came to mind yesterday as I was reading a work by a well respected historian of modern Germany, Richard Evans. He is addressing the work of another historian (or amateur) who lacked formal scholarly qualifications and here is how he explained his approach. It was not sufficient to sneeringly dismiss David Irving as a “Holocaust Denier”:

Despite all this, Irving had never held a post in a university history department or any other academic institution. He did not even have a degree. He had started a science degree at London University but never finished it. “I am an untrained historian,” he had confessed in 1986. “History was the only subject I flunked when I was at school.” Several decades on from his self-confessedly disastrous schoolboy encounter with the subject, however, Irving clearly laid great stress on the fact that the catalogue of his work demonstrated that he had now become a ‘reputable historian’:

As an independent historian, I am proud that I cannot be threatened with the loss of my job, or my pension, or my future. Other historians around the world sneer and write letters to the newspapers about ‘David Irving, the so-called historian’, and then they demand, ‘Why does he call himself a Historian anyway? Where did he study History? Where did he get his Degree? What, No Degree in History, then why historian or not? Was Tacitus? Did he get a degree in some university? Thucydides? Dihde get a degree? And yet we unashamedly call them historians – we call them historians because they wrote history which has done (recte: gone) down the ages as accepted true history.

This was true. Irving could not be dismissed just because he lacked formal qualifications.

Evans, Richard J. 2002. Lying About Hitler. New York: Basic Books. 5f

How many tenured scholars in biblical studies have the same approach as the one Richard Evans recognized was important for public perceptions in a debate related to the Holocaust?

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “How To Do (and not do) History – by Historians Biblical and Non-Biblical”

  1. Thanks for that pointer to Heilig. I’m enjoying his papers on Academiadotedu now. It seems a bit remiss that he only quotes Tucker (2004) even in his newest papers. But his writing is pleasantly clear and non-verbose.

  2. Part of Davies’ quote is incoherent. He implies that Thompson’s book Mythic Past deals with the New Testament; it does not. Mythic Past is a work of Old Testament minimalism.
    Did Davies lose track of his subject in mid-sentence? Or did he mean to refer to a different Thompson book, The Messiah Myth?

      1. I can’t agree. Davies’ sentence is about the feeling that “the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked”, meaning the question of Jesus’ historicity. Ehrman’s response to Mythic Past (if he made any) would be completely out of place here. My guess is Ehrman never did respond to Mythic Past (why would he?), but responded to The Messiah Myth, and that is what Davies meant to say.

            1. I just realised I should have checked the article before commenting (as of course it’s online) 😐 and came back to do that. Perhaps Davies got mixed up …

    1. • Thompson is reading the themes and motifs found in the gospels in the context of the ancient tradition of the entire “Middle East”.

      Mǖller, Morgens. “Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus” in T.L. Thompson and T.S. Verenna, eds., Is This Not the Carpenter (Equinox, 2012), 117-118.

      [When] my friend and former colleague, Thomas L. Thompson, in The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David from 2005 seeks to dissolve the Jesus figure of the Gospels as a historical figure, making him, so to speak, the epitome of biblical and other—far older—Near Eastern concepts of a royal Messiah, the question of historicity invites us to look in other directions for an answer, rather than to try to identify ipsissima verba Iesu or situations which could have been historical recollections. This is not to deny that the Jesus story in the Gospels is saturated with reminiscences of Old Testament figures and events, the Old Testament being the medium of the Near Eastern Messiah myth. Moreover, in this respect, Thomas L. Thompson’s book is an abundant and impressive arsenal of evidence.

      Thompson, Thomas L. (2009) [2005]. “Historicizing the Figure of Jesus, the Messiah”. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. Basic Books. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7867-3911-0.

      Whether the gospels in fact are biographies—narratives about the life of a historical person—is doubtful. Their pedagogical and legendary character reduces their value for historical reconstruction. New Testament scholars commonly hold the opinion that a historical person would be something very different from the Christ (or messiah), with whom, for example, the author of the Gospel of Mark identifies his Jesus (Hebrew: Joshua = savior), opening his book with the statement: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s son.”

      Thompson (2012). “The Bible and Interpretation – Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son?”. http://www.bibleinterp.com.

      Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth from 2005 among them…

      Davies (2012). “The Bible and Interpretation – Did Jesus Exist?”. http://www.bibleinterp.com.

      Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past Messiah Myth

    2. Thank you for pointing out the error. Bart Ehrman’s criticism in his Did Jesus Exist? was directed not at Thompson’s Mythic Past but at The Messiah Myth. Davies has obviously typoed, as you indicate. I have a lot of errata to note.

  3. Another example of bad “history”:

    JohnKesler March 17, 2019:
    “This Barabbas episode was firmly set in the early Christian memory of Jesus’ trial – it is found, with variations, in all four of the Gospels (Matthew 27:15-23; Luke 23:17-23; John 18:39-40). I do not see how it can be historically right, however; it appears to be a distorted memory.”
    Since you don’t think that John knew the Synoptic Gospels, John’s account of the custom to release a prisoner means that the custom is multiply attested (assuming that Mark is the source for Matthew and Luke). How could John and Mark independently arrive at the same “distorted memory,” whose source you later say is the desire to blame the Jews for Jesus’ murder? It seems like a big coincidence that two writers independent of one another decided to invent a custom to release a prisoner as the vehicle to blame the Jews.

    Bart Ehrman’s answer:

    Because the story was in wide circulation for years, decades, before either Mark or John heard it. Not a coincidence at all — it goes back to an oral tradition.(my bold)

    Bart Ehrman doesn’t know that Pilate plays a role in the Barabbas episode ONLY in virtue of what the Hebrew PLT (occurring in the name “Pilate”) means, given the immediate context: Pilate releases Barabbas because he is the “releaser” (the sense of PLT) during the “festival”.

    pâlaṭ, paw-lat’; a primitive root; to slip out, i.e. escape; causatively, to deliver:—calve, carry away safe, deliver, (cause to) escape.

    More info here.

    1. One doesn’t even have to use that argument (I doubt aMark knew Hebrew): the independence of John and the synoptics is far from certain. Some people have just been lulled into a false sense of security by the unusual authorial practices of aMatthew and aLuke.

      1. Claiming the independence of John is absurd.

        It’s like:

        Mark: The fox is brown and jumps high.
        Matthew: The fox is brown and jumps high.
        Luke: The fox is brown and jumped high.
        John: The brown fox was a high jumper and cleared the fence.


  4. Ehrman’s instance on multiple attestations is laughable.

    Mark invented the story, everyone else copied it, including “John”. The idea that John is independent is ludicrous.

    There was no early memory or oral tradition about this. Total nonsense. The whole trial is literary invention.

    1. Habermas, Gary ap. “Gary Habermas Fails At Proving Jesus Historically Existed || Did Jesus Exist”. YouTube. Godless Engineer. 1 April 2019.

      [03:27] Bart Ehrman is probably the best known skeptic in the world—New Testament scholar, an agnostic. In fact he called himself an agnostic leaning towards atheism and Bart Ehrman just on one thing alone—on the crucifixion. He lists 12 independent sources for the crucifixion. [03:50]

      Cf. “Dr. Gary Habermas explains why Jesus was a historical person”. YouTube. Please Tell Me the Truth Ministries. 24 September 2016.

      1. Laughable. Ehrman couldn’t identify dependency to save his life. And calling him a “skeptic” is a joke. Ehrman is an ex-Christian theologian. There are believing Christians who challenge traditional Christian history more than he does.

      2. Habermas’ characterisation of anyone as a skeptic carries about as much weight as Strobel’s. If they like your work, you should probably rethink your lifechoices.

  5. “Irving could not be dismissed just because he lacked formal qualifications.”

    That’s like saying a musician is not qualified for the job because because he can’t read music. I’ve known musicians that could play just as good, or better, than musicians that had a formal education.

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