Ouch! A “professional historian” has something to say about the methods of “biblical scholars”

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by Neil Godfrey


He said it, not me:

[I]t is appropriate to discuss the questions of when specific [New Testament] texts were written, how the early versions were stacked together, and what their dates of origin may be, and how these matters of dating relate to early Christianity and to the questions of the “historical Jesus.” In that discussion . . . I shall suggest that, from the viewpoint of a professional historian, there is a good deal in the methods and assumptions of most present-day biblical scholars that makes one not just a touch uneasy, but downright queasy. Try as I might, I cannot come even as close to believing in the soundness of their enterprise as King Agrippa did to believing in Pauline Christianity: “Almost thou persuadest me …” (Acts 26:28).

Akenson, Donald Harman. 2001. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. New edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (p. 214)

. . .

(Compare the comments of another prominent historian, Moses I. Finley, on the methods and assumptions of a prominent biblical scholar of his generation, Maurice Goguel: https://vridar.org/2019/04/04/can-we-find-history-beneath-the-literary-trappings/)

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16 thoughts on “Ouch! A “professional historian” has something to say about the methods of “biblical scholars””

  1. I think Biblical scholars are far more historically minded than many professional historians. I think it is because the latter are perpetuating a dogma – they must build on what their predecessors have put together. However, Biblical scholars are recognised more for their uniqueness and attention to detail. This gives them the edge imo.

    I’m just a n00b to all this anyway so it’s not that I have any weight to my opinion, but this is how I perceive things.

    1. I too am at best an extremely amateurish observer here. Your calling attention to the interaction of detail and dogma is, I believe, proper. Your comment about the ‘uniqueness’ of the work of ‘Biblical scholars’ is one I somewhat agree with and I suspect Neil might agree with even more than I. I agree also with your reluctance to defer automatically to ‘many professional historians’.

      However the problem with ‘Biblical scholars’ is precisely their attention to details and the context in which they do it. They may be able to cite any number of details, literally chapter and verse. But this ability is not necessarily so useful. Many divergent ‘Biblical scholars’ have come to widely divergent opinions on many things using their own selections of details. For that matter, the leaders of the weirdest sects have often been able to cite chapter-and-verse contrary to usual historical perspectives, dogmatic or not (just cherry-picking from them) in ways that are, after a fashion, highly rigorous and consistent in many respects.

      The problem does have to do with context. For the ‘Biblical scholar’ the context is their own religious faith (whether you want to call it ‘dogma’ or not) or that of their employer or milieu and peer group. Facts, very much including historical facts, are liable be secondary and thus to be twisted to fit this perspective. Faith, dogma, or the faith or dogma of peers and possibly employers is the context in which the details are assembled and presented.

      However I am not sure that historians are necessarily to be fully trusted either. In the past, many have proven highly misguided by their own (or their departments’) political, social, and cultural biases, of which they may have been unaware. I am not so certain that what appears to be rigorous historical analysis today will not necessarily look ridiculous in the future. Moreover historians may taint their work with hidden, possibly unconscious religious biases of their own–these biases, being less obvious than those of ‘Biblical scholars’ could at times be particularly deceptive. Nevertheless, I personally am rather inclined to go with a historian than a ‘Biblical scholar’ all other things being equal, because the historical scholar will tend to prefer most avoiding an error of fact whereas the ‘Biblical scholar’ may more prefer avoiding an error of faith.

      Or so I, as an outsider, tend to believe.

    1. You are kind. Thank you.

      Please indulge me if I elaborate with 2 more thoughts:

      First, in stating that historians may have religious biases, possibly sneakier than those of ‘Biblical scholars’ because not obvious (even to themselves), I also mean that they may have anti-religious biases. Additionally, I personally suspect that atheism (and even agnosticism) can constitute a sort of blinding faith as much as any religious adherence.

      Second, I have to hold as particularly suspect by default the opinions of ‘Biblical scholars’ in theology depts and the like who might maintain that they are not believers. I would have to suspect, until proven otherwise in a given case, that such persons are liable to undergo all sorts of ideological and emotional contortions to get along with employers and peers who are driven by the dogma of ‘faith’ or at least the given faith-based propriety of their milieu. These people and their works may be particularly lacking in self-awareness (I hope they are not deliberately deceptive to get along) yet clever and erudite with the attention to detail to which you refer. Thus they may tend to be particularly insidiously misleading. However I am unfamiliar personally such persons or their work, so I am guessing (extrapolating from my own prior professional and personal experience) and thus do not know that any such person is incorrect. Thus I may be unfair. Even if they are misleading, however, they can thereby be helpful in inducing carefully argued responses.

  2. Biblical scholars themselves have expressed some disillusionment with the largely prevailing methods of many of their peers. See, for example, the criticisms of the assumptions of many biblical historians that underly their reconstructions of “biblical Israel” — see Bible Scholars Who Get History Right.

    That same problem of circularity applies as much to many studies on the historical Jesus and Christian origins.

    One specific problem with NT historical studies that Akenson himself mentions is the tendency to always date documents as early as possible in order to given them more authenticity and value as historical sources:

    Nevertheless, the scholarly work on the Gospel of Thomas is illuminating, for it illustrates a particularly invasive phenomenon among biblical scholars, namely downward-dating-creep. When one observes this pattern with any Christian document, it is a warning light to the observer: watch carefully and count the spoons. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas is from the second half of the fourth century. The tiny fragments of the Greek version are dated 200 CE, or a bit before. However, within the scholarly community there is an almost-magical belief in low numbers, and this despite the existence of the well-known fact in secular history that later texts are often more accurate than earlier ones. However, in biblical studies, setting the dating of a document as early as possible gives it more heft and, not incidentally, thereby helps one’s career. Therefore, although there is no compelling reason to suggest that the Gospel of Thomas was composed at any particular date before that dictated by its calligraphy (late second century), the Jesus Seminar, which was particularly keen on its content, stated that “Thomas probably assumed its presentform by 100 CE. (449f)

    Another biblical scholar agrees with this criticism of his peers: see <https://vridar.org/2012/01/01/scientific-and-unscientific-dating-of-the-gospels/” target=”_blank”>Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels.

    The “queasiness” of Akenson is not about attention to details. It is about unsupported assumptions and circularity of argument.

    See, further, the comments of another prominent historian, one in the field of ancient history, Moses I. Finley, set out in the post at https://vridar.org/2019/04/04/can-we-find-history-beneath-the-literary-trappings/ One example is his comment on a “criterion of authenticity” that claims to be able to work out what “would have been true”: Finley notes:

    This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied.

    An increasing number of biblical scholars have come to acknowledge that their criteria of authenticity are invalid for any number of reasons. They don’t work and they are not used in any other field of historical research in order to determine “what happened” as far as I am aware. Finley says he knows of no such magic method to uncover the past.

    Some biblical historians have replaced the criteria of authenticity with social memory theory, but from what I have been able to see so far some of them seem to misunderstand and misapply memory theory as it is set out by nonbiblical scholars. Others simply apply it to imaginary scenarios and claim the results “approximate” what “probably happened”. Such methods are simply not found in historical studies elsewhere.

  3. Another example we saw recently is the reliance of many scholars on hypothetical documents.

    Granted, it is theoretically possible (although very highly improbable) that these everdescending datings are historically correct but the warning light that is set off by downward-dating-creep should be heeded not only here, but with particular assiduousness when one encounters . . . hypothetical documents which are said to have been framed before 70 ce. These fictive documents merit special attention because, without presenting any verifiable text, they propel the discussion into an era prior to the invention of the primary history of Christianity: the Four Gospels and the Book of Acts. Hence, these hypothetical documents automatically obtain a privileged position in the chronology of Christian invention that is equal to that of the earliest actual Christian documents that we possess, the letters of Paul. Warning light.

    I have formally studied a lot of history of Western civilizations and continued to read much since those years and I do not know of any other historical research area that places the same weight on hypothetical sources that many biblical scholars have tended to do.

    1. Good stuff.

      Akenson, Donald H. (2001). Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-01073-1.

      [I]n biblical studies, setting the dating of a document as early as possible gives it more heft and, not incidentally, thereby helps one’s career. —(p. 549)
      [I]f one is employing “Q” or any other hypothetical gospel to get closer to an understanding of the historical Yeshua, then watch carefully for downward-dating creep. This has been mentioned earlier. The scholars who create the hypothetical gospels usually invest them with greater importance than they otherwise would have, by positing early dates for them. This is simple hubris in most instances. —(p. 575)

  4. Since the Criteria of Authenticity could equally produce the same kinds of results from an “authentic historical biography” as they could a “historical fiction biography,” I’m not sure what use they are if the historicity of some or all of the biographical data is in question. It would seem that, in Biblical Studies, the Criteria do not establish historicity so much as assume it. The criteria of embarrassment could, for instance, distill a number of “facts” about the fictional character “Anne of Green Gables.”

  5. Just a head up my fellow bloggers here who are all interested in historical and other matters discussed here.

    Some time ago I read Akenson’s book Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus… 2000. I liked much of it but he is surely not on board with any Jesus Myth Theory.

    I find it odd as many before me and others that such incredible insightful scholars such as Akenson engage in much hermeneutical hypocrisy when it comes to many things…and won’t apply the same vigorous standards they use in this or that, and won’t apply it to Saul or Paul or constructs of Saul/Paul as he does…. and other texts one holds dear…..

    To some extent at times we surely engage in such procedures or critical processes that may reveal motives or fears that control our readings of ancient texts considered historical or otherwise…and come out quite different from others…

    we are all illegitimate children of Reformation Sola Scriptura… licensed to interpret the texts as they have come down to us ….and with no final authority telling how to interpret them….

    Again, I have found much of Akenson so helpful….

    R. G. Price , if you read this ,you must read it if you haven’t already ….and others…to deal with your own ideas…. and go further to help the rest of us here to rethink things, no matter who it comes from …go for it , and see where it goes……especially in his discussion of Acts 9 and Saul/Paul in Acts. Again the Acts vs. Paul himself scenario of so-called getting the facts….

    Thanks Neil for providing a brief window into Akenson’s thoughts and insights but these must be examined closely since there is still an agenda that I feel at work in his work that is still trying to prove the historical existence of Jesus.. and I would love to hear some thoughts and lay and scholarly spins on these things from the bloggers here. Has anyone read his book on Saul/Paul.???.. unless I am totally unaware that Neil has already covered it earlier at this site.

    Again, Neil …. interesting as usual… your blogs are so diverse and stimulating..

    I offer these heads-up comments to stir further critical reflection…and clarifications..

    Much goodness everyone!

    Marty Lewadny

    1. Hi again, Martin. Yes, Akenson certainly has no doubts about the historical existence of Jesus. He writes (and again laments the lack of “sound historical practice”):

      The quest of the historical Yeshua is not a search for a non-existent being: Yeshua the man certainly existed. Nor are “New Testament” historians Bears of Very Little Brain: quite the opposite; they represent some of the more supple intelligences of our time. However, the more one immerses oneself in the continually-growing literature concerning the historical Yeshua, the more one realizes how dependent emotionally and cognitively the scholars are on each other, and how comforted they are by the ever-growing band of footprints that fill their path. Certainly their quarry must be just ahead. This co-dependence is exhibited by the richness of cross-citation found in the literature. The ratio of primary citation to secondary citation is very low. Of course, “New Testament’ historians disagree with each other: scholars, like lawyers, are paid to joust. And like lawyers who take opposing sides, and even do so with conviction, the various opponents are all part of the same evidentiary system. The point that I shall argue below is that, with very few exceptions, the agreed evidentiary practices of the historians of Yeshua, despite their best efforts, have not been those of sound historical practice. (p. 540)

      I have read most of Surpassing Wonder and have seen no grounds discussed for his confidence that “the man certainly existed”. The overall thrust of the book is to address the origins of the literature at the heart of Christianity and Judaism and so much of the literary argument he addresses seems to me to likewise account for the origin of the Jesus figure of the gospels.

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