Not All Historians Are Equal

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by Neil Godfrey

I have often tried to point out how historians as a rule have very different standards and methods for verifying past events from those we too often find among Bible scholars writing about Christian origins and Jesus himself. Two statements of “non-biblical” historians I have quoted in the past epitomize the divide between the two fields:

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.Donald Harman Akenson

and when discussing a prominent New Testament scholar’s efforts to sift the historically probable from the mythical accretions in the gospels a leading ancient historian concluded:

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. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell.Moses Israel Finley

But look what another prominent modern historian has written about the historical veracity underlying the Gospels. It is found in his book titled A Student’s Guide to the Study of History.

Consider the very words of the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 2:

And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. / This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. / And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. / And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. / And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. / And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn….

This description—or account—is exactly and thoroughly historical. There is nothing even remotely comparable to that in the accounts of the coming of other gods or founders of religions, whether Greek or Roman or Oriental. Unlike other founders of religions before him, Jesus Christ was a historical person. For believing Christians he was not only a historical person of course, but that is not our argument here. The historicity of Jesus Christ (which we may regard as God’s great gift to mankind) is incontestable: there exist Jewish and Roman and other sources about the fact of his existence, though not of course of all his deeds and sayings (or of their meaning). The very writing of St. Luke is marked by the evidence of something new at that time: of historical thinking.  — John Lukacs, pp 14f. of Student’s Guide — italics original in all quotations; bolding is mine.

Three things to note:

  1. The primary reason Lukacs claims to believe in the historicity of Jesus is the writing style of the Gospel of Luke;
  2. Who would ever have expected to read in a book for students of history the reminder that Jesus Christ may be regarded as “God’s great gift to mankind”?
  3. Other sources testifying to Jesus are added in what appears to be a secondary note that merely confirms the conclusion to be drawn from the first.

Four points to ponder:

— 1. The actual content of that passage in Luke’s gospel is itself fiction! There never was a world-wide census requiring persons to return to their “own cities” to be counted. Such an event is entirely fanciful. Imagine the nightmare of trying to enforce it in reality. The scenario is a fairy-tale event told in the historical genre. The same historical genre goes on to depict angels in the sky talking to shepherds, a virgin giving birth and a host of other miraculous and supernatural events. Are we really to conclude from the “historical style” of Luke that it must be about genuine historical persons and events?

— 2. The Jewish and Roman sources are all written a century and more after the supposed event and can only tell us what some people at that time believed. Worse, some of those sources have a history of being disputed as forgeries. Those kinds of sources — where the origins of the narratives cannot be known — are never embraced as secure and foundational in other historical research.

— 3. Second Temple Judean fiction is known to embrace the historical style but that is no reason to conclude that the contents of those narratives are historical. Witness the historical style introducing the fanciful stories of Esther . . .

This is what happened in the days of Xerxes, who reigned over 127 provinces from India to Cush. In those days King Xerxes sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa. In the third year of his reign, Xerxes held a feast for all his officials and servants. The military leaders of Persia and Media were there, along with the nobles and princes of the provinces. And for a full 180 days he displayed the glorious riches of his kingdom and the magnificent splendor of his greatness.

of Tobit . . .

The tale of Tobit son of Tobiel, son of Ananiel, son of Aduel, son of Gabael, of the lineage of Asiel and tribe of Naphtali. In the days of Shalmaneser king of Assyria, he was exiled from Thisbe, which is south of Kedesh-Naphtali in Upper Galilee, above Hazor, some distance to the west, north of Shephat.

of Daniel . . .

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god. Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility.

— 4. But fiction told with historical verisimilitude was not unique to the Judeans. The Greco-Roman literary world knew it well. If Homer had written a history of the Trojan war with gods fighting humans, a later author appealed to the more rational and sceptical readers of a later generation by finding an account that explained “how it really happened – historically!”

Cornelius Nepos sends greetings to his Sallustius Crispus.

While I was busily engaged in study at Athens, I found the history which Dares the Phrygian wrote about the Greeks and the Trojans. As its title indicates, this history was written in Dares’ own hand. I was very delighted to obtain it and immediately made an exact translation into Latin, neither adding nor omitting anything, nor giving any personal touch. Following the straightforward and simple style of the Greek original, I translated word for word. Thus my readers can know exactly what happened according to this account and judge for themselves whether Dares the Phrygian or Homer wrote the more truthfully-Dares, who lived and fought at the time the Greeks stormed Troy, or Homer, who was born long after the War was over. When the Athenians judged this matter, they found Homer insane for describing gods battling with mortals. . . . — letter claiming to be by the discoverer (Dares the Phrygian) of an eye-witness account of the Trojan War (by Dictys of Crete)

There are people today who still believe in “a historical core” behind one ancient tale told with all seriousness, even though it was originally presented by a philosopher as a myth:

Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.

Other examples could fill a book but I’ll limit myself to just one particularly dry, matter-of-fact biographical/historical narrative introduction:

I set out one day from the Pillars of Hercules and sailed with a following wind into the western ocean. My voyage was prompted by an active intellect and a passionate interest in anything new; the object I proposed to myself was to discover the limits of the ocean and what men dwelt beyond it. For this reason I took a great deal of food on board, and plenty of water. I got hold of fifty men of my own age and interests, as well as quite a store of arms, hired the best navigator I could find at a considerable salary, and strengthened the ship—a light transport—for a long and trying voyage. — from Lucian, A True History.

Is there any reason to disbelieve this introduction? Yes, there is. In this case the author warned us of exactly what he was about to write. We read in the lines immediately preceding that passage:

My subject, then, is things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else: . . . So my readers must not believe a word I say.

The author was in fact writing a parody of works that pretended to be “true histories”:

I trust the present work will be found to inspire such reflection. My readers will be attracted . . . by the novelty of the subject, the appeal of the general design, and the conviction and verisimilitude with which I compound elaborate prevarications, . . . So when I came across all these writers, I did not feel that their romancing was particularly reprehensible; evidently it was already traditional, even among professed philosophers; though what did surprise me was their supposition that nobody would notice they were lying.

So why would Lukacs have confessed to being persuaded by the historical style of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke — apparently blind to the fact that that style was being used to to describe a fictional event? Another historian pointed us to where we are likely to find the answer:

[T]he reader . . . must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St Jude’s, goes round to a friend at St Jude’s to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean ; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. — E. H. Carr, p. 23 of What is History?

John Lukacs (source)

We don’t have to ask a friend who may know John Lukacs. We have Lukacs giving an account of the bee in his bonnet in We at the Center of the Universe. There he writes:

. . . I happen to believe in God, and that Christ was his son. (Why I believe this, or perhaps why I wish to believe it, is not easy to tell, being part and parcel of my interior life — something that does not belong here.) Still, what this belief means, and what it ought to mean, is a recognition that Christ’s life among us, on this earth, may have been the cen­tral event in the history of mankind. If so, then this histor­ical event took place in what was then (and not only then but since and in the future) the center of the universe. I know that, being such a believer, I am among a minority of human beings. . . . 

To this I wish to add my anxiety about many believing Christians whose belief in Christ may be honest, sincere, and profound. Evidence suggests that their view of the world and of its history now exists together with, or at least alongside, their belief in endless progress, including the power of humankind to know and rule more and more of the universe, beyond this small planet where God makes us live. Sometimes I fear that as the life of Christ—only 2,000 years ago, a tiny portion of what we know of the history of mankind—becomes further and further away because of the passage of time, the meaning of his words, his life, his calvary may weaken in the imagination of men. . . . — Lukacs, pp. 8f of At the Center.


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

Carr, Edward Hallet. What Is History? New York: Vintage, 1967.

Finley, M. I. Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1972.

Frazer, Jr., R. M., trans. The Trojan War: The Chronicles of Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press, 1966.

Lucian. “A True Story.” In Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon, translated by B. P. Reardon, 619–49. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Lukacs, John. A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014.

Lukacs, John. We at the Center of the Universe. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustines Press, 2017.

Plato. Timaeus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.