Category Archives: Historical Methods and Historiography

A broad church. Initially included Historiography in the name. Is “History” too broad and potentially misleading? This category includes discussions of research methods by historians as well as philosophical discussions about both the nature of history and the nature of the writing of history. Includes the problematic methods of biblical scholars. Or should the latter be moved to Biblical Studies as incompatible with the former? (Compare the difference between astronomy and astrology.) Does not include the methods of research and narrating history by ancient authors. See under Ancient Literature.

King Arthur: Felled by Archaeology and DNA

Another fascinating program, King Arthur’s Britain: Truth Unearthed

As a boy, I read in children’s books that after the Romans evacuated Britain early in the fifth century the indigenous peoples fell into warlike anarchy and only came together again under the leadership of King Arthur to confront the new invaders from Europe, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who had driven the Britons back to the western part of the isles.

Screenshot of statue of Arthur from King Arthur’s Britain doco. I find its hollowness appropriate.

Just like the biblical story of King David, I am almost certain that the literary legends are fantasy. Archaeology and DNA, in their current state, appear to leave no room for such scenarios of mass invasions, displacements or a heroic King Arthur rising to save such a day.

Evidence datapoint #1: of the thousands of human skeletons from the period of the fifth and sixth centuries, only 2% have signs of sharp cutting blows that indicate a violent end.

Evidence datapoint #2: widespread and extensive archaeological digs indicate open farming settlements, not fortresses.

Evidence datapoint #3: Jewellery of a Saxon cruciform with a skeleton was long assumed to have been an indicator the person was a Saxon; but new x-ray technology applied to such jewellery shows that it was overlaid with a glass-based enamel that was characteristic of the crafts of the Britons and nowhere found in Europe. It thus appears that such jewellery points to Saxon influence of the design upon the crafts of the native Britons. We cannot assume that the Saxons displaced the Britons in the east.

Evidence datapoint #4: Ancient DNA tests show that some skeletons of the period were the products of intermarriage of Saxons and Britons.

Evidence datapoint #5: Modern DNA tests show a homogeneity of DNA mix among the population of central and western England; this area experienced the most concentrated Roman settlement and was easily traversable through Roman roads here. Other parts of the British Isles show less integrated DNA, suggesting that over the centuries these areas (in the west and south-west) integrated less with European settlers. The thorough mix of DNA in the central and east parts of England demonstrate an integration of populations, of Angles and Saxons with the Britons, and not a replacement of one population by the other.

The red represents homogenized DNA of indigenous inhabitants and European arrivals in the period of 5th-6th centuries.

Evidence datapoint #6: Pottery finds point to Britons (who had a major centre at Tintagel) were trading extensively by sea with Spain, North Africa, through to Anatolia or where modern Turkey is, all through the Byzantine era; meanwhile the eastern part of Britain was trading most with northern and north-western Europe, the Scandinavian and north European areas from where they had originated.

Conclusion: There were no population displacements with the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Rather, these newcomers probably set up in their self-contained communities at first but over time came to integrate with the indigenous population. It was more like the settlement of America, Italian Americans, German Americans, Black Americans, each coming in in their own “waves”.

There is no evidence of breakdown into violent anarchy. The two sides of Britain, west and east, appear to have been quite prosperous regions. There is even evidence of literacy among them. There was no scenario that fits the glorious, superhuman tales of King Arthur, happily.

A monk, Gilgal, from the supposed time of King Arthur, writes diatribes against the sins of the Britons and how the Saxon invasions were God’s punishment on them, but he makes no mention of Arthur and we have no way of testing his image of the times. He appears more devoted to writing “godly polemics”.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, our first recorder of King Arthur’s exploits, wrote in the twelfth century. Our material evidence, clay, rock and DNA, suggests his history is fantasy.

The question to ask is what was it about Geoffrey’s day that led him to write about a saviour king in troubled times.

Screen capture from the doco of Tintagel, a “Dark Ages” impression of the site of royal and major commercial centre of Britons trading with Byzantine people as far away as modern Turkey.

Scott, Kenny. 2018. King Arthur’s Britain: Truth Unearthed. BBC. https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/1419920963667/king-arthurs-britain-truth-unearthed. [Presented by Dr Alice Roberts]

Callaway, Ewen. 2015. “Uk Mapped Out by Genetic Ancestry.” Nature News. Accessed May 18, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2015.17136.

Leslie, Stephen, Bruce Winney, Garrett Hellenthal, Dan Davison, Abdelhamid Boumertit, Tammy Day, Katarzyna Hutnik, et al. 2015. “The Fine-Scale Genetic Structure of the British Population.” Nature 519 (7543): 309–14. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14230.


Logical Fallacies of Historians — Appeal to “Just Knowing”

I’m sidestepping Fischer and Newall for a moment to focus on one instance of a fallacy that both of them seem to have overlooked. It as one type of an “appeal to authority”.

[M]ost people do not have a sufficient background in the subject to properly evaluate the evidence. Anti-Stratfordians [those questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays] tend to be amateurs who have not read enough on Elizabethan theatre to see just how wildly implausible their ideas are. Let me give you an analogy. I can recognise the difference between a Yorkshire and Lancashire accent without very much trouble because I am English. I would never mistake an Irishman for a Scotsman. On the other hand, when I was living in New Jersey, I was frequently assumed to be Irish and had no idea that Californians sound different to Texans. Distinguishing accents isn’t something you tend to be taught. Rather you learn it by experience and by being immersed in a particular culture. It’s the same with history. If you have been studying a period for long enough, ideas like the anti-Stratfordians’ are as obviously incongruous as a baseball bat on a cricket pitch. (Hannam, xii)

The Latin label of that fallacy of appealing to authority is argumentum ad verecundiam. Verecundiam means shame or modesty; the idea being that an appeal to authority is an acknowledgement that the one making the argument lacks the expertise but modestly defers to another who is an expert. There is nothing modest about the above appeal, however. Yet it does demand modesty on the part of anyone who disagrees.

I found the following online explanation the most apt description where it is called Appeal to Confidence:

The arguer supports a position by appealing to himself as knowledgeable or trustworthy on the given subject, while at the same time declining to explain the actual reasons for a position. . . . 

The argument appeals to confidence-building phrases, such as “trust me,” or “take it from me,” or makes an explicit claim to authority, such as “I know what I’m talking about.” 

The historian who wrote that passage claiming that a historian “just knows” by being immersed in the field what is a valid argument and what is not is James Hannam (also author of God’s Philosophers). The difference between a valid and invalid idea cannot always be taught? That’s what he is saying there and it is perhaps relevant that he is not speaking of those who question whether Shakespeare wrote his plays but whether Jesus existed or not. The passage is from James Patrick Holding’s Shattering the Christ Myth. Hannam is the only professional historian contributing to that volume.

Hannam speaks of “experience” and “immersion in a particular culture”. That is indeed the critical factor. It is that sort of background that makes unquestioned assumptions so hard to identify and pull out for serious examination.

As for “cultural immersion” being a solid basis for identifying an anomalous argument, Hannam is clearly unaware of a growing number of biblical scholars (still a minority, of course) who do not consider the Jesus myth idea so “incongruous” as he suggests.


“Appeal to Confidence.” 2019. Bruce Thompson’s Fallacy Page. September 2019. https://www2.palomar.edu/users/bthompson/Appeal%20to%20Confidence.html.

Hannam, James. 2008. “A Historical Introduction to the Myth That Jesus Never Existed.” In Shattering the Christ Myth, edited by James Patrick Holding, xi–xvii. Xulon Press.


Logical Fallacies of Historians: After A, therefore Because of A

A related informal fallacy is post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) which holds that if one event follows another then the former must have caused the latter. (Similarly, cum hoc, ergo propter hoc involves the assertion “with this, therefore because of it.”) That Chamberlain’s government pursued a form of appeasement and then war followed does not imply that one necessitated the other. As before, the error lies in assuming that no other causes were operating.

(Newall, 265)

One form of the fallacy is the “follow the money trail” or the “who benefits” (que bono) principle in forming a historical argument.

From Who Are Russia’s Sanctioned Oligarchs uploaded by WSJ.

Several historians of post Soviet Russia have fallen into this error. Their argument is that market reforms following the collapse of the Communist government have benefitted a handful of elite oligarchs and that by a form of post hoc

It is tempting to argue post hoc ergo propter hoc: that those who benefitted from the market reforms were not only its main defenders, but even its principal instigators. So, market reform is seen to be the result of a deliberate policy by far-sighted communist bureaucrats to convert their collective political authority into private negotiable assets, an interpretation favored by both the Left (Kotz andWeir, 1997) and the Right (Satter, 2004; Hedlund, 2000).

But a more careful exploration of the actual evidence does not support that tempting theory:

Many of them were young and far removed from the core decision-making process in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their political influence came after they became wealthy, not before.

(Rutland, 339)

We have seen several comments on this blog making the same type of argument in relation to Christian origins. The example I list is not a dig at any person but simply an attempt to draw attention to what I see as a flaw in the argument that has been proposed here. Take this post as an invitation to strengthen the argument by removing their weaknesses:

  • Christianity is a fraud that mostly benefited lying priests; therefore fraudsters, charlatans, must have created it. Compare the fallacy of the historians of modern Russia above.

Another one posted in the comments here argues for a 9/11 conspiracy the same way:

  • US power has benefited from the 9/11 attacks; therefore US power by some conspiratorial process must have been behind the attacks.

Again, that’s another instance of the same fallacious reasoning.

It is a favourite of politicians:

  • After X was elected the economy grew, therefore the economy grew because I was elected.
From Forbes
Wikimedia Commons

Another example:

  • The Spanish Armada was thoroughly defeated by the English fleet and storms in 1588; from that time on we see the gradual demise of the Spanish empire: the loss of the Spanish Armada is said to be a major factor in the turning point in the fortunes of Spain’s power.

In fact, Spain’s empire continued without any losses for decades afterwards. It has also been shown that the loss of the Armada was followed by a serious development of the Spanish navy. There is little evidence that Spain and her place in the world suffered any long term damage as a result of the failure of 1588.

Fischer gives us another instance:

An example is provided by a female passenger on board the Italian liner Andrea Doria. On the fatal night of Doria‘s collision with the Swedish ship Gripsholm, off Nantucket in 1956, the lady retired to her cabin and flicked a light switch. Suddenly there was a great crash, and grinding metal, and passengers and crew ran screaming through the passageways. The lady burst from her cabin and explained to the first person in sight that she must have set the ship’s emergency brake!

(Fischer, 166)

https://56packardman.com/2016/08/21/steamship-sunday-the-collision-of-the-andrea-doria-and-stockholm/

To establish a hypothesis that event B was the result of the preceding event A the historical inquirer needs to point to evidence of a causal link. Simply declaring that “it is obvious” because one followed the other is not sufficient.

One frequently comes across this particular fallacy. Feel free to add more.

 


Fischer, David Hackett. 1970. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper.

Newall, Paul. 2009. “Logical Fallacies of Historians.” A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, edited by Aviezer Tucker and Mary Kane, Wiley-Blackwell.

Rutland, Peter. 2013. “Neoliberalism and the Russian Transition.” Review of International Political Economy 20 (2): 332–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2012.727844.


Logical Fallacies of Historians: the False Dilemma (Dichotomy)

A false dilemma is seen whenever only two possible options are given when there exist others. (This fallacy is also known as a false dichotomy). For example, a person might insist, “you’re either with me or against me” and hence force the listener to join forces or else be taken as an enemy. In general, we have the following:

P1: Either A or B;

P2: Not A;

C: Therefore, B.

The argument seems valid but a premise is missing; namely, something like “P3: No other options other than A and B exist.” It is often used for rhetorical effect; after all, if only two choices are available and one is unpalatable then we are forced to choose the other, even if we might otherwise have reservations.

(Newall, 264)

UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain greeted by Adolf Hitler (Wikimedia)

Some historians have fallen into this fallacious reasoning when addressing Neville Chamberlain’s responses to Hitler. Essentially the argument has been:

P1: Chamberlain had the option to either [A] stand up to Hitler and prevent war or [B] appease him and lead to further demands and world war.

P2: Chamberlain did not [A] stand up to Hitler and prevent war.

C: Therefore, [B] Chamberlain is to be blamed for making the cowardly choices that led to war.

What is missing are other “dilemmas” facing Chamberlain:

or C: Chamberlain believed Russia was a serious threat and believed Hitler would invade east, not west.

or D: Chamberlain feared Japan and Italy would take advantage of Britain being tied down with Germany to overrun British interests in Asia and the Mediterranean.

or E: Chamberlain knew Britain would not tolerate another war given their fresh memories of the horrors of the last one.

As summed up by Paul Newall: read more »

Logical Fallacies of Historians: Begging the Question

The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. . . . [I]t is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship. (Fischer, 49)

(Note that this expression is different from its misuse elsewhere to mean “this raises [or suggests] the question . . .”; here it has a specific, philosophical import.) — Newall, 264

Begging the question (or petitio principii) occurs when the conclusion of an argument is used to demonstrate it, thereby achieving a circular proof. (Newall, 264)

Fischer offers a silly example to illustrate.

A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :

Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes?

Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes.


(Tacit Assumption) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen.


Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Here are some other examples I’ve considered. Let me know if I have made mistakes or if you have others to add.

Inquiry: Has Trump been a good manager of the US economy?

Research: The GDP has increased under Trump’s presidency.

(Tacit Assumptions): Trump’s policies have been responsible for its growth and there are no negatives in the economy that outweigh the positive figures.

Conclusion: Therefore, Trump has been a good manager of the US economy.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Should Trump encourage people to try hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19?

Research: Trump and others say they have heard that many people have tried it and been cured of COVID-19.

(Tacit Assumption): The stories one has heard are all genuine and hydroxychloroquine was responsible for the cures and there have been no negative experiences with hydroxychloroquine.

Conclusion: Therefore, Trump should encourage people to try hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Is the lockdown response an overreaction to the COVID-19 threat?

Research: I and other people I know are sensible and will keep social distancing advice without a lockdown.

(Tacit Assumption): the lockdown is an overreaction because everyone is like me and we can contain the COVID-19 spread without a lockdown

Conclusion: Therefore, the lockdown is an overreaction.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Is it a historical fact that Judas betrayed Jesus?

Research: It is unthinkable that the early church would make up a story of one of the inner Twelve betraying Jesus.

(Tacit Assumption): There was a historical Jesus with a historical Twelve disciples whom he trusted and the early church was dedicated to recording the historical facts.

Conclusion: Therefore it is a historically reliable tradition that Judas betrayed Jesus.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Did Jesus exist?

Research: No Jew would have made up a story about a crucified itinerant preacher being the Davidic messiah.

(Tacit Assumption): Jesus was historically an itinerant preacher who was crucified yet still believed by his followers to be the Davidic messiah.

Conclusion: Jesus existed. read more »

Logical Fallacies of Historians: “If It Fits — Be Careful!”

If your theory explains the evidence does that mean it is probably correct? If “everything fits”, is your theory therefore surely right?

There’s a problem with that way of thinking and it is taken head-on by Paul Newall in a chapter titled “Logical Fallacies of Historians” in Tucker and Kane’s A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography.

if my rain dance worked then it should be raining; it is raining; therefore, my rain dance worked.

Affirming the consequent is a formal fallacy occurring when one or more potential premises are omitted from an argument. For example, “if my rain dance worked then it should be raining; it is raining; therefore, my rain dance worked.” Here other possible causes of the rainfall are left out and the argument fails. Affirming the consequent has the general form:

P1: If A then B;

P2: B;

C: Therefore, A.

(Newall, 263)

Some of you may know of a 1970 “classic” by David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. Newall acknowledges the strength of Fischer’s work but in a single chapter is addressing what he sees as the most common and unfortunately enduring fallacies among historians.

So how can one guard against being overcome by this fallacy? Newall continues:

However, we can add missing premises to show the error:

P1a: If C then B;

P1b: If D then B;

. . . and so on. For an argument of this form to not be fallacious, we would need an additional premise stating that A is the only possible cause of B. (Note that affirming the antecedent (or modus ponens) is not fallacious; that is, arguing “if A then B; A; therefore, B.”)

This fallacy is of considerable importance to historiography

This fallacy is of considerable importance to historiography because it often forms the basis of models of confirmation and shows why a more sophisticated philosophical apparatus is required. A typical statement might be: “if our model/explanation of x [some event, say] is correct, we would expect to find y [some evidence, records or traces, for instance], as indeed we do.” Thus an account of some historical episode predicts that certain evidence of it will be found, and when this happens the account is confirmed or demonstrated to be correct. However, in this form the account is straightforwardly fallacious as an example of affirming the consequent.

if Einstein were an extraterrestrial of superior intelligence, he should have made incredible intellectual achievements

For example, if Einstein were an extraterrestrial of superior intelligence, he should have made incredible intellectual achievements. He did, and therefore he was an extraterrestrial. We can attempt to undercut this objection by arguing that actually the evidence only makes the account more likely, but this requires further elaboration before it becomes philosophically tenable, for example by comparing different hypotheses with different prior probabilities (see Tucker 2004, for an example of a Bayesian approach that avoids this difficulty).

Bayes? Yes, historians use Bayes.

I’ve been trying to think through some other examples. Here are a few. Two political ones to start followed by some biblical ones, including some mythicist examples. read more »

If Josephus Wrote About the American Rebellion . . .

From Wikimedia

In the winter of 1779 large numbers of these brigands gathered together in the hill country near Philadelphia, at a spot named Valley Forge. They were led by an ex-officer named Washington, who had been impelled by ambition to repudiate his oath of allegiance and place himself at the head of the rebels. From this favorable position they carried out raids on those peaceful farmers in the vicinity who remained loyal to the government. The brigands received much encouragement from the scribblings of a dissolute mechanic named Benjamin Franklin, now almost senile, who in consequence of having printed a number of almanacs for the lower classes considered himself a man of letters. 

Imagined by: Roth, Cecil. 1959. “The Jewish Revolt Against Rome:The War of 66-70 C.E.” Commentary, no. 27 (June): 513–22.

Josephus was a traitor. He went over to Roman side so we can imagine that he needed to justify himself in his account of events. If we read a historical narrative of the American War of Independence by Benedict Arnold we might expect a work written in the vein of the above imaginary quotation.

The point: We can’t read Josephus’s account of the war naively. It is a problem for historians to tease out “the true motives and attitudes behind the actions and personalities which we know only from Josephus’s jaundiced pages.” (Roth)

Review, conclusion #2: Myth and History in the Gospels (How the Gospels Became History / Litwa)

If the gospels are mythical stories that have been presented as history then what value can they have for anyone today and how can we treat the gospels as a source for studying the historical Jesus? Those are the questions M. David Litwa addresses in the last pages of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths.

In answer to the first question Litwa writes:

Both the scholar and the believer can recognize that gospel stories are transformative, if for different reasons. For the believer, the power often derives from divine inspiration and the salvific function of the myths. For the scholar, the power of gospel myths frequently lies in their versatility and world-making potential. The scholar and the believer can also, of course, be the same person.

(Litwa, p. 212)

I think of Thomas Brodie who does not find any historical core behind the gospel myths, not even a historical Jesus, who nonetheless finds meaning in the myths and has remained a Christian. But Litwa does believe a historical core does lie behind the myths. On what basis does he believe that?

“So let’s assume there actually was a corpse. What happened to it? There are only two possibilities. Either it was revivified, the way the Gospels tell it, or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, it stayed on earth. There isn’t any third possibility. What happened to the body? Did it come alive or didn’t it?” [from The Flight of Peter Fromm]

The horns of this dilemma have gored the faith of some people. The meaning of Jesus’s resurrection—and of Christianity itself—is widely assumed to hang on its historicity. The value of any sort of “spiritual meaning” is discounted if there is no historical and physical basis for it. . . .

. . . [Peter Fromm] identifies the real with the historical (in the sense of “what happened”). Yet in the game of historical writing we never actually know exactly what happened. Historicity is not a cross from which the truth hangs in all its glory. It is at best a social agreement that someehing happened in the past. This assertion is not merely an outgrowth of postmodern philosophy; the ancients suggested something similar. The sophist Nicolaus (late fifth century CE) wrote that historical narratives are about past events acknowledged by consensus (homologoumenos’) to have happened. I emphasize “by consensus.” Historians do not have direct access to a past occurrence, though they might agree that it happened.

(Litwa, p. 213)

Litwa would say I am being too specific and should say that it is the consense of “historians” more generally. My response to the idea that most people take for granted the historicity of Jesus is found in an earlier post: Is it a “fact of history” that Jesus existed? Or is it only “public knowledge”? I prefer to narrow the point to “biblical scholars” because they are the ones who have set about to study Jesus.

Compare Johnston’s point: [A hero’s multiple versions/’plurimdiality’], and the intimate connection to [the hero] that this fostered in individuals, helped to create and sustain for some (perhaps all) the very assumption that he existed, which, in turn, sustained the practice of his cults.

It follows that Litwa knows that Jesus was crucified because that is the consensus of biblical scholars —

The current consensus regarding the “historical Jesus” is that he lived in Palestine, that he was a Jew crucified around 30 CE by Roman authorities.

(Litwa, p. 213)

and a few pages on  —

I do not deny the historical basis for some gospel stories (notably the crucifixion)32

32. Here one might talk of “aspects of historicity,” as in Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just, and Tom Thatcher, eds., John, Jesus, and History, vol. 2, Aspects of Historicity in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL, 2009).

(Litwa, pp. 218, 266)

The irony! The attempts to make a case for “aspects of historicity” in the Gospel of John in the cited volume are often the same tropes that in the earlier discussion were said to make myths believable! All page references in the following section are to the Anderson, Just and Thatcher volume Litwa cited above. (The following section is my response to Litwa’s insistence that there is a historical basis to some of the gospel stories.)

— role of eyewitness testimony

e.g. Culpepper engages the recent work of two scholars (Howard M. Jackson and Richard Bauckham) who argue that John 21:24 is an autobiographical note indicating that the author of the Gospel is the Beloved Disciple. In this view, the Gospel of John is based on the eyewitness testimony of a follower of Jesus and makes that claim explicitly in the narrative. (p. 372)

— context of mundane history and life

e.g. [W]hile the Johannine Prologue opens the Fourth Gospel as a confessional piece used in worship, it also bears witness to first-hand encounter with the object of its confession: the fleshly Jesus grounded in mundane history. (p. 380)

e.g. Miller and others, however, find it historically plausible that Jesus himself had an encounter with a Samaritan woman. Evidence for this includes . . . the Gospel’s familiarity with Samaritan beliefs about the location of worship and the coming of an eschatological prophet, and the fact that some Galileans did travel through Samaria on their way to and from Jerusalem. (p. 100)

e.g. There are several factors of historical realism in this narrative. . . . [T]he narrator’s featuring factors of personal hygiene and comfort contribute to the mundane realism of the presentation. … In conclusion, given the cultural context, it is highly plausible that a Jewish person in first-century Galilee would perform a footwashing. Therefore, it is plausible that Jesus performed a footwashmg as he gathered for a final meal with his disciples in Jerusalem. On the bases of Jewish and Hellenistic literature, religious and societal customs, other presentations of fopMashing in the New Testament literature, and various aspects of historical realism, this scenario in John demands renewed consideration as a historical event . . . (pp. 259, 260)

— detailed knowledge of topography read more »

“Nothing in what [mythicists] write is authoritative or trustworthy”

Quite some years ago I sat listening to a sabbath sermon by a Worldwide Church of God minister in which he made some very misleading assertions about the history of U.S. foreign policy. I approached him afterwards to point out what I had learned in an undergraduate course on the history of the United States. The minister had been trained at one of “God’s colleges” and told me that “the authority for” the point in question was one particular author and title I can no longer remember. What shocked me was that he claimed to have the equivalent of a B.A. in history yet spoke of one book being “the authority” on a historical question. My own education had led me to think of historical studies as an enquiry into the sources to attempt to evaluate the various points of view expressed in the literature on historical questions. There was no such thing as “the authority”. Perhaps the minister viewed my education as inspired by Satan.

Since someone drew my attention to James McGrath’s following comment I have been thinking back on that experience:

[T]here is nothing in what they [Christ mythicists] write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy.

I can’t read McGrath’s mind so I don’t know what he means by “authoritative and trustworthy” studies. The most I can suggest is that he is setting mythicist works in contrast with mainstream scholarly works on the historical Jesus and in the process somehow implying that the bulk of mainstream scholarly historical Jesus books are in some sense “authoritative and trustworthy”.

What is an “authoritative and trustworthy” book of historical explanation?

To me, an authoritative work is a trustworthy work. Authority implies trust, confidence, in whatever it is that the authority proclaims. I am sure McGrath does not believe that any particular historical Jesus study is “authoritative” in the sense that it replaces the need for any other study.

If I were to point out what I consider to be trustworthy books on any subject here are the markers of trustworthiness that I would identify:

  1. the work never makes an assertion without providing evidence for that assertion;
  2. that evidence will be discussed in the context of other evidence;
  3. and a representative range of views or interpretations about that evidence will be shared with readers;
  4. and citations will be given to enable readers to follow up those different interpretations for themselves;
  5. especially, I will look for a fair presentation of opposing views to the one the author favours;
  6. and a fair and complete discussion of those opposing views — again with citations to enable readers to check details for themselves and make their own assessments;
  7. I will look for evidence of a wide knowledge of the field in which the discussion is taking place so that the author can demonstrate he or she is not approaching a question with some sort of limited tunnel vision.

That’s seven points. The perfect or authoritative number, yes? What else should be added to complete an explanation of what makes a work “trustworthy”?

Note that according to the above a work can be called trustworthy (some might even say “authoritative” in one sense of the word) but it would not be “the final answer or the ‘true’ opinion. It would be authoritative in the sense that it presents fairly and accurately the relevant evidence and enables readers to form their own judgments based on relatively complete information and understanding of the debates in the field; it will be a model of good scholarship.

It is possible, often likely, that one will find a scholarly work ‘trustworthy’ in the above sense yet still find room to disagree with its overall thesis. An alternative viewpoint and conclusion can be expressed through another ‘trustworthy’ work of scholarship, whether the author is a professional or amateur scholar.

Yes, there has been much poor work published by mythicists, but there has also been some exemplary scholarship, trustworthy and authoritative in the best sense as per above. In that sense, mythicist publications are no different from publications by those who write about “the historical Jesus”. There are some exemplary works in that field, too, as mythicists like Doherty, Price, Carrier have well noted. I would love to read an “authoritative and trustworthy” work that challenges certain mythicist views, so if anyone knows of one that meets the above understanding of what makes a work trustworthy do inform me.


This post is an extension of the earlier Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists


Answering James McGrath’s Questions for Mythicists

Recently James McGrath has addressed a point I have regularly made about a key difference between the canonical gospels and historical and biographical narratives by ancient authors: the latter generally attempt to assure readers of the validity of their accounts by mentioning their sources; the former generally do not. McGrath has put an anachronistic slant on the question by making comparisons with the modern practice of formal citations and bypassed the reasons and techniques that belonged to ancient literary culture. Perhaps it is a good thing that he has done so because he does provide a warning to us today to be careful not to confuse modern academic practice with ancient literary interests. Before I respond specifically to some of his points I will focus on what seems to be the key question he poses in his “challenge” to “those who give credence to mythicists”:

The mythicist claim that the Gospels are thoroughly untrustworthy – or more ridiculously, that they are written intended to be taken as allegories that don’t describe anything remotely historical – are really problematic. Perhaps the best way to put it is to ask those who give credence to mythicists this:

  • Why trust modern-day mythicists and their claims about what is important, what is valuable, what is reliable, or anything else, while giving no credence even to the broad outlines of what various ancient authors have written?
  • Is it anti-religious bias?
  • Chronological snobbery?
  • A preference for their conclusions?

I ask these questions because there is nothing in what they write that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy. And so the same questions that apply to ancient sources, apply to modern ones as well. If it is the fact that they (well, some of them at any rate) mention scholars and sources regularly, then that is also true of mainstream scholars who conclude there was a historical Jesus, and it is true of conservative Christian apologists who are demonstrably untrustworthy even when they provide ample citations. And so my appeal to Jesus-mythicists is the appeal I’d make to any and all conspiracy theorists. By all means be skeptical – but be even-handedly skeptical, including of those you’re inclined to be persuaded by, and most importantly, of yourself.

(my formatting and highlighting)

“Trust” is a faith word.  So my answer to McGrath’s first and primary question is this: No-one should “trust modern-day mythicists and their claims” about anything.

“Credence” is also a faith word. “Anti-religious bias” and “snobbery” and self-serving (implied) “preferences” for certain conclusions are all well-poisoning terms.

McGrath also speaks of mythicist writings that contain “nothing . . . that is inherently or obviously authoritative or trustworthy”, dismissing any citations by mythicists to mainstream scholarly works as unimpressive for some reason — because some apologists also cite mainstream scholars and produce arguments that are, well, apologetic. The analogy is fatuous, of course. Citations are used by good and bad scholars, good and bad amateurs, in good and bad ways. Therefore, in McGrath’s view, mythicists must for some reason he does not explain and for which he provides no examples be making pointless citations. Yet we know McGrath has excoriated mythicists for not engaging with mainstream scholarship yet when they clearly do engage with mainstream scholarship he allows their conclusions to inform him that their arguments are unreliable. Is it religious bias? Intellectual snobbery? A preference for other conclusions?

Here’s how scholarly inquiry, any serious rational inquiry, works.

We look for evidence that helps us understand the nature of the claims made by ancient (or any) authors. That generally means we begin by analysing the form and context in which the statements are made. We often do this subconsciously. We let the tone of voice or writing help us decide if someone is being serious or joking. We allow the medium on which a message is written (a royal inscription, an officially stamped letter) to tell us if it is an official statement or not. (Official statement indicates that its primary audience is expected to believe what is written; we need other grounds for deciding if we should believe what is written.) The source of what is said is another important factor. A source can mean the person responsible for the words we read; it can further mean the sources available to that author. Provenance can refer either the original source of the document or it can refer to where the physical manuscript or tablet was found and by whom and what we know about how it reached us. All of those factors are important to understand when it comes to reading and interpreting any ancient work.

Where we have prose narratives about events and persons it is necessary for us to know something about how they were understood by their authors and original audiences. I have sometimes half-joked in frustration that no-one should be allowed to undertake studies in the biblical literature until they have first done a major course in classics: biblical studies should be offered only as part of a larger course in early Jewish/Judean literature studies and only as a post-grad course for those who are well-grounded in the wider literature of the ancient world.

In other words, we ought to interpret and evaluate biblical literature in the context of the wider literary world of that day. Biblical scholars will no doubt say that they certainly do that, but my experience with studies in biblical literature tells me that many only do so patchily and over-selectively at best.

If anyone (mythicist or mainstream biblical scholar) makes any claim one should always look for the evidence that supports the claim. No claim should be “trusted”, either. The most positive approach we can have with any claim is to accept it pending further discussion, analysis and evidence. That means continual reading and discussion, learning new perspectives, becoming familiar with more data. It means engagement especially with those who have the most experience with the data, usually the professional scholars, and we find that the most insightful authors of mythicist ideas are the ones who do engage seriously and thoroughly with that scholarship. Leaving the mainstream scholarly field behind and restricting one’s reading to unorthodox views that only sporadically touch on mainstream scholarship is not a healthy pursuit.

Mainstream scholars also have a responsibility to address questions raised about their work without sneering dismissals, elaborate appeals to authority, or misrepresenting the questions and arguments posed to them.

A mythicist claim should not be trusted but should be carefully assessed against the evidence offered and serious discussion about alternative interpretations and other evidence in the mainstream scholarly literature. The most positive response to any claim by a mythicist ought to be tentative acceptance pending further information.

Mainstream scholars need to keep in mind that some mythicist authors have had no axe to grind against Christianity (some have even remained very positive towards it) and that some (one might say many) mythicist authors were for some years believers in a historical Jesus even as atheists and that believing in the historicity of Jesus would make no difference to them ideologically, personally, in any way. Indeed, a number of us have said that mythicism is the worst way to try to undermine or attack Christianity. There are other more effective ways of going about that enterprise.

–o0o–

Back to the specifics of referencing sources. read more »

Questions for James McGrath: Seeking Understanding

Professor James McGrath of Butler University recently posted on his blog a tantalising article, The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels). I describe it as tantalising because it seemed to promise so much but left readers without answers to the questions it raised.

The post began:

One of the things that mythicists regularly mention is the (in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest copies of texts that mention them.

Yes, that is true. But it is also true that the very same question is raised by many more mainstream biblical scholars. And they suggest different hypotheses to explain that “(in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest . . . texts that mention them.” (I don’t know of any mythicist — and I am sure McGrath knows of none — who argues a case that Jesus did not exist because we have a large gap between purported events and the earliest manuscript copies describing those events. It’s a big world and there are probably some who do argue that but I don’t think they are any more widely accepted than someone who argues for the non-existence of Priam, Agamemnon, Achilles etc on the bases that our earliest manuscripts of Homer are many centuries subsequent to their time.)

But back to the point. Mythicists like Earl Doherty and Thomas Brodie and others do indeed “regularly mention” the gap between events described in the gospels and the apparent fact that the gospels were not written until a generation or two after those events — but they do so by addressing the problem as raised by mainstream biblical scholars. McGrath has read Doherty’s book so only needs to consult its index and bibliography to refresh his memory.

But McGrath’s point is bigger. All of the above is only pointing out the tendentious nature of McGrath’s approach to the question.

The next question is most interesting and one I hoped to see answered:

They clearly have no sense of what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally.

Now that reminds me of a time some years back when I grappled with “How do we know certain persons/events existed/happened” in ancient times? I had studied ancient history for three years as an undergraduate and knew how we knew what we did about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, for example. Books and lectures would usually begin by setting out and explaining the sources our studies were to rely upon. With the presentation of those sources there was no question, “Did Julius Caesar exist?” We could all see the evidence and the question never arose.

So what is different about the gospels as sources for Jesus?

When McGrath raised the question of “what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally” I was looking forward to at least a summary to explain what that typical thing is. But it never appeared. I suspect the reader is meant to assume that all ancient sources are written long after the events they describe and, well, if we believe them, then we should believe the gospels, too.

But if that was what the reader was meant to assume then the message is a misinformed one.

So here are questions I would like someone to present to Professor McGrath to offer him a chance to encourage serious dialogue. Perhaps his responses could be copied here in the comments.

  • Question 1: What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which our known sources are entirely very late (by a full generation of forty years or more)? By sources, I include here the sources mentioned by the later authors: thus, for example, we have, say, a very late history of Alexander the Great but the author of that source explains how he acquired his information and that it comes from such and such a biographer who lived at the time of Alexander. (The gospels have nothing comparable: Luke’s prologue is as vague and ambiguous as ancient historian prologues are specific and clear.)
  • Question 2: And this is a slightly extended form of the above question. What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which we have no independent evidence to help verify our written sources? By independent supporting evidence, I include here not only archaeological evidence but also other writings that are independent yet testifying to the same event/person.

There are many other questions I could ask but those are the key ones. I have discussed the above points — and many other related questions — about historical methods, in particular the methods of ancient historians and about the writings of ancient historians themselves in many posts. I have also raised the above questions before, but years ago, directly with McGrath. (Just click on the tags related to this post for scores of such posts.)

Maybe add one more question here:

  • Question 3: What are the different explanations biblical scholars have advanced in scholarly works for the gap of 40 to 80 years between the canonical gospels and the time setting of the events they narrate — and in what area of ancient history are there comparable gaps (bearing in mind the relevance of Q’s 1 and 2 above) for which classicists and historians of ancient times propose similar explanatory hypotheses? Or are the canonical gospels in some ways unique and not comparable to the methods normally accepted in the field of ancient history?

Now I certainly admit that some answers may be new to me and I may be forced to revise or at least modify my past conclusions. But I need clear examples to demonstrate the comparability between the generally accepted methods of historians of ancient times and those of biblical scholars. Looking forward to new knowledge and understanding.

Memory and History: Christmas Football in No Man’s Land

We tend to forget that before the First World War broke out, pundits of all stripes debated as to whether workers in European nations would actually fight. That is, would they align themselves to their nations or to their class? In the end, the socialists decisively lost that argument, with the overwhelming majority of workers marching to the frontlines, dying in unheard-of numbers in a futile struggle.

Culture, language, religion, and the land itself bound workers to the nation-state, whether or not the existing governments protected their interests. The common bond of labor meant little in comparison to the granfalloon of the state.

Still, one can hardly blame the intelligentsia, the ruling classes, the capitalists, the bankers, and others for doubting whether the lower classes would fight. After all, the upper classes of Europe and America had enjoyed a long tradition of camaraderie and mutual understanding. The Tsar of Russia had much more in common — culturally, economically, and politically — with a factory owner in Paris than with some faceless peasant breaking his back in Ukraine.

One can easily understand the French workers’ response in 1914 since the very survival of France was at stake. But what of the British? Would they fight for “the integrity of Belgium”? In short order it became clear: They would fight and die in the trenches alongside the French.

From the start, the fighting was furious and deadly, with casualty rates unknown in previous wars, including the American Civil War, which had hinted at the coming horrors of mechanized, industrialized warfare. So when the nations in the Western Front agreed to a Christmas truce, the combatants on the ground appreciated the time figuratively to lick their wounds.

Neither side, apparently, had expected what happened next. read more »

Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

–Harry S. Truman

You have to start somewhere. That’s a distinct problem. How do we go about learning a subject as vast as biblical studies or biblical history? We could dive right in with some of the classics of text and form criticism, but we probably won’t fully understand them, because we don’t have the proper foundations.

Some of you may have taken survey courses at university in world history or American (or whatever your native country might happen to be) history. These courses tend to serve two purposes. First, they provide a means for students majoring in other studies to have some sort of foundation in “how we got here.” Second, they serve as a jumping-off point for those of us who continue on to our degrees in history.

Learning and unlearning

Every historian (amateur and professional) in America knows or at least should know our dirty little secret: that freshman history students face a serious disadvantage, because they must unlearn most of what they learned in high school. They must clear away the happy, feel-good history in which we are always the good guys and everything turns out well in the end. Imagine, for a moment, that you had learned medieval alchemy in high school only to discover in Chemistry 101 at your university that you don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Survey courses in biblical studies or NT studies in some universities purport to do the same sort of thing. That is, they expose students to another way of thinking about the Bible other than what they learned in Sunday School. I took such a class in 1978 at Ohio University, and in many ways, I would consider it a positive experience. However, I would later discover that much of what I had accepted as bedrock could not stand up to stronger scrutiny.

I admit that my work in history in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland should have alerted me to the obvious problems with biblical studies. However, it took the work of the so-called minimalists to push me in the right direction. I stumbled onto Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past completely by accident while wandering around a Barnes and Noble somewhere in Atlanta. (My job took me on frequent road trips back in the ’90s and the aughts.) The book (in hardback) apparently had not sold well, and they marked it down significantly. Lucky me.

Reading and rereading

Philip Davies (1945-2018)

Thompson asked questions I had never considered. It soon became clear that I had never asked these sorts of questions, because I had been properly trained not to. Beyond that, American education generally favors the notion of “moderation” as a virtue in and of itself. Surely only an extremist would question the historicity of Moses or Solomon. And extremism in the pursuit of anything is a vice. Surely.

Despite my proper training, one simple question — “How do we know?” — began to gnaw at me, the way a steady drip wears away stone. For me, Thompson more than anyone else gave me permission (so to speak) to ask even more dangerous questions. However, it took me longer to get up to speed with Philip R. Davies. (See Neil’s tribute to the late, great scholar here.)

For example, I had started In Search of Ancient Israel but never finished it until this past summer. Longtime Vridar readers will recall that Davies, and especially this book had a huge impact on Neil. You can find much more detail about this work over at the vridar.info site. For more related posts here on vridar.org, follow the tags above. (Below, I’ll be referring to the second edition of this work.) read more »

What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 3)

Note: I wrote this post a few years back and left it lying in the draft pile, unable to come up with a satisfactory conclusion until earlier this year. Our forecast calls for snow tomorrow (something those of us who live in RVs would rather not see), so a post about precipitation and weather prediction might be apt. –TAW

yellow, Umbrella, bad weather
Yellow umbrella in bad weather (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[This post begins our hard look at Chapter 6, “The Hard Stuff” in Carrier’s Proving History. — specifically, the section entitled “Bayesianism as Epistemic Frequentism.”]

In the 1980s, the history department building on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus had famous quotations painted on its hallway walls. Perhaps they still do.

The only quote I can actually still remember is this one:

“The American people never carry an umbrella. They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine.” — Alfred E. Smith

I used to enjoy lying to myself and say, “That’s me!” But the real reason I never carry an umbrella is not that I’m a naive Yankee optimist, but rather because I know if I do, I will leave it somewhere. In this universe, there are umbrella receivers and umbrella donors. I am a donor.

Eternal sunshine

So to be honest, the reason I check the weather report is to see if I should take a jacket. I’ve donated far fewer jackets to the universe than umbrellas. But then the question becomes, what does it actually mean when a weather forecaster says we have a 20% chance of rain in our area this afternoon? And what are we supposed to think or do when we hear that?

Ideally, when an expert shares his or her evaluation of the evidence, we ought to be able to apply it to the situation at hand without much effort. But what about here? What is our risk of getting rained on? In Proving History, Richard Carrier writes:

When weathermen tell us there is a 20% chance of rain during the coming daylight hours, they mean either that it will rain over one-fifth of the region for which the prediction was made (i.e., if that region contains a thousand acres, rain will fall on a total of two hundred of those acres before nightfall) or that when comparing all past days for which the same meteorological indicators were present as are present for this current day we would find that rain occurred on one out of five of those days (i.e., if we find one hundred such days in the record books, twenty of them were days on which it rained). (Carrier 2012, p. 197)

These sound like two plausible explanations. The first sounds pretty “sciency,” while the second reminds us of the frequentist definition of probability, namely “the number of desired outcomes over the total number of events.” They’re certainly plausible, but do they have anything to do with what real weather forecasters do?

Recently, I came across an article on this subject by a meteorologist in Jacksonville, Florida, written back in 2013. He even happened to use the same percentage. In “What does 20% chance of rain really mean?” Blake Matthews writes: read more »