Origins of the Abraham Narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s return to having a closer look at some of the chapters in the book I  described back in  August this year. (Actually my recent post History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone began as a closer look at Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter titled “What People Want to Believe: Or Fighting Against ‘Cultural Memory'”, but since I’ve discussed the same thoughts of Lemche in many earlier posts I somehow ended up with my own little bottom-line spiel instead.)

In the chapter “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, author Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò [NS] seeks to understand the most plausible context from which those stories originated. I know some readers will be as interested as I am in his approach. I address a few — not all — of the arguments in the chapter. I will cover the stories of Jacob and Esau in the next post.


Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò

NS points out  that in the book of Genesis Abraham is “depicted as a figure disconnected from any historical realities, by being alien and of a nomadic way of life.”

The stories connected with Abraham are set within the mythical illo tempore, in the same way as Greek heroes are described in un-historical realities of the tragedies or Homeric epic for which a coherent historical background does not exist. (NS, p.50)

NS zeroes in on two moments in the Abraham story that he considers the most important:

  • the covenant between God and Abraham promising Abraham multitudes of descendants who become God’s chosen
  • the sacrifice of Isaac (the Akedah)

Begin with that second episode. NS views it as dramatizing the kinds of complex theological questions we elsewhere encounter in books like Job and Ecclesiastes. To what extent is the pious person expected to obey and trust God? Is the reward expected to be in this or the next life? The problems facing Abraham point to sophisticated philosophical (or theological) quandaries of the sort that preoccupy intellectual elites. The story does not come from popular folklore, surely. Rather,

it is a reflection of the Jewish elites of the late Hellenistic period (second-first century BCE), an expression of their intellectual, highly sophisticated interest. (p. 51)

* de Pury, A. 2000. “Abraham: The Priestly Writer’s ‘Ecumenical’ Ancestor.” In Rethinking the Foundations: Historiography in the Ancient World and in the Bible : Essays in Honour of John Van Seters, edited by Steven L. McKenzie, Thomas R. Mer, and Thomas Romer, 163–81. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter.

On the first of those two key moments, NS observes that Abraham is a rather “pure in nature” figure unlike his progeny — Ishmael, Isaac and the sons of Keturah — who are all coloured with distinctive features that clearly associate them with certain historically known peoples: the Ishmaelites, the Jews, the inhabitants of Arabia. NS points readers to an article elsewhere by de Pury showing us that Abraham serves as an “ecumenical figure” serving as a unifying focus for both Jews and certain of their neighbours. Though descendants of Isaac will the “the chosen”, the narrative demonstrates God’s love for all of Abraham’s descendants. (de Pury remarks on the way Abraham must give up both sons — Ishmael exiled into the wilderness and Isaac sacrificed on the altar — only for God to miraculously intervene to save each of them.)

But if the narrator merely wanted to demonstrate that the sons of Isaac were to be the most favoured ones, why did he make the plot so complicated by having Isaac born after Ishmael? If the message for Jews was that they should embrace the descendants of Ishmael, Hagar and Keturah, why the “twisted narrative device”? NS sees two possible reasons:

Firstly, it might have served as inter-propaganda directed to members of the Jewish community, with the statement about Arabs, who shall not be treated as aliens. This may have served certain political needs.

Secondly, the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael tradition might have been addressed to the Arab population with the same friendly information. In this case, we would be dealing with the declaration of friendship, which in the reality of politics might have been understood as an invitation toward the Arab population to join the political unity of the Jews. (53)

The question that follows is, When, historically, would such propaganda needs have appeared? Continue reading “Origins of the Abraham Narrative”


History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone.

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by Neil Godfrey

To see all the human race, from the beginning of time, pass, as it were, in review before us, . . . what spectacle can be imagined so magnificent, so various, so interesting? — David Hume (Of the Study of History)

To which R. G. Collingwood replied:

History is not a spectacle. The events of history do not pass in review’ before the historian. They have finished happening before he begins thinking about them. He has to re-create them inside his own mind . . . .

A moment’s thought and we can see how absurd is the image of “history laid out for us to survey”. Imagine historians a hundred years from now yet ignorant of our times getting into a time machine and coming back to our day to “survey” this particular time in history. What would they see? They would see the vast world just as we see it today — masses of populations, groups, activities: where would they start to look for any particular “historical moment”? There would be thousands of possible starting points. History of “what, exactly?” would be the first question to ask in order to try to narrow down the search into something of particular interest for the generation a hundred years hence. If perchance they decided to investigate the history associated with the American presidency, again, the same question arises: where would they start? The options would be almost limitless. When we watch movies we are watching scenes created by a narrator and viewed through the perspective of a director. We do not see people in real life or that would be boring. We cut out the moments they tie their shoelaces and every step they take from an office to their car. Selection is always necessary. And how we put scenes together will also decide the type of story we tell. When it comes to a historical narrative we are reading a story that comes about through processes of selection, heavy editing, and the influence of the message the creators want to convey.

History has to be created or constructed. It is not “there” to be observed and recorded. The ideal in modern times is that the construction is derived from material or textual evidence of events that actually happened. We can see from public monuments, memorials, museums, that there was once a Great War in 1914-1918. To understand the effects of that war on various societies requires uncovering and sifting through another mass of material and textual evidence.

The conclusions vary over time according to the particular interests and needs of each historian. One historian will write that the Great War really “broke” the spirit of Australia so that an era of promising social progress (workers’ and women’s rights, egalitarianism, for example) was replaced by a general demoralization of the nation and cynicism that led to hitherto unimagined divisions, intolerance and exploitations. Another historian will write that the Great War made the spirit of Australia, put Australians on the world stage as heroic fighters and gave us a national pride that never existed before. Another historian will make a study of those two historians to find out why each was so different: what were the background influences and interests of each of them that led them to such opposing histories?

History has no existence except in our imaginations. The history many of us learned in school was a story especially constructed by socially approved elites for the purpose of instilling in us a particular sense of (national) identity and sense of place in the world. Those who decided what the curriculum should look like were the politically and economically powerful in society. Alongside state institutions, there have been religious ones that have instilled into believers another history, that of their church or communities of faith.

We grow up with these indoctrinations about our past and if anyone challenges us on them we can easily feel as if our own personal identities are being assaulted and it can be so easy to react with hostility. We can resort to defending the “true history” that we take as our own. When we do that, we fail to recognize that we are defending a fiction, a myth, a construction that appeared at a certain time and place to meet the particular needs and interests of that time and place.

The past is long lost dead and gone. What remains are memories that have been constructed by historians to meet the needs of those whom those historians represent.


continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The first part of this review is at https://vridar.org/2020/08/25/biblical-narratives-archaeology-historicity-essays-in-honour-of-thomas-l-thompson/

. . .

Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . . 

Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)

The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):

The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)

(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)

Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.

So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.

2 heads: John Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist

Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:

In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)

I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.

The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of

the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)

West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by

an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)

Continue reading “continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


“When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong” — Thompson’s Rule

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by Neil Godfrey

Another Thompson aphorism: ‘When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong’. In other words, as Thompson has also put it, ‘in our fields, if all are in agreement, it signifies that no one is trying to falsify the theory: an essential step in any scientific argument’. — Doudna 2020

That’s not being perverse. It’s about pausing when “things seem too good to be true” and taking time out to ask if “there has probably been a mistake”. (Gunn, @ 2 mins)

[U]ntil the Romans ultimately removed the right of the Sanhedrin to confer death sentences, a defendant unanimously condemned by the judges would be acquitted [14, Sanhedrin 17a], the Talmud stating ‘If the Sanhedrin unanimously find guilty, he is acquitted. Why? — Because we have learned by tradition that sentence must be postponed till the morrow in hope of finding new points in favour of the defence’.

That practice could be interpreted as the Jewish judges being intuitively aware that suspicions about the process should be raised if the final result appears too perfect . . .

[I]f too many judges agree, the system has failed and should not be considered reliable. (Gunn et al 2016)

Or even more simply,

They intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, most likely a mistake was made. (Zyga, 2016)

Sanhedrin deciding the death penalty . . . but . . . https://arthive.com/vasilypolenov/works/493225~Guilty_of_death
See Interview 1 and Interview 2 with Thomas L. Thompson. All Vridar blog posts on Thompson’s work are archived here. I expect to begin posting my thoughts on Biblical Narratives, Archaeology & Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson fairly soon.

The opening quotation above is from a footnote to a chapter by Gregory Doudna in a newly published volume in honour of Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology & Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Doudna’s footnote continues:

I thought of what I have come to call Thompson’s Rule when I encountered this scientific study showing that, as counterintuitive as it sounds, unanimous agreement actually does reduce confidence of correctness in conclusions in a wide variety of disciplines (Gunn et al. 2016).

The paper by Gunn and others is Too good to be true: when overwhelming evidence fails to convince. The argument of the paper (with my bolding in all quotations):

Is it possible for a large sequence of measurements or observations, which support a hypothesis, to counterintuitively decrease our confidence? Can unanimous support be too good to be true? The assumption of independence is often made in good faith; however, rarely is consideration given to whether a systemic failure has occurred. Taking this into account can cause certainty in a hypothesis to decrease as the evidence for it becomes apparently stronger. We perform a probabilistic Bayesian analysis of this effect with examples based on (i) archaeological evidence, (ii) weighing of legal evidence and (iii) cryptographic primality testing. In this paper, we investigate the effects of small error rates in a set of measurements or observations. We find that even with very low systemic failure rates, high confidence is surprisingly difficult to achieve . . . . 

Sometimes as we find more and more agreement we can begin to lose confidence in those results. Gunn begins with a simple example in a presentation he gave in 2016 (link is to youtube video). Here is the key slide:

With a noisy voltmeter attempting to measure a very small voltage (nanovoltage) one would expect some variation in each attempted measurement. Without the variation, we can conclude something is wrong rather than that we have a precise measurement.

Another example:

The recent Volkswagen scandal is a good example. The company fraudulently programmed a computer chip to run the engine in a mode that minimized diesel fuel emissions during emission tests. But in reality, the emissions did not meet standards when the cars were running on the road. The low emissions were too consistent and ‘too good to be true.’ The emissions team that outed Volkswagen initially got suspicious when they found that emissions were almost at the same level whether a car was new or five years old! The consistency betrayed the systemic bias introduced by the nefarious computer chip. (Zyga 2016)

From https://www.cagle.com/arend-van-dam/2015/09/smart-vw-cars

Then there was the Phantom of Heilbronn or the serial killer “Woman Without a Face“. Police spent eight to fifteen years searching for a woman whom DNA connected to 40 crime scenes (murders to burglaries) in France, Germany and Austria. Her DNA was identified at six murder scenes. A three million euro reward was offered. It turned out that the swabs used to collect the DNA from the crime scenes had been inadvertently contaminated at their production point by the same woman.

Consider, also, election results. What do we normally suspect when we hear of a dictator receiving over 90% of the vote?

We have all encountered someone who has argued that “all the evidence” supports their new pet hypothesis to explain, say, Christianity’s origins. I have never been able to persuade them, as far as I know, that reading “all the evidence” with a bias they either cannot see or think is entirely valid.

Ironically, scholars like Bart Ehrman who attempt to deny a historical and even slightly significant “Jesus myth” view among scholars are doing their case a disservice. By insisting that there is and that there has been no valid or reasonable contrary view ever raised, such scholars are undermining confidence in the case for the historicity of Jesus. If they could accept the challenges from serious thinkers over the past near two centuries, and acknowledge the ideological pressure inherent in “biblical studies” for academics to conform within certain parameters of orthodox faith, then they could begin to not look quite so like those politicians who claim 90% of the vote, or like those police chasing a phantom woman serial killer for eight years across Europe, of the dishonest VW executives . . . . Continue reading ““When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong” — Thompson’s Rule”


The Great Method Gap between “Biblical Historians” and Historians in History Departments

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by Neil Godfrey

I have written often about history, the nature of history, the history of historical writings, and historical methods. Very often the context of those posts has been biblical scholarship that falls short of meeting the basic standards of scholarly historical inquiry as it is typically found in history and classics departments. Occasionally one comes across a biblical scholar (e.g. Scot McKnight) who does bring up the names of historians in “nonbiblical fields” (e.g. Geoffrey Elton, E.H. Carr) but too quickly the main point of difference is bypassed even in those discussions. To find biblical historians who have taken up the methods of other historians — beginning with primary evidence and moving cautiously from there to secondary evidence — one turns to those unfortunately labelled “minimalists” in the studies of ancient Israel.

This post is a response to some specific claims about historical methods by Justin Meggitt, another scholar of religion, in his 2019 article, “More Ingenious than Learned’? Examining the Quest for the Non-Historical Jesus”. Meggitt, I hope to demonstrate, has also misinterpreted the way nonbiblical historians work and misapplied some of their methods to the question of historical Jesus studies — even while attempting to better inform his biblical scholar peers. In so doing I trust a more valid way forward will become clearer.


    • V. Chaturvedi, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London: Verso, 2012);
    • S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2013);
    • A. I. Port, ‘History from Below, the History of Everyday Life, and Microhistory’, ed. J. Wright, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015) 108–13.

Indeed, the lack of conventional historical training on the part of biblical scholars may well be evident in the failure of any scholar involved in discussing the Christ-myth debate to mention any long-established historiographical approaches associated with the study of the poor in the past, such as History from Below, Microhistory or Subaltern Studies,105 approaches that might help us determine what kind of questions can be asked and what kind of answers can reasonably be expected to given, when we scrutinise someone who is depicted as coming from such a non-elite context.

(Meggitt, 22. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations)

History from Below is taken from the title of an encyclopedia article, “History from Below, the History of Everyday Life, and Microhistory”, by A. I. Port. (The link is to the same article on academia.edu.) According to Port historians who work at this level

. . . dramatically reduce the scale of their historical investigation, confining it to a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event which is then subject to painstaking microscopic analysis involving an intensive study of the available documentary material.

Port cites some examples:

Such histories usually fall into one of two categories: the ‘episodic’ and the ‘systematic’ (Gregory, 1999: 102). The first type, which tends to take a narrative approach and rely heavily on ‘thick description,’ focuses on a single, spectacular episode or event usually involving one person or a small group of individuals – such as

    • the investigation of a heretical sixteenth century Italian miller by Inquisition officials (Ginzburg, 1980),
    • the elaborately staged murder of dozens of cats by disgruntled apprentice printers in Paris in the 1730s (Darnton, 1984),
    • or an antisemitic riot incited by accusations of blood libel in a small Prussian town in the early twentieth century (Smith, 2002).

The other type assiduously reconstructs the complex web of familial and extrafamilial social relations in a small community. Prominent examples include

    • Giovanni Levi’s study of social interaction in a village in the Piedmont in the 1690s – “a banal place and an undistinguished story,” in the words of the author (Levi, 1988) –
    • and David Sabean’s dense studies of property, production, and kinship in the southern German village Neckarhausen from 1700 to 1870 (Sabean, 1990, 1998).

(Port, 108, formatting is my own in all quotations)

From Kanopy

Surely, you are probably thinking, the historian must have primary and secondary sources on which to base any research into subjects like those. Indeed, they do. History from Below is not about subjects for whom we lack sources; it is a history that works with sources for “commoners”, everyday people, as opposed to the “great names” and institutions and parties that we normally turn to to “do history”. Another reference cited by Meggitt is What is Microhistory?: Theory and Practice by S. G. Magnússon and I. M. Szijártó, which contains a chapter on “Refashioning a Famous French Peasant”. It addresses method and sources for a historical inquiry into the sixteenth-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols. (Martin Guerre went missing and an imposter subsequently appeared to take his place. You know the story if you have seen the film Sommersby.) The sources available to historians on this person and his community are

    • court documents and correspondence penned by Judge Jean de Coras;
    • Histoire Admirable by Guillaume Le Sueur who based his story on notes by another judge involved in the case.

The poor villagers did not usually leave behind written records themselves but historians do have access to

reports by police and church officials, teachers, physicians, and factory inspectors; personal correspondence and travelogues; parish registers, wills, notarial records, and protocols.


We have nothing comparable for the study of Jesus or any of his presumed disciples.

Meggitt advises biblical scholars that they should be aware of the problems with this sort of “microhistory”. In principle, that is true. The nature of the evidence will always dictate what questions can be asked in the expectation of useful answers. But one does have to note that there is simply no primary source material of the kinds addressed in the three sources Meggitt cites for “microhistory” or “history from below” that is comparable to sources available for Christian origins and Jesus or any of his disciples. So the advice to be “aware of problems” of using primary sources for a person from the lower classes is misplaced in the context of historical Jesus studies.


      • Knapp, Robert. 2011. Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women… The Romans That History Forgot. London: Profile Books.


    • Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.

For example, given that most human beings in antiquity left no sign of their existence, and the poor as individuals are virtually invisible,106 all we can hope to do is try to establish, in a general sense, the lives that they lived. Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all? To deny his existence based on the absence of such evidence, even if that were the case, has problematic implications; you may as well deny the existence of pretty much everyone in the ancient world. Indeed, the attempt by mythicists to dismiss the Christian sources could be construed, however unintentionally, as exemplifying what E. P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’107 in action, functionally seeking to erase a collection of data, extremely rare in the Roman empire, that depicts the lives and interactions of non-elite actors and seems to have originated from them too.

(Meggitt, 24f)

“For example” — that introduction is misplaced as a follow on from a discussion of “microhistory” or “history from below” by Chaturvedi, Magnússon and Port. Those three authors are addressing not “virtually invisible” persons, but persons of whom we have enough primary sources to write serious history even though they were not elites. The preceding paragraph was referring to a type of history includes the bringing to light those “poor as individuals” for whom we do have “signs of their [individual, personal] existence.” Knapp, whom Meggitt now cites at #106, is writing a quite different kind of history. Knapp is not an example of a historian doing the sort of history just described as “microhistory”. Knapp is doing something very different. He is doing another form of “macrohistory”:

I seek to uncover and understand what life was like for the great mass of people who lived in Rome and its empire. . . .

Ancient evidence comes in two types: the one intentionally provided and the other incidentally. The first is generally irrelevant to our purpose, but the second can be crucial. An elite author setting out, for example, to write on the Roman wars of expansion, will sometimes include contextual details and bits of information which, when combined with other evidence, begin to create a picture of ordinary people. The experience of ordinary people has no direct voice in the histories the Romans have left us. Yet sometimes it is possible to garner insights into the lives of the invisible people even where none was intended and to amplify these by deploying perspectives and evidence from a variety of other sources.

(Knapp, 7f)

That’s very different from a “people’s history” in the sense discussed in the preceding paragraph. Knapp’s history of “ordinary people” (as he calls his demographic target of study) leaves no room whatever for a study of “a single individual, small community, or seemingly obscure event” (Port). As the article stands it appears that Meggitt has confused two quite distinct types of history. This is not a promising start for advancing historical Jesus studies.

So when Meggitt goes on to rhetorically ask

Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure like Jesus at all?

he has already given us the answer but has turned his back on it because he has confused history of masses with micro or people’s history. To do “history from below” on Jesus a “micro-historian” will expect to find, as he or she does for other low-class persons, contemporary evidence preserved by literate classes about a person who was attracting a lot of attention among “the masses”. Literate classes have servants and contact with markets and will learn of any person making a name for themselves. Josephus notes quite a few of them, often with disgust. So do other Roman elites. We know, for example, interesting details about Cicero’s slave, Tiro.

Meggitt’s misguided citations of other historians continue when he suggests mythicists are guilty of the renowned historian E. P. Thompson’s charge of “enormous condescension of posterity”. This is an unfortunate reference because it misreads Thompson’s context and full scope of his work. Here is Thompson’s phrase in the context of the complete sentence: Continue reading “The Great Method Gap between “Biblical Historians” and Historians in History Departments”


King Arthur: Felled by Archaeology and DNA

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by Neil Godfrey

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”

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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)


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)

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by Neil Godfrey

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: Continue reading “Logical Fallacies of Historians: the False Dilemma (Dichotomy)”


Logical Fallacies of Historians: Begging the Question

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by Neil Godfrey

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. Continue reading “Logical Fallacies of Historians: Begging the Question”


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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


If Josephus Wrote About the American Rebellion . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

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by Neil Godfrey

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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