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.

On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES

Max Weber

It’s long overdue for me to type something serious in response to this sort of comment that one sees all too frequently:

Litwa writes, “The fact is, few Mediterranean gods actually die; even fewer die and rise. . . . To be sure, a few gods die; and of these, some of them return, in some fashion, to life. Yet they do so for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Mythicists such as Carrier fixate on abstract similarities. As a result, they often ignore or paste over important differences in the stories.” — from a comment on this blog.

I only touched on the fallacy expressed here a couple of months ago in Death and Resurrection of Baal.

The first indication that there is something wrong with Litwa’s argument is the use of “some” and “all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways”. Already Litwa is acknowledging that these gods can indeed all be classified as a group even though there are “all sorts of differences” among them. We know their respective stories are very different indeed but that does not prevent us from grouping them as, let’s say, a particular “type”. So the question that arises is, On what grounds do we omit Jesus from among “the few” and “the some” in his statement?

Robert M. Price has explained that comparisons among ancient “dying and rising” gods are based on the famous sociologist Max Weber’s explanation of “ideal types”. (Ideal here does not mean perfect but belonging to a common idea.) Price rightly identifies the fault in a milestone critic of such comparisons, Jonathan Z. Smith, as failing to grasp Weber’s discussion of how sociologists, historians and others justify making comparisons in the first place.

So here is a little background reading. I will quote liberally from a translation of ““Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy”, an essay in Max Weber’s On the Methodology of the Social Sciences.

To begin, note that Weber points out that the notion of an ideal type is not a fanciful extra, some ad hoc plaything, but is an absolute necessity for any historian who is making comparisons of different cultural groups:

If the historian (in the widest sense of the word) rejects an attempt to construct such ideal types as a “theoretical construction,” i.e., as useless or dispensable for his concrete heuristic purposes, the inevitable consequence is either that he consciously or unconsciously uses other similar concepts without formulating them verbally and elaborating them logically or that he remains stuck in the realm of the vaguely “felt.” (94)

Imagine we want to make comparisons between a church and a sect. How do we go about defining our terms: what is it (to take an example Weber uses) that makes a church a church and a sect a sect? To answer that question we look at the vast array of groups we classify as churches and sects. And when we do we soon find we are in trouble because there are simply so many different sorts of churches and sects. I know from first hand: when I belonged to the Worldwide Church of God cult I and fellow members frequently noted criticisms of cults and we saw core reasons why our church was not any of the cults listed and critics were making an ignorant mistake to classify us with them. If we pin down the attributes that define one sect as a sect we will almost inevitably encounter another instance that defies some of those determinants. If we want to compare different democratic governments, or specific social classes, or economic systems, or family structures, or religions, we will face the same problem.

Keep in mind that the word “ideal” in ideal type refers to the idea of something, not a “perfect” representation. So let the authority on ideal types speak. All italics are original, bolding and paragraph breaks are mine: read more »

When an Atheist Gets EVERYTHING Wrong

An A for learning what your teacher said in history class???!!! Adapted from https://www.geeksaresexy.net/2011/02/12/bad-grades-1960-vs-2010-cartoon/

There is an atheist out there on the internet who should hang his head in shame and disgrace. In 26 minutes of presentation in a debate with an apologist the video record shows he took up 3 whole minutes (667 words) repeating what he had read in books at school and had heard from science writers not realizing he was repeating a popular misconception, a misconception he had almost certainly been taught in school as fact. He dared to say that people in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. That’s as good as getting EVERYTHING about history wrong, we learn from the author of History for Atheists (“ARON RA” GETS EVERYTHING WRONG), earning nothing less than a blistering 6,280-word response which included the following excoriation of both mind and character:

his profound ignorance of history

burst of pseudo historical gibberish

smug self-assurance

virtually everything he said was wrong.

When he turns to history, however, the results are truly woeful,

I make no apologies for coming down hard on crappy pseudo history like this. Nelson may be a well-meaning fool, but he is a fool nonetheless.

no excuse for peddling the lazy nonsense he spouts about history

doing it with such blithe pomposity

is terrible at history and believes many stupid and erroneous things.

someone with little to no grasp of the relevant material

he swaggers and bloviates

boneheaded fanaticism

We all have our bad days when we get a bit cranky.

Oh yes, here are some choice criticisms of our atheist’s presumed sources:

relying on bungled online rehashing of nineteenth century myths and confused nonsense by fellow polemicists.

has read some stuff that he likes from fellow historically illiterate polemicists and decides to present it as fact.

One thing I learned in my educational psychology classes was that the best way to correct facts and gaps in knowledge is to do exactly what the chair of the debate said at the beginning:

And we just ask that you be respectful.

I like that approach.

Yes, Aaron Ra or Nelson, you were guilty of repeating a popular misconception, not only among atheists but even among many Christians. Gosh, I believed what you said for years when I was a God-fearing Protestant. And I am sure I was even taught the same erroneous information in school at some point.

So let’s take a step back and see what has gone wrong. How did this piece of fiction come to be so widely accepted as a fact of history? This will be a slice of History for Atheists and Theists.

Jeffrey Burton Russell (Wikipedia)

The rest of this post consists of notes from Russell’s book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Russell does nothing to hide his view that faith and science are not really incompatible but we can live with that (up to a point).

You Are Not Alone

To begin, let’s try to reassure any of you who have believed this little datum that you are not alone. A 1991 book by Jeffrey Burton Russell contains the following

This Flat Error remains popular. It is still found in many textbooks and encyclopedias. . . .

By the 1980s, a large number of textbooks and encyclopedias had corrected the story, but the Flat Error was restated in a widely read book by the former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers (1983). Boorstin wrote :

A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia . . . afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers.

He called this alleged hiatus the “Great Interruption.” His fourteenth chapter, “A Flat Earth Returns,” derided the “legion of Christian geographers” who followed the geographical path marked out by a sixth-century eccentric. In fact the eccentric Cosmas Indicopleustes had no followers whatever: his works were ignored or dismissed with derision throughout the Middle Ages.

Daniel J. Boorstin (Wikipedia)

How could Boorstin disseminate the Flat Error and the public accept it uncritically?

Those damned librarians! (But he was also a historian.)

So what went wrong? Russell takes us on a journey through the literature that led us astray. It had much to do with the evolution debate of the nineteenth century inflaming passions over reason, and with the centuries-old Protestant distrust of Catholics.

An early culprit was Andrew Dickson White who wrote in 1896 . . .

Many a bold navigator, who was quite ready to brave pirates and tempests, trembled at the thought of tumbling with his ship into one of the openings into hell which a widespread belief placed in the Atlantic at some unknown distance from Europe. This terror among sailors was one of the main obstacles in the great voyage of Columbus.

But the voyage towards wholesale acceptance of error was not a smooth one: read more »

Some Thoughts on the Lessons of Vietnam and the General Who “Lost” the War

A few weeks ago, I was dealing with a mold issue in our RV’s bathroom. (Note: If you see mushrooms growing out of a crack in the wall, it’s usually a bad sign.) Having resigned myself to working with gloves, wearing a mask, sitting uncomfortably on the floor for at least an hour, I resolved to find a long audio program on YouTube and let it play while I worked. I happened upon a presentation by Dr. Lewis Sorley, based mainly on his book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. (You can find the video at the end of this post.)

I had studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate history major back in the 1980s, so much of what Sorley had to say covered old ground for me. Back in those days, of course, we could still refer to it as America’s Longest War without worrying whether some other disastrous Asian war might overtake it. After all, we had “learned the lessons of Vietnam,” right?

Later, as a student at Squadron Officer School, I certainly thought we had learned those lessons. From a policy perspective, the first lesson had to be clarity of purpose. On the military side, we would never again fight a limited war of attrition; instead, we would use overwhelming force to achieve clear objectives. In a nutshell, this is the “Get-In-and-Get-Out” Doctrine: Know your objectives. Achieve them in minimum time with minimal loss of life.

We would absolutely avoid any future quagmires. Or so we thought.

I should mention that several other lessons — both spoken and unspoken — arose out of the Vietnam experience. The practice of embedding journalists within fighting units came out of the beliefs that the press should not have been permitted to work as independent observers and that allowing them to move freely in South Vietnam had been a mistake.

An expanding set of myths about why we lost the war blossomed quickly into an alternate history in which unreliable draftees, fickle politicians in Washington, pinko journalists, and the hippy peace movement conspired to keep us from winning.

Some of these myths took hold naturally, as veterans told their personal stories, relating with frustration how the body counts didn’t seem to matter, that the V.C. would return again and again, that the stupid war of attrition didn’t work, and what’s more, nobody seemed to give a damn that it wasn’t working. That much was true.
read more »

Should a Historian Test a Memory Against an “Original”?

Catching up with blogs I found myself wanting to comment on one a couple of weeks old, Cognitive Science, Memory, Oral Tradition, and Biblical Studies but don’t have access to the comments there. The misunderstanding wearyingly continues and repeats . . . .

I was surprised by [Hector Avalos’s] suggestion that memory is meaningless if we cannot check it against “the original.” That misses the whole point, in my opinion, which is precisely that historians do not have access to an uninterpreted and undistorted “original.” Whether the person writes about themselves or is written about by others, memory plays a role in selecting, interpreting, and distorting.

Point one: Avalos did not say that memory needs to be checked against an uninterpreted and undistorted original. For a start, it is impossible to perceive and comprehend anything without interpretation. So the author of this post (let’s keep it impersonal) has missed the point Avalos was making by setting up a pseudo-contradiction.

The whole point: Unless there is some sort of original (an original that we, as observers, can see through our interpreting and distorting craniums, and an original that was itself documented by interpreting and distorting sculptors or scribes) then we have to ask how we can know if what we are encountering is indeed a memory (distorting and interpreting anew as it may be) of anything past at all, or if it is a fantasy, a “memory” that we like to think is about something that happened but in fact may really be about an event fabricated from whole-cloth.

I know biblical scholars say they have the tools of criteriology (e.g. criterion of embarrassment) to determine if a “memory” is a “real memory” of some past event, however distorted and reinterpreted it may be. But my reading of ancient historians indicates to me that biblical scholars stand alone with that tool-kit.

(Yes, some “memory theorists” in biblical studies do not allow for the use of those criteria, but those scholars have even less methodological justification for deciding whether or not a narrative is indeed a “memory” as distinct from a literary composition without any “oral-tradition heritage”.)

The end of the post links to articles published in science journals that supposedly support the blog author’s perspective, but they don’t. Example: in New Scientist is an article, Edge of Memory: Distrusting oral tradition may make us more ignorant. It’s about aboriginal oral traditions that may (i.e. may) be relating the events of rapidly rising sea levels thousands of years ago. We posted about it some years ago here. Now on what grounds do the anthropologists suspect that certain stories told by the Australian Aboriginals may be passing on genuine memories? Through criteria such as “multiple attestation” or “embarrassment”? No. By checking the stories against “the original”. We have geological evidence of the rapid rise of sea levels. Yes, and that evidence, the data, is made meaningful to us for particular purposes through “interpretation”. We don’t have a perfectly clear vision of exactly what happened in all detail so our interpretation of the data in some sense will “distort” the event, but we have enough information to be able to speak of “an original”.

And it is because we can check stories against an “original” that we can infer they can be traced back to that “original event” and are not as totally fabricated as, say, other myths like a frog swallowing up all the water in surrounding lakes and rivers or a human turning into a bird.

But I have written about this so often now. Apologies for the repetition. Perhaps someone might like to try to spread the word so the fallacy does not repeat so often on other blogsites.

Postscript:

Yes, there are indeed times when all we have is a report that is removed from the time and place of “an original”. On whether to trust some aspect of such a report brings us to the need to make a judgment that is based on the provenance of the report and its record (or its provenance’s record) of proven (tested) reliability in other matters.

 

A Hero’s Flight to Heaven on the Back of a Bird — Understanding the Parallels

Etana ascending on an eagle

I was completely sold on Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch after reading William Brown’s review of it back in 2017.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review of ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review: Reviewing Publications, History, and Scripture (blog). September 24, 2017. https://thebiblicalreview.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/from-adapa-to-enoch-by-seth-sanders/.

After my first quick racing through the book I feel confident enough to say that Brown’s review is pretty much spot on. As I pore through the chapters more slowly and methodically, following up footnotes and other references, I am finding a growing number of points I would like to address in some depth here on this blog. They won’t be completed quickly, and the first post won’t even be about a central point of Sanders’ specific thesis per se; it will be a generic point of methodology — or of fundamental validity of argument in relation to parallel narratives.

The oldest known ascent to heaven in the ancient Near East is the story of Etana, a legendary early Sumerian king who rode to heaven on the back of an eagle in search of a magic herb that could help him produce an heir. (Sanders, p. 28)

The story begins with the eagle making a pact with a snake, a story that is set out in detail at The Myth of Etana (Ancient History Encyclopedia) by Joshua J. Mark. The eagle breaks his promise to the snake and is punished by having his wings damaged, disabling him from flight. Etana finds the eagle in distress and helps him back to strength while the eagle this time returns the kindness by helping Etana to find what he needs in the heavens, a plant that would guarantee his ability to produce a royal heir. So the eagle carries Etana up to the heavens on his back.

You’ve no doubt heard similar stories and here’s why:

The Etana story has strong connections with a widely diffused myth and needs to be seen in historical context if it is to reveal anything about Mesopotamian written culture. A hero’s flight to heaven on the back of a bird is a widespread motif that appears in classical, Persian, Islamic, and even twentieth-century Finnish sources.2 (Sanders, p. 29)

Finnish? Here is the reference cited by Jussi Aro of Helsinki. It is from #537 in Antti Aarne’s The Types of the Folktale:

537 The Marvelous Eagle Gives the Hero a Box which he must not open.

I. The Speaking Eagle. A man aims to shoot an eagle, when suddenly the bird begins to speak like a human being [B21I.3]. The man spares him.

II. The Grateful Eagle. The bird has a wing broken. The man cares for it for three years and wastes all his property by feeding the bird. Finally the eagle recovers and will repay the man for his kindness [B380, Q45].

III. The Journey by Air. The bird then carries the man on his back across the sea [3552] to his kingdom [B222], and intimidates him three times by nearly dropping him into the sea (the hunter has once aimed three times with his gun at the bird). . . . .

Aro comments:

Can we be sure that the fairy-tale motifs mentioned above really go back to ancient Mesopotamian sources and that they have been transmitted either orally or in a literary form for some four thousand years? I think we can. It is true that the fairy-tale versions of the Lugalbanda-Anzu story differ from the original: the hero does not feed or decorate the young but saves them fwm a dragon or a snake; the latter versions are of course more logical and expressive. But still the modern versions preserve many charactedstic features of the original: there is the lonely place, the tree, the bird’s nest with the young, the bird’s suspicions when returning to the nest, the role of the young in appeasing the bird, the help bestowed by the bird on the hero, etc. The most characteristic feature of the Etana-motif again is the speculation on space-travel and the successively diminished appearance of the earth that is described preferably by a dialogue between the bird and the hero between two persons in the primitive spaceship. In this episode there is a bit of old Mesopotamian “science-fiction that has subsequently been turned in Hellenistic and later literature into a warning against hybris and in the folk-tales to a mere embellishment of the story. (Aro, p. 28)

That’s one perspective. But consider Sanders’ comment:

These parallels emphasize a fact crucial for the comparison of ancient scribal products: narratives may resemble each other independently of historical and cultural context. The fact that the Finnish and Islamic versions can easily be described in terms close to the Mesopotamian story reminds us that literary resemblance has limited inherent significance by itself.3 It is impossible to understand a narrative historically on its own; we must understand what it meant to its audiences over time. (p. 29)

And footnote 3:

The similarity of such stories in distinctly separate cultures requires us to abandon the question of whether one form “should be traced back” to the other or is “just coincidence;” either way, absent any historical relationship or comparison of social contexts, the similarity is “just coincidence.” That is, the retention itself is so isolated that, without a concrete social or historical explanation of the similarity, it appears unintelligible and random. (my emphasis)


Aarne, Antti. 1973. The Types of the Folktale; A Classification and Bibliography. Translated by Stith Thompson. 2nd edition. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Aro, Jussi. 1976. “Anzu and Simurgh.” In Kramer Anniversary Volume: Cuneiform Studies in Honor of Samuel Noah Kramer, edited by Barry L Eichler, 25–28. Kevelaer : Butzon & Bercker.

Brown, William. 2017. “Review: ‘From Adapa to Enoch’ by Seth Sanders.” Blog. The Biblical Review (blog). September 24, 2017. https://thebiblicalreview.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/from-adapa-to-enoch-by-seth-sanders/.

Mark, Joshua J. 2011. “The Myth of Etana.” In Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/article/224/the-myth-of-etana/.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.


 

Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

I’m travelling again so am pulling out the occasional post I’ve had in store for such times. If circumstances do not permit some of my planned posts I’ll post another one of these.

McGrath would appeal to the variables shaping “cultural memory” and theological tendentiousness and the tradition of Jewish authors rewriting “Old Testament” scriptures; the mythicists would appeal to one less hypothesis . . .

It’s been a while since I addressed James McGrath’s critical responses to mythicism so I will try to make amends. Please, only courteous and civil responses will be acceptable in the comments. I bent over backwards to make the peace with James McGrath a few years ago and I would still like to keep that possibility open. I like to hope that he will respond to my posts in a reciprocal spirit.

About three months ago McGrath engaged in discussions on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog and presented the following list to enable readers to get a grasp of his reasons for objecting to mythicism. He listed only the urls but I have added the titles, too.

I’ve been blogging and writing elsewhere about this [i.e. mythicism] for many years. Here are a few samples in case they are helpful.

1. “Minimalism, Mythicism and Modernism”

I will address each one in chronological order. So we start with

Here McGrath quotes a portion of an article (the second last sentence) by Ronald Hendel and claims its relevance not only for “minimalists/maximalists” but for “mythicists and other modernists”. Minimalists refers to scholars who question the historicity of “biblical Israel”, believing the archaeological evidence must always trump the literary, and that archaeologists working in Palestine have not found evidence for

  • an exodus of Israelites from Egypt;
  • an invasion of Canaan by Israelites from the wilderness;
  • for a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon;
  • parallel kingdoms of Israel and Judah existing side by side up until the Assyrian conquest of Samaria;
  • monotheistic worship of Yahweh until after the Persians established the colony of Jehud.

Maximalists, on the other hand, are generally said to trust the Biblical narratives unless they have good reasons to doubt them, and that there was some sort of Exodus behind the biblical story, a united kingdom under David, and some sort of historical reality behind the biblical account.

McGrath also refers to “modernists” but I will leave aside that side of his criticism because I am not sure what the term covers or how it is relevant to “mythicism”. (Hendel refers without elaboration to a dichotomy of “post modernists / modernists” in the last sentence.) McGrath introduces Hendel’s words with:

The idea that we are either going to precisely reconstruct the past, or conversely decisively disprove traditional views about it, without room for doubt or error, reflect the approach of a bygone era.

A very bygone era, indeed. I don’t know when modern historical studies have ever claimed to be able to establish “precise reconstructions …. without room for doubt or error”. Even our “father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, said that the most he hoped to be able to “reconstruct” was how a time and event “essentially was” — not how it was precisely and infallibly in all respects. I would be interested to know the specific scholars McGrath has in mind.

At this point I question the relevance of this introduction for the minimalist/maximalist debate as much as for mythicists. I don’t think either maximalist Albright or minimalist Thompson would claim to offer readers a precise reconstruction of the past without room for doubt or error. Nor do I know of any mythicist who seriously engages with the academic works of biblical scholars (e.g. Brodie, Doherty, the early Wells, Price, Carrier . . . ) who makes dogmatic claims about precise reconstructions of the past. All, from my reading at least, appeal to the weight of probabilities. I am open to correction, of course, but preferably from James McGrath’s own reading of mythicists.

I will leap to the conclusion of McGrath’s post because it is there that he targets mythicism directly: read more »

Do Parallels Only Work in One Direction?

Daphnis and Chloe

I found the following slightly amusing:

I was really struck by the article in Bible History Daily about how the story of Daphnis and Chloe echoes the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Here’s an excerpt:

Written around 200 A.D. by the Greco-Roman author Longus, Daphnis and Chloe is a pagan pastoral romance that echoes the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Daphnis and Chloe are simple country-dwelling teenagers in love. They are the adopted children of pastoralists indentured to a far off Master. In a meadow where the couple often meet, there is an apple tree, completely bare except for one large and sweet apple hanging from the topmost twig. Daphnis climbs the tree and picks it for Chloe, to her dismay. Daphnis justifies himself, saying that if he did not pluck it, the apple would fall to the earth and be trampled by a beast or poisoned by a snake.

In spite of some variations, all the principal elements of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve are included in Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe. There are male and female counterparts, the tree and the fruit in the Edenic setting and even an ominous mention of a snake. It is likely that Longus knew some version of the Genesis story, whether by first or second hand. As Theodore Feder writes, Daphnis and Chloe is an example of how “stories of the Jews and early Christians were becoming part of the general cultural inventory of the time.”

Bringing Ravel . . . (my bolding throughout)

An Edenic setting, of course, for this biblical scholar, not a “pastoral setting” as any classicist would recognize. See previous posts where the Daphnis and Chloe novel has been discussed or referenced. (No-one should be allowed to read the Bible until they first read the ancient Greco-Roman literature, including what are technically called the “erotic novellas” — really just short love stories. Be prepared for lots of preparation for biblical motifs, like discovering baffling empty tombs, apparent resurrections, even heroes surviving crucifixions, and all sorts of other “miraculous” things.)

Read, now, the context of that scene about the apple and the serpent. I quote just one page of an almost 60 page story: read more »

The Question of Historicity Need Not Be Raised

The question whether Orpheus himself existed or not need not be raised. There was, in general, no doubt of it in the ancient world. Indeed, it makes very little difference in the history of human thought whether the great and influential personalities ever actually lived in human bodies. Personalities like Zeus, Odysseus, and Zoroaster, and even Hamlet and Don Quixote, have been more important in the world than millions of men who have lived and died. Their reality is the reality of an idea, and the best that we can know about them is what men have thought about them. The reality of Orpheus is to be sought in what men thought and said about him. 
Linforth, Ivan M. 1973 (c 1941). The Arts of Orpheus. New York: Arno Press. xiif
.
Death of Orpheus (1494) by Dürer

The Questions We Permit Ourselves to Ask

In historical research, we evaluate the plausibility of hypotheses that aim to explain the occurrence of a specific event. The explanations we develop for this purpose have to be considered in light of the historical evidence that is available to us. Data functions as evidence that supports or contradicts a hypothesis in two different ways, corresponding to two different questions that need to be answered with regard to a hypothesis:

1. How well does the event fit into the explanation given for its occurrence?

2. How plausible are the basic parameters presupposed by the hypothesis?

. . . . .

[A]lthough this basic structure of historical arguments is so immensely important and its disregard inevitably leads to wrong, or at least insufficiently reasoned, conclusions, it is not a sufficient condition for valid inferences. Historical data does not come with tags attached to it, informing us about (a) how – or whether at all – it relates to one of the two categories we have mentioned and (b) how much plausibility it contributes to the overall picture. The historian will never be replaced by the mathematician.23

23 This becomes painfully clear when one considers that one of the few adaptations of Bayes’s theorem in biblical studies, namely Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2014), aims to demonstrate that Jesus was not a historical figure.

Heilig, Christoph. 2015. Hidden Criticism?: The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. pp. 26f

Denialism (Afterword)

From the previous discussion it can be established that denialism does not mean disagreement with the majority or even with the “everyone else” in the field or for having stand-alone “politically incorrect” beliefs: it is possible to disagree with “everyone” yet not be a denialist. How so? Richard Evans explained it by comparison of David Irving with another prominent historian I have also discussed from time to time, Eric Hobsbawm.

Further to the right of O’Brien, the columnist ‘Peter Simple,’ writing in the Daily Telegraph, considered it a “strange sort of country” which could consign Irving to “outer darkness while conferring the Order of Merit on another historian, the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, an only partly and unwillingly repentant apologist for the Soviet Union, a system of tyranny whose victims far outnumbered those of Nazi Germany.” Leaving aside the numbers of victims, and ignoring the fact that Hobsbawm was not awarded the Order of Merit, which is in the personal gift of the queen, but was appointed a Companion of Honour, which is a government recommendation, the point here was, once more, that Irving did not lose his lawsuit because of his opinions, but because he was found to have deliberately falsified the evidence, something Hobsbawm, who in his day has attracted the most bitter controversy, has never been accused of doing, even by his most savage critics. (Evans , 238f)

 

Understanding Denialism

What is a denialist?

I have heard the term used to describe Holocaust deniers, creationists (the young-earth kind), climate change sceptics, anti-vaxxers, and probably some others that don’t come to mind right now. (Oh yes, now I remember. Some people apply the term to those who are not convinced that Jesus was a historical figure.)

Do all of those groups share something in common that earns them the label “denialist”? What is it that each of those ideas has that sets them apart from intellectual positions that cannot be seen as “denialist”?

With this question in mind I had a closer look at Holocaust denial. I had accidentally come across a movie about the David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt trial and that led me to reading as a follow-up . . .

  • Evans, Richard J. 2002. Lying About Hitler. New York: Basic Books.
  • Lipstadt, Deborah E. 2006. History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. New York: Harper Perennial.

I liked Richard Evans’ book on history as a discipline and the challenges it was facing with certain postmodernist inroads, In Defence of History (1997), so I was especially interested in his reflections on his experience as the specialist historian witness in the Irving trial. (I’ve addressed aspects of Evans’ In Defence of History several times on this blog.)

Some years back I was curious to understand what Irving’s arguments were about the Holocaust so I purchased second hand copies of Hitler’s War and The War Path and was bemused. I couldn’t see what people were complaining about. I failed to realize that all the fuss was about his second edition (1991) of those books. I had read the 1977 and 1978 works.

David Irving can be considered the “father” of Holocaust denial. So what is it about his work that makes it so? I select passages from Richard Evans’ conclusions about Irving as a historian. I highlight sections I find of special interest. read more »

How Scholarship (especially historical research into almost any topic except the historical Jesus) Works

Warning: For new readers only. This post is essentially a repeat of a March 17th post this year. So if you were not paying attention back then . . . .

Once again a forum post I wrote over a year ago, Rules of Historical Reasoning, has come in for indirect attention from Religion Prof.

When sharing a recent blog post on social media, I offered some thoughts on how academic study works at its most basic level. Here is what I wrote, with some minor improvements and alterations to the wording:

Reading some online discussions, you’d think that there is a need for people on those blogs and discussion boards, with no particular expertise in or professional connection with the study of history, to come up with their own methods for historical study. Not that they don’t talk about what historians and scholars past and present have done and do. But they talk about the methods as though they themselves actually use them regularly to investigate historical questions and so are poised to assess their value, and indeed better poised that professionals who do in fact use them, daily.

The “discussion boards” link is to my forum post. Far from suggesting that my post in any way implied that amateurs do or should “come up with their own methods for historical study” the whole thrust of the post was that academic historians explain and justify the methods that they, as academics, use. And far from suggesting that biblical scholars investigating the question of the historical Jesus “do in fact use” those same methods, the whole thrust of the post was that as a rule biblical scholars addressing the historical Jesus part company with their historian peers in non-biblical fields.

The same criticism of my post was made in mid March this year and I responded at that time with a copy of my forum post. I copy that forum post again here, but preface it with a link to a fuller discussion by a historian of ancient history of some renown, M. I. Finley:

An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

 

Rules of Historical Reasoning

From Mark Day, The Philosophy of History, 2008, pp. 20-21.
read more »

Well, I Sure Got That Wrong

Tom Holland, an amateur historian with some excellent and some not so excellent writings in history.

I thought Tom Holland was a historian. I am talking about the author of In the Shadow of the Sword, a history of the seventh century Arab conquests and emergence of Islam which I posted about three times in 2013. I had read the book after a fascinating interview with Holland on Australia’s Radio National’s Late Night Live show with Philip Adams. Presumably Tom Holland had been introduced as a historian and it never crossed my mind to doubt that that was his profession.

But today I was struck by something I read in Richard Carrier’s new post today, No, Tom Holland, It Wasn’t Christian Values That Saved the West. My first reaction was that somewhere Holland was re-hashing his apology and praise for Christian values and even the heritage of the Christian church itself. Of course there’s nothing wrong with “love thy neighbour”, but Holland goes well beyond that. He credits Christianity with having, in effect, saved the world from barbarism. I certainly acknowledge many good programs throughout history by some Christians and some Christian organizations, but it is going too far to claim, as Holland does, that the difference between pagan and Christian values in ancient times was as stark as night from day.

I was somewhat incredulous that such a “reputable historian” could come out with that sort of … somewhat debatable viewpoint. So I posted:

I was just as dismayed when I noticed Tim O’Neill’s wearing of a Tom Holland praise badge on his website:

“A brilliantly erudite blog that stands sentinel against the wish-fulfilment and tendentiousness to which atheists, on occasion, can be no less prey than believers” – Tom Holland, best-selling history writer

I have demonstrated (most recently here) just how lacking in erudition and how thoroughly tendentious O’Neill’s History for Atheists actually is in some of its posts.

But Richard Carrier has shown that I myself have been caught out merely assuming Tom Holland was a credentialed/trained historian. Here is Carrier’s opening to his new post, No, Tom Holland, It Wasn’t Christian Values That Saved the West

Novelist Tom Holland just wrote an article for The Spectator titled “Thank God for Western Values,” declaring the “debt of the West to Christianity is more deeply rooted than many might presume.” Everything he says is false.

The Back Story

Holland is another amateur playing at knowing what he’s talking about. He has no degrees in history, and no advanced degrees whatever. He has a bachelors in English and Latin poetry. He dabbled in getting a Ph.D. in Byron but gave up. No shame in that; but it still doesn’t qualify you to talk about ancient history, or even medieval. So keep that in mind. As to faith, he might be called a Christian atheist.

Now I squirm with that “another amateur playing at knowing what he’s talking about” put-down, but I was determined not to be caught out again so I checked and tried to find some credible source. I followed up the following citations in Holland’s Wikipedia page:

 

Sure enough (and Carrier links to the first of these) Tom Holland never studied history at a tertiary level. Never. He has no formal studies in history to his credit. (Nor, by the way, does Tim O’Neill, who also studied literature, medieval literature in his case.) Even I have more “formal training” in university level history than Tom Holland, but more than that, I have built on my formal training (an arts degree majoring in history units, both ancient and modern) with trying to keep reasonably abreast of the scholarly debates and controversies about the nature of history ever since.

So I am finally getting my ear down close enough to the penny-in-the-slot-machine to hear the dropping action inside.

If you are wondering, by chance, in what way Holland might be incorrect when he leads a New Statesman article with

It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.

then no doubt you will find some reasons in Carrier’s own post (I have not yet read it myself but I am sure with Carrier’s qualification in ancient history there will be some pretty good pointers there), and/or you can check out a post or two on this blog, such as:

Even Pauline Christianity is arguably built on the principles of Stoic philosophy:

 

 

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

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

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

Christoph Heilig

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Davies

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

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

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

Richard J. Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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