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.

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?

Even Better Informed History for Atheists: The Lincoln – Kennedy Parallels Fallacy

From https://store.ushistory.org/products/abraham-lincoln-john-f-kennedy-coincidences

Along with his contradictory rationalizations to (1) declare the parallels between Jesus son of Ananias and the gospels’ Jesus to be “hopelessly flimsy”, yet at the same time are real and strong enough to (2) point to real-world parallel historical, socio-political, religious and onomastic events and situations anyway, Tim O’Neill further adds a common sophistical fallacy in a misguided effort to strengthen his argument:

Even if we were to accept that the parallels here are stronger and more numerous than they are, parallels do not mean derivation. A far stronger set of parallels can be found in the notorious urban legend of the supposedly eerie parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln%E2%80%93Kennedy_coincidences_urban_legend), but any future fringe theorist who concluded that, therefore, JFK’s story was derived from that of Lincoln would be laughably wrong. This is why professional scholars are always highly wary of arguments of derivation based on parallels. The danger is that if you go looking for parallels, you will find them. It is always more likely that any parallels that are not artefacts of the process can be better explained as consequences of similar people doing things in similar contexts rather than derivation of one story from the other.

Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures

Again O’Neill informs readers of what he seems to assume “professional scholars always” think and write. (Yet we will see that the fallacy of this analogy is the same as comparing apples and aardvarks.) Recall that Tim O’Neill is presumably attempting to inform his readers

of what is scholarly and credible and what is not.

Let’s see, then, how a scholar does respond to that same Lincoln-Kennedy parallel when it is laid on the table in the middle of a discussion about the two Jesuses parallels, son of Ananias in Josephus’s Jewish War and the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus. Brian Trafford posted to the Crosstalk2 discussion on 10th March 2003 the following (my bolding and formatting):

13026   Re: Two Jesuses: the Provocative Parallels

Brian Trafford
Mar 10 12:16 PM

 

I have a fundamental difficulty with attempts like this to read
meaning into parallels, especially when the possibility of mere
coincidence is dismissed too casually. For example, if one goes to
http://fsmat.at/~bkabelka/titanic/part2/chapter1.htm one can see a
number of parallels between the sinking of the fictitious ship Titan
in a book called _The Wreak of the Titan_ published in 1898, and the
real life sinking of the Titanic in 1912. In another article found
at http://www.worldofthestrange.com/wots/1999/1999-01-25-03.htm we
find a listing of some of the more astonishing parallels between the
assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that of John Kennedy. They
include:

1. Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Exactly one hundred years
later, in 1960, Kennedy was elected president.

2. Both men were deeply involved in civil rights for Negroes.


3. Both me were assassinated on a Friday, in the presence of their

wives.

4. Each wife had lost a son while living at the White House.


5. Both men were killed by a bullet that entered the head from behind.


6. Lincoln was killed in Ford’s Theater. Kennedy met his death while

riding in a Lincoln convertible made by the Ford Motor Company.

7. Both men were succeeded by vice-presidents named Johnson who were

southern Democrats and former senators.

8. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808. Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908,

exactly one hundred years later.

9. The First name of Lincoln’s private secretary was John, the last

name of Kennedy’s private secretary was Lincoln.

10. John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald was born in

1939, one hundred years later.

11. Both assassins were Southerners who held extremist views.


12. Both assassins were murdered before they could be brought to

trail.

13. Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and fled to a barn. Oswald shot


14. Kennedy from a warehouse and fled to a theater.


15. Lincoln and Kennedy each have seven letters.


16. Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each has 13 letters.


17. John Wiles Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each has 15 letters.


18. In addition, the first public proposal that Lincoln be the

Republican candidate for president (in a letter to Cincinnati
Gazette, Nov. 6, 1858) also endorsed a John Kennedy for vice
president (John P. Kennedy, formerly secretary of the Navy.)

Obviously it would be easy, based upon this list, to conclude that
the story of Lincoln’s assassination served as the template used by
later creators of the story of Kennedy’s death.

Very simply, if one takes two events and looks for potential
parallels, one can very often create a list that, on the surface
looks rather impressive, but on closer examination does not really
tell us very much. More importantly, it should make us cautious in
claiming that superficial similarities means that the earlier report
served as a template for creative fictionalizing by the later source
(in whichever direction one wishes to propose). I think that this is
the case with the parallels between the two Jesus’.

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/crosstalk2/conversations/messages/13026

read more »

Rules of Historical Reasoning — Still Controversial Among Religion Profs

Professor James McGrath continues to take an interest in my discussions about historical methods in the context of the “quest for the historical Jesus”. I was surprised to read the following words of his earlier today:

Reading certain blogs and discussion boards on the internet, you would think that laypeople were being called upon to invent methods for historical study for themselves, and to do so from scratch no less. I think a post (or series of posts!) on basic methodology, and particularly source criticism, could be helpful for a lay audience, especially in light of the misinformation being spread in certain corners of the internet.

I had never heard of anyone on any discussion board or blog attempting to work out methods for historical study “for themselves”. So I had to click on the link to see who could possibly be doing such a thing. Lo and behold, the link is to a post on the Biblical Criticism and History forum more than a year ago that was written by yours truly. So what did McGrath mean by suggesting there was some fatuous lay attempt to “invent methods for historical study for themselves”? My post was in fact a presentation of what professional historians themselves explain about their methods.

Interestingly, McGrath’s post continues by quoting others who express disdain for amateurs who don’t show due deference to certain responses from biblical scholars and then reminding readers of the methods of biblical historians who study questions relating to the historical Jesus. Of course, my point was that nonbiblical historians work by different rules. The title of McGrath’s post included “Reinventing the Wheel” but I don’t believe any historian outside biblical studies uses the criteria or other methods specifically characteristic of biblical scholars to determine historicity. There is no reinvention but stark contrast.

McGrath has asked me not to engage with any of his posts on his blog so I can only trust fair minded readers will click on the “discussion boards” link and see that there has been some no doubt inadvertent confusion. I am not quite sure what the relevance of the second link is to form criticism and other tools used by biblical historians unless it is a reference to a point made before on the Religion Prof’s blog that biblical historians are pioneers leading the way in techniques of historical inquiry.

Here is my discussion board post that was confused with a layperson inventing methods for himself: read more »

Memory Theory and the Historical Jesus

Alan Kirk

Bloomsbury publishers sent me an electronic copy of Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a collection of articles by Alan Kirk, for review and comment in response to my request. My first post on this book was Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition. This post, my second, responds to chapter 10, “Memory Theory and Jesus Research”, which was originally published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). It’s a good opportunity to do an overview of how biblical scholars apply memory theory in historical Jesus studies.

One of Alan Kirk’s main points in this chapter is that memories are not inert blocks waiting to be brought out whenever called upon, but are malleable, and not only open to modification but also actively shape our perceptions of certain changing circumstances in our lives.

A second critical point Kirk emphasizes is that community memories do not work like the game of ‘Telephone’.  Rather, memories in community settings are like more like nets. Multiple witnesses or “rememberers” are there to correct and refine the stories as they are told and retold. The “net” model safeguards against the sorts of losses and changes that the party game or laboratory experiments experience.

Fellow blogger Tim Widowfield is far more on top of Rudolf Bultmann’s work than I am and he may wish to contribute, perhaps even correct, either what I am writing here or what Kirk himself has written.

In Kirk’s view the old form critical approach to historical Jesus studies (originating with Rudolf K. Bultmann) assumed the former “inert block” view of memory. It was Bultmann’s view that by identifying and peeling away accretions building up on a story one could arrive at the initial account. Those accretions were essentially fabrications imposed on the original story that were created to meet the changing needs and interests of the church.

The gospel tradition was thus construed as a bifurcated entity: fabricated tradition coming to overlay diminishing residues of memory, for their part more or less inert with respect to the traditioning process itself. Tradition thus conceived primarily gave expression to the contemporary debates, predicaments and developments of the early communities.

Bultmann’s analysis was in fact characterized by a programmatic disconnect between memory and the growing tradition, his occasional gestures to ‘reminiscence’ notwithstanding. This was the consequence of according little agency to memory and instead locating the decisive generative forces for tradition in contemporary social factors.

Collective memory, Kirk points out through references to numerous studies, organizes and gives meaning to the data that is being recalled. Citing Barry Schwartz he writes

collective memory thus becomes ‘a social fact as it is made and remade to serve changing societal interests and needs’.

read more »

Ancient Historiography and Historians — Vridar Posts

For the background to this post see Vridar Maintenance.

I am listing here the posts that are categorized or tagged as “Ancient Historiography“. This list is for my own editing purposes but I am making it public because I know it’s a topic that if of particular interest to some readers, so they can share my pain in trying to sort them out.

From this list I will be looking for anything that

  • does not really come under “ancient historiography”,
  • is better tagged or categorized with some other label.

Maybe “ancient historiography” itself is too broad, narrow, or unclear as to precise meaning.

(Other posts not listed here but paralleling the themes and content of posts here will be added and sorted out in good time.)

Interested readers are welcome to make suggestions.

  1. What Josephus might have said about the Gospels — 2008-10-26
  2. How History Was Done in Bible Times: Myths about Herodotus and Thucydides — 2014-02-05
  3. Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality  — 2014-02-06
  4. The Best of Ancient Historians Following Homer and the Epic Poets  — 2014-02-07
  5. How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague — 2014-02-13
  6. How Ancient Historians Worked — Summary — 2014-02-16
  7. The Difference between Story and History in the Bible — 2015-03-11
  8. The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry — 2015-06-17
  9. Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources — 2015-07-24
  10. Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths? — 2017-05-28
  11. What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography? –2017-06-07
  12. How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives” — 2017-06-14
  13. Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference? — 2017-08-02
  14. An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally — 2017-10-31
  15. The evidence of ancient historians — 2017-12-10
  16. How Historians Study a Figure Like Jesus — 2018-10-21
  17. “Now we know” — how ancient historians worked — 2018-11-30
  18. Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History” — 2019-01-21
  19. Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1) — 2019-02-02
  20. Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2) — 2019-02-03

Then there are additional posts currently attached to a label “Ancient historians“. Some of the above posts also have “ancient historians” as a label but I am avoiding double up here.

  1. Comparing the sources for Alexander and Jesus — 2007-04-22
  2. Ancient historians’ accounts of shipwrecks — 2007-04-27
  3. Ancient historians at work: Polybius, Herodotus (cf Gospels, Acts) — 2007-05-08
  4. The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus — 2007-11-27
  5. The Bible’s “Historical” Writings: Histories or Historical Novels or . . .? — 2009-09-24
  6. Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons — 2010-05-01
  7. Reading an ancient historical narrative: two fundamental principles — 2011-02-24
  8. Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel — 2011-02-24
  9. What if the Gospels did cite their sources and identify their authors? — 2012-09-18
  10. Is Luke Among the Lying Historians? — 2013-12-03
  11. Signs of Fiction in Ancient Biographies — & the Gospels — 2017-06-06
  12. What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?— 2017-06-07
  13. Distinguishing between “fiction” and “history” in ancient sources — 2017-06-18
  14. Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? — 2017-08-09
  15. It works for Esther. Why not for Jesus? — 2017-12-19
  16. Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed? — 2018-05-07
  17. How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical — 2018-05-08
  18. Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings? — 2018-05-09
  19. Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — 2019-01-24
  20. Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true — 2019-01-25

Then other posts, link is “ancient history

  1. Is history a trial? — 2011-10-25
  2. Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy — 2017-12-08

Then more under “ancient biographies

  1. Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ — 2017-08-15
  2. Ad Hoc explanations for all those different biographies of Jesus …. (or Socrates) — 2017-12-03
  3. Why the “Biographies” of Socrates Differ — 2017-12-05

ancient forgeries

  1. Ancient forgeries — by lawful decree — 2007-09-06
  2. Forgery in the ancient world — 2009-07-04
  3. Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients? — 2017-09-19
  4. The Problem of Forgery in the Bible: 10 Myths to Justify False Authorship — 2017-03-01

ancient sources

  1. Miscellaneous point — Mount Vesuvius and the argument from silence — 2018-090-18
  2. A scholarly hankering…. — 2018-09-21
  3. “Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many” — 2018-10-25
  4. Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us  — 2018-12-21

ancient literature

  1. The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues — 2007-11-12
  2. Ancient prologues: Conventions and an oddity of the Acts preface — 2007-11-13
  3. The literary genre of Acts. 10: historical novels – ancient cyrogenics and lost cities — 2008-02-09
  4. Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study) — 2010-07-01
  5. The Popularity of Resurrection — 2010-07-17
  6. The Classical and Biblical Canons — & the importance of identifying authors — 2017-11-29
  7. Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature — 2018-10-30
  8. A New Genre for the Gospels? It’s not so unusual. And Imitation and Intertextuality? A necessity! — 2018-12-09

ancient novels

  1. Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels — 2012-11-17
  2. Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” — 2012-11-28

Okay, that’s a start. Over 60 posts to be sorted here.

. . . .

But wait, some more: “Greco-Roman Biographies

  1. Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?” — 2017-05-31
  2. One Key Difference between Gospels and an Ancient Biography — 2017-06-08
  3. How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives” — 2017-06-14
  4. Did Aesop Exist? — 2017-08-08
  5. Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1 — 2017-08-10

And it is at this point where we are beginning to overlap with the Gospel Genre posts.

And still more (to be periodically updated):

Plutarch

  1. Dog resurrection — 2009-12-30
  2. Ancient mythicist-historicist role reversal — 2010-03-10
  3. Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus — 2011-01-04
  4. Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book — 2012-03-29
  5. One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography — 2017/04/30

Suetonius

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised — 2007-01-16
  2. Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus — 2011-10-04
  3. 5. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: A Roman Trio — 2012-04-23
  4. “Is This Not the Carpenter?” – References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources — 2012-08-21

Pliny the Younger

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised — 2007-01-17
  2. New Testament allusions in Pliny correspondence with Trajan? — 2007-01-17
  3. Fresh Doubts on Authenticity of Pliny’s Letter about the Christians — 2016-02-17

Tacitus

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised — 2007-01-16
  2. O’Neill-Fitzgerald: #5, Should We Expect Any Roman Records About Failed Messiahs? — 2014-01-01

Julius Caesar

  1. How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar  — 2010/08/21
  2. The Gospels Are “Only Parables” ABOUT Jesus: Crossan (Part 2 of 3) — 2013-01-11