Category Archives: Historiography

Can Historians Develop a Valid “Feel” for a Reliable Source?

Ruth Morse

While preparing my next post on the Trump movement’s analogues to cult experiences I tripped over a page by another historian, Ruth Morse, addressing what modern readers need to understand whenever reading works of pre-modern historians. Once again anyone aware of the methods of New Testament or early Christianity historians must surely wonder why historians of medieval and ancient times don’t embrace the methods of NT historians (e.g. criteria of authenticity, memory theory) or why NT scholars don’t ditch their own methods and emulate those of their peers in other history departments.

‘Common report’, essentially rumour, has never been thought to be an accurate source or a sceptical witness, and historians have always known this.

But don’t biblical historians, or more specifically, historical Jesus historians, have criteria and tools to enable them to dig down and assess with some measure of reasonable probability how common reports (biblical historians use the term “oral tradition” which perhaps connotes a more stable notion of what is being passed on) have mutated over periods through memory refractions and back to something close to an original saying through various criteria of authenticity? Have other historians not yet caught up with these “advanced techniques’?

Loathe to lose any remnant of evidence, loathe to relinquish a way of inserting non-authorized opinions which could be attributed to anonymous sources, medieval historians themselves argued about ‘common report’ and how it might be used. Even sceptical historians might accept that if oral traditions offered nothing else, they gave important testimony to what people had traditionally believed (which itself presented a topic for discussion, because such beliefs could be weighed and compared, where comparing might offer an opportunity to the rhetorically alert).

Yes. Oral reports do tell us what the people sharing them were saying to one another. Were they telling stories of Robin Hood, or Jesus? What grounds do historians have for concluding that those tales had any decades old historical basis?

Would a historian ever rely upon suspect sources?

An allegiance to truth never precluded the use of suspect material; nor did history exclude certain embellishments of that material. One embellishment might be an ostensible rejection of suspect material which, by its very existence, retained precisely what it pretended to discard. What kind of representation of what understanding for which audience are essential questions to ask when evaluating medieval and renaissance history. How far it is either any more than testimony to current opinion, or whether it can be trusted as a reliable account are questions which raise other issues.

But cannot historians develop some sort of sense or feel for what is a reliable source?

Most modern historians of the Middle Ages develop what they characterize as a ‘feel’ for when medieval historians can be trusted.

But did not early historians, ancient and medieval, know how to apply their learning in rhetoric to draw out sympathy and confidence in readers to that they would feel loathe to question the truth of what was being written?

Since the encouragement of some kind of intuitive sympathy was itself one of the rhetorician’s goals, early warnings about ethos may help readers coming to medieval historians for the first time. The seductive experience of wanting what a favourite medieval historian says to be true sometimes to the detriment of one’s better judgement continues to be part of the experience of many case-hardened researchers.

Or perhaps a careful study of historians of old (and medieval historians did learn and emulate the techniques and aims of ancient historians) will alert modern readers to the possibility that much of what they encounter may indeed by fiction.

By analysing individual topoi and situating them within a system of rhetorically manipulated reference, I hope to demonstrate how pervasive ‘literary’ habits of embellishment were, that ‘realism’ is a constantly shifting style which is constantly remade, not a guarantee of a true depiction, and that however convincing, charming, fresh, or intelligent an account, it may be no more (but no less) than a plausible construction which refers to known patterns of human character, behaviour, and event. The styles chosen by historians involve multiple reference: to the particular past narrated; to earlier models of writing history; to other, early literary models (like epics or fictions, or poems of many kinds); and to over-arching (or perhaps underpinning) eschatological ideas of human history.


Morse, Ruth. 2005. Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation and Reality. Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. 95


 

Historians on the Most Basic Laws of Historical Evidence

The most basic laws of historical evidence are very straightforward.
Professor David Dumville, British medievalist and Celtic scholar, Chair in History & Palaeography in the School of Divinity, History & Philosophy, Professor in History, Palaeography & Celtic, University of Aberdeen.

The most basic laws of historical evidence are very straightforward. History must be written from contemporary sources or with the aid of testimony carried to a later era by an identifiable and acceptable line of transmission. Many texts which present themselves for our consideration as testimony to Anglo-Saxon history are creations remote from that age. Historical writing may be entertaining if an author chooses to cut corners or ignore the rules of evidence when assessing such works—but it will not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Dumville, 55

Professor Dumville’s words conclude a chapter addressing questionable practices and conclusions of a number of medieval historians that echo, at least in my ears, methods in biblical studies.

In the opening paragraph Dumville sets out a warning that no doubt many scholars of “biblical Israel” and Christian origins would enthusiastically offer lip agreement to:

[The historian] must excavate his texts, not in the spirit of a treasure-hunter seeking little more than the thrill of whatever finds may come to hand, but in as measured and scientific a fashion as possible. In the academic discipline of history, as in archaeology, the time for treasure-hunting has now passed. In spite of occasional lapses, methods and standards of criticism are rigorous and well advertized.

Dumville, 43

Excavating texts?

That image of “excavating texts” reminds me of James McGrath’s illustration of the way a historian supposedly reads a text compared with the way of a literary analyst:

McGrath, James F. 2008. The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. BookSurge Publishing. p. 57

There is a significant difference, however. When Dumville speaks of “excavating” texts he makes not a single reference to any “criteria of authenticity” such as “criterion of embarrassment” or “criterion of double dissimilarity”; he makes no reference to “memory theory” as might have at that time been gleaned from Halbwach’s 1980 publication of The Collective Memory. What he means by “excavating” the texts is studying what can and can’t be known about their probable source material and any data (or absence of data) that establishes a clear line of record to the events written about. That is flatly opposed to the assumptions and implications of the diagram above. One cannot reason about the narrative style or presentation of a text in order to apply criteria or memory theory and thereby arrive at a “probable series of historical events”.

What excavating texts means to Dumville is establishing clear evidence of the use of sources that can be traced back to being contemporary with the events of the narrative or document. If the author does not set out the evidence that would enable readers to be assured that his or her story or record were derived ultimately from contemporary sources then the work is completely useless for historians who seek to reconstruct the earlier event.

Comparing hypothetical sources and traditions “behind” biblical texts

What if later narratives agree, though? Won’t that be some indication that they are at least close to accurately representing earlier events? No. Some medieval historians fell into that error (as Dumville would put it) when they concluded from agreements in later sources that those later source agreements indicated that they all used a much earlier set of documents from the very time of the events being studied.

Does anyone else at this point think of the arguments underlying the Q source? Or those that attempt to glimpse earlier memories? What of Bart Ehrman’s plethora of sources that, among others, add M and L to Q?

Contrast Dumville’s view of historians who worked back from agreements in later twelfth century sources to concluding that they were based on a hypothetical (surely actual) ninth century documents:

It was the implication of Pagan’s discussion of the Flores historiarum and Historia Dunelmensis ecclesie that such lists were maintained in ninth-century Northumbria. However, this view must be qualified by the knowledge that the unanimity of the twelfth-century Durham texts is sometimes in shared error or doubtful deduction. Continuity of accurate record is not therefore to be assumed, and any information with such an uncertain pedigree cannot sustain very confident use. (52)

Semantic seductions

Next, note the confusion of terminology, how sometimes the language of “documents” or “records” can so easily (I suggest even unconsciously) elide with sources that technically are not “documents” or “records” at all. (This was a criticism I once made of a discussion by James Crossley and that was the source of his outrage and, it seems at least to me, even some small ongoing obsession to denigrate this blog in subsequent publications. )

Lyon has laid some stress on the date 854 in Northumbrian historical record, observing that it ‘is explicitly mentioned in several documents, so it cannot be lightly rejected’. The first essential point is that it is not mentioned in any document at all, for we have none surviving from early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. That very absence speaks volumes for the nature of institutional discontinuity in the Anglo-Scandinavian period. The date 854 is mentioned in a number of twelfth-and thirteenth-century literary texts. In discussing a historical subject, we must not lapse into the loose language of the archaeologist who is unaccustomed to written sources: not all written texts are documents; documentary and literary texts have a different status and require somewhat different handling. (52)

What they deride as “minimalism” in OT studies

A contemporary source, even if consisting of but one single coin, must outweigh tomes of written sources that offer no certain derivation from the time of the events they point to:

The instinct displayed by Hugh Pagan in 1969—for the numismatist to dispense with the apparent information of the written sources for much of ninth-century Northumbrian history and rely on evidence derivable directly from coinage—must, I think, command the assent of the historian. Hopeful manipulation of the twelfth-century literature serves little purpose. (53)

We are aware of difficulties and debates over efforts to reconcile various archaeological finds in the region of Palestine with Biblical narratives.

Compare an outsider review of Nazareth archaeology

I was further reminded of René Salm’s analysis of the published archaeological reports of pottery finds around Nazareth and the virulent attacks many have directed against him as a consequence — on the grounds that he is “not an archaeologist”. Dumville is not an archaeologist, either, but that does not render him incapable of reading thoughtfully, commenting on, and disagreeing with conclusions drawn by specialists and many peers who concur with them.

  • The silver penny’s location, and the name on it, lead to the “obvious” conclusion that it must derive from a certain period well documented in the literary sources.
  • The physical differences from other coins known to be related to those literary sources therefore raise questions.
  • “Extraordinary hypotheses” are advanced to explain these physical differences. Why is one coin so different from the others “surely from the same provenance”?
  • The “minimalist” view: Stripped from the problematic literary sources, the coin is more simply interpreted as evidence that our literary sources are incomplete and that they even fail to inform us of the existence of entire kingdoms.

The other problem of procedure concerns the now famous silver penny—from the Trewhiddle hoard, buried in Cornwall c. 875 x c. 895—bearing the name of a King Earned. Careful study of this coin has allowed the seemingly secure conclusion that it is to be compared with the coinage issued by Æthelwulf of Wessex in the 850s and Berhtwulf of Mercia in the 840s. The only known king of the name is the ruler of Northumbria to whom our twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources attribute a lengthy reign within the period 806-42. This king is well represented by an appropriate coinage. Neither the form nor the style of the Eanred silver penny seems to suit an equation with a Northumbrian king of the first half of the ninth century. Furthermore, G. C. Brooke gave it as his opinion that ‘the style of the coin seems . . . to prove it to be an issue of the Canterbury mint.

To meet this difficulty, extraordinary hypotheses have been advanced. It may not be wholly unfair to suspect that it provided much of the fuel powering Pagan’s radical reassessment of Northumbrian chronology. Alternatively we have been invited to allow the existence of ‘a historically unknown king, who was ruling, possibly in the Midlands, about 850’. (54)

The historian, for all his wish to know more about his research area, is obliged to confess ignorance, that the literary sources available sometimes simply do not justify conclusions we would like to make about our question of interest.

The Historian’s Conclusion

There are no back-up methods to fill in the gaps left by the absence of contemporary sources. There are no appeals to criteria of authenticity in the literary texts. There are no speculative exercises, however “intelligently guessed”, in memory theory. There is only the humble admission of ignorance.

After all, the most basic laws of historical evidence really are very straightforward.

 


Dumville, David N. 1987. “Textual Archaeology and Northumbrian History Subsequent to Bede.” In Coinage in the Ninth-Century Northumbria: The Tenth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, edited by D. M. Metcalf, 43–55. BAR British Series 180. Oxford: B.A.R.


 

The Problem of the Reconstruction of the Life, Deeds, Words of Jesus

Spot the problem here:

The problem of the reconstruction of the course of life, deeds, and words of Jesus Christ is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating issues in modem biblical scholarship. In order to cope with this issue, scholars devised various reconstructive methods and procedures, which are usually presented today under the labels of several ‘quests for the historical Jesus’. In this way, notwithstanding all the differences between various scholarly proposals, a more or less coherent image of the historical Jesus as a particular Jewish religious and social ‘activist’, who lived in first-century Galilee, emerged and became more or less widely accepted in mainstream scholarship.

However, all reconstructions of the deeds and words of the historical Jesus, which were presented at various stages of the ‘historical Jesus research’, were formulated on one fundamental assumption, namely that the Gospels more or less directly refer to the life of the historical Jesus. Even if numerous modem scholars regarded various parts of the Gospel material as most probably unhistorical, this basic assumption concerning the referential character of the Gospels was in fact never challenged. Consequently, scholars still generally believe that the Gospels in an at least fundamental way reflect the features of the life and person of the historical Jesus: his early activity in Galilee, his challenging interpretation of the Jewish law, his clashes with the Pharisees, his travel to Jerusalem, his conflict with the chief priests in the Holy City, etc.

The most recent research on the hypertextual features of the Gospels has revealed that this basic scholarly assumption is not necessarily true. In general, it can be argued that the Gospels were not written with the aim of recording the course of life, deeds, and words of the historical, ‘fleshly’ Jesus. The Gospels are results of hypertextual reworking of the letters of Paul the Apostle and of other early Christian writings, which were regarded by the evangelists as the sources for the knowledge of the real, ‘spiritual’ Jesus Christ, who came to be known to the world in the course of life, in the person, and in the writings of his particularly chosen Apostle, and who still lives in his Church. The research on the historical Jesus ought to take this basic feature of the Gospels into serious consideration.

Consequently, in order to deal with the issue of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus in a truly scholarly way, the hypertextual features of the Gospels should be properly investigated.

(Adamczewski 2013, 11 f.)

What Bartosz Adamczewski says there is all very fine as far as it goes but there is something vital missing. And it is that missing element that has opened up opportunities for some rather savage reviews of his work.

Yes, it is fine to present the “case for” a proposition. But unless one addresses systematically the flaws in the existing or alternative viewpoint, especially if that alternative is the prevailing conventional wisdom, one is not likely to persuade anyone to jump ship, at least not with justifiable reason. Simply declaring the alternative to be resting ultimately upon unfounded assumptions won’t work any magic unless one accompanies that claim with clear demonstrations.

That won’t persuade most to change their minds overnight; it will probably engender unscholarly responses. But it will at least leave material for other, most likely new, scholars to notice and work with into the future.

 


Adamczewski, Bartosz. 2013. Hypertextuality and Historicity in the Gospels. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften.


 

Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2)

Continuing from Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

The reasons Luke-Acts has been considered a form of ancient history writing:

  1. Like other ancient historiography the work begins with a prologue announcing its superiority over what has gone before;
    • Steve Mason notes that unlike the preceding gospels Luke-Acts, as a two volume work, narrates a changing or developing historical movement (see p. 9 of the article for details; I think of the way the author has restructured the events in the gospels in order to )
  2. Like Xenophon, Plutarch, Tacitus and others the author of Luke-Acts fuses “biography with a quasi-biographical history”;
  3. Like other historical writing of the day Luke-Acts constant changes of scene, notes on geographical and  political details, episodes of high drama such as storms at sea and encounters with murderous enemies, and speeches.

Mason addresses works of Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) and Loveday Alexander (The Preface to Luke’s Gospel) — there are posts on Pervo and Alexander here and here — that dispute the ‘historical’ character of Luke-Acts. In response Mason observes that the line between ancient historiography and ancient novels may not be so easy to discern given, in addition to the nature of ancient historiography, the difficulty in “defining” the ancient novel. Perhaps, but I think that’s another question for another chapter or article. In short, to Mason nothing can be gained by assigning Luke-Acts to another genre since writers were simply too willing to innovate and mix elements that we think of as belonging to separate genres.

The reasons against considering Luke-Acts as a form of historiography:

  1. The prologue of Luke-Acts does not identify the author and anonymity defeated the whole point of ancient prologues to historiography. The point was establish “the author’s character and unique moral assessment of the past.” (I have set out my view that the historian used his identity in order to establish confidence among readers of his work that he was in a position to know and to give his work authoritative status.)
    • Josephus did not identify himself in the prefaces to his later works but he certainly did “introduce himself magnificently” in his first work (and again in his closing section). The author of Luke-Acts does nothing like that.
  2. The next point has long been decisive for me: “The effect of the missing author-identification in Luke-Acts is greatly compounded by the complete absence of historia-language, or Thucydides’ preferred συγγράφω and cognates, along with any suggestion of knowledge from open-ended inquiry—if we leave aside the prologue’s covering reference to the author’s careful observation—or the political analysis that was history’s reason for being. Even though the author shows himself well aware of political conditions in the eastern Mediterranean, and is happy to use them as furniture, this is simply not a work of political or historical analysis comparable to other histories. By comparison with any other histories, Luke-Acts is far removed from historiography in both its characteristic language and its prevailing ethos: the stories of Peter and Paul proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.” It is rare to read an article acknowledging this start difference between Luke-Acts and other histories.
  3. I quote in full (p. 11, my bolding as always):
    • In place of normal historical analysis, the author boldly announces his subject matter as ‘the deeds that have been fulfilled among us’ and the observation and reception of truth by those who were ‘eyewitnesses and servants of the word/teaching’ (1.2-3). Historians were not supposed to be anyone’s servants or emissaries, a posture antithetical to history’s purpose of truth-seeking inquiry. The anonymous author does briefly stress his efforts to get the story straight, in the prologue, but the story itself comes from revelation. The work’s many episodes of heavenly and angelic visitation as revelatory of the most important truths undercut any notion of a historian’s authority, which derives from rigorous inquiry and his own moral character. Of this there is no trace in the anonymous Luke-Acts.
    • That the most important truth comes via revelation is reinforced throughout the two-volume work at all crucial junctures: infancy narrative, explanatory angelic appearances at Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and the decisive revelations to Peter, Paul, and the early community. Equally, the account is driven by wondrous deeds beyond the ken of historical inquiry, from Jesus’ divine birth through his many miracles and resurrection to the signs and wonders performed by his emissaries.

It is at this point that Steve Mason parts company with the critical studies that have sought to understand Luke-Acts as a form of history writing by focusing on details in common with works of Greco-Roman historians. Yes, the comparisons are significant, but at the same time we ought not to lose sight of “the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.”

We should not, then, become so fixated on the parallels with Graeco-Roman historiography, as I would suggest Cadbury, Lake, and Foakes Jackson were, that we miss the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.

Reconciling the historiographical and non-historical features of Luke-Acts

It is here that Steve Mason finds Josephus useful for understanding Luke-Acts and its mix of historical and even “anti”-historical features. read more »

Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

TL;DR
The author of Luke-Acts was following an ideal that Josephus had presented as a superior feature of Jewish historical writings: that history learned from revelation (e.g. works of Moses) was superior to the uncertain and often disputed historical inquiries of the Greeks.

I think Steve Mason has nailed Luke-Acts. I think, as a specialist in Josephus, he has identified something crucial in Luke-Acts that appears to have been more generally overlooked.

Up till now I have posted at length scholarly proposals that Acts is a work of ancient fiction, that its prologue follows the pattern found in technical medical or military or mathematical treatises rather than those found in works of ancient historians, and I have even ventured to suggest that Josephus would have deplored the gospels, and by extension Acts, as serious history – a post I now see is badly flawed in places. Most recently we looked at some findings from the Acts Seminar Report.) Well, having read Steve Mason’s paper I now think the author of our canonical version of Luke-Acts was more in tune with Josephus’s ideals than I had suspected. (Some readers will know of Steve Mason’s earlier book, Josephus and the New Testament, which includes a chapter offering reasons to think the author of Luke-Acts knew the Antiquities of Josephus. We have also posted, and plan to post further in depth, on Mason’s newer work, A History of the Jewish War A.D. 66-74.)

Steve Mason

The following is taken from a paper Mason has just uploaded on academia.edu, Luke-Acts and Ancient Historiography.

When Biblical Scholars Took the Lead in Critical Studies

I was fascinated and sobered to learn that there was a time when biblical scholars took the lead over their classicist peers when it came to critical study of their literary sources.

So we should not imagine that biblical studies merely followed classical trends. In fact, critical study of the Old and New Testaments largely paved the way for critical history as a discipline, including ancient history. It was not until the late 1970s through the 1990s that such authors as Livy, Polybius, Diodorus, and Pausanias were subjected to searching study as genuine authors, who had crafted their narratives to serve their moral and thematic purposes, rather than as mere transmitters of data. This post-Hippie period corresponded roughly to that in which redaction- and composition-critical research flourished in OT and NT studies.

(p. 4)

I had not appreciated the full extent to which the studies in Acts by Cadbury, Foakes Jackson and Lake had been so ground-breaking.

To write the important second volume, they enlisted the controversial Quaker, classicist, pacifist, and agnostic Henry Joel Cadbury, later of Harvard but then at Andover Seminary. Cadbury agreed with Foakes Jackson and Lake about the need to understand Acts in light of ancient historiography, and letting the theological chips fall where they may

. . . . 

He was ahead of his time in calling for scholars to pay more attention to the nature of ancient historiography. In order to responsibly understand and use this crucial account of Christian origins, he was saying, one needed to understand how people generally wrote about the past 2000 years ago (BC 2.7–8). Understanding Acts this way, as ancient historiography, was not merely different from proving is historicity. It required a different mindset because it directed scholars’ attention to how things were being said rather than to the underlying facts.

. . . .

So, having laid out this rather bracing summary, by 1920 standards in the Anglophone world, Cadbury began comparing the Lucan double-work with other creations of ancient historiography. And he found Luke-Acts—to which he compared the Jewish historian Josephus—to be in general agreement with contemporary historiographical practice. In the 1920s, this was a huge advance. In many respects, Cadbury was far ahead of his time. I say that because even in the field of Classics, although a few scholars were thinking about the artistic qualities and literary freedom of some historians, it would take another half-century—after the ‘literary turn’ in the humanities— before such perspectives were broadly applied. The historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood told his Oxford undergraduates in 1926 that ‘the average professional historian is far less critical in his attitude to Herodotus than the average professional theologian in his attitude to St. Mark’.

read more »

What Is a Historical Fact? – How Historians Decide

Gingerbread vendor (Victorian Picture Gallery)

When I was an undergraduate history student the one book anyone doing the honours course was required to address was What Is History? by the renowned “red” historian of Soviet Russia, Edward Hallet Carr. One claim Carr made in the book was particularly controversial. It was his idea of what counted as a “historical fact”. For those who are rushing through, the gist of what he said was that X is not a historical fact unless and until a historian writes about it and uses it to successfully support a hypothesis that is accepted by his academic peers. For those who are not so pressed for time, here are Carr’s own words:

Let us take a look at the process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history. At Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob. Is this a fact of history ? A year ago I should unhesitatingly have said ‘no’. It was recorded by an eye-witness in some little-known memoirs2; but I had never seen it judged worthy of mention by any historian. A year ago Dr Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford.3 Does this make it into a historical fact ? Not, I think, yet. Its present status, I suggest, is that it has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical facts. It now awaits a seconder and sponsors. It may be that in the course of the next few years we shall see this fact appearing first in footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books about nineteenth-century England, and that in twenty or thirty years’ time it may be a well-established historical fact. Alternatively, nobody may take it up, in which case it will relapse into the limbo of unhistorical facts about the past from which Dr Kitson Clark has gallantly attempted to rescue it. What will decide which of these two things will happen ? It will depend, I think, on whether the thesis or interpretation in support of which Dr Kitson Clark cited this incident is accepted by other historians as valid and significant. Its status as a historical fact will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fact of history.

(Carr, p. 12)

E. H. Carr

Our interest is generated by the context of asking questions about ancient history and particularly the Bible. I have addressed the question from several angles relating to what we know of how historians (e.g. Thucydides) who lived in ancient times worked and in how historians (e.g. Finley) of ancient times make judgements about the ancient sources. Here we look at a more general discussion of how historians decide what is a fact.

Did It Actually Happen? (Getting Muddled with Philosophy)

Notice that Carr does not deny the “fact” of the murder of the Stalybridge gingerbread seller. He is simply disputing its status as a “historical fact” without doubting its status as a “mere fact about the past”.

And his evidence?

An eyewitness record, he says.

2. Lord George Sanger, Seventy Years a Showman (2nd ed., 1926), pp. 188-9.

He cites the second edition but the Amazon kindle preview tells us it was first published in 1910. Even that appears incorrect because the earliest Worldcat record I see places its earliest appearance in 1908.

That’s an eyewitness account 58 years after the event.

Carr was engaged in a philosophical discussion of the nature of history and accordingly took us a step further, to its use by a historian, Kitson Clark, in his lectures at Oxford:

3. Dr. Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian England (1962).

It is at this point that Carr arouses the ire of many of his more conservative peers. What Carr believes historians should understand is that every “historical fact” comes with some ideological baggage. It is always used to support or dispute a historian’s hypothesis.

To set out a simplistic example: Does the historian use the murder of the gingerbread vendor as evidence in arguing the hypothesis that there existed a class war of the kind Karl Marx said is the fundamental dynamic of history? Or perhaps the historian uses that fact as part of a larger case to argue against the class struggle hypothesis. It is in that sense that history is “relative” and “ideological” and that the “facts of history” can be said to be “relative” to a historian’s point of view and “ideological” in nature.

It does not mean that the fact of the past itself depends upon the historian’s whims or ideological beliefs. Carr was talking about how a “mere fact about the past” was used in a historical narrative or argument. The “mere fact of the past” was not in dispute per se.

In the words of the historian Richard Evans,

Carr engages in lively arguments with many other historians about the nature of history. He challenges and undermines the belief, brought to university study by too many students on leaving high school, that history is simply a matter of objective fact. He introduces them to the idea that history books, like the people who write them, are products of their own times, bringing particular ideas and ideologies to bear on the past.

(Evans, p. 1 f.)

Did It Actually Happen? (Getting Irate with Ideology)

read more »

What Do We Mean by “Historical Hypothesis”?

Neil has already discussed Jonathan Bernier’s post, “Critical Realism and the New Testament,” here (The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)) and here (Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History), but I’m just now catching up. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride as soon as I found out Dr. McGrath had awarded his seal of approval.

Honestly, my first reaction was my second, as well as my third, reaction: Despair — and not only the despair of realizing how bad things have gotten, but also the grim recognition that we have not yet hit bottom. McGrath writes:

What Bernier writes really is a great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.

Oh, goody. What wonderful things did Bernier write? Well, buckle up. Here we go!

All historical argumentation is probabilistic. This is also to say that any and all historical hypotheses are subject to revision or dispute.

The Polish Cavalry at the Battle of Mokra, 1939

So far, so good. Unfortunately, he has left too much unsaid. He doesn’t give us a working definition of the term historical hypothesis, nor does he explain what sorts of evidence would lead to revisions or disputes of such hypotheses. Given what follows, we have reason to believe Bernier has a peculiar understanding of the term.

Hypotheses subject to revision are hypotheses whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0 that we can treat them as virtually certain.

I must be reading this wrong. In the preceding sentence, Bernier wrote that all hypotheses are subject to revision. But then he implies that the subset of hypotheses that are subject to revision are ones “whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0.” I don’t understand this sentence, but I can set it aside for now — except to say that Bernier doesn’t really explain how and why revision should occur nor how we calculate the probability of a hypothesis. We have everything we need but the what, the how, and the why.

He continues:

Such hypotheses include the hypothesis that Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, or that Jesus of Nazareth existed.

read more »

Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History

I don’t mean “ha ha” funny; I mean “something fishy” funny.

I posted not so long ago a biblical scholar’s sophistry in order to effectively erase any difference between a historian’s “facts” and a historian’s “hypothesis”. Clearly not having read even some of the most foundational discussions about the relationship between a historian and his/her facts (e.g. Collingwood, Carr, Elton, Finley, Evans) our biblical scholar argued that it was a “hypothesis”, an “argument”, that Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “justifying” the claim by resorting to theoretical models of probability. Well, the argument sounded good enough for another biblical scholar to write up praise of such an “informative” post and encourage others to read it by bizarrely declaring the post to be a

really . . . great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.

Doing History Fearfully or Intelligently

The same scholar encouraged readers to take in a lesson set out by another blogger, Steve Wiggins, who did have a more serious and saner message than the one confusing real-world facts with arguments and hypotheses. We move on now from the fishy funny and get to something more serious. Wiggins is writing as a believing Christian and the problems such a person faces when trying to recover the original faith as it was first delivered:

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  [The Bible is] a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

That is from a post aptly titled The Problem with History. I have no intention of arguing against Steve’s faith or the dilemma he faces, but what I find interesting is the opposite approach to history, one that I much prefer to embrace, in an article by Philip R. Davies that I read not long ago. (Some readers may recall that a Martin Lewadny offered to post an article for other readers and I am linking to it here: Reading the Bible Intelligently.)

just as no modern expert on Plato is expected to be a Platonist (even of the Middle or Neo-sort), no Bible expert should be expected to accept the ideas it puts forth, far less believe in its god(s) or its divine origin. . . .

The Bible is far too interesting and enjoyable — too important, even — to be left to the religious, who have done as much damage as good with it.

Davies is speaking specifically of the Old Testament but exactly the same point applies for readers of the New Testament:

(there is no need to treat the narrative as historical unless you want to miss the point entirely).

Of the contradictions one finds in the various “historical” narratives Davies says

Again, these separate visions do not argue with each other, but are laid out side by side, inviting — requiring — the reader to discriminate, interrogate, decide on what the perfect society might look like. It is both a more eloquent and a more open presentation than, say, Plato’s Republic: it is, as followers of Bakhtin would declare, dialogic. Thus, its multiple voices demand intervention from the reader. They are not presented as authoritative, even though each comes from the mouth of the same god. They demand to be discussed! . . . 

The Bible is rich in philosophy: only the unintelligent, or those let down by the experts, think that it is merely myth, history, or divine law, or oracles, or sacred poetry.

. . . . it is more comfortable to view the Bible as obsolete mythology or merely as wonderful literature.

Parachuting Before the Plane Takes Off

And one more example of “two ways of doing history”. . . . read more »

How Long Does Collective Memory Last?

If you google around a bit you will probably be able to find this Nature article downloadable for free …

The universal decay of collective memory and attention

Or here …. ?

30 years it gives. Thirty. That’s one generation by some calculations. That’s how long we can expect a cultural memory of John Lennon to (have) last(ed) by oral communication alone. After 30 years the memory needs a written communication in order to survive.

I don’t know how that little bit of research finding will feed into studies of “oral tradition” and “memory theory” related to Christian origins. I’ll have to take some time to master the various definitions and concepts of the Nature article and only after that will I feel I might be in a position to think through any implications.

Others may be well ahead of me in this regard, however. I’m open to learning something new.

Bible Scholars Who Get History Right

Philip R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel (1992) pp. 35-36

historical research by biblical scholars has taken a . . . circular route, whose stages can be represented more or less as follows:

Philip Davies

Davies then lists the four assumptions that these scholars have brought to their study:

1. The biblical writers, when writing about the past, were obviously informed about it and often concerned to report it accurately to their readers. A concern with the truth of the past can be assumed. Therefore, where the literary history is plausible, or where it encounters no insuperable objections, it should be accorded the status of historical fact. The argument is occasionally expressed that the readers of these stories would be sufficiently knowledgeable (by tradition?) of their past to discourage wholesale invention.

2. Much of the literature is itself assigned to quite specific settings within that story (e.g. [the time of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Gallio, Gamaliel, Agrippa]). If the biblical literature is generally correct in its historical portrait, then these datings may be relied upon.

3. . . . Thus, where a plausible context in the literary history can be found for a biblical writing, that setting may be posited, and as a result there will be mutual confirmation, by the literature of the setting, and by the setting of the literature. . . .

4. Where the writer (‘redactor’) of the biblical literature is recognized as having been removed in time from the events he describes or persons whose words he reports . . . he must be presumed to rely on sources or traditions close to the events. Hence even when the literary source is late, its contents will nearly always have their point of origin in the time of which they speak. The likelihood of a writer inventing something should generally be discounted in favour of a tradition, since traditions allow us a vague connection with ‘history’ . . .

But Davies sees those four assumptions as flawed:

Each of these assertions can be encountered, in one form or another in the secondary literature. But it is the underlying logic which requires attention rather than these (dubious) assertions themselves. That logic is circular. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself.

Here are Davies’ rejoinders to each of the assumptions above, taken from my vridar.info page:

#1 This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up.

#2 This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.

#3 Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.

#4 This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

The solution for Davies?

To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records and the finds of archaeology.

read more »

Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History”

It is in the end not very surprising that university students of history, with some knowledge of the sources for, say, Tudor England or Louis XIV’s France, find ancient history a ‘funny kind of history’. The unavoidable reliance on the poems of Horace for Augustan ideology, or in the same way on the Eumenides of Aeschylus for the critical moment in Athenian history when the step was taken towards what we know as Periclean democracy, helps explain the appellative ‘funny’. But the oddities are much more far-reaching, extending to the historians themselves in antiquity, in particular to two of their most pervasive characteristics, namely, the extensive direct quotation from speeches and the paucity of reference to (let alone quotation from) actual documents, public or private. The speeches are to us an extra ordinary phenomenon and they produce extraordinary reactions among modern commentators. We have no good reason for taking the speeches to be anything but inventions by the historians, not only in their precise wording but also in their substance. Certainly that is how they were understood in antiquity: witness the discussion in his long essay on Thucydides (ch. 34-48) by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the most acute and most learned of ancient critics and himself a prolific composer of speeches for his multi-volume Roman Antiquities.

Modern writers find themselves in difficulties. Not only does the position of a Dionysius of Halicarnassus seem immoral – it has been said that one would have to regard Thucydides as ‘blind or dishonest’ – but, worse still, one must consider seriously abandoning some of the most interesting and seductive sections of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Dio Cassius and the rest as primary or secondary sources.There is no choice: if the substance of the speeches or even the wording is not authentic, then one may not legitimately recount that Pericles told the assembled Athenians in 430 BC that their empire ‘is like a tyranny, seemingly unjust to have taken but dangerous to let go’ (Thucydides 2.63.2). I have no idea what Pericles said on that occasion but neither have the innumerable historians who repeat from a speech what I have just quoted. Except for Thucydides and perhaps Polybius, there is no longer any serious argument, though the reluctance to accept the consequences is evident on all sides . . . . 

The above extract is from pages 12-13 of M. I. Finley’s Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Finley made significant contributions to the field of ancient history. He knew what he was talking about.

Unfortunately a good many authors who think of themselves as historians, some may even be professional academics in university history departments, are not so mindful of the limitations of their methods. One of their more sober colleagues wrote:

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.

That was Mario Liverani, p. 28 of Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography.

I could quote many more and have done over many posts. But two recent comments have prompted me to post again, to accept how widely the field of ancient history is misunderstood. If too many of its practitioners are too romantic in their interests to understand the fundamentals of critical inquiry and treatment of their sources, then it is no wonder many of us lay public also misunderstand what is required.

Here is part of one of the comments that I think many of us can relate to:

I know senior historians teaching ancient history at Macquarie Uni in Sydney, through my membership of the SSEC (Society for the Study of Early Christianity), who point to the Babylonian Talmud as strong evidence for Jesus’ existence. What would be your response to that view ?

My response to that view is what you would imagine Liverani’s response would be. Some ancient historians get carried away with love of their narratives and lose their critical acumen. Finley also discussed how writing history is a form of ideology, and a good number of historians write as advocates of pet ideologies — including Christian origins.

Another comment expressing an idea one hears especially among biblical scholars, in particular those looking at Christian origins and the historical Jesus:  read more »

A Refreshingly Self-Aware Point of View on the Study of Christian Origins

While scratching and poking around in new and old resources to try to piece together something of the development of scholarly views on the existence of pre-Christian interpretations of the “suffering servant” I came across a reference to a 1940s work that seemed in some respects as relevant today as way back then, at least apart from a few oddities such as Manson’s appreciation of “the Oriental memory”.

I have changed the layout of the section that first caught my eye and for the benefit of readers who are dashing through with no time to read every word I have highlighted key passages that struck me as refreshingly self-aware and honest. What I think would be a useful follow up exercise would be to take each key assumption and pause to reflect on how we might reasonably expect each one to appear in the evidence, both of Gospels and Epistles. One example: Manson speaks of the acknowledgment of persons with special gifts such as prophecy. One wonders if one could expect to read of anyone at any time with a particularly special gift of having seen and heard Jesus in the flesh. One wonders, too, what might be the result if we combined some of the assumptions and try to think through where those combinations might lead. For example, we have the deep reverence for the memory of Jesus in the flesh but we also have a willingness to find his life in the Old Testament. How likely is it that such communities would have allowed OT passages to have trumped what they knew of Jesus in real life? Would not the latter be the guide and moderator of the former? (I recall my own time in a religious cult where we found our leader in prophetic passages of the Bible. We always found ways to identify relevant biblical passages in the light of what we knew of our leader. Never the other way around.

Anyway, here ’tis:

THE EARLY ORAL TRADITION IN THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

What was the character of the early oral tradition? To what extent did it embody, to what extent has it refracted the historical lineaments of Jesus of Nazareth? We assume, to begin with, that such a tradition existed, that certain sayings of Jesus and certain stories reporting acts or incidents in his life were current in the Church from the earliest days, together with some summary of the Passion history. This, indeed, cannot be taken absolutely for granted, since the modern school of Form-Criticism makes a point of denying it, though on grounds which seem to the present writer neither adequate nor in accordance with probability. According to Form-Criticism the tradition incorporated in our Gospels is, for the most part, a late product, and a product of the Church’s mind at that, which came into existence at a time when an objective record of the history of Jesus was no longer possible. Its contents represent a distillation from the life of the Church, from its preaching, its debates with Jewish opponents, its ethic, its catechetical activities, its theology, and its cultus. Its Messianic categories are an attempt, necessarily inadequate, to state in terms comprehensible to itself the essential mystery of the personality of Jesus, and are not to be ascribed to him. For the moment, however, we assume that something like an objective tradition of words and acts of Jesus was in existence from the first days, and ask what would be the fortunes of such a tradition at a time when, not yet committed to a fixed form in writing, its contents formed part of the instruction given by apostles and other missionaries in an age of expanding activity and of intense spiritual and intellectual awakening. Obviously the answer to the question how far the tradition has preserved, how far it has refracted the image of Jesus of Nazareth will depend to some extent on the laws governing the transmission of the material in the practical service of the community during this period.

Here, as stabilizing factors making for the preservation of the objective character of whatever real tradition existed, we shall recognize, read more »

Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us

It ain’t necessarily so, the things that you’re liable to read in Bible, or in Der Spiegel, or in the ancient histories.

Three weeks ago I posted

“Now we know” — how ancient historians worked

There I wrote:

In 1935 the foreign correspondent of a certain English newspaper, finding himself without much material to report, despatched to England stories which supposedly dealt with the build-up to the Abyssinian war but which were in fact derived from an old colonel’s military reminiscences, published several years previously in a book entitled In the country of the Blue Nile. The correspondent’s newspaper was delighted with the reception given to these stories by its readers, and accordingly sent him a series of congratulatory telegrams – whereupon a colleague remarked to him: ‘Well, now we know, it’s entertainment they want!41 The colleague had only then come to realize what had been known long ago to Tacitus, to whom the foreign correspondent’s technique would have seemed very familiar.

41 For a full account of this amazing and instructive story see Knightley (1975), 176—7 (whose book should be recommended reading for those who wish to understand how ancient historians worked). The reporter who deceived his newspaper and the public on this occasion assumed (quite rightly) that no one could check his stories on account of the distance involved. The same is even more true of ancient historians (see above, p. 153), who lived in a world where communications were so much more difficult.

Woodman, Tony. 1980. “Self-Imitation and the Substance of History. Tacitus, Annals 1.61-5 and Histories 2.70, 5.14-15.” In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, 155, 235. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

I picked up a copy of Phillip Knightleys’ The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, and the morning after I read the first chapter the following story on the news confronted me:

  • Der Spiegel reporter Claas Relotius sacked over ‘invented’ stories

    German news magazine Der Spiegel has sacked an award-winning staff writer after accusing him of inventing details and quotes in numerous stories.

    Claas Relotius “falsified articles on a grand scale and even invented characters”, Der Spiegel said.

    Among the articles in question are major features that had been nominated for or won awards, the magazine added.

  • The Relotius Case  Answers to the Most Important Questions
    In recent years, DER SPIEGEL published just under 60 articles by reporter and editor Claas Relotius. He has now admitted that, in several instances, he either invented stories or distorted facts.Claas Relotius, a reporter and editor, falsified his articles on a grand scale and even invented characters, deceiving both readers and his colleagues. This has been uncovered as a result of tips, internal research and, ultimately, a comprehensive confession by the editor himself.

Just like Tacitus. And just like the war reporters I have been reading about in Knightley’s book. The newspapers are in business to make money. Their hired reporters know they need to provide stories that assist the money-making goals of their news media. read more »

A Better Way to Date a Biblical Text

Jonathan Bernier has posted “three basic means by which to date a biblical text” which I think are reasonably useful but can be improved upon. His focus is primarily on the New Testament chronology.

Bernier calls his first tool “synchronization” and it’s pretty basic. If a text declares that the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in by Titus then obviously the text dates some time after that event. Of if the Gospel of Matthew appears to have used the Gospel of Mark then obviously GMatthew was later than GMark. (The trick here, of course, is being able to produce a convincing argument that the borrowing definitely was from Mark to Matthew and not the other way around.) And so forth.

His second tool is what he calls “authorial biography”. This device “uses what is known about the author(s) independent of the text in order to determine when she or he wrote.” Bernier says this method is “most usable in regard to the Pauline corpus, due to the existence of Acts.” Scholars are certainly on solid ground here if they can be sure they can trust Acts to provide a reliable biography and chronology of Paul. Other scholars who approach Acts with a view to understanding the character of its narrative content by means of literary criticism and comparative literary studies, and by means of determining what period of church history the theological themes most neatly synchronize with, may have doubts that Acts is so useful. Bernier acknowledges that biographical data for most authors of the NT is woefully inadequate but a critical approach must also leave a question mark over Paul’s corpus. We know that the NT contains many letters falsely attributed to Paul and I suppose we must have faith that the circular arguments we use to establish the genuine epistles are reliable. Maybe it doesn’t really matter and the only important thing is that we know what early church writers believed to be genuine.

The third method is called “contextualization”. Here is where I think Bernier and other scholars could find a little room to refine their methods of dating. Bernier explains contextualization: “contextualization uses what is otherwise known about the development of early Christianity in order to determine when a text most likely originated.”

The first question that comes to my mind is this: What sources are used to devise a model of early Christianity’s development? The answer, I have to presume, are primarily the New Testament documents. So my second question then becomes: How do we date these NT documents? And squeezed into that question come a few others: how do we establish the authorship, provenance, and literary function of those documents as historical sources?

Bernier offers a “sterling example” of dating by “contextualization”. It is James Crossley’s justification for dating the Gospel of Mark to the mid to late 30s (sic) CE. To arrive at this date for the Gospel of Mark Crossley has not begun with a literary analysis of the gospel in order to determine the function of its narrative details by means of comparison with other literature of the general period (let’s say from 30 CE to 130 CE when we first meet an apparent independently claimed awareness of the existence of the gospel). This period was rich in Greco-Roman (and Jewish) authors developing new genres by mixing and matching existing forms, and the Gospel of Mark is certainly one such innovation that was imitated and emulated by others. Instead, Crossley treats the narrative as so much dirt and rubble that needs to be cleared aside, or a window that needs to be looked through, in order to discover “the real Jesus” behind it all. Or maybe those are not quite apt analogies (though they are used by some New Testament scholars to explain their historical methods). Maybe the text of Mark is read and interpreted in a way “as if it were written before” Christians in Mark’s circle were confronted with disputes over the Jewish law.

Such a method is potentially useful but its conclusion (in this case a date as early as the mid 30s) needs to be proposed as a hypothesis and tested rigorously before it can be allowed to decide the date of the gospel. Otherwise, surely, we are guilty of dating Mark by means of a single criterion and by circular reasoning to boot.

Some tests that need to be applied in this case:

What would we expect to find in Paul’s letters if Paul were indeed influenced by the Gospel of Mark (as Crossley proposes)?

What else would we expect to find in the Gospel of Mark itself if it were indeed written so early? Compare the ways ancient biographies and histories were written back then. Their references to sources, efforts to persuade readers of the value of their work, etc.

What would such an early date imply for other questions related to the “synoptic problem”, Q, the ways later authors ignored or changed it, etc? How do our expectations or predictions pan out in the evidence?

What would such an early date imply for the subsequent history of the work, its acceptance, its authority, etc and how do our answers fit with the known history (or lack of known history)?

If it is true that early readers (as Crossley concedes) saw the potential for Mark’s gospel narrative to be interpreted as presenting a Jesus who did not conform to Jewish laws, then how do we justify our and their respective interpretations?

Are their simpler hypotheses (those with fewer constituent hypothetical entities) to explain another date range for the gospel?

So when it comes to “contextualization”, I think the method can have value if we broaden our range of evidence and data to study and not confine ourselves to but one interpretation that requires many other sub-hypotheses (sometimes called ad hoc rationalizations) to justify.

Or we can read a much simpler set of guidelines set out by a scholar specializing in Old Testament. I think his rules of thumb work equally well for the NT: Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels.