Category Archives: Historiography

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?

Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?

We have seen that the hypothesis that the Jesus of the gospels was in some way modeled on the story of another Jesus, Jesus son of Ananias, does have scholarly cachet and is by no means considered a fatuous instance of “parallelomania”. Jesus son of Ananias is a figure we find in Josephus’s account of the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. One scholar, Ted Weeden, advanced the thesis in considerable depth and even went further than exploring the “striking similarities” between Jesus ben Ananias and aspects of the Jesus narratives in all four of our canonical gospels: he even concluded that the Jesus prophet in Josephus’s Jewish War had no historical basis but was entirely a literary construct based on Jeremiah.

Now that conclusion was a step too far for some scholars, one of whom was Bob Schacht of the University of Hawaii who in 2005 on a scholarly forum raised the following objection:

As much as I admire my friend Ted Weeden’s scholarship, which is considerable, the whole of these arguments here posted seems to be a literary paradigm that rests on the assumption that all history takes place within literature, without any necessary or inconvenient ties to what people did outside of that literary frame in their lives. Ted does a masterful job of tracing literary connections, and he uses such phrases as “creator(s) of the story” to suggest that the people and events described therein are not historical. Ted’s arguments work very well within his literary paradigm, but do they really help us that much with history? The implications seem to be to subtract from historical knowledge, moving mountains of literary data from the domain of history into the domain of fiction.

The reductio ad absurdam here is that history didn’t really happen. Only literature happened, somehow existing outside of time and space except insofar as literary source A is considered prior to literary source B. I know this is a parody of Ted’s argument, but sometimes parodies can make a useful point.

. . . . . I don’t think that the authors of the gospels were trying to write a best-selling novel; I think they were trying to understand and explain things that happened a generation or two earlier, using the best tools they had to tell the tale.

Schacht, Bob, 2005. “Re: [XTalk] Essay, Part II: Jesus-Ananias=Latter-Day Jeremiah & Markan Jesus” XTalk: Historical Jesus & Christian Origins – Yahoo Groups. https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/crosstalk2/conversations/messages/18152.

I know Schacht’s concerns are not his alone; I find them expressed in different ways in many quarters whenever the question of literary contexts and paradigms are raised in discussions of works by ancient historians.

Moses I. Finley

The difficulty is not unique to biblical scholars. The prominent historian of ancient history, Moses I. Finley, sympathized with those who were left perturbed by the conclusions that must necessarily follow from an informed awareness of how ancient historians worked:

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 . . . . 

pages 12-13 of M. I. Finley’s Ancient History: Evidence and Models.

I copy a section from an earlier post of mine: read more »

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 »

Can the Gospels be “True Fiction”? Did Ancient Historians Have a Different Understanding of “True”?

A few days ago someone thoughtfully sent me a link to a Westar video interviewing Professor Arthur Dewey, author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered. Dewey begins by addressing the prevalent belief that the Passion story of Jesus is essentially true history. He says:

Unfortunately, not just people who are literalists who read the Bible assume this to be the case when we come to the Passion, but also many biblical historians. The reason for that is the assumption that the text is document and is reflecting what actually happened. 

Of course regular readers will know that it is that assumption that we regularly question here. But Dewey, his interviewer and Westar generally are addressing a different audience and I like to think that that is the reason they seem to couch arguments in a way more appealing or acceptable to a certain kind of Christian believer, in something of a “liberal apologetic”, than I like to do.

I have not read his book (there does not seem to be a copy available either commercially or in any library in Australia, not even digitally) so my comments here are entirely my reactions to the interview.

Arthur Dewey begins by pointing out that ancient historians were primarily interested in “truth” as “insight” into the meaning of events for their audiences. He does not say that they were not interested in “facts”, too, but that their main focus lay elsewhere. There is a certain truth to this as (again) we have discussed many times when posting on the methods of ancient historians. What niggles me when I encounter a biblical scholar elaborating on this point (Dewey is far from the only biblical scholar to present this “truth as insight” characteristic of ancient historians) is that I think the other side of what ancient historians were all about is lost. I think they too easily overstate the case in the interests of attempting to keep the gospels relevant at least for the more liberally minded believers. I hope that’s not too harsh or unfair but it is how it comes across to me. read more »

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 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 »