Category Archives: Historiography

Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians (Part 1)

Damn. I fell for it (again). A professor promoted a new book as “making the most sense of the crucifixion” and “making a fresh contribution to studies of the ‘historical Jesus'” so I made a rush purchase and read it the same day it arrived. Silly me, I should first have checked the University of Edinburgh Library’s open access policy and archive of dissertations because it is sitting there free of charge for all to read. Access is also online through the British Library. There are only slight modifications of wording and more truncated bibliographic references in the published version.  Sadly both versions make it clear that the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh is responsible for some very crude fundamentalist-level apologetics posing as serious scholarship. I expected better from the University of Edinburgh.

The first difficulty I had with the book (We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question) was lack of clarity over its aim. It often sounded as if the author, Michael Zolondek (=MZ), was arguing that Jesus was a Davidic Messiah in some absolute sense that Christians today could claim was “the” identifier of Jesus. That is, we today should think of Jesus as a genuine Davidic Messiah just as surely as we think of him as a Jew or a male (or god in the flesh?) — quite independently of what anyone else thought of him (passim from p. xiv to p. 143). Other times MZ narrows the question down to suggest he meant he was the Davidic Messiah in the eyes of the disciples specifically (chapter 5). Does he mean the reader to understand that the disciples’ perspective is “The Truth” that readers of the gospels should also embrace? Confusion of terms bedevils other areas as well. For example, at one point MZ appears to acknowledge that the criterion of multiple attestation has value only if each witness is independent (p. 92) but other times he implies that multiple attestation has value even when the witnesses are not independent (p. 98).

But my interest in this post is one particular detail about the book that I found quite curious. On at least three separate occasions in his chapter on “methodological issues” MZ stressed that biblical scholars such as himself really are following the same methods as historians of other fields. By the third time I had to ask if MZ doth protesteth too much.

Another strange feature of this doctoral dissertation was a bizarrely irrelevant and quite misleading comment about Jesus mythicism. I can post about that quirk another time.

Before I get into the discussion of the fallacious foundation of MZ’s argument here let me quote one passage that at first glance appears to contradict what I have just said:

The most significant of these [methodological issues] is, in my opinion, the fact that often times historical Jesus scholars are doing ancient history quite differently than ancient historians normally would. (p. 98, my emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

It turns out that what MZ means here is that Jesus scholars “often times” are working by far stricter standards than anything followed by “ancient historians normally”, and that if only more Jesus scholars would lower their standards to be consistent with those found in Classics and Ancient History departments at universities they would, lo and behold, find their job much easier and be able to reconstruct and prove all sorts of things about Jesus. Further, in his discussions of historical methods MZ cites sources that actually discuss the philosophy of history and debatable questions of historiography and problems in creating historical narratives, apparently confusing them with discussions of research methods brought to bear in evaluating sources and discovering certain facts about the past. I believe that these are generally distinct areas of study that MZ appears to have confused as I will also discuss below or in a follow up post.

Here are MZ’s more insistent claims that Jesus scholars use the same methods as other historians: read more »

Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings?

Cathbad placed his hand on the woman’s stomach and prophesied that the unborn child would be a girl named Deirdre, and that she would be exceedingly beautiful but would bring about the ruin of Ulster.

FROM THE TÁIN BÓ CUAILNGE

A recurrent theme in stories about the Irish gods is that of the love triangle between an old husband (or fiancé), a young suitor and a young girl. This is probably a disguised myth of sovereignty wherein an old king is challenged by a young claimant to the throne. The young girl in the middle of the triangle may be identified with the goddess of sovereignty, whose power of granting prosperity to the land had to be won by means of sexual union with the young pretender. If the land needed revivifying, the old mortal king had to be deposed in favour of vigorous youth.

Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Kindle Locations 975-981). Thames and Hudson Ltd. Kindle Edition. (My bolding in all quotations)

We also have Roman testimony that the Celts practised human sacrifice:

They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a sabre, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids. We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or, having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.

Strabo, Geography, IV, 4.5

Compare the circularity of “Biblical archaeology”:

Q: How do we know that the Biblical King David existed?
A: Archaeologists have unearthed the Tel Dan inscription that contains the expression many translate as “House of David”.
Q: How do we know that that inscription should not be translated temple of the beloved (david=beloved), a reference to a deity?
A: We have the Biblical story about King David.

The moral of this post is that correlation does not imply causation. We love mythical tales, both Celtic and Biblical. We often want to believe there is some truth behind them so it is easy for us to interpret archaeological finds as evidence for that “historical core”. But we fail to see that we are falling into the trap of circularity when we do that:

Q: How do we know the stories of Celtic human sacrifice were true?

A: Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of ritual killings.

Q: How do we know the evidence of the bones points to ritual killing?

A: That is the most natural interpretation given the literary accounts of human sacrifice.

  • Left unasked of the evidence: could the evidence of bones be explained in other ways? a post-death ritual misunderstood by the Romans, for example?
  • Left unasked of the Roman accounts: were tales of barbarism among conquered peoples manufactured to justify Roman belief that their conquests were a civilizing mission?

–o0o–

Lindow Man

In August 1984, the mechanical digger of peat-cutters working at Lindow Moss in Cheshire uncovered a human arm, part of a 2,000-year-old bog-body. The remains were those of a young man in his prime, about 25 years old. He was naked but for an armlet made of fox-fur, and no grave goods accompanied him. The mistletoe in his digested food revealed that he had eaten a special ‘last supper’. Like the Irish victims, this man had horrific injuries leading to his death: most significant were at least two blows to the head that cracked his skull and stunned him; he was then garrotted and, at the same time, his throat was cut.

The triple manner of his death has led some to connect him with the early medieval myth of the ritual threefold death that befell some Irish kings. One of these was the 6th-century AD Diarmaid mac Cerbhaill, who enquired of his wise men the manner of his death. The answer was that he would be stabbed, drowned in a vat of ale and burnt. Diarmaid scorned the prophecy, but it came to pass. Lindow Man was selected for a special death and burial. It was important that his body would be frozen in time, not permitted to decay, so the normal rites of death and ease of passage to the next world were denied him. His journey to the Otherworld was halted at the gate leading out from the world of humans.

Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Kindle Locations 2696-2708). Thames and Hudson Ltd. Kindle Edition.

–o0o–

Murder on the Mire

One Irish story, in the Cycle of Kings, describes the events leading up to the convoluted death of King Diarmuid. The king slays the man his wife has been having an affair with, and a Druid, or prophet, named Bec Mac De, foretells that he will suffer a three-fold death as a result – at the hands of one of the adulterer’s relatives, Aedh. The prophecy was very precise: Diarmuid would be killed by wounding, burning, drowning and a ridge pole falling on his head (a fourfold death, in fact). Eventually the prophecy is fulfilled. Black Aedh, in the doorway of the house where the king is feasting, pierces Diarmuid through the chest with his spear and breaks his spine; Diarmuid flees back into the house, but Aedh’s men set it on fire; Diarmuid immerses himself in a vat of ale to escape the flames; finally, the roof beam of the burning house falls on his head and finishes him off.

The triple deaths of kings and warriors described in the Irish myths, very often prophesied in advance, involve accidental fatal injuries as well as intentional assaults, but they may mythologize an actual practice: a ritual form of threefold killing. Perhaps this is a rare and valuable clue, from Celtic – rather than Roman – literature, that the Celts did indeed carry out human sacrifices.

Roberts, A. (2015). The Celts by Alice Roberts (UK Airports edition). Heron Books.

read more »

How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical

Jean-Léon Gérôme – Kandaules

Putting together the various ancient sources about the ancient King Gyges of Lydia the Professor of Latin at Johns Hopkins University, Kirby Flower Smith, arrived at the following story from which they all ultimately derived:

Gyges … the ancestor of Croesus was a shepherd when he was young, in the service of [Kandaules] king of Lydia. Once upon a time there was a storm and an earthquake so violent that the ground split open near the place where Gyges was watching his flocks. Gyges was amazed at the sight and finally went down into the cleft. The story tells of many wonderful things which he saw there ….

Among these wonderful things was a brazen horse which was hollow and had doors. In it was nothing but a corpse, of heroic size, and on one of its fingers a gold ring.

Gyges took the ring and came out again.

Sometime later he attended the monthly assembly of the shepherds and while there accidentally discovered the qualities of his ring, as described by Plato:

As he was sitting among the others he happened to turn the collet of it towards him and into the inside of his hand. The moment this was done he became invisible… [Plato, Republic II, 14]

He then procured his appointment as one of the messengers to the king and went up to Sardis to seek his fortune.

After reaching Sardis an adventure with the ring brought him to the notice of Kandaules (the king). At first, he was highly favored but later the king, who was cruel and whimsical, became suspicious of Gyges and set him at several tasks certain, as he supposed, to compass his destruction. Gyges, however, performed them all successfully with the aid of his ring, was reinstated in favor and given great estates ….

Gyges was now not only rich and powerful but also admired and feared for his beauty, strength and address, and for his versatility and superhuman knowledge of what was going on. The king who, like everyone else, knew nothing of his ring…, found Gyges invaluable, gave him the post of chief adviser and consulted him on all occasions.

There was one thing, however, which Kandaules had always kept jealously guarded, because it was the principal source, the real secret, of his power. This was his wife. She was …. exceedingly beautiful. But what made her indispensable to Kandaules was the fact that she was also very wise and powerful, being a mighty sorceress.

The one vulnerable spot in Kandaules was his passion for his wife. Like all who had ever seen her he was utterly bewitched by her beauty and as his confidence in Gyges increased he began to talk of it more and more freely. At last he insisted upon showing her. [Gyges refused, foreseeing mortal peril to himself from either, or both. But at last he was forced to comply and] the programme devised by Kandaules was carried out as related by Herodotos:

[The king said to Gyges], “Courage, friend…. Be sure I will so manage that she shall not even know that thou has looked upon her. I will place thee behind the open door of the chamber in which we sleep. When I enter to go to rest she will follow me. There stands a chair close to the entrance, on which she will lay her clothes one by one as she takes them off. Thou wilt be able thus at thy leisure to peruse her person. Then, when she is moving from the chair toward the bed, and her back is turned on thee, be it thy care that she see thee not as thou passest through the doorway.” [Herodotus, I, 7-16]

Gyges gazed upon her. She was more lovely even than Kandaules had described her,and Gyges fell in love with her then and there. Finally, having turned his ring around to make himself invisible, Gyges left the room.

The queen, however, [possessed a dragon-stone….. As he was going out [she] had seen Gyges [in spite of his magic ring]. But she made no sign. She knew that the situation was due to Kandaules and swore to be avenged.

When, therefore, Gyges, perhaps at her own instigation, came to her and declared his passion, revenge and, possibly, other considerations, prompted her to yield. Gyges was able to visit her unobserved on account of his magic ring and the intrigue went on for some time, [nothing being said on either side regarding the door episode.]

At last, when the queen saw that Gyges was entirely in her power, and being also in love with him herself, she laid her plans and sent for him. When he arrived, she told him [that she had seen him look on her as she undressed] that now Gyges must slay Kandaules or else die himself. Whatever the feelings of Gyges may have been, his situation, despite his magic ring, was even more desperate than in Herodotos. He had a sorceress to deal with and was committed to her by ties which he could not break, even if he had so desired.

Gyges acceded, the destruction of Kandaules was planned and carried out by the two …. and with the aid of the magic ring ….. [He thrust a dagger through him as he slept.]

When the deed was accomplished she gave Gyges the kingdom, as she had promised. He made her his queen [and they lived happily ever after.]

Such is the tale of Gyges, ancestor of Croesus …..

Smith, K. F. (1902). The Tale of Gyges and the King of Lydia. The American Journal of Philology, 23(4), 383–385. https://doi.org/10.2307/288700
Did Gyges exist?
Professor Smith evidently did not think so. The above narrative he constructed from the various ancient tales of Gyges:

read more »

Fundamentals of historical research and the difficulties faced by historical Jesus studies

Some readers may have come across a very long list of ancient writers who “could or should” have made some mention of Jesus. That list surfaced in another forum discussion today and I found myself faithlessly writing a response to it there instead of spending my time on Vridar. To make amends, hoping Vridar will not feel offended or as if being treated second-class, I copy below what I wrote in the Afa forum.

Such a list serves as a reminder of the riches in sources that are available for the early Roman empire period compared with many other periods of ancient times.

What is fundamental to historical research is the necessity to independently corroborate sources and their claims. It’s not the only requirement but I have a hard time thinking of many ancient figures that are securely known to have existed without meeting that benchmark in the records.

I have listed below what I think are the fundamentals that historical researchers look for when examining the documentary sources. Independent corroboration is left to last

  • Documents need to be assessed for authenticity;

— that includes being able to trace their provenance, assess when they were possibly written, where, etc.

  • their authors ideally need to be identified in order for the investigator to have some idea of how likely they were to have access to certain information, what biases and agendas they may have had, etc;

— We have such information for a good number of ancient authors

  • the literary culture that forms the matrix of the document needs to be understood in order to guide analysis and interpretation;

— we need to understand the conventions of ancient historians and the proclivities of individuals: e.g. their tendency to invent historical accounts drawing upon classical epics and plays when their sources failed them

  • we need to be able to identify and evaluate the probable sources of ancient documents;

— were they relying upon historians before them and if so, which ones, when did they live, what reasons do we have for thinking their work to be reliable, etc

— part of this requirement is the acknowledgment that contemporary sources must form the basis of historical reconstructions. Sometimes later sources can be more reliable or act as checks but they can only rarely be a trusted starting point for historical inquiry

  • and claims made in the documents need to be independently corroborated

— e.g by archaeology, by ancient monuments and inscriptions, by contemporary documents by unrelated authors, etc.

These are the fundamentals. Obviously such processes leave the historian with less data than historians of more recent times have at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean that historians of ancient world lower their standards, however. It means instead that they ask broader questions or the sorts of questions that they know their sources will help them answer.

It also means there is often less certainty in some of their conclusions.

When it comes to the study of Jesus, historians are on the back foot with almost all of the above: read more »

Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?

Who killed Jesus and why?

With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Daniel N. Gullotta 2016, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pp. 332-333, emphasis mine)

Do you know who else depoliticized early Christianity? Early Christians. Paul. The evangelists. The early Church Fathers. In short, everyone.

New Testament authors are clear about why Jesus died and who is responsible. According to “our oldest sources” (to invoke a scholarly term), Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment. As Hyam Maccoby put it:

According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar.”’ (John 19.7). (Maccoby 1984, “Who Killed Jesus?” London Review of Books, emphasis mine)

Englewood Dam

A narrow, precarious path

The story of Jesus’ death, followed by the successful spread of Christianity as related in the gospels and Acts, reminds me of the road across Englewood Dam. The dam, located northwest of Dayton, Ohio, protects the area from flooding by the Stillwater River. A number of dams in the area, all built after the Great Dayton Flood, have a similar design. The levees on either side are enormous, allowing the reservoirs to retain billions of gallons of water.

The first time I drove across the levee, I was struck by how easy it seemed (if not for the guardrails) to veer slightly to the left or the right, tumbling 100 feet down the embankment into the trees. The story of the Passion follows a similarly narrow, but more circuitous path. If Jesus was a rebel, a brigand, then he really was an enemy of Rome. And that just won’t do, will it? However, if Jesus did nothing but teach and heal, then why would Pilate have put him to death? Somehow, Jesus must have provoked someone to cause this chain of events, but who?

According to the New Testament, it was “the Jews.” The Jewish leaders were jealous of his fame, or else they worried the people would believe in him and cause the Romans to come and destroy them. (See John 11:45-53.) And here we see one of the great uses of the hypothesized historical Jesus. A reconstructed Jesus allows NT scholars in the post-Holocaust world to reinterpret verses like these: read more »

The Year of the Nativity: Consensus, Harmonization, and Plausibility

Herod the Great

Yes, it does seem odd for Vridar to have so many Christmas posts this year. I normally watch the holidays go by and think to myself, “I should have written something about that.”

In any case, I promise this will be my last Christmas post of the year, which should be an easy vow to keep, since it’s already the 28th.

In a previous post, I wrote about the date of the nativity. This time we’ll look at the year of Jesus’ birth. Considering all the ink scholars have spilled over this subject, and all the contortions many of them have gone through to push for specific dates that “work” (even so far as to move the death of Herod to 1 BCE), it’s a wonder there is a consensus. And yet, almost everywhere you look, you’ll find the date range of 6 to 4 BCE.

Only the most diehard apologist would try to harmonize Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the nativity. They diverge at nearly every point. Moreover, most critical scholars recognize the birth stories as legends. Both Matthew and Luke contain two momentous events which, had they actually occurred, would have given us a precise date for Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, Herod the Great slaughters all the young children in Bethlehem. In Luke, Augustus calls for “all the world to be taxed.”

Neither of these events happened, and therein lies the problem. They are legendary accounts told for religious, doctrinal reasons. And here’s a good rule of thumb: Once you’ve tossed rotten fruit into the dumpster, don’t climb back in to see if you can find some edible bits. In other words, resist the temptation to find a kernel of truth in fictional accounts, especially when you have absolutely no corroborating external evidence. There’s no shame in saying, “We don’t know, and we may never know.read more »

How Bayes’ Theorem Proves the Resurrection (Gullotta on Carrier once more)

Yet I cannot help but compare Carrier’s approach to the work of Richard Swinburne, who likewise uses Bayes’ theorem to demonstrate the high probability of Jesus’ resurrection, and wonder if it is not fatally telling that Bayes’ theorem can be used to both prove the reality of Jesus’ physical resurrection and prove that he had no existence as a historical person.49

49 Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

The above quotation is from page 16 of Daniel Gullotta’s 37 page review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus [OHJ].

To make such a comparison one would expect the author to be familiar with how the Bayes’ rule is used by both Carrier and Swinburne. Unfortunately Gullotta nowhere indicates that he consulted the prequel to OHJ, Proving History, in which Carrier explained Bayes on a “for dummies” level and which was referenced repeatedly in OHJ. Gullotta moreover indicated that he found all of the Bayesian references in OHJ way over his head — even though the numbers used were nothing more than statements of probability of evidence leaning one way or the other, such as when we say there is a 50-50 chance of rain or we are 90% sure we know who’s been pinching our coffee at work. Robert M. Price has expressed similar mathemaphobia so Gullotta is not alone.

Anyway, we have a right to expect that the reviewer is familiar with the way Bayes is used in at least one of the works he is comparing, and since he skipped the Bayesian discussion in OHJ he is presumably aware of how Swinburne used Bayes to effectively prove the resurrection of Jesus.

Bayes’ theorem is about bringing to bear all background knowledge and evidence for a particular hypothesis, assessing it against alternative hypotheses, and updating one’s assessments in the light of new information as it comes along.

If that sounds no different from the common sense way we ought to approach any problem, that’s because it is no different from common sense methods. That’s why Bayes “cracked the enigma code, hunted down Russian submarines and emerged triumphant [even in historical studies!] from two centuries of controversy“.

Anyway, scholars who ought to know better have indicated that they can safely dismiss Bayes because Richard Swinburne used it to prove the resurrection of Jesus. Never mind that that’s like saying we should never use syllogisms in argument because some joker used one to prove everything with two legs was a man.

Richard Swinburne

So let’s see exactly how Swinburne used a tool that some of the smartest people in the world use for all sorts of good things in order to prove Jesus is alive today and about to come and judge us all.

Bayes works with facts. Hard data. Real evidence. Stuff.

For Swinburne, anything in the Bible is a definite fact that requires us to believe it if there is nothing else in the Bible to contradict it. That’s the “hard data” that Swinburne feeds into his Bayesian equation!

Notice some of Swinburne’s gems found in The Resurrection of God Incarnate (with my own bolding as usual):

Most of St Paul’s epistles are totally reliable historical sources. The synoptic gospels are basically historical works, though they do sometimes seek to make theological points (especially in the Infancy narratives) by adding details to the historical account. St John’s Gospel is also basically reliable, at any rate on the later events of the story of Jesus . . . . (p 69)

I argued earlier that, in the absence of counter-evidence, apparent testimony should be taken as real testimony and so apparent historical claims as real historical claims. (p. 70)

It seems fairly clear that the main body of the Acts of the Apostles is intended to be taken as literal history. It reads like any other contemporary work of history, and the later parts (which contain no reports of anything miraculous) are so detailed and matter-of-fact as to have a diary-like quality to them. (p. 71)

Hence there is no justification for thinking that Mark is trying to do anything else than record history when he writes about these events . . . (p. 73)

I conclude that the three synoptic Gospels purport to be history (history of cosmic significance, but I repeat, history all the same). (p. 74)

Just as apparent testimony must be read as real testimony, so real testimony must be believed, in the absence of counter-evidence.  (p. 76) read more »

How “Biblical History” is Fundamentally Different From Other Historical Research

As pointed out in the previous post historians of ancient times have criticized an approach to ancient sources that they call the nugget theory or the Christmas cake analogy. The historical sources need to be analysed at a literary level in order to first determine what sorts of documents they are and what sorts of questions they can be expected to answer, and then they need to be tested, usually by means of independent corroboration. Independent corroboration must be contemporary as a rule for reasons set out in The evidence of ancient historians.

The prevailing view among New Testament scholars of Christian origins is an unashamed application of the nugget and Christmas cake that is said to be invalid, fallacious, erroneous, misguided, unsupportable, in defiance of what we know about how ancient authors worked, by other historians of ancient times.

Contrary to the ways other professional historians approach their ancient sources biblical scholars have sought to find tools to find the nugget of historical truth or the cake of what comes reasonably close to what really happened.

Criteria of authenticity

The tool they have used to do this has been their criteria of authenticity. Never mind that even some of their own peers, other biblical scholars, have conceded that these criteria are logically flawed and incapable of really establishing genuine history behind the texts (gospels), as long as they say they can use them “judiciously”, “with caution”, they’ll manage okay.

Memory theory

More recently some biblical scholars have found another tool to replace “criteriology”. They have found memory theory. Never mind that they don’t quite use that theory in the way its original founders intended, used “judiciously” and “with caution” it can surely bring the modern historian just a little closer to what might have actually happened, so they say.

Clear glass or stained glass windows

In an earlier post, Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything, we saw the analogy of two different types of windows at play. The biblical historian sees the gospels as a window that needs to be “looked through” in order to try to identify the history on the other side. The opposing view sees the gospels as stained glass windows to be admired as literary productions in their own right.

Digging for that pot of gold

The biblical historian also uses the analogy of digging, presumably as in an archaeological dig, and helpfully provided this diagram to illustrate the way the biblical historian proudly worked:

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

That diagram is an epitome of all the analogies used by trained historians in their condemnation of that method.

See Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything for a discussion of the two windows, the diggers, the nugget miners, and the Christmas cake eaters.

 

 

 

The evidence of ancient historians

Is it “hyper-critical” to approach ancient historians like Livy, Plutarch, …. with caution? In response to my previous post on why I do not think of myself as a “Jesus mythicist” one person insisted that we have every right to accept the words of Tacitus and Josephus about some incident that they say happened a couple of generations earlier. Here is my detailed response.

Why can’t we simply take at face value the statements we read in Tacitus and Josephus about Jesus? (Formatting and bolding in all quotations is my own.)

Let’s set aside for a moment the evidence that the references to the Christ are interpolations and assume they are genuine. Read what one prominent historian of ancient history wrote about the surviving works of ancient historians:

Yet a Livy or a Plutarch cheerfully repeated pages upon pages of earlier accounts over which they neither had nor sought any control. . . . Only Thucydides fully and systematically acknowledged the existence of a dilemma, which he resolved in the unsatisfactory way of refusing to deal with pre-contemporary history at all. . . . .

Where did they [ancient historians like Tacitus and Josephus] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . . .

I suspect that Ogilvie’s slip reflects, no doubt unconsciously, the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation. . . .

Unless something is captured in a more or less contemporary historical account, the narrative is lost for all time regardless of how many inscriptions or papyri may be discovered. . . . .

So when men came to write the history of their world, Greek or Roman, they found great voids in the inherited information about the past, or, worse still, quantities of ‘data’ that included fiction and half fiction jumbled with fact. That is what modern historians, unwilling for whatever reason to admit defeat, to acknowledge a void, seek to rescue under the positive label, tradition (or oral tradition). Few anthropologists view the invariably oral traditions of the people they study with the faith shown by many ancient historians. The verbal transmittal over many generations of detailed information about past events or institutions that are no longer essential or even meaningful in contemporary life invariably entails considerable and irrecoverable losses of data, or conflation of data, manipulation and invention, sometimes without visible reason, often for reasons that are perfectly intelligible. With the passage of time, it becomes absolutely impossible to control anything that has been transmitted when there is nothing in writing against which to match statements about the past. Again we suspect the presence of the unexpressed view that the traditions of Greeks and Romans are somehow privileged . . . .

There is no guarantee that the tradition has not arisen precisely in order to explain a linguistic, religious or political datum; that, in other words, the tradition is not an etiological invention . . . .

Some of the supposed data are patently fictitious, the political unification of Attica by Theseus or the foundation of Rome by Aeneas, for example, but we quickly run out of such easily identified fictions. For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

For reasons that are rooted in our intellectual history, ancient historians are often seduced into two unexpressed propositions. The first is that statements in the literary or documentary sources are to be accepted unless they can be disproved (to the satisfaction of the individual historian).

That’s all from Finley, M. I. (1999). Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Chapter 2

That’s what I posted on the BC&H Forum. Finley is not a lone voice, however.

The Christmas cake view of history

The historian of ancient documents needs first to study the nature of those documents and to try to understand what they are capable of revealing. That means literary criticism.

To see some posts in which I have addressed other work by Woodman discussing the creative imaginations of ancient historians, see http://vridar.org/?s=woodman

To quote A.J. Woodman . . . :

‘Our primary response to the texts of the ancient historians should be literary rather than historical since the nature of the texts themselves is literary. Only when literary analysis has been carried out can we begin to use these texts as evidence for history; and by that time . . . such analysis will have revealed that there is precious little historical evidence left.’ . . . . 

Modern historians naturally dislike such views, because they challenge the very basis of ancient history as an intellectual discipline, since the ‘evidence’, at almost all periods, consists overwhelmingly of literary texts. While most historians concede that ancient historiographical texts are in some senses ‘literary’, they nevertheless insist that this ‘literary’ aspect is detachable and there is solid fact underneath. On this view, ancient works of historiography are like Christmas cakes: if you don’t like almond icing, you slice it off, and you’ve still got a cake—a substantial object uncontaminated by icing.

 

Compare “the nugget theory” of ancient history.

Later in the same chapter . . .

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies; Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood; Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen; invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians. The motives vary: some, of course, crudely political — propaganda, flattery, denigration; literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides); the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic); sometimes (surely) historiographical parody; sheer emotional arousal or entertainment; the need to make moral points or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events.

And

Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself. But there were some occasions when the issues were so serious that it was rhetorically necessary, even at the risk of attack, to maintain the illusion of strict historicity. On those occasions the historian could never admit to manipulation or invention. Such is the tyranny of factual truth.

J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in Lies and fiction in the Ancient World edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

It takes no great effort to refute him — he’s a historian.

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The “Nugget” Theory

[S]ound historical method must lead a scholar to distrust any source much of which can be shown to be false — unless truly reliable material exists outside that source as a check. 

Sometimes, however, we find that a scholar writes history

on the principle that a historian can safely mine “nuggets” out of otherwise worthless ore.

Both quotations are from Chester G. Starr in “The Credibility of Early Spartan History”, (Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte Bd. 14, H. 3 (Jul., 1965), pp. 257-272) …. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4434883

Chester G. Starr

 

Can we extract history from fiction?

Can scholars study fictional tales and extract historical events from them?

Richard Elliott Friedman, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, says, in effect, “Yes, they can!” He says that he himself can . . . and does. It is even possible to find genuine historical data in the fairy tale of Cinderella and his wife did just that, he writes. Professor Friedman is very clear: a scholar can certainly find the historical truth behind the biblical narratives such as that of the Exodus.

This is the process of literary-historical method. We can read a story that we think is fiction, or even know to be fiction, and still extract historical information from it. At a meeting on the exodus in San Diego . . . , the American biblical historian Baruch Halpern stirred things up saying that the Bible’s story of the exodus should be read as a fairy tale. My wife’s reaction was precisely to look at a fairy tale: Cinderella. It has mice become horses, a pumpkin a coach, and a poor oppressed girl a princess because a glass shoe fits only her. The story is fiction. It is not history. But the element of the shoe at least reflects that shoes were a real thing in the culture that produced that story. Everyone who heard the story understood it. So eliminate much of the biblical story from the category of history if you wish. The ten plagues may be a fairy tale. The staff that becomes a snake may be a fairy tale. But we shall see that the exodus itself is not the fairy tale. It is the shoes. (Friedman, R.E. (2017) The Exodus. New York, NY: HarperOne. pp. 11f – my bolding)

I believe that there is a problem with Friedman’s argument here.

His example of the shoes is a poor one since shoes are found among most human cultures throughout history, surely. It is hardly a ‘historical datum’ except in the very broadest sense. It is easier to think of shoes as a cultural item. All the other items in the Cinderella story are also “real things” (except the fairy godmother, of course). Mice are real; so are horses, and pumpkins, and coaches, and princes, and step-sisters, and palace balls. They are all historical items if we immerse ourselves in the interpretations of the Friedmans.

Yet not one of them is really historical, of course.

In other words, there is a difference between the events and persons of history and the cultural, political, social, economic, geographic settings of stories. Most stories, I presume, have settings. Settings themselves do not make a story “historical” or “fictional”.

A setting does not make a fictional story even partly true. Think of the novels with realistic and “true” historical settings by Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Ken Follett and hundreds of others any of us could list if we took a moment to dig.

I once read a children’s book about King Alfred. It was a novel, a historical novel. Although it narrated some events that were historical it was still a children’s novel and shelved with the fiction on the library shelves, not the history section.

The only way anyone could know what parts of the novel were historical would be by turning to the history section and comparing. A fictional story can be set in real places, reference historical customs (palace balls), involve the flora and fauna of the historical places (horses and pumpkins) and even borrow historical characters for certain scenes. But the stories do not become historical. They are fictional narratives in historical settings.

If there are genuinely historical persons or real historical battles or true historical murders in a novel, I think they should be thought of as historical data that has been fictionalized.

No-one can pick up such a fictional story and with that information alone unravel the details to find what persons and details are drawn from history.

The only way anyone can know what is historical is by consulting studies found on the history shelves or information that points to the archival and other primary sources.

In other words, we can only determine what is historically “true” by reference to the historical sources.

Fictional narratives can tell us what their authors told, the customs and characters they wrote about, but they, by themselves, cannot tell us what happened in the past. They cannot tell us what cities fell to conquerors or what kings ruled or what tribes moved from Germania to Iberia. They may tell us about places and fashions and social classes known to the authors, but those are not historical events. And if they do tell details of true stories by true kings, we only know that they do so because we consult other sources — the same sources that were ultimately relied upon by the author of the tale.

Cinderella’s shoes are just as historical as are mice and horses and princes and balls and pumpkins. In other words, they are entirely fictional — unless and until we find in some long forgotten chest in a palace boudoir a pair of squirrel fur slippers stylish enough for a ballroom dance function and with the soles branded with the words “Prince Loves C.E.”.

From www.furinsider.com

 

 

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

Moses I. Finley (1912-1986)

What do ancient historians think of the efforts of biblical scholars to inquire into “the historical Jesus” and the origins of Christianity?

M.I. Finley was an influential historian of ancient history who found time out from his studies on the classical (Greco-Roman) world and methodological problems in ancient history more generally to write a handful of articles on problems facing biblical scholars attempting to reconstruct Christian origins. Finley compiled three of these articles into a single chapter, “Christian Beginnings: Three Views of Historiography” in his small volume, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies (1968).

Interestingly (to me, certainly) Finley zeroes in on the same methodological problems faced by scholars of Jesus and Christian origins that I have often addressed on this blog and in other online forums. It is nice to find agreement in a scholar so highly regarded as Finley was.

Vridar and related discussions of Maurice Goguel:

In the second part of his chapter and in the course of discussing Maurice Goguel’s methods in arriving at some detail about the historical Jesus, Finley comes across an all too common point in the work of another well-known name, A.N. Sherwin-White:

An Oxford historian, Mr A. N. Sherwin-White, has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. ‘Not‘, he adds, ‘that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.’ (Aspects, p. 177)

One is reminded of works by Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham attempting to show how similar the gospels are to ancient biographies and histories. But Finley knows better than to allow Sherwin-White’s statement a free pass (my own bolding in all quotations):

Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek verb at the root of ‘history’ is historein, to inquire, which is what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. (Aspects, p. 177)

So we see that Finley called out the rhetorical sleights of hand we find are in fact all too common in the works of too many biblical scholars.

Finley then turned to another historian’s work exploring the nature of history:

In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,

theocratic history … means not history proper … but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest

The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century and a half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls(Aspects, p. 177)

“With no external controls”? That is the very phrase I have been using in my own criticisms of the methodology at the heart of historical reconstructions based on the gospels. To verify that claim type the words external controls and/or independent controls in the Search Vridar box in the right-hand column of this blog page.

Finley expands on this problematic point in other essays collated in The Use and Abuse of History (1975) and Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1999) but before I address any of that elaboration let’s keep with his focus on Goguel as an example. Goguel worked before terms like “criteria of authenticity” became commonplace but he understood and worked with the same principles or methods. He might call them “logical and psychological” tests (= criteria of coherence, plausibility…) applied to gospel passages to “uncover” probable “facts” about the historical Jesus.

One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for ‘a sign from Heaven’, Jesus replied, ‘There shall be no sign given unto this generation’ (Mark viii, 11-12). Goguel comments:

This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus … This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.

It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are ‘extremely doubtful’. His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, ‘it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.’

This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell. Therefore it does not follow that it always avoids inconsistency: it is capable of retaining, and even inventing, sayings and events which, in what we call strict logic, undermine its most cherished beliefs. The difficulties are of course most acute at the beginning, with the life of Jesus. One influential modern school, which goes under the name of ‘form-criticism’, has even abandoned history at this stage completely. ‘In my opinion,’ wrote Rudolph Bultmann, ‘we can sum up what can be known of the life and personality of Jesus as simply nothing.’ (Aspects, p. 178)

It does not appear that Finley was prepared to go along with the methods, let alone conclusions, of biblical scholars in their efforts to establish what was historical about Jesus. A gospel narrative is merely a gospel narrative. We have no way of testing whether any of its narrative was genuinely historical or based on historical memory.

Sometimes one hears how accurate are the details of geography or social customs in the gospels as if such details add any weight to the historicity of the narrative. Finley responded to that rejoinder in the third part of his chapter in Aspects of Antiquity. He begins with a reminder of the point just made above:

[T]he Gospel accounts . . . are the sole source of information about the Passion – that cannot be said often enough or sharply enough – and all four agree on the responsibility of some Jews. . . .

What, then, actually happened? Not even the Synoptic Gospels provide a clear and coherent account, and there are added confusions and impossibilities in the Fourth Gospel. There is one school of thought, to which I belong, which holds that no reconstruction is possible from such unsatisfactory evidence. (Aspects, p. 182)

Finley then returned to Sherwin-White’s misleading comparison of the gospels with Greek histories:

Even if one could accept the view recently re-stated with much vigour by A. N. Sherwin-White in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, that the Acts and Gospels are qualitatively no different as historical sources from Herodotus or Tacitus, one does not get very far. Mr Sherwin-White has been able to demonstrate that the New Testament is very accurate in its details about life at the time, whether about geography and travel or the rules of citizenship and court procedures. Why should it not be? It is made up of contemporary documents, regardless of the accuracy of the narrative, and so reflects society as it was. That still does not tell us anything about the narrative details, and they are what matters. For that Mr Sherwin-White must, in the end, select and reject, explain and explain away, just as every other scholar has done for as long as anyone has felt the urge (and the possibility) of a historical reconstruction of the Passion. (Aspects, pp. 182f)

And that’s exactly what we read so often even among biblical scholars — that background details somehow lend historical credibility to the gospel narrative.

He is probably right, but it still does not follow, as he seems to think, that the veracity of the Gospel narrative has thereby been substantiated, or even been made more probable in a significant sense.

Far be it from me to suggest, no matter how faintly, that it is ever unimportant to get the historical record right. But the feeling will not go away that there is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it all. (Aspects, p. 183)

Enter the deus ex machina of oral tradition to strengthen faith in the literary sources . . . 

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The Fallacy Few Historians Have Avoided

Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as

  • most historians agree . . .
  • it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .
  • in the judgment of all serious students of this problem . . . 

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification. This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true. If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. I witnessed one such occasion (circa 1962) as a student at the Johns Hopkins University. A scholar who was baffled by a knotty problem of fact literally called for a show of hands to settle the question. An alienated minority of callow youths in the back of the room raised both hands and carried the day, in defiance of logic, empiricism, and parliamentary procedure.

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, in some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . . ” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of this problem . . . .”

When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

A historian has written, for example, “While the role of dope in damping social unrest in early industrial England has not been extensively investigated, every historian of the period knows that it was common practice at the time for working mothers to start the habit in the cradle by dosing their hungry babies on laudanum (‘mother’s blessing,’ it was called).” This statement is often made, and widely believed. But it has never, to my knowledge, been established by empirical evidence. The reader should note the hyperbole in the first sentence. When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form–deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples. One will suffice here, for the sake of illustration. Every schoolboy knows, and most schoolmasters, too, that Mussolini made the trains run on time. But did he? Ashley Montagu observes that “there was little or no truth in it: people who lived in Italy between the March on Rome (October 22, 1922) and the execution at Como (1945) will bear testimony to the fact that Italian railroads remained as insouciant as ever with regard to time-tables and actual schedules.” And yet, the myth still runs its rounds, with a regularity that Il Duce was unable to bring to his railroads.

The above is from Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought (pages 51-53) by the renowned historian David Hackett Fischer. (That title link is to an open access copy of the book on archive.org)

David Hackett Fischer

 

 

Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’

“Rages” in the title is a bit of poetic licence. I don’t really think either of the two chapters by classicists discussing the arguments for and against the historicity of an ancient philosopher can be considered “rages”.

My point was to alert potential readers that this post is not a repeat of my post of less than a week ago about the historicity of Demonax : Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? That post addressed the views of Tomas Hagg as published in 2012 in The Art of Biography in Antiquity. I was really playing catch-up with that one since one year and two months ago I posted a more recent (published 2016) discussion of another classicist, Mark Beck, addressing the same thorny question: If Biblical Scholars Were Classicists. I was sharing my reading of “Lucian’s Life of Demonax”, a chapter in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen.

Would we have to deny the historicity of most other ancient persons if we reject Demonax?

It is interesting to compare the two different discussions of the question of Demonax’s historicity. How do non-biblical scholars, those dedicated to the study of ancient times, address questions of historicity in those cases where we lack the testimony of monuments, public inscriptions, coins, etc.? The question is of some interest, I suspect, to those who follow what biblical scholars might have to say about certain arguments of the historicity of, let’s say at random, Adam, or Abraham, or Moses, or Jesus.

Do independent contemporary sources decide the question?

In both discussions a primary and very weighty consideration is the absence of contemporary notices. If the person really was so influential as the biography claims, then how do we account for the absence of contemporary witnesses? Why do we have to wait for a person claiming to be a student and eyewitness of the famous person writing something long after the teacher was dead?

Does fictional storytelling decide the question?

It is also interesting that in both discussions the above question is of considerable import, while the fact that it is clearly evident that the extant biography of Demonax contains much fiction is not so important. If someone tells tall tales about a famous teacher, so what? That seems to be the approach. It’s to be expected. Fictional details do not mean the subject did not exist.

Does an eyewitness claim decide the question?

But we have a writing by one who clearly says he was an eyewitness and a student of Demonax! No dice, apparently. That does not count as decisive in either discussion. Anyone could say that about the person they were writing about.

Do independent references decide the question?

In both discussions, the one by Hãgg and the one by Beck, the independent testimony of sayings by Demonax is a significant point. The biographer of Demonax did not make use of what we know of an independent collection of sayings by Demonax. Beck considers these independent sayings attributed to Demonax as enough to tilt the scales in favour of the historicity of Demonax. Hägg is not convinced; for Hägg, such a collection only raises more questions than it answers with respect to the historicity question. Those independent sayings are just a little “too” independent and appear to have no real relevance to the person of Lucian’s biography, according to Hägg. So scholarly opinions differ — interestingly without any apparent need for abusive language and all sorts of ad hominem attacks.

Does a namesake at the right time and place decide the question?

But Hägg does concede that there was a historical Demonax in Athens at the right time. He just does not think that Demonax had much in common with Lucian’s portrait. Beck agrees with the problematic nature of Lucian’s portrait by adding that it is evident that a source for that portrait was Lucian’s own life. Lucian was writing about himself!

Does the function of the biography decide the question?

Both classicists acknowledge that the fact that Lucian’s biography had a clear purpose of teaching readers virtuous principles is itself a point against the historicity of any of the biography’s anecdotes. The author, they agree, wrote with the purpose of teaching virtue and creating a moral exemplar for readers, not with any specific intent to preserve genuine historical memories for posterity.

Back to that question about independent contemporary sources

So the bottom line is that the question of historicity stands or falls on the point of testimony independent of the biography and contemporaneous with the person of interest.