Category Archives: Historiography

“Now we know” — how ancient historians worked

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

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

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

When is a parallel a real parallel and not parallelomania?

The question of parallels has been raised in different posts and comments lately on Vridar.

Firstly, I questioned Joseph Atwill’s claim that there was a parallel between Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men” beside the “sea of Galilee” and a scene in Josephus’ War where Romans kill drowning Judeans in a battle that had spread to a the lake of Galilee. I also took exception to his parallel between the act of cannibalism that Josephus narrates in the same work and the gospel accounts of the Passover.

Soon afterwards, I posted about parallels between the Hebrews Bible and certain Hellenistic myths and other literature in relation to the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Further, I posted something by a classicist, Bruce Louden comparing a scenario in the Odyssey with the biblical story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to which I added further details between Greek myths and the Lot story identified by Wajdenbaum.

So am I being inconsistent in being critical of one of Atwill’s parallels but posting without critical commentary some of the work by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum  and Louden?

One reader, Austendw, has posted a frequent criticism when this topic surfaces, and no doubt he speaks for many others. I copy just part of his comment:

And as for Saul in Mizpah, you relate Saul in hiding among the baggage, to Rachel hiding the teraphim in the saddlebag. The Hebrew says merely that Rachel “put” them in the saddle-bag; a nit-picking difference perhaps, but bearing it in mind reveals that, apart from the common place-name Mizpah, (a different Mizpah of course – it’s an extremely common place name in the OT), there isn’t a single verbal correlation between the two passages. Therefore your comment that Saul turns up like “Laban’s long-lost idol” (singular, though Laban’s teraphim were plural), strikes me as nothing other than your own imaginative eisegesis; you have imposed a meaning on the text and thereby constructed a parallel between the two stories that simply isn’t found in either of the texts themselves.

The details are indeed very different. But what is it, then, that makes it a “genuine” parallel in the minds of some others? Are we stretching different images almost to breaking point to make them seem somehow, even bizarrely, like one another? Is it reasonable to compare a person hiding in baggage and another person putting an incriminating object in a saddlebag?

Ideal Type compared with specific details

In order to try to understand what is going on here, to help us understand if we are manufacturing artificial parallels or discovering “real” ones, here is something written by Robert Price in The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Price is addressing a concept developed by the sociologist Max Weber, the Ideal Type. (Ideal relates to the world of ideas, not perfect ideals.) read more »

Understanding Historical Evidence

Steve Mason

This post is a presentation of a few of the key points set out by Steve Mason in his 2016 study A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74. The points are taken from the first part of his second chapter titled Understanding Historical Evidence. I found his explanation a most enjoyable read because it coheres so closely with the explanations of other historians I have posted about here and it offers a strong correction to the way so many historians, especially those in theology departments, have tended to do history.

Most of the post is a paraphrase or quotation of some of Mason’s points except where I have introduced my own voice or given examples relating to Christian origins or the historical Jesus and the uses of the gospels as sources. I have sometimes reformatted Mason’s text and any bolding added in the quotes is my own; italics are original. So let’s start.

–o–

It is mistake to pick up a primary source like Josephus’ War or Plutarch’s Lives or the Gospel of Luke and think we can just “extract raw facts” from them “while ignoring their nature, structures, and themes.” Before we can take anything as a fact we need to understand what, exactly, our sources are and if they are even capable of answering questions we would like to put to them. But too often

Historians are often impatient with theory. We feel that we know what we are doing, and abstract philosophizing can get in the way. We should just get on with the hard work.

(Mason, 61)

Too often historians and their readers think that all that is required is to follow wherever the evidence leads in order to produce an authoritative account of the past. If a historian or philosopher of history starts talking about analysing literary sources as literature before using those sources to elicit facts to tell us what happened in the past some voices will protest that such a procedure is only for the “literary types” and not relevant to the historian. Mason’s warning is worth taking seriously:

In the final months of preparing this book I have heard professional historians express such views as these: History is the past or an authoritative account of it; historians must follow the evidence and avoid speculation; history concerns itself with elite literary texts and neither material evidence or the life of ordinary folk, which are the province of archaeologists; historians are either maximalists or minimalists, realists or postmodernists, left-wingers or conservatives, or they fall in some other two-kinds-of-people scheme. A problem relevant to this chapter is the notion that those who care about the meaning of texts must be literary types unconcerned with the actual past. And these positions are held by historians. If we include more popular ideas about history, including those espoused by political leaders and school boards, the picture becomes bewildering.

(ibid)

Mason cites a reviewer of one his own works to illustrate the point. I can cite a critic of my approach studying the gospels who makes the same point graphically:

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

(I was surprised to see that even Matthew Ferguson appears to accept that stark division of labour between historical and literary approaches to a source text so I have to suspect that this misleading concept is more prevalent than I would hope and that Mason acknowledges.)

Our job description

A common belief is that history can be discovered by a painstaking effort to sort through sources and extract the facts of the matter from them. Sometimes the sources will be contradictory and then we need to make a judgement about which set of facts to follow. The point that is taken for granted is that the point of the inquiry is to come to know what actually happened. Historians are expected to be able to give an authoritative account of the past. But there is a but: in ancient history the nature of the evidence simply does not allow us to “know” in the way we would like.

Ancient historians must make their peace with uncertainty because that is where the nature of surviving evidence requires us to live much of the time. Our job description is to investigate responsibly, not to know what happened.

(ibid, 63)

read more »

How Historians Know Their Bedrock Facts

Only the most manic conspiracy theorist would question the fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, or that a man landed on the moon in 1969, or that the Holocaust took place. . . . . It is a fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in 49 BC; going back to the sources in an attempt to prove or disprove this would be as much a waste of time as reinventing the wheel.

(Morley, 59)

When the ancient historian Neville Morley wrote those words he unfortunately made it sound tedious to go back and pore through papers and documents and books to find out “how we know” they happened. But it is not a difficult task at all, especially now that since Morley wrote we have a vastly improved internet fact-finder.

Two of Morley’s examples are not at all problematic. We know we have abundant contemporary sources to verify the moon landing and Holocaust. But what about the facts in medieval and ancient history?

Here is how we know . . . .

the fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066

Search for “Battle of Hastings” and “Primary sources”. In quick time you will find the data that has long assured us that this battle happened and it was  in 1066. Example: Spartacus Educational — Battle of Hastings. One sees at the top of that page a link to Primary Sources. If you haven’t already, click on it. In front of will be a list of the following and even more conveniently translations of the texts:

(1) Message sent by William of Normandy just before the Battle of Hastings took place (quoted by William of Poitiers in Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans (c. 1070)

(2) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D Version, entry for 1066.

(3) William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Kings of the English (c. 1140)

(4) William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)

Sources: WIkipedia

A message by William of Normandy himself? Quoted by a contemporary? That looks strong evidence, but is there corroboration from another source?

A Chronicle of the time. Now that’s strong. “D Version” looks a bit baffling but a bit more searching will bring up an explanation that the particular manuscript in mind is that of Worchester.

Number (4) is a bit late so we would have to read it to check on the sources the author used. That’s not very difficult nowadays, either. Just one more click away.

That’s how we really know the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Sources from contemporaries.

Here is how we know . . . .

that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in 49 BC

Again, a little hunting and pecking on the web, or looking up a scholarly publication about the event, or asking a classicist, will quickly inform us that we have Julius Caesar’s own “memoirs” or “commentary” on the Civil War in which he tells us that (and when) he crossed over into Italy with his army, thus precipitating the Civil War.

We have Julius Caesar’s own written account of the circumstances that led him to cross into Italy in the Commentaries on the Civil War (1:8) (Don’t be put off by Caesar’s odd-sounding practice of referring to himself in the third person.) Caesar did not explicitly mention the provincial border he crossed (he only said he marched into Italy as far as Rimi or Ariminum twelve miles south of the river) but we have the explicit reference to the Rubicon in a written speech by Cicero, Caesar’s contemporary. And then we have several later historians who had access to archives writing about Caesar. But on the combined strength of Caesar’s own testimony and the testimony of his contemporary we can safely say that Caesar did indeed cross the Rubicon thus precipitating the civil war.

What we don’t know as a fact . . . .

Morley explains: read more »

There are two types of Jesus mythicism. Here’s how to tell them apart.

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Type 1: Scholarly
The authors engage with not only the source documents of early Christianity but they also address the scholarship that has been written about those documents. The arguments are structured around engagement with the scholarship of biblical studies, ancient history (including judaica), the classics and other related fields such as archaeology, religion, anthropology, historiography, mythology. They apply the norms of the scientific method (e.g. evidence-based, falsifiability). e.g. Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, Robert Price.

Type 2: Pseudo-Scholarly
The authors engage with the source documents but disregard the bulk of related scholarly discussion and focus primarily on interpreting them tendentiously through a conspiracy theory or other unfalsifiable pseudo-historical theory. That is, their arguments are based on an assumption (that is, there is no unambiguous evidence in support) that there are behind-the-scenes powerful and complex forces and actors manipulating or producing the evidence. The emphasis is on arguing for the “missing link” in explaining Christianity and little to no attention is given to addressing alternative explanations in the scholarship for the evidence used. e.g. Christianity as an invention by Roman imperial powers; a strain of astrotheological beliefs dominated secret mystery religions and morphed into Christianity; Christian teachings began and were preserved in some form though centuries, even millennia, before being re-written in the gospels.

What do you think? Do those two “definitions” cover it? I’m sure the wording can be tidied.

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How Historians Study a Figure Like Jesus

Life of Apollonius of Tyana . . . is a text in eight books written in Ancient Greece by Philostratus (c. 170 – c. 245 AD). It tells the story of Apollonius of Tyana (c. 15 – c. 100 AD), a Pythagorean philosopher and teacher. — Wikipedia

In addition to teaching wisdom on his travels Apollonius was said to have performed miracles (exorcising demons; raising the dead) and to have even made an appearance to a follower after his death.

What follows are some points from a major contribution to the study of this figure by a historian of ancient history, Maria Dzielska.

Genre

As with historical Jesus scholars discussing the genre of the gospels, ancient historians pose questions about our account of Apollonius:

Scholars keep wondering at the true character of this work: what sort of biography it is (Leo), whether it is a Heliodoran romance, romantic hagiography, or whether, according to J. Palm’s recent suggestion, it is a documentary romance.

(Dzielska, p.12)

Sources

Unlike the gospels the Life of Apollonius of Tyana mentions sources. Ah, if only the gospels would have done the same! The principal source the biographer, Philostratus, relies upon is Damis, the life-long close companion of Apollonius, and you’d think that if only we had a gospel saying directly that everything we read came from Peter we would have all our questions about the reliability of the gospels settled. But perversely, it would seem, most historians don’t believe that Damis ever existed and that Philostratus made him up to add a respectable and authoritative tone to his narrative.

Dzielska singles out the one historian known to have assumed (naively, without clear evidence, Dzielska and others claimed) the existence of Damis.

Furthermore, Grosso assumes that Damis did exist

(p.12)

The Hypomnèmata of Damis have always been a great problem in the studies of Philostratus’ work. Scholars have wondered whether the memoirs were only a figment of Philostratus’ literary imagination, or whether they constituted a real notebook compiled by a certain pupil of Apollonius. This question has been raised not only by specialists in literature but also by historians. The latest views on the “Damis question” I present below. On their basis I consider Damis a fictitious figure and his memoirs (or notebooks) an invention of Philostratus. . . . .

Using all his literary means Philostratus tries to assert that everything described by “Damis” is historically valid. As to his other sources, he either criticizes them (I 3), or dismisses them with a brief mention (I 3; 12). It is just this indiscriminate attitude towards “Damis” relation that makes us believe in Philostratus’ authorship of the memoirs.

(pp. 19-20)

An examination of the details said to be from Damis leads a number of scholars to think that this Damis knew nothing more than what was already in the works of Tacitus, Josephus Flavius, Suetonius and Cassius Dio. A truly independent source would be expected to yield truly independent information. There are other details that raise suspicions about the reality of Damis, but I will move on.

Sifting History from Fiction

We know a good number of biblical scholars attempt to persuade us that the gospels are reliable sources because the geographic, social and political details in them are perfectly consistent with the real world at that time.

Compare what ancient historians think of that sort of argument:

Yet Bowie is right to suggest that the conformability of historical accounts contained in VA [=Life of Apollonius] to historical events of the first century does not prove in itself the historicity of the events of Apollonius’ life as outlined in VA.

(p. 13)

The gospels are known to be theological depictions of Jesus. Only apologists consider them historically true in all details. Similarly with Apollonius’s biographer:

that Philostratus, as a man of letters and sophist full of passion for Greek Romance and for the studies in rhetoric, was hardly interested in the historical Apollonius. . . .

he had to invent this figure, as it were, anew. Thus, using his literary imagination, he turned a modest Cappadocian mystic into an impressive figure, full of life, politically outstanding, and yet also preposterous.

(p. 14)

Biblical scholars use criteria of authenticity or memory theory models to try to figure out what in the gospel narratives is historically probable as distinct from theological or mythical overlay. Ancient historians appear to have been very slow to have picked up on these advanced techniques of their New Testament “counterparts” and still rely upon independent corroboration.

In the present work where Apollonius is treated both as a historical figure existing at a definite time and in a definite geographical region, and as a literary hero, it is my duty to refer all the time to the work which called him into being as a literary figure……. I consider this material useful and historically valuable only when it finds its confirmation in other literary and historical sources.

(pp. 14-15)

Fiction in the Guise of History/Biography

We spoke above of Philostratus’s sources. Philostratus does give us an account of Apollonius that is rich in detail, both as to detail about his sources, and details of places and chronology throughout the narrative. Some biblical scholars have argued that rich narrative detail is an indicator of historical memory or eyewitness accounts. Some ancient historians have likewise thought the same. But not all. The historian needs to have clear grounds for reading a passage as history as distinct from fiction:

Why not then acknowledge the historicity of, let us say, a romance story about King Artaxerxes’ trial of Chaereas contained in Chariton’s Story of Chaereas and Callirhoe, or Iamblichus’ story about a bad king Garmos who persecuted the hero and heroine of Iamblichus’ Babyloniaca 2?

The historical adventures presented by “Damis” are different from those described by Iamblichus in the Babyloniaca only in so far as they are a falsification compiled with a chronicler’s precision.

(p. 24)


Dzielska, Maria. 1986. Apollonius of Tynan in Legend and History. Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider.


 

A constructive exchange with Tim O’Neill on the question of the historicity of Jesus

Tim O’Neill has given up much of his time to write a detailed post (over 8,700 words) as a guide for non-historians to find their way through the mass of nonsense on the web about Jesus never having existed.

Tim is responding to posts by biologist PZ Myers who is asking questions of a “professional historian” (with a degree from Cambridge, Tim stresses), Eddie Marcus. In this post I address his references to historical methods and to the question of the power (or not) of Christian bias. (Maybe another day when I am at a loose end and looking for another idle time-filler I’ll address the second part of Tim’s post.)

Do ancient historians rely upon late sources?

Early in his post Tim laments the way some listeners of Eddie Marcus’s discussion seemed to pre-judge what he was saying and miss his point. (As with my previous post I will try to replace the original unhelpful language with more neutral or constructive phrasing — italics and square brackets.)

One [commenter], “weylguy”, [wrote] “I stopped watching the video around the 3:00 mark, when the ‘historian’ claimed that the New Testament is “wonderful evidence.’” If “weylguy” had [listened] a few seconds more, he would have heard Marcus explain that the gospels are great evidence for what the communities of believers they were written for believed about Jesus, not [that] they were necessarily evidence about the historical figure of Jesus.

I think Tim is being overly generous to Eddie here and that weylguy’s comment was not so far removed from Eddie’s meaning.

Eddie Marcus is stating over and over how he would love to have such evidence for the subjects he studies and he is not talking about the study of an obscure community of Christians around 100 CE. He is obviously talking about the evidence we have for the study of Jesus Christ as a historical person. He explains that the beliefs of that late community are “best explained” by the “fact” of the historicity of Jesus and clearly wants listeners to believe that those gospels are indeed therefore “very good” evidence, even “enviable evidence”, for Jesus’ existence. (Mythicists themselves say the gospels are “good evidence” for what the later communities believed. But we find here another assumption creeping in and determining the argument’s conclusion: the Jesus and other characters in the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, are so “unrealistic” and evidently very often theological ciphers that we cannot presume their original readers understood them as historical anyway.)

Listen to the video around that 3 minute mark to check this out for yourself.

Further, I know of no study of ancient history that does not stress the absolute importance of contemporary sources (not ones a generation or more later). Yes, many of our surviving historical documents are from much later times but the sources the historians rely upon are those in which they can find a reliance upon sources, usually identified and testable in some way, that do go back to the times being narrated. See, for example, Comparing Sources for Alexander and Jesus; also The evidence of ancient historians.

Little informed discussion of how historical method works

Tim continues: read more »

On mythicism, creationism and the wrath of ancient kings

Someone asked me who among atheists were critical of Jesus mythicism when I posted Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it and a number have questioned my own view of why they do, or at least have offered alternative viewpoints. All fair enough. Meanwhile, someone on Facebook chided me for not having read Tim O’Neill’s article addressing PZ Myers’ “historical Jesus agnosticism” and attempting to explain how the relevant historical analysis works. So today I did finally at least skim quickly through O’Neill’s PZ Myers and “Jesus Agnosticism”, Eddie Marcus’s explanations, and a few of the comments. And whaddyaknow — there I read more of the exact criticisms I had been addressing in my earlier post about “atheist hostility to Jesus mythicism”. They once again demonstrate, to me at least, that the primary objection to mythicism is that it sets itself apart from mainstream scholarship and for that reason is seen as “essentially” one with creationism and holocaust denial.

There was something unexpected, though. What I found especially intriguing was Tim O’Neill’s admonition to his readers to not even read arguments that had been posted against his own views! Recall Niels Peter Lemche’s point about how conservative scholarship has worked to steer scholars away from radical criticism: The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche). Tim certainly goes overboard to smear me every time he seems obliged to mention me at all. He certainly is doing all he can to turn readers off anything coming from this quarter. That’s not so bad in itself, except that he seems incapable of doing so with dispassionate reasoned argument. Ancient kings (and more recent totalitarian regimes) who were obsessed with erasing all memory of opponents and/or cursing them to the limit would be most impressed.

From Tim’s page — with my highlighting of the key points:

Biosaber says:

Similar in their rhetoric and explaining-away of evidence. And are just as impervious to reason. Mythicism is to history what YEC is to science. But ok, they’re Atheism’s halocaust deniers

Then analogy is not to the degree or nature of the evidence. It’s the lack of understanding of the material and the arrogance of assuming they know more than the consensus of experts that is analogous. So the analogy is completely apt thanks.

One more:

Tim O’Neill says:

“I could provide examples of where the consensus of experts has been wrong (you know like some of science!) so that in and by itself is not disqualifying.”

Everyone knows it is not necessarily disqualifying. But most of the time the experts know better than some online nobody who’s watched a couple of YouTube videos.And even the cases when the maverick contrarians have been right and the consensus has been wrong are well known because they are so rare. Yet, like the Creationists, these twerps think they are the smart ones.

So there you have it. The sin of mythicism is that it disputes the conventional wisdom of the academy of biblical studies. And we even have the biblical imputation of motive for that sin — pride, arrogance. Can anyone with such a mindset help themselves from reading any mythicist arguments with hostile intent?

–o–

Here’s the surprising bit. Tim added an addendum to his post that had been written after PZ Myers responded to it (and after I had made my own comments on PZ’s response).

P.S. I would suggest you avoid reading the comments from the Mythicist true believers on Myers’ articles – most of them are so dumb they will make you lose the will to live.

And to reinforce the point, when one commenter asked

Biosaber says:

Hey Tim have you seen PZ’s post about this post, “The Tim O’Neill Treatment” (and Neil Godfrey’s post about it)?

Tim replied

Tim O’Neill says:

Yes. Note my addendum to my article above, which addresses Myers’ response. I pay no attention to Ol’Grandpa Godfrey though – he and the other jabbering boneheaded contrarians who gather in his little Treehouse Club for fringe weirdos are not worth the time.

 

PZ Myers on “the Tim O’Neill Treatment”: Jesus Mythicism and Historical Methods

PZ Myers has responded to some points by Tim O’Neill about the question of the historicity of Jesus and historical methods — Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment — and I cannot help but adding my own sideline remarks here. Perhaps it’s because I have only just a few hours ago completed a fascinating book by a French scholar that I did not know when I started reading would come to the conclusion that Christianity did not begin with a historical Jesus. But most interestingly his argument for Christian origins was commended as worthy of study by none other than Jacob Neusner. (I will be posting about his work soon.) I have not read Tim O’Neil’s post, only PZ’s, so it’s only a few points raised by the latter that I cover here.

PZ quotes and discusses the following passage from Tim’s post:

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.

This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.

On the first paragraph, I am not sure that it is correct to charge that “mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition — that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed.” Several mythicists authors I have cited certainly came to that conclusion through an analysis of the evidence but I don’t know which mythicist authors Tim has in mind whom he believes “base their supposition” on the existence of a form of early Christianity that lacked an idea of a historical Jesus.

The second paragraph, however, is indeed problematic and points to some confusion about the nature of many mythicist arguments and methods.

No, it is simply not the case that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin”. I don’t know that any critical scholar (I am not speaking of apologists) who would say that the four canonical gospels depict a historical preacher. My understanding from reading a good many of them is that they concur that the Jesus of the gospels is a mythical or theological construct. He is certainly not a historical figure. Indeed, they argue that they must look behind the gospels and into inferences about the sources of the gospels to try to find a historical figure who acted more in accord with our understanding of how the world works.

Even most of the letters of Paul posit a Jesus and crucifixion as theological (not historical) constructs. Paul never attempts to “prove historically” that Jesus existed or was crucified. There is a passage (said to be partly inauthentic by some researchers) where he attempts to prove the resurrection by naming persons the readers are supposed to recognize as eyewitnesses. But only apologists would take his testimony as serious historical evidence for the resurrection. Others have argued that there is some kernel of truth behind Paul’s claims about the witnesses to the resurrection in that disciples had visions or became inwardly convicted, etc. But you see the problem for the historian here — we are moving away from the evidence and changing it to say something it doesn’t actually say so that it fits our preconceived model of Christian origins.

So we are reminded of a point that several ancient historians have made when addressing sound methods and that I narrowed down to just one quotation in a post a few months ago. Philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker was addressing the question of whether or not something (in this case a miracle) in the gospels really happened. He explains:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, p. 99

And that hits the nail squarely on the head.

Tim O’Neill appears to be repeating the argument for the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars that is based on a naive reading of the sources: that we should assume they are just as they appear — “biographies”, however exaggerated, of a historical figure. But Tucker is saying that this approach begs the questions. The historian’s first task is to understand why the gospel narratives were written. It is a mistake to simply assume that though they are about a mythical or theological figure and persons who behave most unlike real persons we know from history (even Pilate is depicted as very unlike his portrayal elsewhere) they must nonetheless have originated in history and transmitted through oral retellings until set down by the evangelists. To make that assumption is to sweep aside much scholarship that has indeed suggested other sources for many of the narratives in those gospels, and to sweep aside critical scholarship that has indeed questioned the biographical nature of the gospels. (And there remains the question of how ancient biographies worked anyway since not all of them, despite appearances, are really about historical figures.)

One prominent Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, Philip R. Davies, who was a pioneer of what became known derogatorily as “minimalism” in Old Testament studies — a movement that has continued to gain momentum since the 1990s and many of whose views are now mainstream — wrote the following in one of his last publications:

I … have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . .

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.

The ‘minimalist’ approach he was referring to is nothing other than the way ancient historians (at least the scholarly reputable ones such as Moses I. Finley) work with evidence in fields other than biblical studies. I outlined his starting assumptions and questions on a webpage, In Search of Ancient Israel. I copied the main points of his discussion about faulty assumptions we bring to our reading of the biblical narratives in a blog post, too. Essentially, Davies and those who approached the history of “biblical Israel” in the same way argued that the biblical narratives must not be assumed to be based on historical events, but that such an assumption needs to be tested against other independent data. Archaeological data is not going to help us settle the question of the historicity of Jesus but one can compare other independent texts. Such a comparison will not exclude a comparison with other Greco-Roman literature in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the nature and potential purposes of the gospels. Some biblical scholars have ventured into such comparisons but some have also done so tendentiously. That’s another question that biblical scholars themselves are debating and that needs another post for a thorough treatment.

Here’s how another scholar put it:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

That’s just another way of saying what Aviezer Tucker said:

But this [did this story happen?] is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

And when a scholar sees that the evidence points to the gospels not being more widely known until well into the second century, and that by that time they had been heavily redacted, and that their narratives are clearly influenced by comparable stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and that at key points in their narratives they even appear to be deliberately targeting pre-existing beliefs that their narrative is not grounded in historical memory at all, then that scholar has a challenge ahead.

One more point. I have been attempting to get some handle on the nature of religion itself according to current anthropological and related studies. It has been a fascinating study. One point that has stood out for me is that models of how new religions start or how sects break off from mainstream religions to promote their own rituals and identities is just how infrequently such developments can be attributed simply to the appearance of a charismatic stand-alone figure who becomes the object of worship and co-creator of the universe, and how unreliable mythical explanations for the origins of their rituals and practices ever are.

As PZ Myers rightly points out, it means nothing to an atheist whether or not Jesus existed historically. (Unless the atheist is one of those idiots who likes to just pose nonsense criticisms for the sake of mocking alone.) But grappling with the evidence itself and attempting to assess it with clear-eyed and sound methods is a fascinating exploration.

 


Davies, Philip R. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible and Interpretation. August 2012. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml.

Davies, Philip R. 1992. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Finley, M. I. 1999. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project.

Kosso, Peter. 2001. Knowing the Past: Philosophical Issues of History and Archaeology. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Magne, Jean. 1993. From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Pr.

Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press.

See also posts archived under Ancient Historiography and Greco-Roman Biography


 

A Bedrock Assumption in Historical Jesus Studies

A few months ago I posted about Michael Zolondek’s claims that historical Jesus scholarship uses the same historical methods as those used by other historians. Michael himself responded and I assured him and others that I would return to his book and compare his claims about his methods with the actual processes found in the book. I am finally getting around to returning to that promise. But first I need to refresh my memory on a few things and catch up with certain details. So those further posts I promised are still a few weeks away.

Till then, however, I can say that I have caught up with one important volume Michael cites (p. xiv) as one of a few “useful discussions by historical Jesus scholars on ‘doing history’:

Meyer, Ben F. 2002. The Aims of Jesus: Reprint edition. San Jose, Calif.: Wipf & Stock.

The book was originally published in 1977 and an introduction in the reprint edition by N.T. Wright indicates that it has been very influential among the “less liberal” historical Jesus scholars.

The first of the two parts of Meyer’s book is about hermeneutics and historical methods. What I was looking for in particular was Meyer’s explanation for how biblical or historical Jesus scholars decide what is historical bedrock in the gospels. There is discussion about various criteria and inference and such. That word “inference”, distinct from “proof” or “fact”, reminded me of an objection PZ Myers’ raised in his discussion with Eddie Marcus. It was encouraging to see Meyers acknowledge the place of inference and its meaning in his discussion.

But then I came to a passage that echoed everything I have been come to see in how historical Jesus scholars work, but here it was stated in black and white.

Control of the data requires insight into how the gospel literature refers to the past of Jesus and this must be brought to bear on a mass of detail, repeatedly answering the question, ‘Is this a potential datum on Jesus?’

(Meyer, p. 81, my bolded emphasis)

Did you see it? The historical Jesus historian is required to have insight into how the gospels refer to the past of Jesus. The gospels are assumed to speak about the past of Jesus without question. Why? Presumably because they are a past tense narrative (notwithstanding Mark’s gospel regularly using the present tense). Presumably because they look like historical accounts (notwithstanding their significant departures from other historical accounts of the era). But let’s leave aside the “presumablies” and see what Meyer himself says. At the end of the chapter he spells it out:

Finally, the motives, values, uses, and ulterior purposes of history, be it ever so critical, are themselves metacritical presuppositions. They are not controlled by method but arise from the historian’s intellectual and moral being, and in the end they account more fundamentally and adequately than anything else for the kind of history he produces. For a history of Jesus what counts is especially the stance toward religion and faith.

(Meyer, p. 94, my bolding)

To me, that sounds like Ben Meyer is saying that a Christian historian will necessarily approach the gospels as if they are “obviously” reports of the “past of Jesus” and the task of the historian is to work out how much those gospel accounts have added to or coloured the actual historical past of Jesus.

The possibility that the gospel accounts are not history or not even based on historical events at all never so much as approaches Ben Meyer’s mental horizon. The model that James McGrath used to describe a historical reading of the gospels is affirmed. The gospels are not read as literature but are read as gateways to imagining what happened independently of the narrative.

The assumption that the gospels are some sort of biographies or historical works is a presupposed “fact”. All the historical method discussion, all the discussion about how to determine a historical probable Jesus, is premised on the gospels being reports that are written in such a way that the researcher can validly “see through” their narrative and language and identify some image of historical persons and events. The narrative is assumed to be based on reports or memories of historical persons and events.

When I read the works of classicists and ancient historians I see the same approach to historical narratives only when that approach has been justified by identifications of authorship and provenance, and by independent contemporary verification and/or by identification of relatively reliable historical sources for that narrative. We see none of those things in the case of the gospels.

They Do History Differently There; or, Did Apollonius meet with emperors?

In these dark times when our heads ache from the thunderous reverberations of there is no reason to doubt or we must avoid ‘hyperscepticism’, I felt my soul lifted up and filled with the purest joy when, on turning away from biblical studies publications I picked up a compendium of essays by a classicist and specialist in ancient Greek fiction to see what he had to say about Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana.

It has been easy to dismiss them as unhistorical. There is no external evidence for any contacts between Apollonios and these emperors. The only event of this kind that is confirmed by an historical source (Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.18) is the scene in Ephesus in AD 96 when Apollonios in a vision sees Domitian being murdered in Rome and cries out in triumph (VA 8.26).

(Hägg, pp. 393f)

My god. Tomas Hägg is in a world where independent corroboration is assumed to be necessary in order to confirm the historicity of a text’s narrative.


Hägg, Tomas. 2004. “Apollonios of Tyana — Magician, Philosopher, Counter-Christ. The Metamorphoses of a Life.” In Parthenope, edited by Lars Boje Mortensen and Tormod Eide, 379–404. Museum Tusculanum Press.


How a historian approaches the question of the historical Jesus: concluding the PZ and Eddie Marcus discussion

Previous posts:

  1. PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism (2018-09-05)
  2. How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional? (2018-09-06)
  3. How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical? (2018-09-07)

I have as a rule paraphrased main points that each person spoke in their exchange.

–o–

PZ: You (Eddie) say it is unlikely that anyone would conspire to create a Jesus myth, but compare Mormonism. Joseph Smith invented this “ridiculous past history for the North American continent”. And people believe this.

Eddie: It’s not a question of what people believe. We have to account for the evidence. History of Mormonism would start with historical techniques. So it would start with a real Joseph Smith. And using the tools of history we can analyse the Book of Mormon itself and identify disparate sources and influences.

Comment: I think Eddie has missed PZ’s point here.

–o–

PZ: We can do all of that, yes, but that does not give any credence at all to the mythology that was created and believed.

Eddie: Let’s look at what a historian means by “the historical Jesus”.

— The earliest accounts of Jesus are Paul’s writings. Paul believed “the historical figure of Jesus” becomes Christ, the Messiah, at his death or resurrection.

— Then the gospel writers thought there had to be something more to this Jesus before his death so they created the gospels.

— Mark says it (becomes the Messiah) happened at Jesus’ baptism.

— Then others said it (Messiahship) happened at his virgin birth.

— Then John pushed him right back to the beginning of time/creation.

Such is a linear presentation but in actual fact it would not have been so tidy; rather it would have been different community groups arguing with one another.

The point of this is to split the historical Jesus from the figure of Christ.

So we can account for why we have a virgin birth, using standard historical techniques. It is naive to say that a miracle could not happen so there was no historical person behind the stories. It’s part of an ongoing discussion about at what point Jesus becomes the Messiah.

Comment: Technical point. In Romans 1 Paul writes that Jesus became the son of God at his resurrection, not the messiah or christ then. Same with the gospel writers shifting the moment back further, to baptism, to birth, to the beginning of time. What they were shifting back was when Jesus became the son of God, not messiah.

I take Eddie to be meaning that we can explain why miraculous or mythical stories emerged by means of rival interests and search for deeper meanings etc among the communities following Jesus. He appears to be saying that this is how historians “find” the historical Jesus. They package their historical explanations for the miraculous tales as a narrative and this is the evidence for the historical Jesus. At least this certainly appears to be Eddie’s message later in the discussion.

To say that the narrative itself is “the evidence” sounds a bit like one of the less conservative postmodernist views of what constitutes history. My readings about history and how history is done by historians thankfully assure me that not all historians accept this view.

–o–

PZ: So there could probably be a kernel of truth there but the communities were adding layers of myth to the story.

Eddie: The gospel writers added the myths because of what they meant to convey (though they may have also believed they really happened) — e.g. virgin birth. But that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t really born.

PZ: Granted all of that. But where did the mythmaking start and end, and where was the reality? read more »

How do we approach the question of Jesus being historical or mythical?

Continuing from PZ Myers interviews a historian about Jesus mythicism and How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

–o–

PZ Myers asks: How do we approach this kind of topic?

Eddie Marcus, introduced as a professional historian, responds:

Eddie Marcus informs listeners that his expertise is in Australian culture and history, not first century Palestine. He has a business webpage, History Now, and a blog, Dodgy Perth. His LinkedIn page informs us that he has a BA in history from Cambridge and a Post Graduate Diploma in Cultural Heritage from Curtin University of Technology.

there is a lot of commonality between how science approaches evidence and how history approaches it, and that way we could get there slowly.

Comment: Eddie unfortunately does not explore this “slow” option of determining the historicity or otherwise of Jesus (or any historical figure). This is a significant oversight, in my view, because it is that “scientific approach” that is the one used by the major authors of the Christ Myth theory, in particular Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price. (I am not suggesting that their arguments are infallible; like many scientific approaches they find themselves in need of testing and revision.) It is also the method used by some historical Jesus scholars (e.g. John Dominic Crossan) to reconstruct their interpretation of what Jesus was like. As with any scientific exploration, results will likely vary according to the assumptions underlying one’s starting questions. Carrier’s book on Proving History is one excellent discussion of how a “scientific approach” to history is ideally undertaken. (For anyone who thinks that Bayesian reasoning is not used by historians I recommend a work by the philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker. Bayesian reasoning does not have to involve numbers, by the way. More simply and immediately, one can see how a more valid approach to evidence has been advanced by an Old Testament scholar, Philip R. Davies. Davies, by the way, urged biblical scholars to take up seriously the question of Jesus’ historicity in order to become a more academically respectable guild.

–o–

Top to bottom: Tucker, Davies, Lemche

Eddie refers to the scientific method sets it aside in order to launch instead into the discussion at “the deep end”. How, he asks, does a historian approach “the resurrection”.

But to start at the deep end, consider the resurrection. We have “loads of evidence” about the resurrection. It’s what we do with the evidence that becomes history.

The best evidence Eddie cites (he calls it “amazing” evidence) is our collection of four gospels. They are written, he says,  “comparatively close to the events they say they are describing.”

Most ancient historians would kill for that kind of evidence. I wish I had it for most of the stuff I study.

Comment: Right from the start Eddie jumps in the deep end of biblical scholars’ interpretations and models, bypassing the evidence and methods themselves. It is not a “fact” that the gospels were written “comparatively close” to the events they narrate. Such a claim is an interpretation and one that is grounded in the theological desire to date the gospels as close as possible to Jesus in order to buttress their credibility as historical sources. (Christian theology is for many though not all theologians grounded in belief in historical events: see Nineham.) To see how documents are dated “scientifically” I recommend Niels Peter Lemche’s discussion that I have summarized at Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels. Lemche was referring to Old Testament texts but the same principles apply. Cassandra Farrin set out a comparable set of points to consider in relation to New Testament texts.

It is possible that the four gospels as we know them in their canonical form did not exist until at least the mid second century. I think there are very good reasons for dating our earliest canonical gospel, Mark, soon after the year 70 CE, but there are also very good reasons advanced by some scholars for dating the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles to the mid to latter half of the second century.

But even if the gospels were all written according to biblical scholars’ conventional dates in the last decades of the first century, by the standards of historians of ancient times that does not make them “amazing” or “close” enough to the events narrated to be worth “killing for” (as Eddie says). The highly renowned ancient historian, M.I. Finley, discussed the problems we have with ancient sources that I think many New Testament scholars would profit from reading: An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally. Ancient historical works are of value to the extent that their sources and provenance can give the modern scholar some degree of confidence in their reliability. In the case of the gospels we have no information about their provenance (only speculations) or their sources (only the hypothesized oral tradition). See, for example, Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons.

If the only evidence Eddie had for an historical figure said to have existed forty years earlier, and the story was riddled with tales of the fabulous, and their was no way to identify its author, then I do not believe Eddie would consider such evidence as having any worth as testimony for the historicity of that person at all. This would be especially so if he found on closer inspection that that story (or “biography”) could be seen to have adapted many phrases and motifs from Alice in Wonderland.

–o–

Eddie describes the gospels as biographies.

He further says that we know exactly why Luke wrote his gospel because he tells us so in his preface: it is to assure Christians of the origin stories that justify their rituals, like the eucharist and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. read more »

How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

PZ Myers is a biologist with a curiosity about how historians determine whether a person appearing in ancient records is considered historical or otherwise. He asks:

How does one assess people and events that are contradictory, vague or preserved only in stories passed on by word of mouth?

And many more, including surveys of works by leading specialists in oral traditions such as Jan Vansina.

But if we are to ask PZ’s question as a lead in to the Jesus myth debate then it is worth pausing and taken one step back first.

Contradictory accounts? Yes. The gospels are certainly contradictory accounts of Jesus.

Vague? Yes. Some of the earliest statements about Jesus, such as some in Paul’s letters, are certainly vague.

Preserved via word of mouth before being written in the gospels? That is the general idea we encounter whenever we pick up a study of gospel origins. But how do we know that the gospel narratives were picked up from oral reports?

The reason we think they were is because this is what the stories in the gospels and Acts implies. The stories tell us that Jesus’ followers went out preaching after the resurrection, and since the first gospels were written by a subsequent generation we assume “the obvious” — that the material for these stories came to the authors from word-of-mouth preaching and traditions. But recall how this model of how the stories came to be known is circular by both New Testament and Old Testament scholars alike. We saw how the late Philip Davies pointed out this circularity with respect to the Old Testament accounts: “How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”. We have also seen New Testament scholars acknowledge the same difficulty with respect to the gospels: It all depends where one enters the circle.

Yes, there is a passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that speaks of a teaching being passed on, orally, about the resurrection. Nonetheless Paul also speaks of learning his “truth” through visions and the scriptures without owing any debt to a fellow human.

The truth is that the idea that oral tradition lies behind the gospels is a hypothesis. It is not a fact. Indeed, we have posted at length on the work of two scholars who have questioned that hypothesis: see the Brodie and the Henaut archives.

At the same time I think that surely all critical scholars of the gospels acknowledge that at the very least some of their narratives have been shaped by other literary narratives such as those found in the Jewish Scriptures. Some may add that the literary allusions to, say, Moses and Elijah are ways the authors have chosen to shape stories that originated in oral tradition. That’s fine, too, and it is another hypothesis that we need to consider in the light of the evidence and background knowledge of how Jewish and other authors worked.

It is often heard that the gospels are biographies, even very much like other ancient biographies. So it follows we can treat them as accounts of a genuine person. No, it doesn’t follow, unfortunately, because we even have ancient biographies that appear to be about historical persons but in fact are arguably entirely fictitious. Previous posts have demonstrated that even straightforward biographies of ancient persons, by contemporaries, such as the biography of Demonax, require historians to exercise caution: Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ and Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? Besides, it is not a fact that the gospels are biographies. Other scholars disagree. So it is a hypothesis or an interpretation. There are other interpretations.

All of the above was written to address just a single point in the original question. If anything, I have hoped to point out that even the way we frame our questions can be an indication of our assumptions and therefore influence the answers we might find.

As we posted not so long ago, a philosopher of history reminds us that the real historical question is not: Did this event (e.g. a miracle) happen? But rather, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

So we begin. I will in future posts comment on some of Eddie Marcus’s statements in the light of what various professional historians have written.