Category Archives: Exchanges with McGrath

Rules of Historical Reasoning — Still Controversial Among Religion Profs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry”?

Dr. McGrath has taken me to task for my last post on “Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem.” Actually, he’s unhappy about several things. You can tell he’s upset, because he calls me a canard-repeatin’ mythicist. That’s like a Tea Party guy calling you an atheist-Muslim or a communist-Nazi. It’s so bad.

I think I’d rather be called a Jesus minimalist or a Jesus agnostic. But in any case, the issue at hand wasn’t the existence of Jesus but the state of the evidence and what you can and cannot justifiably claim based on that evidence.  Look, I’m willing to entertain the idea that Matthew was embarrassed by what Mark wrote. I don’t think he was, but if you want to argue that, go ahead. But you can’t leap from the theory that Matthew was embarrassed by Mark to the “fact” that the early Church was embarrassed by a historical event.

I gather he didn’t like my crack about quote-fishers either. He thinks I’m doing “some dubious things with Jan Vansina’s work in the realm of oral tradition and history.”  McGrath writes:

The last point is somewhat new and so worth commenting on further. Widowfield suggests that Vansina’s adoption of something like the criterion of embarrassment is radically different than its use by historians working with texts, because in recitations of oral traditions, the embarrassment of the reciter might be seen in their speech and behavior. Historians can respond to this by pointing out that texts too can indicate an author’s discomfort with material, indicating that it did not originate with them. Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition, our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when writing certain things notwithstanding.

First, for clarification, by “historian” I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the theologians and doctors of divinity who write books on the historical Jesus. Jan Vansina, who earned his doctorate in history back in 1957, did in fact write about something that sounds like the criterion of embarrassment. A quote-fisher like McGrath could easily have mistaken it for just the sort of thing that John Meier was talking about in volume 1 of A Marginal Jew.

Are they radically different? Yes, radically and categorically. Here’s why.

read more »

Ongoing Disregard for Facts and Denials of Old Criticisms (yes, McGrath again, sorry)

Dr McGrath, after I demonstrated that he once again claimed a mythicist wrote the opposite of what he really did write, has quaintly responded with a post titled Why Do Mythicists Care So Little About Facts and Details? in which he writes a revisionist account of his original post.

With a beautiful irony McGrath opens with an astonishingly cavalier disregard for the facts and details that both Richard Carrier and I have ever written about scholars such as Thompson and Noll with respect to mythicism:

[Neil Godfrey] repeats Richard Carrier’s claim that mythicism is embraced by individuals like Thomas Thompson (who has distanced himself from mythicism) and Kurt Noll (whose contribution to Is This Not the Carpenter? is rather wonderful and does much to undermine mythicism).

Here was my quote from Richard Carrier:

Combine this with Brodie’s defection to mythicism, alongside Thompson’s, and (like Thompson’s) the publicly professed “historicity agnosticism” of Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD, and Kurt Noll, associate professor of religion at Brandon University, and Ehrman’s argument that only amateurs and outsiders take the Jesus Myth theory seriously is now in the dust. There is still, certainly, a litany of crank and amateur mythicist nonsense. But there is also a serious case to be made, by serious and well-qualified scholars. And they need to be paid attention to, not dismissed and mistreated, their arguments straw manned or ignored.

So McGrath is once again careless with the facts and details. That is not a claim that Thompson and Noll “embrace mythicism”. They do not. Carrier clearly states Droge and Noll are “historicity agnostics”! The point is just as damaging to McGrath’s case, however. They are not viscerally hostile towards the Christ Myth possibility as is McGrath. They acknowledge its plausibility. McGrath can never accept even that much. Never.

I don’t know if Carrier has ever said Thompson “embraces” mythicism. I certainly have never said any such thing. I have always been quite clear about Thompson’s own case. Thompson addresses the nature of the evidence that we rely upon for Jesus and argues for its stereotypical nature. The same type of literature is found elsewhere applied to both historical and mythical figures. Thompson is, as he writes in the very article McGrath hand-waves readers to study (does McGrath ever stop to take note of the detailed contents in any of the citations he hand-waves people to look at?), pointing out that the prevailing assumption of the historicity of Jesus is problematic given the nature of the evidence we have:

I wrote my monograph of 2005 in an effort to explore the continuity of a limited number of themes which were rooted in ancient Near Eastern royal ideology—an issue which is not only marginally related to questions of historicity, but one which also has much to say about the perception of history and historical method among modern scholars. . . . It is a small book, and its ambitions are few: hardly more than to point out that our warrant for assuming the existence of a historical Jesus has important limits.

Yes, his argument has the potential to open up the question of mythicism. But Thompson himself is not addressing mythicism per se. I know his argument reasonably well, I hope, because I believe my own arguments are very strongly influenced by Thompson’s. That’s why I have generally avoided the label “mythicist” for myself.

McGrath’s hyper-sensitivity in this area does not seem to benefit him with any capability of understanding such subtleties.

Er, no, I meant he tried to publish with the wrong companies

In my initial response to James McGrath’s review of Thomas L. Brodie’s Memoir, I zeroed in on a single remark by McGrath that grotesquely misrepresented what Brodie himself explicitly wrote. I explained why I was not writing a comprehensive response at that time and why I chose to single out that one point for attention.

Never learned how to do scholarship

McGrath was trying to establish a point that the reason Brodie’s thesis was not published had to do with unscholarly methods and not its conclusion that Jesus was not an historical person. He needs this to be true to argue a case that the only reason mythicism is rejected is because it is not based on sound scholarship. Hence he stressed:

Brodie indicates that he had this conviction even before he had learned to do scholarship, and that his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes . . . (see the complete sentence below)

But although his idea was concocted prior to his learning how to do scholarship . . .

I recommend that this book be widely read. It illustrates the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism, and the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers, not because there is ingrained antipathy to it in the academy, but because the case for it is based on thoroughly unpersuasive arguments, and the complete disregard for other possibilities, . . .

The book can serve as a warning to young scholars to be open to criticism and feedback (and to more established scholars to provide honest and clear feedback, since I found myself wondering whether anyone actually told Brodie that he was using dubious methods and criteria to produce dubious results).

Specifically, the words of McGrath I was exposing as a blatantly false portrayal of what Brodie himself explained about the reason his manuscript was not published were these:

Brodie indicates that . . . his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes, refusal to accept criticisms of and feedback on his claims and interpretations, and attempting to find a Christian publisher for what he wrote on the subject (pp.32,35,40,42).

All of a sudden, in his second defence of his initial review, McGrath is now telling us that the last line of the above was his main point! Brodie’s real problem was that he was going to the wrong sort of publisher! We will soon see how questionable this take is. read more »

Selective, One-Eyed Responses from Scholars Against Mythicism (SAMs)

The problem with mythicists such as Doherty, Salm, Zindler, Wells, Ellegard, Price is that they engage with the mainstream scholarly literature devoted to studies of Christian origins and the historical Jesus. This poses a problem for anti-mythicist scholars such as Ehrman and McGrath. It forces them to do two things:

  1. Accuse the mythicists of dishonesty because they dare cite works that are not written by mythicists when they find in those works some point that they believe supports their case;
  2. Argue against mythicism by means of just one particular argument as if the many opposing viewpoints of their own peers simply do not exist. That is, they must suppress the fact that there are mainstream scholars who do support some particular details found in mythicist arguments.

The fallacious charge of dishonesty

I addressed #1 only recently at Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman so won’t repeat myself here. I will add a brief note from Richard Carrier’s list of axioms of historical method:

Axiom 12: When one of us cites a scholar, it should only be assumed we agree with what they say is essential to the point we cite them for. (p. 34 of Proving History)

What happens is that when, say, Earl Doherty cites scholarly works supporting his view that 1 Corinthians 2:8 was originally understood by Paul to mean demons were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, hostile critics retort that those same scholars also argue that they crucified Jesus by proxy, that is, through the Romans. They certainly do, and it is well understood that they do since it is well understood that Doherty is arguing a position against the views of the general scholarly community. It is clear and obvious to everyone that those scholars are not also mythicists. In their attempts to disallow Doherty the right to use scholarly views to support any point at all he is making in his argument for mythicism they accuse him of being dishonest by quoting scholars who do not agree with his larger point. (See Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman for details.)

There’s a converse to this. Carrier expands on this axiom from that converse position. One might call it the fallacious charge of gullibility, but Carrier calls it the baggage fallacy:

This kind of ‘baggage’ fallacy (often deployed as a variety of the text-book fallacy of “poisoning the well”) is common enough to warrant particular condemnation. In fact, I see this fallacy committed so regularly, so widely, by accomplished scholars who ought to know better, that I feel the need to call particular attention to it now, in the hopes it will forestall a repeat performance. If you cite a scholar as proving point A, and that same scholar also argues B, but B is not necessary to A, then it is a fallacy for anyone to assume you agree with B, and a fallacy to employ this assumption to argue that if B is not credible then A is not credible. I call this the ‘baggage’ fallacy because it amounts to saddling an author with all the ‘baggage’ attached to the scholar he cites or the views he defends, when such attachment is neither entailed nor warranted. Just because I take certain positions or arrive at certain conclusions is no excuse to impute to me all the baggage that is usually supposed to come along with those positions or conclusions.

For example, when I argue a point (such as that distinct elements of Osiris cult can be seen in early Jesus cult), it might be assumed I agree with something else that supposedly goes along with this (such as that all elements of Osiris cult were present in early Jesus cult, or that Jesus is merely Osiris under another name, of that Christians just “borrowed” and “revamped” an Egyptian religion). That would be mistaken. . . . The same fallacy also results when I agree with something a particular book said, or cite it as a reference of importance on a specific subject, and then it’s assumed I agree with everything that book said or its author elsewhere defends. (p. 35)

Selective rebuttals read more »

Leap of Faith or Failure of Reason?

English: Jump from Nevis Bungee Platform near ...
Image via Wikipedia

Accommodating the unaccommodatable

I was taken aback when I saw that the pingback on my previous post, Miracles and Historical Method, was from the Doctor of Whoville. Since we know McGrath doesn’t read Vridar, somebody must have told him about it.

I kid. We love the good doctor. Salt of the earth and all that. So what’s happening over on the Matrix? Sure, he’s peddling his latest book, but the subtitle is “What Does History Have to Do with Faith?” so I guess the pingback is legit. In yesterday’s post, Demolishing and Reconstructing the Burial of Jesus (and Christianity Itself), McG asks: “What, in short, should Christianity look like in the aftermath of historical study?”

This subject marginally interests me. I’m curious about religions and what people believe, but the ways in which people accommodate ancient superstition with modern reality makes me uncomfortable. Not that there’s anything wrong with accommodation, it’s just that the part of my life where I tried to salvage the good parts of Christianity in light of — well, in light of reality — is over. The mental gymnastics involved just weren’t worth the effort. It felt too much like keeping two sets of ledgers: one set of books with cooked numbers that add up to God and another set that actually make sense.

Honk if you’re a skeptic

The paragraph that linked to my post reads as follows: read more »

Appeal to Vridar readers re Dr McGrath

Dr McGrath has a bee in his bonnet about mythicism and says a lot of crazy things about it and anyone who presents an argument for it or (in my own case) even presents an argument that leaves room for it as a valid possibility.

This sort of response to my views took me a bit of getting used to and I look back and see there are some things I said or ways I said things that I have come to regret.

It is clear that Dr McGrath relies upon ad hominem, personal attacks and innuendo, to make his case. I cannot say I have always remained patient in all of my responses. Sometimes I have expressed even the mildest sarcasm on his blog and have been met with pounding of reprimand from Dr McGrath for my tone. (Meanwhile, of course, others will stoop to foul language and crude insults against me without a blink from him.)

I think it is important to stand up to Dr McGrath’s fallacies and hold him accountable for his assertions. It is important to have it on record that his claims do not go without a response.

But what I would ask is that, even if it is against our clearest judgement and the facts of the evidence before us, that we refrain from giving Dr McGrath the sort of material that he is eagerly looking for from us — that is, insults in kind, abusive remarks, character attacks. He has said, for example, that he cannot post on this blog because people abuse him. Well, I don’t think that was the case at all, nor is it the real reason.

Let the records and the evidence speak for themselves. We need do nothing more than argue the case, present the evidence, and let others draw their own conclusions about his character and integrity.

The main reason is not so much for the benefit of any exchanges with Dr McGrath — he will never change his spots no matter what. But to me it is important that this blog be seen as a reasonable and professional sounding voice in the debate in the wider community.

I don’t, however, reject any good-natured humour or satire. Dr McGrath is not averse to  having a laugh at mythicists from time to time and I am sure he is big enough to laugh at his own side of the fence with good natured comedy, too.

I know I have said things I regret and cannot make promises for the future. But I’d like to try anyway.

And I’m glad that there has been very little personal attack on Dr McGrath on this blog. I’m sure we can keep it that way.


Dr. McGrath’s Carnival Game

“Step right up and win a plush toy for the little lady. Step right up!”

Ring Toss
Ring Toss (Photo credit: burakiewicz)

Have you ever gone to the carnival and tried your hand at the ring toss? Ever tried to pop the balloons with a dart, or knock over the milk bottles with a ball? And did you come away suspecting the game was rigged?

Well, odds are the game was rigged. In some cases the game operator can tinker with the target, give you a sharper dart or a larger ring – he can let you win whenever it suits him. However, in other cases, you’re never going to win. It looks as if you could win, but it’s impossible. It’s rigged.

Sometimes real life is like that. It appears as if you could win the argument, or at least get a fair hearing, as long as you could just tick the right number of boxes, develop that airtight case, build on the most relevant scholarship, use the most felicitous language. But you can’t win. The game is “gaffed.”

If you visit McGrath’s carnival, “Exploring Our Matrix,” don’t expect to bring home a teddy bear. The rules won’t allow it. Step right up and read Creationists, Mythicists, and the Schroedinger’s Scholar Fallacy, and you’ll see what I mean. Do you question the validity of the historical Jesus consensus? Then you’re already wrong. What’s that you say? You say you’ve read a whole lot, and while you respect the mainstream scholars, you disagree? Well, you see, that’s not your prerogative. That’s off the table. read more »

I ask the following directly to Dr. McGrath in all sincerity

I am copying Tim’s comment on a recent post here as a post in its own right.

Some interesting backpedaling today on Exploring Our Matrix . . .


“But as yet, the Vridar crowd have not pointed out any errors. What they have pointed out is that I did not adopt the view of the Documentary Hypothesis advocated by either Wellhausen or Friedman, which of course is typical of the crowd that gathers on that blog: they read at most a few scholars, and treat the ones they like as normative and anyone else as making mistakes or having misunderstood because they disagree with or view things differently than those few scholars the Vridar crowd has read or approves of.

There’s a lot here to unpack. But before I analyze the insults, I will at his insistence enumerate the good doctor’s errors:

McG’s Error 1:

For me, the strongest support for the Documentary Hypothesis’ distinction between sources based on different ways of referring to God comes from the Psalms, specifically Psalm 14 and Psalm 53. If you read them both side by side, you’ll see that they are both essentially the same psalm, the only major difference being that one addresses God using the divine name YHWH, and the other does not.

This is clearly wrong, because neither E nor P has an enduring preference for Elohim over Yahweh. As I’ve said at least three times now, the importance of the divine name in the Pentateuch is when it becomes known to humankind. For example, after the revelation of the divine name, the E source switches over comfortably to YHWH. For example in Exodus 4:11 (from the E source), God is angered that Moses offers the feeble excuse that he can’t speak in public because of his “heavy tongue”:

11. And the LORD [YHWH] said unto him, Who has made man’s mouth? or who makes the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD [YHWH]? (KJV)

According to the DH, the community that produced the Elohist tradition believed in YHWH, worshiped YHWH, and called God YHWH. However, they believed that the name “Yahweh” was unknown until it was revealed to Moses.

McG’s Error 2:

I don’t see any way of accounting plausibly for these two psalms being part of this collection other than in terms of there being different groups, or regions, or kingdoms, which had different preferences regarding how to refer to and address God. And that makes it seem plausible to account for the different passages in the Pentateuch which refer to God in different ways in terms of those same distinct traditions or groups.

Again, within the Pentateuch both P and E use Elohim from the Creation until the Burning Bush. So there are great chunks of the patriarchal narrative in which Elohim is used. The group that copied and saved Psalm 53 appears to have changed YHWH to Elohim, but this very likely happened well after the United Monarchy but before the collection of the Ketuvim.

According to Eerdmans Commentary (p. 376):

“The variations [between Psalm 14 and Psalm 53] indicate different transmission processes and different traditions, which have resulted in the two psalms being included in different collections of the psalter.”

The evidence, then, indicates that some particular group at some undefined time preferred to use Elohim liturgically vs. Adonai (YHWH). But this redaction likely occurred in the exilic or post-exilic period, not in the fictional time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact at least one commentator (W.O.E. Oesterley) thinks Psalm 53 comes from the later Greek period.

Incidentally, the first commenter on Exploring Our Matrix brought up the Elohistic Psalter. It’s unfortunate that nobody seemed to pick up on that term. Without going too far down the rabbit hole here, it’s interesting to read the different theories on the explanations of the variations in the different collections. But I think we’re far from seeing any kind of consensus that explains all the related phenomena. I’ve only recently come upon Goulder’s books on the Psalms, and they’re really fascinating.

McG’s Error 3:

What is significant about these two psalms (which are put to notirious [sic] use nowadays by some Christians) is that they provide corroboration external to the Pentateuch for differing traditions which resemble and presumably bear some relation to the traditions that produced and passed on the different Pentateuchal sources.

This is the same error as Error 1, but repeated for effect. Even if we were to accept Goulder’s theory that Psalm 53 is older than Psalm 14, it’s the process of textual transmission to a later period that accounts for the change to YHWH. For by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah the use of Yahweh was clearly dominant.

McG’s Error 4:

I think some may be forgetting that the P source, which is generally dated late, perhaps exilic or postexilic, had a preference for the use of Elohim, i.e. referring to God rather than using the name Yahweh.

The P source had no preference for the use of Elohim. It merely carried on the conceit that the name YHWH was unknown until the revelation to Moses in Exodus 3. After the revelation, YHWH is used freely. You needn’t take my word for it; you can read it for yourself. Try to count how many times in Leviticus the P source says certain laws must be followed because, “I am YHWH.”


Now to the question of verbal abuse

Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament, and Eminent Blogger has some choice words for anyone who posts on Vridar. I suppose that would include me. read more »

Theologians Reject Basics of History: A Way Forward

Reproduction of a coloured copperplate engraving of the Czech edition of a book by German theologian and historian Heinrich Bünting
From Czech Parliament: I can forgive a historian cum theologian who makes Prague the centre of the world

Edited conclusion and added the last paragraph since first posting this.

This is not about mythicism versus the historicity of Jesus. It makes no difference to me if Jesus was a revolutionary or a rabbi, lived 100 b.c.e., 30 c.e. or was philosophical-theological construct. All of that is completely irrelevant for assessing the validity of the fundamentals of how historians [ideally/should] work with sources. From what I have read of mythicist literature I think that few mythicists are any more informed of the basics of how a historian ought to approach sources than are most theologians and other historical Jesus scholars. Theologians have taken the lead in biblical studies and others approaching this field have fallen in step with the methods they have bequeathed.

Unfortunately theologians generally have the most to lose ideologically from any change in their methods and so are likely to be the most antagonistic to any criticism of their methods that comes from outside their guild. Not that valid historical methods will necessarily mean the demise of the historicity of Jesus. Far from it! But I do believe that valid historical methods will at least open up the question to potentially greater respectability; they will also make greater intellectual demands on theologians to justify their hypotheses and assumptions. Maybe there lies the great fear.

Recently I have posted a few extracts from historians giving basic advice on how historians should approach their sources. “From Reliable Sources” by Howell and Prevenier looks primarily (not exclusively) at written sources and Vansina is an authority on history derived from oral sources. Since I placed these quotations beside those of a theologian who asserts strenuously (though consistently with zero supporting evidence) that theologians do just what other mainstream historians do, I was accused of misrepresenting both the historians’ works I quoted and his own words that I quoted in full. It was even suggested I had not even read the books along with the sly hint that since I was a “lowly librarian” I was not qualified to quote anyone or comment on an academic question anyway. Such are the cerebral (intestinal?) responses from those who reluctantly look into a verbal mirror placed before them by one whose otherwise unrelated conclusions they despise (fear?).

The touchstone of all historical interpretation of a source is knowing its provenance. Yet this is the first hurdle historical Jesus scholars crash into. Historical Jesus scholars bypass the basic standards historians normally apply when approaching their sources and rely entirely on circular reasoning to establish what they need to support their hypotheses.

Let’s look again at what are the basics any historian worth his or her salt should first establish in order to know how to interpret a document and understand what sort of information can be validly gleaned from it.

Two caveats to the above, though.

  1. An increasing number of scholars, no doubt theologians among them, are now embracing valid historical methodology in relation to the Old Testament.
  2. Further, there are good histories and bad histories, diligent historians and lazy historians. My yardstick in this post for what constitutes good history is taken from works I have discussed in recent posts — an introduction to graduate students about to undertake serious historical research and various editions of an authority on oral history.

Certain Basic Matters

Here is some of what I quoted from Howell and Prevenier in my earlier post:

In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. (p. 43, emphasis mine)

What are some of these basic matters? They explain: read more »

Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part ...
Oral performance of an epic poem.

Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!

I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:

Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]

You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: read more »

Confessions of a Theologian — Bible scholars really do do history differently

Recently a theologian helpfully advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work generally in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles as applied by historians generally. So I did. I shared what I read there about the basics of how historians ought to approach their documents in How Historians Work – Lessons for historical Jesus scholars.

The same theologian was even kind enough to subsequently recommend that I read a work by oral historian Jan Vansina in order to understand that historians “adapt” or “refine” standard principles in order to make them fit the special requirements where, say, written sources are very scarce. The point of this exercise was for me to learn that if I see theologians using something not exactly the same as I see in other history books, then I was to understand that if historians do not have a rich abundance of written materials they do indeed “refine” or “adapt” principles so that they can work with that scarcity of evidence.

So I did that, too. I chose Jan Vansina’s “Oral Tradition as History” (1985) and his earlier “Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology”.

Before I continue I should say that the idea that any historian “refines” basic methods such as “external attestation” or the need to establish provenance before knowing how to interpret a text for certain types of historical information quite confused me.  My own understanding has always been that historians merely limit and change the questions they can ask so that the tried and true tools they use can still be used validly. They don’t “refine” their tools to enable them to get more answers than the sources would otherwise allow. That has certainly been my understanding as a student of both ancient and modern history. From my experience there is nothing different in principle at all — no refinements or adaptations of what are really basic logical “tools” — but only the fact that historians of ancient times can never hope to know the sorts of details about events or people as they can know for the well-documented recent past.

But the theologian insisted I was in the wrong and that if I read Vansina I would see that historians do indeed “refine” and “adapt” their methods to fit their “needs”. They are applied differently, he has said.

So I approached Vansina with interest to see if there was something I had missed and needed to learn. Here are a few excerpts from what I read. read more »

How Historians Work — Lessons for historical Jesus scholars

Recently a theologian kindly advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work (specifically to read chapter one of From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods by Martha Howell & Walter Prevenier) in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles that all other historians generally use.

As I recall, after the last time you claimed . . . that New Testament scholars working on historical questions use different methods than other historians, or that I had failed to adequately articulate my methods and those of the guild, I referred you to Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources. Chapter One would serve you well, and get you clued in on the basics that seem to still elude you. (Comment by Dr James McGrath)

But chapter one addresses only the nature of what is widely called “primary sources” by historians (archaeological remains and direct testimonies, including oral reports. This chapter focusses

exclusively on the type of resources that most other research guides call primary sources. (From Review by Ronald H. Fritze in The Sixteenth Century Journal XXXIII/4 (2002), p. 1248)

This is the very evidence we lack for historical Jesus studies.

But chapter two does indeed address in detail how historians should approach the written sources (in this case “secondary sources”) we do have for Jesus.

Misunderstood lesson from Chapter One

Unfortunately my theologian advisor had not read chapter two and insisted that it really was chapter one that I needed to read because, he explained, it mentioned “oral traditions”. Sorry, sir, but that chapter does not as far as I can see use the phrase “oral traditions”, though it does speak of orality as a primary source — that is, it refers to genuinely oral communication as heard by the researcher in the here and now. The chapter thus refers to “oral reports”, “oral evidence”, “oral sources”, “oral communication”, “oral acts”, “oral witnessing”.  HJ scholars do not have any evidence like this for Jesus. The early Christian evidence is all written and literary, not oral, and it is all secondary, not primary. If there had been any oral reports relaying the narratives of Christianity before the Gospels appeared they are all lost now and researchers must rely upon secondary written evidence alone. They may attempt to uncover what they believe are “oral traditions” behind that secondary written source but that is not the type of primary “oral source” that Howell and Prevenier (H&P) are discussing in chapter one. The only sources available are written and secondary.

But even here in this discussion of primary sources a critical principle is stressed: read more »

A rational foundation for investigating the mythicist (and Christian origins) question

I have been attempting to engage a biblical scholar in a discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of how historians can know if an event or person in ancient times were truly historical or a mere fiction.

Here was my initial proposition:

The theoretical underpinning of the historicity or factness of the contents of any report, document or narrative is that those contents can at some level be independently corroborated. This is a truism we learned as children: don’t believe everything you hear. This theoretical principle operates in our legal systems, in our media reporting culture, in our research investigations, in our everyday lives.

Let’s take a birth certificate as a case study. This contains information about the parents and birth time and place of a person, but also official seals or stamps and logos and names of the issuing authority in order to establish its authenticity. People who invented birth certificates recognized the need for independent corroboration of the contents contained in it, so they decided to add all this sort of information to it to make it more than just a blank piece of paper (that anyone could have written) saying so and so was born to x and y at this place here, etc.

Now let’s take the Romance of Alexander as another example. read more »

“Rulers of this age” and the incompetence of the historicist case against mythicist arguments

It is a sad thing to see scholars who are doctors and associate professors and holders of chairs demonstrate a complete muddleheadedness and inability to grasp the simplest of logical arguments when attempting to gainsay mythicist challenges to the historical Jesus paradigm.

One such scholar continues to insist that Earl Doherty has constructed an argument from a false antithesis: t0 the best of my understanding — and I have asked the scholar many times to clarify his position — Doherty is said to argue that 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 must mean

  1. EITHER that earthly rulers killed Christ
  2. OR that demons themselves directly killed Christ
  3. so the possibility that the verse means demons influenced human rulers to do the dirty deed must be excluded. read more »