Category Archives: Historical Methodology

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

Ruth Morse

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

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

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

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

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

Would a historian ever rely upon suspect sources?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


 

Historians on the Most Basic Laws of Historical Evidence

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

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

Dumville, 55

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

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

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

Dumville, 43

Excavating texts?

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

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

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

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

Comparing hypothetical sources and traditions “behind” biblical texts

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

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

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

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

Semantic seductions

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

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

What they deride as “minimalism” in OT studies

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

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

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

Compare an outsider review of Nazareth archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

The Historian’s Conclusion

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

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

 


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


 

What Is a Historical Fact? – How Historians Decide

Gingerbread vendor (Victorian Picture Gallery)

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

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

(Carr, p. 12)

E. H. Carr

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

Did It Actually Happen? (Getting Muddled with Philosophy)

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

And his evidence?

An eyewitness record, he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of the historian Richard Evans,

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

(Evans, p. 1 f.)

Did It Actually Happen? (Getting Irate with Ideology)

read more »

Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History

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

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

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

Doing History Fearfully or Intelligently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parachuting Before the Plane Takes Off

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

How Long Does Collective Memory Last?

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

The universal decay of collective memory and attention

Or here …. ?

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

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

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

Bible Scholars Who Get History Right

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

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

Philip Davies

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

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

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

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

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

But Davies sees those four assumptions as flawed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solution for Davies?

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

read more »

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

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

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

Anyway, here ’tis:

THE EARLY ORAL TRADITION IN THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

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

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

A Better Way to Date a Biblical Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some tests that need to be applied in this case:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

.

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.

.

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.


 

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.