Category Archives: Historical Methodology


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

by Tim Widowfield

Herod the Great

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

Criteria of authenticity

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

Memory theory

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

Clear glass or stained glass windows

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

Digging for that pot of gold

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

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

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

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





The “Nugget” Theory

by Neil Godfrey

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

Sometimes, however, we find that a scholar writes history

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

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

Chester G. Starr



Can we extract history from fiction?

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

by Neil Godfrey

Moses I. Finley (1912-1986)

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

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

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

Vridar and related discussions of Maurice Goguel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

read more »


Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

Do independent contemporary sources decide the question?

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

Does fictional storytelling decide the question?

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

Does an eyewitness claim decide the question?

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

Do independent references decide the question?

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

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

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

Does the function of the biography decide the question?

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

Back to that question about independent contemporary sources

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


Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?

by Neil Godfrey

If the Life of Aesop is riddled with obvious fiction yet it is concluded that Aesop really existed, what does Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) do with the question of the historicity of Demonax, a figure whose biography contains only sober and believable accounts and is said to have been written by an eyewitness? Ironically, Hägg is far less confident that Demonax is historical than he is about Aesop!

You can read the Life of Demonax by Lucian at the sacred-texts site. (It is fewer than 4000 words.)

To begin Hägg addresses doubts among some scholars that Lucian was the real biographer. Life of Demonax does not have the same cutting, satirical tone as his other biographies, but actually approaches Demonax reverentially and creates an idealized portrait. However, on the strength of the attestation Hägg accepts Lucian as the genuine author.

Lucian states that he has two reasons for writing about Demonax:

This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view:

  • first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies;
  • and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers.

Continuing with Hägg:

Demonax’ background is rapidly sketched . . . His ‘urge to noble things and innate love for philosophy from early childhood’ is stated, but there is no actual account of that childhood; nor is his physical appearance described here or elsewhere in the Life. His blameless life and exemplary honesty are lauded, as is his excellent education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. As a philosopher, he is a professed eclectic. He has most in common with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope . . . but is described as an unchangingly polite and social person who lacks both Socrates’ irony and Diogenes’ exhibitionism — in short, we are made to understand, a godlike (isotheos) man. . . . (p. 295)

Certainly an idealized portrait. And short on specifics to demonstrate the idealized qualities.

The first description of a specific event in Demonax’s life comes three pages in, with his trial:

It starts in the same mode: ‘So it was that all the Athenians, from the populace to the magistrates, admired him tremendously and never ceased regarding him as a superior being (tina tōn kreittonōn)’; but then some critical words are unexpectedly heard. Like a second Socrates, Demonax is brought to court because he has caused offence to and incurred hatred from the common people . . . through his Cynic . . . ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘licence’, and his . . . ‘independence’. Men similar to Anytus and Meletus (the accusers in Socrates’ trial) charge him with not taking part in the sacrifices or letting himself be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He manages, however, to refute the accusations by using his habitual outspokenness and wit . . . and the Athenians, who had first been prepared to stone him, ‘from that time showed him honour, respect, and eventually admiration’. (pp. 295f)

One sees in the above account several features that may well justify our asking questions about the genuineness of the narrative: the evident influence of the trial of Socrates, again the idealizing portrait and the most remarkable turnabout of the Athenians from being ready to execute him to admiring him.

The literary structure of the Life is also addressed: read more »


Did Aesop Exist?

by Neil Godfrey

Short answer, the one I would give if I had to bet my house on being right: I don’t know.

Short answer, but one I would offer at no risk of damages to myself if I am wrong: Probably.

In two recent posts I was commenting on thoughts arising as I was reading about the Life of Aesop in Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity (2012). I first learned about the Life of Aesop in another work, one exploring the origins of gospel genre, The quest of the historical gospel: Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre by Lawrence M. Wills (1997): Wills does not suggest that the Gospels of Mark and John (the two canonical gospels most similar to Life) borrowed from or were influenced by the Life of Aesop, but that the gospel genre was derived from a type of narrative about hero-cults of which Life and the gospels are examples. Both kinds of literature told the tale of a hero founder of a cult who

  • is introduced to the narrative as an adult (no birth or childhood details)
  • undergoes a dramatic change in personal identity or abilities and role (baptism and the Holy Spirit; being miraculously given the gift of speech)
  • tells a long tale of short episodes in which the hero challenges those about him and “turns the world upside down” with his superior wisdom and parables or fables
  • is often described through the literary technique of inclusio or sandwiching one story between two parts of another
  • travels to the site of a major national temple (Jerusalem, Delphi)
  • offends hearers by his “truth telling”
  • utters parables or fables to convey lessons for his audiences, some of them condemning his hearers
  • is condemned for blasphemy and arrogant claims
  • was such a help to others with his wisdom but cannot save himself
  • is condemned to execution, and so dies

After the deaths of both Jesus and Aesop many people are remorseful and a cult was established in honour of the wronged hero. Both Life and the gospels are believed to have been written around the same time — the first century CE or possibly second century CE.

It is little wonder, then, that Wills begins his discussion with

The most important novelistic biography for the comparison with the gospel genre is the anonymous Life of Aesop. (Wills, 1997. p. 23)

If we are doing comparisons one question that will interest many of us will be just how historical the respective narratives are. I won’t attempt to discuss that question in relation to the gospels and Jesus in this post for obvious reasons, so let’s look at Aesop. Wills is looking at origins of gospel genre but Tomas Hägg gives us a more comprehensive survey of Life as an ancient biography so from this point on I rely upon Hägg. read more »


Catchup — for you latecomers the history-basics lecture

by Neil Godfrey

Just for the record and for easy future reference I want to post here two more points Leopold von Ranke is famous or infamous for as the “father of modern history”. Not that this is some mere antiquarian interest on my part; my real interest is in the way historical studies are practised in biblical studies, especially in relation to the historical Jesus and Christian origins but also with respect to history behind the Old Testament — and very often in these discussions quite misinformed references are made by postmodernists to the legacy of Ranke and the way history was supposedly done before Hayden White.

The formatting, insert and emphasis is my own:

Ranke’s contribution to historical scholarship was threefold.

Finally, in tracing the beginnings of the opposition of a political party in Germany against the Emperor and of an ecclesiastical party in Europe against the Pope, this chronicle seeks to pave the way for a more complete insight into the history of the great schism brought about by the Reformation. . . . This book tries to comprehend in their unity all these and the other related histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples. To history has been given the function of judging the past, of instructing men for the profit of future years. The present attempt does not aspire to such a lofty undertaking. It merely wants to show how it essentially was (wie es eigentlich gewesen).

But from what sources could this be newly investigated? The foundations of the present writing, the origins of the subject matter, are memoirs, diaries, letters, reports from embassies, and original narratives of eyewitnesses. Other writings were considered only when they seemed either to have been immediately deduced from the former or to equal them through some kind of original information . . . .

— From Ranke’s Preface to the First Edition of Histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples, October 1824. (Translator, Georg G. Iggers.)

First, he helped establish history as a separate discipline, independent from philosophy or literature. ‘To history,’ he wrote in the preface to one of his works, ‘has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened.’ This last phrase is perhaps Ranke’s most famous, and it has been widely misunderstood. The German phrase which Ranke used –Wie es eigentlich gewesen’ – is better translated as ‘how it essentially was’, for Ranke meant not that he just wanted to collect facts, but that he sought to understand the inner being of the past.

One sees this misunderstanding painfully repeated over and over among biblical scholars who think they are denigrating an approach to history they believe to be old-fashioned yet which they really seem to scarcely understand at all first hand. They scoff at the notion that the old “positivists” thought they could just find and record “the facts” while they, the more sophisticated moderns, on the other hand, more modestly admitted they could only deal in “probabilities”, what “probably happened”, not “facts” or “what actually happened”. There is a deep misunderstanding here that I will cover in future posts. Suffice to say for now that I don’t think very many biblical scholars will be content to yield genuine room for doubt by declaring “Rome probably ruled the Mediterranean world” at the time of Jesus; or that Rome “probably destroyed Jerusalem in the war of 66-70 and Josephus probably wrote an account of that war”; or that “Jesus probably existed and was was probably crucified”…..

Next, we come to Ranke’s second “contribution” that does indeed enter the nebulosity of divine territory, but we have an interesting teacher in Richard Evans and he turns the lemon into lemonade for our benefit:

In pursuit of this task, said Ranke, the historian had to recognize that ‘every epoch is immediate to God.’4 That is, God in His eternity made no distinction between periods of history; all were the same in His eyes. In other words, the past could not be judged by the standards of the present. It had to be seen in its own terms. This was the second major contribution which Ranke made to historical scholarship: the determination to strip away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past by philosophizing historians such as Voltaire and to reveal it in its original colours; to try to understand the past as the people who lived in it understood it, even while deciphering hieroglyphs of interconnectedness of which they had been largely unaware.

One conclusion that followed from this doctrine was that at any given time, including the present, whatever existed had to be accepted as divinely ordained. Ranke was a profoundly conservative figure, who equated the actual and the ideal and regarded the European states of his day as ‘spiritual substances … thoughts of God’.5 This distanced him from the Prussian school of German historians, from nationalists such as Treitschke, who condemned his impartiality and regretted his universalism. The fact that he regarded all states, not just Prussia, as supreme examples of God’s purposes working themselves out on earth, gave him on the other hand a reputation for impartiality that greatly helped the spread of his influence abroad.6

Evans, Richard J. In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 416-436). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

Hence our need to guard against the all-too-easy tendency to interpret the past through the way we perceive our own world today. read more »


The Basics of History — They’re Still the Basics

by Neil Godfrey

Richard J. Evans (Wikipedia)

Postmodernism has been making its inroads into historical Jesus studies with what I think are most convenient results. This post is a plug for the old-fashioned rules for the proper way to do history. We can’t get any more old-fashioned than the nineteenth century founder of modern history, Leopold von Ranke, who has become a byword in many circles for doing history badly. It’s been a long time since I’ve discussed his contribution to historical studies and their relevance to biblical studies in particular so let’s do another post now. Previously I deferred to the Old Testament biblical scholar Niels Peter Lemche’s for the positives that Ranke still necessarily offers the modern historian. This time I’m inviting the modern historian (a specialist on Hitler’s Germany), Richard J. Evans, to take the floor.

We’re a bit late for the start of his talk because he’s already into the third significant contribution Ranke made for the modern study of history.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Ranke introduced into the study of modern history the methods that had recently been developed by philologists in the study of ancient and medieval literature to determine whether a text, say of a Shakespeare play or of a medieval legend like the Nibelungenlied, was true or corrupted by later interpolations, whether it was written by the author it was supposed to be written by, and which of the available versions was the most reliable. Historians, argued Ranke, had to root out forgeries and falsifications from the record. They had to test documents on the basis of their internal consistency, and their consistency with other documents originating at the same period. They had to stick to ‘primary sources’, eyewitness reports and what Ranke called the ‘purest, most immediate documents’ which could be shown to have originated at the time under investigation, and avoid reliance on ‘secondary sources’ such as memoirs or histories generated after the event. Moreover, they had to investigate and subject to the critical method all the sources relating to the events in which they were interested. They should not be content, as for example Gibbon had been, to rely on printed documents and chronicles generally available in libraries. They had instead to sally forth, as Ranke did, into the archives, to work their way through the vast unpublished hoards of original manuscripts stored up by the state chancelleries of Europe. Only then, by gathering, criticizing and verifying all the available sources, could they put themselves in a position to reconstruct the past accurately.

The application of philological techniques to historical sources was a major breakthrough. Ranke’s principles still form the basis for much historical research and teaching today. History Special Subjects in many British universities, for example, offer a basic training in source-criticism; students are examined on extracts or ‘gobbets’ from set documents and are expected to comment on them in terms of their internal consistency, their relationship to other documents on the same subject, their reliability and their usefulness as a source. Questions of authenticity and attribution continue to be vitally important in historical research. Forgeries, as the lamentable case of the ‘Hitler Diaries’ showed over a decade ago, are still regrettably common; outright falsification and doctoring of the evidence abound in printed collections of documents and other publications relating to subjects such as the origins of the First World War and the Third Reich. They are even more common in medieval history.

And we know, don’t we, just how prevalent forgeries were in the ancient world, too, right? read more »


Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity, Conference. Some Questions.

by Neil Godfrey

Lectures from the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) have been made available at Biblical Studies Online. I look forward to updating myself with these talks and have already listened with interest to the first two, “The Memory Approach and the Reception of Jesus” by Chris Keith (though read by Steve Walton) and “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi.

Chris Keith’s paper essentially outlined the introductory points he has published previously about the nature of the social memory approach to Jesus studies but with an emphasis on defending the originality of what it has to offer New Testament scholars today. Much of the criticism of memory theory in New Testament studies, he begins, even criticism that has passed through the peer-review process, has been inaccurate. It has mischaracterized what the approach is about and failed to engage with the theory and its methodology.

The main point Keith emphasizes is that past events are not remembered (individually or collectively) in a “pristine” state as if preserved whole in a time capsule for our benefit, but are always remembered through the filters of earlier interpretation of the event that we have inherited and our present interests, needs, circumstances, environmental or cultural influences. As a long-time student of history I see nothing controversial about this statement. It strikes me as little more than a truism for any serious historian.

brueghel_ii_pieter_-_christ_and_the_woman_taken_in_adultery_1600However, I do wonder what such a process of “remembering” means for Chris Keith when he cites as a case study by David Parker(?) the pericope adulterae or passage in the Gospel of John about the woman taken in adultery. The manuscript evidence informs us that this story was not part of the original Gospel yet the story is such a part of our heritage that it inevitably influences the way we read and think about the gospels and the historical Jesus. Knowing that it was not part of the original accounts does not remove its influence over the way we think about Jesus.

I question that claim. If I understand the point correctly, I cannot accept that it is true. Surely scholars have written their own views on the historical Jesus that have no place at all for this story. Traditionally many scholars have attempted to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus entirely by means of comparing data in the synoptic gospels and leaving the entire Gospel of John (not just the pericope adulterae) out of their view completely.

Parker’s (and Keith’s) claim that the story inevitably influences how we think about Jesus is true at a general cultural level; Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman is part of image of Jesus that has come to us through our cultural heritage. But anyone who is interested in a serious study of the gospels by normative scholarly means can indeed construct a “historical Jesus” that allows no place for it.

Or perhaps I misunderstand the point. I am open to being corrected.

Misunderstanding Historical Positivism and Mnemohistory

Later Keith argues that memory theory turns traditional historical positivism on its head. Again, I find myself questioning his presentation. To begin with, he offers what to me is an inadequate definition of what positivism means as an approach by historians to the past. In Keith’s view as I understand it historical positivism is the belief that the historian can and should “get behind the sources” to recover a purely objective truth or fact of what actually happened. From this point Keith argues that since the past must always necessarily be interpreted to be remembered at all, then it can never be “truly objective reality” but always some form of narrated “myth”.

To justify this view Keith refers to the work of Jan Assmann on mnemohistory. I have addressed Jan Assmann’s interest and what he means by mnemohistory in Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies and show why comparing Assmann’s history of how historical figures were remembered with other historical tasks such as understanding, say, the origins of the French Revolution (or the origins of Christianity) is seriously misguided.

What Jesus scholars aspire to do (however unrealistic their hopes) is comparable to what Egyptologists do when they uncover and analyze the data in order to find out as far as possible “what happened” in the days of Akhenaten; Assmann’s interest is entirely different. His mnemohistory is a survey of the various cultural myths that appear to have arisen in the wake of the Akhenaten revolution. The two types of historical inquiry are completely different. Both are valid, but they each have quite different agendas.

To see a fuller explanation of historical positivism and how historians have both embraced and moved away from it see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, originally published 1946 but printed and released many times since.

It seems to me that with an oversimplified view of historical positivism Chris Keith has thrown out the baby with the bath water. Historical positivism originated as an attempt to set historical inquiry on a scientific footing. To this end historians believed that they should first establish the “facts” as a scientist establishes the facts, and from that starting point hypothesize and test laws to explain the relationships between those facts. By turning to Assmann it looks to me as if Keith has begun with a view of history that has no interest in the historical origin of a myth, that is, uncovering “the original facts” (this being considered an impossible quest), but only in the various ways the myth came to be “remembered” and mutated through the generations and again in his own time.

But even when mainstream historians rejected positivism (the belief that they could establish historical laws or principles from “the facts”) they did not reject the belief that they could find some form of real substance or “true events” in the past. Of course everything is necessarily interpreted. That again is a truism that needs no elaboration — at least to most historians I know of. (It only seems to be “big news” among some New Testament scholars, it seems to me.) But interpretation of an event does not mean that the event does not have some form of objective reality. We all have our interpretations of World War 2, of Churchill and Hitler. We cannot avoid them. But that does not remove the possibility of knowing that Churchill and Hitler really did do and say certain things, made certain decisions, and that very real and objective events that we can know about did follow as a result. Yes, we view those events through our interpretations. We know that people in other cultures and nations will have different interpretations, but no-one can deny that certain events are real and really did happen.

If I have misunderstood Chris Keith’s point I am more than willing to be better informed.

The difficulty with historical Jesus studies that has given rise to this misguided view of history as being completely beyond reach is that our earliest sources for Jesus, the letters of Paul, write about nothing but the myth of Jesus. Jesus, and what is sometimes referred to as “the Christ event”, is to Paul an entirely theological construct. The same is true of the later sources, the Gospels.

We only come to historical constructs (as distinguished from theological/mythical ones) in the next lecture in the conference, “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi. However, as we shall see, those earliest historical constructs — the model of Jesus teaching and his words being remembered and passed on in various forms until they are set down in the Gospels — are entirely hypothetical. They are entirely extrapolations from the myth itself.

I suspect Chris Keith would respond by saying that all records of history are by nature, inevitably, some form of myth because they must be interpreted in order to be narrated. My response is that yes, but interpretation does not deny the reality of events or persons. Recall my example above referencing the facts and persons of World War 2. We can know there was a real person Akhenaten and series of events that really happened around him — independently of the myths that those events generated.

It does not logically follow that there was no historical Jesus at the start of it all or that Jacobi’s historical construct is wrong. What does follow, in my view, is that it is pointless to ask questions about what the historical Jesus was like or what he said. We simply have nothing beyond the myths to inform us. The only question that the available evidence allows us to ask, as I see it, is how are we to understand the nature of the earliest evidence and how do we account for its origins.

To answer that the historian needs to inquire into not only the character of the world from which our sources emerged but also into attentive literary, redactional and other analyses that deepen our understanding of the nature of those sources.


Historical Methods: How Scholars Read the Gospels – An Outsider’s Perspective

by Neil Godfrey

Professor James D. Tabor (The Jesus Dynasty) has done his field of biblical studies and, most especially, the wider public a great service by setting out the historical methods by which he and critical scholars more generally approach the gospels. The public deserves to know and the field of biblical studies can only benefit from a more informed public. In Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospel Tabor explains that scholars don’t merely “pick and choose” details in the different gospels according to what they feel supports their theories about the historical Jesus or other questions: they apply critical analysis. Example:

Why do we have differing versions of many of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark . . . ? Rather than picking ones “favorite” version, and using it arbitrarily for ones own purposes, what critical scholars attempt to do is analytically account for the various strands of tradition, carefully comparing the similarities and differences, in an effort to get at why our traditions differ, when and where they originated, and which might more reliably go back to Jesus himself – if such can be determined.

Notice something else, though. The entire explanation is couched in the an assumption that the gospels contain traditions that in some cases and in some form go back to the historical Jesus himself. In fact, one significant purpose of the critical analysis is to discover what gospel material “might more reliably go back to Jesus himself”.

That is, the gospels are assumed to contain records, however flawed, of event or sayings that emanated from Jesus and/or his followers. The gospels are assumed at some level to be based on a “true story”.

Reasonable assumptions

That is a very reasonable position to take. After all, the gospels are written in an authoritative tone from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. The narrative voice conceals the real identity of the true author and in doing so removes any sense that we are reading a narrative limited by human bias and perspective. Of course, scholars especially are keenly aware that the stories are definitely, even inevitably, written from personal perspectives, and that’s the reason for their need to critically analyse their contents. But the problem is we have grown up in a culture that has taken for granted the authoritative character of the Gospels. Western religious and broader cultural tradition is grounded in the assurance that Jesus was the most important influence on our religious ideas and cultural values. To question this “fact” is as crazy as questioning the rotundity of the earth. Institutions have been built on the belief in Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. The “fact of Jesus” and “Gospel Truth” are part of our everyday metaphors and consciousness. Jesus is held up as a legitimizing symbol for a whole range of social, political, ideological causes.

Further, we have the date of the earliest gospel grounded in our conventional understanding:

Mark seems to have been written around 70 CE – within forty years of Jesus’ lifetime.

This is taken as a given, again quite reasonably, because it is a near-consensus among New Testament scholars. There are some outliers who place it considerably earlier, even decades earlier, but most (not all) of those who do so are apologists. Even fewer mavericks place it much later.

The problem is that these assumptions are not facts and really are open to question.

Look first at our assumption about the nature of the Gospels, that they are at some level records of a “true story”. Some scholars have argued that many of the narrative units about Jesus are re-writes of Old Testament passages. The raising of the daughter of Jairus is seen by some to be a re-write of similar miracles by Elijah or Elisha. Other scholars (the best known one is Dennis MacDonald and his The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) have even argued that both anecdotes and entire themes in the Gospels are drawn from popular Greek literature. Now other scholars have challenged such interpretations but the point is that such arguments can be reasonably made by specialists who know their stuff. In other words, it is not a bed-rock unquestionable certainty that what we read in the Gospels necessarily at some level owed its origin to “traditions” that were believed to have come from the historical Jesus.

It is not beyond possibility that at least parts of the Gospels originated as creative writing, as literary inventions. Of course some parts were definitely drawn from genuine historical tradition, too. We know that Pilate really was the governor, etc.

So given such a possibility, how do historians decide what is drawn from “historical memory” or even “historical imagination” on the one hand and “literary creativity” on the other?

This question is going one step further than Tabor has addressed. We are not asking what accounts in the Gospels can be traced to Jesus, but how we can tell if anything in a text owes anything at all to history as opposed to being entirely creative literature.

I believe there are ways. Not ways that will guarantee certainty, but that will certainly give us some measure of confidence one way or the other.

How we can write ancient history — breaking through cultural assumptions

The first is to look for independent corroboration. Some scholars see corroboration for their view that Gospel stories such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter above are literary fabrications by pointing to similar accounts in the Hebrew Bible. The critical point is that the corroborating evidence must be genuinely independent.

A second condition is to look at the provenance of both the narrative under investigation and of the corroborating testimony. Do we have clear reasons to trust that a piece of writing is derived from someone who “knew his history” or at least “the historical traditions”? Or do we have reason to believe the author was creative — for whatever theological or parabolic or edifying or entertainment reasons — from the start? So we may not have contemporary written accounts of Hannibal or Alexander the Great but we do have accounts by persons known who identify their sources from the times in question. Of course in theory they could all be lying, but their accounts do cohere with other evidence we see and do explain a lot about the way we can see the world changed so I think they are entitled to have at some measure of our confidence.

Unfortunately we have no idea who wrote the gospels or why or for whom or when (I’ll discuss the “or when” below). They don’t even identify their sources. The prologue introducing the Gospel of Luke is too vague a formula to be useful, and it is also questionable whether it is even meaning to say what most people seem to think it means. That’s never a good start for any historian. The reason we can write a history of the ancient world is precisely because we do have sufficient sources of the type that can be verified or give us some confidence in their historical reliability (imperfect though it may be). We can talk about Socrates as a historical figure because we do have such evidence for him.

When it comes to the Gospels, however, we have no comparable corroborating evidence nor the sort of information that should assure us that they really are attempts to record historical traditions and memories.

We do have evidence that supports the view that they were cut from the cloth of other literature, however.

The ideological influence on the dating of the Gospels

As for when the first Gospel was written, again we see cultural assumptions guiding our interpretations of the evidence. We assume, as we have always assumed and as everyone around us has always assumed, that at some level they are based on genuine history. Given that we believe this is what the Gospels are, it follows that they become the more reliable the closer we can legitimately place their origin to those historical events.

Therefore when we read about the prediction of the fall of the Jerusalem temple in the Gospel of Mark, it is again reasonable to date that Gospel to some time after that event. But of course we can infer that historical reliability as a rule tends to diminish the further away it is placed from the time it relates. In fact there is no reason I know of (I can be corrected, of course) that the Gospel of Mark might not have been written some time in the early decades of the second century. The earliest independent evidence of its existence appears to be found in a writing by Justin Martyr dated shortly after the Bar Kochba war of the early 130s.

The outsider perspective

James Tabor has done everyone a service by setting out so clearly the critical approaches and assumptions at the core of studies exploring Christian origins. I think we as outsiders can use his post as a springboard to identify more clearly the cultural assumptions embedded in the scholarly methods of critical New Testament scholars.



Anti-Historical History in Biblical Studies

by Tim Widowfield

I came across this today and thought I’d share it with Vridarians. Prof. Steve Mason of the University of Groningen writes:

Especially in biblical and religious studies, whose professors are among those most interested in Roman Judaea, there is a notable tendency to see history as a matter of conclusions or beliefs, no matter how those conclusions are reached. Do you believe that the Pharisees were the most influential pre-70 sect, that there was a standing Sanhedrin, that the James ossuary is genuine or a forgery, or that Essenes lived at Qumran? These kinds of questions one encounters all the time, though it is difficult to imagine similar camps forming in other areas of ancient history: over the reasons for Tacfarinas’ revolt in Africa or debating whether Boudica was motivated more by financial or sexual outrage. I do not know where this inclination comes from, but it seems to me inappropriate to history and indeed anti-historical . . . (Steve Mason, “What Is History?”, emphasis mine)


A Must Read! Steve Mason’s A History of the Jewish War

by Neil Godfrey

mason-warGentle reader, you must promise not to tell my wife what I am about to confess to you. Yesterday I threw thrift behind me and recklessly purchased an electronic copy of A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 by Steve Mason. And I do not regret the guilty pleasure.

Extremely rare among historical works we tend to associate with topics related to biblical studies, this work is written by an author who clearly understands what history is and how to use historical sources. Steve Mason laments his publisher’s insistence that he remove an entire chapter explaining all of this to an audience he acknowledges will belong primarily to departments in “religious studies, Jewish studies, archaeology, biblical studies, or theology.” He knows that

If even those who understand themselves to be historians and nothing else differ significantly in method, the potential for disagreement over aims and methods is likely to be all the greater in this field. On top of that lie all the potential stakes in this period held by Jews and Christians of various kinds, religious and non- and anti-religious scholars, Zionists, post-Zionists, and anti-Zionists.

So the excised chapter was replaced by a shorter discussion in his second chapter, and I would love every biblical scholar and theologian who thinks she or he is a historian yet who has never read R.G. Collingwood or E.H. Carr. Too often I have seen a theologian mocking what he calls an old positivist view of history yet ironically failing to realize that he only has a superficial grasp of what historical positivism really is. I myself have been lampooned for discussing the problems raised by E.H. Carr for historians by theologians who only know that Carr had communist sympathies and accordingly seem to think that anyone who refers to him must be seeking to undermine every good and decent value in modern society.

But here is Steve Mason discussing the problems facing historians as they are addressed by Carr.

To get to the point: Mason explains the importance of first knowing and understanding what our sources actually are. A historian cannot simply read Josephus, for example, at face value. One must understand the type of world that had produced him and the type of writing he has given us. One must understand the worldview he shares with his contemporaries. And one must understand why he wrote the way he did and what he did.

Moreover, one must understand what history is and what it is not. The past is dead. It is gone. It no longer exists. So how can we know anything about the past?

The past is not a set of facts that exist “out there” and that the historian can look at and talk about. The past really is dead. It is not preserved in some sort of hologram or series of floating imprints for our imaginations to look at and learn.

What we read in history books are the creations of historians. Creations.

I hesitate to use the detective analogy because it has been done to death before even though it is very often misapplied or misunderstood or not understood nearly well enough.

But in one sense history really is like detective work in that it seeks to understand what happened/a crime — who, how, what — from whatever bits and pieces left at the scene might be able to convey. That sounds banal, but the principle is not often understood among many historians tied to theology and biblical studies. Here is the difference:

All detectives start with some known facts that are indisputable. A cadaver with a knife in its back, a diary of a missing heiress, invoices and tax records. They then seek to uncover more evidence from these established facts. Interviews are recorded and attempts are made to independently corroborate them, etc.

But if detectives work like historical Jesus scholars they would not work like this at all. They would read a few popular anonymous publications about a long-ago murder at a nearby uninhabited hill that locals believed to be haunted. They would dismiss most of the anecdotes about hauntings, but they would study the publications to try to determine who the murder victim was and what was the motive for his murder.

That’s from an older post of mine.

In other words, far more often than not, scholars familiar only with biblical studies all too often do not understand the relationship between their sources, the events narrated in them, and what really happened.

Steve Mason, at least as far as I have read since yesterday, does understand. I feel like I am reading the work of a “real historian” so rare in this particular field of research.

I hope to be able to share my guilty pleasure over coming months and longer as time and opportunity are both kind to me.