Category Archives: Historical Sources

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.


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.

Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us

It ain’t necessarily so, the things that you’re liable to read in Bible, or in Der Spiegel, or in the ancient histories.

Three weeks ago I posted

“Now we know” — how ancient historians worked

There I wrote:

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

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

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

I picked up a copy of Phillip Knightleys’ The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, and the morning after I read the first chapter the following story on the news confronted me:

  • Der Spiegel reporter Claas Relotius sacked over ‘invented’ stories

    German news magazine Der Spiegel has sacked an award-winning staff writer after accusing him of inventing details and quotes in numerous stories.

    Claas Relotius “falsified articles on a grand scale and even invented characters”, Der Spiegel said.

    Among the articles in question are major features that had been nominated for or won awards, the magazine added.

  • The Relotius Case  Answers to the Most Important Questions
    In recent years, DER SPIEGEL published just under 60 articles by reporter and editor Claas Relotius. He has now admitted that, in several instances, he either invented stories or distorted facts.Claas Relotius, a reporter and editor, falsified his articles on a grand scale and even invented characters, deceiving both readers and his colleagues. This has been uncovered as a result of tips, internal research and, ultimately, a comprehensive confession by the editor himself.

Just like Tacitus. And just like the war reporters I have been reading about in Knightley’s book. The newspapers are in business to make money. Their hired reporters know they need to provide stories that assist the money-making goals of their news media. read more »

Understanding Historical Evidence

Steve Mason

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

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


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.


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 »

Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed

Dr. Alan Lacey

Lately while filling in gaps in my time by digging out scholarly publications addressing the problem of how much historians can know about “the real Socrates” or let’s say “the historical Socrates” I have become more aware of how many overlaps there are between the portrayals of Socrates and Jesus in their respective sources.

If Jesus is portrayed by some evangelists as a second Moses or Elijah, Socrates is portrayed by some ancient Greeks as an ideal type of Achilles.

If the words imputed to Jesus are found in the supposed writings of Moses and Prophets, words of Socrates are sometimes taken straight from Homer.

If Jesus has become for diverse authors a literary mouthpiece to express a range of views, sometimes contradictory, Socrates is likewise clearly developed as a literary mouthpiece by various authors for a range of viewpoints.

A few brave classicists or historians of ancient times have dared suggest that any recovery of the historical Socrates is completely impossible; the real Socrates has become completely overlaid with myth, with literary artifice, so as to become merely an authoritative name for whatever figure they created to express whatever views they themselves taught.

Others, a majority, appear to respond by claiming that those few scholars have been more foolhardy than courageous and that it is certainly possible, though difficult, to so work with the surviving sources to glimpse something of what Socrates was actually like. Part of this process involves recognizing that the early dialogues of Plato appear to be closer to the historical figure than the later dialogues. When Aristotle adds details that do not come from Plato or Xenophon then it is assumed they have some independent “tradition” or source.

In this post I will do nothing more than quote a few passages from one of the more prominent scholars in the debate over “the Socratic problem” who sets out the grounds for believing that despite all the uncertainties about Socrates that arise from the above problems, we can at least know that behind it all there was a real Socrates all the same. Bolded highlighting is my own, of course.

. . . it is not surprising that some scholars have thrown up their hands and taken “Socrates” to be a mere literary creation by a group of writers at the beginning of the fourth century, the real man, if there ever was one, being lost in the mists of time. However, the “myth” theory is now generally rejected, at least in its extremer forms. The evidence, inadequate though it is, is too widespread to allow such an agnosticism without insisting on a degree of rigour we are unwilling to use elsewhere (an unwillingness sometimes inconsistently used to throw out our knowledge of Socrates in particular: see de Vogel’s review of Gigon in Mnemosyne, 1951).

Let us start with the evidence in works written in Socrates’ own lifetime. This has an advantage in that these works are most likely to be first-hand accounts, written from a fresh memory and for an audience familiar with Socrates himself and before any tradition could have arisen of the “Socratic discourse” as a literary genre that could take liberties with history. . . .

The most important single source is the satire by Aristophanes in his comedy the Clouds, produced in 423 and followed by a second edition some years later where the poet tells us (II. 518 If.) that the first edition was not successful and where certain features, notably the debate of the Just and Unjust Arguments and the final burning of Socrates’ school, were either added or radically revised.

How far can a comedian go? Whether Aristophanes’ real target was Socrates himself, the subversive tendencies of the Sophistic movement, the apparent absurdities of Ionian “science,” or just ‘long-haired intellectuals” in general (and the contrasts we find so obvious between these various elements may not have been at all so obvious to their contemporaries), his selection of Socrates as his chief butt must surely mean that Socrates was known to a fairly wide audience, and vaguely associated with the “modem” tendencies.

read more »

Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?

Who killed Jesus and why?

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

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

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

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

Englewood Dam

A narrow, precarious path

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

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

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

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

Herod the Great

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

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

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

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

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

The “Nugget” Theory

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

Sometimes, however, we find that a scholar writes history

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

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

Chester G. Starr


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

Moses I. Finley (1912-1986)

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

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

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

Vridar and related discussions of Maurice Goguel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Basics of History — They’re Still the Basics

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 »

Biblical Scholar Watch #1

There are many excellent biblical scholars whose works are discussed here as often as opportunity arises. Check out the Categories list in the right column here to see the extent of our coverage.

But as with any profession there are some rogues who need to be exposed. A few hours ago on the Religion Prof blog appeared a post in effect leading the public to believe that mainstream biblical scholars have published far, far more on the topic of the historicity of Jesus than anyone who doubts Jesus’ historicity. Here is the screenshot:

The link is to the following page on Amazon:

Scrolling down one sees the number of pages is said to be 3300.

I have access to the electronic edition and can confirm that the number of pages is closer to 4000 than 3000.

But is it honest to claim that these four volumes under the title Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus address the question of the historicity of Jesus itself? After all, that is the clear message and point of the “religion prof’s” post. His message is that mainstream scholars have published far more on the topic that is addressed by, say, Richard Carrier.

But open up the pages of those four volumes and one soon discovers that this claim is misleading.

Of the over 3700 pages contained in these volumes there are exactly 29 pages that appear on first glance to be devoted to the question of whether Jesus existed or not. They are by Samuel Byrskog in a chapter titled “The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?” — pages 2183 to 2211.

The four volumes are not about the question of Jesus’ historicity but in fact presume the existence of Jesus and from that starting point address scholarly questions relating to how we can learn what kind of person this Jesus was. Let me show a few more screen shots from the table of contents so you can get the idea:  read more »

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

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.


Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources

The Book of the Generations of Adam
The Book of Jasher
The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah
The Book of the the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel
The Book of the Deeds of Solomon

Throughout the books of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian’s “Old Testament”) one finds assurances for readers that the stories (or histories) being told are detailed in other written sources. Readers are further assured in a number of cases in the books of Kings and Chronicles that even more details can be found in outside sources.

That sounds authoritative. Surely only a “hyper-sceptical” cynic would insist that such source citations were fabricated and the narratives have no credible foundation whatsoever.

But there is a more prudent alternative to having to choose between either/or. We have no independent evidence for the existence of these cited sources but of course that does not mean they never existed.

Are we going a step too far, however, to wonder if they never existed at all and that our biblical authors really did fabricate at least some of them? How could we possibly know?

No, we are not going too far to seriously ponder the question because scholars do have good reasons for believing that in the ancient world historians of the day did indeed sometimes pretend to cite real sources that in fact did not exist.

If I begin to set out reasons for suspecting that in some cases the biblical authors were making up sources I run the risk of being accused of having some sort of hostile agenda against the Bible and religion generally. So let’s examine the evidence for other ancient historians fabricating their sources. If we start with the extra-biblical world then we can show that we are analysing the Bible by the same standards we apply to other ancient texts and every reasonable person will happily acknowledge our even-handedness.

One more caveat. Merely identifying grounds for the possibility that source citations are fictions does not mean they “probably” are. What it does mean is that no secure argument or conclusion for a narrative’s reliability can be built upon the presence of source citations.

This post elaborates with a few in depth case-studies on the point I made earlier where I listed examples demonstrating that it was not unusual for ancient historians to fabricate their source-claims.

1. Eyewitness to two monuments of a Pharaoh in Asia Minor

Karabel relief. From

Herodotus writes in his Histories (book 2):

As to the pillars that Sesostris, king of Egypt, set up in the countries, most of them are no longer to be seen. But I myself saw them in the Palestine district of Syria, with the aforesaid writing and the women’s private parts on them. 

[2] Also, there are in Ionia two figures of this man carved in rock, one on the road from Ephesus to Phocaea, and the other on that from Sardis to Smyrna

[3] In both places, the figure is over twenty feet high, with a spear in his right hand and a bow in his left, and the rest of his equipment proportional; for it is both Egyptian and Ethiopian; 

[4] and right across the breast from one shoulder to the other a text is cut in the Egyptian sacred characters, saying: “I myself won this land with the strength of my shoulders.” There is nothing here to show who he is and whence he comes, but it is shown elsewhere. 

[5] Some of those who have seen these figures guess they are Memnon, but they are far indeed from the truth.

There are indeed two statues still to be seen at the Karabel Pass on the old road from Ephesus to Smyrna. Unfortunately for Herodotus’s credibility

  • The script on these statues is not Egyptian hieroglyphics but Hittite (“a misstatement that cannot be explained away as a simple error, since to anyone who has seen the former once or twice they are completely unmistakable” – Fehling, p. 135)
  • The better preserved of the statues depicts a Hittite war-god, not Sesostris
  • The inscription does not run across the shoulders but is set to the right of the head

I have taken the above from Katherine Stott’s Why Did They Write This Way? The main inspiration for this post and the five specific case-studies are based on Stott’s chapter 2 of that book. (I should stress that Stott’s interest is not to suggest fabrication of sources was the general rule.)

Stephanie West in “Herodotus’ Epigraphical Interests” (The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1985), pp. 278-305) writes:

Herodotus here describes the well-known reliefs of the Karabel pass, which depict a Hittite war-god of extremely un-Egyptian appearance. . . .

If Herodotus had seen even a fraction of the Egyptian monuments he claims to have done, he could never have supposed the Karabel reliefs to be Egyptian had he actually visited the site. (West, p. 301)

I like West’s comment on the way illusory way Herodotus so easily persuades readers that he writing an authoritative and reliable account: read more »

Testing (or not) Historical Sources for Reliability

The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a rape and murder are all different.
The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a rape and murder are all different. — Wikipedia

Continuing from the previous post. . . .

Fallibility of eyewitness accounts

Eyewitness accounts are not necessarily more reliable than other sources. Timothy Good compiled 100 eyewitness accounts of the assassination of President Lincoln and its immediate aftermath in We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts. David Henige comments in Historical Evidence and Argument (2005):df

Reading these reminds us of the omnipresent Rashomon effect, and also that a secondary account that collects and evaluates a number of primary sources might actually be preferred to these, even when it paraphrases them, as long as it does this well, and as long as it allows access to all the evidence. (2005: 48 — Formatting and bolding mine in all quotations)

We have all heard of the studies that demonstrate the depressing unreliability of memories of events witnessed and experienced. Henige cites several articles addressing many of these studies and I attempted to follow up a few to flesh out details. One common theme is the way false memories can be implanted as a byproduct of others asking a witness questions that introduce the possibility of details that were not originally seen (e.g. Wells and Olson).

Here are a few pertinent sections from Toward a Psychology of Memory Accuracy by Goldsmith, Koriat and Pansky:

  • Although thinking about a perceived event after it has happened helps maintain its visual details, thinking about imagined events also increases their vividness, and may therefore result in impaired reality monitoring for these events (Suengas & Johnson 1988). Goff & Roediger (1998) found that the more times subjects imagined an unperformed action, the more likely they were to recollect having performed it. . . . .
  • The fact that people know at one time that a certain piece of information was imagined, dreamt, or fictional does not prevent them from later attributing it to reality (Durso & Johnson 1980, Finke et al 1988, Johnson et al 1984). . . . ;
  • In comparing the results for an immediate test with those for a test given two days later, the proportion of accurate recall declined over time, whereas false recall actually tended to increase (McDermott 1996).

Nor does the research support the belief that false memories are necessarily the product of trauma and psychological repression:

Many cognitive psychologists, however, doubt these assertions (Lindsay 1998, Loftus et al 1994), pointing instead to evidence suggesting that false memories may arise from normal reconstructive memory processes.

Henige’s conclusion:

We can hardly re-enact the life experiences of eyewitnesses from the past to judge their capacity with respect to memory. The alternative is to conduct large-scale and repeated experiments that test various kinds of memory. As noted, hundreds of these have been carried out and in general the results have not been encouraging for any historians who might wish to believe eyewitnesses implicitly.

Testis unus, testis nullus, One witness is no witness

Testis unus, testis nullus, runs the Roman legal dictum: “one witness [is] no witness.” 

Or as a less exalted source [Granger, Shades of Murder] put it: “Unsubstantiated? It means that no other person than yourself has claimed to have witnessed these things or been able to show that they existed.” — (2005: 49)

In ancient history scholars can find themselves depending more often than not single sources for what they know. One would expect this difficulty to make historians more cautious about how they interpret and rely on this solitary pieces of data for various arguments but unfortunately the opposite is found to be the case far too often.

There is a natural tendency to treat unique evidence with kid gloves.22  (2005: 49)

Henige’s footnote no. 22 brings us to a biblical scholar as a negative example:

22 Or even attempt to turn it to advantage, as R.N. Whybray does when he writes: “[t]o regard as useless for the historian’s purposes the only account of a nation’s history written by its own nationals is, to say the least, extraordinary.” Whybray, “What Do We Know,” 72.

Naturally an “only find” does deserve preservation. No-one disputes its importance. However,

that fact by itself should persuade the historian to apply every form of internal criticism possible. (2005: 49)

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