Category Archives: Historical Sources

Failure of the Logic of History in Christian Origins Studies

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 4.37.11 pmI have finally found two books on the practice of history, each by a scholar (other than Richard Carrier), that address the core questions I have often raised with respect to flawed methods of New Testament historians dealing with Christianity’s origins. Both works address historical studies in general and only one from time to time casts a glance at what certain biblical historians are doing.

One is The Logic of History by C. Behan McCullagh (2004). McCullagh is a philosopher of history responding primarily to the postmodernist challenges to traditional historical practices in the field of history generally. Some of his arguments apply not only to postmodernist approaches, however, but equally to a number of flawed arguments by more traditional biblical scholars.

The other is Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). In my next post I will address his fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots” where he applies his criticism to sentiments we find expressed repeatedly throughout New Testament historical works — and especially in regard to many New Testament scholars’ attacks on the Christ Myth hypothesis.

This post addresses a few excerpts from C. Behan McCullagh’s The Logic of History. 

Why has no-one else argued these points before?

The points have been argued before but apparently rarely applied to the methods of scholars specializing in the history of Christianity’s origins and early growth. Nonetheless, when I first tried to think through how we came believe certain persons and events in the ancient past were historical and others not I was a little surprised that so little appeared to have been directly addressing this question.

Happily I have now found an explanation for my inability to find what I was looking for back then. On page one McCullagh writes:

Historians often learn how to assess their hypotheses by studying debates in history in the course of their education. They acquire a capacity to evaluate their hypotheses critically, without always being aware of the standards of rationality they are applying. Awareness of those standards, however, will make it easier for historians to ensure that their work is rationally defensible.

There are many good books which explain how students of history should undertake their inquiries, but they contain very little guidance as to the logic of historical reasoning. They are almost entirely about searching for answers to one’s questions, and writing up the results. Yet the point of all the good practical advice is to gather information from which sound inferences about the past can be formed. Those inferences and arguments are at the heart of historical practice. (my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

And in the conclusion of his Introduction on page 4:

I hope that this introduction to the logic of history will quicken historians’ interest in the rational justification of their accounts of the past. It should help guide historians in the rational assessment of their own work and that of others.

So McCullough appears to be acknowledging that most of the current works on the practice of history have overlooked and taken for granted “the standards of rationality” being applied and “logic of historical reasoning”. 

How to be sure we are reading a text the right way

read more »

When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?

PhD student Matthew Ferguson on Κέλσος blog has just posted When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?. It’s reassuring to see some of the same fundamental principles that we have expressed here for some years now. But now you can read the fundamentals from someone in the process of completing his PhD in the classics and ancient historiography.

His article begins

One of the most misunderstood methodological issues that surrounds debates over the historical Jesus is the relevance of contemporary or early written sources to reconstructing a reliable biography of Jesus’ life. Very often comparisons are made to other historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who (allegedly) do not have any contemporary sources for their lives, despite the reliability of our historical information about them. Apologists thus argue that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus, and the fact that all ancient writings that mention Jesus date to a gap of decades and centuries after his death, do not make the historical Jesus more obscure or less knowable than other famous figures from antiquity.

As I exposed in apologist Lee Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in The Case for Christ, this mistake is usually made by apologists confusing the earliest extant sources (those that have survived medieval textual transmission) with the earliest sources that were written (and available to subsequent historians) in antiquity.

Thanks to Leucius Charinus on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum for drawing attention to this blog article.

Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?

Dr McGrath posts a brief comment on the criterion of embarrassment at Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment? He makes the following statement that I believe strikes at the core of the methodological flaw in scholarly inquiries into the historical Jesus and Christian origins:

As with a trial in a courtroom, the fact that flawed deductions are sometimes drawn does not mean that the methods we use ought to be discarded. Doing our best with evidence, reason, and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything that has to do with the past. Wouldn’t you agree?

The courtroom analogy is a false one. Courtroom trials deal with known historical events. Something bad happened to someone. The only questions are ones such as “who did it?” and “why?” The courtroom analogy begs the question of historicity.

The next sentence sets up another fallacy — the false dilemma. It goes without saying that “doing our best with evidence, reason and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything”. Of course I agree and everyone else does, too. The question is rhetorical and falsely portrays the alternative as unreasonable silliness.

The core question is summed up perfectly by Todd Penner in his In Praise of Christian Origins when he wrote of the Stephen episode in the book of Acts:

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises. read more »

Is Luke Among the Lying Historians?

GillWisemanOne of my earliest posts asked what Josephus might have said about the worth of the Gospels as history had he read them. In preparation for my final post on historical-critical methods with Stephen’s martyrdom as a case study I have come across (as another commenter also did) a chapter in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World titled “Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity” by T.P. Wiseman.

The reason for this post is to enhance awareness of one aspect of the nature of ancient historical writing whenever we think about Acts of the Apostles (or even the Gospels) as histories of sorts. (All bolding in all quotations is mine.)

Wiseman begins with line from Seneca, of the first century CE, where he dismisses a theory about comets by a certain Ephorus:

It takes no great effort to refute him—he’s a historian. (p. 122 in Lies and Fiction; original in Quaestiones Naturales, 7.16.1f)

Seneca explains why he has such a dim view of historians of his day:

Some historians win approval by telling incredible tales; an everyday narrative would make the reader go and do something else, so they excite him with marvels. Some of them are credulous, and lies take them unawares; others are careless, and lies are what they like; the former don’t avoid them, the latter seek them out.

What the whole tribe have in common is this: they think their work can only achieve approval and popularity if they sprinkle it with lies.

Seneca at another time parodied historical writing as the narrator of Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of Claudius):

I want to put on record the business transacted in heaven on 13 October . . . No concession will be made to umbrage taken or favour granted. This is the authentic truth. If anyone inquires about the source of my information, first, I shan’t reply if I don’t want to. Who’s going to compel me? . . . If I do choose to reply, I’ll say whatever trips off my tongue. Who ever demanded sworn referees from a historian? But if it is obligatory to produce the originator of the account, let the inquirer ask the man who saw Drusilla on her way to heaven.

Classical historians ought to have learned from the Christians that the criterion of embarrassment would have compelled belief in a resurrection if the eyewitness had been a woman and not a man. Seneca’s jibe would then have fallen flat, no doubt. Meanwhile, anyone in a seminary who has been fed the argument that detailed dates (compare Luke 3:1-2) and claims to be telling the truth (Gal. 1:20; Luke 1:1-4) are all indicators of an honest account might easily become the butt of Seneca’s joke.

Seneca’s historian joke hangs upon the principle that historians were “supposed” to always be telling the truth and nothing but the truth. This is found in what Wiseman describes as “the only theoretical discussion of historiography that survives from antiquity”, Lucian’s How to Write History (mid second century CE):

The historian’s one task is to tell it as it happened . . . the one particular characteristic of history is this, that if you are going to write it you must sacrifice to Truth alone. (p. 122)

The context of this maxim, however, would appear to limit the “Truth” to avoidance of both tall-tales or myths (which are more appropriate to poetry) and obsequious flattery of rulers and other persons of power.

The reputation of historians had not improved by the fourth century CE. We read from that period in the Historia Augusta the following conversation:

Tiberianus maintained that much of [historian] Pollio’s work was brief and careless. I protested that as far as history was concerned there was no author who had not lied about something. I went so far as to cite the places where Livy, Sallust, Cornelius Tacitus and even Trogus were refuted by clear evidence, at which he yielded to my argument and jokingly held up his hand. ‘All right then,’ he said, ‘write what you want. You can safely say whatever you like, and you’ll have those admired masters of historical style as your companions in mendacity.’ (p. 124)

The subtitle of Wiseman’s chapter is “Seven Types of Mendacity”. So what are the seven types of lies historians of the day were prone to tell?

read more »

Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

davidhacketfischer
David Hackett Fischer

Professor of History, David Hackett Fischer, has long been known for his book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he amasses copious examples of fallacious historical analysis and argument committed (at least on occasion) even by otherwise highly reputable historians. Unfortunately, critical fallacies that he identifies as periodic blights on the work of his peers are standard practice among works of theologians writing about Christian origins.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

Here is one that many readers will recognize, and it is one that unfortunately does too often extend beyond the limits of subgroups. On pages 51 and 52 Fischer writes (my bolding in all quotations):

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification.

This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.* If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. . . .

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, to some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of the problem. . . .”

[* Reference: see page 102 of Vansina’s Oral Tradition]

historiansFallacies

Most historians agree . . .

. . . that a genuine historical event lies behind the story of Stephen

I could just as easily have written “most historians agree that genuine historical events like behind the stories in Acts.” But let’s limit the discussion here to Stephen’s martyrdom. (This post is, after all, my follow-up to my Stephen post.)

Shelly Matthews (also a theologian but who seems to be one of the relatively few who happily demonstrates a clear understanding of sound historical-critical method and writes history with a clear understanding of the philosophy undergirding her approach) admits she stands against what has been the traditional consensus of her peers over the historical value of Acts.

Firstly, however, Matthews correctly explains how her peers have traditionally attempted to glean “kernels of history” from the Book of Acts:

Biblical scholars employing methods of historical criticism do recognize that the coherence of various aspects of Acts is ahistorical, imposed by Luke upon his sources because of his theological concerns, his apologetic tendencies, and/or his aim to delight his audience. For more than two hundred years, historians of Christian origins have approached the book of Acts presuming that its author’s intrusive hand can be pulled away, freeing his sources to bear unencumbered witness to the historical events that occurred in the earliest decades of the church.

Applying methods captured by metaphors of winnowing and digging, they have attempted to distinguish Acts’ redactional/theological/fictional elements from the actual history presumed also to reside in the text.

From these “kernels of history,” from this “bedrock,” scholars have then constructed their own versions of a coherent narrative of Christian origins understood to correspond with events that happened in history. (p. 15, my formatting)

Theologians have thus generally assumed that “real history” lies “beneath” the text and that all they have to do is apply tools like redactional criticism to know what parts of the text to pull away (e.g. the theological or literary creations of the author) and thereby expose the original source. And that source material is for some reason often presumed to point to “bedrock history”. read more »

How Historical Imagination Destroys the Gospels

Most of us understand that the Gospels are theological narratives and do not report literal history. At the same time, probably most critically inclined readers believe that those theological narratives are ultimately inspired by historical persons and events. Their authors (or those responsible for their source information) are so “spiritually overwhelmed” by the inexpressibility of the wonder of these historical events that they are compelled to write about them through a language of theological surrealism.

Jean Fouquet: Caesar Crossing the Rubicon (Wikipedia)
Jean Fouquet: Caesar Crossing the Rubicon (Wikipedia)

Comparisons are even drawn with ancient historiography. Ancient historians regularly introduced supernatural events and persons into their accounts of historical persons. It is worth looking at a few examples. We are meant to be assured that the Gospel narratives are of a similar ilk.

As he [Caesar] stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast,” said he. (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 32)

No one doubts the reality of Augustus Caesar despite it being “recorded” of him by Philo that he stilled storms and healed diseases:

This is Caesar, who calmed the storms which were raging in every direction, who healed the common diseases which were afflicting both Greeks and barbarians . . .(Philo, Embassy to Gaius, 145)

The stilling of the storms may have been a metaphorical synopsis of Augustus putting an end to the wars that had long ravaged the empire but the philosopher Empedocles was reputed to have done as much literally:

Ten thousand other more divine and more admirable particulars likewise are uniformly and unanimously related of the man: such as infallible predictions of earthquakes, rapid expulsions of pestilence and violent winds, instantaneous cessations of the effusion of hail, and a tranquillization of the waves of rivers and seas, in order that his disciples might easily pass over them. Of which things also, Empedocles the Agrigentine, Epimenides the Cretan, and Abaris the Hyperborean, receiving the power of effecting, performed certain miracles of this kind in many places. Their deeds, however, are manifest. To which we may add, that Empedocles was surnamed an expeller of winds (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, 135-136)

And of course we know of the tales of miraculous births of Alexander the Great and Plato. Both were conceived by a god. There are many more. King Pyrrhus healed by touching a reclining patient with his foot. Emperor Vespasian healed a withered hand and restored the sight of a blind man.

So there we supposedly have it. The gospels, we are assured, are no different from other ancient accounts of famous historical persons, mixtures of fact and fable.

I don’t think so. read more »

Islam’s Origins, the Historical Problem — notes on the reading Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

shadowA few weeks ago I posted Islam – the Untold Story as a response to my introduction (through a radio program and an online video) to narrative historian Tom Holland’s controversial book on the rise of the Arab empire and the origins of Islam. I was interested in some of the comments expressing Muslim viewpoints but not having read the book, and not having studied Islamic history in any depth, there was not much I could say in response.

Now I can at least make a few comments on Tom Holland’s approach to the question after having read his 58 page introduction.

(Coincidentally today I heard another radio interview with Tom Holland, one in which he discusses the way he writes history, the modern relevance of his other historical works, Millennium and Rubicon, as well as further comments on In the Shadow of the Sword.)

.

But first, let me confess my bias: I believe the most reliable way for any historian to work is to begin with data that can be tested for its genre (hence likely authorial intent), its provenance, and the independent verification of its content. As a result I have come to lean towards the views of those scholars who are derisively labelled “minimalists” and who question the authenticity of the Bible’s account of Israel’s origins and the course of its kingdoms of Israel and Judah. I have also been persuaded by the view of at least one of those “minimalists” who — again via the same touchstone questions concerning sources — has come to think the Gospel narratives of Jesus are as fictitious as the the Old Testament’s narrative of Israel.

I approach the origins of Islam with the same set of questions about sources.

.

Tom Holland knows how to surprise a western reader who has been fed a diet of Islamophobia. In the front pages we read words attributed to Mohammad from which the title is drawn:

Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance, and remember that the gates of Paradise lie in the shadow of the sword.

Another quotation, this one at the beginning of the Introduction, is by Salman Rushdie. It will strike a chord with anyone interested in what we know of Christian origins, but it serves the cause of irony — and a warning that the nature of historical evidence is not always what it seems — since we know that the wealth of detail taken for granted about the life of Muhammad will soon be shown to be nothing more than a facade.

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.

Two Voices

Tom Holland writes with two voices, as he explains in his latest Radio National interview, and together they make for gripping reading. He writes as the historical researcher of cause and effect, commenting on the degree of certainty or less so of our knowledge, guiding readers to the raw materials and current scholarship upon which his narrative is built. At the same time he writes as a novelist, entering into the experiences of the actants, named and anonymous alike, drawing the reader into their world as inevitably as a Spielberg movie.

He knows how to write history for both popular and informed audiences.

Two Worlds

Historians don’t write history the way they used to. read more »

Scholars Rationalizing and Paraphrasing the Christian Myth

keenerandbookCraig S. Keener has written a book 869 pages long entitled The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. The primary aim of this book is

to investigate how much we can know from the best sources available, and to offer examples of how these sources provide us more adequate information about Jesus than many scholars think we have. (p. xxxvii)

869 pages might sound a lot, and it does beat by a whisker the longest book by N.T. Wright (836 pages), but it still falls short of Volume 1 of Raymond Brown’s tome, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (904 pages). (The only mythicist publication that comes close gets no closer than 814 pages so I guess the historicists have at least 55 pages of more arguments to make than the mythicists.)

The length of the book is a plus in eyes, because I like the thought that I am getting a thorough and detailed set of arguments and updates on what the academic community has to tell us what can be known about the historical Jesus. The main text is only 349 pages with most of the remainder being taken up with appendices and endnotes. That’s good — I often find the details I’m seeking in endnotes, bibliographies, etc. I think, too, that I was attracted by the erstwhile atheism of the author. Surely here is a work that will cover the basics and leave no stone unturned in the argument for Christianity beginning with a man called Jesus.

.

A profile of an historical Jesus scholar

Craig Keener introduces himself:

I try to do my historical scholarship as a good historian. . . .

When I was an atheist (largely for what I thought were scientific reasons), one of my central (albeit nonscientific) objections to believing anything about Jesus was that eighty percent of people in my country claimed to be his followers, yet most of them apparently lived as if it made no difference to their lives. . . .

I reasoned that if I believed there was truly a being to whom I owed my existence and who alone determined my eternal destiny, I would serve that being unreservedly. . . .

On a personal note, I cannot agree with a mind-set like that. It sounds robotic. I would first want to know something about such a being. Prima facie, from what I know of the world, I would suspect such a being was not worthy of unreserved service and it would be immoral to sell my soul to that being.

.

A Jesus scholar who believes Jesus is still alive today read more »

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 2: The Overlooked Reasons We Know Certain Ancient Persons Existed

In the previous post in this series I concluded by pointing out the fundamental difference between the sources used by historians concerning nonbiblical historical figures such as Napoleon, Alexander or even Socrates, and those used by New Testament scholars for Jesus. In the former, the sources leave no doubt at all that certain individuals lived and certain events really happened — that is, that there are certain facts that historians can work with. Not even the most extreme postmodernists deny that Governor Philip established a settlement in Australia in 1788. However much they may be subject to interpretation, historical sources confirm as fact that certain people did certain things in the past.

This is not the case with the sources we have for Jesus. The sources we have for Jesus provide not a single datum of which it can be said, “This is a universally recognized, bedrock, indisputable fact about Jesus.” (See the box at the end of this post for comments on even the death of Jesus in this context.)

Now I am not saying that this situation forces anyone to conclude that there was no historical Jesus. Of course not. But it is a situation that should be recognized, understood and explained.

How do we know anyone existed?

I am sure that no historian undertaking a study of ancient Rome seriously pauses to ask, “How do I know if Julius Caesar really did exist?” The sources have been studied, analysed and dissected intensively for generations and certain information from them has long been taken for granted.

But because history is filled with such “facts” (such as that Julius Caesar conquered and was assassinated in the BCE era) that are part of our cultural heritage, it is worth taking time out to think through exactly how we can know that something really happened or that a particular person really did exist in ancient times.

You’d think that a scholar writing about the past could tell you how we know famous ancient persons existed without even having to think about it. Bizarrely, however, we find New Testament scholars really struggling when attempting to grapple with the question of how we know anyone in any period of history ever existed. It’s clear some have never before thought about it until challenged by mythicism.

Look, for example, at Bart Erhman’s unfortunate confusion in Did Jesus Exist? when he begins by saying photographs are evidence for the historical existence of Abraham Lincoln. That’s nonsense. All photographs can do is identify someone whom we already know exists or existed. Someone has to put a name to a photograph and someone has to link that name with an identity known from other testimony or experience.

Historians can appeal to many different kinds of evidence to establish the past existence of a person. First, there is a real preference for hard, physical evidence, for example, photographs. It is rather hard to deny that Abraham Lincoln lived since we have all seen photos. . . . [F]or most of us, a stack of good photographs from different sources will usually be convincing enough. (pp. 39-40)

I submit that a photograph of Abraham Lincoln would be meaningless unless we already knew who Lincoln was, that is, that he existed and what he did. (The ancient counterparts of photographs would be portraits and statues.)

Ehrman’s final point is just as confused: read more »

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 1: What Has History To Do With The Facts?

RottenDenmarkThere is something rotten in the state of historical Jesus studies. Ideology has long trumped inconvenient questioning. Postmodernist flim-flam has recently trumped any hope of sound methodology. Some on that side of New Testament studies have curiously accused me of being “a fact fundamentalist” or an antiquated positivist or one who has unrealistic demands for certainty. So before I justify my claim that HJ studies have fallen hostage to ideology and methodological nonsense, let me lay all my cards out on the table and tell you what history means to me.

History for me has never been “about facts and dates”. It has never been “one darned thing after another.” That’s a chronicle or an archival record. Not history. In hindsight I have come to appreciate so much my senior high school years as a history student when I was taught by two pioneers in the way history was to be taught throughout Australian secondary schools, J.H. Allsopp and H.R. Cowie.

challengeThe first thing we were taught was that history was an enquiry. It was a debate. It was all about exploring questions. We began our studies with the French Revolution and we were confronted with questions: Why did it happen in France? Why then? And instead of being given answers we were given competing explanations. We were forced to study up on the facts in order to try to answer these questions. Inevitably we soon discovered that the importance of certain facts varied according to the different points of view of the authors. One of the questions we were asked to test at our senior high school level of competence was historian Toynbee’s thesis that all history followed a pattern of “challenge and response”.

pirenneThen I took up history at university. We had been well prepared. First topic, the rise of feudalism. First book to read: The Pirenne thesis; analysis, criticism, and revision. We weren’t “taught” what led to the rise of feudalism in Europe. We were challenged and guided to explore the possible reasons, the competing explanations, and to show competence in the way we pursued historical questions.

What is history? What is an historical fact?

It was in the 1960s and we were required to engage with E.H. Carr’s radically challenging book on the nature of history, What Is History? His thesis — that history is essentially whatever the historian makes of it — was the hot debate of the day. One of his most famously quoted passages is found on the Wikipedia page and I copy it here: read more »

Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus

The new addition to my bookshelf and I are going to get along just fine. I feel like I’ve found a long-lost friend, someone who has published exactly the point I have been making on this blog for so long now, only this new friend was saying it long before it ever crossed my mind.

Chapter 13, “The Quest for History: Rule One” in Thomas Brodies’ Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, begins:

On leaving the foggy swamp created by the theory of oral tradition I came again to the search for well-grounded history, and was brought back to the person who, amid hundreds of ancient rules, asked Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And so amid the complexity of searching for history, I wondered if there was a Rule One.

This is not unlike my experience of wondering how historians can know anything at all about the existence of persons millennia ago. Few biblical scholars seem ever to have given this serious attention. The existence of certain persons seems to be mostly taken for granted. When Bart Ehrman attempted to grapple with this question (apparently for the first time) in his book, Did Jesus Exist?, it was clear he was merely opining off the top of his head and had never before seriously thought through the question in relation to a range of persons and sources. He began by saying a photograph would be proof — failing to grasp what should have been the obvious fact that a photograph is meaningless to anyone who has no idea of the existence and identity of the person in the first place. He had never thought the question through. Nor have scholars like McGrath and Hurtado who merely parrot as a given that scholars agree Hillel and Socrates existed so they did. When pushed, they can do nothing better than fall back on “scholars in their collective wisdom agree”. (Two posts in which I discuss this question: How do we know anyone existed. . . . , and Comparing the evidence. . . .)

Thomas Brodie speaks of an SBL meeting at San Diego in 2007 where Richard Bauckham

reminded his huge audience that he was unusually well qualified in history.

Accordingly, Brodie suggest, it seems that Rule One is to “attend to history”.

Brevard S. Childs

But Brodie also reminds us that another highly influential scholar, Brevard Childs, disagreed and would put “the meaning of the finished (canonical) text” as Rule One. The Bible’s historical background was too elusive to be a foundation, he said.

Brodie narrates a pregnant moment that registered with him in class:

I remember one day in class, as Childs was holding forth with strength and depth, he noticed how the text seemed to be structured or organized in a very specific way, and wondered if the structure was significant — in effect wondered if a purely literary feature, neither history nor theology, made any real difference. He paused, and then, almost verbatim:

‘We have no evidence that these things were important.’

The moment passed, and we returned to theology.

Recollect Churchill’s famous saying:

Occasionally he stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened. read more »

Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”. . . . Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, ch. 2 final

Revised 23rd May 2016

Jens Schröter writes what in many respects is an admirable lesson for scholars of Christian origins on how really to do history. I can only spot what I believe is one oversight in his lesson where one suddenly hears in his words echoes of apologists and fundamentalists.

This post concludes my review of chapter 2, “The Criteria of Authenticity in Jesus Research and Historiographical Method”, by Jens Schröter, in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. In my earlier posts I used introductory presuppositions in Schröter’s chapter as a starting point from which to detail the fundamental, culturally inherited assumptions that are never questioned by most theologians exploring Christian origins. In this post I will concentrate on the last part of Schröter’s essay in which he proposes a more orthodox method of historical analysis as a replacement for the criteria approach.

Schröter has more to say about the weaknesses of the so-called “criteria of authenticity” approach in historical Jesus studies, but most of his points overlap with what I have covered in reviews of earlier chapters of this book. He does add a couple of new criticisms but I will mention those at the end of this post (for sake of completeness) and not lose any more time getting straight to Schröter’s proposed alternative to the criteria approach. (All posts in this series are archived here.)

One gets the impression, on reading contemporary works by a number of New Testament scholars explaining the role of interpretation and imagination in the historian’s investigation of sources, that New Testament scholars generally really have been left behind in the dark as to how history has been known to work in more generally for a hundred years now. The following representatives of milestone developments in “how history works” outside Theology Departments appear to have remained unknown among most biblical scholars: read more »

Take Two: Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Continuing from Historical Method versus Jesus Research: Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity. . . .

Jens Schröter reminds us of flaws with the criteria approach to find the historical Jesus. They encapsulate what I have covered in my posts on Chris Keith’s chapter one:

  1. Criteria were designed as a tool to assist with form criticism
  2. Form criticism assumed that Gospels could be peeled apart layer by layer to find sections originating with the Church, sections originating with Judaism and other sections that originated with the earlier oral tradition about Jesus independent of Judaism and the Church.
  3. Criteria were designed to assist with arriving that the earliest Jesus traditions.
  4. The earliest Jesus tradition was defined as “authentic” if it did not overlap with traditions that could be identified as belonging to Judaism or the early Church.
  5. Historical Jesus scholars came to reject form criticism but continued to use criteria of authenticity, but they used them to supposedly discover the historical Jesus. The criteria were originally designed only as a literary tool to locate the earliest traditions surviving in the Gospels — not as historiographical tools to find historical persons and events.
  6. So the criteria approach has been criticized as invalid as a tool to unearth the historical Jesus. (Criteria were originally part of the package of the literary study of form criticism.)

In response to the failure of the criteria approach have been those who advocated a “memory approach”, and I have discussed this also to some extent, in particular with respect to Le Donne’s presentation in a popular publication.The justification and the problem of this approach are that it does not claim to arrive at an “authentic” picture of the past, but only to some understanding — through the haze of “subjective recollections and interpretations” and potential “misperception, wrong information, oblivion and projection” — of “what might have happened”

One of the must fundamental principles every historian learns to apply before studying a source for the “memories” it contains or any other “historical information” that it writes about, is to analyse the source to ascertain exactly what it is, where it came from, who put it together and for whom. read more »

Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Historical Jesus Question

Don’t get me wrong. I have found many worthwhile nuggets in the publications of Larry Hurtado. I find some of the analysis and conclusions in his “How On Earth Did Jesus Become A God?” very insightful. If I see his name in a contribution or bibliography I generally take notice and follow up. If I ever met Larry in person I would very much hope we could shake hands and enjoy a stimulating discussion. I have no doubts he could teach me much.

So let anyone who broadcasts some nonsense about my supposedly “hating scholars” please take a valium or step outside and water your garden.

And what’s more, I find myself in total sympathy with his weary plight when he writes (only a day or two ago):

The shape of Earth as envisioned by Samuel Row...
The shape of Earth as envisioned by Samuel Rowbotham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate!

Hurtado, I have no doubt, believes sincerely that “the current wave of ‘mythicist’ proponents” is “ill informed and illogical”. According to his post his only acquaintance with mythicist arguments is an eighty-year old book opposing mythicism. It is the most natural thing in the world for him to accept that this book, in 1938 published by the Student ChristianMission Press, would in a cordial and Christian manner give readers a full grasp of the basis of mythicist arguments and with good grace and irrefutable logic and undeniable evidence tear those arguments apart limb by hapless limb.

And he cannot imagine today’s mythicists being any better informed or logical because, to him, the very denial of the historical existence of Jesus is akin to denying the earth is round, the earth orbits the sun, or the moon landings really happened.

And that’s the problem! read more »