Category Archives: Historiography


2017-07-23

The Basics of History — They’re Still the Basics

by Neil Godfrey

Richard J. Evans (Wikipedia)

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

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

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 They had instead to sally forth, as Ranke did, into the archives, to work their way through the vast unpublished hoards of original manuscripts stored up by the state chancelleries of Europe.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

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

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


2017-06-07

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?

by Tim Widowfield
Plutarch

Plutarch

Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »


2017-05-31

Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

by Tim Widowfield

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »


2017-05-28

Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths?

by Neil Godfrey

The Red Sea Exodus certainly did not happen as the Bible relates it, but many find a way to keep the story as “true” by rationalizing it: a smaller number of Israelites waded through at low tide, for example.

King David may not have ruled over a great kingdom as the Bible tells us, so he was probably a local bandit warlord at the very least.

Jesus surely did not heal merely with a command, so we believe he healed by means of ancient rituals which had some psychosomatic power.

The disciples obviously could not have literally seen Jesus alive after his death, so we must conclude that they had either some sort of hallucinatory experience or an inner conviction that convinced them he was resurrected.

In such ways many of us today find ways to cling to mythical tales. We discard anything that is contrary to our everyday experience and find a natural way to more or less explain how less sophisticated people came up with such mythical tales that are so important to us.

One example of an ancient philosopher doing just that very same thing is Palaephatus, someone who had been taught by Aristotle.

Look at how he rationalized the myth of Pandora:

The story about Pandora is intolerable — that she was fashioned out of earth and imparted her shape to others. It hardly seems likely to me. 

Pandora was a wealthy Greek woman: whenever she went out in public, she would dress up in her finest and rub her face with a cosmetic made of earth [i.e. white lead that Athenian women used to whiten their faces]. It was she who first discovered how to apply such cosmetics to her skin. Nowadays, of course, many women do so, and none of them gains any special renown because the practice is so common. 

This is what happened; but the story was twisted in an impossible direction. 

(Palaephatus, 34.Pandora, in J. Stern (1996), translator and commentator, On Unbelievable Tales / Palaephatus. Wauconda, IL, Bolchazy-Carduzzi.)

Only a fool would believe a human being could literally turn to stone:

They say that Niobe, a living woman, turned into stone on the tomb of her children. Anyone who believes that a human being turned into a stone or a stone into a human being is a fool. The truth is as follows. 

When Niobe’s children died, someone made a statue of Niobe out of stone and set it on the tomb. Passersby would say: “A stone Niobe is standing on the tomb. We saw her ourselves.” . . . . That is how it was, but Niobe herself did not turn into stone. 

(Palaephatus, 8:Niobe)

And so on and so forth.

Interesting to note the assumption that there must have been historicity, something historical, behind the myths. It is as if it were inconceivable that anyone would “just make up” such stories. Some form of evolving “social memory” is surely the source of significant cultural heritage. A wise man like Palaephatus would analyse the narrative and “discern” the most plausible “historical reconstruction” behind it.

And theologians have continued the tradition up to the present day, yes?

 

 


2017-01-01

Biblical Scholar Watch #1

by Neil Godfrey

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 »


2016-12-06

What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield
Witch of Endor by Nikolay Ge

Witch of Endor by Nikolay Ge

In the previous post we began to discuss the fundamental difference between the Bayesian and frequentist approaches to probability. A Bayesian defines probability as a subjective belief about the world, often expressed as a wagering proposition. “How much am I willing to bet that the next card will give me a flush?”

To a frequentist, however, probability exists in the physical world. It doesn’t change, and it isn’t subjective. Probability is the hard reality that over the long haul, if you flip a fair coin it will land heads up half the time and tails up the other half. We call them “frequentists,” because they maintain they can prove that the unchanging parameter is fixed and objectively true by measuring the frequency of repeated runs of the same event over and over.

Fairies and witches

But does objective probability really exist? After reading several books focused on subjective probability published in the past few decades, I couldn’t help noticing that Bruno de Finetti‘s Theory of Probability stands as a kind of watershed. In the preface he says that objective probability, the very foundation of frequentism, is a superstition. If he’s correct, that means it isn’t just bad science; it’s anti-science. He writes: read more »


2016-11-22

What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield
English: Picturing 50 realisations of a 95%-co...

English: Picturing 50 realisations of a 95%-confidence interval (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As my thesis partner and I gathered up the evidence we had collected, it began to dawn on us — as well as on our thesis advisers — that we didn’t have enough for ordinary, “normal” statistics. Our chief adviser, an Air Force colonel, and his captain assistant were on the faculty at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), where my partner and I were both seeking a master’s degree in logistics management.

We had traveled to the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia to talk with a group of supply-chain managers and to administer a survey. We were trying to find out if they adapted their behavior based on what the Air Force expected of them. Our problem, we later came to understand, was a paucity of data. Not a problem, said our advisers. We could instead use non-parametric statistics; we just had to take care in how we framed our conclusions and to state clearly our level of confidence in the results.

Shopping for Stats

In the end, I think our thesis held up pretty well. Most of the conclusions we reached rang true and matched both common sense and the emerging consensus in logistics management based on Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. But the work we did to prove our claims mathematically, with page after page of computer output, sometimes felt like voodoo. To be sure, we were careful not to put too much faith in them, not to “put too much weight on the saw,” but in some ways it seemed as though we were shopping for equations that proved our point.

I bring up this story from the previous century only to let you know that I am in no way a mathematician or a statistician. However, I still use statistics in my work. Oddly enough, when I left AFIT I simultaneously left the military (because of the “draw-down” of the early ’90s) and never worked in the logistics field again. I spent the next 24 years working in information technology. Still, my statistical background from AFIT has come in handy in things like data correlation, troubleshooting, reporting, data mining, etc.

We spent little, if any, time at AFIT learning about Bayes’ Theorem (BT). I think looking back on it, we might have done better in our thesis, chucking our esoteric non-parametric voodoo and replacing it with Bayesian statistics. I first had exposure to BT back around the turn of the century when I was spending a great deal of time both managing a mail server and maintaining an email interface program written in the most hideous dialect of C the world has ever produced. read more »


2016-09-24

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misunderstanding Historical Positivism and Mnemohistory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2016-09-12

Bayes, Schizophrenia, Autism and Brain Chemistry

by Neil Godfrey

A fascinating essay, even if speculative, by Scott Alexander on the brain chemistry behind Bayesian, deductive and inductive reasoning, and light it possibly sheds on conditions like schizophrenia, autism, and being stoned.

It’s Bayes All The Way Up


2016-09-09

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

Reasonable assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How we can write ancient history — breaking through cultural assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

The ideological influence on the dating of the Gospels

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

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

The outsider perspective

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

 


2016-08-08

Anti-Historical History in Biblical Studies

by Tim Widowfield

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

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

https://www.academia.edu/2978438/What_is_History_Using_Josephus_for_the_Judaean-Roman_War


2016-08-04

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s from an older post of mine.

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

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

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

 


2016-07-02

Unfair to Compare Jesus Scholars with Regular Historians

by Neil Godfrey
It may be unfair to hold Jesus scholars to the standards of regular historians, since they have been trained in interpretation of sacred texts, not in the methods of historical investigation.
Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013, 9.
HorsleyRichard

Richard A. Horsley

What is the context of that comment? Distinguished Professor Richard Horsley is talking about the practice of Jesus scholars to take individual sayings out of the gospels and attempting to “excavate” their origins instead of studying the gospels as literary works.

One of the first and most basic responsibilities of historians is to critically assess the character of their sources. Literary and rhetorical analysis of the sources is necessary to discern how they may be used for investigation of historical events, actors, and circumstances. Historians would not separate individual statements or short anecdotes from a source, categorize them by key words or apparent subject matter, and then seek the meaning of each statement by itself or assess the likelihood that particular anecdotes provide reliable attestation of actual historical incidents. (p. 9)

Historical Jesus scholars are very well aware that the Gospel are not regular histories but documents composed for the purpose of promoting faith in a wonder-working and resurrected Jesus. They therefore work with the assumption that if they extract certain pieces from such documents and subject them to “historical tests” they can arrive at some approximation of the “real historical Jesus”.

Jesus scholars recognize the “rhetorical” perspective of the Gospels. But precisely because the Gospels express the Easter faith of the “early Christians,” these scholars attempted to cut through or move underneath them by focusing on individual sayings (and stories) as their sources (or “data”), thus treating the Gospels as mere containers or collections. Work in other sub-fields of New Testament studies and related fields, however, is making this view of the Gospels untenable. (p. 9)

Horsley explains the process on the preceding page:

[T]he meaning of a saying depends on its meaning context, from which it cannot be intelligibly isolated. By extracting the sayings of Jesus from their literary context, Jesus scholars dispense with the only indication available for what that meaning context may have been. The analogy drawn recently that scholars are “excavating” the Gospel sources for Jesus such as Q or even “excavating Jesus” may be more telling than they realize. This suggests that the sayings are precious artifacts that must be excavated from the piles of dirt and debris in which they have become buried. Then, like museum curators of a generation or two ago, interpreters of Jesus arrange those decontextualized artifacts by type (“apocalyptic” or “sapiential”) and/or topic (children, meals, kingdom, wisdom), like fragments of lamps, vases, and pots in museum cases. Individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them. As isolated artifacts, however, they do not have or convey meaning, and they beg the question of context. The result is Jesus as a dehistoricized “talking head,” devoid of life circumstances.

With their various “databases” of atomized Jesus sayings isolated from any meaning context, the Jesus scholars then supply the meaning context themselves, often from the constructs of New Testament studies. It has become standard among critical liberal scholars, for example, to isolate Jesus’s admonition on what (not) to take for a/the journey from its immediate context in the “mission discourses” in both Mark 6:8-13 and Q/Lk 10:2-16. But what can this isolated saying about staff, sandals, bag, and so on mean in itself? Evidently nothing. So liberal interpreters recontextualize the saying in the modern scholarly construct of an itinerant vagabond lifestyle that Jesus was supposedly advocating to his individual disciples. (p. 8)

It is no different with scholars who work with memory theory in an attempt to reach back to the supposedly earliest “interpreted saying”.

I’ve addressed this point several times before — see, for example, Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything — so it is interesting, even encouraging, to see the same point being made by one of the more prominent biblical scholars today.

politics


2016-05-15

The Memory Mavens, Part 10: Memory and History (1)

by Tim Widowfield
Jorge Luis Borges en 1963

Jorge Luis Borges en 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ireneo Funes, the eponymous character in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Funes, the Memorious,” lived the first part of his life completely in the moment. Recalling his first encounter with the enigmatic figure, the narrator relates an incident from long ago when he and his cousin Bernardo were racing on horseback, trying to outrun a storm. They heard, suddenly, the sound of footsteps on the brick footpath above. It was Funes.

Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to him: “What’s the time, Ireneo?” Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo replied: “In ten minutes it will be eight o’clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco.” The voice was sharp, mocking. (Borges, 1967, p. 36)

In those days, Funes always knew the exact time; he knew about now, but remembered nothing of the past. Later, when the narrator meets Funes, he explains how an accident changed everything.

For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. (Borges, 1967, p. 40)

A garbage disposal

The fall left Funes unable to walk, and that paralysis becomes a metaphor for the crushing weight of all remembrances, which immobilize and suffocate. For while he can remember everything, his mind is inundated with every detail about every moment that he has ever experienced — and not only the event itself, but the clear recollection of each time he has recalled that event. read more »