Tag Archives: Criteria of Authenticity

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.


 

Criterion of Embarrassment

Tim Claason responds to the “criterion of embarrassment” by listing several reasons why the gospel authors would want to depict the disciples of Jesus as blockheads. See his post Criterion of Embarrassment on Tim Stepping Out.

 

An Embarrassing Fallacy in Many Historical Jesus Studies

Recently I was discussing some of the criteria of authenticity that have been used by historical Jesus scholars to supposedly sift the more likely historical events in the gospels from those that are pious fabrications. I was using David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies as my yardstick. One criterion I did not get to then was that of embarrassment. This little rule says that if an event in the gospels would have been embarrassing to the early Christians then they would not have mentioned it — UNLESS it were an event so well known that they simply could not avoid mentioning it: ergo, the event really did happen. Example: the baptism of Jesus.

There are several fallacies in Fischer’s book that apply to this criterion but I’ll concentrate on just one: the fallacy of false dichotomous questions (p. 9).

Implicit in the criterion of embarrassment is the notion that an early Christian author was faced with either:

  • being compelled to write about an embarrassing event he did not really wish to write about;
  • or fabricating an event that was an embarrassment to himself and his readers.

The latter is obviously very unlikely so the first option wins virtually by default.

Of course the question raised by the criterion excludes all but two possibilities: being compelled by the sheer facts to write or making up a story that is counter-productive to one’s interests.

Yet we know that authors — even the evangelists — are quite capable of avoiding details that are well-known to their audiences (e.g. Luke omitted whole swathes of stories in the Gospel of Mark that he was using), and that human experience teaches us that in real life people are often capable of ignoring reality when it suits. We also know that our knowledge of the authorship of the gospels is very limited. What was embarrassing to the author or his audience? Are there other reasons for the creation of the stories?

To approach questions of historical reconstruction with such a blinkered dichotomy is clearly fallacious.

Other fallacies relating to causation and motivation also apply. But I promised to limit myself to just one for this post.

 

Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity

Ernst Käsemann
Ernst Käsemann

The limits of historical criteria

Longtime Vridar readers will recall that both Neil and I view the use of criteriology as employed by historical Jesus researchers with a great deal of skepticism. They consistently ask too much of the criteria. We might be able to say, for example, that applying a given criterion can determine the antiquity of a logion (e.g., a traditional saying that may predate both Paul and Mark) but it cannot prove authenticity (i.e., that Jesus said it).

However, I now find myself in the odd position of defending at least one criterion against a detractor. In How God Became Jesus, a book intended to refute Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Michael Bird writes (in a chapter called “Did Jesus Think He Was God?”):

I’ve used [historical criteria] myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. (p. 33)

Bird’s definition of the CoD

I would, of course, shy away from the term “the early church,” especially in the singular, because it implies unity within ancient Christianity. But other than that, Bird and I mostly agree. If any history at all lies within the gospels, it will necessarily be entangled with the theological concerns of the evangelists and the proclamation of Christ by Jesus’ early followers. No historical criterion can reliably separate them.

Bird offers up the criterion of dissimilarity (CoD) as a failed example.

For [a] case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” [Ehrman, 96-97] This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

If you’re wondering about that Dawson’s Creek reference, I regret to say that the authors continually veer off into stilted pop culture references. Each time they drag one out, I can’t help but picture an awkward youth pastor in Dockers and a sweater vest trying to sound “hip” for the kids. It’s a constant reminder that we are not their intended audience. Here’s another rib-tickler from Bird:

The background to this saying and the explanation for why Jesus was thought to have committed blasphemy is something like a Jewish version of the TV show Game of Thrones. (p. 43)

read more »

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 »

Jan Vansina and the Criterion of Embarrassment

Jan Vansina
Jan Vansina

Insults and a failure to comprehend

Awhile back our favorite historicist doctor posted a comment on his own blog:

One can see a similar mythicist combination of insult and failure to comprehend those with whom they disagree at the blog Vridar. Seriously, it is as though I had never written anything about [Jan] Vansina and oral tradition here on this blog, never mind in scholarly publications! (Dr. James F. McGrath, 16 June 2013)

He links his “insult and failure to comprehend” remark to Neil’s post, “Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition.” Where’s the insult? Probably this:

[I]t quickly became evident that [Dr. McGrath] had not read or understood Vansina’s works, but had himself appeared to quote-mine a single passage, out of context, to lend “support” to a point he was making in one of his articles. My own reading of Vansina and my attempts to point out to the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair what he had failed to notice in Vansina’s work were disdainfully and peremptorily dismissed. The Doctor continues to play the part of the Emperor with no clothes by foolishly and ignorantly asserting that Vansina’s works support the a model of oral transmission that they in fact contradict. (Neil Godfrey, 16 June 2013)

Islands in the stream?

McGrath’s comment from the 16th ends with a reference to his essay in a scholarly work, “Written Islands in the Oral Stream: Gospel and Oral Traditions.” Indeed, we should note that McGrath’s essay is the first piece in the book (see the link McGrath kindly provided).

In the interest of completeness and fair play, here’s exactly what McGrath wrote in a scholarly publication concerning Vansina:

Particularly important in conjunction with this topic is Vansina’s observation that official traditions tend to be preserved much more precisely over longer periods of time with a higher degree of accuracy than stories preserved by private individuals. [Vansina, Oral Traditions, pp. 85-86] On the other hand, official traditions are also far more likely to have been fabricated or at least falsified to reflect an official viewpoint. For this reason, the fact that a tradition can be demonstrated to have been passed on faithfully for several decades does not immediately indicate the historical reliability of the information. Indeed, it may in at least some instances suggest the opposite. (p. 9)

That’s absolutely correct. What we must stress here is that public, official oral tradition reflects the functions for which it is remembered and transmitted. Oral societies will often transmit such traditions faithfully over many years, but the actual story they tell may not be authentic. Where McGrath goes wrong is in the attempted specific application of Vansina’s work to NT studies.

Those studying oral traditions in contemporary oral cultures have likewise found principles well-known in historical criticism of the Bible to be readily applicable to their work. Vansina notes that it is sometimes possible to demonstrate the unlikelihood that a tradition has been falsified, for example ‘where a tradition contains features which are not in accord with the purpose for which it is used.’ [Vansina, p. 83] Vansina then defines a principle that is essentially the same as the criterion of embarrassment used by historians investigating the historical Jesus. The converse principle is also affirmed, namely that ‘facts which do not help to maintain the institution which transmits the tradition are often omitted or falsified.’ [Vansina, p. 84] (p. 8, bold emphasis mine)

Readily applicable?

McGrath has correctly quoted Vansina, but he cannot have fully understood the broad implications of Vansina’s work, or else he would not have used the phrase “readily applicable to their work.” It is not. He also asserts that the criterion of embarrassment in NT studies is “essentially the same” as what Vansina had described. It is not.

[Note: Neil wrote an enlightening piece on this very subject about a year and a half ago. If you haven’t read it (like McGrath), you should: “Oral History does NOT support ‘criterion of embarrassment’“]

First, let’s state the obvious difference between the study of oral tradition and the study of the New Testament. Vansina talked to real people who were transmitting real oral history to him. That is, he met face to face with the people who were still telling stories. McGrath and his fellow scholars are reading written works whose authors may or may not have transcribed from oral sources. Does this matter? Of course it does.

Vansina writes (Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology) :

read more »

Joel Watts: Lunatic, Liar, or Lord?

I have to thank Manoj Joseph for pointing out some date/time oddities in Joel’s testimony concerning exactly when he emailed Neil about the DMCA takedown. With all the work I had to do to bring Vridar back to life, I barely had time to skim a handful of the relevant posts around the web.

But now with the passage of couple of relatively peaceful days, I think it’s time to reflect on what happened. In particular, we should look more carefully at those screenshots that Joel so graciously provided. I just checked his site, and they’re still there, but just in case he catches on to his mistake, you will still be able to find them in various web caches.

Watts the story?

Joel says he warned Neil on the 26th. Explaining his actions, he begins by showing a screen capture of a comment by Neil. He writes: “I then sent an email to him, shortly there after [sic] . . .  Note the time difference. I know he’s in Australia.

Comment by Neil
Comment posted at 12:43 AM local to Joel’s blog.

That’s a curious little side note from Mr. Watts. The WordPress administrator tool in the screen capture shows a local time (EDT) of 12:43 AM. WordPress doesn’t show you the local time of the sender; that would be insane. No, this is Joel’s local time: Eastern Daylight Saving Time.

Joel's Sent Mail
Comparing the system time to the sent time

So what’s this business about a “time difference“? Joel wants to prepare us for a little con job that he’s about to foist on us. It reminds me of short-change artists who confuse you with their nonsensical patter just before they coax you to give them an extra 20-dollar bill.

Nothin’ up my sleeve

Next, Joel kindly shows us an image capture of his desktop. Looking at his Sent Items folder, we’re led to believe that he sent an email to Neil at 12:56 PM on the 26th. So, Neil posted shortly after midnight (EDT) on the 26th. Joel allegedly sent his mail “shortly there after [sic]” — I guess 12 hours is a “short time” in Joel’s mind. No matter.  It is, after all, the same calendar day.

But hang on.  Compare the wall clock time on Joel’s Macintosh to the time on the email. Remember: These are all local times of the sender. Outlook doesn’t show the local time of the recipient; that would be crazy.

read more »

“It Is Hard to Imagine” — How Scholars Invent History

Why would anybody make it up? (And other dead horses.)

In a recent post over on Exploring our Matrix, James McGrath wrote:

The depiction of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, in great distress and praying that the cup pass from him, is one that it is hard to imagine being invented by the later church, after they had made sense of the cross as the decisive salvific event in human history. Would they invent Jesus asking for that not to occur? It seems unlikely. But the scene makes no sense if Jesus does not believe that he must under go [sic] something traumatic. (emphasis mine)

Giorgio Vasari: An angel strengthens Jesus pra...
Giorgio Vasari: An angel strengthens Jesus praying in agony in Gethsemane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s quite a bit of “logic” packed into a single paragraph. Somehow we started out with a narrative event in the synoptic gospels and we ended up with a supposed “authentic” historical event simply by applying a thought experiment.

Why does McGrath think it is hard to imagine the “later church” inventing a scene in which Jesus asked for the cup to pass? Because the cross is necessary for salvation. How could the Son of God try to wriggle out of the crucifixion when that’s the whole plan? Why is the Messiah under such distress?

Uncomfortable Christians

And indeed, the later church, even as early as the gospel of John, did seem uncomfortable with Jesus agonizing over his fate in Gethsemane. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus knows his part in the plan and meets the arresting party head-on:

Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” (John 18:4, ESV)

So McGrath could be correct in saying that the later church would be unlikely to create the garden scene with Jesus apparently trying to avoid death. But what about the early church?

The importance of being obedient

We prove our obedience not by doing things we want to do, but by doing things we would prefer not to do.

Two early documents (which predate our narrative gospels) in the New Testament give evidence of a belief in a Savior who demonstrated total obedience. In the Philippian Hymn we find this line:

read more »

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3b: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Historiographical Perdition (Part 2)

This continues the previous post on Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant. Why two posts on this? Since some New Testament scholars point to Michael Grant as evidence that academics outside biblical studies employ the same methods and reach the same conclusions about the historicity of Jesus as they do, won’t hurt to address his work in some detail.

For Michael Grant, Jesus was better and greater than any other person in the history of the world. If the Gospels say he did or said something that reminds us of what other persons have said or done, Grant is always quick to expostulate that Jesus said or did it with such greater force or power that he made it sound or look unprecedented. Usually he just makes this declamation of Jesus’ superiority as if it must be a self-evident truth. At the same time he generally informs readers exactly what was in the mind and feelings of Jesus, too. Recall from my earlier post:

He felt an immovable certainty that he was the figure through whom God’s purposes were to be fulfilled. This absolute conviction of an entirely peculiar relationship with God was not unknown among Jewish religious leaders, but in Jesus it became a great deal more vigorous and violent than theirs. (Jesus, p. 77)

and

Jesus’ extreme obsessional conviction of a unique relationship with God makes any attempt to fit him into the social, institutional pattern of his time, or into its habitual concepts of thought, a dubious and daunting proposition. (Jesus, p. 78)

When in the Gospel of Luke we read of Jesus making an observation well known from rabbinical literature, that a poor woman giving her few pennies was making a greater sacrifice than any of the rich donors, Grant explains:

This story is exactly paralleled in rabbinical literature. And yet Jesus applied it more aggressively, for according to Luke, he accompanied his utterance by an attack on the Jewish scribes or doctors of the Law who ‘eat up the property of widows.’ Jesus carried his championship of the underdog beyond the bounds set by other Jews of the age. (p. 57)

Even the most banal teachings attributed to Jesus are said to be given a sharpened edge by Jesus:

Nor were Jesus’ ethical precepts for the most part original or novel, since ninety per cent of them were based upon injunctions that had already been offered by other Jewish teachers.

However, Jesus sharpened certain of these themes. (p. 25)

This is all Grant’s own imaginative fantasies being projected into the literary Jesus, of course. Gospel sayings of Jesus are quite trite so Grant attempts to rescue them by saying Jesus said or felt them “more vigorously”, “more powerfully” or “more sharply” than anyone else.

By now I think some readers will begin to understand why Grant’s biographies of ancient persons are generally for popular, more than scholarly or graduate student, consumption.

.

A New Testament scholar’s evaluation of Michael Grant’s “historical Jesus”

One New Testament scholar points out exactly what Michael Grant is doing and it is not history. It is outdated New Testament hermeneutics.

read more »

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 3a: How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Scholarly Perdition (Part 1)

Michael Grant

Sometimes when attempting to demolish the arguments of the Christ myth theory historical Jesus scholars point to a popular biography of Jesus, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, by a scholar situated well outside the faculties of theology or biblical studies, the classicist Michael Grant. The reason they point to Michael Grant’s book is to be able to say, “See, even a non-theologian, a secular historian, knows Jesus really existed.” The implication is that the normal methods of everyday historical inquiry (quite apart from anything theologians might bring to bear on the topic) are sufficient to “prove” that the person Jesus is a fact of history.

So this post looks at what Michael Grant himself said about the evidence, his methods and why he believed Jesus to be an historical person.

I wonder how many of these Jesus scholars have taken the time to read Grant’s book since none, as far as I am aware, has ever pointed to Grant’s own argument in that book against the Christ Myth view and his own justification for believing Jesus to have been historical. Or maybe it is because they have read it that they choose to remain quiet about Grant’s arguments.

Who was Michael Grant?

Michael Grant was a classicist specializing in the study of Roman coins who was responsible for over 70 books on historical topics.

Immensely prolific, he wrote and edited more than 70 books of nonfiction and translation, covering topics from Roman coinage and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the Gospels. He produced general surveys of ancient Greek, Roman and Israelite history as well as biographies of giants such as Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, Cleopatra, Nero, Jesus, St. Peter and St. Paul. (Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

His reputation as an historian of ancient history was mixed:

As early as the 1950s, Grant’s publishing success was somewhat controversial within the classicist community. According to The Times:

Grant’s approach to classical history was beginning to divide critics. Numismatists felt that his academic work was beyond reproach, but some academics balked at his attempt to condense a survey of Roman literature into 300 pages, and felt (in the words of one reviewer) that “even the most learned and gifted of historians should observe a speed-limit”. The academics would keep cavilling, but the public kept buying.

(Wikipedia, accessed 2nd Feb 2013)

The work of his that I remember most clearly as an undergraduate was a collection of translated readings of Roman literature. This was supplemented by many other more comprehensive readings.

The “notoriously hard and challenging task”

 

At the end of Grant’s book on the life of Jesus he asks how we know if anything he has written is truly historical. read more »

Hoffmann’s historical Jesus argument for dummies — with a graphic to clarify it all

Let’s try to make it clearer with a picture. Mark Erickson has attempted to have Joseph Hoffmann and Stephanie Fisher clarify their central argument for the historical Jesus:

“The political and religious conditions of the time of Jesus plausibly give us characters like Jesus. This is a tautology that must be confronted.”

Hoffmann attempts to clarify with this (unedited):

The poltical (sic) conditions of the time of late republican Rome give us characters like Antony and Caesar. Not characters like Sargom(sic), Elijah or Darth Vadar (sic). if (sic) then I have literary artifacts that conform to those condtions (sic) and contexts, how should they not be facors (sic) in establoishing (sic) the historicity of it. It’s basic historical process–the 1000 pound premise mythtics (sic) routiney (sic) dance past in their quest for improbable substitutes and “parallels” that explain the sources.

I think what Hoffmann means is that he gets cranky with anyone who suggests the source of the Jesus we find in the Gospels was, ultimately, not a historical Jesus and but some other mythical deity like Attis or Hercules.

I don’t think the evangelists were thinking of Attis or Hercules when they wrote about Jesus, and I don’t know many mythicists who do think like that, so as far as I’m concerned I’m not the least interested in his having a go at something that looks like a straw-man.

But let’s look at his “one airtight argument” Hoffmann has for the historical Jesus. As Stephanie expressed it:

The one airtight argument in [Hoffmann’s] piece [is] that the conditions for the existence of Jesus necessarily produce people of like description, so to choose an analogous over a known figure is non-parsimonious and tautologies are eo ipso true statements.

Question for Steph: Steph, are you saying that Hoffmann’s argument is true because he has expressed it as a tautology?
Tautology (rhetoric), using different words to say the same thing, or a series of self-reinforcing statements that cannot be disproved because they depend on the assumption that they are already correct

Let’s start with a graphic to try to get this clear in our heads. (See the previous post where the 3 C’s are explained: Conditions, Context and Coordinates):

 Hang on! Isn’t this the same text-book fallacy we (should) know so well?

Mrs Smith’s farm produces green apples.  (The 3Cs produce this type of person)

This is a green apple. (Jesus is this type of person)

Therefore this apple comes from Mrs Smith’s farm. (Therefore the 3Cs produced — historically, not just literarily — Jesus)

And that’s before we even get to finding out how Hoffmann managed to find (something like his own reflection in the Gospels and call it) Jesus with the 3C traits. (I look forward to reading how Hoffmann does that without begging the question.)

If I am wrong and am misrepresenting Hoffmann I am sure Steph or someone will let me know. . . . . read more »

Hoffmann’s arguments for an historical Jesus: exercises in circularity and other fallacies

One never thinks to engage seriously with ticks so when Hoffmann calls his mythicist opponents “mythtics” it is clear he has no interest in taking them seriously. When he does speak of the arguments of those he has described as “ghetto-dwelling disease carrying mosquitoes/buggers” he necessarily keeps them anonymous and never cites or quotes them, but belabors the same tired old straw man points he seems to want, maybe even needs, them to be arguing. I return to this point at the end of the post.

So without a dialogue partner I post here my own thoughts and questions about his method that leads him to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth did exist as an historical person.

He writes in his post, The Historically Inconvenient Jesus (with my formatting):

Given that there is

  • (a) no reason to trust the gospels;
  • (b) no external testimony to the existence of Jesus (I’ve never thought that the so-called “pagan” reports were worth considering in detail; at most they can be considered evidence of the cult, not a founder);
  • (c) no independent Christian source that is not tainted by the missionary objectives of the cult
  • and (d) no Jewish account that has not been invented or tainted by Christian interpolators,

what is the purpose of holding out for an historical Jesus?

Actually I think his point (a) is badly expressed. I actually do believe we can and should “trust the gospels” — but only after we first analyze them to understand what, exactly, they are. I believe we can trust the Gospel of Mark as an expression of theological beliefs about Jesus because that’s exactly what it is. I can see no more reason to use it as an historical source for its narrative contents than there would be to use the Gospel of Mary for the same purpose. That means the Gospel of Mark, like the Gospel of Mary, is an excellent, trustworthy source for certain theological beliefs and the ways they were expressed among those who first knew these gospels. I know of no a priori reason to think anyone should bother to read them for kernels of historical events and persons behind their narratives. I can see lots of reasons in the Gospels to think their narratives have nothing to do with historical events.

But that’s just me (and, I think, William Wrede) so I’ll move on and for the sake of argument play the game the way Hoffmann plays it here.

As for starting with a complete absence of reliable external testimonies, Hoffmann is parting company with probably most of his peers. Looks like this position is a legacy from his own time as a “mythtick”.

So Hoffmann is beginning his “quest” for evidence of historicity without gospels, without external testimonies, and without any independent Christian source. Ex nihilo?

Hoffmann explains that the historical Jesus will emerge from “the three C’s”: conditions, context and coordinates.

Simply put, it is the three “C”s: conditions, context, and coordinates. 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 »

Historical Method Versus Jesus Research. Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

I touched on one brief passage in the chapter by Jens Schröter in my recent post, Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically from Other Historical Studies, and it’s now time to return to his chapter from Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [JCDA] in more depth. Jens Schröter appears at several points to come so close to advocating use of the methods of other historical studies for the study of Jesus, but each time falls agonizingly short of what only those with eyes wide shut will miss.

Introduction

Historical Jesus research in recent decades has dwelt heavily upon the social, political and religious life of Judaism, Palestine and Galilee in the first century in order to explore the environmental factors that must have contributed to the personal make-up of Jesus and his mission.

A historical presentation of Jesus’ mission has to explain why it caused a new movement circled around his name and venerating him as “Lord Jesus Christ.” . . . . (p. 49, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Right here is the first problem of historical Jesus studies. Recently Larry Hurtado even declared that part of this proposition — that a new movement erupted from Palestine in the 30’s — was “data”* that the historian was required to explain.

But that is not data. What is data is the existence of narratives — the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John and the Book of Acts — portraying a faith movement spreading from Palestine in the 30s. But narratives are not necessarily history.

Nor do we have any data to confirm that there was a Jesus mission in Palestine that caused a new movement. The data we have are stories about such a Jesus mission. But stories are not necessarily history.

  • Question: How can we know if a story is based on history?
    • If a story begins with, “This is a true story”, is that enough to rely upon?
    • What if the tale is told from the perspective of an all knowing authoritative narrator who speaks with authority. Is that the clue?
    • What if the tale is plausible and coherent and “rings true” — that is, is rich in verisimilitude? Is that a sure sign it really is true?
    • How many biblical scholars have ever stopped to think through questions like these in relation to historical figures (ancient, medieval and modern) generally?
  • Answer: We need some evidence external to the story itself that confirms for us that there were real events and persons upon which the story was based. For example: read more »