Tag Archives: Eric Hobsbawm

Why Christianity Happened – The Secular Approach, 2

Continuing from Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins

James Crossley seeks to explain what he calls the “puzzle” of the nearly complete failure of biblical scholars to apply “social-scientifically informed approaches” (p. 3) to the study of Christian origins between the 1920s and 1970s. Crossley is actually addressing two types of historical explanation: those that cover the social context of emerging Christianity and those that apply what would more correctly be called “social-scientific” — the application of “social-scientific methods, models and theories”.

Behind the several reasons he offers for the failure of biblical scholars to take up either of these historical inquiries stands one constant:

the need to make sure that Christianity is not explained away purely in human terms. (p. 17)

Karl Kautsky

Karl Kautsky

One of the two exceptional authors whom Crossley singles out as being responsible for a theoretically based social-economic explanation for the rise and spread of Christianity was Karl Kautsky. Crossley doesn’t quote Kautsky on this point but his words are worth noting in order to demonstrate that the ideological interest of theologians has been recognized from the beginning of ‘scientific’ historiography as the reason for their resistance to it:

It is no wonder then that secular historiography feels no great need for investigating the origins of Christianity if it starts from the view that Christianity was the creation of a single person. If this view were correct, we could give up studying the rise of Christianity and leave its description to our poetic theologians.

But it is a different matter as soon as we think of a world-wide religion not as the product of a single superman but as a product of society. Social conditions at the time of the rise of Christianity are very well known. And the social character of early Christianity can be studied with some degree of accuracy from its literature. (Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity, 1908, 1923, translated by Henry F. Mins, 1953, my bolding in all quotations)

read more »

How modern historians use myths as historical sources – or, Can Hobsbawm recover the historical Robin Hood?

Can criteria used by New Testament scholars to uncover the historical Jesus (i.e., it is probably true if it is embarrassing, multiply attested, etc etc.) also be used on early ballads to see if we can know anything “probable” about the historical Robin Hood? Some people have “entertained reasonable doubts” about Robin Hood’s historicity, but at least one New Testament scholar has argued that if we can establish the probability of a deed or saying of Jesus Christ then it follows that he did exist. And we must not forget that “even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus Christ [ergo Robin Hood?] was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” (from Dr McGrath’s review of Dr Dale C. Allison).

There is one modern historian who has much to learn from these pioneering advances in historiography made by historical Jesus scholarship, though since he is 94 years old now he had better hurry. Eric Hobsbawm has himself pioneered the historical study of social banditry (bandits who are accepted and honoured by societies as heroes) and, like the New Testament scholars, has made abundant use of mythical or legendary material. Unfortunately he never seems to have attended the same conferences as  Jesus historians and so has missed out on the methods they have pioneered:

  1. the rigorous application of precisely articulated criteria to dig beneath the surface of unprovenanced mythical tales to discover the probable historical nuggets at the root of them all
  2. the use of even fabricated material, however inauthentic its specific details, in order to arrive at the true historical “gist” of the historical person at the centre of the narrative. (See NT Scholars are Pioneers for details)

Here is what Eric Hobsbawm has explained about his use of mythical or legendary material across the three different editions of one of his more famous works, Bandits. His bandit and bandit myth subjects ranged from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

A rather tricky historical source: read more »

Jesus: Myth of the Rebel Leader or Myth of a Saviour God — it’s all the same myth

Some scholars (e.g. S.G.F. Brandon) have opined that Jesus was something of a revolutionary or rebel leader; others (e.g. Thomas L. Thompson) that he was “a messiah myth” (the link is to an earlier post of mine listing the mythical traits of gods and kings of the Middle East).

Other scholars (e.g. Robert M. Price) have compared the Gospel narrative elements of Jesus against the various functional components of folk tales as extracted by Vladimir Propp.

One nonbiblical historian who, to my knowledge, has never written a word about Jesus, has written about a certain type of rebel leader, however, and compared the realities with the myth or legend that has universally attached itself to these sorts of people. Eric Hobsbawm has researched the phenomenon of social banditry (from China through Europe to Peru), or the Robin Hood types of figures. His list of characteristics of the “noble image” that attaches itself to these figures is interesting.

It bears a striking resemblance to the qualities of the kings and gods of Thompson’s messiah myth traits as much as to the heroic human outlaw. If the same qualities attach themselves to both the human outcast and a mighty god or king of another, much earlier, era, then one is entitled to suspect we are looking at some deeper psychological need/attraction at work here.

Here’s Hobsbawm’s list of characteristics (p. 47f of Bandits, 2000). read more »

How a biblical scholar uses sleight of hand to argue against mythicism

McGrath has linked to my post critiquing his comments on the Christ myth proposition and managed to avoid totally the whole point of my post — and the whole point of the particular quotation from Hobsbawm in question. But that is the normal way he “responds” to such critiques.

He also seeks to imply that those who use this quotation are ignorant of Hobsbawm’s arguments and are misrepresenting them, and he does this be showing he has at last got his hands on a copy of a book in which the quote does not appear, even though I have often cited the source of the quotation on my blog.

I have regularly cited the source: From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004). That is not easy to locate anymore, but the article is now available in pdf format at http://www.ncsu.edu/project/acontracorriente/spring_04/Slatta.pdf. (McGrath has asked more than once for evidence and sources (purportedly) to help him understand how nonbiblical historians work, and I have given him sources several times but he seems not to have followed them up.)

McGrath has completely sidestepped the whole point of the quotation and of my previous post, which is the importance of independent evidence for uncovering historicity of narratives.

“In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ’social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.”

It is instructive that McGrath originally elicited this quotation from one of his commenters by asking point blank:

Evan, Perhaps you can clarify, with reference to historians and historical methodology, how you are using the term “fact.”

Evan then responded with the quotation (and some others) along with his explanation in direct answer to McGrath’s request to clarify what he meant — with reference to historians and historical methodology — how he was using the word “fact”

Unfortunately, McGrath appears to have become derailed at the Evan’s cogent response as requested, and turned on him for “quote mining” and ripping words out of context.

But the quotation was not out of context. It explained exactly how Evan was using the term “fact”, and he did so with reference, as requested, to historians and historical methodology.

First time round McGrath dismissed Hobsbawm’s quote as a commie plot!

McGrath has had a hard time with Hobsbawm. When I first presented his words to him he responded that they were not reliable because they were part of a communist plot to re-write history.

Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

Note also that even then McGrath misused the quotation erroneously thinking that it was arguing that one needed “evidence other than texts” to verify historical facts. I had made no such argument at all, and Hobsbawm was certainly not arguing that. Yet that is how McGrath chose to use the quote.

Now that these words have resurfaced on his own blog he has once again used sleight of hand to misuse them. Just as he earlier attempted to argue that Hobsbawm was arguing a position neither he nor I ever suggested, he now uses the quotation to argue that they say something far less than they actually do. He has a hard time with reading its last sentence: In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.

And that is exactly what we lack in the case of the actions of Jesus. Even his existence is, by the same standards, theoretically open to question, as Albert Schweitzer himself pointed out:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

And that could be why McGrath is clearly determined to get rid of this Hobsbawm quote by any trick in the book, fair or foul, he can find.

To cap off the McGrath’s misapplication of Hobsbawm’s methods, he even compares Hobsbawm’s work with biblical scholar Dale Allison’s on the historical Jesus. Allison, as I showed in a recent post, has the honesty to recognize the circularity of methods used in historical Jesus studies. Will McGrath suggest Hobsbawm’s requirement for independent evidence means that his work is also grounded in circularity? It is, of course, only by means of independent evidence that one can escape circularity.

I discussed this in my previous post about how we can know anyone existed in ancient times, and what is meant by “independent” evidence.

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More charlantry from a biblical professor on mythicism

char·la·tan (shärl-tn)


A person fraudulently claiming knowledge and skills not possessed.

Source: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Charlantry

Theologian James McGrath is once again exposing his ignorance — and peddling public ignorance in the process — of both Jesus-mythicism and of the gulf between biblical studies and nonbiblical mainstream historical methods.

His latest foray as far as I am aware is found in his discussion professing to explain what “mythicism” has to say about 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. This is where Paul writes some instructions about the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The first flag McGrath waves to declare his ignorance of mythicism is when he writes:

What mythicism does with 1 Corinthians 11 is, on the one hand, refuse to allow the slightly later Gospel of Mark to shed light on it, while on the other hand, posits that Paul is referring to a heavenly occurrence in a mythical realm. read more »

Theologians Who Mistakenly Think They Are Historians


Morton Smith

Some theologians (I won’t mention any names) continue to call themselves historians despite never having majored in any historical studies. One renowned (or infamous to some) biblical scholar understood this as a serious problem in historical Jesus studies. He wrote of the anomaly of Jesus-studies supposedly having so much “primary documentation” yet being so fraught with unknowns, uncertainties and unresolvable disputes:

Yet Jesus should be one of the better known figures of antiquity. We have at least half a dozen letters from Paul, who perhaps knew Jesus during his lifetime (II Cor. 5:16), and joined his followers within, at most, a decade after his death. We have four accounts of Jesus’ public career – the canonical gospels – written anywhere from forty to seventy years after his death; these are generally thought to rest, in part, on earlier written material. Few public figures from the Greco-Roman world are so well documented, but none is so widely disputed. This suggests that there is something strange about the documents, or about the scholars who have studied them, or both.

Probably both. Most of the scholars have not been historians, but theologians determined to make the documents justify their own theological positions. This has been true of liberals, no less than conservatives; both have used “critical scholarship” to get rid of theologically unacceptable evidence. But not everything can be blamed on the scholars. They could not have performed such vanishing acts had there not been something peculiar in the evidence itself.

(pp. 3-4 of Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? by Morton Smith, my bolding) read more »

Charity, suspicion and categorization — exchange with Rick Sumner contd

Rick has posted another constructive response, “Charity,” “Suspicion” and the Dangers of Categorization. Or, What I Learned from John Hughes, to my posts on historical method in the context of NT historical studies. Another is expected to follow discussing the nature of facts. (Previous post addressing Rick is here.)

I suspect we are drawing closer together in understanding of our respective positions, and perhaps even not far from a point where we might be able more comfortably accept our mutual disagreements. Or maybe I’m presuming too much here.

Rick has pointed out that I at least give the appearance of “rhetorical excesses and false dichotomies” and that I “grossly overstate the case”. He sums up the message that apparently comes across in my posts:

Biblical Historian/Bad Historian/Hermeneutic of Charity
Other Historians/Good Histtorian/Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I have not re-read my posts to check whether or not I did attempt to qualify my statements well enough, but obviously this is the impression they have conveyed to Rick and no doubt someone else who might have read them, too.

To begin with, the terms “hermeneutic of suspicion” and “hermeneutic of charity” are not mine. read more »

Biblical historian McDaft admits to relying on hearsay and uncorroborated reports

Testimony about what someone claims to have heard from an eyewitness would not stand up in a court of law today — it is what is known as “hearsay”. Nevertheless, sometimes hearsay is all a historian has, and the rules of historical investigation are not as strict as those of the American legal system. We can utilize any sources available, and the only consequence will be that our conclusions about what happened will be less certain than if we had first-hand accounts written by the eyewitnesses themselves. (James McGrath in The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, pp. 37-38)

This is an astonishing admission from an associate professor who presents himself as an historian. It is the sort of admission that one would never expect to hear anywhere except in the cloisters of BIBLICAL history!

Let’s work backwards through this. In McGrath’s’ last sentence he implies that first-hand accounts in and of themselves bring with them, by definition, a certain degree of credibility. The only question is one of degree.

Well of course that must necessarily be so, IF such a first-hand account testifies to something for which we have independent evidence. To show the nonsense of the fundamental logic of this proposition: If eyewitness A accosts me and informs me in his own words, even backed up by a stamped affidavit, that he has just seen a pixie step out from a mushroom and board a flying saucer that zapped him to Mars, . . . . Or what of someone who reported he was eyewitness to a man talking with the devil, who walked on water, who rose from the dead and changed his life from one of fear to one of courage . . . .

I don’t think I have to go any further to demonstrate the logical fallacy here. Damn humanists! They are the ones who we must hold responsible for shunting logic out and away from being a basic requirement for anyone aspiring to be a scholar nowadays.

Then we come to “sometimes hearsay is all a historian has”.

So. At least we have refreshing honesty at work here. What this biblical professor of history means that we have a Gospel. AND that Gospel is a hearsay report. We are not told who the reporters were. Nor are we even told who those to whom they reported were. And yep, we are not even told who is telling us who told the story that was heard hearsay from the reporters! Assuming there WERE any reporters to begin with. It is just as logical to suspect that our reporter is making it all up, and the antecedent reporters are all in our own imaginations and assumptions.

I once referenced a historian who is very famous but who also happens to have sympathies with those evil Reds, the Commies who still lurk just south of Florida plotting incessantly to undermine all godly righteous values. This historian, Eric Hobsbawm, had the devious trickery to admit to a professional error of method in a book he had written. He had written a history of Latin American bandits, but had been challenged over the naive way he swallowed certain testimonies as real evidence — even eyewitness or firsthand reports!

Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

Here is how McGrath responds to this sinister communist methodology that is surely manufactured expressly to undermine faith in the Gospels as history:

Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

First, note how this honest professor works intellectual sleight of hand by changing the notion of “independent evidence” to “evidence other than texts”. (Hobsbawm and Slatta would have loved to have had primary textual evidence that they could evaluate with a view to testing the historicity of the narratives they heard.)

Second, it is hard not to note the good professor’s linking of Hobsbawm with a presumed “desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism”! Where that came from I do not know. So rather than address the methodology in question, this associate professor opts, rather, to point to his own gratuitous speculations about the political views of the renowned historian.

A leftist historian publicly confesses he was at methodological fault for relying on hearsay, and a biblical historian who needs to rely on hearsay to make his faith-based case responds by questioning the leftist’s politics!

So let me repeat my challenge to the historical-Jesus historian of faith: read more »