Tag Archives: Historical Method

Understanding Historical Evidence

Steve Mason

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

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

–o–

It is mistake to pick up a primary source like Josephus’ War or Plutarch’s Lives or the Gospel of Luke and think we can just “extract raw facts” from them “while ignoring their nature, structures, and themes.” Before we can take anything as a fact we need to understand what, exactly, our sources are and if they are even capable of answering questions we would like to put to them. But too often

Historians are often impatient with theory. We feel that we know what we are doing, and abstract philosophizing can get in the way. We should just get on with the hard work.

(Mason, 61)

Too often historians and their readers think that all that is required is to follow wherever the evidence leads in order to produce an authoritative account of the past. If a historian or philosopher of history starts talking about analysing literary sources as literature before using those sources to elicit facts to tell us what happened in the past some voices will protest that such a procedure is only for the “literary types” and not relevant to the historian. Mason’s warning is worth taking seriously:

In the final months of preparing this book I have heard professional historians express such views as these: History is the past or an authoritative account of it; historians must follow the evidence and avoid speculation; history concerns itself with elite literary texts and neither material evidence or the life of ordinary folk, which are the province of archaeologists; historians are either maximalists or minimalists, realists or postmodernists, left-wingers or conservatives, or they fall in some other two-kinds-of-people scheme. A problem relevant to this chapter is the notion that those who care about the meaning of texts must be literary types unconcerned with the actual past. And these positions are held by historians. If we include more popular ideas about history, including those espoused by political leaders and school boards, the picture becomes bewildering.

(ibid)

Mason cites a reviewer of one his own works to illustrate the point. I can cite a critic of my approach studying the gospels who makes the same point graphically:

McGrath, James F. 2008. The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. BookSurge Publishing. p. 57

(I was surprised to see that even Matthew Ferguson appears to accept that stark division of labour between historical and literary approaches to a source text so I have to suspect that this misleading concept is more prevalent than I would hope and that Mason acknowledges.)

Our job description

A common belief is that history can be discovered by a painstaking effort to sort through sources and extract the facts of the matter from them. Sometimes the sources will be contradictory and then we need to make a judgement about which set of facts to follow. The point that is taken for granted is that the point of the inquiry is to come to know what actually happened. Historians are expected to be able to give an authoritative account of the past. But there is a but: in ancient history the nature of the evidence simply does not allow us to “know” in the way we would like.

Ancient historians must make their peace with uncertainty because that is where the nature of surviving evidence requires us to live much of the time. Our job description is to investigate responsibly, not to know what happened.

(ibid, 63)

read more »

How Historians Know Their Bedrock Facts

Only the most manic conspiracy theorist would question the fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, or that a man landed on the moon in 1969, or that the Holocaust took place. . . . . It is a fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in 49 BC; going back to the sources in an attempt to prove or disprove this would be as much a waste of time as reinventing the wheel.

(Morley, 59)

When the ancient historian Neville Morley wrote those words he unfortunately made it sound tedious to go back and pore through papers and documents and books to find out “how we know” they happened. But it is not a difficult task at all, especially now that since Morley wrote we have a vastly improved internet fact-finder.

Two of Morley’s examples are not at all problematic. We know we have abundant contemporary sources to verify the moon landing and Holocaust. But what about the facts in medieval and ancient history?

Here is how we know . . . .

the fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066

Search for “Battle of Hastings” and “Primary sources”. In quick time you will find the data that has long assured us that this battle happened and it was  in 1066. Example: Spartacus Educational — Battle of Hastings. One sees at the top of that page a link to Primary Sources. If you haven’t already, click on it. In front of will be a list of the following and even more conveniently translations of the texts:

(1) Message sent by William of Normandy just before the Battle of Hastings took place (quoted by William of Poitiers in Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans (c. 1070)

(2) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D Version, entry for 1066.

(3) William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Kings of the English (c. 1140)

(4) William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)

Sources: WIkipedia

A message by William of Normandy himself? Quoted by a contemporary? That looks strong evidence, but is there corroboration from another source?

A Chronicle of the time. Now that’s strong. “D Version” looks a bit baffling but a bit more searching will bring up an explanation that the particular manuscript in mind is that of Worchester.

Number (4) is a bit late so we would have to read it to check on the sources the author used. That’s not very difficult nowadays, either. Just one more click away.

That’s how we really know the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Sources from contemporaries.

Here is how we know . . . .

that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in 49 BC

Again, a little hunting and pecking on the web, or looking up a scholarly publication about the event, or asking a classicist, will quickly inform us that we have Julius Caesar’s own “memoirs” or “commentary” on the Civil War in which he tells us that (and when) he crossed over into Italy with his army, thus precipitating the Civil War.

We have Julius Caesar’s own written account of the circumstances that led him to cross into Italy in the Commentaries on the Civil War (1:8) (Don’t be put off by Caesar’s odd-sounding practice of referring to himself in the third person.) Caesar did not explicitly mention the provincial border he crossed (he only said he marched into Italy as far as Rimi or Ariminum twelve miles south of the river) but we have the explicit reference to the Rubicon in a written speech by Cicero, Caesar’s contemporary. And then we have several later historians who had access to archives writing about Caesar. But on the combined strength of Caesar’s own testimony and the testimony of his contemporary we can safely say that Caesar did indeed cross the Rubicon thus precipitating the civil war.

What we don’t know as a fact . . . .

Morley explains: read more »

There are two types of Jesus mythicism. Here’s how to tell them apart.

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Type 1: Scholarly
The authors engage with not only the source documents of early Christianity but they also address the scholarship that has been written about those documents. The arguments are structured around engagement with the scholarship of biblical studies, ancient history (including judaica), the classics and other related fields such as archaeology, religion, anthropology, historiography, mythology. They apply the norms of the scientific method (e.g. evidence-based, falsifiability). e.g. Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, Robert Price.

Type 2: Pseudo-Scholarly
The authors engage with the source documents but disregard the bulk of related scholarly discussion and focus primarily on interpreting them tendentiously through a conspiracy theory or other unfalsifiable pseudo-historical theory. That is, their arguments are based on an assumption (that is, there is no unambiguous evidence in support) that there are behind-the-scenes powerful and complex forces and actors manipulating or producing the evidence. The emphasis is on arguing for the “missing link” in explaining Christianity and little to no attention is given to addressing alternative explanations in the scholarship for the evidence used. e.g. Christianity as an invention by Roman imperial powers; a strain of astrotheological beliefs dominated secret mystery religions and morphed into Christianity; Christian teachings began and were preserved in some form though centuries, even millennia, before being re-written in the gospels.

What do you think? Do those two “definitions” cover it? I’m sure the wording can be tidied.

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How Historians Study a Figure Like Jesus

Life of Apollonius of Tyana . . . is a text in eight books written in Ancient Greece by Philostratus (c. 170 – c. 245 AD). It tells the story of Apollonius of Tyana (c. 15 – c. 100 AD), a Pythagorean philosopher and teacher. — Wikipedia

In addition to teaching wisdom on his travels Apollonius was said to have performed miracles (exorcising demons; raising the dead) and to have even made an appearance to a follower after his death.

What follows are some points from a major contribution to the study of this figure by a historian of ancient history, Maria Dzielska.

Genre

As with historical Jesus scholars discussing the genre of the gospels, ancient historians pose questions about our account of Apollonius:

Scholars keep wondering at the true character of this work: what sort of biography it is (Leo), whether it is a Heliodoran romance, romantic hagiography, or whether, according to J. Palm’s recent suggestion, it is a documentary romance.

(Dzielska, p.12)

Sources

Unlike the gospels the Life of Apollonius of Tyana mentions sources. Ah, if only the gospels would have done the same! The principal source the biographer, Philostratus, relies upon is Damis, the life-long close companion of Apollonius, and you’d think that if only we had a gospel saying directly that everything we read came from Peter we would have all our questions about the reliability of the gospels settled. But perversely, it would seem, most historians don’t believe that Damis ever existed and that Philostratus made him up to add a respectable and authoritative tone to his narrative.

Dzielska singles out the one historian known to have assumed (naively, without clear evidence, Dzielska and others claimed) the existence of Damis.

Furthermore, Grosso assumes that Damis did exist

(p.12)

The Hypomnèmata of Damis have always been a great problem in the studies of Philostratus’ work. Scholars have wondered whether the memoirs were only a figment of Philostratus’ literary imagination, or whether they constituted a real notebook compiled by a certain pupil of Apollonius. This question has been raised not only by specialists in literature but also by historians. The latest views on the “Damis question” I present below. On their basis I consider Damis a fictitious figure and his memoirs (or notebooks) an invention of Philostratus. . . . .

Using all his literary means Philostratus tries to assert that everything described by “Damis” is historically valid. As to his other sources, he either criticizes them (I 3), or dismisses them with a brief mention (I 3; 12). It is just this indiscriminate attitude towards “Damis” relation that makes us believe in Philostratus’ authorship of the memoirs.

(pp. 19-20)

An examination of the details said to be from Damis leads a number of scholars to think that this Damis knew nothing more than what was already in the works of Tacitus, Josephus Flavius, Suetonius and Cassius Dio. A truly independent source would be expected to yield truly independent information. There are other details that raise suspicions about the reality of Damis, but I will move on.

Sifting History from Fiction

We know a good number of biblical scholars attempt to persuade us that the gospels are reliable sources because the geographic, social and political details in them are perfectly consistent with the real world at that time.

Compare what ancient historians think of that sort of argument:

Yet Bowie is right to suggest that the conformability of historical accounts contained in VA [=Life of Apollonius] to historical events of the first century does not prove in itself the historicity of the events of Apollonius’ life as outlined in VA.

(p. 13)

The gospels are known to be theological depictions of Jesus. Only apologists consider them historically true in all details. Similarly with Apollonius’s biographer:

that Philostratus, as a man of letters and sophist full of passion for Greek Romance and for the studies in rhetoric, was hardly interested in the historical Apollonius. . . .

he had to invent this figure, as it were, anew. Thus, using his literary imagination, he turned a modest Cappadocian mystic into an impressive figure, full of life, politically outstanding, and yet also preposterous.

(p. 14)

Biblical scholars use criteria of authenticity or memory theory models to try to figure out what in the gospel narratives is historically probable as distinct from theological or mythical overlay. Ancient historians appear to have been very slow to have picked up on these advanced techniques of their New Testament “counterparts” and still rely upon independent corroboration.

In the present work where Apollonius is treated both as a historical figure existing at a definite time and in a definite geographical region, and as a literary hero, it is my duty to refer all the time to the work which called him into being as a literary figure……. I consider this material useful and historically valuable only when it finds its confirmation in other literary and historical sources.

(pp. 14-15)

Fiction in the Guise of History/Biography

We spoke above of Philostratus’s sources. Philostratus does give us an account of Apollonius that is rich in detail, both as to detail about his sources, and details of places and chronology throughout the narrative. Some biblical scholars have argued that rich narrative detail is an indicator of historical memory or eyewitness accounts. Some ancient historians have likewise thought the same. But not all. The historian needs to have clear grounds for reading a passage as history as distinct from fiction:

Why not then acknowledge the historicity of, let us say, a romance story about King Artaxerxes’ trial of Chaereas contained in Chariton’s Story of Chaereas and Callirhoe, or Iamblichus’ story about a bad king Garmos who persecuted the hero and heroine of Iamblichus’ Babyloniaca 2?

The historical adventures presented by “Damis” are different from those described by Iamblichus in the Babyloniaca only in so far as they are a falsification compiled with a chronicler’s precision.

(p. 24)


Dzielska, Maria. 1986. Apollonius of Tynan in Legend and History. Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider.


 

Fake History for Atheists

Not long ago PZ Myers responded positively to certain arguments in the post by Tim O’Neill, Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus”. PZ was not to know of the presumably inadvertent misrepresentations Tim O’Neill made of David Fitgerald’s arguments in that post. In a followup post by PZ, Tim reminded readers that he had, he believed, demonstrated the incompetence of David’s arguments.

It’s not enough to demonstrate a silence in some sources – you have to show that any of these sources SHOULD have mentioned Jesus. This is where Fitzgerald and his ilk fail every time. I discuss this at length here:

https://historyforatheists.com/2018/05/jesus-mythicism-3-no-contemporary-references-to-jesus/

Now I am sure Tim is convinced of his sincerity and genuinely believes that his criticism of David’s arguments are entirely just and reasonable. I also think that the emotive language Tim so often uses betrays an emotional investment in his viewpoints that blinds him from his bias and accordingly from noticing details in David’s book that contradict his (Tim’s) perceptions (better, pre-perceptions).

A few examples follow. (Not many. To do an exhaustive review — as I did for Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus in a  leading journal dedicated to the study of the historical Jesus — would not be healthy for my emotional well-being, but at the same time I am quite willing to take the time to respond to any particular claims made by Tim that readers might think do carry genuine critical weight. The reason I post at all this response at all is because, well, I don’t like to see misrepresentations stand without challenge.)

I first address Tim’s criticism of David’s argument concerning Seneca’s silence concerning Jesus. It will be useful, first, though, to read the passage by David that Tim criticizes. Here is David’s section on Seneca:

Seneca the Younger (c. 3 B.C.E. – 65) Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, writer, statesman, and de facto ruler of the Empire for many years, had three compelling reasons to mention Jesus at least at some point in his many writings.

  • First, though regarded as the greatest Roman writer on ethics, he has nothing to say about arguably the biggest ethical shakeup of his time.
  • Second, in his book on nature Quaestiones Naturales, he records eclipses and other unusual natural phenomena, but makes no mention of the miraculous Star of Bethlehem, the multiple earthquakes in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death, or the worldwide (or at the very least region-wide) darkness at Christ’s crucifixion that he himself should have witnessed.
  • Third, in another book On Superstition, Seneca lambasts every known religion, including Judaism.1 But strangely, he makes no mention whatsoever of Christianity, which was supposedly spreading like wildfire across the empire. This uncomfortable fact later made Augustine squirm in his theological treatise City of God (book 6, chapter 11) as he tried mightily to explain away Seneca’s glaring omission.

In the 4th century, Christian scribes were so desperate to co-opt Seneca they even forged a series of correspondence between Seneca and his “dearest” friend, the Apostle Paul!

(Nailed! p. 34 – my formatting)

David Fitzgerald is addressing throughout his book the views of Christian believers, those who believe the gospel narratives about Jesus. For example:

In the case of Jesus, his believers are left with two unhappy choices:

  • either the Gospels were grossly exaggerating Jesus’ life and accomplishments, and Jesus was just another illiterate, wandering preacher with a tiny following, completely unnoticed by society at large –
  • or he was an outright mythical character.

(Nailed! p. 43 — again, my formatting)

At no point in any of David’s discussions of the various silences can I see him saying that any particular silence somehow “means Jesus did not exist”. Notice his conclusion above. David concludes that the cumulation of certain silences in certain contexts leads to a number of “unhappy choices” for believers in the gospels: one of these is that Jesus was indeed what many historical Jesus scholars claim, that he was “just another wandering preacher with a tiny following, completely unnoticed by society at large.” We will see the significance of this point by David when we come to Tim’s criticism.

David made the focus of his argument clear from pages 14 and 15 of the opening chapter of his book:

The supposed historical underpinning of Jesus, which apologists insist differentiates their Christ from the myriad other savior gods and divine sons of the ancient pagan world, simply does not hold up to investigation.

On the contrary, the closer we examine the official story, or rather stories, of Christianity (or Christianities!), the quicker it becomes apparent that the figure of the historical Jesus has traveled with a bodyguard of widely accepted, seldom examined untruths for over two millennia.

The purpose of this all-too-brief examination is to shed light on ten of these beloved Christian myths, ten beautiful lies about Jesus:

1. The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous!
2. Jesus was wildly famous – but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him…
3. Ancient historian Josephus wrote about Jesus
4. Eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels
5. The Gospels give a consistent picture of Jesus
6. History confirms the Gospels
7. Archeology confirms the Gospels
8. Paul and the Epistles corroborate the Gospels
9. Christianity began with Jesus and his apostles
10. Christianity was a totally new and different miraculous overnight success that changed the world!

(my bolded emphasis)

Notice. David has chosen to address the myth that Jesus was wildly famous! David is arguing that the miraculous stories surrounding Jesus that so many Christians believe in have no basis in the historical record, despite what too many apologists (he mentions Josh McDowell and Douglas Geivett) assert.

Tim appears to have overlooked this point, purpose, target of David’s discussion about the silence of Seneca. I have bolded the sections that directly conflict with David’s actual argument as set out above. read more »

Miscellaneous point — Mount Vesuvius and the argument from silence

I was following up PZ Myers’ interest in a particular claim by Tim O’Neill in a larger criticism of Jesus mythicists —

….. in particular his rebuttal to the “argument from silence”, which claims that Jesus should have been mentioned in many historical sources if he had existed, but he isn’t, so he didn’t. Most telling was his listing of the feeble number of brief mentions of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in classical records — if the Romans didn’t leave us many documents of this colossal disaster in their backyard, why should we expect them to have mentioned some minor Jewish preacher off in some provincial backwater? He also points out how rare it was for any writings to have survived from 2000 years ago, which lit up a lightbulb floating above my head.

This is exactly the same as the common creationist argument that if evolution were true, we ought to be neck deep in tyrannosaur and stegosaur and diplodocid bones, and because the fossil record is so spotty and incomplete, evolution is false. Never mind that taphonomy shows that finding the bones of a dead animal surviving for even a decade is rare and requires unusual conditions.

It turned out that PZ had unfortunately misread Tim’s point and Tim, even though he joined the commenters at the end of PZ’s post, failed to correct PZ’s misconception. In fact Tim lists five surviving ancient references to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. What he claims to be the significant silences for his argument is the failure in the ancient record to mention the names of the two major urban areas (Pompeii and Herculaneum) destroyed by the eruption. If those towns were not major political and cultural icons in the ancient world then I would suggest that the failure to find accounts of their burial mentioning them by name is not particularly surprising. It would, indeed, have been surprising if we lacked some reference to the eruption of Vesuvius itself.

A quick reading of Tim’s essay has led to the impression that if the ancient records failed to leave us a trace of such a major event as the eruption of Vesuvius then how much less likely is it that we should find a reference to an obscure preacher, Jesus, in Galilee. That is not the actual argument of Tim, however, so that rhetorical point about the particular argument from silence regarding Jesus does fail.

But the question that does arise is an important one.

What sorts of things did people write in documents, books, etc? Who or what institutions had an interest in preserving what sorts of documents, records, literature, etc?

No doubt chance plays its part. But it is a mistake to assume that what has survived has done so entirely by chance. As with dinosaur fossils, special conditions, not merely chance alone, account for the preservation of some and not others.

read more »

A Bedrock Assumption in Historical Jesus Studies

A few months ago I posted about Michael Zolondek’s claims that historical Jesus scholarship uses the same historical methods as those used by other historians. Michael himself responded and I assured him and others that I would return to his book and compare his claims about his methods with the actual processes found in the book. I am finally getting around to returning to that promise. But first I need to refresh my memory on a few things and catch up with certain details. So those further posts I promised are still a few weeks away.

Till then, however, I can say that I have caught up with one important volume Michael cites (p. xiv) as one of a few “useful discussions by historical Jesus scholars on ‘doing history’:

Meyer, Ben F. 2002. The Aims of Jesus: Reprint edition. San Jose, Calif.: Wipf & Stock.

The book was originally published in 1977 and an introduction in the reprint edition by N.T. Wright indicates that it has been very influential among the “less liberal” historical Jesus scholars.

The first of the two parts of Meyer’s book is about hermeneutics and historical methods. What I was looking for in particular was Meyer’s explanation for how biblical or historical Jesus scholars decide what is historical bedrock in the gospels. There is discussion about various criteria and inference and such. That word “inference”, distinct from “proof” or “fact”, reminded me of an objection PZ Myers’ raised in his discussion with Eddie Marcus. It was encouraging to see Meyers acknowledge the place of inference and its meaning in his discussion.

But then I came to a passage that echoed everything I have been come to see in how historical Jesus scholars work, but here it was stated in black and white.

Control of the data requires insight into how the gospel literature refers to the past of Jesus and this must be brought to bear on a mass of detail, repeatedly answering the question, ‘Is this a potential datum on Jesus?’

(Meyer, p. 81, my bolded emphasis)

Did you see it? The historical Jesus historian is required to have insight into how the gospels refer to the past of Jesus. The gospels are assumed to speak about the past of Jesus without question. Why? Presumably because they are a past tense narrative (notwithstanding Mark’s gospel regularly using the present tense). Presumably because they look like historical accounts (notwithstanding their significant departures from other historical accounts of the era). But let’s leave aside the “presumablies” and see what Meyer himself says. At the end of the chapter he spells it out:

Finally, the motives, values, uses, and ulterior purposes of history, be it ever so critical, are themselves metacritical presuppositions. They are not controlled by method but arise from the historian’s intellectual and moral being, and in the end they account more fundamentally and adequately than anything else for the kind of history he produces. For a history of Jesus what counts is especially the stance toward religion and faith.

(Meyer, p. 94, my bolding)

To me, that sounds like Ben Meyer is saying that a Christian historian will necessarily approach the gospels as if they are “obviously” reports of the “past of Jesus” and the task of the historian is to work out how much those gospel accounts have added to or coloured the actual historical past of Jesus.

The possibility that the gospel accounts are not history or not even based on historical events at all never so much as approaches Ben Meyer’s mental horizon. The model that James McGrath used to describe a historical reading of the gospels is affirmed. The gospels are not read as literature but are read as gateways to imagining what happened independently of the narrative.

The assumption that the gospels are some sort of biographies or historical works is a presupposed “fact”. All the historical method discussion, all the discussion about how to determine a historical probable Jesus, is premised on the gospels being reports that are written in such a way that the researcher can validly “see through” their narrative and language and identify some image of historical persons and events. The narrative is assumed to be based on reports or memories of historical persons and events.

When I read the works of classicists and ancient historians I see the same approach to historical narratives only when that approach has been justified by identifications of authorship and provenance, and by independent contemporary verification and/or by identification of relatively reliable historical sources for that narrative. We see none of those things in the case of the gospels.

They Do History Differently There; or, Did Apollonius meet with emperors?

In these dark times when our heads ache from the thunderous reverberations of there is no reason to doubt or we must avoid ‘hyperscepticism’, I felt my soul lifted up and filled with the purest joy when, on turning away from biblical studies publications I picked up a compendium of essays by a classicist and specialist in ancient Greek fiction to see what he had to say about Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana.

It has been easy to dismiss them as unhistorical. There is no external evidence for any contacts between Apollonios and these emperors. The only event of this kind that is confirmed by an historical source (Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.18) is the scene in Ephesus in AD 96 when Apollonios in a vision sees Domitian being murdered in Rome and cries out in triumph (VA 8.26).

(Hägg, pp. 393f)

My god. Tomas Hägg is in a world where independent corroboration is assumed to be necessary in order to confirm the historicity of a text’s narrative.


Hägg, Tomas. 2004. “Apollonios of Tyana — Magician, Philosopher, Counter-Christ. The Metamorphoses of a Life.” In Parthenope, edited by Lars Boje Mortensen and Tormod Eide, 379–404. Museum Tusculanum Press.


Tall tales do not mean we doubt the historicity of Davy Crockett; why should we therefore doubt Jesus?

It is Sunday morning and I beg to be allowed a lazy post for once. Let me copy here a comment I left on PZ’s site and that I originally made in reply to a visitor to Vridar.

Someone on my blog asked a vital question. . . . The question (after addressing the legends about Davy Crockett)

Perhaps the question we should be asking about Jesus, is not if the surviving texts about him are purely mythical or if they represent the honest to god unquestionable truth, but if they are hagiography and whitewashing, and if anything historical can be extracted from them.

That’s an excellent question and one I have written about many times here, often discussing the works of classicists and ancient historians as they themselves inform us how they address that type of question. The second post in this series contains links to some of those posts: https://vridar.org/2018/09/06/how-do-historians-decide-who-was-historical-who-fictional/

Some of those articles:

— As for figures about whom we have contradictory records, such as Socrates, we have seen whether and on what grounds his status is determined in Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed.

— As for the status of mythical persons such as Gyges we have seen How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical. (In this case the myth is determined to have a historical core.)

— As for reports of miracles, we see how historians work with the evidence in Even a Bayesian Historian Can Slip Up! (once).

— On vague rumours, such as stories about the Celts ritually killing their kings, we have considered how historians work at Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings?

— When it comes to fictional accounts of something like the Exodus we have critically reviewed one work at Can we extract history from fiction?

— Or when our only written reports are by enemies, we have seen a historian at work in Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed?

We have also looked at general comments about methods by the renowned ancient historian M.I. Finley in An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

But to answer your question directly:

Many ancient historical figures are said by ancient sources to have become gods or were sons of gods, and to have performed miracles, and to have done things that were very like what the myths said gods had once done. How do we know they were real?

Example: emperors became gods at death, some were said to be gods with divine ancestry while on earth, one Roman emperor healed a blind man in a manner that strikingly resembles a healing by Jesus; Hadrian dressed and acted like Hercules, Alexander the Great followed in the footsteps of Dionysus in conquering the east, etc.

But in every single case of those historians deem to be historical we have evidence that exists about those persons independently of the myths and legends surrounding them. Further, we can trace the origins and reasons for those myths by comparing them with what we know independently of the real historical figure.

The ancient authors whom we rely upon know they are writing about historical figures and their works are indeed forms of ancient history or biography. Those authors do know the difference between normal human characteristics and those of the gods and myths, and when they tell us about the mythical tales or comparisons associated with their historical subjects they nearly always either give their sources for the information or express some sympathy with their readers who may be reluctant to believe the tales. In other words, they do not tell the stories as tall tales because they want to inspire credibility in their accounts.

On the other hand we have other stories about ancient persons (some of these tales actually include genuine historical characters as part of the plot) that are told for entertainment or to convey moral or philosophical lessons and historians always call the main characters of these stories fictional. They do so because they are told just like the novellas or short stories of the day: none of the cautions and trappings of reliability of account as for the historical persons are to be found in these narratives. They are told as if the reader is expected to suspend all critical imagination and just accept or even believe their stories of miracles and nymphs and talking with gods, etc.

If we strip away the mythical trappings of Alexander and Plato and Pythagoras and Davy Crockett, we still find a real person there.
If we strip away the mythical trappings of stories of Achilles and Adam and Jesus we are left with no body to examine at all.

You might also like to consider the following posts addressing the methods of ancient historians:

Can we extract history from fiction?

and The Bible: History or Story?

See also How a Historian Establishes “What Happened” when “we only have the words of the text”

How do historians decide who was historical, who fictional?

PZ Myers is a biologist with a curiosity about how historians determine whether a person appearing in ancient records is considered historical or otherwise. He asks:

How does one assess people and events that are contradictory, vague or preserved only in stories passed on by word of mouth?

And many more, including surveys of works by leading specialists in oral traditions such as Jan Vansina.

But if we are to ask PZ’s question as a lead in to the Jesus myth debate then it is worth pausing and taken one step back first.

Contradictory accounts? Yes. The gospels are certainly contradictory accounts of Jesus.

Vague? Yes. Some of the earliest statements about Jesus, such as some in Paul’s letters, are certainly vague.

Preserved via word of mouth before being written in the gospels? That is the general idea we encounter whenever we pick up a study of gospel origins. But how do we know that the gospel narratives were picked up from oral reports?

The reason we think they were is because this is what the stories in the gospels and Acts implies. The stories tell us that Jesus’ followers went out preaching after the resurrection, and since the first gospels were written by a subsequent generation we assume “the obvious” — that the material for these stories came to the authors from word-of-mouth preaching and traditions. But recall how this model of how the stories came to be known is circular by both New Testament and Old Testament scholars alike. We saw how the late Philip Davies pointed out this circularity with respect to the Old Testament accounts: “How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?”. We have also seen New Testament scholars acknowledge the same difficulty with respect to the gospels: It all depends where one enters the circle.

Yes, there is a passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that speaks of a teaching being passed on, orally, about the resurrection. Nonetheless Paul also speaks of learning his “truth” through visions and the scriptures without owing any debt to a fellow human.

The truth is that the idea that oral tradition lies behind the gospels is a hypothesis. It is not a fact. Indeed, we have posted at length on the work of two scholars who have questioned that hypothesis: see the Brodie and the Henaut archives.

At the same time I think that surely all critical scholars of the gospels acknowledge that at the very least some of their narratives have been shaped by other literary narratives such as those found in the Jewish Scriptures. Some may add that the literary allusions to, say, Moses and Elijah are ways the authors have chosen to shape stories that originated in oral tradition. That’s fine, too, and it is another hypothesis that we need to consider in the light of the evidence and background knowledge of how Jewish and other authors worked.

It is often heard that the gospels are biographies, even very much like other ancient biographies. So it follows we can treat them as accounts of a genuine person. No, it doesn’t follow, unfortunately, because we even have ancient biographies that appear to be about historical persons but in fact are arguably entirely fictitious. Previous posts have demonstrated that even straightforward biographies of ancient persons, by contemporaries, such as the biography of Demonax, require historians to exercise caution: Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ and Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? Besides, it is not a fact that the gospels are biographies. Other scholars disagree. So it is a hypothesis or an interpretation. There are other interpretations.

All of the above was written to address just a single point in the original question. If anything, I have hoped to point out that even the way we frame our questions can be an indication of our assumptions and therefore influence the answers we might find.

As we posted not so long ago, a philosopher of history reminds us that the real historical question is not: Did this event (e.g. a miracle) happen? But rather, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

So we begin. I will in future posts comment on some of Eddie Marcus’s statements in the light of what various professional historians have written.

Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed

Dr. Alan Lacey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just what do you mean… HISTORY?

I am posting here an off-the-cuff comment that I hope to develop more completely (and with citations by historians) in future posts.

I love Matthew Ferguson’s posts on Κέλσος. Many of his interests overlap with mine, especially his studies on ancient literature as a comparative backdrop to the study of the gospels. His two recent posts are

In the first of those posts Matthew rightly points out that historical accuracy of itself can hardly be a criterion by which to judge a literary genre. There are badly written “histories” that get a lot of things wrong either through incompetence or ideological motivation; there are historical novels that can accurately inform anyone seriously interested in “how the past was”.

But when Matthew, in step with New Testament scholar Christine Thomas, appears to suggest that a historian’s focus must be on a point of reference that is outside the text itself, to events “out there” that the text references, I find myself running into difficulties. Such a claim, seemingly obvious enough on the surface, raises a host of questions in my mind.

Where to begin? Firstly, yes, it is certainly true that such a view of how historical research is done does indeed apply to the way many biblical scholars seem to study the canonical gospels and Acts. It certainly applies to the way many “Old Testament” scholars have traditionally approached the “history of biblical Israel”. And there lies the first difficulty or question that pulls me back from fully accepting Matthew’s and Christine’s apparent claims (assuming I have understood them correctly). Much of what scholars have done in attempting to write a history of “biblical Israel” has in recent decades been sharply challenged by a a number of scholars that have come to be known, cynically by many, as “minimalists”. The approach of “minimalists” has been to do history by being careful not to go beyond or behind the textual sources, not to try to divine the identities, contexts and intentions of authors through assumptions leaping off and away from the texts themselves, but to bring historical reconstruction into line that hews to the textual evidence itself. One such “minimalist”, Philip R. Davies, did express the hope that one day the same method might be applied to the study of Christian origins, even the “historical Jesus”.

The past is dead and gone. What happened in the past does not exist out there like a disembodied horde of persons acting out what they did in the past like ghosts. We cannot study the ancient texts in the hopes that they can serve as windows to “real events” just as they were but that are no longer present, no longer there to be seen.

The ancient texts are not windows through which we can see what no longer exists. It is a romantic dream to think that we can somehow find magic formula that will open up to us visions or even just glimpses of “how it was” or “what happened”.

No, the historian’s task has moved on from such romantic assumptions, at least in large swathes of the areas of historical research outside the realm of theology and biblical studies. The historian’s task is far closer to interpreting the texts in their own right, for their own sake, and not so much to try to recreate something external to them, than I think many biblical historians have as yet come to accept.

I recently posted a point by the philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker, in which he pointed out that the historian does not (or at least should not) ask, “Did this recorded miracle really happen?” No, the correct historical research question to ask is, “What is the best explanation for this source that speaks of a miracle?”

The difference may seem merely semantic on the surface but it is in fact profound. We also saw how deceptively even a knowledgeable historian can be beguiled into eliding the difference and how even Tucker himself contradicted his own principles by asking “Did X happen as stated in the gospels?”

The correct approach of the historian is to ask “How do we explain these documents, these texts, these writings, and the contents of their narratives?”

To answer such a question requires reference to other texts, sometimes texts in stone, or artefacts. But it is a mistake to attempt to answer it by reference to some ghost of a past that is no longer there as if a name or event in the texts is a cipher or magic code that potentially points to that ever-present ghost always acting out the past, “out there, back then”.

When we stop to think about it carefully we will come to see Philip Davies’ point that such a view of history, assuming that narratives somehow must be magic mirrors dimly reflecting a past reality, is in fact an entirely circular exercise.

To understand Christian origins we must understand and explain the texts. That study is far closer to understanding the nature of the texts themselves than it is to assumed reference points outside the texts. The only reference points with which a historian can validly concern herself are those that are just as tangible as the gospels themselves, or whatever other works are the target of study.

Yes, that does mean that much that has been written till now becomes obsolete, the product of a romantic era that itself becomes a topic of historical interest. It has happened in the field of ancient history; it has happened in the study of “biblical Israel”; it may be a lot longer, I fear, before it will happen in the area of the New Testament and Christian origins.

 

On the “No Contemporary References to Jesus” Controversy

A few weeks ago I was asked to comment on Tim O’Neill’s post, Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus”. I think that was the one. So I caught up with it on my return from Thailand last night so I can respond at last. (If there is another one I was asked to respond to then feel free to advise me.)

My first point is that I don’t think I have ever taken a lot of time to look into who of the authors of the first century c.e. said nothing about Jesus and why this should be surprising if Jesus existed. As I understand it, such lists of names of “who at the time should have mentioned Jesus but didn’t” are presented as part of an argument to prove that Jesus did not exist. I have no problem with people wanting to take that line of argument and try to make their case but it is not where I am at and it is not a line of argument I have tried to follow.

My interest has been to try to explain the evidence for Christian origins according to the standard and best methods followed by historians of ancient history and so far it appears to me that that evidence is best explained by hypotheses that have no place for a historical Jesus. In other words, I do not see any evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus. That is not the same as saying I believe we can prove that Jesus did not exist. I don’t recall ever trying to “prove” that Jesus did not exist. I have often attempted to set out arguments, generally based on either or both serious biblical scholarship and the sound methodologies of ancient history, that demonstrate how the gospels and letters of Paul can well be explained without any need for reaching back to a historical Jesus.

So back to the lists of “who’s who among those who did not mention Jesus”. Here is how I see the best way to approach such lists. I have not done this exercise myself so present it here as what I think I would do if I had the time and interest to take it up.

I would take the arguments of both sides, of those who set out all the reasons such authors should have mentioned Jesus and of those who set out all the reasons we should not expect to see references to Jesus in them. And then I’d try to do my own homework on each of the authors to learn what I can about his background, interests, and what some of the scholars have to say about his work, etc.

Maybe some of you are twigging to where I am leading. In other words I am setting up the two hypotheses and then getting background information. If that reminds you of a Bayesian approach you are right with me.

I’d take each author in turn and ask how expected is the absence of a reference to Jesus in our manuscripts given all that we know about each author and 1) the non-existence of Jesus; and then 2) Jesus failing to attract the attention and interest of the author; and then compare the results.

In other words, I would not take up each argument, the one for and against, and tackle it on its own, either looking to poke holes in it or finding ways to buttress it. Forget the argument and trying to pick winners. Do serious historical research and thinking about the evidence in the light of both hypotheses and background information. Be prepared for the final balance to be tilted either way.

At the end of the day I do not see what difference the result would make to my historical interests in Christian origins. It might make a difference to those attempting to either prove or disprove the existence of Jesus. But as I have said several times now, that’s not a question I want to venture into. To me, the historical question is how to explain the evidence for Christian origins. If we need a historical Jesus to explain it then so be it; if a simpler hypothesis does not require such a figure then so be it.

The key point for me is the absence of known contemporary references to “the historical Jesus”. That brings us back to the methods set out by various ancient historians themselves, such as Moses Finley, which are in sync with the methodological principles set out by the so-called “minimalists” such as Philip R. Davies. I would love to set up an annotated archive page of all the posts I have done on that topic for easy reference.

Oh, and one more detail —

I explicitly mentioned background information in relation to each of the authors. But implicit in what I said is another spectrum of background information, too, and that’s what we mean by a “historical Jesus” figure. Do not rely on what anyone else says a source says, but do your own checking. For example, Tim O’Neill says that according to the Gospel of Mark Jesus there is no indication that Jesus was known beyond Galilee and refers to Mk 1:27-28 and 6:14. But more careful investigators will not overlook Mk 3:8 that also has his reputation extending as far as Jerusalem, beyond Jordan and up into Tyre and Sidon. And then one will have to ask the extent to which such a description is based on a need to emulate and transcend the following of Moses given the larger “midrashic” suggestions in that section of Mark. And do we take as historical the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that implies people knew about him before he came on the scene, etc etc etc.

But if Jesus was a nobody who did not even have a widespread reputation for healing (and despite Tim O’Neill’s attempt to suggest the contrary, even sceptical or critical scholars who accept the historicity of Jesus as a relative “nobody” generally acknowledge he had a significant reputation as a healer) then we need to have a good hypothesis to explain how the early converts were made to “Christianity” from the basis of such a figure in the first place.

In other words, it is going to be difficult to come up with a way to assess the rightful expectations of mention of such a figure in our extant writings. Perhaps we need to work with several hypotheses: no Jesus; minimal Jesus; a medium Jesus (as per a critical scholar’s construct); a max Jesus (as per an apologist view).

 

Even a Bayesian Historian Can Slip Up! (once)

I argue that the interpretation of Bayesianism that I present here is the best explanation of the actual practices of historians.

— Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press. p. 134

Aviezer Tucker

I have posted aspects of Aviezer Tucker’s discussion of how Bayesian reasoning best represents the way historians conduct their research but here I want to post a few details in Tucker’s chapter that I have not covered so far.

(Interjection: it is not strictly fair to call Aviezer Tucker a “Bayesian historian” because, as is clear from the opening quote, what he argues is that all historians, at least at their best and overall, employ Bayesian logic without perhaps realizing it.)

Tucker includes discussion of biblical criticism in his book but in his chapter on Bayesian methods he unfortunately contradicts himself. The contradiction can best be explained, I think, by appealing to the power of the Christian story to implant unquestioned assumptions into even the best of scholars. I could call that my hypothesis and suggest that the prior probability for it being so in many historians is quite high.

No doubt readers will recall my recent quotation from Tucker:

There have been attempts to use the full Bayesian formula to evaluate hypotheses about the past, for example, whether miracles happened or not (Earman, 2000, pp. 53–9). Despite Earman’s correct criticism of Hume (1988), both ask the same full Bayesian question:

“What is the probability that a certain miracle happened, given the testimonies to that effect and our scientific background knowledge?”

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask,

“What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

(Tucker, p. 99)

One explanation for the documents relating the miracles is that the miracles happened and were recorded. Other explanations can also come to mind.

No doubt because the question focused on miracles it was very easy for Tucker and countless others before and since to think of alternative hypotheses to explain the stories of miracles that have survived for our reading entertainment today.

The Slip Up

But look what happened to Tucker’s argument when he was faced with something that sounded more “historically plausible”: read more »