Tag Archives: Historical Method

Historical Jesus Scholarly Ignorance of Historical Methods

On 14th January I posted How Historians Work – Lessons for Historical Jesus Scholars in which I demonstrated that at least some biblical scholars are unaware of normal historical practices by quoting key sections from works recommended to me by Dr McGrath. On 16th January Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, responded by accusing me of being a fool, either ignorant or obtuse on the one hand or wilfully misrepresenting and wishing to deceive readers whom I believe are gullible and foolish on the other.

Unfortunately Dr McGrath’s reply only further convinced me that he has not read both books in question even though he recommended them to me — though he does appear to have at least read sections (only) of one of them — and that his smearing of my character and intelligence is unwarranted.

Dr McGrath began his reply with:

I sometimes wonder if mythicists realize when they are making fools of themselves. If they do, then they are presumably akin to clowns and comedians who provide a useful service in providing us with entertainment. If they are unintentionally funny, then their clowning around in some instances may include misrepresentation of others which, however ridiculous, requires some sort of response.

Presumably this sort of ad hominem is intended as filler in place of reasoned responses to virtually the whole of the arguments and demonstrations of my post since he repeats such accusations often while never engaging with all but a couple of my points, and even those only tangentially.

Dr McGrath then lands another character attack that he says he will not deliver or will ignore so I will ignore that for now, too — although I did respond to it on his blog at the time.

So to the main point:

But on the misrepresentation of Vansina, and of Howell and Prevenier, a few brief points are in order, which I suspect will show clearly to anyone interested that Godfrey either is either failing to comprehend Vansina, Howell, and prevenier, or is willfully misrepresenting them.

This introduction at the very least leads me to expect that Dr McGrath will demonstrate by quoting Vansina and Howell and Prevenier read more »

Confessions of a Theologian — Bible scholars really do do history differently

Recently a theologian helpfully advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work generally in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles as applied by historians generally. So I did. I shared what I read there about the basics of how historians ought to approach their documents in How Historians Work – Lessons for historical Jesus scholars.

The same theologian was even kind enough to subsequently recommend that I read a work by oral historian Jan Vansina in order to understand that historians “adapt” or “refine” standard principles in order to make them fit the special requirements where, say, written sources are very scarce. The point of this exercise was for me to learn that if I see theologians using something not exactly the same as I see in other history books, then I was to understand that if historians do not have a rich abundance of written materials they do indeed “refine” or “adapt” principles so that they can work with that scarcity of evidence.

So I did that, too. I chose Jan Vansina’s “Oral Tradition as History” (1985) and his earlier “Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology”.

Before I continue I should say that the idea that any historian “refines” basic methods such as “external attestation” or the need to establish provenance before knowing how to interpret a text for certain types of historical information quite confused me.  My own understanding has always been that historians merely limit and change the questions they can ask so that the tried and true tools they use can still be used validly. They don’t “refine” their tools to enable them to get more answers than the sources would otherwise allow. That has certainly been my understanding as a student of both ancient and modern history. From my experience there is nothing different in principle at all — no refinements or adaptations of what are really basic logical “tools” — but only the fact that historians of ancient times can never hope to know the sorts of details about events or people as they can know for the well-documented recent past.

But the theologian insisted I was in the wrong and that if I read Vansina I would see that historians do indeed “refine” and “adapt” their methods to fit their “needs”. They are applied differently, he has said.

So I approached Vansina with interest to see if there was something I had missed and needed to learn. Here are a few excerpts from what I read. read more »

New Testament scholars are pioneers in historical methods

New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers. The attempt to define criteria of authenticity was in fact an attempt to articulate more precisely and rigorously things that in most other areas of history were determined in much the same way, but with a far greater degree of intuition and instinct. (Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis, Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity Among Friends and Enemies . . . )

In the same post, Dr. McGrath explains that the pioneering method of applying more clearly defined criteria of authenticity can be used to hopefully understand the great mystery that started Christianity:

While it is surely true that an attempt to find an uninterpreted Jesus amid the interpretation of the Gospel authors is implausible, it does not follow that criteria of authenticity are useless. What we seek to catch glimpses of are Jesus as he interpreted himself, and Jesus as his disciples interpreted him prior to the changed perspective resulting from Good Friday, and from whatever subsequent experiences and reflections persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand.

My earlier post complaining about the absence of known facts about the life of Jesus and the consequent need for historical Jesus scholars to try to find some through criteriology was misguided. It appears that historians who are so backward as to seek explanations for known public facts are “fact fundamentalists” and have much to learn from New Testament pioneers.

. . . . . the issues Allison and others raise are fatal for the historical Jesus enterprise, but are fatal for the misguided and futile quest for certainty that “fact fundamentalists” have brought with them into the discussion. (Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity . . .)

What is one of the issues raised by Allison according to Dr McGrath that is fatal for “fact fundamentalists”?

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus) read more »

Thoughts on Dale Allison’s thoughts on memory and historical approaches to the study of the Gospels

Having just read the first chapter of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison I can finally comment on what surely strikes most people as a curious statement to come from someone who claims to be a historian. In reviewing Allison’s opening chapter McGrath claimed that Allison was contending that

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

This certainly does capture what Allison writes of his approach to finding “the historical Jesus” in the Gospels.

Allison considers the results of a wide range of studies on human memory and considers what these must mean for the accuracy of the Gospels, given the assumption that the Gospels are records of what was passed down about Jesus via fallible memories of those who had met him.

Allison even writes:

All this is why fictions may contain facts; an accurate impression can take any number of forms. Even a work as full of make-believe as the Alexander Romance sometimes catches the character of the historical Alexander of Macedon. Similarly, tales about an absentminded professor may be apocryphal and yet spot-on because they capture the teacher’s personality. The letter can be false, the spirit true. (pp. 13-14) read more »

Two misunderstandings in biblical studies: the nature of “scepticism” and “evidence”

Mascot of the Australian Skeptics. This is the logo of theAustralian Skeptics which is interested in assessing the claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience — not the “historical Jesus”. But the logo, and the statement of aims of this organization capture the nature of scepticism: to test claims against the evidence.
Image via Wikipedia

Deane Galbraith has listed on the Religion Bulletin blog a the early Sheffield Biblical Studies blog posts discussing Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth, and he adds a note about mine, too. But the presentation goes to the heart of why mainstream biblical studies on the historical Jesus are very often not comparable with genuine historical studies. Here is how Deane refers to my posts:

Sheffield Biblical Studies commences a select chapter-by-chapter review of what is probably the major historical Jesus work of the decade, Maurice Casey’s magnum opus, Jesus of Nazareth (T&T Clark, Oct 2010 UK; Dec 2010 U.S.). Michael Kok reviews Chapter One, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” where Casey critiques the historical (or as is more typical, theological) contributions of earlier Jesus scholars. Christopher Markou reviews Chapter Two, “Historically reliable sources,” where Casey defends the key importance of Mark and the Q materials as historical materials for understanding Jesus, and the relative uselessness of John. But Neil Godfrey (who I have never met, and may not really exist) thinks Jesus is a myth, and so he adopts a level of skepticism towards the evidence that would make even Sextus Empiricus appear gullible (Vridar: here, here, here, here, here, and here). (with my emphasis)

Now that’s putting me in my place! Three sentences including full titles for links to describe two posts on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog, and a single sentence with a parenthetical notice of “here” “here” “here” . . . to point to my series of posts. ;..(

The nature of scepticism (and the impossibility of having different “levels” of it)

I have long believed that scepticism is a healthy thing, the beginning of verifiable knowledge and the assurance of learning more verifiable things over time. It enables one to consider all knowledge tentative pending the discovery of new information. It keeps one alert to the need to test information before going too far with it.

But Deane reflects here a common approach, a sceptical approach, to scepticism itself. The phrase “level of scepticism” suggests there is a scale of degrees from gullibility to scepticism, and that a student or scholar of things biblical is advised to find an appropriate position somewhere fairly well away from either end of that scale . read more »

Casey’s historical method (2): Aramaic and the fallacy of ‘historical plausibility’

Bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) by k...
Image via Wikipedia

Maurice Casey considers historical plausibility to be “of central importance” (p. 106).

Our early and primary sources are unanimous and unambiguous in placing Jesus within a context of first-century Judaism. It follows that our picture of Jesus should be comprehensible within that cultural framework, and further, when a piece of information about Jesus or those present during the historic ministry fits only there, that is a strong argument in favour of its historicity.

Surely this is begging the question. Casey has declared what is historical before he begins the inquiry, and then writes the rule to justify it. The Gospels place Jesus within a context of synagogues and Pharisees but external evidence indicates that these are anachronisms, not becoming features of the Galilean landscape till after the year 70. Casey has simply declared them by fiat to be historical of early first century Galilee.

Hellenism and regional contrasts (Galilee and Judea are only two) were a reality of first century Palestine. See, for example, Hellenism in the Land of Israel. Scholars like Crossan and Mack, whom Casey dismisses, grapple with the evidence for these realities. read more »

Maurice Casey’s Historical Methods for Historical Jesus Studies

Maurice Casey (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Nottingham, UK) in his 2010 book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching devotes his third chapter to a discussion of his historical method, and becomes the latest New Testament scholar to demonstrate (once more) how studies of the “historical Jesus” follow their own idiosyncratic rules and are unlike any other studies of ancient historical figures.

Unfortunately, Casey also demonstrates in this chapter the all too familiar tendency of biblical scholars to carelessly misrepresent arguments and authors they do not like. In this case, Casey’s representation of Crossan’s methodology and arguments is, at best, a little unfair, as I will demonstrate by setting Casey’s and Crossan’s words side by side.

read more »

Scholarly attempts to “explain” historical methods for Jesus studies (1)

Scot McKnight of recent controversial article fame, devotes an entire chapter in his book Jesus and His Death to a discussion of the historiography of New Testament scholars, and writes:

In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p.16)

Biblical scholarships’ ignorance of the significance of different types of evidence

This unfortunate state of much scholarship of Christian origins is aptly illustrated throughout many studies of the historical Jesus, but I focus in this post on statements by one such self-professing “historian” of the New Testament who makes a point of explaining what he understands by “the historical enterprise”:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly. read more »

Historical Jesus scholarly quotes on historical methodology

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

(From a scholarly review of a chapter of a book discussing historical methodology)

In a discussion of a Wikipedia article on Historical Method:

Is there anything in the method outlined there (or better yet in the books cited if readers know them well or have time to consult them) that is not in keeping with the practices of historians working on the historical figure of Jesus? Or is there any point at which this survey and summary (or the method set forth in the sources the article cites) is at odds with what most historians do?

I ask because mythicists regularly claim that what scholars investigating the historical Jesus do is different from what mainstream historical study does.

In those books cited in that Wikipedia article, and that are appealed to in order demonstrate that biblical historians use the same methods as nonbiblical historians, appear gems like the following:

The author of a historical source may be God, as well as man. Hence the distinction between divine and human sources.

The procedure of critics who reject the possibility of miracles is manifestly unscientific.

I know of course that most mainstream biblical historians do not openly admit to the supernatural when dealing with historical inquiry, but the fact that an associate professor of religion is blithely confident enough to make such a claim about books he obviously has never read and only thinks he understands demonstrates just how out of touch some biblical scholars are with the historiography outside their own ivory tower. This was a key point in Scot McKnight’s chapter on historiography in his Death of Jesus, and which I discuss in relation to key names in nonbiblical historiography that he sees as relevant for biblical scholars. The scholar who refuses to address this is the one who responded with the ignorant remark about sources for methodology on the Wikipedia article.

(I know I know. Someone said this is like shooting fish in a barrel with a shotgun. Let’s move on.)

Oh, just one more. . . .

I’ve tried being reasonable and respectful

(comment 11491)

Agreed, he is very trying

Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies

Missed it by that much
Missed it by that much

Thomas L. Brodie has a chapter (“Towards Tracing the Gospels’ Literary Indebtedness to the Epistles” in Mimesis and Intertextuality) discussing the possibility of the Gospel authors using the NT epistles among their sources, but what I found of most interest was his discussion on methodology and criteria. The difference between Brodie’s discussion of historical methodology and that espoused by James McGrath comes close to being starkly different as day is from night. But it is not clear that Brodie is fully aware of what I think are the implications of what he writes. read more »

Applying Sound Historical Methodology to “James the Brother of the Lord”

It is easy for both historicists and mythicists to to descend to shallow proof-texting when arguing over the significance of Paul’s reference to James, the brother of the Lord, as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

I am not attempting here in this post to cover all the arguments. I only want to address the necessity for a broad approach to the question and to rescue it from the tendency to reduce it to a simplistic positive/negative point.

Galatians 1:19

I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.

Renowned conservative historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton, warns against deploying such simplistic methods as citing a single piece of evidence to make a case. In this instance, the case is about evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

Amen! The dangers of personal selection of evidence in historical Jesus research are spotlighted by each reconstructed “historical Jesus” being in some recognizable image of its author.

Jesus historicists are particularly guilty of falling into the trap of “beginners” that Elton warns against when responding to mythicist arguments. Of course they know better when engaging in professional work among their peers. They generally avoid taking mythicist arguments seriously, and this is why they respond like amateurs. read more »