Tag Archives: History

The Decline of the Study of History

Few historians would quarrel with the notion that more historical knowledge makes for smarter public policy. Few would contest the idea that a historically uninformed population is more susceptible to conspiratorial thinking and an inability to differentiate “fake news” from the real thing. Yet academic historians simply are not focusing their efforts on some of the issues that matter most to the fate of the United States and the international system today. Instead of possessing deep historical knowledge that serves as the intellectual foundation for effective policy and informed debate, the nation risks worsening historical ignorance with all its attendant dangers.

From . . .

The Historical Profession is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide


History (or something else?) as Fulfilled Prophecy

Once again I am succumbing to the temptation to do an easy post, little more than a copy and paste of something I posted on the earlywritings forum recently.

A topic I was addressing had to do with the significance of prophecy, or rather, fulfilled prophecy, in the narrative of our apparently earliest gospel, that according to Mark. Fulfilled prophecy, the original idea went, surely meant that the narrative was deemed literally historical.

I took the opportunity at this point to relate how ancient historians of the day were not necessarily considered very reliable or truthful and posted a section of my earlier post, The evidence of ancient historians, in which a Roman philosopher scoffs at historians of his day as nothing more than outright liars.

But I followed up with something a bit more substantial, an observation that the motif of fulfilled prophecy was a characteristic of ancient fiction, even historical fictions.

The use of prophecy was a stock tool for driving the plot of both fiction and history.

Herodotus, the “father of history”, narrated many instances of prophetic utterances of the Delphic oracle and it has been argued that Herodotus’s Histories was as theological in function as the Hebrew Bible’s history books — meant to teach the power of Apollo and need to submit to his will.

Homer’s epics are driven by prophetic announcements, too — and Homer was considered to be a “historian” in ancient times.

Then there are the clearly fictional novellas (or “historical novels”) whose plots are primarily driven by prophecies. E.g. Xenophon of Ephesus and his Ephesian Tale. After a few paragraphs setting the scene the author begins the story proper with a prophecy that no-one can understand but is only made clear after it is fulfilled. Sound familiar? Perhaps the author was inspired by the Gospel of Mark to write a similar fiction?

The temple of Apollo in Colophon is not far away; it is ten miles’ sail from Ephesus. There the messengers from both parties asked the god for a true oracle. They had come with the same question, and the god gave the same oracle in verse to both. It went like this.

Why do you long to learn the end of a malady, and its beginning?
One disease has both in its grasp, and from that the remedy must be accomplished.
But for them I see terrible sufferings and toils that are endless;
Both will flee over the sea pursued by madness;
They will suffer chains at the hands of men who mingle with the waters;
And a tomb shall be the burial chamber for both, and fire the destroyer; And beside the waters of the river Nile, to Holy Isis The savior you will afterwards offer rich gifts;
But still after their sufferings a better fate is in store.2

When this oracle was brought to Ephesus, their fathers were at once at a loss and had no idea at all what the danger was, and they could not understand the god’s utterance. They did not know what he meant by their illness, the flight, the chains, the tomb, the river, or the help from the goddess. . . . .

Achilles Tatius wrote Leucippe and Clitophon, another fiction, with a similar motif, though the opening prophecy came in the form of a dream. But other more direct prophecies pop up in the course of the narrative and again the hearers are as bewildered as Mark’s disciples about they mean.

. . . . the Byzantines received an oracle that said

Both island and city, people named for a plant,
Isthmus and channel, joined to the mainland,
Hephaistos embraces grey-eyed Athena,
Send there an offering to Herakles.

They were all puzzling over the meaning of the prophecy when . . . .

What follows is an attempt to decipher the “parable” by finding what each detail represented in code. At the end of the story the hero bewails that fact that it seems the god prophesied only something negative, loss and failure … but he is to be proven wrong. It’s a similar motif as we find in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prophecies his death. Peter protests, but he is over-ruled and eventually learns that it’s all good.

Other “novellas” follow the same pattern. Another is The Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus.

There is a “historical novel”, a fictional narrative, about Alexander the Great (said to be by a “pseudo-Callisthenes”) that is also prophecy driven.

One might even say that the motif of a prophecy-driven plot is a characteristic of fiction, or even fictionalized history.

When historians wanted to be taken most seriously they cited their sources or told readers why and how they judged some source more reliable than another. They were not even beyond making up fictional sources — e.g. Herodotus. Or beyond rewriting scenes from plays and presenting them as an eyewitness narrative — e.g. Thucydides. Hence Seneca’s cynicism towards historians as quoted in my earlier comment.

Fehling, Detlev. 1989. Herodotus and His Sources: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art. Francis Cairns Publications.

Mandell, Sara, and David Noel Freedman. 1993. The Relationship between Herodotus’ History and Primary History. Atlanta, Ga: University of South Florida.

Reardon, Bryan P., ed. 1989. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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.


Fundamentals of historical research and the difficulties faced by historical Jesus studies

Some readers may have come across a very long list of ancient writers who “could or should” have made some mention of Jesus. That list surfaced in another forum discussion today and I found myself faithlessly writing a response to it there instead of spending my time on Vridar. To make amends, hoping Vridar will not feel offended or as if being treated second-class, I copy below what I wrote in the Afa forum.

Such a list serves as a reminder of the riches in sources that are available for the early Roman empire period compared with many other periods of ancient times.

What is fundamental to historical research is the necessity to independently corroborate sources and their claims. It’s not the only requirement but I have a hard time thinking of many ancient figures that are securely known to have existed without meeting that benchmark in the records.

I have listed below what I think are the fundamentals that historical researchers look for when examining the documentary sources. Independent corroboration is left to last

  • Documents need to be assessed for authenticity;

— that includes being able to trace their provenance, assess when they were possibly written, where, etc.

  • their authors ideally need to be identified in order for the investigator to have some idea of how likely they were to have access to certain information, what biases and agendas they may have had, etc;

— We have such information for a good number of ancient authors

  • the literary culture that forms the matrix of the document needs to be understood in order to guide analysis and interpretation;

— we need to understand the conventions of ancient historians and the proclivities of individuals: e.g. their tendency to invent historical accounts drawing upon classical epics and plays when their sources failed them

  • we need to be able to identify and evaluate the probable sources of ancient documents;

— were they relying upon historians before them and if so, which ones, when did they live, what reasons do we have for thinking their work to be reliable, etc

— part of this requirement is the acknowledgment that contemporary sources must form the basis of historical reconstructions. Sometimes later sources can be more reliable or act as checks but they can only rarely be a trusted starting point for historical inquiry

  • and claims made in the documents need to be independently corroborated

— e.g by archaeology, by ancient monuments and inscriptions, by contemporary documents by unrelated authors, etc.

These are the fundamentals. Obviously such processes leave the historian with less data than historians of more recent times have at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean that historians of ancient world lower their standards, however. It means instead that they ask broader questions or the sorts of questions that they know their sources will help them answer.

It also means there is often less certainty in some of their conclusions.

When it comes to the study of Jesus, historians are on the back foot with almost all of the above: read more »

Anti-Historical History in Biblical Studies

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

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


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

Jorge Luis Borges en 1963
Jorge Luis Borges en 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

A garbage disposal

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

The Doctrine of Discovery: The Legal Framework of Colonialism, Slavery, and Holy War

English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John...
English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John Marshall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1823, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (pronounced “Macintosh”). The case centered on a title dispute between two parties over land purchased in 1773 and 1775 from American Indian tribes north of the Ohio River. In the decision Chief Justice John Marshall outlined the Discovery Doctrine, explaining that the U.S. federal government had exclusive ownership of the lands previously held by the British. While the native inhabitants could claim the right to occupy the land, they did not hold the radical title to the land.

In plain English, the United States claimed ultimate sovereignty over the discovered territories, but permitted the native tribes residing there to continue to live in a kind of landlord-tenant relationship. Marshall explained that as a result, the natives could sell only their right to occupancy — their aboriginal title — and only to the federal government. With a stroke of the pen, American Indians had become tenants of the empty land.

Legal basis

The case has several peculiarities; for example, Marshall’s decision did not rely on the Constitution or previous decisions, but instead upon international agreements put in place during the Reconquista of Iberia, and solidified shortly after Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. This framework essentially permitted Christian nations of Europe to invade, occupy, and colonize any non-Christian land anywhere in the world.

Marshall explained that the United States was the successor of radical title, which they had won by defeating the English. (The quoted paragraphs below come from the original text of the decision. The bold text is mine.)

No one of the powers of Europe gave its full assent to this principle [of discovery] more unequivocally than England. The documents upon this subject are ample and complete. So early as the year 1496, her monarch granted a commission to the Cabots to discover countries then unknown to Christian people and to take possession of them in the name of the King of England. Two years afterwards, Cabot proceeded on this voyage and discovered the continent of North America, along which he sailed as far south as Virginia. To this discovery the English trace their title.

In other words, as long as no other Christian nation had taken title of a non-Christian foreign territory, the English saw it as fair game. What Cabot had discovered, they reasoned, became the Crown’s sovereign holdings.

In this first effort made by the English government to acquire territory on this continent we perceive a complete recognition of the principle which has been mentioned. The right of discovery given by this commission is confined to countries “then unknown to all Christian people,” and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the King of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and at the same time admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.

The same principle continued to be recognized. The charter granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 authorizes him to discover and take possession of such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands as were not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. This charter was afterwards renewed to Sir Walter Raleigh in nearly the same terms.

While Marshall focused on so-called heathen people (usually construed as polytheists, animists, etc.), we should recall that Portugal operated under the same doctrine to colonize and subjugate people in Africa, some of whom were Muslims. read more »