Tag Archives: Leopold von Ranke

The Day Theologians Reacted with Great Seriousness — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 3

Continuing from Part 2 of this series. . . .

In the previous post we followed the way theologians accommodated themselves to the challenges the natural sciences presented the belief in the infallibility of the Bible. They didn’t find it too difficult. After all, the Bible has very little to say about the structure of the solar system, the age of the earth and biological mutations.

A far more serious threat came from the historians:

When doubts began to be case on the historical statements of the Bible, theologians reacted with great seriousness. (p. 67)

Historical statements are central to the Bible. They are not confined to the opening chapters of Genesis.

Many of these [historical statements] were given great prominence in the Bible, and it was felt that they form the heart of the matter inasmuch as it is in and through the events they report that God principally revealed himself and established his redemptive relationship with the world.

Consequently . . . when the historical statements of the Bible came under fire, theologians reacted with great seriousness, and a great deal of attention was concentrated on them. (p. 67)

Historical studies as we understand them are a very modern development. There have been evolutionary changes in the way history has been approached and I will need to follow up this series with further discussions of the influence of postmodernism in New Testament historiography. For now, however, we need to follow Nineham’s concern that we should understand the character of history in the nineteenth century when it first raised challenges to the Bible.

Modern historical studies are generally attributed to Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831) and Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).

Barthold Georg Niebuhr aus: Meyers 6. Auflage
Niebuhr

Nineham does not explain Niebuhr’s contribution but it is important so I include this from Wikipedia:

More than all, perhaps, since his conception of ancient Roman story made laws and manners of more account than shadowy lawgivers, he undesignedly influenced history by popularizing that conception of it which lays stress on institutions, tendencies and social traits to the neglect of individuals.

He does encapsulate Leopold von Ranke’s significance:

Deutsch: Leopold von Ranke
von Ranke

von Ranke’s aim [was] to uncover the past . . . ‘as it actually happened‘, in distinction, that is, from the embroideries and tacit interpretations of it in the later sources. In historiography as he and his like understood it, there was a high premium on the discovery and identification of the earliest sources and the discounting so far as possible even in them of all elements of elaboration and Tendenz. (p. 68)

(That famous von Rankean phrase wie es eigenltich gewesen here translated “as it actually happened” has been very often tendentiously misinterpreted quite contrary to its evident meaning in the way von Ranke used it; we see this so often as Tim has been pointing out in his posts: New Testament scholars all too regularly appear to rely upon what they hear others say about the concepts they address without any understanding of what their originators meant. Happily in this passage Nineham is focusing instead on von Ranke’s contribution of a discriminating approach to the sources.) read more »

History for Dummies (and Biblical Scholars)

First aid training dummies.
Image via Wikipedia

A biblical scholar earlier this year publicly asked:

Any recommendations on reading about the philosophy and methods of historical research, written by someone with no connection to Biblical studies?

I did provide that professor with a number of suggestions (the post included major figures in the field of twentieth-century historiography and readings that would lead to others not discussed in detail in that post), and no doubt he will read them as soon as opportunity permits.

The same biblical scholar in the same public comment demonstrated his eagerness to learn how “history” as practiced by historical Jesus scholars is viewed by historians in nonbiblical areas when he wrote:

I don’t know – I asked a colleague in the history department about methods and the “criteria” used in historical Jesus research, and he basically said that history, once you get beyond the groundwork of trying to date sources, is “an art.”

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Observations on McGrath’s “Review” of Robert Price on Mythicism

History is Myth
Image by LU5H.bunny via Flickr

I place “review” in quotation marks because Associate Professor of Religion of Butler University James McGrath simply avoids addressing Dr Robert Price’s arguments. I used to think McGrath was not very bright, but I have recently come to understand that he is as subtle and smart as a serpent when it comes to those twisting and avoidance manoeuvres whenever confronted with challenges to his most fundamental — and obviously never at any time in his life seriously questioned — assumptions.

I am referring here to Robert Price’s “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, the first chapter in Beilby’s and Eddy’s The Historical Jesus: Five Views, and McGrath’s “review” of same. (My own earlier comments on Price’s chapter at 5 commandments and at Johnson’s response. A little of what follows assumes some acquaintance with these earlier posts.)

To keep this post within reasonable limits, I address but a few of McGrath’s responses to Price’s chapter.

Before getting into it, I must admit to being surprised by one omission from McGrath’s review. Even though McGrath complains that Price’s chief fault is merely making a case for something that is possible but not probable, and even though McGrath has elsewhere charged mythicists who fall into this “trap” as thinking “just like Creationists”, McGrath strangely fails to publicly accuse Robert Price of being “just like a creationist”. I would not like to think McGrath is somehow being selective in whom he chooses to public insult, or that he allows a person’s academic status to deflect him from making insults he quite liberally casts out to non-academics who make the very same arguments.

I hope to see in future McGrath have the intellectual consistency to publicly accuse Price and Thompson of being like creationists in their mythicist views.

But now on to what McGrath does say in his review:

McGrath argues that the evidence for Jesus is comparable to the evidence for anyone else in ancient times read more »

Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies

Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars have boasted that they use the same sorts of methods as scholarly historians of other (nonbiblical) subjects, but this is a misleading claim. When it comes to the basics of the nature of “facts” and “evidence” this claim is simply not true. Historical Jesus scholars use a completely different standard to establish their basic facts from anything used by nonbiblical historians, as I will demonstrate here by comparing discussions of historical facts by both an HJ and a nonbiblical historian.

Scot McKnight (in a discussion of historiography relating to historical Jesus studies, chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death) notes the importance of a “fact” for HJ scholars:

[F]or our purposes, what kind of history is the historical Jesus scholar doing? First, history begins with “facts” that survive from the past as evidence. (p.20)

So far, so good. McKnight explains that even though it is the values and biases of the historians that guide their choices and interpretations of facts, the facts themselves have a real existence quite apart and distinct from the historian himself.

Cookery and Exegesis

But then McKnight gets murky and ambiguous in his explanation and covers up the multitude of sins of the bulk of historical Jesus scholars. At one level it sounds like he is saying nothing different from how nonbiblical historians work, but he is meaning something quite different behind the same words:

[Facts] genuinely exist even if they have to be sorted out through a critical procedure. . . . To be sure, apart from perhaps archaeological remains, all external facts have been through what Elton calls “some cooking process,” noting that no external facts are “raw.” (pp.20-21)

Geoffrey Elton

This is misleading. Firstly, Elton said the opposite of what McKnight claims for him here. Here is what Elton actually said (with my emphasis):

[It is] at present virtually axiomatic that historians never work with the materials [facts] of the past raw: some cooking process is supposed to have invariably intervened before the historian becomes even conscious of his facts. If that were so — if there were no way of knowing the knowable in its true state — historical truth would indeed become an elusive, possibly a non-existent, thing. (p.53, The Practice of History)

I focus on Elton here because, as McKnight points out, “most historical Jesus scholars are fundamentally Eltonion” (p.16). (I will explain Elton in more detail later.)  What McKnight is doing here is justifying a procedure used by biblical historians to create facts to suit their theories and beliefs. He does this by claiming the HJ scholar’s fact-creation is consistent with what nonbiblical historians do. Nonbiblical historians do not do what McKnight and many HJ historians think or at least seem to say they do. Later McKnight is more specific and explains exactly how HJ historians come to discover these supposedly “existential facts” of theirs. They do so through exegesis of the gospels:

In other word, history involves three steps. . . . They are (1) the discovery of existential facts — in our case the discovery of the gospel evidence by exegesis, or of archaeological data, or of political contexts. Then (2) there is criticism of existential facts. . . . An existential fact often becomes nonexistential at the hands of a skeptical historical Jesus scholar. . . . (pp.23-24) (Point 3 is about interpreting and making meaning of facts.)

This is all bollocks. It is here where biblical scholars totally jump the rails and part company with nonbiblical historians. McKnight says that facts can cease to be facts when scrutinized by sceptical minds. But nonbiblical historians say that this is true only in the case of “secondary” or inferred “facts” that are derived from other more basic facts. In the case of the basic facts there is no question as to the possibility of their nonexistence. They are there and cannot cease to exist. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 is a basic fact that can never cease to exist. But secondary facts derived from that basic fact, such as the precise course of the battle, or the actions of particular individuals in that battle, may only be able to be indirectly inferred. Such secondary “facts” are often disputable and may not always survive. Secondary facts are derived from some “cooking process”, but Elton is clear that these are not the foundation of historical enquiry. Historical enquiry begins with raw, uncooked, existential facts. (Epistemology, the question of whether these facts are “knowledge” or “belief on the basis of very good reasons” is another question.)

Basic and public Facts versus complex and private “facts”

Here is what historian G.R. Elton wrote about facts, “existential facts”, facts that by definition as facts cannot cease to exist as facts (as McKnight admits HJ “facts” can and do), such as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the occurrence of the war itself:

Without the simple details of accurate chronology, genealogy and historical geography, history would have no existence. And of those simple facts an enormous number are presently known. (p.14)

And here is what he wrote about the other kind of inferred facts (again my emphasis):

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