Tag Archives: Minimalism

Historians on the Most Basic Laws of Historical Evidence

The most basic laws of historical evidence are very straightforward.
Professor David Dumville, British medievalist and Celtic scholar, Chair in History & Palaeography in the School of Divinity, History & Philosophy, Professor in History, Palaeography & Celtic, University of Aberdeen.

The most basic laws of historical evidence are very straightforward. History must be written from contemporary sources or with the aid of testimony carried to a later era by an identifiable and acceptable line of transmission. Many texts which present themselves for our consideration as testimony to Anglo-Saxon history are creations remote from that age. Historical writing may be entertaining if an author chooses to cut corners or ignore the rules of evidence when assessing such works—but it will not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Dumville, 55

Professor Dumville’s words conclude a chapter addressing questionable practices and conclusions of a number of medieval historians that echo, at least in my ears, methods in biblical studies.

In the opening paragraph Dumville sets out a warning that no doubt many scholars of “biblical Israel” and Christian origins would enthusiastically offer lip agreement to:

[The historian] must excavate his texts, not in the spirit of a treasure-hunter seeking little more than the thrill of whatever finds may come to hand, but in as measured and scientific a fashion as possible. In the academic discipline of history, as in archaeology, the time for treasure-hunting has now passed. In spite of occasional lapses, methods and standards of criticism are rigorous and well advertized.

Dumville, 43

Excavating texts?

That image of “excavating texts” reminds me of James McGrath’s illustration of the way a historian supposedly reads a text compared with the way of a literary analyst:

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

There is a significant difference, however. When Dumville speaks of “excavating” texts he makes not a single reference to any “criteria of authenticity” such as “criterion of embarrassment” or “criterion of double dissimilarity”; he makes no reference to “memory theory” as might have at that time been gleaned from Halbwach’s 1980 publication of The Collective Memory. What he means by “excavating” the texts is studying what can and can’t be known about their probable source material and any data (or absence of data) that establishes a clear line of record to the events written about. That is flatly opposed to the assumptions and implications of the diagram above. One cannot reason about the narrative style or presentation of a text in order to apply criteria or memory theory and thereby arrive at a “probable series of historical events”.

What excavating texts means to Dumville is establishing clear evidence of the use of sources that can be traced back to being contemporary with the events of the narrative or document. If the author does not set out the evidence that would enable readers to be assured that his or her story or record were derived ultimately from contemporary sources then the work is completely useless for historians who seek to reconstruct the earlier event.

Comparing hypothetical sources and traditions “behind” biblical texts

What if later narratives agree, though? Won’t that be some indication that they are at least close to accurately representing earlier events? No. Some medieval historians fell into that error (as Dumville would put it) when they concluded from agreements in later sources that those later source agreements indicated that they all used a much earlier set of documents from the very time of the events being studied.

Does anyone else at this point think of the arguments underlying the Q source? Or those that attempt to glimpse earlier memories? What of Bart Ehrman’s plethora of sources that, among others, add M and L to Q?

Contrast Dumville’s view of historians who worked back from agreements in later twelfth century sources to concluding that they were based on a hypothetical (surely actual) ninth century documents:

It was the implication of Pagan’s discussion of the Flores historiarum and Historia Dunelmensis ecclesie that such lists were maintained in ninth-century Northumbria. However, this view must be qualified by the knowledge that the unanimity of the twelfth-century Durham texts is sometimes in shared error or doubtful deduction. Continuity of accurate record is not therefore to be assumed, and any information with such an uncertain pedigree cannot sustain very confident use. (52)

Semantic seductions

Next, note the confusion of terminology, how sometimes the language of “documents” or “records” can so easily (I suggest even unconsciously) elide with sources that technically are not “documents” or “records” at all. (This was a criticism I once made of a discussion by James Crossley and that was the source of his outrage and, it seems at least to me, even some small ongoing obsession to denigrate this blog in subsequent publications. )

Lyon has laid some stress on the date 854 in Northumbrian historical record, observing that it ‘is explicitly mentioned in several documents, so it cannot be lightly rejected’. The first essential point is that it is not mentioned in any document at all, for we have none surviving from early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. That very absence speaks volumes for the nature of institutional discontinuity in the Anglo-Scandinavian period. The date 854 is mentioned in a number of twelfth-and thirteenth-century literary texts. In discussing a historical subject, we must not lapse into the loose language of the archaeologist who is unaccustomed to written sources: not all written texts are documents; documentary and literary texts have a different status and require somewhat different handling. (52)

What they deride as “minimalism” in OT studies

A contemporary source, even if consisting of but one single coin, must outweigh tomes of written sources that offer no certain derivation from the time of the events they point to:

The instinct displayed by Hugh Pagan in 1969—for the numismatist to dispense with the apparent information of the written sources for much of ninth-century Northumbrian history and rely on evidence derivable directly from coinage—must, I think, command the assent of the historian. Hopeful manipulation of the twelfth-century literature serves little purpose. (53)

We are aware of difficulties and debates over efforts to reconcile various archaeological finds in the region of Palestine with Biblical narratives.

Compare an outsider review of Nazareth archaeology

I was further reminded of René Salm’s analysis of the published archaeological reports of pottery finds around Nazareth and the virulent attacks many have directed against him as a consequence — on the grounds that he is “not an archaeologist”. Dumville is not an archaeologist, either, but that does not render him incapable of reading thoughtfully, commenting on, and disagreeing with conclusions drawn by specialists and many peers who concur with them.

  • The silver penny’s location, and the name on it, lead to the “obvious” conclusion that it must derive from a certain period well documented in the literary sources.
  • The physical differences from other coins known to be related to those literary sources therefore raise questions.
  • “Extraordinary hypotheses” are advanced to explain these physical differences. Why is one coin so different from the others “surely from the same provenance”?
  • The “minimalist” view: Stripped from the problematic literary sources, the coin is more simply interpreted as evidence that our literary sources are incomplete and that they even fail to inform us of the existence of entire kingdoms.

The other problem of procedure concerns the now famous silver penny—from the Trewhiddle hoard, buried in Cornwall c. 875 x c. 895—bearing the name of a King Earned. Careful study of this coin has allowed the seemingly secure conclusion that it is to be compared with the coinage issued by Æthelwulf of Wessex in the 850s and Berhtwulf of Mercia in the 840s. The only known king of the name is the ruler of Northumbria to whom our twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources attribute a lengthy reign within the period 806-42. This king is well represented by an appropriate coinage. Neither the form nor the style of the Eanred silver penny seems to suit an equation with a Northumbrian king of the first half of the ninth century. Furthermore, G. C. Brooke gave it as his opinion that ‘the style of the coin seems . . . to prove it to be an issue of the Canterbury mint.

To meet this difficulty, extraordinary hypotheses have been advanced. It may not be wholly unfair to suspect that it provided much of the fuel powering Pagan’s radical reassessment of Northumbrian chronology. Alternatively we have been invited to allow the existence of ‘a historically unknown king, who was ruling, possibly in the Midlands, about 850’. (54)

The historian, for all his wish to know more about his research area, is obliged to confess ignorance, that the literary sources available sometimes simply do not justify conclusions we would like to make about our question of interest.

The Historian’s Conclusion

There are no back-up methods to fill in the gaps left by the absence of contemporary sources. There are no appeals to criteria of authenticity in the literary texts. There are no speculative exercises, however “intelligently guessed”, in memory theory. There is only the humble admission of ignorance.

After all, the most basic laws of historical evidence really are very straightforward.

 


Dumville, David N. 1987. “Textual Archaeology and Northumbrian History Subsequent to Bede.” In Coinage in the Ninth-Century Northumbria: The Tenth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, edited by D. M. Metcalf, 43–55. BAR British Series 180. Oxford: B.A.R.


 

Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy

In the world of biblical studies, scholars and laypeople alike tell us over and over that the absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence — and with good reason. Actually, they have two good reasons. First, it is true, in a technical sense. They are not identical propositions. And second, they have to keep telling us, because we keep not finding evidence.

Scholars of ancient history have long had to deal with the lack of evidence, and to determine what, if anything, it means. They ponder especially over expected evidence that refuses to be found.

What is and what is not

Consider, for a moment, what we mean by “describing” something. Its Latin root scribus, to write, reminds us that we’re writing down (de-) what something is. Yet each time we commit to writing what something is, we imply what it is not.

The act of describing is the act of drawing a circle on a Venn diagram. Things inside the circle are “X”; things outside the circle are not “X.” Recall that the Indo-European root of scribus is the word for “cut, separate, or sift.” To describe something is to scratch mentally a circle in which X resides.

Imagine that objects of type X are red. Therefore, a green object cannot be an X. We may find such statements a bit too dogmatic, and so we soften them — “All known objects of type X are red.” “We do not expect to find green instances of X.”

The Battle of Jericho — History?

You will recognize this immediately as an inductive argument, as we’re trying to build a model that accounts for and describes the properties of objects of type X, via a process of investigating known instances. In the real world, people used to say that all swans are white, which led to the classic “surprise” at finding the first black swan.

What did you expect?

However, I would again draw your attention to a key concept in this discussion: expectation. People expected the next swan they saw would be white, because all previous swans they had encountered were white. European and American archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expected to find lots of tangible evidence for the United Kingdom of David and Solomon. The books they held to be true history (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) led them to expect it.

But then the unexpected happened. They kept not finding evidence. What did that mean? Did the evidence disappear? Were we extremely unlucky in our searches? read more »

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher
Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

read more »

The relevance of “minimalists'” arguments to historical Jesus studies

The arguments of the “minimalists” questioning the historical core of many of the narratives of the “Old Testament” — and ultimately the historical existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David and Solomon, and the biblical Kingdom of Israel — apply with as much logical force to questions of the existence of Jesus. The minimalists showed that scholarly beliefs in a historical Biblical Kingdom of Israel were based on circular reasoning. The same circular reasoning and assumptions underlie belief in the historicity of Jesus.

“Minimalist” arguments are not just about the archaeological evidence.

They are more fundamental and generic than that. They have, I believe, direct relevance to historical Jesus and early Christian studies — any studies, in fact, that rely on reading the narratives in the Gospels and Acts as if they have some historical basis.

Time gaps and archaeological evidence are irrelevant to the fundamental logic underlying the arguments.

Below are statements by “minimalists” themselves that were originally directed at the way scholars once read the Jewish Bible as a historical source for “biblical Israel”. They are relevant for anyone who approaches the Gospels as historical sources. The Gospels are certainly historical sources, but the narratives they tell are not necessarily historical at all, nor even based on any core historical events.

Philip R. Davies on Tail Chasing

Philip Davies discusses only the study of ancient Israel. He does not address Jesus or early Christianity. It is my argument that his discussion applies equally well to these.

Philip Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel (1992) is reputed to have been the publication that triggered the “minimalist”-“maximalist” debate over the historicity of biblical Israel. In the 1994 preface, Davies wrote of this book:

I feel that this book still makes a good case for an approach to the investigation of the Bible, its authors and creators, which is becoming more widely adopted.

The approach has not impacted New Testament studies, however. I think this is a pity and unjustifiable. But then, Jesus has a more solid iconic status in our culture than David or Abraham.

Read the following critique directed at “Old Testament” scholars back in 1992 and see if it is relevant to scholars of the Gospels and Acts: read more »

In Search of Ancient Israel

In 1992 Philip Davies published a monograph that began a heated controversy over the origins of the Bible and what light archaeology shed on this question. Davies criticized conventional biblical scholarship for lacking the rigour found in archaeological studies of sites without theological significance. He argued that the archaeological evidence suggested that the Bible was composed as late as the Persian era and that the stories of Abraham, the Exodus, David and Solomon were mythical inventions. I have begun to summarize the argument of Davies’ book, In Search of Ancient Israel.

Book details: Davies’ In search of ancient Israel (Sheffield, 1997)

Neil Godfrey


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