Where does John the Baptist fit in History? (Or, the Place of Fact and Opinion in History)

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by Neil Godfrey

Until a few days ago it seems that I had either missed or forgotten about a 23,256 word essay from 2015 that rebuts the arguments of some works that I had posted about setting out a case for the inauthenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Josephus’s Antiquities. Not to worry, since it has now engaged my attention and I must leave a response “somewhere on the internet”, however belated.

First things first: What is the point of this discussion?

One can argue at length that Josephus did indeed write the John the Baptist passage but that won’t change the fact that the passage remains disputable. And as long as the passage remains disputable, then the only honest way to handle it in any discussion is to be upfront and admit its debatable status. The question of authenticity will remain a matter of (hopefully informed) opinion. And we know how the saying goes: you are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.

This means that when it comes to engaging in historical discussion, we can’t say “Josephus wrote about John the Baptist” in a way that creates the impression to less informed readers that that is a certain fact. It is always obligatory to say something like, “While some scholars disagree. . . .” It’s even more honourable to say it with good grace and respect. No sneering words like “fringe” or “hyper-sceptical” allowed. Even better, it is appropriate to simply ignore disputed evidence entirely insofar as a hypothesis relies upon “certain facts”.

Indeed, the mere “fact” that the question of authenticity of the passage elicits so many lengthy discussions, setting out hypotheses for and against, is evidence enough that the question is not and perhaps never can be settled.

What is the point of this discussion, then? The discussion cannot transform debatable data into certain facts. The more often the question of authenticity is discussed, the more reminders we have that caution is required.

So in the next post I’ll begin to respond in some depth to Peter Kirby’s 2015 post.

In the meantime, what follows is a mini-essay that I found myself composing in an attempt to highlight the differences between opinions and facts in historical research. . . .

Facts and Opinions in History

Historical reconstructions are built on historical facts but the mortar that holds those edifices in one piece is opinion, or hypothesis. If one is convinced that it is a sure fact that Josephus wrote about John the Baptist then one is entitled to reconstruct a historical scenario from that point — but only if one makes it clear that its foundation is hypothetical. One’s own convictions should never be presented as facts in any serious or honest discussion. (It seems silly to have to write that sentence, but I have seen so many biblical scholars engage with their audiences and present their personal interpretations and views as if they are undisputed truth even while knowing full well that those same points are debated among their peers.)

Positivism – too often misunderstood: A dominant approach to history in the nineteenth century was what we know as “positivism”. Some professors of biblical studies or religion have repeatedly declared that an “unrealistic” demand for “certainty” and “facts” belongs to the “bad old positivist” past. (The implication is that one should not protest over the lack of evidence for some of their theoretical reconstructions of Christian origins/the historical Jesus.) Those statements betray an embarrassing ignorance of what positivism means. Historians always rely on “certain facts” such as “Julius Caesar was assassinated”, “the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 CE”, etc. Positivism, however, goes one step further and declares either that those facts are all the history we can know about (that is, we cannot discover causes, results, motivations, behind those “facts”) — or else we can objectively discern causes, results etc in a way that produce scientific laws of history. That’s positivism in a nutshell. Historians always seek out “certain facts”. Positivism is more than that. (See Collingwood, The Idea of History, pp 126ff)

Don’t misunderstand me, though. Historical works are rich in hypotheses, opinions, debatable interpretations — but all of those “iffy bits” are ideally attempts to understand the agreed upon facts and their significance for this or that historical question.

Take one topic from the history of Australia. White settlement here began as a “dumping ground” for convicts after Britain lost the American colonies. That is a fact. (Let’s not get into some of the post-modernist notions that would dispute that point.) But was it the primary reason for Britain’s claiming of Australia and establishing a colony here as most of us have been taught in years past? Now that is debatable. If historians factor in the impact of another datum, the first global war, the Seven Years War of 1757-63, which highlighted Britain’s need for a secure base for sea power that could project into southern and eastern Asia, another perspective on the reason for Britain’s colonisation of Australia emerges. Convicts, the contingencies of global naval power, trade routes, wars — all of these are the “facts” of history. But what makes history interesting is researching those facts and attempting to interpret them, to understand their significance, if any, in how subsequent events turned out. Facts plus (informed) opinions make history.

Admittedly, sometimes facts and opinions do get blurred. Again, the most notable instance of the blurring of what is fact and non-fact involved “the history wars” in which historians fought over whether it was a “fact” that Australian pioneering settlers were truly guilty of mass murders of Aborigines. Or were those claims ideologically driven gross exaggerations, even falsehoods? Major battlegrounds for that “history war” were the multiple archives where researchers flocked in order to dig further into the evidence and to produce more (and more detailed) documented facts. The battle was fought over facts and how to interpret diaries and letters, newspaper reports, court transcripts, government correspondence, police records, etc. Opinions clashed over how to interpret the information uncovered, but the information itself was first established as the authentic records of settlers, government officials, etc. The facts of the records were front and centre of the debate.

Time to return to that John the Baptist passage in Josephus’s Antiquities.

It is one thing to debate the significance of any particular passage written by an ancient author, but it is quite another to enquire into whether a particular passage has been interpolated by some other hand. Opinions will differ. One generation of scholars might generally ignore the passage in Antiquities about Jesus because it was deemed corrupt while another generation might consider it partially authentic and therefore of some use in historical reconstruction.

In the next post I’ll address some of the details in Peter Kirby’s 2015 essay.