The purpose of this post is to add an illustrative footnote to my earlier post on the nature of history and historical facts by showing how a prominent historical Jesus scholar redefines the nature of history and historical facts to mean something quite different from anything understood by other historians of ancient, medieval or modern history. Many biblical historians do not practice history as it is known and understood by nonbiblical historians, but myth-making, as I explain below.
Most historians acknowledge that there are very real facts of the past for which we have tangible evidence, and there is no dispute about these facts. Different interpretations or views of these facts does not change the reality of the facts themselves:
No matter how many observers may concern themselves with such questions as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, who the eldest surviving child of Henry VIII was, or where Napoleon confronted the allied armies on a given day in 1813, they will all come up with the same answer. There is, in short, a very large body of agreed historical knowledge on which no dispute is possible . . . . (Elton, The Practice of History, p. 54)
We may not know precisely why William the Conqueror decided to invade England; we do know that he did invade and had a reason for doing so. We may argue over his invasion and its motive; we cannot argue them away. Nine hundred years ago they had existence . . . . Thus while history will rarely be able to say: this is the truth and no other answer is possible; it will always be able to say: this once existed or took place, and there is therefore a truth to be discovered if only we can find it. (p.49)
So in history there are many hidden facts we do not know (e.g. why a particular war started) about the public and undebatable facts for which we do have primary and corroborated secondary evidence (e.g. the fact that there was a war or invasion). But there are publicly known facts for which we have primary evidence and corroborated secondary evidence.
Note that the very foundation of historical enquiry is a set of questions about the public, undebatable facts and events known (from primary and/or tested and corroborated evidence) and about which there can be no doubt or revision. Those facts — the fact of a war, of the settlement of a new country, a person for whom we have clear evidence of real existence (e.g. letters, diaries, contemporary reports) — are the starting point of the historian’s questions. The historian begins investigations — and the uncovering of new evidence, generally more debatable — with questions about such facts.
But see how John Dominic Crossan puts a subtle twist on the above truisms about history:
This is my working definition of history. History is the past reconstructed interactively with the present through argued evidence in public discourse. . . . What do we know about Jesus and earliest Christianity through historical reconstruction — that is, through evidence arguable as public discourse? (Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, pp. 20, 21)
Note how in place of public facts on which there can be no dispute (yet which require investigation and the uncovering of further probabilities of evidence and facts), we now have nothing but arguable or debatable evidence from start to finish. There are no indisputable facts to explore or upon which to build a history. There is only set of documents that are “written for faith, to faith, and from faith” (Crossan, p.21).
What Crossan is doing here is changing history from an enquiry into the background to basic known facts and turning it into a quest to “discover” a set of basic facts. And he seeks those facts from faith documents for which we have no reliable independent corroborating evidence at all.
Nonbiblical historians certainly seek to reconstruct history. But they do so by adding their own thoughts on probabilities and results of research to the undisputed, known facts.
Jesus/earliest Christian historians think of reconstruction of history as something different. For them, it is an attempt to discover what they think are the basic facts themselves by (inevitably inconclusive) public debates.
The historical Jesus scholar has changed the norms of historical enquiry to enable him or herself to play the same game as other historians.
Comparing 4 Gospels with 4 Ancient Histories
Crossan then uses another false analogy when he compares the 4 Gospels about Jesus with 4 ancient histories about the emperor Tiberius.
We have, leaving aside other materials, four accounts of the historical Jesus from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. . . . Likewise we have four accounts of the historical Tiberius, the imperial ruler under whom Jesus was crucified — accounts by Velleius Paterculus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius. (p.20)
He notes the differences:
- Gospels are anonymous: imperial accounts are by known authors
- Gospel authors did not know Jesus: one imperial historian knew Tiberius personally
- Gospel authors all wrote before end of first century: one imperial account written in first century, the others in second or third centuries
- Gospel accounts are interrelated; imperial accounts are more largely independent
The effect of this analogy, of course, is to condition the reader to accepting the comparability of the Gospels with evidence of secular historical documents.
One might also add another detail overlooked by Crossan: the accounts of Tiberius are about a figure for whom we have primary and other corroborating evidence for his real existence, thus giving us a measure of confidence with which to approach the histories, while we rely entirely on faith when we assume the Gospels are about a real historical character.
Then Crossan delivers an even more notable “comparison”:
If one emphasizes how different Jesus appears in Mark and John, it could be countered that Tiberius is equally different in Paterculus (who worshiped the ground he walked on) and in Tacitus (who hated the air he breathed).
This is nonsense and false as an analogy. Tiberius is the same man, general and emperor in all histories, who does much the same things. The only difference is the amount of detail given and the view of each historian about his character. That is nothing like the trenchant character and identity differences between the Jesus in Mark (who is secretive and fallibly human in places) and the Jesus in John (who is declaratively open at every public opportunity and totally divine).
Biblical history, according to one of its most reputable practitioners, is not about building on or explaining basic public facts. It is about attempting to “discover” some basic facts in uncorroborated faith-narratives.
To suggest that different portrayals of Jesus among the four Gospels is somehow comparable to differences in portrayals of Tiberius among secular historians is blatantly false.
Biblical historians, even one of their most renowned ones, does not practice the same sorts of history as is normally understood by other historians. Their quest is to find a historical basis for a figure of faith, and from sources of faith. To do so they change the rules of history and set up false analogies with other historians and sources.
(For another false analogy set up by Crossan to condition readers to see false similarities between the Gospels and other sources, see Another instance of dishonest handling of evidence in Historical Jesus studies?)
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- Our Daily Brood: On Gospels (new.exchristian.net)