Confusing stories with historical evidence

Filed under: Historiography,Thompson: Mythic Past — Neil Godfrey @ 3:00 am
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It’s worth quoting a few passages from Thomas L. Thompson‘s The Mythic Past (aka The Bible in History). I believe they have a relevance that extends beyond the Old Testament.

Naively realistic questions about historicity have always been most out of place when it has come to Israel’s origins — if only for the fact that the genre of origin stories that fills so much of the Bible relates hardly at all to historical events, to anything that might have happened. It rather reflects constitutional questions of identity. (pp. 34-35, my emphasis)

The genre of origin stories hardly relates at all to historical events? Now one sees the pressing need for Historical Jesus scholars to bypass standard scientific methods of dating documents in order to date the Gospels as close as they reasonably can to the presumed events contained in their narratives. How can an origin story not relate to history if the story is composed within living memory of the events? The circularity of this is never addressed as far as I am aware.

We know the events really happened. No-one would have made them up. How do we know?

Because the narrative is a historical record, more or less.

How do we know the narrative is a historical record?

Because it is about events we know really happened — no-one would have made them up.

And all the subsequent scholarly apparatus thought to bring us closer to the historical Jesus is built upon this logic.



Scholarly attempts to “explain” historical methods for Jesus studies (1)

Scot McKnight of recent controversial article fame, devotes an entire chapter in his book Jesus and His Death to a discussion of the historiography of New Testament scholars, and writes:

In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (p.16)

Biblical scholarships’ ignorance of the significance of different types of evidence

This unfortunate state of much scholarship of Christian origins is aptly illustrated throughout many studies of the historical Jesus, but I focus in this post on statements by one such self-professing “historian” of the New Testament who makes a point of explaining what he understands by “the historical enterprise”:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly. (more…)


History as Science, not only Art. (History for dummies, 2)

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 11:00 am
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In my previous post I cited Leopold von Ranke’s famous explanation for history being an art. (I turned to von Ranke because a biblical scholar quoted von Ranke to me without knowing the source of his quotation, nor its meaning.) Now von Ranke’s philosophy of history and views on the nature of historical facts have been superseded throughout the twentieth century. But he gave expression to the meaning of history as an “art” (explained in my previous post), and to the importance of reliance first and foremost on empirically verifiable primary sources (sources physically located in the time and place of the subject of historical inquiry), and these concepts have stood the test of time for most historians.

But in my citation of von Ranke’s explanation of the nature of history as an art, one also reads that this same grandfather of modern history said history is a “science”.

If one reads that citation of von Ranke’s in the previous post, and the discussion of other milestone figures in the development of historiography as I presented them in my earlier post on how historical Jesus studies differs from normative nonbiblical historical inquiry, one will see that history has been compared to a “science” for the following reason. (more…)


Historical facts and the nature of history — exchange with Rick Sumner

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 5:22 pm
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Rick has posted an interesting discussion titled What is History? The Nature of “Facts” in response to my Historicist Hocus Pocus post. This follows a short exchange between us in the comments beneath my own post, and is an extension of earlier blog posts of his own on the same theme. I appreciate Rick’s response and the opportunity it gives me to explore my own argument in a little more depth.

If I understand Rick correctly, he disagrees with my view of the nature of facts when I assert that biblical studies have no “historical facts” to work with that are comparable to what are generally conceded as facts in relation to, say, the history of Julius Caesar. (more…)


Historical methods: how historical Jesus studies fall over before they start

Filed under: Exchanges with McGrath,Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 6:07 pm
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Although a certain professor of religion regularly insists that his historical methods are the same as those of other historians who deal in nonbiblical subjects, he has failed to demonstrate the similarity. Rather, his attempt to establish this particular point is a classic in obfuscation, misrepresentation of the issues and avoidance of the challenges of mythicist arguments.

One thing cannot be reasonably denied. Mainstream historical Jesus scholarship . . . uses the same methods as mainstream historical study. Those who study early Christianity, those who study Jewish history, those who study Hellenistic and Roman history, those who study any of these overlapping areas or some subset thereof, all interact regularly at conferences, in scholarly volumes and publications, and in numerous other ways. While scholars certainly disagree regularly with one another’s conclusions, if we did not share some common scholarly methodological ground rules, such fruitful interaction would not be possible.

Reflecting on this, it struck me that mythicism is very much like intelligent design in at least one important regard. It wishes to redefine the methods of a scholarly discipline in order to accomplish an ideological agenda.

(Mythicism, Intelligent Design, Courts and Sports)

Of course there are many grounds for fruitful interaction among scholars of “early Christianity”, “Jewish history” and those who study “Hellenistic and Roman history” — and more — I would add especially with those who study ancient classical literature. Of course these scholars do indeed “share some common scholarly methodological ground rules”.

But the author uses this statement of the bleeding obvious as a cover to hide the fact he is sweeping under the carpet the key points made about historical Jesus studies in particular. I will explain below.

The mythical claims of a NT historian (more…)


Biblical historian McDaft admits to relying on hearsay and uncorroborated reports

Testimony about what someone claims to have heard from an eyewitness would not stand up in a court of law today — it is what is known as “hearsay”. Nevertheless, sometimes hearsay is all a historian has, and the rules of historical investigation are not as strict as those of the American legal system. We can utilize any sources available, and the only consequence will be that our conclusions about what happened will be less certain than if we had first-hand accounts written by the eyewitnesses themselves. (James McGrath in The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, pp. 37-38)

This is an astonishing admission from an associate professor who presents himself as an historian. It is the sort of admission that one would never expect to hear anywhere except in the cloisters of BIBLICAL history!

Let’s work backwards through this. In McGrath’s’ last sentence he implies that first-hand accounts in and of themselves bring with them, by definition, a certain degree of credibility. The only question is one of degree.

Well of course that must necessarily be so, IF such a first-hand account testifies to something for which we have independent evidence. To show the nonsense of the fundamental logic of this proposition: If eyewitness A accosts me and informs me in his own words, even backed up by a stamped affidavit, that he has just seen a pixie step out from a mushroom and board a flying saucer that zapped him to Mars, . . . . Or what of someone who reported he was eyewitness to a man talking with the devil, who walked on water, who rose from the dead and changed his life from one of fear to one of courage . . . .

I don’t think I have to go any further to demonstrate the logical fallacy here. Damn humanists! They are the ones who we must hold responsible for shunting logic out and away from being a basic requirement for anyone aspiring to be a scholar nowadays.

Then we come to “sometimes hearsay is all a historian has”.

So. At least we have refreshing honesty at work here. What this biblical professor of history means that we have a Gospel. AND that Gospel is a hearsay report. We are not told who the reporters were. Nor are we even told who those to whom they reported were. And yep, we are not even told who is telling us who told the story that was heard hearsay from the reporters! Assuming there WERE any reporters to begin with. It is just as logical to suspect that our reporter is making it all up, and the antecedent reporters are all in our own imaginations and assumptions.

I once referenced a historian who is very famous but who also happens to have sympathies with those evil Reds, the Commies who still lurk just south of Florida plotting incessantly to undermine all godly righteous values. This historian, Eric Hobsbawm, had the devious trickery to admit to a professional error of method in a book he had written. He had written a history of Latin American bandits, but had been challenged over the naive way he swallowed certain testimonies as real evidence — even eyewitness or firsthand reports!

Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

Here is how McGrath responds to this sinister communist methodology that is surely manufactured expressly to undermine faith in the Gospels as history:

Second, it seems that your quote from Hobsbawm indicates once again that, unless you have some sort of evidence other than texts, you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that a text bears some relationship to historical events. You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

First, note how this honest professor works intellectual sleight of hand by changing the notion of “independent evidence” to “evidence other than texts”. (Hobsbawm and Slatta would have loved to have had primary textual evidence that they could evaluate with a view to testing the historicity of the narratives they heard.)

Second, it is hard not to note the good professor’s linking of Hobsbawm with a presumed “desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism”! Where that came from I do not know. So rather than address the methodology in question, this associate professor opts, rather, to point to his own gratuitous speculations about the political views of the renowned historian.

A leftist historian publicly confesses he was at methodological fault for relying on hearsay, and a biblical historian who needs to rely on hearsay to make his faith-based case responds by questioning the leftist’s politics!

So let me repeat my challenge to the historical-Jesus historian of faith: (more…)


3 Unquestioned Assumptions of Historical Jesus Studies

In The Burial of Jesus James McGrath gives an introduction to the methods of scholars who study the Gospels as sources of historical evidence about Jesus.

Note how, throughout, this method assumes:

  1. That there is an historical Jesus to talk about;
  2. That there was an oral tradition that relayed information about this historical Jesus to other audiences;
  3. That the gospels relied on these traditions, at least in part, for their narratives about Jesus.

As stories were retold in and applied to new contexts, they were often shaped by that process, and sometimes the use to which a saying or story was put in between its first telling and its being written down has left its mark on some of the details. Thus there are different levels to the gospels incorporated in the Synoptic Gospels:

(1) There is the teaching of Jesus

(2) which was retold and passed on orally (and/or in written form) in the church before

(3) being placed in the written form accessible to us by the authors of the Gospels.

We need to keep these different levels in mind if we want to understand the Gospels. Similarly, in every story there are two levels that we may relate to, one or both of which may have influenced the present form of the narrative in important ways:

(1) The historical level, in which Jesus said or did such and such, and

(2) the contextual level, in which the Gospel writer (or someone at an earlier time) applied this tradition about Jesus to needs and situations in his own time and church.

. . . .  The historian is interested in getting back behind the text, using the text as a means of gaining access to events that supposedly happened earlier.

. . . . The historical approach digs through and seeks to get behind a text to see what if anything can be determined about actual historical events.

. . . . If one wants to ascertain what we can know about Jesus as a historical figure “beyond reasonable doubt,” then historical study is the only way to accomplish that.

. . . . The aim of all this is to uncover a core of information regarding Jesus that most historians, regardless of background or religious upbringing, should be able to agree is authentic. (pp. 55-58)

When it is said that the historian seeks to get back “behind” the text of the Gospels, what is implied is that the text is itself an attempt (at least in part) to record information derived from traditions that are to be traced back to the historical Jesus.

These assumptions, according to this method, are prerequisites “if we want to understand the Gospels”.

Certainly form criticism can claim to have traced certain Gospel sayings back to “originals”. But this method is not evidence of the hypothesis of oral transmissions, but a conclusion based on its presumption.

An Alternative that is thus excluded



The Gospels: Histories or Stories?

Historical Jesus scholars in the main seem to write their history or life of Jesus as if this can be done simply by cherry picking bits and pieces from the gospels that they feel make the most sense.

They assume that there is an historical Jesus to begin with. And then they ask questions about this and that episode in the gospels in an effort to come to some conclusion about why the author would have written about Jesus in that particular way. The result is claimed to be evidence for the “historical Jesus”. The process is entirely circular, however.

Associate Professor James McGrath challenged me to address the arguments of E. P. Sanders for the historical Jesus, and I have begun to do so with my discussion on the Why the Temple Action by Jesus is Almost Certainly Not Historical.

How historical Jesus research works

E. P. Sanders indeed offers a classic case study for the circular method of historical Jesus studies. He begins with a list of “facts” about Jesus that he believes are bedrock, although he does not demonstrate or argue why his list should be considered bedrock. One of these is the “cleansing of the temple incident”. He then proceeds to discuss various plot-related questions about how this incident is handled in the gospels, and what the authors may have been thinking as they wrote. He finally concludes that there was a real “temple action” but that it was not quite carried out for the reasons the gospels narrate. He can imagine a more plausible “historical” motive for Jesus’ action than that presented in the gospel stories. This is how he constructs his “historical Jesus”.

In other words, the historicity of Jesus is assumed from the outset, and then that assumption is made to justify itself by a process of what is in effect Sanders’ attempts to make better “historical” sense of the narrative.

This is not “proving” the historicity of Jesus. It is assuming that there was a Jesus to begin with, and then finding a more historically plausible narrative for him than the one we read in the gospels.

I am reminded of the critique of that branch of biblical studies that dealt with the history of Saul, David and Solomon and the kingdom of Israel that appeared around 1992 in Philip Davies’ publication, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have discussed this before and in other places, but it is timely to start to revisit a few basics of historical methodology given a series of recent posts by James McGrath:

More mythicist creationist parallels

Is there evidence for mythicism?

Mythicism and John the Baptist

Assuming the gospels are (or contain) history

Most Bible scholars have traditionally assumed that the Bible is basically a true record of the history of Israel. But Davies observes that their reasons for believing this are in fact only circular arguments:

#1 The authors of the Bible were obviously informed about the past and were concerned to pass on a truthful record of what they knew. Their audiences also knew enough of the past to keep those authors honest.

#1 This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up. (Historical Jesus scholars will insist that the story is not one that anyone would have made up. But this is another logical fallacy (argument from incredulity) that I have discussed elsewhere in detail and will do so again.)

#2 Some Bible books claim to have been written at very specific times and places (e.g. in the first year of such and such a king). If some of these kings really lived and we know that some of events really happened then we should generally believe the rest of what those books say.

#2 This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.

#3 Some Bible books give precise details about events and life in the distant past — or in the case of the gospels, customs and theological debates in the apparently more recent past. We can therefore safely assume that there must have been some real connection between those past events and the stories about them in the Bible. The stories must have some truth behind them.

#3  Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”

#4 Where a book is clearly written long after the time it speaks about we must assume that it relies on sources or traditions that were originally close to those ancient events and that these details were preserved and passed across generations and new audiences.

#4 This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

Arguments for historicity of the gospel narratives are circular

All of these reasons for believing that the Bible contains real history are circular arguments. They say, in effect: “We know the Bible is true because its authors were careful to tell the truth, and we know they were careful to tell the truth because what they wrote was true ….” and so on.

To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It also means comparing the Bible with other literature of the era that shows some similarities with its narratives and rhetoric.

It is naive to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know:

  1. WHEN it was WRITTEN
  2. IF its stories are TRUE.

To settle for anything less is to imply that when it comes to the Bible we do not need to follow the standards of historical enquiry and handling of source documents that are generally found among historical disciplines. We cannot excuse historical Jesus studies from sound historical methodologies.

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Lazy historians and their ancient sources

Though I refer to “lazy historians” here, this piece is really written for “lazy readers” of “biblical history” — not that many are really lazy. But not all are aware that modern critical techniques applied to the Bible are not a reflection of anti-religious bias but are rather an application of modern critical historical tools to biblical texts. It is the biblical apologist who is often the one wanting specialist treatment of his texts, not the secular critic.

“Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.” — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.


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