Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

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Blood
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Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by Blood » Thu Jul 17, 2014 4:17 pm

Here's some axioms I've been working on that I think should be basic to historical-critical-theological research. Feel free to add ...

1. Stories About the Past are Not History
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "The Great Gatsby," and "The Gospel of Matthew" are all stories about the past. Stories about the past usually contain historical elements, such as geographical sites or even historical figures. These are plot devices as old as story itself, designed to lull the hearer or reader into believing what is otherwise a fictional story, whose main characters invariably either didn't exist, or were so loosely based on real people as to make any comparison superfluous.

2. Theology is Not History
The main doctoral degree given out in Biblical Studies is Doctor of Theology. Biblical Studies students are expected to learn some history, but there is an apologetic cast to this training, as the history they learn is not history on its own terms, but context for their theological training. They are taught that all other ancient religions except theirs are based on ahistoric myth, and few apparently ever develop the critical faculties to question this assumption. It is good for their careers not to.

The theological student mistakenly believes that he is actually studying history. At best, what the theologian studies is the "history of theology," i.e. the history of religious beliefs, archetypes, texts, and rituals. While rituals do happen in reality and therefore are historical, this aspect usually comprises the least studied area of the history of theology.

3. Rationalizations of Myth Are Not "History," But Are Actually Just New Versions of the Myth
Borrowing a page from Levi-Strauss's Structuralism, a component to his theory is the maxim that any retelling of a myth is actually a new version of the myth -- it is pointless to hunt for an "original." Though he didn't mean it in this sense, I think we are entitled to take this a step further, and say that any rationalization of a myth is also a new version of the myth. Every modern "life of Jesus" book is an example of this. Every theologian finds the "Jesus" he is searching for, even (or perhaps especially) if the "Jesus" they find is an raving apocalyptic doom merchant. These are just modern versions of the gospels, and should be studied as such (i.e., for the light they shed on the time they are written in, not for their supposedly rigorous objective historical scholarship).

4. There Was No Ancient Religion Called "Paganism."
Theologians simply take it for granted that it is historically accurate and acceptable to lump all ancient religions besides their own under the rubric "paganism." This is closely related to Axion #2, the basic idea being that the "Abrahamic" Religions are historical and worthy of serious study, while the thousands of other ancient religions are mythical and therefore easily dismissed as irrelevant. This is again founded on Christian apologetics, not facts or history, and should not be taken seriously by non-theologians. Sadly, most historians follow the theologians in making this error, a prime example of theology contaminating actual history.

5. The Quest For The "Original Text" is Futile.
Closely related to #3. A cornerstone of all theological studies is the concept of an "original autograph," the manuscript whose supposed reconstruction forms the very purpose of theological text criticism. If we just had the original texts, so the story goes, all questions and problems would be resolved. In fact, this is simply more mythical thinking. The "original text" (unless it was written on stone, like the Rosetta), can never be recovered, nor would such a text matter to all subsequent theological history, as scribes had no such expectations themselves.

6. It's OK To Question the Experts.
Intellectual progress depends upon the freedom to question existing paradigms. This is expected in the hard sciences, but less so in historical studies, and way less in theological studies. The "assured results of scholarship" are actually on very shaky ground in Biblical Studies, where arguments from authority and consensus are the norm, and questioning of paradigms strongly discouraged. One suspects this heightened tension is due to the theologians knowing, at least subliminally, how vulnerable all of their paradigms are, and is all the more reason to question those assumptions rigorously. The only real progress made in Biblical Studies, in fact, has come from a few brave students following their own doubts, boldly questioning the experts in their field, and finding their arguments wanting. Don't be afraid to question, and never accept logical fallacies or apologetics for answers. Subject your own ideas and arguments to the same scrutiny, and always be prepared to admit you were wrong.
“The only sensible response to fragmented, slowly but randomly accruing evidence is radical open-mindedness. A single, simple explanation for a historical event is generally a failure of imagination, not a triumph of induction.” William H.C. Propp

ficino
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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by ficino » Fri Jul 18, 2014 2:53 am

Love it, great points of departure, Blood! A quickie response:

1. can you bring more precision to the terms "myth/mythical"? There's a big range of meaning covered by a word, "myth," that in some contexts can refer to "narrative, the characters in which are gods or children of gods," in other contexts, to something like "author's autograph manuscript, which cannot now be reconstructed," and so forth.

2. have you considered DC Hindley's remarks on all narratives as species of rhetoric?

viewtopic.php?f=6&t=721&p=15143#p15113

The view that they are so may problematize our attempts to draw a clear line of demarcation between "stories about the past" and "history." See perhaps also my link of this morning to a review of essays on pseudoscience:

viewtopic.php?f=6&p=15908#p15908

3. re "there was no ancient religion called paganism": the ancients did use the word religio to denote what we call paganism (e.g. Lucretius). Maybe an issue here is unpacking what moderns mean by "religion"? In ancient Greece and Rome there were city-state and imperial cults, mystery groups like the Bacchic groups represented by people who deposited the gold lamellae in their tombs, etc. "Pagan" just comes from the Latin paganus, meaning "person who lives in a pagus, a rural district or village" (the Italian "paesano" and "paese" are derivatives of those words). Anyway, good point on how some biblical students today consider the foundational narratives of Abrahamic religions more worthy of historical credence than those of these other movements.

An important thread, Blood, good job. I await further contributions.

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Blood
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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by Blood » Fri Jul 18, 2014 3:46 pm

ficino wrote:Love it, great points of departure, Blood! A quickie response:

1. can you bring more precision to the terms "myth/mythical"? There's a big range of meaning covered by a word, "myth," that in some contexts can refer to "narrative, the characters in which are gods or children of gods," in other contexts, to something like "author's autograph manuscript, which cannot now be reconstructed," and so forth.

2. have you considered DC Hindley's remarks on all narratives as species of rhetoric?

viewtopic.php?f=6&t=721&p=15143#p15113

The view that they are so may problematize our attempts to draw a clear line of demarcation between "stories about the past" and "history." See perhaps also my link of this morning to a review of essays on pseudoscience:

viewtopic.php?f=6&p=15908#p15908

3. re "there was no ancient religion called paganism": the ancients did use the word religio to denote what we call paganism (e.g. Lucretius). Maybe an issue here is unpacking what moderns mean by "religion"? In ancient Greece and Rome there were city-state and imperial cults, mystery groups like the Bacchic groups represented by people who deposited the gold lamellae in their tombs, etc. "Pagan" just comes from the Latin paganus, meaning "person who lives in a pagus, a rural district or village" (the Italian "paesano" and "paese" are derivatives of those words). Anyway, good point on how some biblical students today consider the foundational narratives of Abrahamic religions more worthy of historical credence than those of these other movements.

An important thread, Blood, good job. I await further contributions.

It's just something I wrote off the top of my head. I didn't want to get bogged down in definitions, as all of these terms could have entire books written about their meanings. But I'm glad you brought up 'myth,' since I should have added:

7. Never Use "Myth" As a Pejorative Term
"Mythos" was a Greek word that already in the Fifth Century BCE took on the meaning of "a story, not necessarily true, told to teach a higher lesson or provide some explanation for something." It was not meant as a pejorative term, though by the time of the Christians it had acquired that sense, and the very self-conscious Christians were eager to prove that their religion wasn't based on mere "myths." (This is known as "protesting too much.") This pejorative sense has remained the dominant one, but we must be careful not to fall into the same trap that Christian apologists set for us with "pagan." Myth should be treated respectfully at all times.
“The only sensible response to fragmented, slowly but randomly accruing evidence is radical open-mindedness. A single, simple explanation for a historical event is generally a failure of imagination, not a triumph of induction.” William H.C. Propp

ficino
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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by ficino » Fri Jul 18, 2014 5:40 pm

Blood wrote: 7. Never Use "Myth" As a Pejorative Term
"Mythos" was a Greek word that already in the Fifth Century BCE took on the meaning of "a story, not necessarily true, told to teach a higher lesson or provide some explanation for something." It was not meant as a pejorative term, though by the time of the Christians it had acquired that sense, and the very self-conscious Christians were eager to prove that their religion wasn't based on mere "myths." (This is known as "protesting too much.") This pejorative sense has remained the dominant one, but we must be careful not to fall into the same trap that Christian apologists set for us with "pagan." Myth should be treated respectfully at all times.
I get what you mean, and basically agree. If a traditionalist, though, says, "Jesus rose bodily from the dead and appeared in glory to his disciples when he ascended into heaven," and you reply, "That's a myth," I think your reply does pejorative work in that pragmatic context, even if you mean it in the sense that you outline above. I don't think an orthodox Christian believer can allow that central stories of the faith are "myth" in any modern, standard sense of that word. The orthodox cannot go along with the "not necessarily true" part of your definition and still be orthodox.

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Blood
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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by Blood » Sun Jul 20, 2014 7:07 am

ficino wrote:
Blood wrote: 7. Never Use "Myth" As a Pejorative Term
"Mythos" was a Greek word that already in the Fifth Century BCE took on the meaning of "a story, not necessarily true, told to teach a higher lesson or provide some explanation for something." It was not meant as a pejorative term, though by the time of the Christians it had acquired that sense, and the very self-conscious Christians were eager to prove that their religion wasn't based on mere "myths." (This is known as "protesting too much.") This pejorative sense has remained the dominant one, but we must be careful not to fall into the same trap that Christian apologists set for us with "pagan." Myth should be treated respectfully at all times.
I get what you mean, and basically agree. If a traditionalist, though, says, "Jesus rose bodily from the dead and appeared in glory to his disciples when he ascended into heaven," and you reply, "That's a myth," I think your reply does pejorative work in that pragmatic context, even if you mean it in the sense that you outline above. I don't think an orthodox Christian believer can allow that central stories of the faith are "myth" in any modern, standard sense of that word. The orthodox cannot go along with the "not necessarily true" part of your definition and still be orthodox.
It's really best to avoid using the word "myth" generally, since even critical thinkers default to the pejorative sense. However, using "fiction" or some other word as a substitute is equally pejorative, and "tradition," though neutral, isn't precise enough. Perhaps #7 should be, "Never Use The Word Myth," period.
“The only sensible response to fragmented, slowly but randomly accruing evidence is radical open-mindedness. A single, simple explanation for a historical event is generally a failure of imagination, not a triumph of induction.” William H.C. Propp

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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by DCHindley » Mon Jul 21, 2014 5:32 pm

Blood wrote:Here's some axioms I've been working on that I think should be basic to historical-critical-theological research. Feel free to add ...

1. Stories About the Past are Not History
2. Theology is Not History
3. Rationalizations of Myth Are Not "History," But Are Actually Just New Versions of the Myth
4. There Was No Ancient Religion Called "Paganism."
5. The Quest For The "Original Text" is Futile.
6. It's OK To Question the Experts.
7. Never Use "Myth" As a Pejorative Term
So, what do you think "History" is, exactly? Can we ever "know" the actual events of "history" in your opinion? Do historical events all devolve into "myth" indistinguishable from moralistic "myth"? The only ones who are anxious for 'original text' (as in 'autograph') seem to be conservative Christians, so does this mean you are reacting to Christianity? It is also Christian fathers who characterized popular myths as "pagan" (which refers to the rural population, not to a religion, as every classicist surely knows) as a way to marginalize them as opposed to "sophisticated" Christian religion of the big cities. Non-Christian elites came up with Neo-Platonism as an alternative "revealed religion" and revered the Chaldean Oracles as a kind of scripture to compete with Christianity. Everyone questions the experts, the trick is coming up with something better to explain evidence. The term "myth" isn't in itself pejorative, but can be used that way by persons with bets on the outcome of the fight.

Isn't "history" really just evidence about past events interpreted from the perspective of the present? Since all explanation of evidence is in narrative form (if you find anybody who disagrees with this, let me know), and all narrative, whether expressing myth, story, fiction, or ... HISTORY, employs the exact same communicative techniques (tropes, emplotment, argumentative strategy), then deal with it, don't react to it!

Certain terms and argumentative strategies seem to get your dandruff (OK, dander) up. Don't react in a knee jerk fashion to the discussions, just learn about what is really being discussed rather than reacting to the terms and the rhetoric.

DCH

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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by ficino » Tue Jul 22, 2014 4:00 am

DCHindley wrote:Non-Christian elites came up with Neo-Platonism as an alternative "revealed religion" and revered the Chaldean Oracles as a kind of scripture to compete with Christianity.
Tell me if this derails too much. David, does your above statement describe the motives of Plotinus himself, or only of various followers like Porphyry?

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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by Blood » Tue Jul 22, 2014 4:58 am

DCHindley wrote:
Blood wrote:Here's some axioms I've been working on that I think should be basic to historical-critical-theological research. Feel free to add ...

1. Stories About the Past are Not History
2. Theology is Not History
3. Rationalizations of Myth Are Not "History," But Are Actually Just New Versions of the Myth
4. There Was No Ancient Religion Called "Paganism."
5. The Quest For The "Original Text" is Futile.
6. It's OK To Question the Experts.
7. Never Use "Myth" As a Pejorative Term
DCHindley wrote: So, what do you think "History" is, exactly? Can we ever "know" the actual events of "history" in your opinion? Do historical events all devolve into "myth" indistinguishable from moralistic "myth"?
Again, we could have a separate discussion on what "history," "myth," and "theology" mean, and we would come up with a lot of different answers, but the point of the axioms was that they should hold regardless of how wide or narrow one defines the terms within the list.

DCHindley wrote: The only ones who are anxious for 'original text' (as in 'autograph') seem to be conservative Christians, so does this mean you are reacting to Christianity?
I'm not so sure about that. I often read a scholar citing "the earliest and best textual witness" in other fields.

Yes, the term "historical-critical-theological" incorporates Christianity.
DCHindley wrote: It is also Christian fathers who characterized popular myths as "pagan" (which refers to the rural population, not to a religion, as every classicist surely knows) as a way to marginalize them as opposed to "sophisticated" Christian religion of the big cities.
It is usually used in the sense, collectively, of a religion, by both theologians and classicists.
DCHindley wrote:Non-Christian elites came up with Neo-Platonism as an alternative "revealed religion" and revered the Chaldean Oracles as a kind of scripture to compete with Christianity.
Yes.
DCHindley wrote: Everyone questions the experts, the trick is coming up with something better to explain evidence.
I see a lot of arguments based on the authority of theologians or historians.

DCHindley wrote: The term "myth" isn't in itself pejorative, but can be used that way by persons with bets on the outcome of the fight.
Yes.
DCHindley wrote: Isn't "history" really just evidence about past events interpreted from the perspective of the present? Since all explanation of evidence is in narrative form (if you find anybody who disagrees with this, let me know), and all narrative, whether expressing myth, story, fiction, or ... HISTORY, employs the exact same communicative techniques (tropes, emplotment, argumentative strategy), then deal with it, don't react to it!
Are you saying that history writing and the history of theology is pretty much the same thing, since they both sift through evidence and then write narratives about it?
DCHindley wrote:Certain terms and argumentative strategies seem to get your dandruff (OK, dander) up. Don't react in a knee jerk fashion to the discussions, just learn about what is really being discussed rather than reacting to the terms and the rhetoric.
[/quote]

I think we need to distinguish theology from history. We need to actually understand and examine why we are even using words such as pagan. Only then can we "learn about what is really being discussed" in my opinion.
“The only sensible response to fragmented, slowly but randomly accruing evidence is radical open-mindedness. A single, simple explanation for a historical event is generally a failure of imagination, not a triumph of induction.” William H.C. Propp

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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by MrMacSon » Tue Jul 22, 2014 4:29 pm

Blood wrote:I think we need to distinguish theology from history.
Yes we need to understand and "be-on-the-same-page" about words like 'pagan', but we also need to for 'heretic', and 'myth', etc.

We also need to understand the development of myth, and the development of notions of heresy. I don't think we can avoid the word 'myth' in the discussion. Or we need to have a different word or framework.

We need to understand the development of myth in general; the development of specific myths; the 'heresies' specific to a particular theology, and the development of those heresies.

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Re: Some Axioms of Historical-Critical/Theological Research

Post by toejam » Wed Jul 23, 2014 4:20 am

Blood wrote:3. Rationalizations of Myth Are Not "History," But Are Actually Just New Versions of the Myth
Borrowing a page from Levi-Strauss's Structuralism, a component to his theory is the maxim that any retelling of a myth is actually a new version of the myth -- it is pointless to hunt for an "original." Though he didn't mean it in this sense, I think we are entitled to take this a step further, and say that any rationalization of a myth is also a new version of the myth. Every modern "life of Jesus" book is an example of this. Every theologian finds the "Jesus" he is searching for, even (or perhaps especially) if the "Jesus" they find is an raving apocalyptic doom merchant. These are just modern versions of the gospels, and should be studied as such (i.e., for the light they shed on the time they are written in, not for their supposedly rigorous objective historical scholarship).
I just hope you're not under the impression that Jesus Mythicism is immune from this...
My study list: https://www.facebook.com/notes/scott-bignell/judeo-christian-origins-bibliography/851830651507208

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