Rules of Historical Reasoning

Discussion about the New Testament, apocrypha, gnostics, church fathers, Christian origins, historical Jesus or otherwise, etc.
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neilgodfrey
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Re: Rules of Historical Reasoning

Post by neilgodfrey »

Today I happened to come across a book by a historian of ancient history, M.I. Finley, that I had not read before. I finally caught up with his Aspects of Antiquity, first published 1968. I did not know until today that he has a chapter on "Christian Beginnings: Three Views of Historiography".

One might almost wonder if Finley (born Moses Isaac Finkelstein) would direct a half-sympathetic wink at Jesus mythicists if he were alive today. What he published not too many years before my own graduation certainly belies the claims of Jesus historicists who insist that they abide by normative historical methods.

What hit me between the eyes was his use of a phrase that I myself have used from time to time and suffered as a consequence, the need for "external controls" in order to establish the historicity of any datum. (The bolding in the following is my own.)
An Oxford historian, Mr A. N. Sherwin-White, has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. ‘Not’, he adds, ‘that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.’ Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek verb at the root of ‘history’ is historein, to inquire, which is what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,
theocratic history ... means not history proper ... but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest
The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century and a half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls. Goguel’s way, if I may oversimplify, is first to sort the traditions into strands (or to demon-case) and then to apply logical and psychological tests. One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for ‘a sign from Heaven’, Jesus replied, ‘There shall be no sign given unto this generation’ (Mark viii, 11-12). Goguel comments:
This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus ... This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.
It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are ‘extremely doubtful’. His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, ‘it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.’

This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied.
In other words, how can a historian conclude that the gospel narratives are not entirely born of myth? How can a historian claim that there is a shred of historical datum in any of the gospel narratives about Jesus?

The material available to the historian does not of itself justify any conclusion of historicity at all, period.
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perseusomega9
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Re: Rules of Historical Reasoning

Post by perseusomega9 »

It seems James McGrath has dirtied himself and decided to comment on this discussion.

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionp ... qus_thread
The metric to judge if one is a good exegete: the way he/she deals with Barabbas.

Who disagrees with me on this precise point is by definition an idiot.
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Secret Alias
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Re: Rules of Historical Reasoning

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FWIW I've always thought one of our posters was McGrath (for whom I have no ill will). My guess is that Paul the Unknowing or whatever his name is. No one calls themselves 'unknowing' or 'ignorant' at a forum like this. The idiots think they are geniuses and the genius pretend they don't know what they are talking about. Sort of like the way tall people or big people in the inner city call themselves 'little' (or 'lil).

As a rule no one cares enough about religion to actually think about it. It's like sex. The people who are getting it aren't thinking about it. The people who are thinking about it aren't getting it. So it is with most people and religion. Either you're a believer or a non-believer but no one is a thinker ... with the exception of academics (at least for the most part). And most people at this forum are thinking about religion because they aren't getting any sex. Let's be honest.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
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Paul the Uncertain
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Re: Rules of Historical Reasoning

Post by Paul the Uncertain »

Secret Alias wrote: Mon Mar 18, 2019 6:29 am FWIW I've always thought one of our posters was McGrath (for whom I have no ill will). My guess is that Paul the Unknowing or whatever his name is.
I resemble that remark :)

No, I'm not Professor McGrath.
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Secret Alias
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Re: Rules of Historical Reasoning

Post by Secret Alias »

Still I get part marks for throwing the horseshoe close to the spike.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
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MrMacSon
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Re: Rules of Historical Reasoning

Post by MrMacSon »

perseusomega9 wrote: Mon Mar 18, 2019 5:21 am It seems James McGrath has dirtied himself and decided to comment on this discussion.

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionp ... qus_thread
lol -
"Reading certain blogs and discussion boards on the internet, you would think that laypeople were being called upon to invent methods for historical study for themselves, and to do so from scratch no less."
A classic misrepresentation and thus a strawman fallacy.

Then McGrath says (italics mine) -
I think a post (or series of posts!) on basic methodology, and particularly source criticism, could be helpful for a lay audience, especially in light of the misinformation being spread in certain corners of the internet. I’ll try to do that if and when time permits. For the purpose of the present post, I’ll gather together some links related to historical methods as they are applied to Jesus and other people and events in early Christianity.
Soo special ...

Neil has posted about Mcgrath's post on his blog. In part -
My post was in fact a presentation of what professional historians themselves explain about their methods.

Interestingly, McGrath’s post continues by quoting others who express disdain for amateurs who don’t show due deference to certain responses from biblical scholars and then reminding readers of the methods of biblical historians who study questions relating to the historical Jesus. Of course, my point was that nonbiblical historians work by different rules. The title of McGrath’s post included “Reinventing the Wheel” but I don’t believe any historian outside biblical studies uses the criteria or other methods specifically characteristic of biblical scholars to determine historicity. There is no reinvention but stark contrast.

McGrath has asked me not to engage with any of his posts on his blog so I can only trust fair minded readers will click on the “discussion boards” link and see that there has been some no doubt inadvertent confusion. I am not quite sure what the relevance of the second link is to form criticism and other tools used by biblical historians unless it is a reference to a point made before on the Religion Prof’s blog that biblical historians are pioneers leading the way in techniques of historical inquiry. https://vridar.org/2019/03/17/rules-of- ... more-85839
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MrMacSon
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Re: Rules of Historical Reasoning

Post by MrMacSon »

For posterity
R. G. Price • 31 minutes ago

Since my other post got deleted, I'll provide a simpler summary of the point:

The problem with the history of Christian origins is that the field is dominated by theologians. Virtually everyone in the field has a degree in divinity or theology, not history, and yet these theologians are treated as if they are historians.

And when it comes to real historians, almost none of them actually engage in real primary research in the field, they just refer to biblical scholars, all of whom are theologians. So the reality is that there are virtually no real historians that have done any meaningful research on Christian origins.

When you read about Christian origins you are almost always either A) reading the work of a theologian or B) reading the work of a historian who is citing theologians.

The problem is that historians treat theologians with PhDs as if they are real peers, when in fact they are not. Yes, they have a PhD, but it has nothing to with with the study of real history, and certainly nothing to do with the learning of proper historical or analytical methodology.

The first step is in acknowledged that a PhD in divinity or theology gives you just as much authority on the subject of Christian history as a degree in basket weaving, because that's the truth of the matter. Theologians are not historians, and in fact, training in theology provides a significant bias against real knowledge and real understanding of history or even proper historical methodology.

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionp ... 4384049740
Bernard Muller
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Re: Rules of Historical Reasoning

Post by Bernard Muller »

I certainly agree with R. G. Price.
Furthermore most scholars have a family life and social obligations. Most of them are professors; they spend time to read books on the subject of early Christianity and some are under pressure from their faculty to write books. And some are bloggers also.
So I do not think they have much time to do in-depth research on the topic.
I found their writings to be excellent for the form, but about substance, they are full of assumptions, opinions, driven by their prior conviction. Their reasoning is sometimes rather naive, somewhat infantile. Most do not care about any sequencing, or detecting interpolations. Furthermore, they must be careful not to offend too much their peers: that restricts their freedom of expression.
And of course, they have a tendency to see Jesus as themselves, that is a scholar.

Cordially, Bernard
I believe freedom of expression should not be curtailed
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