Thursday, February 8, 2007

Reading History out of Theology

The biblical historian has a very difficult task, more difficult than the task of historians of other subjects I think, because the biblical scholar works with theological documents to try to reconstruct history. Is this possible, to use theological texts to discover history?

I think so. Although I must emphasize that it is not easy and we should not take the task lightly. What I mean is that we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of becoming lazy, accepting what the texts tell us as a record of what actually happened. We must develop a hermeneutic of suspicion as second nature. Reading against the grain must be embraced as our best friend.

If we have one, we must be conscious of our own faith perspective, be willing to set it aside so that our historical task does not become a servant to own theological beliefs.

Likewise, we must acknowledge the ways in which the canon has dominated the field, and all the assumptions that this has brought with it - including the assumption that the canonical texts are reliable and accurate representations of Jesus and early Christianity.

We must also revive the old historical methods but within a contemporary academic context, revising them with theory from the cognitive and social sciences as well as from philosophy and literature. Even though they must be improved, I truly feel that nothing can replace the old methods, and we should be teaching them to our students, undergraduates and graduates alike.

I think it is important for us to distinguish what kinds of history we are after and what kinds of history are possible to recover from the early Christian documents. I am very comfortable, for instance, reconstructing the traditions of the people who created and recorded the document. These theological texts reveal quite a bit of information about what the early Christians were thinking and practicing whether it be from the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, and so on. The diversity of thought and practice is staggering. And I imagine that I will spend my entire career trying to sort this all out.

The documents I am most thankful that have survived are the letters of Paul. Without them I don't think we would have a chance to reconstruct early Christian history. We would be completely lost trying to recover anything of value in Acts. But the letters of Paul are autobiographical, and with them we can begin to see glimpses of Jesus' family running a church in Jerusalem, and so forth.

The type of history I am least sure about recovering from these theological texts is actual events in the life of Jesus and actual words that he said. I am scared of the historical Jesus. It is so easy to invent Jesus in our own image, and to create a methodology to support that endeavor. On top of that, the texts are intentionally portraying him as they do by authors who believe him to be God. So whenever I think about trying to write about the historical Jesus, I tremble and put down my pen. It is still beyond me how I go about this as a historian.


Phil Snider said...

This post is at the heart of my disagreements with you, I'm afraid. Fundamentally, I don't think we can separate our theological (or ideological) assumptions from the act of writing history. I say this because, even in your vigourous defence of a 'humanist' post-Enlightenment historical hermeneutic, you are assuming a number of things which I don't think are self-evident. For one, there is the assumption that one can take theology (and by extenstion, God) out of the equation when reading any religious text. In trying to read these texts as merely human documents, you are, I would argue, distorting what the authors were trying to say and trying to ignore the very real purpose of the texts: to set out a truthful narrative about Jesus. This is true, I would argue, of both canonical and Apocryphal gospels.

I also would argue that the mere fact of one's theological stance does not preclude the possibility of doing real history. As much as I find the Apocryphal Gospels theologically odious, historically they are very useful in reconstructing what was happening in Christianity in its early centuries. In that sense, I try to be even-handed with the evidence, even as I deny the truth claim that many of these texts assume (for example): that there is a secret teaching which Jesus reserved only for the elite. They are evidence, however, for that appeal.

Lastly, the root of the problem here is that I am deeply suspicious of the hermeneutic of suspicion (I've been waiting years to use that phrase!). I am suspicious of it because, while it has yielded useful historical results, it is also a distortion because we assume that the authors are simply not able to give a truthful narrative about anything. It is a historiographical truism which tells us not to trust our sources and I'm not arguing that we return with credulity to our historical work. Yet, this assumption that we either know best or can come to know best dictates a relationship to the past which I think causes us to ignore what the past may teach us. It is a way for us moderns and post-moderns to reinforce our sense that we are more evolved and we know better. At the end of the day, I just don't buy that.

My point here is that there is no escaping our assumptions and that no set of assumptions are going to allow us to do that. Can we be critical, even of our own cherished ideas? Yes, and we should be. Can we be even-handed? Yes, and we should be. Can we leave our theological/idealogical baggage at the door? No, nor should we.


Stephen Hebert said...

I agree that the "historical Jesus" is the most difficult topic to wrestle—the one we should be most careful to handle. I think, however, that this is largely due to the assumptions made by those in search of this elusive figure. The reason we have thousands of books on the topic with differing views has little to do with Jesus and the gospels (canonical or non-), and everything to do with the assumptions made by the authors.

Like Phil S., I agree that it is nearly impossible to divorce ourselves from our theo/ideo-logical stances. Are our results ever really a surprise? Or, were they, in some sense, predetermined by the baggage we brought to the evidence?

Wade said...


I'm not sure I fully understand your disagreements. You say that Dr. DeConick is "assuming a number of things which [you] don't think are self-evident." The first one you note is that she makes the assumption that "one can take theology (and by extension, God) out of the equation when reading any religious text." Isn't that exactly what the problem is - she is saying it is almost impossible to separate the theology from the history in the text, so I can't see how she is implying that you can take theology or God out of it. I thought I understood from you next sentence (saying that she is trying to read the texts as "merely human documents") that maybe you are saying that you see the texts as "divinely inspired" in a way that precludes normal historical method being used on them, but then the next line seems to indicate that you consider this a problem with the Apocryphal texts that you surely don't view as inspired. If I am misreading that and you are saying you read the texts as inspired and that we have to consider that when reading them, well, fine, but isn't that a theological statement? If you are going to do that aren't you then doing theology and not history? Not that there is anything wrong with doing theology, but they are different, no?

In your second paragraph you claim to be even-handed with the evidence after calling the Apocryphal Gospels "theologically odious." Isn't that a judgment again best left to theology and not history? It seems to be to be a perfect example of the difficulty of doing real history when you take a theological stance.

Finally I would just have to disagree with being deeply suspicious about the hermeneutic of suspicion. I find suspicion essential and am with Bertrand Russell when he said 'William James used to preach the "will to believe". For my part I should wish to preach the "will to doubt"...What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite.'

One cannot simply accept an account like the ones given in the gospels without some suspicion and say you are doing history. Looking at them as you would any other ancient source (or any modern source) there are serious red-flags that one would have to pay attention to besides the fact that the gospels are theology not strict historical accounts. We are not sure about their authorship and we don't know for sure the source of the information in them. At best they were written several years after the events (some say several decades - but Crossley, I hear argues for a date of about 39 for Mark) and there can be little doubt that if the sources actually were eyewitness disciples of Jesus (not a certainty by any means) there is a least some bias there. Maybe it is just my profession as a trial lawyer, but if I put up a witness who testified to someone saying and doing wonderful things and the defense was able to cross and get responses like "How long ago did you hear him say that?" "Oh about a decade ago." and "Do you have any potential biases, like were you good friends?" "Well yes, we were friends and by the way I worship Him as my God" I think I might have a credibility problem with most jurors...

Not that I think we can't get any real historical information out, like there are some possible admissions made against interests in the gospels, but I do think it is self-evident that great care and suspicion is warranted.

Loren Rosson III said...

we must acknowledge the ways in which the canon has dominated the field, and all the assumptions that this has brought with it - including the assumption that the canonical texts are reliable and accurate representations of Jesus and early Christianity.

While I don't think the canonical texts are exactly "reliable and accurate representations of Jesus and early Christianity", I do think they contain some of the best information we have. I'm not Christian -- and so not pre-disposed to the canon out of any faith-bias -- but the evidence tells me that the synoptics and Paul (and possibly the letter of James) put us closest in touch with what early Christianity was like.

The documents I am most thankful that have survived are the letters of Paul. Without them I don't think we would have a chance to reconstruct early Christian history.

I tend to agree.

Thanks for the interesting posts.

Judy Redman said...

Phil says:

I am suspicious of [the hermeneutic of suspicion] because, while it has yielded useful historical results, it is also a distortion because we assume that the authors are simply not able to give a truthful narrative about anything.

This is certainly not the assumption I make when using the hermeneutic of suspicion. I simply assume that what writers record is coloured and shaped by who they were, the time they lived in and what they believed. I don't think that suspecting that what we have is not a full and totally accurate account of what happened is the same as saying that it is untrue.

There is a lovely piece in the November 1959 edition of Field and Stream where Ed Zern reviews Lady Chatterly's Lover as follows:

"This pictorial account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour the sidelights on the management of a midland shooting estate."

There is nothing untruthful about this, but it certainly gives us a biased view of the content of the book. I'm not for a minute suggesting that the synoptics are equivalent to Zern's review, but I think, Phil, that you might be talking about Truth rather than truth. Like you, I suspect that we can't entirely leave our theological/faith baggage at the door, but I think the hermeneutic of suspicion helps us to be aware that we're carrying it.

This, however, isn't what I wanted to comment on when I clicked on the comments page. :-)

April, you say that the texts are intentionally portraying Jesus as they do because the authors believed he was God. I wonder if this is true of all of the authors? That Jesus was both God and human and how the church should understand this was a major obsession of the early Fathers and several church councils, as was the doctrine of the Trinity. I'm not so sure that this was how it was understood by Jesus' first followers. A number of groups named as heretical certainly didn't think so and it probably would have been a very big stretch for a devout Jew. Maybe this is something we tend to read back into the texts because of our theological baggage?

Phil Snider said...

wade and judy;

I did kind of set myself up for your criticisms, so fair enough. I fully recognize that much of what I was saying doesn't make sense in a humanist tradition of historiography which would really bother me if I was writing in that tradition. I'm not, of course, but I take your collective points.

Let me try to explain in a different way then. Let me use the slightly less controversial area of ancient history. My grad work was done in the area of ancient, particularly Roman, history, so I'm familiar with the issues. In the course of my studies, I found that the source of a lot of misunderstandings of ancient historiography is when we attempt to apply our post-Enlightenment concept of just what history is (quite similar to the one presented here) to texts which simply don't presume it. What that produces are modern historians who are either struggling to show the objectivity of their chosen author or excoriates that author for his lack of objectivity. Yet, this idea of history is one that the authors would never have acknowledged. That strikes me not only as anachronistic, but positively confusing when we are trying to decide on the merits and demerits of a historian.

For myself, I am trying to write in a Christian tradition, although I only claim to be a journeyman in that endeavor. That means that a lot of what I say makes no sense or, worse in a humanistic tradition. What I am challenging is the assumption that the humanist tradition's concept of history is the only one or that it is the only valid way of writing history.

The implications of this last statement, of course, are far reaching, but, perhaps, I should leave them floating in the air for now.

Judy Redman said...


If what you are saying is that reading an historical text from the perspective of another era and using the basic assumptions about life and scholarship of that other era is fraught with difficulty and can result in some very unhelpful interpretations, I agree entirely.

One of the first things I was taught in theological hall (seminary) was that before we started trying to work out what a text might be saying for our congregations today we must ask what the original writer was trying to say to her/his audience. We were further taught that in order to do this effectively, we needed to have a good understanding of the historical context of the text. This understanding would rule out or at least call into question some interpretations that might appear possible from just looking at the text in our context.

So, I don't see what April is advocating as essentially 'humanist'. I think that the foundation of all analysis of historical text is to try to look at it through the eyes of an independent observer first. Where you take it after that will vary depending on whether you're an historian, a theologian, a biblical scholar or whatever.

April DeConick said...


About the question you asked in this post about Jesus as God in the synoptics and Paul. Of course this is disputed in scholarship. There are those scholars who argue for an early "low" christology (i.e., Dunn, Casey) and then those of us who argue for an early "high" christology (i.e., Hurtado, Bauckam, Gieschen, myself). I think Simon Gathercole's new book on Preexistent Christology falls in the latter camp too. (Am I right Simon?)

This post is not the place to give all the details, but essentially it amounts to evidence for worship in Paul's letters (use of divine Name, prayers, hymns) and the bestowal of the divine Name on Jesus. I have just finished a paper called, "How We Talk About Christology Matters", which will appear shortly in a collection of essays, where I reenvision the entire question and offer a new paradigm to think about the question of christology. When you come to Rice this spring, I can give you a copy and we can discuss it if you think it would be useful.

Marcus Wood said...

The problem of reconstructing history out of theology is one that I tackled in my own thesis on the Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically the pesharim or Qumran commentaries.

Various of the pesharim have since their discovery excited comment because of the historical episodes that could be reconstructed out of their lines; the 'crucifixion' of 800 Pharisees by Alexander Jannaeus in the Nahum pesher is an obvious example.

However, my principle concern was that this approach risked misreading the 'message' (if you will) of these texts. They were not intended as historical documents and to read them solely in an attempt to reconstruct history ignored the original setting of the scrolls.

In fact, my analysis of the pesher corpus showed that any historical episodes were at best unreliable and were in any cas tangential to the theological sectarian points the authors were making.

With that in mind, I welcome your notion of a 'hermeneutic of suspicion' in dealing with such texts. The reader trying to reconstruct any historical episode from a theological text should be very wary when engaging on his task and always bear in mind the text's original intention. While this may sound obvious, I found that this fundamental principle had often been overlooked by scholars, especially those working in the decades immediately following the scrolls' discovery, working in my own discipline.