Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Second Principle of Historical Hermeneutics

Professor Tabor has recently posted on the Jesus Dynasty blog a discussion of my blog from February 3rd on the assumed reliability and accuracy of the New Testament documents for historical study. I enjoyed reading his comments and was particularly pleased that he highlighted the main point of my posting, to get us thinking about the assumptions that we have made about the literature in the New Testament as compared to that outside.

Professor Tabor writes
"I think many might think her statements are too extreme, and that surely the material in the N.T. is of infinitely more value historically than a slightly “whacko” book like Thomas (a description of one of my students on an exam last semester). But this would be to miss her very valuable point. A critical reading and historical examination of the kinds of non-canonical texts she mentions, and others as well, in fact offer us the chance to construct a much fuller portrait of the movement that John, Jesus, and James inaugurated. If Acts and Eusebius are not “the story,” as I have recently written, then we have a lot of hard work before us."

I couldn't agree more. As Professor Tabor has said, Acts and Eusebius are not "the story." Indeed, we have a lot of hard (but fun!) work ahead of us.

So I want to push us further as we think about an uncompromising historical hermeneutic. In addition to not privileging the canonical texts and the canonical story they relate (the First Principle of an Historical Hermeneutic),
in all our texts we must distinguish between history and theological interpretation of events, between fact and fiction. This is the second principle of historical hermeneutics.

If a scholar argues that he or she can prove from the texts that Jesus actually rose from the dead or performed miracles or was born from a virgin, we need to think twice. Is this fact or is this theology wanting to be history? If we have any questions about these types of issues, simply change the god, or change the man. In other words, if a scholar of Abraham Lincoln were to write that good old Abe rose from the dead because a letter from a soldier reported that he saw Lincoln rise from the dead, well, what would we think? What we would think if Buddhist scholars told us that the Buddha was born from a virgin, and this was historically true? Why when it comes to Jesus are we willing to suspend what we know to be true about our world? As soon as we do this, we become apologists and theologians. We leave history behind.

If we don't keep this point always in mind, our personal theology will creep into our historical reconstructions.
Marcus Borg's book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (2001), is one that I have found useful in my Introduction to the New Testament course because it takes seriously the historical method and its results, while providing Christians with a metaphorical way to interpret scriptures that does not compromise the results of the historical method. Almost. In Borg's discussion of miracles (he prefers the word "spectacular") - whether a particular historical event lies behind stories that "go beyond what we commonly think to be possible" - is he really applying an uncompromising historical method? Or is there slippage?

Borg writes:

"I think that Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to" (page 47).

Are stories like Jesus' resurrection story useful to a historian? Absolutely. What it tells me is that some of Jesus' followers had visions of Jesus after his death, a psychological phenomenon not unusual. I had vivid dreams, what I would call "visions," of my mother after she died, all suggesting that she was really alive but hidden away by the doctors. It took a couple of years for this to subside. In the ancient Jewish culture, visions of the dead could be interpreted in a couple of ways. The person has seen the deceased "spirit" or "ghost," an interpretation that some of Jesus' followers made of their visions of Jesus according to Luke 24:37. Or the person has witnessed someone's resurrected body, the theological interpretation that became the standard interpretation in the memory of the community. This interpretation was so important that it launched a series of christological questions and formulations, and ultimately led to Jesus becoming God. But how that happened is the subject of another post.


Deardorj said...

May I suggest an alternative, April, to your, "...Jesus' followers had visions of Jesus after his death, a psychological phenomenon not unusual. I had vivid dreams, what I would call 'visions,' of my mother after she died, all suggesting that she was really alive but hidden away by the doctors."

Is it not possible for a non-canonically centered scholar to seriously consider the other possibility why it would be reported that the disciples saw Jesus in the flesh after the crucifixion, and heard him speak and even touched him? The odds of surviving a crucifixion, with medical attention, were perhaps around 1 in 3.

John Shuck said...

Dear Professor DeConick,

I just want you to know how much I appreciate your blog. I have linked to this particular post on mine. You are helping us non-specialists understand the difference between history and theology.
John Shuck

Phil S. said...

Dr. DeConick;

I think what you need to clarify is what you mean by proof. If you ask me whether I can prove the resurrection using historical tools, I'd have to say no because history works in probabilities and a resurrection of a person is very improbable event. As a result, history has real problems with.

I would also note, however, I find the kind of 'mass vision/delusion' theory also quite improbable. Yes, I can see one person having that vision, but I'm not so sure of so many people (even if we accept only the Gospel writers). That, to me, stretches credibility the other way.

Besides, to me, the question isn't whether history can handle the resurrection, but whether I believe the canonical texts are giving a true narrative. I think they are, so I accept that the resurrection story, as strange as it is, is true. Is that an assumption? Yes. Is that informed by my theological views? Yes. Am I worried about it? No.

Just as a heads-up, I've been developing my own ideas on Christian historiography here


Mike Grondin said...

To Phil-
Do you also accept the story of the coin in the fish's mouth? But there are many such examples. The general point is this: if one starts from the assumptions that you do about the reliability of canonical texts (ignoring evidence to the contrary, including Jn 20:31), then the result isn't history, but Christory. One test of whether one is doing legitimate historiography, as opposed to Christoriography, is whether one would adopt the same degree of credulity/scepticism toward non-Christian religious texts as one does toward Christian. If not, then there's no getting around the fact that you're functioning as a Christorian, not a historian. And please note that "Christorian" doesn't mean 'Christian historian'. Rather, it's a person who purports to be doing straight historiography, but doesn't leave his Christian hat at the door, and doesn't even aspire to impartiality.

Phil S. said...


I'm sorry, but you really must read what I've been arguing in the last few posts. What I'm specifically challenging is that the tradition of historiography which you and Dr. McConick are espousing is indeed the only tradition. It is, I argue, only one form of historiography and it is peculiar in its claim that one can be an impartial observer of history. At the end of the day, the historian cannot write without being involved with his/her narrative. I am explicit in my assumptions. I'm not convinced that you are. This is one of the problems I have with the kind of historiography which you espouse.

You can, of course, decide to dismiss what I'm arguing, if you like. I think it is limiting not to recognize different traditions. I know it causes distortion to try to use sources outside of one's tradition like they are part of it just as the uncritical acceptance of a tradition causes distortion. I'm trying to work in the middle ground: accepting that I do belong to a specific historical tradition, while critically trying to work out what is happening with a source or sources within their own tradition. I don't claim to be perfect at it, but I do my level best to be fair. That, I suggest, is all we can ask of each other.

I'm also confused by your quote of John 20,31. I'm really not sure what your point is here. Could you explain?


Mike Grondin said...

I have read your posts here as well as your blog. It's not
a matter of misunderstanding you, but of disagreeing with you.
Not only in matters of opinion, but in matters of fact. You write,
for example:

"What I'm specifically challenging is that the tradition of historiography which you and Dr. McConick are espousing is indeed the only tradition."

Well, challenge no more. Of course it isn't the only tradition of historiography. One has only to read the Hebrew Bible to find a quite different tradition of historiography. But is that a model you would recommend?

"It is, I argue, only one form of historiography and it is peculiar in its claim that one can be an impartial observer of history."

It would be peculiar if anyone had claimed that, but fortunately no one has. What I would claim is that it should be a goal or ideal of historiography to be as impartial as possible. Do you disagree with that?

As to Jn 20:31, I thought the point was fairly clear that this is one piece of prima facie
evidence indicating that the purpose of John's Gospel wasn't to record events per se, but to persuade the reader to adopt a certain set of religious beliefs. This is pretty obvious from the contents of the Gospels anyway, but Jn 20:31 makes it explicit.

All that said, this posting of notes here isn't a very satisfactory way to exchange
viewpoints. Perhaps we could continue on your blog or elsewhere?

April DeConick said...

Phil and Michael,

Phil I have read your posts, also on your own blog, and I have read Michael's responses to you. Frankly he is correct. There is nothing wrong with your approach except that you wish to claim it as "historical" when in fact it is theological. It is a theological reading of history.

The historical approach must remain as "impartial" as it can. Some views are more impartial than others.

The "scientific" perspective, or "humanist" approach, or the "modernist" approach, IS the historical approach. Its goal is to be as self-consistent with the general experience of humanity as possible.

The theological approach to writing history IS not writing a historical history. It is writing a theological history that makes sense only within a particular faith community.

Phil S. said...

Dr. McConnick;

Ultimately, we are at the predictable impasse in our discussion. I take your point that I'm directing my history at a particular faith community, but I continue to deny that the term historical has a restricted a meaning as you suggest. I doubt if we'll convince each other, but I've found the conversation useful, if only to define what I've been thinking more clearly.

At any rate, I have enjoyed the conversation and, for what its worth, continue to find this blog interesting and challenging.


Phil S. said...


I'll be posting a response to your comments on my blog.


Paul said...

Distiguishing theology from history to me is essential. I always wish Jesus had been asked what the three greatest commandments are and that he'd answered: "Love others; love God; and love truth."

Robert said...

There are things in non-Western religious traditions (and writings?) which would definitely be ruled out as not historical by most secular students. There are similar events in the gospels, and in traditional Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic histories.

I have heard about an event in a Kashmiri Shaivite tradition (from Maharashtra, I believe) which rivals the account of Balaam's donkey. There are similarly 'wild' claims in 'The Autobiography of a Yogi'. However, it may be worthwhile, in approaching traditions where such accounts abound, to compare 'Barlaam and Yosaphat' (or any version of that tradition) with the Lalitavastu, which some scholars believe(d?) to be its source. I invite students of any religion to do a quick comparison, which will be very enlightening.
(If I'm wrong about the Buddhist text, my apologies. My memory of Sanskrit book titles isn't as reliable as I'd want)

Summing up my comment:
If we approach the study of Christianity from the inside, then we may comfortably contain our research to canonical and orthodox literature, and that roughly contemporaneous literature which would aid us in our understanding. If however we study Christianity as a human phenomenon, then I would urge us to look as well at other such phenomena. For myself, as an evangelical with orthodox leanings, I want to do both.

Be Well,
Bob Griffin