Thursday, September 17, 2009

The never-ending confusion about perspective

As many of my readers know, I have written many posts already on the historical-critical method and how essential it is for scholars in biblical studies to make the choice between confessional scholarship and historical scholarship. As Jesus said, "It is impossible to serve two masters, or one will be honored and the other insulted."

There is a big difference between confessional scholarship and its working assumptions and historical-critical scholarship and its working assumptions, and we must never confuse the two. Confessional scholarship is willing to compromise and apologize in order to keep 'history' aligned with the faith tradition. It is willing to understand theology as history and write about knowledge in these terms. Historical-critical scholarship is built on the presuppositions of the scientific search for knowledge. It is unwilling to allow theology to be history.

If you are at all uncertain about this distinction, it is easiest to see it when you look at a religion that is not your own and the claims to truth that religion makes. Think about claims that are made about Mohammad, Buddha, or any religion that has "historical" founders or scriptures. Its views on their founders are theology historicized. They are religious truth claims that have been accepted as fact by believers from that tradition, and scholars who work in that tradition. Those outside that tradition recognize this easily.

The easiest example of this in Christianity (which I have also discussed on numerous occasions previously) is the physical resurrection of Jesus. Confessional scholars are willing (some even feel compelled) to allow for the physical resurrection of Jesus to be historical fact. Of course it is not. Dead bodies don't come back to life. And Jesus' body did not come back to life. This is a theological doctrine that was historicized in the literature of the early believers. Those outside of Christianity, and non-confessional academics in another field (like science) see this immediately.

The virgin birth story is another example. Confessional scholars are willing to allow for Jesus' birth from a virgin. This is theology that they have confused with history. Of course Jesus had a human father -whether it was Joseph or someone else. Children aren't born without an egg fertilized by a sperm. If you really want to get silly about this, in the case of Jesus, since he was male, he had to get his Y chromosome from somewhere. Since dads are the only transmitters of the Y chromosome, he had to have a dad. And it wasn't the holy spirit. Even the Valentinians laughed at that logic since everyone knew the holy spirit was Jesus' mom. She was a female!

Humor aside, this is a very serious issue for our field, and now that post-modernism is gripping the academy, we see the abuse of philosophy in order to bolster the positions of confessional scholars who want to continue to make the argument that their theology (and their scripture) is history. They confuse the idea that since all positions are subjective, the scientific position has no better claim to truth than their own.

Of course there is a difference, and in the case of the scientific approach is does a more accurate job recovering history than a theological approach because these approaches have different sets of assumptions they begin with. The scientific approach does not allow you to mistake theology for history, nor does it allow you to mistake the doctrines that developed in the religious tradition to be the history that the tradition says they are. The scientific approach knows that this is the way that the religion justifies its doctrines; it is no history. But confessional scholars are willing to excuse its religious doctrine for history and even bolster this justification by (mis)using philosophy, literary criticism and the social sciences to try and argue that there is nothing we can know for certain because there is no objective truth, so their truth is as historical as any other.

I can't write more today because I am home with a sick five year old (as I was yesterday). But I hope in the next few days to continue my train of thought, because I think this is the MOST IMPORTANT discussion of my generation - whether we are willing or not to abandon our field to confessional claims to knowledge and truth in the post-modern age.

35 comments:

Jim Deardorff said...

That's telling it like it is! "It [theology] is unwilling to allow theology to be history." I would just amend this to allow the possibility that certain pieces of theology might represent truth, and therefore not every bit of theology is necessarily non-historical. The job of the critical-historian is to sort out the truth from the rest.

One of the hallmarks of the scientific method is to consider all conceivable possible solutions to a problem. When it comes to "Dead bodies don't come back to life," in the case of Jesus, there is the resuscitation hypothesis (clinical death or samahdi, followed by medical attention), which is a definite possibility that should be treated seriously.

I believe there's another big choice that sometimes needs to be made -- that between professional scholarship and historical scholarship. Most scholars fear to be too outspoken on topics that upset "orthodoxy" lest it incur ridicule, tarnish their reputation, or cause difficulty in being able to publish, or even contribute toward the eventual demise of their own field of study. I think you've been making the proper choice in seeking truth -- historical truth.

Jim Deardorff said...

Oops! Please amend my second-sentence quote to read, It [historical-critical scholarship] is unwilling to allow theology to be history.

Geoff Hudson said...

Jim, I believe there was another story. Something didn't come from nothing. Certain parts of the text (principally the pauline literature and Acts) were developed from real much shorter documents.

PAULYR said...

Methinks the following quote may apply to this post by Dr. DeConick: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167

pearl said...

Dr. DeConick,

Your distinction between historical-critical scholarship and confessional scholarship is an important observation.

My opinion is that this dichotomy becomes more pronounced with an interpretation of religion heavily dependent on literal exegesis of scripture.

Science is not the enemy. There is a difference between accepting a naturalistic worldview whole hog and using science as a tool to help explain natural phenomena and offer possible reasons to consider for physical happenings other than only religious miracles. My experience has been that scientific, critical, objective investigation of history is generally not a threat to those who are not afraid to challenge their own beliefs and think about possibilities outside their comfort zone or especially to those who also consider allegorical or mythological religious interpretation.


I find it unfortunate that it has become commonplace to apply labels of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ to historical-critical scholars, assuming a theological stance.

Should we expect historical-critical scholars to be superhuman objective exegetes in every instance? Do they always clarify which statements of theirs are professional, critical opinions vs. personal belief or apology? Are they even always aware of the difference?

My opinion is that a realistic human attempt to be critically objective is the most we could ask.

You have expressed many times your stance of critical, historical objectivity and lack of interest in Christian apology. And I would imagine as a critical thinker, you would welcome debate on your assumptions and ideas.

But it is entirely another thing to unfairly slap a theological/political label of “conservative” or “liberal” on your forehead. Whether or not always successful, it’s an insult to a scholar who tries to do her job to the best of her ability by openly attempting to rise above a subjective theological fray.

By the way, I hope your son heals soon.

Scott F said...

LOL!

Just this morning I was toying with the following definition:

Theologian (n): One who draws premises from conclusions.

markbe said...

I'm tempted to call this a false dichotomy but instead i'll call it an unfair one. A confessional scholar can still say there is no acceptable evidence in the historical-critical realm while believing something happened. And a non-confessional scholar is not immune to unrelated (to historical-critical study) influence. Although the post-modern agenda takes things too far, it has been proven (scientifically, i would argue) that we are all shaped by our experiences and our beliefs. And that shape influences our perspectives and conclusions. It is not merely the confessional scholars who are susceptible. I agree that this is an incredibly important conversation but it appears you haven't taken the time to understand the foundations of the postmodern position (oxymoron intended, i'm not a postmodernist.)

Sorry to hear about your son. Hope he gets well soon. Please don't bother with responding to a confessional dilettante when you have better things to do.

Sincerely,
Mark Begemann

John said...

April, you wrote:

The easiest example of this in Christianity (which I have also discussed on numerous occasions previously) is the physical resurrection of Jesus. Confessional scholars are willing (some even feel compelled) to allow for the physical resurrection of Jesus to be historical fact. Of course it is not. Dead bodies don't come back to life. And Jesus' body did not come back to life.
<<<

Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact - because this alleged event cannot be confirmed using the scientific tools of historical research. History - and you as a historian - simply doesn't know of this event to have happened.

As John P. Meier says, a decision such as "God resurrected Jesus" is a theological, not a historical judgment. And whenever you come out and negate a theological affirmation, you are stepping out of your field of expertise, which is history. The affirmation that Jesus was not resurrected belongs to the realm of theology, not history. Meier adds that a historian may examine claims about miracles, reject those for which there are obvious natural explanations. Beyond that, a purely historical judgment cannot go.

This goes hand in hand with what David H. Fischer wrote in his "Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought":

"Third, evidence must always be affirmative. Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms - it is no evidence at all. The nonexistence of an object is established not by nonexistent evidence but by affirmative evidence of the fact that it did not, or could not exist, as, for example, in a low coefficient of correlation, in the case of comparative analysis. In the case of a journalist who did not in fact call upon the President, proof requires affirmative evidence that the journalist was somewhere else at the time, or evidence that the president's time was entirely taken up with other things. If proof of this sort cannot be found, then the point cannot be proved, and a historian must candidly accept uncertainty." (p. 62, 63).

I'd also like to add what Christopher Skinner has recently said on his blog in regards to your recent dispute with him:

"There is no such thing as a “view from nowhere.” There is no such thing as a disinterested reading of a text or an unbiased pursuit of historical knowledge. There is no such thing as objectivity. Even our best attempts at objectivity fail. There are no facts without individuals to interpret them. There are no individuals without biases. This means that every exegetical or historical pursuit is filtered through the lenses of one’s presuppositions, biases, background, experiences, etc."

That is true in everybody's case, including you (and me and all). It is especially obvious in your case when you leave your field of expertise and wander in theological territory by affirming without a doubt that a certain individual did not come back to life.

As G. R. Elton said, "nobody reads or writes history in a fit of total absent-mindedness, though a fair amount of history has been written by people whose minds seem in part to have been on other things".

I'm not sure if you personally have issues with Christianity, but I wouldn't be surprised of you would. The recent "battle of the sexes" you fought comes to mind, where you seem to have invested quite a lot of personal feelings. And the Church has a lot to do with the unjust attitudes towards women, that's for sure, so there you go :)

David said...

I'm sorry to have to say it, but your assumptions are just silly. It's unscientific, really. If you automatically discount even the remote possibility of any given explanation of an event you naturally bias the results in favor of your own presumptions. This is not knowledge; this is opinion.

pearl said...

My intention is not to put words in Professor DeConick’s mouth; however, I can offer my take of what she has written as a bit more feedback, and I accept correction.

I don’t read Dr. DeConick as having a problem with theological ideas as long as claims without substantiating evidence are recognized as belief or proposition and not historical fact.

I also don’t see a problem with her making a judgment about a claim of historicity that lacks sufficient corroborating evidence. Dr. DeConick is not stepping outside of her area of expertise if she comments on a theological affirmation that crosses into her territory by being presented as historical fact.

Yes, she makes some absolute statements that appear to be opinion, whether intended as such or not. So what if she has strong opinions? She’s not asking all her readers to accept dogma of the Church of April DeConick. This is an informal blog post, not a peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal. On the other hand though, from a scientific position, a claim of historical fact without sufficient evidence that Jesus’s dead body came back to life is just plain not acceptable.

Dr. DeConick does not appear to be arguing with theology or theologians in general. She is arguing about the positions of confessional scholars who want to continue to make the case that their theology is actual history.

Pastor Bob said...

This may seem a bit tangential but . . .

If an event actually happens in real time is it necessarily history?

An example: a man in Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 1672 puts tobacco in his pipe, lights the tobacco and smokes it. Is this a historical event? I don't think so.

But is this event connected to history? Yes! It's tied in with European conquering and exploitation of the Americas. It's tied in with trade between people in the Americas and people in Europe. It may even be related to Dutch colonialism and their wars with the English. And yes it's part of the story of a rather nasty habit that causes all kinds of diseases. Thus, speaking historically it is connected to the history of international politics, economics and medicine.

I suggest that our interest in this person called Jesus (and speaking as a historian I suppose I should say whether or not he ever was a space/time event or not) is vitally connected with the theological claim (and the interpretation thereof) that he rose from the dead in real time. As historians we cannot come to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. The historical fact that people believe that he did and the various things they have said and done about that belief is the part of the stuff of historical study. That particularly includes the various things said about Jesus by people of various belief systems through the first few centuries C.E.

Having said all of that I believe that Jesus rose from the dead in real time. But I sure can't prove it or produce sufficient evidence to say it is history.

Geoff Hudson said...

And even historical scholarship, has it wrong when it comes to the writings attributed to Josephus, our main supporting 'historical' source for the NT. The Flavian editors had Josephus a turncoat - he was really Nero's historian. The story of his capture was pure make-believe. The Sicarii (applied to Judas in 'Isacariot') were another Flavian invention - they were the priests. Vespasian never fought in Galilee - yet another Flavian myth. Masada, a dramatic afterthought in the writngs attributed to Josephus, was Nero's main base for his short war against the priests. It became another Flavian (and Jewish) myth. The destruction of the priests by 'Idumeans' was the destruction of the priests by Nero's army (conveniently the Flavian historians had the Idumeans leave Jerusalem immediately after for no apparent reason). Most of the period of the 'revolt' was a period of peace. Approximately six months after the war, Nero went back to Greece for a holiday and to celebrate his liberation of the Judea from the tyranny of the priests. And so on and so on. The writings attributed to Josephus are just full of Flavian propaganda. After the 'three emporers', Vespasian opportunistically, ordered his son Titus to carefully disect the sanctuary for its gold and then torch it.

This is where I disagree with Eisenman. He accepts the writings attributed to Josephus literally. Eisenman's criticisms of the Gospels, that they are fabrications typical of the time, is almost equally true of the Flavian historians in the way they edited Josephus's works.

Peter M. Head said...

April,
Do you think there may be something about your post which attracts the lunatic fringe to the comment?

Geoff Hudson said...

Does it tread on your toes? What else could one expect from a real conservative?

Scott F said...

Based on the response to this - Top 50, surely :) - blog post, I think we need to be clear here that not all believing Christian (or Jewish or Muslim, or ...) academics are out there doing confessional scholarship. Just as a believing scientist can still do meaningful biology research so too can a professing historian. What you will find is that these people respect the strengths and limits of their craft.

Of course, the problem is that there are those who are doing confessional scholarship - or theology dressed up in a history suit - and they need to be called on it. Even worse, there is a lay audience that laps up their work like a chocolate milkshake.

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

Greetings April.

You are confessional too. When a historian precludes miracles (in the case at hand, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and His conception in the womb of the virgin Mary) on the grounds that anything is more probable than a miracle, he or she is working from a premise about the will of God -- specifically, that if there is a God, God either never desires to perform miracles, or God does not have the power to perform miracles.

If God had the power and the desire to become incarnate within the womb of the virgin Mary, and to perform the resurrection of Jesus, then how can you say that those events are improbabilities? If you grant that the physical universe was brought into existence by God, then why is it considered improbable that a Being capable of creating this universe would not, or could not, exercise His will in mysterious ways, such as via those two miracles?

A: "Historical-critical scholarship is built on the presuppositions of the scientific search for knowledge. It is unwilling to allow theology to be history."

Wrong in two ways: first, because technically it's not scholarship, but scholars, who are unwilling, and second, because they *are* willing to allow theology to be history, as long as it is a theology that upholds, as a cardinal doctrine, belief in a closed continuum.

A: "Confessional scholars are willing ... to allow for the physical resurrection of Jesus to be historical fact. Of course it is not. Dead bodies don't come back to life."

In other words, God either never wants to resurrect dead bodies, or God never is able to resurrect dead bodies, or both. That is a theological statement.

A: "Children aren't born without an egg fertilized by a sperm."

In other words, God never desires to express Himself in a human body, or is never able to do so, or both. Again, a theological statement.

A: "If you really want to get silly about this, in the case of Jesus, since he was male, he had to get his Y chromosome from somewhere."

What seems silly is the idea that God would not have the ability to easily take care of that.

A: "Of course there is a difference, and in the case of the scientific approach [it] does a more accurate job recovering history than a theological approach because these approaches have different sets of assumptions they begin with."

Of course if one assumes that miracles never happen, one will conclude that an approach built on that premise will be more successful than one not so built. But one might as well say, "Your conclusions fit my theological preconceptions; therefore your conclusions are right."

A: "The scientific approach does not allow you to mistake theology for history."

Yes it does. The theological assumption that God never desires, or never is able, to perform miracles, clearly has shaped your view of history.

A: "Nor does it allow you to mistake the doctrines that developed in the religious tradition to be the history that the tradition says they are."

Because you replace the traditional doctrine with new doctrines of a closed continuum. But your doctrines are doctrines nonetheless.

I hope your five-year-old recovers speedily and fully and will pray tonight, believing that my prayer goes to a God capable of responding to my prayer, that that will be the case.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

Greetings April.

You are confessional too. When a historian precludes miracles (in the case at hand, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and His conception in the womb of the virgin Mary) on the grounds that anything is more probable than a miracle, he or she is working from a premise about the will of God -- specifically, that if there is a God, God either never desires to perform miracles, or God does not have the power to perform miracles.

If God had the power and the desire to become incarnate within the womb of the virgin Mary, and to perform the resurrection of Jesus, then how can you say that those events are improbabilities? If you grant that the physical universe was brought into existence by God, then why is it considered improbable that a Being capable of creating this universe would not, or could not, exercise His will in mysterious ways, such as via those two miracles?

A: "Historical-critical scholarship is built on the presuppositions of the scientific search for knowledge. It is unwilling to allow theology to be history."

Wrong in two ways: first, because technically it's not scholarship, but scholars, who are unwilling, and second, because they *are* willing to allow theology to be history, as long as it is a theology that upholds, as a cardinal doctrine, belief in a closed continuum.

A: "Confessional scholars are willing ... to allow for the physical resurrection of Jesus to be historical fact. Of course it is not. Dead bodies don't come back to life."

In other words, God either never wants to resurrect dead bodies, or God never is able to resurrect dead bodies, or both. That is a theological statement.

A: "Children aren't born without an egg fertilized by a sperm."

In other words, God never desires to express Himself in a human body, or is never able to do so, or both. Again, a theological statement.

A: "If you really want to get silly about this, in the case of Jesus, since he was male, he had to get his Y chromosome from somewhere."

What seems silly is the idea that God would not have the ability to easily take care of that.

A: "Of course there is a difference, and in the case of the scientific approach [it] does a more accurate job recovering history than a theological approach because these approaches have different sets of assumptions they begin with."

Of course if one assumes that miracles never happen, one will conclude that an approach built on that premise will be more successful than one not so built. But one might as well say, "Your conclusions fit my theological preconceptions; therefore your conclusions are right."

A: "The scientific approach does not allow you to mistake theology for history."

Yes it does. The theological assumption that God never desires, or never is able, to perform miracles, clearly has shaped your view of history.

A: "Nor does it allow you to mistake the doctrines that developed in the religious tradition to be the history that the tradition says they are."

Because you replace the traditional doctrine with new doctrines of a closed continuum. But your doctrines are doctrines nonetheless.

I hope your five-year-old recovers speedily and fully and will pray tonight, believing that my prayer goes to a God capable of responding to my prayer, that that will be the case.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

David said...

James,

You are 100% dead-on. You said what I was trying to say, but SO MUCH better than I said it. Thank you for this dose of common sense in a world of Biblical "scholarship" which is so lacking otherwise...

In Christ,
David

pearl said...

James Snapp, Jr. said:

“If God had the power and the desire to become incarnate within the womb of the virgin Mary, and to perform the resurrection of Jesus, then how can you say that those events are improbabilities?”


When talking about theological issues, such as literal physical miracles or a god or a god’s ability or desires, let’s not put the cart before the horse. Interpretation of an actual historical event is one thing. Interpreting alleged historical events is another. If a theology relies on ancient stories and events as literal historical fact, it would seem reasonable to make an effort to investigate historicity of an event first before making theological claims about cause of the physical event.

So, if a theologian insists on presenting purported physical events as historical fact (rather than belief or allegory or symbolic stories with metaphorical meaning, for instance), sans sufficient supporting physical evidence, to congregants and the general public, it’s not a stretch to expect such claims of historical fact to be challenged. Existence or nonexistence or motivation of a god does not need to be an issue at this point.

John said...

pearl,
you can challenge all you want, just don't pretend to do so from a historical position. The statement that "Jesus was not raised (by god or whoever)" comes from a philosophical/theological perspective, not a historical one.

History has its limits, and it seems some are not happy with that...

David said...

Pearl,

Given the abundant evidence we have for the Resurection, what more "sufficient supporting physical evidence" do you need?

You're not going to get a photo no matter how long you wait. The texts present a very clear and consistent account, more so than we get with a great many historical figures. And the account they present is of a God-man who Resurrected from the dead.

I agree that starting with this as a theological assumption is wrong; I also say that starting with the opposite conclusion, as Prof. DeConick does, is equally wrong. Let the historical evidence speak for itself, and it indeed speaks very loudly.

pearl said...

John said:

“you can challenge all you want, just don't pretend to do so from a historical position. The statement that "Jesus was not raised (by god or whoever)" comes from a philosophical/theological perspective, not a historical one.

History has its limits, and it seems some are not happy with that...”


John, could you please direct me to the source of the statement, “Jesus was not raised (by god or whoever)”? I didn’t write that and I don’t find that statement in this post by Dr. DeConick. She does say, “Dead bodies don't come back to life. And Jesus' body did not come back to life.” I’m not in a position to elucidate further her statement, but she does mention a scientific approach in her post. Not coming back to life and not being raised (by god or whoever) are different statements. One does not bring in an issue of an agent required to raise a person.

History has its limits, philosophy has its limits, theology has its limits, and so on. Happiness or unhappiness about limits is not the issue in my post. It’s about identifying the probability of actual historical events.

pearl said...

David,

Clarity and consistency could be disputed, but that aside, I don’t see where clear and consistent accounts are necessarily tantamount to reliable historical evidence.

As far as where Dr. DeConick is starting from, she discusses this in much more depth in ensuing blog posts. There is no getting around that one starts with a set of assumptions, and Dr. DeConick makes this clear. The issue becomes which approach(es) best arrives at uncovering reliable historical information.

John said...

Pearl wrote:

"John, could you please direct me to the source of the statement, “Jesus was not raised (by god or whoever)”? I didn’t write that and I don’t find that statement in this post by Dr. DeConick."

Pearl, what is the larger context of April' statement that Jesus' body did not come back to life? This didn't come out of thin air, but is a comment occasioned by theological statements made in the NT.  She was careful enough not to mention "god", but the word is hardly required for a statement to qualify as philosophical/thelogical. In short, the statement that Jesus' body came back to life is a theological one. Its character does not change in its negative form. 

"She does say, “Dead bodies don't come back to life. And Jesus' body did not come back to life.” I’m not in a position to elucidate further her statement, but she does mention a scientific approach in her post. "

This supposed scientific approach is just a questionable analogy she makes. First, as I already said, even in this instance, she leaves the domain of history and appeals to Biology. Even if she has a degree in Biology (which I doubt), she is not speaking as a historian anymore. That's why I said some people are not happy with the limits of History. She wants to say Jesus didn't come back to life, so she leaves history behind  because of its limits. 

Second, even the appeal to another scientific discipline is problematic. I've yet to come upon a Biology textbook that states "dead bodies do not come back to life". In fact exactly the opposite, the majority of scientists claim living matter arose on earth from "dead" matter billions of years ago (abiogenesis). This certainly qualifies as a "miracle" (together with the Bing Bang and other such wonders) as we cannot empirically verify this today, and science doesn't exactly have an explanation for how this was possible and how exactly it occured.

So again, the question of "miracles" is a philosophical one. Can "miracles" happen? Did they happen? None of the answers to these questions can come from History.

David said...

Pearl:

The approach that serves us best in uncovering "reliable historical information" is to leave aside our own personal beliefs and assumptions and let the texts speak for themselves. If scientists in any other field acted in the way historians do, we'd be very far behind indeed. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries were the least expected; that's why we start by leaving all options open.

Prof. DeConick (and all historians who use the same methods as she does) automatically bias the results they reach before they even begin their research. She's doing the exact same thing she accuses others of doing; she begins with her own theological assumptions and twists the evidence to fit them.

Prof. DeConick and her ilk begin with a rather dangerous assumption: that every single historical account of Christ is a lie. Basically, she begins by calling every person whose writings she has to use as sources a liar. This is not a scientific approach.

All I ask is that we let the evidence speak for itself; the texts are clear enough. You know what they say about those who assume, right?

pearl said...

John,

I fully respect that some of Dr. DeConick’s comments in this particular post are problematic for you and others. Again, my post from yesterday was not an attempt to clarify or defend these statements. My post was not about whether miracles can happen. On the other hand, your comment that something qualifies as a “miracle” because today we cannot verify this empirically reflects assumptions on your part.

My point in yesterday’s post was about establishing the veracity of historical events in the first place upon which interpretation is dependent.

History does not answer ‘can “miracles” happen?’. But if a theologian, or anyone else for that matter, brings an alleged historical event, presented as fact, to the table and relies on historicity for interpretation, then historians have every right to examine the purported historical event in question upon which interpretation is dependent.

John said...

Pearl,

"I fully respect that some of Dr. DeConick’s comments in this particular post are problematic for you and others."

But you don't have to, Pearl. I don't matter here. It's problematic in itself when somebody makes philosophical statements while pretending to speak as a historian. It's a misrepresentation of History to do so.


" On the other hand, your comment that something qualifies as a “miracle” because today we cannot verify this empirically reflects assumptions on your part."

I said much more than that. Please read again. Besides, many scholars have tried to define "miracles" in many ways, so I don't really expect for you and me to agree on this question. 

"History does not answer ‘can “miracles” happen?’. But if a theologian, or anyone else for that matter, brings an alleged historical event, presented as fact, to the table and relies on historicity for interpretation, then historians have every right to examine the purported historical event in question upon which interpretation is dependent."

When a theologian brings such a theological fact to History's table, the historian should not get up and go to Theology's table using philosophical/theological statements (like "miracles" don't happen, Jesus did not come back to life"). It's bad enough when matters of faith are presented as historical fact by theologians, why should a historian make the inverse mistake, when he/she should simply point out that history doesn't know if miracles happen (not its field of expertise), and it doesn't know whether Jesus came back to life or not? 

What History can say fairly accurately is that there was a religious group that claimed Jesus was resurrected. It could only venture to dispute the factual basis of that belief with affirmative proofs - like same time testimonials that Jesus was still in the tomb 3 days later, or that we know where his tomb is and there are indications that this skeleton belonged to a crucified man, or that there are other indications linking this skeleton with the person of Jesus, etc. These and others like these are the types of proof History can work with. That "miracles don't happen" is not one of them.     

pearl said...

John,

“But you don't have to, Pearl. I don't matter here. It's problematic in itself when somebody makes philosophical statements while pretending to speak as a historian. It's a misrepresentation of History to do so.”

It’s evident that this is an issue you want to discuss and one I didn’t want to get sucked into, primarily because the originator of statements in question has chosen not to get involved in this discussion, for whatever reasons, to offer firsthand clarifications and arguments for her statements. In other words, I don’t want to appear that I have not read or considered your arguments.

My main reason for commenting yesterday was that I didn’t want the point I’ve mentioned ad nauseum to get swept under the table with a resurgence of commentator disagreement about statements in the original blog post or approach(es) a particular historian decides to use.

Disagreement with an individual historian’s statements should not minimize the significance of the role of historical criticism (in addition to literary criticism and social-scientific criticism that Dr. DeConick mentions in another post), especially when a theology relies on literal historical events.

Blake said...

I'm a big fan of your blog. Your series on the emergence of Christology has been both informative and accurate. However, I admit to being shocked by this statement:

"Confessional scholars are willing (some even feel compelled) to allow for the physical resurrection of Jesus to be historical fact. Of course it is not. Dead bodies don't come back to life. And Jesus' body did not come back to life."

How could you just refuse to consider the possibility that a person could die and then come back to life? I'm having a hard time seeing how either an historian or scientist could make such a universal assertion that: "dead bodies don't come back to life." In fact, they do unless you mean a person who dies in the sense of brain death. There are lots of examples of people who have been brain dead who later revived. Just check out the journals dealing with near death experiences. How can an historian or scientist simply adopt this assumption and suggest that there is no possible evidence to the contrary? It isn't logically impossible. It isn't physically impossible (since it happens). So how do you it is jut impossible that dead people become alive again?

Of course, if you mean by "death": "a person is dead if and only if that doesn't come back to life," then your suggestion isn't history but logical tautology. But since you're not suggesting a logical conclusion, I don't see how you could assert this kind of statement qua historian. Indeed, it seems to be a universal inductive proposition that requires only one instance to falsify it.

I'm not being cute at all. The fact is that the early Christians reported seeing Jesus alive after he had died. We can argue whether these accounts are historically reliable, whether there has been theological expansion, whether the experiences reflect eye-witness testimony or merely later traditions and so forth. What cannot be argued by a historian or scientist is that all evidence of a person who died coming back to life can be discounted because it is just proven to be impossible -- unless you simply adopt the tautology I mentioned above.

Soulgazer said...

Wow! I know that I am late on this, but I missed this blog until now....

As a Gnostic pastor, I have to be able to hold both views in my head at the same time. I manage this by acknowledging that the Archetype of the biblical Jesus does not have to be historically accurate---- I don't have to touch His nail wounds nor place my hand in His side to believe(follow) in His steps and see the spiritual Truth's in His (alleged)teachings.

At the same time, I base my faith on direct experience (not magical thinking) I also have to acknowledge that any statement that I make, pro or con, on the events that transpired two thousand years ago are supposition. I was not there to directly witness the event, and the presence of magical miracles would seem to put it in the realm of fairy tales.

But again, I have been witness what to me are impossible events, in and around my life, these events being just strong enough to hint that there is so much more to this existence that we call reality than I can ever know on just an intellectual basis.

So I am unwilling to speculate on the physical resurrection of Jesus. In the end, it makes no difference. You might find the bones of the historical Jesus tomorrow, but the Archetype is very real, it's power being expressed in the ability to alter lives for the better, bearing witness to the reality of miracles and bringing, at least the hope, of something beyond just what our senses tell us.

pearl said...

It seems others are weighing in on the role of historical-critical scholarship lately, which subject Dr. DeConick stated to be “the MOST IMPORTANT discussion of my generation.”

I just noticed the following today in her sidebar of blogs:
Historical Critical Interpretation Reveals Christian Distortion of the Old Testament.

Contentious subject? Of course.

John said...

Contentious? How about biased? The words of this fellow betray his deeply seated hate for Christianity. So much for scholarship :)

"Liberated from the Christological Madhouse"?

"obsolete and mythological worldview that injects an ineradicable virus of outdated belief systems" ?

Oh yes, how insightful and honest. Not.

pearl said...

John, how nice to see you again. Yes, Gerd Lüdemann does not hide his opinions here. His article is an op-ed, after all, so I suppose one might expect opinions in this case. However, he presents research results as well as editorializing.

Matthew Alexander White said...

Wow, I think all the bloviating has changed the intended direction of the thread and ironically proved her point. What started out as a historical critical discussion got twisted into a confessional-apologetical-canonical one. This thread's title was definitely prophetic and the responses to it underscored the problematic dangerous ground that our field is in more articulately than any assertation she could make. As a confessional Christian and aspiring historical-critical scholar (who also endeavors to properly use historical-criticism as a scientific tool), I have never been more discouraged at the responses of my fellow confessional Christians who were willing (or felt compelled) to hi-jack this thread in an orgiastic apologetic ecstasy of confessional ‘scholarship’ thereby completely proving her point (by completely missing it).
Instead of giving sterling examples of one’s inability to not conflate confessional and historical-critical scholarship by feeling compelled to rally the troops in defense of the Resurrection, one could read her opening paragraphs and find the thesis statement. Instead of feeling compelled to wax apologetic and presumptively alert Dr. D to her own ‘false’ presuppositions (and think one is somehow scoring a point or alerting her to something she missed), one could try acknowledge that she was comparing and contrasting two completely different instruments (Confessional-apologetic and historical-critical scholarship) and underscoring the importance of not confusing the two. One of them is a tool the spiritual enrichment/growth of the faith-community. One of them is a tool forged materialistic presuppositions and designed to be critical in nature for the goal of reconstructing as best as possible what we really happened among communities of faith based upon what we know from hard facts and scientific/textual evidence. As every tool has its intended purpose, so do these two.
As Dr. D’s blog-text says, the problem is when some apologetic-confessional scholars are either unwilling or unable to tell the two apart and then mistakenly think the academic field of historical-critical scholarship is the place to try to do apologetic scholarship. Historical critical scholarship does not care about such unimportant things such as whether there was a resurrection. Instead it is trying to discern the real life factors and incidents that affected communities of faith who held such beliefs. Historical-critical scholarship does not think it is important whether (or not) there was a virgin birth, Historical scholarship is concerned with the communities of faith that held this belief and how it affected them. Historical scholarship is concerned with what these beliefs meant to the communities that held them—not whether or not the beliefs were true. The truthfullness (or not) of the beliefs are irrelevant, what should matter to the historical critical scholar is what these beliefs were and how they played out in the communities of faith within the real-world to produce the surviving texts and how these religious beliefs affected human life.
This inherently different that apologetic scholarship, which is basically the art of analyzing the evidence with the stated preconceived agenda of justifying whatever it is one wants to believe (and then making it seem reasonable to feel better about ones own beliefs). This too has its uses and in Christianity its sole purpose is to show what, why, and how Jesus is God. However, the problem arises apologetic scholars conflate these two together. When this happens, a confessional scholar will mistake the aim and goal of both to be proving Jesus is God and then will mistakenly claim to use the tool of historical-criticism to try to “prove” these aims of apologetic scholarship and then give these conclusions “historical-critical credibility. Of course, the opposite is also true. Apologetic scholars, interpreting everything based on how it affects the alleged deity of Christ, are quick to get adversarial with any scholars whose interpretation of the facts are different.

Matthew Alexander White said...

Remember, the apologetic scholar who is conflating the two scholarships will assume that the goal of both is to prove/disprove the deity of Christ. Therefore, he or she will then come to see any true historical-critical scholar’s differing interpretations against this backdrop and feel that the opposing scholar is intentionally, even virulently (even conspiratoriously) misusing the field of scholarship for the malevolent goal of disproving the deity of Jesus. Nothing is further from the truth, the historical critical scholar is simply using the scientific method to examine the evidence in search of truth. The result is what we had here in this blog, where everyone from the apologetic camp mistook this blog for what they misperceive the whole field of scholarship to be: a battleground where the primary focus on both sides is a war over the deity of Jesus (and of course makes Dr. D’s point nicely).
This is exactly Dr. D is against; And the distinction must be vigilantly maintained because confessional-apologetical scholars (as can be seen from this post) pathologically conflate the two to the detriment of both. The bottom line is apologetical scholars are so invested in the theology of their own tradition that they often struggle with not blindly missing what’s obviously there in the texts or in the historical evidence. Now I am not saying the critical method or skepticism is inherently objective: it to is a worldview with an agenda, an agenda markedly different from apologetic scholarship. But Dr. D already said that and it doesn’t level the playing field. Case in point, since apologetic scholars presuppose the Bible to be the inerrant word of God ( and therefore true) they have to “make” it say something that they are comfortable with and can stomach.
Look at Genesis six, every historical-critical scholar would clearly acknowledge that the sons of God (and nephilim) are a clear reference to a legend found all over the ancient near-east (and world folklore) of gods coming down and having sex with human women and birthing superhuman offspring. This text’s meaning is not up for debate. However, how many apologetic scholars will look you in the eye and tell you they believe this really happened? They won’t, because they will be quick to tell you the text is referring to human on human intermingling. They form this conclusion based upon their need to have “their bible” say something they can believe in. Bottom line: being religiously invested is a text or tradition does affect one’s ability to even attempt to objectively deal with the evidence in something close to a scientific manner.
Which is why the two areas of scholarship must be chosen between and their distinction must be vigilantly maintained. Any conflation of the two will ultimately open up the academy to the vulnerability actually allowing one group of apologetical scholars to seize control of the academy and became “thought-police” enforcing their “true scholarship and theology upon the rest of us. Don’t laugh. John Huss isn’t laughing (Neither is Hypatia or the libraries in Alexandria). Once a religious group of scholars really completely conflates the two areas, then they start burning old crones/misbehavin women at the stake, exiling “Gnostic” Christians (or burning them at the stake), flying planes into skyscrapers, razing synagogues, launching crusades, or even worse…. flaking out at a cogent example used to back up her thesis. i.e. the reactionary responses to Dr D’s scrutiny of the Resurrection/Virgin birth according to scientific historical critical principles and quixotically seeing it as a call to arms to champion the banner of Jesus’ divinity on the arena of historical-critical scholarship… or was that apologetic-confessional… wait I am confused. Dr D. , can you go over it one more time? Please… just for me???