The Craft of History and the Study of the NT– Part One

Let me say right out of the gate that this book by Dr. Beth Sheppard (published last Fall by the SBL), a NT professor and research librarian at Duke, is essential reading for anyone who cares about the historical matters that the NT presents to us. It is an eye-opening and rather comprehensive guide to: 1) the task of historians (including modern ones); 2) the methods of historians; 3) the philosophical presuppositions and under-pinnings of modern historiography; 4) how to thinking critically about history and recognize false reasoning and stumbling blocks; 5) a brief but helpful overview of how history writing has developed over many centuries (including the modern and post-modern and post-colonial discussions), and finally some core samples from the NT with the proper methods applied. I have wanted to see a book like this come out for a long time. What follows in the next few days is Beth’s responses to my questions about some of the crucial issues she raises.
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1) What prompted you to write a book like The Craft of History and the Study of the NT?

The idea for Craft of History was one that dates back to the mid 1990’s. In those days my husband, Andy, and I were both working on our PhDs at the University of Sheffield, I was studying the Gospel of John and he was working on John Duns Scotus – the medieval theologian.

It so happens that the University of Sheffield is a unique place to study because it doesn’t have a full-blown religion department or school of theology. There is no chapel; there aren’t courses in Church History or Theology; and it doesn’t have faculty members to teach subjects like preaching, pastoral care or liturgy. In essence, the Bible department is “free floating.” So Andy was doing his work under the supervision of a medievalist in the University’s history department. That meant that when he took his history methods class (historiography), his classmates were working on topics as diverse as the history of Sheffield’s police department and newspaper reporting in fascist Spain in the run up to WWII.

Andy would come home at the end of the day and tell me about Whig history, micro-history and revisionist history. He would throw around names like Fukuyama and I’d think to myself, “What is this stuff and why am I not learning it? After all, in Bible we work with historical criticism and the historical Jesus.”

So, several years after I graduated from Sheffield and I had a chance to take a historiography course in the history department at Emporia State University in KS, I jumped on it. That was about the same time that the John, Jesus and History project http://johannine.org/JJH.html was kicking into full gear at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meetings, so learning about historiography seemed timely.

The Craft of History is essentially my attempt to “translate” the type of material found in historiography classes at universities for students of the New Testament.

2) Unfortunately, I regularly have students ask me ‘why do I have to learn all this history in order to preach God’s Word’. What would be your assessment of why history and the study of history is important for the study of the NT?

Let me tell a story. A few years ago I flew into Philadelphia to attend a meeting. While traveling to the hotel in a cab I was fascinated by the billboards on the expressway. Some of them advertised products that I knew—national brands like Coca-Cola and Terminex. Others were clearly for local goods and sports teams that I could partially interpret by using clues in the graphics like football helmets and vacuum cleaners. Other billboards were completely incomprehensible. Some had slogans or trademarks for industries, programs, or items that the locals obviously knew due to advertising campaigns or through seeing the items or services in their neighborhood supermarkets, but as a “foreigner” from another state, I was clueless. I remember one bulletin board simply had a huge word ‘Yes” on a white background. I presume that the color and font that were used were the clues that allowed local travelers on that highway to interpret the message. I myself could only speculate –Did that “yes” involve a ballot issue about some current legislation? Was it advertising a soft drink only distributed in Philadelphia? Presumably some research into current history by looking at a few weeks’ worth of local newspapers, the company ads in the business section of the yellow pages, hunting a bit on the internet, or even talking with someone who had lived in Philadelphia for the last 6 months or so would have provided information that would have helped me to better interpret it. In other words, I would have been digging into the recent history of Philadelphia in order to understand this sign.

The New Testament documents were written 2000 years ago in the Mediterranean region. If I can’t understand 1/3 of the contemporary billboards in my own country in a different city due to my context without a bit of research, how much am I missing when I look at the New Testament as a result of my temporal and geographic distance from the New Testament writings? Sure, a billboard isn’t the same genre as one of the four Gospels or Paul’s Epistles or Revelation. But it is an artifact with a bit of text. And the billboard experience reminds me that there may be phrases and events in the NT that might become clearer when I learn more about the history behind them. And don’t we owe it to ourselves to see if learning a bit about history or context can enrich our preaching?

In a 20-35 year long preaching career how many times will we end up preaching on the same passage? Discovering something about the historical context of a given passage may mean we are keeping our preaching fresh; that the Holy Spirit is inspiring us with a new take on a pericope. This “new take” may be something God needs someone in the congregation to hear. Studying the history and background of the New Testament, then, is a way of opening our hearts and minds to the whispering of the Holy Spirit just as surely is the case with prayer, meditation, and the use of other methods such as literary criticism when preparing sermons.

3) Since written history is at best a subset of ‘history’ (i.e. what actually happened back then and back there) what would you say are reasonable expectations to have about the knowability of the actual events that transpired which are chronicled in the NT? In other words, how much must we simply trust that the witnesses who report these events are trustworthy, since often we cannot check the facts of the story of Jesus by some outside or independent account? I am thinking of course of the quote on p. 38 of your book “historians do not discover a past as much as create it; they choose the events and people they think constitute the past, and they decide what about them is important to know…”.

This is a multifaceted question. Let me break it down. In doing so, I may use some analogies that only will go so far, but I hope that they will be helpful in any event.

KNOWABILITY

Let’s take the issue of knowability first. At some point, we can only know the history that is in our sources. And we have to interpret those sources. Dealing with sources and history is sort of like finding a jumble of puzzle pieces in a box in the attic. The historian begins snapping them together, but some pieces may be lost or there may be two or three puzzles in the same box and different historians will seek to incorporate or discard different pieces as relevant to the puzzle that is being assembled at the time.

One puzzle assembler may chose to focus on what prior generations thought were blue pieces of sky, only to eventually hypothesize that the bright blue pieces may actually be the stripes of a hot air balloon in the sky. Another might look at the pieces and present a plausible argument that the blue shapes belong to a reflection of the balloon in a lake rather than floating in the sky because they need to be turned upside down on the table. Eventually some consensus will emerge, but even then, there will always be more pieces to choose from the pile for other parts of the picture, new theories about how they should be assembled, and new ideas about what might have been in the holes where pieces are completely lost. And the decision to focus on the blue pieces is itself one that creates perceptions about the event. For instance, another generation may decide that the green “tree pieces” are actually part of this particular puzzle too and start adding them in. Essentially, by limiting exploration to the “blue pieces” historians/puzzle assemblers create an impression of the finished work that may not be the same as those held by others at a later period of time who are working on a different section of the puzzle or with different pieces.

The difference between history and an actual puzzle? A puzzle has a set number of pieces. By contrast, any single event in history is so complex that there are an infinite number of pieces – the vast majority of which are lost. And, given the big gaps, how the historian arranges the existing pieces on the table may result in quite different stories or slants emerging. The historian simply is charged with arranging the pieces in a plausible arrangement. Certainly sticking edge pieces in the middle would not be a convincing arrangement, nor would snapping together a 100% blue piece and a 100% green piece without an intervening piece that would have a bit of both green and blue on it.

This is not to mean that we should despair. In my view, historians can make some progress. Take the Jewish aspect of the Gospels. The Jewish background of the Gospels may not have always been of interest to those interpreting New Testament texts. When scholars identified and began discovering the Jewish background and elements reflected in the Gospels, didn’t the emerging picture of early Christianity and Jesus get a little more definition in it? Wasn’t it richer? Doesn’t that portrait speak a little more clearly to our generation where we are living with acute awareness of multiculturalism and globalization?

TRUSTWORTHINESS

Then there is the issue of trustworthiness. To some extent the trustworthiness of any account or piece of evidence is determined by the historian. And opinions may change with time. I already mentioned the John, Jesus and History project. That enterprise is an attempt to re-examine the usefulness of the Fourth Gospel as a source of history. In prior generations John’s Gospel was regarded as primarily “theological” in character and hence decades ago scholars did not necessarily draw on it but gingerly in questions about the historical Jesus. New archeological evidence, new viewpoints about oral traditions/memory and fresh understandings about the Greco-Roman world provided by work being done outside of Biblical Studies by classicists, however, are all helping to change perceptions about the reliability of John as a source of history.

On the other side of the coin, even a source that may be deemed untrustworthy when investigating “question X” due to known bias may be useful for “question y”. In a way, trustworthiness depends on what exactly the historian wants to know. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas may have one level of trustworthiness as a source when the historian is investigating the historical Jesus and another level of trustworthiness when the historian is exploring Gnosticism.

LIMITED SOURCES

Our extant sources provide insight into only a fraction of what went on with any given event. As the Beloved Disciple himself points out in 21:25, the deeds of Jesus that he recorded in his text are only a tiny number of those accomplished by Jesus. Essentially, John admits to “selecting” what he deemed to be the most important or representative. So, for good or bad, we are stuck with only having at our disposal what Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and perhaps a few scant other sources chose to record about Jesus.

Further, sources themselves are fragile. When I worked at the library at Southwestern College it was not unusual to receive calls from people doing research on their ancestors who graduated from that school. While we generally had yearbooks and a few other sources, there was a period when the library had been located in a building that was destroyed by fire. So, materials for a 35 year span that might otherwise have been available were gone. For that era we only had the few pieces that alumni donated back from their own collections after the fire. Those donated items might not have been what the school itself would have elected to save had it been given its druthers. Sources are at the mercy of time, disasters, and simply being lost because they are misfiled.

In Southwestern’s library I also followed an archives accession policy in order to preserve current history. There were things we deliberately saved (faculty publications, speeches, videos of convocations, graduation programs, the alumni magazine), but due to limits of space or due to confidentiality, there were things we specifically excluded or shredded (check receipts no longer required by federal regulations, general e-mail, the piles of xeroxes individual faculty members might have had in their offices that they used to prepare lectures). Some future historian may someday lament that those records are no longer available. We may not have saved the “right” things. Sadly, he or she will have to make do with the small fraction that remains and the story he or she will weave from those archives will be incomplete. That’s just the way history works.

  • Oscar

    wow! This subject is right up my alley! About 5 years ago while studying for Sunday school, I began to wonder what life was like at the time of the writing of the Book of Acts, thinking that adding context to the text might lead to illumination of meaning.

    I read anything that I could find on the subject but realized that I still needed to understand HOW these circumstances came about which lead, inevitably, to Greek and Roman history. Little did I realize that I was about to enter a labyrinth of perspective, full of distorted mirrors and false passages which, maddeningly, only expanded what I had to research.

    As a layman of humble education I have come to realize that I will NEVER exhaust the paths that can be explored, and the knowledge I’ve acquired is of limited use for normal Sunday school teaching purposes and does little to define the bright edges of what I hoped was true for the purposes of understanding.

    Never the less, my journey (yes, there as still a multitude of books I need to explore) has been most gratifying intellectually. By filling my mind with perspective I have been able to temper my bible teaching with questions for the participants to chew on. For the most part people want to be told WHAT to believe, not HOW to believe, much less how to THINK! But that is just where I am taking them. More than once a person has approached my after class and said “But Oscar, I wanted you to tell me what to believe, I don’t want to struggle with it myself!” To which I usually reply “If you work it out for yourself then you won’t forget it and it will hold more significance in your mind and heart”.

    I look forward to the rest of the interview…

  • Rachel K

    Thanks for the reminder that “there is no text without context”. This is what I will be pursuing in my thesis, but with respect to the Old Testament rather than the New.


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