What Makes Something Historical?

As a result of recent discussions of mythicism, I thought it might be interesting and useful to post a question about the very nature of history. What makes a person or event “historical”?

At the moment, I am inclined to think that it is, when it comes down to it, really nothing other than the collective judgment of historians that the evidence makes the existence of that person or event probable.

Is there any other way to define what is historical, other than in terms of a collective judgment by experts in history? Isn’t consensus far more intrinsic to the nature of history than it is in the natural sciences, precisely because determining historicity is more akin to a jury (or judge) determining guilt or innocence, than to a chemist testing for the presence of iron or some other element? There are no lab tests for historical authenticity, just the evaluation of experts. One can articulate criteria, but they do not provide foolproof results.

So when it comes to matters of history, it seems as though historicity is decided by the verdict of the “jury” of historians – which, of course, can still be overturned on appeal if new evidence comes to light. And when historians are divided, that will suggest to us that the evidence is in some way ambiguous or insufficient for making a clear determination, or merely open to more than one interpretation. When the historians agree, however, chances are that they are right – but if they are wrong, there is no way to determine that other than by further investigation on the part of historians.

What do you think? What is the nature of history? To what extent would you agree or disagree with what I outlined here?

  • Ian Millington

    How about: Did it actually happen?

    I know its obvious, but I find it problematic the idea that the difficulty of figuring out the facts somehow means that the facts are not facts. 

    There is a post-modern temptation to equate the artefacts of study with the thing being studied. It sees the historical effort as being the thing that makes something historical or not. I’ve been in a similar discussion where someone tried to say that, if a real Jury found them guilty on the evidence presented, then the person really was guilty. The person so conceding that the person might not have actually committed the crime, but they are still guilty. There is no such thing as an innocent being convicted of crime, then.

    It is dangerous thinking, I think, that confuses the goal with the process.

    So if the consensus of historians think that some event or person is historical, that doesn’t make it historical. It just means that the current consensus holds it is. The opinion may change, but the actual historicity doesn’t.

    Which means, that in just about all cases, we simply cannot know if something is historical or not. We have to face that fact. We can say that the consensus is there was a historical Jesus, but concede that there could have been some fascinating and not get understood process of myth-making at work that left us with the records we have.

    In many disciplines scientists are used to working with error bars: to determining the probabilities and reporting them.  Though I read some of that, it could be done even more in history, I think, at least qualitatively.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Did it happen, I think is the correct answer. Determining if it happened is the hard part. I believe that there are things that did happen, and they are reasons things occur. None of this is divinely revealed to our minds, so we are always trying to figure out what that was. In science or history I think there is a subjective appeal to the acceptance of something being a fact because enough of the right people think that is what happened. If we have 1000 people drop two different sized stone balls and 999 say they both hit at the same time, then we are justified in saying size doesn’t matter when it comes to the speed your balls drop. Now number 1000, may disagree. She may believe whole heartedly that one fell faster than the other. There is then an element of doubt in the experiment. Maybe number 1000 is the best observer of the bunch. But statistically I think we who did not participate in the experiment are obligated to go with the 999. There is only a 0.1 chance we are wrong.  Now 1000 may continue in their belief but should we be surprised if she is not consulted for her expertise in watching balls drop? I mean it is absolutely possible that the 999 are all good friends and have conspired together for the result, but we wouldn’t be justified in saying that the 999 are doing bad science until 1000 has demonstrated that to our satisfaction.

  • Ian Millington

    Michael, I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusions. But I just want to be a  horrible and shameless pedant and say that there is not a 0.1 chance you’re wrong in that case. Independent trials don’t sum. ;)  

  • Bryan R

    I agree with the gist of the comments here more than your post.  What makes a person or event “historical,” is whether or not the event actually happened.  That is the only thing that matters.  Now the methods used to determine that are what will matter to us in practice.  But the consensus of historians certainly in no way makes something historical, though it can be a guide. 

    History is not decided by a jury of historians.  History can be illuminated (or obfuscated, if methods are flawed) by historians but the History remains some objective factual occurrence that may or may not be within our methodological reach

  • Landon Hedrick

    I would have thought the natural way that we use the word “historical” is to signify whatever was actually the case.  Thus, an event would be historical if it actually occurred, and it wouldn’t be historical if it didn’t actually occur.  It looks like the other people commenting here agree.  I’m of course relying on our intuitive notion of “what actually happened.”

    Note that according to your view, an event can be “historical” even if it never occurred, so long as the experts all think it did occur.  But this entails that the scholarly historical community can’t be mistaken about what is and is not “historical.”  If they say it’s historical, then it is.  If they say it’s not, then it’s not.  And I take it that we intuitively want to reject a view which maintains that it’s impossible for the community of historians to be mistaken about what is and is not historical.

  • Anonymous

    Well this is phenomenal. The argument from authority is now taken to its reductio ad absurdum. The OP suggests that if John F.  Kennedy’s assassination was judged by historians to be a fake, then it would disappear, ceasing to become real, and fading out like Michael J. Fox fades from the picture in Back to the Future.

    I love Sci Fi too, but this argument would work to discredit anyone who seriously put it forward. Is this a joke post?

  • Landon Hedrick

    beallen,

    Actually, James doesn’t say that if historians judged something to be fake it would “cease to be real.”  He said that it would fail to be historical.

    I highly doubt James would say that the conclusions of historians change the reality of what actually happened, such that if they change their minds about some event, that event would fade out in the way you envision.  He seems to be saying, instead, that the word “historical” is (or should be?) put to use to to refer to whatever it is the historians believe.  I take it this is a question about how words are (or should be) used, which doesn’t touch on the issue you’re concerned about (i.e. whether or not the conclusions of historians determine what actually happened).

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    James seems to be asking lots of questions:
    (a) epistemological  — how can we talk about knowing something
    (b) political — does the majority determine correctness
    (c) institutional — what counts as a “historian”
    (d) personal — why do I keep beating my head over this stuff?

  • Anonymous

    Most biblical historians, Jewish or Christian, come from a ‘believing’ background, and wish to maintain the status quo.  Thus if you go with the majority, you are quite likely to go down the wrong track, but it would do your career a power of good.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Ah, Geoff is very right !  I forgot the “pragmatic question” — sacrificing truth (which Ian tries to point back at) for social benefit.  

  • Brad Matthies
  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    All Praise to Math !! (very nice, Brad)

  • Anonymous

    Mathematicians have the advantage foreknowledge!  They define their axioms before they start.  Whereas historians (at least biblical ones) are trying to peer into a very murky past indeed. 

  • Anonymous

    James wrote: “At the moment, I am inclined to think that it is, when it comes down to it, really nothing other than the collective judgment of historians that the evidence makes the existence of that person or event probable.”
    I can’t think of a better example than this over which historians have argued for fifty years and still do today –  It is whether the Dead Sea Scrolls were of Jerusalem origin or not?  The argument has swayed from one to the other, with a large number of scholars in the sect at Qumran group.  If you went with the collective judgement of the majority you could well be wrong.    

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Same with “Statins” and the anti-cholesterol craze.  The majority is wrong — and they only have science on their side, not even a god.

  • Tony

    Have you ever read Ed Sanders introduction to his book “The Historical Figure of Jesus”? He lays out very clearly how the historian must sift the evidence:

     In the study of Jefferson or Churchill, the scholar has excellent sources for getting behind legend and hearsay. The biographer of Jefferson has an extremely large amount of source material, while the biographer of Churchill is almost immersed in evidence. Finding out what Jesusthought is much closer to the quest for the historical Alexander. Nothing survives that was written by Jesus himself. The more or less contemporary documents, apart from those in the New Testament, shed virtually no light on Jesus’ life or death, though they reveal a lot about the social and pohtical climate. The main sources for our knowledge of Jesus himself, the gospels in the New Testament, arc. from the point of view of the historian, tainted by the fact that they were written by people who intended to glorify their hero. The sources for Jesus are better, however, than those that deal with Alexander. The original biographies of Alexander have all been lost, and they are known only because they were used by later – much later – writers.’ The primary sources for Jesus were written nearer his own lifetime, and people who had known him were still alive. That is one of the reasons for saying chat in some ways we know more about Jesus than about Alexander. On the other hand, Alexander so greatly altered the political situation in a large part of the world that the main outline of his public life is very well known indeed. Jesus did not change the social, political and economic circumstances of Palestine. Despite this, as we shall see more fully below, we have a good idea of the external course of his life, especially his public career. The superiority of the evidence for Jesus is seen when we ask what he thought. His followers started a movement that was based in part on what Jesus himself had taught and done. If we can discover which of their ideas they derived from Jesus, we shall know a lot about his thinking. Diligent study of the gospels can often distinguish the deposit of Jesus’ own views from the views of his followers, as we shall see more fully below. Our confidence is increased by the fact that some of our sources are independent of one another. Paul gives important evidence that reveals some of Jesus’ views and expectations, and Paul’s letters were written before the gospels. On the other hand, his letters were collected and published after the gospels were written; thus Paul did not know the gospels, and the authors of the gospels did not know Paul’s letters.Nevertheless, our sources leave a lot to be desired. The gospels report Jesus’ sayings and actions in a language that was not his own (he taught in Aramaic, the gospels are in Greek), and they place each piece of information into a setting devised by his followers, usually by followers at one remove. Even if we knew that we have his own words, we would still have to fear that he was quoted out of context.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    This is a very amateurish way to go about the question. You first need to define your terms. Historical can have different shades of meaning in different contexts for a start, and the answers given here reflect different understandings.

    Just getting people to pool their thoughts does not equal the effort of actually reading books by historians who have asked and discussed at length this very question. I have given you the names of some of the prominent lights in this very question, James, but you don’t seem to have had time to have read any of them.

    You have avoided answering my question on our discussion on my blog about the implications of using the term ‘evidence’ as opposed to historical fact. This is a strange avoidance. I don’t know of any (non postmodernist) historian who would suggest that Hammurabi or Caesar were not “facts” of history, so I don’t know why you avoid the term.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      Neil, why would anyone take your reading list seriously, you sound like an idiot. He teaches at a university filled with qualified historians, don’t you think he would ask them and not some dopey Liberian and ex-cultist who complains someones amateur blog is amateurish while their blog reviews books hoping to hitch a ride on Harry Potter’s popularity?

  • Anonymous

    Is this a weakness?: “Paul’s letters were written before the gospels. On the other hand, his letters were collected and published after the gospels were written;”  

    What evidence is there for saying that Paul’s letters were written before the gospels? 

  • Anonymous

    So what really makes something historical?  I’ll tell you – when it has been buried for 2000 years and no-one has interfered with it.  I am talking about the large quantity of manuscripts found at Qumran. 

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I intentionally left a certain ambiguity in the title of this post, because of the two ways that “historical” can be and is used, namely in reference to “what really happened” and to “what we can reconstruct based on available evidence.” I would never like the former to cease to be a focus, simply because we do not have direct access to it.

    But what I was asking about was what makes something “historical” in the second sense – what makes it a part of what we “know” or can reasonably conclude about the past based on the available evidence?

    If I specify that meaning of my question, then how would you answer? Is the nature of the historical investigation of the past like what a jury or judge does? Is it in essence a reasoned, well-informed collective judgment call on the part of those who study history professionally? Or is there more to it than that, and if so, what in your mind lends greater objectivity to history than that, if anything?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @neilgodfrey:disqus , in response to your question, I am trying to patiently try to determine why, when historians consistently speak not merely of Julius Caesar and Hammurabi as historical individuals but also of Jesus in the same way, you do not accept mainstream history’s use of “fact.” And so it seemed best to avoid the term until I can ascertain why you are using it differently than mainstream historians do, to avoid confusion. I welcome your clarification.

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      So you are trying to patiently determine why I use the word “fact” the way I do? But we have been having an extended discussion on my blog where I have explained that in great detail ( http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/#comment-18219 and http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/#comment-18227 and http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/#comment-18233 ), and it is I who have been patiently asking YOU to explain why, after you initially said I put things “well”, you have since backed off from using the term at all. You have simply point blank refused to answer my question to help me understand.

      As for the way other historians speak of Jesus as a fact, you seem to have forgotten I addressed this question also in our discussion: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/#comment-18243

      As for your limiting the possible meanings of “history” to “the two” — you are overlooking the several varieties of connotations it has in popular usage.

      Have you ever read a scholarly book by a historian discussing the nature of history and what is a historical fact? You did once point to a Wikipedia article about history recommending readers follow up the sources cited there, and one of the MAJOR sources of that article was an obscure apologist who believed miracles happen in history. But I am talking about the writings of historians who are widely recognized in the field of historiography as having made major contributions to the discussion of the nature of history and historical facts.

      Have you ever read any?

      Why is it, whenever I attempt to recapitulate your views and ask you if I am correct or not, you seem to regularly avoid answering and find some way to attack what you try to impute into my own position. Just tell me if I am correct or not in how I understand your position: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/#comment-18291 Can you give a direct and unambiguous answer?

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad Matthies

    Generally this process:

    http://www.okstate.edu/ag/agedcm4h/academic/aged5980a/5980/history/HISTORY/sld008.htm

    What I tell students:

    1. If the majority of credentialed experts agree, then the assertion is probably true

    2. If the credentialed experts do not agree then more study is needed

  • Anonymous

    How old is the earliest New Testament manuscript?

    How old is the earliest canonical Gospel manuscript?  

    We are talking several hundred years after the events they are supposed to describe, some of which are just unbelievable.  There has been ample opportunity for intervention.  Doesn’t this alone raise serious doubts about their authenticity?  

    On the other hand the DSS are nearer in time to the events.  And we know they have not been changed.    

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Sure, but the Dead Sea Scrolls in fact were instrumental in undermining the plausibility of mythicism of the 19th-century variety, precisely because it demonstrated that elements in the New Testament which were assumed to be late accretions from non-Jewish thought were in fact found in the Judaism of the period.

    As for the manuscripts, our earliest copies of New Testament works are close to when they are believed to have been written, at least in comparison to when our oldest copies of manuscripts of other ancient works date from compared to when they are believed to have been written.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    On page 18 of his book, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, James VanderKam gives dates for when 1QH – the Hymn Scroll, the was written or copied;  the paleographic date is given as 50 BC – AD 70; and the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dates are given as 21 BC – AD 61.  
    Also on the same page, James VanderKam gives dates for when 11QT – the Temple Scroll, was written or copied.  The paleographic dates are given as late 1st century BC/early first century AD; and the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dates are given as 97 BC – AD 1.  
    These dates clearly cover Herrod’s reign.4QMMT, the Acts of Torah,  addressed to royalty, was written or copied at the same time –  I have pointed out here, the Copper Scroll, definitely an original document, was written in the same unique idiom or style as 4QMMT.  This idiom is not found before the first century BC.

    • Anonymous

      Correction: this idiom is not found before the first century AD.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    James, as far as what I think you meant by your question, was what makes something historically plausible, I would have to say you touched on it in your statement below, but you did not elaborate.

    “At the moment, I am inclined to think that it is, when it comes down to it, really nothing other than the collective judgment of historians that the evidence makes the existence of that person or event probable.”

    It is clearly the amount of reliable evidence that makes something more or less historically plausible. The reliable evidence for Julius Caesar is vastly superior to the reliable evidence for Julius Caesar’s personal chef. It is historically possible that he had a personal chef, but there is probably next to nothing in the way of reliable evidence. So the bottom line is that the likelihood of the consensus of historians to be correct is directly proportional to the amount of reliable evidence.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Neil, I am proceeding slowly and cautiously because what is generally accepted by historians in terms of terminology and conclusions seems to be accepted by you, until we start discussing Jesus, and so I am trying to see if I can spot the point where your views begin to differ from mainstream historians, in the hope of determining whether it is merely the presence of Jesus that causes this transubstantiation of your views, or something else. :-)

    If your question is about works which I found helpful and insightful methodologically, as pioneers in a particular area, then Jan Vansina’s several works on oral history would definitely be on my list. If you are asking about introductory volumes that discuss the methods of historical study, then I particularly like Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, but that may just be because I happen to own a copy. Other similar works that I have consulted cover much of the same terrain.

    Are these historians who reflect the sort of approach to history you feel is typical of mainstream historical scholarship? If not, which would you recommend?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    If you were more familiar with Vansina’s work, perhaps you would be aware that he deals not only with the collection of data orally, but also oral tradition. The relevance to the study of early Christianity should be self-evident.

    You keep referring to “Biblical historians” which is not a term that is used in the academy. What do you mean by it? Anyone working on any historical question that intersects with the Bible? If you do not consider all historians to be using the methods you consider best practices, do you consider anyone working on the history of early Christianity to be using those best practices?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    And did you mean Scot McKnight?

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    I have made very clear exactly what I have been referring to and I have no intention of bothering to try to repeat all I have made clear in our other conversation. You appear to have suddenly turned your back on all that was being explained there so why should I repeat it here again for you?

    You consistently refuse point blank to respond unambiguously to any of my questions when I ask you if I have understood you correctly.

    I have responded to you at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/#comment-18297

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I responded over there. I wonder whether it was your expectation that I would only answer questions, and do so simplistically, rather than also ask you questions and request clarification to try to figure out what was behind your questions. You seem to have an outdated positivistic view of history, and a naive view of a simple relationship between evidence and historical conclusions, except in the case of Jesus. Between those concerns and the history of past behavior, even being willing to try to start afresh, surely no one can blame me for being cautious and wishing to proceed slowly and carefully. Isn’t that, after all, more likely to avoid misunderstandings and other things that might hinder our discussion in the long term? I see no reason to rush, when I am still not clear as to why you draw a different conclusion about Jesus than all historians, while at the same time you are persuaded that you are using the same methods that they do.

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      I have no problem with you asking me for clarifications, but when I have asked you for a clarification a number of times earlier and you avoid unambiguously replying, I do think you are simply trying to avoid answering me directly and unambiguously.

      I have indeed attempted to answer all your questions directly and without any ambiguity, but this last time you slipped in so much personal innuendo into questions that I have answered and addressed clearly before, so you will forgive me if I draw the line and ask you to be direct and unambiguous with me and actually answer what I have asked you back in my comment #48.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      James, have you read his latest post at Vridar http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/historians-on-jesus/#more-21194  (please consult with this article)? I don’t understand what he is trying to say. Take this from the page “But it is ONLY in the field of historical Jesus studies, as far as I am aware, that biblical historians cannot agree on a substantive body of historical facts about the person they are studying” There are all sorts of figures in biblical history that lack a “substantive” body of historical facts all Biblical historians agree with. That is obvious. How many facts do we really agree on concerning Paul or Marcion.  If they are few disagreements it is only because there is not as significant a historical interest in them. This is of course true of all history; I really don’t know what books Neil is reading. Well, no, I do, he has a blog about what books he is reading and that may be the problem. I mean the more people discuss one particular subject in history, the more that will be said and the more that is poorly thought out will be said.  Neil feels no need it seems to independently judge the value of the scholarship, but feels that it is unlikely that so many scholars would produce a few unusual positions. That has been a consistent failing of his thought I think, that the idea that Jesus was a person is undermined by having a number of opinions in the field but Mythicism is not.  What are the undisputed facts of the Jesus myth?
      He follows that with this. “and must accordingly resort to criteriology in order to construct “probabilities” of what may be factual — with all such reconstructions open to debate.” All reconstructions in history are open to debate, what’s his point? Does Neil envision a cutoff point in discussion where we settle the item proved and declare that no new evidence need be considered on the matter? Why does Neil feel criteriology is wizardry? Does he not understand the implications of probability? How much debate is too much? We do in a sense have a way to give a practical limit to this, but that is the system Neil is fighting against because it insists on certain minimal standards of presentation.
       Next, he says,” Surely it is clear that HJ scholars have departed from the methods of other historians. The HJ scholars do not curtail the questions they can ask because of the absence clearly known facts and the unprovenanced nature of their sources.” So when did he make this clear?  Are these points valid at all or are they the products of his imagination? I don’t think this is some defining feature of HJ. I have seen traditional historians place to much faith in a source’s integrity. I have seen some HJ scholars that very skeptical of the traditional sources. But because they lack the fanciful interpretation of those sources developed by many mythicist, they must be doing something ordinary historians are not.
       
      Finally, “Even historians of Socrates do not work like this. They take the facts and sources as we have them and discuss what those sources allow us to discuss — the nature of early Greek philosophy and politics. As far as I am aware historians do not discuss the “historical Hillel”. They simply accept the accounts of Hillel in order to discuss rabbinic thought. Whether or not there was a historical Hillel is quite beside the point and would make no difference to their studies.”
       
      I’ll have to take Neil’s word on Socrates historians, though the books I have on Greek History and philosophy tend to pass on the received traditions of Socrates without qualifiers. That he was a stone mason or that he taught a particular philosophy for example.  I suppose with no compelling reason to doubt it, it doesn’t seem interesting to mention that all of this could be made up.  Maybe they are simply parroting the conclusions of Socrates historians without doing their own study. Of course if you are studying Greek philosophy and politics or rabbinic thought, the “historical” whoever is of little interest. If you were studying “Reganomics” Regan would not be directly important to you. If Reganomics were created by Ed Meese on a napkin and the president were an animated mannequin, you could still study Reganomics without missing a beat.  You can still discuss the historical Hillel. There may not be much to talk about, but I have seen several encyclopedia entries discussing his brief biography.  And there is a “historical” everything, it is the real part that isn’t invention, so there is the Area 51 of myth (the misconceptions held by segments of the public) and then there is the “historical” Area 51.
       
      Perhaps if Hillel and Socrates were more popular objects of study there would be lot more opinion and disagreement of the basic facts of their life and more attempts to ascertain the certainty of their attributes.

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        Psst, Michael, I really am a flesh and blood human being just like you.

        You are quite allowed — and no-one will think of you as the lesser person for it if you do — to pretend I am sitting across the table from you as you write about me and that I have just shouted you the beer you are drinking.

  • Tony

    There’s an interesting quote by John Robinson (Redating the New Testament) on the strange way in which some scholars do history, especially with regard to the New Testament:

    There is a world–I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit–which is not the world in which I live. In my world, if The Times and The Telegraph both tell one story in somewhat different terms, nobody concludes that one of them must have copied the other, nor that the variations in the story have some esoteric significance. But in that world of which I am speaking this would be taken for granted. There, no story is ever derived from facts but always from somebody else’s version of the same story. . . . In my world, almost every book, except some of them produced by Government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is produced by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees. In my world, if I read that Mr. Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was heading for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world, no prophecy, however vaugely worded, is ever made except after the event. In my world we say, “The First World War took place in 1914-1918.” In that world they say, “The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century.” In my world men and women live for a considerable time–seventy, eightly, even a hundred years–and they are equipped with a thing called memory. In that world (it would appear) they come into being, write a book and forthwith perish, all in a flash, and it is noted of them with astonishment that they “perserve traces of primitive tradition” about things which happened well within their own adult lifetimes 

  • Anonymous

    So we have a character with links to some of the Scrolls who is mentioned in the NT, Herod the Great.  The dates of these Scrolls and their content match the historical situation at the time of Herod, particularly towards the end of his life.  In the NT (Mt 2:16-18), there is the story of the massacre of the innocents which has  nothing to do with murdering babies, or with any other meanings suggested by Neil.  This is a story written by people, more than likely ex-priests, with an agenda against Herod.  It also reflects their own guilty feelings. They were seeking vengeance on a king who though dead continued to have an influence on their livelihoods.  Herod had brought about the end of the temple as they knew it, and the end of the power of the priests.  He had kicked the priests out of the temple and out of Jerusalem.  The first   century was a time of prophets.          

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    Actually, if I understand his views, Neil is correct. Why do hordes of historians and scholars devote their entire lives to the quest for the historical Jesus and the meaning of his words and actions? What other single historical figure do historians spend this kind of enormous time and resources on, to get to the truth of the matter? I think Michael Wilson gave us an unintentional clue. He says, maybe if these other historical figures were as popular as the story of Jesus, then maybe more time would be devoted to them as well. I guess the question now is, what makes Jesus’ story so popular? For the average Christian, the answer is easy, because the Jesus story offers them salvation and eternal life. However, historians and scholars generally reject these miraculous promises. So what exactly makes this so incredibly popular to historians, that they devote their entire lives to the subject, even more so then the average believing Christian? Here is a bit of irony, if it wasn’t for all the people through history that did believed in the miraculous Jesus story, which was in fact what changed the face of history, Jesus would probably not even be known today, much less the most popular subject.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      Howard, you are quite right, HJ study is unusual because you have so many people analyzing a an obscure person. But historians pick subjects not only on importance but emotional intrest. Their are probably more people who have researched the life of Rosa Parks and Ann Frank than Taft’s treasury secratery or Bush 1′s head of the Department of Education, both people technicaly more important than two women of seemingly minmal personal acheivement. Jesus being the initiator of the religion of the most powerful culture in history is a likley candidate for that societies historians.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath
  • Howard Mazzaferro

    Michael, I agree with everything you said, but what I really would like to know is what exactly motivates historians to analyze Jesus. As I said before, suppose Christianity never really took off like it did, that would have placed Jesus on a historical scale of importance somewhere near Philo, and Jesus would receive nowhere near the attention that he does today. So it is clear that the interest in Jesus has a lot to do with how much his words and actions influenced people over time. And like you said, he is at the foundation of the most powerful religious culture in history. It would seem that historians are attempting to reconstruct this powerful religious culture by analyzing its source and then moving on to analyzing how and why later followers were influenced by this source. If everyone was influenced the same, this would make it much easier I suppose, but early on, it is clear that followers were influenced into thinking very different things about the same source.

    However, I feel there is some truth to a point that was brought up by someone. How can you prove the historicity of a person or event, if your supporting evidence is in just as much dispute as the subject you are attempting to prove? For example, one may point to Paul’s words “James, the brother of the Lord.” Before we can use that evidence, you first have to demonstrate that Paul was historical, for that matter James as well. Now what evidence proves Paul’s historicity? Is that evidence reliable, and so on.

    No I’m not supporting mythicism, I just find it an interesting dilemma for historians. Because there can be no absolute certainty, historians have to, like James says, come to a consensus concerning the evidence. Which in itself is interesting, because when I tell James that I have examined this same evidence along with almost 10 million others with a somewhat different approach, and the consensus we have come up with, is that the Bible is the authentic word of God, we are ignoring the evidence according to James. No, we are ignoring James humanistic approach to the evidence.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Does your 10 million person consensus take into account the people that think the Koran, the Buddhist Sutras, the Vedas, or mathematics is the word of God?

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    As a matter of fact, yes. Although mathematics is from God, the other things you mention are corruptions of events found in the Bible.


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