Monday, April 30, 2012

Why I Am A Mythicist

I had a rather startling realization perhaps two months ago.

I am a mythicist, though I doubt this means what first comes to mind. Not in the sense that Carrier or Price or Turton are, but in the sense that Thomas Thompson is. The distinction is important, but more on this below.

To start at the beginning I was once among the more loquacious defenders of the historicity of Jesus on the interwebs. What I lacked in eloquence I compensated for with tenacity. Constantly frustrated by my inability to make people see what I saw, I had only an academic appreciation that my opponents in these debates had exactly the same frustration.

This same shallow appreciation colors many of the current debates on the matter. It defines McGrath's polemic. It created Neil Godfrey's imagined dichotomy of "charity" and "suspicion" I'm putting the final touches on a subsequent post on these two in particular. McGrath needs to define "good historian" as something more than "guy who agrees with me," and Neil--or better yet everyone--needs to stop using the term "hermeneutics." They keep using that word, it does not mean what they think it does. I have, in fact, never seem the term "hermeneutics" used productively outside of a philosophy text.

This shallow appreciation produces what Doherty calls "colorful language" and I call "shameless rhetoric." It produces the shortcomings of Ehrman's latest book. What it doesn't do is produce fruitful dialogue. And it defined my own approach. And then I read Hayden White and Keith Jenkins.

Anyone who reads White and doesn't walk away reassessing the practice of history has either missed the point or committed themselves to willful ignorance. But this is almost a non sequitur. The huge majority of historians will never trouble themselves with questions of theory generally, much less answer White's challenge. This is shameful, and results in histories that are nothing more than a house of cards.

Anyone who has seriously engaged fundamental theory in any topic can no doubt attest to the epistemological quagmire one can end up in. Theory begins to handcuff rather than inform one's work. This was the situation I found myself in for most of the last two years. Which was unfortunate, since I only need theory because I love history, and I was losing the latter to the former.

Finally, I acknowledged that a truly unassailable historiography was an impossibility. This is almost a tautology, but knowing it is one thing, keeping it in mind without being crippled by it quite another. I am ill-equipped to develop a historiography from the ground up, so instead opted to copy the smart people. Or at least to use them as scaffolding high above the ground I would otherwise start at.

"Smart people," in this context, are historians with a method informed by theory, that is more easily defended than attacked. A methodology that is conservative, minimizes value judgments, and restricts truth claims to only that which survives such a highly critical approach. This is a short list of smart people. In Biblical studies, so far as I had read to that point, they were all named Thomas Thompson (I've since added a couple more, most notably Lemche, though not many). This actually isn't entirely accurate. There were other people who did smart things (Liverani springs readily to mind), but none who were quite as consistent in their "smart people"ness as Thompson.

It's important to note that Thompson's isn't the only possible "smart people" historiography, and indeed I differ from him in several respects, in some instances I'm more forgiving, in others (believe it or not!) I am even less charitable. But much like Thomas Verenna, Thomas Thompson has influenced my historiography more than anyone else.

Also to clarify, lest someone get offended, "smart people" is wholly tongue in cheek.

This bit of background is important for two reasons: First, in understanding any large change of position such as this, the background to it is important in assessing the motives and understanding the thought process.  It is as important to know why I reject another paradigm as it is to understand my reasons for adopting a new one.

Secondly, and equally importantly at least to me, is selfish pride.  I have no desire to be confused with the crusading secular.  Insofar as epistemology can ever be distinct from ideology, I am no ideologue.  Nor is this a decision reached rashly and without careful consideration of the methodology employed.  Probably more than any other historical conclusion I've ever espoused, this follows from method, and in no way preceded it.

I'll have more to say on the historiography I employ in subsequent posts, though I make no promises on when that will be delivered.  I have three children with a combined age of 9, after all, which severely limits my "wax philosophical on history" time.

Now, on with the important part.

First and foremost it is paramount to understand the difference between history and the past.  The two terms are often used interchangeably, but in fact describe different things.

Real people existed in a real past.  They did real things.  They lived in real places, had real friends, real rulers, real armies.  But that is gone.

History is created in the present.  The emphasis is on the word "created."  Contrary to the popular axiom, evidence never speaks for itself.  It needs to be interpreted, and any history is a creation every bit--and probably more--as much as it is a discovery.

The aim of the historian is to create a history that closely approximates the real past.  The understanding is that it is only an approximation, and all conclusions are provisional.  For this to be meaningful, we need to have rules.  Functional rules.  Readers may remember my post some time ago lamenting the lack of rules in NT studies.  If there is any conviction I firmly hold, it is that proceeding in such a fashion is unacceptable, and that anyone who thinks otherwise has no interest in meaningful history.

So with this distinction in mind, there are two questions we must ask on the historicity of Jesus.  Does the genesis of Christianity (the past) require a Jesus behind it?  And; Do our sources require an historical figure behind them (history)?

Ideally we should have considerable overlap between these questions--they should almost be redundant.  If we ask if the Age of Augustus requires an historical Augustus, this question is functionally identical to asking if our evidence requires it, because our evidence is inextricably linked to to the time and place in question.  The less overlap between our evidence and the past--the less our evidence can be anchored in known reality--the less meaningful our questions become.

We can only ask questions of what survives--we can only question our sources.  If they do not overlap the known reality, then any question we ask of them is meaningless.  Without such an anchor monuments are just buildings, texts just stories.

So is there any overlap  between our evidence of Jesus and the birth of Christianity?

The simple reality is that there is not.  Not unless we put it there.  The gap is too large, the sources too unprovenanced, their creation too devoid of known context.

I'll note in the interest of candor that there is one possible exception to this: Gal.1.19.  I have not read any interpretation of this passage that makes more sense to me than the plain reading of the text.  Because of this, and this alone, I am still somewhat tentative.  But it is nowhere near enough.

This remove means that we can't ask questions of the past.  We can't know about the genesis of Christianity (which is where I diverge from the people mentioned in my opening sentences.  I do not think the evidence required for an assessment of the birth of the movement--mythicist or historicist--exists).  But perhaps there is still a requirement in our evidence for someone behind the stories.  Even if we can't firmly link him to the birth of Christianity, surely it is at least a plausible speculation to link such an individual without a context to it?  And the authorship of Mark, for example, can unequivocally be linked with the authorship of Mark.  So do we require a real person for him?

Alas, even this tentative speculation cannot be allowed.  The answer to the second question is a resounding no.  That isn't my voice, but the voice of a century's worth of scholarship, during which every event described in the New Testament has been reasonably argued to be unhistorical by one scholar or another.  To be sure, arguments for inclusion have been raised as well.  This simply reflects historiographical assumptions.  Criteria of inclusion assume positive results.  Criteria of exclusion assume negative ones.  Let them clash.

But remember what the smart people do:  Methodology is conservative, value judgments eliminated, conclusions restricted only to what survives this.  A real person is not required, not demanded, not even vaguely necessary to explain what survives.  It is perfectly coherent without one, and this is what the methodology I described demands.

So, to get back to the start, I am agnostic on whether or not a real Jesus lived in the past.  But I am a mythicist in so far as our evidence supports.  There is no good reason to believe there is a a man behind the story.  There is just a story.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

History and Historical Fiction

There is little to no qualitative difference between history and historical fiction, at least according to Hayden White:

[H]istorical narratives are verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences(*)

This should be qualified somewhat, but can be stated perhaps even more simply: History is written to persaude, historical fiction is written to entertain. All else is form following function.

Lester Grabbe cites this passage in his Ancient Israel,(**) and follows this with several pages of discussion of postmodern criticism of historiography. Despite a too sympathetic nod to Evans' In Defense of History (1997), the discussion is at least reasonable.

It is perhaps worth noting that both the discussion and the sympathetic nod are symptomatic of a problem in history generally: Historians do not care about epistemology. Evans' book was well received by practising historians, who need any port in a storm to avoid the elephant in the room, but panned by philosophers of history. See, for example, Easthope's disgust with the volume, available online.

Grabbe himself notes this shortcoming:

In the end, however, one can only agree with the observation that 'the majority of  professional historians ... as usual, appear to ignore theoretical issues and would prefer to be left undisturbed to get on with their work while no doubt hoping the postmodernist challenge will eventually go away' (Zagorin 1999: 2). This certainly fits the attitudes of most historians I know in my own university who seem to have little interest in the debates on theory. (p28)

After (not surprisingly) rejecting the postmodern paradigm (and, it should be noted, paying particular attention to the problem of subjectivity), Grabbe moves on to discussing some basic principles of historical inquiry. Most of his tenets are not only reasonable, but quite good, and I might have more to say about them in a later post. His sixth principle, however, should probably be split into two. Lest I rob it of context, I'll cite it in its entirety, with the point I think the separation should be made set off in red:

All reconstructions have to be argued for. There can be no default position. You cannot just follow the text unless it can be disproved (sometimes expressed in the nonsensical phrase, 'innocent until proved guilty' - as if the text was a defendant in court; if there is a forensic analogy, the text is a witness whose veracity must be probed and tested). The only valid arguments are historical ones. Ideology, utility, theology, morality, politics, authority - none of these has a place in judging how to reconstruct an event. The only argumentation allowed is that based on historical principles. Naturally, subjectivity is inevitable in the process, and all historians are human and have their weaknesses and blindspots. This is why each must argue for their viewpoint and then subject the result to the judgement of peers, who are also human and subjective.(p36)

Looking at the red portion, did you spot the problem? If you were thinking in terms of theory you may have. If you were more interested in just getting on with "doing history," you almost certainly did not.

I checked several reviews of Grabbe's book. Nobody mentions what is, to me, an obvious oversight. One which makes it clear that, despite his citation of both, Grabbe actually doesn't understand the criticisms of White or Jenkins as pertains to subjectivity. More importantly, despite explicitly criticizing his peers, Grabbe too only gives a cursory look at theory.

To explain, we'll take a look elsewhere for a moment. Imagine I gave you a paper with such a radically feminist view that we would, today, consider it flagrant revisionism. Then imagine I told you that this paper had been very well received in peer-review, despite what seem to be obvious problems.

Now I ask you to name the decade it was published in.

You would almost certainly guess the late 1960s, or more probably the 1970s. And you would almost certainly be right. This is a fairly flagrant example of what is generally a far subtler problem.

The implication in Grabbe's principle is that peer-review, conducted by reviewers who are "human and subjective," will ultimately create a balance. A sort of levelling off of the blind spots. And it might; for the blind spots of the individual.

But those aren't the only blind spots. There are also collective blind spots. Blind spots borne of context, a context that is extremely likely to be shared by the huge majority of peer reviewers. And those cannot be balanced, cannot be identified, cannot even be seen until that context is gone. That might be a span of a few years, such as our example. It might be a span of decades, even centuries.

We might suggest that a historiography that allows for this--that requires both peer-review and survival of multiple contexts (as demonstrated perhaps by longevity), but this would drop our list of established historical "truths" to somewhere in the neighbourhood of zero, and would suggest that what we produce today cannot be considered right or wrong by anyone reading it now.

Even this optimistic suggestion, in other words, says that Hayden White was at least functionally right after all.

(*)White, H. (1978). Tropics of Discourse: Essays in cultural criticism. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, p82.

(**)Grabbe, L. (2007). Ancient israel. New York: T&T Clark, p27