Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Oh Embarrassing Embarrassment

I read a book awhile ago on the history of Rome, and can't for the life of me remember what it was.  But it contained two interesting items.  In discussion of both the Gallic Sack and Cannae, it suggested that the absence of archaeological evidence wasn't a huge problem, since the Romans are unlikely to have made up a story of their own massive defeat.

This actually doesn't work for Cannae, since the Romans, if anything, exaggerated the scale of their defeat.  Not really the mark of the shamed, right?  But it works a little better for the Gallic Sack.  All of this is besides the point, of course, what's interesting isn't whether or not the argument works, it's what the argument is.  You might recognize it, it's a version of the ineptly named criterion of embarrassment.

See, over on Vridar you'll often read that the criteria is some sort of modern NT Scholar exclusive.  But it's not, and never has been.  To be sure, they could no doubt find reasons the above instances are different.  And they are different; different sources bring different problems that require modifications of the tools.  Unless we all start studying the same thing, it seems unlikely that historians are going to have some sort of universal toolkit to deal with specific problems.

Of course, we could try that.  Maybe all go back to the Annales School?  Lots of charts and numbers and 500000 words on the longue duree even when it isn't relevant that nobody did more than skim through?  I doubt anyone wants that, least of all the folks at Vridar, who share my wholly appropriate admiration for E H Carr.

So the specifics aren't important.  What is important is that the form, intent, and reasoning behind the tool similar enough to be considered variants of the same tool.  And why not?  It makes such intuitive sense that it finds its way as far afield as the courtroom, where more credence is given to statements against interest.  The general principle is sensible:  People don't intentionally make problems for themselves.

Something struck me in the most recent post on this topic over there.  Apparently they are unable to find the criteria of embarrassment in the study of the New Testament before 1980.  I find this bizarre.  They can't have looked very hard, because the argument has been in use almost since the genesis of Christianity.  See, at first it looked like this:

"Crucifixion is shameful, therefore resurrection."

Now we've become more critical in our use.  Instead we say this:

"Crucifixion is shameful, therefore crucifixion."

The cross is, in fact, almost the archetype of the criteria of embarrassment, and always has been, even before we called it the criteria of embarrassment.  Perhaps they have confused the origin of the reasoning with the origin of the (admittedly bad) term?

Now, unfortunately I can't remember my reference above, which is fine.  There's another one that escapes me regarding Livy and Patricians.  I come across it a fair bit, and then forget where I saw it because it isn't in my primary interests.  That's too bad.  What isn't too bad is Neil's post a couple months ago, discussing historians of Islam.

Contrast Christian scholarship that has relied upon the criterion of embarrassment to find “historical authentication” on the basis of the most unlikely of witnesses.

See, this isn't too bad because now I don't have to remember my reference.  Wikipedia already has it in their entry on the Satanic Verses

 Since William Muir the historicity of this episode has been largely accepted by orientalists. William Montgomery Watt and Alfred Guillaume claim that stories of the event were true based upon the implausibility of Muslims fabricating a story so unflattering to their prophet: "Muhammad must have publicly recited the satanic verses as part of the Qur'ān; it is unthinkable that the story could have been invented by Muslims, or foisted upon them by non-Muslims." This argument resembles the criterion of embarrassment, an analytical tool used in assessing the historicity of Biblical accounts of Jesus, which holds that material that would seem to be "embarrassing" to scriptural figures such as Jesus but is nevertheless included in the canon is likely to be true.

Footnote 18.  I've checked it, I encourage you to do the same.

This isn't just like the criteria of embarrassment, this is the criteria of embarrassment.  In one of those scholars of Islam.  Who don't engage in that sort of thing.  Oh dear.

Now if you asked me whether or not it works, or whether there are particular difficulties in our material that make it less likely to work, my sentiments will be much closer to those at Vridar.  But the suggestion that it is some invention of the late twentieth century New Testament scholar is simply not true.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Survey on Pauline Authorship

Via /u/koine_lingua on Reddit, this helpful survey from the BNTS on Pauline authorship.  From an appendix to Paul Foster, "Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians? A Fresh Look at an Old Problem" (JSNT 2012)

I want to know three things:

1) Who the hell said no to Philippians?

2) Who is uncertain on Philemon?

and most of all:

3) Really? 9 people wonder if Paul wrote Hebrews?  Really?  Almost ten percent?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why Galilee?

Earlier I was contemplating the literary nature of Mark's gospel, and while I can fairly convincingly (to my mind, at least) explain most of it as purely literary, with a theological aim, something struck me particularly.

The itinerary from Galilee to Jerusalem is notoriously chaotic, forced and nonsensical.

Why does he start in Galilee in the first place?

Mark knows, from the outset, that his story ends in Jerusalem.  If he truly has carte blanche, why the hell does he start in Galilee?

Doherty's "Galilean tradition" fails to convince me of its merit in explaining this, not least (not even close to least) because of its dependence on Q as representing the Galilean movement (without Q there is no Pre-Markan "Galilean tradition" in evidence).  I've long suspected his case could be modified toward Mark without Q, and have suggested to Earl that it isn't essential to his case.  But further reflection leads me to suspect that he saw something I didn't:  It is essential, there needs to be a justification for Jesus in Galilee.

This doesn't mean it couldn't be modified sufficiently, but it would require such a degree that it really wouldn't be Earl's anymore, it would be a case inspired by Earl's, in the sense that Sanders is inspired by Schweitzer.  I might play around with the idea a bit, color me intrigued.

Just thinking out loud...or thinking in text.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bias in the Academy: New Directions for Pooh Scholarship?

David Clines magisterial offering on the redactive layers of the Pooh complex is, of course, a standard reference for anyone interested in the Pooh corpus by now--as well it should be, coming, as it does, on the heels of such thorough research by such a gifted scholar.  But new times bring new modes of thinking, and James McGrath brings the tools of mimetic criticism to the Pooh traditions.

McGrath's piece is, as is clear, a masterpiece, elucidating the the material in ways hitherto unfathomed.  But I am not writing to promote what these masters did right, rather, it is to point to what they, to this author, clearly get wrong.

It is perhaps best to begin with Clines.  He touts the illustrations as evidence of a pre-verbal tradition, evidencing the expunging of Sanders.  I think it hardly need be stated now that the illustration, known as the "Sanders fraud," is an outright hoax, that certainly should not have fooled a scholar of Clines' caliber.

Note the trailing /s/ of "Sanders," the inverted /s/, while often appropriate for the leading letter of a word, never appears in extant literature when it is trailing.  Note also the forger's tremor (cf Carlson, 2005) in both the /n/ and /a/.  Compare with the lettering to the "RNIG ALSO" sign.  We can, of course, only conclude that the Sanders sign was added to an existing Pooh illustration, and was eventually mistakenly incorporated into the authentic complex.

Thus, despite Clines' suggestion, Sanders--in the very evidence he holds--is being forced into not stricken from, the Pooh record.

McGrath, thankfully, does not fall for this ploy, yet I observe something curious.

Clines suggests that Sanders is stricken because he knows too much, as evidenced by the volume Tendencies in the Synoptic Tradition.  McGrath, applying new tools, suggests that it represents the naivete of the historicist, as evidenced by Sanders' work on the historical Jesus.

Despite the fact that they are bringing different tools, different ambitions, and different approaches to the material, they have both identified Sanders as scholar E P Sanders.

If this is not clear evidence of outright bias in the academy, I don't know what is.

While there is a case to be made for the "Sanders" material to be entirely interpolated (text and images), I am reluctant to do so.  Firstly, because it appears in all of our extant manuscripts, and secondly, because I believe Sanders may provide the key to the Pooh complex.

The Sanders in question is not being expunged, and he is not an incidental jibe.  Remember that it is Pooh who lives under it.  This can hardly be coincidence, and certainly cannot be treated as anything but symbolic.

Sanders is not E P Sanders, clearly.  He hardly fits the bill for such a rich tableau.  Rather, it is Colonel Sanders.

Those under the Colonel are, as we are well aware, his hens.  His flock.  The striking imagery of Pooh alone filling the role of flock should have been evident to McGrath, and outside of seeing what he expected to see I can't imagine how he missed it.

This, I do not think I overstate, is the hermeneutical key to the entirety of the Pooh corpus.  Think of the implications, for example, of the "little black rain cloud" pericope.

It's time to recognize the Sanders Juggernaut for the purest eisegesis it is.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Objectivity Problem: Or Holocaust Denial and Naive Positivism

it is inevitable.  Once someone brings up the problem of objectivity in historical study, someone is going to raise the charge of some sort of chaotic relativism, where there are no facts, just opinions, all of which are equally valid.

To be fair, sometimes the problem is caricatured this way.  To be equally fair, this is always by its critics.  Given enough time, this will always produce the charge of holocaust denial.  Those pesky post-empiricists think that Holocaust denial is a legitimate historical stance since it can't be objectively dismissed (so Warren, The Past and It's Presenters, for example)

Let me stress this:  This is nonsense.  I am aware of no theorist who endorses such a position (Jenkins, who probably comes closest, is still well short of the mark).

Over on Vridar, Neil Godfrey waxes poetic about how much different other branches of history are.  99% of the time, as I've mentioned here and in comments on his blog, I think this is complete nonsense, and owes itself far more to Neil's romanticizing other ancient historians than their actual practice.  There is one exception.

See, if you go ask a historian of Rome if he has created his history or discovered it in the evidence, he'll acknowledge that it is no doubt a little bit of both.  It isn't going to be a strange question to him, and he isn't going to be offended by it, assuming he has been trained in the last fifty years or so.

Ask a New Testament historian that, and he's as likely to get offended at your suggestion that his work is purest eisegesis as he is to answer it.  There are exceptions, of course.  Crossan, for all his faults, is no reconstructionist.  Allison, for all his strengths, is a lot closer to one.  But, for example, NT Wright, for all his. . .well, NT Wrightness can scream "critical realism" all he wants.  He's a modernist under a different hat.

The historian's work is purest eisegesis, or is at least in large part.  The a posteriori, empiricist model of historical positivism is dead.  Dead.  Dead.  Dead.  Reconstructionists scarcely exist outside of the study of religion because theorists destroy them.  They are such easy fodder that it's almost a cheap ploy to attack them.  Yet there is still this curious conviction in the study of religion that we are extracting information, and heavens, never inserting it.  Only in the study of religion is there a widespread conviction that historical Truth, capital T, is knowable.

I point this out because it is from Biblical Studies that I most often hear the caricaturized picture of the post-modern critic.  They aren't alone, as my cite above bears out, but they are disproportionate.

Acknowledging the problem of objectivity is not an affirmation of abject relativism, and emphatically does not imply a rejection of factuality.  The objectivity problem, in fact, has very little to do with whether or not factuality can exist in 99% of cases.

Here is an (I would suggest the) actual objectivity problem:

History is communicated in terms of narrative.  That narrative is the product of the historian, and conforms to a model he had in mind before started, which is necessarily shaped by his context.  That narrative is created around facts.  it is not created instead of facts.  That narrative is the product of the author.  That doesn't mean that it can't be right, on the contrary, I think we are, in general, fairly good at conveying narrative that models the past.  But it does mean that it is not found in the evidence, but in the observer.  Our narrative of the holocaust cannot include denial of its occurrence and count itself equal, because it replaces facts, it doesn't simply reinterpret them.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Quote of the Day: Allison on Dissimilarity

I enjoyed the previously mentioned Allison paper so much, I went back and read it a second time, and happened on this eminently quotable gem on the criteria of dissimilarity:

[R]ather do we have a lesson about the ambiguities of dissimilarity.  One can always discern dissimilarities between two texts--otherwise they would be the same text.  So it is no surprise that, if one looks at something in the Jesus tradition long enough, one will usually be able to find ways in which it differs from all other Jewish and early Christian texts (just as one can almost always find parallels if one hunts long enough).
The criteria of dissimilarity:  Strack-Billerbeck in reverse!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

What Are Historical Facts (pt II)

I trust everyone has had occasion to read Becker!  Honestly, if you haven't, you should.  It's a brilliant paper.

When last we met with Julius Caesar, he was standing on the banks of the Rubicon, about to become a traitor, and set in motion one of the most important transformations in the history of the Western world.  This crossing, make no mistake, was a big deal.  Few are the moments, particularly in antiquity, that we can define so neatly, so distinctively, as changing the world.

Let's leave him there a moment longer.

Peter Novick, in The Holocaust and Collective Memory (whose magnificent That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in philosophy of history), points out that the holocaust, as a concept, did not exist until the 1960s.  Strange, but apparently true.  He credits this to the cold war, and American desires to keep things civil with their ally, post-war Germany.

This doesn't mean that the holocaust didn't happen, or that nobody realized it happened until the 60s.  Quite the contrary, the horrors of Nazi Germany were well known.  But the single, overarching fact--the fact that encompasses the ten million lesser facts--did not exist.  The holocaust still happened, but the Holocaust, capital H, as a single historical fact is not a product of WWII, it's a product of the 1960s.

Strange, right?  Let's look at the fact a little more closely before we get back to Caesar.

In its simplest form, the Holocaust is the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews.  A horrible truth, but also a simple one.  Except it's not.  Because the fact represents more than that.  The Holocaust includes Auschwitz, Mengele, Hess, twin experiements, Anne Frank.  There are innumerable, smaller facts, all symbolized by this one, overarching, historical fact.

But there are, in fact, even more than that.  Because my list only includes facts that "matter," by which I mean are facts that exist as their own historical facts, each of which assumes its own connections.  There are virtually infinite facts that the historian doesn't care about, facts that don't matter to the historical narrative.  All contained in the one fact, the Holocaust, that didn't even exist until twenty years after the event.

There are two important things to draw from this:  First, an historical fact isn't an event in the past.  It's an affirmation about an event in the past.  The "historical fact," of the Holocaust, as a concept didn't exist when it happened.  It existed when it was affirmed as such.  And continues to exist as long as it is affirmed.  In other words, the past exists in the past.  Historical facts exist in the present, and then never cease existing (if an historical fact is wrong, it becomes an historical fact that this idea was part of this mindset at this time--the idea still existed, even if it wasn't true).

Secondly, historical facts are symbols.  The less a fact is symbolic, the less likely we are to be interested in it.  The statement of historical fact carries with it an implicit statement that this fact matters and the reasons why.

Let's get back to Caesar.

Caesar crossed the Rubicon.  We all know that that isn't the important part.  The important part is that he had an army with him.  In the words of Becker:

The Rubicon is a small river, and I do not know how long it took Caesar’s army to cross it; but the crossing must surely have been accompanied by many acts and many words and many thoughts of many men. That is to say, a thousand and one lesser “facts” went to make up one single fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon; and if we had someone, say James Joyce, to know and relate these facts, it would no doubt require a book of 794 pages to present this one fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

The simple statement, "Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BCE" has implied all of these facts, the unimportant facts.  But they are nonetheless true.  No historian--ancient or modern (the former having had a legitimate chance to find out)--cares about these facts.  These historians include no less a figure than Caesar himself, who fails to mention the Rubicon at all in his Civil War.

But equally important is the implied facts that do matter.  The statement by itself means nothing.  Caesar crossed?  So what?  So, presumably, did thousands of others.  Like the Holocaust, it is a symbol.  It represents innumerable facts that do matter.  The Triumverate, Caesar's victory, the rise of Octavian, Sulla, Marius, more facts than I could hope to list here are all assumed by the simple statement that "Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BCE." No historical fact is devoid of these assumptions.  If it was, it wouldn't matter, and we wouldn't care enough to call it an historical fact.

Next up, how utility affects historical truth.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Jesus Agnostic, Mythicist and a Question of Terms

Some time ago I posted on my agnosticism on the historicity of Jesus.  The post, entitled "Why I Am a Mythicist," sits somewhat oddly for two reasons.  First, it is surrounded by significant silence on either side.  This reflected my conviction that it would be disingenuous of me to fail to make public my reversal on what I had quite publicly decreed previously.  Secondly, and more interestingly, most of my readership would not call me a mythicist today.

This is an interesting shift, occurring, as it did, in little over a year.  Because, as I noted in the comments to that post, at the time most readers would have considered my position a flavor of "mythicist."

I'd attribute this transformation principally to two things in the biblioblogosphere.  First, the increasingly vituperative and apparently eternal exchange between Vridar and James McGrath has increased awareness of the distinction between someone who doesn't know and someone who actively argues for a positive mythicist case, and second, the dialogue inspired by Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?.

With that in mind, let us imagine for a moment that someone put a gun to my head, right now, and said "Jesus or no Jesus?"  I would concede that I find the traditional reading of Gal.1.19 most compelling, and that we could probably call the brother of James the "historical Jesus."

Fortunately, there is vastly insufficient interest in my position for me to have to worry about firearm wielding people eager for a declaration.  So I am not forced to proceed on such a flimsy premise as "I find one sentence more compelling this way," and I can cheerily continue saying that I simply don't know.

But let's keep our armed psychopath around for a little longer.  He now wants to know how I proceed on the question of the "historical Jesus."  What does my new declaration change about my approach?

Nothing.  The problems of the texts don't disappear because of my declaration for historicity.  I still can't proceed with any confidence that the gospels are based on the life of the brother of James, rather than a simple tradition of "Christ crucified" and no more.

Which leads me back to the top.  My position would be described by most as "agnostic," and as a category this is fine.  But it doesn't actually describe anything.  Some have suggested they are not certain, and then proceeded to produce a sketch of the life of Jesus, am I the same as them?  Others suggest that there are no interesting questions to be asked because of their agnosticism.  Again, does that describe me?

Certainly not on both counts.  "Jesus agnostic" is woefully inadequate.  Tom Verenna has suggested ‘Jesus as Literary Construct’-ist to describe himself, though he goes with "agnostic" because of the rather clear clunkiness of what he sees as a more apt description.  This would be more apt for me as well, but I can't very well go around using that term without wanting to choke myself, much less the effect it would have on people reading it.

I am increasingly inclined toward "functional mythicist."  This differentiates me from an actual mythicist, who argues a positive case (such as Doherty or Carrier), and differentiates from the more confident or more apathetic agnostic.  It describes how I am going to handle the material--particularly the gospels--but does not adhere me to a declaration one way or the other.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Richard Carrier's "On the Historicity of Jesus" to be published by Sheffield-Phoenix

Richard Carrier today announced that his new volume, On the Historicity of Jesus, has passed peer-review and will be published by Sheffield-Phoenix.  I freely confess that I emphatically did not expect this to happen, and thoroughly anticipated his self-publication of the volume.  Observes Carrier:

Indeed, apart from Brodie’s brief confessional treatise supportive of myth (but not comprehensively arguing for it), which was also published by Sheffield-Phoenix (Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, released last year–see my review: Brodie on Jesus), I think this will be the first pro-Jesus myth book of any kind published by a university press in the last fifty years.
As Carrier also observes, this is a big deal, and given the current zeitgeist is likely to encourage real engagement.  While I have my disagreements with Carrier's first volume (Proving History, I'm also not mathematician enough to weigh on its principle thesis), I'm nonetheless delighted to see an academic press take interest in the topic.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Larry Hurtado on Expertise

As already reported by James McGrath and Jim West, Larry Hurtado had a wonderful post on how to identify expertise.  While I find much-- indeed almost all-- that I agree with, one thing struck me:

I can hear the responding claim that scholars in the field are uninterested in new discoveries and/or even that they conspire to keep new ideas from gaining acceptance.  But any such claim only further reveals the lack of familiarity with scholarly processes.

I used to repeat claims like this a lot, and certainly charges of a vast conspiracy can be readily dismissed as the ranting of a nutter.  But I'm always reminded now of Thomas Thompson's powerful memoir.

There doesn't need to be a conspiracy.  Ideology is certainly a factor, as I'd be surprised if Larry hadn't experienced in his long career, and can limit options for publication. But equally important is the role of academic inertia.  These two factors eliminate the need for a conspiracy.

To be sure, this doesn't eliminate the simple fact that most material not submitted for peer-review is by crackpots.  But if Thompson had written Historicity today, when self-publication is much easier, we have to assume he would have given it serious thought.

Hurtado's advice is nonetheless solid. Expertise is important, especially for the non-specialist, and as a general rule worth following.

Dale C. Allison on Marginalizing the Traditional Criteria

Effectively ending what has been a significant moratorium on my reading of books on the historical Jesus (though not ending my conviction that they do nothing but wiggle prejudices and call it historical truth), today I opened up the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus.  Therein, kicking it off no less, was an absolutely wonderful article by Dale C. Allison Jr., "How to Marginalize the Traditional Criteria of Authenticity."

Allison, after pointing out the reversibility of various criteria (and their mutual exclusion), moves on to list seven reasons he thinks it is time to put the definitive tools of the Third Quest to bed (p9):

  1. that Jesus said X or did Y is of itself no reason to believe that we can show that he said X or did Y; conversely, that he did not say X or do Y is of itself no reason to believe that we can show such to be the case; and the criteria do not contain within themselves any promise of what percentage of the tradition can be traced to its source, and in practice that percentage turns out to be small
  2. our criteria have not led us into the promised land of scholarly consensus, so if they were designed to overcome subjectivity and bring order to our discipline, then they have failed: the hopelessly confusing parade of different Jesuses goes on
  3. the fact that the criteria can be in conflict with themselves, that is, that some criteria can favor the authenticity of a unit while other criteria favor the inauthenticity of the very same unit, demonstrates their unreliability
  4. running units through the gauntlet of the traditional criteria presupposes that there is a clear distinction between what is authentic and what is not, which is a very misleading proposition
  5. most of us have not consistently heeded the criteria we claim to heed anyway
  6. our criteria are not strong enough to resist our wills, which means that we tend to make them do what we want them to do
  7. when we focus on criteria for individual units we can easily lose the more important larger picture, which is the place to start and the place to end.
Mr. Allison, as you can clearly see, is a man after my own heart.  He then moves on to justifying each of these contentions, I quote the first since it struck me particularly.

the gap between what happened and what we can discover to have happened is much larger than we care to imagine. Aristotle seemingly preferred to speak of Pythagoreans in general instead of Pythagoras in particular because he found it too hard to extract the historical philosopher from the apocryphal material assigned to him. 

As Allison observes, we might learn a thing or two from Aristotle.  We all knew he was better at logic, but who knew Aristotle was also better than us at history?

Allison moves on to discuss point 6, and describes how models of the historical Jesus are really made on p.19.  He has us imagine a grad student, who becomes convinced that Schweitzer's Jesus is more or less correct (or incorrect--either conviction will work), because a "revered professor, whose arguments she has not the means to rebut, persuades her of this."

Her paradigm is now in place, and this predicts what she will see next, "like highly prejudicial football fans who always spot more infractions committed by the team they are jeering," we all see what we expect to see.  We can't help it.

But here's the problem.  The next thing she does is collect evidence, echoing her professor's belief, which only builds her certainty that she is correct.  It is Allison's suggestion that only after this has occurred will our student give real reflection to criteria.

Allison's suggestion is, of course, wholly correct.  We can all think of examples where criteria are applied inconsistently, and are clear post hoc rationalizations.  Conveniently, we also usually see them in our opponents (Crossan's inconsistencies have always been obvious to me in a sense that Meier's have not, for example).  The simple reality is that they are always post hoc.  They are applied after the model is conceived, not before.

Allison's appraisal of the value of criteria is quite correct.  They provide a veneer of rigor, but they aren't fooling anyone anymore.  There is no real rigor behind them.  This is increasingly recognized, but never rectified.

It's time to move on.

Since the set runs some 1200 bucks, I can only assume that most readers have no intention of picking up the handbook.  Fortunately, I'm running on the assumption that the site linked in my last post is offering its material with the full knowledge and consent of copyright holders, and lo! there is the first volume of the set.

Score. Biblical Studies ebooks!

I'm just going to go ahead and assume that this collections is being shared with full knowledge and consent of all copyright holders.  I mean, the page is in Russian.  There's no book piracy in Russia, right?  A lot of the books are Russian, and won't be much use to most users, but there's a ton of English ones in there too (including a very sexy Vol.1 of the Handbook for the Historical Jesus, and Brown's volume on Secret Mark!)

Biblical Studies Ebooks

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What Are Historical Facts? (Pt I)

As Carl Becker, in his paper sharing my titular question, What Are Historical Facts? (Western Political Quarterly, Sept.1955--if you haven't read it, you must do so at once!  If you don't have JSTOR access, feel free to hit up /r/Scholar, where I promise you'll be made right), observed, historians love to talk about facts.  There is "the fact of the matter," "no getting around the fact," "the simple fact," "the foundation of fact," and of course, "the hard facts."

Most simply, an "historical fact" is a fact about the past.  Something we know to be true about the past world.  Except while most people would instinctively call this definition correct, there is a more interesting question--is it correct?

We're going to start with more first principles than Becker does, though his discussion will concern us next, but we are going to steal his example, which has since become the standard example (eg recently, Curthoys & Docker, Is History Fiction?).  It is an historical fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE.

I see no reason to stray from Becker here because, when he wrote as now, it is a simple statement that almost everyone knows, and more importantly, knows to be true.  No biography of history's greatest man will fail to mention it.

But is it a "fact" in the sense that it's a fact that gravity is proportionate to mass, for example?  Well, no.  Not even close.  We are, in fact, several steps removed from that.  Here's the actual fact: The copies of sources that survive tell us that it happened.

Yet our sources also tell us that a jocular Caesar assured his captors they would be crucified when he was abducted and held for ransom.  This, however, is not an historical fact.  What's different?

I point to this distinction not because I actually want to explore what's different, I trust it will be self-evident to most of my readership.  Rather, it is to point out that "historical facts" do not exist as some objective, observer independent truths.  They are arbitrated.  The history plays judge and jury, and it is consensus as much--sometimes even more--as it is certainty that creates "facts."  As Becker and I both note, the value of the Caesar example is not just that it is certain, it's that it is agreed upon.

It is important not to forget the role of the historian in creating historical facts.  Sometimes the "facts" are unlikely to change.  Augustus will almost certainly always have ruled Rome, and this will always be an historical fact.  The evidence is just too good, too abundant, too decisive.  The role of the arbiter is minimal.

But can we say the same about the "fact" (so Meier, Crossan, Fredriksen, Sanders, etc.) that Jesus died on a Roman cross around the year 30 CE (you knew I was coming to something like this!)?  is that a "fact" in the sense Augustan rule of Rome is?  Certainly not.

When recounting the "facts" of an historical narrative, or the "foundation of fact" upon which such a narrative is based, never forget that those facts were made, they do not simply exist.

Next time we'll move to Becker's discussion, and why there are simple statements, but no simple facts.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Is This Not the Carpenter? Paperback Available for Pre-Order on Amazon.

A little late to the party (Tom Verenna mentioned it weeks ago), but perhaps I'm not the only one who missed the good news.  Since the original $110 was more than I intend to spend on a book, I'm delighted to see the paperback available on Amazon for one-sixth the price.

 This is the second time I've broken my boycott of books not available in a digital format (the first was Goodacre's on Thomas). People making me carry things other than connected devices...selfish, I say, selfish! Of course, it's really not much of a boycott if I break it whenever it becomes too inconvenient. Damned lack of principles.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Quote of the Day

I don't have much time for this anymore, but can't resist sharing this gem from Jacob Neusner

It is the simple fact that people may say whatever they wish about "the Jesus of history," there being no appeal to a common court of evidence, method, argument, rational exchange of opinion; if anything goes, then nothing can go right.

Jacob Neusner, Who Needs The Historical Jesus