Monday, May 4, 2009

Historical / critical method in 8 rules

April DeConick over at The Forbidden Gospels Blog is establishing 8 rules for historical study in these two posts:
Creating Jesus Ground Rules
We must say "no" to the miraculous

Essentially she is trying to answer the question of how did the early Christians come to believe Jesus was God. While the series isn't finished I suspect she is going in the direction of the typical mainstream scholarship: Jesus died, the apostles were bummed they try and make sense of it so they attach importance to his death as a center piece of their theology it gets tied to savior god myths.... I'll keep reading because Dr. DeConick is sharp.

But I thought the rules pretty good. So I'm going to repeat them here in my own words

  1. No apologetics. Study this history the way you would any other.
  2. No miracles or supernatural events.
  3. No heresy. We treat all ancient authors equally, not giving weight to the eventual winners.
  4. Religions develop in religious communities they don't fall out of the sky.
  5. All sources have human authorship.
  6. The sources were written by people in the midst of events, the authors don't understand how events will turn out.
  7. The authors are not neutral. They are writing apology and polemic and propaganda, and they need to be deconstructed as those.
  8. Our sources are dependent on the human being: physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, socially.



22 comments:

Anonymous said...

CD thanks for the heads up on this. Some really excellent ground rules to take on board. One of my professors - into theologies of liberation - was always fond of observing 'nothing is ever neutral'. This is true of biblical texts as any other text. We must always try to get behind the text to the agenda. I look forward to reading her stuff.
Cheers
Nik

Bill K said...

I think this method of studying the Bible or any other work is faulty and fraudulent. It is a sign of the times we live in: Only complete scepticism will suffice in the study of anything. This is the same reason interpersonal relationships have fallen apart in our culture and the majority of Americans (especially under 30) are unhappy.

Bill K said...

Let's try the spelling again: skepticism.

And while I'm at it - I will try to explain myself better.

There are 2 main problems with the skeptical worldview. 1) The skeptical worldview contains an insidious arrogance about its own viewpoint. We evaluate others and history by our own true (read “unbiased”) position. A related problem is 2) individuals from the past are Homo Sapiens just like us. Instead of being ignorant, silly or unintelligent people – they were in fact intelligent, creative, emotional and complicated people who stand as much an authority on their own time as we do in relation to ours.

If people from 1000 years in the future look at our media, will they think we are silly and farcical for the “National Enquirer” or the new “Wolverine” movie? I hope not – because we intended these for entertainment, not for biography. But if the biographers and historians of today were not taken as being truthful and accurate from their position – they would be angered! The real question becomes – did the Gospel authors intend to write entertainment or biography?

If biography, then we start our reading not from the position of skepticism but of belief. We conduct a careful investigation considering their biases and our own (especially highlighting different cultural factors, possible drives and differences in literature, view of time, etc) towards finding solutions/answers. And in most cases if the people writing were intending to write the truth, the answer we arrive at should be close to what they said.

CD-Host said...

Bill K --

Good points. But there are examples of genres that fall in the middle between wolverine and historical biography.

Editorial -- The author is freely mixing opinion with fact

Historical fiction -- The author is attempting to show the broad outlines of history events while intermixing fiction to connect. One needs to be very familiar with the genre to know what is fiction and what is fact.

Scientific novel -- The story is entirely fictional but the description of scientific theory is genuine. A fun way to learn science.

Advertising -- A dishonest a biased presentation of fact mixed with misleading claims, known to be so by the readers / viewers.

All those are legitimate genres with varieties of standards for what is or isn't acceptable to do. Let me go even further as a former math prof:

math and science textbooks -- contain gross oversimplification to help students develop a view point from which they can further develop. Quite often material as stated is false. Readers are not aware of that though writers are and experts are.

Bill K said...

CD-Host,

I definitely understand your point. Both writing type and the perspective of the author need to be addressed - and come to with as blank a slate as possible.

From the list you provided, only 7 and 8 (and possibly 3) are helpful towards this direction. The others are not addressing any of the authorship issues but instead reading from the skeptical position of philosophical naturalism (a philosophy not held to by the authors or culture being written about).

CD-Host said...

Bill K --

No question April is coming to the text from a hostile perspective. Back in the 19th century there used to be a nice dividing line:

History of Religions (atheist presuppositions): studied all religions from a "neutral" (actually hostile) perspective, naturalism (and quite often Marxism). Religions (with exceptions like certain forms of Buddhism) couldn't be "true" in any meaningful sense, developments simply were there was no moral sense to any of it.

Biblical Studies (liberal christian presuppositions): studied religions from a friendly perspective. Books should be examined from within their faith perspective looking at how the faith developed with a general assumption the developments were "correct".

Theology (conservative Christian): studied religion from within the fully developed system. Books should be understood from a backwards looking perspective how the books helped to shape the current view.

I actually think having an explicit break like that was a good thing. 19th century authors didn't have to hide their biases and at the same time faith communities were well aware as they were stepping further and further into a system which presupposed their religion was false when doing analysis. Dr. DeConick (is by her own admission) on the history of religions side of the fence if such fences existed today.

Anonymous said...

But for so long there's been a habit of not examining the text for the text's sake, as it were. You cannot read Isaiah [whether proto, deutero, etc] and say the writer/s were going, 'oh and this suffering servant stuff, yeah, it's about Jesus' - which so often 1st and 2nd year folks doing biblical studies do [well at our faculty, any way!] The text in and of itself is fascinating and the positive side of DeConick's approach is that it allows for the text to speak for itself a little more than it/ they have been allowed to in some quarters.

Bill K - not sure what's so wrong with a little scepticism [both spellings are correct :)] If there's a faith-based context to your comment on being sceptical, if one believes in God as all-powerful, all-creating, all-everything, then God's big enough to cope with questions and a little honest doubt. And heaps of biblical precedent for doubting God/ questioning God. But maybe I misunderstood your point.

On another point: the word 'truth'. What do we mean by/ how do we define this word? If, in this context 'truth' is being narrowly defined to something that can be measured, proven by experiment, etc., then that understanding of truth has only really been around since the Enlightenment. Truth is much wider than this and ancient near Eastern style of biography happily employed myth in the telling of the someone's story to bring out deeper 'truths'. There were different style conventions compared to the way we moderns 'do' biography.
Cheers
Nik

CD-Host said...

Nik --

I think we are of a like mind when it comes to the old testament. I recently did a post on 10 really good bibles you may not know about and if you look at the review of the Jewish study bible that's almost exactly what I say about. I tend not to like the typology of the old testament being read into it.

Anonymous said...

Yup, good stuff in the other post CD!! :)

By the by, I think your blog is rather awesome.
If you have a hankering for any information on 16th century excommunication and general discipline in Scotland, don't hesitate to ask, lol!!
Nik

Bill K said...

Nik,

My main point was that if you come to the text assuming naturalism – You will find the Bible fantastic in the negative sense of the word. It will never move beyond a curiosity of entertainment. This was surely not the vein in which the authors/Author wrote the Bible. So in this way, anyone coming with those presuppositions misses out. This state of appreciation of the text is counter to the paraphrased goals of April's rules.

On defending the Bible:

1. People fight for the honor of things they love. This is true of fathers, girlfriends and even God. Witness David’s outrage at Goliath’s taunts against Israel and their God (1 Samuel 17).
2. Although I may use a kitchen knife as a screwdriver, it was never intended for that. In the same way, although people ridicule the God of the Bible left and right, He is meant to be honored as our king.
3. More than the other two – my “defense” of God is for your sake and everyone who thinks as you do. The Bible proclaims that we are living in the midst of a spiritual battle right now. But this is not a battle of flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), instead it is a battleground of ideas (2 Corinthians 10:2-5 “5We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ”). The battle is between God and Satan for the restoration or destruction of individual humans – both in this life and after death. What each person truly believes makes a big difference in how your life is now, and even more so after we die. Although God has shown unfathomable mercy on everyone through Jesus’ death, He will not hesitate to bring justice against all who reject that mercy by their refusal to acknowledge Him and ask for forgiveness in Christ. Indeed God can do nothing else but punish since they have rejected the only alternative to paying for their own injustices.

On OT (or other) Bible authors. In some instances I think you are correct in saying that the writer was unaware of the prophetic content of their words. But in others the intent is very clear – c.f. God’s promise to Eve (Genesis 3:15), God’s promise to Abram (Genesis 12:3) and God’s promise to David (2 Samuel 7:13 and 1 Chron 17:14). The singular seed that will defeat the serpent, the family line that will bless all nations, the descendent of David that will be king forever – these are clear prophetic references to the coming Messiah and the writers knew what they meant.

"What is Truth?" Pilate said that to deflect his responsibility to make his own decision about Jesus. I hope you don't deflect your responsibility to choose about Jesus with the same question.

The essence of truth is correspondence to reality as opposed to the fabrication by a human brain of things that aren't there and did not happen. The thrust of the critial rules mentioned at the outset of this thread concludes that the Bible was fabricated and not truth.

CD-Host, in some ways it would be much better when the biases are clear by which camp you write from. However, it also is sad commentary on scholarly work if I can guess what your conclusion will be based on the journal title.

CD-Host said...

Bill K -

However, it also is sad commentary on scholarly work if I can guess what your conclusion will be based on the journal title. I don't think it is quite that bad. If you want to do an experiment, I'll give you an example. I'm going to be doing a post on the 1830-1902 fascination scholars had with the Mandaeans (followers of John the baptist). Don't look this up yet! Guess where these 3 groups came down in their research on them... If you want post your guess. Then go ahead and look it up, otherwise I'll be covering this sometime in the next year.

CD-Host said...

Nik --

OK I'm asking. How would you like to do this? I can set you up with a guest thread (i.e. you can post directly to the blog) or you can email me content and I'll credit you or...? What would you like. Also what topics?

Anonymous said...

Ah, CD... I have a deadline to write to at the moment, but will happily take this up with you after 21st August - plus will have thoroughly picked through the Order of Excommunication 1569 by then.
You know where I live blog-wise, so you'll know 16th c. Scotland's my area.... But also 6th-8th c. Irish penitiential texts as well. I do have a thematic approach historically - it's issues of inclusion/ exclusion within the godly community/ community of the kingdom of heaven on earth. So your group cohesion thread ties can connect with some of this, in a way, in that all groups of people/ societies organise themselves around rules, ritually and pragmatically ['who looks after the drains?' comment from Joyce Grenfell in conversation with a young anarchist comes to mind!!].
So let's blether about this some more and come August we can do some stuff. Sound like a plan?
In the meantime, don't want to hijack this thread.

Bill - am aware haven't responded to you. Will have a think over your comments and be back at some point - paticularly your point about ridiculing God - not sure that this was happening re. how texts are necessarily interpreted, nor in the conversation in general.
However, it's time fer tea!
Nik :)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:
A letter sent to Prof. Joe Hoffmann re: TJP, which constitutes one reconstruction of so-called "Christian" origins may be of interest.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:
Find the letter at blog: Making My Way; Ed Jones on fascinating new reseach on Jesus studies.

CD-Host said...

Cool August 21st it is. BTW if you are going to do this you'll need a blogger account. Do you want to create one and point it back to your home blog?

Anonymous said...

CD - yup, will do at some point. Looking forward to it! In the meantime I suspect I should be chuntering on with my actual paper, lol!

Bill K -
I think you've made some assumptions about me/ what I may or may not believe that are incorrect, but that's fine, you don't know me, after all :)

I've always found the notion of 'defending God' an odd thing - and not meaning in any way to cause offence. What I mean is: if one believes in an omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful being... then surely such a being... God... is quite able to look after Godself? This is not to say one can't 'be on God's side' or 'choose God', but that's a slightly different concept than, dare I say it, having the temerity to claim God is so weak and useless that little old human beings have to 'defend' God. Basically, God doesn't need to be defended if God's already the ultimate being.

Just a thought and not meant in any way to be disrespectful Bill.
Cheers
Nik

Bill K said...

Nik,

I appreciate your comments too and don't want to be disrespectful to you either. There are undoubtably some assumptions I have made about you by your comments, but I look forward to hearing from you your thoughts and beliefs so that my assumptions can be replaced with actualities.

Ridicule - If God is a king and people treat him as something else, that is ridicule. I'm sure 2/3rds of the things I think and say about Him are ridicule - and I love Him!

Defending God - I completely agree that if God is omniscient, and omnipotent, He is not a weakling that we must protect.

However, the description given of God in the Bible suggests He places a high value on how we think and interact with Him. The Bible also describes a God that loves to use human agency to accomplish ends; consider Matthew 28:18-20 and 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 for example. Given these I do not think it is a stretch that God would both desire people to fight for Him, and use human agency to "defend" Himself.

As an aside: I use the male gender to refer to God because that is the wording used in the Bible, but I think God is genderless.

Jase the Bass said...

I thought those 8 rules were so transparently illogical that the original post was going to point out their flaws, but they didn't!

Let's try again:

1. No apologetics. Study this history the way you would any other. - absolutely. Gospel history is history.

2. No miracles or supernatural events. - becuase? I think we've been here before. Hume decided supernatural never happens by ruling it out a priori. Hence, the argument: "It is the consensus of all people in all history that nothing supernatural ever happens." "'scuse me- I just saw a miracle." "Sorry, you don't count, becuase we already worked out the consensus of all history is that miracles don't happen. You are mistaken or deceiving."

3. No heresy. We treat all ancient authors equally, not giving weight to the eventual winners.
Fine
4. Religions develop in religious communities they don't fall out of the sky.
Why is this? Becuase you already decided there are no miracles. Same argument as before:
"No religions drop out of the sky" "Hey-look at what I just found falling out of the sky- a religion" "Sorry, you must be mistaken, we know for a fact that never happens."
Just a huge presumption. Prove your case, don't assume it.
5. All sources have human authorship.
a.) yes, "Kata Lukan" - human author
b.) no, becuase again you assume that there is no supernatural (and tactily, no God)

6. The sources were written by people in the midst of events, the authors don't understand how events will turn out.
a.) yes
b.) no, becuase the Author behind the authors does.

7. The authors are not neutral. They are writing apology and polemic and propaganda, and they need to be deconstructed as those.
a.) prove your case, don't assume it. Why is Luke polemic and propaganda? Or is this the Po-Mo all communication is polemic and propaganda
b.) Can an apologetic polemic propagandist also be correct?

8. Our sources are dependent on the human being: physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, socially.
- again, you assume "and only on the human being". How about if the sources were dependent on both humans and yet at the same time a divine inspiration?

Honestly, woefully, woefully inadequate philosophically.

CD-Host said...

Hello Jase welcome to the blog.

The issue for miracles is what is the standard of evidence to be applied? Seeing a "miracle" isn't nearly enough. On any given day I go to a magic show and see people cut in half, transport through walls make things appear and disappear and experience psychic mind reading powers. Those tricks are deceiving even though the entire audience
1) knows they are being deceived
2) is looking to "figure the trick out"
3) knows how similar tricks are done

There are rules for accepting violations of our understanding of the law of nature, but they require repeatability under controlled circumstances.

How likely is it that a fully supernatural being came down to earth and raised people from the dead, fed thousands, and performed healings? How would you even estimate such a thing? A historian has to look for the most probably explanation, given any miracle there exist dozens of more probable explanations than "it really happened". Hence there is no reason to give "it really happened" a high position on the considerations list.

DeConick and others are saying is that all the evidence we have isn't sufficient to meet the standards we require for belief that our laws of nature were violated. She's not trying to prove that miracles didn't happen, she is simply saying I'm going to assume they didn't happen and conduct the investigation from there. This isn't a defense of materialism but rather an outline of a historical method that considers materialism a given.

____

Now as for Luke for example being polemic and not history... I'd say this comes directly from the structure of Luke/Acts:
John -> Jesus -> Peter -> Paul. Jesus heals, Paul's laundry heals. Jesus raises the dead, Paul raises the dead.... At the same time the text is clear to tie Paul to Jesus through Peter and make Paul's ties to the Jerusalem church much closer than they appear from the early epistles.

In other words Luke/Acts is structured like an apologetic not a historical work. But those arguments aren't DeConick either they are in all sorts of mainstream and critical scholarship. Again the Jesus project is just assuming them, they consider that aspect of the case proven.

Chester said...

Well done list of rules. I would question the following assumption: "The authors are not neutral. They are writing apology and polemic and propaganda, and they need to be deconstructed as those."

Though the authors may not be "neutral," whatever that means exactly, it does not follow that they are necessarily writing apology, polemics or propaganda. That would be an a priori point of view brought to the text that would bias interpretation. I would argue that such an assumption is itself a prejudice that regards the Bible as purely a defensive work with its primarily focus on indoctrination, or something like that. The Bible is also a "positive" document that seeks to make claims about human experience as it actually is perceived by its writers, which is not to suggest that apology, polemics or propaganda are irrelevant to the text.

For instance, what of the book of Job? While the book of Job can be "deconstructed" in such a manner as you've suggested, I would argue that the main thrust of the text is, in fact, effectively understood as a kind of early form of deconstruction of traditional religion and theology -- especially from the point of view of a victim or scapegoat, which is the main point of deconstruction in most writings today, anyway. From this point of view, it is an attempt to be neutral, in a sense, with regards to being true to human experience as it is being interpreted by a writer or set of writers who have profound concerns about the tradition as they've received it.

In short, the three categories you've listed as to what the Bible "is" are insufficient to understand the Bible as accurately as possible.

CD-Host said...

Hi Chester and welcome to the blog.

I would classify Job as an apology. It is a long argument on the question of, "If God is benevolent and thus wants good, omniscient and thus aware and and potent thus capable of being effectual why do the righteous suffer and the evil prosper". The problem of suffering has always been a core problem with the Jewish/Christian/Islamic view of God.

Note that you are not treating Job as history.

In short, the three categories you've listed as to what the Bible "is" are insufficient to understand the Bible as accurately as possible.

Absolutely correct. DeConick is not trying to understand the bible she is trying to use the bible as an information source about historical study. Its the difference between surgery and dissection.