I have enjoyed my conversation with Bryce Walker regarding the discipline of biblical studies (see my last entry, “Further discussion on biblical studies.”), and I am excited to see that a handful of other bloggers have joined us (see “Bailey, Kirk, Frost, and Walker on biblical studies.”), but today I want to venture away from giving a direct response to provide a caveat regarding the relationship between historiography, historical method, and “the past.”

I decided to write this post after receiving a few questions from Bobby Grow. I want to make sure that I am understood when I talk about “the past” or “history” and historiography and historical method. Now it is true that scholars conclude that something happened in the past based on the results of their historical method. According to Merriam-Webster historiography is “the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” Historical method are the tools/criteria used to do historical work. While we use a particular approach to understand history it is not one and the same with the events themselves, obviously. Yet historiography and historical method is essential for doing good history, whether one is writing on the Babylonian Empire or the modern United States, whether writing a biography on Gengis Khan or Steve Jobs. There has to be checks and balances for saying things about the past.

While some jest that all historical work is essentially “historical fiction” because historians can’t explain everything that happened in the past there is a sense in which the discipline remains our best method of understanding and explaining the past. This is not to say that historians are objective, nor is the work of historians infallible, but our understanding of history is better because of the methodology, not worse. As I have said, yes, our telling of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicorn while marching toward Rome may be subjective, and it may be told from many angles, but I am quite sure that no one has suggested he sat on a unicorn and I don’t know of anyone who outright denies that the event happened.

So historiography is fallible as the historians who use various methods, who interpret the sources, and who reconstruct the explanatory narrative–but fallibility and subjectivity are not baseless relativism.

When I do historical studies on Jews or Romans in the first century, early Christianity, Saul of Tarsus, or Jesus of Nazareth I do it as a committed Christian. I have to admit that I am confessional. Of course, I have presuppositions and bias that color my research. That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to be as objective as possible. Rather, I am acknowledging that pure objectivity is impossible. An atheist who does historical work may be more comfortable with the naturalistic assumptions of historiography, but she is bias as well. Everyone is bias!

Yet part of the task of doing historical work is know that there is a fine line between what historiographical method can tell us about what happened in the past and the unsettling reality that there could be things that happened that we could never determine to have happened when using our methods and tools.

This is one reason that I struggled with Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Personally, I found his arguments for the resurrection convincing, but I feared that he was begging the question by stretching historical method into areas and presumptions that we wouldn’t allow for Muslim or Buddhist scholars who are trying to prove some of the more outlandish claims of their religion. In other words, I don’t think I can use historical method to prove that Jesus has been resurrected and ascended to the right hand of God the Father anymore than a Muslim can use historiography to claim the the Prophet Muhammad received the Quran via supernatural dictation. Christians and Muslims can have good reasons for believing this or that, but historiography is critical by nature.

Historical method limits what historians can say confidently about past events. Sometimes this is hard to recognize when we read works of history because often the narrative constructed by a historian may be based on their personal conclusions but it could have far exceeded what they can know by means of strict historical method. Often critical scholars like Marcus Borg and J.D. Crossan say more (in my opinion) than can be verified by their method. So do confessional, critical scholars like N.T. Wright, and there is nothing wrong with creating a narrative that one thinks explains the data. But, for example, E.P. Sanders when he used strict historical methodology came up with this very short list of things we can know about Jesus of Nazareth (from Jesus and Judaism: a good summary from where I borrowed the below list, can be found here):

  • Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  • Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  • Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  • Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  • Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  • Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  • After his death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  • At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement, and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career.

Craig A. Evans has added a few more points. For example, he is convinced that we can know that people believed Jesus to be an exorcist and a healer (which is different from saying that we can know Jesus was an exorcist and a healer).

Some Christians has an allergic reaction to historiography because they equate the above list with being the only things that could be true of Jesus of Nazareth. This is not so. There are more things that can be true, but we can reach them using historiography.

Can we use historical method to prove the resurrection? I don’t think so. I appreciate the works of Wright and Licona on this topic, and I find their work convincing, but honestly it does move from strict historical method to personal conclusions. There is nothing wrong with this, critical scholars do it, but we should be honest about what is happening.

There are things that can be safely deduced by means of historical method that lead me to favor the proposal the the resurrection of Jesus happened in space-time: the lack of body produced by critics of Jesus’ disciples, Saul’s conversion, James’ conversion, the rise and spread of the Christian movement. These don’t guarantee the resurrection by any means, but if someone is inclined to believe the resurrection happened these things enforce that belief. If someone is not inclined they are easy to dismiss.

So historians cannot say Jesus walked on water, or exorcised demons, or raised Lazarus from the dead. We can say people believed these things happened, or people remember things happening that they interpreted to have been miracles, but whether we personally believe these things is a step of faith, not something verifiable by means of historiography.

In fact, historical method should reach the conclusion that Jesus’ resurrection is impossible, because it is, if God didn’t intervene in history. Of course, Christians claim that the resurrection is not something people could discover by deduction (it is revealed, since God apocalypsed into human history), nor is it something that happened before, or since, so the Christian confession of the resurrection as something that stands against the way things usually work is fully compatible with the claims of historians that the resurrection is something that may be beyond historical verifiability. This doesn’t mean that the resurrection did not happen. It means that it was so unique if it did happen that there is no naturalistic methodology to verify that it did.