Recently I have been evaluating my methodological presuppositions as concerns researching and writing history, especially as this relates to biblical studies. One thing that can be quite frustrating at times is the different approaches used by various scholars in the field. For example, historical Jesus scholars advocated something called the criteria of double dissimilarity for some time. This criteria suggest that historians can’t trace sayings and deeds back to Jesus if (A) they sound anything like the confession/beliefs of the early church (post-Easter?) about Jesus or (B) they sound anything like the Judaism of Jesus’ day.
Of course, there is a serious problem with this criteria. It cuts Jesus off from the people who remembered him and who told stories about his sayings and deeds. Likewise, it de-Judaizes Jesus. Why would Jesus be a person who completely transcends and disconnects with the Judaism of his day?
Thankfully the tide has turned and scholars tend to emphasis the importance of Jesus’ Jewishness. Some have suggested that this is the greatest accomplishment of the s0-called “Third Quest.” I mention this because it is a great example of how useful or hindering our methods can be.
For example, the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.3-12 and Luke 6.20-22 sound a lot like what we find in 4Q525:
[Blessed is the one…] with a pure heart and does not slander with his tongue.
Blessed are those who hold fast to its statutes and do not hold fast to the ways of injustice.
Ble[ssed] are those who rejoice in it, and do not exult in paths of folly.
Blessed are those who seek it with pure hands, and who do not search for it with a deceitful [hea]rt.
Blessed is the man who attains wisdom, and walks in the law of the Most High: establishes his heart in its ways, restrains himself bu its corrections, is continually satisfied with its punishment, does not forsake it in the face of [his] trials, at the time of distress he does not abandon it, does not forget it [in the day of] terror, and in the humility of his soul does not abhor [it]. But he meditates on it continually, and in his trial he reflects [on it, and with al]l his being [he gains understanding] in it, [and he establishes it] before his eyes so not to walk in the ways [of wickedness…. (Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr., and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, p. 534)
The author speaks of wisdom, seeking wisdom, and being blessed. This echoes Sirach 14.20-15.1 and it sounds like it is inspired by Psalm 1. These “blessings” are a very Jewish concept. Craig A. Evans notes that, “These parallels tell against the proposal of some members of the Jesus Seminar that Jesus’ teaching is best understood against the backdrop of Graeco-Roman philosophy, especially Cynicism. These parallels from 4Q525 offer important support to the contention that the content and style of Jesus’ teaching are right at home in Jewish wisdom tradition (“Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran Cave 4” in C.A. Evans and P.W. Flint, Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 95).”
If we abide by the older criteria of dissimilarity we may be forced to conclude that it is unlikely that the Beatitudes go back to Jesus because they are so “Jewish,” but now we find their historicity more probable because they are so Jewish!
I have been trying to read books on historiography and historical method to get a feel for how this discipline “works.” Obviously some methods are flawed and others are very useful showing longevity among scholars. What “tools,” or “criteria,” or approaches do you advocate for good historical work? What are some tried and true practices that you would advocate?
See also, Michael Barber, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Beatitudes of Jesus”
See parallel translations of 4Q525 here.
Admittedly, I do not read much historical Jesus research anymore. Do many scholars still use the double-dissimilarity criterion? I understand the basic dissimilarity (w/ early church) “criterion,” but even that should be more fruitfully reframed: we tend to think there are grounds to suspect a representation of something that is too convenient and/or in the interests of the party making the claim and/or a claim that seems a bit too anachronistic (e.g., a writing that put specifically 3rd/4th century neo-Platonist positions in the mouth of Jesus). This doesn’t mean we have a formula about dissimilarity; more that our analytical antennae go up a bit more when we encounter claims about Jesus that fall within this category — we ask more questions about whose interests are being served; the requesite historical, cultural, social, educational, etc., conditions for the claim that’s being made; and so on…and factor such considerations into our assessments of plausibility.
Anyway, again, I suspect I am preaching to the choir. Back to my original question: what scholars still use the double-dissimilarity criterion?
I don’t know that I can name a scholar who continues to use it, but I want to say Borg, Crossan, and The Jesus Seminary types did use it back in their time. Admittedly, it seems to have lost favor. Historical Jesus research tends to be a beast of its own and I understand why people are frustrated by it and some have quit paying attention.
You should read Rebecca Lyman’s Chapter 26 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematc Theology, simply entitled “History”. I think it is informative towards providing a fruitful way forward in considering your questions on historiography.
Brian, major points for pointing out the similarity between the Beatitudes and 4Q525. There’s a practice you just exhibited that’s worthwhile. You took words that (Christians believe) are God inspired and compared them to words produced by a contemporary messianic community that ‘claimed’ to be God focus’d and that demonstrably was connected to the early Christian community (by way of John the Baptist and others). This methodology indeed provides insight into the historical context surrounding Christ’s first ministry.
That said, you ask what other methodologies would others advocate. Here’s one based on an observation. One manifestation of the fallacy of modal logic involves temporal modality. What this means is that there is a tendency to see something at one point in time as true all time, or the same through all points in time. Objective truths might be atemporal, but contingent truths are not.
Therefore, since historians already have ‘critical scrutiny’ as part of their toolbox, seen for example, in historiographic critiques of other historians, they should apply the same critical method to establish temporal objectivity.
For example, in [Mark 13:32] Jesus said “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Being biblical, we believe it was true – BUT was it objectively true or contingently true (meaning necessarily true for all time or when Jesus said it). Theologically, people assume it is true for all time. Then after He said this he ascended into heaven [Mark 16:19] where came before the throne of His father [Rev 5:5] where was was not just a moment before [Rev 5:4]. Before ascending he tells his disciples the answer to their question is unknown to all save for the father. [Rev 5:4] bears this out to be true. Yet in [Rev 5:9] we are told the lamb is worthy to receive and reveal [Rev 6:1] this knowledge.
To a historian the question leading to insight was – was what was described in [Mark 13:32] then or all time?
Another example: On page 3 of the Jewish Almanac (1980) says the following quote, which has been both criticized and oft cited “Strictly speaking it is incorrect to call an ancient Israelite a ‘Jew’ or to call a contemporary Jew an Israelite or a Hebrew.” (Obviously I’ve examined this quote and agree – but why?)
The same Jewish Almanac asks the question (implicitly) is a Hebrew, a Jew, an Israelite; the same in the bible as now? The answer is ‘no’.
Biblical Hebrews were the people of Abraham, but not all Hebrews became Israelites, or inherited the covenant of God. For whatever reason, only Isaac inherited the covenant promise [Gen 17:19-21][Gen 26:4]. Likewise, the same covenant passed to Jacob only [Gen 28:14][Deut 32:9] eventually the lions share resting on Judah [Gen 49:8-9] and Joseph [Gen 38:15-16]. So a Hebrew is the root, but not the branch, and is thus different.
Likwise, a modern Jew is different than a biblical Jew is different than a biblical Judean. Before Babylon, Judeans were ‘Judeans’. In Babylon the word Jew first appeared applied to ‘Judeans’ but included non-Israelite converts [Est 8:17][Ezra 2:59] and later Edomite converts [Oba 1:11] (historically under John Hyrcanus). Later still in more modern times, an entire kingdom would convert to Judaism (to comprise 80% of modern Jews), meaning there is a better chance, than not, a ‘modern’ Jew likely isn’t an Israelite.
If these things are true then, the Almanac is correct, and has asked a temporal question the historian likewise should ask. Was Jesus as Jew? He was in the sense he was a citizen of Judah, but not in the modern sense. Modern Jews reject the Messiah – Jesus was the Messiah and the question of whether modern Jews are Israelites is up in the air, whereas it is settled for Jesus. Was Jesus a Judean – well yes, but more so he was of the House of David which was a particular type of Judean.
When we shy away from being temporally precise about our historical claims we do ourselves, and the historical craft a disservice; and so too objectivity.
Speaking from the history side of the house, the criterion that I’ve seen come out of the Jesus Seminar is mostly bunk, and if applied elsewhere would not get us anywhere. From what I’ve seen, like in Gerd Ludemann’s “The Great Deception,” much of the criterion reminds me of some of the expectations of the 19th century German schools…. and pretty much no historian uses that methodology, as hardly anything would live up to Ranke’s standards.
First, historians work with written materials only, and so that is where we have to start. Looking at the sources, we would want to know what type of document it is (law, biography, etc). Whether the source is primary, or secondary. Whether the particular source we’re dealing with is a copy—and the accuracy of the copy, or if it is original. When the source was produced and by whom (this would also include the mind behind the document as well as who penned the document), and for what purpose the document served. Also the authority, mindset, and competence of the author. As we can see, much of this is probably similar to how biblical studies students approach a text of the Bible.
Next, we would want to go through other various sources and compare them: Do they contradict/agree? Are they independent sources, and yet agree/disagree? If sources stalemate (the sources available contradict), historians would then come to logical conclusions through other means. So lets say we have one source that said the Romans leveled the Jewish temple, and one source that said they did not, they partially destroyed it. First, we could turn to archaeology, and see what the archaeologists say; but we could also look at the wider spectrum of Roman military practice in like circumstances—did the Roman army have a habit of decimating key buildings at rebellious subjects? If so, its likely they did demolish the temple then (this is just an example). As far as knowing when a source reaches the satisfactory evidence mark, is quite another thing to decide, that is probably more “skill,” and experience, than anything else. But these are just some ideas in how we approach the past.
I do want to add— that doesn’t mean that we don’t consider some of the literary criticism that came out of the German schools in the 19th century, rather, we just note their plentiful weaknesses, and how events do fail to meet the criteria, and yet we still accept them as being historical.
Quoted for truth “Speaking from the history side of the house, the criterion that I’ve seen come out of the Jesus Seminar is mostly bunk, and if applied elsewhere would not get us anywhere.”
And real quick, I do want to add a word of caution, just because I think the Jesus Seminar’s criterion to be strict, does not mean that historians, using historian methodology, would be lenient towards the Bible. For example, the Gospel’s laying out their purpose of convincing the reader that Jesus is the Christ would force the historian to add a level of caution when approaching the Gospels.
Agreed, historians cannot ignore the subjectivity and continual change of things over time.
Well said. I do wonder about your statement that we use written works alone. Would you parse archaeology away from doing historical work? Things like coins, old structures, etc?
Brian: Historians usually stick to the written sources— so the past that happened before written sources (around 5,000BCEish), aka pre-history, is outside the scope of most historical work. With that being said, archaeology, numismatics, textual criticism, epigraphy, papyrology, etc., as well as the other social-sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy)— are all tools historians use to recreate a bigger picture of what happened in the past. Ancient historians especially rely on many of the above disciplines to fill in the gaps.
So I would say that archaeology, and the others, are separate disciplines. I would liken it to this maybe: A philosopher knows a lot about the brain and its cognitive structures/features. Perhaps just as much as a neurosurgeon, but he isn’t trained in performing surgery, or other medical stuff, on the brain. Similarly, a neurosurgeon knows a lot about the brain and its cognitive structures/features, but isn’t trained in thinking philosophically about those features.
I get you, but I think the hard and fast lines that prevent cross disciplinary work are unnecessary and unhelpful. I get that there is no way to be a “specialist” at all these things, but I think historical work should be able to draw on colleagues as well.
I would also like to add, that I do not want to sell the historian short and say that she never touches the material culture. One of my professors of ancient history had gone on digs and had conducted other studies on the material culture of the near east. My other professor of ancient history had a lot of experience analyzing Roman mosaics and artwork in her studies.
Brian: I agree, while there are separate lines, historians tend to be very interdisciplinary while conducting their work— but what separates the historian is her reliance upon written sources.
I’m fine with that being the primary identification of historical work, as long as interdisciplinary approaches aren’t shunned. I think that is silly.
Rest assured, they are fully embraced 🙂
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