Monday, April 23, 2018

Modern historiography

I am glad to see that in one major way Mike and I agree about the Gospels. We agree that we cannot hold the Gospels to modern standards of accuracy, because if we do, the Gospels are not accurate. In Mike’s words, the Gospels are “flexible with details” and they are comparable to modern movies that employ extensive “artistic license.” I couldn’t agree more.

My sense is that when people today want to know whether the Gospels are historically accurate, what they want to know is this: Did the events that are narrated in the Gospels actually happen in the way the stories are told or not?

And so the natural question arises, as Mike himself raises it: What do we mean by historical accuracy? Let me tell you what I think most people mean. My sense is that when people today want to know whether the Gospels are historically accurate, what they want to know is this: Did the events that are narrated in the Gospels actually happen in the way the stories are told or not? People in general are interested in that basic question, not so much in the points that Mike raises. That is to say, people are not overly interested in the question of whether the Gospels stack up nicely in comparison with ancient biographers such as Plutarch and Suetonius. Of course they’re not interested in that. Most people have never read Plutarch and Suetonius. I’d venture to say that most Bible readers have never even heard of Plutarch or Suetonius, or if they have, it’s simply as some vague name of someone from the ancient world.

People don’t care much, as a rule, about other ancient biographers and their tactics when talking about the Bible. They are interested in the Bible. Is it accurate? For most people that means: Did the stories happen in the way they are described or not? If they did happen that way, then the stories are accurate. If they did not happen in that way, they are not.

If it were, however, important to talk about the relationship of the Gospels to such ancient authors, then it would be worth pointing out, as Mike knows full well, that Plutarch and Suetonius are themselves not thought of as historically reliable sources in the way that many people hope and want the Gospels of the New Testament to be. Both authors tell a lot of unsubstantiated anecdotes about the subjects of their biographies; they include scandalous rumors and hearsay; they shape their accounts in light of their own interests; and they are far less interested in giving abundant historically accurate detail than in making overarching points about the moral qualities of their characters. That is what Plutarch explicitly tells us he wants to do. He wants the lives that he describes to be models of behavior for his readers, and he shapes his stories to achieve that end. He is not concerned simply to give a disinterested historical sketch of what actually happened.

Mike thinks the Gospels are like Plutarch, and I completely agree. They are far more like Plutarch, and Suetonius, than they are like modern attempts at biography. In modern biographies, an author is concerned to make sure that everything told has been verified and documented and represents events as they really and truly happened. Ancient biographies, including the Gospels, are not at all like that.

i) Ehrman's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, there is some value in judging ancient historical/biographical writing by ancient standards. For instance, it's not erroneous for a writer to use round numbers. Since he wasn't aiming for exactitude, he can't fail to hit a target he wasn't aiming for. 

ii) However, I disagree with the popular contention that the Gospels and Acts operate with essentially different standards than modern historical/biographical writings. It's often said that the Gospels weren't merely history, but interpretive history. That's true, but it's hardly distinctive to the Gospels.

Good historians and biographers don't content themselves with giving a bare chronicle of events. Rather, they wish to explain what caused events. Why did the Roman Empire fall? That sort of thing. 

They consider different determinants. The motivations of human participants. Economic factors. Social dislocation due to famine or pandemic. And so forth. Modern biographies and history books are interpretive history no less than the Gospels or Acts.  

1 comment:

  1. On round numbers, I think the problem would arise if we were told that the "ancient standard" was that every number could be off by 10,000 (just making up an example), and that therefore it was "not erroneous" as long as it was within 10,000 of the real number. One would then be justified in saying, "Oh, very well, I won't call it 'erroneous' or say that the author was doing anything wrong, but I also won't be able to get very good information about how many people were present in any context where being off by thousands would make a significant difference to the concept of the event."

    So if the claim is that the "ancient standards" were such as to make many historical judgements that we are legitimately interested in impossible, then it isn't helpful to redefine "reliable" or some other word of the kind in order to "judge by ancient standards." In that sense, Ehrman is right. If the claims currently being made that turn the gospels and acts into the equivalent of biopics and historical novels were true, then we would need to give a different answer in talking *to one another* about whether or not they are reliable. After all, when I speak in English to another person, the word "reliable" has a certain meaning *between us*. So if someone else asks me, in English, whether a heavily fictionalized historical movie is historically reliable, I should tell him "no," even if the director of the movie was using some standard according to which he was close-enough-for-his-literary-purposes. That isn't what the other person is asking me. He's asking whether he can take the portrayal of an event in the movie (say) as a good reason to think the event really happened substantially as portrayed.

    So I do think that there is a lot of confusion involved in the way in which "reliability" is redefined by literary device theorists on the grounds that it is somehow "unfair" to do anything else, because they think they have discovered radically more leeway for fiction in ancient historical sources than in modern historical sources. If that were the case, then speaking with each other, we would have to say that these are not reliable sources.

    Fortunately, that isn't really the case for the gospels, though.