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Non-History in Torah

Posted by NT Wrong on September 29, 2008

“[V]irtually everything in Torah literature is talking about something other than what it purports to be talking about!”
– Baruch Levine, Numbers 21-36: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2000: 59.

Posted in Historiography, Pentateuch | Comments Off on Non-History in Torah

Resurrection: From Visionary Ascent to Vision Of Ascent

Posted by NT Wrong on September 26, 2008

In many early Christian texts, there is a curiously close connection between the complex of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and heavenly exaltation on one hand and the visionary ascension experiences of the authors who describe this complex on the other. For example:

    In The Ascension of Isaiah 6, Isaiah induces a trance that results in the separation of his visionary soul from his stationary body. David Halperin describes the scene as a “vivid and realistic-sounding account of a shamanistic trance”, which most probably reflects the author’s actual visionary experience(s) (Faces of the Chariot, 1988:66). The requirement for passwords during descent, physical transformation of the visionary into angelic form, and angelic opposition to human ascent all suggest a visionary experience. The Ascension of Isaiah alternates between the ascensions and transformations of the visionary ‘Isaiah’, and the ascension of Christ – a strong indication of the influence of the author’s visionary experiences on his depiction of the ascension of Christ.

    A wide range of visionary ascent motifs is again present in the Odes of Solomon, where Christ’s descent to Hades and ascent to heaven is celebrated in hymns or odes. Likewise, the visionary or odist experiences transformation into a heavenly figure, mystical union, ascension in a merkavah, avoidance of evils and dangers in ascent, and engages with an angelus interpres figure. All of this strongly suggests that the description of Christ’s victory of evil and ascent to heaven were created from visionary experiences which themselves involved overcoming evil in an ascent to heaven.

    The Revelation of John provides yet another mixture of visionary heavenly ascent with an account of Christ’s own ascent. In Revelation 4.1, John sees a “door opened in heaven”, and for the remainder of the book is “in the spirit”, experiencing a series of visions. John’s vision of his ascent to heaven involves a vision of Christ’s descent, defeat of Satan and ascent into heaven and exaltation (Revelation 12.1-9). In Revelation 1.13-18, John’s initial vision of the One like the Son of Man makes reference to his death providing freedom from Death and Hades.

David Catchpole contends that the first Synoptic account of Christ’s ascension, in Mark 16.1-8, is itself in the genre of a vision or epiphany, suggesting its original source in a visionary experience (“The Fearful Silence of the Women at the Tomb”, 1977). I argued that this provides a sound historical-critical understanding of how Mark 16.1-8 came to be written. As Jane Schaberg points out, many of the elements of an apocalyptic vision are present: an early morning time conducive to induction of visions, report of amazement, angelic calming, angelic message, commission to tell others, and resulting terror and silence (Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, 2003: 359). In addition, Christopher Rowland argues that the baptism, temptation and transfiguration all bear the mark of autobiographical visionary reports – the last of which, the transfiguration, has often been read as a form of resurrection account (The Open Heaven, 1982: 359).

In 2 Corinthians 12.2-4, Paul claims he could receive ecstatic visions that allowed him to travel even to the highest heaven, to uncover the secrets and mysteries that laid within that realm. The account refers to visions and revelations received from the Lord on his ascension to the third heaven or “Paradise”. In that place Paul heard heavenly secrets and mysteries, or αρρητα ρήματα (with assonance, “words that cannot be spoken”) or words ουκ εξоν ανθρώπω λαλησαι (“not permitted for a person to speak”). Paul believed that the visionary appearance of the post-resurrection Christ to him vindicated his equal status as apostle. Paul claims to “see” the resurrected Christ just as Jesus’ companions had seen him. Paul uses the same word (“see”) to describe resurrection appearances to himself that he does for the appearances to Jesus’ companions (Galatians 1.1; 1 Corinthians 9.1; 15.8-9). Given that the earliest understanding was the Jesus had appeared to apostles from heaven, the use of the same vocabulary is completely understandable. Furthermore, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul claims that his direct acquisition of knowledge by way of his personal visionary experiences provide a defence of his apostolic status (Galatians 1.1). Just as Jesus appeared from heaven to the other disciples, calling them to apostleship, now Paul believes that Jesus has appeared to him in the same way.

“Paul therefore does not distinguish between the kind of appearance made known to him and those made known to his forebears” (Alan Segal, Paul the Convert, 1990: 15).

Visionary experiences of ascent and descent constantly coincidence with the narrative descriptions of the ascended, victorious and exalted Christ in earliest Christianity. It is therefore very probable that such experiences greatly influenced the earliest conceptualisations of Christ’s own ascent and victory over the powers of evil.

From his examination of New Testament and other early Christian works, Timo Eskola finds that “[t]he writings of Jewish mysticism were exploited in the construction of early Christology” (Messiah and the Throne, 2001: 289). Early Jewish mysticism centred on ascension to the throne of God, that is, the merkavah. The Jewish mystical experiences can be traced back to the merkavah visions narrated in Ezekiel. For example, in the Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran, an unidentified person relates how he ascended to heaven in order to receive instruction, boasts of his exalted position above the angels, sits down on the heavenly throne, and believes he will be vindicated against his enemies. Philip Alexander concludes that the text, which was used hymnically to induce visionary experiences, demonstrates an active and ongoing practice of ascent and heavenly transformation in Qumran (Mystical Texts, 2006: 85-90). Given the Christian theme of exaltation by heavenly enthronement at the right hand of God, which was inseparably a part of resurrection and ascension to heaven in earliest Christianity, Eskola concludes, “Merkabah speculation is a most suitable environment for the description of Christ’s heavenly enthronement”. For example, the very vision of ‘Isaiah’ in which Ascension of Isaiah 6-11 is set provides “the context to which [exaltation Christology] originally belonged” (Messiah and the Throne, 286, 288). That is, these writings about heavenly exaltation and vindication of enemies were created by visionaries who had experienced very similar mystical experiences. The first visions were of an exalted Christ who had ascended to the throne of God. It follows that there is no real ’empty tomb’ or ‘stone in front of the tomb’ at this stage. Such details were only added when the visionary story of a heavenly ascended Christ was developed into a story of an earthly resurrected Christ.

So arguably, therefore, the development of Christian traditions about Christ’s resurrection and exaltation are most explicable as developing from the imaginative visionary ascent practices of Christians who wrote about Christ’s own ascent. Beginning with passages such as Daniel 12.1-2, Jewish ascent traditions made strong links between martyrdom/suffering, resurrection, ascent, and exaltation, astral and otherwise (Segal, “Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism”, 1980: 1369). The popular Christian apologetic — that the idea of an human ascending to heaven before the end-times is a ‘new idea’ which could only be conceived through a physical post-resurrection appearance — is therefore soundly refuted. Jesus’ claim to be the Enochic Son of Man, combined with his followers’ celebration of his death as victory over evil, and their visions of his ascension into glory all combined to produce a variant of Enochic Judaism now centred on Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian use of the martyrdom-ascension-visionary tradition involved a “real interplay” between the inherited Jewish pattern and the particular Christian visions and reflections concerning Jesus’ death and the particular claim he was the exalted Son of Man. In this way, traditional Jewish visionary practices of ascent and descent produced the Christian tradition of Christ’s own incarnational descent and ascent.

See also:
Part One: The Resurrection of Jesus as Mass Hallucination
Part Two: Women Witnesses – Visions of The Resurrection of Jesus

Posted in Early Christian literature, Early Jewish literature, Gospels, Historiography, Jesus & Christ | 1 Comment »

Israel? Palestine? Canaan? Syria-Palestine? Levant? Cisjordan?

Posted by NT Wrong on September 20, 2008

Hmmmmmm… what’s the best answer for this ol’ curly question?

What is the name that I should use to refer to the historical culture of the area south of Syria, north of the Sinai, and west of the Jordan, in the general time period 1200 – 600 BC? Sure, this has been endlessly debated before. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve still got to use one term or another in order to refer to it. Although, maybe I’m already assuming some level of cultural discreteness in the area which did not exist? Passing over that disturbing thought for the moment (while keeping it in mind), here’s the options:

‘Canaan’? Either anachronistic or too literary-ideological.

‘Israel’? Too literary-ideological, and way too ambiguous.

‘Palestine’? A bit anachronistic, and confusing given its predominant twenty-first century meaning.

‘Syria-Palestine’? I probably don’t want to get that far north – or is there not such a difference in historical culture and politics (eg Damascus and Samaria were allied against Judah)?

‘The Levant’? That’s a bit big (Egypt to Anatolia), although some of the more recent usage seems to exclude Egypt and Anatolia, thus making it equivalent to Syria-Palestine (still too big), yet oddly making the term ‘Levantine’ less applicable to the area. It’s too Western-orientated, too.

‘South-central Levant’? That probably fixes it geographically, more or less. It’s still loaded with an Occidental viewpoint, however. And lets face it, it’s an ugly term.

‘The Cisjordan’? This is probably the same area, geographically, as the ‘South-central Levant’. And we’ve got rid of the Occidental bias. By defining things solely in geographically terms, the politics is largely excluded (although, never completely eradicated, because the boundaries are still political). This may be a problem if the political entity or cultural ties are closer to the Transjordan (was Judah closer to Moab than Samaria?), or extend northwards or southwards. One problem is that it doesn’t have very much common usage. But that shouldn’t stop academic usage.

I think ‘the Cisjordan’ wins.

But please suggest others for my consideration!

Posted in Historiography | 9 Comments »

James McGrath on the Historical Study of the Burial of Jesus

Posted by NT Wrong on September 19, 2008

“Historical study is a different sort of approach from the one that many religious believers adopt when they encounter different accounts in the Bible. For instance, when the Gospels tell the same story, but in different ways, what a historian does is not simply blend the details together, from these various accounts, but compare them, look for signs of development, of change. And often historians will conclude that one is more reliable than the others. And if we think about the instance of the burial of Jesus, one example of this, a place where the Gospels seem to differ, and provide different information that one cannot simply harmonize – a good example is found in the differences between Mark’s gospel (which most scholars think is the earliest) and John’s gospel (which is often dated as one of the latest, if not the latest of the gospels in the New Testament) … ”
– James McGrath, author of The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith (2008)

See James McGrath’s full explanation on the YouTube video (5:17). He also has a blog on his new book here.

Posted in Gospels, Historiography, Jesus & Christ, Video | Comments Off on James McGrath on the Historical Study of the Burial of Jesus

Is the Secular Exclusion of Divine Explanations for History as Biased as Supernaturalistic Historiography?

Posted by NT Wrong on September 13, 2008

Sometimes Christians object that it is just as biased to reject ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations for the life of Jesus as it is to allow such explanations in one’s historiography.

A recent example comes from Jim West — that is, the prolific biblioblogger of that name, not the author of a recent travel-book on queer underground culture in Beijing. We understand they are different people.

Anyway, Jim West, the biblioblogger, recently said this:

“Is not the a priori exclusion of the possibility of divine activity in the human sphere just as prejudiced a viewpoint as that of the evangelical who insists that there is only one explanation for the Church; ie, divine activity?”

The context of Jim West’s rhetorical question is a response to James Crossley’s portion of a soon-to-be-released co-authored book on Jesus, the resurrection, and the origins of the early church, How Did Christianity Begin?

As phrased, Jim West’s point is undoubtedly true. If one excludes certain historical reconstructions from consideration on a priori grounds, then, that is undoubtedly as biased as any other a priori exclusion of possible explanations. It would be like a historian of Haitian colonisation consciously refusing to consider local Haitian viewpoints, but only considering the viewpoints of the colonisers. Such an approach would be obviously prejudiced and untrustworthy. And that’s why no good historian proceeds in such a fashion. In fact, what Jim West has described is not a credible scholarly method of historiography.

But those historians who reject supernaturalistic explanations don’t simply apply a priori reasoning. This is why Jim West’s criticism — a criticism, the tu quoque criticism, which is a very common apologetic criticism — is simply inapplicable. The basis for rejecting ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations is not in fact out-of-court and a priori — it is an attempt to arrive at the best explanation of the available facts. Having reviewed a large body of historical data from many places and many times, historians have consistently concluded that the better explanations involve a complex of social-historical factors. The best explanation of the victory of the Britons over the Romans involves the declining power of the Romans, not the supernatural powers of ‘Arthur’ or ‘Merlin’. The best explanation of the rise of Hitler involves certain social and political reasons between the two World Wars together with certain ideological developments of the time — and such an explanation is sufficient, so that any talk of an ‘evil power’ is nonsense. Time and again, historical investigations provide sufficient explanations in terms of mundane quotidian explanations, making otiose any additional ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations.

So, the old chestnut, ‘you’re biased too, because you reject supernaturalistic explanations out of court, on a priori grounds’ is demonstrably untrue. The rejection of supernaturalistic explanations in historiography is the result of a long build-up of explanations for the human and natural world that have rendered supernaturalistic explanations redundant. In other words, there is nothing ‘a priori’ (deductive) in the method at all. The method is abductive; establishing which types of explanations best and most economically fit the facts.

Ordinary mundane socio-political factors provide sufficient historical explanations for British history (without positing a magical Merlin), for Judean history (without positing a god who directs history), for the origin of the early Islamic empire (without positing an Allah who directs history), for the rise of the United States (without positing some ‘Manifest Destiny’), etc, etc. Sure, true believers will always be able to claim that the history in which they have a vested interest is unique in a way that fundamentally distinguishes it from all other reality. But in doing so, they have to counter the weight of historical and scientific explanation. Now, that is real ‘bias’.

Update: I just spotted James Crossley’s reply to Scot McKnight, which is on a similar parallel to this post, but is much more entertaining.

Posted in Early Christian literature, Gospels, Historiography, Jesus & Christ | 7 Comments »

The Reality: Archaeology Can, and Does, Disprove the Bible

Posted by NT Wrong on September 7, 2008

In a recent review of Lester Grabbe’s Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?, Brian B. Schmidt offers some compelling arguments for why archaeology can, and does, disprove the Bible:

“One issue that repeatedly comes up for mention in [Grabbe’s] Ancient Israel, and one that has proven to be a nagging point of ambivalence for the present reviewer, is the due recognition to be attributed to archaeology’s impact on recent historical investigations into early Israel. In the reams of secondary literature now available on the topic, one can find Grabbe’s shared sentiment that archaeology cannot ‘prove’ one scenario or another (23; somewhat surprisingly, such sentiment has been expressed in one form or another from several perspectives represented in the contemporary historical debates pertaining to early Israel, whether maximalist, minimalist, moderate, or otherwise). While the term ‘prove’ itself indeed proves to be rather elusive when left unqualified, it is often the case that under the same cover an author who disregards the provability of archaeology will (unwittingly?) demonstrate in another context, often by means of a survey of the historical or biblical or Syro-Palestinian archaeology or by offering the conclusion that archaeology has in fact been the deciding factor or linchpin in the transformation of how Israelite history is done in contemporary scholarship, that archaeology has indeed offered historians ‘proofs’ of one sort or another.

For example, Grabbe follows the general consensus that in a post-1975 historians’ world, the ‘patriarchal world’ is no longer interpreted historically by the vast majority (23; with the exception perhaps of the neo-fundamentalists and fundamentalists whom Grabbe describes on 21-23) and that the related biblical narratives themselves do not contain reliable, extensive historical recollections of the events or persons contained therein (yet, perhaps they contain isolated, and one might add, recontextualized, snippets of ancient historical data and/or memories?). Well, for all these winds of change which have decisively blown through the last three decades of scholarship on the patriarchal age, what did we come to know, and how did we come to know it? As Grabbe notes, we came to know that the patriarchal stories are comprised of a more pervasive legendary character, and we came to know that legendary character over the course of [the] latter half of the twentieth century by means of the growing archaeological data base accompanied by a newly emergent interpretive framework for that data base and one independent of the former, rather narrowly reconstructed, pseudo-biblical constraints. For the vast majority of historians, archaeology has presented us with the unavoidable conclusion that the world imagined in the biblical narratives pertaining to the patriarchs is not the second millennium BCE world of the ancient Near East, though the biblical text might preserve, whether inadvertently or by design, isolated relics of that age. Archaeology and the biblical text simply parted ways on matters of a broad historical orientation. The biblical texts were simply composed as something other than history.

This begs the question: Did not archaeology ‘prove’ something here — or at least make a compelling argument for overturning the traditional, rather restrictive imposition of the biblical framework on the interpretation of material cultural data? Did it not ‘prove’ that older notions regarding the generic affinities formerly attributed to the patriarchal narratives were inadequately based on the assumed historicity of those stories? Has archaeology not also ‘proven’ in some meaningful sense of the term that the issue when analyzing a biblical text should not be the text’s historical reliability or unreliability (as if those were our only two possible choices) but simply the text’s generic affinities (e.g. if a specific text possesses pronounced mythical or legendary elements as [one of?] its dominant literary generic affinities, why should the question of its historical reliability of unreliability even be raised)? If there remains a relevant question of a historical orientation for a particular text whose generic proclivities do not point in the direction of historiography, would it not be more appropriately one concerned with the potential ’embeddedness’ of isoated historical data?”

Posted in Archaeology, Historiography | Comments Off on The Reality: Archaeology Can, and Does, Disprove the Bible

The Myth: ‘Archaeology cannot prove/disprove the Bible’

Posted by NT Wrong on September 7, 2008

There’s an erroneous commonplace of both scholarly and apologetic literature, which is shared both by minimalists and maximalists. The myth is that Archaeology does not ‘prove’ (or conversely does not ‘disprove’) the Bible. Often this is stated even more strongly, as an a priori: Archaeology cannot prove or disprove the Bible.

Here’s some representative propagators of this myth:

“In my first class in archaeology I was taught that archaeology can prove the Bible, and I believe there has been a general agreement that archaeology cannot prove the Bible.”
– David Merling, ‘The Relationship between Archaeology and the Bible: Expectations and Reality’. Pages 29-42 in James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard, eds, The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions. Eerdmans, 2004: 32.

“archaeology cannot prove the Bible either, in terms of confirming what happened or especially what the words meant.”
– Leo G. Perdue, The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible, Blackwell, 2001: xviii.

“Archaeology is interesting as far as it goes. However, the Bible is a record of God’s relationship with human beings, and archaeology cannot prove God’s part in any historical event.”
– Benjamin Edidin Scolnic, If the Egyptians Drowned in the Red Sea Where Are Pharaoh’s Chariots?: Exploring the Historical Dimension of the Bible. University Press of America, 2005: 46.

“archaeology by definition cannot ‘prove’ the Bible’s theological interpretation of events, can at best only comment on the likelihood of the events in question having happened historically. But, if it is any comfort to believers, archaeology, by the same token, cannot disprove the Bible’s assertion of the meaning of events.”
– William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel. Eerdmans, 2003: 282.

The myth is a myth because:
1. it relies on a vague or inapplicable definition of ‘proof’, and
2. it is simply not true: archaeology does disprove the Bible’s history and theology.

Posted in Archaeology, Historiography | Comments Off on The Myth: ‘Archaeology cannot prove/disprove the Bible’

Review of Biblical Literature – September 6, 2008

Posted by NT Wrong on September 5, 2008

Let’s have a look at what’s come up in the Review of Biblical Literature over the last month or so that could be of interest…

Boer, Roland, editor, Bakhtin and Genre Theory in Biblical Studies (2007)

This very good collection of essays includes contributions from John Anderson, Roland Boer, Martin J. Buss, Judy Fentress-Williams, Christopher Fuller, Barbara Green, Bula Maddison, Carleen Mandolfo, Christine Mitchell, Carol A. Newsom, David M. Valeta, and Michael Vines. There’s interesting applications of Bakhtinian genre-theory to illustrate the usefulness of Bakhtin’s reformulation. Gunkel commented on the volume, in an exclusive interview with the N. T. Wrong Blog: ‘Vell, ve vould have gone about it in a more disciplined vay, but nevertheless, this book is sehr gut!”

Grabbe, Lester L., Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (2007)

Brian Schmidt reviews Lester Grabbe’s latest, a “prolegomena” to a history of Israel. (Is anything further possible, nowadays?) The Deveresque subtitle of Grabbe’s book is a good description of the content, and Grabbe examines a good number of the available methods: social science, archaeology, longue durée, ethnicity, ideology, new fundamentalist approaches, maximalists and minimalists, and the name-calling and shenanigans in what is the most heated topic in Hebrew Bible studies. Grabbe offers methodological principles for history writing. Reviewer Brian Schmidt makes some wise comments about the — at best ambiguous, probably simply wrong — commonplace that ‘archaeology cannot disprove the bible’. Schmidt’s comments on ‘Canaanite’ and ‘literacy’ are also valuable.

Metso, Sarianna, The Serekh Texts (2007)

From the author of The Textual Development of the Qumran Community Rule (1997), an examination of the various scrolls of Serekh ha-yachad, with discussion of their relation to CD also. The volume forms part of the ‘Companion to the Qumran Scrolls’ series.

Tischler, Nancy M., Thematic Guide to Biblical Literature (2007)

This looks like a handy guide to the use of biblical themes in Western literature. The reception of biblical themes is arranged topically: (1) Creation, (2) Earthly paradise, (3) Nature, (4) Animals and humans, (5) Temptation and Sin, (6) God’s Love, Human Response, (7) Friends and Family, (8) Love and Marriage, (9) The Hero, (10) Women as Heroes, (11) The journey of life, (12) Slavery and Freedom, (13) War, (14) Good people, (15) Justice, (16) Government and Politics, (17) Predestination and Free Will, (18) Truth, (19) Death and Afterlife, (20) Last Days. According to the reviewer, the book examines how different people have struggled with these broad questions. In confining itself to ‘Western’ literature, early Jewish and Rabbinic literature is not covered.

Rake, Mareike, “Juda wird aufsteigen!”: Untersuchungen zum ersten Kapitel des Richterbuches (2006)

Klaas Spronk provides a very good review of this book. Rake provides a historical-critical analysis of Judges 1-2, in a book based on her dissertation. She provides a “thorough survey” of theories of development, before offering her own radical reconstruction of the text, which allows her to reverse the majority opinion of influence — she concludes that Joshua is dependent on Judges 1-2, although the direction of influence is complex and uncertain.

Pruin, Dagmar, Geschichten und Geschichte: Isebel als literarische und historische Gestalt

This book analyses the different Jezebel traditions in the Bible and its reception, and also attempts to retrace the development behind the stories.

Younger Jr., K Lawson, editor, Ugarit at Seventy-Five (2007)

The papers derive from the Midwest Regional meetings of the American Oriental Society at Trinity International University (Deerfield, Illinois), in February 2005 — which was held to commemorate the 75th anniversay of the discovery of Ugarit (Ras Shamra). The first five essays deal with the Ugaritic texts. Mark Smith looks at various aspects of Ugaritic religion. Dennis Pardee looks at RIH 98/02 (discovered in 1998), a song to Attartu with parallels to Exod 15 and Judg 5. Nic Wyatt discusses the divinity of kings. Wayne Pitard discusses the monsters Anat fought in the Baal Myth. Pierre Bourdreuil looks at new texts from the House of Urtenu, including some new data on the rapi’uma/rephaim. The last three papers deal with archaeological or historical issues, including a survey of the evidence for the origins of the Arameans by K. Lawson Younger.

Posted in Archaeology, Biblical interpretation, Books, Criticism, Dead Sea Scrolls, Historical Books, Historiography, Reception, Ugaritic | Comments Off on Review of Biblical Literature – September 6, 2008

What is the word for taking everything literally?

Posted by NT Wrong on August 29, 2008

Looking, as I regularly do, at search terms which landed at this blog, I found that somebody had searched for:

They found a quote by James Barr, that late, great iconoclast of being literal.

And so — just what is the word for ‘taking everything literally’? Probably the best word you could use is the following:

    provanlonglongmanise /pruv-an-lawng-lawng-muhn-nahyz/ verb
    to provide an elaborate literalistic paraphrase of a text, which falsely purports to provide a scholarly assessment of it

I trust that will be of assistance in future searches.

Posted in Biblioblogs, Historiography | 1 Comment »

The Historical Arthur and The Historical Jesus

Posted by NT Wrong on August 29, 2008

King Arthur has a big place in British history-writing. The Historia Brittonum (AD 829/830) by ‘Ninnius’ tells the story of how the Anglo-Saxons dispossessed the native British (Welsh). A section on Arthur relates twelve of Arthur’s victories, including Castle Guinnion and Badon Hill. Arthur is described as dux bellorum (“commander in the battles”). In addition, the Annales Cambriae (AD 953-954) chronicles events from the fifth century onwards, and is sourced in Irish chronicles, yet interweaves seven events about Arthur, which are presented as historical. Arthur is also central to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous early history of Britain, The History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1136).

But the earlier De excidio (ca 450-560), penned by Gildas, provides a narration of the same Saxon-Briton wars mentioned in these later texts. The battles climax with the famous battle at Badon Hill, which the later histories describe as Arthur’s great victory.

However, there is no mention of Arthur whatsoever by Gildas.

Today, it is widely agreed that there was no historical Arthur who in any way corresponds to the Arthur of later myth-historiography. That is, even if there were a person named Arthur who fought in the Saxon-Briton wars, we just don’t know anything about him.

As Ronald Hutton summarises:

“The most rational conclusion to be drawn from them, perhaps, is that there is some slight reason to believe in a historical Arthur even if very little can be said about him.”
Witches, Druids, and King Arthur 2003: 42

The lesson here for those who approach the stories of ‘David’ or ‘Jesus’ as ‘historical’ texts is clear. We shouldn’t be accepting stories which have a dominant interest in theological-religious viewpoints as ‘historiography’ in the first place. If there’s any historical elements in the stories, these need to be appraised in light of a careful evaluation of the facts, according to modern historical standards. Now, the best explanation of the facts might well be that aspects of the stories are factual. But, as Arthur historiography demonstrates, it is most unwise to proceed with an assumption of historicity.

Even when the Arthur stories had been proved to be entirely, or almost entirely, legendary, some popular historians continued to ignore it. Such scholars are the ‘Provan, Long & Longmans’ of Arthurian scholarship. One famous Arthurian scholar, who steadfastly defended the historical Arthur in the face of infidels was a modern druid — by the name of Winston Churchill. Here’s what Churchill says about the Arthurian legends:

“True or false, they have gained an immortal hold upon the thoughts of men. It is difficult to believe it was all an invention of a Welsh writer. If it was he must have been a marvellous inventor.”
– Winston S. Churchill. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Vol 1: The Birth of Britain. London: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1956: 46.

Churchill makes the classic argument of the believer-historian: ‘I just can’t see how it can’t be true’. Or ‘if you don’t believe this, you must be mad‘. The following evaluation from Churchill well demonstrates how a believer-historian can be carried along by his own beliefs (in his case, jingoism) so as to disregard the facts:

“In this account [Churchill’s] we prefer to believe that the story with which Geoffrey delighted the fiction-loving Europe of the twelfth century is not all fancy. If we could see exactly what happened we should find ourselves in the presence of a theme as well founded, as inspired, and as inalienable from the inheritance of mankind as the Odyssey or the Old Testament. It is all true, or it ought to be”
– Winston S. Churchill. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Vol 1: The Birth of Britain. London: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1956: 46.

Damn, that’s a funny quote.

Although I won’t go into my reasons here, I disclose that I think there is practically nothing about the biblical David which corresponds to any real person in the past. I also think that some of the ideas about Jesus in the canonical gospels and other early Christian writings correspond to some real Galilean apocalyptic-Enochian religious leader. For various reasons, I consider a historical figure called Jesus best and most economically accounts for the complex data in the Gospel. But, at the same time, I reject any claim that any such historiographical conclusion is ever “100% undeniable”. The historicity of works which are overtly religious, such are the Gospels, are unlikely to get anywhere near 100% reliable (generally speaking from my reading of religious texts). Moreover, in the specific case of Jesus, there is much which is untrue, unhistorical, false, etc. Ask any resurrected saint, and he’ll tell you most of the stuff is made up. Hutton’s estimation of the historicity of King Arthur materials holds also for King David, and I conclude that a few more basic facts can be established about Jesus.

There is one more lesson to be taken from Arthurian scholarship, again from the words of Ronald Hutton. He comments that the earlier, less critical historians and archaeologists chose to follow the legend of King Arthur. In so doing, they created:

“an enormous bubble of mythologizing. When this burst it was replaced by a triumphant scepticism which itself looks suspiciously like an emotional reaction.”
Witches, Druids, and King Arthur 2003: 43

So, there’s a stab both at the gullibility of the Provan, Long & Longmans of this world and the easy scepticism of Wells & Dohertys as well. Although scepticism is sometimes quite warranted (and open-minded questioning is always warranted), the nature of the particular text must be carefully evaluated for its historical value, if any.

Posted in Historiography, Jesus & Christ | 7 Comments »