Posts Tagged ‘Historiography’

This afternoon I led a seminar for the post grads at Trinity College, Bristol. I ahve put the powerpoint on the blog as it conatins some interestign Wright and Pitre quotes on exile.


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Just been reading the opening chapter of McKnight’s Jesus and his Death

I seek to follow a method known as critical realism which seeks to avoid the pitfalls of a modernist approach whilst not allowing a full postmodern position such as that espoused by Keith Jenkins.

McKnight offers this summary of the two positions.

“If the postmodernist, someone like Jenkins, wants to usurp the Object with the Subject by contending that history is narrative, history is rhetoric, and history is ideology, the modernist wants to blanket the Subject and find the Object, pure and simple and untouched, and build on the disinterested knowledge for a better world. Let this be said before we go further: what the modernist wants to do cannot be achieved in its pure form’ page 19

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Historical Method: Hypothesis and Verification

Knowledge of the past is achieved through a method of hypothesis and verification. A hypothesis s: ‘is essentially a construct, thought up by a human mind, which offers itself as a story about a particular set of phenomena, in which the story, which is bound to be an interpretation of those phenomena also offers an explanation of them.’1 For a hypothesis to be a good hypothesis, and receive verification, it must

  1. must include all the data

  2. must construct a basically simple and coherent overall picture

  3. prove itself fruitful in other areas

For Wright the ‘inclusion of data is ultimately the more important of the two criteria’2.

I want to ask, Can we ever include all the data?

A good hypothesis will find verfication from the data. Yet a hypothesis, about anything, cannot make sense of all the data, but makes sense of a selection of the data. This may be illustrated with the example of a detective looking for evidence in a house robbery. A detective may develop a hypothesis about the burglar which includes some data including footprints, a broken window. However bright, methodological or scientific this detective is she cannot include all of the data,but only needs to include the relevant data. The complexity of life, objects and historical artefacts, cannot be be known in totality, nor do we need to have all data available before us before a judgement. Wright is wrong to say that a hypothesis must include all the data for the establishment of data, in an exhaustive sense, is an infinite task. We simply can do history, whether it be historical Jesus research or WWII, without knowing the full, or even the knowable, arithmetic, spatial, kinematic, physical, biotic, sensitive, analytic, historical, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical or pistic aspects3. In historical Jesus research we may say off hand that we must include all the data, but we quickly realise that we simply mean the relevant data. For instance we may say Jesus must be understood against the geographical backdrop of Galilee4 yet this not mean that we need to pursue to a full extent topological and biotic data.

Wright accepts that the ‘stack of data to be included is vast and bewildering5 and accepts that ‘seeing and assembling the data is a monstrous task’. 6 This assembling, surely involves selection, which brings with it, even at the data level, an amount of subjectivity, for what is relevant data to one community is irrelevant to another.

1NT&POG 99

2NT&POG 105

3Particularly helpful in this regard is the theory of modal aspects developed by Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven.

5NT&POG 100

6NT&POG 101

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N.T. Wright seeks to apply the insights of Critical Realism to the task of doing history which brings with it its own epistemological challenges.

History, which is understood by Wright as the what people write about what happened in the real world, is understood as a ‘kind of knowledge’ which neither proceeds down the road of simply giving bare facts, nor does it fall into the wayside of subjectivity. Instead the task of history is the ‘meaningful narrative of events and intentions’.1

Wright rejects both the ‘pre critical’ and the ‘chastened positivist’ approaches to historiography. These are represented, by Wright, diagrammaticality


Observer                Evidence                 Past Event

———>             ———–>

simply looking at the evidence…..and having direct access to the ‘facts’

N.T Wright is not original in his critique of a pre theoretical or a positivist approach as these matters have long been discussed in courses and books on historiography. E.H Carr, in one of the standard texts for those who are interested in historiography, comments, and then critiques, this ‘common-sense view of history’.

History consist of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fish monger’s slab. The historian collects them, take them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him’ 2

There is simply no uninterpreted history,

‘The myth of uninterpreted history functions precisely as a myth in much modern discourse -that is, it expresses an ideal state of affairs which we imagine erroneously to exist, and which influences the way we think and speak. But it is a ‘myth’, in the popular sense for all that. ‘ 3

All mainstream, as opposed to fundamentalists, schoalrs would reject the pre-critical view of historiography but may still adopt a more sophisticated positvist viewpoint, which differs from the pre-critical in the sifting of evidence.


Observer Evidence Past events

———–> ————->

looking at the evidence, sifting it


rejecting some bits


and accepting others

This approach, however, is a dream and does not take into account the subjectivity of the knower. In Historical Jesus research the criteria approach resembles the positivist approach. I offer the following explanatory diagram.

Observer Jesus Tradition ‘Real Jesus’

———–> ————->

Putting the ‘Jesus Tradition’ through a series of criterion


rejecting some bits


and accepting others

For Wright the path of history is to be arrived at by a recognition of the valid role of subjectivity for all history involves selection, a spiral of knowledge in which interpreter and source dialogue. There is no neutral position in which the historian can simply arrive at knowledge or fact for all historians have a point of view, and all histories involve interpretation through a particular set of lenses.4 Wright offers the following summary of his historiographical approach,

‘History, then, is real knowledge, of a particular sort. It is arrived at, like all, knowledge, by the spiral of epistemology, in which the story-telling human community launches enquiries, forms provisional judgements about which stories are likely to be successful in answering those enquiries, and then tests these judgements by further interaction with data.’ 5

1NT&POG 81

2What is History? 9 The positivist position is defended by Leopold Von Ranke ‘You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was.”

3 NT&POG 85, ‘the Myth of Objective Data or of Presuppositionalist History, and the purpose of my present argument is to challenge it, there is in fact no such thing as ‘mere history’. There are data. Manuscripts exist, even very ancient ones. Coins and archaeological data are available. From these we can know quite a lot about the ancient world, with a good a knowledge as we have of anything else at all. But in order even to collect manuscripts manuscripts and coins, let alone read, translate or organise them into editions or collections, we must engage in ‘interpretation’…My present point is simply that all history is interpreted history’ NT&POG 88 ‘Intellectual honesty consists not in forcing an impossible neutrality, but admitting that neutrality is not possible’ NT&POG 89

4NT&POG 86-92

5NT&POG 109, It is worth reading Wright’s definition alongside Keith Jenkins ‘Re-thinking History’ : ‘History is a shifting, problematic discourse, ostensibly about an aspect of the world, the past, that is produced by a group of present -minded workers (overwhelmingly in our culture salaried historians) who go about their work in mutually recognisable ways that are epistemologically, methodologically, ideologically and practically positioned and whose products, once in circulation, are subject to a series of uses and abuses that are logically infinite but which in actuality generally correspond to a range of power bases that exist at any given moment and which structure and distribute the meanings of histories along a dominant marginal spectrum.’ 26, For Keith Jenkins history is about ‘power’, for Wright ‘knowledge’ and for Von Ranke ‘telling what really happened’.

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Postmodernity and New Testament History- Jon Swales

Over the last few days I have been trying to write a short essay on baptism in the early church. I wrote  a first draft and then became every aware that I was being a ‘naive realist’ in approaching the primary sources. I was simply assuming that I could read the text and using ‘pure reason’ could put the pieces together to form an authentic narrative. Obviously I was mistaken with my modernist arrogance so I re-started the essay recognising that a modern or postmodern epistemology simply won’t ‘cut the mustard’. (err! where does that expression come from’.)

Here is the opening paragraphs of an essay I did a few years at Sheffield on the topic of

Postmodernity and New Testament History- Jon Swales (For the full essay just click the link)

Postmodernity and New Testament History

Postmodernity, whether we like it or not, cannot be ignored. Perhaps this is because it permeates the culture around us and has displayed itself through Art and Architecture for some years. Perhaps, also, it is because, during the last 25 years, it seems to have stood knocking at the door of every academic department. Many academic disciplines, it seems, opened the door to postmodernity years ago, particularly in the areas of philosophy and literature criticism, and welcomed its arrival, while others just wait for it to go away. It is my view that, before opening the door to postmodernism, we should at first see who it is, if possible, that is knocking. Although I am aware that whilst we stand puzzled, asking ‘who is this figure who stands knocking?’, its influence is already being felt within all academic communities.

My task in this paper will be to critically analyse the influence and character of postmodernity, and to look at what impact this may have on the writing of history, particularly the writing of New Testament (N.T) history. It may be helpful to define what I mean by N.T history. N.T History is the product of a historian who has sought to construct a narrative of Christian origins using the N.T text as a source. I will approach this task by discussing four distinct areas that seek to show how (a) ‘modern historiography’ is being challenged, by (b) postmodern approaches. I will then try to show, sharing company with leading historians, what the (c) strengths and weaknesses of postmodernity are. The closing part of this paper will seek to (d) relate these insights to the specific subject of N.T history.

a) Modern Historiography

Postmodernity is a movement that is very difficult to define1, however, as the word suggests, it is a movement that seeks to distance itself from modernism. At the risk of painting a caricature of ‘modernist historiography’2 we can describe it as an approach to writing history which includes the following traits; i) realism ii) empiricism and iii) objectivity

For the full essay click here.

Postmodernity and New Testament History- Jon Swales

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