Comment: Limits of History

Historians tell stories about events in the past, events occurring in actual times and places. All historical stories are reconstructions of events from physical evidence and oral histories set within interpreted causal frameworks. Though answering ‘why’ is popular by historians today, this is controversial with some (David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, 1971) and sometimes challenged as going too far, being too speculative. Ultimately the cautionary note for readers is to be aware that these stories are products of the particular historians as well as the events they seek to cover. So we must consider the historical accounts as probabilistic by nature rather than declarations of certainty. Frustratingly for those seeking the ‘truth’, we can have two or more quite contradictory and but plausible explanations for the same series of events from equally respected historians. Perhaps the first ban in history should be on the word ‘truth’ and its associated question ‘what really happened?’ Or, at least, give them nuanced understandings different to our everyday usages. If we can never know in any absolute or definitive sense, what keeps us separate from the past?

Consider the search for the historical Jesus, a person living some 2000 years ago in the Middle East. We can only reconstruct Jesus as the man of history from physical evidence – surviving texts and archaeological finds, and our reconstructions must necessarily be schematic at best. Historians talk of primary sources, those most closely connected to the events in question. We could use written texts from participants or observers even physical remains, such as the gun used in an assassination. Closely related secondary sources like newspaper reports of the time or official reports from investigations can add depth with more immediate interpretations. In the case of Jesus we have no contemporaneous sources. Jesus left no writings: his literacy is still an area of dispute. For many Christians, it’s hard to imagine that the Jesus of faith – the only Son of God – could have been illiterate. We have found no writings by his immediate followers, those who knew him directly. We have found no government records of Jesus, execution records, birth records, and so on. The earliest writings about Jesus that we have are later copies of Paul’s letters to his fledgling Christian communities written some thirty years after his death. Paul acknowledged that he never met the historical Jesus. In fact, Paul offered only a passing reference to Jesus as a man: his interest was with Jesus as Christ, the risen lord. Even when the sayings of Jesus were relevant to his argument with his communities, Paul was silent, preferring to use earlier Jewish scripture. He showed little interest in or knowledge of the historical Jesus. Our earliest full copies of Paul’s writings are some 400 years later from manuscripts like Codex Alexandrinus, fifth century document.
Our only real evidence for the historical Jesus comes from our scholarly reconstructions of the first four books of the New Testament, the gospels, supplemented by some non-canonical writings like the Gospel of Thomas. Again our fullest physical sources, mostly complete texts, are from some 400 years after his death. Unfortunately the gospels are of unknown authorship written in unknown locations some forty and eighty years after his death. For the record, the New Testament gospels are considered by virtually all scholars as anonymous with apostolic attributions given later for authority.Though broadly biographical in style they were really proclamations of faith – essentially Christian propaganda – for local Christian communities. Today most scholarly effort is with dissecting these texts in light of the archaeological finds from the Middle East. Not surprisingly, the question ‘who was Jesus’ needs to be replaced by many plausible Jesus reconstructions derived (creatively) from a paucity of physical evidence. Not surprisingly, critics – conservative and skeptical – argue that Jesus scholars find the Jesus of their liking, a man from personal speculation as much as from historical research.
So are all historical reconstructions of equal value? I am not taking a post-modernist view of value equality. Like the sciences, historians argue out the relative merits of their different analyses. Internal coherence of the arguments; correspondence to the physical evidence; and reasonableness of the model presented of human capability and motivations in the constructed historical context are argued. Historical evidence is often in the footnotes.
What about miracles? This is a vexed question for people dominated by religious faith. Unfortunately, for them, historical research is a naturalistic process and as such most historians reject miracle claims even if they can find no other explanations. Typically three reasons are sighted. Firstly, people today cannot walk on water unaided so there is no reason to believe they could have done that in the past: that’s the argument from analogy. Secondly, if you accept one miracle claim, you really need to accept them all as there is no ‘physical’ test to differentiate one miracle claim from another, by definition. So Christians who readily accept the virgin birth would also need to accept the miracle claims associated with the birth of Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome. Finally, historical research can already be problematic, weighing the possibilities of sparse evidence without including the possibility of improbable or physically impossible acts. Most historians prefer to leave that to the theologians.
Historical research has produced powerful and controversial conclusions. But like all human intellectual endeavour it is limited by our human capabilities and perceptions. We are locked on our own world-views. A god-like view of truth must necessarily restricted to the divine.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Jesus, Christians, and Pliny

Around 110 CE Emperor Trajan appointed Pliny the Younger, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, as Governor of Bithynia-Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey. He was to investigate financial and administrative problems and deal with political unrest. Pliny was a successful middle-ranking bureaucrat from the Equestrian order, the lower of the two aristocratic classes, below that of Patricians. Remarkably, Pliny collected many of his letters and responses, made over his lifetime to friends, superiors, and juniors whom he encouraged. His letters were organised as a series of books in which number ten contained official correspondence with Trajan, where Pliny sought administrative advice during his time in Bithynia-Pontus.

One such problem was dealing with Christians. Pliny told Trajan that Christians, who were recognised as a problem elsewhere in the empire, prayed to a Christ as a form of divinity. Some had been worshipping so for some twenty years. He discussed their religious practices of praying in morning followed by a later common meal on fixed days. Pliny noted that they were otherwise law-abiding. Though Christians were disliked and distrusted by Roman authorities and the society in general, Trajan rejected systematic persecution, especially based on unsubstantiated claims.

What do these letters provide us? Mostly they offer a wonderful look at the administrative concerns and processes of early second century Roman empire. However the two letters, reproduced below, showed there were groups, identified as Christians, who worshipped Christ as a form of a god. The letters was written around 111CE with Pliny dating some of their worshipping up to twenty years previous. We need to remember that Paul, according to orthodox Christian traditions, evangelised throughout this area some 50 to 60 years before. He had a similar message of Christ as god. However these letters say nothing of the historical Jesus; only people believed in his divinity 80 years after his death.

A more interesting question is why Christians beliefs and practices were considered illegal by the Roman authorities? Unlike Christian and Jewish beliefs, the dominant pagan religions of the empire were polytheistic, usually accepting and modifying gods with different origins, like Greek, Roman, and Egyptian. Unlike today, religions emphasised ritual practices towards the gods rather the acceptance of correct beliefs. Life was precariousness 2000 years ago with common-place occurrences, like tooth absences, being death sentences and, so, protection of the gods was of prime importance.

Communities had to be particularly careful to appease the local city gods to ensure the city’s well-being. Regular public festivals were for precisely that purpose and everyone was expected to attend. Not doing so would be like Americans today refusing to take the pledge of allegiance. Ironically Christians were, in some respects, similar to followers of other eastern mystery religions: they typically believed in salvation through special knowledge and cultic practices Even though these mystery religions were of great fascination to Romans, the Christians were different. Their religious practices were exclusive and, more importantly, they would not participate in the public religious festivals. Local communities resented Christians and feared the consequences of insulting the city gods and, not surprisingly, most persecutions came from broader communities than from official actions.

Alex McCullie

Free download – letters of Pliny the Younger (Project Gutenberg)

(Letters below – I separated sentences for easier reading.)



To the Emperor Trajan

It is my invariable rule, Sir, to refer to you in all matters where I feel doubtful; for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informing my ignorance?

Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them.

Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to ages, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon; or if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in great doubt.

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this: I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be at once punished: for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved correction.

There were others also brought before me possessed with the same infatuation, but being Roman citizens, I directed them to be sent to Rome. But this crime spreading (as is usually the case) while it was actually under prosecution, several instances of the same nature occurred.

An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so.

They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them.

Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) renounced that error.

They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, uttering imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ.

They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.

From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate’ in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition.

I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in order to consult you.

For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, which have already extended, and are still likely to extend, to persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes.

In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country. Nevertheless, it still seems possible to restrain its progress.

The temples, at least, which were once almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred rites, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for the victims, which till lately found very few purchasers.

From all this it is easy to conjecture what numbers might be reclaimed if a general pardon were granted to those who shall repent of their error.


Trajan to Pliny

You have adopted the right course, my dearest Secundus, in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you.

It is not possible to lay down any general rule for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them.

If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance. Anonymous informations ought not to he received in any sort of prosecution.

It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.

Comment: History, Historians, and Truth

Some time back AtheistNexus (, a very active social network for atheists, hosted a forum question on the existence of a historical Jesus. The posting offered possibilities from ‘actually existed’ including all miracle claims to ‘purely fictional’. As you can imagine, pure fiction was a popular choice amongst the atheists. Moreover one contributor said, quite definitively, that she “[did] a lot of research many years ago and found nothing to support the existence of such a person.” Doesn’t get much clearer than that.

The whole notion of the historical Jesus, in fact of any historical person or event, raises such questions as “what is history and historical research?” and “how does it find truth, if at all?” A common and, perhaps, naive view is that historical research is ‘archeological’, an objective process of uncovering immutable facts of the past. History is an unchanging or static story of events and people, revealed through objective research independent of social and personal prejudices. Getting to the single “historical truth” is a clear aim of such a research. In this paradigm Jesus would clearly have existed or not existed. This similar view is often held of the natural sciences.

Most practising historians would reject doing history is simply uncovering static facts from the past. A popular term of ‘dialogue’ acknowledges the dependency between the researcher’s personal social context and attitudes and the subject of the research. So a twenty-first century U.S. researcher may view first century Palestine differently to that of a nineteenth century European, even if the source data were unchanged. So we should not be surprised to see different analyses from historians from different time periods and cultural backgrounds without one being obviously right. On the other hand, all interpretations should not be treated as equal. Historians expect to find explicit reasoning from publically verifiable evidence that can be analysed and criticised. Like the sciences this is treated as open process of academic discourse.

Here are some points for us laypeople to consider with thinking about history and historical research.

  1. Knowing when(the time) and where(the place) are fundamental to knowing history. 100CE Jerusalem is different to 100CE Rome and to 2010 New York City. I’m not suggesting revisiting school days of memorising historical dates for their own sake – how we hated that! Still it is important to know the overall sequence of events and where they happened.
  2. Though often framed as narratives, modern research emphasises causes and effects, the “whys” of past situations. Remember that earlier histories, prior to 1800s, often sought to teach lessons as well as tell historical narratives.
  3. Historical events are invariably complex with multiple causes and effects. It is not surprising that different historians arrive at different plausible explanations for any event. As H. L. Mencken once said “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
  4. Historians rely on physical records – artifacts and writings, although oral histories are included as well. Artifacts can be unearthed pottery, ruins, wall paintings, and even toys. Written documents can be administrative records – taxation, births, deaths, marriages, and business transactions – and personal letters and earlier histories. Remember that written records were invariably maintained by the elite of societies especially in those of very low literacy and so presented a narrow view of society.
  5. Historical interpretations are under constant review and scrutiny. Therefore we need to think in terms of probabilities and likelihoods.
  6. Historical records can be separated into ‘primary’ (writings by people of themselves or contemporaries), ‘secondary’ (writings later than the events), and even tertiary (compilation of secondary sources with some primary). There are no known ‘primary’ sources for the historical Jesus.
  7. Historians are very conscious of their time, economic, and social circumstances compared to subjects under study. Twenty-first century, middle-class, well-educated professors are a far cry from first century rural Gallilee of a Jewish Jesus.
  8. Most historians consider miracle claims outside of scope of historical research. One argument centres around assessing the likelihood of past events. Miracles are by definition highly improbable or impossible and therefore as such are beyond the capability of histories to assign any sort of realistic possibility. Furthermore historical research should be understandable to all people regardless of religious faith and religious non-belief, for that matter.
  9. Be wary of coincidences as an explanation of cause and effect. More evidence is needed to draw conclusions of any relationships.

These pointers are starter only to help put historical research into perspective.

Alex McCullie

Some links to ponder over

Comment: Atheist Bluffer’s Guide to the Bible – NT part 1

Defenders of Christianity often escape criticism by referring to atheist ignorance of true Christian beliefs. Even though their beliefs vary more than Christians like to acknowledge, we can have some “showy” knowledge of the New Testament to throw into the conversation. Christians are surprisingly ignorant of their own sacred texts.

The New Testament, essentially a new covenant with God, is a disparate collection of 27 books written in Greek somewhere between 70CE and 150CE. Most believe Jesus was executed about 30CE. The collection of books was canonised, made the measure of true Christian beliefs, some 300 years later. Our English translations come from scholarly reconstructions from Greek documents and fragments as well as later Latin and Coptic translations. Ironically the most popular English translation, the Authorised Version or King James Version, is considered one of the most unreliable.

Do we have the ‘original versions’?

No, we only have only copies of copies of copies and so on. P52 is the earliest fragment, in Greek, of John 18:31–33 and dated around 125CE. We also have later fragments or pages as well a limited number of books or codices, such as Codex Sinaiticus, dated around 350CE. These later codices contain writings that partially correspond to today’s New Testament. For example, Codex Sinaiticus contains the earlier Latin translation of the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures), much of the New Testament, and extra non-canonical writings like Epistle of Barnadas, a very anti-Jewish text.

What were the first and last writings of the New Testament?

Interestingly, for most Christians, it was one of Paul’s letters, 1 Thessalonians, written around 50CE. The last was probably 2 Peter around 150CE. Most scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the gospels, not Matthew as printed in the New Testament. Mark’s gospel was written around 70CE.

Who wrote the gospels?

Most scholars agree that the gospel writers are anonymous, despite the traditional church assignments to apostles or companions of apostles. We can speculate that they were reasonably well-educated Greek-speaking Jews living somewhere in the diaspora, Jews living away from ‘Palestine’. Jesus and his immediate followers would have spoken Aramaic, the common semitic language of Palestinian Jews since the Babylonian captivity some 500 years previous. Like 90% or more of local population, Jesus and his followers were probably illiterate.

More next time…

Alex McCullie