Critical Historians vs. the Dogmatists (Believers or Deniers)

Several recent discussions here at SO have addressed the perennially fascinating issue of the historical Jesus. In fact, in one guise or another, this is one of our most popular subjects for discussion. Recently, there have been abundant comments from “mythicists” who argue that the Jesus of the Gospels is a figure of myth or legend. This thesis was famously defended by G.A. Wells in a number of works. Wells argued that the evidence for the so-called historical Jesus was really no more compelling than the “evidence” for such indisputably legendary figures such as Wilhelm Tell. I think that it is fair to say that the mythicist view has not had much impact on mainstream history or biblical studies. Mythicists would no doubt counter that scholars who take a more traditional approach to the issue of the historical Jesus reject mythicism because the mythicist hypothesis would deprive them of a subject matter! The quest for the historical Jesus becomes like the quest for the historical Hercules.

Be that as it may, to me, as a philosopher, it seems as though much of this discussion occurs in an epistemological vacuum. When epistemological aims are unclear, controversy tends to veer between dogmatism and dismissal, with ringing declarations, much sarcasm, and the proliferation of straw men. What, then, is the historian’s aim? History is generally written in the form of an interpretive narrative that aims to reconstruct a set of past events in their appropriate context and provide guidance as to the causes, effects, and significance of the events. History, of course, is a cognitive enterprise like mathematics and natural science. Are its epistemic aims the same as those other fields? If asked to identify the epistemic aspirations of these fields while standing on one leg, my necessarily very succinct answer would be this:

Mathematics: Proof

Natural Science: Probability

History: Plausibility

Mathematics has traditionally set the highest standard because of its a priori nature and the concomitant certainty of its conclusions. Hence, establishing their claims more geometrico was for long the standard of proof for many philosophers, especially within the rationalist tradition. In natural science, on the other hand, conclusions are a posteriori and always, at least in principle, tentative and revisable (In practice, I don’t think we need to worry that Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood will be overturned.). Nevertheless, to qualify for the honorific designation “science,” a field must demonstrate that its theories are subject to robust and rigorous empirical constraint. Even “soft” sciences like paleontology (now including paleobiology) set strict standards for empirical stringency. Hence, we can say that the natural sciences seek to provide the most probable accounts for the phenomena within their domains given the total evidence available and with careful qualification of conclusions given the noted lacunae in the evidence. In science, plausibility is not enough; a stricter standard is required.

Historians, on the other hand, must usually settle for plausibility. In my view, all theoretical reasoning is basically the same. A thesis is asserted and the evidence for and against is critically examined. A thesis that emerges relatively unscathed from the crucible of critique and defense is tentatively accepted. To the extent that there is a distinctive scientific method, it is merely the employment of tools, such as experimental and quantitative methods, that allow scientific theories to enjoy empirical constraint of superior stringency. One laudable effect of rigorous empirical constraint is that it narrows interpretive freedom. In the early stages of inquiry, the meager results can fit with many diverse interpretations by the qualified parties. However, as data points are filled in, the range of acceptable interpretations narrows, and some formerly plausible views are definitively ruled out. For instance, before 1980, theories concerning the demise of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous were all over the place. Speculation is rife when the evidence is small. However, in recent decades the evidence explaining the K/T extinctions has mounted and the range of acceptable theories has narrowed.

Historians, however, are often confronted with situations in which a considerable latitude of interpretation is possible and there hardly admits the possibility of further limitation. This is true even when the historian is writing about relatively recent events, and even events that occurred within living memory. I am in the final stages of completing a book on the nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958 (I alternate between work in philosophy and in the history of science.). These events took place merely sixty or seventy years ago, and they were extensively documented at the time. Many of the participants and victims of these events have left memoirs and other accounts, and there are abundant archival sources. Yet, even here the historian faces frustration in attempting to say just what happened when and just why it happened.

For instance, one of my main emphases is the Castle Bravo test of March 1, 1954, which was predicted to have a most likely yield of six megatons but “ran away” to a stupendous blast of fifteen megatons (1000 times the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima). The crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon #5, and hundreds of native Marshallese were severely irradiated by fallout from the test. Why did these terrible events happen? The darker theories charging conspiracy are easily rebuffed, but many questions remain about just why greater precautions were not taken given the dangers, known or knowable at the time, of the potential of radioactive fallout to reach inhabited areas. What prompted a spurious sense of certainty and control on the part of those conducting the tests? I and my coauthor offer answers in our book, but we would not claim that our answers are final or complete. Hardly any historian can make such a claim with integrity.

When dealing with ancient events, the cautions I state above must apply a fortiori. When one writes about recent events such as the nuclear tests, the historian faces an embarrassment of potential sources. For instance, archival materials are so abundant that one hardly knows where to begin or what to include and what to exclude. For the historian of ancient history, the extreme paucity of contemporaneous written records by eyewitnesses and the lack of unbiased accounts makes the task of historical reconstruction especially onerous and fraught with peril. The evidence comes to resemble a Rorschach blot onto which contending ideologies can project what they want to see. For instance, those who want the Gospel narratives to support and confirm their faith will not have a difficult time “finding” the “evidence” that does so. Dogmatic deniers, on the other hand, will start with the assumption that it is all hokum and will pounce on any discrepancy or ambiguity as proof positive that the Gospels are fiction and that their authors were ax-grinding fantasists. How do we save history from the ideologues? If we cannot, let’s be honest and just admit that you get from an examination of the Gospels exactly what you bring to it, and just let the whole thing go.

Unless it is taken so far that it becomes another kind of dogma, skepticism can be a middle course between credulity and dogmatic denial. I recommend that we approach the Gospel texts exactly as the modern critical, skeptical historian approaches the works of Herodotus or Thucydides. A critical historian today approaches the ancient historians with an interrogative intent. We ask tough questions of the text and see if an answer is forthcoming either from the text itself or from any other source, generally textual or archaeological. We assume neither that the text is impeccable nor that it is worthless.

What standards guide this questioning process? Will not those very standards be brought into question when the historical investigation abuts the grounds for religious belief? For instance, we doubt Herodotus’ stories about divine interventions at the Battle of Salamis precisely because historical inquiry is guided by a naturalistic heuristic just as much as natural science is. But won’t religious apologists complain that such reliance on “post-Enlightenment” historiographic standards bias the case against them?

This complaint conflates a default assumption with an invincible conviction. Initial skepticism, even very deep skepticism, about miraculous events, is not a problem unless the skepticism becomes dogmatism that refuses to consider the evidence. Apologists have no grounds for complaining that the job of convincing the rational skeptic is hard and that they have a lot of work to do. They willingly took on a tough job and they cannot reasonably complain that it is tough. It is not reasonable to ask historians to suspend the rules that they apply to all other inquiries as soon as the investigation turns to Christian claims. To do so would be a gross case of special pleading on the part of the apologists.

On the other hand, those for whom debunking Christianity is a task that calls for genuinely religious fervor, are equally at odds with the assumptions of the critical, skeptical historian. For the critical historian, skepticism is a tool for discovery, not an agenda that dictates a conclusion. The emotional needs of dogmatic believers or deniers are simply a distraction for the critical historian. When historians read Herodotus today, they need not dismiss him as the “father of lies” as Plutarch called him, nor take him at face value when he tells us, for instance, just what Xerxes supposedly said to his generals when planning the invasion of Greece. What is needed is a similarly judicious dedication to sorting fact from fantasy when reading the Gospels. If you come to the task sure ahead of time that the Gospels are fact or equally certain that they are fantasy, you cannot be a historian and the historian’s goal of plausibility will elude you.