Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

Theology, History and Law: Different disciplines with different methodologies

Although it is generally recognized that Theologians and Historians attempt to reconstruct history utilizing the tools of their professions, it is not quite appreciated that lawyers, too, have to interrogate the past and use their legal training to do so. I thought it might be of interest to do a brief comparison of how each profession proceeds.

Theologians start from a fixed position, that everything in the bible is true and that events of the past must be explained in such a way that it doesn’t conflict with biblical teachings. At the same time, theologians have to explain the vast archive of conflicting biblical passages in some way to harmonize them. This can often lead to a conflict between how theologians view history and how historians assess the past. Similar problems unfold with respect to science and other disciplines.

The early church fathers were quite aware of these types of problems and one of the principles they developed to cope with these problems was that if your understanding of a biblical passage conflicted with observed reality, then you have probably misunderstood the passage. This practice occasionally leads to the idea that certain biblical passages that appear to be factual claims are actually allegories. Nevertheless, theologians arguing about biblical truth often disagree with each other as to what that truth is. To a large degree, this fueled centuries of violent war and persecution between rival groups of Christians, all of whom knew the one and only truth. A similar construct would apply to wars among Muslim sects.

Historians proceed from a very different perspective. They start from the proposition that certain forms of evidence exist (or don’t exist) and set out to find what interpretation of events best explains the historical situation under investigation. A chief difficulty, of course, is that sometimes insufficient evidence exists such that a reasonably “probable” description of what occurred can not be found. Other times, their may be conflicting evidence, such as multiple documents, sometimes from different time frames, that present conflicting stories, and it may be difficult, if not impossible, to decide which source is more credible. At best, historians can only judge their conclusions on the basis of probability. Is the conclusion “almost” certain, “very” likely, somewhat likely, plausible, possible but improbable, or not determinable on the basis of the present evidence.

Lawyers present a hybrid of these two disciplines. The fixed position is what is best for the client, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the client is right. Each task must be determined according to that principle. In order to carry out that practice, the lawyer must examine every past legal case, where the facts or decision touches on his client’s interest. The lawyer is assembling a set of existing facts and then proceeds to determine what interpretation of these past events best serves the client’s interests.

Since no past case is always exactly alike in every single particular relevant fact, the lawyer needs to look at what court decisions look like they support the client’s interest and what court decisions oppose the client’s interest. Then, the lawyer has to tear apart both set of cases. For cases that harm the client, the lawyer must look at every single detail to find some way to distinguish that case from the client’s case such that the court shouldn’t apply that negative principle to the client’s situation. The lawyer must also look at every detail of cases that support the client’s interest to see how the opposing lawyer might distinguish them and argue that it is not applicable to the client’s case. Obviously, counter-arguments have to be conceived. Often times, a client’s case is sufficiently unique that there are no clear guidelines in past decisions, and the lawyers have to take the meager evidence and extrapolate arguments for and against the client’s interest, a form of exegesis perhaps. They key here, however, is not to find just any detail, but rather “relevant” details that can influence the case one way or another.

For a lawyer interested in biblical studies, the bible (or bibles) are like large collections of legal cases with frequently conflicting facts and decisions. If the lawyer has a particular theory about how to understand a portion of the bible, that theory serves as the client. The lawyer would then have to examine every relevant detail in the texts and from commentators outside of the text, and see what facts support his theory and what undermine it. This enables him to make the best case possible for his theory/client. That isn’t to say that the theory is the best explanation for what is true; it is only the best case that can be made for the theory. That best case, however, may be woefully inadequate, and like real-world legal cases, the lawyer must recommend that the client abandon the case or settle on some compromise.

Sometimes, however, members of one discipline cross over to one of the others and adopt the tools of the others. Sometimes, all three factions can come together on some past historical understanding and sometimes one  might be in conflict with the other two, who in turn might disagree with each other. So, whose right in the long run? Make your best case.

John’s Baptism of Jesus

A while ago, I posted a piece titled Were Early Christians Embarrassed by John’s Baptism of Jesus? In it, I challenged the traditional view that this was an embarrassing event. A key issue was the contrast between the Jewish historian Josephus, who said John’s baptism was not about the remission of sin, and the Synoptic gospels, which argued that it was. While John did not include that claim in his gospel, I hadn’t thought much about why he omitted that explanation. I was recently reminded of the issue and I realized what happened. John’s theology holds that only Jesus can forgive sin (an authority later passed on to the Apostles.) Therefore, John specifically rejected the idea that John’s baptism was for the remission of sin. This aligns John’s gospel with Josephus against the synoptic gospels. What’s puzzling, however, in John’s gospel, the baptist first says that he baptized in order to reveal the one who was to come, but after he revealed that Jesus was the one, John says the baptist continued to baptize. Why? John doesn’t say.

The Case for a Proto-Gospel

My new book, The Case for a Proto-Gospel: recovering the common written source behind Mark and John, should be going to press sometime in December and be available shortly thereafter. There’s an Amazon link to the book in the right sidebar (somewhere else in Mobile displays).

Barrie Wilson,  Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar, Religious Studies, York University, Toronto, had this to say about the book.

Gary Greenberg is a superb intellectual detective, following up on tantalizing clues in ancient texts to uncover sources and insights that others have missed. In this latest work, Gary traces similarities between the Gospel of John and the earlier Gospel of Mark. In so doing, he makes a remarkable discovery — lurking behind both gospels is an earlier document that each has used, independently of the other. Here is a new source document that sheds important light on the crucial decades following Jesus’ death.

Carefully crafted, well written, based on historical and literary analysis, Gary’s book enhances our understanding not only of the Gospels of John and Mark but the process whereby the gospels themselves came to be.

ASOR and SBL Conferences

I spent the week before Thanksgiving in San Diego at the overlapping conferences of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). I presented a paper at ASOR titled Enoch and Sothis: Is there a connection between Genesis chronology and Egyptian King-lists? I also attended several interesting panels at SBL. One intriguing presentation came from Mark Goodacre, who demonstrated some places where Matthew’s underlying Greek matched that in John or Mark in similar stories. I also enjoyed some book panels One focused on Paula Fredriksen’s new book When Chrisians Were Jews: The first generation. Another focused on Joel Marcus’s new book John the Baptist in History and Theolgy.

I’m not sure about this but it seemed that the traditional SBL book sellers’ exhibition was somewhat smaller than usual. There were ten aisles but four of them were only half aisles. I think past exhibit halls had more aisles, almost all full. I’d have to check past program guides to see how many exhibitors there were.

I’m doing the October Biblical Studies Carnival round-up

I’ve been tasked with doing the October Biblical Studies Carnival round-up, due to be published here on or about November 1st. If you have any recommended posts you think I should know about or biblioblog sites I should check in on, perhaps you can mention them in the comments section or use my site link to send me an email.

My next book. The Case for a Proto-gospel

If you look at the right-hand sidebar, you should find a notice about my next book, “The Case for a Proto-gospel: Recovering the common written source behind Mark and John.” (Mobile browsers might find it further down on the blog.) It’s being published by Peter Lang in their “Studies in Biblical Literature” series. It’s a peer-reviewed and lengthy academic study arguing for the existence of a now-lost written biography of Jesus that preceded the gospels and contained almost all of the major incidents in Jesus’ adult life. I argue that Mark, John, and Luke all knew this text and made use of it. Matthew had it second-hand through Mark. More significantly, I argue that John hated this earlier biography and composed his gospel as a rewritten correction, and, as a result, John’s gospel functions as a major crtique of Mark’s gospel.

It’s not due out until later this year and, unfortunately, as with most lengthy academic studies, it won’t be cheap. You might try to get your library to order a copy or get it through an inter-library loan. While still a few months away from release, it has a pre-order presence on Amazon. Clicking the link in the side bar should take you to the Amazon page, which provides a slightly more detailed description of the contents and features a blurb from Barrie Wilson, Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar of Religious Studies, York University.