Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Topos of Historicity

Prologomina for any Future Discussion Of the Historical Jesus

Image hosted by Photobucket.com


History is Probablity



"Topos" is a Greek word that means "location" or "seat." Where is the location of historicity? What is the exact ponit at which one can say "this is historicity?" But there is a more fundamental question implied in finding the topos of historicity, and that is "what is the crucial point at which historicity takes on theological meaning?What aspects of being histoircal are so crucial that, if other wise proven to be not histoircal, the Christian faith would cruble?

All history is probability. No one can empirically prove an "historical fact," for that would require being able to repeat the experiment or to otherwise witness the event for oneself. Obviously history by its nature as part of times arrow does not allow either of these options. Thus history is a non-empirical social science. WE can't go back in time and watch George Washington cross the Delaware, but we can assume that he did so because we have documents that refer to it which contain eye witness testimony and which we have no good reason to doubt.


For this reason history is a matter of documents. Those we call "historians" were writing in the time of Christ, such as Tacitus and Josephus, but they were not professionals nor academics. History as an academic social science has only existed since the 19th century. As a science history still has a ways to go and it will never be the sort of science that one might find in sociology or biology. The major theorists of an academic discipline of history writing in the late 19th century, set forth the model that history is a matter of what can be documented from the past. For this reason history is primarily a matter of documents, but that means that there are huge cracks in our understanding that can never be filled. For that reason historians assess the nature of historical "fact" as a form of probability. George Washington probably did exist and he probably did cross the Delaware to fight the Hesseians at Princeton (and other places) but that is no more an empirical fact that Christ resurrection from the dead. The probably of Washington crossing the Delaware is much higher historically speaking than that of the Resurrection, but it is no more certain in an absolute sense. Yet when all historians agree to it we can place a very high degree of confidence in it and we speak of it as a "fact" because we assume that it is one.


The problem is that when one attaches religious significance to a document some certain group of people will decide that this is intrinsically to be doubted. What these people don't understand is that 90% of what we know about the ancient world comes to us from documents that one could doubt for the same reasons that atheists usually doubt the Bible (because they are recorded in religiously polemical documents).

Consider the case of Jospehus. Most atheists assume that Jospehus is an authority to be trusted and few people anywhere would assert that he didn't exist. This is because we have no reason to suspect that he didn't, and he is our basis for knowledge of about 80% of what happened in the first century. But one could argue that Jospehus didn't exist, or that most of his writings were made up. Using the same criteria that Christ myther's use for deciding that Christ didn't exist or that 90% of what is reported about him was made up, one can make the same kinds of arguments. First, Josephus' writings must have been controlled by Christians from an early period because we have no texts with totally lack the bits about Jesus. If that was made up then certainly Jo's works were controlled by Christians from the earliest times. Now secondly, Jeosphus gets wrong the year that the Roman legions of Vespasian left Palestine, but Jo was there so how could he get that wrong? It must be that his works are made up! The whole of Jospehus works were made up to advocate the Jewish-Christian cause and that explains the passage where he says he got his friend off the cross before sunset, that was put in there to show that Joseph of Aramethia could do the same with the body of Jesus. Why else does he use the name Jospeh so much like the name Jospheus?


Of course I'm being sarcastic. None of these arguments hold water and no historian would accept them, but they cannot be disproved! It's just that historians don't waste their time with BS conspiracy theories or silly assertions. It is also the case that since Josephus forms the bulwark of our knowledge about that period, historians are not eager to lose his testimony. The point is that the same criteria could be used to dislodge Jospehus as have been advocated to dislodge the New Testament (minus the textual proof of redaction, but there some evidence of redaction in some of Jospehus, consider the Slavic and Arabic manuscripts)!


The point is that in deciding the nature of historical fact we cannot let such things as "this document is a religious polemic" decide the matter. We have to assume that the presence of a document is enough to tell us something about the situation under which is was written, and that knowing something about who wrote a document and why, tells us something about the situation. Just being able to point out that a document is religious and is written for religious reasons, even polemical ones, is not enough to assume that the document is forgery or that it has not historical merit or information in it.

Thus we cannot rule out the historicity of the Gospels based upon these criteria. We have to formulate more specific textually critical reason for rejecting the documents of the New Testament. Now of course such reasons exist and are talked about among textual critics, But they don't just blindly rule them out merely because they are the New Testament.

Thus, we have to accept a certain probably about the historicity of the New Testament documents which can be established by textual criticism, but the basic assumption has to be that there is some basis in historical fact, that the writers have some connection with a tradition and that they understand themselves to be in that tradition. We cannot assume that they are engaging in pernicious motive or just making things up. After all, any history could be the result of such a plot but if one assumes this than one doesn't have scientific examination of what happened in the past. To have that one must assume that some things form the past can come to us form those who set out to record at least their understanding of what happened.

Not Historical but History making>


The category "history making" is not one used by historians. It is the brain child of German Theologian Jurgen Moltmann from the University of Tubengin. The reason for it is not to "make something true" as has been charged. It is not to over come a dirth of hard evidence, as has been charged on certain message boards. The reason for the category is to overcome a cheat, to get around a cheating argument by European intellectuals. The Marxists historians argue that since history is founded upon naturalistic principles and upon documentary hypothesis (as set out by Marx in The German Ideology) one cannot do history on the basis of the supernatural. Thus the resurrection could never be an historical question because it can never assumed by historians that it happened.


This is true, but it's still cheating in a sense. Because it means that no matter what the truth of that event it can never be understood in the way that Christian doctrine would assert because it just can't be part of history (remember history is not what "really" happened but the interpretation of the documentary trail of what happened).


So Moltmann says "OK we will just change the rules. Instead of grounding our understanding in the category of 'historical nature' we will ground it in the category of 'history making.'" The belief shaped history in the sense that history was shaped by the tradition which understood itself to be witness to the resurrection. Thus it is not the historicity of the event itself that we seek to prove. This can never be proven, it can only be embraced as an act of faith because we cannot go back in time and watch it happen. But we can embrace a certain probabilistic sense of it happening and we can understand it as the self identity of a community which went on to shape history as a result of its understanding of that event. There had to be, therefore, some kind of event for the group to have some kind of self understanding in relation to the event. That means that the arguments about the resurrection must become an attempt to assess the probabilities of various theories as to the nature of this event which prompted such a self definition among the community.


What matters is not history but the history making aspects. That is, it is not an historical question, Was Jesus the son of God? Did he raise from the dead? These are not things that can be proven historically, they are not part of history because they involve transcendence of the naturalistic framework under which history is assumed. That does not mean that I don't believe them, but it does mean that proving them is less important than living them. Should anyone think this is not sufficiently intellectual to justify the brain power it takes to grasp it, it's probably not, but just trying actually doing it. The point is that there is no intellectual shame in an existential encounter with the object of ultimate concern. So that is what really matters, that the teachings bestow Grace, that the church understood itself as the recipient of Christ's teachings (and with no small amount of confirming evidence form history) and it doesn't matter that it isn't "proven" or that the resurrection isn't considered historical. It is history making, history was shaped around that concept and around the churches understanding of itself as the guardian of Jesus' teachings.


Historical fact Vs Historical perspective


Since historical facts are probability in the fist place, the nature of any historical fact is not a matter of absolute proof but of the best evidence forming a degree of confidence in a probabilistic assertion. This means that naturalistic ideology will exclude the possibly of the resurrection a pariori, it also means that we can bring back in a certain probability based upon the category of the history making self understanding of the group.


But it also means that what matters more in terms of the resurrection is not historical fact but historical perspective. This is an observation only a theologian could love. It is not a view point of an historian, but since my first love was theology, I embrace it as a tenet of theological understanding. The historical persecutive I have cultivated tries not to impose the category of "fact" upon the claim of the resurrection, but to create spaces in which the claim can be held as a tenet of faith based upon its history making character. That means, I think it really happened, but the question is how to talk about it really happening when it is to be considered so improbable? Well, that is purely an ideological matter and depends more upon metaphysical assumptions to rule it out rather than any real historical evidence that would rule it out. Through the metaphysical assumption I make I rule it back in, but not as imposed "fact," rather, as the thing with which I fill the spaces created by the history making nature. In other words the history making concept is how we fill the cracks left between the probabalistic assertions of inductive reasoning.

Topos


Now what does all of this mean? It means first of all that I don't have to prove the resurrection in order to hold it as a doctrine and a tenet of faith. It also means that I can ground its true theological significance in the symbolic value of its transforming aspects without proving it as "fact" because for me it is an existential fact. I am transformed by it, thus for me it is a fact, if not a historical fact, then an existential one.


Nevertheless, I think the evidence does point to it as an actual fact, a literal resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, but the important thing about that is its theological significance as a symbol. The fact that I think it really happened, although important, is only secondary in terms of having to prove things. I can prove that the affects of believing it are real.


That also means that I don't have to worry about all the details of the New Testament documents being in place. I assume that these documents were not written by those whose names they bare, and I assume that many of the details, are out of place chronologically and perhaps are only suggestive of the actual events. None of that matters in terms of transformative value.


Thus, the real topos of historicity is not in the stories and not in the documents but it is in the tradition which preserved the documents. The leaders of that tradition chose the documents based upon their connection with the original group withwhom the deposit of Christ's teachings were fist entrusted, the Apostles. Thus, we can assert that there is in some sense an historical core to the documents even if we are in the dark as to the exact nature of that core.


What ultimately matters is that the documents themselves are not understood within the tradition as literal epistemology but as a means of bestowing Grace. If Grace is bestowed to the reader then this is all that can be asked in terms of the reason for their preservation. This is all that need be accomplished.*


Nevertheless, we can come at this with an historical persecutive and ask what the documents do tell us about the history of the situation. That Jesus really did die on the cross that that his teachings really were indicative of the Kingdom of God puts a force behind the symbolic value that increases the efficacy of that, and that makes them indicative of a truth which can be demonstrated within a reasonable field of historical probability.


The historicity of Jesus is important, but the question is, what is important about it? Is it really so important to know that on a certain day Jesus did and said this or that? Or is it important to know that we have a generally accurate perception of the kinds of things Jesus did and the basic core of his teaching available to us? I contend that some historical elements are more important than others..

The Topos of Historicity"Topos" is just a fancy Greek term used in arts and hummanities circles for "place," or "location." I bring this up because I think what is most important is the understanding of and acceptance of the Tradition itself. I think the tradition is the safe guard of the historicity. This means that rather than some sort of historically empirical proof (of which there is no such thing) that Jesus really gave the sermon on the mount, the important thing is that the tradition loaded those teachings into its understanding of Jesus from an early period and to be a member of the community means to accept that teaching. This is so because this is what works. To accept Jesus, to accept God's grace through the mediation of Christ's atonement is transformative and offers a power for living which resolves the basic human problematic. The proof of that is in actually doing it, actually receiving it, not in historical arguments.




The Theological Lodown:


As I have said before, I believe that there is one universal experience of the Divine that stands behind all religions. The individual God figures in reach religion don't matter because they are preceded by this experience which is more basic, and they are created by cultural construct through which this experience must be flitted. But that is what happens when man tries to reach out to God mostly unaided. What happens when God decides to make one clear unmistakable statement that demonstrates exactly who he is and what he wants? Perhaps the best way to do that would be to come and tell us himself. That's what I believe happened with Jesus.


Now that still leaves problems of the ambiguity of language. But what is unambiguous is the actions. Not only are the actions of Jesus reflective of the divine in such enstances as forgiving the woman caught in adultery or in healing the sick and so forth, but they are unmistakable in his atonement on the cross. This is a statement of God's solidarity with humanity. That God would be willing to die for the sins of humanity and to die as one of the lowest in the social order demonstrates that God is on our side and is willing to identify with our lot, which is what solidarity is all about. Now never mind the fact that "it didn't hurt cause he was God" and silly arguments like that. The point is that it is a clear expression of God's willingness to identify with us. The only problem is that we have to return the favor and identify with him. It's still a search that can only concluded in the heart. So we must still make a decision and place our solidarity with God through giving our lives to Christ (Romans 6). But it works both ways and all we need to is examine the case to see that. Once having done that we receive transformation and we resolve the problematic involved in being human and that's what really matters because that is a lived experience and can be seen by anyone, it is not a matter of empirical evidence or of demonstration in an "objective" way. I'm not saying the history doesn't matter, and I do believe the historical stuff form the Gospels.


But what matters more than proving it as history is what it means to accept it as history. It doesn't mean being able to prove it (and in fact nothing in history is proven in the way that it is in science--all history is probability in a sense). What matters about accepting the history is understanding what it does for one to accept it. When one finds that this is the case and it does actually mediate transcendence one can find that the claims are at least true. They may or may not be true in a literal historical sense (and I think most of them are) but they are true in a transformative sense. If one is transformed than it would seem to be the point, the whole point involved in why would want to investigate religion in the first place. How to choose a tradition. Now as I have said, it is not a question of which religion is true but of which has the efficacy (I am speaking phenomenologically here--not theologically). That means, all religions mediate transformation to some degree, but some do so better than others. Human sacrifice for example is a less efficacious method, because it involves the necessity of cruelty and murder, and a grace oriented religion is more efficacious because it is more accessible to all. There are two such religions and two only: pure land Buddhism and Christianity. We can compare those two later. But in my view that is the reason to prefer a particular tradition, and to prefer the tradition with which I identify; because it mediates transcendence through Grace, which means one need not be good enough to merit God's favor. That makes it more accessible and in a sense it may make it more transformative. As Jesus said "he who has been foreign much loves much. We can open a new one to do the historical stuff (and don't worry, I will).

____________ *For a discussion transformative value (or Sacramental rather than epistemological understanding of the Scriptures) see Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology, by Willam Abrham, Oxford, 1998/2002.

For discussion of History making see Jurgan Moltmann, Theology of Hope,New York: Harpers, 1967

2 comments:

Peter said...

Happy New Year!

Thanks for this essay, which I think is immensely insightful and a great ending for A.D. 2005 (and beginning for A.D. 2006).

At certain times I have been bothered by thoughts like: the question is not whether religion (in particular Christianity) transforms people in a positive way, the question is whether it is historically true. I think this is a paralysing question that can be a threat for living the gospel.

I am convinced (like you are) that the essential historical statements of Christianity are true. But at least as important is the meaning of these events, and the effect on people who "get it". History has proved that Christianity works; besides (historical, metaphysical, etc.) truth, this seems to me a very good reason for us to "do religion".

Peter

J.L. Hinman said...

Hey right on!

Happy new year!