Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Senses of 'History'

Wright opens up his, to date, most thorough tome (pp. 12-14), with a helpful typology of 'history' that really frees up the booklength argument to unfold with focus and cogency:

It has frequently been argued, indeed insisted upon, that whatever we mean by the resurrection of Jesus, it is not accessible to historical investigation. Some have even suggested that it is not to be thought of in any meaningful sense as 'an event within history' at all. The archers cannot see the target properly; some doubt if it even exists. Over against this, I shall argue that the resurrection of Jesus, whatever it was, can and must be seen as at least a historical problem.

What, though, do we mean by 'historical'? 'History' and its cognates have been used, within debates about Jesus and the resurrection, in at least five significantly different ways.

First, there is history as event. If we say something is 'historical' in this sense, it happened, whether or not we can know or prove that it happened. The death of the last pterodactyl is in that sense a historical event, even though no human witnessed it or wrote about it at the time, and we are very unlikely ever to discover when and where it took place. Similarly, we use the word 'historical' of persons or things, to indicate simply and solely that they existed.

Second, there is history as significant event. Not all events are significant; history, it is often assumed, consists of the ones that are. The adjective that tends to go with this is 'historic'; 'a historic event' is not simply an event that took place, but one whose occurrence carried momentous consequences. Likewise, a 'historic' person, building or object is one perceived to have had particular significance, not merely existence. Rudolf Bultmann, himself arguably a historic figure within the discipline of New Testament studies, famously used the adjective geschichtlich to convey this sense, over against historisch (sense 1).

Third, there is history as provable event. To say that something is 'historical' in this sense is to say not only that it happened but that we can demonstrate that it happened, on the analogy of mathematics or the so-called hard sciences. This is somewhat more controversial. To say 'x may have happened, but we can't prove it, so it isn't really historical' may not be self-contradictory, but it is clearly operating with a more restricted sense of 'history' than some of the others.

Fourth, and quite different from the previous three, there is history as writing-about-events-in-the-past. To say something is 'historical' in this sense is to say that it was written about, or perhaps could in principle have been written about. (This might even include 'historical' novels.) A variant on this, though an important one, is oral history; at a time when many regarded it as carrying more authority than the written, history as speaking-about-events-in-the-past is not to be sneezed at.

Fifth and finally, a combination of (3) and (4) is often found precisely in discussion of Jesus: history as what modern historians can say about a topic. By 'modern' I mean 'post-Enlightenment', the period in which people have imagined some kind of analogy, even correlation, between history and the hard sciences. In this sense, 'historical' means not only that which can be demonstrated and written, but that which can be demonstrated and written within the post-Enlightenment worldview. This is what people have often had in mind when they rejected 'the historical Jesus' (which hereby, of course, comes to mean 'the Jesus that fits the Procrustean bed of a reductionist worldview') in favor of 'the Christ of faith'.

Confusion between these senses has of course bedevilled this very debate about the so-called 'historical Jesus', the phrase being used by some to mean Jesus as he actually was (sense 1), by others to mean what was significant about Jesus (sense 2), by others to mean that which we can prove about Jesus, as opposed to that which we must either doubt or take on faith alone (sense 3); by others again to mean what people have written about Jesus (sense 4). Those who, as I mentioned, have taken the phrase in sense 5 have often rejected the Jesus not only of that sense but, apparently, of the previous 4 as well. Jesus and the Victory of God constitutes, in part, a response to this position. But what we must now face one very specific, particular and in some senses peculiar case of the problem. In what sense, if any, can Jesus' resurrection be spoken of as 'historical'?

Ever since the time of Paul, people have tried to write about Jesus' resurrection (whatever they meant by that). The question of course, rebounds: were they thereby writing about an event in the past? Were they writing 'history'? Or was it all actually the projection of their own faith-experience? When they said 'Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day', were they intending to makes some kind of historical claim about Jesus, or did they themselves know this was a metaphor for their own remarkable new religious experience, the rise of their faith, and so on? This pushes us back to sense 1, which is the question at stake throughout much of this book: was the resurrection something that actually happened, and if so what precisely was it that happened? We do not seem to have had much polemic against 'the historical resurrection' in the same way that there has been angry rejection of 'the historical Jesus'.

There is no problem about predicating sense 2 of Jesus' resurrection. Virtually everyone will agree that whatever-it-was-that-happened was extremely significant. Indeed, some recent writers agree that it was very significant while continuing to argue that we cannot know what 'it' is. There are enormous problems about sense 3: it all depends on what you mean by 'proof', and we shall return to that question in due course. Sense 4 is unproblematic: the 'event' has been written about, even if it was all made up. But it is sense 5 that has caused the real headache: what can historians in today's world say on the subject? Unless we keep these distinctions clear in our minds as we proceed, we shall not just have enormous problems; we shall go round in ever-decreasing circles. [source]