Friday, September 12, 2008

The limits of historical study of religion

I find the comments of Israeli scholar, Daniel R. Schwartz, on the limits of a historical study of religion an interesting contrast with the secular approach I described last month (here):
[A]ny historical study of religion has its bounds: there are data, at times very important ones for a religion, which historians must leave untouched. Christianity is based upon one such datum: the perceived resurrection of Jesus, without which the movement would certainly have disappeared along with the movements following other charismatic figures in first-century Judaism. But resurrection is not susceptible to historical verification, analysis or explanation. Similarly, calls from heaven, such as that to Paul on the way to Damascus, are not susceptible to historical verification, analysis or explanation. Resurrection, calls from heaven and the like can figure in historical studies only as perceptions which, as such, functioned and entered into chains of causation. The sincerity of these perceptions needs no more proof than the numerous martyrdoms which literally testified to them.
- Daniel R. Schwartz, "Introduction: On the Jewish Background of Christianity," in Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1992), 2.


N T Wrong said...

I disagree. The attempt to find the best explanation of the stories of Jesus' "perceived resurrection" is not fundamentally different from any other historical enquiry. After a detailed examination of culture and beliefs in the first century Levant, historiography can and should conclude which is the better explanation of the resurrection stories.

Often, the attempt to separate matters of history from matters of faith is a cop-out, avoiding the actual extent of the implications of historical enquiry -- a desperate attempt to hold onto some exclusive domain for theology.

Historical analysis can and does demonstrate the highly improbable nature of the resurrection. The evidence of visionary experience is significantly more compelling, from a historiographical perspective.

d. miller said...

Thanks for the comment, n t wrong. Would you evaluate the evidence differently as a historian if you were a theist who believed in a God who could raise the dead?

N T Wrong said...

Not at all.

I note that I certainly wouldn't rule out from historical reconstruction, on a priori grounds, possibilities such as God raising Jesus from the dead. On an abductive approach to history, any and all possibilities may be considered. It is simply the fact that the explanation of visionary experience in the case of early Christianity and comparative ancient historiography and biography provides the 'best fit' for the evidence.

d. miller said...

Okay. For my part, I think there is something to Leander Keck's description of the resurrection as a "self-involving truth claim." I'll try to say more about this sometime in a follow-up to my post on History, Criticism, and Christian Conviction.