Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pieter Craffert on historiography

Historiography refers, among other things, to "the body of techniques, theories, and principles of historical research and presentation; methods of historical scholarship" (, which suffices for our purposes). I am currently reading Pieter F. Craffert's article, "How Historiography Creates (Some) Body: Jesus, the Son of David—Royal Stock or Social Construct" (Scriptura 90 [2005]: 608–20). I'm not  persuaded by his main thesis—at least, not yet—but his description and diagnosis of standard historiographical practices among historians of Jesus is very good and well worth paying attention to.

For example, Craffert writes:
What historians learned from anthropologists is that "people lead meaningful lives, and that these meanings can only be discovered within the context of those lives, it cannot be imputed to them on the basis of some previously established ideas about the biological or psychological makeup of people" (Cohn 1980, 201). Therefore, anthropological historians recognise that they "must grasp the absolute presuppositions, the unspoken assumptions, of the society under review, in order to understand what has occurred" (Stanford 1986, 93). (Craffert 2005:611)

In other words, it will not do to run through historical documents (the Gospel of Mark, the Acts of the Apostles, Xenophon's Anabasis, or whatever) and attempt to isolate historically credible or plausible data that the historian can then use to reconstruct the past. Our documents are situated accounts of the past, written by people with particular perspectives—biases, expectations, values, ideas about what could happen, what should happen, and so on. And unless historians can approximate to some significant degree those particular perspectives, we simply will not be able to get in touch with "what actually happened" (the ultimate goal of most historiography) in any meaningful sense.

As a result, "[a]nthropological historians approach the documents as narrative constructs themselves of cultural realities and experiences" (Craffert 2005:611). This way of approaching texts matters, I think, not just because this more accurately perceives what our historical sources are (though this is true). Instead, it helps us to appreciate more acutely that our own historical reconstructions are similar phenomena: expressions of the past in terms that make sense within, communicate meaningfully to, and provide orientation for people in the present. Back in 2005 I made a similar point in a post on the SBL Forum (available here).

As I said above, I'm not persuaded by Craffert's main thesis regarding the claim of Davidic descent in the Gospels and (I would argue) during the life of the historical (= real) Jesus. However, he has offered us real insight in how we engage historical practice—historiography—as we try to know with some degree of precision and/or certainty what the past actually was. I strongly recommend you check out this essay.


Mr. Schulzki said...

Well said Rafael...and it is true that historians need to rely on any number of sources to construct a vision of the past. As you know each historian has her/his own axe to grind, point of view or baggage! It is even harder for historians of ancient times to do their job as the number of sources is, at best some what finite. And as you rightly point out - the historians are also dealing with the present...and that too helps to color perspective.

I appreciate your post - and hope that things are well...and nice to see a little history being discussed!

Mr. Schulzki said...

Excellent insights Rafael and nice to see some kind words tossed the historians way! We spend so much time attempting to use what sources we can to construct a view of the past...and indeed our present will always influence the historians point of view, axe to grind, or purpose. While unfamiliar with Craffert - and by no means an expert on the ancients - I do know that in many ways the amount of sources available to historians is somewhat finite. The other thing one needs to remember is that the term history comes from the Greek "historia" - to inquire. And really that's what we are trying to do...ask those good questions and perhaps posit a few answers.

Hope all is well...and nice to see a little history being discussed!

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