Tuesday, July 03, 2012

reading Key Events

I have begun reviewing the massive volume, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence (WUNT 247; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), edited by Darrell Bock and Robert Webb. This book presents the result of the decade-long collaboration of the Institute for Biblical Research Jesus Group, evaluating and interpreting twelve "key events." Each essay, written by a total of eleven scholars, pursues three goals. First, an author will assess and defend the probable authenticity of a given "key event" in the life of Jesus. Second, an author will place their "key event" into a reconstruction of Jesus' late-Second Temple/early Roman Jewish context in order to explain and/or interpret the event. Finally, an author will explain what each "key event," once they have been authenticated and interpreted, means for our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.

At this point, I have only read the (very) brief Introduction, written by Bock and Webb, and the opening chapter, on history, historiography, and historical Jesus research, written by Bob Webb. This essay, "The Historical Enterprise and Historical Jesus Research," establishes some historiographical "ground rules," even though it was written after the historical analyses comprising the remainder of the book. In what follows, I give you my very brief review of Webb's historiographical essay.

In the first essay, Bob Webb provides a wide-ranging and nuanced discussion of history, historiography, and how scholars can ask historical questions about the figure, Jesus of Nazareth. Webb offers a chastened (or soft) postmodernist view of how we can know about past figures and events on two bases (23–30). First, the historian’s goal is to provide a representation (≠ description! [see pp. 24–26]) of past events on the basis of publicly available evidence and modes of argumentation. Second, the most helpful form of postmodern historiography is the critical-realist form, which “combine[s] and reconcile[s] ontological realism, epistemological relativism and judgmental rationality” (29). Webb then offers a historical method with two main phases as well as a preliminary and a subsequent concluding phase and which resembles a Gadamerian hermeneutical spiral (32–38). After a preliminary phase of critical self-reflection, Webb’s first phase “involves gathering, interpreting, and evaluating the surviving traces (ST) to determine their function as evidence within a particular context” (33). In this phase, the historian evaluates data from both a “bottom-up” perspective, determining of what a datum is evidence, as well as from a “top-down” perspective, identifying multiple contexts and evaluating the “fit” between a given datum and various contexts. In the second phase, the historian “interpret[s] and explain[s] the relevant data with hypotheses” in an attempt to identify a “preferable hypothesis . . . that (a)provides a better explanation of the evidence, and (b) allows for extrapolation that provides a more plausible explanation of the complete historical picture” (35). In the concluding phase, the historian writes up a historical narrative that “describes” relevant data and provides a representation of the past as the historian has come to understand it. Webb then offers “methodological naturalistic history” as a way to engage historical questions without (i) depending on divine causation to provide explanatory statements as well as without (ii) denying the possibility of divine causation in history. If/when/where God acts apart from mundane, natural laws of cause and effect, such actions are, by definition, beyond the scope of historical inquiry (despite having occurred, at least theoretically, in the past; see pp. 40–43). Finally, Webb briefly explains the specific methodological principles and tools (especially the criteria of authenticity) for historical Jesus research (54–82). One easily and perhaps inevitably gets the impression that the historiographical and methodological discussion in this chapter serves as a programmatic statement governing the rest of the book. However, Webb repeatedly acknowledges that this essay was the last to be written and summarizes—more or less—rather than establishes the view(s) of history, historiography, and method operative during the decade-long collaboration that resulted in this book. I think it regrettable that the group, either collectively or via a representative (such as Webb), did not produce and discuss at least a version of this essay prior to the historical analyses comprising the remaining chapters.

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