How do we determine historical reliability?

In my previous post, I started to explore the question of “historical reliability” but got sidetracked into a variety of related issues.  To recap, there’s a spectrum of thought about whether historical accounts in the Bible are completely reliable or totally useless, or something in-between.

My own faith in Jesus Christ is built on the Gospels having met, in my judgment, enough of the criteria for historical reliability to make me believe that the main events (the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the basic outline of His teachings, the idea that He worked miracles) actually happened.  I don’t claim perfection for these documents, but as the phrase goes, if even half of what they said about this guy is true, then surely He was the Son of God.

Accepting the Gospels largely at face value seems the most straightforward way to explain the history that followed, in which this new movement was launched with such initial force as to eventually overcome almost 300 years of antagonism from the powers that be. And in purely historical terms – number of sources, number of manuscripts, etc. – the New Testament stacks up favorably against both the Old Testament and the scriptures of other faiths, as well as what we think we know about famous secular figures like Socrates or Alexander the Great.  I’m not saying the case for Jesus as Son of God – or even as something different from a mere mortal – is beyond a reasonable doubt.  But it’s good enough for me to act on – even commit to – in my own life, despite the doubts that linger.

Of course, others have looked at the same documents.  Some people come away more impressed than me, and more willing to extend the same reliability to the rest of the Bible, and thus embrace conservative forms of Christianity.  Others come away much less impressed.  As discussed in the previous post, a small minority of secular scholars believes Jesus never existed at all.  Other nonbelievers see the supernatural elements of the story as most likely a hoax, a myth, a mass hallucination, a misunderstanding, a corrupted oral tradition, or something to that effect.

So what’s the difference between them and me?

For one thing, I bring to the table a set of background beliefs about God, generically speaking, namely, that He exists, and is a Creator, and as the source of our consciousness is “personal”, and as the source of our conscience is good.  Natural science, even if I try to imagine what it could be capable of in the far future, seems inherently incapable of explaining everything.  Christ fits the bill of what I would be looking for in God’s appearance history better than any of the alternatives, so there’s an openness to the supernatural parts.

Among the vocal skeptics of Christianity, those who have spent the most effort engaging the Bible that is, the predominant worldview seems to be atheism.  Their background beliefs are naturalistic, meaning the believe the laws of nature have no author; they are simply the ultimate facts that explain everything that exists.  They don’t find evidence of Jesus as the Son of God in the documents, because they don’t believe in God to begin with.

It has always seemed to me that these background beliefs are the key difference, rather than any real differences in our understandings of what objective qualities of the documents might define historical reliability.

So it caught my eye when a recent article in Popular Science outlined two of the key criteria for giving researchers “a high degree of certainty in the historical accuracy” of a group of centuries-old texts.

In a recently published paper in Evolution and Human Behavior, researchers have found that killers in Iceland’s Viking society often had larger family networks than their victims.

Three Icelandic family sagas provided the data. These sagas function as family histories, recording important events like births, weddings and deaths, as well as events like feuds with other families. Additionally, they were almost always written within living memory of the events and often cross-referenced one another’s events. This gave the researchers a high degree of certainty in the historical accuracy of the family saga deaths, and the reasons behind them.

Intriguing.  In order for a group of texts to be considered historically accurate, they should be “written within living memory of the events” and “cross-reference one another’s events”.  This sounded familiar to me, as the four canonical Gospels are generally believed to be written within “living memory”, i.e. during the lifetimes of some who would have been around during the years of Jesus’s public ministry.  And they reference many of the same events, especially the three “synoptic” Gospels, with the Gospel of John and the epistles having different approaches/styles but providing occasional overlap as well.

Pinning down exact dates with these things is difficult.  Typically, Jesus’s ministry can be narrowed down a range of about A.D. 27-36, as with any ancient text, is difficult, and in this case highly controversial.  Secular summaries of the matter often cite a range of something like “70-100 C.E.”, while Christian writers argue for earlier dates (and stick with the traditional A.D. notation), and hostile writers argue for later dates.

These are complicated debates, but even the latest dates still allow for a few elderly contemporaries of Jesus to be assisting with the Gospels.  It is worth keeping in mind of course that there is textual evidence within the Gospels suggesting earlier written sources now lost to us.  I think this article by J.P. Moreland gives a helpful perspective on all of these issues.

The paper about the Icelandic family sagas, “Family Counts: Deciding When to Murder Among the Icelandic Vikings”, can be found here.  It’s worth reading for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it’s an interesting glimpse into the worldview of those who view human beings through a purely naturalistic lens.  Don’t get me wrong, I accept the theory of evolution as an explanation of our biological history, and the source material of the animal part of our nature.  But in addition to the animal part I also believe we have a God-given soul, which in turn chooses between the competing desires of the animal self (loud and practical), the conscience (whisperings of God), and the darker self (whisperings of the Devil).  The last part is probably the most foreign to modern ears, and while admittedly speculative, it rings true to me.

The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two.

— from Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

One can try to explain human behavior through the animal lens only, which is what it seems contributors to Evolution and Human Behavior are axiomatically expected to do. It’s a simpler model, but I don’t think it’s a good enough fit to actual human behavior as observed, or to life as it’s actually experienced from the inside. Furthermore, it also cannot explain why we experience anything at all.

The evolution-only account of human behavior leads to even the greatest of sins, and their restraint by the most basic of moral impulses, being reframed solely in terms of genetic selfishness.  In the paper at hand, the abstract lays out the main findings.

In small scale societies, lethal attacks on another individual usually invite revenge by the victim’s family. We might expect those who perpetrate such attacks to do so only when their own support network (mainly family) is larger than that of the potential victim so as to minimise the risk of retaliation. Using data from Icelandic family sagas, we show that this prediction holds whether we consider biological kin or affinal kin (in-laws): on average, killers had twice as many relatives as their victims. These findings reinforce the importance of kin as a source of implicit protection even when they are not physically present. The results also support Hughes’ (1988) claim that affines are biological kin because of the shared genetic interests they have in the offspring generation.

And the body of the text contains similarly clinical content.

Among humans, the propensity to hold back from killing close relatives (Daly & Wilson 2001; Johnson & Johnson 1991; Dunbar et al. 1995) has been attributed to the operation of kin selection (Hamilton 1964).

It’s not that the conclusion sounds wrong to me (yes, “family counts” in life and it seems clear that the animal self is in agreement with this).  But there are better reasons not to murder someone besides (a) he/she is a close relative of your own, or (b) that he/she has a large family or lots of allies.

It’s as if Christ were anticipating this type of cold logic when He spoke about virtue as good things we do that have no motive from the animal self.  He de-emphasized biological family ties on numerous occasions, and taught that altruism doesn’t really count as altruism if you are benefiting from it (Luke 14:12-14, and especially Matthew 6). If evolutionary biology were the whole story, His teaching would be received by all as complete nonsense, rather than something that, while challenging to our animal selves, also touches hearts deeply.

But I am digressing again.  Getting back to the Icelandic sagas, the part of the “Family Counts” paper I really wanted to highlight today was the section on historical reliability.  The key passages are as follows:

Although it is inevitable that written accounts of historical events will reflect the victor’s viewpoint, there are at least four good reasons for considering the Icelandic sagas as being broadly reliable as historical documents. First, quantitative analysis of the social networks recorded in the Icelandic family sagas reveals that their structure is very similar to that for natural human social networks in the modern world. Saga networks are small world with a power law degree distribution and an exponential cutoff, and contain strong community structuring, and are quite different to the networks found in fiction and myths from the same period (e.g. Anglo-Saxon and Irish folk tales) (MacCarron & Kenna 2013). In other words, the sagas have the appearance of describing real social worlds rather than fictional ones.

While I am sympathetic to the challenges of saying something new and being quantitative about it (as a finance practitioner, I consume a lot of similar research about the stock market), these kinds of techniques have their limitations.  I wonder whether one can (as a preparation to doing a quantitative study on murder) judge the reliability of historical texts by quantitative social-network analysis.

The MacCarron & Kenna paper is online here if you are curious.  I think the authors of “Family Counts” are stretching the interpretation a bit.  Admittedly I’m new to this niche and only gave it a cursory review, but it seems like MacCarron & Kenna acknowledge that the historicity of the Icelandic sagas is a matter of debate and the model they introduce isn’t at all definitive in resolving it.  Their model is mostly descriptive of the sagas rather than comparative.  The brief reference to the contrast with one Anglo-Saxon and one Irish tale also notes quantitative similarity between the Icelandic sagas and the Iliad (whose historicity is not discussed).

But to be charitable, let’s say that what this first point is really getting at is “do the texts read like non-fiction?”.  Here’s the English translation of one of them.  As with the Gospels, each of us will make up our own minds as to the degree of fiction or non-fiction therein.

Second, many of the details reported in sagas can be confirmed from independent historical and archaeological sources, notably the Landnámabók which provides a detailed record of land settlement and transactions.

This sounds like good practice in assessing historical reliability as well.  In terms of the Gospels, the context of a specific place and time for the main events – Judea and Samaria in the time of Pontius Pilate – is part of why they sound like non-fiction to me, whereas the early books of the Old Testament are more suspect.  Corroborating documentary and physical evidence is great when it’s available, although there’s only so much archaeology can do to resolve these matters.  One interesting fact – until relatively recently, there was no physical evidence even of the existence of Pontius Pilate, the most powerful man in the region in Jesus’s time.  The discovery of the Pilate Stone in 1961 was helpful in this regard, but it just shows how unreasonable it is to expect extensive proof to be available to us for the events in the Gospels if they are accurate.  Then again, maybe God has good reasons for not making such proof available.

Third, many individuals appear in several different sagas. Hence, it is implausible to suppose that all saga compilers, writing independently, would have failed to record the same individual’s family relationships where these actually existed, especially given the importance of rights of inheritance to land through both sides of the family.

Multiple attestation is a sound principle.  In my own analysis of the Gospels, I do pay more attention to things that happen in more than one source.  I’m more confident that Jesus rose from the dead (4 Gospels) and feed a crowd of 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes (4 Gospels) than in, say the visit of the three wise men (Matthew’s Gospel only).

Fourth, under Norse law, a murder entitled all the victim’s relatives to compensation, either in the form of a revenge murder or blood money (the latter in quantities closely specified by degree of relationship to the victim) (Byock 2001). If no claims for compensation are mentioned in a saga, it is almost certain that this is because the victim had no family in Iceland rather than that the saga compiler simply failed to mention it.

Not sure if there’s a parallel here for the Gospels.  This last point seems specific to the study they are doing on the propensity of the human animal to murder as it relates to family size (sounds like mob movies would be required viewing to do a really thorough job).  In any event, the punchline of this section of the paper is

In short, contemporary historians now generally accept that the family sagas are historically reliable, at least as far as individual identities and the main events are concerned (Firth 2012).

That’s all I really think one needs to say about the Gospels in order for them to have a serious impact on the direction of one’s life.  And I think the Gospels fare quite well on these criteria.  It remains to be seen, however, one could make some kind of quantitative study of them, claim the main events are historically reliable, and successfully publish this in Evolution and Human Behavior.

To be clear, I’m not trying to enter into the debate on the Icelandic sagas, or cast doubt on the quality of the authors’ work as it regards the animal portion of our natures.  My point here is simply that the Gospels are being dismissed because of what they say, not because of a simple defect in documentation.

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