A Critique of Certain Uncritical Assumptions in Modern Historiography

Article excerpt

In the editor's introduction to a recent publication we are given insight into F. W. Maitland's religious opinions by way of his "enthusiastic response" to a letter to The Times in which the following viewpoint was set forth:

We teach all this [the creation, the fall, the deluge, the stories of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, etc.] at the expense of the taxpayers, not only as history, but as history of Divine inspiration, although most thinking men (including not a few dignitaries of the Church) have long ago come to the conclusion that these old legends are not to be taken as historical at all; that they are, in fact, mythology.... The late Sir Leslie Stephen, as good a man as ever lived, used to say that he no more objected to his children being told the story of Goliath than to their being told the story of Blunderbore; he was well content that they should read fairy stories, but he did object to their being taught fairy stories as history of Divine truth, and that belief in them as such was essential to morality! 1

Maitland's assumption-or agreement with the assumption-that Biblical materials should be regarded essentially as faith documents and not as veridical, historical sources is by no means unique to him. William H. McNeill gives no weight to the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in his attempt to explain the success of early Christianity.2 He asserts that the historian cannot deal with miracle questions: They are religious, not historical, in character.

And both secularists and liberal Biblical scholars agree that one of the most powerful reasons for not teaching "fairy stories as history of Divine truth" is the so-called "assured results" of the higher criticism of Scriptural materials. The Biblical documents for the most part-the critics tell us-are not firsthand, eyewitness accounts of the events they describe but the product of later editing and redaction, such that they are no more and no less than reflections of the faith stance of their editors.3

In this brief essay we wish to take issue with these critical assumptions. It is our contention that (1) miracles can-and must-be taken with historical seriousness by the historian, and that (2) the historical-critical method of dismembering Biblical texts, far from revealing the true character of Bible narratives, is simply bad historical scholarship, whether employed within or without the theological sphere.


Antony Flew well summarizes the case against treating miracles as historical events:

The basic propositions are: first, that the present relics of the past cannot be interpreted as historical evidence at all, unless we presume that the same fundamental regularities obtained then as still obtain today; second, that in trying as best he may to determine what actually happened the historian must employ as criteria all his present knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible; and, third, that, since miracle has to be defined in terms of practical impossibility the application of these criteria inevitably precludes proof of a miracle.4

Flew's argument is really two arguments in disguise, and we shall take up each in turn. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that the proponent of miracles has no right to argue for them on the basis of a consistent underlying method of investigation (empirical method) since one cannot assume its absolute regularity and applicability and then use it to prove deviations from regularity. Once a miracle is granted, there would be no reason to consider empirical method as necessarily applicable without exception, so it could perfectly well be inapplicable to the investigation of the miracle claim in the first place.

But here a lamentable confusion is introduced between what may be termed formal or heuristic regularity and substantive regularity. To investigate anything of a factual nature, empirical method must be employed. …