Tough Questions Answered

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Can Historians Use Anonymous Sources?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A common complaint about the reliability of the letters and books contained in the New Testament is that we don’t know, for sure, who wrote all of these documents.  In particular, the four Gospels are singled out as being anonymous since there is nothing in the text of the four Gospels that says, “So-and-so wrote this Gospel.”

There are many historical scholars who do believe that we can identify the authors of the Gospels and most of the other letters in the New Testament, but what if we could not?  What if the authors of these documents were unknown?  Would we have to throw out the contents?  Are they worthless, in that case, for historical investigation?

Historical scholar Mike Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus, says “no.”  Licona first answers the charge that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses:

Bracketing the fact that a number of scholars have taken a contrary position, this challenge is not unique to the New Testament literature.  No surviving account of the life of Alexander the Great was written by an eyewitness.  Tacitus and Suetonius were not eyewitnesses to the majority of the events they reported.  Nevertheless, historians remain confident that they are able to recover the past to varying degrees without ever knowing who their sources were.

Historian C. Fasolt argues that Paul’s letter to the Roman church is helpful as a historical source “only on the assumption that it was written by Saint Paul.”  Is Fasolt right?  Licona notes historian M. S. Cladis’s response to Fasolt:

This is going to be news to countless social historians of the religions of the ancient Mediterranean basin who investigate archaeological and textual work without always knowing the specifics of the exact agents involved.  Indeed, these historians are investigating the society that shaped the agents, even if they do not know most of the agents’ names (and all that this means).

They collect, analyze, and interpret evidence from a variety of sources—monuments and tombs, literary texts and shopping lists—in order to learn something important about the socio-historical circumstances in which people, like Paul, lived, moved, and had their being.  The historian of antiquity, then, can learn much about the past from the ‘Letter to the Romans’ whether or not that text was actually written by Paul.

Here is the takeaway point: even if we grant that the books and letters of the New Testament are anonymous, we can still gather important historical information from those texts.  Anonymity of the sources is not a death knell for historical New Testament studies, and should not be used as some kind of sweeping indictment of the texts.  We can know what happened to Jesus and his disciples two thousand years ago, using the New Testament documents as our sources.


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Comments

  • Ggodat

    Having an anonymous account for an event does not discredit it! Just ask Crime Stoppers…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Ryan/511764596 Andrew Ryan

    Anonymous accounts are not admissible in court. You can ask to have your identity kept secret, but you have to provide it in the first place.

  • Ggodat

    Who said anything about “in court”?? I can call Crime Stoppers and provide anonymous information “leading” to the prosecution and arrest of a criminal and never step into a courtroom. Obviously state and federal police departments use anonymous information to get warrants and arrest people.
    See the attached: http://www.fdap.org/downloads/articles_and_outlines/anonymous_tips.pdf

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    If the New Testament documents are sufficient historical sources regardless of anonymity—why do Christian apologists spend so much effort attempting to prove the traditional authorship of the documents?

    The simple answer is we all recognize this is a weighing argument—identifiable sources and eyewitness accounts tend to hold greater weight than non-identified or non-eyewitness accounts. It is not an all-or-nothing: Accept ALL anonymous historical sources or accept NO anonymous historical sources. It is a statement regarding the weight to be given to documents written anonymously without identifying their source.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    I don’t see apologists spending a lot of time proving traditional authorship. I have only written a couple of posts on authorship in four years. That hardly qualifies as spending a lot of effort.

    The reason I write about traditional authorship at all is because it is important to Christian laypeople who are told by skeptics that the sources of the NT are totally unknown. I want them to understand that there are good reasons to believe that the traditional authors are the true sources for the NT documents.

    This is not for dry, academic reasons. After all, these aren’t mere historical figures. They are apostles and early followers of Jesus, the Son of God. These authors are extremely important in the hearts of believing Christians.

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt, if this is not a big deal for you, why do you choose the fringe position?
    -
    For every fringe/non-mainstream/discredited/unevidenced position you advocate, your future arguments become less persuasive.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Boz,
    Since you’ve disagreed with almost 100% of the posts I’ve ever written over the past couple years, I’m not overly concerned about whether my future posts will be persuasive to you. But thanks for the advice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Ryan/511764596 Andrew Ryan

    They can arrest someone, but without corroborative evidence they’ll quickly have to release them again. Bottom-line is that any information you provide will have to be checked out. So sure, the bible can make anonymous claims, but unless we can verify it or check it out in some way, it’s got no more value than fiction.

  • Ggodat

    If you read the link i provided it clearly stated that an anonymous tip was made to 911 that a person wearing a plad shirt was brandishing a gun. The police arrived and saw a person wearing a plad shirt. That was all they needed to search the guy, who by the way was found to have a concealed weapon. There was no corroborative evidence.
    Now, i realize that for us to have belief in the gospels there needs to be evidence to support them but as far as i’m concerned there is more than enough evidence and most of it has been clearly explained on this blog.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Ryan/511764596 Andrew Ryan

    “That was all they needed to search the guy, who by the way was found to have a concealed weapon. There was no corroborative evidence. ”

    Ggodat, them finding the concealed weapon WAS the corroborative evidence! They didn’t just ASSUME he had one, they didn’t charge him for having the weapon without looking, they didn’t put him in court and say “We KNOW you had the weapon because an anonymous tip told us you did”.

    No, they checked, and they FOUND THE WEAPON! That’s corroboration!

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.sciba.3 Don Sciba

    Beautiful reply!

  • Ggodat

    They did just assume he had a weapon. Why do you think they searched him? And People are charged with crimes all the time without corroborative evidence. You should spend a day in court! Sometimes people even get convicted based on circumstantial evidence.

  • Andrew Ryan

    They searched him for corroborating evidence! And circumstantial or not, people don’t get sent down purely on the basis of anon testimony. Sure, on the basis of one person’s word, but not an anonymous person. This analogy is not helping you.

  • Boz

    When we are in agreement, there is not much to say :)

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Nevertheless, historians remain confident that they are able to recover the past to varying degrees without ever knowing who their sources were.

    Sounds to me like Mikey is being disingenuous here. Ancient historians often tell us what the sources for their stories are. The extant biographies of Alexander the Great tell us that their sources were the biographies that were written by Alexander’s contemporaries. Those varying degrees vary to the extent that we can figure out who the sources were. The less we know about the sources, the less confident we can be.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    Please read the comments guidelines. You are questioning Licona’s motives by calling him disingenuous.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Oh c’mon Bill. “Disingenuous” is a perfectly legitimate word meaning lacking in candor or frankness. If you wanted to accuse me of being disrespectful for referring to Licona as “Mikey,” I would have accepted the criticism, but “disingenuous” was the mildest word I could think of to describe a statement that I considered to be nothing less than intentionally misleading about the importance of being able to identify the sources that ancient writers used. Would you care to address that substantive point?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    “Intentionally misleading” is something you cannot possibly know about Mike Licona’s words. You can say he is factually incorrect, or that his argument has flaws, or that he is mistaken, but you cross the line when you think you can get inside his mind and detect that he is intentionally and knowingly trying to deceive people with his words. I do not want that sort of thing on the blog any more. Period. If you feel that you simply cannot hold back from ascribing motives and intentions to people, then you should just go to another blog where that is acceptable. It does not fly here any more. I am tired of it and it does nothing but poison the atmosphere.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Bill,

    How about this: I think that the statement is factually incorrect and I think Licona is too smart not to know that it’s factually incorrect. Would that pass muster?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    No. Stop after “factually incorrect” and you’ll be fine. Tell us why he is incorrect, but dissecting his intentions is not appropriate.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    I didn’t dissect his intentions. I lauded his intelligence.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    The historian says: “They
    collect, analyze, and interpret evidence from a variety of sources—monuments
    and tombs, literary texts and shopping lists—in order to learn something
    important about the socio-historical circumstances in which people, like Paul,
    lived, moved, and had their being.”

    Bill Pratt concludes ”We can know what happened to
    Jesus and his disciples two thousand years ago, using the New Testament
    documents as our sources.”

    That’s a bit of a leap, n’est ce pas?

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