Naming and Framing New Testament History

“It is time to learn a common language; to master the technical vocabulary of historiography that will provide the framework for future dialog and conversations.”

See also: Beth M. Sheppard, The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament (Resources for Biblical Study 60; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012)

By Beth M. Sheppard
Duke University Divinity School, Durham, NC
August 2013

As summer wanes and faculty and students begin the annual migration back to centers of learning, the questions “Did you have a good summer?” and “Read any good books?” are heard frequently. Oddly enough, the best book I read this summer, hands down, was not one of the research texts I had been working through to prepare for teaching a fall class on Revelation, but a fantasy novel written by Patrick Rothfuss entitled The Name of the Wind.1 As an aficionado of all things related to the discipline of history, the book’s subtitle The Kingkiller Chronicle Day 1, was enough to catch my eye. But the sublime prose and creative caricature of a university system, in which the protagonist is a student, were enough to propel me not only through this first volume of the projected trilogy, but also through the one thousand plus pages of the second installment, The Wise Man’s Fear.2

The University, as the legendary institution of higher education is formally named in the novels, offers subjects that have an eerie verisimilitude with course requirements in our own real-world colleges and graduate schools. Students labor to master ancient languages (Adem, Eld Vintic, Ancient Autren, Old Mael) much as those of us in the field of Bible study Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic amongst others. The students at the University also immerse themselves in learning history. To that end, the apprentices in this special world spend countless hours in the archives of the University reading about the past. In fact, the diligent and dedicated learners occasionally find accounts of the same historical event with widely divergent details in the University’s badly cataloged and disorganized stacks. When faced with the problem of trying to figure out how the actual events of history did play out—given separate written witnesses and multiple versions of the same texts—the students are forced to engage in asking the types of critical questions we would recognize as redaction criticism and textual criticism.

But the most sought after and exclusive class offered in Rothfuss’ mystical academy is not history proper, but “Naming.” In actuality, Naming is a blend of what might be described as semiotics and metaphysics with a dash of “survey of methods” thrown into the mix. One key premise in this fictional course is that every object, emotion, person or phenomenon potentially has a descriptive shorthand, or name (or even a gesture in lieu of a written sign as one discovers in book two) that allows communication to take place. Even then, neither the act of communication nor the correspondence between signifier and thing signified is perfect. This is as true for us as it is in the imaginative realm created by Ruthfuss.

For example, let’s think about the exercise of an author developing a title (essentially a name) for his or her book. A book spine is only so large. The challenge is to find as few words as possible to stand in for a manuscript that likely weighs in at 80,000 words or more. Three or four words fit perfectly on a spine, a dozen or so is stretching it. Personally, I’m always tempted to cheat by adding a subtitle. Some people even have a talent for being clever with titles, such as David A. Fiensy demonstrates with his article on the Bible and Interpretation website—“The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus: Can You Dig It?” Isn’t that just the perfect title for a piece on methods used by archaeologists? While any title, or name, communicates a lot of information to the reader, only by reading the book or article can one determine the thesis, organizational scheme, and details of the argument. No title, be it humorous and eye-catching or beautiful and simple, can substitute for the contents of the full manuscript. The correlation between name and thing is always imperfect and incomplete.

In addition to book titles, the technical vocabularies that academic disciplines in the real world develop would fit well into Rothfuss’ fictional course on “Naming.” Indeed, students in New Testament Introduction classes put forth tremendous effort to acquire our specialized shorthand for concepts, theories and methods. We teach and students learn (hopefully) about “exegesis” and “Q” and “BD” (John’s Beloved Disciple) and “literary criticism” and “historical criticism” and “social-scientific history” and many, many other things besides. Each piece of technical vocabulary saves us a tremendous amount of time because a single term eliminates the need to write or speak entire paragraphs. When these names are used, everyone gets, if not the perfected definition, at least the gist of what is meant without having to spell it out in detail.

These symbol systems and specialized vocabularies, however, do not always translate well from academic discipline to academic discipline. This point is beautifully illustrated by thinking of a work that Francis Fukuyama christened, The End of History and the Last Man.3 For those of us who teach Revelation and other Christian apocalyptic texts, the title is evocative of the cosmic end, an end where God demonstrates God’s complete control of history and intervenes to disrupt human institutions and destroy injustice.4 In the early 1990’s when The End of History was new, however, the title had an entirely different connotation in history department circles. Given the rise of postmodernism, which pointed out that the very notion that time was a human construct, and that truth (and the past) could no longer be viewed in absolute terms, some historians in the late 1980’s early 1990’s questioned whether there was any difference between a work of history or fiction. If there wasn’t, they feared the discipline was essentially dead;5 history as a subject had come to an end. Thus, this same title, The End of History, viewed from the perspective of two different disciplines, history and biblical studies, had the potential to carry two completely divergent meanings. Yet, Fukuyama was playing a joke on the academy and his title actually meant neither of these things, but a third altogether. As a political scientist he was trying to make the point that given the dissolution of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy had reached the culmination or pinnacle of its development; its ultimate “end.” Liberal democracy did not cease to be. It had just reached a point where no further changes could be made to it. Fukuyama’s work became a staple in historiography courses, not because of its clever title, or because his thesis about liberal democracy was particularly compelling (a simple search in any library’s history or political science database will turn up articles by detractors), but because the philosophical approach to history that formed the methodological framework of the entire book—the speculative philosophy of history—was valued.6 Further, within the book are frank discussions of a methodological issue faced by all historians—determining the “scope”7 or how big or small a piece of the past informs a project and is studied. In this regard his treatment of universal history is particularly outstanding.

Shifting the subject just a bit, thinking of the wit behind Fukuyama’s title reminds me of an actual joke that was brought to my attention by one of my colleagues here at Duke. It too helps to demonstrate that there are huge differences in vocabulary (names) between those who are familiar with historiography (the methods of doing the craft of history as taught in history departments)8 and those who learn methods of historical interpretation as associated with biblical studies. It starts with the familiar trope, “How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?” The joke continues with a lengthy answer that highlights various methods and movements in historiography, the first of which may be boiled down to “If a Whig historian, only one.”9 In order for the humor to work, the reader has to know the definition of Whig history. That term is, I hazard to guess, not particularly common in biblical studies books and articles. I myself learned it neither in seminary nor while working on my PhD in New Testament, but in a graduate course in historiography that I took through Emporia State University’s history department several years after earning my doctorate. So, what is Whig history? It is a method associated with the era of the industrial revolution. It matured in a milieu in which historians valued progress and had great faith in humanity’s abilities to achieve whatever needed achieving. But many historians in the Whig era also regarded all periods of history prior to their own as woefully inferior and primitive. In fact, the term “Whig history” is used nowadays almost as a cipher for any work of history that takes a superior tone toward persons, events, or cultures in the past. Such a thread in any work of history is, essentially, a fallacy since past events are not second-rate to our own simply because they are temporally distant.

While there are terms used by historians that are not commonly found in biblical studies, so also is the reverse true. For example, not once during the course I took on historiography did I hear the term “social-science history.” Although there is a journal named Social Science History, which publishes articles that reflect the intersection of history and the other social sciences, and a Social Science History Association was founded in the 1970’s,10 the popular introductory historiography textbooks by Ernst Breisach and Georg Iggers do not treat “social science history” as a method or even use the term to denote a family of methods.11 “Social science history” doesn’t even, if memory serves me, appear in their respective indexes. By contrast, simply entering “social science history” in the search box on the Bible and Interpretation website results in page after page of hits. Go ahead. Try it. For historiographers I suspect that psychohistory, social history, Marxist history, and economic history, just to name a few, are so different from one another in 1) the way they use sources, 2) their respective philosophical underpinnings, 3) the scope of the material they treat, and 4) so many other elements that lumping them together would blur the very distinctive elements that students would need to master to effectively use these methods in writing history. In other words, the specific name for each individual method is a shorthand that helps students craft appropriate methodological frameworks for their history projects. “Social science history” is too broad a designation to assist effectively with this task.

So, this makes one wonder why the term is so popular in our field. I suspect it has to do with two factors. The first involves the polarization stemming from traditional historical criticism and issues related to faith, belief, and truth that marked biblical studies for many decades well into the twentieth century. Historians of secular subjects didn’t have to worry about tensions between methods and implications for belief. But we did. So (and I’m just hypothesizing here) when it came time to start employing newer methods of history, it was cleaner and neater just to have two groups of methods—the various philological based methods (redaction criticism, textual criticism, source criticism and so forth) called historical criticism and social-scientific methods (economic history, social history, etc.)—than to have to test and discuss each individual methodology’s interaction with established belief systems. The two names, “historical critical methods” and “social science methods” provided a shortcut that worked for the special concerns of our discipline.

The second likely reason that the umbrella term “social science history” may have been preferred was because it was safe. During the Cold War, for instance, it no doubt saved individual New Testament scholars lots of grief and kept academic dialogue more focused on the topics at hand to describe the method in a specific work A or B as “social science history” rather than “Marxist history.”12 Similarly, in its early days cultural history was savaged in the academy by historians who regarded works on everyday life to be inferior to traditional topics and who viewed those who used comic books or the Ladies Home Journal for sources as focusing on sub-par history. Rather than fight the stigma associated with cultural history, it no doubt was better for New Testament historians just to avoid the term “cultural history” completely when they were writing about the details of everyday life in first century Palestine.

Now, I don’t know if these two arguments are persuasive, but in my text, The Craft of History, I was able to identify biblical scholars who were using the many varied methods of modern historiography even if they weren’t employing the technical labels that their colleagues in history departments use freely. Because the scholars themselves didn’t use phrases like “Marxist history” or “psychohistory” or “cultural history” I was once asked by someone who read my book whether I thought the various authors I had profiled actually knew what specific historiographical methods they were using, or whether they had just stumbled on them by accident. Feel free to call me naïve, but I have no doubt that they knew.

Times have changed, however. The Cold War is over. Cultural history has come into its own. And topics about history and the New Testament are extraordinarily popular, as witnessed by the fact that Paul Anderson’s piece The John Jesus and History Project: New Glimpses of Jesus and a Bi-Optic Hypothesis (February 2010) is one of the most viewed articles on the Bible and Interpretation site.13 History-based approaches to studying the New Testament are an enduring facet of our discipline. I am not certain, though, that the term “social science history,” while it served its purpose in the past, is as helpful to our students as it might be at the present time. It may now lack the specificity that our students need to fully explore psychohistory, cultural history, economic history, and others. Furthermore, it does not adequately represent other new types of history which are not even based in the social sciences at all, like imaginative or counterfactual history. I also worry that without being able to name the various individual methods of history our interdisciplinary dialogues with our colleagues in departments of classics and history are not progressing as rapidly as they might. It is time to learn a common language; to master the technical vocabulary of historiography that will provide the framework for future dialog and conversations. To borrow some imagery and adapt some prose from the novelist Ruthfuss, we need to catch hold of just a few pieces of the names14 that will allow us to have the power to propel our discipline to the next level.


1 New York: DAW, 2007.

2 New York: DAW, 2011. The working title of final volume of the projected trilogy, according to the Wikia “Kingkiller Wiki” is The Doors of Stone

3 New York: Free Press, 1992.

4 Stephen L. Cook, The Apocalyptic Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 25.

5 See Georg Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), 188. For a fuller discussion of the postmodern challenge to history and postmodernism, including some solutions that have been presented to the quandary postmodernism raises, please see my Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament, Resources for Biblical Study 60 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 164-169.

6 See Sheppard, Craft of History, 74-74 on Fukuyama and 68-74 for definitions of speculative philosophy of history and how it differs from analytical history.

7 Fukuyama, End of History, 56, and the entirety of chapter 5. Also, on scope more generally, Sheppard, 38-41.

8 I am using the term “historiography” as it would be used in university history departments. Ancient historiography is just one period or phase in the development of how the business of history is done.

9 Thank you to Meredith Riedel. The full text is available online at Phil Wards, “Research Fundermentals” (sic) blog:

10 The association website acknowledges that the term “social science history” has had various meanings since the 1970’s:

11 Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century.

12 See Sheppard, Craft of History, 143-44, for examples.

13 According to statistics on the website at the time I was writing this article, it ranked as a most viewed piece during July of 2013, February 2010, September and October 2012, as well as April, May, and June of 2013.

14 Rothfuss, Wise Man’s Fear, 655.

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