In my first post on this topic, there were several helpful comments. Although his post was a bit more hostile than I would have preferred, I did appreciate C.J. Obrien’s comment. C.J. wrote:
It is a misuse of terminology to conflate the fact that history is always reconstructive with "revisionist history". That term has a meaning which you completely obscure. Revisionist history is tendentious. It begins with a conclusion and cherry-picks evidence to support it. It is pseudo-historiography with an agenda.C.J., this is exactly how most Gospel scholars view the Gospels:
1. tendentious - i.e. they have a tendency to favor a particularly (Jewish/) Christian perspective.
2. They begin with conclusions concerning Jesus as the resurrected son of God and cherry-pick evidence to support this claim (because they honestly believed it was true).
3. They are pseudo-historiography with an agenda. - The term historiography has a fairly wide range of meanings, so I’ll leave this one be. But the Gospels certainly have agendas. Every commentary on the Gospels tells me so. The Gospel of John tells me that it is written so that I might believe – sounds like an agenda to me.
For the record, I’m not sure than the category of “revisionist history” is the most helpful modern analogue to discuss ancient biography for the very reason that C.J. illustrates. People generally prefer denotative and connotative values more than etymological values. But perhaps the category is sufficiently jarring for our purposes. A change in nomenclature is one way to get people to think about reality differently—but this isn’t the only way. For example, we don’t believe that the sun “sets” or “rises” anymore, but we keep those antiquated denotations around anyway. I tend to buy the general principle of “words shape worlds”, so I’m simply pointing out that the concept of “revision” might be useful.
Back to my main point: Even if the Gospels are “revisionist histories” (and I’m not saying that they are), they would still offer extremely valuable historical data.
Can you imagine if we found four revisionist histories of the life of Abraham, each at variance, but with significant overlap? And what if these were written within fifty years of his death? Nerds all over the globe would be jumping for joy! Or rioting in the streets, I suppose. Probably both.
If we turned up four revisionist histories of the life of Abraham we would analyze them carefully, offer arguments about the tendencies, purpose, audience, themes, authorship, etc. of these documents. Then we’d come up with the best explanation of the relationship that these documents have with each other. There would be detractors, but eventually a few theories about their origins would emerge.
At the end of the day, we’d know significantly more about the life of Abraham than we do now. And please hear my point: we could achieve all of this without having to prove the accuracy of these revisionist histories. It simply would not matter if these biographies were tendentious and fraught with agenda. As long as the agendas were discernible, we would be able to point out the literary tendencies of these documents. Even better, if these agendas were divergent, we could postulate the historical memory that most plausibly explains their divergent distortions. Or in simple terms, what portrait of Abraham bests explains the varying portraits of all four revisions?
This is what I've termed the triangulation of memory refraction. I do it by analyzing the title "Son of David" in this fancy book here.