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Historical method

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Within modern historical studies the historical method (historical-critical method) forms coherent hypotheses of past events by showing clarity of the cause and effect chain. This is of utmost importance for writing history (See: Historiography) because historical methods construct genealogies of events that make up the life of a particular historical character.[1] The methodology can lend the exegete or student of Scripture highly contextualized readings of ancient religious texts.

As Andrew S. Kulikovsky states in An Evaluation of historical-critical methods:

The overall purpose of historical-critical methods is to investigate what actually happened in the events described or alluded to (Marshall 1985, p. 126). Krentz (1975, p. 35-36) gives the following goals of historical investigation:
  1. Present a body of facts that show what actually happened and why.
  2. Illuminate the past, creating a comprehensive picture of a culture's own record of history.
  3. Understand the significance of events and interpret them.
  4. Understand motives as well as actions.

Marshall (1985, p. 128-130) points out that reading Biblical accounts raises the following historical problems or questions:

  1. Discrepancies with parallel Biblical accounts.
  2. Discrepancies with non-Biblical material.
  3. Historical improbabilities.
  4. Supernatural occurrences.
  5. Creation/Modification by the early church
  6. Literary genre.
  7. Insufficient evidence.[2]

The historical method is an agreed upon set of rules and guidelines that are used by professional historians to read primary sources and write history. It allows historians to build conceptualizations of "factual descriptions of events and circumstances in the past."[3] Study of the extent of the method and assumptions found within falls under the philosophy of history, or more specifically epistemology. Although knowledge gained from the historical method does not contain the empirical value of knowledge gained from the scientific method, consistent elements remain within the theoretical language used to articulate it.

The methodology is also always focused on determining historicity of events recorded in ancient texts. Historicity deals with the actuality of a person or event in the past. Historicity is opposed to myth or prehistory and so is considered within the realm of what is referred to as recorded history. The goal is to find the actual history, the kernel of actual past events being written about in sacred religious texts or poetry. Active scholarship has developed around the Bible and the Illiad by Homer, precisely because of archeological finds that allow fertile ground for dialogue and debate. This is especially true in the case of the Bible, in that archeological finds produce evidence for or against certain claims, which lend toward historicity or lack of historicity within the texts.


Michael Licona, a scholar of history and ancient literature points out and articulates the fundamentals of historiography and philosophy of history more broadly his book, Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Licona analyzes historical method but does so while interacting with the historical Jesus. The historical method is shown to necessitate competing hypotheses for its correct function. Competing hypotheses are used as a counterweight to the historical hypothesis Licona arrives at in regard to the specific historical event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By knowing that counter hypotheses are on the table at the same time there is recognition of the need for specific types of criteria of explanation and reasoning for any viable historical method to deduce historicity about an event alleged to of happened in the past.

Historical scholars have generally put forth five fundamentals constituting an historical method of investigating past events. Within the work of Licona he maintains the historical nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from within a critical realist historical method. The explanatory criteria Licona argues for and defends allows discovery of a real past, not lost in eisegesis but found by studying the background of the author and engaging scholars of such by weighing their opposing hypotheses.

Explanatory scope

The amount of established facts accounted for by the hypothesis used to explain them. The established facts of an event or person in history is called the historical bedrock. The evidences of the historical bedrock, in regard to the event of the resurrection of Christ have been systemically developed, most notably by Gary Habermas, into methodologies called the minimal facts approach for example.

Explanatory power

If a hypothesis put forth by the historian does not account for the minimal facts, or historical bedrock the hypothesis lacks explanatory power. The hypothesis should be able to clearly and easily deal with, for instance, the historical bedrock of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The explanatory power of the historical method deals with the factual underbelly of a historical event. The hypothesis, in other words, should be able to deal with the facts surrounding an event, deduced through textual and archaeological evidence, with the least amount of vagueness and ambiguity. Explanatory power that appears to be lacking within an hypothesis used to explain the facts of an event, will appeal to ad hoc elements. Explanatory power has the easy chance of not going far enough to fully explain the breadth and scope of the minimal facts. Historical methodology does allow imagination for the outcome of interpretation in order to fill in the gaps so to speak but only if the changes to the hypothesis do not make criterion 3, or plausability suffer.


Implication of known background information must point clearly toward the hypothesis presented. There is neutral plausibility as well where the hypothesis is neither plausible nor implausible.

Less ad hoc

A historical hypothesis that contains ad hoc element attempts to go to far, making unwarranted assumptions, when trying to explain the historical bedrock of a specific event recorded in a text or discovered by way of archaeology. The less ad hoc criterion has also been called simplicity. Essentially highlighting the need for fewer assumptions and presuppositions. A non-evidenced assumption is an ad hoc element.


The least important criteria. If the hypothesis provides possible solutions to or understanding of other periphery areas without confusing areas both held at center view and with confidence, then the hypothesis has an illumination element.[4]

The Horizon

Main Article: Worldview

An individuals horizon consists of the cultural background, educational upbringing and overall developmental preconceived notions and underlying philosophical frameworks utilized when in the process of ascertaining a certain aspect or conclusion based in history.[5] One of the central principles of the historical-critical school is the push away from modern assumptions replacing assumptions present within the text (See: Postmodernism). Literary criticism must be at play at all levels and strong knowledge of the background of the author is critical to honest interpretation of the intent of the author and the point of the passage in question (See: Exegesis). Secular and ecclesiastical historians both may utilize archaeological finds like pottery, coins and skeletal remains of ancient peoples. But even more intimate to history specifically is artifacts such as ancient textual manuscripts. For the historical method to function the person attempting to interpret text data must understand and isolate their own worldview in the process. The assumptions present within the worldview of an individual reader can be used like a prism, coloring ancient texts in a way familiar and easy. Individual biases of the reader are always maintained during reading and interpretation. The goal within a historical-critical methodology of history is that the reader contextualize not only the interpretive process but the end product as well within the social and religious world of the author. An exegetical reading is favored by most historical-critical scholars. Events like the resurrection of Jesus become either historical fact or merely symbolic fiction (See: Mythology) depending on the initial interpretation gained from certain historical methods and assumptions in the first place.

Textual manuscripts carry with them a wide and deep background such as the culture, scientific discoveries, laws and theories, prominent philosophies, social structures as well as political and economic surroundings are all necessary to bring into the fold of an interpretive method (See: Hermeneutics). If the historical methodology is invoked during study of texts, the immediate contexts of contemporary society and the world are always present. The persons horizon immediately begins to conflict with the ancient horizon found within the text being read. Within an exegetical method of reading, the horizon distinguishes itself as the influential present of contemporary society that a reader lives in, while giving more weight to the author by trying to understand the historical background context. The horizon (often referred to as a worldview) of the reader must be understood and put aside when lowering the weight of historical criticism upon the Bible or any other ancient text for that matter. The point of exegesis for the reader is to let the contextual worldview of the author not only inform but replace their own. From that perspective can an accurate conclusion be entertained and thus allowed to lead to accurate reflection of what the author intended.


  1. A Sense of History: Some Components, Number 11. Nothing is more important for historians than to chart cause and effect -- even though nothing is harder to prove by Gerald W. Schlabach.
  2. An Evaluation of historical-critical methods By Andrew S. Kulikovsky B.App.Sc(Hons). January 20, 1997
  3. Philosophy of History First published Sun Feb 18, 2007; substantive revision Fri Sep 28, 2012
  4. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic 2010), pg. 110-111
  5. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic 2010), pg. 38

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