It might surprise some people to know that, even several years after Darwin and Wallace made public their independent discoveries and insights regarding natural selection, the vast majority of Lamarckians were not persuaded. Similarly, some die-hard Steady-State proponents never embraced the Big Bang. Fred Hoyle was promoting variations of his Steady State theory, publishing papers as late as 1993. Even in the “hard” sciences it often takes a new generation to come of age before the paradigm can shift.
More often than you might expect, progress requires this combination — the old guard dying off and new scholars coming of age, cutting their teeth on promising new research — for new ideas to take hold. And take note, I’m not talking about ideas that form the basis of our self-identity, our place in the universe, or our salvation. It’s simply human nature to hold on to ideas that have worked well for us, especially if we’ve held them for decades. Consider, then, how difficult it would be to change your mind if it meant the difference between eternal bliss and rotting in a hole in the dirt until you’re dust.
The limited utility of scholarly consensus
Scholarly consensus in any field has somewhat limited usefulness. It tells us what most people think within a given field at a given time, but does it really give us an insight on fundamental, universal truths? Probably not, but it at least gives us a starting point.
A little over seven years ago Mark Goodacre at his NT Blog asked, “What is consensus?” Tied up in that question, of course, are related questions pertaining to how we determine consensus, what is its value, whom do we ask, and so on. By all means, if you haven’t read it, you should, and while you’re at it, you should check out his follow-up post, “Less of a consensus on consensus.” It’s unfortunate that some of the links Dr. Goodacre refers to are no longer available. At the bottom of this post, I’ll provide a list of alternate links made possible by the Internet Wayback Machine.
In Dr. Michael Pahl’s original post (see Wayback link below), he asked four probing questions:
- First, consensus is a very slippery notion. What is consensus? I wouldn’t think it’s unanimity, at least not in dealing with such large and diverse groups of people. And it’s certainly not simple majority. So what is it? 70%? 80%? Can 90+% safely be considered consensus?
- Second, who gets to be part of the polling sample? Only those working within a particular historical or theological perspective or methodological paradigm? All those who have published scholarly monographs on the subject? All scholars who have studied the subject in depth, whether they’ve published on it or not? And who determines what makes a “scholar” or appropriate authority on the subject?
- Third, how does one actually go about doing the polling to assess consensus? One can meticulously search through all relevant literature on the subject and record opinions in a table (which is sometimes done on specific issues), but this then leads to some of the questions in the previous point, and one often quickly realizes that individual scholarly perspectives on any given issue are too complex to fit neatly into a simplistic table or scale.
- Finally, even if one can get past the previous questions, what does consensus prove? The consensus in 1976 on Paul’s perspective on the Torah and his understanding of “justification by faith” was pretty strong, I would guess, until Ed Sanders provoked a Kuhnian paradigm shift with his Paul and Palestinian Judaism the following year. Now there is as much variegation in perspective on these issues as some of Sanders’ respondents have claimed was evident in the nomism and soteriology of first century Judaism. Did the consensus prior to Sanders’ book make that so-called “Lutheran” view correct? Does the lack of consensus since mean that no one has any real grasp of any of the issues? [bold emphasis mine]
Can we all agree that we agree?
Dr. Goodacre responds to Pahl’s questions with some comments and observations. Goodacre notes that when scholars appeal to consensus, they are expecting that most if not all of their readers would nod in agreement. In fact they’re going out on a limb, because of a professional influence at work that “constrains the scholar not to make an appeal unless s/he thinks that the appeal will meet with widespread recognition.”
And with respect to the questions of who gets to vote and how do we count them, Goodacre writes:
. . . I am not sure that consensus can be easily and necessarily equated with “the majority view”. A given consensus emerges over time and is something that is the result of the combined force of monographs by experts, the introductory level text books, websites, the passing comments in conference papers, conversations over a beer etc. I am not being facetious about the importance of the latter — it is in the casual discussions that one begins to feel the existence of a consensus, or the lack of one. Of course there is some relationship between consensus and majority view — I cannot imagine a consensus that is not also the majority view — but consensus is about much more than just a count of heads.
He continues by noting that a simple majority of NT scholars hold to the notion of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, while a significant minority see him as a non-apocalyptic social-religious reformer. In this case, there is no consensus on the true nature of the historical Jesus. This state of affairs can and probably will change over time, and one view may become dominant; however, at present we have no consensus.
The jury is deadlocked
In an interesting digression, Goodacre points out that the lack of consensus can tell us a great deal about a subject. For example, did the authors or collectors of the Thomas sayings have knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels? Or did the author of the fourth gospel have any knowledge of the Synoptics? He writes:
And that is a useful thing to know — I would mention something like that in my teaching so that it could give the students something of a feel of the lie of the land, or of a hotly disputed topic. Similarly, in another area that interests me, the question of Johannine knowledge of the Synoptics: there is no consensus in that area. [emphasis mine]
Hang on. Did he say there’s no consensus about John knowing the other three gospels? Somebody should have told Bart Ehrman, who in Did Jesus Exist? while summarizing the “wide consensus among scholars concerning what these earlier sources were and what to call them” writes:
The Gospel of John too is widely thought to have been based on written sources that no longer survive. As I have indicated, the reason for thinking that John does not rely on the synoptics is that whenever they tell the same story, it is in radically different ways and never in the same words. (p. 66 of the Nook version)
For Ehrman, who needs multiple independent sources to assuage the anxiety of historicity, the independence of John has to be a point of scholarly consensus. It allows him to claim multiple independent sources for stories such as the baptism of Jesus thereby proving, he believes, their historicity. Sadly, Goodacre’s hoped-for constraining effect on the appeal to consensus has failed in this case.
Agreeing to disagree
Goodacre continues with an important observation about how consensus often works. Within a given field, scholars with general knowledge about a given subject may have one view while specialists in that subject have a different view entirely. For example, he notes that within his own specialty, the Synoptic Problem, there is:
. . . a major difference between those who might be regarded as experts on the Synoptic Problem, or specialists, and the rest. Among the former group, the specialists, there is no consensus — those who have published on the Synoptic Problem in the last generation have come from a variety of perspectives and there is real disagreement on a solution. Among the latter group, I think that there is still a broad consensus, a consensus in favour of the traditional Two-Source Theory. I mention that as an example of the difficulty of judging the niceties of the establishment of consensus, and an interesting case of disagreement among specialists that has not always filtered down to the rest.
I’m sure you have noticed this phenomenon in your own field of work, or perhaps in subjects in which you have read a great deal. It’s almost as if “the more you know, the less you know,” or perhaps the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is out there that you don’t know.
In Goodacre’s second post on consensus, he begins to tackle Pahl’s question: “What does consensus prove?” He quotes from a post by Christopher Heard that is, unfortunately, lost in that vast and deep ocean of lost blogs.
In my opinion, academics should immediately abandon the practice of using phrases like “It is generally agreed …” as if those were arguments in favor of what follows. Sentences in the form “It is generally accepted that P,” if they are true, serve at best as useful “tag lines” to a summary description of the state of scholarship on a particular topic (or public opinion, or whatever is under discussion). However, sentences like “It is generally accepted that P” can never prove the truth of P, because the number of people who agree that P is true is actually irrelevant to the question of whether or not P is true. Besides that, it seems to me that statements like “It is generally accepted that P” are quite often not true as they stand—by which I mean that P is often not as “generally accepted” as the statement claims. [italics original; bold emphasis mine]
The appeal to consensus as “a refusal to think”
As you no doubt know, Dr. Goodacre is a noted Q skeptic, and as such he often must defend himself against appeals to authority masquerading as arguments. I say “appeal to authority,” because in the final analysis we aren’t simply talking about a majority opinion, but rather the consensus opinion of presumably authoritative figures. Goodacre admits:
As someone standing outside the consensus on one major issue (the Synoptic Problem), I have found it frustrating to see appeals to consensus used as an excuse for a refusal to think. Indeed, I have argued that the repetition of the consensus view simply because it is the consensus view is one of the things that has contributed to the dominance of that view.
In other words, repeating the party line over and over again “makes it true.” That “truth” may exist as the only viable explanation known to the public, despite heated debate among the experts. And it can persist well after scholarship has moved on. In science a dominant model can remain uppermost in the public mind even after we know it isn’t true.
Perhaps you learned in school that gravity is the natural attraction between objects composed of matter — in other words the Newtonian Model. But we have known for quite some time that even though the old model “works” in most mundane cases, it isn’t actually “true” — i.e., it doesn’t represent reality. Gravitational lensing, predicted by Einstein, proves that Newton was wrong. Why? Because photons have no mass, yet beams of light are affected by large gravitational fields. The only viable explanation is that gravity is a distortion of space-time; it is not simply the natural attraction of material objects.
Old models persist. People in general don’t like to change their minds. Scholars, just like the rest of us, are slow to accept new ideas. And as I said earlier, this is true even with mundane things that aren’t matters of life and death or salvation and damnation.
They don’t read Strauss
So how much more difficult is it for people to accept different concepts when the subject is the historicity of Jesus? Consider as an example the preface of What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus? by David B. Gowler. He correctly points out the problem of academic amnesia among scholars (who, as we’ve seen time and time again don’t read anything further back than, say, 20 years):
This book will address, in part, the academic amnesia I have observed in recent meetings with colleagues in the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas and the Society of Biblical Literature. It is reminiscent of the problem about which Albert Schweitzer observed, “No one can justly criticize, or appraise the value of, new contributions to the study of this subject unless [that person] knows in what forms they have been presented before.” Indeed many of the comments of my colleagues about the historical Jesus at recent academic conferences would have, in Schweitzer’s words “ceased to walk” if the scholars who regard a book such as David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined as obsolete “would only take the trouble to read it (xiii). With all the faults in Strauss’s work, much current scholarship is either ignoring or blissfully unaware of the critical issues he and others raised concerning gospel texts. (p. viii) [bold emphasis mine]
Now that’s a promising start. Gowler has admitted to an important failure in current NT scholarship — ignorance of the past. He might have added that the few who know anything about Strauss know him only indirectly, through later “refutations.” And so I might be forgiven if I start to feel somewhat heartened by Gowler’s rather strong reproach. However, my joy is quickly tempered by the final words of the preface:
My hope is that you [speaking to his sons, whom he calls a "gift from God"] will continue your own quests for the historical Jesus, and that his message of justice, love, and peace will be a driving force in your lives.
OK. We were doing pretty well there up to that point. Look, Gowler seems like a nice guy. I might enjoy having a beer with him. The problem for me is this: How do people separate their personal faith in Christ as a real and potent force in their daily lives from their professional quest for the historical Jesus? I’m not dogmatically saying it’s impossible. I just can’t think of a way that makes logical sense to me.
For Osiris so loved the world . . .
Imagine listening to a lecture about the historical Osiris by a noted scholar who finishes with an invitation to take part in a voluntary prayer to Osiris in which the scholar asks him bless us and keep us safe as we drive home. Who could blame us if we wondered whether the scholar’s views on the historical Osiris were somehow colored by his belief that Osiris is his “personal savior”?
This dilemma is the crux of the matter. How can the consensus on the existence of the historical Jesus ever change if the majority of scholars are confessing Christians and if the majority of institutions who employ those scholars depend on money from confessing Christians?
In the end, I can’t think of any possible way to induce a paradigm shift other than from outside NT studies (e.g., independent historians, specializing in ancient Near Eastern studies), or from outside academia altogether. Even then it will be a slow, painstaking process as the old guard leaves the scene and new scholars fascinated by the new paradigm and unencumbered by the rules for confession replace them.
The Steady State theory didn’t die; Fred Hoyle did.
- Post by Michael Pahl, “On Appeals to Consensus” – http://web.archive.org/web/20070813224511/http://michaelpahl.blogspot.com/2005/07/on-appeals-to-consensus.html
- Mark Goodacre’s post, “Tom Wright on Da Vinci Code” – http://web.archive.org/web/20080812094044/http://ntgateway.com/weblog/2005/07/tom-wright-on-da-vinci-code.html
- Post by Michael Pahl, “Cynicism and Optimism on Consensus” – http://web.archive.org/web/20070813224449/http://michaelpahl.blogspot.com/2005/07/cynicism-and-optimism-on-consensus.html