Vridar

2013/06/26

The Laziness and Incompetence of Yet Another Biblical Scholar

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 2:00 pm

In the past I have posted on biblical scholars I have caught out promoting and citing Wikipedia articles, books, journal articles, archaeological finds in support of their views that in fact directly contradicted their arguments and claims. Mercifully the names of these scholars have been relatively few. I have posted far more on many excellent biblical scholars who produce informative and interesting work.

But there is one more published biblical scholar who has come to my attention as another charlatan. I would hope that this post will embarrass him enough to pull him up and lead him to mend his ways. I really would much rather argue with a competent and honest scholar than an incompetent charlatan.

Recently Joel Watts referred to “the science of history” in a blog article. My blogging colleague queried the meaning of that phrase, and someone tweeted Joel to protest, so Joel Watts has come back like a steam-roller to squash any suggestion that history is not a science.

Normally this sort of ignorance can be overlooked. But Watts is a PhD student and a published scholar so he has attained the status of being a “public intellectual”. As a public intellectual he deserves to be held accountable for what he publicly writes.

Joel Watts has no specialty in historical studies that I am aware of. I suspect few New Testament scholars have any idea of landmark names in the history and philosophy of historiography like von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White or the various schools of history. Yet he is quite prepared to publish on something he knows nothing about and insult others who do know what they are talking about.

Joel, if there’s one lesson I’d like you to take from this post, it is this: Don’t treat your reading public as fools. They really are smarter than you think. You even explicitly call us stupid, imbeciles, etc. yet you produce blatant charlatanry like the following.

Here is his post:

(I have shortened some of the longer urls)

June 25th, 2013 by Joel L. Watts

On the “science of history”

there are times you just can’t help stupidity… mythicism falls into this category, but…

So Bahumuth, one blessed with a special kind of mythicism, tweeted this regarding my use of the phrase “science of history.”

The “science of history”? I don’t know about you, but I studied history when I got my M.A., not my B.S.

Well.. ha ha… boy, that’s really got me there. Whew-who. Man do I have egg on my face.

Egg-cept…

Guess he does have a special sort of b.s. as well.

Remember, what is here are links with a variety of resources, including some responses against the idea. If you can’t understand the use of a multitude of sources… oh wait… some do not even get the idea of sources.

Joel’s method?

So what is Joel’s method here? How does he prove his point that history is a science? It appears he Googles the phrase “history is a science” or similar, collects a quick grab-bag of URLs that pop up, and posts them as a “There! Gotcha!” But he can’t help but notice a few at least don’t support the idea, so he mentions that too.

What he doesn’t grasp is that the whole collection is nothing but a testimony to the fact that history is not today considered a science — the main exceptions being some Marxists. The days when many historians thought of it as a science are now over a century gone.

This is the very method that his good friend and Associate Professor at Butler University has been caught out doing repeatedly — and unrepentantly — with Wikipedia articles on historical method and with citations from historians. How is it possible that such “scholars” continue to do this sort of thing? I can only presume they assume everyone else is as lazy and incompetent as they are and no-one will bother to check their citations.

Unfortunately for Joel Watts I have checked every one of those links and not a single one of them demonstrates that history is a science. Many/most (not “some”) of them actually argue the very opposite! Many plead that they would like it to be a science, and most of these are from the nineteenth century or modern Marxists.

Checking each link

Let’s look at each of those sites and ask what we learn about this scholarly fraud in the process: (more…)

2013/06/10

About Justice, Love, and Peace . . . and That “Nice Guy” from Emory

Filed under: Apologetics,Ethics & human nature,Scholarly Consent — Tim Widowfield @ 3:21 am
Tags:

Catching up

I’m still catching up with all things Vridar after having been on the road for awhile. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer a certain “dbg” who seemed quite unhappy with my post on scholarly consensus. I’m happy to see that Neil engaged with him and for the most part said the same things I would have said.

We still have no confirmation that Mr. dbg was in fact David B. Gowler himself. Indeed it is possible, given his habit of referring to Gowler in the third person, that the commenter is merely a fan who happens to have the same intials, and who happened to commandeer Dr. Gowler’s email address for a brief period. Neil tried to get dbg to “confess” his identity without success. So the mystery remains unsolved.

Appreciating Jesus’ message

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

Mr. dbg first complained that his comments in the preface to What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus? in no way indicate a personal faith in Jesus Christ. He commented:

I’m sorry, but expressing appreciation for Jesus’ “message of justice, love, and peace” is not the same as “personal faith in Christ” (including the pre/post East[er] Jesus distinction). The same thing could be said about Gandhi, or Dr. King, or a host of other people. I think the book (Gowler’s) clearly was written from a historian’s perspective, not a faith perspective.

Yes, Gowler’s book was not written from a confessional perspective. I normally shy away from such books, since they’re entirely useless to me. However, if Mr. dbg had read more closely he would have known that I was talking about people who believe in Christ as their savior and who simultaneously endeavor to write scholarly works from an academic, historical, nonpartisan perspective.

I could just as easily have quoted from an earlier paragraph in WATSA the Historical Jesus:

If we listen to the voice of Jesus, we can still hear the prophetic message of this first-century peasant artisan who proclaimed not only a message of hope for the oppressed but also one of judgment upon an exploitative, dominant class. That prophetic voice should haunt Christians like me who live in a nation that dominates the world politically, economically, and militarily. (p. viii, emphasis mine)

(more…)

2013/04/30

The Awesome Power of Self-Selection

Filed under: Noam Chomsky,Politics & Society,Scholarly Consent — Tim Widowfield @ 11:04 am

Why I never became a journalist

In my first two years of college, I wandered from major to major — theatre, undecided, political science. One muggy day in the summer of 1979, I realized I was going nowhere. I was working in Columbus, Ohio, for a guy whose business model had something to do with selling frozen meat door to door. My meals consisted mainly of bread, peanut butter, and orange soda (or “pop”).

I was flat broke, with no options. So I decided to join the U.S. Air Force, following in my dad’s footsteps. To make a long story short, my language aptitude scores landed me in Russian language school at Monterey, then on to an overseas assignment. The job was interesting, and living in Berlin was a great experience, but I knew from the outset I was going to stay in only for the minimum four-years stint, and then head back to school.

lardner-typewriter

Ring Lardner

This time I knew exactly which I degree I wanted to pursue: a bachelor of arts in journalism. At the University of Maryland, I bided my time, waiting for seats in the first upper-level journalism class to open up. In the intervening period, I took lots of history courses as electives.

At last I found myself on the first day of my first journalism class. The professor greeted us all and then asked us to go around the room, give a short introduction, and say which kind of journalism we were focused on. Everybody except me and one other guy said, “Radio and Television.” We, the two dinosaurs, had indicated we were interested only in print journalism.

At that very moment, I knew I couldn’t stay. Journalism was now a job for the shallow, pretty people. The beat reporter stabbing away at his typewriter with his index fingers trying to meet a deadline was a figment of my imagination, the ghost of a bygone era.

The power of self-selection

I selected myself out of my chosen field of study. I dropped my classes, switched to history, and never looked back. Since that time, mainstream journalism has gotten much, much worse. Had I stayed, I alone couldn’t have changed anything. But together, the large numbers of people who took themselves out of the mix — who decided not to stick it out and try to stem the tide — might have. Or perhaps not.

The power of self-selection often goes unnoticed. It’s a kind of opportunity cost. What would have happened if such-and-such had not happened? Who gives up? What sorts of people remain? Do they represent a broad section of society, or have the pressures of the system ensured that only certain people who think “the right way” have a voice?

(more…)

2013/04/29

Building a Hedge around the Historical Jesus

Filed under: Apologetics,Historical methodology — Tim Widowfield @ 1:07 am

Please don’t eat the Bible

I was glancing over at the Exploding Cakemix recently, keeping abreast of the latest mythicist-bashing, and I happened to notice a story about a guy who said:

[I]f anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1. (Dr. John Dickson, PhD, Ancient History)

Now I’ve heard of people using the Bible for rolling papers in a pinch (not recommended), but it never occurred to me to eat it. I know that if you’re stuck on a disabled bus in the wilderness you should eat your boots and the seats before you eat your fellow passengers. But the Bible? I’d need loads of ketchup.

Dr. John Dixon

Dr. John Dickson: Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University

Anyhow, it turns out this John Dickson guy is a real professor with a doctorate and everything. He teaches real students at a real college university for real cash money. So we should sit up and take notice.

The historical Tiberius versus the historical Jesus

Dickson’s post is the usual litany of supposedly solid evidence that we’ve all seen before. Most of it is of the “throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” variety. But there was something new there, at least for me. He writes:

The [sic] Tiberius provides a good example (he was the emperor when Jesus was crucified). Our best sources for Tiberius are Tacitus and Suetonius, both composed eighty or so years after the emperor’s death in AD 37. The New Testament writings were composed much closer in time to their central figure. Several of its sources – Mark, Paul, Q, L and James – date to within 25 years of Jesus, and one crucial passage is dated to within a few years of the crucifixion, ruling out the suggestion that even the basic details of Jesus were part of a process of legendary accumulation.

My interest is piqued. I like Roman history. But what’s this claim from our expert about the “best sources” for Tiberius? Emperors, even mediocre or bad ones, leave big footprints. But sometimes it’s the smallest bits of evidence that persist. Like this one:

Roman Coin: Tiberius Caesar

Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus
Pontifex Maximus

Moving the goalposts

If you take a few minutes to read the comments, you’ll see that someone mentions the fact that the Romans minted coins during Tiberius’s reign, and that we actually have some that we can pick up and hold in our hands. In the ancient history trade they call that “primary evidence.” He or she goes on to explain why it’s important to corroborate claims in texts with primary evidence.

And certainly the coin is persuasive physical evidence, but, as some guy who goes by the initials RMW explains, it’s like totally unfair. He responds:

(more…)

2013/04/03

What is the difference between a quest for the historical Jesus and (just about) any other historical inquiry?

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 10:35 pm
relic

Authentic hand bones of John the Baptist on display in Constantinople.

I have once again suffered the all too familiar pain of reading a quite modern scholarly article by a historical Jesus scholar who appears to be quite confused over how New Testament studies of the historical Jesus compares with other types of historical inquiries. When I say I am pained I mean that in the sense of regret and loss because the scholars is clearly very brilliant and I really do love to read works by biblical scholars that I find rewarding and thought-provoking. And I have read many of these and discussed aspects of their works positively on this blog.

So when I come across a scholar who demonstrates a particular flaw that seems to be institutionalized in the entire field of New Testament studies I do believe it is right and necessary to draw attention to the problem. Not that I presume that anything I say will change the world, but I do believe it is a good thing for anyone to help promote awareness, understanding and questions. I know from personal experience (also very painful) how easy it is to be wrong; for that reason I write for anyone else with a similar willingness to always question their foundational assumptions.

Next week I hope to discuss the problematic article in some more depth. For now I am merely raising the issue. I have drawn another graphic to illustrate the problem. (more…)

2013/03/30

Islam’s Origins, the Historical Problem — notes on the reading Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

Filed under: Historical sources,Holland: Shadow of the Sword,Islam — Neil Godfrey @ 10:32 pm
Tags: , ,

shadowA few weeks ago I posted Islam – the Untold Story as a response to my introduction (through a radio program and an online video) to narrative historian Tom Holland’s controversial book on the rise of the Arab empire and the origins of Islam. I was interested in some of the comments expressing Muslim viewpoints but not having read the book, and not having studied Islamic history in any depth, there was not much I could say in response.

Now I can at least make a few comments on Tom Holland’s approach to the question after having read his 58 page introduction.

(Coincidentally today I heard another radio interview with Tom Holland, one in which he discusses the way he writes history, the modern relevance of his other historical works, Millennium and Rubicon, as well as further comments on In the Shadow of the Sword.)

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But first, let me confess my bias: I believe the most reliable way for any historian to work is to begin with data that can be tested for its genre (hence likely authorial intent), its provenance, and the independent verification of its content. As a result I have come to lean towards the views of those scholars who are derisively labelled “minimalists” and who question the authenticity of the Bible’s account of Israel’s origins and the course of its kingdoms of Israel and Judah. I have also been persuaded by the view of at least one of those “minimalists” who — again via the same touchstone questions concerning sources — has come to think the Gospel narratives of Jesus are as fictitious as the the Old Testament’s narrative of Israel.

I approach the origins of Islam with the same set of questions about sources.

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Tom Holland knows how to surprise a western reader who has been fed a diet of Islamophobia. In the front pages we read words attributed to Mohammad from which the title is drawn:

Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance, and remember that the gates of Paradise lie in the shadow of the sword.

Another quotation, this one at the beginning of the Introduction, is by Salman Rushdie. It will strike a chord with anyone interested in what we know of Christian origins, but it serves the cause of irony — and a warning that the nature of historical evidence is not always what it seems — since we know that the wealth of detail taken for granted about the life of Muhammad will soon be shown to be nothing more than a facade.

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.

Two Voices

Tom Holland writes with two voices, as he explains in his latest Radio National interview, and together they make for gripping reading. He writes as the historical researcher of cause and effect, commenting on the degree of certainty or less so of our knowledge, guiding readers to the raw materials and current scholarship upon which his narrative is built. At the same time he writes as a novelist, entering into the experiences of the actants, named and anonymous alike, drawing the reader into their world as inevitably as a Spielberg movie.

He knows how to write history for both popular and informed audiences.

Two Worlds

Historians don’t write history the way they used to. (more…)

2013/03/18

How to Think and Write Like an NT Scholar: Part 1

Filed under: Criteriology,Historical methodology — Tim Widowfield @ 1:34 am

This post inaugurates what I hope will be a long-running, informative (albeit tongue-in-cheek) series. In it, we’ll attempt to shine some light on the inner workings of the New Testament scholar’s brain.

There is no reason to doubt . . .

New Testament scholars fall back on stock phrases when they’re pushing a weak argument, presenting poor evidence, or stating an opinion as fact. Ironically, the stock phrases they pull out of the old filing cabinet usually have the opposite effect from what they intended. That is, they draw attention to the problem.

Not in This Stove

He’s not in this stove!

We might call this the Oz Distraction Disorder (ODD), as in: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” It could be an act of desperation, or perhaps it’s a subconscious thing. Maybe they want us to figure it out, much as Bugs Bunny purposely drew attention to the bank robbers he’d stashed in the gas stove.

One of the most common ODD phrases is: “There is no reason to doubt . . .” (TINRTD) Whenever you see this phrase, you should be on the lookout — the author is probably about to describe something you ought to doubt. We’re apparently supposed to shut off the skeptical parts of our brains when we hear this magic formula, triggering a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion.

Here are some fine examples.

Lukan parables that “must be” authentic

Klyne Snodgrass, in his book, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, writes:

With Jülicher and most others there is no reason to doubt that these two parables are genuine words of Jesus. (p. 385, emphasis added)

Snodgrass pulls the TINRTD card when considering the authenticity of Luke’s parables of the Tower Builder and the Warrior King. Snodgrass snorts:

(more…)

2013/03/16

Who’s the scholarly scoundrel? Scholars of Christian origins bound by bias, immured in myth.

Filed under: Historical methodology — Neil Godfrey @ 7:09 am
Tags:

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I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened! (Daniel Boyarin)

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Most of us [biblical scholars] are just trying to follow the evidence. (Larry Hurtado)

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just-the-factsForget mythicism or the Christ myth debate. That’s irrelevant. Or should be. What matters is the evidence we have, understanding it and explaining it. The evidence we have from the early days of Christianity is a literary and a theological Jesus. No-one I know of in my circle gloats or thinks they are scoring points over whether they can prove or disprove the existence of the historical Jesus. What interests them is understanding the best way to explain both the nature of early Christianity and Christianity’s origins. What matters is making the best sense of the data available. But first we need to have a clear and valid understanding of what constitutes the data to be explained.

In my previous post I noted what should be a simple truism: scholars of Christian origins generally are doing little more than paraphrasing (in scholarly language and with their own qualifying preferences) the Christian myth we have inherited from the Bible.

I have no doubt the bulk of them are very sincere and would sincerely censure me for suggesting that their scholarly pursuits are trapped in the myth itself. This blog has frequently posted observations of the ineptitude of some biblical scholars who seem to fall very short with respect to rigour and understanding of questions of historical methods, awareness of what their peers and foundational predecessors have written, and even the very nature of scholarly bias and the meaning of evidence.

The second of the quotes above struck me at first as a caricature. Surely a professor would know something about the nature of bias in any scholarly pursuit and especially in one as ideological as biblical studies.

Apparently not. I attempted to post a comment addressing the naivety of this view but my comment was rejected. The same professor even remarked that my suggestion of bias in the scholarly field amounted to charge of a “conspiratorial agenda”. Does a professor really believe that the alternative to freedom from bias is deliberate conspiracies? Or is this a defensive response against lay critics who can see the emperors are scantily clad?

So I post here the message that the professor did not appear to want others to read on his blog:

I do not believe biblical studies is unlike any other academic discipline and institution when it comes to questions of institutional (let alone personal) bias. Bias is a necessary part of the human condition and without it we cannot function. Surely everyone knows that the trick is to be aware of our biases and that that is not always a simple matter.

We don’t need to go beyond Albert Schweitzer’s observation that up till his own day scholars had produced an array of historical Jesus figures, each one in the image of his scholarly creator.

The latest historical Jesus figure I’ve encountered was only a few months ago and he, too, is very much the spitting image of his maker, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann (i.e., all his scholarly peers are failures, only he can rescue them, but they don’t listen to him, he is without a place, and he sure as blazes doesn’t love everybody). I think we can conclude little has changed since Schweitzer’s day in this respect.

No one “simply follows the evidence” (more…)

2013/03/14

Scholars Rationalizing and Paraphrasing the Christian Myth

Filed under: Historical sources — Neil Godfrey @ 9:53 pm

keenerandbookCraig S. Keener has written a book 869 pages long entitled The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. The primary aim of this book is

to investigate how much we can know from the best sources available, and to offer examples of how these sources provide us more adequate information about Jesus than many scholars think we have. (p. xxxvii)

869 pages might sound a lot, and it does beat by a whisker the longest book by N.T. Wright (836 pages), but it still falls short of Volume 1 of Raymond Brown’s tome, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (904 pages). (The only mythicist publication that comes close gets no closer than 814 pages so I guess the historicists have at least 55 pages of more arguments to make than the mythicists.)

The length of the book is a plus in eyes, because I like the thought that I am getting a thorough and detailed set of arguments and updates on what the academic community has to tell us what can be known about the historical Jesus. The main text is only 349 pages with most of the remainder being taken up with appendices and endnotes. That’s good — I often find the details I’m seeking in endnotes, bibliographies, etc. I think, too, that I was attracted by the erstwhile atheism of the author. Surely here is a work that will cover the basics and leave no stone unturned in the argument for Christianity beginning with a man called Jesus.

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A profile of an historical Jesus scholar

Craig Keener introduces himself:

I try to do my historical scholarship as a good historian. . . .

When I was an atheist (largely for what I thought were scientific reasons), one of my central (albeit nonscientific) objections to believing anything about Jesus was that eighty percent of people in my country claimed to be his followers, yet most of them apparently lived as if it made no difference to their lives. . . .

I reasoned that if I believed there was truly a being to whom I owed my existence and who alone determined my eternal destiny, I would serve that being unreservedly. . . .

On a personal note, I cannot agree with a mind-set like that. It sounds robotic. I would first want to know something about such a being. Prima facie, from what I know of the world, I would suspect such a being was not worthy of unreserved service and it would be immoral to sell my soul to that being.

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A Jesus scholar who believes Jesus is still alive today (more…)

2013/02/05

Historical Reconstruction or a “Mad House”?

Filed under: Historical methodology,John P. Meier,The Jesus Process — Tim Widowfield @ 12:58 pm
Tags:

“He is unlike any man you have ever seen . . .”

If you’ve ever watched the original Planet of the Apes, you no doubt remember the scene in which the Tribunal of the National Academy questions Charlton Heston (Taylor, aka “Bright Eyes”). None of Taylor’s explanations make any sense to the tribunal, of course. If fact, the disturbing testimony causes them to assume the position.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Later we discover that the Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius, knows a great deal more than he at first let on. From the 1967 shooting script:

                                TAYLOR	 
			I told the truth at that 'hearing' of yours.

				ZAIUS
			You lied. Where is your tribe?

				TAYLOR 
			My tribe, as you call it, lives on another 
			planet in a distant solar system.

				ZAIUS 
			Then how is it we speak the same language?
				(suddenly intense) 
			Even in your lies, some truth slips 
			through! That mythical community you're 
			supposed to come from -- 'Fort Wayne'?

				TAYLOR 
			What about it?

				ZAIUS 
			A fort! Unconsciously, you chose a name 
			that was belligerent.

“Even in your lies, some truth slips through!”

I often think of those two scenes — Taylor’s hearing and its aftermath — when I’m reading up on the historical Jesus. Very few modern critical scholars believe that Mark is telling the truth about the splitting of the firmament and the booming voice from heaven at the baptism. Yet, “even in [Mark’s] lies, some truth slips through.”

Consider R Joseph Hoffmann’s assertion in his latest post.

(more…)

2013/02/01

Myths about Christopher Columbus: Why Would Anybody Make Them Up?

Face Christopher Columbus

The face of Christopher Columbus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What an odd thing to say!*

Recently, while catching up with the second edition of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, I noticed something I had missed earlier while reading the chapter on Christopher Columbus. The first time I read the book, now over a decade ago, the grisly stories of conquest and genocide, along with the subsequent whitewash and heroification took center stage. But this time I was struck by the number of myths that at first glance might seem unflattering to Columbus. People inventing stories uncongenial to the hero? How could this be?

History as practiced by NT scholars places a great deal of faith in what can most accurately be described as a thought experiment. That is, if you can’t imagine why anybody would make up a story, then it is probably true.

As Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? (DJE) puts it:

It seems unlikely that Jesus’s later followers would make up the claim that his friends were chiefly outcasts and prostitutes, so this may indeed have been his reputation. (DJE, p. 236, Nook ed.)

And:

Since Nazareth was a tiny hamlet riddled with poverty, it is unlikely that anyone would invent the story that the messiah came from there. (DJE, p. 219, Nook ed.)

NT scholars find this line of reasoning very compelling. Quoting Ehrman once again, this time from Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (AP):

“Dissimilar” traditions, that is, those that do not support a clear Christian agenda, or that appear to work against it, are difficult to explain unless they are authentic. They are therefore likely to be historical. (AP, p. 92, Oxford paperback ed.)

But how well does this criterion hold up under scrutiny?

From such humble beginnings

Columbus’s origins are obscure. He may have been from Genoa, as your high school history text told you, or he could have been a recently converted Spanish Jew or a Polish heir to the throne. As Loewen notes:

Many aspects of Columbus’s life remain a mystery. He claimed to be from Genoa, Italy, and there is evidence that he was. There is also evidence that he wasn’t: Columbus didn’t seem to be able to write in Italian, even when writing to people in Genoa. (Loewen, p. 48)

The lack of hard facts did not deter Washington Irving from invention. In A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus he constructs a story of humble beginnings from which our hero rises on his own merits. His is the archetypal Great Man. And herein lies the reason for the myth. Irving’s aim was to provide a legendary example to follow. Americans, from humble origins, could achieve greatness if they would simply “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”

The humble-origin myth resonates in American history (think of Abe Lincoln as a boy reading by candlelight), but it is also quite common in Biblical legends. Having given up on Saul, God tells Samuel to pick the new anointed king from the sons of Jesse. And so David, the youngest son, a humble shepherd from the village of Bethlehem eventually rises to take the throne.

(more…)

2013/01/29

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 2: The Overlooked Reasons We Know Certain Ancient Persons Existed

Filed under: Historical sources,Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 10:39 pm

In the previous post in this series I concluded by pointing out the fundamental difference between the sources used by historians concerning nonbiblical historical figures such as Napoleon, Alexander or even Socrates, and those used by New Testament scholars for Jesus. In the former, the sources leave no doubt at all that certain individuals lived and certain events really happened — that is, that there are certain facts that historians can work with. Not even the most extreme postmodernists deny that Governor Philip established a settlement in Australia in 1788. However much they may be subject to interpretation, historical sources confirm as fact that certain people did certain things in the past.

This is not the case with the sources we have for Jesus. The sources we have for Jesus provide not a single datum of which it can be said, “This is a universally recognized, bedrock, indisputable fact about Jesus.” (See the box at the end of this post for comments on even the death of Jesus in this context.)

Now I am not saying that this situation forces anyone to conclude that there was no historical Jesus. Of course not. But it is a situation that should be recognized, understood and explained.

How do we know anyone existed?

I am sure that no historian undertaking a study of ancient Rome seriously pauses to ask, “How do I know if Julius Caesar really did exist?” The sources have been studied, analysed and dissected intensively for generations and certain information from them has long been taken for granted.

But because history is filled with such “facts” (such as that Julius Caesar conquered and was assassinated in the BCE era) that are part of our cultural heritage, it is worth taking time out to think through exactly how we can know that something really happened or that a particular person really did exist in ancient times.

You’d think that a scholar writing about the past could tell you how we know famous ancient persons existed without even having to think about it. Bizarrely, however, we find New Testament scholars really struggling when attempting to grapple with the question of how we know anyone in any period of history ever existed. It’s clear some have never before thought about it until challenged by mythicism.

Look, for example, at Bart Erhman’s unfortunate confusion in Did Jesus Exist? when he begins by saying photographs are evidence for the historical existence of Abraham Lincoln. That’s nonsense. All photographs can do is identify someone whom we already know exists or existed. Someone has to put a name to a photograph and someone has to link that name with an identity known from other testimony or experience.

Historians can appeal to many different kinds of evidence to establish the past existence of a person. First, there is a real preference for hard, physical evidence, for example, photographs. It is rather hard to deny that Abraham Lincoln lived since we have all seen photos. . . . [F]or most of us, a stack of good photographs from different sources will usually be convincing enough. (pp. 39-40)

I submit that a photograph of Abraham Lincoln would be meaningless unless we already knew who Lincoln was, that is, that he existed and what he did. (The ancient counterparts of photographs would be portraits and statues.)

Ehrman’s final point is just as confused: (more…)

2013/01/19

The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 1: What Has History To Do With The Facts?

RottenDenmarkThere is something rotten in the state of historical Jesus studies. Ideology has long trumped inconvenient questioning. Postmodernist flim-flam has recently trumped any hope of sound methodology. Some on that side of New Testament studies have curiously accused me of being “a fact fundamentalist” or an antiquated positivist or one who has unrealistic demands for certainty. So before I justify my claim that HJ studies have fallen hostage to ideology and methodological nonsense, let me lay all my cards out on the table and tell you what history means to me.

History for me has never been “about facts and dates”. It has never been “one darned thing after another.” That’s a chronicle or an archival record. Not history. In hindsight I have come to appreciate so much my senior high school years as a history student when I was taught by two pioneers in the way history was to be taught throughout Australian secondary schools, J.H. Allsopp and H.R. Cowie.

challengeThe first thing we were taught was that history was an enquiry. It was a debate. It was all about exploring questions. We began our studies with the French Revolution and we were confronted with questions: Why did it happen in France? Why then? And instead of being given answers we were given competing explanations. We were forced to study up on the facts in order to try to answer these questions. Inevitably we soon discovered that the importance of certain facts varied according to the different points of view of the authors. One of the questions we were asked to test at our senior high school level of competence was historian Toynbee’s thesis that all history followed a pattern of “challenge and response”.

pirenneThen I took up history at university. We had been well prepared. First topic, the rise of feudalism. First book to read: The Pirenne thesis; analysis, criticism, and revision. We weren’t “taught” what led to the rise of feudalism in Europe. We were challenged and guided to explore the possible reasons, the competing explanations, and to show competence in the way we pursued historical questions.

What is history? What is an historical fact?

It was in the 1960s and we were required to engage with E.H. Carr’s radically challenging book on the nature of history, What Is History? His thesis — that history is essentially whatever the historian makes of it — was the hot debate of the day. One of his most famously quoted passages is found on the Wikipedia page and I copy it here: (more…)

2012/11/10

Comments on Eric Zuesse’s Christ’s Ventriloquists: The Event that Created Christianity

Filed under: Historical methodology,Zuesse: Christ's Ventriloquists — Neil Godfrey @ 2:11 pm
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I recently posted on Eric Zuesse’s Christ’s Ventriloquists: The Event that Created Christianity with a link to David Hamilton’s views of the book. The book also comes with nice endorsements from Richard Dawkins and James Crossley and others.

The author had sought a similar endorsement from me and I sent him my conclusion of his thesis:

Given the assumptions on which your thesis rests, it is a consistent and valid argument.

So when David Hamilton finds the thesis interesting but not quite convincing, and when other readers, scholars and non-specialists, find the book’s thesis likewise interesting, I can understand and respect where they are coming from, and to some extent I share their viewpoint. I am quite open to the possibility that some of the assumptions underlying the author’s case — assumptions shared by many scholars, too — will eventually prove to be established certainties. But I’m not ready to take that leap yet.

Unfortunately Eric Zuesse turned upon me with some hostility when, after pressing me to spell out the reasons for my reservations about his thesis, I attempted to clarify why I was not ready to accept the assumptions upon which he builds his argument. So I have little personal interest in writing a formal review for Eric’s sake now, but readers know my stake in this argument and can judge the following in that light.

I post here my criticisms of Eric Zuesse’s book that I wrote him under pressure from him to explain my reluctance to embrace his thesis. Keep in mind that this was written at at time I was attempting to avoid offending Eric who was becoming increasingly acerbic in his replies. But I give most space to trying to clarify what I think is the essence of his own viewpoint and how the studies of Christian origins should be pursued.

First, here is the book’s introductory outline of its argument:

Christ’s Ventriloquists is a work of investigative history. It documents and describes Christianity’s creation-event, in the year 49 or 50, in Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey), 20 years after Jesus had been crucified in Jerusalem for sedition against Roman rule. On this occasion, Paul broke away from the Jewish sect that Jesus had begun, and he took with him the majority of this sect’s members; he convinced these people that Jesus had been a god, and that the way to win eternal salvation in heaven is to worship him as such. Paul here explicitly introduced, for the first time anywhere, the duality of the previously unitary Jewish God, a duality consisting of the Father and the Son; and he implicitly introduced also the third element of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost.

This work also explains and documents the tortuous 14-year-long conflict Paul had had with this sect’s leader, Jesus’s brother James, a conflict which caused Paul, in about the year 50, to perpetrate his coup d’état against James, and to start his own new religion: Christianity.

Then, this historical probe documents that the four canonical Gospel accounts of the words and actions of “Jesus” were written decades after Jesus, by followers of Paul, not by followers of Jesus; and that these writings placed into the mouth of “Jesus” the agenda of Paul. Paul thus effectively became, via his followers, Christ’s ventriloquist. (more…)

2012/10/16

Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Filed under: Brodie: Beyond Quest,Historical methodology,Historical sources — Neil Godfrey @ 1:00 am

The new addition to my bookshelf and I are going to get along just fine. I feel like I’ve found a long-lost friend, someone who has published exactly the point I have been making on this blog for so long now, only this new friend was saying it long before it ever crossed my mind.

Chapter 13, “The Quest for History: Rule One” in Thomas Brodies’ Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, begins:

On leaving the foggy swamp created by the theory of oral tradition I came again to the search for well-grounded history, and was brought back to the person who, amid hundreds of ancient rules, asked Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And so amid the complexity of searching for history, I wondered if there was a Rule One.

This is not unlike my experience of wondering how historians can know anything at all about the existence of persons millennia ago. Few biblical scholars seem ever to have given this serious attention. The existence of certain persons seems to be mostly taken for granted. When Bart Ehrman attempted to grapple with this question (apparently for the first time) in his book, Did Jesus Exist?, it was clear he was merely opining off the top of his head and had never before seriously thought through the question in relation to a range of persons and sources. He began by saying a photograph would be proof — failing to grasp what should have been the obvious fact that a photograph is meaningless to anyone who has no idea of the existence and identity of the person in the first place. He had never thought the question through. Nor have scholars like McGrath and Hurtado who merely parrot as a given that scholars agree Hillel and Socrates existed so they did. When pushed, they can do nothing better than fall back on “scholars in their collective wisdom agree”. (Two posts in which I discuss this question: How do we know anyone existed. . . . , and Comparing the evidence. . . .)

Thomas Brodie speaks of an SBL meeting at San Diego in 2007 where Richard Bauckham

reminded his huge audience that he was unusually well qualified in history.

Accordingly, Brodie suggest, it seems that Rule One is to “attend to history”.

Brevard S. Childs

But Brodie also reminds us that another highly influential scholar, Brevard Childs, disagreed and would put “the meaning of the finished (canonical) text” as Rule One. The Bible’s historical background was too elusive to be a foundation, he said.

Brodie narrates a pregnant moment that registered with him in class:

I remember one day in class, as Childs was holding forth with strength and depth, he noticed how the text seemed to be structured or organized in a very specific way, and wondered if the structure was significant — in effect wondered if a purely literary feature, neither history nor theology, made any real difference. He paused, and then, almost verbatim:

‘We have no evidence that these things were important.’

The moment passed, and we returned to theology.

Recollect Churchill’s famous saying:

Occasionally he stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened. (more…)

2012/10/06

Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”. . . . Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, ch. 2 final

Jens Schröter writes what in many respects is an admirable lesson for scholars of Christian origins on how really to do history. I can only spot what I believe is one oversight in his lesson where one suddenly hears in his words echoes of apologists and fundamentalists.

This post concludes my review of chapter 2, “The Criteria of Authenticity in Jesus Research and Historiographical Method”, by Jens Schröter, in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. In my earlier posts I used introductory presuppositions in Schröter’s chapter as a starting point from which to detail the fundamental, culturally inherited assumptions that are never questioned by most theologians exploring Christian origins. In this post I will concentrate on the last part of Schröter’s essay in which he proposes a more orthodox method of historical analysis as a replacement for the criteria approach.

Schröter has more to say about the weaknesses of the so-called “criteria of authenticity” approach in historical Jesus studies, but most of his points overlap with what I have covered in reviews of earlier chapters of this book. He does add a couple of new criticisms but I will mention those at the end of this post (for sake of completeness) and not lose any more time getting straight to Schröter’s proposed alternative to the criteria approach. (All posts in this series are archived here.)

One gets the impression, on reading contemporary works by a number of New Testament scholars explaining the role of interpretation and imagination in the historian’s investigation of sources, that New Testament scholars generally really have been left behind in the dark as to how history has been known to work in more generally for a hundred years now. The following representatives of milestone developments in “how history works” outside Theology Departments appear to have remained unknown among most biblical scholars: (more…)

2012/10/03

Take Two: Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Continuing from Historical Method versus Jesus Research: Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity. . . .

Jens Schröter reminds us of flaws with the criteria approach to find the historical Jesus. They encapsulate what I have covered in my posts on Chris Keith’s chapter one:

  1. Criteria were designed as a tool to assist with form criticism
  2. Form criticism assumed that Gospels could be peeled apart layer by layer to find sections originating with the Church, sections originating with Judaism and other sections that originated with the earlier oral tradition about Jesus independent of Judaism and the Church.
  3. Criteria were designed to assist with arriving that the earliest Jesus traditions.
  4. The earliest Jesus tradition was defined as “authentic” if it did not overlap with traditions that could be identified as belonging to Judaism or the early Church.
  5. Historical Jesus scholars came to reject form criticism but continued to use criteria of authenticity, but they used them to supposedly discover the historical Jesus. The criteria were originally designed only as a literary tool to locate the earliest traditions surviving in the Gospels — not as historiographical tools to find historical persons and events.
  6. So the criteria approach has been criticized as invalid as a tool to unearth the historical Jesus. (Criteria were originally part of the package of the literary study of form criticism.)

In response to the failure of the criteria approach have been those who advocated a “memory approach”, and I have discussed this also to some extent, in particular with respect to Le Donne’s presentation in a popular publication.The justification and the problem of this approach are that it does not claim to arrive at an “authentic” picture of the past, but only to some understanding — through the haze of “subjective recollections and interpretations” and potential “misperception, wrong information, oblivion and projection” — of “what might have happened”

One of the must fundamental principles every historian learns to apply before studying a source for the “memories” it contains or any other “historical information” that it writes about, is to analyse the source to ascertain exactly what it is, where it came from, who put it together and for whom. (more…)

2012/10/02

Historical Method Versus Jesus Research. Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Filed under: Historical methodology,Keith/Le Donne: Jesus, Criteria — Neil Godfrey @ 9:16 pm
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I touched on one brief passage in the chapter by Jens Schröter in my recent post, Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically from Other Historical Studies, and it’s now time to return to his chapter from Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [JCDA] in more depth. Jens Schröter appears at several points to come so close to advocating use of the methods of other historical studies for the study of Jesus, but each time falls agonizingly short of what only those with eyes wide shut will miss.

Introduction

Historical Jesus research in recent decades has dwelt heavily upon the social, political and religious life of Judaism, Palestine and Galilee in the first century in order to explore the environmental factors that must have contributed to the personal make-up of Jesus and his mission.

A historical presentation of Jesus’ mission has to explain why it caused a new movement circled around his name and venerating him as “Lord Jesus Christ.” . . . . (p. 49, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Right here is the first problem of historical Jesus studies. Recently Larry Hurtado even declared that part of this proposition — that a new movement erupted from Palestine in the 30’s — was “data”* that the historian was required to explain.

But that is not data. What is data is the existence of narratives — the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John and the Book of Acts — portraying a faith movement spreading from Palestine in the 30s. But narratives are not necessarily history.

Nor do we have any data to confirm that there was a Jesus mission in Palestine that caused a new movement. The data we have are stories about such a Jesus mission. But stories are not necessarily history.

  • Question: How can we know if a story is based on history?
    • If a story begins with, “This is a true story”, is that enough to rely upon?
    • What if the tale is told from the perspective of an all knowing authoritative narrator who speaks with authority. Is that the clue?
    • What if the tale is plausible and coherent and “rings true” — that is, is rich in verisimilitude? Is that a sure sign it really is true?
    • How many biblical scholars have ever stopped to think through questions like these in relation to historical figures (ancient, medieval and modern) generally?
  • Answer: We need some evidence external to the story itself that confirms for us that there were real events and persons upon which the story was based. For example: (more…)

2012/09/28

Criteria’s Demise and the Black Hole of Historical Jesus Studies: Concluding Chapter 1 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Continued from the previous post . . . .

We have a problem

Chris Keith explains that the serious problem for the criteria approach to historical Jesus studies is that the assumptions about the “nature of the gospel tradition” upon which those criteria (and form-criticism itself) were built upon “have now been shown to be untenable.”

My own view is that it is a mistake even to speak of “gospel tradition” at this stage since such a concept is itself an untested assumption. What we have are gospels. Scholars generally assume they are products of authors compiling traditions. But I don’t know if this has been argued with reference to evidence by anyone — though I have seen many arguments for it that are based entirely upon the hypothesis (or cultural tradition) that the core narratives ultimately originated with the life of an historical Jesus.

Keith points out that studies since the time of the classical form critics have shown that scholars may have overestimated the extent to which the Gospel authors reshaped the traditions they inherited. Further, the form-critical assumption that the Gospels can be dissected into various layers of traditions is now in serious doubt.

More specifically, Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism demonstrated conclusively that the distinction between early Palestinian Christianity and later Hellenistic Christianity, which the form-critics took as axiomatic and Bultmann even acknowledged was “an essential part of my inquiry,” was a false dichotomy. This distinction provided for the form critics the foundational justification for separating the written Gospel texts. Scholars now routinely note its widespread rejection. (pp. 37-38, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Surely this fact (that Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianities are a false dichotomy) leaves us with less reason to assume that the Gospel authors were garnering and weaving “traditions” into narratives that so clearly appear to be creative imitations and adaptations of other literature.

But this assumption of “pre-gospel traditions” is not questioned by Keith. Another tool must be found to study these assumed traditions:

[I]n the words of Kirk, “Little of this tradition model can survive scrutiny in light of advances in research on the phenomenology of tradition.” In view here are those Gospels scholars working in the increasingly-overlapping areas of oral tradition and social/cultural memory-theory. (p. 38)

So the problem with the criteria approach is not only that criteria are the wrong tools to uncover history (see previous post for details), but that “the Gospels are not the type of ground in which one can dig.”

It is now widely accepted that

one cannot peel through the layers of faith to an “original”: “We can never succeed in stripping away that faith from the tradition, as though to leave a nonfaith core. When we strip away faith, we strip away everything and leave nothing.”

Thomas L. Thompson has said essentially the same in another context:

Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach. (The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past, p.44)

Historical Jesus scholars appear to be on the way to replacing one set of failed tools with a lot of postmodernist mumbo jumbo.

At this point Keith writes on behalf of many historical Jesus scholars when delves into abstract complexities that appear to be necessary solely because there is no evidence for Jesus that is comparable to the sorts of evidence historians generally study. The idea of first analysing the documentary evidence to assess what questions can be asked of it (as is correctly done in other historical studies) remains far from scholarly consciousness here. The tradition shapes the question and the evidence must be made to answer it no matter what. (more…)

2012/09/27

The Rise and Fall of Criteria in Jesus Studies: Chapter 1 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

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The above exchange is the message of Chris Keith’s opening chapter of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. My “idiot’s guide” is a tad unfair to Käsemann, however, since he did have willing accomplices and Keith mentions Norman Perrin and Reginald H. Fuller as guilty of formalizing more criteria of authenticity. The above may also be unfair to Morna D. Hooker whose arguments Chris Keith is supporting. But this post is about what I see as the good, the interesting and the missed opportunity in Keith’s chapter, so he gets the starring role above.

The title of this chapter is “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus”.

In the first part of this chapter Keith shows how the criteria used by historical Jesus scholars (criteria of embarrassment, of multiple attestation, of coherence, of dissimilarity, etc.)

  • originated as a tool for form criticism;
  • rely upon the discredited form-critical assumption that it is possible to distill pre-literary traditions from theological narratives of the Gospels;
  • were designed to identify pre-gospel oral traditions, not actual history (or historical persons) behind those traditions.

After discussing this and briefly the second part of this chapter I will conclude with a return to Anthony Le Donne’s arguments for “triangulation” and “memory refraction”, this time with another critic’s more positive evaluation, than I raised in a recent post.

But before getting into the detail of the chapter here is my explanation of the “cartoon” above: (more…)

2012/09/22

‘I told you so!’ Why Criteria for Historical Jesus Studies Don’t Work

Morna D. Hooker

Morna D. Hooker cried out in the academic wilderness forty years ago against the validity of “authenticity criteria” — criteria of coherence, criteria of dissimilarity, in particular, but also of embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc — then being used to supposedly uncover the historical Jesus. Her reflections on the state of play since that time are found in her foreword to Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity and can be downloaded as a pdf file. (It begins with the ‘I told you so’ of the title for this blog.)

Her arguments in 1970 and 1972 were ignored, such (Morna believes) was the pressure on her peers to “produce a scientific result”. Criteria were seized upon by theologians as if they could be worn as badges proving to the world that they were not letting their religious beliefs influence their research, “but were motivated by the same scholarly impartiality shown by those working in other disciplines.”

Chris Keith supports Morna Hooker’s earlier views in his first chapter of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, and adds to her criticisms that the problems is

also with the notion that the proper historical task consists of digging in the Gospels in this manner in the first place, and especially with assuming that one can get closer to the actual past by eliminating Christian interpretation from the reconstruction effort. (p. 48)

Keith reinforces Hooker’s view when he writes that

criteria reached a quasi-canonical status because of their appearance that they were objective scientific common ground between scholars of different theological persuasions. In the excitement and effort to function like the hard sciences, then, scholars overlooked (or were simply unconcerned with) the criteria approach’s foundations. (pp. 27-28)

This post looks at those foundations and returns to one of Morna Hooker’s earlier articles. So before discussing Chris Keith’s chapter I thought it useful to cover one of Hooker’s publications on which his own chapter is based.

It is “On Using the Wrong Tool” and appeared in Theology in 1972.

Morna Hooker (MH) argues that the tools used by scholars to discover the historical Jesus “cannot do what is required of them.”

Authenticity grew out of form-criticism so MH begins with that foundation. (more…)

2012/09/20

Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically From Other Historical Studies

Well, well, well. After all of Dr James McGrath’s attempts to tell everyone that historical Jesus scholars use the same methods as any other historians, and that I was merely some sort of bigoted idiot for saying otherwise, what do I happen to run across while serendipitously skimming my newly arrived Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity? This:

Jens Schröter

The idea of formulating certain “criteria” for an evaluation of historical sources is a peculiar phenomenon in historical critical Jesus research. It was established in the course of the twentieth century as a consequence of the form-critical idea of dividing Jesus accounts of the Gospels into isolated parts of tradition, which would be examined individually with regard to their authenticity.

Such a perspective was not known to the Jesus research of the nineteenth century and it does not, to my knowledge, appear in other strands of historical research.

In analysing historical material scholars would usually ask for their origin and character, their tendencies in delineating events from the past, evaluate their principal credibility — for example, whether it is a forgery or a reliable source — and use them together with other sources to develop a plausible image of the concerned period of history. (pp. 51-52, my formatting, underlining and bolding)

That’s by Jens Schröter, Chair and Professor of Exegesis and Theology of the New Testament and New Testament Apocrypha at the Humboldt University.

But don’t misunderstand. Jens Schröter does understand why this difference has arisen and explains his view of the reason. Historical Jesus studies have traditionally been necessarily different because the earliest sources about Jesus’ life (the Gospels) are theological narratives, and as a consequence,

historical data are interwoven with quotations from Scriptures of Israel, early Christian confessions, and secondary elaborations of earlier traditions . . . It has been argued that the faith of earliest Christianity has imposed its character on the historical data and must therefore be distinguished from Jesus’ word and deeds themselves.

It is at this point that Schröter sees historical Jesus studies as having jumped the rails. What has happened is that HJ scholars have taken this starting point as a rationale for trying to locate a more authentic event or saying that lies behind the Gospel narratives. That is not how other historical studies work. (more…)

2012/09/19

Searching for a Good Fantasy: A Postmodernist’s Historical Jesus

My copy of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity arrived today. I had the impression that there is some curiosity “in internet land” as to whether this work will be of interest among Christ Myth theorists. If I am not judging too hastily, I will say, “No”. Everyone knows that the criteria used to establish “historicity” of a saying or deed of Jesus are shot through with logical fallacies. This has surely been well enough publicized by many mainstream and minorstream scholars by now. Or perhaps I don’t wear the same blinkers as many theologians who confuse apologetics with historical research.

The book does not address historicity. Note the title. It says “Authenticity”, not “historicity”.

There’s an interesting Introduction by Anthony Le Donne that I’d like to post on some time. He surveys the history, especially “American” meaning U.S. history, of historical research related to the Bible and Jesus. It reminds me of the title of a book by Ashleigh Brilliant, I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy. (Ashleigh Brilliant, I have read, is always on the warpath against anyone who uses one of his epigrams without first paying him for the privilege, so I hope he doesn’t object to my freely promoting one of his many published titles for him here instead.)

I have long looked forward to doing posts on historiography again, and in the process place the postmodernist historiography in its context. In that series I would certainly refer to Anthony Le Donne’s earlier book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?. That little volume is a handbook for theologians on how to save or redirect a new quest for the “historical Jesus” through a postmodernist approach to sources.
It contains a foreword by Dale C. Allison Jr. He was the scholar, some will recall, cited by James McGrath as being one of the pioneers responsible for paving the way for a whole new revolution in historical studies across the board. (See my post, New Testament Scholars Are Pioneers In Historical Methods.) McGrath learned from Allison the following:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus)

Here is one way to illustrate how postmodernist historical research into the ‘historical Jesus’ works. The illustration is taken from Anthony Le Donne’s Historical Jesus. Le Donne spices up the explanation with geometric and arboreal diagrams and phrases like “moving on from positivism”, “patterns of memory”, “thought-categories”, “memory refractions” and “spiraling memory traditions”. This is a Good Thing™, because it shields the reader from direct exposure to the befuddling logical circuitry behind it all.

First, find two contradictory Jesus “traditions”.

Next, place these two “traditions” 5 centimeters apart on a sheet of plain white paper on a flat table.

Thirdly, sprinkle lightly with extra-fine grade authenticity powder.

Now, with some geometry tools and an HB pencil, draw straight lines from those two “traditions” to a third point so as to form an equilateral triangle. (Don’t worry about the powder. That will add to the final effect.)

Now erase those straight lines and replace them with spirals. (Replace the scattered authenticity powder.)

You have now recreated the original memory refraction that was further refracted through spirals to reach our extant contradictory evidence.

Finally, focus one eye on the start of each of the spirals, roll each eye back through the spirals to their other point, and you will come to understand how we arrived at our extant contradictory evidence.

Ergo, Jesus existed.

Okay, that was tongue in cheek. But it is not far off what Le Donne writes anyway, seriously. Only in Theology Departments!

Le Donne’s case-study (more…)

2012/08/30

Did Jesus exist for minimalist and Jesus Process member Philip Davies?

Emeritus Professor Philip Davies has not been able to “resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus” in an opinion piece titled Did Jesus Exist? on The Bible and Interpretation website. It is a question that he says “has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally”, though the occasion of his essay appears to be the recent set of exchanges over the views of Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and Thomas L. Thompson on that website along with some thoughts on the recently released ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’.

(Since Davies was also announced as a member of The Jesus Process (c) (TJP), it is encouraging to see someone from that august body addressing the tactic of the gutter rhetoric that we have endured recently from other TJP members Joseph Hoffmann, Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher. It would be nice to hope that Davies’ article can mark a turn for the better from that quarter at least.)

Philip Davies is (in)famous for his 1992 publication In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ (partly outlined on vridar.info) that is reputed to have brought “minimalist” arguments on the Old Testament to a wider scholarly (and public) awareness. In Did Jesus Exist? Davies says he has “often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’”, and infers that the collection of articles in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is an appropriate way to open the question.

(I don’t think it is all that difficult to apply a “minimalist” approach to the New Testament: it’s a simple matter of approaching the data with the same logical validity and consistency — the avoidance of circularity [and circularity of method is confessed by several historical Jesus/NT scholars] in particular. The hard part is in acknowledging the circularity given our cultural conditioning.)

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NT studies “not a normal case”, ad hominem rhetoric, and hope

He points out that what is uncontroversial in any other field of ancient history runs into trouble when suggested in the field of New Testament studies (my emphasis): (more…)

2012/07/26

Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Historical Jesus Question

Filed under: Historical sources,Larry Hurtado — Neil Godfrey @ 8:36 am
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Don’t get me wrong. I have found many worthwhile nuggets in the publications of Larry Hurtado. I find some of the analysis and conclusions in his “How On Earth Did Jesus Become A God?” very insightful. If I see his name in a contribution or bibliography I generally take notice and follow up. If I ever met Larry in person I would very much hope we could shake hands and enjoy a stimulating discussion. I have no doubts he could teach me much.

So let anyone who broadcasts some nonsense about my supposedly “hating scholars” please take a valium or step outside and water your garden.

And what’s more, I find myself in total sympathy with his weary plight when he writes (only a day or two ago):

The shape of Earth as envisioned by Samuel Row...

The shape of Earth as envisioned by Samuel Rowbotham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate!

Hurtado, I have no doubt, believes sincerely that “the current wave of ‘mythicist’ proponents” is “ill informed and illogical”. According to his post his only acquaintance with mythicist arguments is an eighty-year old book opposing mythicism. It is the most natural thing in the world for him to accept that this book, in 1938 published by the Student ChristianMission Press, would in a cordial and Christian manner give readers a full grasp of the basis of mythicist arguments and with good grace and irrefutable logic and undeniable evidence tear those arguments apart limb by hapless limb.

And he cannot imagine today’s mythicists being any better informed or logical because, to him, the very denial of the historical existence of Jesus is akin to denying the earth is round, the earth orbits the sun, or the moon landings really happened.

And that’s the problem! (more…)

2012/07/19

A model history lesson (or, Why Does Rabbi Akiba Proclaim Bar Kokhba the Messiah?)

Rabbi Akiba (illustration from the 1568 Mantua...

Rabbi Akiba (illustration from the 1568 Mantua Haggadah) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My recent encounter with Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs has led me to a few other publications of his and one of them I found particularly surprising and interesting: Why Does R. Akiba Acclaim Bar Kokhba as Messiah? that appeared in a 2009 Journal for the Study of Judaism (40). (Bar Kokhba was the leader of the second Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 130s CE. The Jewish Talmudic record preserves a tradition that the leading Rabbi of the time, Akiba, declared Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah. Unfortunately for Akiba’s hopes Bar Kokhba’s rebellion failed.)

What grabbed my attention was the way Novenson analysed the documentary evidence to understand its nature before accepting its narrative content at face value — something that should strike as such an obvious thing to do but also something that very few historical Jesus scholars seem to follow through seriously. Note the present tense in the title of Novenson’s article: “Why does R. Akikba . . .” — that is significant in that it tells us Novenson will be addressing the literary Akiba in the narrative. A rationale for this might be that the literary Akiba is all we have today to analyse. Or as Thomas L. Thompson might say, we need first to deal with the Akiba we do have (the figure in literary texts) before we can move on to knowing how we might understand a historical Akiba behind the texts.)

A significant feature of Novenson’s method of argumentation is that it touches on a few criteria and methods frequently used in historical Jesus studies. We will see that he applies them not as rhetorical questions with “obvious” answers but as real questions requiring genuine investigation:

  • Why would any Jew make up a story embarrassing to a great rabbi of history?
  • Why would anyone make any of it up at all?
  • The characters are historical, the setting is historical, and the narrative is plausible and coherent. Why should we not believe the narrative is historical?

Now in historical Jesus studies these sorts of questions are raised less as gateways to inquiry than as rhetorical affirmations. There seems to be something about Jesus as a subject of historical inquiry that shuts down imaginations and brings out The Fossil’s Creed in NT scholars. “Why of course this or that story must be based on a true event! Why would anyone make it up? Why would anyone make up a story embarrassing to a respected rabbi? Of course it cannot be made up! It has to be true!”

Scholars generally seem to be at their best when they are not taking on Jesus. (more…)

2012/07/06

Thomas L. Thompson responds to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

It’s good to see Professor Thomas L. Thompson come out and respond to Bart Ehrman’s crude dismissal of his scholarly contribution to the origin of the Christ myth.

Here is what Ehrman had written of Thomas L. Thompson’s work:

A different sort of support for a mythicist position comes in the work of Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots o f Jesus and David, Thompson is trained in biblical studies, but he does not have degrees in New Testament or early Christianity. He is, instead, a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In his own field of expertise he is convinced that figures from the Hebrew Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and David never existed. He transfers these views to the New Testament and argues that Jesus too did not exist but was invented by Christians who wanted to create a savior figure out of stories found in the Jewish scriptures.

and again (more…)

2012/06/05

Hoffmann Serf-Reviews My Bayes’ Theorem Post, “Proving This!”

Filed under: Apologetics,Bayes' Theorem,Historiography,The Jesus Process — Tim Widowfield @ 9:22 am
Gentleman Joe

Gentleman Joe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gentleman Joe

Over on The New Oxonian, R. Joseph Hoffmann, leader of the Jesus Process©™® Triumvirate has deigned to comment on my post, “Proving This! — Hoffmann on Bayes’ Theorem.” As expected, his response is both cordial and understated. Ever the gentleman, he remains humble, even though Hoffmann’s massive and mighty brain threatens to burst through his shiny, pink forehead. At first I had considered answering him right there on his site. However, since I respectfully disagree with so much of what he has written, I have decided to create a new post here on Vridar instead.

I’ll quote chunks of Hoffmann’s words here, interspersed with my responses.  He’s reacting to a comment by a guy who goes by the screen name “Hajk.” Hoffmann begins:

Yes @Hajk: I was laughing politely when Vridar/Godfey[sic] made the bumble about “pure mathematics” in scare quotes; it reveals that he is a complete loser in anything related to mathematics, and when he goes on to complain that Bayes doesn’t “fear subjectivity it welcomes it” may as well toss in the towel as far as its probative force goes. Odd, someone conceding your points and then claiming victory. 

(more…)

2012/05/31

Proving This! — Hoffmann on Bayes’ Theorem

Filed under: Bayes' Theorem,Carrier: Proving history — Tim Widowfield @ 3:30 pm
Tags: ,
Alan Mathison Turing

Alan Mathison Turing: Genius, Computational Pioneer, and BT Fan (Photo credit: Garrettc)

Misunderstanding a theorem

Over on New Oxonian, Hoffmann is at it again. In “Proving What?” Joe is amused by the recent Bayes’ Theorem (BT) “fad,” championed by Richard Carrier. I’ll leave it to Richard to answer Joe more fully (and I have no doubt he will), but until he does we should address the most egregious errors in Hoffmann’s essay. He writes:

So far, you are thinking, this is the kind of thing you would use for weather, rocket launches, roulette tables and divorces since we tend to think of conditional probability as an event that has not happened but can be predicted to happen, or not happen, based on existing, verifiable occurrences.  How can it be useful in determining whether events  ”actually” transpired in the past, that is, when the sample field itself consists of what has already occurred (or not occurred) and when B is the probability of it having happened? Or how it can be useful in dealing with events claimed to be sui generis since the real world conditions would lack both precedence and context?

I must assume that Joe has reached his conclusion concerning what he deems to be the proper application of Bayes’ Theorem based on the narrow set of real-world cases with which he is familiar. He scoffs at Carrier’s “compensation” that would allow us to use BT in an historical setting:

Carrier thinks he is justified in this by making historical uncertainty (i.e., whether an event of the past actually happened) the same species of uncertainty as a condition that applies to the future.  To put it crudely: Not knowing whether something will happen can be treated in the same way as not knowing whether something has happened by jiggering the formula.

Different values yield different answers!

I’m not sure what’s more breathtaking: the lack of understanding Hoffmann demonstrates — a marvel of studied ignorance — or the sycophantic applause we find in the comments. Perhaps he’s getting dubious advice from his former student who’s studying “pure mathematics” (bright, shiny, and clean, no doubt) at Cambridge who told him:

Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

You don’t have to do very much research to discover that Bayes’ Theorem does not fear subjectivity; it welcomes it. Subjective probability is built into the process. And you say you’re not sure about what value to plug in for prior probability? Then guess! No, really, it’s OK. What’s that? You don’t even have a good guess? Then plug in 50% and proceed.

It’s Bayes’ casual embrace of uncertainty and subjectivity — its treatment of subjective prior probability (degree of belief) — that drives the frequentists crazy. However, the results speak for themselves.

And as far as getting different answers when you plug in different numbers, that’s a common feature in equations. Stick in a different mass value in F = ma, and — boom! — you get a different value for force. It’s like magic! Good grief. What do they teach at Cambridge these days?

The proper application of BT forces us to estimate the prior probabilities. It encourages us to quantify elements that we might not have even considered in the past. It takes into account our degree of belief about a subject. And it makes us apply mathematical rigor to topics we used to think could be understood only through intuition. Hence BT’s imposed discipline is extraordinarily useful, since we can now haggle over the inputs (that’s why they’re called variables) rather than argue over intuitive conclusions about plausibility — because truthfully, when a scholar writes something like “Nobody would ever make that up,” it’s nothing but an untested assertion.

Bayes’ Theorem ascendant

If you can possibly spare the time, please watch the video after the page break. In it, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy recounts the story of how Bayes’ Theorem won the day. She tells us how BT is well suited for situations with extremely limited historical data or even no historical data — e.g., predicting the probability of the occurrence of an event that has never happened before. (more…)

2012/05/14

Ehrman Confesses: Scholars Never Have Tried to Prove Jesus Existed

Thomas L. Thompson, Professor of Theology, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and editor of biblical studies journals, wrote in 2005 that historical Jesus scholars have always just assumed that Jesus existed:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson)

Now Professor Bart Ehrman has said the same thing. He even says he believes he is the first scholar ever to set out a sustained argument to prove Jesus existed!

I realized when doing my research for the book that since New Testament scholars have never taken mythicists seriously, they have never seen a need to argue against their views, which means that even though experts in the study of the historical Jesus (and Christian origins, and classics, and ancient history, etc etc.) have known in the back of their minds all sorts of powerful reasons for simply assuming that Jesus existed, no one had ever tried to prove it. Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it, and it was a very interesting intellectual exercise. How do you prove that someone from 2000 years ago actually lived? I have to say, it was terrifically enlightening, engaging, and fun to think through all the issues and come up with all the arguments. I think really almost any New Testament scholar could have done it. But it ended up being lucky me. (Did Jesus Exist as Part One, accessed 14th May, 2012, my bolding and italics)

Can you imagine a biologist or paleontologist posting on a blog “no-one has ever tried to prove evolution”? Or a physicist saying “no-one has ever tried to prove the laws of physics”?

And note, further, the way Ehrman implies he went about this novel exercise of actually, for the first time in his life, trying to set out “a sustained argument” that Jesus existed. No references are made to historical methodologies. He simply sat down and thought it all up off the top of his erudite head. That he had never thought this through before, his neglect of historical methodology, even elementary logic, shows through when he writes some excruciatingly embarrassing pages in chapter two of his book Did Jesus Exist? (more…)

2012/04/22

Putting James the Brother of the Lord to a Bayesian Test

spelt out in blue neon at the offices of Auton...

spelt out in blue neon at the offices of Autonomy in Cambridge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I saw none of the other apostles, except James the brother of the Lord. — Galatians 1:19

On this verse some hang their strongest assurance that Jesus himself was an historical figure. Paul says he met James, the brother of the Lord (assumed to be Jesus), so that is absolute proof that Jesus existed. That sounds like a perfectly reasonable conclusion. So reasonable, in fact, that some quickly denounce as perverse cranks any who deny this “obvious meaning”.

But should historians be content with this? Is it being “hyper-sceptical” to question this explanation?

We need to keep in mind some fundamental principles of historical research and explanations from the professional historians themselves. Renowned conservative historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton, warns against deploying such simplistic methods as citing a single piece of evidence to make a case. In this instance, the case is about evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

Since I am currently reading and reviewing Richard Carrier’s Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus I am taking time out in this post to see what happens if I test this “obvious” interpretation of Galatians 1:19 by means of Bayesian principles. Carrier argues that Bayes’ Theorem is nothing more than a mathematical presentation or demonstration of what goes on inside our heads when we are reasoning about any hypothesis correctly. So let’s try it out on the conclusions we draw from Galatians 1:19.

The way it works is like this. (But keep in mind I am a complete novice with Bayes’ theorem. I am trying to learn it by trying to explain what I think I understand so far.) I see a verse in Paul’s letters that appears to have a simple explanation. I think of myself as a geologist looking at strata in a rock face and I think about all I know about strata and the evidence in front of me and with all that in mind I try to work out how that strata came to look the way it does. This verse is like that strata. My task is to test a hypothesis or explanation for how it came to be there and to appear as it does.

So the explanation, or hypothesis, that I decide to test is: That James, whom Paul meets according to this letter, was a sibling of Jesus. That’s my initial explanation for this verse, or in particular this phrase, “James the brother of the Lord”, being there.

It seems pretty straightforward, surely. This should be easy enough to confirm.

So let’s set it out in the theorem structure. (more…)

2012/04/19

Scholarly Fallacy of the Week: Bart Ehrman’s False Dichotomy

The hermeneutic of charity is what some New Testament scholars (e.g. Richard Bauckham) have termed the goodness, the rightness, of believing a testimony by default — unless and until we are given a reason to doubt it.

It is usually opposed rhetorically to the idea of the hermeneutic of suspicion.

Charity and suspicion. The words clearly resonate with the ideals of the highest teachings of biblical love: “charity” being the best of gifts and “suspicion” being antithetical to that Christian virtue according to 1 Corinthians 13.

In fundamental logic, however, we might align these concepts with something more neutral and objective for analysis: the false dichotomy.

Bart Ehrman may shun the term “hermeneutic of charity” (I don’t know but I’m assuming he does) but he falls right into that same soft bed of roses no matter what their name. He does this many times, and so many New Testament scholars do, too, but we have a right to expect the highest standards from the highest paid professions.

In Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman falls within the wake of so many of his peers by setting up the so-called evidence of Papias as

  1. either reliable enough to be used as “an important source for establishing the historical existence of Jesus”
  2. or it is nothing but a bald-faced lie

This is a most unscholarly view of things. It has nothing to recommend it. It breaks all the fundamental rules of how historians are expected to analyse the value of their sources. It is nothing but a logical and methodological fallacy. But it is so commonly encountered in the writings of New Testament scholars that one would be excused for thinking it is a simple truism.

Here is how Ehrman presents his case based on the supposed evidence of Papias: (more…)

2012/04/18

Selective, One-Eyed Responses from Scholars Against Mythicism (SAMs)

The problem with mythicists such as Doherty, Salm, Zindler, Wells, Ellegard, Price is that they engage with the mainstream scholarly literature devoted to studies of Christian origins and the historical Jesus. This poses a problem for anti-mythicist scholars such as Ehrman and McGrath. It forces them to do two things:

  1. Accuse the mythicists of dishonesty because they dare cite works that are not written by mythicists when they find in those works some point that they believe supports their case;
  2. Argue against mythicism by means of just one particular argument as if the many opposing viewpoints of their own peers simply do not exist. That is, they must suppress the fact that there are mainstream scholars who do support some particular details found in mythicist arguments.

The fallacious charge of dishonesty

I addressed #1 only recently at Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman so won’t repeat myself here. I will add a brief note from Richard Carrier’s list of axioms of historical method:

Axiom 12: When one of us cites a scholar, it should only be assumed we agree with what they say is essential to the point we cite them for. (p. 34 of Proving History)

What happens is that when, say, Earl Doherty cites scholarly works supporting his view that 1 Corinthians 2:8 was originally understood by Paul to mean demons were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, hostile critics retort that those same scholars also argue that they crucified Jesus by proxy, that is, through the Romans. They certainly do, and it is well understood that they do since it is well understood that Doherty is arguing a position against the views of the general scholarly community. It is clear and obvious to everyone that those scholars are not also mythicists. In their attempts to disallow Doherty the right to use scholarly views to support any point at all he is making in his argument for mythicism they accuse him of being dishonest by quoting scholars who do not agree with his larger point. (See Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman for details.)

There’s a converse to this. Carrier expands on this axiom from that converse position. One might call it the fallacious charge of gullibility, but Carrier calls it the baggage fallacy:

This kind of ‘baggage’ fallacy (often deployed as a variety of the text-book fallacy of “poisoning the well”) is common enough to warrant particular condemnation. In fact, I see this fallacy committed so regularly, so widely, by accomplished scholars who ought to know better, that I feel the need to call particular attention to it now, in the hopes it will forestall a repeat performance. If you cite a scholar as proving point A, and that same scholar also argues B, but B is not necessary to A, then it is a fallacy for anyone to assume you agree with B, and a fallacy to employ this assumption to argue that if B is not credible then A is not credible. I call this the ‘baggage’ fallacy because it amounts to saddling an author with all the ‘baggage’ attached to the scholar he cites or the views he defends, when such attachment is neither entailed nor warranted. Just because I take certain positions or arrive at certain conclusions is no excuse to impute to me all the baggage that is usually supposed to come along with those positions or conclusions.

For example, when I argue a point (such as that distinct elements of Osiris cult can be seen in early Jesus cult), it might be assumed I agree with something else that supposedly goes along with this (such as that all elements of Osiris cult were present in early Jesus cult, or that Jesus is merely Osiris under another name, of that Christians just “borrowed” and “revamped” an Egyptian religion). That would be mistaken. . . . The same fallacy also results when I agree with something a particular book said, or cite it as a reference of importance on a specific subject, and then it’s assumed I agree with everything that book said or its author elsewhere defends. (p. 35)

Selective rebuttals (more…)

2012/04/15

Carrier’s “Proving History”, Chapter 3(a) — Review

provinghistoryI have been studying the first half of Richard Carrier’s chapter 3, “Introducing Bayes’s Theorem”, in his recent book Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. I mean studying. I want to be sure I fully understand the argument before tackling the second half of the chapter, headed Mechanics of Bayes’s Theorem, which promises to be “the most math-challenging section of the book” (p. 67). Maths is not my most outstanding strength so I want to be sure I get the basics clear before moving into those waters. I have come to a point where I can enjoy playing little mind-games with Bayes’ Theorem for the sake of reinforcing my understanding. Last night on the TV news was dramatic story of an unexpected resignation of a leading Australian political figure. So I found myself piecing all I heard, how I heard it and what I knew etc. into a Bayes’ equation and calculating the probability that the story was true. Kind of fun. At least for the moment before the novelty factor wears off.

Result: While I believe I can see Richard’s point some of my niggling questions have not yet gone away.

When did the sun go out?

Carrier begins by setting out our reasoning when we read in the Gospels that darkness covered the whole earth for three hours at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. What he is seeking to do is to take readers through the processes they would undergo in order to conclude that such an event almost certainly never really happened.

To make the scenario work he posits at least a barely conceivable natural cause for the event: “a vast dense cloud of space-dust swiftly drifting through the plane of the solar system . . .” — Wouldn’t the Sun’s gravity prevent that? But I’m happy to go along with the exercise for sake of argument nonetheless.

The critical point for Carrier is that what would convince us that such an event really had happened in the past is if we could find records testifying of the event across all world cultures thousands of miles apart from Britain to China.

There could not fail to have been mention or discussion of such a remarkable and terrifying event across many of these cultures among their surviving textual traditions and materials. (p. 43).

The key point is that we know in advance that this is the evidence we would expect to find IF such an event had happened.

And if indeed that were the case, we would surely have adequate warrant to believe the sun was blotted out for three hours on the corroborated day . . .

What Carrier is preparing his readers for is to accept that reasoning about historical events is fundamentally similar to reasoning in the sciences. If such and such a hypothesis (or explanation) is true then we would predict (or expect) certain events (or evidence) to be manifest.

Then there is the converse. If such a hypothesis (explanation) were true, we would NOT expect to find a universal silence in the surviving records:

[A] single claim in a single religion repeated only in its own documents (and documents relying on those), is extraordinarily improbable — unless the event was entirely made up. . . . This is a slam-dunk Argument from Silence, establishing beyond any reasonable doubt the nonhistoricity of this solar event . . . (p. 44)

My niggling question:

I follow the reasoning. But in my mind, rather than taking me into the realm of mathematics, it all leads back to my own argument about how historians know anything at all about the persons and events of the past. (more…)

2012/04/13

Jesus Agnosticism: Believing vs. Knowing

What we can and cannot know

Huxley at about 55, scanned & cropped slightly

Huxley at about 55, scanned & cropped slightly. Note: The photo was cropped, but the sideburns were not. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I confess I have often shown little patience for people who hide behind the label of agnosticism when asked whether they believe in God. It smacks of evasion, since it answers a question concerning belief with an assertion about the state of knowledge. That is, it redirects our attention to the axis of knowing — how much we know or can know — instead of telling us where one stands on the axis of believing.

So you can perhaps imagine how annoyed I’ve become at myself lately for describing my own position on the historicity of Jesus as “Jesus agnostic.” Have I fallen into the same trap as atheistic agnostics, too timid to answer the question that was asked, so I answer one that wasn’t?

Does agnosticism describe anything meaningful?

Most atheists are also agnostics. We lack the belief in God in the same way that we lack the belief in many things we can’t definitively disprove. However, we hold the existence of a supernatural being that fits the description of God to be so unlikely that we operate under the assumption that he does not exist.

Do we actively believe God does not exist? Actually, no. It takes no effort at all to lack a belief. For example, if you grew up as a Christian, you probably lack the belief in the transmigration of souls. Same here. People might reincarnate after they die, but I think it’s extremely unlikely. So I can truthfully say, “I don’t believe in samsara.” But I don’t spend any time thinking about it or actively disbelieving in it.

If by knowledge we mean rational knowledge based on human reason and physical evidence, a good many Christians are also agnostics. They believe without proof — “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29b, KJV) They have made the “leap of faith.” Should they claim to have any knowledge at all, they will maintain they possess a knowledge of the heart, a feeling of the divine presence.

So if a great many of us — theists and atheists alike — agree that we can’t know whether God exists, is the term “agnostic” all that meaningful? Well, it is if you mean it in the loose, vernacular way that the popular media often intends it, namely as a description of someone who cannot decide. Perpetual fence-sitters, they simply can’t make up their minds. (more…)

2012/04/11

Carrier’s “Proving History”, Chapter 2 — Review

This post continues from my previous one in which I began my review of Richard Carrier’s Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Chapter 2: The Basics

Here Carrier pauses before addressing Bayes’ theorem in order to establish fundamentals that ought to be part of the basic mechanics of every historical enquiry.

The first subsection of the chapter is “Why History Requires Expertise”. Carrier opens by listing three golden rules he always offers lay people who ask him what history they can trust:

  1. Don’t believe everything you read;
  2. Always ask for the primary sources of a claim you find incredible;
  3. Beware of scholars who make amazing claims but who are not experts in the period or even historians.

I have learned to extend #2 to “always ask for the primary sources of all claims — including the commonplace ones”. (more…)

2012/04/10

Richard Carrier’s “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus” Chapter 1 (A Review)

Till now I’ve always been more curious than persuaded about Carrier’s application of Bayes’s Theorem to what he calls historical questions, so curiosity led me to purchase his book in which he discusses it all in depth, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Before I discuss here his preface and opening chapter I should be up front with my reasons for having some reservations about Carrier’s promotion of Bayes’ theorem. (Allow me my preference for Bayes’ over Bayes’s.) I should also say that I’d like to think I am quite prepared to be persuaded that my resistance is a symptom of being too narrow-minded.

My first problem with Carrier’s use of the theorem arises the moment he speaks of it being used to “prove history” or resolve “historical problems”. For me, history is not something to be “proved”. History is a quest for explanations of what we know has happened in the past. Historical problems, to my thinking, are problems having to do with how to interpret and understand what we know has happened in the past. The milestone philosophers of the nature of history — von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White — have certainly spoken about history this way.

I have always understood that where there is insufficient data available then history cannot be done at all. Ancient history, therefore, does not allow for the same sorts of in-depth historical studies as are available to the historian of more recent times. Historical questions are necessarily shaped (or stymied altogether) by the nature and limitations of the available sources.

Criteriology (I take the term from Scot McKnight‘s discussion of the historical methods of biblical scholars in Jesus and His Death) has always looked to me like a fallacious attempt to get around the problem of having insufficient data to yield any substantive answers to questions we would like to ask. We don’t know what happened? Okay, let’s apply various criteria to our texts to see if we can find out what “very probably really did happen”.

Carrier’s introduction of Bayes’ theorem has always appeared to me to be an attempt to salvage some value from a fundamentally flawed approach to “history” — the striving to find enough facts or data with which to begin to do history.

I should add that I do like Carrier’s offering of hope that Bayes’ theorem can promote more rigorous and valid thinking and applications of criteria. But I can’t help but wonder if in the end the exercise is an attempt to patch holes in the Titanic with admittedly very good quality adhesive tape.

What is really accomplished if we find only a 1% probability for the historicity of Jesus? Improbable things really do happen in the world. Otherwise we would never know chance and always be living with certainty. Or maybe I’m overlooking something about Carrier’s argument here.

Not that I’m a nihilist. I do believe we have lots of useful evidence to assist us with the study of Christian origins. I think scholars are agreed that pretty much all of that evidence speaks about a Christ of faith (a literary figure) and not an historical figure. That’s where our historical enquiry must begin — with the evidence we do have. After we analyse it all and frame such questions as this sort of evidence will allow us to ask then we can begin to seek explanations for Christian origins. This will probably mean that we will find answers that do not address the life and personality of someone who is hidden from view. Our understanding will address religious developments, ideas, culture, literature, social developments. We will probably be forced to conclude — as indeed some historians do — that if there is an historical Jesus in there somewhere he is irrelevant to our enquiry.

So that is where I am coming from.

Let’s see if I am being too narrow-minded. Here is my reading of Carrier’s preface and opening chapter. (more…)

2012/03/26

The Democratization of Knowledge and the Reaction of Reactionary Scholars

Filed under: Ehrman: Did Jesus Exist?,Historical methodology,Historiography — Tim Widowfield @ 6:58 pm
Tags:

Today’s scripture reading comes from Ring Lardner’s short story, “The Young Immigrunts.”


Chapter 10

N.Y. TO GRENITCH 500.0

The lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.

Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.

Shut up he explained.


Balled Up on the Grand Concorpse

photograph of stained glass window in St. Igna...

photograph of stained glass window in St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts by John Workman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everybody else in the world has been blogging about Dr. Bart Ehrman’s latest book on the existence of Jesus, and I didn’t want to feel left out. But the truth is there’s not much left to say. Yes, it’s a disappointment. And yes, we expected more and better from a respected, popular scholar. On the other hand, it wasn’t that big a surprise, was it?

We might, however, be forgiven if we found the tone of the debate a tad over the top. We have learned, as the hapless four-year-old protagonist in Lardner’s story discovered, that there is no way to ask Daddy if he’s lost that won’t bring a harsh response.

It does seem odd, however, to see scholars with advanced degrees — public intellectuals who teach real students at real universities — stooping to personal attacks. More disturbing than the abuse is the apparent lack of unawareness exhibited by the perpetrators, as if to say, “This is perfectly normal behavior.” (more…)

2012/03/25

Historical Jesus Studies As Pseudo-History — Bart Ehrman’s Jesus As a Case-Study

First let it be clear where I am coming from. This is not an attack on any scholar or the scholarship of theologians in general. It is an attempt to address what strikes me as very muddled thinking in many works about the historical Jesus. That is not a denigration of the scholars in question or the works they have produced. It is forthright attempt to address an assumption or understanding that appears to be generally overlooked. If my views are wrong then I would expect someone somewhere who knows better can point out in a reasoned explanation where and why they are wrong. That would cause me some embarrassment, no doubt, but at least I would be given the opportunity change my views. I resolved long ago to be prepared to take the consequences of striving to be honest with myself in place of living a lie. But if the only response continues to be ridicule or insult or silent dismissal I will have no reason to think my criticism is invalid.

Often when I read a scholarly study of the historical Jesus I am a little dismayed at the woolliness of the ideas addressed. I have slowly become convinced that very few scholars who have written about the historical Jesus have ever studied what history even is. Very often historical evidence is confused with stories or an assumption that a story must be derived from real happenings.

Now I do understand that when Bart Ehrman wrote Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet for a New Millennium (=JAPNM), he wrote it not for his scholarly peers but for a wider public:

Scholars have written hundreds of books about Jesus . . . . A good number of these books, mainly the lesser-known ones, have been written by scholars for scholars to promote scholarship; others have been written by scholars to popularise scholarly views. The present book is one of the latter kind . . . . (p. ix)

The woolliness of thinking about the distinction between the narrative of an event and evidence for a real historical event, and even about the nature of history itself, is a critical consideration given that Ehrman also writes in the same preface:

The evidence itself plays a major role in this book. Most other popular treatments of Jesus rarely discuss evidence. That’s a particularly useful move — to avoid mentioning the evidence — if you’re going to present a case that’s hard to defend. Maybe if you just tell someone what you think, they’ll take your word for it. In my opinion, though, a reader has the right to know not only what scholars think about Jesus . . . but also why they think what they think. That is, readers have a right to know what the evidence is. (p. x)

Since my first draft of this post a new book by Ehrman has appeared (Did Jesus Exist? =DJE) in which he underscores the same fallacies running through JAPNM and adds a raft of new ones. For example, he lists a number of sources that he says historians can rely upon to establish the historical existence of a person while failing to notice that a number of the sources he lists can just as easily be used to argue for the historical existence of several pagan gods and demi-gods. (No wonder he finds they conveniently support the historicity of Jesus!) Equally bad, almost all of them ultimately beg the question of historicity rather than confirm it. I will discuss the logical fallacies inherent in his list in a future post.

What is history?

There are two fundamentals that I learned in about history in my senior history classes.

  1. The first thing I learned in my history class at senior high school was what history is not. History is not a list of facts, dates and events. A list of events is a chronicle, not history. History is the study of past events, an exploration in understanding those events, the composition of a narrative to convey some story or meaning from those past events. Such a narrative invests the “facts” with interpretation and meaning.
  2. The second was that when it comes to ancient history historians can only study questions for which we have enough raw material to research. We can’t write a biography of Socrates examining the range of formative influences upon his thinking and assessing how much of his contribution to Greek philosophy was unique to his own genius, for example.

Let’s unpack these a little. (more…)

Richard Carrier interview

Filed under: Bayes' Theorem,Richard Carrier — Neil Godfrey @ 6:06 am
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Bayes theorem

Bayes theorem (Photo credit: disownedlight)

Richard Carrier is interviewed by John Loftus on “Debunking Christianity”and the topic is mythicism and the place of Bayes’ Theorem. If mathematics helps clarify the thinking of many then it can only be a good thing. I personally have not seen that it is necessary, and that worthwhile thinkers routinely seek to identify and account for the assumptions, the details and identifying fallacies in their arguments. Good arguments do make explicit all the assumptions etc without the need for mathematics to draw them to our attention. That one is reading a story about an event and not directly accessing an event, the ability to examine the nature of the story itself, for example, or being able to justify clearly why an argument is “not persuasive or plausible” instead of just saying “that’s not plausible or that’s weak”, or why an event is more or less probable, and the careful weighing (with intellectual honesty) the alternative explanations, and that any chain of reasoning ultimately has to factor in its weakest link. . . .

The good and diligent historians do make these things explicit and clear. It is the muddle-headed ones, one might say, that don’t. If Bayes is going to help the latter then that’s not a bad thing. I really do think that much of the problem among theologians who identify themselves as historians have never really been “trained” in historical studies and have never been trained in logic or philosophy. Clear thinking skills — as evidenced by the regularity of circular arguments, special pleading, unexamined assumptions — seem minimal in all too many of their works that relate to “the historical Jesus”.

But as Richard implies, such clarity of thinking does not come to us naturally. It does take a lot of “training”. But I don’t agree that this sort of training need by the preserve of “experts”. Those with enough interest and effort can learn how to improve their ways of thinking and how they read works and formulate their own ideas. (And much of that training can come from wide reading of the very best in the field.)

Here are a few excerpts of the bits that particularly appealed to me: (more…)

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