2013-02-21

The Myth of Disinterested Scholarly Research

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

sickwomanI can understand laypersons indignantly jumping to the defence of their favourite biblical or historical Jesus researcher whenever the suggestion arises that any scholar inevitably succumbs to ideological and career pressures. When scholars themselves proclaim their pureness of heart disinterested approach to their research, however, we are witnessing the problem of self-deception.

Tonight I was listening to an interview with a health researcher who was explaining that even in the field of health researchers were constantly pressured — and even taught the skills to do this — to sex up their research findings for regular publications. Researchers are compelled to publish and publish frequently to survive, and that means finding ways to dress up what once would have been regarded as rubbish into something that has the appearance of worth. That is, peer reviewed health journals are in the business of making money so they do publish what will sell well. See and listen to the segment of The Media Report: The Pitfalls of Health News, for the details of how this is possible.

If that sort of pressure is influencing what practitioners of one of the “hard sciences” write, can we really expect academics in biblical studies to be free from similar pressures? And that’s just the pressure of the daily business of surviving in one’s job. We haven’t even touched on ideology, yet. (Although ideology certainly is a factor in what academic journal publishers know is necessary for staying in the reputation business.)

.

Recently I was pulled up on the second page of the Preface to Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity where Daniel Boyarin writes:

On one occasion, when I had delivered a lecture based on some of the work below on the Gospel of John, a very upset undergraduate arose from the audience to inquire: Who are you and why are you trying to take our Gospel away from us?

On another occasion, a group of Christian ministers asked me why I was not a Jew for Jesus (not in an effort to convert me to that movement but rather to understand what it is that makes me not one).

At still another time, in Jerusalem on one memorable occasion, I was asked explicitly by the organizer of a conference, Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, to reflect on the implications of this work for the present and future.

On all of those occasions, 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!” (Border Lines, p. x, my formatting and emphasis)

Of course Boyarin is writing with some self-mockery here. But he is also acknowledging the truth of something that honest scholars do recognize. To claim pure objectivity without any self-interest is effectively to make a claim to being God.

Yet I venture to suggest that anyone who has read much of the claims and counter-claims between Christ myth advocates and those defending the historicity of Jesus has encountered someone saying “I am not driven by an agenda. I am only interested in knowing the facts of history.”

Rubbish. If you’ve heard that expressed you’ve probably also, in the recesses of your mind, at least fleetingly suspected that there really is something else that interests the claimant. Of course there is.

I love history. But I do have to make selections about what I read. There are clear interests that guide my decision. I have been on the lookout for Bill Gammage’s book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, and finally snapped up a copy from a local store a few weeks ago. I had not been on the lookout for a book about other indigenous peoples. Why this one? If I take time to reflect on the reason I suppose I would have to concede that my interest in this topic was related to my being Australian, and accordingly with my sense of identity and belonging to this land. Having read much of it already I find myself reflecting on landscapes that I am familiar with and thinking through how many of them either were the result of ancient “fire-farming” practices of the aboriginal peoples or how other landscapes are the consequence of the removal of aborigines from the regions. It is all about my own identity and home.

I am not “just trying to figure out what really happened”. I am trying to understand more about my own world. But more than that. I am engaged in an exercise that helps me flesh out an understanding of my own identity and place in this world.

I know there are historical Jesus scholars who would be quick to tell others the agenda that drives someone persuaded by a Christ myth view of Christian origins. But what should be of most interest is what each person concedes is his own interest. I use “interest” here in all its many levels of meaning, including where it overlaps with that supposedly dirty word “agenda”. If they insist that they have no interest but to find out “what really happened” and that’s all there is to whatever they publish, then I suggest they are as deluded about themselves as they are about those they accuse of having nefarious interests.

What is our interest in the Christ myth or in the historical Jesus? If we can’t find it or can’t see past our belief that “we want nothing but the truth” and “that’s ALL there is to it”, then we have a bit more soul-searching to do, I suggest.

Of course most of us firmly believe we do want the “truth”, but truth about what, exactly, and why?

53 Comments

  • EmmaZunz
    2013-02-21 21:07:35 UTC - 21:07 | Permalink

    Hi Neil. Cheers for the book-tip. I’m wondering if you have a brief list somewhere of what you consider the most indispensable books on the topics you cover on the blog? I know I can get your book-reviews by category but that’s a lot of reading!

    • 2013-02-21 21:46:25 UTC - 21:46 | Permalink

      I don’t have a “select reading list” at all. Certainly nothing as systematic as I would like it to be. I just follow whatever piques my interest — footnotes on some question that is only incidental to the theme of something I’m reading, keeping alert to what others say — good and bad. When I began reading I did notice references in many of the books to the same core works as if they were foundational, so I sought those oft-cited works out to read for myself.

      I hope to be able to blog on Boyarin’s works some time soon — I’ll do so in comparison with Larry Hurtado’s arguments because Hurtado thinks he’s bonkers. (But I’ve discovered Hurtado is narrowly selective in some aspects of his reading and some of his criticisms are very misinformed.) Hurtoda thinks several others are bonkers, but before I can discuss any of these I need to complete reading Hurtado’s own works. And so it goes. I still want to finish some books I began posting on well over a year ago now.

      • Ed Jones
        2013-02-22 02:20:49 UTC - 02:20 | Permalink

        Neil, You need read no more. Present evidence both from within the Guild of NT Studies and from the outside historical science research makes the point that the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT do not contain reliable knowledge of the Jesus event. Bluntly stated by Eric Zuesse’s Probe (which you negatively reviewed): “What’s known as Christianity started with Paul, and was developed by his followers, who wrote the canonical Gospels and the rest of the NT. The religion of the NT actually has nothing to do with the person of the historical Jesus. The NT was written and assembled to fulfill Paul’s Roman agenda, not Jesus’ Jewish one. This is shown to explain the entire Christian myth.” All of which is to say: “To debunk Christianity is to debunk the mythicist argument, both “have nothing to do with the peron of the historical Jesus.”.

        • 2013-02-22 02:31:02 UTC - 02:31 | Permalink

          Gee, I’m sorry Ed. I do try to read as much as I can. And if by my review I indicate that I have indeed read a book that I do not believe you yourself have read, I do fear you are setting me a very hard task indeed.

          • Ed Jones
            2013-02-22 05:31:54 UTC - 05:31 | Permalink

            Neil: Thanks for posting and replying to my comment. Please try to be as tolerant as you can of my one agenda which requires repetition, even if no one here reads my stuff.

            [Rest of comment deleted for violation of comment rules — Neil]

            • 2013-02-22 06:16:22 UTC - 06:16 | Permalink

              No Ed, you have it wrong. I have in the past — over 200+ comments of yours that I let you publish on this blog — made allowances for you that I made for no-one else. But enough is enough. You’ve had your multiple hundred comments published here. No more. The same rules apply to you as to anyone else.

  • 2013-02-21 23:13:19 UTC - 23:13 | Permalink

    … and I’m tensely waiting for your comments on Hermann Detering’s “Falsche Zeugen”, one of the books you numbered under those you said some time ago you planned to review. Imho I think it’s really the final blow to all and every of the non-Christian witnesses for an historical Jesus of Nazareth.

    • 2013-02-22 02:09:21 UTC - 02:09 | Permalink

      That was here: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/some-interesting-book-titles/

      Since then, I have received Robert M. Price’s book on Paul which seems to take a similar view as Detering (and Parvus — whose thoughts on the Ignatian letters are being posted here.) And a whole lot of other reading has come my way since that post, too. I saw on another site recently some people bitterly complaining that I had not posted more in depth arguments about oral tradition (or inability to locate evidence of this) behind the gospels — though I did say I was reading a book that did address that depth. I know you’re not in that camp, but they seemed to regard this blog has having a responsibility to post what they expected and wanted. The simple answer is that this is just a hobby blog and though I do take it seriously I do not have the time I need to read and post everything I want to all at once.

      • Geoff
        2013-02-22 10:42:33 UTC - 10:42 | Permalink

        Yeah, do you think you could pick up the pace a bit?

  • Geoff
    2013-02-21 23:58:17 UTC - 23:58 | Permalink

    It is good to maintain skepticism toward the academy, but not slip into hyper-skepticism. It is true that academics are under enormous pressure to publish (publish or perish). But there does exist a strong ethic against “fudging data.” Whatever is meant by “sexing up’ research, it isn’t inclusive of actually faking results. It could mean ‘fishing,’ running different statistical analyses to arrive at what one wants. Even that, though, opens the door to criticism from peers (torturing the numbers to make them talk).

    I think the very real bias we see occurs at the level of institutional interests. Academic institutions survive by bringing in financial support from various sources. Departments that survive and thrive are successful at determining what sort of research is ‘sexy.’ Young researchers interested in academic careers know very well what kind of research is going to pay the bills. And, first and foremost, when getting started, what you do is shaped by your advisors and your dissertation committee. You do not start off by pissing off your committee because you will never get off the ground.

    Established researchers have enormous institutional pressures because they are usually responsible for more than just their own careers, but the survival of their department and all the people who sustain themselves through it. How this all applies to the study of early Christianity is pretty clear when you follow the source of funding and reason for being of most “theological” departments. Hector Avalos’ book documents these institutional interests.

    Now, I am not saying that academics consciously deceive, but that those individuals who do not question or who have world views compatible with the existing institutional interests are more likely to survive and thrive in those institutions. I think that explains why very critical researchers like Goodacre just seem to not “get it” and tend to fall back on tedious, tenditious repetition of apologia when responding to “mythicist” observations and critiques. It is outside his worldview, the paradigm he has operated within throughout his career.

  • 2013-02-22 00:01:18 UTC - 00:01 | Permalink

    Let’s see now:

    (1) You’re going to read a book about the past, beginning with the assumption that no author who studies the past can possibly tell you what really happened. (His/her biased motives prevent this.)

    (2) Yet you are reading the book in order to better understand yourself — which requires the annihilation of your first assumption, because, in fact, the book WILL pass along helpful knowledge about what happened in the past in order to guide an understanding of yourself in the present.

    (3) Your essential purpose in describing your reading project is to to illustrate that no one can be objective in studying about Jesus.

    (4) All of this taken together has been passed along to us in order for you to make the point that no one has anything to say about Jesus that has ultimate historical significance.

    (5) Your larger, over-arching purpose is: All analysis of the past that has any value is reduced to SELF-analysis (for Daniel Boyarin and all the rest), because, somehow, in pondering ourselves — by ourselves and for ourselves — we can achieve some kind of objectivity.

    Very confusing.

    You seem to be advocating a non-rational retreat into self-preoccupation, which is itself doomed to cynicism, because it arises from a thoroughly skeptical view that can no more justify this effort than it can justify any other quest for understanding.

    If we cannot achieve a meaningful level of objectivity any where else, what reason can you give that it can be found in pondering ourselves and our motives?

    My point is: We CAN find a level of objectivity and CAN judge the historical value of many things that scholars say — even about Jesus.

    • 2013-02-22 01:54:11 UTC - 01:54 | Permalink

      I said all of that? I invite you to read exactly what I did write without injecting into it your own gratuitous innuendo.

      I nowhere suggested no work can tell us “what really happened” or that no work can possibly say anything of historical or scientific significance. I at no point said that all our reading is self-analysis or that self-analysis somehow leads to what I would term “objectivity”.

      Advocating a non-rational retreat into self-preoccupation? Where did you get that?

      I’m the one, by the way, who has argued against the post-modernist approaches to historical studies — that is, those studies that deny any possibility of establishing “real facts” about the past.

      So maybe you can take a deep breath, count to ten, and lay aside all your own hostile tendentiousness and attempt to read with a little more understanding what I actually did write.

      Before your second attempt, though, I invite you to write a serious precis of what you believe will be an acceptable outline of what I really am saying.

      • 2013-02-22 03:34:17 UTC - 03:34 | Permalink

        Vridar:

        You wrote about “The MYTH of Disinterested Scholarly Research” and end by asserting, “most of us firmly believe we do want the ‘truth’, but truth about what, exactly, and why?” — a perfectly good statement of cynicism that leaves us all in a quandary over motives and evasive outcomes, while undermining the objective assessment of truth-claims and counter-claims.

        If you intended to say that scholarly research CAN render objective truth that stands clear of underlying motives — research that we CAN search out — then you said it poorly.

        I’ve communicated with several people who are thorough-going historical skeptics, and they would have agreed with my evaluation of your post. Unlike me, however, they would applaud your statements of uncertainty, while, like me, they would have chided you for your inconsistencies.

        The only criticism for those who object to the Jesus myth that you allow in your post is a questioning of what their interests (agenda) might be And you assert that the table is turned on those critics as well, because that’s apparently all that drives the efforts of ALL who are engaged in the discussion.

        But I can tell you honestly and simply: the only reason I read what mythicists and historicists have to say — liberals and conservatives — is to evaluate, as best I can, the potential historical value of their evidence. My interest is in WHAT they say, not WHY they say it or WHO they are.

        I don’t know who you are or why you write what you do, but I can tell you that — as a vehicle for clarifying the issues in doing scholarly research — your post comes up short in several significant ways.

        If all you meant to say was, “We must be aware of our biases and what we intend to do with what we learn from the past,” you should have said so. If you had, then your post would have been an acknowledgement that we are not dealing with a research MYTH, but with a conscious drive toward systematic objectivity. I think that’s all Daniel Boyarin meant when he said that he was just trying to find out what happened. If so, your article should have endorsed his statement and explained it, rather than declaring that such statements are “rubbish.”

        And this comes from someone who began reading what you had written, with a strong desire to find valid reasoning and good evidence for your conclusions — reasoning and evidence that would lift my awareness and give me ideas worth pondering.

        • 2013-02-22 06:09:08 UTC - 06:09 | Permalink

          Just a quick reply on the run to one of your points, Bobby – – – –

          There is nothing in the least cynical about my statement that our interests play a role in our inquiries and asking us to examine our motives. Of course we believe we want the truth — everyone does. I cannot say that everyone wants the truth because I do not think all of us do. So I couched it as “believe we want the truth” — that covers everyone. I like to think I do. That’s not being cynical. It’s being just a little humble, I hope, before the always very real possibility of self-deception. I know from my personal experience how easy it is to be dead wrong — objectively wrong — yet still kid oneself.

          Certain questions interest us and we respond with an effort to explore. Other questions don’t interest us nearly as much and we let them pass. Why? I suggest it’s because our personal interests are guiding our questions, and if they are guiding our questions, it is our interests that are also guiding the answers that we select to create our view of what it’s all about. That’s not cynicism. It’s something I learned from scholarly books when doing my post-grad course in educational philosophy.

          (One famous educator, John Dewey, used this simple fact constructively to model a democratic and scientific method of education.)

          It’s awareness of our interests — so often lurking at the sub and unconsious level (I suggest yours are very much lurking in your unconscious) — that enables us to be more honest in our inquiries.

          Works for me: see, for example, Ouch! My Own Beliefs Undermined By My Own Historical Principles.

          • 2013-02-22 15:11:41 UTC - 15:11 | Permalink

            The above statements are a great improvement over your original post, including the renovation of your closing statement that reads quite differently from the original.

            It’s one thing to say we want the truth — or even “believe” we want the truth — and another thing to say — climactically, with flair, in a closing statement — that we want (1) the “truth” (in quotation marks, implying, not truth, but PSEUDO-TRUTH) about (2) “what, exactly, and why?” (ending with a question mark, implying a hovering, dangling uncertainty).

            The latter way of stating the matter seems to make SO-CALLED TRUTH a shape-shifting target on a sea of tumbling perspectives. It conveys the very kind of preoccupation with self (rather than “text”) that pleases the cynic and comprehends, for him, the only real option for our post-modern race.

            I know you say, this is not what you meant to convey, and I have granted this to you in other comments under your post, but — this being the case — you shouldn’t have stated it the way you did.

            It’s enough to say we believe we want the truth, period. Everybody knows what this means.

            For the rest of your last comment, I believe you are saying that the purpose of your original post was to convince us that — if we’re going to do good research — we need to clear our heads, with frequency, by awareness of our own motives and a willingness to learn new things.

            Very well.

            And you even give an example of your own mistaken beliefs being corrected by “historical principles.”

            That’s good also.

            But when a Jesus scholar comes along and states that he believes he has made a habit of such objectivity — when he believes and states that he wants the truth with no qualifications — let’s not declare that he’s living in a fictitious, non-existent world and is speaking rubbish.

            He may or may not be accurate in his self-evaluation, but it’s the very thing we’re all after. I suppose a better response from us is not “Rubbish!” but, “Good for you!”

            And the important thing to remember is:

            The A+ grade he gives himself is irrelevant to what we’ve set out to do — to find the truth. If his evidence is good, how he got it and why doesn’t matter. And the same goes if his evidence is bad.

            We’re not handing out grades based on good intentions. We’re trying to elevate our level of understanding. And when we get side-tracked by our own preconceptions or “agendas,” may God help us to clear that up and get back to our task.

            • 2013-02-22 15:53:44 UTC - 15:53 | Permalink

              I used quotation marks around the word truth because I am not sure that whatever we discover in this topic really is Absolute Truth in the sense that gravity and mass are truths. I am very wary of anyone who claims to write “the truth” about how Christianity began. What we discover, the answers we arrive at, are tentative and always open to revision. You say you are not interested in knowing me but only in what I write. But none of us ever writes in a vacuum. You should get to know me just a little before jumping to conclusions that I am feeding into your own biases about what people say about truth. But you know me a little better now so next time you see me write “truth” you will know what I mean.

              • 2013-02-22 17:52:24 UTC - 17:52 | Permalink

                I am not saying that I am not interested in knowing you. I am saying that knowing you is indifferent to the matter of evaluating the value of what you write about history.

                And as to your quotation marks around the word, truth, I indicated WHAT YOUR MEANING SEEMED TO BE on the basis of how you said what ou did about “truth.” You say that wasn’t your meaning. OK. But wow! Look at your explanations.

                You say the study of history cannot yield Absolute Truth (capitalized).

                The common understanding of a statement like that would be that such “truth” is relative. And in the context of your discussion, historical “truth” can be relative only to the researcher; that is, “truth” is conditioned solely by criteria within the researcher (what his/her interests are, what questions he/she asks, etc.). This then would take us back to a cynical, self-absorbed view of history.

                And you qualify your intention in putting quotation marks around truth by saying that “gravity” and “mass” are Absolute Truth and historical “truth” is not.

                Below you quote E. H. Carr, who reduces the factual content of historical studies to “a pulp of disputable facts.” So I guess “truth” (in quotation marks) means “disputable facts.”

                But how can they be disputed?

                Each of us is confined to the boundaries of who we are and what we are interested in. The very way we “dispute” the facts (in quotation marks) is not a matter of gathering objective data, but of framing questions and providing interpretations — from within ourselves.

                And no questions in the disputation can be the right questions — in an objective sense — because they are all OUR questions, and the questions themselves determine the outcome of the process. (Our questions define the horizon of what we will discover and the meaning we will provide.)

                Even Carr’s idea of studying the historian before studying his history is problematic to the point of being impossible. For the questions we ask about the historian are all conditioned by criteria within ourselves. The “facts” we discover about him (with “facts” also in quotation marks) are not Absolute Facts, because they are relative to ourselves — and only ourselves — in terms of our biases and interests.

                I’m sorry, but all of this seems to me to amount to chasing your own tail, and reduces everything you say to pure skepticism.

                You can insist that you’ve got some kind of objective historical analysis in mind, but what is it? And how can it be applied when the very methods of application are, necessarily, self-determined.

                Consistently, you come up in conflict with yourself. So when a mythicist or historicist says, “I am only interested in knowing the facts of history,” we are to say “Rubbish!” Yet you can say, “Of course we believe we want the truth,” and you declare that these are the opening words of a genuine act of humility. But there is no significant difference in the two statements.

                Holding the strong conviction, “I want the truth,” is approximately the same as holding the strong conviction, “I am only interested in knowing the facts.” Yet your are willing to grant the former statement the qualification, “I may be wrong.” And you won’t budge on the latter statement, but insist that it is ABSOLUTELY WRONG, and it carries the sentence of exile to the land of myth, because the speaker is uttering rubbish.

                We have to end somewhere, and this is as good a place as any.

                I thought you were going to back off and grant, at least, that your post needed a lot of clarifying. That would have been enough for me.

                But then you start clarifying in a way that bogs you deeper in the same kind of self-bound skepticism I hear from many educated young people — with a difference. They are consistent. They say the same kind of things you say and end in thorough-going historical agnosticism. I do not see how you can avoid the same end, granted the parameters you have given yourself.

                I may be wrong, but if so, it’s not for lack of a careful consideration of what you have written, which means, in your categories, nothing more than “I am doing well within my own, self-contained mental and emotional universe.”

              • 2013-02-22 20:46:35 UTC - 20:46 | Permalink

                Wow. For someone who says he wants to know what I am arguing you do a lot of telling me what I am arguing — and I simply don’t recognize myself or my points in what you say. You are not seeking to understand me but you are perceiving certain buzz words I use through your own distorting lens.

                It would be tedious and over lengthy to go through each of your gratuitous recastings of my own arguments. So let’s just do your first point. You write:

                You say the study of history cannot yield Absolute Truth (capitalized).

                The common understanding of a statement like that would be that such “truth” is relative.

                I explained quite clearly exactly what I meant by “truth” as opposed to “Absolute Truth”. You completely ignore what I mean and introduce your own “truth is relative” rubbish. I have already explained to you I am not a post-modernist and do believe in stable real facts. I do NOT believe “truth is relative”. Yet your own bias leads you to twist everything I say into something I find quite bizarre.

                I invite you to step outside of your bible/fundamentalist-defined words and get into the real world – but I suspect you see the “real world” as demonic and won’t allow yourself that step into reality.

                You say you “may be wrong” but I don’t see any evidence of wanting to engage in a dialogue in order to reach a mutual understanding. I only see someone with a firm opinion of The Truth and a quickness to misread the rest of the world so that everything “out there” conforms to his prejudice.

              • 2013-02-23 00:21:10 UTC - 00:21 | Permalink

                Bobby is on a crusade against relativism. So when you explained in very clear terms that you view historical truth as an incomplete and provisional reconstruction, which is always subject to revision, he can’t hear you. He’s too busy arguing against what he thinks atheists like us believe, namely that everyone’s perspective is equally valid and that truth is a relative concept.

                Ironically, your actual view of historical truth is compatible with Christian humility. In fact you hint at that in the post. Claiming to be able to know the absolute truth is an act of vain pride.

                I wonder how Bobby will tell this story to the people at Diamond Valley. I imagine it will go something like this: “I argued with a couple of atheists on the WEB this week. They have these CRAZY ideas about relativism and how we can’t know ANYTHING about history. That’s what HAPPENS when you don’t let Jesus into your HEART.”

              • 2013-02-23 00:54:08 UTC - 00:54 | Permalink

                Tim:

                Neil is the one who said that he does not advocate the idea, “”Scholarly research CAN render objective truth that stands clear of underlying motives — research that we CAN search out.”

                Without that objectivity, if he’s going to be consistent, he is left with is subjectivism.

                What gives with all the invectives?

              • 2013-02-23 10:47:32 UTC - 10:47 | Permalink

                No, Bobby, I did not say what you say I said at all. You are reading your own prejudices into my words.

              • 2013-02-24 11:56:08 UTC - 11:56 | Permalink

                Ah yes, the arrogance of the true believer’s humility.

              • 2013-02-23 00:43:23 UTC - 00:43 | Permalink

                See response, below.

              • 2013-02-23 00:47:41 UTC - 00:47 | Permalink

                Neil:

                It’s not a question of what you are arguing and what you are willing to grant to this or that scholar about his or her research. It’s that you are inconsistent.

                You disagree with the statement,”Scholarly research CAN render objective truth that stands clear of underlying motives — research that we CAN search out.” (If research and the study of research cannot render objective truth that stands apart from the researcher and his/her readers, then both the research and the secondary study of it are — by necessity — subjective activities.)

                And you endorse E. H. Carr’s statements, “The historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.” (If history means “interpretation,” then history is, of necessity, a subjective activity.)

                So you must be endorsing the idea that historical research, its outcome and the study of its outcome are essentially (of the essence) subjective.

                On the other hand, you seem to advocate an objective study of both historians and their histories. You speak as if this is a legitimate activity with measurable, debatable results. (Carr grants the same thing — much more grudgingly, I think — but just as inconsistently,)

                You cannot have it both ways. History either has an objective base in truth, without the quotation marks. Or it has a subjective base in the “self.” (Even the self needs quotation marks here, because — in this way of conceiving it — what we think of ourselves is pure interpretation just as all history is. In other words, the questions we ask about ourselves predetermine the answers, and the questions have no objective base.)

                So if the base of history is essentially objective in nature, then it is a matter of seeking out realities that are just as much deserving of the term, truth, as are the hypotheses, theories and laws of science. The only difference is:

                Science deals with the repeatable events of nature; and history deals with the unrepeatable events of the past.

                Even “gravity” and “mass” are partial descriptions of natural events that are subject to change with more research, similar — in this one sense at least — to the historian’s descriptions of past human events.

                Viewing history as an objectively based effort makes the object of legitimate study the discovery of facts and sorting out what they mean.

                But if the base of history is subjective — centered in, growing out of and bounded by the researcher and the reader’s perceptions and conceptions — then it is pure interpretation. In this case, there really can be no object of legitimate study, because even a discussion of biases, interests, motives and agendas are nothing more than a projection of subjective experience.

                You want it both ways, and you want to switch from one mode to the other, depending on the point you want to make.

                (By the way, let’s stay away from the ad hominems and name-calling. There is nothing personal in this for me. I am saying nothing more or less than I would say to my own brother or best friend.)

              • 2013-02-23 11:41:52 UTC - 11:41 | Permalink

                It’s not a question of what you are arguing and what you are willing to grant to this or that scholar about his or her research. It’s that you are inconsistent.

                You disagree with the statement, “Scholarly research CAN render objective truth that stands clear of underlying motives — research that we CAN search out.” (If research and the study of research cannot render objective truth that stands apart from the researcher and his/her readers, then both the research and the secondary study of it are — by necessity — subjective activities.)

                You misread me. I nowhere said I disagree with that statement. If I disagreed with it I would not have bothered with this blog. I just spent some time explaining that Hurtado himself has researched facts about early Christology that do stand as objective facts that stand clear of underlying motives. So how can you think I disagree with that statement? The problem is with the use and interpretation of those objective facts that themselves stand quite apart from ideology and biases. It’s the use and interpretation of the facts that is ideological and biased. Both a proven hypothesis and a flawed hypothesis can each rest upon the same string of objective facts.

                And you endorse E. H. Carr’s statements, “The historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.” (If history means “interpretation,” then history is, of necessity, a subjective activity.)

                So you must be endorsing the idea that historical research, its outcome and the study of its outcome are essentially (of the essence) subjective.

                Yes, history is interpretation. How can it not be? History doesn’t exist in the abstract. Someone has to select events from the past and weave them into a story. But that certain events happened in the past is an objective fact. But events need to be interpreted to be selected as worthy of a place in a story. I’ve posted on that many times over. That’s one of the prominent themes of posts of this blog. Historical Jesus scholars don’t have objectively or independently verifiable facts to work with as do other ancient historians.

                On the other hand, you seem to advocate an objective study of both historians and their histories. You speak as if this is a legitimate activity with measurable, debatable results. (Carr grants the same thing — much more grudgingly, I think — but just as inconsistently,)

                You have misunderstood both Carr and me. I don’t know what you mean by suggesting I speak of “measurable . . . results”. I get the impression you are confusing the raw facts or events a historian works with and the interpretations of those events. When or if a historian speaks of some facts being “ideological” or “subjective” he or she does not mean that the person or event are only “subjective realities” that may or may not have happened objectively. There is no doubt that specific things happened, etc. What is subjective is the fact that one historian might select one event as relevant to argue a point and another saying the same event is of no consequence at all and has no relevance to the real questions being debated. Or that one historian assigns a different significance or meaning to an event that really did happen.

                You cannot have it both ways. History either has an objective base in truth, without the quotation marks. Or it has a subjective base in the “self.” (Even the self needs quotation marks here, because — in this way of conceiving it — what we think of ourselves is pure interpretation just as all history is. In other words, the questions we ask about ourselves predetermine the answers, and the questions have no objective base.)

                There are no “two ways” about it except in your own misunderstanding.

                So if the base of history is essentially objective in nature, then it is a matter of seeking out realities that are just as much deserving of the term, truth, as are the hypotheses, theories and laws of science. The only difference is:

                Science deals with the repeatable events of nature; and history deals with the unrepeatable events of the past.

                Even “gravity” and “mass” are partial descriptions of natural events that are subject to change with more research, similar — in this one sense at least — to the historian’s descriptions of past human events.

                Again, there is, as a general rule, no question that we can establish this or that event happened in the past. But history is more than a chronicle or archive of events.

                Viewing history as an objectively based effort makes the object of legitimate study the discovery of facts and sorting out what they mean.

                But if the base of history is subjective — centered in, growing out of and bounded by the researcher and the reader’s perceptions and conceptions — then it is pure interpretation. In this case, there really can be no object of legitimate study, because even a discussion of biases, interests, motives and agendas are nothing more than a projection of subjective experience.

                Your black and white/either-or/false dilemma fallacy is based on a failure to understand what historians really do. They work with real things that objectively happened. A historian’s bias or agenda can also be a matter of verifiable, testable reality.

                You want it both ways, and you want to switch from one mode to the other, depending on the point you want to make.

                On the contrary, you are misinterpreting my point with the fallacy of the false dilemma.

                (By the way, let’s stay away from the ad hominems and name-calling. There is nothing personal in this for me. I am saying nothing more or less than I would say to my own brother or best friend.)

                Why don’t you try to sum up my argument before criticizing what you think it is? I am thinking of the point Tim made in a “Short autobiographical digression” in his recent Wrede post. You use what I say as a springboard to re-write what you think I am arguing — and I have to point out to you each time that you have seriously misinterpreted what I have said, or worse, simply ignored what I have said that flatly contradicts your re-statement. I’m not your brother or best friend so don’t expect me to be as patient with persistent misconstruals of what I say.

        • 2013-02-22 15:43:10 UTC - 15:43 | Permalink

          Bobby:

          If you intended to say that scholarly research CAN render objective truth that stands clear of underlying motives — research that we CAN search out — then you said it poorly.

          Neil: This was not my point.

          Bobby:

          My interest is in WHAT they say, not WHY they say it or WHO they are.

          Neil: Historian E. H. Carr did not agree that this is a valid approach. He wrote:

          “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude’s, goes round to a friend at St. Jude’s to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. Indeed, if, standing Sir George Clark on his head, I were to call history “a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disputable facts”, my statement would, no doubt, be one-sided and misleading, but no more so, I venture to think, than the original dictum”

          Bobby:

          I don’t know who you are or why you write what you do

          Neil: I have never hidden who I am or why I write the way I do. I think such information helps people understand my points and where I’m coming from. That’s important.

          Bobby:

          I think that’s all Daniel Boyarin meant when he said that he was just trying to find out what happened. If so, your article should have endorsed his statement and explained it, rather than declaring that such statements are “rubbish.”

          Neil: Woah there! I definitely did not say “such statements are ‘rubbish’.” You really have badly mis-read what I wrote!

          But I think I can see why you have such difficulty with understanding the point I expressed through reference to the radio interview and the scholar’s remarks. Your own approach to the question of objectivity suggests to me a mindset that badly under-rates its powers of self-deception. I do not believe that all that motivates you is nothing but a desire to evaluate objectively the evidence advanced by mythicists. Why should you even care what mythicists say? Many people don’t. Why do you?

          But I don’t have to get to a writer beyond their words to soon get to know quite a bit about them and their biases and agenda and personal interest in what they are writing about.

          For example, Dr Larry Hurtado has written hundreds of pages on early Christology and a whole lot of what he says I agree with. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to fault him on a point of fact from what I have read in his discussions of early Christology. But if all we read was Hurtado’s views we would have no idea that he has a major blind spot in his scholarship and the view he presents — though entirely factual — is quite misleading. How can that possibly be? I suggest it is because his interest is in establishing the truth of his faith as he understands it, that is, as a faith grounded in Judaism. Now there is nothing wrong with having an interest like that. He has acknowledged his confessional bias. But he also believes that it is possible to be an objective scholar at the same time. And he does produce a wealth of “objective facts” that support his view.

          What he appears to have overlooked, however, and this is something to which we are all prone — Hurtado, Boyarin, me — is that the questions he asks are generated by his “interest”. He may believe he is asking an entirely objective question and arriving at an entirely objective answer, but what he overlooks is that his question itself is a reflection of a certain value, agenda, or simple personal interest.

          Result? He forgot to keep asking all the same and deep questions about early Christology within the non-Jewish context. So his interest biased his conclusions and created a string of publications that made it appear the early Christology of the first gospel had its roots in Judaism as something taken for granted. All the discussion was merely on the details of how it worked that way. Another scholar comes along with different interests and different questions and overturns Hurtado’s “objective picture” and creates an entirely different one.

          It’s our interests that inevitably guide our questions and the answers we grapple with. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing. It’s what makes us work and what makes research work. This is something different from simple “bias”, though.

          Bias works at another level and will lead us to interpret evidence in certain ways (as you interpret my post in a certain way). People of opposing biases can have the same “interests” and produce two views of the same construct or myth or world-view.

          Bobby:

          And this comes from someone who began reading what you had written, with a strong desire to find valid reasoning and good evidence for your conclusions — reasoning and evidence that would lift my awareness and give me ideas worth pondering.

          Neil: Maybe the post was too meaty, too strong, for babes to this concept.

    • 2013-02-22 03:14:24 UTC - 03:14 | Permalink

      Bobby wrote: “You’re going to read a book about the past, beginning with the assumption that no author who studies the past can possibly tell you what really happened.”

      Congratulations. You have decisively beaten the snot out of your straw man.

      • 2013-02-22 04:42:26 UTC - 04:42 | Permalink

        Tim:

        The title of Vridar’s post,”The Myth of Disinterested Scholarly Research,” puts a question mark behind ALL historical research, because — according to Vridar — all research is subject to the vested interest of the researcher.

        In his post, he declares that the profession of a simple interest in “what really happened” is “rubbish.”

        So the author of the book Vridar is going to read will record what the author regards to be objective statements about the past, but Vridar believes — taking his language to be an accurate representation of his thoughts — this is not possible.

        As it stands, Vridar’s assessment — that relegates historical objectivity to the realms of fiction and garbage — necessarily applies to the book he is about to read.

        He could alter his stance by stating that “myth” and “rubbish” are too strong, and that all he meant to say was:

        “Historical study is, in the end, an “applied” science or art — and historians need to be aware of the limitations of their “agendas” and must guard against ways these agendas may skew their research.”

        Good. Then his post could have been titled, “Steps Toward Disinterested Historical Research,” And the statement, “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened!” could be held up as the worthwhile goal for researchers — that must guide their study, prior to their attempts to find applications for what they will learn and have learned.

        After reading his response to my comment, I’m sure this is what he was getting at, but he overstated himself.

        • 2013-02-22 06:07:02 UTC - 06:07 | Permalink

          (Note: Vridar is the name of the blog. Neil is the author of this post.)

          Well, I can speak only for myself, but here’s the way I see it. None of us is disinterested. That is to say, we are all biased, often in ways we don’t even consciously realize. If I begin any discussion of an historical event by telling you that “I am only interested in knowing the facts of history,” you are well within your rights to say, “Rubbish!”

          Why? Because I have biases — political, religious, sociological beliefs — that influence my behavior, often working with positive feedback to reinforce those same beliefs. I’m even biased by the simple fact that I find some subjects bone-crushingly dull. The best I can do, or anyone can do, is to acknowledge my biases, call attention to them, and try to mitigate their effects.

          Recently I was leafing through Ehrman’s college-level survey text on the New Testament. In general, it isn’t bad, if only for the fact that it presents the consensus viewpoints on most subjects. However, because of Ehrman’s biases, he ignores some subjects. Worse, he presents some viewpoints as though they were incontestably true, when in fact there is still plenty of debate.

          For example, while he does touch briefly on redaction criticism, he completely ignores form criticism. Now that’s a good trick, since redaction criticism grew out of form criticism and is highly dependent upon it. Ehrman is an expert on textual criticism, but like many modern American scholars, he often seems barely aware of higher criticism. Now, that might be because he just isn’t interested in it, or because his professors and mentors shaped his understanding of what’s important and what is not. Nonetheless, he is biased, and his work suffers for it.

          He also presents the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Now it may be that a slim majority of current scholars agree with that viewpoint, but it’s also true that a significant minority of scholars — prominent, respectable, NT scholars at that — think that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom or a cynic sage. I understand that Bart thinks that’s wrong, but his textbook should have presented both sides fairly. If he could not bring himself to put forth the best case possible for the non-apocalyptic Jesus, then perhaps he should have asked somebody else to write it for him.

          Please note that I am not criticizing Ehrman for failing to be disinterested. It’s actually the opposite. I’m instead highlighting the fact that he (like every human) is biased, and should have made that more clear in his text. If you’ve ever listened to Mark Goodacre’s recorded classroom sessions, you’ll know what I mean. He’s well aware that his skepticism on Q is not the consensus, but he usually tries to present different sides of the issues — not because he is disinterested, but because he knows what other people think, and he believes that it’s his job to present the material fairly.

          And that’s the key, really: We should admit we are biased, but strive to be fair.

          In any case, what I got out of Neil’s post was a reminder that we need to engage in “defensive reading.” Never assume that a book you’re reading on any given subject is the last word. Never assume that the author didn’t have an ax to grind. Always be aware that a scholar’s targeted reading audience will have an effect on the work’s content and how it’s presented. Always look for alternative viewpoints. “Prove all things.”

          At any rate, as far as calling the “myth” of the disinterested scholar “rubbish,” I wholeheartedly agree.

          By the way, as readers we are also biased. You, for example, read Neil’s post as an attack on objective scholarship and an invitation to “retreat into self-preoccupation, which is itself doomed to cynicism.

          I, on the other hand, took this seriously:

          But he [Boyarin] is also acknowledging the truth of something that honest scholars do recognize. To claim pure objectivity without any self-interest is effectively to make a claim to being God.

          In other words, honest scholars are aware of their own limitations and failings. Further, honest scholars can make a concerted effort to be fair, despite those faults.

          • 2013-02-22 13:47:50 UTC - 13:47 | Permalink

            You say, “We should admit we are biased, but strive to be fair,” with the expectation that this can be done. But if one of these Jesus scholars asserts that he has done it, you and Neil say, we are to declare that he’s speaking rubbish. This sounds like a double standard.

            I think we are better off to forego trying to distinguish what motivates a researcher and simply examine the evidence for what is — which is approximately what you advise we should do with ourselves: get beyond the biases and strive for fairness.

            There’s no double standard in this approach, no myth and no rubbish.

            • 2013-02-22 14:01:41 UTC - 14:01 | Permalink

              Double standard?? I thought I was pretty clear up front that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. (I have even cited a specific very clear cut case where I felt obligated to change my thinking on a matter very close to my “interests”.) I was quoting an academic who was writing with the obvious awareness that his thought would be recognized by his peers. It applies both ways. My concluding question was directed at all and sundry, and I think there are a lot of mythicists who read this blog, so I was talking to them. I acknowledge my own interests in the question. I think there are not a few academics who would question any of their peers who say they can be truly disinterested in their research.

            • 2013-02-22 17:19:51 UTC - 17:19 | Permalink

              Bobby wrote: “But if one of these Jesus scholars asserts that he has done it, you and Neil say, we are to declare that he’s speaking rubbish. This sounds like a double standard.”

              So you clearly didn’t read the kind words I said about Mark Goodacre and how he strives to be fair — and often succeeds. Why should I bother to continue discussing this subject with you when you don’t pay attention?

            • Geoff
              2013-02-23 15:31:50 UTC - 15:31 | Permalink
              • 2013-02-24 04:43:57 UTC - 04:43 | Permalink

                Neil:

                I hope to make this my last comment on this matter. I write in order to single out a few key concepts to indicate why I believe your initial post included overstatements that are misleading.

                In your latest comment, you reiterated that you agree with the statement, “Scholarly research can render objective truth that stands clear of underlying motives — research that we can search out.” (Good. This brings me back to the conclusion that what sounded like postmodernist, historical skepticism in your post was not, but I still believe that some of your ideas were overstated.)

                Then after endorsing objectivity, you want us to see just how far its tests are to be applied. You state that the concept of objective verifiability applies even to historical hypotheses.

                You state that a hypothesis can be “proven” while another is “flawed,” depending, presumably, on how well they have handled “the same string of objective facts.” And you add, “A historian’s bias or agenda can also be a matter of verifiable, testable reality.”

                Furthermore, your latest comment gives a much better statement of the CONTENT of history, although you begin by restating Carr’s initial limited and inadequate assessment more strongly than he did. Carr had stated, “History MEANS interpretation.” But you say “History IS interpretation.”

                However, you then indicate that the historian works with both “raw facts or events” and “the interpretations of those events.” (So history is NOT mere interpretation, which would make it entirely subjective and beyond public assessment.) But then you try to sever the two facets of what a historian does in a way that is incompatible with your broad understanding of verifiability.

                You say, “There is no doubt that specific things happened.” You describe these events as “objectively or independently verifiable facts.” On the other hand, however, you declare that the historian is guided by interests and goals that are “subjective.” But this latter description is defective if, as you have already granted, even hypotheses, biases and agendas are subject to tests of objective verification. (A historian’s preconceptions and assumptions can be more objectively based than they are subjectively based and are to be labeled as flawed if this is not the case.)

                The tests of a good hypothesis must be as objective and public as are the tests of a description of a historical event. In fact, the only conceivable way of testing historical hypotheses is to examine closely what you call “the raw facts” of history.

                So it seems to me, the first task of a historian is to “disengage,” as Boyarin put it, from all matters except to reconstruct “what really happened.” Then whether or not this or that event is relevant can be best determined, because it has been preceded by a close examination of events. We are to move to a state of being “disinterested,” to the degree we can, before we enter into hypothetical explanations. When this is not done, it can be pointed out as a “flawed” approach.

                This is why your post’s title is misleading. The goal of being disinterested as well as the accurate CLAIM to being disinterested — at least at the level of the historian’s primary task — should not be declared to be a myth, because a myth is not subject to objective verifiability. The claim may be inaccurate in a given case, but the inaccuracy can be demonstrated.

                Your title seems to relegate to Fantasyland all efforts at cool-headed evaluation and the writing of history — or the sciences — according to some of your illustrations.

                ________________________________________________________

                NOTE: I cannot afford the Robert Novick book you recommend, but I did find an interesting essay that states the widespread opinion that Novick appears to be in conflict with himself by writing a book that denounces objectivity as a goal in historical research, calling it “a fool’s errand” — in a book on historical research that is ITSELF subject to objective evaluation. Carl R. Trueman states:

                “For me as for numerous other historians, [Novick’s argumentation] meets what we would regard as decent standards of objectivity. The book is surely not neutral, but its argument is testable by public criteria…Novick has his biases; he is no more able to divest himself of his own prior commitments and opinions and analytical frameworks than anybody else; but he does not write Gnostic history which only he and his followers can understand; his arguments are public ones which can be evaluated by others.” (“Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History,” p. 17)

                So we could say:

                At the level of interpretation as well as fact-finding, the historian is being neither Gnostic nor mythic, since the attempt to be objective, detached and thorough can be discussed and evaluated.

                (The same kind of conflict Novick seems to be caught in appears in the statements and studies of many who claim to be historical skeptics in the strongest terms.)

              • 2013-02-24 07:51:43 UTC - 07:51 | Permalink

                Bobby, I repeat: Your comments are a classic illustration of the very problem I was addressing in my post. Unfortunately, you simply cannot see it. Your thinking is black and white. You are interpreting everything I say — and presumably much else in the world — through your black and white view of things. I used to do the same. As a devout believer, for example, with a similar black and white view of the world, I walked away from the film Dr Zhivago telling someone who asked me what it was like, “It was terrible. It was all about adultery.” I could not see the rich explorations of the film because I viewed everything in terms of good or evil as defined by the Ten Commandments.

                Everything I have said — in my post as well as comments — has sailed completely over your head. You seem to have an “interest” in reducing everything to “objectivity, meaning true and good” or “subjectivity, meaning anything goes and bad”.

                The black and white thinker assumes anything that is not black or white must be grey. What you are missing is the rich colours of concepts and understandings of things, the nature of history included. The world is a much richer place than your good-evil framework allows you to see. These words, I suspect, will be dismissed by you because of a Taliban-like view of the world that is dictated by a book that condemns the “love of the world”.

                I asked for some clarifications in my previous post — or at least said I could not understand some things — yet you have not chosen to explain them for me. You rephrase my arguments as if you never even read — certainly never understood — the reasons or evidence I gave for them.

                One example: You say I “endorse objectivity” as if I am making a general statement that applies universally when I was very clear — or attempted to be — that I do not “endorse objectivity” as a general principle in the field of history. Instead of understanding what I am saying you have to squeeze it into “right” or “wrong” boxes of your own making. You seem incapable of understanding that “facts” per se are not history. History itself IS interpretation of those facts. (If you read Carr in full you will not be so dogmatic in denying he said or meant this. But reading how historians explain what they do is not as valuable for you as interpreting what they do through Biblical definitions.)

                The fact that you see any postmodernism at all in my initial post is another eyebrow-raising example of your tendency to generalize so much richness and understanding into either black or white concepts. I am opposed to postmodernist history — there is no way I would “endorse postmodernism” in history. Your black and white vision hides from you the rich colours of the real world.

                A classic example of your black and white thinking, your inability to see what history really is (and why you appear to see little need or interest in reading what historians themselves say to explain what they do — you can get a second hand copy of that book of that book George, not I, recommended, for $5 or borrow it through a library) when you write:

                In fact, the only conceivable way of testing historical hypotheses is to examine closely what you call “the raw facts” of history.

                That is NOT the only conceivable way of testing historical hypotheses at all. Had you taken any note of what I wrote instead of dismissing everything that did not conform to your ‘objective-good’ ‘subjective-bad’ way of thinking you would come away with an entirely different view of the nature of history and historical hypotheses.

                You are completely ignoring what I say and latching on to a few buzz words and using those to drag everything I say into your own false world-view of things. I don’t think you could ever bring yourself to make a serious effort to sum up my argument — as I advised in my last post — before you critique it.

                I suspect you would find such an exercise far too confronting. You could not do it.

                Another book you should read (you’ll hate it, but you should read it anyway — I hated it when I first read it), is The Mind of the Bible Believer.

              • 2013-02-25 01:27:34 UTC - 01:27 | Permalink

                “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.”

                E.H. Carr

                ———————

                I think some people have a mental block that keeps them from understanding the difference between a series of facts (viz., a chronicle or “one damned thing after another”) and history (viz., the interpretation of facts). Part of the problem might stem from the fact that people (at least in my country) learn “history” in high school as if it actually were just a series of facts to memorize. But even then they’re being given a selected series of facts (often slanted, sometimes false) that conform to the interpretation of the elites currently in power.

                A history of Rome is more than just a list of people and what they did. Otherwise, what would be the point of people writing new histories of Rome every year? Historians review the same facts and come up with new interpretations. For example, was Julius Caesar a demagogue or did he actually want to reform the social order? Such a question recognizes that the ancient historians who recorded the lives of the emperors had their own axes to grind.

                Bobby wrote: “So history is NOT mere interpretation, which would make it entirely subjective and beyond public assessment.”

                What’s this “mere interpretation” business? Interpretation is the whole point of the matter!

              • 2013-02-25 05:58:14 UTC - 05:58 | Permalink

                I asked Bobby how history could possibly not be interpretation. He did not reply. He was writing monologues. Dialogue would have meant breaking out of his fundamentalist black and white view of the world. He cannot go there.

                I once questioned a minister in my old religion about what seemed to be a distorted view of American history. He hesitated, evidently a bit confused, and finally replied that “so-and-so” was considered the authority on matter. That minister was trained at a church college. He was not taught to question. He found the whole idea of questioning something he had been taught was historical fact to be discomforting and worrying experience. When I meet people like Bobby I realize that the view of history taught in my old church’s college was not an isolated case.

  • Blood
    2013-02-22 00:11:50 UTC - 00:11 | Permalink

    “why are you trying to take out Gospel away from us?”

    Did you mean “our” Gospel?

    ———————————-

    thanks, as always — fixed now — Neil

  • 2013-02-22 04:15:27 UTC - 04:15 | Permalink

    What I believe I have been hearing, or rather reading, from Neil is that it’s too easy for those on either side of a difficult agument to become far too dogmatic about it, instead of just offering their work for the consumption of whatever audience finds it valuable. Personally, I see this with many Big Bang theorists, as well as the Jesus-is-complete-fiction advocates. They always seem to want to tell everyone that “the debate is [now] over,” and so by tacit extension “shut up and let us take over.” (Please try to overlook my reference to the Big Bang here, and sorry for mentioning it since I don’t wish to see any discussion of that here.) I think the historicists in the Jesus issue, from what I was exposed to on that during a couple of years of college in the early 1980s, and more on that now in recent years, are the ones who typically lay out information for whatever it’s worth with the attitude to let whoever wishes to take note, please do. It’s the mythicist side that I’m right now finding far too imperious when it comes to this topic.

    • 2013-02-22 05:53:42 UTC - 05:53 | Permalink

      I have no doubt that some scholars lay out the outline of the core arguments of all sides and leave it to students to decide. There are many issues that this scenario raises, one of which includes the real possibility of a genuinely educative experience. My post was not about classroom teaching, however.

      I’m curious about your last sentence, however. Can you elaborate on that? I’d really like to understand what is your understanding and perception here.

      • 2013-02-22 11:52:14 UTC - 11:52 | Permalink

        I cannot accept, from what I know, that no Jesus at all existed. I actually think that some deconverted theists have a huge advantage when it comes to developing what the most probable historical Jesus must have been like, an advantage over those who have been non-theists from the get-go… and that perhaps this mythicist push in recent years may be in some instances an attempt to combat deconverted theists from having their way almost completely when it comes to this topic, which is just a suspicion that I have.

        • 2013-02-22 12:35:41 UTC - 12:35 | Permalink

          “Mythicism” is not flash in the pan recent phenomenon to meet some newly deconverted theists or whatever. It has been offering challenges to the orthodox view ever since the Enlightenment. It received similar public notoreity (if not more so) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with some prominent scholars (including New Testament scholars) and high status persons publishing on it. That challenge was met with similar heat and many of the same anti-mythicist arguments we hear repeated today. The “best rebuttals” were not much better than Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” — somewhat better but nothing that wasn’t answered by the Christ myth proponents. The question was thereafter ignored for most part. Several other persons have continued to argue the case since then, but Doherty has brought it to prominence with the web-audience because of his web-site that led to several books that have also gained the attention of internet audiences. But we also have several other names arguing similar cases.

          I was curious by your perception that mythicists are acting “imperiously” against the status quo. No doubt there are individuals of all kinds and of every point of view. But I had never thought of Thompson, Price, Ellegard, Brodie, Doherty, Wells acting “far too imperiously”. Far from it. You see them differently? Maybe Carrier is cocky enough to fall into that category, but he’s one exception I’d be willing to excuse for now.

        • Geoff
          2013-02-22 13:38:16 UTC - 13:38 | Permalink

          “I cannot accept, from what I know, that no Jesus at all existed.”

          Nobody is forcing you to accept that proposition. The hypothesis that Christianity was started by some sort of founder/martyr is being challenged. You can accept or not accept whatever you want. That’s up to you. You can reject evolution as an explanation for the origin of the species, too, for what it’s worth. It doesn’t mean you are correct though.

          I don’t know where this “deconverted theists” vs. “never-been theists” comes from or even what place that has in a discussion of Christian origins. It smacks of the Hoffmann-Fisher pscyhobabble regarding the mindsets of former fundamentalists. It is not a fruitful contribution to the discussion, rather a dead end street. If you are going to identify particular interests, they ought to be material interests. Let’s consider: careers in academia, endowed chairs versus self-run, maintained internet blogs? Where is the material interest bias more likely to come from? Now that is something one can analyze and discuss. Trying to get inside the heads of “deconverted theists” is simply nonsense. I don’t even know what category I would belong in (so how could you pigeon-hole me?).

          Raised Roman Catholic (Mexican-Irish background, no less!), altar boy from age 8 to 18, even considered priesthood (too many temptations, though!). Never had a bad experience in the Church other than being bored sometimes and dreading the sacrament of confession. What do I have against Christianity? I am not anti-christian (per se, maybe anti-fundamentalist), yet I find the hypothesis that Christianity emerged not from a single martyr-founder, but from an evolution of thought, a trajectory that is pretty clearly seen in pre-Christian writings, fairly persuasive. With no axe to grind, I have to say, it seems to me there probably was no Jesus.

          • 2013-02-23 02:12:28 UTC - 02:12 | Permalink

            I approach this topic as a deconverted fundamentalist theist who for many years tried to believe the religion was somehow still valid despite wide acceptance of 19th century’s dispensationalism discrediting the religion’s last remaining potentially valid version, that being Evangelicalism, since dispensationalism not only made for the flakiest eschatology possible but more importantly it even dismissed what Matthew 28:19-20, the Great Commission said the emphasis of the Gospel was supposed to be in its verse 20—Jesus’ words/commands/teachings—which teachings will of course in the meantime ruin your life if you try to actually actually follow and obey all of those, which I had to learn the hard way while seeking to be loyal to the NT scriptures, along with with some other sincere people who were trying that, from age 19 to essentially 48 (until 2005) with that being the only way I could see credit restored to the religion so that it could be faithful to its own book (thus God)… which getting back on track would have required God interacting by way of sending some new human leadership that was completely faithful to him in that way… which trying that with everything I had within me of course produced a result of that, my own personal test of the religion, a final conclusion of my becoming an atheist (which I’ve now been for 7 years).

            Therefore I now think I have the right to pursue my own approach, to not just an historical Jesus portrait, but also to whether Moses and Joshua lived (which they couldn’t have), whether Abraham and Sarah lived (which the pair seems to have), including whether a bit more believable versions of David and Solomon lived as well (which I believe they did), all of which my doing now cost me the first 48 years of my life while for some 20 of that was spent being very intense for the validity of the religion, somehow, when it was actually false. And so I now feel poised to approach this topic in the way I best see fit while listening to and factoring in what best people on this topic say or write, which is what I have been doing for the past 7 years, besides my also having gotten into physics rather heavily… and of course I have come to love how life must started without a deity causing it and that versions of life have changed gradually into various successful forms by the mechanics of what we term evolution.

            My personal approach to this topic will not involve any knowledge of Greek (which is not my niche in this), but instead I will seek to employ some larger-than-life undeniable items that do not require that language expertise. The five feelers that I have gradually developed for doing this are as follows: 1) What the Jew’s messianic prophecies say, particularly those that are the earliest along with those held as the most major; 2) Anything having to do with when the Gospel of Mark was written; 3) Any testable prophecy attributed to the New Testament’s Jesus (and only one seems offer itself to being tested to some extent, which is Mark 13:14); plus 4) What Jewish temples can be verified as having existed; and then lastly 5) What prevalent themes continue through some of Judaism’s most central writings as well as Christianity’s (e.g., one key tenet being how the ability to foretell the future is offered as evidence for the existence of a supernatural being overseeing both religions, as well as it overseeing the world and universe, which tenet is also the basis of authority for both religions having the right to intrude into people’s lives). You can call that an ax to grind if you wish—that someone who was abused by several man-made fabrications offered as history now wants a little revenge, along with as much knowledge of what truly exists as might be possible to obtain, including greater peace of mind… for himself and his children, perhaps even for some of his friends and extended family.

            • 2013-02-23 03:30:04 UTC - 03:30 | Permalink

              I have a bad tendency to leave out a word here or there which I often miss in the earlier or rough drafts of something. But I don’t let that fault stop me from continuing to try. Thanks to anyone who can tolerate that from time to time. And thanks again for this great blog!

            • 2013-02-24 11:33:36 UTC - 11:33 | Permalink

              How do you decide what is a “messianic prophecy”? What criteria do you use?

              How do you decide which ones are earlier and which ones later? And by what criteria do you assess a prophecy as “major” compared with, presumably, “minor”?

              How do you decide if a prophecy is “testable” or not? What criteria do you use?

              How do your “prevalent themes” differ from those found in non-Jewish and non-Christian religions, past and present?

              I can understand very well any disenchantment with religions. I wonder if your critical responses go far enough, however. How long have you been disenchanted? My own progress was not all completed at once, but evolved over some months, perhaps even years, before I could see the full extent to which I had been kidding myself.

              • 2013-02-24 12:46:34 UTC - 12:46 | Permalink

                Thank you sir. This set arises in part from my intensity invested into this as a theist hoping the religion would still somehow prove true. I have two more to add, which will make seven, which I will be posting about on some facebook pages I have tomorrow, which I would have done so today but too many other things came up. The other two items are what Paul’s epistles net for us regarding a historical Jesus, and all of the eye-popping and discrediting facts regarding the Book of Daniel.

                To answer your questions, I don’t intend to be perfect but expect to strike enough recognizably true notes in the view of more than a few so that this is seen as worthwhile.

                On the chronology of messianic prophecies question: I take the Bible as being laid out fairly well with regard to when things were chronologically written–Genesis before Exodus and Exodus before Leviticus, though of course that varies a bit, too. Genesis 3:15 would be the earliest messianic prophecy, then what’s in Deuteronomy 18 after that, then what’s in 2 Samuel 7 (which I conside THE MOST INFLUENTIAL messianic prophecy of them all, hands down, which caused more to be produced after it, which tried to elaborate on what it said. Daniel 9:24-27 appears to be a big-time messianic prophecy from roughly 500 BCE yet is a 60-67 CE forgery I think it is fairly safe to say. Isaiah 53 is huge, most likely written about 600 or so BCE (which date so far doesn’t matter too much) which serves as a way—sort of a messianic prophecy relief valve—for that nation which would never be able to actually have that great eternal king prophesied in 2 Samuel 7, which then let some lowly but literate person like Jesus think he must die for his nation. This is art, not perfect science of course, but as an atheist who was a former theist I love it just the same and try to square things as rigidly as I possibly can with the available evidence, which to me looks as good or even maybe ten times better than what any mysticist is offering on all of this right now.

                Jewish messianic prophecies are easy to find, in my opinion. Next: All of the ones I have mentioned above are referred to in the New Testament and are major. There are a few more, like Jeremiah 31, and ones about the Messiah healing the sick, the deaf, and the lame etc. in Isaiah, and of course that one in Zechariah where the Messiah rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.

                Mark 13:14 is very testable, and the only one that is attributed to Jesus that is testable, which I explain all about in my latest post on that which link for it I will include in my next comment.

                One prevalent theme is the supposed ability to foretell the future serving as the main basis for the Jewish and Christian God showing, not only that he exists but that he also has authority, which is incredibly flawed if you carefully look into all of that. Still, it remains an enormous OT-NT theme and would have affected a literate would-be Messiah like Jesus, most definitely, I think.

                And lastly, my deconversion started in September of 1996 and then was complete in early October of 2005, which is when I began to work on all of this as an atheist., which my calling myself an atheist wasn’t made official by me until the spring of 2007.

              • 2013-02-24 12:52:47 UTC - 12:52 | Permalink

                Sorry, Doug, but you have answered none of my questions. Not one. Care to have another go? (The closest you came was simply saying that you take the order of the books of the Bible as an indicator of when they were written relative to one another. Have you actually studied this question?)

              • 2013-02-24 14:49:57 UTC - 14:49 | Permalink

                It’s just an exercise in art for me now as a very much interested person, which I try to make as scientific as I possibly can, Neil. Once gain, it is what I am most interested in, which is why I will continue to follow your blog. I still have a very long way to go and I will keep writing down my thoughts. That’s about it for now, and thank you again so very much!

              • 2013-02-25 11:28:37 UTC - 11:28 | Permalink

                At this web location are my best answers at this time to those questions that you put to me here, Neil: https://www.facebook.com/#!/jdlittrell5/posts/358803267561864 This post was a little too long to paste here, I thought.

              • 2013-02-24 12:54:47 UTC - 12:54 | Permalink
  • 2013-02-22 06:57:27 UTC - 06:57 | Permalink

    Earl Doherty on agendas (from his concluding post responding to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?):

    Religious or not, we all have agendas. The term itself has taken on a derogatory connotation these days, in many contexts. But understood neutrally, it is not a dirty word. Ehrman has his agenda. It can hardly be denied that New Testament scholarship has had its own agenda, though one with variations, particularly as the 20th and 21st centuries have progressed. One of those agendas was and remains in many circles confessional, though increasingly another has been to uncover the historical reality of Jesus the man.

    Yet more often than not, those scholars who subscribe to the latter (such as Spong, Crossan, the late Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar) have seen it as opening up some kind of avenue to ‘spiritual’ insight and progress; somehow, the ‘real’ Jesus, even if not the heavenly Son of God, serves the interests of theism, or at least of something a little more respectable and enlightened than—hummph!—mere science and earthbound reality and understanding humans as humans.

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