2007-05-02

thoughts on “proving” or “disproving” things biblical

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

While I like to be rational and value healthy scepticism I am not interested in “disproving” the Bible. The idea of having any sort of agenda to “prove” or “disprove” anything to do with things or persons biblical seems quite pointless to me. (Who was it who said when asked if he believed in the Bible, “Sure do! Why I have even seen one with my own eyes in my parent’s home!” That’s about as far as I want to go with “proving the Bible” too.)

One reason is because the very notion of “proof” contains within it something far more certain and dogmatically assured than I can ever feel comfortable with. It is to remove the concept beyond all doubt, and without any room for doubt, what is left but room for intolerance, or mere incomprehension, against one who later comes along and questions?

The sorts of things I want to be able to prove and disprove have to do with my reputation. Back in February this year when I was paying a regular visit to check up on a resident in the Toowoomba Brodribb Home for aged and infirm the lady I was visiting did take a severe medical turn and I was unable to raise help for her from any of the staff I contacted until I triggered a phone button alarm. A security guard obviously leased out for cheap from a goon squad then turned up and decided it was his responsibility to assault me presumably for what he took to be acts of trespassing and disturbing the peace on my part. The following evening someone in the same home rang the police to say that I had returned to the ‘scene of my crime’ and was calling out threateningly for the person who had assaulted me. The police questioned me and I was very keen in “proving” my complete innocence and “disproving” the allegations against me. I was able to appeal to my medical condition (I was unable to talk above a whisper given the injury inflicted on me the night before) and I had a witness able to verify my whereabouts the whole time. Now that’s when my “prove-disprove” mindset goes to work. But when attempting to understand things like the origins of Christianity it doesn’t seem quite the appropriate tool to use.

What does fascinate me is understanding what I can of the nature and origins of the biblical texts and the origins of religious and cultural edifices that claim to have been built on them. In the realm of ancient history the evidence is simply too insubstantial for anyone to even so much as definitively say who wrote the gospels or when or where or for whom or why. There won’t be much opportunity for me to use my “prove-disprove” thing here. But each time someone looks at the evidence anew and someone else looks at all those ‘new looks’ and compares with the ‘old looks’, with new questions and insights being honed along the way, we are learning more all the time. Nothing wrong with that. No-one dismisses Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton because they did not understand relativity, quantum physics and dark matter.

But there’s another reason the whole idea of “proving-disproving” things biblical — especially re questions to do with the historicity of the gospels or Genesis. People don’t walk on water and snakes don’t talk so it’s silly to even suggest that books telling these stories might be “historical”. I would simply feel like I was being set up for Candid Camera if someone attempted to engage me in a serious conversion that assumed such stories or their ilk had some basis in reality.

But the objection is not limited to the tales of the fabulous. Now whether there is some historical event ultimately associated with those mythical tales or if a document is a daisy chain of mythical and historical stories is another question. But whatever might be historical cannot be determined solely by the self-testimony of such a text. (Note, I do not say historicity cannot be determined at all by the testimony of texts of various certain kinds. So to be safe I better repeat: “But whatever might be historical cannot be determined solely by the self-testimony of such a text.”)

Some might cry “Foul” against this view, and point to Bauckham who marshaled the support of Coady’s significant philosophical work on Testimony. But the umpire who knows both Coady and the text in question will have to disallow the appeal. At issue is not the testimony of human community but a piece of literature of unknown provenance. Without external controls everything within that piece of literature is by elementary definition “literary”. It’s characters and places are all literary. Even if the text speaks of governor Pilate and the city Jerusalem both of those are, within the context of that text, by definition as “literary” as London Bridge and the King of England in a fairy tale. They may share some traits with their historical counterparts, but without some method, reasons or external controls to enable us to determine that the text can indeed be taken as a serious historical source then we cannot treat it as one. The characters and events we study in such texts are literary constructs and need to be studied as such, not mistaken for something “real” like a little child might imagine his toys to be real when he’s asleep.

Merely deciding to take a text as an historical source on its face-value or self-witness is gratuitously to impute judgments and assumptions about the text that are unsupported, baseless, naive. An assumption of historicity would be in itself as naive and baseless as an assumption the text is meant to be read allegorically.

And texts that are subsequent adaptations derived from that original literary document are disqualified as external controls. Literature spawned by a document cannot itself be independent testimony to the historicity of what is contained in that original document.

Some may object, We can know the provenance of the gospels! We can work out from their contents a pretty good idea where and when and for whom they were written and therefore something about their authors. This objection is circular. Again we are relying on the self-testimony of a single text to inform us without an external leverage to inform us how to interpret or understand that self-testimony. Another problem with that objection is that what we “know” about a text from its self-witness is varies over time and from scholar to scholar, depending on their starting assumptions and values they place on different data within the text. Result: opinions vary widely; no one really “knows”.

And uniqueness is not a proof; it is a disqualification from the discussion. Uniqueness is a meaningless claim as it stands. Every piece of literature, every person, is unique. So are both like any other piece of literature or person. No literature can be created ex nihilo. Every text is evidence of the broader culture from which it originated. To treat it as if it is not a cultural product in some respect, and to use ‘uniqueness’ as a “proof” of some kind, has no place in serious historical and literary analytic studies. One can study “uniqueness” in fields of the occult or the ‘otherworldly’ or in discussions of ‘spirituality’, but not in textual and historical studies.

Nor do I accept that one must be a believer or religious to validly study beliefs or religions any more than one has to be a psychopath to study psychopathology with valid understanding.

And as for claims that the relative sobriety of the canonical accounts of miracles is “proof” of their “uniqueness” and “historicity” when compared with later apocryphal counterparts? The canonical Gospels and Acts read with so much more restraint, we are told, in contrast to the flamboyantly miraculous nonsense we read in the some of the apocrypha. While there may be a discernible literary trend towards the frequent depiction of certain types of miracle stories over time, I suspect that much of this claim stems from us being less shocked by the familiar. So while the Infancy Gospel of Thomas may contain ludicrous scenes of the young Jesus petulantly zapping people dead then restoring them, we don’t seem to blink when Peter zaps Ananias and Sapphira dead, or when Jesus deliberately waits till everyone is completely heartbroken before intervening to raise whomever from the grave, or sending in an angel to rescue prisoners and thus leaving poor hapless guards to be executed as a consequence, or petulantly zapping a fig tree for following its natural cycle, or sending 2000 pigs and someone’s livelihood screaming into the ocean, or finding money he needs not by working for it but by performing a miracle to produce it, or having zombie saints rise up out of their graves and walk around the day he died. If there is a model of sobriety in the telling of miracles the life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus would be an easy winner against the gospels by far.

So nope, I’m not out to ‘disprove’ the Bible. Simply seeking to understand what I can about the nature and origins of some texts that have had a significant role in our culture — and to share tidbits as I can with anyone else interested. That’s all, really.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)



If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!


15 thoughts on “thoughts on “proving” or “disproving” things biblical”

  1. (i have numbered the paragraphs of this post for ease of reference/response — “vridar”)

    [1] I don’t disagree with a lot of what you say here. I think that the word ‘proof’ is best reserved for simple predicates which are the result of a valid deductive argument, i.e. mostly in abstract mathematical contexts. But actually your remark about the circumstances in which you do employ a prove-disprove mentality is very significant with respect to the attitude people take when approaching biblical texts. Are they to be presumed ‘guilty until proven innocent’ or ‘innocent until proven guilty’? I tend to go with the latter myself, because I know that if I were in a similar situation that’s how I would want to be treated. Of course the analogy between cross-examining literary documents vs. a person might be questioned, but in fact psychology shows that questions concerning personal identity and self-knowledge are very much bound up with how we deal with the rest of the world.

    [2] I too want to understand the origin and nature of the biblical texts. But I find some of your strictures on what we are allowed to say about such texts rather odd. First, what is the ‘self-testimony’ of a text? I assume you mean extrapolating from purely internal features of a document to what kind of work we should classify it as and whether or not we can treat it as historical. But what if the self-testimony includes such things as the promise to offer an ‘orderly account’, based on the deliverances of eye-witnesses? What if it includes accurate geographical, political and historical detail? The too-often repeated counter-reply is that that is just what we would expect of a good work of fiction. But in my experience with reading literature (English and Ancient Greek), there is a significant difference in self-testimony here as well. In fiction there seems to always be an implicit understanding between author and reader that it actually is fantastic and not meant to be taken as factual recounting. Many times it is even explicit, for example in Lucian’s True History where he actually advises the reader not to believe a word of what he is going to say, because it concerns things that neither he nor anyone else have ever witnessed.

    [3] Do you really believe that it is that hard to tell the difference between a narrative which purports to be historical and one which deliberately intends to be merely entertaining and fantastic? I’ve certainly never had that experience, even with the most impressively researched historical novels that I’ve read.

    [4] That said, I do share your concern that we don’t rely exclusively on the ‘self-witness’ of a text, but especially in ancient history we must make allowances for whether we should reasonably expect external controls to be available. Take someone like Jesus, for example: as you’ve noted before, we wouldn’t expect to find coins, archeological remains or even much reference in secular history concerning a marginal Jew from Galilee (it was only when his followers began to multiply and start to have a cultural impact that historians and other observers started to take notice). Many of the ‘sign prophets’ whom Josephus mentions from the 1st Century are nowhere else attested. And concerning the attestation of Gospels and the life of Jesus in the 2nd Century, we must bear in mind that as much as 85% of all Christian literature from the 1st and early 2nd Centuries is probably lost forever, so we shouldn’t be too quick to draw conclusions from the silence of the almost random sample of literature which we do have (i.e Justin, Ignatius, etc.).

    [5] Does this mean that we should suspend judgment? No! Most ancient historians that I know treat what evidence we do have very carefully, but most importantly with a hermeneutic of charity rather than suspicion. Many NT scholars are not trained in historical studies, so they tend to approach the biblical texts always looking for signs of tendentiousness, redaction and rhetoric. The unspoken mantra seems to be, ‘never accept anything in the Gospels or Acts as historical when it can be attributed, however speculatively, to its function within the narrative or the evangelist’s theology’. The contrast between this approach, and that of Robin Lane Fox, for example in his “Pagans and Christians” is striking. He defends the historicity of the episode when Paul and Barnabas were taken to be gods, even though he is a secular commentator and most ‘specialists’ would argue that this episode has such a significant role in Luke’s apologetic purposes that we should treat it only as a literary episode. If the Gospels take care to place the life of Jesus in a specific historical time-frame (from the death of Herod the Great to Pontius Pilate), noting where appropriate points of contact with secular history (i.e. placing John’s ministry in the reign of Tiberias and his death at the hands of Herod Antipas, and the return of Jesus and his family to Nazareth after Herod died and his sons were appointed tetrachs, etc.) then at the very least we should take seriously the possibility that these documents intend to record history, however much interpreted or shaped to meet the needs of different communities and audiences.

    [6] Needless to say there are complex issues involved here and I am not concerned to make a full-scale apologetic for the reliability of the Gospels here. But I cannot help but notice how ideologically driven historical skepticism toward the New Testament is. The way I see it, I and others who argue for Gospel reliability are not so much shoring up an increasingly untenable point of view as trying to compensate for centuries of critical scholarship which was critical for all the wrong reasons and most importantly not sufficiently critical of itself. This is not again to say that I don’t think much scholarly progress has been made in the study of the Bible. I do, and I profit from it greatly, just like you. But it seems that the more revisionary understandings of the origin of the New Testament and early Christianity seem to be very much colored by ideology.

    [7] BTW, I completely agree with the circular nature of many attempts to extract from the Gospels details about the particular ‘community’ of the evangelist and whom he was writing AGAINST. Tell that to Burton Mack and Robert Price with their attempts to infer ideological splits within early Christianity from Jesus’ pronouncement sayings and the development of traditions and communities from hypothetical reconstructions of Q.

    [8] Again, please don’t take this as personal accusation. I am sharing my thoughts, just like you. But I must put the question to you: if ‘disproving’ the Bible is not on your ‘agenda’, why is it that you link to so many people who attempt to do just that (i.e. the Radical Critics, Earl Doherty, Robert Price, The Sword, etc.)? One could easily get the impression that you share their ideological commitments.

  2. I can’t say I will be able to get through all of your post. Just a comment on para 1 for now:

    No text, not even a biblical one, has ethical behavioural qualities. We attribute ethical behavorial qualities such as guilt or innocence to fellow humans. If you say you will impute innocence to a text because that is how you would want to be treated yourself then you are “humanizing” the text by imputing to it desires about how it would like others to think about it. I am quite sure you don’t mean this, and this is why I am trying to bring out how, with questions about the bible, so much logic gets muddled through terminological babble.

    You wrote that “questions concerning personal identity and self-knowledge are very much bound up with how we deal with the rest of the world [meaning in this case ‘literary documents’]”. How does this apply to how the one might deal with a government report, a political speech, a media release, the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Sun (or your fav gossip rag newspaper), The New Yorker, a JW tract, the Koran, a car manual, a novel, a joke book, a financial statement . . . ? And does it make a difference if I am reading any of the above as a forensic scientist, a librarian, a voter, a scholar, a car owner, a car mechanic, an entertainer, an investor, a reporter, a judge . . All of the above are literary documents and it is impossible to deal with them all in any one way — and this is compounded on the role of one doing the reading and the purpose. Or do you mean that questions of personal identity and self-knowledge are bound up only with how we deal with the bible?

    (If so, then I might opt to deal with it in a way not very differently from the way I deal with the Epic of Gilgamesh. What does that suggest about my personal identity and self-knowledge?)

  3. In response to your paragraph [2]

    Genre is not self-testimony.

    What I mean by self-testimony is what the text itself testifies or says. Some texts say they are the words of a god him or herself, others claim to be from the pens of the twelve apostles, one text says there were 500 witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, another text says Jesus walked on water, another that the shadow of Peter healed people. Non-Jewish and non-Christian texts make similar types of claims. Some texts quickly raise questions about the factuality of their claims; some texts are believed factual for a very long time before their testimonies are found to be false.

    Verisimilitude was an important goal of literary craft then as it is now. See my notes on Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions — the link is in my Book Review list in the right margin.

    On what basis can anyone possibly rationalize that a text is historically factual on the grounds that it is set in a known place and time? This is one of the worst most painful offenses one reads with such embarrassing excruciating regularity in biblical studies. Surely it does not need comment, but sometimes one encounters attempts at defence like “but this text has so many MORE details than we find in other texts, . . . at least if we restrict our comparisons to comparable genres, . . . and of comparable styles too, . . . oh and also of comparable lengths, . . . and only those texts published within this particular time span . . . ” And the worst line of all: It really really does “Ring True!” Like a child trying to prove a loved bedtime really could be true after all.

    But it gets worse. Even when a text contains a leading historical character who is given a role that conflicts with everything every external historical source tells us about that character, the use of that character in the text is still used as “testimony” that the text must be true — because it mentions an historical character!

    The logic of the geographic place-name argument tells me that both Jesus and Romulus were factually historically whisked up into heaven in a cloud because the texts in each case identifies the geographic location of their launch pads. (And no doubt the story Livy told of Romulus’ ascension really really did “ring true” to many in his day too!)

    These sorts of statements about sources of information are axiomatic truisms in other areas. E. Schwartz tied in vain to get scholars to listen over a hundred years ago:

    “The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . . how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity? . . . .”

    This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

  4. And in response to para [3] “Do you really believe that it is that hard to tell the difference between a narrative which purports to be historical and one which deliberately intends to be merely entertaining and fantastic?”

    No. It is not hard to tell a narrative which purports to be historical.

    Both canonical and non-canonical Acts and Gospels are can be found among narratives that purport to be historical.

    So are narrative texts on various political monuments and documents.

    So is the book of Genesis.

    So is the book of Jonah.

    So is Hesiod’s Theogony.

    So is The Iliad.

    So is Virgil’s Aeneid.

    And Herodotus’s Histories, which since Mandell and Freedman’s study can now be seen to be as much “theology” as so-called “history” as is Israel’s Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings). The “history” in Herodotus may well be as much a set of theological tales in honour of Apollo as Primary History is in respect to Yahweh. (That does not mean to say that all the stories are fictional, however.)

    The Book of Esther

    Bel and the Dragon

    Picnic at Hanging Rock

    Hitler’s Diaries

    The Hand that Signed the Paper

    Forbidden Love

    All of these are narrative texts that “purport to be historical” (and not merely to be entertaining or fantastic) and all have been believed to be historical. Some of the latter in particular only became entertaining because of their claims to be more than entertainment — because of their claims to be historical.

    These examples listed should make it clear that such a criterion (a narrative purporting to be historical) by no means establishes factuality — no more in ancient literature than in modern. Plato even wrote that teaching false history was a necessary virtue and many today still believe his historical narrative of Atlantis.

  5. I’m afraid you’re kind of caricaturing my argument.

    “What I mean by self-testimony is what the text itself testifies or says.”

    Of course I wouldn’t dream of taking a document to be factual just because it says it is. That’s maybe a first step. Does the author tell us he/she’s trying to record history? Fine. Let’s see how he does. Judith, for example, starts with a chronological reference to a known historical person, but you know that it can’t be historical if it conflates geographical, political, etc. details from a time span of about 500 years.

    “Verisimilitude was an important goal of literary craft then as it is now.”

    But actually, it was very hard to accomplish in ancient times as I have stressed before. Tom Clancy can write a perfectly realistic contemporary novel because he has access to newspaper archives, the Internet, expert interviews, etc. And the mere emphasis on verisimilitude is not enough. Usually verisimilitude is recognized as such (I’m not saying that people can’t ever be taken in by a claimed factual document which is nothing of the sort; but I do think it’s harder than you allow for. For example, that passage you cited from the Odyssey with all that nautical detail is transparently epic and grandiose). Actually, Earl Doherty expresses a similar opinion (see http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/rfset25.htm under “Was there a 1st Century Paul?”) in responding to Detering’s theory that the whole Pauline corpus is a 2nd Century forgery. It is just really hard from a research point of view to successfully recreate an entire historical milieu.

    “Even when a text contains a leading historical character who is given a role that conflicts with everything every external historical source tells us about that character, the use of that character in the text is still used as “testimony” that the text must be true — because it mentions an historical character!”

    I assume here you’re talking about Luke’s ‘testimony’ to Paul. If that is the case, I think you are greatly exaggerating the differences. Haenchen and Conzelmann and Vielhauer may have prevailed in convincing the scholarly community that the Paul in Acts and the Paul of the letters are very different, but their arguments were effectively countered by W. Ward Gasque, Colin Hemer, Martin Hengel, A.T. Robertson, Stanley Porter and others. Luke offers an independent but quite closely parallel view of Paul to that we find in the letters (as an aside, it was rather funny in Detering’s “Falsified Paul” to see him ‘prove’ that Acts was unreliable because it conflicts with the information found in the letters…which he doesn’t believe are authentic either! see pp.15-17, pdf numbers).

    I certainly didn’t argue for historicity only on the basis of the Gospels being set in a known place at a known time. I also referred to tangential connections with secular history where appropriate. Now you will say that those connections could easily be made up. But see where that kind of logic leads. Are we to reject everything in Josephus, for example, that isn’t corroborated by other Roman historians? After all, he could have deliberately put enough ‘links’ in place to connect an otherwise largely apologetic piece with history.

    E. Schwartz’s advice is certainly good advice in any age. Of course we have to be careful. Of course we have to be critical. But that doesn’t mean consistently assuming ‘guilty until proven innocent’. Usually in historical studies it’s the other way around. Sufficient reason has to be found to cast doubt on what a source is saying. Usually historians adopt an attitude of cautious trust, always with an eye for incongruities, etc.

    “Some of the latter in particular only became entertaining because of their claims to be more than entertainment — because of their claims to be historical.”

    And that would usually be the implied understanding between writer and reader. The reader knows he’s being taken for a ride. Sure there were people for whom that passed over their heads but not always and everywhere.

  6. You were arguing for the factuality of Luke-Acts because it claims to be based on eye-witnesses and setting things out ‘in order’ –and that I should treat it as “innocent” (meaning take it at its word) — and in addition the details subsequently employed verified this claim. A particular example was Acts 27. You said the level of detail in this was proof of its factuality. When I pointed out other mythical literature with more details you said my examples don’t count because they are written in the wrong style — presumably not ‘biblical’ enough. Apparently simple clarification sounds like a caricature??

    As for verisimilitude being too hard for ancients, Nonsense. People succeeded as well as they their knowledge permitted. Some did it remarkably well (I have given examples but you don’t like their literary style or genre). But I tire of the circularity where this sort of discussion tends to lead. Even when errors in Luke’s chronology and Mark’s geography are pointed out it will make no difference to the believer who simply calls on other ad hoc arguments to explain this contrary evidence away. (In fact one of Luke’s ‘errors’ is a strong signal he was using Josephus as his source.)

    You assumed I meant Paul when I was thinking of Pilate. But no matter. There are enough scholarly views to find the rationalization that suits.

    You wrote: “I certainly didn’t argue for historicity only on the basis of the Gospels being set in a known place at a known time. I also referred to tangential connections with secular history where appropriate.”

    And your point 3 adds more logical support to the argument based on points 1 and 2?

    You wrote: “Now you will say that those connections could easily be made up. But see where that kind of logic leads.”

    Once again for the umpteenth time you decide to write what you think I would argue and then show how ridiculous it is. I have addressed this gratuitous habit of yours repeatedly without impact. So I can only conclude I have made my point and you are simply incapable of comprehending it. If I really ever said or argued any such thing anywhere you would be able to refer to that place and not toss out this tired old straw man of what you think I “would” say. Rather, you are simply ignoring what I have said repeatedly in different posts and in different replies, and I suspect your faith-preconceptions render you incapable of understanding. You certainly demonstrated a lack of comprehension of the Fox article. (I’m reminded of the silly straw-man arguments many believers use to ridicule evolution.)

    You said: “The reader knows he’s being taken for a ride. Sure there were people for whom that passed over their heads but not always and everywhere.”

    You’re only guessing. No, many were genuinely deceived. They were all modern day deliberate deceptions.

  7. How long will you keep doing this? When did I ever say that Acts should be ‘taken at its word’? No, it should be evaluated just like all our ancient sources. But it should be done with the burden of proof on the one who would argue for inauthenticity. That’s what I hear in historical studies all the time. I’ll hear something like, “Such and such a source claims to be a factual account of this or that series of events, but historians have found it hard to trust this source for a number of reasons…”. I never hear, “This source claims to be a factual account but nobody has been able to prove it is true”.

    “People succeeded as well as they their knowledge permitted.”

    That’s exactly my point. And such knowledge in the ancient world was often hard to come by. That’s why Strabo and Pliny also made a multitude of errors in some of their geography but historians try to harmonize their accounts and they certainly don’t reject the whole thing as fictional.

    “In fact one of Luke’s ‘errors’ is a strong signal he was using Josephus as his source.”

    I’ve heard this sort of argument before. It just doesn’t fly. It requires the double assumption both that Luke used the source and that he misused or misinterpreted it. Given how well Luke can reproduce one of his sources (Mark), that Luke got Josephus wrong is something that has to be explained away. It can’t be used to argue for the theory in the first place!

    Ah yes, the old “the Pilate of the Gospels doesn’t match the Pilate of Josephus and Philo” canard. As if both of those Jewish authors were the ideal neutral observers and we can trust anything they say exactly as they say it. You’re also missing the subtlety of the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate. Sure, he’s afraid of the crowd (given the precariousness of his position that is only to be expected) but he’s also crafty and takes the Jews for a ride, especially in John’s Gospel. This is exactly the kind of a-historical approach that produces so much skepticism about the Bible. This kind of research calls for careful evaluation of all our sources, with an eye to both corroboration and contradiction, as well as nuance, rhetoric, personal interest, etc.

    “If I really ever said or argued any such thing anywhere you would be able to refer to that place and not toss out this tired old straw man of what you think I “would” say.”

    Of course you wouldn’t actually argue something like that explicitly. But it’s implicit in your fighting tooth and nail against the possibility that the Gospels are historical. Any other explanation for factual corroboration, ‘experiential vividness’ (to use Homeric scholar Schadewalt’s phrase) and the explicit statement of the intent to write an orderly account (at least on the part of Luke) is to be preferred than that the Gospels are actually doing what they claim to be doing. Of course you’ll deny that that’s what your doing. But I have yet to see a single post in which you argue for the historicity of anything in the Gospels. It’s all taken up with trying to find biblical parallels (with the implication that the biblical material is also a source), Homeric parallels, parallels from ancient fiction, anything but history.

    I’m getting tired of the way you talk down to me. And it seems like we’re really talking past each other. And how dare you “suspect your faith-preconceptions render you incapable of understanding.” That kind of psychologizing makes me sick. I can just as easily turn it back at you and claim (with good reason, from your many exchanges with me) that your skeptical perspective makes you incapable of understanding. I criticized Michael Fox for his lack of understanding of how ‘faith’ really works in relation to evidence, drawing on the psychological and epistemological literature. If you want to have a serious conversation about how the mind works in relation to belief, paradigm change and evaluation of the evidence, I’m up for that. But please stop repeating the same old cliches about ‘preconceptions’ and ‘faith interfering with reason’.

    I did concede that people did fall for some deliberate forgeries. I just qualified it with “not always and everywhere”. I believe in our ability to critically evaluate sources concerning the past and arrive at a reliable reconstruction, for the most part. The New Testament is no exception, though it is routinely treated that way in ‘critical’ studies. I just try to evaluate all of our sources the same way any other historian of late antiquity would do. And I don’t see these historians try to find redactional layering in Tacitus or prove that he drew upon prior mythic sources (or just made things up). I see too much scholarship in the New Testament driven by ideology, and NOT just or even primarily on the side of conservative scholars. I can’t help but conclude that skepticism towards the New Testament is to a large extent ideologicaly driven. This is apparent because when real historians tackle this material (like Peter Brown at my alma mater, W.H.C. Frend, Peter Schafer, etc.) they come up with a picture that is for the most part remarkably conservative (Robin Lane Fox is another good example).

  8. On para [4] to the post titled “7 responses….”

    Without external controls it is unavoidable that the certainty of the factuality of any report is reduced. That is a logical fact and cannot be changed to suit our religious beliefs. Hence the unavoidable provisional nature of our knowledge in many areas of ancient history. So what is left if we have few or possibly no external controls for our study of Jesus?

    Yes, this even applies to Josephus’ record of certain rebels, but against that we have the different known status and provenance of Josephus in comparison with the gospels. See my post on the comparative evidence for Alexander and Jesus and apply the points. It does not mean that certain rebels only testified in Josephus did not exist, but it does remove by degrees our certainty that particular ones did. Josephus after all does also testify to the historicity of Adam and Eve. (Of course, the literal historicity of Adam and Eve is the unstated implication of many Christians also in their arguments about the historicity of Jesus but it is not tactically wise for them to admit as much up front.)

    Without knowing and being able to evaluate his sources there will always be some reservation. But insofar as we decide to take him on trust re the rebels we do so knowing that it is the best we can do given the nature of the evidence available. It is different with the gospels partly because they are clearly theological treatises testifying of divinely activated events. Their central character is not even a real man — he is a theological construction. There are also other reasons for the gospels disqualifying themselves from prima facie acceptance as history that I have discussed elsewhere and that is tedious to repeat every post.

    I love this 85% claim of all Christian literature from the 1st and 2nd century missing.

    And what implicitly underlies this reminder? Arguments from silence that the evidence we want “would be there if it had survived??

    What/who is its source? On what is the statistic based? I can think immediately of many unorthodox or un–proto-orthodox texts known to be missing. Many that did not fit the orthodox mould were lost, yes. It’s a bit ironic that while believers try to appeal to missing texts in support of their position most of the texts that are actually known to be missing would in fact contradict their theological positions.

    What do scholars admit were the forces for and against the preservation of certain texts, or at least reference of texts? What sorts of texts were favoured for preservation? An interesting study I will have to do a post on some time.

    Meantime when scholars do analyze current texts and their external testimonies they come up with certain lost texts that conservative believing Christians refuse to admit ever existed after all! They quickly claim: But there is no textual evidence for the existence of such texts! Hoo boy, just no pleasing some.

  9. Vridar blog comment: My replies to JD Walters’ post are in bold type — Neil (hopefully this method of reply will make it easier to follow a train of such lengthy exchanges

    “Their central character is not even a real man — he is a theological construction.”

    Classic example of begging the question. The Gospels are ahistorical because, well, their main character is ahistorical! It’s ironic how someone like Earl Doherty can claim that the canonical Gospels demonstrate a process of ‘historicizing’ an earlier mythical Christ and that the early Church Fathers would appeal to them as evidence that Jesus was ‘truly man’ as well as ‘truly God’. As for your claim that we shouldn’t trust the Gospels because of their theological character, that’s just a deistic/Enlightenment prejudice. Who says that history and theology are necessarily opposed?

    No prejudice. Rather, a politically correct treatment of all divinities as equal, whether Jewish, Greek, Roman, Sumerian. . . . The main subject of the gospels is not a human but a miracle-working mind-reading death-renouncing deity disguised as a human. He is thus the appropriate subject for theology (the study of god/s) as opposed to history (the study of humanity). Who says history and theology are necessarily opposed? Probably most historians who see history as the study of humanity.

    “And what implicitly underlies this reminder? Arguments from silence that the evidence we want “would be there if it had survived??”

    That’s a howler. I certainly said no such thing. All I said is that without a representative sample of early Christian literature, we cannot make definite claims about when certain texts are attested to for the first time, because it could be that the earliest one has not survived and a later one we do have does not quote that text for some reason.

    It could be indeed. Anything “could be” but we can’t justify our conclusions on what “could be”.

    It would hardly be feasable to expect that all later Christian literature should quote all of the NT books! But the earliest attestations we do have in extant literature do set an upper limit on how late a particular text COULD have appeared. That does not mean that the latest date for the text is the most plausible. On the contrary, even with our first citations of Paul in Ignatius and Clement, they do not have the character of ‘this just in’, but rather demonstrate long familiarity on the part of Christians with Paul’s writings. This is all historical criticism 101, I can’t believe I have to reiterate all of this.

    Dating is a more complex issue than relying solely on earliest external attestation. But to propose defensible dates prior to external attestation one needs to demonstrate the text’s compatibility with the earlier thought and situation. And if the text fails this test but rather demonstrates compatibility with the thought and historical situation of the time in which it is first attested, then we have a strong indication that it was indeed composed around that same time.

    “What/who is its source? On what is the statistic based?”

    The source is C. Markschies, on the basis of Adolf Harnack’s “Gesschichte der altchristlichen Literatur bis Eusebius”.

    “It’s a bit ironic that while believers try to appeal to missing texts in support of their position most of the texts that are actually known to be missing would in fact contradict their theological positions.”

    You don’t seem to understand exactly what I was arguing with the ‘missing Christian literature’ thing. We do not have the complete un-proto-orthodox output of the period of the early Church Fathers, and we do not have the complete proto-orthodox output either. If we had access to all the early Christian literature, it would include all kinds of texts, many of them unorthodox but many of them also orthodox.

    We have evidence that unorthodox texts went missing. Beyond that I don’t know how you can say what the missing evidence “would” (as opposed to “could”) include.

    “What do scholars admit were the forces for and against the preservation of certain texts, or at least reference of texts? What sorts of texts were favoured for preservation?”

    Weather is far and away the largest dominant factor in whether texts were preserved. Papyrus simply does not last. The only reason we have certain abundant papyrus collections is because in some areas of extremely arid weather they were preserved.
    As for reference of texts, that would depend on the catechetical and practical needs of the early Church in the particular writer who quotes them. Thus 1 Clement can appeal to Paul when he is dealing with a church which he founded in addressing similar (though not identical) issues. But Justin in defending the Christian faith against a Jew would not quote Paul (or at least refer to him explicitly), whom many Jewish-Christians regarded as an apostate and would have been an embarassment to Justin’s case. It would also give the appearance of arguing a particular case based only upon your own apologists! Think of how skeptics react when Christians argue based on one of their own, like Josh McDowell!

    I look forward to reading your post. I just hope you don’t reproduce the standard cliche that the orthodox ‘supressed’ early texts they didn’t agree with. In this regard it is interested that the Nag Hammadi documents were found in a monastery.

    Well I do hope to provide a bit more than the standard cliches you have produced here.

    “Meantime when scholars do analyze current texts and their external testimonies they come up with certain lost texts that conservative believing Christians refuse to admit ever existed after all!”

    Are you talking about Q? If so, I could name about 30 conservative scholars who have no problem with using Q in their historical reconstructions. All these scholars object to is using Q illegitimately to infer the existence of a hypothetical Q community and what they DIDN’T believe in on the basis of what’s not in Q. If you’re talking about attempts to isolate a pre-canonical Mark or a proto-Luke (such as Marcion might have used), those endeavours are on much shakier ground since we don’t have the obvious and striking phenomenon of word-for-word reproduction in Matthew and Luke of passages from this hypothetical source. The latter depend on alleged ‘seams’ which are often very subjectively determined.

    No doubt you can name 30 such conservative scholars. I am sure you can also find many who fit my bill, too. But your qualification and use of the word “illegitimate” is an interesting one. This word would seem to imply that scholars who use Q to reach different conclusions from the conservatives are using Q “illegitimately”, as if there is only one truly “legitimate” way of using Q — that of the conservatives.

    As for the existence of other gospels you seem to be arguing against the difficulty of reconstructing them. My point is derived from studies that ascertain their existence and general characteristics.

  10. On para [5] to the post titled “7 responses….”

    Para [5] said: “Most ancient historians that I know treat what evidence we do have very carefully, but most importantly with a hermeneutic of charity rather than suspicion”

    Do you mean that most treat evidence with credulity rather than with scepticism or critical methods? I doubt it, but how else am I to understand what is meant by “charitable” or “suspicious” treatment of evidence? In studies of the emergence of Athenian democracy, for example, I see much serious sceptical and critical debate over how to interpret evidence. Historians have moved a long way from the days when they wrote little more than paraphrases of Plutarch’s Life of Solon.

    Para [5] continued: “If the Gospels take care to place the life of Jesus in a specific historical time-frame (from the death of Herod the Great to Pontius Pilate), noting where appropriate points of contact with secular history (i.e. placing John’s ministry in the reign of Tiberias and his death at the hands of Herod Antipas, and the return of Jesus and his family to Nazareth after Herod died and his sons were appointed tetrachs, etc.) then at the very least we should take seriously the possibility that these documents intend to record history, however much interpreted or shaped to meet the needs of different communities and audiences.”

    Well it is beyond doubt that the gospels have long been taken as records of history. Now that presumption has been questioned. And many have found the presumption wanting. Is that the problem?

  11. On para [6] to the post titled “7 responses….”

    Perhaps you would like to explain exactly what you don’t like about the philosophy of “scepticism”. This will also mean clarifying for me what you understand by scepticism for starters. I tend to think of scepticism as a healthy positive attribute but it seems you do not. It’s hardly an “ideology” but if you think it is then perhaps you can explain your understanding of “ideology” too.

  12. On para [7] to the post titled “7 responses….”

    Para [7] says: BTW, I completely agree with the circular nature of many attempts to extract from the Gospels details about the particular ‘community’ of the evangelist and whom he was writing AGAINST. Tell that to Burton Mack and Robert Price with their attempts to infer ideological splits within early Christianity from Jesus’ pronouncement sayings and the development of traditions and communities from hypothetical reconstructions of Q.

    Presumably there are peer-reviewed publications where scholars debate these views? Or do you insist on a final black and white answer with a capital TT for The Truth?

  13. On para [8] to the post titled “7 responses….”

    Para [8] says: “Again, please don’t take this as personal accusation. I am sharing my thoughts, just like you. But I must put the question to you: if ‘disproving’ the Bible is not on your ‘agenda’, why is it that you link to so many people who attempt to do just that (i.e. the Radical Critics, Earl Doherty, Robert Price, The Sword, etc.)? One could easily get the impression that you share their ideological commitments.”

    Well I do happen to disagree with some of Doherty’s, Price’s, and Turton’s views, and I do not agree with all the articles I see listed in RadikalKritik. I probably disagree with most of what I read on Internet Infidels. I am quite critical of my review of fellow-atheist’s Harris’s book, End of Faith.

    So why do I link to them? Because I have not yet read a successful demolishing of many of the the ideas they argue — nor even a serious engagements with their ideas! I have read many scholars saying their arguments have been demolished, and some have even pointed me to book titles and chapters which I have always followed up. But I have not yet read anything more than dismissals of contempt or the most shallow 101 dot points of the basics of the faith by way of rebuttal to their central arguments. The tactic seems to be to simply ignore them and shut them out (or even excoriate them), and simply repeat ad nauseum the “correct” view and behave as if that is all that is required to declare their arguments “demolished”.

    As I said, I do not agree with everything they argue and I have debated certain points with them myself. But I do believe they pose serious fundamental questions and hypotheses that demand more serious thought than “the establishment” has hitherto bothered to grant them.

    And another reason, I love to provoke thought and discussion. How many answers from a millennia ago have outlived the questions that spawned them?

  14. Thanks especially for the last post. That was very helpful. I agree with you that I would like to see these views engaged more thoroughly. But personally when I read Detering’s “Falsified Paul” I saw so many weak arguments, disingenuous use of the ‘appeal to consensus’, lack of understanding of the rhetoric and epistolary form of Paul’s letters and outlandish speculation concerning the real identity of Paul that I am not surprised that more scholars do not engage with these views. Ditto for Darrell Doughty’s “Pauline Paradigms” article. Each of his reasons for finding a new redactional ‘paradigm’ for explaining the origin of Paul’s letters reveals a significant misunderstanding of critical scholarship and/or the context of earliest Christianity.

    Pauline exegete Mark Nanos examined one of Van Eysinga’s articles on Galatians in some depth, and I imagine that his response would be typical of most mainstream scholars: http://web.archive.org/web/20070611043105/http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/corpus-paul/20010722/002771.html. There has also been a rather long exchange between Detering, Bill Arnal, Steve Bruce and some others on this subject on one of the discussion groups. I think you can follow the thread from here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/8164

    But it’s true I would like to see a more in-depth, thorough discussion of the radicals. Detering himself has said that he would not be surprised if the mainstream paradigm comes up with convincing responses to his challenge. From what I have read for myself and the discussion elsewhere that I have seen, I have no doubt that this would be the case.

    And I would hesitate to adopt the rhetoric of the radicals for the mode and rationale of mainstream scholarship’s treatment of their views: “The tactic seems to be to simply ignore them and shut them out (or even excoriate them), and simply repeat ad nauseum the “correct” view and behave as if that is all that is required to declare their arguments “demolished”.” It is the standard response of all fringe theorists to the question of why mainstream scholars do not take them seriously. Holocaust deniers, for example, claim exactly the same thing, and I cannot help but see the parallel between the methodology of Holocaust deniers and that of the radical critics (taken from a review of two books responding to the deniers):

    “…deniers work the edges of the story, picking out the inevitable contradictions (or appearances of contradiction) produced by a large and complex event such as the Holocaust, trying to give the impression of unravelling the whole story by tugging on a few loose threads. If even one detail can be disproved, perhaps the whole story can at least be put in doubt.”

    Similarly Detering works at the edges of the story of Paul, picking out the inevitable contradictions (or appearances of contradiction) produced by a large and complex event like the emergence of early Christianity, trying to give the impression of unraveling the whole story by tugging on a few loose threads (like the apparent ‘silence’ of Paul’s impact on his churches based on the sparse records we do have of the early 2nd Century, his early popularity with ‘heretics’ as opposed to the proto-orthodox, etc.).

    Your question concerning my understanding of skepticism is a good one. I’ll try to formulate a more precise answer soon.

  15. JD “Your question concerning my understanding of skepticism is a good one. I’ll try to formulate a more precise answer soon.”

    My response: I’m not asking for formal definition etc or an exploration of the terms. Only asking what you mean by them when you use them, that’s all.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.