JD’s words are in black and indented.
Mine are in blue. (I hope there are not too many people who feel they have nothing better to do than to read this exchange, by the way. And why do so many Christians like martial images, like ‘cadre‘?)
In the last chapter of his monumental new book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham attempts a philosophical discussion of testimony as an epistemological category to make sense of the kind of historiography found in the canonical Gospels, and as a theological category appropriate to the kind of access to Jesus which Christians have through those Gospels (p.473).
I can understand why JD is tied to using the intellectual jargon of Bauckham himself to explain what Bauckham is doing. To translate it into simpler language would expose the nonsense it obfuscates — Translation:
Bauckham argues that:
1. if we think of the Gospels as the “testimony” of eyewitnesses, and
2. if we think of testimony being by its nature essentially true, then
3. the Gospels must be true historical records. Not only this, but the same “testimonies” recorded in the gospels are really valid claims that Jesus really was divine and our saviour.
Bauckham fails to demonstrate that there are any eyewitness testimonies behind any of the Gospel stories. He has simply asserted this. And that makes his whole argument in his final chapter a non sequitur.
In the previous chapters he has made a number of assertions. He then dizzyingly applies ad hoc explanations for some exceptions. He then tries to establish points by claiming to see patterns in the positioning of names in the gospels — except for other names that show those patterns do not really exist anyway, and except in the gospel where they cannot be found at all. Sorry, but the book is a parody of scholarship and would be laughed out of the academy in any field other than “Theology” or “Biblical Studies”.
Drawing on the work of philosophers such as C.A.J. Coady and Paul Ricoeur, as well as historians like Samuel Byrskog, Bauckham argues that testimony represents a properly basic cognitive process on par with memory, sensation and inference. More specifically, testimony is irreducible to other kinds of knowing. He notes that “It is simply not true that each of us has done anything approaching sufficient observation for ourselves of the correlation between testimony and observable facts to justify our reliance on testimony.” (p.477) This implies that the proper approach to the evaluation of testimony begins with a fundamental trust in its general reliability: “We have no reason to suppose that the perceptions of others, given us in testimony, are less worthy of belief than our own.” (p.478) When it comes to historical research, however, Bauckham finds that many modern historians approach the testimony of the past with a fundamental skepticism rather than trust, and this has led to a methodologically flawed approach to the study of the Gospels. The thrust of his argument, when applied to Gospel research, is that in the Gospels we are presented with the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry, and just as we do with other kinds of testimony, we should approach the texts with a hermeneutic of charity, that is, only doubting their reliability when we have sufficient reason to do so.
The problem is that Bauckham nowhere demonstrates that the gospels are indeed testimony or based on testimony at all. He has simply asserted this and given ad hoc rationalizations for a few exceptions that contradict his claims. There is not one single episode in any of the gospels that he has demonstrated to be an eyewitness account. He would reply that that does not matter, so long as he established that the gospels “in general” are based on historical eyewitness accounts. Thus he resorts to his almost arcane method of trying to prove his case by such methods as studying the positions and counting the frequency of certain names in the gospels.
Many stories, as well as sayings, in the gospels are clearly derived from Old Testament and other sayings and narratives which we have access to. There is no need to multiply hypotheses for a more complex explanation than the one that suggests the NT borrowed from other sources we can see in front of us.
It should be obvious that this approach to Gospel criticism is very congenial to theological and apologetic concerns. It puts the burden of proof on the skeptic to demonstrate inauthenticity rather than the believer to demonstrate authenticity.
I don’t understand this criticism. If there is a war somewhere between skeptics and believers, one trying to “prove” inauthenticity and the other trying to “prove” authenticity, I have little interest in it.
My interest is in acquiring an understanding of the historical origins of Christianity, using the same approach to evidence as any historian of ancient history attempts to apply to his or her sources.
“Burdens of proof” to demonstrate authenticity have nothing to do with historical enquiry. Historical enquiry for me is attempting to find the most economical explanation for the texts of Judaism and Christianity. If the results of that enquiry question a believer’s grounds of faith, then so be it. That is a side issue and not my concern. I am not going to change anyone’s faith. If faith could be overthrown by evidence it wouldn’t be faith. But if the faithful respond in anger to a review that exposes the flaws in an argument for “evidence” for their faith, one may suspect some insecurity lurking at some level.
Therefore it is not surprising that Bauckham’s method should come under criticism, and blogger Neil Godfrey has provided a lengthy critique of Bauckham’s philosophy of testimony in several blog posts.
This is a misguided judgment on my motives. How can I or anyone possibly be hostile to something we can’t take seriously in the first place? Why assume a rational enquiry is somehow motivated by a desire to disprove a faith? Why can’t a secular historical approach to Christianity be simply motivated by enquiry for its own sake as with any other historical question? Why the accusations of sinister motives? Is it because the faithful are themselves engaged by motives to disprove whatever contradicts their faith?
But JD may be influenced by Bauckham himself who appears to set the lead by claiming “It is only the excessive individualism of the modern western ideology that tempts us to the view that testimony should regularly and generally incur our suspicion . . .” (p.478). I never knew till I read that that I ever was “tempted” to “the view that testimony should regularly and generally incur [my or any historian’s] suspicion. I’m not. B has posed a straw man argument. Good historians attempt to understand the perspectives of eyewitnesses and understand the inevitable biases that must bring – just as they must understand their own personal biases and how those shape their enquiries and interpretations of evidence.
While people continue to believe in gods and devils they will continue to insist on dividing the world between black and white, good and evil, and feel they have to be always engaged on one side in a war with their fellows. What’s so hard about simply trying to understand other perspectives, and our own, a bit better?
It is not B’s claims about the Gospels that bothers me as JD implies. It was the deference I saw from an apparently large number of believers towards this book that led me to read it myself – and I was horrified at the shallowness of what they took so seriously. That was what motivated me to put finger to keyboard. It has been an attempt to raise critical awareness among those reading this sort of book. No doubt I have made some errors and could many times have done a better job, but I do feel pain when others seem not to know how to see through such nonsense. So I’ve posted it for anyone to read and think about as they wish.
Godfrey’s critique, however, is both discourteous and misguided on several fundamental issues. In this series of posts I want to address his criticisms in some detail, and in so doing clarify and expand Bauckham’s position on these issues, drawing on his replies to members of the Biblical Studies Y! group (NB: Neil Godfrey has reviewed the whole book in detail on his blog, and a complete list of posts can be accessed here; I am responding however only to his criticisms of the final chapter of Bauckham’s book).
On the Reliability of Testimony (responding to arguments found in this post):
Godfrey seems to accept C.A.J. Coady’s argument concerning the nature of testimony (found in his Testimony: A Philosophical Study), but disapproves of its application by Bauckham to biblical scholarship.
Not a matter of “accepting” but of observing what Coady’s argument actually is and then questioning whether B has applied it correctly.
In response to Bauckham’s endorsement of Ricoeur’s axiom to “first trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so”, Godfrey complains that
B[auckham] does not explain what sorts of reasons might prompt one to doubt a eport in the first place. Should one declare everything one hears and reads as true until one runs into a blatant contradiction among the reports? What safeguards are there against gullibility? One can imagine institutional leaders and fraudsters of all stripes, but particularly political ones, finding such an approach to all of their testimonies as a heaven(?) sent dream… Under what circumstances can testimony ever be proven unreliable if it is treated as reliable? To ask the doubting question is to break the first precept of treating the gospels as reliable testimony!
On the contrary, Bauckham stresses at several points in his chapter that there is a complex dialectic between trust and criticism and that “in particular cases one cannot, in the same breath, both trust what a witness says, and subject it to critical evaluation.” (p.478, quoting Coady, p.46)
Not “on the contrary” at all. B does not explain what sorts of reasons might prompt one to doubt a report in the first place. Merely “stressing at several points that there is a complex dialectic between trust and criticism” is all he does. He does not explain what sorts of reasons might prompt one to doubt a report in the first place. In fact, he makes fundamental doubt impossible. Will explain below.
What Bauckham has in mind is not that, once testimony is trusted it cannot be criticized. Rather, an initial general attitude of trust is appropriate to the evaluation of testimony, and is an epistemic virtue.
What is meant by “epistemic virtue”? JD put this question to me once in the form of suggesting I would like people to take me at face value initially, and that would be a charitable thing to do. If something like that is meant to be a “virtue” in the field of epistemology then it is misplaced. Moral virtues are about human relations. They have nothing to do with scientific or historical methodologies.
We are not talking about our human relationships with people. We are talking about how we should understand the nature of the texts we are reading and applying the methods we normally use to understand the genre and sources of any text narratives. No-one except some believers are giving the Gospels special treatment status.
Virtues are about values, and while scientific and historical methodologies are not value-free, those trained in the use of these tools are expected to understand the implied values, and their own values that they bring to their work, and acknowledge these and their role in their judgments and conclusions. I have never heard of any scientific approach arguing that an investigator should initially trust any evidence. The question of trust is a conclusion we come to, not a starting point.
He acknowledges that “there appears to be a wider range and number of possible factors making for distortion and falsification of testimony” and that this justifies, among other things, “the modern historian’s use of methodologically refined critical tools for assessing the testimonies that come to us from the past.” (p.479)
The sentence JD is quoting does not end in a full stop at “past”. Read a comma at the word past, and continue his sentence: “but it does not reverse the necessary priority of trust over critical assessment.” The second part of his sentence is a contradiction of the first part of the same sentence. At least B nowhere explains how on earth one can move from genuine initial trust to justifying “rigorous cross-examination and assessment of witnesses in a court of law”, for example. Trust is a positive attitude that is willing to rationalize contrary evidence. Exactly as B does throughout his book, and as many do with the contradictions in the Bible.
B says we are to doubt only when given reason to do so. I agree. Trust must always be conditional. But B’s trust in the Bible is unconditional, so where a normal reader sees reasons to lose trust, B sees an opportunity to resort to an ad hoc rationalization.
The whole essence of the scientific method is to question and to doubt. That’s how science and knowledge advance.
It is just these tools which provide safeguards against gullibility, and which Bauckham employed throughout the rest of his book
I missed his use of these methods. Can JD give me page and paragraph references?
to arrive at the conclusion that the Gospels should generally be considered reliable historical sources, based on a number of lines of evidence, including but not limited to: 1) the apparent existence of a formal controlled method of transmitting the Jesus tradition, based on the efforts of persons who were the guardians of specific traditions,
What evidence is there for this “apparent existence of a formal controlled method of transmitting the Jesus tradition”? B postulates that it existed, but I missed the evidence he gave to support this hypothesis. Can JD give me the page and paragraph reference(s)?
2) the actual pattern of agreement and disagreement among the Synoptic traditions which suggests that a conservative force was at work in this transmission process (i.e. it did not radically change in its successive phases)
Would JD like to cite just one example of this pattern and explain how B’s explanation is superior to current or previous explanations?
3) the conscientiousness of the evangelists to separate the time of Jesus from their own with regard to teaching and theological developments (based on the work of Eugene Lemcio) and
Differences in terminology in different genres of texts and at different times have simpler explanations than those apparently proposed by Lemcio. And Pervio demonstrates many more similarities between gospel-acts and second-century literature than Lemcio would like to admit. Besides, the supposed conscientiousness of the evangelists did not prevent them from numerous anachronisms in the gospels.
4) an overview of the psychology of eyewitness memory which suggests that the events the disciples witnessed of Jesus’ life and ministry were of such a kind as to be easily and accurately remembered.
This is a circular argument.
(Besides B’s “psychological” hallowing of the testimony of Holocaust survivors is an attempt to remove the category of certain kinds of testimony beyond any criticism or doubt. Pity that part of the testimony of post-traumatic stress victims is that they cannot always recall accurately what they experienced, and it can be imitated by fraudsters as much as any other human expression can.)
In my exchange with him in the comments section, Godfrey insists that “Bauckham never explains what he means by ‘critical questioning’ of sources and nor did he demonstrate what he meant anywhere in the previous 17 chapters.” Here it must be admitted that Bauckham does not provide an explicit list of formal principles to be used when deciding whether or not to trust testimony. He does, however, exemplify the use of critical historical methodology throughout his book, which has been honed by historians for the explicit purpose of weighing the value of historical testimony. For example, in Bauckham’s chapter on Papias (ch.2), he deals with the fragments of sayings we have from Papias in the standard way, as to dating, corroboration with other accounts, internal evidence, historical plausibility, etc. And he states clearly at the beginning of the chapter that that is what he is going to do, i.e. re-examine the evidence from Papias concerning the origin of the Gospel traditions about Jesus. This is historical method,
No it isn’t. He is only repeating the evidence for certain conclusions about Papias and saying he is going to propose a different explanation. He nowhere tests his alternative explanation. Any school student can do that much. And it is also a school student gaffe to simply explain away contrary evidence with ad hoc rationalizations. He needs to show how he tests his hypotheses and explain why they are superior to existing ones. That’s what real historians presenting new hypotheses do. No one is asking him to write another book.
For example, some authors have argued that some gospel authors drew on certain other authors for their stories and sayings and others have argued for a re-dating of a particular text. Many times they can argue till they are blue in the face but not persuade anyone unless or until they establish criteria by which they can test their claims and on which others can generally agree are valid test instruments.
no different than, say, John Dominic Crossan arguing for the reliability of the Gospel of Thomas in reconstructing the teaching of Jesus.
Well I’m not persuaded by Crossan’s arguing for the reliability of the Gospel of Thomas in reconstructing J’s teaching. But C at least demonstrates more historical nous than B. and I can learn a few things from Crossan, from both his successes and failings.
A larger question, however, is whether we can explicitly lay out formal rules for deciding when to discredit testimony. I doubt very much whether this is possible except in general outline, or in very specific cases (such as the courtroom). We have all had the experience of coming to doubt someone else’s word on a particular issue, whether because of contradictions, a general impression of untrustworthiness, the word of a third person that the witness is untrustworthy (whom we trust even more), but it seems that the tests we tacitly apply to testimony cannot be employed mechanically in the same way in every situation, with different cognitive parameters. It is not incumbent on Bauckham to provide a checklist of the features of unreliable testimony. If Godfrey thinks that he can produce such a list, he should do so and in an instant solve every single problem concerning the reliability of sources current in historical studies.
It indeed is incumbent on B to provide a checklist of the features of unreliable testimony. His whole hypothesis rests on the assumption that testimony is by its nature reliable. And he offers no explanation at any point how to verify this or explain how one can ever possibly move from trust to doubt in relation to the Gospels.
A checklist would enable B to test this part of his hypothesis.
Such a checklist would remove any necessity to try to argue that the human holocaust is on some sort of experiential continuum with nonhuman miracles! He could say, hey, this testimony is true because of X, Y, and Z but that evidence is false because of A and D.
In other words, people would never be able to deceive or mislead others anymore. We would all have a checklist.
In other words, B’s hypothesis is naïve in the extreme.
It is not falsifiable. It is not supported. It is mere assertion cloaked in intellectual jargon. The emperor really is naked.
B does not appear to allow beyond lip service for the inevitability that trust must always be conditional. He pays lip service to this, but in his discussion throughout his book his arguments and methods deny it. Normal people adopting normal attitudes towards “trust” (i.e. that is it always and necessarily conditional) can read the Bible and when they see contradictions etc learn not to trust it. That’s how life works. I can trust anyone, even those with baby faces, only until they contradict my hopes or expectations. (That’s not to say I still can’t like them…. Not talking about “virtues” here, just the nature of “trust”.)
But the believer will never lose trust in the Bible. Contradictions are not reasons to break trust, but to find rationalizations and explanations. This is no different from the astrologer or psychic who can always find something in the horoscope or tea leaves to prove they were right all along after all.
Godfrey then insinuates that Bauckham intentionally ignores an argument by Coady to the effect that the authenticity of historical documents must be established before they are to be considered reliable. Apparently Godfrey thinks that this runs counter to Bauckham’s insistence that sources should be treated as reliable until proven otherwise. But actually Bauckham does insist that sources must be authenticated. In a response to a member of the Biblical Studies list, he states that “I have no difficulty with [critical scrutiny of historical documents]… My point is that it’s critical assessment of a source as a whole. It is not an attempt to verify independently everything a source says. Once we regard the source as trustworthy, we trust it.” Again, Bauckham’s own book is a demonstration of just this concern, which Godfrey overlooks or chooses not to see.
Interesting that JD must bring in something B said elsewhere to counter my point about what he writes. But the statement does not address my point. At what point, on what trigger, does B justify moving from trust to doubt in the case of the gospels. How can his hypothesis be tested? It can’t. Nor can the hypothesis that invisible unicorns live under my house be tested.
Bauckham’s method is to trust the Gospels first, and then the next step is “authentication” which is a process of finding grounds for that trust – of finding reasons to “authenticate” it – not whether it can or can’t be authenticated. Any blemishes in those grounds are explained away ad hoc.
Excursis: I believe there are invisible unicorns living under my house. I can hear odd noises that prove it, and sometimes see fleeting shapes in the dark. Just because someone else says those things are explained by a cat does not disprove it. I can explain the cat problem to my theory. The cat does sometimes make those noises, but it also makes different noises when upstairs and I never hear those noises under the house. So the burden of proof is on you to disprove that an invisible unicorn lives under my house.
If Bauckham had arbitrarily decided to trust what the Gospels say with no concern whatsoever for historical questions, he would not have composed a 500+ page book arguing that the Gospels put us in touch with the eyewitness testimony of those who were with Jesus and that we have good historical and psychological reasons (outlined in ch.13) to think that they give us reliable testimony.
I have never heard before that the size of a book one chooses to write is evidence of an author’s approach towards, or skill with, historical methods.
But Bauckham is concerned to argue that the Gospels as a whole are generally reliable, even if perhaps not in every detail. He thinks that one of the mistakes of form criticism was to focus on authenticating (or discounting) each and every pericope in the Gospels without taking a wider view of their general reliability as a whole (Cf. the following comment on the Biblical studies list:
I am increasingly dubious that the criteria of authenticity really get us anywhere. I think it is far more important to assess the general reliability of
the Gospels as historical sources (taking account, of course, of the fact that
they are also more than historical sources) than to try to assess individual
stories or sayings. Form criticism left us with only the latter sort of
assessment available to us. My approach is more in line with the way historians generally approach their sources and also the way we deal with “testimony” in everyday life. I think we have to live with a margin of error. A generally reliable source may be unreliable here and there, but I doubt, owing to the nature of our evidence in this case, we are very likely to be able to identify where.
The above extract from B shows that he is wedded to the assumption that the gospels are sources of historical events in the first place. He does not question this assumption. (That would be to break trust.) To him the only alternative to his approach to finding “historical fact” is form-criticism. It’s a bit like ancient Greeks arguing over which method of studying the Iliad is going to most reliably reach the greater measure of “truth” about an “historical Achilles.”
In any case, Coady certainly is not arguing that historical authentication consists of independently verifying each and every detail of our sources, which would contradict his insistence on the irreducibility of testimony as an epistemological category. The question concerns sources as a whole, and in this respect Bauckham is completely in line with Coady’s argument, which again I note Godfrey does not seem to object to.
to be continued…
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
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- How to Read Historical Evidence (and any other information) Critically - 2021-09-05 14:00:06 GMT+0000
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