Fundamentalist error bedevils the liberals too

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman is certainly one of the most popular of “liberal” biblical scholars, but not even he can escape a logical fallacy that bedevils both the fundamentalist extremities (e.g. see my earlier post on Evans’ criteria) and mainstream of early Christian studies.

In Jesus, Interrupted, he has a section headed Criteria for Establishing the Veracity of Historical Material.

Point 3 in this section is: It is better to cut against the grain.

Here he asks a question without, apparently, grasping the circularity underlying it:

How might we account for traditions of Jesus that clearly do not fit with a “Christian” agenda, that is, that do not promote the views and perspectives of the people telling the stories? Traditions like that would not have been made up by the Christian storytellers, and so they are quite likely to be historically accurate. (p. 154)

This is flawed on multiple grounds. It is the same “logic” or argument that one sees at the root of much fundamentalist rhetoric.

To take just the most obvious level of error in this post, the argument in essence is saying nothing more than, “Since we can’t think of why a Christian author would have said X, he must have written it because it really happened and he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, come what may.”

In other words, there is the presumption of historicity. The argument for historicity is circular.

It’s the same fallacy as N.T. Wright et al use for the resurrection. “The disciples would not have made such and such up, therefore it had to be true.” Or even, “No Christian would make up the story of a man of God being persecuted and betrayed by those closest to him and dying a shameful death (forget Joseph and other biblical characters, the Psalms of David, and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs), and who was so venerated he had to be followed and honoured by all, so it had to be true.”

The specific example Bart Ehrman uses to illustrate his point in fact is probably the best one to demonstrate its logical flaw.

You can see why Christians might want to say that Jesus came from Bethlehem: that was where the son of David was to come from (Micah 5:2). But who would make up a story that the Savior came from Nazareth, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of? This tradition does not advance any Christian agenda. Somewhat ironically, then, it is probably historically accurate. (p.154)

René Salm, and others, have shown that there is a very plausible reason why the town of Nazareth was eventually linked to Jesus. See my previous post on The Nazareth Myth, and of course www.nazarethmyth.info. It was more than likely in order to deflect credibility from Jewish Christian sect(s) with a similar sounding sectarian name that had no geographical association at all. See an old Crosstalk exchange.

All written composition has an agenda of some sort. People write with a purpose, an intention. That is, with an agenda. One cannot write otherwise. The historians’ task is to investigate the agendas of what is written. And if one finds that the agenda is to record certain types of historical facts about Jesus, then we can add those to the history of Jesus and Christianity.

But we expose our lack of imagination, and unscholarly bias, if we presume to know an agenda has to be X simply because it does not fit in with the explanation we have designed and called Y.

(See also the book details for The Nazareth Myth)

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Fundamentalist error bedevils the liberals too”

  1. I agree – the criterion is naive in relegating anything not typical of the author’s ideology automatically to the ‘historical’. Why can’t it just be somebody else’s fiction that got incorporated?

    It got me thinking – the criterion of embarassment assumes a rather simple binary between an homogeneous “Christian” point of view and different views. But this is contrary to the evidence of the great diversity in earliest Christianity. So, if anything, we should expect a diverse range of ideologies in the traditions which were incorporated into a Gospel — as vestiges of the ideologies of various types of Christianities. This social context makes the criterion of embarassment impossible to practically apply. It is not a case of distinguishing the author’s ideology from ‘fact’ – but a case of distinguishing a whole series of ideologies and (any) facts from each other, without any significant supporting external evidence. This is practically impossible to carry out.

  2. Without supporting external evidence it is literally impossible. This point has been made to biblical scholars at least since 1904 with minimal impact. Maybe the archaic language is the problem today and someone needs to update the language of the argument:

    With regard to the recurrent inclination to pass off Papias’s remarks about the first two Synoptists as “ancient information” and to utilize them in some fashion or other [or replace Papias with gospel author about Jesus], a somewhat more general observation may not be out of place. 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 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.

  3. I cannot help but feel that you are being a bit harsh with Ehrman.

    While I do not know whether he finds the Nazareth myth hypothesis persuasive or not, I am confident that he would readily acknowledge the possibility that some unknown evidence might show that some detail that was previously thought to be embarrassing in fact served someone’s agenda. I cannot imagine him saying anything like “he must have written it because it really happened and he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, come what may.”

    1. Maybe I was. I’m sure my “come what may” quote was seen as a caricature albeit logical extension of the default assumption, and I am sure no person really thinks like that. But the same assumption of historicity is anything but an economical one, when thought through. We know some of the gospel authors were quite prepared to omit data that went against their agendas when the agendas are plain to see (e.g. John wants readers to believe Jesus did not suffer like a mere mortal in Gethsemane; Luke wants readers to believe that Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem, not Galilee, and sent them from there to evangelize the world, etc). So how to explain why only some of the evangelists presumably were struck by the need to report certain facts that did not support their agendas? N.T. Wrong was right to say that early Christianity was awash with a vast array of rival agendas that we can only catch partial glimpses of. Besides, the earliest references to Nazareth in the canonicals (excluding the interpolation in Mark) are not ‘unavoidable admissions’ of the birthplace of Jesus, but denials of it as a birthplace. Indeed, they are not necessarily even denials of Nazareth as his birthplace (it is a modern scholarly construct to interpret them this way), but can just as well be read as positive claims to explain away the epithet of “Nazarene” or some homonym of that in order to salvage Jesus for “orthodoxy”.

      The assumptions that have gone into the default position that Nazareth must have been a birthplace of Jesus are multilayered and anything but economical.

      Of course I am only using Nazareth by way of illustration of the logical fallacy that keeps popping up from liberal scholars to fundamentalists and much of the middle ground too. Bart Erman relies on this logical fallacy (the criteria of whatever goes against the grain is more likely historical) repeatedly.

      I am not picking on Ehrman as Ehrman — I really like much of what I have read of his. His popularity has made him a convenient foil, poor beggar.

      But so much biblical scholarship, especially of the historical kind, is simply riddled with logical fallacies like these. Methinks biblical studies is too much sheltered in theology and religion departments — it needs to be tossed in with the daggers and thrusts of nonbiblical history departments.

      1. I think all of the evangelists would have been struck to some extent by the need to report some facts that did not support their agendas simply because they wanted to maintain continuity with the story as it was already known. Everyone would have wanted to claim their version of events as the one that had been originally handed down from Jesus and his apostles. This would be made easier by making as many details as possible conform to the story as it was already known.

        The worst thing a lawyer can do when preparing his client to testify at trial is to have him deny everything his opponent says. It makes the client look like a liar. The key is to agree with as much of you opponent’s testimony as possible and disagree only on the few key points that will change the case. If they were smart, the evangelists would not have wanted to make unnecessary changes to the story as it had come down to them.

        I don’t see anything inherently illogical in using “cutting against the grain” as criteria of historicity. It seems to me that the problem is that our sources are so bad that it is really difficult to say whether something actually does cut against the grain or whether it serves some agenda that we are unable to identify.

        1. There is a logic to the criterion, but it is circular.

          The scenario you set out at the beginning is starting from an assumption of historicity. It is this assumption that guides the search for evidence in its support. And the data that is selected is decided by whether or not it goes against what is recognized as a theological agenda. One needs then to ask how a theological agenda ever got started if the only historical facts that can be established are all opposed to that agenda in the first place. So already the criterion begins to sprout more questions than it would like to answer.

          If cutting against the grain is a criteria for historicity, then we cannot also include as historical anything on the grounds that it supports the agenda. This seems a bit perverse.

          Is there any other historical discipline that uses “cutting against the grain” as a criteria for historicity? Or is this a special privilege granted biblical studies? I studied ancient history for a number of years and never heard of it as a tool for establishing what was or was not likely to be an historical event.

          From Michael Turton’s commentary:

          Criteria in General

          Scholars have also identified the problem of such criteria at the general level. Crossan (1998) has argued that there is no theoretical foundation for the establishment of such criteria and thus, their deployment lacks the legitimacy of a model. Porter (2000) writes:

          “Meier recognizes that the criterion of Embarrassment must also be used in conjunction with others, although he does not expand on what he means by that statement. As we have seen in Chapter 2, however, a similar statement could be made for virtually every one of the criteria for authenticity. Virtually every one of the criteria that still seems to have validity has the limitation that there is a perceivable gap between what the criterion seems to establish and what can be grounded in the life of Jesus, so that a given criterion cannot provide an absolute bedrock for grounding the traditions of the historical Jesus, but is in some way dependent upon other criteria used in conjunction. One cannot help but note that this may well create a vicious circular agument, in which various criteria, each on in itself insufficient to establish the reliability of authenticity of the Jesus tradition, are used to support other criteria.”(p109-10)

    1. A novelist? But there was a Nazareth. Just not before 70 c.e. Nazareth is just one of the several anachronisms that late first century / early to mid second century gospel authors introduced. It ranks with Pharisees and synagogues dotting the pre 70 c.e. Galilean landscape.

  4. Ed Jones says,

    For a reconstruction of so-called Christian Origins
    go to Google Search enter The Forbidden Gospels Blog;
    My decision about the Jesus Project; see Comments April 12, 13 and add on April 17. It may be worth your while.

  5. “How might we account for traditions of Jesus that clearly do not fit with a “Christian” agenda, that is, that do not promote the views and perspectives of the people telling the stories? Traditions like that would not have been made up by the Christian storytellers, and so they are quite likely to be historically accurate.”

    Another excellent observation Neil. While we may admire Ehrman’s objective and skillful textual criticism, he is not a historian. The logic is there above but it is only a RELATIVE observation and not an absolute one. Embarrassing stories are more likely in general to be historical, such as the Christian author hints that they torched the Great Library, than propaganda stories, but they don’t create probable history all by itself.

    The basic criteria for historicity are always the same in general and remind one of the three rules of Real Estate, source, source and source. Specifically they are:

    1) Credibility of author

    2) Credibility of statement

    3) Confirmation

    4) Sources of author

    Criterion of embarrassment is an especially embarrassing theme to try and use for “Mark” since “Mark’s” primary theme is that the Passion was embarrassing (per “Mark’s” source, Paul) and “Mark’s” style is Literary and not historical.

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