The misuse of multiple independent sources

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by Neil Godfrey

Here are two quotations explaining how the criteria of multiple attestation supposedly gives us a sound reason for believing in the historicity of a gospel account, the first by conservative Craig Evans and the second by liberal Bart Ehrman:

What about those who would like to have sound, compelling reasons for accepting the Gospel narratives as reliable? . . . Thoughtful people rightly apply criteria for evaluating claims. So also historians for assessing the historical worth of documents. . . . Sayings and actions of Jesus that appear in two or more independent sources suggest that they were circulated widely and early and were not invented by a single writer. . . . [This criteria enables] historians to give good reasons for judging this saying or that deed attributed to Jesus as authentic. (Fabricating Jesus, pp.49-51)

But what if a story is found independently in more than one source? That story cannot have been made up by either source, since they are independent; it must predate them both. Stories found in multiple, independent sources therefore have a better likelihood of being older, and possibly authentic. . . . For example, both Matthew and Luke independently indicate that Jesus was raised in Nazareth, but their stories about how he got there differ, so one came from M and the other from L. Mark indicates the same thing. So does John, which did not use any of the Synoptics or their sources. Conclusion? It is independently attested: Jesus probably came from Nazareth. (Jesus, Interrupted, p, 155)

And here’s a third from a quasi-legal religious text:

by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established (Deuteronomy 19:5)

I like the third one, but the first two illustrate the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy or false dilemma. Granted the authors qualify their remarks with “suggest” and “probably”, but both consider only one set of alternative explanations for multiple attestation — unlikely coincidental fabrication or more likely genuine historicity.

Neither considers the possibility that independent sources could just as likely be independently addressing another theological debate or widely known unhistorical narrative.

Without attestation external to our gospel sources we have no way of knowing whether they were addressing historical events or other stories.

The only reason I can see for assuming the former and apparently giving no time for any other possibility is the desire to comply with popular religious and cultural belief systems.

The thousands of independent sitings of UFO’s do not establish that we really are being visited by aliens.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “The misuse of multiple independent sources”

  1. However, by qualifying his statement, Ehrman acknowledges the possibility that there might be other reasons. I am not sure how many plausible explanations there might be for the multiple attestation of Nazareth as Jesus’ birthplace. Would it be necessary to address each and every one in a book like this?

    It seems to me that you are trying to show that Ehrman’s case for the historical Jesus actually being born in Nazareth is not quite as compelling as he thinks it is. I grant that this may be true although given Ehrman’s hedging I’m not sure exactly how strong he is claiming his case to be. I guess I just don’t see what the fuss is about.

    1. I used Evans and Ehrman to illustrate the reliance on this logical fallacy across the spectrum of biblical scholarship. Both Evans and Ehrman tacitly acknowledge that the criteria is logically flawed in this type of case for establishing historicity, but they nonetheless use it, without qualification, for just that purpose.

      Both Evans and Ehrman tacitly acknowledge that it does not logically follow that multiple independent sources proves historicity (‘suggest’, ‘probably’). But in both cases they are explicitly addressing the claim that Jesus was not historical. Ehrman begins his chapter with a discussion about how he came to be misunderstood by a number of people (in Sweden particularly) for suggesting he entertained the possibility that Jesus was not historical. His chapter — including the passage above — are written as a refutation of that idea. He is explaining how we “know” that Jesus was historical.

      Though he tacitly concedes his case is not a logical certainty, and that all history is a matter of degrees of probability, he nonetheless relies on this type of argument as one of the pillars for belief in the historical Jesus.

      The evidence re Nazareth has been “out” for some years now, and Rene Salm’s recent publication is helping to bring it to the fore. But why has this evidence not been seriously considered by Ehrman or Evans or by very few in between till now? Reliance on a logical fallacy to make historical claims (even if qualified by degrees of probability) indicates that something other than enitirely disinterested scholarship is at work. Our cultural biases are not easy to leave at arm’s length.

      The “fuss” is over biblical scholarship’s all too frequent reliance on “criteria” to establish “facts” in a way other historical disciplines never consider. It is even more inexecusable when biblical scholars themselves concede the logical fallacy, yet still proceed to assign “degrees of probability” to something that is fallacious from the outset.

  2. “It is even more inexecusable when biblical scholars themselves concede the logical fallacy, yet still proceed to assign “degrees of probability” to something that is fallacious from the outset.”

    All of science relies on a logically shaky foundation (induction), yet it’s only fundies and postmodernists who castigate scientists for assiging “degrees of probability” to conclusions which most of them admit is deductively “fallacious from the outset”. The criteria of multiple attestation would definitely fall short of strict logical rigor, but I don’t know if it’s too weak to be completely useless.

    1. No one is castigating historians for assigning degrees of probability. That is how all history works. All the public should expect is the same standards for historical enquiry in biblical studies that are used for any other historical studies.

      Classical historians, for example, work with the evidence they have. They don’t attempt to manufacture evidence to support models through “criteria” in the way biblical scholars seem to do.

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