A silly argument encountered so often in biblical studies

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by Neil Godfrey

A silly argument I encounter surprisingly often in biblical studies literature and discussion groups goes like this:

Perhaps the most fundamental methodological problem with MacDonald’s approach is that he has set things up so that not only do supposedly positive parallels and allusions support his theory, but so also do contrasts between Homer and Mark. These contrasts are counted as evidence of Mark’s conscious “transvaluation” of Homer. Thus both similarities and differences are taken as evidence of Mark’s use of Homer, which means, of course, that his thesis is rendered virtually unfalsifiable. (The Jesus Legend, p. 340)

Eddy and Boyd point to the widespread propensity to use this sort of reasoning by adding M. M. Mitchell and S. Dowd to those who have argued the same point in relation to MacDonald’s thesis. The same sophistic reasoning is encountered often enough in other contexts, too.

Comparisons can only exist where there are both similarities and differences. That’s a basic concept of nature one learns on Sesame Street or Play School. Without differences or contrasts we are left with nothing but “same, same”, reproduction, identity.

Eddy’s, Boyd’s, Mitchell’s and Dowd’s sophism would lead them to conclude that George Orwell’s Animal Farm has nothing to say about Soviet Russia, there are no spoofs of Cinderella or Red Riding Hood, the apostle Peter could never be compared with a contemporary well-meaning backslider, and there is no basis for comparing Jesus with Moses or Elisha or Superman.

No one doubts that Aeneas, the heroic refugee who sailed from Troy to establish a new home in Italy for those who became the progenitors of the Romans, was modelled in epic literature after Homer’s Odysseus. The similarities draw attention to the differences. Romans can take pride in their ancestor being more favoured by the gods than his Greek counterpart. The differences are at least half the point of the comparisons.

To be able to point to differences presupposes that there is a common type being compared. No common type, no differences can be observed. By taking both similarities and differences as evidence of a relationship between texts does not render a thesis unfalsifiable at all. It would only be unfalsifiable if one attempted to argue for contrasts in the absence of common types. But in that case (as in my illustration below) the whole idea of comparison simply does not exist in any meaningful way.

It is sheer sophistry, and illogical nonsense, to suggest that valid comparisons mean that only similarities ought be in evidence.


Spot the difference:

Homer Simpson
Image via Wikipedia

No common type, no basis for either similarities or comparative contrasts.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “A silly argument encountered so often in biblical studies”

  1. I noticed the hack job William Lane Craig did on Richard Carrier’s position in their debate on similar issues and he followed up with the same dullness in his podcast talking about the debate. It’s as though their methodology does not even recognize the possibility of the convention being applied and WLC shows no awareness of mimesis or the criteria that would go into establishing a legit case for it. Or at least, he doesn’t get into it with the choir. Surely skeptical pareidolia is a possibility, but the mere assertion doesn’t advance a serious conversation about it or prove that the skeptics have failed to properly establish their case. If they want to be taken seriously, they need to change their canned response and address the convention directly and how it may or may not have been correctly applied in the case of some of the gospels.


    1. There are many studies of mimesis and transvaluation in “the classics”, and many biblical scholars have written much about the gospel narratives drawing on OT miracle stories and the like. I think there is still too much political and cultural-social baggage for more scholars in both new and old testament (jewish and christian) histories to break free from the traditions and broad constructs of many many decades. We are, after all, still only a mere three hundred years from the age of the enlightenment — a fraction of a nanosecond in terms of our evolutionary history. And progress in that history, no doubt, calls on ideas like yours for educational advance.

      1. Yeah, but there’s plenty of time in that fraction of a nano-second for an intelligent hominid to read plain English and address the argument where it actually is. I get what you’re saying, it’s just frustrating.


        1. If frustration prompts us to hone our arguments then I guess nature is taking its course. Maybe I find it too easy to cop out and not bother in the belligerent faces of those who seek to win and defend rather than genuinely think, analyze and learn.

          1. Yes, well even if they don’t want to think, we can make the audience think. It’s just a matter of being perfectly clear where a legit case of mimesis comes from, what notable non-biblical examples of it are, the criteria by which the case is established, and how the canned apologetic pareidolia response completely misses the mark.

            Done correctly, it will make apologists look like their answer is, “I don’t care” if they don’t actually engage the established conventions. I think that makes them look bad, and it also undermines their objections when they feel that skeptics aren’t taking things like Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” as seriously as they do. Of course, one has to actually be familiar enough with the terrain to sustain it all the way. I’m not there yet, but I think it can be done.

            That just seems to be where that debate currently stagnates. However, I imagine once apologists are forced to move their butts, we’ll then have to go into the next leg of the race where they either implausibly deny the criteria has been fulfilled, all the while others will claim that God is the one who providentially fulfilled the criteria in literal history which just so happened to be recorded into a gospel. Either too much discomfort to think straight, or too much comfort with divine ad hoc solutions to even be meaningful. Par for the course.

            Once *that* leg of the debate has been run by everyone, then we’ll have to pull it all together, play them against each other and show that obviously we have good naturalistic evidence and focus on the details that imply the human authors were more likely responsible than a deity. Maybe even casually connect it to other such evidence pointing to the same end.

            After every iteration of that plays out, then it seems to be a matter of just starkly disagreeing about a whole lot of things and there’s no more critical thinking to be had.

            So yeah, it’s a nearly thankless job that requires a long term investment in putting up with a lot of bs and the politics that go on top of that bs, and so I understand the “copouts.” Sanity is a virtue. 😀 And this is just one wittle complicated academic debate in a nest of many other such interrelated depraved exchanges! But if one is going to address the issue with them, I think my broad outline is maybe what it would necessarily entail to go all the way with it.


            1. Good luck! And someone has to do it! 🙂

              Don’t forget that for too many of the protagonists, and even among the audience, the debate is not so much about intellectual understandings, but about personal and group identities. Many prefer to simply walk away if they feel their identity is at risk. Flight-or-fight responses and all that.

  2. Haven’t Boyd and Eddy ever noticed that in the Bible , Jesus talks about being greater than Solomon or Jonah?

    Almost as though Jesus knew even half-way intelligent people could see similarities between him, Solomon and Jonah, and those same half-way intelligent people could see why the differences made him greater than Solomon or Jonah?

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