Response to James McGrath’s Argument from Wikipedia

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by Neil Godfrey

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In response to my post in which I cited the Game of Avoidance as one played by some HJ scholars in relation to mythicist arguments, one such scholar has posted a series of comments with each one ironically avoiding my argument. Irony seems to be lost on some people.

So when challenged to address my statements on nonbiblical historical methodologies, the same biblical historian chose to avoid my argument completely and respond by going back to his own blog and posting up a discussion and link to a Wikipedia article titled Historical Method.

Aside on the insulting manner and false accusations of the scholar: The same gentleman and scholar also took the pains to explain how respectful he has been in his exchanges with me — (calling me a pretender, a bait-and-switcher, ignorant of what I am talking about or attempting to address, selectively cherry-picking supporting sources, and of complaining about things I have never uttered anywhere, all fall within the ambit of “respectful” dialogue in his view) — proceeded to insult me and anyone else who argues for a mythicist view as deserving to be ignored and being one with young-earth creationists. He also proceeded to infer that I am unaware of religious conservatives complaining about secularization of biblical studies and implies that I argue that nothing but religious dogma keeps mythicism from gaining a foothold in mainstream biblical studies. Of course he provides no evidence for these views he attributes to me because he will not find them. He will find in my blog several posts that belie his charges if he cares to look or ask.


So what to make of the Wikipedia article to which he refers and which he seems to claim fully supports the methodology of HJ historians as being just like that found in any other field of history?

Firstly, one cannot avoid noting the irony of the scholar’s having poo-poohed me in the past for referencing Wikipedia. His post comments make it clear he feels a little of the irony here. So it seems that a sense of irony is not totally lost on him.

Well, the reason I so often link to Wikipedia is because I do not share the cynicism about it that I sometimes encounter, even from those who like to boast how web-savvy they are. I’ve even been a donor. Research that was published in Nature in 2005 showed that it is comparable in accuracy and thoroughness with Encyclopedia Britannica. There were round about the same number of mistakes in each. Wikipedia responded by correcting its mistakes. EB, on the other hand, responded with a furious rebuttal and even threatened to sue Nature or the authors of the research. But Nature published a pretty strong rebuttal.

Anyone interested who missed this study can follow it up:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html (and see related links)



I don’t think Wikipedia is any worse than EB. One can always see the history of the articles, who is doing the editing and the reasons for changes, and check up on the biases that creep in to the more controversial articles, etc. But the point is not that Wikipedia is to be consulted as “an authority”. It is a useful reference, and hopefully in most instances accurate enough to be authoritative as far as it goes. But the same rules apply as have always applied with any encyclopedia. No-one ought to rely on them as their only or absolute final authority for information. They are a helpful resource. A good starting point for many topics.

Newly discovered material by our good doctor?

The Wikipedia article seems to have been newly discovered by this scholar who seems to have been at a loss to know how to respond to my discussions contrasting NT history with nonbiblical history. Scot McKnight discusses the poverty of historiographical awareness and understanding among New Testament scholars in chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death, and I have discussed in this post McKnight’s points alongside the (nonbiblical) historians he argues NT historians are closest to in philosophy. But for some reason this article — which addresses McKnight’s criticisms and major nonbiblical historians in the development of modern historiography — is flatly ignored. A Wikipedia article is hauled out instead. The Avoidance Game continues.

Another irony emerges here. I happened to have been kind of in the loop when that particular Wikipedia article was first posted, and knew the books it referred to reasonably well. I was at the time dismayed that the whole article took such a narrowly confined and antiquated selection of materials on historical method — and reading on you will soon see why — but resigned myself to accepting it for what it was. (One of those responsible for the early days of that Wikipedia article at the time was open to the Christ myth view too, which disappointed me as far as approach to method went.) Which leads to the next section of this post . . . .

The answer to the doctor’s question about the Wikipedia article

McGrath asks:

Is there anything in the method outlined there (or better yet in the books cited if readers know them well or have time to consult them) that is not in keeping with the practices of historians working on the historical figure of Jesus? Or is there any point at which this survey and summary (or the method set forth in the sources the article cites) is at odds with what most historians do?

Answer to question one: Yes

Answer to question two: Yes

Once again McGrath has unfortunately only managed to demonstrate Scot McKnight’s point about many NT historians not having a basic knowledge of historiography outside their own field.

Another aside: I say “once again” because in earlier exchanges he offered to take time to ask his nonbiblical historian colleagues at Butler about their methods to see if they were any different from what he was doing, or something to that effect. He returned to announce that one of the historians had said “History is an art.” Had he any 101 awareness of the nature of secular historiography as it has developed since the nineteenth century up to today, he would have recognized that this is the famous maxim of one sometimes called the “father” of modern history, Leopold von Ranke. What he meant by this was not what McGrath appeared to understand by the expression. It means that the way a historian imposes or weaves a narrative out of the data he or she has is the real art of the historian.

And this is from a scholar who insultingly infers others do not know or understand the nature of history.

I would also advise McGrath to read some of the texts cited in that Wikipedia article for himself. He says he has “read or consulted” a “couple” of them and is confident enough to suggest they contain nothing that is at odds with the way modern historians — biblical and nonbiblical — do business.

If McGrath was more of a gentleman and not so insulting I would take time to point out to him which of the titles cited there include arguments that reports of miracles — biblical miracles — are reasonable historical evidence. Not just belief in miracles, but among the Wikipedia sources it is argued that it is “scientific” to believe in biblical miracles. I will leave this observation as a lesson to him to check his sources before making public pronouncements about them and insulting others he likes to think don’t know much of what they are talking about.

Further, the sources cited in this Wikipedia article include arguments that it is proven beyond doubt that St Peter was martyred and buried in Rome.

One can begin to understand my dismay at the nature of the texts used as the basis of this Wikipedia article.

Our good scholar would have been wiser to have persisted with his contemptuous dismissal of Wikipedia in this instance.

The positive side

Some of the references also insist on the priority of textual criticism being applied to narratives before accepting them as containing any historical value. After getting around to reading and consulting more than a couple of the books cited, McGrath might like to issue a revised edition of The Burial of Jesus in which he insists that textual criticism has next to nix to do with historical inquiry into what lies “behind” the text.

Again, I encourage anyone interested to read the books from which the article draws for understanding the context of the rubrics or dot-points in the article. Note the distinctions made between primary and secondary sources.

Aside on primary and secondary sources: Biblical scholars often seem to use “primary source” to refer to the gospels or epistles of Paul. I don’t mind what terms people use so long as they make their definitions clear and are consistent. But one will find on a detailed reading of various of those references the distinction between a primary source or evidence in the sense of something contemporary with the event under investigation, and a secondary source or evidence that is later. In this sense the gospels are not primary sources for Jesus, because they are not contemporary with Jesus or written by eyewitnesses. Other historians go further and define a primary source as one that is physically situated in the time and place under investigation. This is how I have used the term most often. Thus a letter by George Washington is a primary source or primary evidence for a history of George Washington. But if the letter mentions an event that happened a generation earlier, it is not a primary source or piece of primary evidence for that event.

In nearly every case where those books discuss “evidence” and “sources” as used by the historian they are referring to primary sources, primary documents or primary evidence. When they speak of assessing the value of secondary sources they always specify strict conditions by which to judge their value, and these conditions relate at some point to primary evidence.

This is where HJ historians break company with other historians. Other historians work with the primary evidence or sources that make up the factual data that needs to be pieced together into some explanatory narrative (an art). HJ historians are still struggling to find some facts to begin with. Did Jesus do anything at the Temple or not? Was he a teacher or a healer or neither or both? Was he a rabbi or a rebel? There are no facts to work with. Only a narrative and conceptual tools (e.g. criteriology) to subjectively assess plausibility of this or that detail fitting (or fitting too well and thus disqualifying itself) into the plot of that narrative. Well, that might be a slight oversimplification, but only slightly.

When oral tradition is discussed, the rules are even more stringent. One of the books cited says an event recorded a mere 20 years after the supposed event and with a partisan intent is untrustworthy and dismissible. So much for the mainstream paradigm regarding the oral traditions behind the gospels! But again, I will leave the scholar to do his own homework on this since he has not been very nice with his insulting jibes that people such as myself don’t know what we are talking about.

McGrath could have saved himself the embarrassment of appealing to this Wikipedia article and encouraging readers to go even further to consult the books the article referenced by simply being open to the grandmotherly truisms that are at the heart of nonbiblical historical inquiry: don’t believe every story you are told till you find some reliable independent corroboration for it. The story might be true at some level, but it is not wise to assume it is without some (primary) evidence. I have quoted the historians — biblical and nonbiblical — who have declared this simple point so often it is tedious to repeat the quotations here. (Many of them are found in my post of 24/04/2010 anyway.)

Now there are cases where all we have is secondary evidence and which nonetheless do give us good reasons for accepting the historicity of certain events and people, but such cases are rare and meet conditions not met by the gospels (e.g. genuinely independent corroboration, known provenance and authorship, positive text-critical evaluations).

But this is not the place to repeat my arguments that I have made many times and from various perspectives. I have summed up the problem of HJ historical studies in my post Games HJ Scholars Play, and have linked in comments there, and again 2 paras above in this post, my main post dealing with the issues. To date the only response to those has been avoidance and the above-discussed Wikipedia article.

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17 thoughts on “Response to James McGrath’s Argument from Wikipedia”

  1. True, true. When I want to roast an Ox I certainly wouldnt consult the bible or wiki.

    Please excuse my continuation of cynicisms on a theme but does the general Vridar really care about poor book writing?

    After all, you can easily didmiss most of the invented text in the bible. What of the associated texts of the current reinventors.

    Frankly, if you had wild crackpots as McHyde or Craig corresponding, I’d happily join in. But knownothings with nothing to lose? Who gives a damn?

  2. I suppose I might apologize for not being a notable who could attract such names, but I also have to confess that I find these sorts of exchanges a bit frustrating and tedious. They are a distraction from my real interest which is to share much of the stuff I have found interesting with others. To take time to bother with people who attack me and what I supposedly argue when they have never bothered to read (and even disdain the very idea of taking the trouble to do so except with hostile intent) what I do write or think is a bit of a pain. I much prefer the company of others who are just as interested in learning new things. I have come to really appreciate the range of inputs of such regular and not so regular commenters here.

    1. Like any encyclopedia article or any book or any other article or any lecture, everything needs to be considered critically for its positives and its negatives.

      I recall at around the time that wikipedia article was to be published that there was quite a bit of discussion about one of the sections on oral tradition and establishing its reliability etc. This was all discussed in relation to the Gospels. What I attempted to point out in vain was that the Gospels are NOT oral tradition but WRITTEN narratives. Oral history is ORAL. But others were so immersed in the assumptions of the mainstream paradigm for Gospel origins that they confused a hypothetical model (oral tradition) with the FACT of orality itself. They were treating written texts as if they were ORAL in their assessments to some extent, and then making judgements on hypothetical orality behind that again. It was total looney land stuff. It was so far removed from what “real historians” do when they do ORAL history as to be off the planet.

      Don’t take any list of dot-points as what you “should do” or “not do”. If those dot-points allow one to divide sources into divine and human, and allow for the credibility of reports of miracles as real historical events, then you have to stop and ask if you need to think a bit carefully about what is presented in such a neat list of points that look so good.

      McGrath is shallow enough to be content with such a list and wonders how on earth anyone can be critical of it. He then has the gall to want to “discuss” some of the embarrassments his lazy sloppiness has been shown to let slip through. Rationalization and excuses and avoidance continue.

  3. I hear Von Renke mentioned a lot as a founder of historical methods today, but I’m hesitant to go with his book as it was a long time ago and I wondered if he has been modified or improved on.

    My time in the history department hasn’t had a lot of discussion on criteria or historical method, but then all but my early Greek history class dealt in ages where we shouldn’t have to consider using anonymous tracts as evidence of any thing ( I would like to quote from a piece of graffiti found on a bathroom stall, “Obama is a commie, Muslim”). I did use the Odyssey in that Greek class, but only in a general way that it reflects the experience of pillaging war bands of the period, nothing to specific.

  4. Von Ranke has certainly been improved on. I have never suggested we should follow von Ranke as “the final authority” for all historical methodology. But some of the basics he laid have not changed. That’s why he is still acknowledged as a major contributor to the way history is conducted today. (See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_von_Ranke#Methodology_and_criticism)

    It sounds like you were using the Odyssey the way it would make sense to use the Gospels as historical sources. They depict something of the political and intellectual and social life of the era they were written. Most fiction does that.

  5. I have posted the following comment on McGrath’s site where he posts his Wikipedia article nonsense:

    The dot point lists in the Wikipedia article allow for historians to embrace miracles (by both biblical and medieval saints) as historical facts, and they allow for a distinction between divine and human sources, and allow one to prove that St Peter was martyred and buried in Rome.

    They also allow for the dismissal of any report that appears as long as 20 years after the purported events if that report appears tinged with a partisan agenda — so much for your gospels as historical sources!

    It is a lazy cop-out to turn to a list that includes references dating back over 50 years and just assume that it supports biblical and nonbiblical methodology equally.

    If you want to know the difference between what biblical and nonbiblical historians do then start with Scot McKnight’s criticism in chapter one of the “Death of Christ”, and then follow up for yourselves his discussion of one of the landmark historians in modern historiography who comes closest in philosophical outlook to most biblical historians, G.R. Elton. I have taken on this task and shown that the difference between the two fields is that one works with facts (applying tools to interpret the facts) and the other is still trying to find facts (misapplying tools that were meant for interpretation by trying to make them yield facts to begin with.)


    Others milestone names are von Ranke, E.H. Carr and the postmodernists. I studied history at the University of Queensland and assumed every uni level student of history would at least have some awareness of these names. They are not tendentiously cherrypicked to support my arguments. They are standard reference points in modern historiography.

    For McGrath to avoid addressing them, especially within the context of Scot McKnight’s discussion of how biblical historians are too often lacking awareness of such basic names and methods in nonbiblical historiography, and turn instead uncritically to this Wikipedia article that opens the doors to all sorts of nonsense if anyone takes a few minutes to actually think through some of those points listed, demonstrates how out of touch he is with history as it is done outside his own narrow biblical confines.

    McGrath cements his determination to go into denial over the point of Scot McKnight’s critiques and refuse to face up to the simple facts of the clear differences between HJ and nonbiblical histories by throwing in a final paragraph for which he cites no evidence, and that is full of falsehoods accusing mythicists of ignorance of the state of criticisms within mainstream scholarship. McGrath assumes mythicists are not engaging mainstream scholarship when in fact it is the reverse that is the fact, as I have demonstrated and linked to McGrath several times. So his regular claims to the contrary are presumably wilfully ignorant. McGrath’s turning to this Wikipedia article when I challenged him to address the leading names in modern historiography, even when they are cornerstones of a chapter by Scot McKnight, shows how determined he is to avoid addressing radical criticism.

    Evolutionists engage creationists, creationists avoid engaging evolutionists. So where is the parallel if you want to go down that fatuous route?

    I have responded in more detail to the sham behind the point of this wikipedia post here:
    and here

    September 23, 2010 11:00 PM

    1. I don’t get it. In one comment you’re complaining that I offered an article that included in its sources some that were half a century old, but in another you’re explaining that in some respects von Ranke hasn’t been improved upon.

      I’m not expecting consistency, but hopefully you won’t mind when I point it out…

      1. Oh you are either such a bullshitter or so bloody ignorant, James, it is embarrassing to have to point out the difference between a Garraghan and a von Ranke. Go and do a course in 101 history at a reputable university and stop making a bloody idiot of yourself. You are a master of casuistry and not much else.

        Von Ranke did not say that God wrote historical material or that we can prove beyond doubt Peter was martyred and buried in Rome. Von Ranke is still “the father of (nonbiblical) modern historiography” and few have ever heard of Garraghan.

        I have pointed out your embarrassing ignorance of that famous line from von Ranke that one of your Butler colleagues quoted to you — and your juvenile response to that carried with it the blatant observation that you did not even know who von Ranke was or said or did! And you claim to understand and use the same methods of historiography as nonbiblical historians? You are only showing your ignorance when you raise the question in your comment and are setting yourself up for a massive embarrassing exposure in a future post of mine.

        Now if you are not here to troll, do answer just one or two of my questions I put to you in recent posts in a direct no-nonsense manner. Do you even know who Scot McKnight is and what he wrote about biblical scholars like you in The Death of Jesus?

        Do you know the first thing — have you ever heard — about E. H. Carr and G. R. Elton?

        If not, you are wasting my and your time here. Go and read that post of mine I have linked to a dozen times and answer it if you are really seriously knowledgable about 101 History studies anywhere on this planet?

        I have asked you a number of questions you have superciliously avoided, but let me ask just one time more: What works of Doherty have you actually read?

        Oh, and a “bit question” more: Is your view of Doherty’s beliefs/statements regarding the sublunar sphere derived ultimately and in large measure from GakuseiDon?

        “Answer me!” (Mark 11:29) (That is, cut the bullshit avoidance game.)

        1. Neil: “…few have ever heard of Garraghan.

          Count me among “the many” until recently. Seems a bit odd that an encyclopedia would cite an out-of-print book by an obscure Jesuit as the first reference in an article on the historical method. I’d much rather read A.J.P. Taylor, but of course it could be that I’m just weird.

          1. McGrath is fond of comparing me with a bad student (his recent comment is not the first time), which makes me wonder if the way he shows himself here is the way he treats his students. We have seen he is quite comfortable with glancing at some web reference to a book and without any checking for himself will recommend it to those he presumes to teach.

            Is there some sort of accreditation or monitoring system to pull university academics up on this sort of vacuous laziness?

            And this is from the guy who deplores mythicism for being something that he thinks feeds on what he would call the ignorance of the internet!

            1. And here’s where the McGrath’s logic falls apart. If I understand his argument correctly, he (along with many others in his profession) thinks the current mythicist “fad” is fed by ignorant, sensationalist hobbyists on the Internet. Yet he continually says that mythicists such as Doherty deserve to be ignored, because they’re just like those crazy young-earth creationists. Doherty should only be engaged if he writes in peer-reviewed journals, except that he’s not permitted to write in peer-reviewed journals — and that’s just the way it should be!

              Funny thing is, mainstream science has no problem meeting junk science head-on. It’s what they call a “teaching moment.” For example, when creationists roll out the tired lie that radiometric dating is unreliable, it’s a chance to re-educate the public on how many different kinds of radiometric dating methods there are, how they work, and to what degree we can rely on them.

              I guess in the realm of NT scholarship, it is better to blow out the candle and curse the darkness.

              1. The funny thing is the way he regularly attacks me and my arguments as if they are what mythicism is about, yet I don’t know of a single mythicist (except maybe Thomas L. Thompson) who has argued my points — which are essentially about historical method and not mythicism per se anyway. The way he likes to zero in on me is mystifying.

                He says mythicism is a fad thriving on the internet. I can’t imagine Wells, who carried the torch from Drews and co, being up to speed with internet communications. He overlooks Price. He ignores the logic of Thompson on the grounds he is a specialist in OT studies. And he goes and demonstrates how shallow he is with his uncritical reliance on internet sources whenever he thinks they support his argument.

                He has to think mythicism is an ignorant fad because his whole faith and career falls apart if it is found to have substance. Others who are atheists or whatever in the field may not have their faith threatened, but they will be forced to concede the possibility that everything they have devoted their careers to has been junk.

                McGrath is a pettifogger. When confronted with his own lazy reliance on shoddy internet sources all he can do is fight back by accusing me of inconsistency in raising the fact that his references are 50+ years old while at the same time I quote people who lived 50+ years ago. This is as deep as he ever gets. (If I was up to speed more with academic styles and anticipating objections I’d toss in the requisite caveats routinely to avoid those sorts of openings that he takes advantage of. But he relies on my naivety in this respect to make his point because he has nothing else of substance to argue.) All he can do is latch on to superficials and attack them in order to avoid the substance. He will always ignore the substance at the heart of the argument. He did the same with his review of Price in 5 Views. And for anyone who does not know what he is addressing he sounds so erudite. He is a bullshitter who has no idea what he is talking about when he attacks mythicism. But he can’t afford to understand. It would mean his career and his faith and all he has ever worked and lived for is nothing but an empty dream.

                On his own blog he keeps saying he has addressed my arguments and given evidence and reasoned responses and I am ideologically bent in refusing to understand them. But he has never addressed a single one except, as per the above example, in his shallow pedantry. He is living in self-delusion about his own comments.

                I was at the point of putting his comments on spam here — he’s only here to troll. I cannot see the difference between what he is doing and what IrishAnglican and Joel Watts were doing. The only thing he is good for here is blog statistics. He has never been able to add a single thought of substance. And he really is an outright liar, too. I will respond to some of his junk from time to time because of its apparent popularity. But as Hank says, that does get boring — like shooting fish an a barrel with a shot-gun.

          2. If memory serves correctly, I think it was Peter Kirby who initially advanced Garraghan in a discussion on methods and also to be included in this Wikipedia article. (Sorry, Peter, if it was not you.) Since Peter’s subsequent conversion to Catholicism, one is led to wonder . . . ??

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