Two misunderstandings in biblical studies: the nature of “scepticism” and “evidence”

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by Neil Godfrey

This is the logo of theAustralian Skeptics which is interested in assessing the claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience — not the “historical Jesus”. But the logo, and the statement of aims of this organization capture the nature of scepticism: to test claims against the evidence.

Deane Galbraith has listed on the Religion Bulletin blog a the early Sheffield Biblical Studies blog posts discussing Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth, and he adds a note about mine, too. But the presentation goes to the heart of why mainstream biblical studies on the historical Jesus are very often not comparable with genuine historical studies. Here is how Deane refers to my posts:

Sheffield Biblical Studies commences a select chapter-by-chapter review of what is probably the major historical Jesus work of the decade, Maurice Casey’s magnum opus, Jesus of Nazareth (T&T Clark, Oct 2010 UK; Dec 2010 U.S.). Michael Kok reviews Chapter One, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” where Casey critiques the historical (or as is more typical, theological) contributions of earlier Jesus scholars. Christopher Markou reviews Chapter Two, “Historically reliable sources,” where Casey defends the key importance of Mark and the Q materials as historical materials for understanding Jesus, and the relative uselessness of John. But Neil Godfrey (who I have never met, and may not really exist) thinks Jesus is a myth, and so he adopts a level of skepticism towards the evidence that would make even Sextus Empiricus appear gullible (Vridar: here, here, here, here, here, and here). (with my emphasis)

Now that’s putting me in my place! Three sentences including full titles for links to describe two posts on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog, and a single sentence with a parenthetical notice of “here” “here” “here” . . . to point to my series of posts. ;..(

The nature of scepticism (and the impossibility of having different “levels” of it)

I have long believed that scepticism is a healthy thing, the beginning of verifiable knowledge and the assurance of learning more verifiable things over time. It enables one to consider all knowledge tentative pending the discovery of new information. It keeps one alert to the need to test information before going too far with it.

But Deane reflects here a common approach, a sceptical approach, to scepticism itself. The phrase “level of scepticism” suggests there is a scale of degrees from gullibility to scepticism, and that a student or scholar of things biblical is advised to find an appropriate position somewhere fairly well away from either end of that scale .

Deane’s comment suggests a commonly encountered false understanding of “scepticism”. Too often one comes across the claim that “scepticism” can be taken to an extreme so that nothing is capable of being accepted as a fact. But that is not scepticism. That is just being silly. Scepticism is an attitude or mind-set that is looking for verifiable evidence for claims. It is not about rejecting evidence, but testing evidence. (See the introductory discussion of Skepticism on Wikipedia — version 28th Nov 2010.)

Given this understanding of what scepticism is, at what point should one step back from scepticism and towards the gullibility or faith end of the scale? Give this understanding of scepticism, how does one define “different levels” of scepticism?

Scepticism is not a matter of degrees. It is an either-or. Does one seek verifiable evidence to support an assertion or not?

What does vary is how often and how widely one wishes to approach experiences and claims sceptically. So someone might be sceptical about the historical accuracy of the story of Jonah and the fish, and disbelieve the story because it does not cohere with all that one suspects about fish gullets and guts and what probably happens to mammals that end up inside them. But the same person may opt not to take that sceptical approach to the assertion that the Bible does nonetheless reveal something about a real God. In that latter case they may decide that faith is a preferable response to scepticism.

This person does not have a different “level of scepticism” from the atheist, but does have a different range of questions and propositions for which they believe scepticism is appropriate.

So when Deane Galbraith and, no doubt, many scholars and students of religion speak of a mythicist position as representing “an extreme scepticism” or “extreme level of scepticism”, they are demonstrating that they don’t understand what scepticism really is.

I think one reason for this is that many attempt to live in a world of contradictions and double-binds by fudging conceptual edges and imagining that there are happy mediums between ice and fire, solids and gas, fact and fiction.

Thus many people of religious faith believe in both a personal God and evolution, and many reconcile this by imagining that God somehow guided evolution at critical points so that it produced creatures in his image. But this compromise really changes the meaning of what evolution is really about. Evolution is not guided or it is not evolution. It’s a bit like someone saying they know a computer works by chips and disks and things, but there is still a little man inside making sure everything behaves just so.

Similarly, many scholars and students of the Bible will attempt to believe in both critical textual and literary analysis and in the value of the Gospels as a narrative record that originated as an honest and pious attempt to record a meaningful account of Christian origins.

But if a scholar or student of the Gospels applies a sceptical mind-set to that particular belief about their origins, and finds no verifiable evidence to support it, but does on the other hand find evidence to suggest the Gospels originated from other interests, that scholar or student is not being “extremely sceptical”. They are simply applying the sceptical approach to another question that most others believe is untouchable.

The nature of evidence

Deane not only misguidedly speaks of a mythicist having an undesirable “level” of scepticism, but he repeats another fallacy that appears to riddle so much mainstream biblical studies.

History is not forensic science. It is not a courtroom investigation either. Very often authors about the historical Jesus and early Christianity speak of evidence as if it can be applied to any word that is found in a Bible chapter and verse. The rationale seems to go like this: an epistle or a gospel is the testimony of a witness and is therefore subject to the normal rules of evidence a detective or a judge normally applies to any words of a witness.

That is an invalid analogy and it rationalizes a lot of nonsense that underlies so much of biblical studies.

A detective or a judge has the opportunity to establish the identity of whom they are questioning. There are legal documents that can be used to verify the identity of a witness. Once identified, there are known contexts and additional material evidence (papers, fingerprints, tape recordings) by which one can assess the motives and interests of the witness.

If a lawyer produced in a courtroom a document from an unknown source, from an unknown place and time, it would be thrown out as worthless as far as evidence goes.

If a witness appeared claiming to be a certain person, and there was no way for anyone to verify that the person was really who they claim to be, that person would likewise not be allowed to testify in a courtroom.

Even hearsay is generally excluded.

History is not courtroom interrogation.

The mere fact that there is a narrative told by several authors, and with several variations, and that many people have long believed this narrative to be grounded in historical events, is not “evidence” that such a historical event ever occurred. To assume this is to break all the rules our grandparents taught us about not being gullible.

Historians do not take the face-value meaning of contents of a document for granted. They always need to be tested against external controls. Because there are far fewer of these available in ancient sources, ancient historians need to write histories that are usually more general in scope. They cannot explore the same level of detail as historians of more recent times can. But even if a document’s narrative cannot be verified, the narrative may still be told with a certain style, clusters of themes, images, etc, and all of that makes the document useful as evidence for the mind and interests of its author and readership.

This is the situation we have with the Gospels.

It is not “extreme scepticism” that leads me to place no faith in the historical interest or origins of its narrative. It is the same scepticism that modern and ancient historians apply to all their documents. (I have cited on this blog many times historians — and theologians, including Albert Schweitzer — saying exactly this.)

And I do not reject the Gospels as ‘evidence’ at all, nor hold their ‘evidence’ in contempt, as Casey might say. But I need to be shown valid reasons for accepting the narrative they contain ultimately derives from real historical events. (As discussed numerous times in earlier posts, I can offer valid reasons for accepting much of Josephus and Tacitus, for example, as attempting to convey something genuinely historical. The same principles, when applied to the Gospel narratives, do not support their historical intent. They do not disprove it either.)

Until additional evidence can be produced to demonstrate their narrative’s historical origins, I must work with the evidence I can be more certain about. And that is the evidence of the literary relationships between the Gospels and other narratives; the evidence of relationships between theological concepts in the Gospels and other concepts in other documents, even non-Christians ones; and the evidence of the time when the existence of the Gospels is first testified, and any relationships between the political, literary and religious interests of that time and what is contained in the Gospels.

That is an approach that is sceptical, and healthily so. It is also an approach that far from despising evidence, is thoroughly engaged with the evidence in a fruitful and justifiable way.

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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “Two misunderstandings in biblical studies: the nature of “scepticism” and “evidence””

  1. ‘Sceptical’?

    Who are the sceptics?

    The people who ask for evidence that Judas existed, or the people who reject out of hand the possibility that Mark was writing a parable, or theological novel?

  2. You see Neil, the problem is that you do not have the correct mind set for independent and scholarly historical studies. Try this on, and see how every thing comes together nicely.

    Something, especially if that something is an ancient text related to Christianity, is always true until you can prove that it isn’t. (Except for when, this rule does not apply, as in ancient texts for other religions for example.)

    If you simply use this paradigm, then your skepticism will surely be at the proper level and you too can be considered an independent scholar and historian.

  3. You know historical Jesus studies are apologetics in disguise for many (like Intelligent Design being a cover for Creationism) when it is clear so many of its students and scholars obviously do not even understand terms like scepticism and evidence.

    1. Maybe it has more to do with who they are writing for. I seriously doubt that most NT scholars are writing for anyone other than believing Christians. Their audience more than likely isn’t anyone who isn’t a Christian, let alone any Secular Humanists other non-religious types. Which makes sense, in a sort of depressing way. How many non-Christians or non-religious types are interested in the historical Jesus?

      1. How many non-Christians or non-religious types are interested in the historical Jesus?

        Exactly. And when a few non-religious types do venture into the question and by following the normative approaches of historians to the source material come to a different origin story of Christianity, they are told they are “hostile” to Christianity and “contemptuous” of the evidence. Suddenly those otherwise disinterested parties are charged with having a vicious interest.

        We have seen evidence on this blog of such critics being apparently incapable of thinking that anyone who questions the historical Jesus could not really give a damn personally if he exists or not, that it makes no difference to their personal beliefs, and that their interest truly is in the academic or intellectual pursuit of the investigation.

  4. You’re engaging the anti-skeptic charge as if it’s an actual argument, and I suppose that’s a good thing. However, I think it’s worth stepping back and calling it for what it is: An accusation with the intent to short-circuit rational discussion. They do the same thing with the “sin” of naturalism.

    They use the words skeptic and naturalist as pejoratives with the hopes that their readers will dismiss and ignore you or, if they do read your work, they’ll have a ready excuse for rejecting your arguments. “Well, what do you expect from Neil? He’s a skeptic.”

    We’ve already discussed here many times how Doherty and Price are the subjects of derision, calumny, and armchair psychoanalysis. You yourself have been accused of hating the scriptures, Christians, puppy dogs, kittens, etc.

    Discrediting the messenger in order to dismiss the message is quite common, and we need to recognize it and call it out whenever it appears.

    1. Agreed. The statement that mythicism is based on a certain “level of scepticism towards the evidence” is actually a defensive smokescreen. It is a shut-down-the-discussion response to an argument that challenges the foundation and even the rationale of the “true believer”. Mythicist arguments propose an alternative model — one that is far more coherent with the evidence and one that hews more closely to normal approaches to historical methods — and that is threatening.

      But I also like to have it on record that specific criticisms and accusations have been seriously addressed. Let them engage with the serious response like this if they wish to prove that they are serious about a genuine scholarly inquiry into a subject no matter where it may lead.

      1. If he really wanted to engage with a serious response, would he begin with…

        But Neil Godfrey (who I have never met, and may not really exist)…

        … even before mention of skepticism and evidence?

        This could be a backstab to mythicists. However, I have seen this very same accusation about “existence” used jokingly by other confrontational bibliobloggers when trying to dismiss with a light wave of the hand either someone they just don’t want to deal with or what often ends up being some kind of legitimate argument.

        Hopefully some rational people will click on your pingback over there and read what you have to say, “no matter where it may lead.”

  5. I’ve read more of your site than Galbraith, and I don’t think excessive skepticism is a sin you will ever be charged with. In some areas you are enthusiastic about the most bland and baseless arguments such as
    In particular the material under “Seven Creation myths traceable to Plato” Is this really “interesting”? I wouldn’t accuse you of ascribing to his idea, but the lack of criticism, given the amount of criticism directed in other areas, makes me wonder just how critical your thinking is.
    see also here
    and here

    In genral, literary theories that support your mythacist hunch are received with wide open arms.

    On the plus side, while many, fans and detractors alike think you as a mythacist, I think the description you gave a while back, that it was your hunch, is true. It is a smart position; there is evidence for a Christ myth, but no proof. Of your pillars of Christ Mythism
    Pillar #1 Why no mention of a miracle-working Jesus in secular sources?

    Pillar #2 The Epistles, earlier than the Gospels, do not evidence a recent historical Jesus.

    Pillar #3 The Jesus as attested in the Epistles shows strong parallels to Middle Eastern religions based on the myths of dying-and-rising gods.

    2 and 3 are very valid points. 1 didn’t do much for me and even if Philo and wrote he had personally witnessed Jesus raise some one from the dead, I wouldn’t believe it, my hyper-skepticism makes me demand extreme evidence for extreme claims. Many of your attacks on on HJ scholars are valid too, as you said earlier, it is very difficult to get exactitude within very small radius of history.

    I remember Crossan stating that Jesus was illiterate because most common workers were. ??? I think this was his socialist fantasy at work, it can hardly be confirmed Jesus was a common worker, and even if, how can we know what a particular worker was capable of? Most of the blue collar types who have ever lived don’t have a billion worshipers.

    1. To clarify: Without recalling the details of what I might have said in the past, I currently think the evidence that there was no historical Jesus and that the canonical narratives are both entirely “imaginative” and late developments that took some time to take hold among Christian communities is very persuasive. Conversely I see absolutely no evidence or plausible argument to explain the origins of Christianity as either the response to the career of a historical Jesus in Galilee and/or as the response of a group of followers to his death.

      All arguments that I have encountered to the contrary are based on circular logic and/or creative approaches to manufacturing evidence (e.g. criteriology, a mythical pre-70 Judaism). Some biblical scholars who loudly declare that they really do apply the same methods as historians of nonbiblical topics also demonstrate ignorance of the prominent names and most fundamental methods of historiography beyond their biblical enclave.

      (Incidentally, Crossan’s argument is more substantial than a mere “because most common workers were” — he does explain how we know the condition and traits of most common workers, too.)

      (Incidentally again, the three pillars you address here are Robert M. Price’s, not mine.)

      1. I understand where he gets his notions of ancient workers, applying it to a particular ancient worker is the problem, especially when that worker is known because they are an unusual case.

      2. On a related note, I think I have bit more in common with your positions than I had realized, part of my thinking on Crossan and Borg’s positions on Jesus, I thought, was rooted in their religio/political ideals. Ironically they warned against finding a Jesus that would be comfortable for you and they totally found a Jesus that they would be comfortable with (so if I find Jesus was a con artist, what would that make me?). In light of that your insistence that HJ scholars are motivated by religion isn’t so off base. Sadly finding impartial historians would mean finding historians that don’t care about history.

        1. Another clarification: I have always been careful to avoid saying that “HJ scholars are motivated by religion”. No doubt many are influenced by their faith. But there are non-religious HJ scholars, and apparently even religious Christ-mythicists. I have often tried to stress the less visible cultural bias as a more fundamental factor.

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