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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