2011-07-15

“The Unhelpful Way In Which The . . . Debate Has Moved” (Or, attempting to understand why the misrepresentations from Hoffmann, McGrath, et al)

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by Neil Godfrey

Slightly edited ten minutes after going live. More edits probably to come.

I was about to post a scholar’s comment about the minimalist-maximalist debate when my attention was drawn to a classic illustration of the point I was about to make: McGrath had compared minimalists with mythicists. The comparison is instructive for the way the debate has been addressed. But before I discuss the specifics, let’s bring up front the general picture.

Biblical scholars and students who have commented publicly on the mythicist debate have brought shame upon themselves as intellectuals. They no doubt feel they have said all the right things that needed to be said, and that they speak for their colleagues and have the support of their academic peers. But while attempting to defend their profession they have not spoken as professionals. They have rather exposed themselves as intolerant, fearful and very unpleasant persons towards those who question seriously their core assumptions and methods. Their response to outside challenge has been utterly unlike the professionalism demonstrated by academics in some other disciplines (e.g. biological sciences) have responded to outsiders who have challenged them (e.g. creationists).

To see evidence supporting this claim one only has to look at a handful of responses that have been published online in the last week or so.

Unscholarly “Debate” from Hoffmann and McGrath

Yesterday (my time) Dr R. Joseph Hoffmann wrote:

I have no patience for the amateurism of this trend–not that untrained people like Carrier (how’s his Aramaic?) and Godfrey et al. can’t have opinions, and not that they do not have the right to sniff out the amateurism and parochial interests of scholars who cannot distinguish between apologetic and inquiry. Yet pure skepticism is not a method . . . .

There is more, with much ad hominem innuendo. But let’s be spare with the details. Pure scepticism on the part of Carrier and Godfrey? This is simply blatant misrepresentation, as anyone who has any acquaintance with anything these people have written with a potentially positive lean towards mythicism. Hoffmann will not be able to quote anything from either, I believe, that demonstrates that either of them is a “pure sceptic”. On the contrary, Carrier argues for a method that defies “pure scepticism” and leads towards balanced probabilities based on evidence. Godfrey has attempted to explain the methods of normative historical inquiry in other fields of ancient history (e.g. how historians assess the reality of what is factual and what is speculation) and advocated that the same methods be applied to New Testament studies. He has argued that they have been applied by some scholars to Old Testament studies and the result has been an opening up of a whole new set of facts and constructs requiring study. He is only asking that New Testament historical studies leave behind their precious exceptionalism.

The charge of “pure scepticism” reminds me of the way opposition party politicians attempt to create fear of falling skies among the public over every initiative the government seeks to undertake.

In a similar vein Dr James McGrath recently wrote with some hostility directed at me:

“if we doubt everything that can be doubted in history then there is absolutely nothing left. Nada. Zilch. And so if your stance is that we should abandon the historical enterprise altogether, that’s your prerogative, but I for one think that a cautious, critical approach that tempers excessive skepticism with deductive reasoning is preferable.”

This is another blatant misrepresentation of everything I have stood for and expressed. All my arguments in relation to this question have been positively based on the methods used by other scholars within the mainstream New Testament guild, notably those specializing in literary analysis of the texts, and on the methods used by other historians and that have been adapted by certain scholars of the OT, at least one of whom have extended their methods recently into the area of the NT (i.e. Thomas L. Thompson). And the implicit ad hominem has expressed itself in accusations that most of everything I blog about is ” evil mythicism” when in fact most of it is an expression of my fascination with certain developments in normative biblical scholarship. The halo effect.

On 14th July McGrath wrote:

“The recognition that traditional tools and methods of historical criticism do not provide us with certainty does not demonstrate that the mythicists are right, but that they are every bit as wrong-headed as the fundamentalists on the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Given McGrath’s extensive exchanges with people who have presented positive views of mythicism he has no excuse for making such an ignorant claim, since in all relevant exchanges of which I am aware there has never been a pro-mythicist claim or argument that claims or expects “certainty”. Every mythicist argument of which I am aware that has ever addressed the question has spoken of varying levels of probability. One wonders if McGrath is so personally bigoted in the question that his mind is made up about what mythicists “must think” that he simply cannot listen to or read what they say without thinking they are being either wrong, or if they don’t look wrong then in his mind they must be dishonest about what they are saying or meaning.

Of course there have been much worse comments made by scholars and students both on this blog and elsewhere, but these latest examples are sufficient for now.

Comparing Mythicism with Minimalism

McGrath’s comparison of  minimalism with mythicism exposes much about what lies at the heart of the reasons for the tone of his attacks on mythicism.

Let’s look at what Lester L. Grabbe has said about the minimalist-maximalist debate and see what might also apply to the historicist-mythicist debate. One has a right to hope this will be a fruitful exercise since at least one academic here compares mythicism with minimalism.

Lester L. Grabbe in his introductory chapter of Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? addresses the history of the debate between “minimalists” (scholars who only accept as historical what they can infer primarily from the archaeological evidence) and “maximalists” (scholars who value the Bible’s narrative as evidence of the united kingdom in addition to the archaeological evidence) and is particularly concerned about its ugly personal nature and the reasons it has turned out like this.

Unfortunately, the last few years have seen the debate take on a shrillness and ad hominem character that it had not seemed to possess before. The long debate between the Tel Aviv and American archaeologists was made by those who differed in a good natured way but had no personal animosity. The sharp exchanges which have come to the surface since the early 1970s are of a different and more ominous quality (e.g. Dever et al. 1997). The terms ‘maximalist’ and ‘minimalist’ began to be pejorative labels, and the term ‘nihilist’ came to be used of certain positions . . . . Some said the ‘minimalists’ were dangerous; others, that they could be safely ignored. The curious anomaly of dangerous people who can be safely ignored serves as a symbol of the unhelpful way in which the debate has moved. One has the sense that it has ceased to be a matter of academic disagreement and has become an emotive and personal issue.

This is hardly a one-sided fight, however; there has been intimation that those who defended the status quo were nothing but biblical fundamentalists, which has not usually been the case. This has led to a hardening of stances and a tendency to defend established positions rather than debating the issues in a genuine desire to understand the other side. But when things become so ugly that some begin to use the term ‘anti-Semitic’ or particular academic positions, one begins to despair of any chance of a proper scholarly exchange. (p. 34, my emphasis)

I suggest one can substitute historicist and mythicist for the words minimalist and maximalist in the above and the message would be just as pertinent. Instead of “anti-Semitic” one might substitute “anti-religious” or “anti-Christian”.

One suspects that there are multiple layers of hostility towards minimalists. As Grabbe says, it is not simply that some scholars are seeking to defend a faith position; many have felt threatened professionally by real or imagined insinuations of their critics. At the same time, there is surely some element among some that consists of a reluctance to confess the mere possibility that all one has dedicated one’s professional life to has been fundamentally misguided.

I suggest the same layers of hostility are at work among historicists towards mythicists. And no doubt, as Grabbe also says, some on the minimalist (mythicist) side have been misguided in their manner of debate, too. When one feels one has nothing to lose it is easy to overstep normal restraints. But I also suspect that among many New Testament scholars there is much more to lose than those devoted to OT studies. The stakes are even higher. Christianity has a cultural function and place far more central to Western people’s lives (including the lives of nonbelievers) than Old Testament religion. So no wonder the emotive and personal dominates even more. First reactions have so often been to dismiss the challenge with insult and ridicule.

So very few (no?) historical Jesus scholars have seriously attempted to engage with mythicists. Maybe a few have published a book (e.g. Eddy and Boyd) but I know of no actual ongoing dialogue. Simply making a statement and leaving it at that is not engaging in a fruitful debate. And if McGrath and others wish to be taken seriously by mythicists (I know of no evidence that suggests they do) they will actually listen to what mythicists say without imputing sinister or deceptive motives if what they hear is not what they expect or if it challenges their preconceptions. Without mutual respect there can be no genuine dialogue.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on ““The Unhelpful Way In Which The . . . Debate Has Moved” (Or, attempting to understand why the misrepresentations from Hoffmann, McGrath, et al)”

  1. I had no wish to mention Stephanie Fisher (a doctoral student of Dr Maurice Casey whom I once banned from commenting on this blog for trolling) but since my post above I have been informed of her recent comments on Dr Hoffmann’s New Oxonian blog about me and Steven Carr, and have interpreted that alert as a suggestion that I might make some response.

    It is very difficult to know how to respond to any of Steph’s complaints because I can find very little of substance to them. She complains much about extraneous points and avoids completely, as far as I can see, the substance of anything I have argued. Ditto with her complaints about Steven. (Even Hoffmann has chimed in with his impatience with arguments presented with poor grammatical skills, emphasizing that his distaste is more for the grammar than the arguments.)

    So Steph begins by reminding everyone that I once compared her with a vampire. Yes, I did, but of course she fails to mention that I was attempting to warn her for the umpteenth time about her hostile and disrespectful manner of commenting that eventually culminated in my banning her from here for trolling.

    Her next complaint is about my using the verb “fret” to introduce her earlier criticism of a post or comment of mine. While complaining about ad hominem on my part she suggests I am afflicted with certain negative emotional states.

    Next she takes me to task for summing up Casey’s and other scholars’ arguments as “circular reasoning, begging the question and special pleading” without supporting my claim with citations from Casey’s work. Well, my entire post itself was a demonstration of those faults in Casey’s work. Did I have to repeat it all in my summary statement in a comment to Steph? But I have explained in detail they ways in which Casey and Crossley and others are guilty of all those fallacies and in the past Steph ignored my analysis always. Her only reply, if I recollect correctly, was to repeat the argument I had just analysed and exposed as circular or begging the question etc. The only difference with each of her repeats was to express more vitriol against me and others who critiqued the argument. She seemed to think that by merely repeating it we should agree with it, and if we found fault with it then in her mind we failed to understand it.

    She then complains I spoke of Hoffmann’s “vacuous approval” of her words. Well, Steph’s argument lacked substance and Hoffmann agreed without any substantial reason given in relation to the argument.

    Her next complaint is that Steven Carr and I apparently fail to understand the significance of her having made a major life decision to travel to the UK to study under Casey, and that she communicates professionally with other diverse scholars as well. I am not sure what this is supposed to imply about where Steven and I are at fault. I have never doubted she communicates with many other students and scholars. Maybe she is thinking that by identifying her for readers as Dr Casey’s student we are somehow implying she doesn’t read or listen to anyone else. I don’t know since that would seem a rather bizarre thing to conclude, I would think.

    She then complains about Steven saying something about the place of Casey’s latest book on a reading list. I can’t speak for Steven, but when Steph goes on in the next comment to justify something by reference to the British Library’s acquisition of the book it is clear to me that she is still attacking windmills. Whether a book is found in the BL catalogue has nothing to do with whether or not it can be available on a student reading list. The former depends on the processing time within the library, and the time taken for the publisher to get a legal deposit copy to the library (sometimes long after it is published); while the latter needs nothing more than that the book is published and available in print. But what Steph’s point is here is a mystery to me.

    Steph next explains that a source used by Casey was a qualified doctor. Again I fail to see the point. No one has questioned the possibility of psychosomatic healings, nor even the fact that sometimes medicine men, shamans, etc really do have healing impacts on patients. But Steph seems to think that by bringing out something that Steven (probably) and I (certainly) did not see as relevant to the argument about historicity of the event described (quite a different notion from the plausibility of the medical explanation). Steph fails to explain exactly how a medical explanation increases the likelihood of the scene being historical.

    And that’s about it.

    Now what was it about Steph’s comment(s) that are of substantive relevance to the argument that I am supposed to address?

    I love serious discussion but I have given up expecting anything like that from Steph, or her blog host, in any near future.

  2. ….but I for one think that a cautious, critical approach that tempers excessive skepticism with deductive reasoning is preferable.”

    Maurice “there can be no doubt” Casey sure isn’t suffering from “excessive skepticism”.

  3. its just funny how harmless the bible actually is if interperted correctly and the good it can do peopele r just brainwashed foolls using fanatical peoples bokks against there heretical idies seem to have more of an affect there r those seeking power and abillity to oppress and manipulate millions religion is just a tooll among many others schools r a compleete failure economic failures good fore nothing programs to help children in need HELL WHAT R THE ACTUALL HEBREW / GREEK INTERPERTATIONS gehena vally of hinom acuall place on earth municipal dumb sulfer/brimstone used to keep fires burningworms /maggots obviously in such a place

  4. Neil, have you read Mark Goodacre’s “The Case Against Q”? It’s pretty odd that the same sort of observations that Goodacre makes about Q supporters relying more on rhetoric than substantive arguments are the same sort of observations that you’ve made about the type of dialogue between minimalist/maximalists and mythicists/historicits…

    1. Yes, I had overlooked the Q debate. If there is that sort of unprofessional rancor over Q then how can any biblical scholar be quick to claim the moral high ground for her guild when challenged on the very rationale for most NT studies.

      Not that biblical studies is unique for academic unprofessionalism in debates. But, well, Jesus is always going to be a potentially more emotive issue than many other areas of disagreement.

      It is ironical that Crossley wll appeal to Chomsky to dress down biblical scholars for a failure of responsibility as public intellectuals politically but be blind to the way the principles Chomsky addresses also apply in this debate. Hence all he can muster in response to a critique of the very foundation of his methodology is a swear word.

      1. Hoffman polished his monocle, sniffed, and wrote: “Yet pure skepticism is not a method, and now the amateurism of the critics is becoming embarrassing–I hope for them as well.” He then compares autodidacts to Onan, stifling a guffaw, and inadvertently dripping port on his smoking jacket.

        Chomsky’s dangerous idea is that an outside observer with sufficient self-training and a firm grasp of logic can (and should) criticize the status quo — especially if the surface story is at odds with known, uncontroversial facts. He points out, for example, that the publicly stated objectives of US foreign policy — e.g., promotion of democracy around the world — are at odds with our true goals and methods. You don’t have to be an expert with advanced degrees in foreign relations to make these observations; all it requires is reading comprehension, diligence, logic, and the courage to tell the truth.

        When snooty scholars condescend to “autodidacts” and “amateurs” with backhanded complements tempered by confessions of embarrassment, I’m reminded of Chomsky’s critics who call him a dilettante who simply can’t understand all the subtle nuances of the subject. Failing that, they just accuse him of hating America.

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