Mark Goodacre, Criteriology, and the “Appearance” of Science

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by Tim Widowfield

In his latest podcast Mark Goodacre turns his attention to the problem of applying criteria selectively after the fact:

. . . I think that there can then be problems when one tries to make historical Jesus criteria like multiple attestation, like the criterion of embarrassment, do too much. When you take them beyond the introductory student level, into mainstream work on the historical Jesus — because after all, historians don’t work with a great big tool bag of criteria.  Historians don’t, you know, hold up a tradition and say, “OK, let’s kind of dig into the bag and see if we can find a criterion that satisfies this tradition.”  

I just don’t think that’s how historians work a lot of the time.  History’s much more complex than that.  It’s more nuanced; it’s more detailed.  We’re looking at things in all sorts of different ways.  And so I think we have to be a little bit careful about the way that we react to these kinds of criteria.  They can be terribly wooden.  They can be excuses often not to think very clearly.

And worst of all, sometimes what historians of the New Testament — sometimes what historical Jesus scholars do — is they’ll take a tradition they rather like the look of subjectively and then they’ll find some criteria that they can use to make it sound like it’s more plausibly historical.  So the criteria are often applied after the fact, rather than before the fact.  So there’s sort of the appearance of science, the appearance of a sort of scientific validity to what they’re doing.  It’s often just an appearance.

This kind of honest discussion is a breath of fresh air.  For years now, Vridar has been the lonely voice in the wilderness, warning that the historical Jesus scholars were using their criteria to do too much. Besides trying to use criteria that were designed to assign relative probabilities to determine absolute historicity, we’ve noted here countless times, again and again, that HJ scholars appear to apply the criteria selectively, after the fact in order to prove what they wish to be true.

Kudos to Dr. Goodacre. Maybe the next time we have another friendly tussle with Dr. McGrath, Mark will come to our defense — you know, on the side of right — instead of coming to the aid of a beleaguered fellow member of the guild who has once again gotten in over his head.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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8 thoughts on “Mark Goodacre, Criteriology, and the “Appearance” of Science”

  1. This is also what I’ve enjoyed about Richard Carrier’s discussions lately–his insistence that the famous criteria need to be re-examined, since they don’t all stand up to scrutiny as being valid criteria of historical probability. I really look forward to his forthcoming book on the application of Bayes’ Theorem to the study of history.

    1. The most striking thing that hit me in Richard Carrier’s online discussions or articles on Bayes’ theorem was the point that one needs to stop and distinguish between whether we know X happened (e.g. someone saw an empty tomb) or whether what we know is that we have A STORY THAT SAYS X happened.

      That’s the crucial factor in my understanding. It’s what I have been attempting to advance in different words for some time now.

  2. Carrier’s discussion on Bayes’ theorem: “one needs to distinguish between whether we know X happened or whether what we know is that we have A STORY THAT SAYS it happened” – to whom? We here are saying to the mythical Christ, nothing about the man Jesus. Yet we have already dismissed Jesus as a figure of history based on A STORY THAT SAYS so and so happened to the mythical Christ figure. All said by outsiders to the discipline of NT studies, evidencing no basis for having acquired even the least rudimentary understanding of the disciplines’ necessary areas of knowledge for making legitimate judgments. Of course to make the dogmatic judgment that there was no historical person makes the further statement that there is no such legitimate discipline in the first place – thus no legitimacy to NT Studies scholars, Mark Goodacre included.

    1. No, Ed, you are reading into my statement far more than I have said. It is one thing to say the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is lacking and another thing “to make a dogmatic judgment that there was no historical person”. I have never made a dogmatic judgment or claim that there was no historical Jesus. What I have done is question the historicity of Jesus, and argued that our earliest stories and faith statements about Jesus are better explained as creations of theological and literary imaginations than as reflections on an historical figure.

      Nor have I ever suggested “that there is no such legitimate discipline in the first place” as NT studies. By no means. What I have done is compare the historical evidence we have for people like Caesar and Socrates with the evidence said to be that for Jesus, and have found that the latter is of a completely different quality — it is not comparable to what we have for other well-established and undoubtedly historical persons. There are critics among NT scholars themselves who admit that their peers do not understand how historical inquiry is conducted outside their own discipline. What I have sought to do is to judge the evidence for the historicity of Jesus by the same standards other historians believe are valid for other figures.

      At least one very prominent Biblical scholar has admitted that the historicity of Jesus is nothing more than an assumption.

      Historical Jesus scholars claim Jesus was historical on the basis of various criteria, but within the same guild we can find NT scholars also demonstrating the fallacies at the heart of those very same criteria.

      1. I don’t think you’ve made yourself as clear as this in other posts Neil, but this is exactly what I’ve been taking away from the back and forth you’ve gotten into with McGrath over these last few years (has it been that long really – sheesh). I’ve never seen you staking out a position that there was NOT a Historical Jesus, rather my understanding of your position that we don’t have the evidence to say one way or the other, so if one is trying to explain early Christian origins, one should not presume that everything starts with a founder figure who was crucified according to the Scriptures. One should start from a position of agnosticism towards whether the founder figure was historical or legendary, and then follow the evidence to see where it leads. It may be that the evidence says “yes, there was one”. It may be that the evidence says “no, there was not”. It may be that the evidence says “there were 13 different historical messiah figures, 12 different pre-Christian myths about the Son of Man, and a handful of other myths from 24 different communities that over time aggregated together into a common mythical founder hero Jesus”. But whatever it is you don’t commit to an idea first and go rooting around for evidence – you don’t presume that your subject is historical and then cherry pick through evidence to support that theory, and you don’t presume that your subject is mythical and then cherry pick through evidence to support that either. You presume that any explanation is possible and the look to see which explanations are possible and/or plausible. And if it turns out that you can’t come up with a definitive answer (as the question of whether Socrates actually taught what Plato said he taught seems to be), then you shrug and live with the consequences instead of clamping your hands over your ears and ignoring the world.

        That’s what I’ve taken away from all of these discussions anyway. Am I even close to your position, or am I just projecting my own ideas onto you here?

        (Thanks for the forum to discuss this stuff by the way – it’s been consistently fascinating over the years.)

        1. Thanks for the comment, Jer. Yes, that is my starting position. My fundamental criticism of historical Jesus studies is that they begin with the assumption of the historicity of Jesus. This is always assumed at the outset. Some such as Dr McGrath have protested that this is not so and have referred me to scholars like E. P. Sanders. But I demonstrated to Dr McGrath that E. P. Sanders does indeed begin with the assumption of a historical Jesus: his only questions are “what did he do?”, “what did he say?” And to answer these he relies on fallacious and often contradictory criteria. None of this is radical. I have quoted biblical scholars saying the same things. (And Dr McGrath has even questioned my use of the word “biblical scholars” — I have apparently read more widely than he has if he really does not think his peers use this as a term to describe themselves.)

          I have attempted many times to stress this point and the same scholar has even criticized me for not presenting a comprehensive argument for mythicism! — as if I am to be faulted for demonstrating that his assertions about me and my arguments are false!

          I think what is radical is that I point out what the criticisms made by other biblical scholars really do mean beyond the realm of mental exercises. I set them up against the possibility that their whole enterprise is ideological right down to the core.

          But having said that, I do have my own views about the historicity of Jesus. I do believe there is evidence in the documents that Jesus originated as a theological-literary construct. But I do not push that conclusion of mine as a “belief”. All “conclusions” in history are necessarily tentative and open to revision. The question for the historian ought to be: How to account for Christian Origins. That is the historical question. The historian, I think, should be devoted to defensible methods of historical inquiry. Arguing over the historicity or “mythicity”(?) of Jesus is for very many scholars who have dedicated their lives and careers to the historical Jesus not really an historical exercise but an ideological or egotistical one. That explains its heat.

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