The hermeneutic of charity is what some New Testament scholars (e.g. Richard Bauckham) have termed the goodness, the rightness, of believing a testimony by default — unless and until we are given a reason to doubt it.
It is usually opposed rhetorically to the idea of the hermeneutic of suspicion.
Charity and suspicion. The words clearly resonate with the ideals of the highest teachings of biblical love: “charity” being the best of gifts and “suspicion” being antithetical to that Christian virtue according to 1 Corinthians 13.
In fundamental logic, however, we might align these concepts with something more neutral and objective for analysis: the false dichotomy.
Bart Ehrman may shun the term “hermeneutic of charity” (I don’t know but I’m assuming he does) but he falls right into that same soft bed of roses no matter what their name. He does this many times, and so many New Testament scholars do, too, but we have a right to expect the highest standards from the highest paid professions.
In Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman falls within the wake of so many of his peers by setting up the so-called evidence of Papias as
- either reliable enough to be used as “an important source for establishing the historical existence of Jesus”
- or it is nothing but a bald-faced lie
This is a most unscholarly view of things. It has nothing to recommend it. It breaks all the fundamental rules of how historians are expected to analyse the value of their sources. It is nothing but a logical and methodological fallacy. But it is so commonly encountered in the writings of New Testament scholars that one would be excused for thinking it is a simple truism.
Here is how Ehrman presents his case based on the supposed evidence of Papias:
Papias was a church father of the early second century whose writings survive for us only in fragments, as they are quoted by later Christian authors. . . . Papias is an important source for establishing the historical existence of Jesus. He had read some Gospels although there is no reason to think that he knew the ones that made it into the New Testament. . . . But more importantly, he had other access to the sayings of Jesus. He was personally acquainted with people who had known either the apostles themselves or their companions. . . . Eusebius makes the point emphatically . . . . (p. 98, DJE?, my emphasis)
Ehrman then quotes the well-known sayings. See Fragment 1 (second paragraph) and Fragment VI at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/papias.html
Papias makes two significant claims. One concerns the Gospels, two of which are apparently thought to belong to Mark and Matthew; the other concerns his acquaintance with people who had known the original apostles. Ehrman disputes the claim commonly found in New Testament scholarship that Papias is referring to our canonical Gospels of Mark and Matthew. He must dispute this because he wants to make Papias an independent source for the historicity of Jesus. (In disputing this common understanding Ehrman is coincidentally siding with a good number of mythicists against his own peers, here! He keeps quiet about that, however.) Ehrman holds fast to the second generally accepted tenet from Papias, though — that he personally knew people who knew the apostles.
He then continues to underscore the importance of these as confirming historical evidence:
This is such a valuable report because Eusebius is quoting, and then commenting on, the actual words of Papias. Papias explicitly states that he had access to people who knew the apostles of Jesus or at least companions of the apostles . . . . On one point there can be no doubt. Papias may pass on some legendary traditions about Jesus, but he is quite specific — and there is no reason to think he is telling a bald-faced lie — that he knows people who knew the apostles (or the apostles’ companions). This is not eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus, but it is getting very close to that. . . . This then is testimony that is independent of the Gospels themselves. . . . And this time it is a testimony that explicitly and credibly traces its own lineage directly back to the disciples of Jesus themselves. (pp. 100-101, DJE?, my emphasis)
So there it is. It’s either White or Black. There can be no doubt. (And of course, just to make sure you choose the right one, white hats are the good guys and black hats are the baddies. Shining truth or bald-faced lie. Liar, lunatic or noble lord.)
I had always understood the key to scholarly progress was that all conclusions are to be considered tentative pending further evidence or understanding. But no, not when it comes to the scholarly need to establish evidence for the historical existence of Jesus that “explicitly and credibly traces its own lineage directly back to the disciples of Jesus themselves.”
Is there no witness for truly valid scholarly method and logical argument?
In this particular instance the last one I read made his voice heard in 1904. How this principle of sound scholarship has long been swept aside! This scholar is making the point with specific reference to Papias’s remarks about the Gospels, but the principle he addresses is applicable to all of the claims attributed to Papias.
With regard to the recurrent inclination to pass off Papias’s remarks about the first two Synoptists as “ancient information” and to utilize them in some fashion or other, a somewhat more general observation may not be out of place.
The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document.
General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.
It is no different with Christian authors.
In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . . how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity? . . . .
This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. I have broken up the paragraph for easier reading. Italics are original.
In other words, we know absolutely nothing about this name Papias from the writings of Papias himself. We only know what others chose to attribute to him.
- We have no way of even knowing if Papias was the author’s real name or a nom de plume. (I don’t know how many children were ever named Papias, a name that sounds like “father” to me, back then.) That is, we have no way of knowing who or what Papias was. Was he a literary creation? Was he a late creation who was set in an earlier time for narrative effect? What was his agenda? We know these are all important questions to ask of names whose works we do know a lot more about.
- We have no way of knowing if Papias was writing a Hellenistic novel filled with spectacular and silly stories. But we do have some fragments that suggest he might have been doing just that. See fragment III for example, and Eusebius’s note that Papias was known for being stupid. Should we suspect Papias of telling a bald-faced lie when he says Judas bloated up like a balloon and was burst asunder by a chariot?
- We have no way of knowing if what he wrote was considered even by readers of his own day utter nonsense not worthy of being given any credibility at all. We do know it was not preserved, though.
- We don’t even know when the works attributed to Papias made their first appearance or when they were composed. Many authors create a narrative voice that is set in a much earlier time than that of the real author.
In other words, we know virtually zilch about the provenance and authorship of the works of Papias. And this is as much as even the professional historians know!
No matter, Ehrman is quite prepared to say on the authority of Papias that there are some things beyond doubt! We have no reason to think Papias was a bald-faced liar so what he says must be valuable historical evidence and we would be churlish, hyper-sceptical, if we feel reluctant to accept his self-witness as literal historical truth. There is no alternative. You are with Papias or against Papias. You are either charitable or suspicious. Schwarz is dead.
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