Scholarly Consensus in Biblical Studies — Does It Mean Anything?

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by Tim Widowfield

Thomas Kuhn, author of
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

It might surprise some people to know that, even several years after Darwin and Wallace made public their independent discoveries and insights regarding natural selection, the vast majority of Lamarckians were not persuaded. Similarly, some die-hard Steady-State proponents never embraced the Big Bang. Fred Hoyle was promoting variations of his Steady State theory, publishing papers as late as 1993. Even in the “hard” sciences it often takes a new generation to come of age before the paradigm can shift.

More often than you might expect, progress requires this combination — the old guard dying off and new scholars coming of age, cutting their teeth on promising new research — for new ideas to take hold. And take note, I’m not talking about ideas that form the basis of our self-identity, our place in the universe, or our salvation. It’s simply human nature to hold on to ideas that have worked well for us, especially if we’ve held them for decades. Consider, then, how difficult it would be to change your mind if it meant the difference between eternal bliss and rotting in a hole in the dirt until you’re dust.

The limited utility of scholarly consensus

Scholarly consensus in any field has somewhat limited usefulness. It tells us what most people think within a given field at a given time, but does it really give us an insight on fundamental, universal truths? Probably not, but it at least gives us a starting point.

A little over seven years ago Mark Goodacre at his NT Blog asked, “What is consensus?” Tied up in that question, of course, are related questions pertaining to how we determine consensus, what is its value, whom do we ask, and so on. By all means, if you haven’t read it, you should, and while you’re at it, you should check out his follow-up post, “Less of a consensus on consensus.” It’s unfortunate that some of the links Dr. Goodacre refers to are no longer available. At the bottom of this post, I’ll provide a list of alternate links made possible by the Internet Wayback Machine.

In Dr. Michael Pahl’s original post (see Wayback link below), he asked four probing questions:

  1. First, consensus is a very slippery notion. What is consensus? I wouldn’t think it’s unanimity, at least not in dealing with such large and diverse groups of people. And it’s certainly not simple majority. So what is it? 70%? 80%? Can 90+% safely be considered consensus?
  2. Second, who gets to be part of the polling sample? Only those working within a particular historical or theological perspective or methodological paradigm? All those who have published scholarly monographs on the subject? All scholars who have studied the subject in depth, whether they’ve published on it or not? And who determines what makes a “scholar” or appropriate authority on the subject?
  3. Third, how does one actually go about doing the polling to assess consensus? One can meticulously search through all relevant literature on the subject and record opinions in a table (which is sometimes done on specific issues), but this then leads to some of the questions in the previous point, and one often quickly realizes that individual scholarly perspectives on any given issue are too complex to fit neatly into a simplistic table or scale.
  4. Finally, even if one can get past the previous questions, what does consensus prove? The consensus in 1976 on Paul’s perspective on the Torah and his understanding of “justification by faith” was pretty strong, I would guess, until Ed Sanders provoked a Kuhnian paradigm shift with his Paul and Palestinian Judaism the following year. Now there is as much variegation in perspective on these issues as some of Sanders’ respondents have claimed was evident in the nomism and soteriology of first century Judaism. Did the consensus prior to Sanders’ book make that so-called “Lutheran” view correct? Does the lack of consensus since mean that no one has any real grasp of any of the issues? [bold emphasis mine]

Can we all agree that we agree?

Dr. Goodacre responds to Pahl’s questions with some comments and observations. Goodacre notes that when scholars appeal to consensus, they are expecting that most if not all of their readers would nod in agreement. In fact they’re going out on a limb, because of a professional influence at work that “constrains the scholar not to make an appeal unless s/he thinks that the appeal will meet with widespread recognition.”

And with respect to the questions of who gets to vote and how do we count them, Goodacre writes:

. . . I am not sure that consensus can be easily and necessarily equated with “the majority view”. A given consensus emerges over time and is something that is the result of the combined force of monographs by experts, the introductory level text books, websites, the passing comments in conference papers, conversations over a beer etc. I am not being facetious about the importance of the latter — it is in the casual discussions that one begins to feel the existence of a consensus, or the lack of one. Of course there is some relationship between consensus and majority view — I cannot imagine a consensus that is not also the majority view — but consensus is about much more than just a count of heads.

He continues by noting that a simple majority of NT scholars hold to the notion of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, while a significant minority see him as a non-apocalyptic social-religious reformer. In this case, there is no consensus on the true nature of the historical Jesus. This state of affairs can and probably will change over time, and one view may become dominant; however, at present we have no consensus.

The jury is deadlocked

In an interesting digression, Goodacre points out that the lack of consensus can tell us a great deal about a subject. For example, did the authors or collectors of the Thomas sayings have knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels? Or did the author of the fourth gospel have any knowledge of the Synoptics? He writes:

And that is a useful thing to know — I would mention something like that in my teaching so that it could give the students something of a feel of the lie of the land, or of a hotly disputed topic. Similarly, in another area that interests me, the question of Johannine knowledge of the Synoptics: there is no consensus in that area. [emphasis mine]

Hang on. Did he say there’s no consensus about John knowing the other three gospels? Somebody should have told Bart Ehrman, who in Did Jesus Exist? while summarizing the “wide consensus among scholars concerning what these earlier sources were and what to call them” writes:

The Gospel of John too is widely thought to have been based on written sources that no longer survive. As I have indicated, the reason for thinking that John does not rely on the synoptics is that whenever they tell the same story, it is in radically different ways and never in the same words. (p. 66 of the Nook version)

For Ehrman, who needs multiple independent sources to assuage the anxiety of historicity, the independence of John has to be a point of scholarly consensus. It allows him to claim multiple independent sources for stories such as the baptism of Jesus thereby proving, he believes, their historicity. Sadly, Goodacre’s hoped-for constraining effect on the appeal to consensus has failed in this case.

Agreeing to disagree

Goodacre continues with an important observation about how consensus often works. Within a given field, scholars with general knowledge about a given subject may have one view while specialists in that subject have a different view entirely. For example, he notes that within his own specialty, the Synoptic Problem, there is:

. . . a major difference between those who might be regarded as experts on the Synoptic Problem, or specialists, and the rest. Among the former group, the specialists, there is no consensus — those who have published on the Synoptic Problem in the last generation have come from a variety of perspectives and there is real disagreement on a solution. Among the latter group, I think that there is still a broad consensus, a consensus in favour of the traditional Two-Source Theory. I mention that as an example of the difficulty of judging the niceties of the establishment of consensus, and an interesting case of disagreement among specialists that has not always filtered down to the rest.

I’m sure you have noticed this phenomenon in your own field of work, or perhaps in subjects in which you have read a great deal. It’s almost as if “the more you know, the less you know,” or perhaps the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is out there that you don’t know.

In Goodacre’s second post on consensus, he begins to tackle Pahl’s question: “What does consensus prove?” He quotes from a post by Christopher Heard that is, unfortunately, lost in that vast and deep ocean of lost blogs.

In my opinion, academics should immediately abandon the practice of using phrases like “It is generally agreed …” as if those were arguments in favor of what follows. Sentences in the form “It is generally accepted that P,” if they are true, serve at best as useful “tag lines” to a summary description of the state of scholarship on a particular topic (or public opinion, or whatever is under discussion). However, sentences like “It is generally accepted that P” can never prove the truth of P, because the number of people who agree that P is true is actually irrelevant to the question of whether or not P is true. Besides that, it seems to me that statements like “It is generally accepted that P” are quite often not true as they stand—by which I mean that P is often not as “generally accepted” as the statement claims. [italics original; bold emphasis mine]

The appeal to consensus as “a refusal to think”

As you no doubt know, Dr. Goodacre is a noted Q skeptic, and as such he often must defend himself against appeals to authority masquerading as arguments. I say “appeal to authority,” because in the final analysis we aren’t simply talking about a majority opinion, but rather the consensus opinion of presumably authoritative figures. Goodacre admits:

As someone standing outside the consensus on one major issue (the Synoptic Problem), I have found it frustrating to see appeals to consensus used as an excuse for a refusal to think. Indeed, I have argued that the repetition of the consensus view simply because it is the consensus view is one of the things that has contributed to the dominance of that view.

In other words, repeating the party line over and over again “makes it true.” That “truth” may exist as the only viable explanation known to the public, despite heated debate among the experts. And it can persist well after scholarship has moved on. In science a dominant model can remain uppermost in the public mind even after we know it isn’t true.

Perhaps you learned in school that gravity is the natural attraction between objects composed of matter — in other words the Newtonian Model. But we have known for quite some time that even though the old model “works” in most mundane cases, it isn’t actually “true” — i.e., it doesn’t represent reality. Gravitational lensing, predicted by Einstein, proves that Newton was wrong. Why? Because photons have no mass, yet beams of light are affected by large gravitational fields. The only viable explanation is that gravity is a distortion of space-time; it is not simply the natural attraction of material objects.

Old models persist. People in general don’t like to change their minds. Scholars, just like the rest of us, are slow to accept new ideas. And as I said earlier, this is true even with mundane things that aren’t matters of life and death or salvation and damnation.

They don’t read Strauss

So how much more difficult is it for people to accept different concepts when the subject is the historicity of Jesus? Consider as an example the preface of What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus? by David B. Gowler. He correctly points out the problem of academic amnesia among scholars (who, as we’ve seen time and time again don’t read anything further back than, say, 20 years):

This book will address, in part, the academic amnesia I have observed in recent meetings with colleagues in the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas and the Society of Biblical Literature. It is reminiscent of the problem about which Albert Schweitzer observed, “No one can justly criticize, or appraise the value of, new contributions to the study of this subject unless [that person] knows in what forms they have been presented before.” Indeed many of the comments of my colleagues about the historical Jesus at recent academic conferences would have, in Schweitzer’s words “ceased to walk” if the scholars who regard a book such as David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined as obsolete “would only take the trouble to read it (xiii). With all the faults in Strauss’s work, much current scholarship is either ignoring or blissfully unaware of the critical issues he and others raised concerning gospel texts. (p. viii) [bold emphasis mine]

Now that’s a promising start. Gowler has admitted to an important failure in current NT scholarship — ignorance of the past. He might have added that the few who know anything about Strauss know him only indirectly, through later “refutations.” And so I might be forgiven if I start to feel somewhat heartened by Gowler’s rather strong reproach. However, my joy is quickly tempered by the final words of the preface:

My hope is that you [speaking to his sons, whom he calls a “gift from God”] will continue your own quests for the historical Jesus, and that his message of justice, love, and peace will be a driving force in your lives.

OK. We were doing pretty well there up to that point. Look, Gowler seems like a nice guy. I might enjoy having a beer with him. The problem for me is this: How do people separate their personal faith in Christ as a real and potent force in their daily lives from their professional quest for the historical Jesus? I’m not dogmatically saying it’s impossible. I just can’t think of a way that makes logical sense to me.

For Osiris so loved the world . . .

Imagine listening to a lecture about the historical Osiris by a noted scholar who finishes with an invitation to take part in a voluntary prayer to Osiris in which the scholar asks him bless us and keep us safe as we drive home. Who could blame us if we wondered whether the scholar’s views on the historical Osiris were somehow colored by his belief that Osiris is his “personal savior”?

This dilemma is the crux of the matter. How can the consensus on the existence of the historical Jesus ever change if the majority of scholars are confessing Christians and if the majority of institutions who employ those scholars depend on money from confessing Christians?

In the end, I can’t think of any possible way to induce a paradigm shift other than from outside NT studies (e.g., independent historians, specializing in ancient Near Eastern studies), or from outside academia altogether. Even then it will be a slow, painstaking process as the old guard leaves the scene and new scholars fascinated by the new paradigm and unencumbered by the rules for confession replace them.

The Steady State theory didn’t die; Fred Hoyle did.

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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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50 thoughts on “Scholarly Consensus in Biblical Studies — Does It Mean Anything?”

  1. With a paradigm shift, Kuhn observes that a period of normal science, guided by a consensus paradigm, is followed by a period of uncertainty, with a range of opinions competing to explain anomalies in the prevailing view, and that eventually a new coherent view emerges that resolves the problems in a new synthesis. So Copernicus thought that orbits were circular, Kepler was an astrologer, Tycho Brahe supported geocentrism, and Galileo had a completely wrong theory of tides. The new synthesis only emerged with Newton.

    With Christianity, lines such as 2 John 1:7, that disbelievers are of the Antichrist, serve as powerful reinforcers of conformity to the historicist paradigm. What we see here, as Tim has ably described in general terms regarding conflict between experts and generalists, is that Christian theology was original a Gnostic speciality, among experts who understood the mythic poems about Jesus were allegory, symbols for what Philo called “that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image”. Philo went on to say that linking such language to an actual individual is “a very novel appellation indeed.” But this original expert consensus of Christ as myth was powerless against the mass consensus of simple belief, and was supressed, ignored, forgotten and denied.

    Kuhn says a paradigm shift goes through four phases. The new ideas are successively ignored, ridiculed, debated and accepted. I think the mythicist paradigm shift will happen faster than the generational time scale, in part because it has an ethical urgency, but also because it is rapidly moving into the realm of debate, even if the public view is mainly at phase one with a few fools promoting phase two. The internet itself enables a paradigm shift in communication, massively speeding the development of new ideas. The internet is for the new Christian reformation what the printing press was for Protestantism.

    Noting the Cambrian diversity of new ideas, I think it is essential to encourage contestability. Tim has noted the problem of taking seriously anyone who uses confessional language. But that is part of the problem of religion. The original Gnostics who invented Jesus were deeply religious. Just because most deeply religious people tend to be delusional does not mean that all religious thinkers are delusional, or that an understanding of the myth of Jesus has to stand in opposition to religion. This debate is also different from scientific paradigm shifts in that it touches on matters at the emotional heart of personal identity. People bring their own cultural background and assumptions to such discussions, and find it very difficult to engage in collegial discussion aimed at shared understanding. Seeing the mythicist debate as a scientific revolution is key to understanding what is going on.

  2. Thanks, Tim, this is an important discussion to have since nearly every argument in favor of the historicity of Jesus rests firmly on an appeal to the consensus view of NT scholars. I just want to point out further on the issue of this consensus view regarding the HJ:

    When you break down this broad consensus into its component parts, its “proofs” so to speak, the consensus on the proofs starts to break down. The over-arching theory of Christian origins that holds Jesus founded the movement (somehow) rests upon shifting sands of proofs for which there often is not a consensus. And even where a consensus is held to exist, it is often, as Goodacre points out, a simple majority. I would guess further, and this is admittedly conjecture since we have no polling data, this is not actually not a majority at all, but a unified plurality. As Goodacre points out, if you break things down even further, to paradigms within paradigms, the consensus breaks down further. Goodacre points out the division between speciality experts and “the rest” where there is often a consensus amongst “the rest” that is not shared by the specialists.

    I hope this makes sense, maybe it is just muddying the waters of your clearly written post!

    1. You make sense, Grog. No worries.

      There’s another related problem that I’d like to address (which probably deserves a full post of its own), and that’s the issue of NT scholars not being able to explain why a particular “finding” or “proof” indicates historicity.

      In physics we can devise experiments that probe a given theory and lend credibility. For example, consider the so-called “frame-dragging” effect that a large rotating objects have on space-time. Now I might not be able to understand all the math that goes into proving that this phenomenon is real, but I do at least understand the concept and I can appreciate its implications for relativity. Simply put, if you can prove frame-dragging, then it’s fairly certain that Einstein was right.

      On the other hand, Casey has written several books trying to prove that Mark and Q are based on Aramaic sources. He continually asserts that proving the text has an Aramaic source proves the historicity of Jesus. Really all it does is prove (if true) that some of the earliest collectors and writers in the Christian tradition were Aramaic speakers. Jesus, if he existed, probably spoke Aramaic. So did millions of other people.

      Now naturally, his defenders will tell us “it’s more complicated than that.” Yeah, it always is. Any time we point out the weakness of an argument, we’re told it’s because we can’t read Aramaic or that we haven’t studied the texts for decades like the experts. “Just look at my credentials.”

      That’s not the point. The issue is not one of language or textual transmission; it is rather one of logic.

      1. Ehrman buys Casey’s argument completely, by the way. They seem to feel that Aramaic is a unique language that was incapable of having fiction written in it.

          1. Actually, Ehrman won’t say it’s fiction, because that would offend people. He says that history can’t prove whether a miracle happened or not. Similarly, geologists can’t rule out whether a volcano god destroyed Krakatoa. Such things are outside the purview of science and history.

            1. Ahhh…so Ehrman is not a victim of the materialistic worldview that all phenomena have a natural explanation, which is a basic assumption of science. Yes, it is possible, though so extremely unlikely that we can ignore the possibility that a volcano god destroyed Krakatoa or that Finn McCool pretended to be a very strong baby tricking the giant from Scotland, Angus. We assume that there is a natural explanation for the phenomena we see, including the Giant’s Causeway. History can’t prove whether or not a miracle happened, true, but historians are right to ignore the very unlikely possibility.

              So it seems we can rule out the possibility that Jesus uttered this Aramaic phrase while raising a girl from the dead.
              Perhaps she was only asleep? Maybe that would explain this:

              Mark 5:39He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.”

              She really was asleep!

      2. Logic indeed. The structure of Casey’s argument seems to be a textbook logical fallacy.

        P1: If Jesus existed, then the earliest sources would be in Aramaic
        P2: The earliest sources are in Aramaic
        C: Therefore, Jesus existed

        This is why scholars should have some sort of rudimentary knowledge of, or courses on, how logical arguments can be expressed formally so that they can recognize an “intuitively true” yet logically fallacious argument. The structure of the argument above is a fallacy called Affirming the consequent. Intuition is almost never a good guide to making a correct argument, unless you’ve trained your intuition to do so; which would require actually learning the structure of logical arguments.

        (And if they pass that hurdle, then they’d have to go into the deeper waters of why not all logically invalid arguments are necessarily invalid probabilistic arguments; e.g. absence of evidence actually is evidence of absence)

    1. Thank you for that link. I had stumbled upon Goodacre’s posts awhile back while Googling for something else, and I’d bookmarked them for future reference. It’s remarkable that we’re still hashing over these same issues.

      And what Carrier says there about the “Criteria Crisis” is spot on. The more you dig into it, the more you find scholars brooding over the fact that the historical criteria used in The Quest(s) have been a major disappointment.

  3. But there is wide consensus that John does not rely on the synoptics–that is to say specifically that he does not rely on the synoptics. For likely he also used other sources (such as the Signs Source)–that is something nearly everyone agrees on (even if they don’t agree it was Signs). You must be careful to interpret the words that scholars use correctly (usually the more precisely, the better).

    As for consensus in general, to put it in Kuhnian terms, consensus usually fails when it is pre-paradigmatic, but it usually succeeds when it is post-revolutionary 🙂 Keeping in mind that every consensus is just a restricted sub-set of the next post-revolutionary consensus 😀 (think Newtonian physics with respect to Einsteinian physics).

    1. Mike Z.: “You must be careful to interpret the words that scholars use correctly (usually the more precisely, the better).”

      Let me be more precise then. Many scholars (especially Britons under the influence of C.H. Dodd) believe that the Fourth Gospel contains historically useful information and that parallel stories found in John and in the Synoptics are independent of each other.

      The bone of contention is not where they differ, but where they intersect. For example, Streeter believed that John knew the Gospel of Mark, and that he reworded parts of it to fit with his theology and christology. On the other hand, Craig Blomberg thinks all of John’s traditions are independent (and all historical, too).

      There is wide consensus that the miracle at Cana is independent. But that’s a given. And with respect to multiple independent attestation — irrelevant. There isn’t wide consensus on the independence of John concerning the Baptism, the feeding of the multitude, the Crucifixion, etc. But Ehrman implies that there is.

  4. I could never understand why a majority could accept Jesus as Apocalyptic prophet (including Ehrman) when the sower parables, for example, clearly state the kingdom “IS”, while Jesus just as clearly indicates that it isn’t here on earth (John 18:36).

    1. Scholars like Ehrman do not want to admit they were completely deceived by the gospel stories, so they can say things like we like the kind words but we were never fooled by the promises. After all how could a scholar be fooled for 30 years, especially when its so easy for themselves to list many many problems.

      1. Even before seeing your post, mP, I was going to tell Tim that I thought that the Bible scholars, and former Bible scholars (u know who), are the biggest impediment to correctly deducing the real teachings behind the facade. I was going to post on a Baptist blog yesterday, but it was hopeless — because I would have had to list my church, why I thought I was to go to heaven, and if I would be willing to sacrifice my firstborn if I dared to disagree with them! (Well, I made up that last one, but you know what I mean…) Tim, what “later” material is non-apoc? John?

        1. Carolyn: “Tim, what “later” material is non-apoc? John?”

          Pretty much anything that smacks of realized eschatology is fair game. For example, “The Kingdom of God is in you” is something a Gnostic could easily agree with. Remember, too, that John’s Jesus says he didn’t come to the world to condemn it, while Mark’s Jesus tells the high priest he’s going to descend from a cloud on the right hand of God to judge mankind.

          And consider the dating game they play with the Gospel of Thomas. How do we know it’s a second- or third-century document? Because it sounds Gnostic. How do we know Gnosticism didn’t exist in the first century CE? Because we don’t have any Gnostic writings from the first century. Ta-da!

  5. “Scholars like Ehrman do not want to admit they were completely deceived by the gospel stories, so they can say things like we like the kind words but we were never fooled by the promises. After all how could a scholar be fooled for 30 years, especially when its so easy for themselves to list many many problems.”

    Ehrman did partially admit he was deceived in his book “Jesus, Interrupted.” But yes, I think the crux of the problem is that the human mind naturally rebels against the idea that you’ve been deceived and bought into a myth when so many other serious people keep asserting otherwise.

    1. Exact its about ego and nothing more. Perhaps in the future if more scholars assert that Jesus is a myth, then somebody will have the courage to change tack, but for now he does not want to be alone. From my readings of his latest book it would appear he is very content on pointing out his qualifications appealing to authority. We lay people are not qualified to judge in any way their resolutions or analysis, even though it may have been obvious to us the many problems with the Jesus stories without a scholarly education and experience.

    1. I like how he points out that if something in the standard model could be proved wrong, then it would be very interesting to scientists who are studying the problem. In other words, they welcome new ideas and new concepts that may help correct or further complete the model. What a nice idea.

      Of course HJ scholars will tell us that they have already tried combination “10-20-30” (see the video). Unfortunately, that often means they’ve merely skimmed a summary by a scholar who refuted mythicist arguments that were current several decades ago.

      1. “In other words, they welcome new ideas and new concepts that may help correct or further complete the model. What a nice idea.”

        Since scientists are human beings living in society, the nice idea doesn’t always work out. They cling to the model because they don’t want to change their ideas to run after every novelty (and that is a pretty sensible way to proceed), or they cling to the model that will get them published in the journals edited by other people who cling to the model, or …


      The idea that data can trump any theory with a simple presentation, is a nice and clean idea, but it does not work that way in history and the study of human interactions.

      The “data” are never purely objective, but subject to interpretation and manipulation by language. The “data” are human conclusions about facts that themselves are often unclear and doubtful.

      Theory X, as Carrier always repeats, is an account based on a subjective assessment of probabilities. The “data” are not going to do anything, raise an argument or propose an alternative, another guess. It’s always the scholar who makes a stand with his mouth or pen (or computer) for his Theory X or Y, or Z.
      And when it comes to history, the “data” are interpretation of facts that themselves are subject to vague and elastic interpretation and subjective opinion. Expertise, knowledge and intuition play a fantastic role in seeing the facts, and in presenting them as “data”.

      If this were not so, whence all the argumentation over hundreds of years over simple “facts” of history?
      If theory X is the resurrection of Jesus Christ nearly 2,000 years ago, what are the data? Are the so-called data even reliable and genuine? What about the facts themselves underlying the “data”: the burial, the empty tomb, the appearances. What are the data falsifying this Theory X?

      Not it’s not as simple as you make it.
      Other assumptions have to come into play, which are not more data, but major principles of understanding the world. Or what that attractive historian of ideas calls a “paradigm”: A monistic view of nature against a dualistic view opposing nature and a separate force that can intervene in the world, but still distinct from it. This is another Theory Y, one that does not accept miracles or the supernatural. But if it was so simple to impose Theory Y with new data, those disputes would have become extinguished a long time ago.

      It is a bit of an illusion, a self-deception to repeat the mantra, let’s look at the evidence and be led by the evidence. Only neophytes in the field of research can be lulled by such a naive manifesto. Well the evidence is never that clear, and again implies interpretation, assuming probabilities, and making a final subjective guess. That is how courts of law operate, and in the field of human relations and history, this route cannot be avoided. The evidence does not directly lead anywhere, it requires assessment and evaluation. At the end, it’s the scholar or the researcher who manufactures his “evidence” and defends it against all detractors.

      Why are so many spending so much time just rehashing the same doubts and uncertainties about the existence of Jesus, or Buddha, or King Arthur? Where are the data that are going to prove 97% of the scholars wrong? They’re the product of just another scholar or researcher.

      Why did we have to wait until 1994 and Gerd Lüdemann to tell us that, everything considered, no, the resurrection never happened. He presented all his “data” as meticulously as a German craftsman was capable of. Did his “data” convince the 97% of the faculty of Göttingen to accept his Theory Y? No way, They lobbied for his dismissal, and failing this to reduce him to a non-curriculum job in History and Literature.

      No, the data don’t do the job by themselves. There is a need for good, well trained brains behind them to do any job. We need more Feynmans. They are the ones who will be able to show the 97% wrong.

      1. “The idea that data can trump any theory with a simple presentation, is a nice and clean idea, but it does not work that way in history and the study of human interactions.”

        Which is why I said “try to apply the same principle to history”. Put the emphasis on “try”.

  6. “What is consensus?”

    Consensus is when all the books I read because I knew they agree with my view all agree with my view. I find all the books that agree with my view, read them, and then say “the scholarly consensus is” my view. Then if anyone questions me I just give them the list of approved books and it proves that there is a consensus.

  7. Tim,

    Um, “to judge mankind”? I looked at bible.cc/mark/14-62.htm and no version includes that phrase. Are you sure you’re not doing what the apologists (I meant to call Ehrman apologist, not scholar earlier) do, when they embellish the scriptures to suit their agenda? The verse says he comes on high “at the right hand” of POWER, not to wield it against anybody. God didn’t send his Son (the Holy Spirit) to judge anybody, but to save. (John 3:17, spoken of John the Baptist, not Jesus), Christians make him The Judge.

    And the Gospel of Thomas is early. I’ll have to research Douglas Del Tondo’s “A Hebrew Gospel of Matthew” (pen name Stanford Rives) but he covers the Thomas to Matthew connections, showing Thomas is, if anything, EARLIER than Greek Matthew, and maybe even earlier than Hebrew Matthew.. The one I recall for early Hebrew Matthew is, “This is Jesus the King of ISRAEL” (27:37) over Jesus on the cross, as it is a few lines away (27:42) in another context in both Greek and Hebrew, but not “King of the Jews” as in the Greek only, Thomas agrees with the early Hebrew Matthew on differences such as this, making Thomas as early as Hebrew Matthew, and both Hebrew Matthew and Thomas earlier than Greek Matthew and most important of all — earlier than Mark. He posits one reason why Mark has no Sermon on the Mount (‘on the Plain’ in Luke!), for example, is that Mark could not read Matthew’s Hebrew.

    1. Carolyn Wahler: “The verse says he comes on high “at the right hand” of POWER, not to wield it against anybody.

      You are correct. In 14:62, he doesn’t say explicitly to judge mankind. However, in Mark 8:38 he says, “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (NASB)

      This imagery — the Son of Man descending from Heaven in glory, seated at the right hand of the Father — echoes the description of the figure in Daniel 7:13-14.

      13. “I kept looking in the night visions,
      And behold, with the clouds of heaven
      One like a Son of Man was coming,
      And He came up to the Ancient of Days
      And was presented before Him.
      14. “And to Him was given dominion,
      Glory and [a] a kingdom,
      That all the peoples, nations and men of every [b]language
      Might serve Him.
      His dominion is an everlasting dominion
      Which will not pass away;
      And His kingdom is one
      Which will not be destroyed.”

      This same figure appears in the books of Enoch.

      It is true that some commentators try to see Mark 14:62 in a non-eschatological light. However, I agree with the commentators who see Jesus’ confession and explanation of his true identity as an doubly ironic turning of the tables. First, we have Peter outside the chambers denying Jesus, while Jesus is inside finally admitting to everyone (“I am!”) that he is the Messiah. And second, although Jesus is in custody and about to be turned over to Pilate for execution, Jesus invokes the imagery of the cosmic judge of the eschaton — the Son of Man.

      They might judge him now but they will see him when he returns, and boy, will they be sorry.

      1. Did you know 2 Enoch 64:5 speaks of Enoch “carrying away the sins of the world, savior-like? Or that 3 Enoch 48:5 speaks of Moses and Samuel as “redeemers” and “intercessors”? Saviors are commonplace then and now. Read Obadiah 21.

        Never in the Bible is the end of the world mentioned. The end of the world for *the individual*, yes, End of world as we know it, NO, The Eschaton is YOUR END, not the world’s end. The Gospel of Judas puts it best: “You will sacrifice the man that bears me.” Both other readable books in the Codex Tchacos also cite the ends of their protagonists: James will “no longer be James”, in “James”, and Philip “will die” in “Letter of Peter to Philip”. This means that the lower “self” will die, just as does the self in David’s slaying of his ego-self, “Goliath”. Eschatology suffers from the same literalism of the Fundamentalists. It isn’t the world that is to come to an end, but the Devotee!!! That’s mystic, gnostic reality. There is no further judging of the world, more than the worldly already are ‘judged’ by dying uselessly after living self-centered lives.

        There are lots of references to slaying of the desires and lower impulses in the parables of Old and New Testaments. The five kings slain mercilessly by Joshua in Joshua 10 is Joshua overcoming his lust, anger, greed, attachment, and vanity. These are the five “combatants” in “Judas”, the “kings ” that have “grown weak”. The story of Jonah and the Fish is Jonah overcoming with great difficulty the fiery energy of his lower drives and transmuting them into higher consciousness at “Nineveh”, not the lower center, “Tarshish”. The “Red Sea” of Exodus, and the “Flood” in the story of Noah are these same bodily desires overcome through devotion to the mystic masters, ‘Moses’ and ‘Noah’. Details right down to the wheels on the chariots of the pursuing Egyptians, which “drove heavily”” in the “mud” of the Israelites’ concentration on the “East Wind” of the Word, and on the light of the “Pillar of Fire” have mystic significance. Jesus calming the ‘stormy sea’, and ‘walking on water’, turning water to ‘wine’, raising the ‘dead’ — all symbolic of mystic growth of the soul, None of it is worldly event. All of it is meditation. This is WHY these stories were written — as lessons to illustrate mystic transcendence.

        Bible “scholars” are just simply in the way. This is Mysticism. Go to the Mystics. They are not far from you.

    2. The better translation of Mark 14.62 would be “sitting at the right hand of the powerful one”. Sure, it might say “sitting at the right hand of [the] power” (δεξιῶν καθήμενον τῆς δυνάμεως) as a literal word-for-word interpretation, but Jesus is talking about the son of man sitting at the right hand of god. There would be no way to write a word-for-word translation from English to Koine Greek for “powerful one”. This is demonstrated in the immediately preceding verse, where the high preist asks Jesus if he is the son of the blessed one. The phrase is literally “son of [the] blessed” (υἱὸς τοῦ εὐλογητοῦ). There might be a distinction in English between “power” and “powerful one”, but thinking in modern English isn’t a good guide for translating the thought-world of people who lived 2,000 years ago.

  8. Just here, I feel compelled to repeat a comment made on another site, which posted a quote which I believe precisely expresses the all-pervasive, fundamental, indisputable fallacy of the Mythicists’ argument.
    From Neither God Nor Man, by Earl Doherty. By way of pointed emphasis, I state it in a paraphrase making but one change: the word “Christian” is replaced with the word “Universe”: “The advent of the Internet has introduced an unprecedented ‘lay’ element of scholarship in the field – the absence of peer pressure – has meant that the study of “Universe” origins is undergoing a quantum leap in the hands of a much wider consistency than traditional academia.” (Quantum and Relativity Physics).

    1. There is an even better example in an Australian newspaper today, in an article where a former climate change skeptic, Dr Muller, now believes that the evidence supports man-made climate change. The response from other climate change skeptics? See below. It sounds very familiar. Dr Muller wasn’t a real skeptic! Potential flaws! A “tight-knit cabal” suppresses information! The name of Galileo is invoked!

      From here:

      “I’m not convinced that he [Muller] was ever a sceptic although, of people I respect, there is a couple who do have a decent opinion of him,” said Perth-based blogger Jo Nova, the author of a book called The Skeptics Handbook.

      Ms Nova said she did not expect climate sceptics to change their minds because there were still potential flaws in Professor Muller’s work…

      A prominent Australian sceptics’ group, the Galileo Movement, said its views would not change at all because of Professor Muller’s study. The group features broadcaster Alan Jones as its patron and lists prominent sceptics Ian Plimer and Bob Carter and blogger Andrew Bolt as advisers.

      “We’ve based our views on empirical science, and there’s nothing in the Muller study to undercut that,” said the Galileo Movement’s manager, Malcolm Roberts, a former mining engineer and company director.

      Mr Roberts said climate change science had been captured by “some of the major banking families in the world” who form a “tight-knit cabal”.

      Mr Roberts said he understood that the group’s views might sound strange, but claimed they were increasingly popular. “It does sound outlandish,” he said. “I, like you, was reluctant to believe it [but] there are significant things going on in Australia that people are waking up to”.

      1. Of course, Jo Nova has a point. Muller was sceptical about Mann’s hockey stick and some of the other bits of dud “science” in Gore’s film, but he previously explicitly stated his belief in the danger of increasing CO2 levels, and in an interview denied that he was a sceptic.

    2. Ed Jones – your so-called “all-pervasive, fundamental, indisputable fallacy of the Mythicists’ argument” is not a fallacy, let alone any of the ridiculous adjectives you add. Astronomy is empirical, theology is not. You are committing the fallacy of comparing apples and oranges. Scientific consensus on Big Bang cosmology is based on capacity to understand quantifiable evidence. Religious scholarly consensus on the Historical Jesus is based on capacity to ignore the political corruption of the church. External input is needed to cast light on this festering guild.

      1. My task here is to speak for the present understanding of our top scholars of the NT Studies Guild over against the pervuasive missinformed arguments of Mythicisism “debunking” the Guild. Coming to this understanding is “a task to which specialized knowledge in the areas of pilology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necessarily apply.” I must ask, Just how well informed do you consider yourself to be in the above named areas of specialized knowledge to qualify you as a legitimate critic in the same way one might be a ctitique of Quantum Physics? I have treated this Present understandong in a post found at Debunking Christianity – Ed Jones on A viable historical solution to the Jesus Puzzle.

        1. Ed, the debate between Ehrman and his principal critics Doherty and Carrier constitutes a debunking of the Guild. Carrier has recently noted that Ehrman and his acolytes have failed to engage with refutations of their arguments. Ehrman thought defence of the historical Jesus would be simple, but he did not realise the depth of the scholarly critique that Doherty in particular has provided.

          My own qualification which I consider relevant is my Master of Arts Honours Thesis on The Place of Ethics in Heidegger’s Ontology. My studies suggest to me that the issues here are primarily philosophical, relating to a deconstruction of cultural history. I will have respect for your Guild when its members engage in respectful dialogue with informed critics.

          1. Ed Jones:

            I appreciate your professional input; but disagree with your selfcertainty, as to the absolute authority of your field, and its professionals.

            I’d suggest here that “professionalism” might not mean as much as in other academic fields … when the “field” of “study” we are talking about is essentially, “Unicorn Studies.”

            With religious study, are we really talking about a field as objective as Philosophy or Nuclear Physics? This is a “field” of “study” that at various times, has rigourously and “objectively” affirmed the existence of talking donkies; people who walk on water; and now, Historical jesus. This is a field of study that for some time in our own era, was not allowed on university campuses; but was relegated to the margins, off campus. And whose courses could often, not be taken for credit.

            So is this field of study, Religious Studies, really as professionally academic, as all that?

            In fact, what we are dealing with here is essentially, Unicorn Studies. So I feel that the field 1) deserves some very, very close interrogation from other fields, for logical consistency and factuality and historicality. And/or 2) this field of study needs to become considerably less dogmatic, and more intuitive, and confessing of its own limitations and errors; and 3) far more open to even casual objections to those outside this “field.”

            I agree that we should listen to much of what religious study is telling us. On the other hand? The extreme hubris, unearned dogmatic certainty, the disdain for non “specialists” that we now see in this field, mean that religious study – and especially the Historical Jesus thesis – now fully deserve a widespread and exacting interrogation, from the truly-accepted academic disciplines. And even from simply, common-sense.

            I continue to greatly value Ed Jones’ informative summaries of current religious study; especially his notation of the new emphasis on attempting to find a real, historical Jesus, in an exploration of the region of Galilee; and an hypothesized galilean church (cf. “Galatians”; the Gaulish regions). At the same time though, as religious study finds one interesting new area of research after another, we should not progress from enthusiasm for insightful new revelations … to asserting that we have at last, the achievement of absolutely firm knowledge.

            What we have in Galilean study, is an interesting new hypothesis. But presenting it as absolutely firm discovery of the “true,” Galilean Jesus … seems rash and even ahistorical in the extreme. Since Historiography – the history of History – tells us that over the centuries, one academic hypothesis after another, has caught on as a fad or fashion … before being partially disgarded, for its excesses and blind spots.

            No doubt, the new explorations of the Galilean regions specifically, will furnish exciting new insights into the field. But? Nothing like the certainty and “proofs” that are now claimed for them.

            [Ed? By the way, I referred approvingly to your earlier summary on this blog, of the Galilean studies; and someone asked for a link to them: could you furnish a link? Your remarks are certainly worthy of consideration; if not deification]

  9. The question is posed in the text above:
    “how does one actually go about doing the polling to assess consensus?”
    One approach I saw to this was a listing of the recent scholarly articles in certain academic journals over a period of x years and the attitude [whatever] the authors had on a particular issue. It was, from memory, on the alleged authenticity of the TF, and the bloke [its nearly always a bloke] who did the counting had 23% thought this, 42% thought that and so on [incidentally the results were that most thought that all or parts of the TF were interpolation].
    Its a problematic approach but at least an attempt to give some numbers.

    Now I reckon that a similar approach on the alleged historicity of JC would give numbers like …. [?], but much lower numbers if one looked at the constituent elements of that scenario [see grog #2 above].
    And, as Roha at #7 above points out, the consensus can be completely wrong and simply used as an excuse to avoid discussion.

  10. I’m sorry, but expressing appreciation for Jesus’ “message of justice, love, and peace” is not the same as “personal faith in Christ” (including the pre/post East Jesus distinction). The same thing could be said about Gandhi, or Dr. King, or a host of other people. I think the book (Gowler’s) clearly was written from a historian’s perspective, not a faith perspective.

    1. It sounds as if you are rightly embarrassed by the intrusion of a confessional statement into a work that is ostensibly grounded in scholarship. I can understand why the full quotation is indigestible and that you must reduce his reference to his sons as “gifts of God” and his “hope” that Christ’s message will be a “driving force” in their lives to a mere “appreciation”.

      1. You seem to be misreading him. He doesn’t say “Christ” (which is a confessional term); he doesn’t even say “Jesus” himself. He talks about the message of Jesus–of justice, love, and peace”–aspects that Gandhi and others also contain in their messages. Also, those are aspects of Jesus’ message that can be–and should be–derived from historical scholarship. Gowler also says that Jesus was an apocalypticist but doesn’t encourage his sons to follow that part of the message! I just cannot read that statement as confessional; it is ideological–Gowler seems to be in favor of justice, love, and peace. That is just not the same.

        1. What would we make of the following words should we hear them?

          My hope is that you [speaking to his sons, whom he calls a “gift from God”] will continue your own quests for the historical Gandhi, and that his message of justice, love, and peace will be a driving force in your lives.

          That’s more than the pursuit of the pacifist ideals of a teacher; it’s an expression of devotion to the person of the teacher.

            1. You seem to be determined to avoid the first part of the sentence: “My hope is that you will continue your own quests for the historical Gandhi, . . . .”

              You seem then to avoid the context of “his message”. “His” is, in this context, anchored firmly in the personal knowledge of the teacher — so it is not a generic message of justice, love and peace that is being taught by Jesus, but one that emanates from a particular personality whom one is hoped to make a “quest” of knowing!

              Grammar alone = casuistry.
              Grammar + Context = understanding.

              1. Please forgive for not knowing that you can get into Gowler’s mind and understand exactly what he meant when speaking about the “message” of Jesus. Yes, that statement, as I said before, could have been–and has been said about Gandhi, King, and others. I would gladly say that about Gandhi without any personal, religious commitment to him. You obviously have a predetermined vision of what Gowler meant, shown, for example, by your use of “Christ” above, which Gowler never uses or even mentions. The search for the historical Jesus seems to me to be an avoidance of all the theological baggage of the “Christ,” an avoiding of all elements of the Nicene Creed and a searching for what Jesus himself taught (which is missing in the theological statements of faith such as the Nicene Creed–born, suffered, died, etc.). I did not use grammar alone, but I also do not, as you seem to do, resort to (indirect) ad hominem attacks. That also detracts from your arguments.

              2. I will respond again, since you obviously are missing the main point. Here is the problem with the blog post as far as Gowler’s work:

                ” [deleted section] . . .
                Now that’s a promising start. Gowler has admitted to an important failure in current NT scholarship — ignorance of the past. He might have added that the few who know anything about Strauss know him only indirectly, through later “refutations.” And so I might be forgiven if I start to feel somewhat heartened by Gowler’s rather strong reproach. However, my joy is quickly tempered by the final words of the preface:

                My hope is that you [speaking to his sons, whom he calls a “gift from God”] will continue your own quests for the historical Jesus, and that his message of justice, love, and peace will be a driving force in your lives.

                OK. We were doing pretty well there up to that point. Look, Gowler seems like a nice guy. I might enjoy having a beer with him. The problem for me is this: How do people separate their personal faith in Christ as a real and potent force in their daily lives from their professional quest for the historical Jesus? I’m not dogmatically saying it’s impossible. I just can’t think of a way that makes logical sense to me.”

                The problems are:

                1. Gowler is praised for being aware of the “academic amnesia” and the problems raised by Strauss.
                2. Gowler’s work is dismissed because he allegedly has a “personal faith in Christ,” although Gowler never mentions “Christ” abd sticks to the issues concerning the historical Jesus and his message, not some (Christian” theological view of “Christ.” Gowler does not do theology based on my reading of the work (although every person has an ideology, it’s not absolutely clear where Gowler stands except for his views on the historical Jesus).
                3. That is weak if not lazy argumentation based on an unproven assumption of Gowler’s alleged “personal faith in Christ.”
                4. No real examples are given of where this alleged and unproven “faith” damages or alters Gowler’s academic work. Did the author of the post even read the rest of the book? In the rest of the book, Gowler critiques Meier’s work in places where it is affected by his Catholic faith. Gowler also argues that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who was wrong about the imminent end of the world. He also argues that Jesus’ message included a social element that denounced Roman oppression and the elites much like the Jewish prophets such as Amos denounced the oppression of other elites.
                5. Any dismissal of someone’s scholarship should give concrete examples of where one’s ideology (or theology) influences one’s positions or arguments. I find no such discussion of Gowler’s work in the blog post or in your responses. I also fins no evidence of anyone reading anything other than the Preface to Gowler’s work.

              3. Gosh, you don’t let go, do you. I have no reason in the slightest to be “anti-Gowler”. I love nothing more than to read works by an author who is not bound by confessional interests — and I also find much of value in works by those who do have confessional interests. If I excluded from my reading list every scholar who had a confessional interest I would not have read anywhere near half of what I have read till now.

                But Tim who wrote this post has not, as you seem to believe, dismissed your(?)/Gowler’s work because of his confessional interest. He gives no indication that he’s dismissed your(?)/Gowler’s work at all.

                What he does is simply ask a reasonable question. How does one draw the line between a confessional interest and a scholarly interest?

                Surely it’s a fair question. There is little doubt, for example, that the likes of Crossan, Borg (and Meier, too!) and a host of others have contributed much to historical Jesus scholarship despite their fairly transparent confessional interests. The question raised, however, opens up other questions about what yet may be contributed if the scholarly guild were ever to be freed from historical paradigms that are indeed grounded in traditional belief-systems.

                No-one is “mind-reading” you(Gowler?) If there has been a misinterpretation or misconstrual of your/Gowler’s sentence then gosh, a simple polite clarification — (an unequivocal one would be even better) — will do the job quite adequately.

                (Tim appears to have been mistaken in assuming you?Gowler? was probably a very nice bloke, so maybe he and I are wrong in interpreting his/your sentence the way we did, too. 🙁 )

                But a string of hostile non sequiturs — the author critiques the Catholic bias of Meier, argues that Jesus was a mistaken prophet, etc — does nothing to assure us that the author is not even slightly influenced by personal faith or religious beliefs.

                Such a hostile response leads one to hear the words, “Methinks he doth protest too much!”

                So if you are Gowler, why not tell us plainly now: Are you a Christian? Do you profess some sort of religious faith in Jesus? If so, do you think this has any relevance to your scholarly works about Jesus? If no, how do you draw the line between a confessional interest and a scholarly interest?

                I have much more confidence in authors who acknowledge their biases than those who seem to want to deny them, especially when they do so on the basis of semantic quibbling.

                Your approach seems to be based on the assumption that it is possible for a scholar to be free from personal bias. But if you are indeed the good Doctor Gowler yourself, I find it hard to imagine you would be so naive. The problem is not bias itself. Bias is inevitable as any scholar would surely know. But things get a bit dicey if one fails to clearly see his or her own bias or understand how it influences one’s selections of evidence, interpretations and even the questions one asks, let alone the conclusions one permits oneself to reach.

                If you(?)Gowler have addressed the literary theory of Bakhtin in relation to books of the BIble then I would indeed be most interested in following up those works. I have only read Michael Vines’ use of his genre theory in relation to the Gospel of Mark.

                I certainly would not “dismiss” anything simply because the author was writing from a clearly perceived confessional bias. Surely it is a simple matter of intellectual integrity that any author make their biases or potential conflicts of interest known, however. I would simply make allowance for such bias as I read 🙂

              4. Perhaps, at least, we have reached a “consensus” on a few things:
                1. Goodacre is correct in questioning appeals to authority or consensus.
                2. Gowler is correct in pointing out the “academic amnesia” of historical Jesus scholars, such as ignoring the important issues raised by Strauss.
                3. Everyone has an ideological stance—from which they write or read—and that stance should be acknowledged and taken into account (e.g., Crossan is very up front about this).
                4. There is a significant problem in historical Jesus scholarship in that some scholars’ confessional stances (usually as Christians) affect their interpretations of the historical Jesus and the alleged reliability of the gospel accounts. That is why those scholars who promote a “secular” approach (to use their term) to New Testament studies have much to offer to the discussions.

                Gowler clearly is a fan of aspects of the message of the historical Jesus (e.g., justice, love, and peace), and I’m sure that influences his view of the historical Jesus.

              5. Are you Gowler? Do you have a faith of some sort in Jesus? I submit that given that Christianity, despite Schweitzer’s efforts, is a religion that is grounded in faith in historical persons and events, then clearly it is a religion that opens itself to at least a form of “historiography” and just as clearly a Christian believer must inevitably ask him or herself about a potential conflict of interest in doing “secular history” about Jesus.

                I think any historian should not hide their potential biases, so if you are Gowler I wonder why you seem to be shy (unlike Crossan whom you recognize as being upfront) about confessing them.

                If you have a personal commitment to what you believe to be Jesus’ message of justice, love and peace, then does that potentially influence you, as an historian, in exploring and evaluating what the historical evidence tells us that Jesus taught?

                Does your personal faith in Jesus predispose you in any way to how you might approach investigations of Christian origins? Are there certain givens that are never seriously questioned among you and your peers — and does the simple fact that you are in the academic positions of being the intellectual guardians of Christian studies mean that there are certain unspoken assumptions that underpin all your work?

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