Why Bias is Impossible to Avoid and So Hard to Detect

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by Neil Godfrey

Coincidentally just after posting my last article attempting to demonstrate how bias is inevitable in any research, I started reading an expansion of the same idea in Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible.

I will try to minimize the high conceptual jargon and focus on Nineham’s illustrations as he leads the reader step by step into an understanding of the source of our most fundamental and hidden biases. (In all quotations the paragraphing and bolded font is mine. Italics are original.)

To illustrate the way people have rarely been able to distinguish between data or phenomena in the world and their own culturally determined interpretations of it (compare my point in the previous post that some scholars cannot distinguish between raw data and their interpretation of it), Dennis Nineham writes:

Suppose a man lives in a society in which all illness is understood as due to demon-possession. The only questions he will be able to ask about his health — or, mutatis mutandis, about other people’s health — will be: Am I possessed by a demon; and if so, what sort of a demon is it and how can it be expelled?

Because no alternative understanding is available in his community, the symptoms, real of imaginary, which lead him to ask the question will actually be experienced as demonic activity. The pains will feel like a demon biting at his vitals, the rash will be seen as a demon’s claw-marks, and so on. (pp. 4)

Nineham then imagines a slightly more sophisticated situation where the same man lives in a community that permits the existence of an alternative religion that ascribes all sickness to witchcraft.

Even then the understandings of illness available to the man will be limited to these two. He will still not be able, for example, to interpret his symptoms as the end result of a chain of natural causes and effects after the manner of a modern doctor.

What do we mean by “understanding” something?

Nineham then moves to the next point: Continue reading “Why Bias is Impossible to Avoid and So Hard to Detect”

Who’s the scholarly scoundrel? Scholars of Christian origins bound by bias, immured in myth.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened!” (Daniel Boyarin)
Most of us [biblical scholars] are just trying to follow the evidence. (Larry Hurtado)


Forget mythicism or the Christ myth debate. That’s irrelevant. Or should be. What matters is the evidence we have, understanding it and explaining it. The evidence we have from the early days of Christianity is a literary and a theological Jesus. No-one I know of in my circle gloats or thinks they are scoring points over whether they can prove or disprove the existence of the historical Jesus. What interests them is understanding the best way to explain both the nature of early Christianity and Christianity’s origins. What matters is making the best sense of the data available. But first we need to have a clear and valid understanding of what constitutes the data to be explained.

In my previous post I noted what should be a simple truism: scholars of Christian origins generally are doing little more than paraphrasing (in scholarly language and with their own qualifying preferences) the Christian myth we have inherited from the Bible.

I have no doubt the bulk of them are very sincere and would sincerely censure me for suggesting that their scholarly pursuits are trapped in the myth itself. This blog has frequently posted observations of the ineptitude of some biblical scholars who seem to fall very short with respect to rigour and understanding of questions of historical methods, awareness of what their peers and foundational predecessors have written, and even the very nature of scholarly bias and the meaning of evidence.

The second of the quotes above struck me at first as a caricature. Surely a professor would know something about the nature of bias in any scholarly pursuit and especially in one as ideological as biblical studies.

Apparently not. I attempted to post a comment addressing the naivety of this view but my comment was rejected. The same professor even remarked that my suggestion of bias in the scholarly field amounted to the charge of a “conspiratorial agenda”. Does a professor really believe that the alternative to freedom from bias is deliberate conspiracies? Or is this a defensive response against lay critics who can see the emperors are scantily clad?

So I post here the message that the professor did not appear to want others to read on his blog:

I do not believe biblical studies is unlike any other academic discipline and institution when it comes to questions of institutional (let alone personal) bias. Bias is a necessary part of the human condition and without it we cannot function. Surely everyone knows that the trick is to be aware of our biases and that that is not always a simple matter.

We don’t need to go beyond Albert Schweitzer’s observation that up till his own day scholars had produced an array of historical Jesus figures, each one in the image of his scholarly creator.

The latest historical Jesus figure I’ve encountered was only a few months ago and he, too, is very much the spitting image of his maker, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann (i.e., all his scholarly peers are failures, only he can rescue them, but they don’t listen to him, he is without a place, and he sure as blazes doesn’t love everybody). I think we can conclude little has changed since Schweitzer’s day in this respect.

No one “simply follows the evidence” Continue reading “Who’s the scholarly scoundrel? Scholars of Christian origins bound by bias, immured in myth.”