If Scepticism Does Not Come Naturally. . . It’s Worth Fighting For

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by Neil Godfrey

Whatever you do, don’t just believe everything you’re told; every statement should be taken apart and scrutinised before, reluctantly, you accept that it might conceivably be true.


When a reader once tried to advise me that New Testament scholars of Christian origins were not unique among historians of the ancient world for their resistance to sceptical approaches I failed to appreciate the extent to which he was right. By no means is virtually the entire field of ancient history plagued by the same malaise in the same way New Testament scholarship appears to be but it is depressing to read in David Henige’s Historical Evidence and Argument so many illustrations of the anti-sceptical attitudes we normally associate with NT scholars among historians of ancient and early medieval times. (This post concludes my little trio on McCullough and Henige.)

Doubt has always been the underdog


Historically, doubt has been deplored more often than deployed. 


Skepticism is not inborn, but an ineluctable product of watchful experience.


If you don’t have a better argument to explain the Bible stories. . . 

Recall from my previous post Norman Walker’s insistence that academics should not be about criticizing arguments unless they can produce better hypotheses in their place.

Is it really always more important to build than to destroy? This, after all, is the fundamental question that describes the disdain with which much skepticism is regarded. Should the skeptic feel bound to replace discredited ideas with better ones? Walker and the others are far from alone in thinking so.

Zvi Yavetz, for instance, argued that “scholarly reassessments are legitimate only if new evidence that invalidates the old is discovered, if a new method of research is applied, and/or if a new outlook emerges.”

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...
The Three Wise Men”  Detail from: “Mary and Child, Photo credit: Wikipedia)

H.W. Montefiore agrees: “[i]f the story of the Magi is unhistorical (in the sense that it is not based on what actually happened), then some satisfactory account must be given of the origin and development of the tale. (pp. 36-37)

So this is how the (ultimate) historicity of the gospel narratives becomes the unchallengeable conventional wisdom. If we are unable to convince Montefiore and his peers of a better explanation for the Magi story at the birth of Jesus then we are to conclude that the story must have had a historical basis.

This ridiculous stipulation cannot be carried out; nothing like the necessary information is available. In fact, Montefiore went on to offer a few half-hearted suggestions, only to disown them: “[n]one of these explanations seem to be adequate to explain Matthew’s tale, and the possibility must be investigated that Matthew based his story on historical events.”

Such indulgent policies are disastrous for progress, since restricting the grounds for such reassessment all but grants immunity to much of the work already done. It actually favors those who have produced no evidence for their interpretations. (p. 37)

The baseless twaddle of 60’s hippie leftie quasi-anti-Semitic types

Gary Rendsburg is another cited by Henige. His article on the state of biblical studies repeatedly refers to radical critics of traditional Old Testament studies as “nihilists”. They have created a crisis where there was once consensus, he complains. I quote from Rendsburg’s article:

[W]ho are these people, these revisionists, these nihilists? What drives them? . . . Some of them are driven, as I indicated above, by Marxism and leftist politics. Some of them are former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. Some of them are counterculture people, left over from the 60s and 70s, whose personality includes the questioning of authority in all aspects of their lives. . .But with the current group of revisionists, as I intimated earlier, ideology, not objective scholarship, governs.  If it is not actual Marxism, it is leftist politics in general. If it is not revolution against the sins of one’s youth, the sin being once having identified as an evangelical Christian, then the issue is anti-authority culture in general. Furthermore, and I do not hesitate to use the terms, these scholars are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism. 

In case you hadn’t got the point Rendsburg later refers to the work of these sceptics as “baseless twaddle”.

Scepticism can lead to fascism and the Holocaust

In Amy Marcus’s The View from Nebo another biblical scholar William G. Dever is quoted for his views on sceptical revisionists who question the historicity of biblical Israel with its David and Solomon:

They strip away history, but they don’t replace it with anything else. They are nihilists, and nihilism leads to a vacuum, and as we have seen before in Europe, a historical vacuum leads to fascism. And we all know where fascism leads. Jews, of all people, know what can happen. We need to speak up before it goes too far. (p. 122 of View from Nebo)

One bumps into remarks like this from time to time but it’s extra depressing to read a cluster of them. Intellectual progress is not something to be taken for granted — not even in the academic guild.

“It is not necessary for sceptics to provide a satisfactory counter-hypothesis”

I like to think that “I don’t know” can very often be a very sound and sane place to be. If the choice is between believing in an unfounded idea and suspending all judgment until we have more evidence then surely the latter is the only sensible option. The words in the above header are Henige’s. He adds that it “merely begs the question of sufficient evidence” — which is my own point just stated.

When the Sceptic’s Doubts are Proved Wrong . . . 

Has the Sceptic been Hypersceptical?

English: Chinese Oracle Bones, Shang Dynasty L...
Chinese Oracle Bones, Shang Dynasty Linden-Museum, Stuttgart (Germany) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oracle bones provide precious independent corroboration for the last nine of twenty-nine Shang rulers mentioned in traditional histories of early China. The question is whether—and to what degree—this allows us to draw conclusions about the first twenty rulers.

Some regard partial confirmation as warrant for treating the remainder of the traditional account of the Shang, and even that of the allegedly preceding Xia dynasty, as correct, at least in outline.

Until the 1920s the Xia and Shang dynasties were archeologically unattested, and no unambiguous evidence yet exists for the Xia. Ho referred to Chinese historians early in the last century as “hypercritical” and “iconoclastic” because they doubted that which later became known, and went on to argue that the “lists of seventeen [Xia] rulers may not be summarily dismissed either.”

In using “summarily” Ho is right, and “iconoclastic” is fair enough, but is he correct to refer to those who doubted in the absence of corroborative evidence, as “hypercritical?”

One can argue that their only obligation was to be willing to abate their skepticism if the required evidence came forth, the discovery of which was partly spurred by the iconoclasts’ reservations. In retrospect, and in light of this new evidence, it is easy, but unfair, to condemn such licit doubts. Those who continue to distrust the traditional accounts of the Xia dynasty are equally duty-bound to do the same. (pp. 38-39)

I have spoken about the scientific or hypothetico-deductive method from time to time and Henige speaks of the zetetic process. (It’s an unfortunate word, I think, since not long ago I read about the flat-earthers and learned that it’s a favourite word of theirs.) As in any sound method a major part of the process is to test whatever is being advanced — whether it be an idea or a new material for a building project. It is better to test each part before rushing in and constructing a whole edifice that only later is found to contain defective parts and thus must be dismantled and rebuilt.

In short, hypotheses that fail scrutiny should provisionally be rejected and possibly—but only possibly—replaced by another argument that resists testing more effectively. If failing the test creates a vacuum, so be it, since the first step to improving hypothesizing is recognizing the need to do so. (p. 38)

But make sure you find a better hypothesis before the Nazis have a chance to take over again!

Just now I read on the Biblical History and Criticism Forum someone expressing disappointment that Robert M. Price’s books tend to “resemble a free-association game with not enough substance”. What I believe the person is referring to is Price’s tendency to raise questions and possibilities rather than dogmatically argue for a clear step by step narrative of how things “must have happened”. In other words, he is a sceptic who knows he does not have all the answers.

Henige informs us of another scholar, William Murnane, who begins an article with a “self-deprecatory comment that it had ‘no higher purpose than to raise doubt.'” He should not sound so apologetic, Henige protests.

Aside: I work with researchers in scientific fields — medicine, environment, etc — and understand that a lot of research activities globally end up proving some hypothesis does not work or an anticipated finding fails to materialize. Those activities are important to share so others don’t waste their time but they are not the sorts of experiments that make it to the high profile sexy scientific journals. There is real value in testing hypotheses and finding they do not pass tests. Such results narrow the range of options to be tested until the researchers find what works.

Perhaps its in the humanities that academics feel a greater pressure to produce affirmative results.

Knowledge in all areas has changed dramatically over time and each change was precipitated because “someone began to question, to unearth new evidence”. Henige is correct when he says that history teaches us that not only can we doubt, but that we must. (p. 38)

The distinction between doubt and disbelief is enormous

Another prominent biblical scholar James Barr once wrote:

There may well be no extra-biblical information to confirm this or that event referred to in the narrative. This in itself, however, does not seem to me to be in itself [sic] adequate ground for doubting the reality of the event. (Barr, History and Ideology, p. 79)

Henige suspects Barr was thinking mainly of “disbelieving” an event and was confusing the two terms. Doubting is not disbelieving. “The differences are enormous.” Doubt is, in fact, obligatory — and especially so for Scripture. (Barr was actually addressing the suspicion that some critics tended to doubt the Bible’s narratives more than other types of stories.)

“Is the glass half full or half empty — and why does it matter?” 

This age-old question is commonplace in literature. In fiction it turns up in such expressions as: “I answered defensively. ‘But there’s no proof that Joseph [of Arimathea] didn’t come to Britain after the Crucifixion, any more than there’s proof that he did.”40

If this helps to sustain a story line, so be it, but in historiography it is not the story line that counts most.

Tarquinius and Lucretia
Tarquinius and Lucretia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just the same, the feeling that half-full is better than half-empty finds expression everywhere. Tim Cornell, who believes that much of early Rome existed pretty much as Livy described it, upbraids skeptics: “[t]here is no reason in principle why [a] tradition should not be a romanticised version of events that really happened. It is arbitrary to dismiss the rape of Lucretia (for instance) as fiction, when we have no way of knowing whether it is fiction or not.”

As T.P. Wiseman glossed this: “[t]hat is, it purports to be true; it could be true; why should it not be true?” (p. 40. Italics original)

Hoo boy oh boy! How to stop shaking my head in disbelief! So it really is not only New Testament scholars who think like this!

Every statement . . .  the sheer amount of work . . .  

No claim about the past is beyond the responsibility of justifying it.

Despite all the arguments favoring a skeptical attitude, however, it is unlikely ever to prove popular.

When Neville Morley advises his readers that “[w]hatever you do, don’t just believe everything you’re told; every statement should be taken apart and scrutinised before, reluctantly, you accept that it might conceivably be true,” he probably realizes that the sheer amount of work he suggests will put off most of them, yet his advice is unerringly on the mark. (p. 40)

When I come across arguments like this I am reminded of why and how I came to be where I am now — and no longer part of any religious organization or belief system. “Every statement should be taken apart and scrutinized” is exactly the lesson I have continued to carry with me ever since my cult days.

In truth, the sceptic would prefer to believe

In addition to the labor involved in opposing certainty with doubt, there is another variable that might count for more. It seems unnatural to distrust our expertise, our power of guessing the truth. Have we not been trained precisely for those purposes?

In truth, the skeptic would prefer to believe, despite seeing that doing so often implies a failure to learn from experience, and he subjects his evidence to every possible test in hopes of failing. But when he does not, when the evidence proves vulnerable, then he acts accordingly. (pp. 40-41)

No hardship to side with Darwin

Those who practice [pyrrhonist scepticism] should ignore the threadbare criticism that their work reduces rather than increases the fund of historical information.

They should find it no hardship to side with Darwin when he wrote to a correspondent who advised him that he had found an error in work dealing with Russian wheat:

“Permit me again to thank you for the thorough manner in which you have worked out this case; to kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing a new truth or fact.”

Or, as Thomas Jefferson aptly put it:

“[i]gnorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.” (p .41)

My naivety is still with me. I had been astonished at the belligerence of the anti-sceptical approach of so many New Testament scholars. I had long taken it for granted that academics are trained sceptics by profession. I had for many years somehow assumed that no-one could disapprove of the Enlightenment’s gift of rational scepticism to intellectual progress. I had hoped that those postmodernist and biblical scholars who professed to deplore Enlightenment values were a passing minority who could safely be ignored. Henige has left me thinking that intellectual progress is as much under threat today as are democratic values and human rights.

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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “If Scepticism Does Not Come Naturally. . . It’s Worth Fighting For”

  1. Back when I used to debate Creationists a lot, one of the tactics I would always come across was the idea that if they proved evolution wrong, then creation must be correct. It should be obvious that this is an elementary logical fallacy (false dichotomy) but that correction never stuck.

    It might be that there is some fundamental thought process(es) that makes us believe that if the story or explanation we receive is false, then another story has to replace it. It can’t just be shown to be false; “I don’t know” doesn’t seem intuitively satisfying; that hole, I guess, in our worldview has to be filled by something. The quality of whatever it is that fills that hole doesn’t seem to matter.

    In STEM there’s hypothesis testing. The first thing that you learn (at least, that I was taught) was that if your analysis causes you to reject the null hypothesis this does not mean that the alternative hypothesis is true. The alternative’s merit has to stand on its own.

    1. Quite so. There are problems with evolutionary theories (e.g. mutation rates and successful selection to enable transition from one interbreeding species to another reproductively separate species). But there are far bigger problems with Adam and Noah as literal progenitors of the human species or even one section of it, especially in the Biblical timescale. There are fewer problems with the concept of a “self-existent creator” of the cosmos than with him walking in a garden shade because of the heat or letting a favored prophet see only his giant bottom.

  2. Neil Godfrey puts so much interesting (even if debatable) material on this site that I can scarcely keep up with downloading it on the printer and filing it, and following up the references. (Was there a real Sorcerer’s Apprentice behind the Myth?)

  3. Neil,

    In addition to calling Minimalists nihilists, Dever has accused them of being postmodernists, as have other Maximalist types. That’s why I cringe a little when you use the term “postmodernist.” Having spent some time trying to understand what postmodernism is, I’ve come to the conclusion that postmodernist is a label often applied to skeptics purely for being skeptical.

  4. “Postmodernism” seems as incapable of exact definition as “Hinduism” and “Fascism”. Is it meant to have a “meaning”, or are meanings as definitions useless in a “postmodern” world? Did meaning itself go out with modernism? These questions are not “meant” to be funny.

  5. Postmodernism is expressed through a widely varying range of practices among historians. I have long thought of doing a post/series on the different types of history that will cover these, but it will take time. (And the longer I wait the more about postmodernism in historical practice I keep learning.)

    My reference to postmodernist scholars at the end had in mind New Testament scholars — Chris Keith and other social memory scholars; Richard Bauckham and Dale Allison and others — whose methods are explicitly or implicitly based on postmodernist rationales. Postmodernism would appear to have come to the rescue of those NT hypotheses long related to Christian origins that are only very lightly supported by real evidence.

    In OT studies postmodernism appears to be a negative epithet cast at minimalists. The reason I think is the very real desire to defend the traditional story of the Old Testament and the character of the justification for the modern state of Israel. New Testament modernism is used to find new rationalizations for the gospel narrative so it does not have the same threatening potential as it does in OT studies.

    I had never thought of the primary works of Thompson, Lemche and Davies as postmodernist (i.e. works on patriarchs and early history of Israel and the various books of L and D that I have discussed here and at vridar.info) because they have stressed the primacy of the archaeological evidence over the textual. I know Dever et al have accused them of postmodernism and some supporters of Thompson do suggest (positively) his arguments stressing the text as divorced from the primary evidence are postmodernist. Given the diversity of postmodernism itself I have been thinking of asking T and D the extent to which some of their arguments might be based on postmodernist theories.

    (“Minimalist” Keith Whitelam is not a postmodernist but writes from the perspective of the Annales school of history.)

    Postmodernism is not all bad, by the way. There are some positives other historians have taken from it.

    1. Could you please elaborate on your last statement – “Postmodernism is not all bad, by the way. There are some positives other historians have taken from it.”

      Further, you recently shared some thoughts on Richard J. Evan’s book In Defense of History, in which he took postmodernism to task. I have not read the book and would like to know if he extracted any positive take aways from postmodernism.


      1. The book on historiography by Evans is very well worth reading as also his book that closely analyses the spin that Irving puts on the evidence regarding several selected events involving Hitler, but Evans has his own political bias and is quite credulous about some of the “evidence” offered in respect of one particular set of wartime events that has been given a capitalized quasi-religious label and is protected from close analysis in some countries by legislation similar to blasphemy prohibitions with consequent criminal penalties for heretics.

      2. I was preparing my thoughts on some positives from postmodernism when I found myself back at the following by Richard Evans in his final chapter on “In Defence of History” — location ca 4450 Kindle —

        Postmodernism in its more constructive modes has encouraged historians to look more closely at documents, to take their surface patina more seriously, and to think about texts and narratives in new ways. It has helped open up many new subjects and areas for research, while putting back on the agenda many topics which had previously seemed to be exhausted. It has forced historians to interrogate their own methods and procedures as never before, and in the process has made them more self-critical, which is all to the good. It has led to a greater emphasis on open acknowledgement of the historian’s own subjectivity, which can only help the reader engaged in a critical assessment of historical work. It has shifted the emphasis in historical writing — though not in writing about history as a discipline — back from social-scientific to literary models, and in so doing has begun to make it more accessible to the public outside the universities (and indeed to students within them). It has restored individual human beings to history, where social science approaches had more or less written them out. And it has inspired, or at least informed, many outstanding historical works in the last decade or more: works which have been none the worse for continuing in other respects to conform to many of the traditional canons of scholarship which postmodernism in its more radical movements affects to despise.

        Hayden White’s analysis of literary types (comedy, tragedy etc) in many historical works I find very interesting and informative. The main positive I take from it is the increased attention that PM compels us to have on the nature of the texts themselves — both the source texts and the values that are conveyed through the writing of history. I also appreciate Evans’ point about PM providing an alternative to interpreting history as progress and opening up interest in and understanding of otherwise neglected groups and themes in human experience.

        I had not realized that some of the more interesting literary styles of a number of historians is also a product of PM — in preference to the dry fact-riddled presentations that make topics inaccessible to most readers.

        I wonder how James Crossley is going to get along with Chris Keith — Crossley is calling for social-scientific analysis and his history is very theoretical and dry while Keith is openly postmodernist. So I don’t know how they’ll get along as a team: but then again we’ve already seen that Keith’s PM is actually unlike that of many other PM historical works (he seeks to establish some “approximation” of real true facts behind the texts) and Crossley is not very masterful in logical argument so maybe they’ll do as well as any NT scholars have ever done. :-/

    2. Postmodernism might amount to radical skepticism in many ways. But if so, then Dr. Keith misused it. He invoked radical indeterminability and gave it lip service. But then he often settled down to comfortably affirming traditional religious pieties.

      But then too however, finally complete skepticism would doubt the existence of the material world, and would thereby conflict with much of science.
      For that reason I consider myself a post-Poststructuralist realist.

  6. But, you see, when Gene Roddenberry showed us that Flash Gordon was not a true story, he replaced in with Star Trek.

    When George Lucas showed us that Star Trek was not a true story, he replaced it with Star Wars.

    If you don’t believe Star Wars is a true story, then you are a nihilist.

  7. In defense of Livy, though, archaeologists have found evidence for Rome dating back to 753 bce and founded by an historical Romulus. Findings are presented in a very well written book, Rome, Day One.

    The defenders of the historical Jesus should be so lucky.

  8. In line with skepticism, how about a carefully objective, non-committed or impartial outline of “Fabrication” theory? No one wants to look like a conspiracy theorist. But to be sure, if there are so many obvious manipulations in religion well-known to elite practitioners, and social scientists, then a carefully neutral review or survey of the “white lie” and Santa Claus theory etc., would be useful.

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