“No reason to doubt . . .”? Fine, but that’s no reason to stop critical thinking

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by Neil Godfrey

One of the most common refrains in the scholarly output of scholars dedicated to the study of the historical Jesus and Christian origins is that “there is no reason to doubt” that Jesus or some other gospel figure said or did such and such. That is supposed to shut down critical inquiry, it seems. If there is “no reason to doubt” a gospel passage then it is implied that any doubt must be a product of a hostile attitude or at least an unfair scepticism. When a reputable scholar declares “no reason to doubt” what we read in the Gospels a less credentialed reader may feel that the matter is settled. “No reason to doubt X” becomes “we should accept X as historically true”.

Lest you have any doubts about the above take a look at a few examples I was able to find within minutes by grabbing a few titles almost at random:

[T]he prophet of Nazareth [Jesus] himself belonged to the house of David. There seems no reason to doubt the particulars about this which are given by the first two evangelists and Paul.

— James Dunn and Scot McKnight, The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, p. 9

There is no good reason to doubt that Jesus came under such criticism already during his period of success and popularity in Galilee. The Gospel pictures offered in Mark 2 and 7 are at this point wholly plausible and should not be lightly discarded. 

— James Dunn and Scot McKnight, The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, p. 484

There is no reason to doubt that it was . . . the later slow acceptance of Mark as a fixed and authoritative text which led to the death of oral traditions about Jesus’.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 202

That is to say, there is no reason to doubt that Jesus was actually baptized by John; but the account of the heaven(s) being opened, the Spirit descending as a dove, and the heavenly voice, are all evidence of mythical elaboration.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 374

We have also already observed that the traditions of both the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching seem to have been much influenced by reflection on Isaiah’s prophecies, and there is no reason to doubt that both preachers were themselves influenced by their own knowledge of Isaiah.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 494

Three features stand out in this catalogue, shared by Mark and Q, as also by the fuller material in Luke: (1) the term ‘sinner …’ is remembered as regularly used in criticism against Jesus, (2) the term ‘sinner’ is regularly associated with ‘toll-collector’, and (3) the criticism is most often levelled against Jesus for dining with such people. There is no reason to doubt that all three features are well rooted in the earliest memories of Jesus’ mission, as is generally agreed.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 528

But there is no good reason to doubt the tradition that Pilate took the opportunity afforded him to follow a quasi-judicial procedure. . . 

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 629

[T]here is no good reason to doubt the basic facts of Jesus’ arrest by Jewish Temple police and subsequent hearing before a council convened by the high priest Caiaphas for the purpose.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 784

Despite uncertainties about the extent of tradition which Paul received, there is no reason to doubt that this information was communicated to Paul as part of his introductory catechesis.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, p. 855

Where there is no such reason to doubt, however, Williamson accepts Josephus in whole and part — events, motives, and moral assessments.

— Steve Mason, speaking of G.A. Williamson, “The Writings of Josephus: Their Significance for New Testament Study”  in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 1655

Also, on the basis of what John writes, there is no reason to doubt that he understands Joseph to be Jesus’ natural, biological father. 

— D. Moody Smith, “Jesus Tradition in the Gospel of John” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2011

Sanders is at pains to stress that there is not, in principle, any reason to doubt that Jesus could also think that already during his ministry the Kingdom was manifest: Jesus is not a systematic thinker with a dualistic apocalyptic theology. 

— Crispin Fletcher-Louis speaking of E.P. Sanders, “Jesus and Apocalypticism” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2891

Certainly, as the place of Peter, his brother Andrew, and of Philip, whose home was Bethsaida, according to John 1:44 and 12:21, . . . . . 83

83 There is no reason to doubt this information; on the contrary, only the names of these three disciples of Jesus have a Greek association: “Philip” (cf. also John 12:20-22) and “Andrew” are Greek names; the name of the brother of Andrew, “Simon,” is also often found among Greeks.

Heinz-Wolfgang Kuhn in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2995

Although the evangelists present this story in a stylized form which is adapted to their own situation, I see no reason to doubt that they are basically relating an event from the life of the historical Jesus.

— Heinz Giesen, “Poverty and Wealth in Jesus and the Jesus Tradition” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 3270

There is no reason to doubt that Jesus grew up in and around the carpenter’s shop of his father at Nazareth. 

— James M. Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus, p. 96

There is in any case no reason to doubt the depiction of John as an eschatological preacher.

— E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 92

In Josephus’ version the Baptist preached ‘righteousness’ and ‘piety’. . . . Josephus wrote in Greek, and these two words were used very widely by Greek-speaking Jews to summarize their religion. There is no reason to doubt that John stressed both.

— E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 92

Although this school debate does not appear to have been preserved in its original form, there is no reason to doubt that it represents an actual debate, because if it had been invented (i.e. mis-remembered) at a later date we would expect the Hillelite position to conform to the accepted view here. 

— David Intone-Brewer, “Rabbinic Writings in New Testament Research” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus p. 1696

There is no good reason to doubt that this Simon really was a Pharisee.

— N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 192

It has often been pointed out that the difference in pronunciation between Chrestus and Christus would be minimal in this period, and there is no good reason to doubt that what we have here is a garbled report of disturbances within the large Jewish community in Rome, brought about by the presence within that community of some who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.

— N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 355

The so-called ‘triumphal entry’ was thus clearly messianic. This meaning is somewhat laboured by the evangelists, particularly Matthew, but is not for that reason to be denied to the original incident. All that we know of Jewish crowds at Passover-time in this period makes their reaction, in all the accounts, thoroughly comprehensible: they praise their god for the arrival, at last, of the true king. What precisely they meant by this is difficult to assess; that they thought it and said it, there is no good reason to doubt

— N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 491

Virtually all scholars agree that seven of the Pauline letters are authentic . . . These seven cohere well together and appear stylistically, theologically, and in most every other way to be by the same person. They all claim to be written by Paul. There is scarce reason to doubt that they actually were written by Paul.

— Bart Ehrman, Forged, p. 106

These passages, taken together, clearly stand behind the warnings of Mark 13. Granted our whole argument thus far, there is no reason to doubt that they were used in this way by Jesus himself.

— N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 512

There seems to be no reason to doubt that Jesus spent the last week of his life in Jerusalem looking ahead to the celebration of the Passover feast.

— Bart Ehrman, https://ehrmanblog.org/the-memory-of-jesus-triumphal-entry/

Polycarp was not eager to be martyred for his faith. When the authorities decide to arrest him, he goes into hiding, at the encouragement of his parishioners. On the other hand, he refuses to be intimidated and makes no serious attempt to resist the forces that want him dead, principally the mobs in town who evidently see Christians as a nuisance and social disease, and who want to be rid of them and, particularly, their cherished leader. Rather than stay on the run, Polycarp allows himself to be captured in a farmhouse in the countryside. And when taken into the arena and threatened with death, rather than defend himself, he stoutly refuses to do what is required: deny Christ and make an offering for the emperor. He is threatened with torture and wild beasts, but nothing fazes him. The governor orders his death by burning at the stake, and the sentence is immediately carried out.

As I have indicated, the account appears to be written by an eyewitness, and there is no reason to doubt that in its essentials it is accurate. 

— Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, p. 139

There is no reason to doubt the entire passage, just the last few words.

— Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, p. 123

We see that, while there are vague commonalities between the Jesus story and ancient stories of gods surviving death, hero myths, and legends surrounding other historical figures, none of these commonalities gives us reason to doubt that the Jesus story is substantially rooted in history.

— Paul R. Eddy and Gregory Boyd, Lord or Legend? Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma, p. 62

One might be forgiven for suspecting that “no reason to doubt” can too easily become a cop out for failure to present an evidence based argument. Maybe it can serve as a cover for assumptions that have been taken for granted and never seriously examined, or for a lazy and naive reading of primary sources.

But let’s not be overly harsh. If I read that Jesus walked on water and rose from the dead I think I am entitled to have “reasons to doubt” those stories. But if I read that Jesus taught people to be kind to others or expressed anger at the hypocrisy of authorities I confess I see no reason to doubt such accounts. They are plausible enough narratives of the sorts of sentiments many people express.

If, however, I am wanting to dig into the origins of the gospels and Christian teachings then the fact that I see “no reason to doubt” certain episodes becomes quite irrelevant.

Compare: If I greet a friend and ask how he is I will probably have no reason to doubt him when he says “Fine, just a little tired today.” But if I were his doctor I would want to know why he is tired and his answer may lead me to do undertake tests. I would have no reason to doubt that otherwise he feels quite “fine” but that will not be my primary concern and given results of tests I may consider his sense of well-being (which I will not doubt) as beside the point.

Two Rules: One for the author, one for the reader

Dorrit Cohn

The following lines by Dorrit Cohn (a scholar of literature who in later years focused on the differences between fictional and nonfictional writings) get to the heart of what is missing when we fall back into the “no reason to doubt” position and assume it is okay to stay there. Cohn is discussing how both authors and readers approach a work of history, more specifically a work of the history of one person, or an autobiography:

In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:

“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.” 

On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures. 

In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (p. 31, italics original, my formatting)

Readers of an autobiography approach the text expecting its author to be sincerely reporting what he or she believes to be “the truth” of his or her life. That is, readers expect to have “no reason to doubt” what they read. And the author of such a work expects to meet that trust and “tell the truth” so that readers should have “no reason to doubt”.

But there is no rule that readers must take the statements they read as invariably and consistently absolutely and objectively true. They maintain an implied freedom to “check up” and search into the things they read about. They also maintain a freedom to notice, perhaps, some self-deception in the author of which the author is naively unaware. Perhaps the reader interested in following up some detail discovers independent evidence that it did not at all happen the way the autobiographer wrote about it.

None of that takes away from the reader’s starting position that he or she saw “no reason to doubt” what was written. The reader expects the author to be sincere and honest. But the reader is also aware the author is human and fallible. My friend might always say he is “fine” when I greet him but even though I see no reason to doubt him on any particular occasion I know that there must be times it is not true.

When I read that Jesus taught his disciples to give to the poor I have no reason to doubt that he did so. But when I seek to “check up” in order to learn more about how that teaching came to be documented in the first place, and the evidence we have to support the various models through which we interpret the documentary evidence, then I put on my “critical thinking” cap.

If I stop at not seeing any reason to doubt and take such details as fundamental foundations then I have become a fundamentalist who never allows critical inquiry to delve into the foundations of his belief system.



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24 thoughts on ““No reason to doubt . . .”? Fine, but that’s no reason to stop critical thinking”

  1. Scholars in the 19th and early 20th century used the same lazy rhetorical device to justify far more biblical passages than they do now. A few “doubters” in one generation can grow into a consensus of doubters by the next one. Then along comes someone like James Dunn to doubt the doubters, and the cycle repeats itself in reverse. All biblical criticism is ultimately opinion.

  2. It seems that “no reason to doubt”, means to many that there is no conclusive evidence to contradict an assertion. But if there is no evidence to corroborate an assertion, e.g. the Christian (or Muslim) God actually exists, then by definition there is reason to doubt. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it’s not evidence of presence either. Doubt, or skepticism is the only appropriate response.

  3. I think Cohn is talking about a much different genre than the gospels. With any writing, I am willing to assume as my starting point that the author is conveying what he believes to be true. With an autobiography, I can also assume that the author is in a position to know the truth of the things about which he is writing. Thus, I may start with no reason to doubt. With the gospels, on the other hand, I have no basis to assume that authors have any personal knowledge of any of the events they are relating. I think that gives me reason to take a more skeptical view as my starting point, even though I assume that the writer believes what he is writing.

    1. Gospels are clearly not autobiographies, but Cohn does compare the biography genre with that of history. I would just add that the principles Cohn identifies in her work are presented as indicators of whether a work is fiction or nonfiction more broadly.

    2. You think Jesus is a trustworthy character?

      Then why does Mark portray Jesus as a fallible human prophet who couldn’t perform miracles in his home town? :

      “4Then Jesus told them, ‘A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household.’ 5So He could not perform any miracles there, except to lay His hands on a few of the sick and heal them.” Mark 6:4-5″

      Jesus’ family knew there was nothing particularly “miraculous” about Jesus (having been around him all his life), so they didn’t come to him for miracles.

      So if we have a widely successful faith healer whose family knows Jesus is nothing special, what are we to think?

  4. Neil, I think we both remember a certain ‘apostle’ who used to say, “suffice it to say”, then make an outrageous claim. Similar copout designed to get us to sit down and shut up, I suppose.

    1. uggh… (shudder). Yep. It’s the same game of high status names at the top and if you want to be part of the game you learn to question with deference and make it clear you know your limits. Only difference is degree.

  5. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2114781.Canaanites

    From Jonathan Tubb’s book on the archaeology and history of Canaan [written 1998] – which includes Israel and Judea.

    On the subject of the alleged historicity of David and Solomon:

    *””…some historical reality which has been expanded, adapted and interpreted to suit literary and sociological rather than purely historical needs.
    In other words, although there is no contemporary external evidence, either literary or archaeological, to corroborate the existence of David or Solomon as real
    historical rulers, there is no reason to doubt that they did exist” p.114

    [*From my old notes and thus should be checked before being repeated as if gospel]

    1. Another example of the principle comes from Chumney’s book that I discuss in my more recent post (http://vridar.org/2017/04/27/did-the-search-for-meaning-in-scriptures-really-lead-to-the-gospel-narratives/) — The words “we have no reason to doubt” are not used but we have a similar thought-process to the one you describe:

      Even though experts agree that those reports have “no independent value as evidence for what actually happened,” they do at least corroborate what the Gospels tell us.

      That makes no sense to me. How can evidence that is not independent and therefore incapable of verifying a claim somehow still find value as a “corroboration” of a claim?

  6. Lots of these come from James Dunn, note. He’s a particularly annoying anachronism. Still speaking, but not new. In his time, 40 years ago, he was considered daringly critical, in an equivocal sort of way.

    Anthony Le Donne, who is a bit more reflective, was his last PhD student.

    1. Anthony Le Donne:

      From Historical Jesus, 2011

      Since no one doubts that the words and deeds
      of Jesus were actively remembered by a community for over a decade,
      6 one must conclude that there were several versions of these
      memories from the start. (p. 75)

      There can be no doubt that both perceptions and memories of Jesus
      were cast along narrative patterns in order to measure his historical
      significance and project meaning onto his legacy. p. 118

      Jesus will reveal himself as the apocalyptic
      kingdom luminary of Daniel 7:13 called the “Son of Man:’ While
      many question the historical plausibility of Mark’s trial narrative
      (and so too must I ) there can be little doubt that Jesus was commonly
      remembered by this title. p. 125

      From Historiographical Jesus, 2009

      Indeed, while there is no doubt that many Jews did expect an eschatological warrior figure. . . . (p. 122)

      [You may be aware from other posts of mine that a significant number of scholars dispute this reconstruction.]

      No doubt, Mark represents a refracted version of this account [ie. Bartimaeus] (p. 265)

      [Le Donne’s theoretical memory model has become a fact of which there can be “no doubt”]

      1. Good point. They are just showing 1) their faith bias.

        I think the “no reason to doubt” approach could also be considered to be an 2) example of the logical fallacy of “The Argument From Incredulity.” Which claims a given claim cannot be true, just because the speaker can’t imagine how it could be. Though the speaker may just lack imagination, or the ability to form conceptual models (as I roughly recall this fallacy).

  7. Doesn’t ‘no reason to doubt’ any of the details of the life of Jesus simply mean that they are totally ignorant of the details of the life of Jesus?

    I have no reason to doubt that Bart Ehrman likes to dress up in ladies underwear.

    I also have no reason to accept that Bart Ehrman likes to dress up in ladies underwear.

    This says nothing about Ehrman. It simply means I have little personal knowledge of the guy.

    Every time a Biblical scholar says ‘there is no reason to doubt’, I know he is claiming that Biblical scholars know very little about what they are talking about.

    1. I think this is a tad unfair and not a true analogy. “No reason to doubt” is always a response to a claim being made in the sources or to a thesis widely accepted by the guild. If you read that Ehrman likes to dress up that way by someone claiming to know the low-down on Ehrman and if he said this in a context of other easier to accept habits of Ehrman, and if that claim was simply ignored (not rebutted) by Ehrman, then your point of comparison would be valid.

  8. In a way, the opposite of doubt is faith. And these scholars – who in my opinion are doing a secularized form of apologetics – are basing everything on faith.

    1. “What If the Mythicists Were Right: Mailbag November 6, 2016”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

      I do not think that the stories of the resurrection are historically credible.
      I know that many Mythicists wish that I would spend my entire career obsessing over whether Jesus existed or not (they keep wanting me to do debates, and respond to criticisms, and write more about it!). But most of my academic work – both teaching and research/ writing – is on completely other issues…
      These are the things that I spend my time researching and teaching. I spend almost no time focusing on the question of whether Jesus existed.

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