Wise Words from Larry Hurtado and Jim Davila

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by Neil Godfrey

Two wise men from Raphael’s famous fresco

How does one go about questioning and engaging in discussion views that we find problematic. Jim Davila, Professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St Andrews, was impressed with words of wisdom posted by Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, to add good advice of his own for sake of completeness.

Jim Davila, Professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St Andrews, was impressed with words of wisdom posted by Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, on this question in relation to biblical studies, so much so, that he added an afterthought of his own for the sake of completeness.

I will start with Davila’s comment because it reminded me that I have not always lived up to it but it expresses an ideal I have nonetheless strongly believed in. I have attempted to apply this principle as consistently as possible in formulating my own views and arguments, but have sometimes kicked myself for failing to do the same in one-on-one discussions over particular points.

Davila writes:

Let me add one of my own, which I got from the philosopher of science and epistemologist Karl Popper. When I set out to respond to a position with which I disagree, first I look for ways to make the case for that position stronger. Can weak arguments be reformulated more clearly and compellingly? Can I find any evidence that my opponent has missed which offers additional support to the case I want to refute? I try to make sure that I am responding not just to my opponent’s case as presented, but to the strongest possible case I can formulate for my opponent’s position. I find that this approach helps me process positions with which I disagree more receptively and with better comprehension. Try it. I think you will find it works.

While it is one thing to apply that message to tackling hypotheses proposed in books, it might be another to apply it in personal discussions in online commentaries and exchanges. It takes patience, time, and effort to understand before clicking the “send” button.

Now back to Hurtado’s comment, On Representing the Views of Others, of which I quote the concluding section: 

And my advice to students and younger scholars is to take a similar approach [that is, consulting with the author of the views one is criticizing to ask them if they have been fairly represented in a paper being prepared for publication].  I often told my PhD students that it wasn’t necessary or wise to exaggerate or distort the views of others in order to make their own case for their views.  It wasn’t necessary to run down the work of previous scholars in order to justify their own work.  All that was needed was to demonstrate some further contribution that their own work made to the subject, whether correcting, or supplementing, or reinforcing, or extending our understanding of it.

Critique, sometimes sharp critique, of scholarly failure to take account of evidence, of prejudice and insufficiently examined assumptions, etc., all this is fair scholarly discourse.  But, given the highly critical nature of scholarly discourse, there is all the more reason to aim for fairness and accuracy.

One suspects that Larry Hurtado was posting as an afterthought to the way another scholar, James Crossley, had apparently misrepresented his work. Crossley, Hurtado informed readers, is a nice enough bloke personally but seems sometimes to let his enthusiasm to build an argument get in the way of sounder judgement. (For what it’s worth, I have sometimes checked with scholars before posting a critique of their views to be sure I have posted online, and in cases where a scholar has rebuked me for misrepresentation I have always publicly apologised and re-written the piece if I have found I was indeed wrong. I am proud to point to a number of commendations from scholars on efforts I make to be fair in the right margin of this blog. Coincidentally one scholar who has failed to respond helpfully when I have approached him to ask if I have represented him fairly as also been James Crossley.)

But of course this blog is controversial because it gives voice to radical criticisms and assumptions of certain (not all) biblical scholarship engaged with

  • Christian origins, especially from a perspective that compares the methods of biblical scholars with the normative methods of other historians;
  • Old Testament origins in the relatively recent twin lights of textual analysis and archaeological findings;
  • Current political and religious situations (e.g. terrorism, nature of religion) from the perspectives of specialist research scholars.

What sorts of books would Maurice Casey and Bart Ehrman have written about what they appeared to see as an emerging outside threat (the Christ myth theory) to the prestige of the field of biblical scholarship had they applied the above precepts of Hurtado and Davila?

As for the rules being restricted to in-house discussions (without any clarification that they should also apply to all criticisms from any quarter) notice again a section I highlighted in Hurtado’s post:

All that was needed was to demonstrate some further contribution that their own work made to the subject, whether correcting, or supplementing, or reinforcing, or extending our understanding of it.

Is it just me, or do others see a problem here, too? Is not the academic exercise in mind here assumed to be a unitary field, much like biology, engineering, astrophysics? One expects doctors to be for most part united in what tests within their field are teaching them about this or that disease, for example. But biblical studies is surely so fragmented with so many different perspectives from which to view similar questions that it is impossible for the field as a whole to be producing a unified body of knowledge that is progressing in the way our knowledge of cancer or the nature of the universe is advancing.

One scholar might be dedicated to surmising what “memories” might lie “behind the text” of a gospel, while another might be arguing that such a question completely misses the literary sources of the text and so renders any argument for events “beneath the text” to be misguided. If scholars working in medical research came up with as many “viable theories” about the nature of disease as biblical scholars have come up with for the nature of the “historical Jesus” or the “memoried Jesus” we would be justified in assuming that they have no serious methodology that can honestly be compared with anything “scientific”.

That “all that was needed” passage by Hurtado carries with it the assumption of a strictly “in-house” conversation. Others have, unfortunately, felt it necessary to criticise Hurtado himself for not following his own rule in relation to perspectives with which he profoundly disagrees and that go to the heart of the assumptions upon which his own views are grounded.

I conclude with a few more words of wisdom from Niels Peter Lemche that he posted back in 2003, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion. (A more complete discussion is at Tactics of Conservative Scholarship):

Somehow there seem to be questions that we are not allowed to ask. . . . 

Conservative scholarship is on the move, often disguising itself as mainstream scholarship. . . .

. . . .  in creating an image of a scholar who does not know his stuff. It can be done in a gentle way, as in Long’s introduction. It can be sharpened as in the quote by J.K. Hoffmeister, cited in Long’s introduction, or it can be rude as found in several publications by W.G. Dever and other scholars on the same line like G. Rendsburg. The meaning is the same: do not discuss the points made by these people; just say that they are incompetent.

. . . . 

The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you.

. . . . .

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be – according to European standards – critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship-irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her. . . .

Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche; read books about them!

All the more reason for the “unwashed outsiders” to fairly, honestly and professionally engage with the work of intellectuals who probably fail even to recognise their role in maintaining unjustifiable power structures.

Oh, and it would also be a very good idea if we all tried to remember these wise words of wisdom — me included! — when addressing certain current political, social and religious issues.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Wise Words from Larry Hurtado and Jim Davila”

  1. Clearly some scholars, because they are people of faith, have a rule for staying off the slippery slope of giving equal critical treatment to the various historical records.

    Neil, you’re already as far as Liverpool. You should stop by and talk with Hurtado. He might also see you as a nice enough bloke personally. If you call on him give him my greetings. In 1968 I took his Apologetics class in the Missouri bible college I attended.

    1. I have thought of attempting face to face meetings from time to time and the possibility did cross my mind to try to meet Larry Hurtado (or even Mathew Novenson) when I was in Edinburgh, but unfortunately my time was not my own and it was not to be. I have sometimes attempted to establish more cordial rapports with personal emails with a few scholars who have taken such a strong public disapproval of my posts but even those efforts have been in vain. Why should it be any other way? It is their relationships and credibility with their professional colleagues that has to be valued far more than contacts with an outside-stranger. C’est la vie.

  2. [This comment by Tim Widowfield has been copied to here, its originally intended location, by NG]

    Thank you for this post, Neil. We all have sinned and come short of the glory of Larry Hurtado.

    I find it takes a great deal of restraint to explain simply and in ordinary language where one’s opponent has erred. I may inwardly suspect that a scholar is engaging in self-deception (or worse), but that’s just idle speculation on my part. It does nothing to advance my own argument; I may be completely wrong in my suspicions; and I look petty and childish for bringing it up.

    But I think I am justified in open speculation about competence if the same kinds of mistakes occur over and over again. And we need to point out when peer review fails to catch these mistakes, because it isn’t the panacea that professional scholars make it out to be.

    Additionally, if a scholar takes a quote out of context (“I go a quote fishing”), we need to take him or her to task. These mistakes can become the foundations for bad secondary analysis that may become the ruling consensus.

    All of that can be quite frustrating. I’m sure my frustration is often quite visible, but I try never to accuse anyone of outright dishonesty. That doesn’t help the situation at all. All it does is to divide us up into warring camps of fans. How the hell could I know whether a person is intentionally lying?

    I’m thinking now specifically of Carrier’s habit of calling those he disagrees with “liars.” How does this help? If I think Q is still the best solution to the Synoptic Problem, does that make me a liar? Does that put me at odds with his “fans”?

    This is the sort of thing that signals the end of rational argument and a return to poop-flinging.


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