This post continues my assessment of the claims made in a doctoral dissertation by Michael Zolondek (supervised by Larry Hurtado and Helen Bond of the University of Edinburgh) that Jesus scholars use the same methods as historians of other fields. The sorts of methods he is addressing are specifically the “criteria of authenticity”. Though challenged by some scholars today, many biblical scholars continue to defend them as tools by which they can sift historical core “facts” or “events” about Jesus from theological or mythical overlay in the gospels. One such criterion is “multiple attestation”: the criteria that if an event is found in multiple (independent) sources there is strong likelihood it is genuinely historical. Another is the criterion of “double dissimilarity”: this criterion states that if a saying has no parallel in either early church teaching or in ancient Judaism then it very likely originated with the historical Jesus himself. And so forth.
On page 98 of the published version of the dissertation, We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question, Zolondek states that the examples found in a chapter by biblical scholar Stanley Porter of historians whose background is in ancient history are evidence that ancient historians do indeed use some of the same criteria of authenticity as historical Jesus scholars. Porter actually presented those particular examples of ancient historians to demonstrate that they do not use the biblical scholars’ tool of criteria of authenticity but Zolondek disagrees with Porter’s claims. Before I discuss those three examples and (unlike Zolondek) go beyond Porter’s article to the more detailed writings of those three ancient historians themselves I want to highlight another significant point made by Porter that is entirely overlooked by Zolondek.
The book chapter we are looking at is Stanley Porter’s “The Criterion of Authenticity” published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). On pages 700-701 Porter writes:
[S]everal of the criteria seem to violate the kinds of historians’ fallacies that David Fischer has brought to the attention of historians.21 These include (and some are discussed further below)
the criterion of double dissimilarity possibly violating the fallacy of many questions (e.g. by asking two questions at once, begging the question, or framing a complex question that requires a simple answer) or of contradictory questions (e.g. when the two distinctives create an anomaly of a human unsuited to any world);22
the criterion of least distinctiveness violating the reductive fallacy in demanding a linear approach to the development of literary forms, or generalization;23
and the Semitic language criterion having potential problems in question framing, including question begging or creating a false dichotomy.24
21 D. H. Fischer. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper, 1970).
22 Ibid., 8, 34.
23 Ibid., 172 – 175.
24 Ibid., 8-12.
I have posted on some of the common fallacies listed by David Fischer several times now, including,
- The fallacy of the prevalent proof
- The fallacy of argument ad verecundiam (to modesty?)
- Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof
- The Fallacy Few Historians Have Avoided
So I find it interesting that a prominent biblical scholar such as Stanley Porter turns to the same book. (Richard Carrier also makes good use of it in Proving history: Bayes’s theorem and the quest for the historical Jesus.) Zolondek ignores the relevant section of Porter’s chapter.
Porter suggests that the criterion of double dissimilarity (explained in my opening paragraph) may fall into the fallacy traps Fischer warns against:
The fallacy of many questions is a common form of error, which has been variously defined as: ( 1 ) framing a question in such a way that two or more questions are asked at once, and a single answer is required ; or ( 2 ) framing a question in such a way as to beg another question ; or ( 3 ) framing a question which makes a false presumption; or ( 4 ) framing a complex question but demanding a simple answer.
(Fischer, p. 8)
Some examples of the “many questions” fallacy discussed by Fischer:
“Have you stopped beating your wife?” This, the classic textbook example, presumes, of course, that you have already begun to do so–a presumption which is not merely ungenerous but possibly mistaken. Many wife-beating questions were deliberately concocted by that playful monarch Charles II, who enjoyed assembling the learned gentlemen of his Royal Society and asking them, with a sovereign contempt for logic as well as fact, to explain “why a live fish placed in a full bowl of water does not cause it to overflow, while a dead fish does cause it to overflow.” None of his scholars dared to fault a royal question. Instead, they invented answers of magnificent absurdity as an act of homage to a man who was himself a consistent living argument for republicanism.
Fischer finds historian Don Fehrenbacher a rich source of such questions:
1. “Was Reconstruction shamefully harsh or surprisingly lenient?”
2. “Was the presidential plan of reconstruction a sound one?”
3. “Could Lincoln have succeeded where Johnson failed?”
4. “Was the latter a miserable bungler or a heroic victim?”
5. “What were the primary motives of the Radical Republicans?”
6. “How bad were the carpetbag governments?”
7. “How well did the freedman meet his new responsibilities?”
8. “What part did terrorism play in the ultimate triumph of the Southern ‘redeemers’?”
9. “When did racial segregation harden into its elaborate mold?”
The third question commits the fallacy of fictional questions, which is discussed below. All others are examples of the fallacy of many questions, by any of the definitions listed above. Fehrenbacher’s first question assumes that Reconstruction was either “shamefully harsh” or “surprisingly lenient,” but maybe it was something else again. The second question assumes that there was a single presidential plan of reconstruction, which is doubtful. The fourth commits precisely the same sort of error as the first; the fifth assumes that there were some clearly primary radical motives, and thereby encourages a simple motivational monism so common in historical writing. The sixth, literally construed, assumes that the carpetbag governments were bad in some degree; the seventh assumes that freedmen in fact had new responsibilities, which were met in some degree. The eighth assumes that the Redeemers did “ultimately” triumph. The ninth assumes that racial segregation did at some point in time harden into an elaborate mold, but maybe that institution has been continuously in process of change.
(Fischer p. 9)
The criterion of least distinctiveness claims that striking details tend to be added to a saying as it is transmitted over time and that the original saying is best determined by removing these and looking at the more mundane core message. Porter quotes Bultmann to explain:
“Whenever narratives pass from mouth to mouth the central point of the narrative and general structure are well preserved; but in the incidental details changes take place, for imagination paints such details with increasing distinctiveness”.32
And adds his own further explanation:
The changes typically cited include traditions becoming longer and more detailed, the elimination of Semitisms (see below on the criterion of Semitic language phenomena), the use of direct discourse, and conflation and hence growth of traditions. For example, Lk. 3.7-18 might be cited as an example where many of these features are present, such as direct discourse, later Christian additions (e.g. ‘with the Holy Spirit’ in v. 16), and the combination of Q material with other traditions.
(Porter, 2004, pp. 77-78)
Porter points out that this criterion is essentially another form of what Fischer labels the reductive fallacy. Fortunately a growing number of scholars in more recent times have, Porter acknowledges, identified this fallacy in the criterion. Studies in oral transmission of tales have demonstrated that we cannot assume they started out as most simplistic and banal narratives and that distinctive additions to background or supplementary narrative must be later interpolations.
So insofar as historical Jesus scholars claim that certain of their criteria are employed by other ancient historians they are putting themselves in an awkward position. Those particular methods are logically fallacious and an embarrassment among other historians when discovered. I understand that when Fischer’s book came out many of his peers fearfully opened its pages in tense hope that they were not listed in his index!
Next time I will look at the ancient historians that Zolondek says do prove his claim that biblical scholars practice the same methods.
Fischer, D. H. (1970). Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought. New York: Harper.
Porter, S. E. (2011). “The Criteria of Authenticity.” In T. Holmén & S. E. Porter (Eds.), Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Volume 1: How to Study the Historical Jesus. Part Two, Various Aspects of Historical Jesus Methodology (Vol. 1, pp. 695–714). Leiden: Brill.
Zolondek, M. V. (2016). We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Messianic Question. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications.
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