My post of two days ago Once more on that false courtroom analogy jumped the gun. I see now that Bart Ehrman has just today (19th July) posted his extract from his 1999 book on the courtroom analogy to illustrate his method of historical inquiry: An Important Criterion for Establishing What Actually Happened.
Since Ehrman explains in his introduction that
I haven’t changed my views of these matters in all these years!
I would be interested to know if he has previously encountered in any forum the objections to his methods that I have raised here (I cannot believe my criticisms are unique since I have developed them from reading the works of biblical scholars themselves), or if he has anywhere addressed the specific criticisms of his methods that have been raised by not only Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier but even among tenured academics in his own field of interest.
Over the course of the past fifty years, historians have worked hard to develop methods for uncovering historically reliable information about the life of Jesus. I need to say up front that this is a hotly debated area of research, with some very smart and competent historians (and quite a few less than competent ones) expressing divergent views both about what criteria to use and about what conclusions to draw, once they agree on the criteria.
Here I’d like to sketch several of the methodological principles that have emerged from these debates. As you will see, there is a real logic behind each of them, and the logic needs to be understood for the criterion itself not to seem hopelessly arbitrary. In particular, it might help to use an analogy: in many respects, the historian is like a prosecuting attorney. He or she is trying to make a case and is expected to bear the burden of proof.
In fact, part of the “hotly debated” aspects have been the very idea of the “criteria of authenticity” and the logical fallacies behind each one of them, not just some of them. Anyone reading the above words would not be aware of such challenges to not just particular criteria but to the entire exercise of what has been termed “criteriology”. Ehrman did appear to be addressing the new area of memory studies in historical Jesus research — a field that is critical of the “criteriology” approach Ehrman endorses — in his book Jesus Before the Gospels, but as one reviewer noted,
Ehrman engages almost none of the New Testament scholarship concerned with memory.
I am not suggesting that memory theory is “the answer” to the flaws in the “criteria of authenticity”. It is not if only because its application is based on the same groundless assumptions and misguided questions as the criteria approach. The “memory” scholar also needs to be asking the genuine research question: how best to explain the narrative found in the documents, not whether the narrative is at any level true. That question does not exclude historicity but it establishes the answer (whether historical core or something else) on a sound foundation. See the historian Aviezer Tucker’s words in the previous three posts if that sounds wrong.
I have profited immensely from some of Ehrman’s earlier books. What I would like to see is clear evidence that he continues to keep abreast of critics, even if minority voices, among his peers. His blog is meant to engage with lay readers, too, so one might hope that specific critical questions would be raised there as well.
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