Scholars of Christianity are Not Alone

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s a human thing. Not limited to one religious heritage. I’m talking about the foibles of scholarship as it delves into its own heritage.

So we have the language of apologetics being used where it does not belong. Recall a post that detoured into a discussion of confessional language in scholarship. Recall some of the examples of this evangelical rhetoric:

Alas, the idea that a messiah killed by crucifixion . . . . would be shocking to first-century Jews is still alive and well.

. . . .

At the very least, however; Paul’s primary emphasis in relation to Christ represents something utterly remarkable. For Paul had found the early Christian proclamation of the crucified messiah completely abhorrent . . . .

. . . .

. . . . an unprecedented and momentous innovation in traditional Jewish liturgical practice.

And so forth. But Christianity is not alone. The following is found in a Buddhist publication:

It took an astonishing energy and dedication to create and sustain this literature. It must have been produced by an extraordinary historical event. And what could this event be, if not the appearance of a revolutionary spiritual genius? The Buddha’s presence as a living figure in the [early Buddhist texts] is overwhelming and unmistakable.

Then there is this claim attempting to put a study arguing for the authenticity of very early Buddhist texts reliably scientific:

Science works from indirect and inferred evidence and the preponderance of such indirect evidence points to the authenticity of the [early Buddhist texts]

Is that true about the grounds for scientific conclusions? I’m not so sure.

Then we read of the conditions that are laid down for any opposing argument:

Anyone wishing to establish the thesis that the [early Buddhist texts] are inauthentic needs to propose an explanation that accounts for the entire range of evidence in a manner that is at least as simple, natural, and reasonable as the thesis of authenticity. To our knowledge, this has never even been attempted. Rather, sceptics content themselves with picking holes in individual pieces of evidence, which merely distracts from the overall picture, and discourages further inquiry. Their methods have much in common with denialist rhetoric (see section 7.4).

That sounds awfully like an apologist saying that any proposal for Christian origins has to be as simple as the thesis that the disciples of Jesus believed he was the messiah and that he had been resurrected and persuaded others to believe the same. There is a difference between simple and simplistic.

But how familiar is that term of denigration to describe sceptics: “denialists”. They pick holes in the details instead of accepting the big picture of the apologist’s scenario. That to me sounds like the rhetoric that seeks to warn others off from being too careful with the details.

[O]ur thesis does not depend on individual details, but on the persuasiveness of the bulk of the arguments taken as a whole. We are dealing with events over two millennia ago, so it is of course possible, if not trivial, to cast doubt on any individual detail. It is only when the facts are seen together as contributing to a coherent narrative that they become compelling. 

If it is possible to cast doubt on any “individual detail” then how is it possible to have critical confidence in the larger thesis that is necessarily founded on all of or most of those details? Again, do we hear echoes of the apologist’s “persuasive narrative” set over against those who find some value in examining its respective parts?

The thesis of the paper is set out in five points, with number five being

That the denial of authenticity is a product of excessive and unreasonable scepticism, not evidence.

Now there is a very clear and distinct echo. Hyperscepticism is the villain. The “hermeneutic of suspicion” has no place in a legitimate study. False dichotomies are set up. Does that mean we need to treat the texts as if they were flesh and blood persons to whom we show love and acceptance in all they say? Apparently so, just as Bauckham and so many others assert — we must indeed accept the claims of a text and only set them aside if we find very good reasons not to “believe”.

Most of the [early Buddhist texts] state explicitly that the Buddha is their author. The character of the [early Buddhist texts] is most easily accounted for if this is, on the whole, true. There are obvious exceptions, such as where the speaker is specifically said to be someone else, or where there are indications that texts or passages have been added. These exceptions, however, should not be allowed to distract from the overall picture.1

1 Gombrich says: “But our initial working hypothesis has to be that the text is telling the truth, and in each case where we do not believe it, or doubt it, we must produce our reasons for doing so.” [1, 96–97]

Then there are the false analogies that we have found so often among scholars of the historical Jesus or early Christianity. Here’s one:

For example, consider the frequent evocations of “God” by American politicians. Do we assume that, if we are professionally agnostic towards the existence of a creator deity, we have no grounds for knowing whether any statements by that politician are true? Of course not. We take their religious beliefs as religious beliefs, and do not expect to find hard evidence for them. And we evaluate their factual claims by reference to knowable facts, just as we would do for anyone else. 

Towards the end of the paper we return to some of the above key points:

A good theory is able to account for a large number of facts with a small number of assumptions. The [theory of authenticity] is based on the simple, rational assumption that the [early Buddhist texts] attributed to the Buddha were largely spoken by him, unless there are good reasons to believe otherwise.

By way of comparison, it is difficult to work out exactly how the [theory of inauthenticity] proposes to explain the existence of the Buddhist texts. 

It all looks so very, very familiar.

Similarly, while we cannot say with any certainty that any specific text was literally spoken by the historical Buddha, we can say with a high degree of probability that the texts as a whole stem from him. This distinction is one of the rhetorical fault lines in the discussion of authenticity. Sceptics assert that we can’t know for certain whether any specific phrase was spoken by the Buddha, while advocates affirm that the doctrinal teachings as a whole must come from him. While the sceptical assertion is true, it is trivially so, and has no real effect on our understanding of the status of the texts.

That first line reminds me of James Crossley arguing that we have accept that Jesus said certain things because of the “general tone” of the words attributed to Jesus throughout the gospels. All of that study of the Jesus Seminar into which ones are authentic can be tossed into the bin unread.

Again, we see “sceptic” and “scepticism” being reduce to something negative, something bad. The following footnote underscores this characterization:

According to Reat, “in recent years the emphasis of Buddhist studies in the West has fallen upon what cannot be ascribed to earliest Buddhism—i.e. that virtually nothing can be attributed with any certainty to earliest Buddhism,” [2, 140]

Science and scepticism are even set up as opposed to each other when we come to a section headed

7.4 Denialist Buddhism

The sceptical arguments bear more in common with denialism than with science.

Critics of Early Buddhism have adopted a rhetoric of scepticism in order to dismiss the notion of authenticity. Their arguments are apparently intended to be hard-nosed and unsentimental, but when examined closely they are reminiscent of arguments by denialists of various types, such as those relating to the harmful effects of tobacco, creationism, or the reality of man-made climate change. Just as sceptics characterise the search for authenticity as “Protestant Buddhism”, it seems appropriate to describe this form of scepticism as “Denialist Buddhism”.

The opening sentence above carries lots of baggage. Sceptics are said to be sceptical of Buddhism itself, not merely sceptical of traditional dates assigned to texts. They use a “rhetoric” which implies that their arguments are shallow, like those of the clever sophists. And they are said to have an intent, a motivation, to “dismiss the notion of authenticity.” Thus they are denied any semblance of intellectual integrity.

Further, as we continue to read, they are “extreme” and “unreasonable”, and to be compared with unethical tobacco companies:

The unifying characteristic of the various forms of denialism is their insistence on extreme, unreasonable scepticism regarding any truth claims they oppose. The following quote is from a tobacco industry executive, but it might just as well describe the fundamental principle of the sceptics of Early Buddhism.

“… we are committed to an ill-defined middle ground which is articulated by variations on the theme that ‘the case is not proved.’ ”7

And of course the nihilism of postmodernism cannot be spared either. They are even depicted as (intellectually) genetically tainted. They are the ones who oppose true science and are compared with climate change deniers and creationists. They stand opposed to the “true belief”:

Denialist movements share a common intellectual ancestry, in that they appropriate elements of postmodern thought in order to marginalise or denigrate science. And they share an unmistakable “tell”, by which they can be distinguished from genuine scepticism. Denialists purport to be about a certain field, but they make no contributions to that field. Creationism has made no contribution to biology; climate change denial has made no contribution to climate science; and Denialist Buddhism has made no contribution to understanding the Buddha or his teachings. Its effect has been to dissuade people from even trying.

There are genuine epistemological problems in the study of Early Buddhism; in that we can all agree. But to argue, as the denialists do, from epistemological uncertainty to dismiss the entire field, is to get everything backwards. To study Early Buddhism is to study the origins of one of the great spiritual movements of humanity.

That last line above embeds the rhetoric of the evangelist and pits sceptics as opposed to all that is genuinely  good about Buddhism.

But the boot has not finished its work yet. We are next given a list of characteristics that are said to apply to these sceptics. One can perhaps even be reminded of some of those New Testament letters that list all of the sins of evildoers in the last days. See how many of the following you recognized from debates in the field of biblical studies:

  1. The identification of perceived conspiracies (including belief in corrupted peer review . . . .)
  2. The use of fake experts (often with the smearing of real experts).
  3. Demanding impossible standards for research.
  4. Use of fallacy, including misrepresentation and false analogy.

Ah yes, the old charge that their arguments necessarily imply or suggest some dark conspiracy!

As for #3, here is the explanation:

Critics point to the absence of early manuscripts [6, 1, 3, 27], or the absence of specific details in the archaeological record, such as early evidence of monasteries. . . .

Inference, when properly used, does not rely on a chain of uncertain claims, one after another, diminishing in probability when compounded; but on the convergence of multiple lines of reasoning and evidence that independently confirm the result. 

That first paragraph could be applied to the accusations leveled at the “minimalists” among historians of “biblical Israel” who took the material evidence in the archaeological record as their starting point.

And that convergence of multiple lines of reasoning is likewise too familiar. Lots of fallacious or uncertain arguments are not likely to be more valid than any single one of them.

The conclusion sums it all up:

We know when the Buddha lived, where he lived, who he associated with, how he lived, and what he taught. We know these things with greater certainty than for almost any other historical figure from a comparable period. And we know this because of the [early Buddhist texts]. All other historical and archaeological information about the period depends on the [early Buddhist texts] to make sense.

That sounds very much like some of the early opponents of “minimalism”: We know more about David (or Jesus?) than “almost any other historical figure from a comparable period.” All we need is a hermeneutic of charity towards the texts, even over and above any other evidence, including archaeology.

The final paragraph even contains a confession of a true believer:

By encouraging the study of the [early Buddhist texts], we believe more people will be moved to apply these teachings and test them in the only way that the Buddha cared about: to reach the end of suffering.

Just like we read in so many scholarly works related to the Bible and Christianity. There is nothing new or unique under the sun.

Sujato, Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Brahmali. 2015. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. S.l.: lulu.com. https://ocbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/authenticity.pdf


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21 thoughts on “Scholars of Christianity are Not Alone”

  1. I am in the midst of reading “Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed” by R.G. Price (no relation to Robert M. Price, but Robert writes a fine Foreward to the book). In the course of reading it, I am forced to re-read and re-think the letters of Paul in the NT.

    Paul wrote his letters to the Churches (which he often called “the body of Christ”) around the middle of the First Century, just about 20 years after Jesus was supposedly crucified in Judea. It has now struck home to me that Paul NEVER EVER refers to the life or teachings of a “human, historical Jesus” as the source of “his gospel” (in fact, NONE of the writers of the NT do, except for the Gospels and Acts, and remember THEY WERE WRITTEN LAST). Rather, Paul always cited Scripture and his visions/revelations from Jesus as the source of his gospel.

    Don’t you find this very curious? I certainly do.

    I have come to the conclusion that the major purpose for “having faith” is first to inoculate oneself against doubt and second to blind oneself to one’s own biased preconceptions.

    “I believe….” “I have faith that ….” Are the self-confession “I don’t really know if this is true but for whatever reason I am going to accept it as true until someone can “prove to me” otherwise [and good luck with that]. Such gall.

  2. Neil: I much appreciate this blog-post. My first encounter with Richard Carrier’s shorter book (before I buyed his longer, much improved volume that Roger Pearse refuses to consider when evaluating his claims) was in a library that also had a book arguing, in all seriousness, that the Buddha Shakyamuni was a mythical figure. Of course, that book was near a book (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) that tried to argue that the Buddha Shakyamuni had been a materialistic atheist.

    Another fallacy that the book “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts” commits that I have noticed is sometimes applied in Christian arguments is the argument that because later texts make their central teacher figure more fantastical in a way that must be mythical, earlier less fantastical, accounts of this same central teacher are more likely to be true.

    1. My limited experience suggests to me that it’s a lot easier for many Buddhists (certainly not all, I know) to accept the nonhistoricity of the Buddha and not feel threatened in any way about their personal devotion to Buddhism.

      1. From my own highly limited perspective I make the same or similar inference: that Christians compared to Buddhists may be likely to continue with their religion after becoming skeptical about Jesus as a historical figure compared to Buddha.

        True? Possible partial low-quality evidence: People seem to be going to church far less. I do not know whether there is a down-trend in Buddhist practice.

        (If true, to be sure, there certainly are counter-examples, those who have given up on Jesus as a likely historical figure, but go with Christianity one way or another, perhaps even with increased devotion.)

        If true this apparent difference between Christians and Buddhists, why? Is it because of the demands in orthodox Christianity, citing the putative Jesus himself, that the Christian must believe in Jesus’s existence exactly as described and prescribed by the church as an absolute requirement? Is there anything equivalent in Buddhism? In other words, in Buddhism is it a bit more like saying that the Pythagorean theorem is correct whether or not Pythagoras came up with it or whether he even existed whereas Christianity tends to demand belief in the general tale of the origin of the theorem at least as much as the theorem itself?

        If true, is it because of cultural differences in populations that tend to be Christian as opposed to those that tend to be Buddhist?

        1. Just this very day, I came upon the following article that supports these thought by both of you.

          The Absence of Self: A Hermeneutical Understanding of the Anatman Experience
          Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D Diplomate in Clinical Psychology, A.B.P.P.
          The Washington Center for Consciousness Studies and the Washington Center for Phenomenological and Existential Psychotherapy
          This phenomenological presentation does not depend on the factual historicity of [the Buddha] Gotama’s experience of non-self experience. This presentation does not depend on [the Buddha] Gotama being a factual historical person or not. Our focus is on the early Buddhist experience of Anatman experience as a metaphorical expression of the human existential experience of the intertwining of self and Being.

          There is also, within Vajrayana Buddhism, a tradition of masters receiving teachings from cosmic or celestial Buddhas, and in Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva (Future Buddha) Maitreya is said to have taught the 4th century Indian master Asanga 5 treatises about Buddha Nature in Tusita Heaven. I am personally agnostic from a spiritual perspective about whether the Buddha was a historical being, since the teachings (and their ability to relieve suffering) are most important.

        2. I hope that this double posting is not against rules. Anyways, orthodox Christianity has, from its beginnings (as recorded within the letters from Ignatius) has staked its reputation upon a historical Jesus who literally did certain things in a way that Buddhism has not. This is not to say that Buddhists have not believed this about the Buddha, but it is not as important to being a buddhist as other aspects, such as the teachings about morality and the mind. There is a very funny sutta in which Ananda recites details about the Buddha’s miraculous birth, only for the Buddha to tell him that the Buddha’s teachings about suffering are more important.

          1. There’s a passage in the Gospel of Mark that points to the same lesson, Mark 8:17

            Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand?

            The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 was not a story about a bread miracle, in other words. Though relatively few believers seem to be able to accept this explanation.

      2. “My limited experience suggests to me that it’s a lot easier for many Buddhists (certainly not all, I know) to accept the nonhistoricity of the Buddha and not feel threatened in any way about their personal devotion to Buddhism.”

        This is true, because the what is important to Buddhism is the teachings themselves, no matter where thy came from. For Christians, the whole legitimately of the religion depends on the literal historical truth of the Gospel narrative.

        In reality, many “Christians” today have gotten kinda comfortable with the idea that maybe Jesus didn’t really perform miracles and rise from the dead or fulfill prophecies, but that’s just due to laziness and remoteness from the religion. Any serious Christian knows that the legitimacy of the religion depends entirely on the claim that Jesus was a real person who died and actually rose from the dead, in accordance with secret prophecies.

        The rising from the dead and fulfilling prophecies are the evidence that “prove the religion is true”. If those things didn’t really happen then Christianity has no more claim to validity than any other cult or ancient mythology. The rise of Christianity was always about “evidence”, and that’s why these specific doctrines were so reinforced in the Catholic liturgy.

        The Apostles Creed is the definition of what must be true in order for Catholicism to be true. If these are not true then the faith has no meaning. We can have justified faith that Jesus will return, pass judgement, and grant eternal life to the righteous BECAUSE we know that the following things are true, which were predicted by prophecies, and therefore prove the divine truth of this message:

        Apostles Creed:
        “I believe in God, the Father almighty,
        creator of heaven and earth.
        I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
        who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
        born of the Virgin Mary,
        suffered under Pontius Pilate,
        was crucified, died, and was buried;
        he descended to the dead.
        On the third day he rose again;
        he ascended into heaven,
        he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
        and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
        I believe in the Holy Spirit,
        the holy catholic Church,
        the communion of saints,
        the forgiveness of sins,
        the resurrection of the body,
        and the life everlasting. Amen.”

        Buddhism doesn’t work like that (to my knowledge). And that’s why challenging the historical existence of Buddha is much less of a big deal even to Buddhists.

  3. “Rather, sceptics content themselves with picking holes in individual pieces of evidence, which merely distracts from the overall picture, and discourages further inquiry. Their methods have much in common with denialist rhetoric . . . ”

    Oh, man! A Buddhist James McGrath!

  4. R.G. Price said it best somewhere here on another posting, something like “They are happy to believe the assumption that Jesus existed historically”
    You can’t and won’t even get into an meaningful exchange with someone who “thinks” that way.

  5. I should have added a further explanatory comment in my post where I pointed to a difference between simplistic and simple. A simplistic solution tends to raise far more questions about the extant evidence, both in terms of what we have and what we don’t have, than a “simple solution”. The latter raises fewer questions in the larger scheme of things. For example, if we say that Christianity began with early followers of an earthly Jesus becoming convinced that he was resurrected, then it is worthwhile asking what that thesis would lead us to reasonably expect in the evidence we have. Would the gospels really have been so vague and open-ended about the resurrection appearances or would we not more reasonably expect authors to be explicit in telling audiences who saw and did what when and where? Similarly, when Paul is responding to doubters of the resurrection would he really do no more than assert a tradition? Would we not expect him to give more detail to prove his case?

    The simpler solution leaves a lot fewer open ended questions about the evidence than does a simplistic one.

      1. And your comment forced me to re-read what I had written to see what might have been thought okay — and alas I saw typos and repetitiveness that I have now fixed. Readers are very kind in not pointing them out as often as they should, but then I should be much more diligent in proof-reading my own stuff.

  6. I’m certainly not the first one to make this analogy, but by the reasoning of this Buddhist apologist, we should have complete confidence that the Sherlock Holmes canon is unquestionably accurate. And by extension, we might as well concede that Captain James Kirk of the starship Enterprise will graduate from Starfleet academy and do all the great things we watched on TV in 1965.

    The only difference is that for Holmes and Kirk we know, in great detail, and with complete confidence, who wrote those stories, and when, and where, and why, and therefore we can be completely confident that they are nothing but entertaining fiction. We don’t know any such thing about the “holy texts”, so we should believe them… why?

    1. I keep a weather eye on the ruckus caused by ST:D and the Kelvin Universe as to canonicity in Trekkerdom. Of course, if you put the various incarnations and interpretataions of the Trekverse alongside one another it becomes clear that, like the books of the NT, none of the ‘texts’ cohere with one another. Beginning with ST:NG, if not before (‘The Cage’ is ‘Peter and the Pillars’ 🙂 ), it’s all “Trek, Jim, but not as we know it.”! I might recommend Tim make an excursus into Trek to go along with exploring Arthurian and Sherwood studies it might be equally rewarding.

      Come to think of it, the custodian of the former ‘Cake Mix’ is a published Whovian; Neil should begin to post on Davros and the Daleks, that would be fun! MuHahHahHaah! 🙂

  7. Heh. I was going to comment in the thread where commenter A Buddhist posted that link. But I had a lot to do that day and I thought, Neil will get to it, and indeed, you said most of what I would have.
    I only skimmed the book, but one similarity you don’t mention that struck me between the points made and similar treatments of the Gospels is that the authors tacitly equate “earlier” with “authentic” in the sense of “derived from actual utterances of the historical Buddha”. It’s the exact same bait and switch with interpretations of source and redaction criticism. Since the figure of Jesus is assumed, the “earliest stratum of tradition” perforce equals “spoken by Jesus himself”. But it doesn’t follow. I can be convinced that you’ve persuasively shown that one version of a pericope is earlier than another on redaction-criticism grounds. But that’s it. You’ve shown just that, not that you’ve identified an “authentic” saying in the sense of “utterance of Jesus”.

    1. Yeah, and I’m increasingly convinced that so much of what Christian scholars have deemed “authentic sayings of Jesus” comes from Paul, James, Peter and others. This is clearly shown in the cases of similarities between the teachings of Paul and dialog of Jesus in Mark. But now I’m seeing this accounts for some of Q as well, and Matthew. Also other parts of Matthew appear to come from 1 Enoch.

      To me this is the most amazing case of scholarly bias and blindness. We all know that these other writings precede the Gospels, yet the idea that they would be used as a source for the Gospel writers is not even considered by so many Gospel scholars!

      The way they see it, the epistles of James, Paul, etc. are independent, and if James/Paul/Jude,etc. say something almost identical to what is said in the Gospels, then this is “evidence that Jesus really said this!” as opposed to, “this is evidence that the Gospel writers used the teachings of Paul/James, etc. as for the dialog of Jesus”.

      To me, this is not the central issue of NT scholarship. This is the big point that mainstream scholars have failed to grasp, and it’s so obvious and so simple.

      And what we’ve been able to decipher is likely on a fraction of the dependencies, because we can only detect the dependencies where both sources remain. But there could have been other epistles that have been lost as well that were used. This is one possible explanation for Q too, though I favor Goodacre’s case that “Q” is just what Luke borrowed from what Matthew invented.

      1. Have you read ‘Didache’ by any chance? It always strikes me as G.Mt without Mark and the Birth Narrative; if there is a Q, that would be my candidate.

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