Neil has already discussed Jonathan Bernier’s post, “Critical Realism and the New Testament,” here (The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)) and here (Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History), but I’m just now catching up. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride as soon as I found out Dr. McGrath had awarded his seal of approval.
Honestly, my first reaction was my second, as well as my third, reaction: Despair — and not only the despair of realizing how bad things have gotten, but also the grim recognition that we have not yet hit bottom. McGrath writes:
What Bernier writes really is a great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.
Oh, goody. What wonderful things did Bernier write? Well, buckle up. Here we go!
All historical argumentation is probabilistic. This is also to say that any and all historical hypotheses are subject to revision or dispute.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, he has left too much unsaid. He doesn’t give us a working definition of the term historical hypothesis, nor does he explain what sorts of evidence would lead to revisions or disputes of such hypotheses. Given what follows, we have reason to believe Bernier has a peculiar understanding of the term.
Hypotheses subject to revision are hypotheses whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0 that we can treat them as virtually certain.
I must be reading this wrong. In the preceding sentence, Bernier wrote that all hypotheses are subject to revision. But then he implies that the subset of hypotheses that are subject to revision are ones “whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0.” I don’t understand this sentence, but I can set it aside for now — except to say that Bernier doesn’t really explain how and why revision should occur nor how we calculate the probability of a hypothesis. We have everything we need but the what, the how, and the why.
Such hypotheses include the hypothesis that Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, or that Jesus of Nazareth existed.
And just that quickly, we have run completely off the rails. Germany invading Poland in September of 1939 is not a historical hypothesis. It is a historical fact. And Bernier would know that if he knew what a hypothesis is.
Such hypotheses are virtually certain not necessarily because there are no conceivable alternatives, but in many (perhaps most) cases because all conceivable alternatives are sufficiently improbable that they can be excluded.
Here, by the way, is the crux of the Jesus historicist position — that a historical Jesus fits the evidence better than a mythical Jesus. But we have fundamental mistakes here, which, I admit, are not unique to Bernier.
First, they assign probability based on a kind of feeling, which they assume to have weight and validity because they have been studying the subject in depth for a long time. Second, they assume that since H is more likely than any not H hypothesis they can imagine, that the probability of H must approach 1.0. It never occurs to them that the state of the evidence might force us to admit we don’t know.
Can I conceive of a world in which all the documentary and eyewitness evidence for Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 is falsified and it never took place? Perhaps. Is that alternative probable? Hardly. Nonetheless, in principle, even the most probable statement is subject to revision upon the emergence either of new evidence or new insights into old evidence.
Again, and I simply cannot stress this point enough: Hitler’s invasion of Poland is not a hypothesis. It is a fact, amply demonstrated by hundreds, if not thousands of bits of firsthand evidence. We have eyewitness accounts, contemporary radio broadcasts, photographs, motion picture film — untold mountains of physical, tangible evidence. It is beyond question. It is an event. It is a fact.
Then what exactly is a hypothesis, and how does it differ from a fact? First of all, we need a historical hypothesis when our evidence is limited. That is to say, we infer from evidence and argumentation in order to establish a likely explanation for something that is open to question or interpretation.
If our evidence were complete and unambiguous, we would instead simply have a fact. On the other hand, without facts — buttressed by multiple, independent, verified bits of primary evidence — our hypotheses would stand upon mere conjecture and speculation.
For example, A.J.P. Taylor did not deny the fact of the invasion of Poland, but he did offer a new evaluation of Hitler’s motives for doing so. Marxist historians do not deny that Julius Caesar curried favor among the urban poor, but they provide new interpretations about why he did what he did.
Second, according to most historians, a good hypothesis should give us the simplest explanation with the most explanatory power. A historical hypothesis should not create more problems than it solves.
I suspect Bernier wants to compare Jesus’ existence to the invasion of Poland because he wants us to think both are equally unassailable, and force the conclusion that only a nutter denialist would disagree with either proposition. Whether he knows he’s engaging in sophistry is another matter, which I will set aside at least for the moment.
The recent resurgence in arguments for Jesus’ historical non-existence rested entirely upon the argument that there had emerged new insights into old evidence. The reason that these arguments fail is because those competent in the matter and fully familiar with the evidence recognized immediately that these were not new insights at all but almost without exception insights that had been advanced and rejected the better part of a century ago.
We have seen this assertion before. There is, they say, no new thing under the sun. And if he were correct, we could almost forgive a PhD who writes about history who so badly misunderstands the historical method.
Yet in every case the defenders of historicity have consistently shown that they either cannot or will not engage with the arguments at hand. And this goes back as far as we can look. Consider the terrible job Shirley Jackson Case did in his treatment of Drews. Did he even read any of it? Consider how many times McGrath misrepresented what Earl Doherty wrote. Do we chalk it up to incompetence or malice?
They remain unaware of the deep-seated problems in their field. Unfortunately, none of them seem to comprehend the categorical difference between establishing the historicity of Jesus vs. the fair assessment of a particular historical reconstruction of Jesus if he existed. In fact, they are so inept and ill-prepared to address the concept of minimal historicity that they almost invariably fall back on their special knowledge and authority.
Trust them. They know. Isn’t that right, Dr. Bernier?
There is a reason that one can count on two fingers the number of credentialed New Testament scholars who subscribe to the hypothesis that Jesus never existed: quite simply, competent familiarity with the data precludes affirmation of the hypothesis.
Some of us can remember when NT scholars who appealed to this argument would confidently intone that “not a single credentialed NT scholar” doubted the historicity of Jesus. Who knows? Next year we might need as many as three fingers.
I think our only hope for improvement here is for real historians to get involved. I see that Bernier has a bachelor’s in anthropology. That’s nice. Unfortunately, his MA and PhD are in religious studies, which I think helps explain his approach to history. If we had fewer ministers and theologians, and more professional ancient historians (driven, we hope, less by confessional interests), perhaps things would improve. Until then, it falls to us amateurs to throw up a flag and hope that at some point people will notice.
Be sure to re-read Neil’s post from 2011: “What is history? What is a historical fact?” It still applies.
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