Once more: the problematic nature of biblical studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Donald Akenson

There is much I disagree with in Donald Akenson’s book, Surpassing Wonder. The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (2001), and Akenson would certainly find himself objecting to some of my posts here on Vridar. But Akenson is a serious figure in the field of historical studies and do find his following statements interesting:

During the twentieth century (and to a lesser degree, before that) thousands of biblical scholars have beavered away at the life of Yeshua. In my reading, they appear to break into two camps: those who accept the rules of the historian’s craft (however arbitrary those may be) and those who do not. The second group is impossible for an historian to deal with, because they claim (either explicitly or implicitly as evidenced by the methods they employ) that the rules of proof which apply in secular historical scholarship are all very well, but that there are special evidentiary by-passes when it comes to Jesus-the-Christ. Such works, even when wrapped in historical terminology, really are parts of the history of theology. The first group, the scholars who endeavour to be as rigorous in historical method as possible and who consciously try to avoid special pleading, are much more interesting, not least because they are often first-rate minds and in a very difficult situation. This is particularly true of those who have written on aspects of the historical Yeshua within the last two or three decades. Their position is difficult because (1) in the last quarter of the twentieth century the historical profession generally has become increasingly aware of something that good historians always had known: that there is no such thing as objective historical truth; instead historians deal with the perpetual transience of pale imitation of a final reality that can never be known, a forever-escaping past. Biblical historians, as much as their individual personalities have permitted them, have acted according to the canons of historical investigation, which assert that even if one cannot ever get anything perfectly right it is possible to prove that some ideas about the past are dead wrong. Yet, at the same time, many of the same scholars seem to yearn so deeply for theological-ideological-denominational certainties, that all their efforts at being as objective-as-possible are thwarted. One is frequently reminded of the commonplace assessment of Immanuel Kant, that he spent his entire adult life proving what he had known with certainty when he was five years of age. And (2) the overwhelming majority of biblical scholars are employed by institutions that have a theological or denominational or political ideology (however vestigial) which is based on certain assertions about the nature of the historical Yeshua, the man behind Jesus-the-Christ. These institutional affiliations inevitably involve pressures upon the scholars, or limits on what they can think. It is a hard business to be in.

Given the intellectual and social pressures upon them, it is natural that scholars who specialize in trying to find “the real historical Jesus” become co-dependents. However much they differ from each other on matters of interpretation. evidence, and in their individual unconscious assumptions, they need each other and depend upon each other for confirmation that their quest for the historical Yeshua is a valid enterprise. (538-539)

Two pages later:

the overwhelming majority of scholars who do “New Testament” history are employed by institutions or organizations whose roots are in religious belief. Which means: more than any other group in the present day academy, biblical historians are under immense pressure – sometimes overt, sometimes subliminal, but virtually omnipresent – to adjusl their scholarship, to theologize their historical work. The maintenance of scholarly integrity by so many of the biblical historians is the product of considerable individual heroism. The pressure they frequently experience helps to explain why one encounters so often in the literature appeals to consensus. (541)

Akenson, Donald Harman. 2001. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thanks to “Ignorant Amos” from whom I learned of Akenson‘s Surpassing Wonder.

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51 thoughts on “Once more: the problematic nature of biblical studies”

  1. I have a related question to the historical Jesus area of study. I really hope there is a satisfactory way to navigate this.

    Let’s say in our time now in 2019 – a marvelous sage suddenly starts to perform amazing inexplicable feats which are unapologetically miraculous – even scientists/magicians cannot fathom them. How would such a person be documented in history? How would the future historians view such a person?

    Would they simply ignore the fact that they were documented as miracle workers? Would they assume that our knowledge was limited and that they know better in the future? I get the feeling that modern historians of today have shutdown any possibility of the fantasitcal element of religious belief as possible truth. This is a type of atheism woven in to the fabric of academia that I am troubled with and need a way to resolve.

    1. I get the feeling that modern historians of today have shutdown any possibility of the fantasitcal element of religious belief as possible truth.

      Quite rightly, too. Historians rule out the possibility of fantastical elements of any kind, whether a wooden puppet becoming a real boy, Buddha’s disciples walking on water to reach him, Muhammad and Elijah ascending to heaven on a winged horse or fiery chariot, or a New Testament character performing a host of miracles that are all most economically explained as adaptations of fantastical stories of miracle-workers in the Old Testament and other literature.

      1. Yes, but… In my view what modern historian have gotten wrong is that they have largely just cut away fantastical elements from ancient myths, believing that by removing the supernatural embellishments they are left with real history.

        And to take that further, what they have done is try to arrive at non-supernatural explanations for the rise of various beliefs and narratives. In doing this they have constructed to things like economic, political, and sociological models to explain various ancient belief systems.

        But doing all this has often lost sight of the real role mystical beliefs played in the worldviews of ancient people. In the 20th century there was a major trend of short of humanizing everything and then taking those humanized views and projecting them back on ancient history.

        But this is a huge part of the problem IMO, and what I’ll be directly addressing in my next book. The reality is that ancient people held worldviews that were often completely entrenched in supernatural beliefs and they made choices and took actions based on those beliefs. The supernatural beliefs were in and of themselves often the motivation behind how people behaved and how they interacted with the world. We cant simply reduce all of ancient behavior down to economic and sociological models.

        In other words, in the 20th century I think the error in scholarship was ignoring too much the role that supernatural beliefs had in people’s lives and the real impacts of these beliefs on history.

        This is why we see in so much of 20th century Christian scholarship the humanization of Jesus and it is that humanization that really ended up distorting our understanding of Christian origins far more than anything else.

        1. I like Lataster’s analogy of “Harry Potter”: that if you strip away all the layers of “Myth and Fabulation”, then you are left with a real, but insignificant boy, living in a closet.

          1. Right, and then the question becomes, was the Harry Potter series based on the life of an insignificant boy who played in a closet or was it just entirely fabricated?

            At a certain point these distinctions become meaningless. I like to use The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn as an example. Is The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn history? Was there a real Hucklberry Finn?

            It is a story set in a historical context, and undoubtedly tells us something about the real condition of America in the time period that is describes. But we know that Hucklberry Finn is a concocted story. Does it reflect some realities? Sure. Are some of the things described in the story possibly based on real tales or things that Twain heard about or witnessed? Sure. The same can be said about Winne the Pooh.

            In some sense, every story has elements of truth, but that’s not what we mean when we talk about “real history”.

            Stripping way unlikely events from Hucklberry Finn doesn’t render an account of a real person and his adventures.

            1. And regarding Huckleberry Finn, Hannibal MO still has a Fence Painting competition and there is “Mark Twain Cave” where the Famous “Injun Joe” was said to keep his treasure that many visitors can see. It’s a major enterprise all based in fiction.

          2. Ironically, Harry Potter is based on Christianity:

            In her interview with Oprah Winfrey, J. K. Rowling acknowledged that the Harry Potter series had a deep and intentional connection to Christianity. She said,

            “There is a lot of Christian imagery in the books. That’s undeniable. And certainly in Hallows [it is] very clear . . . That’s an allusion to a belief system in which I was raised.”

            Read more at 5 Ways Harry Potter Mirrors the Christian Story

            “To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious,” she [JK Rowling] said. “But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”

            Indeed, at its most simplistic, Harry’s final tale can in some respects be boiled down to a resurrection story, with Harry venturing to a heavenly way station of sorts after getting hit with a killing curse in Chapter 35, only to shortly return.

            Harry Potter Author JK Rowling Opens Up About Books’ Christian Iimagery

        2. supernatural beliefs were in and of themselves often the motivation behind how people behaved

          I like explanations that are grounded in research into the nature and origins of religious beliefs. One good place to start for fundamentals is, I think, Boyer’s Religion Explained. But for a full picture one needs also to look at Harvey Whitehouse who builds on Boyer, and Norenzayan’s Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict; also Haidt’s Righteous Mind. Now I am reminding myself that I have been meaning for a very long time to post about some of those works here! (I have only posted on Boyer so far.)

          (A book I have not yet read that, according to its title at least but especially since the author has co-published with Whitehouse, might be another good start is McCauley’s Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not)

          1. I haven’t read the book, but reacting to the title, I disagree with the claim that “Religion is Natural and Science is Not”.

            Firstly religion and science are two totally different things. One is a tool for investigating the nature of reality, the other is a means of organizing society and promoting behaviors.

            And anyone with children can attest to the fact that religion is far from natural. If you don’t work at instilling religious beliefs in them they don’t develop on their own, yet scientific reasoning does develop quite naturally.

            If we want to talk about superstition and belief in super-natural forces, then this really is noting more than poorly applied science.

            Really, when you get down to it most supernatural beliefs, including those held by major religions, stems from a miscomprehension of observed phenomena. People adopt beliefs because of either what they have observed and misunderstood or what they believe other people have reliably observed. That’s the same as science, just poorly done.

            Religion is just a power structure built on top of empirical misunderstanding.

            When you look at beliefs, they grow out of stuff like: X was observed, there fore Y must be true. That is the same basis as the scientific process, its just that the observations aren’t peer reviewed and repeatable and may not fit into a given model for how the universe works. But there is no real fundamental difference.

            A friend of mine told me about how his dad, who became a fundamentalist, told him of his conversion experience. His conversion experience was that as a teen he was not religious though he attended church with his family. One day he was lying in bed and became paralyzed as a demon entered his room and sat on him and gave him some message about Christ. Since that day he became a believer and was devout because he knows he had a real encounter with a demon.

            My friend now realizes that his dad experienced sleep paralysis. The point is that a real experience is what led to his beliefs. In his dad’s mind he made a real empirical observation that revealed to him the nature of reality.

            I think people try to claim that “religion is natural” to rationalize or justify the dominance of religion belief AND take deflect the responsibility of the promoters of religion. In other words, if religion is natural, then the rise and dominance of religion is something that just happens and “no one is to blame for it”. But that’s not true at all. Religion is something that is enforced, and the people promoting it are responsible for it.

            It’s like claiming, “Well starvation is natural, it just happens,” as opposed to looking at the policies and individuals that lead to famines and holding those policies and individuals responsible and addressing them.

            If religion “is natural” then it isn’t something to be addressed, it “just happens”. Not true. Religion doesn’t “just happen”. People make it happen and those people need to be held responsible.

            1. Oy, how about reading the stuff before deciding it is wrong! 🙂

              I have cited some serious researchers, not just anyone who is willing to share their thoughts at the local pub. All of your points are like comparing the whole story of starvation to either something “just happening” or it being the result of political/economic actions. What’s missing is why we need food in the first place and why it is that we suffer when we don’t have it.

              Belief in the supernatural/religion is one of the human univerals in the anthropologists’ check lists. That alone sounds like it’s something “natural” that requires explanation. (By “natural” a critical researcher does not mean he or she is content with a “just happens” explanation. That would be nothing more than a tautology.)

              1. Fair enough, I knew I was getting myself into trouble by not having read the book :p

                What I’m getting at though is that the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is an artificial one. “Supernatural” exists only in relation to what has been designated as natural by a philosophical framework. Prior to the adoption of that framework there is no such distinction.

                If I water a seed and then it sprouts, that cause and effect relationship is the same in my mind as when I spin in a circle and praise Ungabu and then the seed sprouts. Believing that putting water on a seed causes it to sprout is no different than believing that praising Ungabu causes a seed to sprout.

                What creates a distinction is only careful observation and testing, which may determine that there is a more direct relationship between one set of actions than another.

                “Supernatural beliefs” are merely beliefs in cause and effect relationships that other people have tested and found not to be repeatable, or beliefs that do not fit into a philosophical framework that may never have been understood by the person holding the beliefs. But there is nothing inherently different between “natural” and “supernatural” beliefs.

                Anyway, I don’t know if that has any relevance to the book or whatever, maybe I’m just off on a tangent. 🙂

    2. Amer wrote:

      Let’s say in our time now in 2019 – a marvelous sage suddenly starts to perform amazing inexplicable feats which are unapologetically miraculous – even scientists/magicians cannot fathom them. How would such a person be documented in history? How would the future historians view such a person?

      I don’t know how anyone would conclude that the person was a “sage” unless he wore a wizard’s hat for effect (or maybe he could plagiarize a lobster parable from Jordan Peterson), but if Penn and Teller could not explain his “inexplicable feats” then I would say that such a person would be documented as a truly clever illusionist.

      That anyone could even imagine a mysterious worker of genuine miracles turning up today or any time demonststates a mind that is not grounded in reality. Horses don’t talk or fly, people do not rise from the dead and ascend magically in the clouds to heaven, they do not heal paralytics or the blind at a command or multiply loaves and fish with a prayer. That’s simply fact. That’s that and nothing more needs to be said, except, as I did say, Penn and Teller would be impressed but no-one would doubt that illusionist tricks of some kind were behind it all.

      1. “Penn and Teller would be impressed but no-one would doubt that illusionist tricks of some kind were behind it all.”

        yeah, I wouldn’t go that far. There are Yogi’s and Sage’s beguiling people every day. Look, for instance, at the following of Sathya Sae Baba in India. One of our local gas station/convenience stores has incense to burn to Sathya Sai Baba.

        1. That is my point Pofarmer –

          In our attempts to clinically unclothe a religious character of his religious appeal we might end up with something that appears factual to a non-believer, but then we would be mulling over a character that believers of his time didn’t recognise.

          If there is empirical evidence today of people believing that people can be divinely inspired and be miraculous then that very trait of our ability to attribute such powers to humans should be what we use to identify religious characters in history. In that the followers of X believed him to be a prophet/messiah, etc. We can garner this from their texts. Furthermore, it will be next to impossible to strip out that attribution from ‘their’ texts, but we might have another picture from X’s detractors, they might call him an illusionist, magician, charlatan, etc and to study their texts will give us simply their rationalisations of why they didn’t believe, not necessarily a real image of X.

          However, to caution myself slightly, I also understand that historians have been trying to battle with myth and legend – which I feel are distinct from religion. Historians, want to put personalities from ‘stories’ neatly in to rational boxes. It could well be that Rama, Theseus, Ulysses, etc were all based on real people and their stories have gathered supernatural fluff through time, but this is where we need to be very shrewd.

          There is a distinction between myth and religious belief. Mostly that distinction is time and evidence of evolution. That is, if there is evidence – historical evidence, that a given character has gradually become embellished through time – then that extra material is myth. If however, the source texts which are contemporary to the person they talk about or near enough and in addition are ascribing supernatural traits to them then that is the religious aspect and should not be stripped away, unless of course you are looking to see what the detractors believed. We can easily observe evolution of characters during historical timeframes, (i.e. from now until about 2 millennia back), but it is much harder to see how people in prehistory evolved. Historians tend to hold that people who were great, were made heroes, heroes were enshrined with statues, those became idols, the ideas became immortalised and hence we have myth. For this to happen we need a very long timeframe.

  2. Thanks, Neil.

    “Myth. no less than history, is a perception of the past which is intimately linked to the context in which it is constructed and delivered, and is designed to foster a particular ideology.”

    “Accounts of the past, then, are in competition, explicitly or implicitly. They are written or heard at a particular moment in time, addressed to a known audience which has certain expectations (of which we may be ignorant), and designed to persuade.”

    “The theologically motivated search of Western biblical studies, the search for confirmation of divine action within history, has articulated well with and been enhanced by the politically motivated search of the modem state of Israel. The development of archaeology in the service of the present has probably been more advanced in Israel than
    any other area of the modem world. It reflects the need of the nation state to legitimize its possession of the present by discovering itself in the past.”

    “Biblical scholarship is not just involved in ‘retrospective imperialism’, it has collaborated in an act of dispossession, or at the very least, to use Said’s phrase, ‘passive collaboration’ in that act of dispossession.”

    The above quotes are from “The Invention of Ancient Israel; the silencing of Palestinian history” by Keith W. Whitelam. I can’t post it here b/c it’s copyrighted, but if you Google it you’ll find it.

    It is NOT an easy read, but it is an important perspective for all those interested in ancient history (or ANY history). The author reviews several different “histories of Ancient Israel” invented by “Biblical Scholarship” (sometimes in agonizing detail) and shows how all of them are rooted in very modern Western assumptions, prejudices and fantasies surrounding “European nationalism” and eventually Zionism.

    I have come to the conclusion that “Biblical Studies”, “Theology”, and like the MANY, many “Quests for Jesus” (and, perhaps, like “reality itself”) is just a HUGE Hall of Mirrors.

    1. Yes, James, I agree that Whitelam’s “Invention of Ancient Israel” is a very important book. Unfortunately it is some time since I read it but at your suggestion I would like to re-read it with NT applications in mind. Thinking of “The Invention of the New Israel” or something like.

  3. Presumably crackpottery from me, not at all expert in these matters:

    In the past week I re-read Mark for the 1st time in many decades (in translation–the originals would be all greek to me). A month or so ago I re-read John, again for the 1st time in decades.

    Did the vast majority of people at the time of the writing or re-writing and editing of these works actually think of them as history? Did they actually think of this Jesus as in any sense anything like a real person? It’s a little hard for me to believe.

    Yes, I come from a different culture and a different era with my own biases as to what is possible and concepts of what might be real. Yet people presented in other Mediterranean works of that approximate era, fictional or historical, seem like real people to me.

    In reading Mark, I kept almost expecting to see “Q.E.D.” at the end of all the passages. It seemed so much like a bunch of stories not intended to do anything at all like present a literally believable narrative but instead in a quasi-abstract way demonstrate or illustrate some unstated proposition of which I was not necessarily cognizant. It almost read as if in code for the cognoscenti. I mean, I kept thinking am I nuts, or is the rest of the world nuts? This stuff–Mark as well as John–doesn’t seem as if maybe influenced by Gnosticism or tinged by it. It read to me as if it is out and out Gnosticism, with an unbelievably un-incarnate and unrealistic figure, a not meant to be taken literally by any serious reader–instead a placekeeper for something beyond ethereal. It almost seemed as if the authors (+/- editors) were mocking readers who considered the narrative literally and at face value.

    I could elaborate, but I have probably overextended my welcome.

    1. I think you are exactly right. I had the same impression when I did the same thing. “Like seriously, how can so many supposed scholars even attempt to claim that this is history???”

      The fact that so many people try to construe these stories as history is baffling. They seem quite obviously not to be such. And ironically, they have to deny the literary and symbolic genius of the authors in order to see these as mundane records of actual events.

      1. You have the narrative being blatantly nonsensical, so much so that I have to suspect that it is not a matter of a bug but a feature. The authorities have to pay Judas to identify Jesus when he has become for them an all too public nuisance. You have a disciple cutting off a soldier’s ear and not getting in trouble for it when the leader of his group is getting hauled away for eventual torture and execution. Then there’s the is-it-Peter-is-it-Satan episode. (As a child I guessed that maybe Jesus was thinking that Peter had been possessed by Satan, but it really doesn’t seem to read like that–it’s more as if it’s one or the other.) At various points Jesus seems to contradict himself. It reads to me as if the author +/- editors are almost going into spasms of winking that one should not take the story at face value.

        I even have to wonder whether it is possible that the author +/- editors of “John” deliberately and self-consciously contradicted other narratives, for example, placing Jesus in one place when he’s in another in other narratives, elaborating a polemic begun perhaps by the author of Mark that things may not be as they seem.

        Then there’s all the emphasis on things being secret and on duplicity/ambiguity. These themes are repeated and stressed. Jesus proclaims things in public but tells the disciples (who seem to have trouble understanding) he is doing things or saying things privately, out of sight. Is Jesus Satan or the Messiah or what is a prominent question. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the relation between Jesus and the Father obscure or ambiguous. What is Jesus up to?–or so the disciples keep having to figure out (and not very successfully). Is this or that the real thing or something else? Is it Peter or is it Satan? Is this or that genuine? It seems rather as if the apparent inconsistencies or ambiguities are Gnostic polemics for the critical importance of hidden meanings and hidden knowledge.

        In both Mark and John the after-resurrection narratives are particularly tough to understand as if meant literally. There is a continuing is-he-there-or-is-he-not sense, and if he’s tangible, is he really tangible and in what sense tangible. To me it reads as if the authors (esp “John”) may consciously and deliberately tease us with uncertainty about what Jesus is going to do next, and where and when, and in what capacity.

        In general, even before the crucifixion, Mark and John read (to me) as if Jesus isn’t really there, even perhaps in spirit form–more ethereal than ethereal. The narratives seem like an invitation to consider (in Buddhist-like fashion) something like inapparent existence of nonexistence, and perhaps even more critical or special/holy layers or realms of nonexistence beyond or behind nonexistence that words cannot express directly.

        But these are just my superficial impressions from my recent readings coming from my own background.

          1. Thank you so much for your response.

            If only I had time! I should not even be looking at interesting websites much less commenting–I am so swamped.

            Those books do look fascinating. And I certainly wish I had time to read your new book.

            A couple of months ago I read the interesting, highly substantive preview of the book at http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/preview.html and made a note to myself at least to re-read it.

    2. This stuff –Mark as well as John– doesn’t seem as if maybe influenced by Gnosticism or tinged by it. It read to me as if it is out and out Gnosticism, with an unbelievably un-incarnate and unrealistic figure, a not meant to be taken literally by any serious reader–instead a placekeeper for something beyond ethereal. It almost seemed as if the authors (+/- editors) were mocking readers who considered the narrative literally and at face value.


      Greg Doudna has noted, –

      [in] Jorg Rupke, “Starting sacrifice in the beyond: Flavian innovations in the concept of priesthood and their repercussions in the treatise ‘To the Hebrews’”, Revue de l’histoire des religions 229 (2012): 5-30, Rupkpe argues that Hebrews’ heavenly high priest is cast in contrast, not to the Jewish earthly temple, but to the Roman emperor as high priest of the imperial cult in a ca. Domitian or early Trajan setting rather than pre-70. Late in the article Rupke also favorably cites a suggestion of Gelardini 2005 that Hebrews was a homily read on the day commemorating the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.


  4. I find the vast majority, if not all christian apologists today quite “rationalist” in their cherry-picking of texts…. eg. Mt. 27 and the zombie resurrection.

    They can’t handle that so re-interpret it….to their liking….and a whole lot of other problems are just swept under the apologetic carpet..

    Strip this .. strip that ……because it doesn’t agree with my theology…etc…

    I think the entire apologetic enterprise is bankrupt!!! I can’t believe the apologists talk about “history” when most of them haven’t even taken any serious course in historical method and the like…

    And doctor’s degrees in Apologetics… give me a break…. !!!! M. A ‘s; Ph.D’s and D. Min.. and Th.D in various kinds propagandist theologies. !!

    Yes, a sad state of affairs in Biblical and historical studies…


    Mr. Alter,,I am looking forward to your new second book on the resurrection.. I am going through your first one now…excellent in many ways… good luck with the second. I also heard the broadcast on unbelievable…I think those two apologists kept cutting you off at certain points and were not really seriously considering what you were saying…..

  5. There is absolutely no reason for anyone, historian or not, to keep an open mind about supernatural events. We have more than enough empirical data to maintain that there has never been any supernatural events in history. To keep open such a possibility, is the product of a weak mind, and a mind already committed to or open to magical gibberish. There are of course many such minds among us, but their existence does not validate their openness to the supernatural. Many of our Christian Biblical historians can work within a framework of the natural, sans the magic. However, it is their interpretations of the empirical data where they inevitably open the magical thinking door. An inability to maintain a rigorous commitment to the natural laws of the universe within the human sphere, compromises their ability to produce a robust analysis of the historical issues regarding Jesus. There is a great divide between true Critical Thinkers and those who waste their time contemplating the supernatural. It makes it difficult for secular historians to trust the Christian scholar. The Christian is capable of collecting and collating empirical data that is helpful to the larger endeavor, but their interpretations are always suspect.

    1. You are likely right. However I am affected by another perspective. Not being in charge of the universe and existence, I don’t know many things. What makes me so knowledgeable that I don’t know something outlandishly strange will happen or has happened?

      I believe Locke (?) wrote about a chicken waking up every day to be fed and treated nicely by the farmer. Everything was just great in the universe and the farmer was nice. It was a universal. However one day the farmer comes and cuts of the chicken’s head.

      Moreover, strange things, surprising ones, have occurred. Consider the now often counterintuitive things in microscopic and quantum physics. And the speed of light being constant everywhere? Even before that–gravity–action at a distance betw/ 2 objects as in Newtonian physics is rather spooky.

      Even if magical stuff is stupid, as it may well be, there is a case for examining it seriously. In previous messages here I have recommended chapter 3 of JS Mills’s On Liberty, where he argues for the value of paying attention to alternative views, even blatantly defective ones. Paul Feyerabend (eg, in Against Method) applies Mills’s arguments to science, suggesting that contending even seemingly ridiculous stuff like creationism bolsters and can advance knowledge.

      1. JBeers,
        I admit confusion over the potential conflation of the speed of light and quantum mechanics with talking snakes, talking donkeys, men turning water into wine, the healing by rubbing mud into someone’s eyes, and the raising of the dead. Surely the term false analogy must be inserted here somewhere. And don’t you think these ancient myths have already been studied to death? Should we continue to investigate these obvious fictions for another thousand years, or can we possibly declare them false in the next few years. If you are new to these studies, I understand, but I’ve been investigating them for six decades, and I haven’t found anything new in all that time to support that they are anything but ancient myths penned by ignorant goat herders.

        1. It is not possible to investigate a miracle – because they don’t happen on will and not on anyone who chooses to perform them. You were right James that people who believe in them understand them to be where natural laws are broken.

          There is another perspective though – that is some thing in natural laws although objective cannot be explained easily. I class such things as miraculous not the less. I find life quite miraculous although it is all around us and it breaks no obvious rules. I find earthly life quite a miracle because of its precise conditions being met to nurture life. Perhaps claims of prophecy can be investigated from a historical point of view. Muslims believe the Qur’an is a miracle because it simply cannot be equalled in all of its facets by the greatest linguists in Arabic. This may appear to be a mundane claim to some.

          Raising the dead is a very cool miracle indeed. Although we do it all the time these days. We resuscitate and/or defibrillate people to wake them from a state that if left there for any given time would be certain death. That does not however mean those people used these techniques. I trust anecdotal evidence sometimes. I.e. the claim is true because it was made by a truthful person (or it was seen by many) who saw the event. Witness testimony is important in courts of law.

          But to try to test miracle per se is misunderstanding since prophets do miracles by God permission and if we don’t have a prophet we can’t expect to see miracles. There are lesser miracles performed by saints too and they would not happen in situations where they can be lab tested. Miracles tend to come without warning when they are most needed.

    2. James Green – This is where things get philosophical. You say that “there is enough empirical data to maintain there has never been any supernatural events in history”, this statement is based on how “supernatural claims” are explained away. Therefore, each event that is purported as supernatural will have believers and non-believers. This fact is entirely empirical. Therefore, the believers can claim the reverse, that “there is enough empirical data to maintain that supernatural events happen all the time throughout history”.

      Logically also – to syphon off “possibility” and rely purely on empirical experience is to ignore the “black swan event”. Read Talib on this. Basically, the main criticism of empiricism is that just because an event has not happened thus far, it does not mean that it cannot ever happen.

      And lastly but not necessary least, we still have empirical unknowns in the present enlightened age we live in … a thought experiment: take a person in a coma, on life support, blood being pumped around, brain being stimulated, nutrients intravenously supplied. Now compare this to a recently dead person, who is on the same set up. The two are same when viewed empirically – yet one is alive and the other dead. What makes them different? If people were living masses of chemistry then we can be kept alive all the time, just a like a car kept active or a watch kept ticking. This is the argument for the soul. So long as there are these types of unknowns then there will always be a place for the supernatural. It has nothing to do with “a product of a weak mind”.

      1. No,No, No Amer. Please identify a single event that has violated the laws of the natural world in the scientific age. Just a single example. There is nothing philosophical about it. Either supernatural events have occurred under scientific scrutiny or they haven’t. There is no reason to speculate that maybe some time in deep antiquity, such events did occur, but for whatever reason, they can no longer occur. Either supernatural events occur today that can be validated by the scientific method or they do not occur. The age of miracles ended emphatically at the dawn of the scientific method.
        “…just because an event has not happened thus far, it does not mean that it cannot ever happen.” Philosoph-babble!

        And how can you assert that supernatural claims of the past are empirical? Have you even interviewed any such claimants? Of course you haven’t!
        Finally Amer, your convoluted explanation of a person on life support is vacuous. My own mother was on life support without any evidence of brain activity. Was she alive or dead? What defines “life” to you? Her body could not sustain its own life independently, but the thinking part of her brain was forever inactive and dead. Yet she was a living entity that required life support to maintain that life. There is no such thing as a dead person on life support. You just manufactured such an analogy. No dead entity can be brought back to life with life support. The supported entity is always alive , by any medical or scientific definition. Thus how you took such a convoluted example to introduce the idea of a soul is preposterous.

        1. James Green – I have my own reasons to believe in the supernatural and miraculous. These are subjective I admit – I guess that is why they are called beliefs and not facts. The fact in this is that people do ‘believe’ that part is empirical and I am proof of that.

          I claim miracles did happen and many miraculous things happen all the time, but we tend to rationalise them such as coincidences and/or tricks or delusions, some of which may well be tricks, delusions and/or tricks. If we cannot for certain say they are not miracles and we choose to give things a scientific answer or resign to a possible scientific explanation that we might not be aware of then that is as much a belief as the belief in the miracle. Empiricism cannot disprove the existence of miracles that happened in the past anymore than it can prove their existence.

          But if all claims of miracles in modern times have been proven wrong then I can accept your argument. It is different to prove something wrong than merely show how something could happen without it being a miracle. I see prophecy coming true as miraculous, I see insights in scripture before their time as being miraculous, but others may not. I’m not one to suggest religion contains all such elements as objective scientific phenomena. However, I am suggesting there is room for entertaining miracle and the supernatural, which is largely a philosophical discussion.

          History needs to account for this …

          1. Amer,
            We’ll just have to disagree. A miracle is an event whereby the laws of nature are violated. No such event has been validated since the dawn of the Scientific age. You can of course believe whatever you want, but your beliefs are not empirical. Empirical evidence is information acquired by observation or experimentation, in the form of recorded data, which may be the subject of analysis (e.g. by scientists). In science, empirical evidence is required for a hypothesis to gain acceptance in the scientific community. Normally, this validation is achieved by the scientific method of forming a hypothesis, experimental design, peer review, reproduction of results, conference presentation, and journal publication. This requires rigorous communication of a hypothesis, experimental constraints and controls, and a common understanding of measurement.

            Again, there are no such things as miracles. Your beliefs are not empirical unless they can be validated by experiment, and reproduction of your results can be duplicated by outsiders. Whatever your supernatural beliefs are, they are the product of magical thinking, and not any empirically derived and scientifically validated experimentation. Until you can produce that first violation of the Laws of Nature, your paradigm is outside the realm of Critical Thinking.

        2. Furthermore, several cases of people being taken off life support coming back and others who don’t was the point I was making – that a soul might exist and if so that exists not in the domain of empirical science.

          1. If it doesn’t exist “In the domain of empirical science” then you can’t tell us anything about it, either.

            How do I distinguish your claim from any other nonsense claim, at that point?

            Read Thomas Paine on Revelations for a view on this. Or Hume On Miracles.

            1. Pofarmer – yes you are right.

              I feel at this point of – i.e. to distinguish one claim from another when there is no direct evidence, we need to start looking for complimentary evidence, analogy, consistency in claims, coherence, logic, inference, deduction, etc to evaluate the best claimants.

              No I have not read that yet – I shall do thanks.

          2. There is no soul. There is no resurrection from the dead. There has never been anyone who returned from the dead on an operating table. These are all folk tales, usually told by the religious.

            1. Your opinion is well noted – in that last post james Green – does it qualify as critical thought? They are but a list of assertions. So I am going to modify what you wrote to make it fit and this should be the last I say on it.

              There is no soul (that can be measured, but there are valid signs something else is there other than the material of the body). There is no resurrection from the dead, (that we can verify today). There has never been anyone who returned from the dead on an operating table, (that can be verified, but there are claims to this effect). These are (might be) all folk tales, usually told by the religious.

              Essentially your claim is that religious people are deluded, mentally weak, too accepting and not skeptical enough. This means that a given prophet according to you would either:

              A) be deluded himself
              B) be a charlatan/liar/illusionist
              C) be embellished by his audience (who are either deluded or liars)

              But D) be truthful – can never be the case according to you. You shut off that particular logical option from the get go and require it to be based on empirical evidence. That you have rigged because no evidence will be good enough because it will be explained away using options A to C.

              1. Amer, Nothing is a logical option if not based upon empirical evidence. I have not shut off any option except those options that cannot be validated. BTW, I am not attacking people, but some of their uncritical delusions. There are many people who are highly intelligent, and utilize Critical Thinking in many areas of their life. Yet there are areas of emotional or psychological weakness, where they might suspend their Critical Thinking abilities in order to construct a world view that is about how they want the world to be, not how the evidence commands. I am sure you are a fine person, who I might enjoy a conversation around a warm fire. Yet I must admit that I cannot trust a person such as yourself to be an honest broker of historical truth. This takes us back to the very subject of this thread. Who is more trustworthy regarding religious histories, the secular scholar who allows an open mind to take him wherever the empirical evidence takes him, or the faith committed investigator, who has already accepted the supernatural uncritically as his starting point? I come down with Neil and Bob in my suspicions of the so-called religious scholar.

  6. In my view it is a mistake to view the history of religion without the belief of its adherents factored in to the equation.

    Scriptures are also on the whole written by people who believed in religious dogma as true. It is therefore a misfire to attempt to find some religious figure in history who has been stripped of his/her elements that made him/her a religious figure in the first place.

    Historians of religion ought to stay away from trying to rationalise and reduce religions to manifestations of the world we live in today. The world in the past may have been the same physcially but people did believe in supernatural and religious leaders were sincerely trying to enact and spread the laws of a God they believed in. To ignore that is to ignore the believers of today too.

    If historians can accept that Jews in the past believed in God (a supernatural entity) then why can’t they accept that they believe that some of them saw Jesus as a true prophet? The romans arguably more superstitious than the Jews of the time – believed also the reports about Jesus – with the exception of perhaps the oligarchy/elite who probably saw the manifestations of Messiahs as a group think reaction to Roman rule. Fine. Yet some of them were convinced by the Christ as either divine or sent from the divine. They didn’t need years to lapse by in order to create a myth about Jesus – it was there in front of them – they were seeing things they could not explain and some of them believed as a result. Others didn’t – that is why we still have Jews and still had Roman pagans for centuries thereafter and of course atheists of that time and of every time. To ignore this is to be ahistorical.

    If some historians want to rationalise things to themselves in order to not accept scripture as real eye witness evidence then that is fine – but that is not history – that is invention, unless there is evidence of manufacture. But if there is absence of it and the only conclusion is to either create a new version or accept the documented version the latter would be more historical albeit the former might be more confortable for atheists and closer to empirical happenings of today.

    R.G. Price – I was trying to make that point too that you made earlier.

    History should include internal reports no matter how biased we think they might be. Verifying history as fact is another matter. Anyway – the angle by which I have been undertaking my work is precesiely this – I am entertaining the possibility of embellishment but also entertaining the possibility of true miracles actually happening, or at the very least I will entertain that adherents were not necessarily fabricating a system to dupe people but were themselves devoted followers of the ideas they were peddling.

    1. Amer, what is your position on Carrier’s methodology? He certainly is taking into account “what Paul believed”.

      Carrier (28 February 2019). “The New Gathercole Article on Jesus Certainly Existing • Richard Carrier”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

      Any item of evidence you wish to examine, you must ask of it: “If Paul believed in the cosmic Jesus theory and not the earthly Jesus theory, is this what he likely would have written or not?” One must also ask the reverse, “If Paul instead believed in the earthly Jesus theory and not the cosmic one, is this what he likely would have written or not?”
      To have evidence for [Jesus′] historicity in Paul, we need things he said (and didn’t say) that are likely on the earthly theory and unlikely on the cosmic theory. Not things that are equally expected on both theories. (And certainly not things that are unlikely on the earthly theory but likely on the cosmic one.) It is only by having evidence that’s likely on the one theory and unlikely on the other that that evidence will produce a likelihood ratio increasing the probability Jesus existed, and thus make it “evidence Jesus existed.” And these likelihoods must be evaluated in the context of other things we know, like early Christian dependence on scripture and the rigging of the record in favor of a later prevailing sect.

    2. Amer, if I understand you I think the core of the problem you are addressing is a very real one that ultimately distinguishes apologists from critical scholars.

      There are two ways of studying religious beliefs and their place in history or in any community. One way:

      Descriptive reduction is the failure to identify an emotion, practice, or
      experience under the description by which the subject identiEFes it. This
      is indeed unacceptable. To describe an experience in nonreligious terms
      when the subject himself describes it in religious terms is to misidentify
      the experience, or to attend to another experience altogether. (Proudfoot
      1985: 196; emphasis original)

      The other way:

      Explanatory reductionconsists in oCfering an explanation of an experience
      in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet
      with his approval. This is perfectly justiEFable and is, in fact, normal procedure.
      The explanandum is set in a new context, whether that be one of
      covering laws and initial conditions, narrative structure, or some other
      explanatory model. The terms of explanation need not be familiar or
      acceptable to the subject. Historians oCfer explanations of past events by
      employing such concepts as socialization, ideology, means of production,
      and feudal economy. Seldom can these concepts be ascribed to the
      people whose behavior is the object of the historian’s study. But that
      poses no problem. The explanation stands or falls according to how well
      it can account for all the available evidence. (Proudfoot 1985: 197; emphasis

      A critical historians is required to distinquish between these two approaches. It is absolutely necessary that we understand how our subjects think about religion, etc. but equally we must not treat those beliefs and thoughts as the objective reality. Those beliefs and thoughts also need to be studied at arms length and objectively. The historian cannot treat them as valid for his own interpretation. We see that point more clearly in political ideologies. Imagine I was studying Nazism and the beliefs of Hitler and those he chose to lead Germany with him. It would be entirely wrong if I explained his ultimate failure and the defeat of Germany on the Jews and some sort of Jewish betrayals — just as Hitler blamed Germany’s defeat in WW1 on a Jewish conspiracy, and presumably would have done the same for the defeat in WW2. Nor would be right to accept Hitler’s belief that the rise of Germany in the 30s and early 40s was the result of the superiority of his Aryan blood. Beliefs must be understood and studied and their importance not diminished, but the researcher cannot embrace them as the objective or real explanation for what happened to those groups in history.

      The Proudfoot quotes are from Young, Stephen L. 2015. “Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the ‘Academic’: A Religious Studies and Practice Theory Redescription of Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship.” Biblical Interpretation 23 (1): 1–35. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685152-00231p01.

    3. If some historians want to rationalise things to themselves in order to not accept scripture as real eye witness evidence then that is fine – but that is not history – that is invention, unless there is evidence of manufacture.

      There is ample evidence of manufacture in the gospel narratives and no evidence, only vague assertions in two of the gospels, for eye-witnesses.

      I think many biblical scholars accept that Jesus’ followers believed he performed miracles and rose from the dead though they themselves do not believe the miracles were real.

      But there is also reasonable grounds for believing that the gospel narratives were entirely late inventions without any dependence on real events, though that is not a mainstream view among biblical scholars. Nonetheless the view is not a simple rationalization simply for the sake of not wanting to believe the story. Far from it. There are sound reasons based on standard critical analyses and understanding of ancient literature and standard methods of historical research and determining what happened.

      It seems you want a historian to accept a naive reading of the evidence even though that approach to ancient history has no scholarly justification and seems more a product of simply wishing what one reads to be true.

  7. db – Yes, I will have to read that over a few times, but yes I think Carrier’s methodology makes sense.

    Paul himself believed something regarding Jesus, he also wanted his audience to believe something, his audience did believe certain things about Jesus that sometimes conformed with what Paul wanted them to believe and sometimes contrary to it. This much we know from his works.

    At no point however was Jesus ever considered a normal average joe Rabbi by any of his close companions or any of the members of Paul’s fold. They took him to be the Messiah – what that meant to some was different to what it meant to others. That is a different topic.

    But if we search for an average joe Rabbi in history we will be looking for a version that his detractors have documented. His detractors were not close to him and so evidence from them would be harder to verify, except that they would be rationalising things to themselves in order not to believe … and those rationalisations would be convincing enough for critical historians of today because those rationalisations are more “believable” – i.e. less reliant on the supernatural. In all this we lose the Jesus we need to document. That is we should look for a Biblical Jesus – neither a cosmic Jesus nor an earthly Jesus, the cosmic Jesus comes from years of council decisions, the earthly Jesus comes from a normalisation of an amazing character, both of these are not the Jesus we find in the Bible canon or no. This is my understanding anyhow. Finding the Jesus of the earliest possible books might well be a more historical Jesus than one of the latter books, because time allows for more embelishment.

  8. Let us assume for a moment that what many Church Fathers claimed was true: that Christianity is a “Mystery Religion” with many secret teachings. Would it not then be logical for the NT writers to use a “code” only initiates would understand, while throwing everyone else (including historians) fables?

    1. That is what the author of Mark tells us, quite plainly, in chapter 4, vs. 11:

      And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

      So we can read the gospels in a simplistic, superficial manner, thereby missing the point, or we can discern the hidden meanings. But only if we have the key — and obviously, the key wasn’t written down where just anybody could find it. It’s been lost. It would have been whispered in private after the new Christian had passed a certain degree of initiation, like a Masonic ritual, or when I received my secret, personal mantra when I dabbled in Transcendental Meditation 50 years ago (it was “aing”, if anybody is curious).

      We can only guess what the stories really mean. [My guess is they don’t really have any relevance to 21st-century life.]

  9. I have not read all of the comments so this may be redundant. I find it odd that so many people assume there was an historical Jesus behind the Jesus of the Bible. If that were true, would not all of the well-meaning scholars who have searched for the “historical Jesus” have ended up in a similar place? What we find from the many (hundreds?) of such documented searches is a different result from each, results that I suspect reflect the personal beliefs of the authors and not the “facts” being followed wherever they lead.

    If the “facts” of history were coherent, shouldn’t there be some sort of convergence?

  10. OP: “The maintenance of scholarly integrity by so many of the biblical historians is the product of considerable individual heroism.”

    Neil can you present some real wold examples that illustrate the points that Akenson is making.

    1. It would take too much time to go through and single out specifics at the moment, but Tim and I have posted many times addressing specifics: circularity, assumption that a narrative has a historical core, criteriology to assess historicity, lack of external controls, reliance upon hypothetical sources, . . . .

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