Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Thomas Kuhn

I try to reread Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions every couple of years. I get something new out of it with each reading.

Kuhn’s masterpiece is a rare thing: A groundbreaking work that’s easy to read. This short book contains an array of fascinating new ideas along with a structure for understanding the emergence of new paradigms. The term paradigm has become overused and overworked in everyday English. However, when we talk about the emergence of a new explanatory framework in science, history, literature, philosophy, etc., we can’t help but think of the term paradigm shift.

Shift Stages

Kuhn described the process of one paradigm displacing another, older one in successive stages.

    1. Normal Science. What we do every day within the existing framework. Scientists perform experiments, examine the results, and decide how they fit in with the established model. They publish the results and debate about their ramifications. And then they design new experiments. The process repeats. Essentially, Kuhn said what scientists are engaged in is “puzzle-solving.”
    2. Anomalies. From time to time, certain unexpected results occur. Puzzle-solvers are drawn to the anomalies as they endeavor to make them fit within the current paradigm.
    3. Crisis. Once in a great while, certain serious anomalies cannot be accounted for or ignored. They show themselves as evidence that the current model is inadequate. The prevailing paradigm teeters on the brink.
    4. Revolution. A competing paradigm emerges which accounts for the anomalies. New research tends to use the new framework to solve puzzles. The old paradigm fades away, along with its practitioners. Eventually, we return to a state of “normal science” under the new paradigm.

Stuck in the Paradigm

The power of Kuhn’s revolutionary structure hit home once again as I was reading Varieties of Jesus Mythicism, Did He Even Exist? For example, in the first essay by our friend David Fitzgerald, he writes:

The Historical Jesus question has the potential to be the biggest paradigm shift in the study of Christian origins. And the importance of Jesus Mythicism goes far beyond the Historical Jesus question itself. For instance, it highlights all the uniquely problematic elements plaguing biblical studies historically and currently, such as the pervasive bias affecting biblical studies—a remarkable condition different from any other field of history. (“Why Mythicism Matters,” Varieties, p. 37)

Here Fitzgerald hints at the reason we’re stuck in the current paradigm: namely, the insuperable barriers that prevent the people most qualified to tackle the question of Jesus’ historicity from even taking the notion seriously. If your entire worldview holds that the salvation of humankind depends on Jesus of Nazareth, then the very question is preposterous. Even for a non-Christian, if your job requires you to stay within the guardrails of biblical studies, the subject has to remain in the category of “not worthy of discussion.”

In the preface, Robert Price invokes Kuhn’s name, saying:

In fact, as Thomas S. Kuhn explains in his great book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, advances in science proceed at least as much by new paradigms for construing data as by the discovery of new data. New models, theories, and paradigms are suggestions for making new and better sense of the data we already had. These new notions must prove themselves by running the gauntlet of collegial criticism. (“New Testament Minimalism,” Varieties, p. 15, emphasis mine)

At first, I’m inclined to agree with his assessment, but something feels “off” here. According to Kuhn, the discovery of new data that doesn’t fit within the current paradigm eventually weakens trust in the prevailing model. Yes, Kuhn presents several examples of existing paradigms that gradually lost adherents to some new way of assembling and explaining the existing data. However, the actual shift to a radically different pattern of thought requires a set of anomalies that bedevil the old paradigm — anomalies that the new paradigm easily explains or, better yet, confidently predicts.

To understand better what Kuhn meant by an anomaly, consider the following:

[N]ovelty ordinarily emerges only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to recognize that something has gone wrong. Anomaly appears only against the background provided by the paradigm. (Kuhn 2012, p. 98, emphasis mine)

The new paradigm does not merely construe existing data in a new, more sensible way; it fixes things that have “gone wrong.”

Crisis? What Crisis?

Like a burr under the saddle, a stone in the shoe, or the steady drip of a faucet, it keeps bothering observers and theorists alike. The experts look at the anomaly and think, “It shouldn’t be like this.”

Price routinely underestimates the crucial role the discovery (and accumulation) of new anomalies plays in paradigm shifts. For example:

We can make the same point starting from Thomas S. Kuhn’s work on the evolution of science via the succession of paradigms rather than via discoveries of new evidence. A paradigm refers to a conceptual model, a theoretical construct applied provisionally to the same old data. One has the same set of dots before one; they haven’t changed. But one tries a new way to connect the dots using fewer lines than the previous player. This is how Copernicus’ paradigm of heliocentricity replaced Ptolemy’s paradigm of geocentricity. A new theory gets off the ground by proposing a paradigm that would explain anomalous data that the older paradigm could not explain. If the new paradigm proves more encompassing as well as more economical (fewer variables, fewer factors involved), it gradually replaces the old one. (Price 2017, p. 44)

He wants it both ways. Yes, science gravitates to the new paradigm because it fits the data better; however, in the history of scientific revolutions, these aren’t “the same set of dots.” Scientists acquire new, unexpected, anomalous data that the existing paradigm cannot explain. Like a burr under the saddle, a stone in the shoe, or the steady drip of a faucet, it keeps bothering observers and theorists alike. The experts look at the anomaly and think, “It shouldn’t be like this.”

You may be thinking that Price said essentially the same thing when he wrote, “A new theory gets off the ground by proposing a paradigm that would explain anomalous data that the older paradigm could not explain.” But I can’t help but notice that elsewhere, by anomalies, Price was clearly referring to the elaborate epicycles the geocentric paradigm required in order to explain the apparent retrograde motion of the inner planets.

To give a famous example seen through the lenses provided by Kuhn, we will look at the contest between the geocentric paradigm of Ptolemy and the heliocentric paradigm of Copernicus. Ptolemy’s model of the planetary system functioned well enough to predict the motion of the (apparently earth­ orbiting) planets, but it ran into trouble when it came to the mysterious retrograde motion of the planets. In order for the geocentric model to predict accurately these erratic movements (hitherto considered to be the “free will” of the planets), Ptolemaic astronomers had to postulate myriad series of “epicycles,” or wheels within hypothetical wheels on which the planets turned. Copernicus found that the whole system might be simplified by postulating that the sun, not the earth, was the center of planetary orbit. This way all the epicycles disappeared. (Price 2009, p. 266)

An Astronomical “Scandal”

And here, Price is quite wrong. The Copernican theory did not succeed merely because it was simpler or more elegant. Generally speaking, people didn’t view the existence of epicycles as a crisis. Instead, they would have argued that this was simply the way things are. Without Copernicus (or someone like him), astronomers would have continued to go along with the geocentric model (as they did for many years), but everyone knew it was a complete mess.

If awareness of anomaly plays a role in the emergence of new sorts of phenomena, it should surprise no one that a similar but more profound awareness is prerequisite to all acceptable changes of theory. On this point historical evidence is, I think, entirely unequivocal. The state of Ptolemaic astronomy was a scandal before Copernicus’ announcement. (Kuhn 2012, p. 110, emphasis mine)

In fact, over time, the Ptolemaic system had shown itself incapable of accurately predicting astronomical events. Kuhn’s footnote to the above paragraph refers to a work by Alfred Rupert Hall, in which he wrote:

Once the constants of each portion of the mechanism had been determined in accordance with observation, it was possible to draw up tables from which the positions of the heavenly bodies against the background of fixed stars in the zodiac could be calculated for any necessary length of time. Unfortunately it was well known by 1500–it was a scandal to learning–that calculations were not verified by observation. Eclipses and conjunctions, matters of astrological significance, did not occur at the predicted moments. The most notorious of astronomical errors was that of the calendar: the equinoxes no longer occurred on the traditional days, and the failure to celebrate religious festivals on the dates of the events commemorated caused great concern. In fact the Julian calendar assumed a length for the year (365 1/4 days) which was about eleven minutes too long: the necessary correction was adopted in Roman Catholic states in 1582. (Hall 1954, p. 16, emphasis mine)

By the time of Copernicus, several variations had arisen to patch the Ptolemaic model with duct tape and baling wire. But the problems continued to pile up. A good model makes correct predictions, but new observations kept showing up deficiencies in the geocentric paradigm. In The Copernican Revolution, Kuhn put it like this:

There are many variations of the Ptolemaic system besides the one that Ptolemy himself embodied in the Almagest, and some of them achieved considerable accuracy in predicting planetary positions. But the accuracy was invariably achieved at the price of complexity—the addition of new minor epicycles or equivalent devices — and increased complexity gave only a better approximation to planetary motion, not finality. No version of the system ever quite withstood the test of additional refined observations, and this failure, combined with the total disappearance of the conceptual economy that had made cruder versions of the two-sphere universe so convincing, ultimately led to the Copernican Revolution. (Kuhn 1995, p. 74, emphasis mine)

Bad News

And there’s still more bad news for Price. The new system, as Copernicus originally described it, could not accurately predict the motion of the planets (which, of course, would now include Earth) without elaborate circles on top of circles.

The preface to the De Revolutionibus opens with a forceful indictment of Ptolemaic astronomy for its inaccuracy, complexity, and inconsistency, yet before Copernicus’ text closes, it has convicted itself of exactly the same shortcomings. Copernicus’ system is neither simpler nor more accurate than Ptolemy’s. And the methods that Copernicus employed in constructing it seem just as little likely as the methods of Ptolemy to produce a single consistent solution of the problem of the planets. . . .

Even Copernicus could not derive from his hypothesis a single and unique combination of interlocking circles, and his successors did not do so. Those features of the ancient tradition which had led Copernicus to attempt a radical innovation were not eliminated by that innovation. . . .

Judged on purely practical grounds, Copernicus’ new planetary system was a failure; it was neither more accurate nor significantly simpler than its Ptolemaic predecessors. (Kuhn 1995, p. 171, emphasis mine)

Not until Kepler suggested replacing circles with ellipses did we finally have a system with predictability and consistency. But in Copernicus’ day, everyone thought the heavens were by necessity populated with perfect spheres and circles.

In the Beginning

In his 2021 book, Judaizing Jesus, Price further demonstrates his shallow understanding of Kuhn. In an attempt to discover a reason for scholars jumping on the “Very Jewish Jesus” bandwagon, he writes:

Thomas Kuhn reflected that in the end there may be no objective basis for one’s choice among competing paradigms, and that one’s preference is something like a religious conversion. I suggest that Kuhn put his finger on what is going on in the choice of the Jewish Jesus model (and of course many others). Theological agendas make this option more attractive to many scholars. (Price 2021, p. 2, emphasis mine)

Indeed, in the pages to which Price refers in a footnote (pp. 150, 156-157), Kuhn discusses a kind of faith or intuition that draws scientists to the new paradigm. We’ve already mentioned that anomalies can lead to crisis . . .

But crisis alone is not enough. There must also be a basis, though it need be neither rational nor ultimately correct, for faith in the particular candidate chosen. Something must make at least a few scientists feel that the new proposal is on the right track, and sometimes it is only personal and inarticulate aesthetic considerations that can do that. (Kuhn 1962/1970, p. 158; Kuhn 2012 p. 183, emphasis mine)

Kuhn goes on to explain how the pioneers in the new paradigm devise various experiments to help flesh out the new paradigm, to see where the science leads. Sometimes they fail, and they return to the old paradigm, chastened. But sometimes they succeed. They build on their successes — which lead to more experiments, more observations, more theorizing:

And as that goes on, if the paradigm is one destined to win its fight, the number and strength of the persuasive arguments in its favor will increase. More scientists will then be converted, and the exploration of the new paradigm will go on. Gradually the number of experiments, instruments, articles, and books based upon the paradigm will multiply. Still more men, convinced of the new view’s fruitfulness, will adopt the new mode of practicing normal science, until at last only a few elderly hold-outs remain. (Kuhn 2012, p. 183)

Price is incorrect in saying that “in the end there may be no objective basis for one’s choice among competing paradigms.” It’s exactly the opposite. In the beginning, there may be no particular reason to pick one paradigm over the other. And in the end, as Kuhn notes, only the most obstinate men and women will refuse to change their minds.

The Price Is Wrong

What have we learned so far?

  1. The Ptolemaic model had warts — peculiar epicycles necessary to explain the retrograde motion of the inferior planets. However, it also was riddled with cancer. That is, it could not accurately predict astrological/astronomical events. (Price noticed only the warts.)
  2. The Copernican model did away with epicycles. However, while simplifying this particular aspect, it added complexity in others.
  3. Copernicus’ model did not significantly increase the accuracy of predictions. In fact, as Kuhn pointed out, if we were judging it purely on practical grounds, the new paradigm was a bust.

In the beginning, the heliocentric model generated as many problems as it claimed to solve. In the end, the new paradigm took over. It became “normal science.” So what exactly had to take place in order for the Copernican paradigm to win? What conditions precipitated the shift, and why did it take so long for it to happen? We’ll examine those issues in part two of this series.

Hall, Arthur Rupert, The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1800, the Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude, 1954, London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1954.

Kuhn, Thomas S., The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, 2003, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Kuhn, Thomas S. and Hacking, Ian, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2012, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Loftus, John W. and Price, Robert M., Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist?, 2021, Hypatia Press

Price, Robert M., Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis of Biblical Authority, 2009, Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.

Price, Robert M., Atheism and Faitheism, 2017 Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing

Price, Robert M.Judaizing Jesus: How New Testament Scholars Created the Ecumenical Golem, 2021, Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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12 thoughts on “Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 1)”

  1. “Price is incorrect in saying that “in the end there may be no objective basis for one’s choice among competing paradigms.” It’s exactly the opposite. In the beginning, there may be no particular reason to pick one paradigm over the other. And in the end, as Kuhn notes, only the most obstinate men and women will refuse to change their minds.”

    I think Price is wrong about science, but right about history, especially the subject of this blog. In science there is a constant flow of new data to test theories; in the history of Christian origins, data is rare, thin, and never unambiguous. There the consensus depends to a disturbing degree on the gut feelings of scholars.

    1. What is needed, I think, is someone (who doesn’t mind losing his job) to stand up and shine a bright light on the totality of the evidence, and clearly point out where the anomalies lie. The OT minimalists, by the way, did find new evidence in the form of statistical analysis and archaeology. And to that we could add early Christian imagery, which contains an abundance of anomalous evidence with respect to the NT.

      1. Well, Jesus historicists will say that the trouble with mythicists is that they don’t look at the totality of the evidence. 🙂

        One’s take on the “totality of the evidence” is also known as a “gut reaction”, and it’s not how science works, but it seems to be how often historiography works. One historian’s anomalies are another’s local color – humans just being unpredictable.

        Your mention of new OT data sounds intriguing – could you share a link or two?

        1. The importance of Facts and Evidence may be overestimated. Culture, psychology, habit, esthetics may count for much more at times in the progress of physical science and other disciplines.

          Paul Feyerabend asserted that one of the reasons Galileo was so successful was that he wrote in Italian, not Latin–that his language helped him as a propagandist, and that to be such a successful scientist it was helpful to be a great propagandist. (Other provocative points from Feyerabend include, if memory serves, that Galileo’s telescopic observations, some of which in retrospect are dubious, were based on optical physics unproven at the time–but they seemed cool and thus were highly seductive.)

          Even Kuhn, far more inclined to see order in scientific progress than Feyerabend, did not always put thorough emphasis on Evidence, on Facts, stating (again, if I recall correctly after decades–I don’t reread Kuhn every few years unfortunately), for example, that Dalton’s chemical theory of matter was generally accepted before the majority of experimental evidence was turning out unambiguously in favor of it.

          1. Those are good points, and I think I understated the importance of the “totality of the evidence” in the hard sciences in my previous comment.
            But my main point is that physics and ancient history are quite different in this respect. In the former there is a constant stream of data that must be accommodated; in the latter it is just a desultory drip.
            The old paradigms in history are hard to dislodge because there is little perceived need to challenge them. The Jesus historicists have a paradigm that they feel is based firmly on the totality of the evidence; the mythicists have a different paradigm. Without new data there is no reason for either side to change.
            The kind of propaganda that Price or Carrier publish won’t impinge on the historicists. Propaganda worked in Galileo’s day because so many scientists were amateurs. Nowadays let’s hope propaganda doesn’t determine the paradigms, or we may end up with a flat earth.

            1. I was trying, obliquely to agree, or at least was not disagreeing.

              From my past (medicine, some biological science) I am afraid that I think that there’s quite a bit of Show Biz in science today, at least in certain areas: flashing lights and publicity; big money promotions; glamor even where there’s no casting couch; choice by the big money who you work with and what you work on; cuts to the final product and even intentional poor or nonexistent promotion for what’s not favored by the big money and big power, or by current custom, habit, and style, even to the extent of refusal to allow exposure to the public; if not associations with thugs then at least not necessarily subtle indications about what is good for one’s career or not and examples of what happens to those who don’t go along; insistence on conformity except within prescribed limits for specially concocted roles; attempts by the equivalents of big studios at being edgy without offending the even bigger money and power; near absolute commoditization of everything possible. Just off the top of my head — prob cld do more/better.

              By the way, I note that Feyerabend, whom I have cited here before, changed his opinions over the years (not a bad thing to do!). I know him mainly from his book Against Method and also from series of essays published by Cambridge U Press from around the same time. In a sometimes heavy-handed fashion he pointed to the strong elements of propaganda etc in science, and suggested that a lot of what is written about ‘scientific method’, ‘falsification’ etc, and orderly progress in science related to evidence is claptrap.

              But I am distracting from the main focus of the discussion, which is historical studies and Biblical studies.

              1. Do you think the commodification of scholarship is a reason for the iron grip that Jesus historicism has on the field? I think there are lots of subliminal forces driving the field that way.

                Btw, the field of medicine seems somewhere in between the humanities and the hard sciences with respect to rigor. There are plenty of embarrassing examples of sizzle over steak in even the last hundred years (e.g. lobotomies, fat-free diets). It seems money is capable or corrupting anything.

              2. Do you think the commodification of scholarship is a reason for the iron grip that Jesus historicism has on the field?

                1) Per “the field?” I assume you mean NT studies, which has two camps: secular and non-secular. If it was up to me A simple Litmus test (politics) to weed out potentially biased non-secular scholars is to ask the following: Do these scholars have an on-the-record position, in clear and unambiguous language, without equivocation for the “Historicity of the Mosaic authorship of the Torah” and the “Historicity of the resurrection of Jesus?

                Additionally the following questions should be presented to any secular or non-secular “Defender of the Historicity of Jesus”:
                •What is the “minimal theory of historicity” that they hold? (And then compare it with Carrier’s rigorous and robust “minimal theory of historicity”
                •Do they denounce the scholars and the enablers that are party to the systemic censorship of free thought found within religiously affiliated institutions?

                Certain types of scholarly results bring in more funding and prestige which in turn promotes certain types of scholarly results in an endless reinforcement cycle

    2. I don’t believe that historians in other topics about ancient times think that way about their studies. Why should the study of Christian origins be any different? Yet theologians have devised their own methods and assumptions that are quite distinct from those used by other historians of ancient times. Why not use the same methods of studying the evidence that other historians use?

      1. “…think that way about their studies. ”

        I’m not sure what assertion of mine you’re referring to. Do you think historians feel that the consensuses they reach are objective?

      2. Why not use the same methods of studying the evidence that other historians use?

        I think it works the other way also: Why have other historians, who do not specialize in the New Testament corpus, not used the same methods of studying the evidence for the historical personage I have given the moniker Yesus?

        • Per Lataster,

        Historians cannot lower the standards by which they measure a source’s reliability, simply because they already know, due to the time period in question or for other reasons, that the source is relatively less reliable; even if this is what Biblical scholars actually do. That would be illogical and inconsistent; and its practice all but proves bias. [Lataster 2019, p. 137. ISBN 978-9004397934.]

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