Search Results for: david fischer historians' fallacies


2018-05-18

Part 2 of Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians

by Neil Godfrey

This post continues my assessment of the claims made in a doctoral dissertation by Michael Zolondek (supervised by Larry Hurtado and Helen Bond of the University of Edinburgh) that Jesus scholars use the same methods as historians of other fields. The sorts of methods he is addressing are specifically the “criteria of authenticity”. Though challenged by some scholars today, many biblical scholars continue to defend them as tools by which they can sift historical core “facts” or “events” about Jesus from theological or mythical overlay in the gospels. One such criterion is “multiple attestation”: the criteria that if an event is found in multiple (independent) sources there is strong likelihood it is genuinely historical. Another is the criterion of “double dissimilarity”: this criterion states that if a saying has no parallel in either early church teaching or in ancient Judaism then it very likely originated with the historical Jesus himself. And so forth.

On page 98 of the published version of the dissertation, We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question, Zolondek states that the examples found in a chapter by biblical scholar Stanley Porter of historians whose background is in ancient history are evidence that ancient historians do indeed use some of the same criteria of authenticity as historical Jesus scholars. Porter actually presented those particular examples of ancient historians to demonstrate that they do not use the biblical scholars’ tool of criteria of authenticity but Zolondek disagrees with Porter’s claims. Before I discuss those three examples and (unlike Zolondek) go beyond Porter’s article to the more detailed writings of those three ancient historians themselves I want to highlight another significant point made by Porter that is entirely overlooked by Zolondek.

The book chapter we are looking at is Stanley Porter’s “The Criterion of Authenticity” published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). On pages 700-701 Porter writes:

[S]everal of the criteria seem to violate the kinds of historians’ fallacies that David Fischer has brought to the attention of historians.21 These include (and some are discussed further below)

the criterion of double dissimilarity possibly violating the fallacy of many questions (e.g. by asking two questions at once, begging the question, or framing a complex question that requires a simple answer) or of contradictory questions (e.g. when the two distinctives create an anomaly of a human unsuited to any world);22

the criterion of least distinctiveness violating the reductive fallacy in demanding a linear approach to the development of literary forms, or generalization;23

and the Semitic language criterion having potential problems in question framing, including question begging or creating a false dichotomy.24

_______
21 D. H. Fischer. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper, 1970).
22 Ibid., 8, 34.
23 Ibid., 172 – 175.
24 Ibid., 8-12.

(my formatting)

I have posted on some of the common fallacies listed by David Fischer several times now, including,

So I find it interesting that a prominent biblical scholar such as Stanley Porter turns to the same book. (Richard Carrier also makes good use of it in Proving history: Bayes’s theorem and the quest for the historical Jesus.) Zolondek ignores the relevant section of Porter’s chapter. read more »


2017-10-15

The Fallacy Few Historians Have Avoided

by Neil Godfrey

Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as

  • most historians agree . . .
  • it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .
  • in the judgment of all serious students of this problem . . . 

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification. This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true. If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. I witnessed one such occasion (circa 1962) as a student at the Johns Hopkins University. A scholar who was baffled by a knotty problem of fact literally called for a show of hands to settle the question. An alienated minority of callow youths in the back of the room raised both hands and carried the day, in defiance of logic, empiricism, and parliamentary procedure.

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, in some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . . ” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of this problem . . . .”

When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

A historian has written, for example, “While the role of dope in damping social unrest in early industrial England has not been extensively investigated, every historian of the period knows that it was common practice at the time for working mothers to start the habit in the cradle by dosing their hungry babies on laudanum (‘mother’s blessing,’ it was called).” This statement is often made, and widely believed. But it has never, to my knowledge, been established by empirical evidence. The reader should note the hyperbole in the first sentence. When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form–deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples. One will suffice here, for the sake of illustration. Every schoolboy knows, and most schoolmasters, too, that Mussolini made the trains run on time. But did he? Ashley Montagu observes that “there was little or no truth in it: people who lived in Italy between the March on Rome (October 22, 1922) and the execution at Como (1945) will bear testimony to the fact that Italian railroads remained as insouciant as ever with regard to time-tables and actual schedules.” And yet, the myth still runs its rounds, with a regularity that Il Duce was unable to bring to his railroads.

The above is from Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought (pages 51-53) by the renowned historian David Hackett Fischer. (That title link is to an open access copy of the book on archive.org)

David Hackett Fischer

 

 


2018-05-30

An Embarrassing Fallacy in Many Historical Jesus Studies

by Neil Godfrey

Recently I was discussing some of the criteria of authenticity that have been used by historical Jesus scholars to supposedly sift the more likely historical events in the gospels from those that are pious fabrications. I was using David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies as my yardstick. One criterion I did not get to then was that of embarrassment. This little rule says that if an event in the gospels would have been embarrassing to the early Christians then they would not have mentioned it — UNLESS it were an event so well known that they simply could not avoid mentioning it: ergo, the event really did happen. Example: the baptism of Jesus.

There are several fallacies in Fischer’s book that apply to this criterion but I’ll concentrate on just one: the fallacy of false dichotomous questions (p. 9).

Implicit in the criterion of embarrassment is the notion that an early Christian author was faced with either:

  • being compelled to write about an embarrassing event he did not really wish to write about;
  • or fabricating an event that was an embarrassment to himself and his readers.

The latter is obviously very unlikely so the first option wins virtually by default.

Of course the question raised by the criterion excludes all but two possibilities: being compelled by the sheer facts to write or making up a story that is counter-productive to one’s interests.

Yet we know that authors — even the evangelists — are quite capable of avoiding details that are well-known to their audiences (e.g. Luke omitted whole swathes of stories in the Gospel of Mark that he was using), and that human experience teaches us that in real life people are often capable of ignoring reality when it suits. We also know that our knowledge of the authorship of the gospels is very limited. What was embarrassing to the author or his audience? Are there other reasons for the creation of the stories?

To approach questions of historical reconstruction with such a blinkered dichotomy is clearly fallacious.

Other fallacies relating to causation and motivation also apply. But I promised to limit myself to just one for this post.

 


2017-12-02

Reply to Larry Hurtado: “Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars”

by Neil Godfrey

One of the purposes of Vridar is to share what its authors have found of interest in biblical scholarship that unfortunately tends not to be easily accessible to the wider lay public. (Of course, our interests extend into political, science and other topics, too. For further background see the authors’ profiles and the explanations linked at the what is vridar page.)

Some people describe Vridar as “a mythicist blog” despite the fact that one of its authors, Tim, is an agnostic on the question and yours truly regularly points out that the evidence available to historians combined with valid historical methodology (as practised in history departments that have nothing to do with biblical studies) may not even allow us to address the question. The best the historian can do is seek to account for the evidence we do have for earliest Christianity.

There are some exceptional works, however, that do follow sound methods and draw upon an in-depth knowledge of the sources and the wider scholarship to argue strong cases that Christian origins are best explained with a Jesus figure who had little grounding in history, and this blog has been a vehicle to share some of those arguments, usually by means of guest-posts. If a hypothesized historical Jesus turns out to be the most economical explanation for that evidence, then that’s fine. We are atheists but neither of us has any hostility to religion per se (we respect the beliefs and journeys of others) and I don’t see what difference it makes to any atheist whether Jesus existed or not.

Unfortunately, in some of our discussions of biblical scholarship both Tim and I have found what we believe are serious flaws in logic of argument and even a misuse or misleading “quote-mining” of sources. In response, a number of biblical scholars have expressed a less than professional response towards this blog’s authors and what they wrote. Some years back, in heated discussions, I myself occasionally responded in kind but I apologized and those days are now all long-gone history. Fortunately, a number of respected scholars have contacted us to express appreciation for what we are trying to do here at Vridar and that has been very encouraging.

(For what it’s worth, this blog has also often been the target of very hostile attacks from some of the supporters of less-than-scholarly arguments for a “mythical Jesus”.)

So with that little bit of background behind us, I now have the opportunity to address Larry Hurtado’s blog post, Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars.

Fallacy of the prevalent proof

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form — deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.  — David Hacket Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies. See earlier post for details.

Hurtado begins:

The overwhelming body of scholars, in New Testament, Christian Origins, Ancient History, Ancient Judaism, Roman-era Religion, Archaeology/History of Roman Judea, and a good many related fields as well, hold that there was a first-century Jewish man known as Jesus of Nazareth, that he engaged in an itinerant preaching/prophetic activity in Galilee, that he drew to himself a band of close followers, and that he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

That is a sweeping statement and I believe it to be misleading for the following reasons.

I doubt that the “overwhelming body of scholars” in any of the fields listed, apart from New Testament and Christian Origins, has ever addressed the question of the historicity of Jesus. Certainly, I can accept that probably most people in the West, not only scholars, who have discussed ancient times have at some time heard or made mention of Jesus as a “historical marker”. The life of Jesus is public knowledge, after all. And public knowledge is culturally (not “academically”) transmitted. I suspect that “the overwhelming body of scholars” in all fields who have ever mentioned Jesus in some context have never investigated the academic or scholarly arguments for his existence. That doesn’t make them unscholarly. It simply puts them within their cultural context. I also suspect that for “the overwhelming” majority of those scholars, the question of the historicity of Jesus made no meaningful difference to the point they were expressing.

Hurtado in his opening statement is appealing to what historian David Hackett Fisher labelled the fallacy of the prevalent proof.

These same scholars typically recognize also that very quickly after Jesus’ execution there arose among Jesus’ followers the strong conviction that God (the Jewish deity) had raised Jesus from death (based on claims that some of them had seen the risen Jesus). These followers also claimed that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory as the validated Messiah, the unique “Son of God,” and “Lord” to whom all creation was now to give obeisance.[i] Whatever they make of these claims, scholars tend to grant that they were made, and were the basis for pretty much all else that followed in the origins of what became Christianity.

Here we have a continuation of the above fallacy. Yes, what Hurtado describes is what most people (not only scholars) in the Christian West have probably heard at some time and taken for granted as the “Christian story”. Again, what Hurtado is referring to here is a process of cultural transmission. Very few of “these same scholars” have ever studied the question of historicity. We all repeat cultural “memes” the same way we quote lines of Shakespeare.

After 250 years of critical investigation

The “mythical Jesus” view doesn’t have any traction among the overwhelming number of scholars working in these fields, whether they be declared Christians, Jewish, atheists, or undeclared as to their personal stance. Advocates of the “mythical Jesus” may dismiss this statement, but it ought to count for something if, after some 250 years of critical investigation of the historical figure of Jesus and of Christian Origins, and the due consideration of “mythical Jesus” claims over the last century or more, this spectrum of scholars have judged them unpersuasive (to put it mildly).

This statement is a common but misleading characterization of the history of the debate. I think it is fair to say that in fact scholars have not at all spent the past 250 years investigating the question of the historical existence of Jesus. Their studies have, on the contrary, assumed the existence of Jesus and sought to resolve questions about that historical figure’s nature, career, teachings, thoughts, impact, etc. Forty years ago the academic Dennis Nineham even described the importance of the historical foundations of the story of Jesus to meet the needs of theological and biblical scholars. (See earlier posts on his book, The Use and Abuse of History.)

The number of biblical scholars who have published works dedicated to a refutation of the “Christ Myth” theory are very few and, though often cited, appear to have been little read. According to Larry Hurtado’s own discussions, it appears that he has only read one such work, one dated 1938, that I think few others have ever heard of. See “It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist. (He may have read other such criticisms, and more recent and thorough ones, of which I am unaware.)

The fact is that the few scholars who have historically “come out” to argue that Jesus did not have a historical existence, beginning with Bruno Bauer, have been ostracized and soon ignored by the fields of theology and biblical studies.

In normal academic debate an author is given a right to a reply to criticisms of his work. I have yet to see a mainstream biblical scholar actually address (as distinct from ridicule or insult) any of the responses of Christ myth supporters to those works that are supposed to have debunked mythicism, such as those of Shirley Jackson Case, Maurice Goguel and now Bart Ehrman. One gets the impression that many scholars are content to accept that scholars like Ehrman have “taken care” of the arguments and the matter can be safely left at that. In fact, most replies to the works of Case, Ehrman and others are demonstrations that they have failed to address the core arguments despite their claims to the contrary.

Sometimes an offensive manner is used as an excuse to avoid engaging in serious debate or responses to criticisms, which is a shame because I have seen rudeness and other lapses in professionalism on both sides. Mainstream scholars would, I think, be more persuasive among their target audience if they took the initiative in seizing the high ground of a civil tone and academic rigour in all related discussions. Unfortunately, several academics are even on record as saying that they fear to show normal standards of respect and courtesy with mythicist arguments for fear that they would be interpreted as giving the view a “respectability it does not deserve.” That sounds to me like a reliance upon attempted persuasion by means of condescension, abuse and bullying.

The reasons are . . . 

read more »


2013-11-30

Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

by Neil Godfrey
davidhacketfischer
David Hackett Fischer

Professor of History, David Hackett Fischer, has long been known for his book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he amasses copious examples of fallacious historical analysis and argument committed (at least on occasion) even by otherwise highly reputable historians. Unfortunately, critical fallacies that he identifies as periodic blights on the work of his peers are standard practice among works of theologians writing about Christian origins.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

Here is one that many readers will recognize, and it is one that unfortunately does too often extend beyond the limits of subgroups. On pages 51 and 52 Fischer writes (my bolding in all quotations):

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification.

This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.* If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. . . .

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, to some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of the problem. . . .”

[* Reference: see page 102 of Vansina’s Oral Tradition]

historiansFallacies

Most historians agree . . .

. . . that a genuine historical event lies behind the story of Stephen

I could just as easily have written “most historians agree that genuine historical events like behind the stories in Acts.” But let’s limit the discussion here to Stephen’s martyrdom. (This post is, after all, my follow-up to my Stephen post.)

Shelly Matthews (also a theologian but who seems to be one of the relatively few who happily demonstrates a clear understanding of sound historical-critical method and writes history with a clear understanding of the philosophy undergirding her approach) admits she stands against what has been the traditional consensus of her peers over the historical value of Acts.

Firstly, however, Matthews correctly explains how her peers have traditionally attempted to glean “kernels of history” from the Book of Acts:

Biblical scholars employing methods of historical criticism do recognize that the coherence of various aspects of Acts is ahistorical, imposed by Luke upon his sources because of his theological concerns, his apologetic tendencies, and/or his aim to delight his audience. For more than two hundred years, historians of Christian origins have approached the book of Acts presuming that its author’s intrusive hand can be pulled away, freeing his sources to bear unencumbered witness to the historical events that occurred in the earliest decades of the church.

Applying methods captured by metaphors of winnowing and digging, they have attempted to distinguish Acts’ redactional/theological/fictional elements from the actual history presumed also to reside in the text.

From these “kernels of history,” from this “bedrock,” scholars have then constructed their own versions of a coherent narrative of Christian origins understood to correspond with events that happened in history. (p. 15, my formatting)

Theologians have thus generally assumed that “real history” lies “beneath” the text and that all they have to do is apply tools like redactional criticism to know what parts of the text to pull away (e.g. the theological or literary creations of the author) and thereby expose the original source. And that source material is for some reason often presumed to point to “bedrock history”. read more »


2012-04-15

Carrier’s “Proving History”, Chapter 3(a) — Review

by Neil Godfrey

provinghistoryI have been studying the first half of Richard Carrier’s chapter 3, “Introducing Bayes’s Theorem”, in his recent book Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. I mean studying. I want to be sure I fully understand the argument before tackling the second half of the chapter, headed Mechanics of Bayes’s Theorem, which promises to be “the most math-challenging section of the book” (p. 67). Maths is not my most outstanding strength so I want to be sure I get the basics clear before moving into those waters. I have come to a point where I can enjoy playing little mind-games with Bayes’ Theorem for the sake of reinforcing my understanding. Last night on the TV news was dramatic story of an unexpected resignation of a leading Australian political figure. So I found myself piecing all I heard, how I heard it and what I knew etc. into a Bayes’ equation and calculating the probability that the story was true. Kind of fun. At least for the moment before the novelty factor wears off.

Result: While I believe I can see Richard’s point some of my niggling questions have not yet gone away.

When did the sun go out?

Carrier begins by setting out our reasoning when we read in the Gospels that darkness covered the whole earth for three hours at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. What he is seeking to do is to take readers through the processes they would undergo in order to conclude that such an event almost certainly never really happened.

To make the scenario work he posits at least a barely conceivable natural cause for the event: “a vast dense cloud of space-dust swiftly drifting through the plane of the solar system . . .” — Wouldn’t the Sun’s gravity prevent that? But I’m happy to go along with the exercise for sake of argument nonetheless.

The critical point for Carrier is that what would convince us that such an event really had happened in the past is if we could find records testifying of the event across all world cultures thousands of miles apart from Britain to China.

There could not fail to have been mention or discussion of such a remarkable and terrifying event across many of these cultures among their surviving textual traditions and materials. (p. 43).

The key point is that we know in advance that this is the evidence we would expect to find IF such an event had happened.

And if indeed that were the case, we would surely have adequate warrant to believe the sun was blotted out for three hours on the corroborated day . . .

What Carrier is preparing his readers for is to accept that reasoning about historical events is fundamentally similar to reasoning in the sciences. If such and such a hypothesis (or explanation) is true then we would predict (or expect) certain events (or evidence) to be manifest.

Then there is the converse. If such a hypothesis (explanation) were true, we would NOT expect to find a universal silence in the surviving records:

[A] single claim in a single religion repeated only in its own documents (and documents relying on those), is extraordinarily improbable — unless the event was entirely made up. . . . This is a slam-dunk Argument from Silence, establishing beyond any reasonable doubt the nonhistoricity of this solar event . . . (p. 44)

My niggling question:

I follow the reasoning. But in my mind, rather than taking me into the realm of mathematics, it all leads back to my own argument about how historians know anything at all about the persons and events of the past. read more »


2008-01-29

The fallacy of argument ad verecundiam (to modesty?)

by Neil Godfrey

The quaint Latin term might mean appeal to modesty but in plain English it refers to the fallacy of an appeal to authority.

This form of error is an egregious but effective technique which puts an opponent in the awkward position of appearing to commit the sin of pride if he persists in his opposition. (p.253)

Fischer (Historians’ Fallacies) discusses a 1950’s exchange among historians of modern history to illustrate that “the most crude and ugly form of an argument ad verecundiam in historical writing is an appeal to professional status.” I will cite here a more recent example.

In 2003 George Athas published a version of his 1999 doctoral thesis on the Tel Dan inscription — a 1993 archaeological find that was widely claimed to be the earliest extra-biblical evidence for the House of David. Two of the earliest reviews of this work were “most crude and ugly” indeed:

The author’s hope is that his “study will do much to quell the unhelpful passion and euphoria” that have lured us all into “emotional scholarship” (319). Those are rather grand and pretentious aims for a doctoral dissertation . . . (Review in RBL 10/2003) by William M. Schniedewind University of California)

And a year later:

. . . . After a decade of extensive research, there was a feeling among scholars that the study of the inscription had reached fruition and that no significant advance could be made, unless more fragments were found in the excavations.

It is against this background that the book under review should be evaluated. The book, a rework of a dissertation submitted to the University of Sydney in 1999, deals with some aspects (notably the epigraphical, paleographical, and textual analysis) in such detail as could be done only in a doctoral dissertation. Considering that Athas is a beginning young scholar, the book is pretentious in the extreme. Athas believes that his study “will do much to quell the unhelpful passion and euphoria that the Tel Dan Inscription has evoked among scholars and interested persons alike” (319). — (Review in RBL 10/2004 by Nadav Na’aman, Tel Aviv University)

I once wrote:

There are many reasons . . . to believe that Acts was composed [as] a later reaction against Marcionism.

No more, just an invitation to discuss the evidence if my debating partner was willing to go there. But his reply was an interesting shut down with his appeal to “modesty” and by inference “my arrogance” for even making such a claim:

That might be a fun debate. … {g} You do realize that such a position (about Acts) goes directly up against evaluations by Adoph Von Harnack and JAT Robertson (among many others on all sides of the theological spectrum, some of them no more poster-boys for Christian “dogmatism” than those two were), right?

In other words, my correspondent was demonstrating a complete lack of interest in what “many reasons” there might possibly be, preferring instead to rest on the works generally cited as authorities. Authority of the names alone was sufficient. The question was recast from one of evidence and reason to one of attitude: of presumed modesty versus a presumption of arrogance.

One might even call it an attempt at “intellectual bullying”.

A favourite arena where this tactic is found is where individuals outside the academy raise questions or challenge paradigms that have long been seen as the special preserve of the academy. Obviously some of those questions and alternate proposals are kooky. But academia does itself — nor the public to whom one would expect it to feel some sense of responsibility — any favours by arrogant appeals “to modesty”.

Fischer concludes:

In historiography, such crude forms of argument ad verecundiam are rarely to be met with — in print, at least. [He was writing in 1970 — before online discussion groups and wikis.] The explanation is not that scholars are gentlemen, but rather, as Bolingbroke noted many years ago, that “those who are not such, however, have taken care to appear such in their writings.”

The above examples demonstrate that Fischer’s observations do not necessarily apply in our times of public online journal reviews and discussions.

P.S.

there exists online another review of Athas’s study sans the “modesty” by Daniel Miller (2007) in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.


The fallacy of the prevalent proof

by Neil Godfrey

David Hackett Fischer back in 1970 in his Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, discussed this fallacy one sometimes encounters in discussions of the history of early Christian origins and biblical studies.

It refers to using widespread opinion as a method of verification. Often I’ve noticed this coupled with an argument “from authority” where well known historians’ names will be called on as examples of some who have expressed or assumed a widely accepted opinion or “fact” as if that adds empirical weight to something that has never been methodically investigated.

Fischer notes that cultural anthropologists have found this practice among certain tribes such as the Kuba. History, for them, is whatever their majority declares to be true. But Fischer’s point is that anthropologists would also find the same practice among some quarters in our history departments.

The best known example of something very close to this among biblical students and scholars is the Jesus Seminar with its method of voting in order to issue colour rankings to indicate how many or how few believed certain passages in the gospels were authentic sayings, or deeds, of Jesus. While the Seminar scholars may have explained the nature and real significance of their voting and colour coding scheme, the simple fact of voting to and grading passages accordingly is curious. Why not simply leave the various arguments themselves to speak for themselves? A ranking system based on counting votes obviously will only serve to perpetuate the laziness, and fallacy, of relying on a majority opinion for verification. And if a few prominent names can be linked to some of the votes (not the reasonings and assumptions) then all the “more certainly factual” one can misguidedly feel one’s argument is.

But one encounters this fallacy in many more areas than those discussions that call on the findings of the Jesus Seminar.

Few scholars have failed to bend, in some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have established a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of this problem. . . .” (p.52)

Fischer cites one example where a historian wrote in relation to the role of dope in early industrial England, “every historian of the period knows that it was common practice at the time for working mothers to start the habit in the cradle by dosing their hungry babies on laudanum . . .” Yet although this statement was often made and widely believed it had apparently never at the time been established by empirical evidence.

When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

When leaving my erstwhile faith I asked questions, and kept asking further questions about any answers I got to the first questions. This was not from nihilistic scepticism but from a determination not to be bitten again. I hated it when I asked on an academic discussion group the evidence for, say, that a particular passage in Josephus not being a completely 100% forgery, and being directed to a text that listed numbered points claiming to be reasons — no argument, nothing new at all that I had not already studied and found based on questionable logic or in defiance of stronger counter-arguments. It soon became apparent that many scholars themselves who gave such answers had never checked for themselves with due methodical enquiry the many “facts” on which they based their hypotheses and arguments.

Not that that particular point was a major one in the grand scheme of things, but it sticks in my mind since it was the answer I was given by a widely respected academic repeatedly, and in a context of arrogant dismissal if anyone found cause to “quibble” with such a list of dot points on a page of a text by such “an authority”.

But this fallacy is found across the spectrum. Fundamentalists may laugh at the Jesus Seminar with its voting, but one also regularly encounters their appeals to “majority opinion” among scholars who are from the same theological camp.

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form — deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.  

Fischer gives one popular example: the notion that Mussolini made the trains run on time. Fischer cites a work by Montagu and Darling testifying to the mythical nature of this “widely known fact”. In biblical studies one might in many cases substitute popular theology or religious beliefs for popular opinion.


2007-02-06

Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 5b

by Neil Godfrey

Symbolic Status & Authoritative Status
Having passed over any need to argue that the Twelve really were an entity selected by Jesus B proceeds to explain the symbolic and prophetic significance of this group, symbolic of the hope of restoration of an idealized Israel, and prophetic of what God was doing through Jesus. read more »