What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

I toyed with the idea of presenting the dishonest, decontextualized quotation of Marx that one finds in both Lost Cause as well as libertarian “scholarship,” and then work back until I revealed the original intent. But then I remembered from psychology classes that the primacy effect is extremely potent and realized that I risked sabotaging my own efforts. So instead I’ll begin with what Karl Marx actually thought, to avoid all ambiguity


What Marx Thought

In an essay written for the The Vienna Presse, he wrote:

The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question: Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should subordinate themselves any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be planting-places for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed propaganda of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device. (Marx 1861, p. 71, attributed to Marx and Engels, bold emphasis mine)

What the Many in the British Press Thought 

For the moment, let’s lay aside whether or not we agree with Marx. The question is not what we think, but what he thought. In this essay, Marx and Engels were taking a position against many in the British press. Many of the loud and sanctimonious voices in newspapers of the day were saying that the war had nothing to do with slavery. Early on, in this same essay, Marx wrote, concerning contemporary London media:

In essence the extenuating arguments read: The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery and in fact turns on Northern lust for sovereignty. (Marx 1861, p. 58)

The Quote, Out of Context

The modern mischief begins with stripping away all context, and then presenting the implicit (and false) notion that Marx thought the Civil War was simply a war of aggression and dominance, perpetrated by the North. I first came upon this quotation in a truly dreadful book by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. called It Wasn’t about Slavery.

He begins the chapter called “The Election of 1860” with this: Continue reading “What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)”


How Did Scholars View the Gospels During the “First Quest”? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

I received an email a few weeks ago [4 Jan. edit: make that a few months ago], in which the sender asked some questions that deserve an extended response. If and when I have the time, I will add more to this post, but I at least would like to start with a broad outline of my understanding of the history of life-of-Jesus research — both in the ways it was actually conducted and in the ways it is currently “remembered.”

Here’s the text of the email:

Hello, I am a fan of Vridar, and I found a comment that you posted in an article that you wrote. The article is at https://vridar.org/2014/05/14/what-do-they-mean-by-no-quest/.

The comment that you made is “One thing that struck me recently while reading and re-reading material related to the Quest, including books from the 19th and early 20th century, is how often authors will state matter-of-factly that “of course” the gospels aren’t biographies. This whole gospels == biographies debate seems rather new and not well argued. But since believing that they are biographies is useful for their narrow purposes, it has become the consensus position among today’s scholars.”

I have a few questions regarding this comment.

1. What books from the first Quest, say plainly that the gospels aren’t biographies?
2. Do they know of Greco-Roman biographies?
3. Do they list reasons why they aren’t biographies?
4. How is the current understanding not well argued?

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am eagerly anticipating your response.

Before continuing, I just want to say I’m stunned that nine years have passed since I wrote that post. Where does the time go?

What Biography?

First of all, the general consensus in the 19th century held that the canonical gospels contained biographical material, but were obviously not like modern biographies. Many modern scholars who write on this subject annoyingly imply that this assessment is somehow new. Nobody thought that was the case, and nobody confused popular biography or hagiography or legendary biography with modern biography.

The question was simply: Can we use the materials at hand — namely, the aforementioned biographical material — to create a broad historical outline of Jesus’ life. In some cases, they referred to such a sketch as a “historical biography” or “scientific biography.” However, as we know from reading Albert Schweitzer and William Wrede, the authors of these “lives of Jesus” made two fatal errors: (1) assuming that Mark, as the first written gospel, could be trusted as an unbiased historical account, and (2) psychologizing Jesus far beyond the limits of reasonable conjecture.

What Quest?

Holy Grail Tapestry

Second, the somewhat sensational title of the English translation of Schweitzer’s A History of Life-of-Jesus Research, (Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung), colors the way we perceive the task at hand. You may suspect that I’m overstating the case, but I think this change of focus is crucial. In the original German, the title — and in fact, the entire work — centers on the scholars and their research. Schweitzer had intended the original title, Von Reimarus zu Wrede, as the attention grabber, but in subsequent editions it was dropped in favor of the subtitle, and in the German world is referred to as History of Life-of-Jesus Research (without the indefinite article).

In English, the very word “quest” evokes a kind of mystic medieval landscape — a verdant, rolling countryside populated with devout knights-errant finding venerated objects, killing mythical beasts, fighting rivals, and saving damsels in distress. In this case, the aim of our quest is not piety or glory, but instead the Jesus of history. Schweitzer’s survey of scholarly research has thus become a romantic historical mission. Continue reading “How Did Scholars View the Gospels During the “First Quest”? (Part 1)”


The Memory Mavens, Part 14: Halbwachs and the Pilgrim of Bordeaux

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by Tim Widowfield

Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena

Once or twice a year, Academia likes to email me a link to Anthony Le Donne’s page, highlighting the third chapter from his magnum opus. In that chapter, entitled “History and Memory,” he introduces us to Maurice Halbwachs and his “seriously deficientLa topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Étude de memoire collective. I had once held out some hope that Le Donne would fix this chapter’s more obvious errors, such as calling Helena Constantine’s wife, but that’s never going to happen. So each time I read it, I sigh and shake my head.

The “Deficiencies”

In what ways, specifically, is La topographie lacking? Le Donne noted Halbwachs’s first deficiency was that “he relied heavily upon the account by the pilgrims [sic] of Bordeaux and neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites.” It appears by his reference to “pilgrims,” Le Donne doesn’t understand that the first chapter of Halbwach’s book refers to a single Christian pilgrim who probably wrote this work in or soon after 333 CE.

The oldest testimony that we have of a traveler who went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage is a work called “The Account of the Pilgrim of Bordeaux.” We can place the exact date after the phrase: at Constantinople “albulavimus, Dalmatio et Zenophilo consulibus, d.III kal. Jun. Chalcædonia, etc.,” which is to say, 333 CE – 300 years after the passion and death of Christ, 263 years after the destruction of Jerusalem in by Titus, 198 years after the reconstruction of this city (Ælia Capitolina) by Hadrian. The voyage to Jerusalem by Helena, the mother of Constantine, occurred around 326 CE. (Halbwachs 1941, p. 11, my translation)

[translator’s note] Wess. 571, 6-8, “Item ambulavimus Dalmatico et Zenophilo cons. III. kal. Iun. a Calcedonia et reversi sumus Constantinopolim VII kal. Ian. cons. Suprascripto.In the year 333, CE, these two men – Flavius Valerius Dalmatius and Marcus Aurelius Zenophilus – served joint consuls. See: Cuntz Otto and Gerhard Wirth. 1990. Itineraria Antonini Augusti et Burdigalense. Stuttgart: Teubner. See also: Stewart Aubrey and C. W Wilson. 1887. Itinerary from Bordeaux to Jerusalem [Itinerarium Burdigalense]: “The Bordeaux Pilgrim“; (333 A.D.)

Any fair reading of the text must recognize the heavy reliance on the pilgrim’s work. After all, it starts on page 11 and rambles on for 52 pages. Why did Halbwachs spend so much time referring to the pilgrim’s itinerary? He was forthright about his reasons for doing so.

Consider this text: how could we not take some time to study it? It is a unique remnant, closest to the period in which the events recounted in the gospels would have taken place, before which we find only a few texts in the writings of the early Church Fathers, but no continuous account from someone who witnessed the places. (Halbwachs 1941, p. 11, my translation)

He reminds us that the next instance we have of such an itinerary comes fifty years later with the Peregrinatio ad loca sancta by the Galician nun, Egeria (Ætheria).

Fifty years is a long time in a century where, after the construction of Constantine, many new traditions were quickly established. Moreover, in this second 60-page text, Ætheria’s journeys to Sinai, Mount Nebo, Mesopotamia and Cilicia – i.e. places mentioned only in the Old Testament – take up a significant part. Ætheria lived in Jerusalem for three years. She emphasizes ceremonies that take place on different days of the year around the Holy Sepulcher and Calvary, on Mount Zion, at Eleona, and on the Mount of Olives. She describes them meticulously and vividly; but there are only a few topographical indications. (Halbwachs, 1941, p. 12, my translation)

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA: Cristo y la samaritana, 1310-1311

A Foundation

Notwithstanding this heavy reliance, a fair reading of the text must also acknowledge that Halbwachs does not rely solely upon our pilgrim, but quite often uses his work as a kind of baseline — a foundation upon which to compare other descriptions and analyses. Each successive account gives us a new perspective, but the pilgrim’s account is the first nearly complete itinerary of the sites — all the more valuable, because it describes the situation directly after Constantine and Helena made their marks on Palestine.

(I will note here that Halbwachs mentioned Constantine by name over 30 times, which I think you’ll agree is a rather unusual way to “neglect” the emperor. We’ll return to that theme later on.)

Remember, too that Halbwachs himself visited some of the same sites and had his own memorable experiences. Take, for example, Jacob’s Well (later believed to be place where Jesus met the Samaritan woman): Continue reading “The Memory Mavens, Part 14: Halbwachs and the Pilgrim of Bordeaux”


The Memory Mavens, Part 13: The Purpose of Halbwachs’s La Topographie

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by Tim Widowfield

Maurice Halbwachs
Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

After the previous post (The Memory Mavens, Part 12: The Collective Memory of a Halbwachs Quotation), I uploaded my translation of the Introduction to La Topographie Légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte to Vridar. You can find it embedded on this page. I will be adding chapters as time permits. The top-level page will be found here: MAURICE HALBWACHS — Works Translated into English  (which is visible in the Vridar side panel under Pages).

Reading the works of the Memory Mavens (specifically, those self-professed experts in the English-speaking world), you might have the impression that Halbwachs had missed the mark with this book. As I mentioned in other posts, Anthony Le Donne and Barry Schwartz had little good to say about it. Le Donne insisted it was “seriously deficient in many ways” (Le Donne 2009, pp. 43-44). Schwartz wrote:

Halbwachs’s greatest failure is his inability to see commemoration as anything more than an elaborate delusion.

It is not just that localizations distort history; the more they distort the better they work. Halbwachs advances a pejorative conception of collective memory, one that distrusts and works to undermine established beliefs. He assumes that memory, as opposed to history, is inauthentic, manipulative, shady, something to be overcome rather than accepted in its own right. That commemoration is a selective celebration rather than an inferior version of history escapes Halbwachs. He cannot fully grasp what sacred sites accomplish, how they transmute reality to mobilize and sustain religious sentiment and, above all, elevate Jesus and sustain faith in what he did and represented.

(Schwartz 2005, p. 49, emphasis mine)

After several paragraphs of scolding Halbwachs, he proclaimed:

From the social memory standpoint, then, our object of study is not the authenticity of the Gospels; it is rather the Gospels as sources of information about the popular beliefs of early Christianity.

(Schwartz 2005, p. 50)

Are we to infer that Halbwachs didn’t know that? After reading Halbwachs’s introduction (which today’s scholars will not do), we might come away with a different interpretation. In his essay, Schwartz was focused on gleaning information about what happened in first-century Palestine. He chastised both Bultmann and Halbwachs for their skepticism under this section header: The Cynical Discipline (p. 45). He suggested that both men smugly swept aside all gospel evidence, happy to declare any and all traditions as inauthentic.

“Just wait a bit. Soon there will come a new species of men – narrow, hard, and systematic – who will go further in the direction of ruthless criticism and denial. Then you will miss Mr. Renan.”

But what did Halbwachs actually say? First, he listed the various reasons one might wish to take a trip to the so-called Holy Land, and then he said: Continue reading “The Memory Mavens, Part 13: The Purpose of Halbwachs’s La Topographie


The Memory Mavens, Part 12: The Collective Memory of a Halbwachs Quotation

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by Tim Widowfield

La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte: étude de mémoire collective

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been working on an English translation of Halbwachs’s La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte (The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land). A paperback version with its vivid red cover, sitting at the foot of my bed, has been catching my eye for many months. Recently, I finally picked it up and started reading it again, happy to find that he wrote in not some impenetrable scholastic French, but in a rather conversational (yet still quite proper) register.

I had three years of French in an American high school, so my competence is suspect. However, starting several years ago I’ve been working at getting better with the help of Duolingo and Pimsleur. That said, I often find myself entering sentences into various online services to compare my translations to theirs.

The Original Source

One of the sentences that popped out at me was this one from the last paragraph of the introduction:

Si, comme nous le croyons, la mémoire collective est essentiellement une reconstruction du passé, si elle adapte l’image des faits anciens aux croyances et aux besoins spirituels du présent, la connaissance de ce qui était à l’origine est secondaire, sinon tout à fait inutile, puisque la réalité du passé n’est plus là, comme un modèle immuable auquel il faudrait se conformer.

(Halbwachs 1941, p. 9)

I have translated this passage as:

If, as we believe, collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts the image of ancient events to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, knowledge of what was originally there is secondary, if not outright useless, since the reality of the past is no longer there as an immutable model to which one has to conform.

(Halbwachs/Widowfield 2023, bold emphasis mine)

It sounded awfully familiar. And then I remembered a Halbwachs quotation in Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity that I hadn’t been able to find in the original text. Schwartz wrote:

In The Legendary Topography of the Gospels, he declares, “If, as we believe, social memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts the image of ancient facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, then a knowledge of the origin of these facts must be secondary, if not altogether useless, for the reality of the past is no longer in the past.” (Halbwachs 1992b, 7).

(Schwartz 2014, p. 19, bold emphasis mine)

Back in the day, I had been confused, because Schwartz’s bibliographical citation for “Halbwachs 1992b” contained this note:

Translated into English as pages 193–235 in On Collective Memory. Edited and translated by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [orig. 1941]

The unsuspecting reader (in this case, me) might think La Topographie had been translated in its entirety and placed at the end of the English translation of On Collective Memory. However, if you’ve read my series on the Memory Mavens, you will recall that it was only the final chapter — the conclusion — that Coser translated.

In his introduction, Coser condensed Halbwachs’s perspective: Continue reading “The Memory Mavens, Part 12: The Collective Memory of a Halbwachs Quotation”


Expanding on My Essay in Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Part 1

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by Tim Widowfield

Joseph Fitzmyer’s Stages of Tradition

Joseph A. Fitzmyer

In my essay, “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey” (Widowfield 2021), I mentioned a few core ideas that I’ve been meaning to expand upon here. My recent reading of Richard Carrier’s review, in which he said my brief article “should be required reading for anyone keen to evaluate these kinds of arguments” (Carrier 2022, p. 190) has spurred me to write again.

Back in 1979 when he was engaging with Géza Vermes over the Son of Man Problem, Joseph Fitzmyer remarked his interlocutor’s analysis completely ignored any notion of historical stages in the gospel tradition. Specifically, when did “the Son of Man” enter the early Christian lexicon? This question has special interest for those of us who think the evangelists considered it to be some sort of title. However, Fitzmyer noted that the “distinction in the levels of the gospel tradition . . . [was] strangely lacking in Vermes’ discussion of the whole matter.” (Fitzmyer 1979, p. 65) Continue reading “Expanding on My Essay in Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Part 1″


K. L. Schmidt’s “Framework” Part 1: Introduction — Duration and Timeline

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by Tim Widowfield

[Read at archive.org]
In his introductory chapter to The Framework of the Story of Jesus, Karl Ludwig Schmidt examined the overall outline and implied duration of Jesus’ ministry. (Note: We’ll be looking at both the German original and the new English translation by Byron McCane.)

The chronological debate

In the case of canonical gospel chronologies, debate on the matter of Synoptic vs. Johannine has continued decade after decade with no apparent end in sight. Apologists, for whom clever harmonization is a virtue, have diligently tried to make all the pieces fit, using every well-known tool. Sadly, the plain meaning of the text will rarely survive the most ingenious attempts at harmonization.

When confronted with two bits of contradictory evidence, X and Y, we have four possibilities:

  1. X and Y are both true. (We simply need to explain away the “apparent” contradictions.)
  2. X is true, and Y is false.
  3. Y is true, and X is false.
  4. Neither X nor Y is true. (Or at least, not entirely true.)

Schmidt surveyed the existing works on the subject, pointing out how champions of either chronology (Johannine or Synoptic) easily saw the discrepancies on the opposite side while blind to their own — mote vs. beam, so to speak. Ultimately, we can’t rely on any of the gospels when it comes to sequence or duration.


Those brave souls who tried to fit both chronologies into a single coherent timeline earned some measure of admiration in Schmidt’s eyes. Heaven knows they put forth a valiant effort. However, at some point, such scholars must argue for an interpolation here or there, or argue that the plain meaning of this or that verse actually meant something else. Or perhaps, as Hans Windisch would insist, some of the chapters must be out of order.

In our own day, we still see scholars arguing that Jesus cleansed the Jerusalem Temple early in his career (John) and then again during his last week on Earth (Synoptics). Maybe he did it several years in a row without ever getting arrested, because — well, why the hell not? If we step back and honestly evaluate the process of apologetic harmonization, we see that it is at least as corrosive as “skeptical” critical analysis. Why, we must finally ask ourselves, do we continually rework the evidence to fit an unchanging (and unchangeable) conclusion? At best, it is harmless busy work. At worst, it’s dishonest mental gymnastics. [I’m expressing my own thoughts here, not Schmidt’s, by the way.] Continue reading “K. L. Schmidt’s “Framework” Part 1: Introduction — Duration and Timeline”


K. L. Schmidt’s The Framework of the Story of Jesus: Now in English!

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by Tim Widowfield

I bear glad tidings of good news. Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s magnum opus has finally been translated into English. The publication date is 2021, but I became aware of it earlier this month. The translator, Byron R. McCane was also responsible for the highly readable The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, which is a good sign.

Schmidt became somewhat of a star in the world of biblical scholarship after the publication of Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu.  In it, he laid out the evidence for the nature of the framework in Mark’s gospel — namely that it was based on separate pieces of oral tradition, hung upon a mostly secondary structure. In previous decades, the theory of Markan priority among the synoptics had gained many adherents and eventually became the overwhelming consensus position.

Emboldened by that consensus, many scholars (mostly Protestant) attempted to write modern biographies of Jesus using the synoptics as their source material and leaning heavily on the second gospel for details concerning their chronology and topological itinerary. (This is what Schweitzer called Leben Jesu Forschung or “life of Jesus research.”) William Wrede and, to some extent, Albert Schweitzer demolished the idea that this was even possible. In The Messianic Secret (1901), Wrede sought to demonstrate that Mark’s overall narrative does not have a coherent narrative structure, but is instead arranged thematically and theologically. Julius Wellhausen in his analyses of the gospels came to the same conclusion, making the case emphatically in Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (1905).

The foundations of form criticism

These predecessors laid the groundwork for Schmidt, who in Framework painstakingly analyzed the perocopae of Mark’s gospel and their related sections in Matthew and Luke. Rudolf Bultmann hailed the work as an impressive and important achievement which would provide the foundation for form criticism. On the other hand, conservative scholars, especially apologists in the English-speaking world, attacked it on various fronts. Probably the most well-known sustained attack came from Methodist minister David R. Hall. He criticized Schmidt’s assumptions and arguments in The Gospel Framework: Fiction or Fact?, a book you can read for free on archive.org.

For those readers not fluent in German, Hall’s book may have been a bit frustrating. Similar to the experience of reading Origen’s Contra Celsum, wishing than an extant copy of The True Word had survived for comparison, we wonder whether Hall has given Schmidt a fair shake. But now, after more than a century, we have an English translation.

I hope to post more on Rahmen in the coming weeks, as time permits, but for now I would like to offer a few words about translating German into English. In previous posts, I have sometimes translated Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu as The Framework of the History of Jesus. As you probably know, the word Geschichte means both story and history. However, I think our translator got it right with The Framework of the Story of Jesus, and the proof is in the subtitle: Literary-Critical Investigations of the Earliest Jesus Tradition. Schmidt is not offering up a strictly historical-critical work here. He’s staying, for the most part, on the layer of the text itself (in its disconnected pericope form), examining the textual clues related to the formation of the gospels from the received tradition. Continue reading “K. L. Schmidt’s The Framework of the Story of Jesus: Now in English!”


Cutting Ties with Robert M. Price

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by Tim Widowfield

As an affirmed denier of all things supernatural, I must consider my recent deep dive into Critical Race Theory and Bob Price’s latest “troubles” to be entirely coincidental. To show you how far out of the loop I’ve been, I hadn’t the slightest inkling something was amiss in Priceland until I saw his rebuttal to Derek Lambert on Facebook. Oh, look. He’s being “canceled” again. Dear me.

First, I need to apologize to any and all for trying to compartmentalize for so long — gaining insights from Price’s religious research while ignoring his extremist authoritarian political, economical, and social views. I had held Price at arm’s length for many years, having at first approached him by email and then by phone, with the hopes of learning at the feet of the master.

He gave me a list of books to read, and we worked out a preliminary syllabus. At the time, I was working a lot on the road, which made things difficult, and then, late in the year, my mother’s health took a turn for the worst. She had been battling multiple myeloma. In 2010 I took a great deal of time off work to look after her. I fell into a profound melancholia. Continue reading “Cutting Ties with Robert M. Price”


Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

In a comment to the previous post, Russell Gmirkin took issue with my explanation of Kuhn’s definition of a paradigm and my conclusion that fields of study outside of natural sciences don’t have Kuhnian paradigms, and hence no “paradigm shifts.”

He quoted from his forthcoming book, as follows:

One may define an academic paradigm as an implicit or explicit theoretical and factual framework that is agreed upon by consensus by a body of professionals within a discipline. (Gmirkin 2022)

As I’ve said before, if you want to propose your own definition of a paradigm, I have no quarrel with it. However, having done so, you will have left the Kuhnian universe of ideas. And once again, I protest not because Kuhn was right in all things, but simply because he had a particular structure in mind, and to appropriate his conclusions based on terminology antithetical to that structure is wrong.


I apparently must now apologize for calling someone or something wrong, since Mr. Dabrowski has informed me that I am displaying “animus.” Let us say instead that it is unright. Perhaps even double-plus unright.

Gmirkin continues:

Paradigms are typically perpetuated within academic institutions of learning in preparation for professional life within that field. As an axiomatic intellectual framework enforced by revered teachers and respected peers, paradigms tend to be conservatively preserved and are difficult to change except in the face of both deconstruction by new facts that run counter to the accepted paradigm and the construction of a competing paradigm with greater explanatory power (Kuhn 1996) (Gmirkin 2022)

I understand his point. As we discussed in previous posts, anomalies arise when new data arrives that calls the entire prevailing framework into question. The resulting crisis can engender a great deal of backlash. For example, the discovery of X-rays sent shock waves through the scientific community. One might wonder why this should be so, since the prevailing paradigm didn’t exclude the possibility of their existence. Continue reading “Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 3)”


Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

The previous post generated some interesting discussion. Eventually, I would like to take the time to address the comments in a deliberate, serious manner; however, at the moment I want to take us back around to some fundamental questions.

  1. What did Thomas Kuhn mean by paradigm?
  2. Did Kuhn think his paradigmatic structure applied to the social sciences, arts, and humanities?
  3. Can we legitimately apply the concept of Kuhnian paradigm shifts to theology and biblical studies?

A Definition Might Help

Margaret Masterman-Braithwaite

As you probably already know, Kuhn’s magnum opus, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, spawned a great deal of controversy. Undeniably, he unleashed a generation of self-absorbed loud-talkers at parties who used the word incessantly. His detractors almost immediately jumped upon the fact that Kuhn used the word “paradigm” in several different senses of the word. How do we know what he meant by the term paradigm shift if we can’t be certain, from one page to the next, what exactly he meant by paradigm?

In the preface to more recent editions of Structure, Ian Hacking cites “an often-cited but seldom-read essay” by Margaret Masterman — who may be the first person to have counted the 21 ways Kuhn used the word. Having recently read the paper, “The Nature of a Paradigm,” I think Masterman’s criticism came out of sincere respect and the desire to clarify Kuhn’s muddy waters. She rightly notes the sense in which a group of scientists latch onto a paradigm before they can articulate a theory. It starts with some achievement that draws like-minded people together into a social relationship.

[F]or Kuhn, something sociologically describable, and above all, concrete, already exists in actual science, at the early stages, when the theory is not there.

It is worth remarking also that, whatever synonym-patterns Kuhn may get trapped into establishing in the heat of his arguments, he never, in fact, equates ‘paradigm’, in any of its main senses, with ‘scientific theory’. For his metaparadigm* is something far wider than, and ideologically prior to, theory: i.e. a whole Weltanschauung. His sociological paradigm, as we have seen, is also prior to theory, and other than theory, since it is something concrete and observable: i.e. a set of habits. And his construct-paradigm is less than a theory, since it can be something as little theoretic as a single piece of apparatus: i.e. anything which can cause actual puzzle-solving to occur. (Masterman 1977, p. 66-67, emphasis mine)

[*By “metaparadigm,” Masterman is referring to the sense in which Kuhn refers to an all-encompassing way of thinking about the world and not merely to a localized pattern, set of habits, or framework for puzzle-solving.]

While many critics (especially followers of Popper) scoffed at Kuhn’s work and claimed he had simply reworked some well-known and understood ideas, Masterman realized he was onto something important. And she recognized that this new way of looking at scientific progress — not as an accumulation of facts and a slow upward march, but as a kind of punctuated equilibrium — was attracting readers and adherents. Continue reading “Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 2)”


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: Continue reading “Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 1)”


We’ve Been Published — Varieties of Jesus Mythicism

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Varieties of Jesus Mythicism

In the newly published volume — Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist? — you will find that the two closing chapters were written by Neil and me. Neil’s essay, entitled “A Rejoinder to James McGrath’s Case for Jesus” forms the penultimate chapter. Mine, “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey,” come in last. Our essays don’t necessarily advocate for mythicism (in any of its varieties), but instead, focus on the mistakes people have made and continue to make when arguing for the historicity of Jesus.

We’ll have more to say about it in the future. But for now, if you’re interested, the book is available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.


Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Reviewing The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel by Helen K. Bond.

The First Biography of Jesus

(In which I finally get around to reading Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus.)

After the initial trickle of “Gospels Are Biographies!” books, we might have expected a flood of works exploring the implications of such a designation. After all, when we approach a text, we usually try to identify (at least provisionally) its genre in order to understand it. If scholars in the past had failed to recognize the true genre of the canonical gospels, then we must have myriad assumptions to sweep away, interpretations to reassess, conclusions to re-evaluate, and new questions to ask.

Missing Books?

Yet here we sit, still waiting for that big splash. In the first chapter, Bond herself recognizes the dog that didn’t bark. As an aside, I would note that the usual suspects, naturally, have added the biographical credo as an ancillary argument — Bauckham for touting eyewitness testimony and Keener for promoting historical reliability. But where are the massive monographs written by grad students, the insightful papers on the cutting edge of gospel research? Where are the 400-page books laden with turgid prose that recycle the same ideas ad nauseam?

All in all, the list of scholarship is not particularly long for an issue that seemed so pressing only a few decades ago, and it is still possible (not to mention largely unremarkable as far as reviewers were concerned) to write a long book on gospel origins without devoting any attention to their genre at all. (Bond 2020, p. 52-53)

You might wonder whether modern scholars had actually been more interested in changing the consensus than building upon it. Maybe. But you should understand that redefining the genre of the gospels represents a small part of a much larger overall project, namely the rewriting of New Testament scholarship’s own history and a redrawing of its self-conception. This process of reconstruction has gradually remapped the terrain and redrawn the borders, so that scholars who once dwelt securely in a fairly broad mainstream now sit in no man’s land, out in the mud which lies beyond the barbed wire. NT scholarship’s Overton Window has slid far to the right, and erstwhile respected scholars are now rebuked for sounding too radical, for going too far, for being too skeptical, for engaging in oldthink.

Nothing demonstrates this recent change better than the now fashionable stance against form criticism. Bond has little good to say about it, and what she does say often misses the mark. For example: Continue reading “Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)”