Tag Archives: Scholarly Consensus

Scholarly Consensus: Some Questions Are More Important Than Others

A few years ago, I was visiting a customer site in Denver, Colorado. Early one morning, while sitting in a cold conference room, I overheard a conversation about a guy who had recently quit. Apparently, he was the lone subject matter expert on an important project.

A: I hope he documented what he was doing. 

B: He’s pretty good about it.

A: You know what they say . . .

B: “In case you get hit by a bus”?

A: Heh-heh. Yeah.

C: We had a guy just this past year who got hit by a bus. Literally, hit by a bus.

B: He died?

C: Yeah. 

A: Oh, man.

C: You know how they tell you to look both ways, especially to the right, when you’re in India?

B: So he stepped out and didn’t see it.

C: Yeah.

B: Damn.

Double-Decker Bus

I can remember being warned about looking in the correct direction back in the military. When we sent people TDY to England, we reminded them to look both ways. If you grew up in a country where people drive on the right, you instinctively check to the left just before you step off the curb. It’s the opposite for people who grew up in left-side countries. In the split second you spend looking in the wrong direction, a vehicle can suddenly come around the corner and kill you.

This story reminds us that some decisions have more consequence than others, and some problems require an immediate decision. If you’re deciding on the color of the curtains in your living room, you may regret your choice, but it probably won’t kill you. You might even delay your choice to the point where you never get around to changing the draperies before you sell the house.

On the other hand, some questions are more pressing. Even not making a decision is still a decision. When I think of life-or-death decisions that demand a choice, I can’t help but recall the series Danger UXB. Imagine the stress of needing to make the right decision as the seconds tick away. Which wire? How does this work? Can I stop it?

I would argue that global climate disruption has become that kind of problem. Unfortunately, it stands at the convergence of science, politics, sociology, and religion. Something needs to be done immediately, the wrong choices will be deadly, and not deciding what to do about it is in itself a decision.

Some problems demand an immediate response. However, other questions — e.g.: Did Jesus exist as a historical figure? Did Josiah suppress the original Israelite pantheon, which included a mother goddess? Did the Jews of the Second Temple period ever conceive of a dying, suffering, sacrificial messiah? — do not.

A Vridar reader, Gary, commented recently: read more »

Academic Consensus and Jesus Mythicism

I know many readers will be interested in the following.

R. G. Price (whose book I recently wrote about) has posted thoughts on the relationship between academic consensus and the question of the historicity of Jesus: Academic consensus is important, but it’s not always right.

His discussion segues into another related page, On the Origin of Jesus by Means of Mythical Propagation.

 

The Phlogiston Jesus

Fourcroy (Wikipedia): “There are now nearly as many theories, as many different kinds of phlogiston, as there are defenders of phlogiston.”

PZ Myers: A consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything. 200 years ago there was a consensus phlogiston existed. The key thing is: show me the chain of evidence and the logic that you use to derive this.

(From video discussion with Eddie Marcus; see also transcript/paraphrase.)

….

Tim O’Neill: If we look at relevant non-Christian scholars, both current and recent, we find people like Maurice Casey, Zeba Crook, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Robert Funk, Jeffrey Gibson, Michael Goulder, Amy Jill Levine, Gerd Ludemann, Jack Miles, Christina Petterson, Alan Segal and Geza Vermes. None of these people accept or accepted Mythicism.

Nor, as far as I am aware, have most of these scholars ever published or publicly stated a view about mythicism, either for or against. Nor have they all even published a perspective on the historical Jesus, either. It is probably fair to say, however, that in their writings they all have, when and where relevant, embraced the assumption of a historical Jesus.

And to [suggest] that these scholars are simply too unimaginative or too timid to examine and accept the idea that there was no Jesus at all is [without foundation]. [Some of these names are] the leading proponents of conceptions about Jesus and the origins of Christianity that are so much at odds with orthodox Christian ideas that conservative Christian apologists write whole books warning their faithful to beware of their supposedly wild and radical theories. . . . So if [some] leading non-Christian scholars are so shackled to the Christian idea of a historical Jesus because of the vast influence on them of Christian culture, [we need to explain why] this highly Christian influence [appears to be] so narrowly focused and selective. Why is it only on the question of Jesus’ existence that this supposedly pervasive Christian orthodoxy has such influence on these non-Christian scholars, but not any other ideas? How is it that this supposed Christian control only works on the historicity of Jesus, but somehow fails completely on topics such as the rejection of Jesus as

  • a Jewish apocalypticist,
  • or the promotion of the Farrer Thesis over the Two Source Hypothesis
  • or conservative views on the dates and authorship of the gospels
  • or any of the dozens of other issues on which the scholarship is sharply divided between non-Christians and orthodox Christian scholars?

Why can and do these scholars present Jesus as

  • a Jewish preacher,
  • a charismatic hasid
  • or a Cynic-style sage

– all ideas substantially at odds with Christian orthodoxy – yet baulk at the idea that he did not exist? . . . It makes no sense that this supposedly powerful cultural bias would only affect non-Christian scholars on historicity and not across a much wider range of disputed topics.

(From O’Neill, Tim. 2018. “PZ Myers and ‘Jesus Agnosticism.’” History for Atheists (blog). September 29, 2018. https://historyforatheists.com/2018/09/pz-myers-and-jesus-agnosticism/.)

I have replaced words in Tim’s original post that I believe are not in the best interests of a sober discussion (some contain rhetorical flourishes laced with unprofessional attitudes; some are sweeping, misleading or incorrect statements) with my own hopefully more neutral words in square brackets and italics. The bolded highlighting and dot-formatting is my own.

Tim’s question is clearly intended to be rhetorical but actually a little reflection on PZ Myers’ reference to the scientific consensus on phlogiston will suggest a ready answer. read more »

Why Do We Think That? (That = Christian Mobs Destroyed the Library of Alexandria)

Who told us that Christian mobs were responsible for destroying the Great Library of Alexandria?

I had long thought it was true. I must have heard or read it somewhere, sometime when I was still a Christian. Such a factoid made no difference to my faith, no doubt, if only because I had long known that not all professing Christians have always behaved like saints. (Somewhere along the way I learned otherwise, but I never felt I or anyone else had believed in the rampaging Christian mob story for any sinister and diabolical reasons.)

But recent chastisements, one (or two) from an atheist, the other from a Christian, directed against atheists (no-one else, only atheists) for holding on to this bit of apparently false belief (the accusation being that they believe it for no better reason than that they hate Christianity and want to believe anything that casts Christianity in a bad light) have led me to try to find the source of this “misinformation”.

A visit to the virtual archive of the internet turned up the following:

The image of incensed early Christian mobs destroying Greco-Roman temples comes in part from the early modern period. Back in the late 18th century, armchair historian Edward Gibbon provided a view of temple destruction that had lasting repercussions. In his epic work, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he described the tearing down of the Serapeum in Alexandria as illustrative of the empire as a whole. He also described it as a direct assault on Roman idolatry:

“The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages.”

Sarah Bond, Were Pagan Temples All Smashed Or Just Converted Into Christian Ones?

I like that “armchair historian” bit.

In the mouth of at least two witnesses . . .

Ever since Edward Gibbon’s vivid account of the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria at the hands of Christians, scholars have tended to view the conversions of temples into churches as clear manifestations of an intolerant Church wishing to express its triumph over paganism. Feyo L. Schuddeboom, The Conversion of Temples in Rome

Of course. Well, that makes some sense. I did read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall many years ago and that was probably what planted that “vicious little anti-Christian lie” into my head. Presumably many other readers of the same work, atheists and others, picked up the same notion.

We have all fallen in with the “prevalent proof” fallacy at times. We believe something for no better reason than that it is what we read, or what other people say and everyone seems to take for granted — or at no-one makes a fuss with a contrary opinion.

Not everyone has read Gibbon, though. So maybe a popular film (though I did not see it) has also had its influence:

The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the wonders of ancient civilisation having collected many thousands of scrolls containing knowledge and literature from across the known world.

The 2009 movie Agora is partially about its destruction and tells this story (my emphasis):

When the Christians start defiling the statues of the pagan gods, the pagans, including Orestes and Hypatia’s father, ambush the Christians to squash their rising influence. However, in the ensuing battle, the pagans unexpectedly find themselves outnumbered by a large Christian mob. Hypatia’s father is gravely injured and Hypatia and the pagans take refuge in the Library of the Serapeum. The Christian siege of the library ends when an envoy of the Roman Emperor declares that the pagans are pardoned, however the Christians shall be allowed to enter the library and do with it what they please. Hypatia and the pagans flee, trying to save the most important scrolls, before the Christians overtake the library and destroy its contents.  

Did Christians burn the Great Library of Alexandria?

The same website spreads the blame further yet:

Carl Sagan told a similar story in his series Cosmos (see this clip from about 3:30 in).

You’ll have to go to the website to try to access “this clip” since it is forbidden for Australians (or presumably anyone outside the USA) to access it online.

So it looks like Gibbon planted “the meme”.

However, that second sceptic site adds some caveats. We cannot be sure, it warns: read more »

The Fallacy Few Historians Have Avoided

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

 

 

Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

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 »