29 July 2008

one billion screaming scholars . . . .

I've been trying to catch up on some of the blogs that I enjoy. One of these is James McGrath's Exploring our Matrix.

In this recent post (he often posts multiple times a day, so there's a lot there to sift through, so I miss a lot of stuff) in which he laments the internet being used as one's primary source of information. In it, he touches on something which I think needs a little exposition.

The relevant highlights:
I am coming to the conclusion that we cannot simply send people forth to do their own "research" and expect them to come back with a balanced sense of the best understanding available through the work of experts in the field in question.

It is important for all those who teach, whether in the liberal arts, the natural sciences, or other fields, to help students not only learn to investigate for themselves, but also to learn how to identify reputable sources, how to get a sense of the scholarly consensus (if there is one), and how to distinguish between scholars disagreeing in large numbers (which usually suggests the available evidence is not entirely conclusive) from situations in which all but a few fringe individuals agree.

Of course, it is fair to point out that sometimes what was once fringe has become mainstream. But that shouldn't be an excuse for a non-expert simply picking a fringe view because they happen to like it. The only way a fringe view should become mainstream is because of persuasive arguments and/or new evidence - not because of their increased "wikiality" or because they win a popularity contest among the inadequately informed.

I agree with McGrath here, but he goes on to give three examples of what he considers to be the kind of "pseudo-scholarship" that is so pervasive on the internet. These reveal some bias of his own, I think:
  1. "The historical evidence is overwhelming—the Jesus of the Bible never existed."
  2. "Science disproves evolution."
  3. "Egyptian chariot wheels found in the Red Sea [prove the Exodus account in the Bible accurate]."
#2 is logically meaningless from the git go. It's just a non-sequitur, kinda like saying that "science" has found a five-sided rectangle. I was trained as an engineer, and have a fairly good understanding of the sciences in general and of evolutionary science, so for me it wouldn't be hard to show the logical fallacy of the statement. I don't think that one must be an "expert" in biochemistry to slap that statement down, however.

#3 is a good example of how a singular, isolated case of conjecture and subsequent projection can get silly pretty quick. Even if it WAS a chariot wheel, which is far from certain, how on earth would that "prove" anything of the magnitude it purports to (the parting of the Red Sea)? Aren't there other ways for a wheel to wind up on the bottom of the sea, after all? If it proves the army crossed per the Exodus tale, then where are the other chariots? Questions line up like dominoes.

#1 in particular is very problematic for me. It's a leading question. Worded like that, it's almost impossible to defend at all: Who could disagree with its rejection in the leading form it stands in? Were one to claim that the evidence for the mythicist case is "overwhelming" and then assert the non-existence of Jesus as a certainty . . . would be either severely lacking understanding of the kind and/or magnitude of the evidence in favor of a mythicist position . . . or . . . would be WAY overstating a case.

But, while I agree wholeheartedly that one must have a sense of what is a reputable source of information on any given subject and what is not, if one is to avoid all of the crap that's floating around out there in cyberspace, we would be careful not to relegate (so slyly and dismissively) the mythicist position to that same category of blundering pseudothought illustrated by the other two examples given. Mythicism is more than the caricature it has been paunted as. Fringe the mythicist position may be, but it poses some questions which detractors seem un(willing/able) to answer, and it is as valid as any other theory and has more going for it than many other theories regarding Christian origins that I've come across (Matthean priority, for example, which consensus rightly rejects). I feel that to dismiss it categorically with such a simple appeal to "consensus" is to highlight what I think is Prof. McGrath's (though to be fair to him, it is a quality I see it in most New Testament scholars) main problem. Namely, he places a rather exaggerated value on their "expertise" as it is recognized and delegated in New Testament studies. This is a big problem in the liberal arts today. Most NT scholars behave as if they were engaging in some empirical enterprise, as if the conjectures, subsequent deductions, and pronouncements of the NT scholars carried the same weight as the more tangible, exhaustively tested and observed discoveries in the sciences. And just as you should always seek the opinion of an expert physicist to properly understand, say, thermal dynamics (the logic goes) one should "similarly" consult a bona fide NT scholar when seeking to understand Christian origins, who will in turn point one to the consensus viewpoint, if there is one. Right? It's the "if you want to know the workings of a car, call a mechanic" argument.

Putting these different kinds of expertise on the same authoritative level enboldens NT scholars to unduly elevate their field, I think, a field that deals primarily in exegetical conjecture, beyond its true scope. ( - A field, I might add, that I love to study.)

The simple fact is that up until very recently, New Testament criticism was the exclusive purview of self-confessed, practicing Christians. To act as though the constructs of this previously enculturated conclave are not affected by this "faith-in-historical-events" religion we have inherited strikes me as blind. Ask yourself how likely a person whose adopted doctrines mandate that he believe in doctrines such as the virgin birth and in things like the eventual death and resurrection of a historical figure named Jesus would be. The very fate of many a soul depends on this belief. To even consider the possibility that the Jesus legend evolved out of a complex matrix of Mediterranean mythology, having no basis in any one identifiable person, is "thought crime."

"Expertise" in NT studies essentially consists of having read and digested a great deal of the positions outlined in detail in the vast literature written by those "experts" which came before. These positions are catalogued and then weighed against each other by scholars, who then may write their elaborations or critiques of some previous scholar or another, and so on. Being thus so well-read, a New Testament scholar can rightly point to the differences and similarities between, say, the Matthean Moses parallels and the Lukan Elijah ones. He can perhaps raise Karl Barth's objections to Rudolf Bultmann's mythologizing if he's so inclined (or he may defend Bultmann's genius :). A scholar can pit N.T.Wright against James Dunn if she wishes. An NT scholar may even speak about more empirically demonstrable things, such as the precise chronological order of texts, or even, with some limited authority, about more problematic things such as the nature, function and practice of the Pharisees in the period preceeding the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, if he's bold enough and well-read enough in the pertinent materials.

But a New Testament scholar cannot (not using the texts we have, anyway) claim any kind of real certainty regarding MOST of what little we know (or think we know) about a historical figure of Jesus, and this includes something as fundamental as his very existence, a scholar should never substitute an appeal to consensus for an examination of any argument. Such conduct is just fideism dressed up in the authoritorial garb of the ivory tower.

Now . . . I personally do hold to some fairly "fringe" positions.

For one example, I think that very little if any of the Pauline corpus actually goes back to a historical Paul. I know that the consensus view is that there are seven authentic Pauline epistles. Did I get this "nonsense" from wikipedia?
Do I adhere to it because I "like it" more than the consensus view?
Hardly. I don't prefer it. I have no stake in the outcome, in fact. It's simply that after reading Baur's damning commentaries on the Pauline epistles, I was persuaded by his arguments (not just Baur—there is also Herman Detering and W.C. Manen).
In my reading (all of which, incidentally, has been independent of any academic institution's curriculum), I have taken advantage of the bibliographies that supplement the many books on Christian origins that I have come across. Some authors are better than others.
Anyway, consensus says that there are seven authentic letters. I doubt it..

Similarly, consensus says that the mythicist position is folly.
That very well may be, but an appeal to consensus does nothing to demonstrate it. Does it?

I guess that what bugs me about all of this is the implication that we cannot be trusted to discern the chaff from the wheat on our own. We need an "expert" to tell us. While I realize that there are many post-DaVinciers out there buying into all sorts of unsupported claims helter-skelter, it takes but the barest modicum of critical thinking to see the huge differences between helpful commentators such as James Robinson and James Dunn and Dominic Crossan —and the less useful (and sometimes downright laughable) Acharya S.
I agree with anyone who thinks that the popular film Zeitgest is a poorly executed, poorly conceived, poorly researched polemical film. And while I think that Freke and Gandy's mythicist book had many problems and was generally not very good, I think that Earl Doherty's book was a more carefully researched and better written attempt— less prone to quote mining—a step up. A couple of decent books on the subject have been written by Bob Price as well, and I expect that the forthcoming book by Richard Carrier will be the most cogent and exhaustive of them so far.

Now, I'm not saying that Jesus definitely didn't exist, but to deny the plausibility of the mythicist position so out-of-hand is illogical, unreasonable, and unwise (unless, of course, you have a horse in the race which behooves such a mocking stodgy stance).

Such mocking elitism looks good on no one, I fear.





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