History is to Mythicism and Science is to Creationism as McDonald’s is to…

In discussing areas related to my teaching and interests lately, whether Biblical studies or biological science, the question has come up whether it might not make sense to actually examine an example of pseudoscholarship or junk science in teaching students to recognize the real thing.

It is easy enough to say that young-earth creationism is to genuine science, or Jesus mythicism is to genuine history, as this place is to a real McDonald’s:

The question is how to train someone to spot the difference, and what one does in view of the fact that, with a sufficient degree of either postmodern apathy or conspiracy theorist hyperskepticism, one can surely challenge what seems to be an obvious conclusion. With the right sort of denialism, one could make the case for the “restaurant” in the photo above having every right to be considered a genuine McDonald’s, just as mythicists do in claiming to have genuine historical insights, or cdesign proponentsists in claiming to have genuine scientific ones.

For instance, I can well imagine the objection that the institution does not have a franchise license being met with the sort of answers creationists and mythicists give: the academy stifles dissent, they say, and so genuinely honest and novel ideas don’t get published, so it is no surprise that one has to go beyond the official franchise/academy to do pioneering work.

How might one make the case that what we see in the photo above is or is not really a McDonald’s? And what do you think we can learn about science and pseudoscience, scholarship and pseudoscholarship, from the comparison?

  • Lenny

    Feynman’s “Cargo Cult Science” speech is apropos here. There are in fact clever imitations of science in the world, not just the really bad imitations like “creation science.” Some percentage of the “real” science is actually cargo cult science; cranky geniuses like Feynman would say that a lot of it is.

    The “creation scientists” are easy to spot, in the same way that a bunch of guys wearing bamboo helmets and waving fake flashlights would be easy to spot for a fake runway crew. Even a layman’s familiarity with experiments, controls, hypotheses, etc., is enough to spot the fraud. For example, the second they say, “Just a theory!” you know that the person doesn’t even know what a theory is. And when they respond to a detailed paper about some biological pathway, not by discussing the details at the same level as the paper, but by saying, “And maybe not!” or, “You weren’t there!” or, “Just like God designed it to!”, it’s obvious they’re not doing science.

    Much tougher is the sort of stuff Feynman scorned, like doing experiments without controls, or assuming others’ results without ever verifying them, or performing subjective experiments without making them double-blind.

    Indeed, medical research often smacks of cargo-cultism to me, but I’m not qualified to actually say whether it is. There’ve been recent reports of clinical studies overestimating the effectiveness of drugs. This is thought to be partly due to the fact that failures are not reported, so statistical flukes that overestimate effectiveness are more likely to be reported than the reverse–and failing to report FAILED experiments is one of the things Feynman criticizes. Or in the case of flu vaccines, clinical trials measure its effectiveness against INFLUENZA, but ignore the fact that some studies suggest that 85% of cases of “the flu” are caused by something other than the influenza virus. So vaccines touted as 90% effective (against the flu) are in practice closer to 13.5% effective in preventing “the flu.”

    None of which is meant as ammunition for creation scientists! Merely observing that doing real science is extremely hard, and recognizing the real thing can be equally hard.

  • Eric Thurman

    I don’t suffer from postmodern apathy, but I don’t think there is any single, sure-fire, knock-down method or criteria we can teach that can separate scholarship and pseudoscholarship. The only thing that can be done is to inculcate a sense of what “we” as scholars do and what criteria and methods we adduce to judge acceptable scholarship. Ideally, over a long term and as a demonstration of the larger project of living an intellectually rigorous and accountable life as a scholar and citizen.

    To answer your question directly, since creationists and mythicists claim their work is scholarship, all we can do is point up the short-comings on a case-by-case basis. That is, we can–and should–point out where and why those arguments fail to meet *the methods and criteria we value*. I don’t think we can define science and pseudoscience once and for all. Creationists and mythicists think their work is scholarly and I think we have to grant that it fits their criteria for scholarship just as the patrons of that faux-Mickey D’s are probably satisfied that their food counts as a value combo meal, the lack of a franchise license notwithstanding.

    And I don’t think granting interpretive pluralism amounts to denialism. Or that it requires acknowledging the genuineness or validity or whatever of every other truth claim about science, history, or fast food. Some science is better than other science; some history is better than other history; some fast food joints serve Happy Meals more like those you find in other places. The question will always be: who decides and why. The answer will always be: who is awarding degrees, grants, and franchise licenses. That is, who has the social authority to determine acceptable scientific practice from unacceptable non-scientific practice.

    I know, this conclusion seems to fit the conspiracy theories of some outside academic communities: see, its all politics; their conclusions are just as ideologically pre-determined as they say ours are! But I don’t think the proper response is to find a way of showing that our conclusions and criteria are non-ideological. It is to be as transparent as possible about what criteria and methods we value and why and to point to the outcomes our approaches have produced.

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad S. Matthies

    Related to this discussion: http://boingboing.net/2011/04/22/meet-science-what-is.html

    “Being peer reviewed doesn’t mean your results are accurate. Not being
    peer reviewed doesn’t mean you’re a crank. But the fact that peer review
    exists does weed out a lot of cranks, simply by saying, “There is a
    standard.” Journals that don’t have peer review do tend to be ones with
    an obvious agenda.”

  • Anonymous

    I added my own reflections (for what their worth) on this at 
    http://www.didaskelion.org/home/?p=583

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Harrison/1558354000 Jim Harrison

    I don’t think liberal protestants should be too hard on the Creationists. If it weren’t for the obvious silliness of Creationism, attention would focus instead on the more subtle silliness of theistic evolution. Creationism acts like a sacrificial anode, a worthless piece of zinc that attracts the skeptical corrosion that would otherwise attack the rebar that holds up the structure of respectable belief. Mythicism also has its uses since it provides a much more vulnerable target than the generalized skepticism about the prospects of ever saying very much about what actually happened and the value of continuing to care about finding some crumb of truth in an old book. 

    • Inigo Montoya

       It’s by no means clear that “theistic evolution” is silliness. If you believe God exists, and was around for at least three billion years, then you believe He was at least a spectator to evolution.

      From this it immediately follows that if He felt like lobbing a rock at the earth, say, and the resulting collision caused a mass dieoff of dinosaurs, say, then He would have had a profound effect on the course of evolution. It’s vanishingly unlikely, even in principle, that any type of investigation could ever determine whether the rock that killed the dinos just happened along by chance, or was flung by a deity, or was aimed by Vorlons. Science should rightly ignore that question, until and unless they find a wrecked Vorlon spaceship in the bottom of the impact crater or some such. It’d be completely pointless even to mention all the undecidable questions in the universe.

      I think when people call theistic evolution “silliness,” they’re imagining a ghastly hybrid theory in which God triggers each mutation, or otherwise micromanages the process. That WOULD be silly.

      As PZ Myers told Mr. Deity, quoting from memory, “The beauty of this system is you can be hands-off pretty much the whole time!” PZ thought he was being cruelly sarcastic, but he’s right. It’s one of the attractions of modern uses of evolutionary design: instead of struggling to solve an intractable problem, you set up an environment in which the solution emerges on its own. What’s not to love about such an approach?

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  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Let’s apply genuine authenticity criteria from advanced Historical Jesus studies.

    It is clear that anyone living in the 21st century could quickly refute the fake, so why was it built? It must be real, because:  “Why would anybody make it up?”

    Clearly it represents multiple independent attestation.Only a hyper-sceptic would dismiss the evidence before his eyes. Clearly the scale and infrastructure of this MacDonalds is not on a par with the better known ones in the more progressive societies so whoever was responsible for one here was embarrassed by the comparison. Yet this person is compelled to live with this public embarrassment despite the smallness of his franchise. So it it clearly genuine by the criteria of embarrassment. The criterion of coherence further supports the genuineness here, the logo being smoothly and plausibly associated with fast food, variety of food as one typically finds everywhere the logo appears. But it is double dissimilarity clinches the case for genuineness. The logo here is unlike anything else in Indian culture and one finds that it is equally unique among the copyrighted patents in the western world. So being unlike eastern or western cultural icons it is clearly a singular icon testifying to the genuineness of the established to which it is attached.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thank you, Neil, for illustrating once again that you don’t understand scholarly methods well enough to parody them.

    • Tim von Hobbyhorsen

      Perhaps you are right, James.  But don’t you think we should try to keep an open mind, just as we would about any photo of any sidewalk roach-coach?  Why be selectively hyper-skeptical?

      Neil, of course, forgot to add the scholarly conclusion that the photo unambiguously demonstrates that we have two McDonalds traditions.  This persuasive evidence provides, indisputably, a second “witness” of McDonalds.
      It is highly unlikely that a local restaurateur would invent something like this. 
      We have shown therefore that according to criteriology that the McDonalds in the photo is plausibly authentic.  

      Hence, only a hyper-skeptic would dismiss it out of hand.  Unless, of course, he thinks like a close-minded creationist.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      That parody was grumpy.

      On the other hand its funny to see McDonalds being the sort of brand a middle eastern food vendor would want to associate with. it shows a high respect for the image.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    But don’t you think it is unlikely that a small restauranteur would invent something like this?

    Clearly we have two independent MacDonald’s traditions. Two witnesses, if you will.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I see you are as familiar with South Asia as you are with the first century Jewish context of the historical Jesus. Many things seem unlikely or likely to those trying to judge the matter from a standpoint of profound distance from and unfamiliarity with the cultural and historical setting.

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        But we have the evidence of the MacDonald’s stand as above and we should allow this evidence to be part of what informs us of the cultural setting. HJ historiographical practice teaches us this when it insists that the Gospels themselves are evidence for the historicity of the cultural setting in which its narrative is set. We can’t just dismiss this and say it is not part of the evidence for the cultural setting because we want to be selectively and hyper-sceptical.

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          If you wish to be a McDonalds-mythicist as well as a Jesus-mythicist, that is your prerogative. If you wish to believe that your comments have been making a point, that is your prerogative as well.

          • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

            Whoah! YOU are the mythicist here. I am arguing on the basis of tried and true principles of Historical Jesus scholarship!

      • Anonymous

        I will confess that I am unfamiliar with the cultural and historical setting.  Were 1st Century Jewish peasants less superstitious, ignorant, and gullible than the 19th Century Americans who followed Joseph Smith?   Were they less likely to believe a supernatural story without any evidence whatsoever? Are there criteria that a historian uses to determine which supernatural story is susceptible to pure invention and which one requires cognitive dissonance related to an actual historical person or event?  Am I just being hyper-skeptical to wonder whether the stories of the various people who saw the risen Christ aren’t as much of a fabrication as the stories of the various people who saw Moroni and the Golden Plates?

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

          I don’t think this works. Smith existed, and he only claimed Moroni was an angelic mesenger of God. He channeled Moroni as Jesus is claimed to channel God. People claim to channel shit all the time, Ghost, celebraty ghost, ancient ghost, aliens, demons, angels, or some combination of them, you name it. How often do these kinds of figures become rembered as objective persons in recent history?  No one thought Moroni was a man who lived in the recent past.

          It is plausible that the the witness to the resurection invented the story. The resurected Jesus is like Moroni, an “imaginary” being, not subject to scrutiny but conjectured to exist by the public.    

          • Anonymous

            Michael,

            I’m not sure how well it works either, but if I have good evidence that one major religion originated in a total fabrication, then I think it’s worth looking at the parallels when considering the possibility that another religion originated in a total fabrication.

            For example, isn’t Paul claiming little more than to be channeling a heavenly being?  I don’t see anywhere where he indicates that he is passing along the teachings of a recently deceased itinerant preacher.  I think the same could be said of most of the early epistles.

            It is true that I have no other examples of a channeled heavenly being coming to be remembered as an objective person in the recent past and I’m not sure whether any good ones exist.  My problem is that I don’t have real good data on the originating events of most of the major religions.  Most of what we know tends to come from the most fervent believers long after the fact.  It is only for Mormonism that we have extensive contemporary sources from outsiders.

            It is true that no one thought that Moroni had lived in the recent past, but the point that strikes me is that the early Mormons believed in his historical existence without question even though no one had any evidence whatsoever that Moroni had ever lived at all other than the word of the man who had claimed to have channeled the heavenly being.  The early converts to Christianity might have had better evidence for the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, but is there any reason to think that they would have demanded it?

            • Inigo Montoya

               Vinny,

              Mormonism doesn’t rest in a fabricated Joseph Smith; Joseph Smith really existed. Everything attributed to him might be a lie. All his claims might be lies. His book might be a plagiarized historical novel stolen from the printer. “Moroni” might be the name of his dog. But there really was a Joseph Smith. The question of Joseph Smith’s existence is completely distinct from the question whether anything said by or about him is actually true.

              Similarly, the question whether a Palestinian Jew known locally as Y’shua bar Yosef actually existed and had followers, is completely distinct from the question whether anything said by or about him is actually true.

              Mythicists appear constantly to confuse the two. “He wasn’t God. Therefore, there was never any such person.” Obviously doesn’t follow: Sylvia Browne isn’t a psychic, but she does indeed exist.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    No, you are, as always, using terminology that scholars use, but you seem not to have understood it enough to use it either seriously or in jest.

    But by all means, please continue, since you are making my point so much more effectively than I could make it myself!

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      Come come, James. You do have a sense of humour, too, I’m sure. And you  do know as well as I do, I’m also sure, that every one of the criteria used have been exposed by your peers as being at bottom circular — and that they can be used just as well to reach reverse conclusions. (As I demonstrate here.)

      But if you would like I can use the methods used by other historians who for good reason shun criteriology for such purposes and avoid circularity altogether . . . . .

    • Tim von Hobbyhorsen

      It’s your blog, James.  Since we’ve shown you how HJ criteriology works against your point, you could always just withdraw your post.  I mean it is terribly embarrassing to have a professional scholar shown up by such amateurs, isn’t it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

     I never understood the odd way mythicist  feel about criterion of dissimilarity. Who really thinks that people are just as likely to invent material that undermines their purpose or interest as material that bolsters it? The limitations are there, but they can be accounted for, and we don’t need to assume them if the evidence isn’t there or if the counter argument is weak. Mythicist seems to feel we can’t judge between options, but most people correctly guess more lies are to aid the liar, not hinder them. They are always presenting such farfetched ideas.Von Hobby Horse certainly has a lot of confidence.

    • Anonymous

      My problem with the criterion of dissimilarity is how often people misjudge what is going to help their case and what is going to hurt it.  How often do you hear it said “I can’t believe that guy lied.   He would have been better off telling the truth.”  People often underestimate the ways in which a lie will undermine their purpose and overestimate the extent to which it will support it.  Sometimes the lie that destroys someone’s case is the very one he thought would make it airtight.

      If an officer in a battle reports that the enemy overran the position that his troops were assigned to defend in a battle, it may be pretty to easy to conclude that he never would have invented such a story if it were not true.   However, in historical Jesus studies, I rarely see any examples that approach that kind of clarity. 

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad S. Matthies

    Vinny - 

    I visit this topic every few years.  This is an area [mostly] outside of my expertise but I am familiar with historical research and research in general.  I tend to bracket out the supernatural question and just ask: Does the evidence suggest that a person named Jesus existed?  IMO it does, but, as this thread demonstrates, people disagree.

    You might also take a look at this link:

    http://tinyurl.com/6m9dsll 

    It lays out the various methods of historical research. Note that oral evidence is studied by historians. Some historians study Native American tribes and what they know is based solely on oral traditions.  So, a part of history would grind to a halt if we totally discounted oral traditions. 

    Lastly, when the historical Jesus comes up I always like to play Devil’s Advocate and mention Socrates. The information we have on Socrates comes from his associates and alleged students.  We have no writings from him period. Some historians doubt he ever existed whereas others think he did. 

    This underscores what I linked to earlier in this thread: 

    http://boingboing.net/2011/04/…”Being peer reviewed doesn’t mean your results are accurate. Not being peer reviewed doesn’t mean you’re a crank. But the fact that peer reviewexists does weed out a lot of cranks, simply by saying, “There is a standard.” Journals that don’t have peer review do tend to be ones with an obvious agenda.” 

    The article focuses on science but we could broaden it out to encompass all disciplines that have peer review.  This would include work done in the area of the historical Jesus and the related journals. 

    “Basically, you shouldn’t canonize everything a peer-reviewed journal article says just because it is a peer-reviewed journal article. But, at the same time, being peer reviewed is a sign that the paper’s author has done some level of due diligence in their work. Peer review is flawed, but it has value. There are improvements that could be made. But, like the old joke about democracy, peer review is the worst possible system except for every other system we’ve ever come up with.”

    Enough scholars who study the historical Jesus believe that he existed. So, based on that, I personally think that he probably existed. 

    His divinity, on the other hand, is an entirely different question. 

    -B

  • Anonymous

    Brad,

    Thanks for the link.  I’ll take a look.

    I’m still straddling the fence on the existence of a historical Jesus.  I think that the question of bracketing off the supernatural part is really the crux of the matter.  I guess one of the reasons I am still agnostic is because I’m not sure whether it can be done and I haven’t found the attempts to do so completely convincing.  As I noted above, I think I have a pretty well documented example of a major religion originating in a complete fabrication.  With such problematic source material, can I be confident that a similar dynamic was not (or for that matter was) at work in the origins of Christianity?

    I agree with the value of peer review, but in some fields I think that the consensus of scholars may be skewed by institutional bias.  For example, in economics there are a quite a few well funded conservative think tanks that employ scholars to only produce research that will support laissez-faire policies.  This has created a field in which the employment prospects for conservative scholars are better than those for liberal scholars.  In historical Jesus studied, there are many scholars working for institutions whose stated purpose is to further belief in the historicity of the gospels.  This causes me to put less weight on the sheer numbers of scholars who agree.

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad S. Matthies

    Vinny,

    The system of scholarship is far from perfect but it is the best system that we have. There are biases in all fields of study. However, don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater because of this flaw. :-) At least take a look at the evidence for a historical Jesus before you reach a conclusion. (most people don’t even do this!) For what it is worth I sat in on Dr. McGrath’s Historical Jesus course.  Each student in the course approached things differently.  Some from a faith perspective and some, like me, tried to just focus on the historical evidence.  Much like this thread, there was as much disagreement as their was agreement.

    You might want to read some of Bart Ehrman’s work. He’s agnostic, believes that a historical Jesus existed, but doubts the divinity/supernatural part.

    http://tinyurl.com/3ejgeyp
    He’s a good example of someone on the non-theistic side of the fence who still values the methods of history and understand their limitations.

    FYI I used to struggle with how to approach this, and it easy to get caught up in blind belief or total skepticism. What is needed is balance:

    “Too much openness and you accept every notion, idea, and hypothesis –
    which is tantamount to knowing nothing. Too much skepticism – especially
    rejection of new ideas before they are adequately tested – and you’re
    not only unpleasantly grumpy, but also closed to the advance of science.
    A judicious mix is what we need.” – Carl Sagan

    • Anonymous

      Sagan’s quote is apt. One wonders why doubting the historical existence of a man who was claimed in the earliest sources about him (according to mainstream scholarship) to have been present at the creation of the world would be excessively skeptical. 

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        If that were all the information we had, the selectively critical beallen might have a point. But since it isn’t, beallen’s stance ends up being like denying that the Torah existed in the time when Ben Sira was written (Sirach 24). As Brad said, and I have said so many times without beallen showing any sign of comprehension that I have had to give up trying to get through to him, ancient people reegularly interpret the mundane in terms of the celestial and the supernatural. If we dismiss everything that is given such interpretations in ancient texts, we will end up dismissing even those things that have so much evidence supporting them that no one in their right mind would question them.

    • Anonymous

      Brad,

      I’ve read a number of works by Ehrman and I think he is the best scholar out there writing on the topic.  He was the one that first made me aware of how problematic our sources are.  I’m sure I would be much more comfortable with the historicist case if every scholar in the field was as forthright about the problems with the evidence and as circumspect in the degree of certainty expressed as Ehrman is.

      I do not wish to fall into hyper-skepticism, but when I compare the stories the Mormon church tells about its origins to what mainstream historians actually think happened, I cannot help but think that there is a huge danger in relying too heavily on the version propounded by the most fervent believers.   If my only sources for earliest Mormonism were comparable to my only sources for earliest Christianity in terms of perspective, transmission, and preservation, I might well be better off accepting ignorance rather than trying to guess where the truth lay.

      • Anonymous

        Vinny, I agree that Ehrman is a great source for narrowing the questions. He states:

        “(1) There is very little mention of Jesus by early and reliable sources outside the New Testament — whether Pagan, Jewish or Christian — with the notable exception of the Gospels of Peter and Thomas. (2) Within the New Testament, apart from the four gospels, there is very little information about Jesus’ life. (3) The gospels themselves are thefore our best sources for trying to establish what Jesus himself actually said and did.”

        The question you are left with after conceding these points is whether the gospels can handle the weight hung on them after this winnowing process. Some people obviously believe they can, others don’t. But to ridicule someone for excessive skepticism because they don’t believe stories that include walking on water, demons going into swine and men being raised from the dead repeatedly seems a bit harsh, to say the least.

        • Anonymous

          Beallen,

          I’m pretty sure that they can’t handle the weight that most historical Jesus scholars place on them, but certainly no one like Ehrman is criticizing anyone for not believing in zombie saints.  For me it is still an open question whether they might still carry some smaller amount of weight that is enough to tilt the balance in favor of a historical Jesus.  If they can’t, I suspect that I still wind up at agnosticism. 

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad S. Matthies

    Beal,

    You need to read my comments more carefully. Note that I said I bracket out the obvious supernatural.  By your criteria you’d have to discount manuscripts and other evidence from numerous cultures that are 2,000+ years old–cultures whose writings have obvious history intertwined with obvious myth. e.g. a fair amount of Sumerian writings exist and much talks about obvious myths. Do you suggest we discount all of them totally based on that?

    If so many “mainstream” historians would certainly disagree with you. In fact, other disciplines would have to discount their worth too. In the field of criminal justice we studied The Code of Hammurabi. However, the Sumerians also have a flood story that’s likely a myth. Do you propose that criminal justice professors revise their syllabi?

    -B

    • Anonymous

      Bracketing out the obvious supernatural ignores the evidence we have. Is there a historical Gilgamesh? How could we possibly know from the sources we have. Certainly there was no historical Gilgamesh who did the things reported in the extant eponymous epic. If we have a contemporaneous source that appears to share a believable story about a normal human man named Gilgamesh, then we could mine that for historicity. We don’t have that and therefore all we have is a story about a guy who killed a monster with his friend. We know that is fiction.

      We have multiple stories about a god-man Jesus. We don’t have any stories about a regular man named Jesus. So what is the source for historians about this regular man?

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Despite having it pointed out to him again and again that the earliest sources are NOT about a “god-man,” beallen continues to pretend that they do, because it is easier than the hard work of historical critical investigation that would otherwise be necessary.

      • Eric Thurman

        That’s funny, because Celsus seems to have had no problem ‘bracketing out the obvious supernatural’ claims about Jesus in the gospels, but still didn’t feel led to doubt his actual existence.

        Ancient writers, even those who believed in the gods, were willing and able to make distinctions between “history,” “fiction,” and “myth”. Surely it is tendentious to assume that if ancient texts don’t always conform to modern definitions of those categories that they obviously reported nothing about the actual past.

        • Anonymous

          Eric, which ancient writers were skeptical about the existence of Ebion? He is attested in Hippolytus, Tertullian and Epiphanius. Is that enough to assure his historicity?

    • Anonymous

      Brad,

      How does the historian identify the obvious history in a story that contains obvious myth?  Sometimes there might be archeological evidence that can verify historical details in a story that is rife with myth.  We might conclude that similar stories contain similar amounts of historical fact.

      Can we conclude, however, that all ancient stories which contain obvious mythical elements also contain some historical elements simply because we have verified that some do?  This is where I think that some who are skeptical about a historical Jesus have a valid point.  It seems to me that some historical Jesus scholars don’t sufficiently justify their assumption that there is historical content in the stories about Jesus. 

      In what ways are the Jesus stories like other stories where the historical elements have been corroborated and in what ways are they different?  Historicists are adept at criticizing the comparisons that mythicists make to other stories which can’t be verified, e.g.,Ned Ludd, King Arthur, and Batman, and many of those criticisms seem valid to me.  However, I don’t think that they have been nearly as persuasive in showing that the historical elements they find in the Jesus stories are like the historical elements that have been verified in other ancient stories. 

      • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad S. Matthies

        Vinny, 

        It largely depends on the historian and how he or she generally views the evidence. In biblical (and other) circles this is sometimes called minimalism vs. maximalism.  I like to borrow from a favorite past criminal justice professor who laid out evidence in terms of liberal, moderate, and conservative. I tend to take a moderate stance which hearkens back to my earlier Sagan quote. 

        Added to this muddle is the fact that certain topics are polarized. This is also why I like to invoke the Socrates example. Aside from a small circle of historians, that particular debate is mostly not contentious. Not so with discussions concerning the historical Jesus! 

        With Socrates all we have is oral testimony that was either passed down from his students or fabricated. Depending on how the evidence is assessed (liberal, moderate, or conservative) dictates a given historian’s view on the matter.

        I do agree with you in that there are religious historians who bring bias to the table. However, there are those from the secular camp that also let their biases color their view of the same evidence. 

        Example: A long time ago in a galaxy not too far away I once presented to a secular group on the topic of Abraham Lincoln’s religious views. Much like the topic of Jesus, this aspect of Lincoln is polarized. i.e. for obvious reasons, both the secular and religious want to claim Lincoln. I found some historians who examined Lincolns’ writings, secondary evidence, etc., and concluded that Lincoln was practically the second incarnation of Jesus. 

        Another (smaller) contingent looked at the same evidence and would have you believe Lincoln was akin to Richard Dawkins or Robert Green Ingersol. 

        Lastly, other historians mirrored the view of Dr. Noll:

        http://www.adherents.com/people/pl/Abraham_Lincoln.html 

        “Considerable uncertainty arises, however, when Lincoln’s own religion is examined. On the one hand, it is obvious that Christianity exerted a profound influence on his life… On the other hand, Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian beliefs.” 

        It was Dr. Noll’s view that I ultimately sided with. Unfortunately there were some in attendance who were quite angry at my conclusion. I suspect that this had to do with their disdain for Christianity rather than their examination of the evidence. 

        Anyhow, if you do not find the evidence persuasive I can respect that view. At least you’ve tried to examine the evidence which is more than most people do. 

        Best,

        Brad

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad S. Matthies

    Vinny – Fair enough!  Also, at least you are looking at differing viewpoints and drawing your own conclusions. That I greatly respect. Too many times I’ve seen these discussions occur with people who do not even try to examine evidence that may not fit with their beliefs.

    -B

  • http://twitter.com/matthies67 Brad S. Matthies

    Beallen –

    I suggest you take up your concerns with the academy. I can do no more for you.  A good place to start would be the Association of Ancient Historians.

    http://associationofancienthistorians.org/

    Right now they have a call for papers.  This is your opportunity to propose, and possibly present, your view to the experts.

    Best,

    Brad

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Oh my, it hurts to see the same logical fallacies surfacing again and again with this debate, and it hurts even more to see the professor whose blog this is even joining in with those fallacies instead of correcting them.

    It is not valid to reject an argument on the grounds that the argument leads to conclusions we don’t like. Nor is it valid to accept an argument because it gives us the results we like.

    So it is not valid to say that we have to accept such and such evidence or type of evidence or else we won’t be able to do history of this and that at all.

    Historians worth their salt understand the importance of evaluating their sources for their nature and worth understand why they use certain sources and not others for different types of inquiries. I have discussed this often enough and I am sure a professor who claims to be a historian will be able to explain all this without my help and will also be able to pull up commenters for their logical fallacies rather than fanning them.

    It is worthwhile spending some time on websites that discuss and explain logical fallacies.

    It is also the mark of a good teacher to avoid pedantry over an apparent misuse of a term like “godman”. A good teacher will understand and acknowledge that it is only an interpretation, and not a fact, that is behind the common acceptance today that Jesus was not a “theios aner”, and a teacher worth half his salt will be able to make this clear without a put-down, and at the same time acknowledge what the user meant to convey — that is, that we are talking about a literary character who has conversations with gods and demons, walks on water and out of tombs, etc etc.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I didn’t notice anyone rejecting a method because they don’t like its conclusions (unless you were referring to the mythicists who do this all the time?). Perhaps you were referring to my pointing out of the inconsistency of mythicists who use tactics (that might be a more appropriate term than methods) to try to eliminate a historical Jesus which could be applied to any figure in the ancient world with similar results.

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        Dr McGrath, I quote you: ” If we dismiss everything that is given such interpretations in ancient texts, we will end up dismissing even those things that have so much evidence supporting them that no one in their right mind would question them.”

        The rest of your post is your usual vague generalizations and completely void of any specifics of the fallacies you claim to be addressing. “Just because you say mythicists do X doesn’t make it so”, to paraphrase your own line. You have to demonstrate with a specific quotation and citation — like I have done of your fallacy in this post.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Actually, that quote illustrates well that what I said is what I said that I said.

    Are you just trying to pick a fight because I said your attempt at parody wasn’t funny? Or do you have an actual substantive disagreement that you can articulate coherently, without misrepresentation of myself or others?

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      Oh don’t be so grumpy all the time. Don’t you see that you are falling into the logical fallacy of appealing to the consequences? It is an argument you have regularly repeated in your diatribes against mythicism.

      There are very logically coherent and valid reasons for accepting certain ancient sources for certain types of ancient historical inquiry — as I have often explained. But this logical fallacy is not one of them.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I’m not grumpy in the slightest, but I know that when someone points out your error, it may seem to you that they are grumpy, so perhaps that is it.

    I would indeed be guilty of the logical fallacy of appealing to the consequences, if I had meant what you thought or pretended that I did. But I didn’t, and so I wasn’t.

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      So, speaking as a historian, on what basis do ancient historians decide which sources are useful for certain types of historical reconstruction — without appealing to the consequent? I think commenters here would appreciate knowing.

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Through careful examination.

        • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

          That’s very vague. Surely commenters here are entitled to understand something of the sorts of criteria guiding that examination and what particulars they are looking out for and testing.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Sorry, you look and sound just like another commenter named Neil Godfrey who comments here often and knows that this is something that I have blogged about before – and also knows that I would recommend turning to an introduction to historical methods in book form rather than to a blog comment for answers.

    Are you a different Neil Godfrey who is new here?

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      If you have ever explained exactly what are the sorts of criteria guiding that examination and what particulars they are looking out for and testing then kindly give me the page reference in any of your books or links to blog posts where you have done so. All I have ever read from you is that you have answered the question many times but I have never seen that answer. Just saying you have answered it doesn’t mean you actually have. Can you give me a specific citation, please?

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        As I recall, after the last time you claimed (as you always seem to, no matter how many times I respond) that New Testament scholars working on historical questions use different methods than other historians, or that I had failed to adequately articulate my methods and those of the guild, I referred you to Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources. Chapter One would serve you well, and get you clued in on the basics that seem to still elude you.

        • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

          So you have not answered the question yourself anywhere and point me to a chapter in a book you clearly have not read yourself.

          Otherwise you would know that that book chapter you point me to deals exclusively with the very sort of evidence we simply do NOT have for Jesus — primary evidence!

          Now I have been arguing the very points in that book that one reads in the second chapter repeatedly and those are the ones you regularly ignore or poo-pooh when I show how their rigorous application undermines the assumptions of HJ studies.

          Not a good response, Doctor McGrath.

          • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            You seem to have missed the part where they mention the study of oral traditions such as those passed on by Native American tribes. But nice try.

            • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

              The difference between our approaches is that whereas you rely upon generalized remarks like “this chapter gives the answer” or “this section mentions oral sources”, I actually read what the chapter says and what it actually says in its mention about oral sources.

              If you had not been so lazy and done the same you would see at a glance that the first chapter is merely addressing what constitutes the various sources and how they are elicited etc. It tells us nothing about the critical questions of how we know if a written text was the product of oral sources or otherwise, or what sorts of things a historian actually is on the lookout for when he or she makes that “careful examination” you so vaguely speak about.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    I think soon I might do a blog post of my own on the book you here pretend to have read, Doctor, and relate it to the way HJ scholars work (or don’t work).

    I suggest you keep an open mind.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Do you know of any scholar in the world, or of any person in the world, who suggests that we are studying oral sources in the form of primary evidence (as per historical studies of nonliterate peoples) when doing HJ studies?

    You appear to be merely skimming an online index or page or two rather than drawing on any real first-hand knowledge of the book.

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Neil, instead of getting defensive and continuing the charade of pretending that your methods are those of professional historians, why don’t you actually try reading Howell and Prevenier, and then move on from there to Jan Vansina whose work they bring into the discussion, and which provides criteria for assessing the reliability of sources and information – criteria of the sort you are prone to dismiss or to pretend are used only in matters related to Jesus?

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    I quote here what Howell and Prevenier say in chapter one about oral sources.

    I have asked you to explain exactly what are the sorts of criteria guiding he “careful examination” you say historians undertake and what particulars they are looking out for and testing.

    In response you told me the answer was in chapter one of Howell’s work. H & P’s work actually addresses orality entirely from a perspective that bears no relation to how historians “carefully examine” the Gospels as the following (virtually everything H&P say about oral history) demonstrate:

    Chapter One
    The Source: The Basis of Our Knowledge about the Past

    A. What Is a Source?

    “In contrast, testimonies are the oral or written reports that describe an event . . . . ” p. 17

    “Both relics and testimonies were usually created for the specific purposes of the age in which they were made . . . The same is true of most testimonies, whether oral or written. They were composed to provide contemporaries proof of an act or of a right, or in order to inform . . .” p. 18

    B. Source Typologies, Their Evolution and Complementarity

    “Oral evidence is also an important source for historians. Much comes from the very distant past, in the form of tales and the sagas of ancient peoples, or from the premodern period of Western history in the form of folk songs or popular rituals. . . . The interview is another of the major forms of oral evidence produced in our age. In their original form, all these sources were purely oral (or visual), and few were recorded in permanent ways.” p. 23

    “The degree to which any historian uses oral or material evidence depends, to a large extent, on the period being studied or on the particular subject under investigation. Historians’ knowledge about prehistoric times — that is, the age before written records — is necessarily based entirely on the material or, indirectly, on the oral record.” p. 23 (Note the clear distinction between oral and written records.)

    “During the early Middle Ages, however, oral communication became relatively more important, and it was only around the twelfth century that written communication achieved dominance . . . .” p. 24.

    “Nevertheless, historians do not rely entirely on written sources for their knowledge even of those ages in which the printed text existed. Moreover, the boundaries between written and oral . . . are arbitrary. . . . [S]killed researchers know not to assume the differences, but to consider them critically. Today most scholars use a mixture of oral, written, and other material sources as the situation requires.” p. 24 — e.g. is of sources used for the Ancien Regime of France.

    “Oral records obviously can complement the written, a realization that was for too long lost on most professional historians.” p. 26 with an illustration of oral history to understand and assess the oral reports of West African cultures.

    “VANSIMA’S ARGUMENT WAS . . . NOT SAYING THAT ALL ORAL ACCOUNTS ACHIEVE THIS LEVEL OF RELIABILITY; THEY DO SO ONLY IF THEY MEET SEVERAL TESTS. . . .

    HISTORIANS CAN PLACE TRUST IN ORAL SOURCES ONLY TO THE EXTENT THAT THEY CAN BE VERIFIED BY MEANS OF EXTERNAL EVIDENCE OF ANOTHER KIND, SUCH AS ARCHAEOLOGICAL, LINGUISTIC, OR CULTURAL.” P. 26

    Now I have bolded those last points because they zero in exactly on my argument and undermine HJ methodologies. That is from the chapter you told me would demonstrate that HJ scholars use the same methods as other historians.

    Vansima was studying real oral history as orally transmitted in his own day and not ancient written documents that some scholars hypothesized are end products of oral sources. The difference is obvious.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    The quotes are good, thank you for providing them, even though you persistently spell Vansina’s name incorrectly.

    Between the evidence from Josephus and Tacitus, the evidence from the fact that some details of geography, architecture and persons are verifiable (one can see a marked contrast with later pseudepigrapha which contain nothing that plausibly fits the time in which they were set; almost all texts get some details wrong, but getting many things right was largely impossible without some reliable sources of information, since there were few records generally accessible to the public, and indeed few records of any sort that would allow one to right highly accurate historical fiction other than by drawing on actual accounts of the people and places in question, whether oral or written), and the unlikelihood of embarassing material being invented (Vansina uses that criterion, as I am sure you are aware if you have read the books you claim to have, other than frantically doing so in order to quote them in a comment that is). And so as you can plainly, what is described in Howell and Prevenier is precisely what historians investigating the figure of Jesus do in order to assess the reliability of their written sources.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Oh James, you are repeating yourself and avoiding everything that already been argued about all of that.

    You know (or ought to if you have read widely) that even ancient novellas and other fiction are full of accurate geographical details and historical names and things. I have cited example after example. You are repeating the gumph one reads in cheap apologists’ tracts, “Proofs the Gospels are True” etc.

    And are you arguing that the criterion of embarrassment is not logically flawed as has been demonstrated by several of your peers. Do you want me to repeat those arguments again? It gets so tiresome — but you simply ignore arguments you don’t like.

    But I don’t think you have read Howell and Prevenier at all and you have completely misread the quotations I provided. There is nothing there about “what historians investigating the figure of Jesus do in order to assess the reliability of their written sources” at all — not a whisper.

    If you think that just because some geographical details are right (though quite a few are also wrong!) or some historical persons are named correctly (but some are placed out of chronological order!) you clearly have not read the book yourself and have not even taken care to read the parts I quoted.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    The second assignment you set me to do was to consult Vansina’s work for myself. It’s a while since I read Vansina but I still have access to the books with a few old markings from my first reading. (Will you pay me as your research assistant, or at least the one who reads the books for you? But you don’t seem to pay any attention to what I quote from them anyway.)

    He begins by discussing many of the things most of us have come to know about eye-witness testimonies etc, but of course what we are dealing with in the case of HJ studies are written documents for which some oral traditions are hypothesized. So we have no way of examining the way the writers evaluated and compared and tested the oral traditions, or what their oral sources actually were, even. Some scholars actually prefer a simpler thesis (recall Ockham) and attempt to demonstrate the Gospel narratives are literary rather than oral borrowings. But you don’t want to hear that, so back to Vansina.

    Jan Vansina, “Oral Tradition”, section V, “The Evaluation of Testimonies”

    Pages 120-1 JV speaks of comparisons of testimonies in order to assess their factual reliability. Oral testimonies or chains of testimonies that show some indication of being inter-dependent enable one to reconstruct “the text of an archetype from which the probably all derive” but the analysis of the variants of the archetype makes it impossible to assess the quality of the transmission and distortions the tradition has undergone.

    If the testimonies are independent, comparison will lead to higher degree of certainty as to reliability of the account.

    Vansina is addressing a situation where the orality of the testimonies is transparent and contemporary. The context of his discussion is as far removed from a situation where we are studying two thousand year old written texts as we are from the moon. One can hypothesize that certain stories started their life as oral traditions, but then one will quite often find oneself at odds with other scholars who come to different conclusions because they are doing comparative literary studies on the Gospels.

    Jan Vansina, “Oral Tradition as History”, is a later substantially revised edition of the above. Once again the important of external controls keeps surfacing. And that’s been my own point all along.

    Chapter Seven
    ORAL TRADITION ASSESSED

    I. The Limitations of Oral Tradition and Outside Sources

    (1) Chronology and Interdependence

    “The effects of a lack of chronology in most societies . . . can only be partially remedied by recourse to outside sources. This is easier said than done. The obvious sources that come to mind are outside written documents or archaeology.” p. 187 — what do we know about how the gospel authors handled this problem?

    “Other events on which historians have put their hopes are reports on astronomical phenomena or calamities.” p. 188

    “On balance, then, absolute dating will not be as easily achieved as was once believed. The same holds for independent confirmation by other sources of events and situations described in traditions.” p. 189

    “Chronology and lack of independence are real problems for oral traditions. . . . One should still not give up hoping that outside sources will eventually be of assistance.” p. 190

    Note in the above the importance of external controls once again. What do we know of Gospel authors’ attention to these?

    (2) Selectivity and Interpretation

    “The effects of loss of information and the creation of a profile of past history which is the historical consciousness of the present. There is no remedy for losses, but at least the profile can be fleshed out by use of other sources. . . . A cultural profile results for all the traditions. They correspond to the present view of reality and of the world. . . . This has led some anthropologists . . . to deny all evidential value to traditions.” p. 190 (Though Vansina, on the contrary, argues that there is still some historical memory nonetheless.)

    “Because there are [no] writings extant . . . We will never know how the epic of Alexander grew in the Middle East.” pp. 191-2

    What? Does this mean that because we have no written documents giving us the details, neither can we know how the narrative of Jesus emerged?

    II. The Uniqueness of Oral Tradition

    (1) As a Source

    “Therefore oral traditions should be treated as hypotheses, and as the first hypothesis the modern scholar must test before he or she considers others. To consider them first means not to accept them literally, uncritically. It means to give them the attention they deserve, to take pains to prove or disprove them systematically for each case on its own merits. . . . One must prove . . . and not merely assume.” p. 196

    Of course we know the Gospel authors did this, don’t we.

    (2) As Inside Information

    “In applying the rules of evidence to oral traditions we have constantly questioned the reliability of the information they yield. Superficially, this leads to gloomy conclusions because cases of unreliability are piled one onto the other.” p. 197

    “Where there is no writing or almost none, oral traditions must bear the brunt of historical reconstruction. They will not do this as if they were written sources. . . . Historians who work with the written sources of the last few centuries in any of the major areas of literacy should not expect that reconstructions using oral materials will yield as full, detailed, and precise reconstructions, barring only the recent past. . . . What one does reconstruct from oral sources may well be of a lower order of reliability, when there are no independent sources to cross-check . . . . ” p. 199

    “The application of the rules of evidence to oral tradition requires much information that is best gathered in the field, along with the recording of the tradition.” p. 200 — Did the Gospel authors know how to apply Vansina’s rules of evidence and so make the best of oral traditions they were working with? If the oral tradition behind the Gospels is itself a hypothesis what can we know of how that oral tradition was transmitted and from what origins and for what purposes?

    Would you like me to discuss Ong’s work on Orality and the Gospels next?

    You will also recall, I am sure since you must have read Vansina yourself sometime, that he addresses the problem when external events are geographical or natural and how such details can be applied to many situations and quite creatively, too. So once again, your plea that the Gospels are tested for accuracy because they contain geographical and name referents that are historical is shallow and logically flawed.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Oh yes, and let’s not forget the place names that evangelists also made up.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Just one last comment before I go:

    The whole point of this particular exchange was seek your enlightenment on the sorts of things historians look for when doing their “thorough examinations” of the texts to assess their historical worth.

    The point was to address real arguments and not logical fallacies like, If we throw out X then we’ll have to throw out every other letter of the alphabet.

    So where have we finally come to after you first told me to re-read what you had written before — without telling me where you had written anything before to answer this — and then telling me to read chapter one of a particular book, and then telling me to read another book on top of that?

    Well, you seem to assume that all my reading over the years has been tendentious and not genuinely dedicated to understanding what we can know about the Bible etc etc — But I have been for some years now tracking down and reading cited sources and anything that comes up in online academic discussions, and basic texts, etc etc etc to try to learn as much as I can. You don’t believe this presumably because I’m an atheist and have come to favour mythicist conclusions.

    I have read a lot more than you seem to assume and clearly have read a lot more about historiography than you are aware even exists.

    Presumably to deflect attention from your own lack of reading you regularly make sarcastic remarks about what I demonstrate I have read.

    So what was the conclusion after all your barbs you constantly threw at me when I was asking you how historians avoid logical fallacies and what sorts of things they look out for in order to evaluate historicity in the sources?

    The end result was that all you can come up with is, in effect:

    (1) The Gospels could not have got so many geographic and personal names right unless they were writing reliably sourced historical narratives;

    (2) The criterion of embarrassment.

    Well, those two arguments have been demolished well enough even by your own peers as well as by myself, with very specific and numerous case studies to demonstrate my points.

    Secondly, and this is the most important point of all — Those Two Points are NOT the keys historians (except for NT historians) use to assess the historicity of narratives. Certainly they are important, but as I said, the same sorts of details can be found in fiction and myth.

    You should pay more attention to my posts where I have quoted other historians demonstrating what criteria they do use — and that HJ scholars don’t use. Being closed-minded and dismissing my arguments because I reach the wrong conclusions seems to be keeping you confined to a narrow self-contained world of biblical studies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Wow. I’m sure Neil reads a lot unfourtunately it is all to to serve his narrow purpose of preaching his pet theory. While this might be an interesting topic to discuss, Neil never seems interested in having a discusion but instead he puts on these silly shows. He should also try being more concise, they just seem to ramble on without making a point. I remember reading Vansina’s book before, so maybe I’ll pick it up tommorow and take a look though again.

    ****At least he is taking a break from paranoid ancient history to paranoid apologetics for fascism.

    http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/syria-what-we-are-not-being-told/#more-23544

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Neil, The point of my recommendations is to see whether you can grasp, or admit, or do whatever it is you need to do in order to finally acknowledge that the methods used to investigate the historical Jesus are those used by other historians. Obviously depending on the time period, the nature of the sources, and other factors, each area of history may tweak and refine these common methods in order to use them in a manner appropriate to their specific field. 

    Basically, I’m trying to find something that will get through to you and the meaning of which you won’t twist to serve your own idiosyncratic purposes.

    None of this is anyone asking you to do research for them. It is a request for you to read or if necessary re-read things so that perhaps you will understand them.

    Do you remember the time that you recommended a particular book on history, and then it was pointed out to you that the same volume mentioned Christ as a historical figure. That sure was entertaining, and usefully illustrative of the huge gulf between what you say is the case in the realm of historical study and what actually is.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    And Neil, might I make a suggestion? Why don’t you actually take some time to evaluate the writings of folks like Couchoud, Doherty and others like them from the perspective of mainstream historical scholarship? I realize that you’d in all likelihood only be interested in trying to twist the evidence to give the false impression that they use mainstream scholarly methods consistently, while others do not. But I still hold out the hope that perhaps you’ll turn your critical attention to such matters, and see just how far the proponents of your pet theory are from what historians and other scholars of antiquity in the present day seek to do. I have no doubt that some of their work might have been considered acceptable scholarship in bygone eras. But they lack the rigor and consistency of method expected from historians and scholars today.

    If you were to do that, we still might disagree about a great deal, but at least it would seem that you are not just being selective, but are at least trying to be consistent and accurate.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Obviously depending on the time period, the nature of the sources, and
    other factors, each area of history may tweak and refine these common
    methods in order to use them in a manner appropriate to their specific
    field.

    Specific example?

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Vansina’s adaptation of historical methods to the specifics of oral cultures, already mentioned, would be one example. Societies from which we have archaeological remains but not decipherable inscriptions, such as the Harappan, would be another. The differences do not affect the aims or principles, but they affect how they can be applied.

      And of course, let’s not forget the obvious example of historical Jesus research, which because of the fact that there are wackos of all sorts who wish to say every sort of thing possible about Jesus, or even claim he did not exist, historians have had to try to come up with objective criteria to defend minimal conclusions about matters that would, if it were any other figure from history, be considered obvious and beyond dispute.

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        Your examples beyond HJ studies are not examples of “tweaking and refining common methods” at all — they are direct applications of methods without modification to the methods themselves.

        Your example of HJ studies is quite different. It is in effect saying, well, the methods don’t give us what we want to find so we have to find some “method” that will give us the sorts of things we do want to find.

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          It seems that way, perhaps, in your own imaginary scholarly landscape. But as ever I invite you to join us in reality.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    What have I misunderstood?

    You give examples of historical methods being applied in nonbiblical topics and by your own admission the principles as applied are not affected in any way — that is, I take it, not tweaked or refined at all — but are merely applied to a wide range of evidence types, oral, archaeological, etc.

    But by your own admission you are saying that HJ scholars have to create their own principles to do studies — their own criteria.

    Am I understanding you correctly?

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      No, you are not. And I can only assume it is because you do not wish to. Even when I give a list of examples you cannot seem to help but assume that the New Testament is in a category all its own. Can you see that you are doing this on this occasion? Can you recognize your persistent tendency to do this?

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        Well can you please explain to me exactly what you do mean and where, specifically, my own understanding is incorrect and why?

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          You are wrong in the same manner as usual. I wrote something, you suggested I meant something else. I don’t see what additional explanation will accomplish. Just read what I wrote until you understand it. Then try doing the same thing with books about history. I believe you can do this. You only have to want to understand rather what another is saying rather than find your preconceived ideas in what they write.

          • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

            Vansina’s adaptation of historical methods to the specifics of oral cultures, already mentioned, would be one example. Societies from which we have archaeological remains but not decipherable inscriptions, such as the Harappan, would be another. The differences do not affect the aims or principles, but they affect how they can be applied.

            So Vansina has not actually changed any particular methods or principles. He has merely adapted the common ones to oral cultures. Right? None of the principles are affected as principles. The same principles are there without modification at all, right? Am I right? Do tell me where I am wrong if I am.

            And of course, let’s not forget the obvious example of historical Jesus research, which because of the fact that there are wackos of all sorts who wish to say every sort of thing possible about Jesus, or even claim he did not exist, historians have had to try to come up with objective criteria to defend minimal conclusions about matters that would, if it were any other figure from history, be considered obvious and beyond dispute.

            So HJ scholars are unable to rely upon the normal standards by which historical persons are known to exist and come up with methods that are not found in any other historical discipline. Is this correct? If not, please explain where I am wrong.

            • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              This is what happens when you read so much mythicist garbage. I write “brother of the Lord” and you write back and ask, “So you are saying ‘brother in the Lord’, right?”

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    I am sincerely asking you to explain where my understanding of what you have posted by way of examples is wrong.

    Can you please do that? There is no need for insult. I really do not understand. It is standard practice when two people wish to be sure they understand each other that they seek to paraphrase what the other said and ask if that is what they meant. If not, the other can further clarify. That is all I am asking.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I explicitly gave multiple examples of things which I placed in a single category. You responded by saying in essence “these other things are X and NT/historical Jesus is Y.” 

      Do you understand now?

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    No, sorry. I read you as saying that oral history and history that relies upon archaeological sources are examples of where standard historical principles are applied without having to be refined.

    Am I correct so far?

    You then said, “let us not forget HJ research” and proceeded to give that example — and said that historians have had to try to come up with principles that are unique to this particular study.

    Is that what you said or not? If not, what did you mean when you wrote:

    And of course, let’s not forget the obvious example of historical Jesus
    research, which because of the fact that there are wackos of all sorts
    who wish to say every sort of thing possible about Jesus, or even claim
    he did not exist, historians have had to try to come up with objective
    criteria to defend minimal conclusions about matters that would, if it
    were any other figure from history, be considered obvious and beyond
    dispute.

    It appears to me that you have demonstrated with your examples the very argument I have been making all along.

    It is up to you to argue why you have not. Insult and abuse won’t be acceptable as a response. You are a professor so I am sure you can explain it simply enough, if not for me, then for other readers here.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    It is clear once again what the side effects are of reading mythicist bunk. You can’t even believe that someone’s words can have a precise and clear meaning. It is always possible, even if I referred to a diverse group of historians, that I had in mind in the case one group not human beings, but celestial historians in a university located upon the firmament.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    So HJ scholars do indeed, by your own example that you have given, use methods of their own devising because normative historical methods won’t give them the results they want. Your example demonstrates it.

    Perhaps you would like to offer another example that disproves my point.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Neil, if you show signs of being able to comprehend what I wrote, including my repeated statements that I meant what I wrote and not the opposite of it which you somehow came up with as an “interpretation” of what I wrote, then and only then will t be worth trying to continue the conversation. Let’s see how long it takes you. Take your time. I’ll still be here.

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        All I have asked for is for you to explain to me why my understanding of what seem to me to be quite plain statements of yours is wrong. That’s all.  All you have given in response is insult and put-down.

        It is very clear that you are saying that HJ scholars have a situation unlike other historical studies and, instead of applying normative historical methods to their area, as do those historians who apply normative methods to oral history etc, HJ scholars come up with something unique.

        If I am wrong or misunderstanding then all you have to do is clarify the particular examples and statements you offered. All you seem capable of is abuse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Neil, is your point that HJ scholars are more critical than other historians, because that is what James is saying in the quote. That seems right to me because it does seem that other fields are less critical of their sources in ancient history. Again, I haven’t seen any evidence to support your contention that HJ scholars are doings something radically different than other historians of the ancient world and you have never presented any evidence to back this up. Given your dishonesty and irrationality, I’m’ not sure how much faith should be put into your assertions.  As always, your contribution is boring and insincere.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    Dr McGrath, I have posted in recent weeks thoughts or passages from Davies, Ehrman, Wajdenbaum, Schmithals, Couchoud — and only one of those addresses mythicism. So why do you critique me as if I am someone obsessed with reading mythicist arguments?

    You may have seen my personal collection of books at Librarything and if so you will see I have accumulated well over 2000 books in my personal library — and these do not cover the works I have been able to borrow or access for free, of course. Of the many hundreds of authors I have read I think no more than than 5 have been mythicists — Doherty (2 books), Wells (3 books), Ellegard (1 book), Drews (1 book), Couchoud (1.5 books) — maybe another one or two I cannot recall because of the shortness or dependency of their works upon others.

    So why do you continue to address me as if I have been somehow obsessed of indoctrinated by mythicism?

    It is not a question of what one has read. It is a question of whether one can critically think about what one reads. Please try to avoid insults and abuse and simply explain to me, like the good teacher I am sure you are when not addressing me online, where I have misunderstood you when I believe you have just delivered Neil Godfrey with a confession that HJ scholars do, indeed, adopt methods alien to other historiographical studies in order to find the information, evidence, or outcomes that they wish to find.


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