When scholars investigate a question – whether a question about historical events, or the interpretation of a text or other sort of data – they do not work in isolation. In every case, there is some dependence on other scholars who have worked on other aspects of the question, or on other texts or historical matters about which our own expertise is limited, but about which we need to have some understanding to work on the particular problem we are investigating, because it relates to it in some way.
No one individual covers every aspect of every potentially related topic at the same level of detail. And so when we work on assembling the pieces of the puzzle in our own particular area, we must check from time to time to see whether and to what extent our work correlates with that of others. If it doesn’t, then there is a problem.
The importance of this was illustrated in a recent exchange with a mythicist on my blog. The question was posed as to why Paul uses the verb γινομαι in Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4 in reference to (the birth of) Jesus, when he uses γενναω in other passages that refer to birth. While I stressed that the precise choice of different words is not always significant, in this case, we happen to be dealing with two texts that are thought to represent Paul’s quotation of already-existing Christian slogans or creedal statements. And so the difference of wording might also reflect the formulation not being Paul’s own creation.
To one of the commentators who is not particularly well informed about academic New Testament study, this seemed like me simply pulling random possibilities out of nowhere to support my viewpoint. But of course, anyone who has studied Romans or Galatians will know that I was not suggesting something new or original, but referring to a viewpoint that is discussed (even if not always embraced) in every modern commentary and book on these particular passages.
And here we see the biggest methodological problem that confronts creationists, mythicists, and other such points of view that ignore scholarship, choosing instead to attempt to figure things out on their own (or with the help of some likeminded conversation partners), in conformity with their own convictions, without concern for scholarship or research, and no need for labs or excavations or knowledge of ancient languages. Whether we are talking about the question of biological evolution, or the question of whether a historical figure of Jesus existed, these are questions for which particular pieces of evidence may be important, but ultimately the decisive consideration is that large numbers of scholars working on different specific areas related to these questions independently produce results that correlate with one another and cohere with the theory. If one piece of evidence pointed to Jesus having existed, or evolution having occurred, while many others pointed in the opposite direction, then there would not be the widespread consensus that exists among biologists and historians.
And that brings us back to the topic with which I started. No one scholar has done doctoral-type research on every aspect of historical Jesus studies, and no one scientist has sequenced every genome and excavated every type of fossil for themselves. It is a collaborative effort, which involves each of us doing focused research in one area, reading what others have done in a similar fashion in related areas, publishing our results and explaning how we think they correlate, and in many other ways collaborating to get a sense of the big picture in a way that no one of us could on our own – or could if we were a handful of untrained skeptics of mainstream scholarship having discussions on the internet, for that matter.When one studies a subject at university, one begins to get at least a broad sense of the field, and thus has a sense of what research has been done, what live debates are currently taking place, and can start to think about the big picture. Without that broad knowledge, one will be prone to interpret individual pieces of data in ways that don’t make sense in relation to other things we know.
That’s what happens in the case of creationists. It is what happens in the case of mythicists. And what differentiates a successful and persuasive scholar is that, instead of plowing ahead insisting that our assumptions and pet theories must be correct, we continued learning, even though it often meant admitting that conclusions we initially drew are incompatible with evidence that further learning brought to bear on our views.
Both creationists and mythicists are prone as well to ask for someone to offer them a knock-down argument in favor of mainstream scholarship in the area of which they are skeptical. And both regularly walk away from such discussions unpersuaded by the arguments that were presented to them, convinced that this goes to show that mainstream scholarship in the field is unpersuasive bunk.
But the problem with their drawing this conclusion is that the strongest argument in favor of all major scholarly theories are not single details, but the large scale correlation of results from a range of studies focused on different specific texts, details, questions, and pieces of evidence.
It doesn’t necessarily have to take going to university to study a subject in a formal way in order to get to that point of understanding. But it does at the very least take time and effort invested in reading, studying, and comprehending why consensus exists where it does.
Because that is how scholarship works, whether in the humanities or the natural sciences. It is not any one scholar, but the scholarly enterprise as a whole, that helps us to understand the big picture. And complaining that you are not convinced when you haven’t taken the time to study the subject in a serious way simply illustrates that you have done something far worse than simply ignoring experts’ conclusions or finding them unpersuasive. You’ve failed to understand how expertise is achieved in relation to questions that no one scientist or historian can master alone. And as a result, you’ve left yourself open to being misled, whether by others or by yourself.