A Radically New Idea

Another reason why amateurs are less likely to come up with innovative and plausible new interpretations of data is the fact that amateurs and hobbyists are rarely fully acquainted with the range and depth of scholarship on a given topic. I learned today that Bryan Lewis has created a comic illustrating something that is the common experience of would-be doctoral students and amateur thinkers alike:

Rarely if ever is an idea completely new. If you think that mythicism, for instance, is a relatively new idea that scholars refuse to give a hearing to, rather than an old one which was evaluated and judged inadequate even before some discoveries (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and changed perspectives (the focus on the Jewish context of Jesus in the so-called “third quest” for the historical Jesus), then that simply shows a lack of familiarity with the history of scholarship in this area.

If you are planning on working on a PhD in Biblical studies, you may well find yourself writing about how you have a completely new perspective to offer or a radically new conclusion to draw about this or that.

Hopefully the above comic will help you understand what that smile on your future supervisor’s face is saying…

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  • Hehe that “Professor Smith” reminds me of Dr. Mahlon H. Smith, the Professor I studied under during my undergrad years.

    Ah, memories. 🙂

  • Mythicism isn’t new (or even close), but the hostility with which it is met in the academy is relatively new, and seems to be a largely post-Bultmann phenomenon. Compare Schweitzer’s treatment with the incessant polemic so common today, or with the fairly frequent missing or ignoring the point. I just finished a paper by Byrskog in the Handbook for the Historical Jesus, for example, where he spells out exactly what the problem is with relying solely on textual traditions with the difficulties ours have, and then proceeds cheerily as if they are addressed simply by their mention (a 1200 dollar set! Are you kidding me? And people scorn me for piracy. Like I had 1200 bucks for four books in the fist place!).

    This state of affairs is unfortunate for those of us who would like intelligent dialogue on the matter, since there are no dialogue partners.

    • I would be delighted to have conversation partners about mythicism who represented a different viewpoint and were publishing serious scholarship. Unfortunately, the only scholars who ever publish in mainstream venues are Thomas Brodie, whose mythicism has only recently been disclosed, and Robert Price, who seems to sometimes forget that he is supposed to be a mythicist, writing things that contradict that claim. The others are either not scholars or have chosen alternative career paths. That mythicism is currently represented largely by people outside the academy who offer pseudoscholarship is not my fault or the fault of other scholars. If someone wants to offer a mainstream scholarly case for Jesus-mythicism, it would be a refreshing change from the kinds of things I’ve had to interact with so far. And if they could make a persuasive case, I could become a legendary figure and bestselling author championing the idea. I’m not opposed to mythicism on principle. I’m opposed to it because what it has thus far offered is at best unsatisfactory, and in the worst instances simply bogus and deceptive.

      • Strictly speaking, Price doesn’t claim to be a mythicist. He’s also not very good at whatever he’s supposed to be, because I’ve never read anything of his that amounts to more than polemic designed to impress the choir.

        You’re never going to see a sustainable, overarching case for mythicism that trumps historicism, or at least not in the forseeable future. Mythicism is predicated on a double-edged sword–if their arguments work against historicism, they also work against mythicism, because all historical models require assumptions, so too great for one is too great for the other.

        But I do think there is sufficient grounds for the appropriate answer to be “I don’t know.” Yet people who say this are painted with the same hyperbolic brush we use on Acharya S., who we can surely agree isn’t a worthwhile comparison.

        • I have not found the latter to be the case. I’ve explicitly said on multiple occasions that a principled agnosticism, even if I personally disagree with that stance, is one I can respect. It is the claim that Paul thought Jesus was purely celestial and that Christianity emerged as a literary phenomenon of Gospel-composition that I find really problematic when considered using mainstream historical methods and the evidence available to us. And of course, Acharya S. is something far more ridiculous and bizarre than anything I’ve mentioned in this comment so far, and they do indeed not deserve to be lumped together.

          • arcseconds

            I’ve always thought it would be useful to give a spectrum of historical figures and describe the level of historical support they have.

            Then one could see how principled someone’s agnosticism was by seeing whether they were also agnostic about figures with similar level of historical support, and at least agnostic if not outright doubtful of figures with less.

            It could even be instructive to look at one’s own agnosticism (or gnosticism, for that matter) in such a light.

          • arcseconds

            Of course, the results of such a test wouldn’t necessarily show the principledness of someone’s agnosticism. If they had a good argument that the evidence for Jesus really wasn’t the same as the people who share his bracket, that might be OK; or on the other hand, if someone just decides to bite the bullet and be skeptical about Mohammed and Socrates because they really want to stick it to those holier-than-thou Christians, that probably doesn’t deserve to be called ‘principled’ (although it demonstrates a degree of even-handedness, I suppose…)…

          • The Christian collection is largely unique, which makes this exercise difficult to pull off. But why would someone only be agnostic on the historicity of Socrates because they “really want to stick it to those holier-than-thou Christians”?

            Aren’t you assuming in advance that their conclusions precede their methods? And, in so doing, being guilty of that same error?

          • arcseconds

            I’m a bit perplexed by your response. It was a made-up example to demonstrate a point (that consistency can be motivated in an unprincipled way).

            So, yes, I’m assuming something in advance, if you want to put it that way. Much like your 3rd grade maths teacher ‘assumed in advance’ that Tom had 3 apples and Suzy had 4, or Schrödinger ‘assumed in advance’ that a cat was in a box with the crazy cyanide-triggered-by-radioactive decay set-up.

            I can assume anything I like in a made-up example. (Can’t I?)

          • Apologies then, I’d thought you’d intended to suggest that consistency would be unprincipled, not simply that it was possible.

          • arcseconds

            No, in fact my first comment on this topic can easily be read as though I’m saying if one is consistent than one is principled, which is why I wrote the second comment.

            My made-up example isn’t ‘merely’ possible, though, I do think people often do reach conclusions in this kind of a manner. Some people avoid inconsistency, but the overall consistent theory they adopt isn’t ultimately adopted for sound epistemic reasons (say), but because it contains a result they happen to very much like. They might not even be aware that this is what they’ve done, but insist (even to themselves) that they reached the conclusion in a soundly reasoned manner.

            (We all probably do this to a certain extent, of course. When we don’t just outright accept double standards.)

            Of course, in a real case, it won’t necessarily be easy to tell how principled they’re being.

          • Fair enough, it’s certainly true that some people do. Even more true that people do with this particular topic quite frequently. Some time ago I wrote a post outlining the reasons for my agnosticism, and expressed my concern that I’d be confused with the crusading secular. That concern persists, so I’m a little more sensitive to it than most are likely to be.

          • Sorry, I should have been clearer. I didn’t intend to suggest that such a conflation should be attributed to you, simply that such a conflation has been known to pop up.

    • jjramsey

      Actually, the hostility isn’t that new. Take, for example, The Historicity of Jesus, written by Shirley Jackson Case all the way back in 1912. He writes:

      We are told at the start that no compelling proof for the authenticity of any of the [Pauline] letters can be produced, and yet from
      them a somewhat elaborate and confident exposition of alleged Pauline thought is derived. Anything in these writings supposedly pointing to the historicity of Jesus is explained otherwise, or is called a later insertion. Finally it is asserted that “the Pauline letters contain no compulsion of any sort for the supposition of a historical Jesus, and no man would be likely to find such there if it were not already for him an established assumption.”

      After discussing a few examples of this sort of thing, Case drily adds, “It is a convenient elasticity of critical method which can allow these options.” Case may be more polite than some modern Internet critics of mythicism, but he makes his contempt quite clear.

  • Ian

    I definitely agree. Despite having my research plan approved before starting my PhD, I had the depressing (and common) first year experience of realising that question after question I was interested in answering had been covered, or was clearly in the process of being researched by another grad student (and in the latter case, I wasn’t brave enough to ‘race’ them for the answer). This despite having studied the field full time for four years under the tutelage of significant figures.

    I suspect in some areas, this isn’t nearly as bad. Because there is a lower ratio of people to interesting questions. I imagine that you could pretty easily figure out an interesting question in Mandaean studies without fear of finding five monographs and twenty papers already. But in a trendy bit of science, it wasn’t so easy. And given the massive number of people wanting grad degrees in the NT, I suspect it is even harder to find some blue ocean there!

    • Thank you for pointing out that the sensible course of action under the circumstances is to go into Mandaean studies! 😉

      • Ian

        Are you looking for grad students?

        (not a leading question – I’m not in the market…)

        • Alas, I don’t have grad students here at Butler, this being a predominantly undergrad institution. I hope that the creation of a Society for Mandaean Studies will also lead to our working to ensure that there is opportunity for graduate study in this area. At present there are grad programs where one can study Mandaic and work on aspects of the language as a linguist, but not really an obvious place to do a PhD on the history, literature, religion, etc. of the Mandaeans. Of course, you can study anything if a university is willing to work to find external advisers. But there is nowhere that one would be encouraged to pursue this. 🙁

  • newenglandsun

    As Isaac Newton once said:

    “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

  • newenglandsun

    There’s also that part in Ecclesiastes – “There is nothing new under the sun”

  • Damien

    I agree. Intelligent amateurs can acquire a very good understanding of many aspects of many topics. The problem is that they usually have little incentive to get out of their comfort zone and start reading people who disagree with them. This is especially true of fields like economics or theology where there can be sharp polarization.

    What formal study does is force you to interact with people and ideas you disagree with, and to be confronted to the best arguments against your own views, rather than strawmen. At least that’s what’s it’s supposed to do in theory.