Skepticism vs. Scholarship

Skepticism vs. Scholarship January 19, 2017

Jonathan Bernier sums things up nicely:

There is an unfortunate tendency in many circles to suppose that critical scholarship consists of pronouncing negative judgments on early Christians’ own self-understanding of their origins. I would suggest that this is a misunderstanding of what it means to be a critical historian. The critical historian is one who formulates a question, attends to the data relevant to answering that question, weighs possible answers, and then affirms that answer which handles the relevant data best. Sometimes that will much resemble early Christians’ self-understanding of their own origins; sometimes it will be remarkably at variance therewith. The skeptic supposes programmatically that the best answer will be at variance with traditional narratives. That is bias, the bias known as skepticism, which takes as its sinister twin the bias known as credulity: the programmatic supposition that the best answer will be fully congruent with traditional narratives. Both arbitrarily close off possible answers before the investigation even begins. As such, the spirit of critical thought is programmatically opposed to both.

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  • jh

    I’m not sure I agree with the terminology. Skepticism is just an attitude that requires consistent truth. The same standard is used for all groups within that class. The claims of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity are treated impartially.

    What the author is decrying is denialism. No matter what facts come to bear, the denialist will deny them because of a pre-supposition. It’s just like the Christian who will fight tooth and nail to deny Lord Krishna’s divinity but will whine when a Hindu laughs at their belief in a all-human/all-divine son of God. To be fair, one should use the same weight to assess the information.

    It’s good to be skeptical. Otherwise, we would all be responding to emails from Nigerian princes who desperately need our help.

    • Would you agree that denialism is really just skepticism taken to an extreme in relation to one particular area, and that is not applied to one’s own viewpoint in the same way it is applied to mainstream sources of information.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      In the full article, the author uses the term “bias,” which I think is probably better for what he’s trying to get across.

      For instance, the example the author uses is the authorship of the Epistle of James. If, for instance, you believe in an inerrant Bible, then your bias will be that James wrote James, because it says so.

      Bernier points out that this tendency can work in the other direction, too. One can have a bias that James didn’t write James solely on the grounds that the Bible says so or that church tradition claims he did.

      I appreciate your point that we should always want evidence for our assertions, and I think the author would agree with you. But I think he’s actually highlighting that we can have biases for our conclusions – both positive and negative – and it’s easy to mistake the negative biases as “scholarship” or “evidence” or “academic rigor.”

      • I would agree that both negative and positive assumptions can be held as a bias in any field, but this is not what is meant by academic skepticism:

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          Sure, but the article isn’t about Academic Skepticism.

          It’s a phenomenon he labels Programmatic Skepticism.

          • I’ve read the piece, and though he uses that phrase in the title, he says later:

            “The skeptic supposes programmatically that the best answer will be at variance with traditional narratives. That is bias, the bias known as skepticism”

            He’s not describing skepticism; he’s describing pseudoskepticism. Skepticism is a position from which one may test (with evidence) any position, traditional or nontraditional, negative or positive. Skepticism is not a bias.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I agree. I think he’s very imprecise in his language. I do agree with the phenomenon he’s describing, though, although I agree it’s misleading to say, “That’s what skepticism is.”

          • Yes. I agree with the general notion that biases can run in positive or negative directions; but true skepticism is a safeguard against bias of any kind.

  • is the bias of “skepticism” (not sure that I agree with the characterization of skepticism as a bias) more prominent in biblical studies than the sort of bias one sees at faith-based universities requiring signed faith statements. Even a conservative apologist like Mike Licona can cause a storm of protest at Christian Universities by publishing scholarship that puts pure inerrancy in doubt:

  • Gary

    “The reality is that the canon is a historical datum. It exists, in time and space. The observation that the Epistle of James is the only text attributed to James that made it into the canon cannot be programmatically assumed to be a datum of irrelevance for establishing authorship.”


    Premise: Only 7 of 13 letters in the Canon were written by Paul.
    Therefore, the fact that a text is in the Canon is irrelevant to its authentic authorship. The Epistle of James has to be judged by other criteria. Not by the fact that it is either in or out of the Canon.

    • I’m not sure that analogy makes your point. While it is true that some inauthentic letters made it into the canon, no authentic letters that have survived were left out of the canon. And so I think Bernier’s point stands: being in the canon does not prove authenticity, but neither can it be presumed irrelevant.

      • Gary

        “No authentic letters that have survived were left out”…
        Perhaps, but the potential “body of letters” left out, I assume, is immense compared to the body of letters included. So a Canon datum point in time and space seems a little weak (actually irrelevant) in determining authorship. If 6 out of 13 of Paul’s letters are not directly from Paul, then the confidence of the Canon datum point taken alone shows not much better than a 50:50 chance of being useful. I think we both agree that more data is needed. But I would call the Canon datum point in time and space irrelevant compared to other data.

        “The reality is that the canon is a historical datum. It exists, in time and space.”

        The Canon data point in time and space is irrelevant compared to the data point in time and space that the proposed author died (62AD in Jerusalem). But the James in question, the potential brother of a crucified criminal (Roman perspective), dying in 62AD in Jerusalem, a Roman colony, having potentially written a fine Greek letter, seems to boarder on denial. If re-written by a follower much later, then that voids the original authorship by James, since there is no way to tell what was original, and what was reworked. So the point – the Canon data point in time and space is irrelevant.

        • I think you are underestimating the ability of people in Palestine to compose (with help, if necessary) fine Greek. Perhaps my article on the implied social status of Jesus is relevant to that point…

          • arcseconds

            That was a good article, which I have been meaning to read for a while.

            The Talmud is prone to conflate its heroes as well as its villains. I’m sure you’re aware of this but it seems worth noting. This material is also relevant to the conversation with The Thinker in another thread.

            Jonathan Bernier I think is pretty firmly of the opinion that Jesus’s family was quite high status, and thinks the apparently rather large size of the family (significantly higher than that estimated as the average in a first-century palestine demographics paper that we discussed once) is also evidence for this.

            I do wonder how far this raises the likelihood of Jesus and James being literate, though. Sure, it’s much more believable that he would be literate (assuming his family did have the status you suggest) than a day-labourer or a slave (or even a fisherman), but my understanding is that literacy was rare even among the fairly well-off, and would seem unlikely even for a financially successful carpenter with a notional pedigree. Wasn’t there a paper saying they found basically no evidence of literacy anywhere in Nazereth around this time?

          • Because a city has grown up over what was probably a village or at best a small town in Jesus’ time, they have found very little evidence of anything in Nazareth.

            Literacy rates varied, but really what we are asking about is the ability to compose decent Greek, not the ability to read or write it.

          • Gary

            Thanks for the article. Haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I will.
            What first comes to mind, “And Nathanael said unto him, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”…
            Which doesn’t inspire a hotbed of Greek schools and learning. And James, a staunch follower of Jewish Law, seems to confuse “works” as good deeds, instead of kosher laws. But I don’t know.

          • Of course, you are assuming the historicity of the Gospel of John there, and assuming a legalistic view of Judaism that would focus entirely on kosher food laws and have no place for good deeds. In fact, Paul seems to be the one who has kosher food laws and other such things in mind when he refers to “works of the Law.” Would someone writing later not have addressed what Paul actually focused on? If there is a failure to accurately grasp Paul, is that more likely to occur early or later?

          • Gary

            Since a question was asked, to close loose ends, Bart Ehrman, “Forged”:
            “There are excellent reasons for thinking that this letter was not written by the brother of Jesus, but was forged in his name. For one thing, the teaching being opposed must have arisen later than the writings of Paul. That is to say, it is a later development of Pauline thinking in a later Pauline community. The teaching is indeed similar to the teaching found in Ephesians, written after Paul’s lifetime in his name. But it goes even farther than Ephesians, since the author of Ephesians would never have said that it didn’t matter how you lived so long as you have faith. Just the opposite in fact! (See Eph. 2:10.) Whoever is writing the book of James is presupposing an even later situation found among Paul’s churches. But since the historical James was probably martyred in 62 CE, two decades or so before Ephesians was written, the book could not very well have been written by him.”

          • Gary

            It seems that most of the article has to do with Jesus’ birth legitimacy, not learning/writing Greek. I could mention The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus is learning Greek as a child, but I don’t think that counts. Although I find it interesting that Gnostics would find Jesus and James speaking perfect Greek as totally obvious, whereas Christians have to do much more explaining 🙂

          • I don’t think that counts either. My point is that, if Jesus’ family were not simply peasants, then the possibility of their education becomes more plausible.

          • Gary

            All valid points. Back to the original issue. The significance of the point in time and space of Canonization, and it’s importance. The thought that three hundred years later, Bishop’s had special insight into the authorship of James, seems to be rather hopeful, but not particularly based upon data at the time. If any Bishop wrote that, “You know, James and Jesus must have been alumni of that lovely little Greek school outside of Nazareth”, or “Jesus and James must have been tutored by that Greek slave Zacchaeus”, I would say there is a smoking gun. But my conjecture, Bishops at Canonization typically were fluent in Greek, so it would be understandable that they thought James was fluent in Greek. But the structure, leadership, training of any church in pre 62AD, based in Jerusalem, was probably not the same as 300 years later.

            But, bottom line, I will use a standard phrase, “It’s a miracle”, and be satisfied. If someone wants to believe in the significance of a text in Canon, on that merit alone, more power to them. Actually, I wish I could myself. Then I wouldn’t have to secretly roll my eyes every time I say a creed in church, while getting an elbow at the same time from my wife.

          • Sorry for the delay in replying. I don’t think that the later formalization of the canon is relevant, but I didn’t understand that to be the point. I understood the point to rather be the development of the collection that eventually became the canon, which if it at times includes somewhat later and pseudepigraphical works, still also preserves our earliest and authentic works as well at its core.