How Scholarship Works

How Scholarship Works May 6, 2019

When sharing a recent blog post on social media, I offered some thoughts on how academic study works at its most basic level. Here is what I wrote, with some minor improvements and alterations to the wording:

Reading some online discussions, you’d think that there is a need for people on those blogs and discussion boards, with no particular expertise in or professional connection with the study of history, to come up with their own methods for historical study. Not that they don’t talk about what historians and scholars past and present have done and do. But they talk about the methods as though they themselves actually use them regularly to investigate historical questions and so are poised to assess their value, and indeed better poised than professionals who do in fact use them, daily.

At other times, I get the distinct impression that some people outside of academic think that debates among academics about methods as well as specific conclusions show that academia is broken, that something is fundamentally wrong, when in fact this is the very reason it works so well. Every method and every conclusion is open to challenge or refinement, but likewise every alternative proposal is also subjected to close critical scrutiny.

That day’s post on my blog included some of things that I have come across over the past several months that either illustrate the vibrancy of online discussion when done well, or illustrate how it can go awry. As you’ll know from things I’ve written on the subject, I do think that there is room for serious academic work to take place and be facilitated by interaction in the online realm. But there the risk is that it will become entangled with efforts to reach a wider audience, which in turn can keep one bogged down in debates with people who really don’t seem to understand what academics do or how scholarly research proceeds – and worse still, seem to have no interest in becoming better informed about the topic!

Of related interest was John Warner’s piece on loving one’s work, which many academics do, me included (lest anything I wrote above persuade you otherwise!)


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  • John MacDonald

    Curious that, if the authenticity criteria are a reliable “meta hodos” for sifting the historical nuggets from the sediment of Jesus information, we don’t, for instance, see historical Socrates scholars translating those criteria into categories for distilling who the historical Socrates was.

    I, for instance, find fascinating that Plato has Socrates offer up a sacrifice in thanksgiving for his poison. There is a somewhat similar attribution in Xenophon. I would love to know if the historical Socrates actually said/did it. I would also be interested in things like whether the Oracle actually said Socrates was the wisest man. I haven’t been involved in the debates in more than 2 decades, but Philosophers and Classicists seem to be more conservative about what we can know about the historical Socrates compared with what religious scholars think we can know about Jesus. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums up the problem as:

    So thorny is the difficulty of distinguishing the historical Socrates from the Socrateses of the authors of the texts in which he appears and, moreover, from the Socrateses of scores of later interpreters, that the whole contested issue is generally referred to as the Socratic problem. Each age, each intellectual turn, produces a Socrates of its own. It is no less true now that, “The ‘real’ Socrates we have not: what we have is a set of interpretations each of which represents a ‘theoretically possible’ Socrates,” as Cornelia de Vogel (1955, 28) put it. In fact, de Vogel was writing as a new analytic paradigm for interpreting Socrates was about to become standard—Gregory Vlastos’s model (§2.2), which would hold sway until the mid 1990s. Who Socrates really was is fundamental to virtually any interpretation of the philosophical dialogues of Plato because Socrates is the dominant figure in most of Plato’s dialogues.

    Although, as I said, this is just a guessing observation because I am decades removed from Plato scholarship and am only familiar with the state of historical Jesus scholarship as a hobby, which I think has moved beyond mere criteria application to triangulation (which I am only vaguely familiar with).

    • robrecht

      I am about 25 years away from my European dissertation on the gospel of Mark. At that time, the more critical scholars still looked upon historical Jesus studies with a fair amount of disdain, but I was and still am interested in it as a hobby. I’ve always called it exactly that, a ‘hobby’ because it is fun speculation and indeed very interesting but even the attempts to develop methodological rigor suffer from debated assumptions eg, independent attestation: are the gospels of John and Thomas completely independent of the synoptic gospels? Are special Matthew and special Luke materials really independent sources or just Matthean and Lukan invention? Was Q a separate source, completely or even partially unknown to Mark, or did Luke know Matthew, thus eliminating the need need for the hypothetical Q? All debates continuing in full force and hence unable to form the solid basis of a new Leben Jesu methodology. And yet who can resist the temptation to evolve ever new plausible incarnations of this or that Jewish Jesus, continually debating among themselves Talmuduc and earlier issues found in the Dead Sea Scrolls? So much fun over beers after New Testament seminars where the hard and dry work of real scholarship was being hammered out. And yet, I can now appreciate the of true scholars when they trun their attention toward these impossible but fun and interesting topics.

      • John MacDonald

        I would be interested in what Joel Marcus has to say about the historical John the Baptist. My current view is that John existed, but he is mostly lost behind literary and theological lenses – but I am open to change my mind.

        My learning is improving. One of the first things I learned about New Testament Studies is that if a story component seems to reflect theological/literary bias, it may be reasonable to suspend judgement on its historicity because the early church would have had reason to invent it.

        John the Baptist existed, as Josephus reflects, but it seems questionable whether Jesus met him or if we can glean much historical information about him from the gospels.

        Later writers were embarrassed by Mark’s account of John baptizing Jesus, but we don’t have reason to think Mark was also embarrassed.
        Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). In view of parallels between John and Jesus on the one hand and Elijah and Elisha on the other, some also see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior.

        Some have tried to rescue the historicity of the relationship between John and Jesus by pointing out John doubts Jesus, but this might just be a literary device reflective of such episodes as the denials of Peter and doubting Thomas. Jesus’s followers are often portrayed as perplexed and not understanding.

        So, I think there is good reason to be cautious about positing a historical relationship between Jesus and John the baptist. I think it’s also good to be cautious when trying to read historical information about John out of the gospels. I believe Jesus and John both existed, of course. It’s just hard to tell where Mark is doing historical fiction and where he is doing history. Name dropping the famous, beloved prophet JohnTB would certainly lend force to the story.

        Philosophers don’t generally have these problems. They can learn the valuable skill of asking leading questions by reading Plato’s “Laches” without having to worry about whether the events depicted represent actual events. We know ancient writers invented speeches and put them on the lips of famous people.

        Anyway, when it come to Philosophy, as the clone of Kahless the Unforgettable said: “The message is more important than the man.”

        • robrecht

          Nothing is possible beyond constructing one of many plausible portraits, and it is indeed amazing how meager the evidence is that Marcus relies, upon but he does a masterful job of interpreting it to make his thesis plausible.

          I’ve seen you around Bart Ehrman’s blog and forum so I will refer you to a guest posts Marcus did there as well as part of a discussion in the forum touching upon this:

          – See starting at Post #4 by Stephen

          I highly recommend the book:

          • I am reading it now. I am disappointed that he is so dismissive of the usefulness of Mandaean sources, but also confess to being somewhat relieved, since that means the book I am currently working on is still worth writing! 🙂

          • robrecht

            You should give us a preview of what your book will say, eg, what the Mandaean sources add to the question. Build interest and enthusiasm, increase book sales, perhaps do an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross …

          • As the book project progresses, I will definitely be saying more and more on the blog. I am presenting a conference paper related to this that has me feeling renewed excitement for the project as I work on it and feel like new insights come to the fore.

            Once I am to the point of seeking a book contract, I am in fact interested in the possibility of producing two books, one for a general audience with a trade publisher, the other an academic monograph. It is still in the early enough stages that I think for now, hints and snippets are probably more appropriate.

            Thank you so much for your interest!

          • robrecht

            I look forward it. I’m also a good proofreader, if you are interested. Without giving too much away about your own views, perhaps you could review and critique Joel Marcus’ book on John the Baptist.

          • Thanks for the offer! I will certainly do so, at the very least, in the book itself, since I’ll need to engage with his work.

            I’m presenting about John the Baptist at a conference that Joel Marcus is also attending, which should also prove interesting…

          • Mark

            I look forward to this book. I was just fooling around reading an essay on ‘Mandaean geography’ by one of your co-conspirators, which uses your point about over-representation of Jerusalem in the corpus “Within these texts, the ‘known world’ consists of a narrow band running from roughly 28° to 34° N and from 33° to 48°E, describing a rough trapezoid with its corners defined by Mt Lebanon, Baghdad, the Karūn River and Mt Sinai. … Within the band, two areas stand out as being described in considerable detail: the regions of Palestine and Babylonia. It is only within these two areas, and particularly in Palestine, that the texts demonstrate any familiarity.”

          • Do take a look at this one, too, which is on a related topic!


          • John MacDonald

            Hey Rob. Thanks for the links. I briefly skimmed the first one. I’ll read it and the others again later. A few thoughts:

            – (1) it gives me a bit of pause when authors start re-creating the evidence to fit their readings. Marcus says:

            This is one of the more radical claims in my book, since it contradicts a saying attributed to John in the Gospels, which contrasts his baptism in water with that of “the Coming One” (= the Messiah) who will baptize in the Spirit and in fire (Matt 3:12//Luke 3:16-17). I argue, however, that the original form of this saying was, “I baptize you in water, but he will baptize you in fire.”

            – (2) Marcus accepts the John/Elijah typology, but then tries to argue this was not merely later Christian theologizing, but that John actually sees himself in this way. He points to the depiction of John wearing something hairy rather than being hairy. I think there are at least two answers to this. By analogy, it is well known that Matthew recapitulates parts of the story of Moses in creating his Jesus narrative, but takes a lot of inventive liberties in the portrayal. So, contra Marcus, we need not expect that Mark would have created a hairy John the Baptist if he was just inventing things. Moreover, on this same point, it doesn’t follow at all that if Mark was sticking to a known tradition of John being hairless, that maintaining such a portrayal implies John thought of himself as Elijah. All it might mean is that in painting John in the color of Elijah, Mark wanted to keep a known trait of John for the sake of verisimilitude, and so made him wear something hairy instead.

            Anyway, those are two brief thoughts based on a quick skim.

          • robrecht

            John MacDonald: “(1) it gives me a bit of pause when authors start re-creating the evidence to fit their readings.”

            It’s been a few monts since I read/skimmed Marcus’ book, but I don’t recall this minor reconstruction of this one statement being of any real importance to what I saw as the most important aspects of his thesis.* Thus I guess I don’t agree with his characterization of this point as ‘one of the more radical claims’, unless perhaps he speaking in a very technical sense of i taking a fair amount of chutzpah to reconstruct a statement of John’s after it has been buried under so many layers of tradition and interpretation before being used in the gospels.

            For those of you who are reading Marcus’ book now, perhaps more attentively, more completely, and with more comprehension, do you see this reconstruction as particularly important to his overall thesis? And, if so, why?

            *What I personally loved about his book was his clever use of Qumran materials to paint a picture of John as both highly influenced by Qumran but also as a renegade, with a greater mission that did not ignore the non-Jewish nations. The implications of this for Jesus’ own ideology are also interesting. I have long wondered about early examples of this type of apocalyptic openness to the nations among second temple Jews but I did not expect to find it so close to Qumran. I also think the Dead Sea Scrolls have been relatively neglected by many serious New Testament scholars as a fundamental background for understanding the ministry and thought-world of Jesus. Much early (and even some of the later) attention to the Dead Sea Scrolls was, of course, sensationalist and not at all scholarly and is rightly avoided, but I think there was then a tendency to avoid them too much.

          • robrecht

            John MacDonald: “- (2) Marcus accepts the John/Elijah typology, but then tries to argue this was not merely later Christian theologizing, but that John actually sees himself in this way. …”

            I’m pretty sure Marcus would agree that he has not offered anything like a proof of his suggestion. Historical reconstructions are not an either/or zero-sum game. There are always many possible explanations, both with respect to conflicting yet logical possibilities and also many more or less subjectively ‘probable’ ones. What seems more probable to one scholar or reader is oftentimes a matter of individual appreciation of artistry, both of the artist and of her subject. One reader may be more familiar or even merely have a personal preference for some aspects of 2nd-Temple Judaism and thus be intrigued or even excited by an explanation that highlights this aspect. Yes, much of this subjective and shared appreciation of artistry.

    • Historians in general certainly use some of the criteria that are used in historical Jesus study. I confess that I don’t read regularly on the historical Socrates, and so cannot provide specific examples from that literature. But just speaking in principle, the criterion of dissimilarity is highly applicable to the example of Socrates: if something in Plato’s dialogues doesn’t match Plato’s own views, and doesn’t come from the broader philosophical context of the time, then the most likely situation is that it comes from Socrates. Likewise the criterion of embarrassment, and also the need for a reconstruction to make sense in relation to his eventual imprisonment and death. Some other criteria (such as ability to translate something back into Aramaic) obviously don’t apply.

      • John MacDonald

        I think part of the issue comes when we try to distinguish Socrates from the early Plato.

        • And as with John and Jesus, and Jesus and his followers, if they seem completely distinct, then we are presumably doing something wrong, since students and teachers tend to share ideas in common.

        • arcseconds

          And part of that issue comes when we try to distinguish late Plato from early Plato 😛