Debate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 5A: Various Points

Debate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 5A: Various Points August 7, 2016

Some of Hinman’s discussions about his five principles of historical investigation provide needed clarification of a principle, and some of his discussions fail to provide clarification of the relevant principle.  But even when Hinman fails to clarify one of his general principles of historical investigation, he often makes some significant or interesting points.  I will examine many of those specific points in this post.

Hinman’s discussion about (P1) fails to clarify what that principle means.  However, that discussion does make some interesting points, so I will comment on those points here:

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POINT #1:

One chief principle sorely lacking in the discussion with mythers, is that historians start from the sources we have rather than criticizing that which we don’t have. Historians don’t base their conclusions upon the documents we lack but upon those we possess.

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If Jesus did exist, then obviously any details that we have about Jesus must come from existing documents that mention Jesus. However, the implication that historians ignore or don’t pay attention to “the documents we lack” is simply false.

One basic criterion used by historians is that of “multiple independent attestation”:

Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two.  The more, obviously, the better.  If there were only one or two sources, you might suspect that the stories were made up (although you would probably want to have some reasons for thinking so…).  (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, p.40)

In other words, the more independent sources one has that agree on a particular event or detail, the more likely it is that the event or detail was actual or correct, other things being equal.  But in order to consistently apply this basic criterion, one must in some cases notice the absence or dirth of documents.

What if there was only ONE independent historical document that mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth?  In that case, historians would notice that we did NOT possess multiple independent sources of information about the crucifixion of Jesus, and based on this fact historians would (or should) be appropriately skeptical about any historical claims and conclusions about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  The absence or lack of documents in such a scenario would not provide any specific details about the crucifixion of Jesus, but it would be a very important fact that would have a very significant impact on the thinking of historians about the alleged crucifixion of Jesus.

If there were just TWO independent historical documents that mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus, that would give historians greater confidence than having only ONE such document.  However, a competent historian would still note the dirth of documents on this point, which would involve noticing that we don’t have three or four or five or six independent historical documents on this alleged event, and in such a situation a competent historian would remain somewhat skeptical and cautious about historical hypotheses and conclusions concering the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, based on the dirth of documents about this alleged event.

What if the only historical documents that we had about the life of Jesus were documents that were written in the second century?  A historian would be completely incompetent if (in this circumstance) he/she failed to notice the absence or lack of any documents about the life of Jesus that were written in the first century, the century in which Jesus supposedly lived and died.  This relates to another basic criterion of historical research:

Historians also prefer to have sources that are relatively near the date of the person or event that they are describing.  As time goes on, things do indeed get made up, and so it is much better to have near-contemporary accounts.  (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, p.41)

To be competent, an historian must notice when there is an absence or a dirth of documents that were written near the date of the person or event that they are investigating.  An absence or dirth of documents written near the date of a particular person who is being studied does not, of course, provide any particular details about the life of that person, but it is an important fact for historians because it helps to determine the quality and strength of the evidence that they possess.

If there were no first-century documents about Jesus, competent historians would notice that fact, and would be more skeptical and less confident in the historical hypotheses and conclusions that are asserted about the life and death of Jesus.  Since those of us who are skeptical about the existence of Jesus are very much concerned about the quality and strength of the available historical data concerning Jesus of Nazareth, it is absolutely relevant for skeptics to point out any abscence or dirth of historical documents that provide information about a specific aspect of the life of Jesus, and any absence or dirth of historical documents of a certain relevant kind (for example, first-century documents about Jesus written by non-Christians).

It is important to note that we lack some important kinds of historical documents in relation to Jesus:

We also do not have any writings from Jesus.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 43)

…no Greek or Roman author from the first century mentions Jesus.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 43)

we do not have a single reference to Jesus by anyone–pagan, Jew, or Christian–who was a contemporary eyewitness, who recorded things he said and did.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 46)

Here is another bit of bad advice on historical research from Hinman:

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POINT #2:

What do the documents we have tell us? Don’t worry about what they don’t tell us.

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There is an ambiguity in the phrase “what they don’t tell us”.  In one sense of this phrase, the advice is obviously true but is uninformative.  In another sense of the phrase, the advice is informative, but is very bad advice.  So, it appears to me that Hinman is either saying something trivial and uninformative or else he is saying something that is substantive but clearly mistaken.

There are at least two different kinds of things that a document can “tell us”:

  • Claims that the writer explicitly asserts in the text.
  • Claims that we, as intelligent and critical readers, can infer from the text produced by the writer.

Historians usually deal with historical documents.  In order to be a competent historian, at least in terms of dealing with historical documents, one must be able to read and clearly and fully understand what is written in historical documents.  In order to read and clearly and fully understand what is written in a document, one must be an intelligent and critical reader.  Therefore, in order for a person to be a competent historian, at least in terms of dealing with historical documents, that person must be an intelligent and critical reader.

One thing that all intelligent and critical readers can and must be able to do is to “read between the lines” of a text.  In order to be able to read between the lines of a text, one must in many cases notice not only what is explicitly stated, but also what is left unstated in the text.  Thus, in order for a person to be a competent historian, that person must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly stated in a text, but also what is left unstated in the text.

Here is an example of “reading between the lines” by noticing what is left unstated in a text.  An undergraduate philosophy major was about to graduate with a B.A. in philosophy and was applying to get into a doctoral program in philosophy at a prestigious university.  The student, let’s call him “Mr. Jackson”, went to one of his philosophy professors who was the most famous and most widely-respected philosopher at that college, and he asked the professor for a letter of recommendation.  The professor, let’s call him “Dr. Schmidt”, agreed and submitted the following letter to the philosophy department at the prestigious university where Mr. Jackson was hoping to be accepted into the doctoral program in philosophy.  The letter read as follows:

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To whom it may concern:

Mr. Jackson has excellent penmanship.

Sincerely,

Dr. Schmidt

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Needless to say, Mr. Jackson was not admitted into the doctoral program in philosophy at the prestigious university.  His application was rejected NOT because of what Dr. Schmidt explicitly asserted about Mr. Jackson (good penmanship is appreciated even by professional philosophers), but because of what Dr. Schmidt did NOT say, because of what was left UNSTATED.

In a letter of recommendation in support of a student seeking acceptance into a graduate program, one expects to read praise and positive evaluations of the student’s intelligence, knowledge, creativity, intellectual skills, writing ability, study habits, and other characteristics that are relevant to determining whether a student is likely to be successful in graduate studies in a particular field or area.  No such assertions and characterizations are given in this very brief letter.  We can “read between the lines” here and based on what was left unstated by Dr. Schmidt, we can reasonably infer that he was communicating this message:

Mr. Jackson has no praiseworthy or remarkable or excellent knowledge, intellectual abilities, anlytical skills, study habits, or other characteristics that are relevant indications that he would make a good graduate student in philosophy.

In order to be an intelligent and critical reader of texts, one must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly asserted in a text, but also what is left unstated in a text.  Therefore, in order to be a competent historian, at least in relation to dealing with historical documents, a person must be able to notice, and in fact often notice, not only what is explicitly asserted in a text, but also what is left unstated in the text.

The advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.” is trivial and unhelpful if the phrase “what they don’t tell us” means “what cannot be inferred or derived from careful critical study and reading of the text”.  If a text simply has nothing to say about issue X, then any efforts to try to get information out of that text in order to resolve issue X will be a waste of time.  But this is a trivial and unhelpful bit of advice, because it just repeats the idea of the antecedent in different words in the consequent: “If you cannot get information about X from this document, then no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to get information about X from this document.”

On the other hand, the advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us” constitutes a substantive bit of advice if the phrase “what they don’t tell us” means “what is not explicitly stated in the document”.  But if that is what this phrase means, then the advice is really bad advice, because it either implies the absurd idea that historians don’t need to clearly and fully understand what they read in historical documents or else it implies the absurd idea that one can clearly and fully understand the text in a document without being able to read between the lines, without being able to notice what is left unstated in the text.

An entire new branch of history came about because some historians began to “worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.”  Social history is a new branch of history that is concerned with learning about, among other things, the everyday details of the lives of ordinary people, of laborers, workers, shopkeepers, school children, craftsmen, servants, slaves, and housewives, for example.

Traditionally, historians focused on big events, like wars, and famous and powerful people, like kings and generals and explorers.  Traditional historians might have taken interest in some journals and personal letters, but only if those were written by famous or powerful people, or by friends and family members of famous or powerful people.  Social history has a broader scope, or a different scope, and the journals and personal letters of ordinary people become important historical documents, because they can reveal everyday details about the lives of ordinary people.

If the founders of social history had followed the advice “Don’t worry about what they [historical documents] don’t tell us.”, then this entire branch of history would not exist.  It was necessary for at least some historians to notice that details about the everyday lives of ordinary people were not provided in typical, traditional “historical documents”, so they had to figure out other ways to get this information about the past, and one of the ways this was accomplished was by expanding the scope of what documents are considered to be important historical documents.  For example, the journals and personal letters of ordinary people began to be viewed as potentially important historical documents.  Social historians also turned to statistical information, like what social scientists use to study different societies, in order to learn more about the lives of ordinary people in the past and about the processes and factors that shaped those lives.

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POINT #3:

The objection that we don’t have anyone who knew Jesus personally writing about him (supposedly), is bunk. Start from what what the documents we do have tell us about him.

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First of all, it is true, or at least probably true, that we don’t have any writings by people who knew Jesus personally.   Paul did not know Jesus personally, and probably never set eyes on the historical Jesus.  Many leading NT scholars have concluded that none of the gospels were written by an apostle or someone who knew Jesus personally.

Second, an historian who ignored this basic fact about our documents that concern Jesus would be an incompetent historian, for this is crucial information for determining the strength and value of the historical evidence that we have about Jesus.  I agree with the idea that we ought not to cast aside the Gospels and letters of Paul as irrelevant, but we also, if we want to think like competent historians, need to recognize the limitations of the historical evidence that we possess.

I have no objection to that idea that we ought to “Start from” the documents that we do have, but this does not imply that we should ignore important deficiences and characteristics of those historical documents (e.g. we have no eyewitness accounts of the life or death of Jesus).

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POINT #4:

Chitneis emphasizes internal and external aspects of the document. External is getting back to the original document itself: author, audience, why written. Internal aspects are inconsistency or consistency within the document.

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These all seem like useful items to consider when studying an historical document.  However, there are at least a couple of important considerations that were not mentioned in this scheme:

  • What about comparing one book or text by an author with other books and texts by the same author?  (e.g. comparing one letter by Paul with other letters by Paul and looking for consistencies and inconsistencies).
  • What about comparing what the author of the historical document asserts, with what other authors of other historical documents assert about the same events or the same geographic area and timeframe? (e.g. comparing one canonical gospel with another canonical gospel, or with a non-canonical gospel, and looking for consistencies and inconsistencies between those documents).

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POINT #5:

The practice of history is largely about evaluating documents.

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Because of the qualification “largely”,  I cannot disagree with this statement.  However, it is important to note that there are other kinds of historical data, and that we lack an important kind of historical data when it comes to the life and death of Jesus:

…there is no hard, physical evidence for Jesus…, including no archeological evidence of any kind.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 42)

Also, an important part of evaluating historical documents is evaluating the quality and strength of historical evidence that a given document can provide, and that involves implicit comparisons with categories of documents that might not exist or might not be available relative to the subject or issues at hand.  Competent historians will not only analyze the contents of the documents we possess, but will notice if there is an absence or dirth of documents of certain important categories (e.g.  no documents written by Jesus himself, no eyewitness accounts of the life or death of Jesus, and no first century documents about Jesus from pagan authors).

 

In his discussion of principle (P3), Hinman quotes from John Crossan (from a web page that is no longer available):

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POINT #6:

Question 62 [excerpt]

Furthermore, in all the many ways that opponents criticized earliest Christianity, nobody ever suggested that it was all made up. That in general, is quite enough for me…

Question 71 [excerpt]

My very general arguments [for the existence of an historical Jesus] are: (1) that existence is given in Christian, pagan, and Jewish sources; (2) it is never negated by even the most hostile critics of early Christianity (Jesus is a bastard and a fool but never a myth or a fiction!); (3) there are no historical parallels that I know of from that time and period that help me understand such a total creation. 

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First, this does not appear to be a clarification of a principle of historical investigation; rather, this is the summary of an argument for the historicity of Jesus.

Second, this argument draws on more than just EXTERNAL evidence, so this goes outside the boundary of the topic of this debate, which is about whether the EXTERNAL evidence is sufficient to show that it is probable that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a flesh-and-blood historical person.  Christian evidence, at least the earliest and best Christian evidence, is INTERNAL (i.e. biblical) evidence.  One of the main problems with EXTERNAL evidence (both Christian and non-Christian) is the issue of independence.  It is unclear, for example, to what extent Josephus got his information about Jesus directly or indirectly from Christians who were familiar with one or more of the canonical Gospels and/or the letters of Paul.

The fact that the existence of an historical Jesus was “never negated by even the most hostile critics of early Christianity” is not a strong reason that makes it probable that Jesus was an actual historical person, because proving the non-existence of a person was much more difficult to do in first century Palestine than it is in the USA in the 21st century.

If someone wanted to challenge my existence as a flesh-and-blood historical person, they could check:  (a) birth records in hospitals in Santa Monica, California (where I was allegedly born), (b) social security records of the US government, (c) marriage records in San Luis Obipso (where I allegedly got married), (d) school records of  schools in Healdsburg, California (where I allegedly grew up), (e) high school records in Cambria, California (where I allegedly graduated from High School), (f) drivers license records in California and in Washington, (g) college records from Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo), Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University (where I allegedly earned a BA in philosophy), University of Windsor (where I allegedly earned an MA in philosophy), and UC Santa Barbara (where I allegedly completed requirements for a PhD in philosophy, except for the dissertation), (h) voting registration records in Sonoma County, California, Santa Barabara, California, and King County, Washington, to name a few possibilities.

If none of these normal records showed up for Bradley Bowen, that would be very powerful proof that Bradley Bowen was not a flesh-and-blood historical person (who was born in Santa Monica, grew up in Healdsburg, attended high school in Cambria, went to college at Sonoma State University, got married in San Luis Obispo, etc.).

Jesus was not born in a hospital, and no governments in first century Palestine maintained official records of births, marriages, or deaths.  There were no public schools or colleges, and no official records of education were maintained. There were no cars, and no driver’s licenses nor driving records maintained in first century Palestine.  There were also no newspapers, no public libraries, no phone books, no fingerprint databases, no DNA databases, and no criminal prosecution databases.

So, if a first century pagan or Jew had doubts about Jesus being a flesh-and-blood historical person, it would have been rather difficult for that person to investigate whether Jesus had actually existed.  Thus, it is to be expected that skeptics and critics of Christianity would not try to disprove the existence of Jesus, even if they doubted the existence of Jesus, but would instead focus challenges and doubts on the question of the divinity of Jesus, which could be argued on more theological and philosophical grounds, and would not require engagement in difficult historical investigation that was unlikely to produce solid proof of the non-existence of Jesus.

The fact that there are “no historical parallels…from that time and period” is also a weak reason that does not support the claim that it is probable that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person.  Why must there be an historical parallel from “that time and period”?  That seems rather arbitrary and even extreme.  There has not been a World War in my lifetime, so should I doubt that there has ever been a World War?  Obviously not.  Some historical phenomena only occur infrequently.  What this indicates is that the invention of fictional characters who are put forward as actual historical persons is a somewhat uncommon historical phenomenon.  But this sort of thing does happen, so the fact that it did not happen multiple times in first century Palestine is a weak reason for denying that it happened at least once in that place and that period of time.  This is not a sufficient reason to conclude that it is probable that Jesus existed.

In relation to principles (P4) and (P5), Hinman quotes from a post by James McGrath:

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POINT #7:
The notion of being “unbiased” is naive. We all have biases, and what is great about the way scholarship works is that it provides methods and a community of experts who can limit the impact that individual biases can have.
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POINT #8:
I’ve never seen anyone [i.e. any scholar] use popular opinion as an argument in my field. Do you have a reference?
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POINT #9:
What we have is an enormous body of scholarship, skeptically investigating the details asserted about Jesus in our earliest sources, in scholarly articles and monographs. The historicity of every single one has been challenged. The fact that the consensus remains that some details are probably historical is what you need to be looking at.
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POINT #10
The historicity of Jesus cannot be dealt with in the abstract, any more than evolution can be. It is a theoretical framework for making sense of a range of pieces of evidence in relation to one another. That is why mythicists and creationists tend to say both that “there is no evidence” and to think that showing that one particular piece of evidence is problematic means that the entire theoretical framework must be invalid. But that isn’t how scholarly investigation of the past works. The question must always be, what theoretical framework makes the best sense of all the evidence, or as much of it as possible.
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POINT #11:
And of course, those who have not dedicated their lives to the study of that evidence are unlikely to make sound judgments about such matters.

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Response to POINT #7:

I have already commented on the claim that “We all have biases…” in my previous post on  5A. (Historical Methods); see my comments on principle (P4).  I agree that use of scholarly methodology and peer review by other scholars in the field can “can limit the impact that individual biases can have”, but it is naive of McGrath to ignore the obvious fact that both the imposition of “methodology” and the use of peer review can also create and enforce widespread biases among scholars in a field.  These two facts are compatible with each other.  A group or generation of scholars can BOTH help scholars to avoid the impact of individual biases AND also create and enforce widespread biases among the scholars in that feild.  It is McGrath who is being extremely naive here.

Response to POINT #8:

If someone literally claimed that NT scholars were arguing on the basis of “popular opinion”, then I suppose this point would make sense.  But it seems much more likely that someone was claiming that NT scholars are biased in favor of some widespread Christian beliefs, such as that Jesus actually existed, and that this bias is, in part, the result of the fact that this is a widespread Christian belief.  Such a view of NT scholars seems true to me, or at least probably true in general (i.e. concerning most NT scholars).

It would be a blatant STRAW MAN fallacy to characterize such a view of NT scholars as equivalent to the idea that NT scholars CITE popular opinion as EVIDENCE for any of their conclusions, including the conclusion that Jesus was an actual historical person.  There is an obvious difference between being influenced or biased by widespread Christian beliefs on the one hand, and using the popularity of a belief among Christians as EVIDENCE for the truth of a belief.  So, if the skeptic to whom McGrath is responding claimed, as I suspect, that NT scholars were biased in favor of certain widespread Chrsitian beliefs, such as that Jesus existed, and that the fact that these beliefs were widely held by Christians was, in part, the cause of the existence of this bias, then McGrath’s response commits a STRAW MAN fallacy by attributing an idiotic viewpoint to that Jesus skeptic, an absurd viewpoint not actually held by that skeptic.

Furthermore, if McGrath was responding to a Jesus skeptic who actually held the idiotic view that McGrath attacks, then although McGrath’s response would not, in that case, be a STRAW MAN fallacy, Hinman’s quotation of McGrath would, however, still be a STRAW MAN fallacy, because in quoting McGrath in this context, Hinman is suggesting that Jesus skeptics generally or frequently hold such an idiotic view, which is a false and slanderous suggestion, an attack on an idiotic view that is NOT generally found among Jesus skeptics.

Response to POINT #9:

McGrath here provides an interesting and substantial bit of reasoning in support of the conclusion that Jesus probably was a flesh-and-blood historical person.  The argument is in need of clarification and further explanation, but there is enough substance here that I can see a significant problem with the argument.

The problem is this: an NT scholar can be fairly skeptical about particular events and details found in the Gospels while at the same time making the unquestioned assumption that Jesus was an actual historical person.  Different scholars who have this sort of point of view can argue vigorously over different particular events and details found in the Gospels, and come to a general consensus that some events/details are more likely to be historical than other events/details.  Given their agreed upon and unquestioned assumption that Jesus existed, those events/details that are thought to be the “most likely” of various Gospel events/details, will then be inferred to be PROBABLY HISTORICAL.

In other words, NT scholars can use established methods and peer review to arrive at some degree of consensus on which events/details are the “most likely” to be historical.  Such comparative probability judgments (i.e. “Event A is more probable than event B”) can be combined with the assumption that Jesus existed in order to support the conclusion that a certain event/detail is probably true (e.g. “Event A probably happened.”).

But a scholarly consensus as to which events/details in the Gospels are the most likely to be historical,  does not mean that those events are probably true or historical.  If Jesus did not exist, then even the “most likely” details/events in the Gospels (i.e. the details/events that best satisfied various scholarly criteria) would generally be false.  Sometimes the best car in the lot is a pile of junk.  Sometimes the most likely detail/event in a story is just pure fiction.

So, the skepticism that McGrath speaks of here is compatible with the view that NT scholars generally have a strong bias in favor of the historicity of Jesus and that this bias leads them to conclude that certain details/events in the Gospels are probably historical, even though these scholars are “skeptically” applying scholarly criteria to the details/events in the Gospels and casting aside many of those details/events as being historically improbable.

Response to POINT #10:

This point by McGrath is clearly another STRAW MAN fallacy, as I argued in my previous post; see my discussion about principle (P5).

Response to POINT #11:

Obviously, someone who dedicates his or her life to the study of evidence about Jesus and the Gospels and other relevant historical data, will have some advantages over non-experts in terms of knowledge, skill, and experience, in dealing with historical questions related to Jesus.  But to assume that non-experts are “unlikely to make sound judgements” about historical questions related to Jesus is a bit elitist and a bit extreme.

What about someone who spends half of his or her life studying the evidence about Jesus?  What about someone who spends ten years of his or her life studying the evidence about Jesus?  What about someone who dedicates just two years to study of this evidence?  Obviously there are many degrees to which a person can dedicate time and energy to historical issues concerning Jesus of Nazareth.  There are also many degrees of knowledge and education and intellectual ability that different people bring to such investigations.

Many people have college degrees in the humanities, and have developed significant skills in reading and critical thinking and argumentation, without ever having earned advanced degrees in the humanities or in New Testament studies.  Some people have graduate degrees in history or literature or philosophy, but have not earned an advanced degree in New Testament studies.  Such people are not without ability to study the relevant evidence and to make sound historical judgments.

The question “Did Jesus exist?” is too important a question to simply be handed off to a group of “experts”, particularly given that there is reason to believe that NT scholars have some significant biases related to this question.  Philosophers may be experts in the field of ethics and morality, but are Christians willing to hand off the question “Is abortion morally wrong?” to a group of philosophers, and then live their lives in accordance with the judgment of “experts” on this issue?  Obviously not, and I don’t know anyone, even among philosophers, who thinks this would be a good idea.

We ought to turn to experts for help in making better judgments about such controversial issues, but we also ought to formulate our own beliefs, based on the best thinking that we can manage given the limitations of one’s education, knowledge, and intellectual abilities, and we ought NOT simply hand off such issues to “the experts” to make these important decisions for us.

Finally, although NT scholars have some obvious advantages in terms of knowledge, skills, and experience in making historical judgments about Jesus, it seems fairly obvious that (a) most disciplines involve the transmission and reinforcement of various biases and prejudices as well as important principles, methods, intellectual skills, and knowledge, and that (b) NT scholarship is no exception to this generalization.


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