Friday, April 27, 2012

History Isn't My Area

Science is awesome. It’s awesome because it’s methodology strips out biases better than any other academic area. Science works in such a way that one can take a rich field of study, like evolution, and be confident of it’s validity without the huge time commitment it requires to fully understand. I am less skeptical of a scientific consensus than I am of any other expert agreement because it involves a clear publication process, reproducible results and peer review. Unfortunately, this confidence can’t be applied to my current topic of interest.

History sucks. Okay, that’s unfair, but it was never my subject. My confidence of the accuracy of historical events goes down exponentially with the paper trail. The idea that history is written by the victors highlights the biases of the past. Books are burned. Records fade. Who should I trust for an accurate portrayal of events two thousand years ago?

That’s right, Jesus. Who provides the consensus on Jesus? New Testament Scholars is a decent choice. If you do a Google search for New Testament Scholars the first hit is Bart D. Ehrman. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the best, but he is certainly the most controversial. Once a born-again fundamentalist, Ehrman’s Biblical investigations have turned him agnostic. His latest book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, has brought on his usual criticism from believers as well as a negative review from atheist and ancient history expert Richard Carrier. (To be fair, here is Ehrman’s reaction to Carrier’s review.)

This is just the latest example of scholarly disagreement. From what I can tell, there is no consensus among NT scholars and ancient historians. Everyone has an agenda and, unlike in science, it is impossible to filter out the facts. If you think about it, who would most likely decide to become a Bible scholar? Those with a vested interest to prove the Bible right and, to a lesser extent, those with a vested interest to prove it wrong.

Sorry this post doesn’t do much in providing answers. I honestly have little knowledge as to whether or not Jesus existed. I tend to think he did, but then I have no idea if he resembled to man depicted in the Bible. I will read Ehrman’s book, but I doubt his perspective alone will answer my questions. The history is a vague and blurry landscape. Give me science any day.


  1. Good post and good point. I was going to buy Ehrman's I am not so sure. I am not agreeing with Carrier either. Like you, I do not have the knowledge to sort out the accurate from the inaccurate when it comes to the historicity of Jesus. I am struggling a bit with the whole idea. If there are obviously some serious questions with this book,among non-religious experts--and religious experts for that matter, what sense can I hope to make of it?

    1. Yeah, I wish I could be sure, but I remain Jesus agnostic. At least I can be fairly certain Jesus' miracles are fiction--that knowledge is supported in science. :-)

  2. It's important to remember that our modern idea of a professional historian (who has references, citations and the peer-reviewed gauntlet to ensure what he/she says makes sense) did not exist until very recently. Most apologists citing historical evidence of Jesus are relying on chroniclers of the time.

    And as someone who's had to read through a lot of chroniclers' texts for essays, I can say that most of them put their political and religious agendas way ahead of anything that resembles the truth.

    That's the trouble with ancient history. The sources we do have are few in number, and what they say should be met with extreme scepticism because they were writing at a time when the idea of writing things as they actually happened was an extremely uncommon one.

    Good article, though. I always love to see some fellow historians bickering about things.

    1. Second hand chroniclers probably. I doubt Jesus' merry band of fisherman were literate. Thanks for the input.

  3. "accuracy of historical events goes down exponentially with the paper trail"..........a generalism, but that's still a beautifully self contained way of making a point......take my imaginery hat of to you!!

    Currently worn out.......been in discussion with a few religious blogs/sites!!!

  4. Great post. After debating the historicity of Jesus lately on various blogs I have been thinking about this too. You seem to have said everything that I had been thinking, but in a much more fully formed way.


  5. Well, history is my area and there are some problems with the post above that go to the heart of how many atheists don't seem to understand it or how it is studied. And I'm saying that as an atheist, before anyone gets confused.

    Science is indeed awesome. So, actually, is history. But to say that because (most) science can give us a level of certainty that history can't therefore "history sucks" is a bit stupid. That's like saying oranges "suck" because they aren't apples. History is very much a discipline and can give us a degree of clarity about the past, though it is an interpretative discipline that works differently to an empirical one. And I say "(most) science" above because not all sciences give us the same level of exactitude either. As historical sciences, palaeontology and many aspects of geology are actually based on a very similar interpretative process as history.

    "The idea that history is written by the victors highlights the biases of the past."

    The cliché that history is written by the victors is one of the indicators that sources can't be taken at face value - a realisation which is the very first tiny step on the path towards understanding how history is studied and analysed. To begin with, this cliché isn't actually true. We have whole swathes of history where the victors did very little history-writing: if we had more material from the Ostrogoths, Vandals and Huns we would know much more about the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but those particular victors are largely silent. Some other source material is written by victors, but that just means historians interpret them with that in mind. And ensure they balance their analysis by finding and using other source material as well. This is part of how history is studied.

    Books are burned. Records fade. Who should I trust for an accurate portrayal of events two thousand years ago?

    Well, you could start with scholars who have been trained with a good grasp of the historical method, since the question of how to come up with a likely, well-founded interpretation of the past despite burnt books and faded records is something historians have been working out for quite a few hundred years now. They are pretty good at it as a result. They are about as good at it and as rigorous as scientists, even if the nature of the discipline means they work towards an "argument to the best explanation of the evidence" rather than a (provisional) hard conclusion.

    (Continued below)

  6. (Continued from above)

    You then turn to the recent historical storm in a teacup caused by a book by Bart Ehrman aimed at a popular audience:

    "This is just the latest example of scholarly disagreement. From what I can tell, there is no consensus among NT scholars and ancient historians.

    Well, actually, there is a very clear consensus on the question of the existence of a historical Jesus. The overwhelming consensus is that he did exist. The number of professional scholars who think otherwise can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And that's even if you count wel--qualified hobbyists like Carrier as well. The rest - thousands of scholars from all kinds of backgrounds including Jews, atheists and agnostics and non-Christians of all kinds - agree that it is most likely he did exist and that the Jesus Myth argument does not stand up to Occam's Razor. That's a consensus, by any definition.

    "Everyone has an agenda and, unlike in science, it is impossible to filter out the facts. "

    I'll leave aside the idea that no-one in science has any agenda, which is a pretty dubious claim. The fact remains that the thousands of scholars with a wide variety of "agendas" all agree that the existence of a historical Jesus is the most likely explanation of the source material we have. On the other hand, the tiny number of naysayers (most of whom aren't actually scholars) are disproportiately atheists of the virulently anti-Christian polemicist variety, like Carrier, Zindler, Salm, Doherty etc. So which side is the side with an "agenda" here again?

    When you have a scholarly consensus held by people of all kinds of backgrounds opposed by a minuscule number of denialists who all have a particular ideological bias, it doesn't take much thought to work out who is being motivated by an "agenda". This is the case with Creationism. It's the case with Climate Change Denial. It's the case with Holocaust Denial. And it's the case here.

    That's not to say the majority are always right or that, in this case, the Mythers are necessarily wrong. But the group with the clear bias and "agenda" here is pretty clear and that should be recognised by any objective analyst.

    1. Great comment. I didn't intend for this post to convey the idea that "history sucks," I'm just more skeptical of the information provided by historians than I am of that provided by scientists. Part of this is due to me obviously not understanding the details of how historians work (even though my wife is a history teacher), but also that there isn't a (scientific) method of filtering out the biases and agendas both historians and scientists and everyone have.

      What time period is your speciality, Tim?

  7. " I'm just more skeptical of the information provided by historians than I am of that provided by scientists."

    I'm still not sure that "scepticism" is the right approach. One set of statements (historical) is more qualitatively-based than the other (scientific).

    But anyone who has delved into the philosophy of science - something virtually no university science course requires for undergraduates, would quickly find that science is much less hard and fast than many people (including many scientists) glibly assume. Once you start getting into theoretical realism vs instrumentalism or the implications of the Duhem-Quine Thesis, science starts to become rather more fuzzy around the edges. This is why I am very wary of the tendency toward dogmatic scientism amongst some of the New Atheists. It seems based on a very simplistic understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of science. And I say all this as someone who comes from a family of scientists and who loves science.

    I think a better way to approach historical statements is to understand them as more subjective than scientific conclusions, but still based on a rigorous process aimed at getting to the "argument to the best explanation". There are also ways to determine which ones are more likely to be objective. Scholars who produce their work within the framework of peer review are likely to be better than some self-published hobbyist, for example. And writers who have a clear agenda - like a Marxist writing on economic history or an anti-Christian polemicist writing on the origins of Christianity - are likely to be grinding axes and playing up certain angles. This is why atheists need to be much more wary of Richard Carrier loud and highly confident proclamations - an objective analyst he is not.

    What time period is your speciality, Tim?

    Medieval history, particularly the fall of the Western Empire. Though I also study the early history of science and have been reading on the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity for about 30 years now. I'm thinking of writing a series of articles on "History for Atheists", because I keep finding atheists, usually ones with science backgrounds, misunderstanding how history is studied, accepting some pseudo historical myths that historians reject and buying into fringe ideas (eg the Jesus Myth) that historians don't take seriously.