Cry "Creationism!"

"Whoever mentions Hitler first loses the argument ..."

This is known as Godwin's Law. If you've been involved in online forum or blog discussions on any contentious political topic in recent years, then you've probably heard some variant of this pop dictum. It has become a punchline about how far some people will go to paint an adversary in the worst possible light.[1]  It is usually limited to political discussions. It requires a foil, some politician or political movement in a position of power, for it to make sense. Imagine an online discussion where the name of Rudy Giuliani comes up, for example. Say that one of the participants in the discussion despises Giuliani so much that he compares him to Hitler.  Sure, I'll admit that I think Giuliani is a vainglorious blowhard who was less than hospitable to the poor huddled masses of New York City during his mayoral tenure. Under the name of "cleaning up New York," it's fair to say that he bullied a lot of folks. I'll even confess that I think he's racist, but to call him a Nazi,  even just in passing, as so many were prone to do whenever the mean-spirited aspect of his tactics showed itself in word and policy, would be ... silly ... at best, and defamatory at worst.

I mean ... the Nazis systematically killed millions of people. Hunted them down. Tore them from their families. Shot them in the back. Shot them in the head. Worked them and starved them until they fell over dead and frozen. Gassed them. Performed all manner of "scientific" experiments on them.  Made lampshades from their skins. Nuff said.
And that's to say nothing of the differences between the details of the ideological worldview of Giuliani and that of the Nazis. The word "Nazi" means something. The name "Hitler" means something.  And these things mean more than just "demagogue" or "racist" or "strong-arm tactics." Giuliani is no Nazi.  He is no Hitler.  He could be if he applied himself, I suppose.  But that's true of almost anyone; isn't it?  If Rudy had genuinely Hitlerian imperial ambitions, or some noteworthy murderous spree on his resume, then the charge would be a fair one, but as it stands, it is just a ludicrous and brash exaggeration with nothing but imaginative bluster to support it. It's a caricature. Let's face it, Giuliani is no Albert Schweitzer, this is true, but the list of people who ignominiously qualify as "Hitlerian" in any meaningful sense (e.g., Stalin, Torquemada, Idi Amin ... etc...),  does not include Giuliani's name.   

Because of his status of iconic arch-villain, wielding the word "Hitler" (or "Nazi") in a discussion or debate is necessarily pejorative and belligerent. It is always intended as an insult. As soon as you refer to  any politician using these words in what should be just a casual disagreement, you are abandoning valid argumentation and entering ad hominem-land. Crying Hitler is an appeal to the emotional center of a listener's brain, a covert plea for it to reject what it recognizes as a universally reviled symbol. It tries to evoke a gag reflex through rhetorical effect rather than through dialectic engagement. This is why the "Whoever mentions Hitler first loses the argument ..." one-liner is funny, and why it works as a meme, because crying Hitler only highlights the disdain one debater harbors for another.  That's where it puts the spotlight, instead of on the intended subject of the insult—i.e. the politician (or political movement) under discussion.  Godwin's Law serves as a way to call out and temper anyone who would demonize an opponent via such inappropriate and/or facile comparisons.
It's just silly.
We all know it.

So what does this have to do with creationism? Well, lately, some of mythicism's more-vocal detractors have developed a relentless habit of equating mythicism's fringeness with "creationism." It's interesting to note how reminiscent of this sort of Hitler-analogizing this "cry creationism" tactic actually is. It is as ludicrous, as disruptive, and as vapid, and in fact both of these analogies serve similar diversionary functions in their respective contexts. I think Godwin's Law should apply to this as well. The difference is mainly categorical. Crying Hitler is to political debate what crying creationism is supposed to be to scientific debate.

Well, sort of ... that's partly where the rub is.  But to show what I mean by this caveat will require a bit of unpacking of what "creationism" means in the context of this kind of argumentation. 

Evolution (How we know it's a real thing):

— Evidence from Embryology

Fig.1 - Phylogenetic tree
derived from embryological evidence
When scientists began studying the physiological similarities and differences in the gestation periods of the various species, it turned out that the substages (those having to do with cell division and the formation of specialized tissues) that are passed through while an embryo develops follow very predictable patterns and rules. Along every step of the way, embryologists can keep track of minute changes and of how these will affect the later steps. Because of the consistency and predictability of this process, we can learn much about its evolutionary provenance.

Given a specimen, start with very basic questions and follow up. Is it true tissue? Yes? Then it's not a sponge.
How many germ layers?  Three?
OK, so it can't be a jellyfish or a coral. Eliminate that.
Does the organism evince a true body cavity? Yes? OK, so we know it's not a tapeworm. Does its blastopore (an indentation) go on to become the mouth of the organism or does it become its anus? Its mouth?
OK, so we know it's not a vertebrate. It's not a human or a dog. Eliminate that. It could be an earthworm or it could still be an octopus. Whatever it is, it's definitely not a vertebrate.
We can continue this process indefinitely until we finally ascertain the correct animal specimen. It could very easily be falsified by finding a specimen of raccoon, for instance, which developed from a blastopore that eventually became its mouth. This would scrap the whole theory.

The point to be gleaned here is that this kind of systematic deduction is made possible only because of the consistency of this "branching" from the less-complex animals to the more complex ones, as reflected in the development of embryos. The branching is so consistent and so precise that we can formulate a phylogenetic "tree" from it which corresponds (miraculously?) to trees derived from other methods. (see fig. 1 ... hold that thought ... )

— Evidence from Comparative Anatomy

Fig. 2
Comparing the physiology and anatomy of organisms reflects their relatedness by tracing certain common diagnostic characteristics or features through time. Consider tetrapod limbs. They are made up of many individual bones and are arranged in a similar fashion in all tetrapods. They are spinoffs on the same basic design: One long bone (the humerus) attached to two other long bones (the ulna and the radius) with a branching series of smaller bones at the ends (carpals and metacarpals and phalanges and whatnots).

But it's more than just the superficial or formal similarities that are relevant here, though these are important. There are patterns in the similarities which betrays an undeniable dynamism that attests to a process of slow transformation taking place, patterns which would be quite difficult to explain if evolution is not true. It's not just in the arrangement of limbs; these patterns can be traced in every bone, every organ, every aspect of the anatomy organisms that share a common ancestor, in fact. 

Fig. 3 - inner ear bones
A quick comparison of the jaws and ears of reptiles and mammals will show the vital importance of these discernible patterns. From the science of embryology, we know that, in reptiles, the quadrate and articular bones develop into two bones in the lower jaw. In mammals, however, these develop into two bones in the middle ear of the organism. Where the reptilian middle ear has only one bone, the mammalian one has three. What happened (we can deduce) is that the quadrate and articular bones in the reptilian jaw over time re-adapted to form the two additional bones in the mammalian middle ear. Can we confirm this? Yes, we can. When we look in the fossil record at the fossils in between the starting (reptile) and end (mammal) endpoints, we can see that the gradual, precise changes in fact did take place. We can see that the quadrate and articular bones in the reptile jaw being pulled back over time and modified for function in a middle ear. Dozens and dozens of fossils confirm not just that the gradual change took place, but that it took place in exactly the correct chronological sequence in the phylogenetic tree, skipping no steps along the way.

Fig. 4 - from comparative anatomy.
Once again, the consistency, precision and predictability (and falsifiability—all it would take to falsify the relationships between species is finding a single reptile fossil with two additional bones in its middle ear, which find would of course prompt the question: "wtf did those bones come from?") of this line of evidence allows us to construct a phylogenetic tree of the ancestral relation between species based on these anatomical patterns. Something interesting happens when we compare the phylogenetic tree derived from embryology and those derived from comparative anatomy.
They look remarkably similar.
(see fig. 4 ... keep holding that thought ... ) 

— Evidence from the Fossil Record

Fig. 5
Paleontology studies, among other things, the chronological sequence of the origins of species by accurately noting the age of the strata where they first appear in the fossil record. We need not say too much more. It is enough to note that the evidence from the fossil record allows us to construct yet another phylogenetic tree of species relatedness in the animal kingdom.
Can you guess what that tree might look like?

Again, this could easily be falsified. Theories of evolution could be completely devastated by finding a single iguana fossil in a layer of pre-cambrian rock, for instance.  

— Evidence from Genetics & Microbiology

Fig. 6
From genetics alone, we can look at an organism's DNA and see how it has changed over time. Every gene of every organism on earth can be analyzed and assessed for phylogeny. When we do this we find the same chronological developmental patterns we find in other lines of evidence (see above). We find this through the field of molecular biology as well, where these kinds of analyses enable scientists to trace the evolution of snake venom and other bio-chemical phenomena, for example.  The precision with which we can predict these correspondences between species is astounding. Again, the consistency and predictability allow scientists to construct a phylogenetic tree from the data.

Fig. 7
The discovery of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) provides us with further support for the theory of evolution. Sometimes a virus inserts itself into an egg or a sperm cell which, though it is inactive or benign, still retains its original genetic information, which in turn gets copied along with the host organism's own. This occurs at random, and so the likelihood that these ERVs would appear in the very same place in the same gene of two corresponding organisms would be very low, impossibly low, unless of course these organisms are genetically related.  

- - - - -

We have been gathering data on this for over a hundred-fifty years. It's not that any given method suggests evolution as a viable thing. EVERY method corroborates it! The evidence from embryology yields a branch from the by-now familiar phylogenetic tree image (see fig. 8) The evidence from comparative anatomy corresponds to fig. 9.  The evidence from the fossil record corresponds to fig. 10. The evidence from genetics corresponds to fig. 11. The evidence from molecular biology corresponds to fig. 12.  The evidence from endogenous retroviruses corresponds to fig. 13. The evidence from histology corresponds to fig. 14.  Finally, fig. 15 is the standard basic phylogenetic tree of life.

Figs. 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 ... 

It's the same tree! That's the point. That this basic evolutionary trajectory is corroborated by independent verification on so many different empirically-derived, precise, rigorous methodological fronts is in itself a form of compounded evidence that one glosses over at one's own risk. This embarrassment of riches is why a creationist expression is so laughable to a scientist (and to rational people generally), why it is worthy of mockery. To deny evolution is to deny what is demonstrable and verifiable. To deny evolution is to be irrational and/or obtuse. It is to deny reality. Any attempt to single out as "specially" true the "six days of creation" story and the Eden story fails right at the starting gate. It's special pleading by definition.  It is necessarily an invalid, illogical, transparently and circularly self-serving religious expression. Now, of course, deluding oneself that one's favorite myth is actually "real" by virtue of its being the one in one's favorite book is no mortal sin, but this delusion does bring about certain embarrassing social consequences to those who choose to imbibe from this naïve pacifier nipple at this point in our civilization's intellectual and cultural development. THIS is why scientists can use "creationism" as a humorous metaphor for anything which is deemed an obstinate and ideological denial of what we know bout the natural world. The science is in.  The empiricism and detached objectivity (ideally, at least—which is why we need the checks and balances of a peer review process) of the methods applied to the evidence provides us with a degree of epistemological authority (a degree of confidence if you will) which trumps that of ambivalent metaphors within ancient myths. Evidence trumps story, and so using story to argue against evidence is therefore incongruous, irrational, crazy. THIS is why scientists can justifiably make fun of advocates of creationism. 

New Testament Studies (¿An Analogue?):

So the use of the word "creationist" as a pejorative rests on an epistemological authority that is vouchsafed by the methodological rigor intrinsic to the application of the scientific method.
What about the epistemological authority in a field like New Testament studies?
What's the nature of the evidence that informs that field?
What's the nature of its methodology?
Is its corresponding value equivalent to that of the science of biology?
When a New Testament scholar equates a mythicist to a creationist as a way to decry what she perceives as a ludicrous proposition, is she justified in thinking her expertise on par with that of an evolutionary biologist? 

I dare say not. This is, however, a rather sensitive topic because that last sentence can too easily be misconstrued as a devaluing of an academic discipline, which is neither my intention nor my point. On the contrary, I think the field, and even just the fact of Christian origins, is a fascinating subject, so fascinating, in fact, that I have spent a good portion of the last couple of decades studying it. As the old adage goes, some of my best friends are New Testament scholars, and I have a great deal of respect and admiration for most of the people who contribute to New Testament scholarship, in fact, at least those for whom it is not just a devotional extension of their personal religious faith (though even there I often find useful bits). And so the purpose of my calling attention to the field's epistemological limitations and problems is not to devalue it, but only to place it in its proper methodological perspective in the context of the "creationism" equivocation.

— (How we "know" what we know)

Obviously, what immediately distinguishes these fields is that biology is a science while New Testament studies is, technically, not. Essentially this means that the latter is qualitative, while the former is both qualitative and quantitative. It's a bit like comparing apples and pineapples from the git go. The "evidence" in the former case is almost entirely literary, occasionally archaeological, and usually fragmentary or ambiguous. Every now and then (once or twice a century lately) we are lucky enough to discover some new trove of previously unknown materials, but for the most part the evidence has remained unchanged for two millenia.  Compared to austere, glacial biblical studies, science is a comparatively dynamic enterprise, always in a state of self-correction and innovation, in a continual mode of data collection and assimilation. By contrast New Testament scholars serve roles that are more akin to that of "curator." It is almost necessarily stodgy. There not much room for innovation in New Testament scholarship—even its mavericks are treading old texts and hypotheses. Nevertheless, because it IS a legitimate academic pursuit (and an important one, I insist) with actual university departments and curriculums conducting it, some New Testament scholars feel themselves entitled to treat these two as intellectual analogues despite some damning crucial differences.

While I agree wholeheartedly that one must have a sense of what is a reputable source of information on any given subject, and what is not, if one is to avoid all of the crap that's floating around out there in cyberspace, we would be careful not to relegate (so slyly and dismissively) the mythicist position to that same category of blundering pseudothought. Mythicism is more than the caricature it has been painted to be by its detractors. Fringe the mythicist position may be, yes, but it poses some pointed, very real questions which detractors seem un(willing/able) to answer, and it is as valid as, and in fact has more going for it than many other theories regarding Christian origins that I've come across (Matthean priority, for example, which consensus rightly rejects). I feel that to dismiss it categorically with such a simple cry of "creationism!" is to highlight what is currently ailing New Testament studies, namely, a rather exaggerated value on "expertise" that is more arbitrary than it cares to let on. This is a big problem. Many NT scholars behave as if they were engaging in some empirical enterprise, as if the conjectures, subsequent deductions, and pronouncements of the NT scholars carried the same weight as the more tangible, exhaustively tested and observed discoveries in the sciences. And just as you should always seek the opinion of an expert physicist to properly understand, say, thermal dynamics (the logic goes) one should "similarly" consult a bona fide NT scholar when seeking to understand Christian origins, who will in turn point one to the consensus viewpoint, if there is one. Right? It's the "if you want to know the workings of a car, call a mechanic" argument.

Consider first the glaring limits presented by the very nature of the pertinent evidence (i.e., the "primary" texts):
  1. — The dating and provenance of the gospels:
    We don't know who wrote them. Scholars vary as to their dates of composition and respective places of origin. While there is an ultra-conservative faction on one end of the spectrum that dates them as early as the late 30s of the first century, there are also those on the other end who date them well into the second century (claiming the theological and christological constructs better fit the sitz im leben of that period). The standing consensus is that GºMk was the first of the bunch and that it was likely penned in Rome during (or shortly after) the sacking of Jerusalem, which is inferred from GºMk13s "little apocalypse," which seems to predict what it knows to have happened, namely the Temple's destruction. Dating it therefore to the year 70 is a viable educated guess that allows for a rough near-contemporaneousness with the events and ideas they describe, but it is still just a guess, in the end. Certitude that goes beyond an acknowledgment of a consensus view and its reasoning is inadvisable until further manuscript evidence surfaces.
    We don't know when the gospels were written. Scholars should really stop pretending that they do. (N.T. Wright once comically suggested that all NT scholars should recite this every morning before the mirror like a mantra; I seldom agree with anything Wright says, but that gets an "amen" from me.)

  2. — The dating of the Pauline epistles:
    Scholars likewise have found Von Harnack's (late 19th century) calculations of seventeen (from a harmonization of Galatians with Acts) years to be a useful guide in their chronological conception of the Pauline corpus. But to insist that we "know" that Thessalonians was written in 49 and Galatians in 50 or 51 (again, the current consensus view) is not only to not realize that one is building on a tenuous foundation, placing more weight on a house of cards than it can support, it also reflects a kind of haughty, misguided confidence that is too common in the academy, in my opinion. Scholars behave as though the "fact" that the epistle to the Galatians was written in 51 is as conclusive and verifiable as the fact that enzymes seem to exhibit specific molecular geometries that enable them to serve as highly precise biological triggering mechanisms. Both of these scholarly opinions may indeed be prevailing views in their respective fields, but that does not mean they are equivalently vouchsafed.  They are not equally true just because they are both academic "consensuses." 

So, if we don't know when the texts were composed (or by whom), how much confidence does our ignorance of these crucial details really warrant?  

Consider the methods that scholars usually apply to these undated texts to tease out their various portraits of a historical Jesus from them.  During the twentieth century a number of "criteria" for the verification of historical plausibility were proposed and instituted and used by biblical scholars to determine who the historical Jesus could have been.  These criteria include:
  • The Criterion of Embarrassment— (1899)[2] 
    Description: This criterion says that sayings or actions of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church are more likely to be authentic. The Church would not have gone out of its way to create material that would have been embarrassing or that undermined its credibility or status.
    Example: The supposed inferior John the Baptist--who baptized people for the repentance and forgiveness of sins--baptized the superior and sinless Jesus. Other embarrassing reports include Peter's denial, Judas's betrayal, Jesus' crucifixion, and the suspicion by Jesus' family that he is insane.

  • The Criterion of Dissimilarity— (1953)[3] 
    Description: This criterion focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that cannot be derived either from Judaism at the time of Jesus or from the early Church.
    Example: Jesus' prohibition of all oaths (Mt 5:34, 37), his rejection of voluntary fasting (Mk 2:18-22), and his prohibition of divorce (Mk 10:2-12) are not found in Jewish or early Christian writings.

  • The Criterion of Multiple Attestation— (1911)[4] 
    Description: This criterion focuses on those actions and sayings of Jesus that are attested in more than one independent literary source (e.g., Mark, Q, M, L, Paul, John, and extracanonical sources) and/or more than one literary form or genre (e.g., parable, conflict story, miracle story, prophecy, aphorism).
    Example: We can be certain that Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God (this criteria says) because it is found in several independent traditions (Mark, Q, M, L, John, and Paul) and in a wide variety of genres (parable, beatitude, prayer, aphorism, miracle story). 

  • The criterion of Aramaisms— (1925)[5] 
    Description: This criterion posits that since Jesus spoke in Aramaic, traces of Aramaic in our Greek gospels argue in favor of a primitive tradition that may go back to Jesus.
    Example: The pun in Matt 23:24, "straining out the gnat (galma) and swallowing a camel (gamla)." The use of Aramaic words such as amen (Mk 8:12), abba (Mk 14:36), bar (Mt 16:17), talitha cumi (Mk 5:41), eloi eloi lama sabachthani (Mk 15:34) all point in the direction of the historical Jesus, so says this criterion.

Hector Avalos
There are other even less-persuasive criteria, but these few will suffice for my purposes. I put dates next to each criterion on the list in order to touch on a couple of related points. First, to show that the criteria are a fairly recent development in the field. Arguably the most important of them, that of dissimilarity, only goes as far back as 1953, for instance. This was the time of Bultmann, of Knox, of Perrin. Some pretty heavy stuff was happening in New Testament scholarship at the time.
Second, to show that these criteria were all proposed and developed within the purview of biblical studies specifically (and New Testament studies in particular) for use in the "new quests." Too many people (in and outside the field) are too prone to refer to the New Testament scholars that rely on these methods as "historians," which suggests to the unsuspecting that these methods have a more secure and widespread pedigree than they actually do in the bigger picture of historiographical research. I won't belabor this point except to say that in my opinion, any New Testament scholar that has not bothered to acquaint herself with actual proper historiographical methodologies (not just historical Jesus "criteriology" ones) and who still insists on calling herself a "historian" is only puffing up her feathers, padding her resume, so to speak. It's not completely untrue, but it is not completely true either. It's a bit disingenuous. It's hubris. A flag. Let's just say it's a pet peeve. It irks me when I hear Bart Ehrman say it. It irks me when I hear Bob Price say it. It makes me wince.  Nuff said. 

That aside, there have been scholars who have done independent critical examinations of the methodologies themselves and published books on the subject, and they all have unanimously found these methodologies flawed on several levels. (see below for a list of pertinent books) All of these writers have concluded that there are inescapable limitations and flaws inherent in all of the criteria in question and that they all have to be reconsidered and reworked. The most influential of these works is perhaps Hector Avalos' 2005 "The End of Biblical Studies," which posits that New Testament studies got lost in a flood of complacency and careerism somewhere along the way. It's a damning yet fair and even handed exposé of the state of things in the nation's (the U.S.) collegiate religious studies departments. I recommend it. Richard Carrier goes as far as attempting to demonstrate these flaws mathematically, using symbolic logic and his own adaptation of statistical methods, pointing with some precision at the places in the equations where each criterion collapses in his "Proving History."

So what are these scholars saying is wrong with the criteria?

I alluded a moment ago to the criterion of dissimilarity being a kind of keystone, the most important of the criteria to many scholars because it gives them an assured minimum of material to work with, so let's start there. The reason it is so crucial is that, if the early Church didn't follow a saying and was uncomfortable with it, and it didn't come from Judaism, then Jesus is pretty much the only source left. Sounds logical ... right? ... except that it presupposes that we have a complete knowledge of 1st-century Judaism or Christianity.  We don't.  Far from it.  This criterion is also unrealistic because it divorces Jesus from the Judaism that would have influenced him and from the Church that he would have in turn presumably influenced. If Jesus was so discontinuous from 1st-century Judaism and Christianity, he would have been unintelligible to them. Hence, E.P. Sanders, in his landmark "Jesus and Judaism," stands this criterion on its head and says that if an alleged saying or story of Jesus is discontinuous from 1st-century Judaism, it cannot be from Jesus.  What's more, the more we learn about the Judaism of the time, the less and less discontinuity we tend to find. The criterion of dissimilarity can dance one from here to there. Not very far. Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter's "Quest for the Plausible Jesus" examines the flaws and limitations of this specific criterion and suggests some alterations.

The criterion of embarrassment is also problematic. It presupposes that what we deem embarrassing would have also been embarrassing to the authors of the New Testament or to the early Church.  It also ignores the possibility that what could be classed as embarrassing could also be a tendentiously created account designed to provoke a reaction.

The criterion of multiple attestation is flawed in that it is possible that a saying created by the early community or prophet met the needs of the Church so well that it was attributed to Jesus and spread to a number of different strands of tradition.  This criterion partially depends on the four-source theory as the solution to the synoptic problem, which, if Mark Goodacre is right about the unnecessariness of the theoretical Q document, is moot. 

Finally, the criterion of Aramaism traces is particularly laughable to me. I remember the first time I heard of it. I remarked, "You're kidding, right?" Aramaic was spoken by millions of people in the Near East for centuries before and after the time in question. Aramaic (alongside Greek) was also spoken by many early Christians, who could have created these sayings. I mean, are we to take seriously the claim that a saying showing traces of Aramaic is necessarily from Jesus? This has always been a real head-scratcher for me.

Mind you, I'm not saying that the criteria are completely worthless. Not at all. They have their use in the discernment of the texts' relation to one another and to certain relevant aspects of the surrounding culture. What I am saying is that the criteria are not worth quite what the sticker price says they are, however. Their inherent problems are real and are many. Now, as I've already said, I don't intend this as a categorical condemnation of all such criteria or as a devaluing of New Testament studies. The methods in question, though not worthless, are definitely flawed in very serious ways, though. That all of the attempted reconstructions of a historical Jesus rely on these demonstrably faulty methods to some degree should at the very least give us pause. There's a methodological crisis in the field of New Testament studies that needs fixing. For his part, Carrier has proposed a new way to approach the question, a replacement methodology. Needless to say, he's encountering resistance from the field. Surprising, isn't it?

Not an Analogue

It's little wonder then that the conclusions reached by those who have relied on these methods can vary so widely from one another. Ask an evolutionary scientist to predict an intermediary form between two species with the specific characteristics, and, using the tools of the fossil record and comparative anatomy, he can go to a precise location in the world where an exposed layer of rock is just the right age and the desired transitional fossil will be found there with remarkable accuracy. Or ask him to pinpoint the place in a gene where a specific ERV has been "baked in," and the results will be consistent across the board. By comparison, ask New Testament scholars a simple question like, "Who was Jesus?" and you wind up with as many variegated answers as there are scholars. Jesus was a revolutionary (Brandon), a magician (Smith), a cynic Jewish peasant (Crossan), a zealot (Aslan), a wisdom sage (Borg), a failed apocalyptic prophet (Ehrman).  It is because the methods are flawed and arbitrary and subjective compared to the rigorous and empirical ones employed in science. 

So the fact that the idea that Jesus actually existed as a unique and discernible flesh and blood person in history is a given in the field of New Testament studies is not in the same epistemological league as the fact, say, that there are more than the expected number of telomeres in human chromosome #2.  They are both "consensus" views, but one is the result of default acceptance of an unexplored axiom, while the other is arrived at through meticulous laboratory experimentation. As long as there's some prevailing majority view on any given matter there will be appeals to the authority of a consensus, but in subjects as historiographically thin as Christian origins, however, it is not advisable to elevate the worth of a viewpoint above a certain level. To do so is to pretend that the discipline is more quantifiable and vouchsafed than it actually is. We don't actually know some of the things that we think we know.

While there are some semi-quantifiable, empirical cognate disciplines on which New Testament studies relies (archaeology, sociology, and even historico-critical method qualifies here) we have to admit that the principal purveyors of New Testament scholarship are the religious studies departments of our universities, both private and secular. This is an inescapable truth. A question immediately raises itself. What is to prevent the field from being a religionist enterprise from the git go? It's a good question.

When the relevance of an academic field becomes contingent on any matter of faith (even if only peripherally or indirectly), that field necessarily abandons the realm of objectivity and ceases to aspire to be scientific. The urgency of this should not be taken lightly. Scholars meanwhile pretend they know more than the limited nature of the available evidence will allow us to know. Phillip Davies summed it up well when he wrote:
"Can biblical scholars persuade others that they conduct a legitimate academic discipline? Until they do, can they convince anyone that they have something to offer to the intellectual life of the modern world? Indeed, I think many of us have to convince ourselves first."

This wouldn't be so bad, except that biblical scholars don't take kindly to people telling them they are irrelevant or misinformed. Some of them get real mad, and then feel justified in letting their certitude spill over into open ridicule or vindictive denouncement.

"Expertise" in NT studies essentially consists of having read and digested a great deal of the positions outlined in detail in the vast literature written by those "experts" which came before. These positions are catalogued and then weighed against each other by scholars, who then may write their elaborations or critiques of some previous scholar or another, and so on. Being thus so well-read, a New Testament scholar can rightly point to the differences and similarities between, say, the Matthean Moses parallels and the Lukan Elijah ones. He can perhaps raise Karl Barth's objections to Rudolf Bultmann's mythologizing if he's so inclined (or he may defend Bultmann's genius). A scholar can pit N. T. Wright against Dom Crossan if she wishes. An NT scholar may even speak about more empirically demonstrable things, such as the relative chronological order of texts, or even, with some limited authority, about more problematic things such as the nature, function and practice of the Pharisees in the period preceding the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, if he's bold enough and well-read enough in the pertinent materials. But a New Testament scholar cannot (not using the texts we have, anyway) claim any kind of real certainty regarding MOST of what little we know (or think we know) about Christian origins or a historical figure of Jesus, and this includes something as fundamental as his very existence.

Crying "creationism!" is doubly erroneous. First, it sets up a relatively arbitrary discipline as more empirically vouchsafed than it actually is, and, second, it makes a ludicrous forced analogy of what are really quite incongruent things.

It's as silly as crying "Hitler!" is.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

1- Named after Mike Godwin, who first formulated the phrase as a collegiate experiment in memetics in 1990.
Stated more formally:
"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

2 - Paul Wilhelm Schmiedel, in Encyclopaedia Biblica

3 - Ernst Käsemann's lecture in Oct of that year titled "The Problem of the Historical Jesus".

4 - F.C. Burkitt, "The Gospel History and Its Transmission".

5 - C. F. Burney, "The Poetry of Our Lord".

Further reading:



  1. I don't think there is anything in this attempt to make a major credibility distinction between what you call 'New Testament scholarship' and biology. What corresponds to Biology in the present discussion would be History, and the attending disciplines that deal with classical sources, e.g. philology, papyrology, epigraphy, etc. 'Origins of Christianity' or 'New Testament' are just titles for areas of this formally distinctive kind of research, like say, 'Microbiology' or 'Vertebrate Anatomy' or whatever ('New Testament' studies pertains especially to a particular body of 'sources' and its criticism.)

    The methods of historical research are very different from those of biology, but I don't think you will be able to construct any interesting constitutive epistemic weakness for historical research. Note for example, that Darwin frequently gives the hypothesis of the Indo-European family of languages a considerable role in his discovery of the theory of evolution; his comparison of forms was to some extent modeled on the philological comparisons. It was only when 'biology' adopted some of the methods of history that it could break with natural history and traditional medicine.

    It is of course characteristic of the present period to look on this sort of research as worthless and 'unscientific': thus American universities are dropping the study of classics, ancient history etc. and directing the funds to 'STEM' fields; many European states are dropping their funding of historical and classical and philosophical etc. research in favor of the American model of funding 'natural science' only, and so on. This is of course merely a matter of power and economics and has nothing to do with truth or knowledge or the importance of these.

    It isn't at all true by the way that there is no openness to new data and so forth in this chunk of historical research: the great document finds of the 20th century, Nag Hammadi, Qumran, the Cairo geniza and the epigraphic and other advances due to Israeli archaeology have reoriented the relevant areas. The work of Sanders you mention is merely attempting to formulate a new postwar 'synthesis', a process that has gone on and on.

    Indeed the facts are almost the reverse of what you represent. You keep saying that that the existence of Jesus is somehow an a priori of these enquiries and that the opposing mythicizing claim hasn't been properly tested. But in fact the 'mythological school' was quite widespread in the early 20th c.; indeed it was taught alongside Darwinism in soviet schools. Its period is a bit like that of the 'mechanism' vs. 'vitalism' dispute. The post-war flood of data brought the 'mythological' ideas into disrepute; it went out exactly the way vitalism did.

    1. I agree with you that all of those disciplines are to some degree quantitative and objective. I like the field. I've read a lot of its literature.

      I'll repeat: The fact that Galatians was written in 51 is not of the same epistemological caliber as the fact that the three aforementioned bones in the transition from reptile to mammal were repurposed. This does not devalue NT studies. I puts it in perspective re: "certitude".

      I don't think that one can argue that the coerced systematic negations of the Soviet educational system qualify as "teaching mythologizing" or as a "testing" of the proposed paradigm.

      That's silly.
      Come to think of it, it comes close to Godwin's law in itself (but no cigar).


    2. "Quantitative" and "objective" are completely independent of each other; astrology can be as quantitative as you like.

      No one suggested that the Soviet use of the literature of the mythological school amounted to a scientific test, if that's what you are thinking. The suggestion was that the hypothesis was well known and well developed in the early 20th c. The works of Couchaud in the 20s and even 30s were best sellers. It was thought through and compared with the corpus of evidence by thousands; people gave it up as they gave up the geocentric theory; in the end they were overwhelmed by data. This isn't an argument that it shouldn't be considered again; just against the suggestion that no one has considered it, which you make repeatedly above. The principal ideas are sound enough; they were already known in a sense: the protestant critique of catholicism is the point of origin for the mountain of 'pagan parallels' that is forever being repeated. The mythological school attempted to extend this account and make it a complete explanation of 'Christianity'. It just doesn't work. The 'semitic' stratum of the material is where everything goes wrong, and this difficulty was multiplied 10,000 fold after the war, with the discovery of the Qumran material and a number of other forces: these reopened the question of late 2nd temple religion, and the question what is and isn't 'Jewish', and, for example, inaugurated the critical evaluation of rabbinical literature. The latter enquiry is really still just beginning, typical marquee authors are Hayim Lapin, Daniel Boyarin, Seth Schwartz, etc. etc. The a priori ideas about what is 'Jewish' that you work with, for example, are basically just the common ground between the church and the rabbis in late antiquity, a sort of implicit agreement about the relation between the two 'religions'.

      Civil war buffs also enjoy reading works of history. You might consider talking to a few who took it into their heads to get an advanced degree in the subject, and the kind of unrelenting torture that is involved in apprehending the tools and acquiring the mental capacities requisite for historical research -- even in that domain, where the sources are almost all at least in English. The idea that there is any discipline here has escaped you and this particular post brings this out.

    3. [WhatShowsItself:]
      ["Quantitative" and "objective" are completely independent of each other; astrology can be as quantitative as you like. ]

      Astrology (which uses the apparent positions of celestial objects as the basis for the prediction of future events) became irreversibly separated from astronomy (which is the scientific study of objects and phenomena originating beyond the Earth's atmosphere) in the 17th century. Before this separation they were treated together as a single discipline. The reason for the separation was the quantitativeness at issue. Extract everything that is NOT quantifiable from this combined discipline …. What is left is the science of astronomy.
      What you’ve taken away is “astrology,” which can then be rejected as fanciful superstition riding piggy-back on actual scientific observation.
      There is NOTHING quantitative about astrology. The fact that Mercury might be undergoing retrograde motion is demonstrable and is an astronomical observation. The notion that this motion has significance to human events and interactions down here on earth is an astrological claim. The illusion of technique that this system of divination depends on is precisely that, an illusion. Homeopathic “provings” depend on a similar illusion.

      If you want to continue thinking that astrology is “quantitative as you like” … go ahead, but I think it’s a stupid analogy.

      [No one suggested that the Soviet use of the literature of the mythological school amounted to a scientific test ... ]

      Actually … someone DID suggest this … and that someone is YOU:

      [WhatShowsItself – previous comment]
      [You keep saying that that the existence of Jesus is somehow an a priori of these enquiries and that the opposing mythicizing claim hasn't been properly tested. But in fact the 'mythological school' was quite widespread in the early 20th c.; INDEED IT WAS TAUGHT ALONGSIDE DARWINISM IN SOVIET SCHOOLS.] – [my emphasis –your unedited fragment]. If I misread it, it was because it was badly expressed.

    4. [The works of Couchaud [sic] in the 20s and even 30s were best sellers.]

      I recently read Couchoud on Marcion. That he was the most influential French writer on religion and myth during those decades is true, but to call him a “best seller” is a bit much. Much like today, higher criticism has a modest readership compared to the pop audiences.

      [It was thought through and compared with the corpus of evidence by thousands; people gave it up as they gave up the geocentric theory; in the end they were overwhelmed by data. This isn't an argument that it shouldn't be considered again; just against THE SUGGESTION THAT NO ONE HAS CONSIDERED IT, WHICH YOU MAKE REPEATEDLY ABOVE.]

      Allow me to interrupt you in mid-strawman for a moment …. The first part of that fragment shows some insight on your part, which could be an interesting springboard for another discussion, but then it gives itself away as an axe-grinding red herring.

      The fact is that NOWHERE does this essay contain any expression lamenting the lack of consideration given to what you call “the mythological school.” That you say I make such a claim “repeatedly” above makes me question your reading comprehension.

      [The principal ideas are sound enough; they were already known in a sense: the protestant critique of catholicism is the point of origin for the mountain of 'pagan parallels' that is forever being repeated. The mythological school attempted to extend this account and make it a complete explanation of 'Christianity'. It just doesn't work. The 'semitic' stratum of the material is where everything goes wrong, and this difficulty was multiplied 10,000 fold after the war, with the discovery of the Qumran material and a number of other forces: these reopened the question of late 2nd temple religion, and the question what is and isn't 'Jewish', and, for example, inaugurated the critical evaluation of rabbinical literature. The latter enquiry is really still just beginning, typical marquee authors are Hayim Lapin, Daniel Boyarin, Seth Schwartz, etc. etc. The a priori ideas about what is 'Jewish' that you work with, for example, are basically just the common ground between the church and the rabbis in late antiquity, a sort of implicit agreement about the relation between the two 'religions'. ]

      There’s actually little I would disagree with you with in this bit. But It needs to be pointed out that “pagan parallels” have nothing to do with anything I’ve written so far anywhere. Such an approach is the weakest imaginable defense of mythicism as far as I’m concerned, so to try to pin that approach on me is just bullshit.

    5. [WhatShowsItself:]
      [Civil war buffs also enjoy reading works of history. You might consider talking to a few who took it into their heads to get an advanced degree in the subject, and the kind of unrelenting torture that is involved in apprehending the tools and acquiring the mental capacities requisite for historical research -- even in that domain, where the sources are almost all at least in English. The idea that there is any discipline here has escaped you and this particular post brings this out.]

      The idea that there is any discipline there has NOT escaped me. I specifically said that I do not devalue it. The point of the piece was a comparison of the empiricism of science with the lack of empiricism of NT Studies.

      I even repeated my main point in response to your first comment, and I will repeat it once more:

      The fact that a complex of three bones in the reptilian jaw evolved to form the three main bones in the mammalian ear does NOT have the same epistemological authority as the conclusion that Second Temple Judaism was probably not as monolithic or even as monotheistic as we previously thought.

      That you think I am saying that there is no discipline there … makes me think I should maybe start ignoring you altogether as an obstinate combative troll. If you persist with your condescending and patronizing tone, I will probably stop publishing your comments. If you keep misrepresenting what I say, I definitely will.

  2. // So the use of the word "creationist" as a pejorative rests on an epistemological authority that is vouchsafed by the methodological rigor intrinsic to the application of the scientific method.//

    It isn't used that way necessarily. Here is an example by James McGrath just 30 mins ago:

    "So now the consensus of historians and scholars is a "hive mind"? That is precisely what creationists say about the consensus of biologists."

    It is often used to poo-poo the consensus of the mainstream by suggesting entrenched bias for ideological purposes. I've been guilty of accusing (some!) mythicists in the past as being "like creationists", where those mythicists have made that accusation about mainstream consensus views. I don't do that anymore because people take it as saying that the case for the historicity of Jesus is as strong as the case for evolution (which is not true), and so discussion gets sidetracked, and so it is counter-productive.

    As far as the analogy applies (i.e. rejection of mainstream as ideologically biased), I think the analogy is sound. Just as I've seen some mythicists use the "like creationists" against some historicists soundly. As long as the explanation for why the analogy holds is given, we can understand how it is being used, as McGrath does above.

    The problem is that **all** analogies break at some point. Arguing the validity of the analogy based on where it is NOT being applied is pointless.

    If the analogy is that "the case for historicity over mythicism is as strong as evolution over creationism", mythicists would be right to complain. But "(some) mythicists reject mainstream consensus for being ideologically biased like creationists complain about 'evolutionists'" is trivially true.

    1. I agree that it is trivially and superficially true.

      And I appreciate that you stopped using the comparison.

      Some people lead with it, though.


anonymous comments may or may not be published ...