Monday, June 19, 2017

The Excessive Skepticism Of Gospels Scholarship

"the kinds of differences we find between Plutarch and his sources are quite comparable with the differences between the Gospels, and nothing in the least like form criticism is postulated by experts on Plutarch." (Richard Bauckham, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2017], 596)

For some other examples of excessive skepticism in gospels scholarship and New Testament research in general, see here and here.

"But generally - in everyday life, in law courts, and in historical research - the normal rule of thumb is to trust what people tell us. Ordinary life would be impossible if we did not….Many New Testament scholars seem to suppose that the more sceptical of the sources they are, the more rigorously historical is their method. But this is not how historians usually work. In good historical work it is no more an epistemic virtue to be sceptical than it is to be credulous. In everyday life, we do not systematically mistrust everything anyone tells us. When someone who is in a position to know what they tell us does so, we normally believe them. But we keep our critical faculties alert and raise questions if there is specific reason to doubt. There is no reason why historical work should be substantially different in its dialectic of trust and critical assessment. Sometimes excessive scepticism goes hand-in-hand with a misplaced desire for certainty….But in historical work the desire for certainty, for any sort of total accuracy, is as misplaced as systematic scepticism. In history we only deal with probabilities (as is also the case in much human knowledge). Historians are in the business of constantly making reasonable judgments of probabilities. To believe testimony, to trust it when we have no means of verifying its content in detail, is a risk, but it is the kind of risk we are constantly taking when we trust testimony in ordinary life." (ibid., 608, 613)

1 comment:

  1. The warning against excessive skepticism and the silly use of form criticism is of course salutary in Bauckham, but I also think the comparison to Plutarch (increasingly popular these days) is misguided. Insofar as Plutarch is adjudged to be more willing to fabricate (I have not investigated how accurate this judgement of Plutarch is), we have every reason to believe that the Gospel authors were unlike Plutarch and were trying hard to tell what really happened, not changing things for "literary" or theological reasons. It's fine to allow the way that classical scholars treat classical texts to serve as a check on the wilder fantasies of New Testament scholars, but the Plutarch comparison is increasingly serving as a way of saying that the New Testament authors had "license" to make stuff up, but hey, that's not a problem, because that's how "they" did things in "that genre back then." As your earlier entry on Matthew authorship shows, apparently Bauckham even attributes this kind of loose relationship to truth to Matthew, stating that he "transferred" the story of Levi to Matthew. I found a really great quotation on the Plutarch-Luke comparison from Colin Hemer. See here: