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B. Non-Troeltschian Historical Biblical Criticism

Troeltschian HBC, therefore, has no claim on serious Christians; it is wholly reasonable for them to form and maintain their beliefs quite independently of it. How about non-Troeltschian (Duhemian and Spinozistic) HBC? This is a very different kettle of fish. The non-Troeltschian proposes to employ only assumptions that are clearly deliverances of reason (or accepted by everyone party to the project). She doesn’t (for purposes of scholarship) accept the traditional Christian’s views about the Bible or the life of Christ, but she also doesn’t accept Troeltsch’s principles. She doesn’t assume that miracles did or could happen; but that is quite different from assuming that they didn’t or couldn’t, and she doesn’t assume that either. She doesn’t assume that the Bible is, in fact, a word from the Lord and hence authoritative and reliable; but she also doesn’t assume that it isn’t.

Of course that may not leave her a lot to go on. The non-Troeltschian is handicapped in this area in a way in which she isn’t in such areas as physics or chemistry. In the latter (apart, perhaps, from a bit of controversy about the anthropic principle and the principle of indifference522522   See Ernan McMullin’s “Indifference Principle and Anthropic Principle in Cosmology,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 24, no. 3 (1993), and my “Methodological Naturalism?” in Facets of Faith and Science, vol. 1, ed. J. van der Meer (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996).), there is little by way of theological controversy that seems relevant to the pursuit of the subject. Not so for scripture scholarship; here the very foundations of the subject are deeply disputed. Does the Bible have one principal author, namely God himself? If not, then perhaps Jowett (“Scripture has one meaning—the meaning which it had to the mind of the prophet or evangelist who 415first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it”) is right; otherwise, he is wrong.523523   See note 467 above. Is it divinely inspired, so that what it teaches is both true and to be accepted? If it reports miraculous happenings—risings from the dead, a virgin birth, the changing of water into wine, healings of people blind or lame from birth—are these to be taken more or less at face value, or dismissed as contrary to “what we now know”? Is there an entry into the truth about these matters—faith or divine testimony by way of Scripture, for example—quite different from ordinary historical investigation? If we prescind from all these matters and proceed responsibly (remembering to pay attention to the law of dwindling probabilities), what we come up with is likely to be pretty slender.

A. E. Harvey, for example, proposes the following as beyond reasonable doubt from everyone’s point of view (i.e., Duhemianly): “that Jesus was known in both Galilee and Jerusalem, that he was a teacher, that he carried out cures of various illnesses, particularly demon-possession and that these were widely regarded as miraculous; that he was involved in controversy with fellow Jews over questions of the law of Moses: and that he was crucified in the governorship of Pontius Pilate.”524524   Jesus and the Constraints of History (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), p. 6. It isn’t even clear whether Harvey means that the conjunction of these propositions is beyond reasonable doubt, or only each of the conjuncts;525525   It could be that each of the conjuncts is beyond reasonable doubt but that their conjunction is not. Suppose (just to arbitrarily choose a number) what is probable to degree .95 or higher is beyond reasonable doubt. Then if each of the above is beyond reasonable doubt, their conjunction might still be little more than twice as probable as its denial. in either case what we have is pretty slim.

Or consider John Meier’s monumental A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. (The first volume has 484 pages; the second has 1,055 pages; a third volume is expected soon.) Meier aims to be Duhemian, or anyway Spinozistic: “My method follows a simple rule: it prescinds from what Christian faith or later Church teaching says about Jesus, without either affirming or denying such claims” (p. 1). (I think he also means to eschew assumptions incompatible with traditional Christian belief.) Meier’s fantasy of “an unpapal conclave” of Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and agnostic scholars, locked in the basement of the Harvard Divinity School library until they come to consensus on what historical methods can show about the life and mission of Jesus, is thoroughly Duhemian. This conclave he says, would yield “a rough draft of what that will-o’-the-wisp ‘all reasonable people’ could say about the historical Jesus” (p. 2). Meier sets 416out, judiciously, objectively, carefully, to establish that consensus.526526   “Meier’s treatment, in short, is as solid and moderate and pious as Historical Jesus scholarship is ever likely to be. More important, Meier is a careful scholar. There is nothing hasty or slipshod in his analysis: he considers every opinion, weighs every option” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus, p. 128). What is striking about his conclusions, however, is how slender they are, and how tentative—and this despite the fact that, on occasion, he cannot himself resist building towers of probability. About all that emerges from Meier’s painstaking work is that Jesus was a prophet, a proclaimer of an eschatological message from God, someone who performed powerful deeds, signs, and wonders that announce God’s kingdom and also ratify his message.527527   Johnson, The Real Jesus, pp. 130–31. As Duhemian or Spinozist, of course, we can’t add that these signs and miracles involve special or direct divine action; nor can we say that they don’t. We can’t say that Jesus rose from the dead, or that he did not; we can’t conclude that Scripture is specially inspired, or that it isn’t.

Now what is characteristic of non-Troeltschian HBC is just that it doesn’t involve those Troeltschian principles: but it also rejects any alleged source of warranted belief in addition to reason (Spinozistic) and any theological assumptions not shared by everyone party to the discussion.528528   Of course one might in fact accept those additional sources of warranted belief, but be interested in seeing just how much can be argued from a strictly Duhemian or Spinozistic point of view; to pursue a Duhemian or Spinozistic project is not necessarily to believe that there are no such additional sources. It is only to bracket them for the project in question. Traditional Christians, rightly or wrongly, think they do have sources of warranted belief in addition to reason: divine testimony in Scripture and also faith and the work of the Holy Spirit, or testimony of the Spirit-led church. They may be mistaken about that; but until someone gives a decent argument for the conclusion that they are mistaken, they need not be impressed by the result of scholarship that ignores this further source of belief. If you want to learn the truth about a given area, you shouldn’t restrict yourself to only some of the sources of warranted belief (as does the Spinozist) or only to beliefs accepted by everyone else (with the Duhemian); maybe you know something some of the others don’t. Perhaps you remember that your friend was in your office expostulating about the errors of postmodernism at the very time he is supposed to have been stealing that Frisian vase; if no one else was there, then you know something the rest don’t.

So the traditional Christian needn’t be fazed by the fact that non-Troeltschian HBC doesn’t support his views about what Jesus did and said. He thinks he knows some things by faith and the IIHS—that Jesus arose from the dead, for example. He may concede that if you leave out of account all that he knows in this way, then with respect 417to the remaining body of knowledge or belief the resurrection isn’t particularly probable. Still, that hardly presents him with an intellectual or spiritual crisis. We can imagine a renegade group of whimsical physicists proposing to reconstruct physics by refusing to use belief that comes from memory, say, or perhaps memory of anything more than one minute ago. Perhaps something could be done along these lines, but it would be a poor, paltry, truncated, trifling thing. And now suppose that, say, Newton’s laws or special relativity turned out to be dubious and unconfirmed from this point of view: that would presumably give little pause to more traditional physicists. This truncated physics could hardly call into question physics of the fuller variety.

Similarly here. The traditional Christian thinks he knows by faith that Jesus was divine and that he rose from the dead. Hence, he will be unmoved by the fact that these truths are not especially probable on the evidence to which non-Troeltschian HBC limits itself—that is, evidence that explicitly excludes what one knows by faith. Why should that matter to him? So this is the rest of the answer to Harvey’s question: if the HBC in question is non-Troeltschian, then the fact that it doesn’t verify traditional Christian beliefs is due to its limiting itself in the way it does, to its refusing to use all the data or evidence the Christian thinks he has in his possession. For a Christian to confine himself to the results of non-Troeltschian HBC would be a little like trying to mow your lawn with a nail scissors or paint your house with a toothbrush; it might be an interesting experiment if you have time on your hands, but otherwise why limit yourself in this way?

As we saw above (pp. 388–89) E. P. Sanders, Barnabas Lindars, Jon Levenson, and many others all declare that what one knows by faith or theological assumptions not endorsed by all should play no role in proper scripture scholarship; and perhaps we can think of this as a sort of unspecific endorsement of Duhemian scholarship. Why should they play no role? We must rely only on “evidence on which everyone can agree,” says Sanders. “The arguments offered must be historically valid, able, that is, to compel the assent of historians whatever their religion or lack thereof, whatever their backgrounds, spiritual experiences, or personal beliefs, and without privileging any claim of revelation,” says Levenson. “It is not open to a scholar to decide that, just because he is a believing Christian, he will accept all the Gospel miracles at their face value, but at the same time he will repudiate miracles attributed to Isis. All such accounts have to be scrutinized with equal detachment,” says Lindars. Construed as endorsement of non-Troeltschian HBC, the claim here, I think, is that only such scholarship is properly objective.

Is this true, and is objectivity required or desirable in this enterprise? Here we must go back to a distinction outlined in chapter 1. Objectivity can be thought of as a matter of being oriented toward or paying attention to the object of knowledge or opinion, as opposed to the subject; what is objective may be thought of as coming from the object 418rather than from myself as subject. It is thus an objective fact that Amsterdam is larger than Aberdeen. But the term is also used to denote an opinion that is shared by nearly everyone; it is then contrasted with ‘subjective’, taken as in the phrase, “Well, that’s only my subjective opinion.” My own subjective opinions are the ones that are peculiar to me (and perhaps my friends). In which of these senses is it claimed that non-Troeltschian scholarship is objective? In the second, clearly enough; everyone will accept (with the Duhemian) those assumptions no one party to the project rejects; and presumably nearly everyone will accept the deliverances of reason. Of course it is far from obvious that if you want to learn the truth about a given area, the reasonable thing to do is to employ only assumptions accepted by everyone party to the dispute. Maybe you know something some of the others don’t.

More generally, then, HBC is either Troeltschian or non-Troeltschian. If the former, then it begins from assumptions entailing that much of what the traditional Christian believes is false; it comes as no surprise, then, that its conclusions are at odds with traditional belief. It is also of little direct concern to the classical Christian. It offers her no reason at all for rejecting or modifying her beliefs; it also offers little promise of enabling her to achieve better or deeper insight into what actually happened. As for non-Troeltschian HBC, however, this variety of historical criticism omits a great deal of what she sees as relevant evidence and relevant considerations. It is therefore left with little to go on. Again, the fact that it fails to support traditional belief need not be upsetting to the traditional believer; given those limitations, that is only to be expected, and it casts no doubt at all on Christian belief. Either way, therefore, the traditional Christian can rest easy with the claims of HBC; she need feel no obligation, intellectual or otherwise, to modify her belief in the light of its claims and alleged results.529529   Alleged results: because of the enormous controversy and disagreement among followers of HBC, it is very difficult to find anything one could sensibly call ‘results’ of this scholarship. Thus Harold Attridge (in “Calling Jesus Christ,” in Hermes and Athena, ed. Eleonore Stump and Thomas Flint [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993], p. 211):
   There remains enormous diversity among those who attempt to describe what Jesus really did, taught, and thought about himself. For some contemporary scholars he was a Hellenistic magician; for others, a Galilean charismatic or rabbi; for yet others, a prophetic reformer; for others, a sly teller of wry and engaging tales; for some he had grandiose ideas; for others he eschewed them. In general, the inquirer finds the Jesus that her historical method allows her to see. It is as true today as it was at the end of the liberal quest for the historical Jesus catalogued by Albert Schweitzer that we moderns tend to make Jesus in our own image and likeness.

   The Schweitzer reference is to his Von Reimarus zu Wrede (1906), tr. W. Montgomery as The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York: Macmillan, 1956).

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