Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

the circle game

Here’s an excellent post by the redoubtable AKMA on desire and interpretation, with particular reference to the “Jesus’s Wife Fragment” (JWF):

For instance, why did anyone think the fragment was genuine in the first place? I am not a papyrologist, a palaeographer, or a reader of Coptic — but the early photos of the fragment looked odd to me right away. Clearly, they looked right enough to pass muster to Karen King and the experts she consulted, so my unease doesn’t count for much.

I can’t keep from thinking that somewhere in the alchemy of academic judgement, some people wanted to think the JWF was genuine, and others that it wasn’t. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say that I know this was true. Did a prior disposition in favour of revolutionary, disruptive, rebellious parties in early Christianity have any effect on Prof. King’s judgement about the fragment? In an irreproachably sound academic way, it certainly did: she more than many other scholars is open to the possibility that non-standard traditions about Jesus circulated broadly and for centuries after the consolidation of conciliar doctrine about Jesus (as in fact it still does). Many scholars would be less disposed to consider anything about a JWF from the start. So without impugning her scholarship in the least, it seems fair to say that her disposition affected her judgement at least as far as her interest in the fragment and her willingness even to consider its genuineness.

(By the way, if you have any doubts about the fraudulence of the fragment, read this post and follow the links.) As AKMA points out, most of us tend to be far more aware of the desires of our opponents than of our own. Hang around theologically liberal biblical scholars and you’ll get the impression that they are deeply serious truth-seekers, while evangelicals and fundamentalists are too frightened of losing their comforting belief-structure to face hard truths. Hang around with those evangelicals, by contrast, and you’ll get the impression that they are doing serious, evidence-based scholarship while those liberals kowtow to the intellectual trends of the moment in order to keep their jobs at secular (or at best thoroughly secularized) universities.

I would just add that — as I suggested in this earlier post — the desires that AKMA points to are linked to incentives. Religiously conservative scholars who work in religiously conservative institutions have strong incentives to reach religiously conservative conclusions in their scholarship, lest they lose their jobs; conversely, religious believers who work at theologically liberal or secular institutions have equally strong incentives to (a) reach liberalizing and secularizing conclusions in their scholarship or (b) keep their mouths shut about their beliefs and try to limit any dissonance between their views and those of their colleagues.

Both sides, then — and this will be equally true of divided scholarly communities in many other fields — will strive to exclude those who disagree with them from serious consideration. Consider, to take but one example, this recent Boston Globe interview with Bart Ehrman:

IDEAS: Is it widely accepted among scholars that Jesus did not claim divinity?

EHRMAN: That has been a widely held scholarly view for about 300 years among critical scholars. Among scholars who are evangelical Christians who are committed to the idea that Jesus is God and knew he was God, they maintain that Jesus did say that he was God.

Note how Ehrman tries to cast objections to his view as occurring only among “evangelical Christians,” even though he knows perfectly well that countless Catholic and Orthodox scholars hold the same view. And note the reference to “critical scholars”: Truly critical scholars — the term is clearly complimentary — deny that Jesus claimed to be God, because those claims come in the Gospel of John, the historical character of which they reject. But what qualifies someone as a critical scholar? Well, among other things, the view that Jesus did not claim to be God and that the Gospel of John is non-historical. Thus the circle neatly closes.

There are of course religiously conservative versions of the same thing, which is, basically, the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. The question is: how do we get out of these loops of self-confirmation?


  • John Frame answers that question in a book-length Christian epistemology, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Here's a summary from another article.

    “Circular argument of a kind is unavoidable when we argue for an ultimate standard of truth. One who believes that human reason is the ultimate standard can argue that view only by appealing to reason. One who believes that the Bible is the ultimate standard can argue only by appealing to the Bible. Since all positions partake equally of circularity at this level, it cannot be a point of criticism against any of them.”

    Only God can save us from loops of self-confirmation, just he alone can save us from any sin. Only by making God and his word our epistemological foundation can we avoid putting the autonomous self in that spot. (Frame is also keen on the value and importance of general revelation; God's two books will agree.)

  • mlwj writes: "Only God can save us from loops of self-confirmation, just he alone can save us from any sin. Only by making God and his word our epistemological foundation can we avoid putting the autonomous self in that spot."

    And who is this who is making "making God and his word our epistemological foundation?" You are. You have chosen a certain belief system out of all others to adhere to. So is this trust in God or trust in your own decision-making abilities? Also: the God in your head and the God in the heads of others have different attributes, and your interpretation of God's word is different from others interpretation of God's word (indeed, you may have different ideas of what texts actually constitute God's word). You seek to step outside of yourself and onto a firmer foundation, but you can't and neither can I.

    Is intellectual inquiry then hopeless, just a mask for satisfying our own desires? Maybe. I'd like to think not (that is my desire). My strategy is to acknowledge my own desires and social situation and to examine how various thinkers arrived at their conclusions, regardless of their own desires and social situation. Do their methods make sense? Are they open to considering all of the evidence? How seriously do they consider other interpretations? We are all enmeshed in a web of incentives, but that does not have to make our conclusions invalid.

    Also, I have to admit that I also take into account what kind of person is making an argument. Do they have a sense of humor about themselves? Are they modest or arrogant? Generous or self-serving? Curious or dogmatic? I am not sure this is an accurate guide to who is right about a question, but it might help. Anyway, it tells me who I want to spend my time listening to. That's part of the reason I like reading Bart Ehrman and Alan Jacobs, despite their different ideas on some important subjects.

  • Just saw this, Erik. Thanks for the courteous interaction, an Internet rarity.

    My biggest answer to your counterargument is that I didn't choose this God; this God chose me. "Before the foundation of the world," the Bible says. I don't take any credit for my epistemological salvation any more than I, as a Bible-believing Protestant, take credit for my salvation from sin. Jesus died to redeem my thoughts as well as my soul.

    Next, by what standard will you determine that another's methods "make sense"? As Stanley Fish never tires of saying, methods are not neutral arbiters. They are not merely "procedural" but "substantive."

    And by what standard will you determine what counts as "all the evidence" on a given question? Is Ken Ham at Answers in Genesis allowed to call anything "evidence"?

    I read Alan Jacobs and don't bother with Bart Ehrman because Jacobs is willing to recognize, as C. S. Lewis (about whom Jacobs has written a biography) said, that most knowing is traceable not to personal experience but to authority. There are authorities hiding in the methods you adopt; I'd rather acknowledge my authority at the outset—and then work hard to take into account a writer's (and my own) social location, etc.

    I strongly encourage you, if you have any interest in epistemology, to pick up and wade through John Frame's account of the matter.

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