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Can Historians Be Neutral?

I received a number of responses to my post this past week on whether Jesus would have received a decent burial on the day of his crucifixion.   One of the most interesting responses was not so much about what I said or thought, but about a much broader question: how can one evaluate arguments over such controversial subjects without being entirely biased and subjective at the outset?   It’s worth talking about.  Here’s the question:

 

QUESTION:

Re: the burial of Jesus or not:  Do you have any suggestions for how to be objective regarding issues like this? Maybe it would help to first figure out where the burden of proof should be. Does historicity demand something like clear and convincing evidence that something happened–so that any significant doubts require rejection of the supposed incident? Or just that one thing is more likely to have happened than another?

 

RESPONSE:

I won’t here deal with the particular issue of Jesus’ burial, but with the broader issue of how one remains “neutral” or “disinterested” when trying to reach a conclusion.

The first think I’ll say is that I have long avoided the term “objectivity” when it comes to the various things I do, such as trying to reconstruct the past, or to interpret texts, or to analyze arguments.  This may seem weird, but I don’t think “objectivity” or “subjectivity” are that helpful as categories.

Scholars involved with such fields as …

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Comments

  1. Malik  January 7, 2018

    Good post for anyone involved in any sort of debate/dialogue whether they be an apologist or polemic; irregardless of their creedal faith or doctrinal positions




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  2. Liam Foley  January 7, 2018

    I really enjoyed this post. Again, while listening to one of your debates on YouTube, the name of the person escapes me for the moment, it was on a British radio program if I remember correctly, and the topic was the historical reliability of the resurrection. You pointed out, correctly I might add, that your opponent was jumping from historiography to faith to make his argument (and denied he was doing that) but in light of today’s blog post, how do you teach your students who may be believers to avoid that specific pitfall?

    On an informal basis, I have had debates online with believers and I have run across many who disagree that miracles are not subject to historical methodology, and for them, they are comfortable with filling in the gaps with faith or allowing history to take them so far and jumping to faith to reach their conclusions, all the while still believing they’re doing historiography.




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2018

      I simply try to encourage them to consider evidence more than their personal beliefs, and to be willing to change what they think if the evidence points in that direction.




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  3. Abongile Mafevuka  January 7, 2018

    Historians should be objective in reporting of the facts, that it would be clouded by their personal experiences is expected as this is purely human nature. It is therefore essential that more than one source should be consulted. If only one source is available modern day historians are well aware of human bias. Even if you read the reports of the alt-right march where a protestor was fatally hit by a car one would have thought that the even described by each side is different event. This is in the age of mass media and social media and fact-checking. In a time when superstition was seen as reality it is even more difficult to read bible verses recorded by human authors and not be aware that it is full of superstitious biases of the author and that the truth is sometimes distorted to fit the superstitious beliefs so common in that era




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  4. flcombs  January 7, 2018

    I usually think more of consistency in standards as being “objective”. If I’m accused of not accepting something because I’m “a skeptic”, I usually reply “No more than others really, just more consistent.” With fundamentalists you can start asking about all the miracles by Catholic saints and others that they deny and just ask “aren’t YOU a skeptic?” 🙂




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  5. godspell  January 7, 2018

    I believe in objectivity as an ideal, and that it’s dangerous to let yourself believe you’ve fully achieved that ideal (true of all ideals, really). It’s a North Star to steer by, but you never reach it.

    The danger in ‘question everything’ is that it can lead to people saying “Maybe global warming is a hoax. Maybe evolution isn’t the answer to how complex life evolved on earth. I’m just asking questions!” It’s not about whether the idea being questioned makes you more or less comfortable. Plenty of very good ideas make me feel comfortable, and some extremely bad ones do anything but. Truth in general tends to be unsettling, and Jesus would have agreed with that. “I come to bring not peace but division.”

    History is a dialogue, and it doesn’t stop. Until we, as a species, stop it.




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  6. Wilusa  January 7, 2018

    One reason I dislike the term “disinterested” is that many people misunderstand it as meaning “UNinterested.” And even a reader who does immediately understand it is likely to be annoyed by the unusual use of language. To think someone who chooses to use “disinterested” rather than the more common term “objective” is an intellectual snob.

    As for how “disinterested/objective” we can be, it certainly varies with the situation, and the individual.




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2018

      Yes, I tend not to use it with people who aren’t scholars or open to scholarship!




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  7. talmoore
    talmoore  January 7, 2018

    “Scholars involved with such fields as cultural studies and literary theory have long argued that “objectivity” isn’t what most of us simply assume it is.”

    As as someone with a B.A. in Cultural Studies, I have to say that this is pretty much accurate. Most fields of social study (Cultural Studies is essentially a cross-disciplinary field that includes anthropology, sociology and geography, amongs others) have been infected by that post-structuralist/deconstructionist nonsense you find in the critical theory (quasi-Marxist) works of Derrida, Foucault and Lacan.

    The problem with this view, of course, as that while we are all arguing over whether we can transcend subjectivity and become truly objective, the world outside of us, i.e. the “objective” world itself, continues to go on without us. That is, regardless of whether we think that we can be objective, an objective reality does exist, whether we like it or not, and through our subjective curtain, if we’re smart, we may catch a glimpse of it here and there.

    Probably the best word I can think of to describe how we should approach the world is: open. We should be open. What I mean by that is we should not approach it with pre-conceived notions, but, rather, approach the world with a bold curiosity, a real desire to know and understand. We should be open to all facts, open to all ideas, open to all experiences, open to all explanations. And from there we should evalute all those facts, ideas, experiences and explanations. And the ones that seem to fit reality better are the ones we should hold onto, and those that do not, we should discard. You can call this being “unbiased” or “neutral” or “impartial”, but I think those terms have their own baggage. For instance, the word neutral carries the connotation of indifference, and I don’t think we should ever be indifferent. Extreme indifference can be just as harmful as extreme partiality. I think openness is a better way to be.




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  8. ardeare  January 7, 2018

    I think most people start off being subjective but believing they are objective. They then move to neutral before taking an objective position in spite of their subjective presuppositions or so they think.This is so evident with Paul. Is it faith without works or faith with works? Is Jesus God or the Son or a Holy Messenger? Does Paul love and appreciate his fellow apostles or have disdain for anyone who disagrees with him the least tittle? One thing I’ve noticed in every religion is whenever you want to pull the ultimate power play, claim you’ve seen and spoken to God. Whoever invented the word, “flexible” was brilliant.




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  9. bamurray  January 7, 2018

    I remember that the professor in Philosophy 101, many decades ago, impressed on us that you should argue against the best possible arguments for the opposing view. I’ve heard that advice a number of times in the ensuing years and it still makes sense.




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  10. RonaldTaska  January 7, 2018

    I think supreme court justices are often criticized for making “result-oriented” decisions meaning that they hear the evidence in such a way that it confirms the decision that they have already made about a given issue before the case is even heard.




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  11. Tony  January 7, 2018

    It will be difficult for historians to be neutral if they already carry an build-in bias. For example, asking students to debate: “Paul and Jesus represented fundamentally different religions”, contains the assumption that there was a walking taking Palestinian Jew named Jesus who preached a certain religion.

    The students, and the instructor, will proceed on the basis on a mental picture of Jesus of Nazareth – about whom they’ve read so many details – in Gospels written decades after Jesus’ death.

    The students will read the Gospels into Paul’s letters, and they will not notice that Paul did not write about an earthly Jesus. Paul’s Lord Jesus had never been on earth and communicated with the apostles strictly, and only, through revelations.

    The more interesting, and controversial, question might have been: “Paul and the Gospels represented fundamentally different religions”. Now that would shake things up a bit! However, it may also result in some irate alumni letters, letters to the local newspaper, and a Trump tweet.




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    • godspell  January 8, 2018

      Speaking of ‘build-in’ biases–you just refuse to accept that Paul was writing about a real person, who he believed had walked around in a flesh and blood body on earth, whose brother and disciples he’d met and talked to.

      He ALSO believed Jesus was a pre-existent divine being who had been incarnated as a man to do God’s will.

      It’s not bias to accept the overwhelming likelihood that Jesus was a real person. Anymore than it’s bias to accept that Leonidas the Spartan was a real person, even though the Persians never said one thing about him, and we have zero testimony from his contemporaries that he ever lived, or any physical record of his kingship.

      You just want Jesus to not be a real person. That’s your bias, and it’s why you keep tripping over yourself in your comments. We don’t have to give every wacky opinion equal time to be objective. And “Jesus is a myth” is a wacky fringe opinion, embraced by zero serious scholars, including those who, like Bart, reject his divinity, and aren’t practicing Christians.

      I mean, we don’t call meteorologists biased for assuming weather existed before there were people to study it.

      We shouldn’t call historians bised for assuming historical figures exist, when there’s more than ample evidence that they did.

      We should call people biased for saying we should assume someone didn’t exist because a religion they don’t like was founded in his name.

      For the record, I really really do not like L. Ron Hubbard.

      Guess what? History doesn’t care.




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      • HistoricalChristianity  January 9, 2018

        “You just want Jesus to not be a real person.” — Then, why did Dr. Ehrman write his book “Did Jesus Exist” with his conclusion that he most likely did exist as a real person?

        The case for Jesus as pure myth is a good one. Dr. Ehrman didn’t consider it quite good enough.




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        • godspell  January 12, 2018

          He considered it more carefully than you ever have.

          He also used correct grammar while doing so.




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  12. AlbertHodges  January 7, 2018

    I think it is important for any intelligent person who engages in critical thinking and logical argumentation to be able to see both sides of a story. However, IF there is a God that acts in history, to try to prove anything without being able to reference God when necessary, is a little bit like trying to describe how grass grows but having to leave any reference to the Sun out of it. How would someone explain photosynthesis with referencing the sun? Likewise, how does someone explain the work of God without referencing God, if something IS the work of God?




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  13. anthonygale  January 7, 2018

    When evaluating theories, particularly those that are hotly debated or ones you don’t agree with, do you ever make it a point to think what your biases are? Considering counterarguments is great. A limitation with that though is that doing so doesn’t necessarily do much if anything to negate the effect of bias, particularly if one ignores them or has no insight into them. If someone is aware of their biases, that increases the chances they might be able to compensate for them. And perhaps also overcompensate for them.




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2018

      YEs, that’s what makes a historian a historian (at least a good historian) and not an idealogue, considering her/his biases and taking them into account before rendering a judgment.




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  14. Jim Cherry  January 7, 2018

    As grandpa used to say,”I’ve never seen a pancake made so thin there wasn’t 2 sides to it.”




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  15. Telling
    Telling  January 7, 2018

    I’ve mentioned on the blog that the Bible is a metaphysical book, yet metaphysics is about communicating with spirits, and such communication is taboo in our society, largely because the Church warns against it, even while biblical stories sometimes are about spirit communication, but appearing more like myths and children’s stories.

    Historians in our era dismiss these stories and myths because of their incredulous nature that is more akin to the Easter Bunny, not serious academia.

    It seems to me that historians who are unwilling to dirty their hands and seriously research metaphysics should limit their opinions to strictly historical accuracy, and not engage in speculative metaphysical information, which, as you have said, cannot be proved or disproved by historians.

    The theory that Jesus was left on the Cross presupposes that miracles don’t happen and therefore Jesus was certainly an ordinary man treated like an ordinary criminal.The world is, however, more mysterious than the ordinary eye sees. A basic metaphysical principle is we see what we believe and will not see what we don’t believe, that is, we create our own reality via our thoughts, individually and culturally.

    Do you ever wonder that you could be missing some critical information because it was, and is, forbidden by the Church?




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2018

      One needs to be open to the possiblity, but I’m never guided by what “the church” has to say.




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      • Telling
        Telling  January 8, 2018

        You have mentioned that Christianity is ingrained in you. Probably we are all influenced by it in ways we don’t realize.

        I find it astonishing that some Christians refuse to look at the Gospel of Thomas because it’s a declared “heretical” manuscript. You of course (as I understand) judge its merit primarily on dating. But I have heard you mention that Thomas in many ways looks to be first century, but you believe the “Gnostic” phrases were added later. The only reason I can figure for this is you find these phrases foreign to the Jesus teachings. But could this be an inherent bias, prejudging the teachings of Jesus based on the canonical message, disregarding other teachings that are in “heretical” gospels? Remember now, your argument that Thomas is second century was based on content, not dating, style, and simplicity. Might you be falling into the trap of saying it is second century because you don’t agree with its message, and thus being second century it is unreliable? Might it be that the canonical message was changed by an “orthodoxy” faction and Thomas more has the real message?




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        • Bart
          Bart  January 9, 2018

          One has to make historical judgments, and anyone who thinks that a saying of Jesus in Thomas (*any* of the saying there) goes back to a first century Palestinian Jew needs to show that such a statement makes sense in the context of first century Palestinian Judaism. That is where about half of the syaings of Thomas are problematic: they are similar to what can be attested in certain 2nd century Christain circles, but not in 1st century Palestinian Jewish.




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          • Telling
            Telling  January 9, 2018

            Well, that’s interesting and I hadn’t considered this, but (please correct me if I’m wrong) it does seem that only Pauline texts have survived, which seems to include all the Church fathers: Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Clement, and others, all whom (I believe) rose from churches founded by Paul. And it does seem that Paul had a falling out with Peter’s Jerusalem group, that Peter drops out of Acts halfway in and is never heard from again, and that nearly nothing exists that can be attributed to Peter, if anything.

            I have to wonder about sayings of Jesus that are in the New Testament; do these go back to the first century before Jesus or are they first century because they are in the bible, Pauline church leaders having preserved them? Gospel of Thomas sayings were obviously outlawed, the only full surviving text buried in the desert by monks. So, might we be falling into the trap of subjectivity for declaring the prohibited texts to be second century?

            It is an interesting angle. I would like to learn more about it, and perhaps you can refer me to sources. Thanks!




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          • Bart
            Bart  January 11, 2018

            None of those church fathers were raised in churches founded by Paul.




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          • Telling
            Telling  January 11, 2018

            Bart,

            I intended to say “influenced” not “founded”, and I think this is indisputable given the degree of influence given to Paul in the building of these churches, with his letters and main part of Acts centering on Paul and these churches. What was Peter doing in Jerusalem all that time? There is almost nothing on Peter. At this later juncture I don’t think “illiterate fisherman” can explain it. What explanation is there for there being so little preserved information on Peter, yet so much on Paul?




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          • Bart
            Bart  January 13, 2018

            Peter didn’t write!




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          • Telling
            Telling  January 13, 2018

            But some historians suggest that Paul was sometimes dictating letters and another member was writing them down. Certainly the head of the Jerusalem church would would have such availability. And if Peter didn’t writer letters there would surely have been others in his church writing letters and notes, preserving their successes and tribulations, and Peter and the other disciples’ remembrance of Jesus. I think it’s the more probable that whatever letters, notes, and manuscripts were written in Peter’s Jerusalem church were not preserved because they conflicted with Paul’s ideology. There is quite some evidence of the falling out between Peter and Paul in Paul’s letters alone. Additions to the surviving gospels would be of similar nature, altered to further a Pauline message.




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        • godspell  January 12, 2018

          I see no reason why Christians can’t decide to find insights in The Gospel of Thomas–certainly insights about the very divided and contentious world of early Christianity–as to ‘orthodoxy’, I’ve never quite seen why people consider that something to aspire to.

          I’ve never seen a credible scholar say that or any other ‘gnostic’ gospel represents the earliest form of Christianity.

          And why, exactly, would the earliest form necessarily be the best or truest? My own tastes run heavily towards Celtic Christianity, which came along centuries later. I can’t learn from Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day, because they showed up in the 20th century? Religions run on the seniority system? Since when?

          Jesus himself doesn’t count as the first Christian. He was a Jew. Never at any time referred to himself as a Christian, nor was he trying to create a new church, by that or any other name, because no churches would be required in The Kingdom.

          Of course he’s the touchstone of Christian thought and belief, but we will never have anything written by him. Even twenty years after his death, Paul was radically changing his ideas. I’m sure that was true ten years after his death, five years, one year, ONE DAY.

          They had to change what he said, or else just give up on him.

          Incidentally, where did Bart accuse anyone of heresy? I must have missed that. Bart, when is the auto de fe scheduled? I’ll bring the marshmallows. S’mores for everyone!




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          • Telling
            Telling  January 15, 2018

            Godspell,

            Dr. Marvin Meyer believed and explained why the Thomas gospel was probably as old or even older than the synoptic gospels, and he wished that the mystic side of Christianity had had more influence. Dr. Elaine Pagels has said she thinks the other gospels would have been read very differently if Thomas had been included in them. But you are right that mainstream belief rejects the Thomas gospel as having 2nd century Gnostic influence. I believe the idea of the world being a mental construct is too much to swallow for most people, and and so they reject that in favor of fairy tale stories they can believe without thinking..

            I recall being devastated when my mom (who was my authority) revealed that there was really no Easter Bunny. The Church itself would have to tell their flock Jesus probably didn’t really die and then rise on the third day, for them to ever believe it.

            I’m not saying I don’t believe that biblical miracles didn’t happen,. The world being a mental construct, anything is possible, but logically it would be a natural event, explainable in a logical way.

            If we look at great men who have founded lasting civilizations, we generally will find an extraordinary person having extraordinary stamina, or energy or powers, etc. So I personally do believe Jesus was who he said he was (but people misinterpret who he said he was). It would be an interesting historical research project that Bart might want to consider. Are there any big names in history that were really very ordinary people having entirely wrong messages that were lasting far into the future?

            The inner dream state, and other inner information are (I believe) driving the present state. A man preaching end times and then getting killed as a radical, wild dogs eating his bones, by any account, should be quickly forgotten.

            In every case, the Master teaches a greater message of a continued awareness beyond the grave. and his presence alone is the primary identifying force, his message secondary; but his message will never revolve about “him”, it will be about “us”.

            To your last question, I don’t know where Bart accused anyone of anything. I don’t know where that came from.




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          • godspell  January 16, 2018

            Marvin, the world may be a mental construct, but in that case, this conversation isn’t happening, and you’re just a figment of my imagination. Sorry I didn’t do a better job fleshing you out. I must say, I’m rather proud of Bart–how’d I manage to create someone who can read all these ancient languages, and I struggled with high school French? You just never know what you’re capable of. 😉




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      • Jim Cherry  January 8, 2018

        It is certainly good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains fall out.




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        • Telling
          Telling  January 13, 2018

          Jim,

          I just must ask whose brain is it falling out out and on what information?

          The central Church message is so crazy that any sane person should be rejecting it out-of-hand. The son of the creator of the whole universe comes to earth and is executed as a radical, and rises on the third day; really?

          As with the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, the mind is clearly programmed to believe anything drummed into it enough over such long period. This in itself is a big hint as to how the mind works and what should be believed.

          On the other side of the coin, the atheist mind is every bit as simpleton. A person rises out of nowhere,, lives a while doing very complex things, then dies and is gone. Really?

          Something closer to the believable comes to us through the Eastern religions which tell of the eternal nature of a mind that is constantly changing, picking up new identities, discarding those that have served their purpose.

          I’ve always liked this line from Isaih:

          “Nay, but by men of strange lips and with an alien tongue I will speak to this people”




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  16. Hume42  January 7, 2018

    Hi Bart, nice to meet you! I can read your blog reasonably well, but my english writting/grammar is terrible, so I gonna be shortly as possible (sadly, I would love get involved in the comments but I cant).

    Maybe an off topic question, but what is yout thoughts about The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version? The Wikipedia entry says is a notable non-denominational Bible and sounds interesting. Do you thing that last version is historically and teleogical “precise” and not already outdate? In relate with the today post the Wikipedia article also says: “specifically secular perspectives for “Bible-as-literature” with a focus on the most recent advances in historical criticism and related disciplines, with contributors from mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and non-religious interpretative traditions.” Is it possible that all this different perspectives can remain neutral? If is not the case, which Bible from a secular view is the best in your opinion (if there is another one)?

    I subscribed in the blog in the past couple of mounths and Im loving it! Unfortenely my credit card limit is very, very low and the international currency doesnt help, but Im seeking for more options to donate to the blog!

    Thank you very much for the academic Bible perspectives in a popular view for all this years, and many years to go. Greetings from Brazil!




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2018

      It is an *excellent* study Bible. So too is the HarperCollins Study Bible.




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      • dankoh  January 8, 2018

        Yes! I find the Harper Collins NRSV very useful!




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  17. Telling
    Telling  January 8, 2018

    I suggest that an historical examination alone of biblical manuscripts will bring erroneous result, precisely because some are most certainly “not true”.

    Whether God exists, and whether this God is kind or tyrannical, comes up in the book of Job, as you have commented on in public debates and interviews. You may be speaking beyond your capacity as a historian in these outside of the classroom debates (you’ve said this), but I think the question of objectivity applies.

    In the book of Job, God comments on how good his man Job is, honoring God and following all God’s laws. The devil suggests that Job will curse God if Job is put into misery. So God allows the devil to heap terrible things on Job, and he does. Subsequently Job’s friends come to console him and they suggest that Job is out of his league to be complaining about the creator himself.

    The reader’s preconceived notions of what God should be, can bring strikingly differing conclusions. That Job goes into great agony after carefully following God’s commandments is indicative that mere dutiful acts to please God bring no reward. This is driven in a second time, as we find the devil being as obedient to God as was Job, applying just the proper amount of misery as God allows.

    With such texts, objectivity requires more than just an historical examination and contemporary secular analysis. To begin, I believe we should explore whether this is an historical text or a literary work. And we must consider the text from all levels of spiritual development and understanding, whether or not it “actually happened”.




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    • godspell  January 8, 2018

      I think all historians have a right to express opinions outside their immediate area of expertise, as long as they make it clear that’s what they are doing.

      Bart’s dislike of the Book of Job is philosophical in nature, and he’s not a philosopher, or a theologian, but if he were? Would you like it any better then?

      Why shouldn’t we know more about what he, as a human being, believes and disbelieves? Won’t that make it easier for us to evaluate his own biases, which he’s just said every person has?

      Writing a straight work of history, you can debate whether such discursions are valuable, but this is a blog. It exists, by definition, to express opinions.




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      • Telling
        Telling  January 9, 2018

        Godspell, thanks for commenting,

        I wasn’t out to attack Ehrman, not at all. In an earlier dialog on the subject he plainly said the he’s not speaking as just a historian when debating, and I was acknowledging that.

        Objectivity, however, is important, even when debating outside of one’s area of expertise. My point is, without having a metaphysical background, these biblical stories and phrases will be misunderstood. Theologians typically fare no better, speaking as experts when they sometimes don’t know beans about what they’re talking about. The whole concept of God having a son born of a virgin is incredulous. But applying metaphysical comprehension to these stories shows a logic and purpose, and explains the longevity of such text, which is otherwise unexplained.

        Simple metaphysical concepts that are widely understood by serious Buddhist and Hindu practitioners and by new age spiritualists and by current and ancient thinkers have a core philosophy that gives sense to these stories. Like:

        “I am” is the greater self, the conscious and the unconscious. The greater self is aware of his eternal nature, and this self inhabits every one of us, but we don’t have the understanding and so don’t know how to even begin to recognize the Self. God turns his head against those who don’t remember “Him”, because losing our close link to our greater self, the outer world turns against us, our inner bond with others weakening, resulting in an inner fear and chaos that will materialize externally. Turning back to God, is a reestablishing of this internal connection between our conscious and our “unconscious” greater natures and between the greater natures of others.

        This is so obvious, it’s painful to watch. It is time that we quit the nonsense and begin to reestablish these lost teachings, looking within, correcting our deficiencies, etc, etc, the true teaching of every genuine Master who’s walked the earth and was remembered.




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        • godspell  January 12, 2018

          Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we could know exactly what each great religious teacher of the ancient past believed and taught.

          (We’d probably all be in for a shock, or many.)

          I believe, as you do, that the religious/spiritual ideas of humankind are a priceless legacy–a tool for understanding ourselves and the universe, and the relationship between the two. They are not just the legacy of a handful of thinkers–untold thousands contributed. Most of whom will never be known to us.

          I am not an atheist, nor will I ever be. Nor would my beliefs fit perfectly into any religion I’ve encountered.

          But in fact, I see no reason why atheists can or should not learn from that past, as all of us should. The rote rejection of the past never leads to anything good. It’s an immature act, and mainly just leads to new and worse dogmas. Or just to empty materialism, which is a worse problem than even violent fundamentalism (and I’d argue, a major cause of it).

          Okay, granting all that–why does this mean Bart has to like the Book of Job?

          I mean, he’s not saying burn all copies.

          He went to the trouble of learning how to read it in its original form!

          I have some points of difference with him over it. I’m sure there are many modern secular works of fiction we’d differ about as well. And do you really think that will ever change?

          Personality and experience vary, from individual to individual. Two people look at the same great work of art, see two diametrically opposed messages. How can it be different with belief? We will never all believe the same thing in the same way. No two humans ever have. No two humans ever will.

          We can get mad about it, or find beauty in it. But there are no final answers to the riddles of Life, because Life is Change. And so is God.




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          • Telling
            Telling  January 15, 2018

            Godspell,

            As usual I appreciate your thoughtful post. I do think we very well can know what the great Masters taught. It’s been a lifetime area of study for me. The Eastern Masters like Buddha and Lord Krishna had precise teachings. Others, in some cases, have come along to explain them and to perhaps improve on the methods, as you mentioned. In the West we have Theosophy and some newer teachers like Alan Watts and particularly Jane Roberts/Seth Material, and famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung. These are the few who I’ve focused quite a bit on. Toss in the Gospel of Thomas and some congruent canonical teachings of Jesus. It’s all there, all converging on a single idea, which is:

            The world is a mental construct. We are consciousness composed of consciousness (gestalt awareness as Jane Roberts/Seth labels it). We are eternal. We take on identities and drop them for new ones in a never ending stream until we ultimately learn to control the mind to where we can sustain a world, at which point we become free, creating our own realities independently and communally. Nirvana, the Buddhist “Target”, is a negation of desires, a state of mind that frees us from the entrapping physical matter, which too is consciousness. As told in the Hindu Baghavad-Gita, perfectly balancing action and mediation in our everyday actions, we will enter the “kingdom” that is right in front of us but people don’t see it (paraphrased from Thomas).

            As to the book of Job. I didn’t mean to be critical of Bart. But I’d heard him making a claim (in YouTube debates I think) that God is not a good god at all, and he cited the book of Job as one clear example of that. I wanted him to look deeper and see a greater message of how simple obedience to God brings no reward. It’s a great message, and should lead us to wonder what really is it that God wants. Bart seems to have the message right, using this blog proceeds for feeding the hungry.

            These are my thoughts, for what it’s worth.




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          • godspell  January 16, 2018

            The world is much too complicated to be summed up as a mental construct. Your view of it may be, but that’s a different thing. You are a construct of the world, would be more to the point.




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      • dragonfly  January 11, 2018

        Bart has stated before that Job is one of his favourite books in the bible.




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      • HawksJ  January 14, 2018

        godspell, what is your practical definition of a ‘theologian’?




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    • dragonfly  January 11, 2018

      In Job there is no devil. The satan is the adversary, one of God’s council, who’s job is to challenge God’s ideas, basically playing what we would call “devil’s advocate”.




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      • Telling
        Telling  January 13, 2018

        dragonfly,

        It is a rough “devil’s advocate” game he’s playing there, certainly is “hardball”, and playing for keeps.




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  18. Silver  January 8, 2018

    Two unrelated questions if I may please.
    1. In the literature the term ‘scholar’ is commonplace. Please can you outline the criteria for one to be accorded this title?
    2. At church yesterday we had the reading in Matthew’s gospel where Matthew was called. It is often stated that a. we do not know the author of the gospel and b. it is odd that M’s calling is not written as a first person account if he indeed was the author. My question is: was it the convention to write in the third person in such cases or should we expect M to have said, ‘I did this…’




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2018

      Usually “scholar” is code for “person with academic qualificatoins in the field” in this case, “a PhD in a relevant topic.” Of course there can be scholars without the PhD, but they are rather rare (simply reading a lot doesn’t qualiffy a person). And no, authors could well write first person narratives. Sometimes authors resort to first person in order to make people *think* that they were actually the persons involved in teh narrative (e.g., the “we” passages in the book of Acts)




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  19. Stephen  January 8, 2018

    Can someone be ‘disinterested’ if they start with the assumption that the New Testament is divinely inspired sacred scripture?

    Thanks




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2018

      If they refuse to challenge that assumption then I would say by definition they are, on the contrary, “interested.”




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  20. dankoh  January 8, 2018

    Your reference to linear equations is well taken; in mathematics, it is (usually) possible to be objective. History, however, deals with human beings, whose motives and even actions are often unclear. Put another way, in history we never have all the information, so inevitably we must fill in the gaps in some way, and that way will have some measure of subjectivity.

    I think that when we speak of objectivity in history, we are using it to mean an understanding or conclusion that takes into account all the known facts, including how human beings generally behave, and that tries to explain them in a way that leaves no contradictions. And that admits the possibility of error.

    Or, as Cromwell so memorably put it: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”




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  21. Rick
    Rick  January 8, 2018

    I for one would be interested in your discussing sufficiency of evidentiary material for historical conclusions. For example other authors, with respect to Jesus mythecism, have said two somewhat contemporary witnesses authenticate a “historical person”. So, Josephus (on James) and Tacitus accomplish that. But, when it comes to other conclusions, so much seems interpretive rather than simply evidentiary….




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2018

      Yes, the problem involves *weighing* evidence and establishing probabilities. Josephus would have been writing 60 years after Jesus’ death, Tacitus 80. So I would not and do not rely heaveily on them, though it is good to know that a Jewish and a Roman historian both know about the existence of Jesus (and something about him).




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  22. HistoricalChristianity  January 9, 2018

    That’s an extremely powerful educational tool. Thank you, Dr. Ehrman, for practicing it.

    It is now recognized that people become less polarized in a view if they do nothing more than verbally explain their view and give reasons for it. It’s valuable during informal debate to restate in your own words your opponent’s view before you begin to refute it. It makes it harder to erect a strawman when your opponent can first say, “No, that’s not my view, that’s a caricature of my view. I’ll try to better explain it.” It’s essential (beyond just valuable) do practice that in an argument with your spouse.




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  23. Seeker1952  January 9, 2018

    Lately I’ve been rather frequently seeing a remark attributed to the late US Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that people are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts. This is normally cited in a (very contemporary) political context and is not really on point for this particular blog topic anyway. But it’s too good not to bring up.




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  24. Seeker1952  January 9, 2018

    I sometimes think that, on any topic that’s both controversial and very important, a general reader should try to read little that’s not presented as a debate–though of course exceptions would have to be made for some things, e.g., those that are more or less purely factual matters. But I think that would be very stressful. It’s a little easier to at least try to be open-minded and give some consideration to viewpoints other than one’s own.




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  25. Gary  January 10, 2018

    Dear Dr. Ehrman: I left this question under another post, then realized the post was written by a guest author, so I have reposted a more concise version of the question here for you:

    —Do you think that the early Christians believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus because they had seen his actual walking/talking body alive again after his execution [even if it was in a “transformed state”), or can we only say that the earliest Christians believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus because they saw SOMETHING that they thought was the bodily resurrected Jesus?

    Devout Christians today report “seeing” the Virgin Mary but if pressed will admit that “Mary” was in the form of a cloud or shadow. Can someone claim to have seen a dead person alive again without actually seeing a body?




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2018

      There’s a big different between what the disciples (a few of them? a couple of them?) thought they saw, what the later Christians thought the disciples saw, and what I myself think they saw. We don’t know the answer t othe first question; the answer to the second question is varied (as I said in my earlier comment); the answer to the third is: visions of something that wasn’t really there physically.




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  26. Lev
    Lev  January 16, 2018

    Hi Bart,

    I recently came across something quite chilling as it’s quite a dark and difficult subject, so I offer advanced apologies, but I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

    In Exodus 22:29 it appears to show God commanding Israel to sacrifice their first-born males.
    In Ezekiel 20:26 it appears to show God expressing some remorse over this commandment.

    As a historian, what conclusion do you draw from this? Was child-sacrifice a thing in early Judaism?




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2018

      It certainly happened sometimes, since later kings are condemned for it. The almost-sacrifice-of-Isaac in Genesis is often taken to be an explanation of how/why ancient Israelites moved away and against the practice (substituting animals instead).




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      • Lev
        Lev  January 16, 2018

        In your view, was there a time in the early history of the Hebrews where this was an institutional practice, that it was the law of the nation to sacrifice their firstborn sons to God?

        The Ezekiel 20 passage seems to suggest this was the case, claiming that God issued this law which was ‘not good’ in order to horrify the Hebrews: “25 Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live. 26 I defiled them through their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn, in order that I might horrify them, so that they might know that I am the Lord.”




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        • Bart
          Bart  January 17, 2018

          No, I think in remote Israelite antiquity there *wasn’t* a “nation,” let alone a national law. There were just groups of people living throughout the land area that later came to be known as Israel.




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          • Lev
            Lev  January 17, 2018

            The archaeological evidence discovered in the past 25 years seems impressive and points strongly in favour of the existence of the nations of Israel and Judah that had Kings and functioning administration from the 10th to the 7th century BC:

            1. The Khirbet Qeiyafa ruins, discovered in 2007, is said to be a Jewish fortress dating to the 10th century BC. One of the excavators, Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University, has said “the kingdom of Judah existed already as a centrally organized state in the tenth century BCE”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khirbet_Qeiyafa

            2. Six official clay seals discovered in 2014 shows evidence of government activity in the 10th century B.C. Jimmy Hardin, associate professor in the MSU Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, said: “Our preliminary results indicated that this site is integrated into a political entity that is typified by elite activities, suggesting that a state was already being formed in the 10th century B.C.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141216100433.htm

            3. The Large Stone Structure found in Jerusalem in 2005 shows evidence of an impressive administrative structure that some claim is the Palace of David, dated 10th century BC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Stone_Structure

            4. The Tel Dan Stele, discovered 1993-1994, boasts of a military victory which references the Kings of Israel and Judea: “I killed Jehoram son of Ahab king of Israel, and I killed Ahaziahu son of Jehoram king of the House of David” Dated 870-750 BC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tel_Dan_Stele

            5. Widow’s Petition Ostracon shows a Hebrew widow petitioning her King. Dated 9th-7th century BC: http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/westsem/petition.html

            Whilst I do not think the biblical account of Israel is historical, I do think the archaeological evidence cited above is.

            Whilst I do not think the book of Exodus as we have it was written way back in the 14th century BC, I do think the authors sourced their material from the ancient oral laws that governed the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

            One of these laws was as follows: “You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: for seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.” Exodus 22:29-30

            By the time we get to Ezekiel’s day (6th Century BC), this seems to have been overturned – and some explanation was given over why it this law was given in the first place.




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          • Bart
            Bart  January 18, 2018

            Yes, I think there was some kind of kingdom associated with David by the 10th century. I thought the question was asking about earlier centuries. With respect to when there was a kingdom (a) there were no “national laws” the way we think of jurisprudence in the modern world; (b) there were no laws requiring humnan sacrifice. But it was, well, widely discouraged.




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    • godspell  January 16, 2018

      Human sacrifice was probably practiced in all or nearly all human cultures at some point. My Celtic ancestors practiced it before they became Christians, and there is some evidence it continued in a more voluntary form afterwards. It was famously practiced in the Americas before Europeans got here, by the Aztecs and others.

      Warrior cultures, like the Spartans and Vikings, were known for killing children who were deemed unfit. That was more pragmatic than religious, perhaps. You wouldn’t make a gift to the gods of the crippled or ill.

      It would be strange indeed if the early Jews somehow entirely avoided this practice. The interesting thing is that they contrived a myth to explain why they stopped doing it, as Bart mentions. It seems that at some point in a society’s development, the practice is rejected.

      Jesus seems to have even rejected the practice of sacrificing animals. Because, I would suggest, he believed all sacrifice was worthless unless it was chosen by the victim.

      The noble savage is an invention of Rousseau. Human history is rife with cruelty–sometimes brought on by scarcity of resources, sometimes by other things. We have struggled to overcome this legacy, and we still do. Religion was part of that struggle.




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      • Lev
        Lev  January 17, 2018

        Interesting thoughts Godspell. I agree that some ancient Hebrews did follow this abominable practice, but I’m a bit freaked out to see it laid out as a commandment in Exodus 22:29.

        The u-turn in Ezekiel 20:25-26 is only slightly less awful – according to Ezekiel, God gave that commandment to ‘horrify’ the Jewish people!




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