Bishops of History Response, Catholicism, Fractionation

The Paradigmatic Bishops of History-Methodology


II. Methodology & Critique

A. Methodology

Before addressing the preliminary principles BOH enumerates, a few words on methodology. In the New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright explains,

There is an important sense in which historical method is just like all other methods of enquiry. It proceeds by means of ‘hypotheses’ which stand in need of ‘verification…’ pg. 98

Wright goes on to explain the power of stories (see his story on the police car on page 99) and then provides three requirements for a good hypothesis. First, it must include the data—all the data. Second, it must construct a basically simple and coherent overall picture. Of course, Wright acknowledges these first two principles hold a tension and also acknowledges,

in any given field, it is quite likely that there will be several possible hypotheses which will include more or less all the data, and do so with reasonabl[e] simplicity

Consequently, the third mark of a good hypothesis is that a good hypothesis must prove fruitful in other related areas. Hypotheses that are able to integrate and explain other proximate events and data bolster and distinguish a hypothesis.

As Wright notes, however, verifying competing hypotheses is problematic. How much relative weight should be attached to criteria and by what measure is the criteria satisfactorily fulfilled?

It is clear that the sort of balance required between inclusion of data on the one hand and simplicity on the other will vary according to the subject-matter. The paleontologist has a skeleton to fit together. If she creates a beautifully simple structure which omits a few large bones, her colleagues may accuse her of satisfying the second criterion at the expense of the first, and will take with a pinch of salt her theory that the other bones belong to the animal who was eating—or perhaps being eaten by—the one now constructed. Simplicity has been achieved at the cost of getting in the data. If, however, a second paleontologist produces a skeleton which cunningly uses up all the bones but has seven toes on one foot and eighteen on the other, the opposite conclusion will be drawn: the data have been included but simplicity abandoned, and distrust will this time be leveled at any bizarre evolutionary explanation of the new story. But which of the two theories will be preferred? On balance, I think the former: it is harder to imagine a peculiar mutation ever really existing that it is to suspect that a few extra bones may have intruded into the pile (pg. 104-105).

Wright illustrates that the historical process is at the same time art and science. Some options are more likely than others, but the discipline of history seeks to develop the most probable reconstruction of events. Solutions that incorporate the data in the most simple structure are to be preferred—but caution must be exercised to codify any particular approach.  Each discipline and each case are unique and may require different scales.

Eamon Duffy notes,

Reading historical evidence is not a purely subjective exercise, but it is a skill, for which some people have more aptitude than others, just as some people are better at recognising a tune

Thus, there is an element of subjectivity to every historical conclusion.  Varying scales may be used in examining data and different stories may be used to organize and discard data. Consequently, John Meier, in his magnum opus A Marginal Jew Vol. I notes that any study of ancient history,

will usually produce judgments that are only more or less probable; certainty is rarely to be had. Indeed, since in the quest for the historical Jesus almost anything is possible, the function of the criteria is to pass from the merely possible to the really probable, to inspect various probabilities to decide which candidate is most probable. Ordinarily, the criteria cannot hope to do more (pg. 165-166).

My hope here is to illustrate not that history is useless—it is certainly not—but rather that the making an historical argument requires interacting with all the evidence in an interconnected manner. In constructing an historical argument, probability plays a large role and all of the pieces of evidence intersect and interact reinforcing the probability or improbability of a historical narrative.

B. Critique

While BOH and I agree on their preliminary principles, I believe they misapply those principles in ways that do not respect the method of history explained above.

On the first principle, BOH rightly notes that if each position can equally integrate the data into their story, it is not evidence against or for either position. This criteria is a helpful reminder and boundary marker, but it cannot demonstrate that competing narratives are in fact equal. In order to demonstrate that the ILD principle has been violated one would have to show that the narratives were each able to equally integrate the data into their narrative.

As a mental exercise, let’s revisit Wright’s paleontologist example above. One narrative weighs the simplicity of the story above incorporating what it believes is the most reliable interpretation of the data.  Some of the big bones do not belong to this animal, but come from somewhere else. The other paleontologist is able to use the same data and come to a radically different conclusion, incorporating all of the bones to construct a creature with seven toes on one foot and eighteen on the other. With integrity both paleontologists can look to the data and claim it fits into their narrative. Is the data therefore inscrutable because it fits into both narratives? One’s answer is a judgment call based on the available evidence. Wright explains that in this hypothetical situation he would be inclined to the more simplistic explanation.

In BOH, the claim is repeatedly made that the evidence is inscrutable and therefore not evidence that the church in Rome was originally presbyterial. Examples are enumerated in detail below, but BOH merely lists possible interpretations without evaluating probabilities. In almost every place BOH proposes possible scenarios in which their theory of a monepiscopate with supreme jurisdictional authority could potentially fit. They then move from invoking a possibility to asserting they have incorporated the data and therefore the data is inscrutable between competing paradigms.

This is inadequate historical methodology and limits the historical process from challenging pre-existing narratives. This is perhaps one of the most important reasons BOH, in my estimation, has very limited utility in addressing the substance of my initial article. Rather than provide substantive argument for why their interpretation is superior, they merely claim to offer a possible alternative.

Additional problems persist regarding requirements for silence to carry evidential weight. In the four conditions for silence to carry evidential weight there is a very important caveat that BOH often over extends:  points a, b, c, & d apply to a singular “author.” Thus, in an instance where multiple authors omit something, that silence *may* begin to impact the probability of one historical “story” against another.

For example, just because Tacitus does not mention the Ascension of Jesus does not mean that it did not happen. Tacitus has no reason for mentioning it and so we should not be surprised to see it is absent in his annals. There are other examples though, where contextual clues make silence significant for the historian.

The pagan Celsus claims that the Jews denied Jesus’s virgin birth and instead had taught from the beginning that a Ben Pendera or Ben Pantere, was the biological father of Jesus. He even claims that this story was widely spread in Jesus’s lifetime. With no other information, this may seem to be a reliable account that stretches back to the first centuries—clearly Celsus is making a claim that has been made for years and is part of Jewish tradition. Yet, there are reasons for doubting Celsus’s account.

We have an early dispute between Trypho the Jew and Justin Martyr where they discussed the Virgin Birth. At no point does Trypho mention anything about Ben Pendera or Ben Pantere. If Celsus was correct, it would seem very odd that Trypho ignores this fact when raising objections to the Virgin Birth. In terms of history, one may choose to date Celsus’s story back to the time of Jesus, but the silence from Trypho makes Celsus’s argument less probable. Even though Trypho never explicitly denies this story, his silence also strongly indicates he is unaware of the tradition. Thus, historians believe that it is improbable that the Ben Pendera claim goes back to the time of Jesus, though “rejection” of the claim is merely “improbable” based on the silence from Trypho.

Arguments from silence are an important tool in the historian’s tool belt. You do not use the same tool on every project, and some tools are more powerful than others, but each can serve their part in constructing a narrative. Arguments from silence can reinforce or weaken a proposed historical narrative. Moreover, as the example from Celsus and Trypho illustrates, just because something is mentioned in one text (at a later date) does not mean that the argument from silence is therefore illegitimate. When engaging multiple authors the validity of the argument from silence is not constrained by the four criteria enumerated by BOH. That is not to say any argument from silence is legitimate when encountering multiple sources, it merely makes the criteria BOH lists insufficient for determining the legitimacy of the argument from silence.

The third criteria would seem to fulfill its place, because this criteria says a positive overturns any number of negatives. Yet, as the example above shows, when one narrative claims “X” and an early narrative omits “X” when it is conspicuous or expected, then further historical investigation is required. In this case, it is not accurate to claim that any sound overturns silence. The positive claim ought to be explained, but it does not immediately negate the earlier silence. Further historical investigation is necessary. Thus, when dealing with later documents, we may say that any sound requires historical explanation, but it does not necessarily refute the argument from silence.

To borrow again from Wright, arguments from silence are another piece of data in the paleontologists (historians) reconstruction. They can be explained in multiple ways.  One narrative may afford weight to the silence, another may dismiss it. Both may maintain their narrative, but the more successful historian will be the way to situate the argument from silence or lack thereof into her narrative.

The fourth and final preliminary principle focuses upon how to interpret underdetermined data (whether an argument from silence or ambiguity in interpretation). This is the most problematic of the four preliminary principles, but abstractly I can agree that it is best to allow data to interact with other data without being confined or constricted. Yet, in the application of this principle, BOH seeks to leverage this principle as a way to prioritize its own historical narrative or “paradigm.”

Proximity is not itself a sufficient reason to trust a source. For example, the Jews were more proximate to the resurrection than any believer today and they claimed that the body was stolen from the tomb. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is proximate data, per Bryan’s comment #65, yet it is not considered reliable evidence of Jesus’s childhood. Proximity of evidence to an event is important to consider when evaluating the use of evidence, but it is only one consideration among countless others. With no rationale or guard rails to define what qualifies as “proximate data” (What type of data? What is the time period considered for proximate data?), BOH is able to claim Eusebius is “proximate” to the events of the NT, even though he lived c. AD 260-339. No rationale is provided for why Eusebius is proximate or reliable (and as the body of this paper demonstrates, there are numerous reasons to believe that Eusebius needs to be read with scrutiny), it is simply asserted. BOH accuses me of “artificially restricting the data,” (which is not true) but BOH has artificially expanded the data set without justification.

BOH rightly includes the caveat that proximate data is to inform underdetermined data “unless there is independent positive evidence of discontinuity.” From the outset my thesis is that there *is* independent positive evidence of discontinuity while BOH argues that there is *not* independent positive evidence of discontinuity. The way forward is to allow each side to explain their narrative and include the relevant data points to form a holistic picture.

For my own part I approached my initial study more or less neutral (in fact, I wanted to be finally persuaded the RCC was founded by Jesus). I was sincerely attempting to ascertain if Jesus founded the RCC, so I came to my thesis through the evaluation of the evidence.  I did not begin with the assumption that there were signs of discontinuity, but my analysis of the evidence (subjective and colored by presuppositions, of course) has led me to believe this is the most probable narrative. Of course, this is a subjective assessment, but so is BOH’s that the early evidence ought to be interpreted in continuity with evidence nearly 300 years after the fact. Attempting to use a principle of proximate evidence to allow this is objectionable as a principle, even if BOH is right about continuity offering the preferable narrative.

In an attempt to provide clarity of my narrative, the next post will be an attempt to broadly lay out the narrative I’m proposing. Following this narrative, I will attempt to provide detailed justification for why my narrative best accounts for the facts. I’ll allow a few days for people to digest the Agreement & Methodology sections and then I will post the narrative summary.


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