Historical Method: Are skeptics committed to a double standard?

This is my first post in a planned series on the Historical Method. I will discuss general topics and areas of tension between conservative biblical scholars and skeptics. This series will include discussions of authorship, dating, and general reliability. My focus in this first post is the question of whether either group—the skeptic or the theist—is committed to a double standard regarding ancient texts.

Skeptics about the Bible are often accused of holding a double standard. The theist will bring up stories about Julius Caesar or Socrates, and then claim that we believe these stories on evidence as good as or worse than the Bible[i]. I find this accusation incredibly ironic.

I can’t speak for every skeptic, of course, but let me (briefly) spell out my own view of ancient documents and see if you agree. There are a variety of methods historians use to assign some estimate of probability for historicity to a text. Thanks to Bart Ehrman, the general public is now familiar with some of these—multiple attestation, fitting the historical context, dissimilarity, potential for embarrassment, to name a few[ii]. I was taught by one of Ehrman’s former graduate students and one of the editors of his New Testament textbook, so his ideas are very much instilled in my approach to the texts of the Bible. Even so, these are not my primary line of defense from separating out that which is nearly certainly nonsense. These are of secondary concern to a more fundamental rubric. That is because I have a distinct advantage over ancient authors—I know more about the world.

My first alarm that a text contains non-historical information is when that text presents something that contradicts modern science. I don’t mean something like string theory that is seriously questioned—I mean really basic stuff. You may not think about it much, but you do it too. Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and people who in general consider themselves reasonable take this automatic approach to rejecting information from the past (in most cases). Imagine someone presents you with this brief story, allegedly written in 45 B.C.E.:

As the great hero Phaedrus sped into battle, he willed from within himself a great power. At once, his chariot came aloft and grew wings as if it were a great bird. Flames spewed forth from the mouth of his horse, consuming every enemy below and sparing his allies.

What is your first reaction? Is it to seek out multiple attestations? No, I don’t think so. I’m willing to bet you dismiss this story out of hand (and you should because I just made it up). Now to the more interesting question: Why do you dismiss it out of hand? The story is simply unbelievable because it contains magical elements. Is this a pre-existing bias against the supernatural? Yes, of course it is! And it is a justified bias based on every bit of actual evidence we have. The prior probability of something like this is so ridiculously low that we are completely justified in rejecting the magical elements on those grounds alone. Maybe there are historical bits still in the story, but no one is seriously going to grant that his chariot grew wings.

This is not something just atheists do; rather, everyone with a reasonable approach to history does this. But the religious do believe their own magical claims. Is it seriously because you have thoroughly rebutted and rejected the evidence for all other religious claims? No, I highly doubt that. I suspect your reasoning was more like what I described. You would dismiss something simply on the grounds that it contained magic…except in your own case. That means you are actually the one with the double standard.

If you like this, you can read more of my posts and argue with the occasional religious lunatic at http://foxholeatheism.com.

[i] There are so many things we could say to contrast the sources for Caesar, etc. but I want to focus on the issue at hand and that discussion would take us off track.

[ii] If you’re interested in further discussion of the historical method and tools for discerning historicity, please read Richard Carrier’s excellent treatment of it in this paper.

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Comment by Pierre H. Vachon on September 9, 2011 at 2:18pm

Nice - looking forward to the rest of the series ;-)

Comment by Beth on September 9, 2011 at 4:04pm
This is an interesting topic when one considers that some countries still lie about the facts per WW2, Viet Nam war, Iraq/Afghanistan.  Thus I  think history is ripe with folks who want what they believe, not what is true, to be the norm.  Doubt this will ever change. 


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