Talking Sense in Public

In the run-up to Christmas, anyone with a quarter-wit can start spouting off about what did or did not happen around the time Jesus of Nazareth was born. Even brilliant scholars succumb to the temptation to pump up the volume of imprecise, outrageous claims about history. For a counter-example, check out the online symposium over at Slate, where Alan Segal, John Kloppenborg, and Larry Hurtado talk over history, probabilities, and plausibility in appropriately measured tones.

I enjoy their conversation partly because I don’t agree with any one of them down the line — each makes strong points, each construes evidence in ways that I wouldn’t at various points, and all three address one another ccordially and respectfully.

As I read over their arguments, it occurs to me that biblical studies may approach the boundary of “disproportion of assent-claimed against evidence-available.” We have a relatively small pool of data, intensely studied over two thousand years, but we’re caught up in claims about belief (and certainty) that bear no durable relation to the quality of the evidence. That does not by any means suggest that I don’t believe what I say, or that I suggest that Christian (or other) faith is intrinsically implausible; it just means that my perspective on the evidence at hand provides me with little reason to suppose that I should be able to compel people to agree with me about what it adds up to.

To put the point theologically, the sketchiness of the data leaves ample room for the necessity of faith and grace — rather than making orthodox Christian faith the sort of logical outcome of any reasonable person’s deliberation about the evidence.

4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Wow, I’ve never heard a perspective on biblical studies put that way before. Now that I see the idea, it makes perfect sense that “the sketchiness of the data” may be necessary to the development and continued existence of faith. If all of the answers were apparent there would be nothing to question, nothing to doubt, and nothing to believe in despite any lack of information.

    Your writing is exquisitely clear and well thought-out. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. By selectively reading various nouns in this entry, I have determined that you are a covert operative in the War on Christmas. Slander of Christmas will be met with swift and merciless action (as our gentle, blessed Savior demands). You have five seconds to recant and make a “reconciliation gift” to my discretionary fund. This is the O’Easterling Factor, Fr. Adam and America has just put you on notice.

    P.S.– Happy New Year from New Orleans.

  3. In some sense I agree with you on this point, but I wonder what you make of the claims of N T Wright when he argues that a fair reading of the history available to us suggests that what orthodox christianity claims is far and away the most plausible way to reconstruct things, e.g. his account of the resurrection in the big green book. In particular, I agree with Wright’s stand against the supposed divide between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” I’m hoping that you are with me in that regard.

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