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.