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IV. Why Aren’t Most Christians More Concerned?

So HBC has not in general been sympathetic to traditional Christian belief; it has hardly been an encouragement to the faithful. The faithful, however, seem relatively unconcerned; they find traditional biblical commentary of great interest and importance, but the beliefs and attitudes of HBC have not seemed to filter down to them, despite its dominance in mainline seminaries. According to Van Harvey, “Despite decades of research, the average person tends to think of the life of Jesus in much the same terms as Christians did three centuries ago.”502502   NTS, p. 194. Harvey finds this puzzling: “Why is it that, in a culture so dominated by experts in every field, the opinion of New Testament historians has had so little influence on the public?”503503   Ibid. Are traditional Christians just ignoring inconvenient evidence? In what follows, I’ll try to answer these questions. Obviously HBC has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the Bible, in particular the circumstances and conditions of its composition; it has given us new alternatives as to how to understand the human authors, and this has also given us new ideas about how to understand the divine Author. Nevertheless, there are in fact excellent reasons for tending to ignore that “considerable skepticism” of which Harvey speaks. I don’t mean 402to claim that the ordinary person in the pew ignores it because she has these reasons clearly in mind; no doubt she doesn’t. I say only that these reasons are good reasons for a traditional Christian to ignore the deflationary results of HBC.

What might these reasons be? Well, one reason might be that skeptical scripture scholars display vast disagreement among themselves.504504   This lack of accord is especially well documented by Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith, pp. 322ff. There is also the fact that quite a number of the arguments they propose seem at best wholly inconclusive.505505   For example, John Dominick Crosson argues that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs; hence he did not rise from the dead. What is the evidence for the proposition that his body was eaten by dogs? Just that this is what ordinarily happened to criminals executed by crucifixion. But then Crosson could have made a much briefer argument: Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, because most people don’t. Perhaps the endemic vice or at any rate the perennial temptation of HBC is what we might call “the fallacy of creeping certitude,” which is committed by those who ignore the principle of dwindling probabilities. To practice this fallacy, you note that some proposition A is probable (to .9, say) with respect to your background knowledge k; you therefore annex A to k. Then you note that a proposition B is probable with respect to k&A; you therefore add it too to k. Then you note that C is probable to .9 with respect to A&B&k, and also annex it to k; similarly for (say) D, E, F, and G. You then pronounce A&B&C&D&E&F&G highly probable with respect to k, our evidence or background information. But the fact is (as we learn from the probability calculus) that these probabilities must be multiplied: so that in fact the probability of A&B&C&D&E&F&G is .9 to the seventh power, that is, less than .5!506506   Eleonore Stump criticizes another very good illustration of this procedure in chapter 3, “Historical Biblical Studies: Practices,” of her The Knowledge of Suffering (not yet published). In “Biblical Criticism and the Resurrection” (not yet published), William Alston suggests his own version of the fallacy of creeping certitude, and he also mentions the widespread use of the argument from silence, which, so to say, promotes the failure to assert p to the assertion of not-p. (For example, Thomas Sheehan says that according to Matthew, “He [Christ] does not ascend into heaven” [The First Coming, p. 97], giving as a reference Matthew 28:16–20. Matthew 28:16-20, however, does not say that Jesus did not ascend into heaven; it simply doesn’t say that he did.) Stump and Alston argue (with great cogency, in my opinion) that a good bit of negative HBC doesn’t satisfy ordinary canons of proper scholarship; I shall argue that even if the scholarship were impeccable, the epistemological assumptions I have been mentioning make the work of dubious relevance to traditional Christian belief.

Suppose we look into reasons or arguments for preferring the results of HBC to those of traditional commentary. Why should we suppose that the former take us closer to the truth than the latter? Troeltsch’s principles are particularly important here. As understood 403in the interpretative community of HBC, they preclude special divine action, including special divine inspiration of Scripture and the occurrence of miracles. As Gilkey says, “Suddenly a vast panoply of divine deeds and events recorded in scripture are no longer regarded as having actually happened.” Many academic theologians and scripture scholars appear to believe that Troeltschian HBC is de rigueur; it is often regarded as the only intellectually respectable variety of scripture scholarship, or the only variety that has any claim to the mantle of science. (And many who arrive at relatively traditional conclusions in scripture scholarship nevertheless pay at least lip service to the Troeltschian ideal, somehow feeling in a semiconfused way that this is the epistemically respectable or privileged way of proceeding.) Still, why think scripture scholarship should proceed in this specific way—as opposed both to traditional biblical commentary and varieties of HBC that do not accept Troeltsch’s principles? Are there any reasons or arguments for those principles?


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