In a discussion over on his own blog, Pontificator challenged me to "stipulate the criteria by which you evaluate historical evidence. What are your presuppositions? Turn the truth searchlight upon yourself and tell me what you see."
What follows is an edited and slightly-expanded version of my response. I'm grateful to Pontificator for posing this challenge and with it the occasion to write up some thoughts.
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My historical presuppositions are those of a litigator with a science background. They're grounded on experience in trying to piece together coherent accounts of past events by studying documents and interviewing witnesses.
(It's not just lawyers who do this -- ask any investigative journalist, or any police detective.)
Here are a few of my historical presuppositions, not necessarily in any particular order:
1. Bias Casts Doubt on Reliability
I’m wary of stories told by people who seem to be biased. People with an agenda, or a self-interest to protect, or an axe to grind, will often try to “spin” their stories. They tend emphasize favorable facts, or to de-emphasize or even omit inconvenient facts. They can genuinely "remember" things the way that best fits their personal desires and interests. Once in a while, they can lie outright. We see this all the time in everyday life:
- The current presidential campaign is chock full of examples of spin.
- As I write this, Martha Stewart is in federal prison because she supposedly shaded the truth (some would say, "lied") to federal authorities about why she made certain stock trades.
- The legend about the young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree is remembered precisely because he didn't lie to his father.
The Fourth Gospel, much beloved by traditionalists, shows distinct signs of bias and "spin." Its putative author John seems to have been bent on exalting his own status as "the disciple whom Jesus loved."
- It’s illuminating that, while Luke's gospel tells of Peter being the first of the disciples to enter the tomb on Easter Sunday, the Fourth Gospel claims that it was John, racing ahead of Peter, who was actually first into the tomb.
- In the Synoptic Gospels, John is portrayed as something of a self-promoting hothead. He and his brother James openly wanted to be elevated as Jesus’ chief lieutenants when the Messiah came into his kingdom. They were willing to call down fire on villages that did not show proper "respect" for their boss. Even their mother got into the act, lobbying Jesus to promote her sons above his other disciples.
- In her recent book Beyond Belief, Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels suggests that the Fourth Gospel's story of Doubting Thomas may have been a literary jab by John at his rival Thomas.
One consequently wonders about the reliability of John's accounts.
2. Overenthusiasm and Objectivity
In a related vein, I’m wary of claims made by people who seem overly enthusiastic. Such people can sometimes let their invincible certainty get in the way of their objectivity and their receptivity to additional facts. They're often mistaken but never in doubt.
Take Paul as an example. In his former life, he was a driven, passionate persecutor of the followers of Jesus. But then he flip-flopped completely: He became just driven and passionate about following Jesus himself. This alone raises questions about his reliability.
The Jerusalem church obviously had such questions. They didn’t trust Paul, at least not at first (if they ever really did). Moreover, James’ epistle hints that the men who actually knew Jesus in life continued to scratch their heads over Paul’s “out-there” views.
Perhaps Paul was indeed inspired by the risen Jesus and by the Holy Spirit. But his history makes it difficult to submit one's life totally to his theological views.
3. Lack of Foundation -- The Need for First-Hand Evidence
I’m wary of factual assertions in the New Testament when there’s no indication that the assertions are based on someone's first-hand observation. In court, such assertions will be excluded from evidence on grounds of "lack of foundation." For example, suppose that a witness testifies that a car ran a red light and hit a pedestrian. Unless his testimony previously established that he was present at the scene and was looking at the intersection, counsel for the other side will properly object that his testimony lacks foundation.
We don't necessarily have to apply the same degree of skepticism to everything the New Testament. Traditionalists correctly point out that we accept historical assertions about, say, Julius Caesar without particular qualms about foundation. If the Gospels tell a story about an event, and it appears that multiple disciples were likely to have seen the event, we may want to infer that the story is based on reasonably-sufficient foundation. (That doesn't mean we'll automatically take the story at face value, for reasons discussed below in point 4.)
But even so, some of the stories in the New Testament are important enough that we should be mindful of any potential lack of foundation. For example:
- It's difficult to know how much stock to place in the stories of the high priests plotting against Jesus. We have no idea who the sources of those stories were, nor whether any hypothetical eyewitnesses might have had an axe to grind.
- Similarly, we don't know who reported what was said at Jesus' trial. We do have reason to think that the disciples had fled, all except Peter who stood in the courtyard -- presumably out of earshot of the unfolding events.
- Whence came the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, supposedly a crucial Jesus sighting in Luke's Gospel?
- The opening verses of the Fourth Gospel speak at length of Jesus' supposed eternal pre-existence. How exactly did the author know this?
- Paul says that Jesus appeared to 500 people. Paul says he "received" this information from others. Who actually saw this event, and just what did s/he have to say about it? We'll never know.
Traditionalist Christians argue that at the time the New Testament documents were written, there were still eyewitnesses alive who could correct any erroneous statements in those documents. That may well be true. But it does not mean that such correction actually happened. As any urban-legends Web site will confirm, erroneous stories have a way of staying in circulation long after they have been "corrected."
4. The Corrupting Influence of Hearsay
Relating to point 3, I’m particularly wary of hearsay, as I’ve written elsewhere. I’m extremely wary of stories that have been passed around orally for years and even decades, possibly over large geographical distances, before finally being written down.
There’s a reason we have a hearsay rule in the legal system. People remember things in funny ways – read: unreliable ways. They unconsciously look for patterns. They instinctively use imagination and guesswork to fill in the blanks.
Often, when a person comes up with a particular version of events, he can tend to lock in on it, and to be difficult to convince that he might not have it right.
And let’s not forget the possible effects of bias and "spin," as discussed in point 1 above.
That's why we have a hearsay rule in the legal system. If a person makes a factual assertion, we want to know things such as:
- whether the person really does have a basis for his factual assertions. Suppose, for example, that a witness is called to testify that, when the defendant's car entered an intersection, he ran a red light. Cross-examination can help establish whether his attention was focused on something else at the time; whether his view of the light might have been obstructed; whether he was wearing his glasses; and so forth -- in other words, whether the witness actually knows what he's talking about;
- whether the person might have an agenda, an interest to protect, or an axe to grind;
- whether there are any other reason for doubting the witness' credibility, such as prior inconsistent statements, prior conviction of a felony or of a crime involving fraud, etc.
To be sure, there are exceptions to the hearsay rule. Those exceptions come into play, however, only when there are factors that suggest the hearsay evidence in question is likely to be reasonably reliable.
For example, written records created in the ordinary course of business, by someone whose regular duty it was to accurately record facts, can be eligible for a business-records exception. Routine police reports are sometimes admitted into evidence under this exception.
Such records will not automatically be admitted into evidence for the jury to consider. Suppose that it appears that the records were created specifically in anticipation of litigation. The judge may well rule they are not eligible for the business-records exception because the usual safeguards of reliability are not present.
And even if a hearsay exception were to apply, it would mean only that the jury would get to hear or see the hearsay evidence, instead of having the evidence excluded entirely. The exception would not require the jury to automatically accept the hearsay assertions as true. The jurors would still have the right -- and the duty -- to consider any indications of bias, lack of first-hand knowledge, etc., and to give the hearsay evidence such weight, or lack of weight, as they deemed appropriate.
5. Confusion About Cause and Effect
I’m dubious when someone makes a claim of cause-and-effect if they haven't done the homework to rule out other possible explanations. This dubiousness comes in part from my science and engineering background.
EXAMPLE: The disciples reported that Jesus’ tomb was empty. This is said to be evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. Perhaps. But there may be other, simpler explanations. My own pet suspicion is that, to avoid riots by the Passover crowds in Jerusalem, the well-connected Joseph of Arimathea quietly had Jesus' body reburied in an undisclosed location after the Sabbath was over -- without deigning to consult with the hoi polloi Eleven (just as he had not bothered to check with them before claiming the body on Good Friday), and perhaps deliberately keeping the apostles in the dark.
EXAMPLE: Some disciples reportedly saw and spoke with Jesus after his death. Post-mortem appearances and after-death communications by loved ones are a fairly well-documented but little-understood phenomenon. (Both my mother and my grandmother experienced them while wide awake.) It seems to me that the stories of Jesus eating broiled fish, etc., are at least as likely to have been embellished in the retelling as they are to have been true.
EXAMPLE: Some of the earliest Christians died for their faith. But so did many Jews of that era (and subsequent centuries). So did a number of early Mormons. So did the 900 people who died at Jonestown, and the suicides of the Heaven’s Gate cult, and at least some of the Branch Davidians. For that matter, so do Islamist suicide bombers. Someone may well be willing to die for his beliefs. That’s not a reliable indicator that his beliefs are necessarily true.
6. The Limitations of Human Knowledge
We have abundant historical evidence of the limitations of human knowledge. None of us knows everything. What we think we know, could well turn out to be incomplete or even flat-out wrong. All “knowledge” is therefore provisional.
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These are a few of my historical suppositions. I’m glad to have been challenged about them; it gave me the opportunity to write them up.