Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Commentary on Bart Ehrman's NPR Interview

Bart Ehrman was interviewed Monday (April 7th, 2014) by Terry Gross on National Public Radio's, "Fresh Air" (a more apt name for the show would be "Hot Air," since that's about the only kind of air that comes out of the mouth of Terry Gross and her typical guests.  Tax dollars hard at work.  But I digress...)  The interview was about his book "How Jesus Became God."  Since there's just way too much to respond to in that interview, I'm going to restrict myself to commenting on the following about historical scholarship, because I think this is a good illustration of Ehrman's own biases:

GROSS: When you're asking the question of did Jesus really rise from the dead, was there really an empty tomb, a tomb that he had been buried in, as a scholar of the historical Jesus, where do you go to try to answer those questions?

EHRMAN: Well, there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. Now that seems a little strange to my students, but I explain there are a lot of things in the past that we cannot show historically. For example you can't show, even if you want to, you simply can't show what my grandfather ate on March 23, 1956.
I mean, he ate something for lunch that day I'm sure, but there's no way we have access to it. So it's in the past, but it's not part of history. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that's miraculous because to believe that a miracle's happened, to believe that God has something in our world requires a person to believe in God, it requires a theological belief.
But historians can't require theological beliefs to do their work. That's why historians, whether they're historians of World War II or of the Napoleonic age or of ancient Alexandria Egypt, historians who deal with historical subjects don't invoke miracle because it's beyond what historians can prove. Miracles may have happened in the past, but they're not part of history.
So that applies to the resurrection of Jesus. Historians acting as historians, whether they're believers or non-believers, as historians they simply cannot say Jesus was probably raised by God from the dead. But historians can look at the other aspects of the resurrection traditions and see whether they bear up historically. So for example, the question was there an empty tomb, was Jesus put in a tomb and three days later that tomb was found empty? Well, that's a historical question and to answer it, it doesn't require any set of religious beliefs. You can simply look at the sources and draw some historical conclusions.
Let's start with his view of history:  "[H]istory is not the past....[T]here are a lot of things in the past that we cannot show historically.  For example you can't show, even if  you want to, you simply can't show what my grandfather ate on March 23, 1956....History is what we can show to have happened in the past."

Ehrman's view--at least as he's expressed it here--is roughly that of O'Brien's in "1984": there is no history beyond what we say there is.   Ehrman relativizes history to that which "we can show."  What is it to "show" something?  He doesn't say, but I think we can safely say from his other remarks that it is to prove to someone else what happened in the past.  Since no one can prove what his grandpa ate for breakfast, what his grandpa ate is not a part of history.

This has strange implications.  The more we can show about the past, the more history there is!  The corollary is that, if we all of a sudden developed collective amnesia, the entire universe would have no history!

Nonsense, I say.  There is history and then there is what we humans record or report of that history.  Our records, our accounts, our interpretations are not themselves history.  They do not make up history.  I, Tully, have a history, much of which I have forgotten.  Russia has a history.  Nonetheless, my forgetting that history does not thereby make that history null and void.  I can recall forgotten details of that history; and I can forget details of that history.  We may not know what Ehrman's grandpa ate, but his eating or not eating on a particular day is a part of his grandfather's history regardless of whether any of us knows whether or what he ate.  (Ehrman's entire conversation is plagued with confusions of this sort to which Terry Gross seems utterly oblivious).  We move on....
One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that's miraculous because to believe that a miracle's happened, to believe that God has something in our world requires a person to believe in God, it requires a theological belief.
But historians can't require theological beliefs to do their work. That's why historians, whether they're historians of World War II or of the Napoleonic age or of ancient Alexandria Egypt, historians who deal with historical subjects don't invoke miracle because it's beyond what historians can prove. Miracles may have happened in the past, but they're not part of history.
Here Ehrman invokes a methodological naturalism of sorts in telling us what historians can and cannot show.  Historians can't show that miracles occurred in the past because it requires a theological belief.  Here seems to be the argument:
1. To believe that a miracle happened is to believe that God has done something in the world.
2. To believe 1 is to have a theological belief.
3. Historians can't require theological beliefs to do their work (because it's beyond what historians can prove.)
4. If historians can't require theological beliefs to do their work, then miracles are not a part of history.
5. Thus miracles are not a part of history.

Clearly there are some unstated assumptions, but exactly what those are is not obvious.  I find the argument somewhat baffling (why think 3 and 4 are true?),  but I suppose it makes some sense if we understand Ehrman as trying to employ the methodological naturalism of the sciences as his model for the historical method.  That's the main, unstated assumption, I think.  In the sciences, a principle like the following is widely held:

SMN (scientific methodological naturalism): In doing science (or in doing it well), one can only invoke naturalistic explanations (thus one cannot invoke supernatural explanations).

I'm not going to debate the merits or demerits of SMN here.  One reason often trotted out in its favor (perhaps the only decent reason) is purely pragmatic: invoking supernatural explanations is a science-stopper and stopping science stops things like cures for cancer.

Ehrman seems to be invoking something in the neighborhood:

HMN (historical methodological naturalism): In doing history, one can only assert naturalistic claims about the past.

One difference to note between SMN and HMN is that the former is about explanations whereas the latter is about past facts more generally.  The reason I think this is what Ehrman has in mind, is because he doesn't mention anything about explanations and pretty much says that historians simply can't say anything about miracles period.

Questions abound. What reason is there for thinking HMN is true?   Is there a pragmatic reason?  If we only assert naturalistic claims about the past, are we less likely to have history repeat itself when it comes to genocide?  If we avoid asserting that some past facts are also theological facts, are we more likely to find a cure for cancer?  Why think that one is not doing history (or doing it well) if one asserts that some supernatural event in the past occurred?  I don't have the foggiest idea.  Perhaps if it's known that there is no God (or anything like God), or known that one can't know anything about God (or things like God), then there is reason for adopting something like HMN.  But it's not known that one can't know anything about God.

What it looks like is that Ehrman's agnosticism is what is driving his view on historical scholarship.  For, absent naturalism, atheism, or agnosticism, there's no good reason for thinking that one can't know about events in the past which involve God.  And if one can know that a miracle occurred five minutes ago, ten hours ago, fifteen years ago, and so on, then there's nothing illicit about reporting that event in one's historical report of the past.

But even that is too strong, for there's no requirement that in reporting about historical events that everything one reports must be an item of knowledge.  Nor must one be able to prove that something happened in the past to assert that something happened in the past.  I ate hot wings for breakfast this morning.  (Yes, you heard that right).  But I have no proof by which I can demonstrate that fact to anyone else.  All I have is my memory to go on.  Nonetheless, there's nothing wrong with asserting as fact that I ate hot wings for breakfast this morning.  In writing the (auto)biography of Tully Borland, one is not derelict of duty for using some of my memories as the basis for the book.  Surely it is enough that one reports as true what one believes to be true, where one has violated no epistemic duties in forming those beliefs about the past.  Can Ehrman himself prove that Jesus was not put into a tomb?  Can Ehrman show beyond a reasonable doubt that the earliest disciples of Jesus believed Jesus became divine after his crucifixion?  Does he (and do other historians) meet the high bar he sets for historical scholarship?



2 comments:

  1. Casey the Communist UsurperApril 9, 2014 at 6:29 PM

    Too clever by half, friend. Ehrman's definition of history, insofar as the philosophy of the discipline is concerned, is spot-on. I'll concede that his language is inartful, so let me add my own clarification, with the caveat that I do not purport to put words in his mouth: "history," per se, is the chronicle of human change; that is, it is the narrative assembled as a function of archaeological and documentary evidence. We interpret the evidence and advance those interpretations as possible explanations for human behavior. Admittedly, those interpretations are virtually never definitive, which yields the field of historiography, and gives the discipline ongoing rigor. But it is NOT the "past." The contrast is therefore apt: while Ehrman's grandfather's 1956 brunch remains a part of the PAST, it is a part of the undocumented past, which denies historians the access they require to make that meal a part of the historical record—it is cannot therefore be history. We can speculate as to what he ate, or even THAT he ate (what if unknown circumstances forced him to skip meals that day?), I suppose, but then we begin to interpret beyond our available evidence, and the entire historical enterprise becomes precarious and tentative.

    Miraculous works are no different in this regard than what we define as prehistory. We know that human civilization existed prior to our capacity to document its activities, and we yearn to understand that era to the best of our ability, but there's little we can do in the realm of history absent the evidence necessary to advance an interpretation. But that does not mean that historians reject the notion that prehistorical change occurred. Miraculous works, in my view, can fall into this same space, and it is this space that Ehrman describes. Historians of faith may well acknowledge that undocumented miracles occurred in the past, but absent evidence, we cannot responsibly integrate them into the historical record according to the standards and practices of the professionalized discipline (i.e., von Ranke forward).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Casey the Commie,

    Welcome!

    First, regarding the definition of history...
    There seem to me to be two prominent notions of "history." There is what you say as the "chronicle of human change" (though that seems a bit restrictive insofar as it leaves out the chronicling of what's remained the same). Call this notion of history, "recorded history." When we read history or take a history class we read recorded history (unless of course it's not history but propaganda).
    But that's not the only notion of history. When I say that Crimea's history is known by few historians, or when I say that we only know a small fraction of Russia's history, or when I say that I've forgotten most of my own personal history, I'm invoking a different sense of "history." And this sense, though perhaps not identical with "x's past," IS close to having the same extension as "x's past." This sense (like the past) is hard to define, nonetheless, it seems to me to be the paradigm instance of "history," for that is the history that (sincere) historians are trying to (re)discover and record when they write their "histories."

    Ehrman appears to rule out by definition that the history of the world might contain miraculous events to be (re)discovered. Not only that, it rules out that there is a segment of the world's history period (miracles or not) which might not ever be recalled--for the only history there is (according to him) is what we can show to be true about the past. That definition leaves no room for discovering bits of history which we can't now show to be true or even forming reasonable beliefs about history which nonetheless can't be shown to be true.

    But I don't want to get hung up arguing about what is really a secondary point when my main point is that Ehrman appears to arbitrarily rule out recording or claiming that miracles have occurred in the past as outside the discipline of history. Now, maybe he's just making a boring de facto claim: historians just don't do that sort of thing today. As a matter of fact it's just not done in the discipline. But he doesn't sound to me to be making a claim about the current state of affairs; rather, he's making a de jure claim. There is something wrong or problematic or unseemly about a historian claiming that a miracle occurred in the past. The nature of history doesn't allow for it. But why think that? Is it because miracles are unlikely and thus we couldn't be certain of their occurrence? But why think miracles are unlikely? And even if they are, that Jones wins the lottery is extremely unlikely, but there are historical records of lottery winners. Or suppose I'm a historian writing my own autobiography. Suppose further that an angel appeared to me last year when I was in a completely lucid state. What is wrong with recording that an angel appeared to me? Wouldn't I be leaving out a very significant event if I didn't record it as happening? What's the problem with that? Is it just that I could be wrong--I could be mis-remembering? Or that I'm interpreting my experience as one of being appeared-to-angelically rather than as an hallucination? But historians interpret things all the time and could be wrong about all sorts of claims. Why are non-natural claims picked out for special abuse?

    Again, my suspicion is that Ehrman's agnosticism is at play in ruling out the very possibility of recorded history saying anything at all about the occurrence of miracles. He thinks there just can't be good evidence for miracles, so good historians shouldn't report that there have been any.

    ReplyDelete