Thursday, 5 February 2015

What happens when an expert argues outside his area of competence

In my previous post, I showed what happens when an expert strays outside of his sphere of expertise and makes claims that run counter to the scholarly consensus. William Lane Craig, in attempting to argue for monogenism, had his arguments neatly dissected by respected evolutionary biologist and geneticist Jerry Coyne. However, Coyne has made the same mistake Craig made by flirting with the fringe view that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. Jesus mythicism, as more than one person has said, is to history what YEC is to science, and Coyne's failure to respect genuine scholarly consensus on this issue shows that the class of errors made by theists such as Craig are also made by non-theists. It is an object lesson in the need to pay diligent attention to robust scholarly consensus views and not offer minority views outside one's area of expertise.

Textual critic (and agnostic) Bart Ehrman, in his popular-level book "Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth" notes how in response to discovering that he'd been misquoted by some as saying that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, he found the existence of a large body of mythicist literature:
I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed.
Representative of how the scholarly mainstream regards this crank viewpoint is the remark by leading historical Jesus scholar John Meier who dismissed mythicist G.A. Wells peremptorily and justly:
Wells’s book, which builds its arguments on these and similar unsubstantiated claims, may be allowed to stand as a representative of the whole type of popular Jesus book that I do not bother to consider in detail. [1]
One would imagine that Coyne, who has justly excoriated special creationists for their poorly informed opposition to evolutionary biology would avoid making similar mistakes himself. However, with respect to mythicism, rather than respect the scholarly consensus, particularly given that he is an outsider to this field, Coyne uncritically accepts fringe views.

In an October 2014 post, Coyne declares:
I have to say that I’m coming down on the “mythicist” side, simply because I don’t see any convincing historical records for a Jesus person. 
Given Coyne's status as an outsider to this field, and the robust consensus among historical Jesus experts about his existence, this is a somewhat bold claim to make, particularly given the less than rigorous evidence he provides to support his claim:
Because of the paucity of evidence, we can expect this question to keep coming up. And so it’s surfaced once again, in a PuffHo piece by Nigel Barber. 
Barber, who has a Ph.D. in biopsychology and a website at Psychology Today (“The Human Beast”), has also written six books. And in the Sept. 25 edition (is that the right word?) of PuffHo, he takes up the question of the historicity of Jesus. His piece, “If Jesus never existed, religion may be fiction,” briefly lays out the mythicist case. Of course religion itself is not a fiction, but what Barber means is that Christianity’s empirical support, like that of Scientology or Mormonism, may well rest on a person or events that simply didn’t exist. 
Here’s the crux of Barber’s argument. (I have not yet seen the piece in Free Inquiry to which he refers, as it’s behind a paywall, but if a reader wants to send it to me, I’d be much obliged.). I’ve put the critical part in bold: 
In History, Jesus Was a No Show  
Various historical scholars attempted to authenticate Jesus in the historical record, particularly in the work of Jesus-era writers. Michael Paulkovich revived this project as summarized in the current issue of Free Inquiry 
Paulkovich found an astonishing absence of evidence for the existence of Jesus in history. “Historian Flavius Josephus published his Jewish Wars circa 95 CE. He had lived in Japhia, one mile from Nazareth – yet Josephus seems unaware of both Nazareth and Jesus.” He is at pains to discredit interpolations in this work that “made him appear to write of Jesus when he did not.” Most religious historians take a more nuanced view agreeing that Christian scholars added their own pieces much later but maintaining that the historical reference to Jesus was present in the original. Yet, a fudged text is not compelling evidence for anything. 
Paulkovich consulted no fewer than 126 historians (including Josephus) who lived in the period and ought to have been aware of Jesus if he had existed and performed the miracles that supposedly drew a great deal of popular attention. Of the 126 writers who should have written about Jesus, not a single one did so (if one accepts Paulkovich’s view that the Jesus references in Josephus are interpolated).  
Paulkovich concludes: 
“When I consider those 126 writers, all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not – and Paul and Marcion and Athenagoras and Matthew with a tetralogy of opposing Christs, the silence from Qumram and Nazareth and Bethlehem, conflicting Bible stories, and so many other mysteries and omissions – I must conclude that Christ is a mythical character.” 
He also considers striking similarities of Jesus to other God-sons such as Mithra, Sandan, Attis, and Horus. Christianity has its own imitator. Mormonism was heavily influenced by the Bible from which founder Joseph Smith borrowed liberally. 
Barber goes on to talk about how the origin of Mormonism was a sham promulgated by a con man (an interpretation I accept). Yet even in that case there’s better evidence than we have for Jesus, for the Book of Mormon opens with two statements from eleven witnesses—people who were contemporaries of Joseph Smith—who swore that they saw the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. Those people are historical figures who can be tracked down, and so the evidence for the existence of the plates is stronger than for the existence of a historical Jesus.
Coyne, rather than listen to genuine experts in the field has given credence to a piece written by a biopsychologist (not a historian) who himself has appealed to a Michael Paulkovich. When genuine scholars such as Candida Moss (professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame ) and Joel Baden (Associate Professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School) look at Paulkovich's case, it turns out that it is at best insubstantial:
So that brings us to Paulkovich’s list: 126 ancient writers, 0 references to Jesus. The list has a few issues. Although everyone on it is indeed ancient, some are a little too ancient—as in, lived-a-hundred-years-before-Jesus too ancient (Asclepiades of Prusa, for example). 
A great many of the writers are philosophers, some quite famous (Epictetus). Philosophers aren’t really known, now or then, for their interest in current events. Some writers are mathematicians, rhetoricians, satirists, poets, or epigrammatists (Martial). Unless we’re looking for an ancient limerick about Jesus, these are probably the wrong authors to be reading. 
Fully fourteen of the 126 are doctors, including a dermatologist, an ophthalmologist, and a gynecologist (Soranus)....There are some authentic historians on the list, though we can probably assume that someone writing a biography of Alexander the Great (Curtius Rufus) might not find an appropriate place to slot Jesus into that story. The vast majority of the authors listed, however, have none of their writings preserved for us, or mere fragments at most. It’s hard to say that a writer didn’t mention Jesus when all we have of that writer are a few lines quoted in someone else’s work. 
We do have the writings of Sextus Julius Frontinus—but what he wrote was a treatise on aqueducts. Jesus may have been the fountain of life, but it was the Romans who had the decent delivery system. One must make mention of Phlegon of Tralles, though, of whom two works have indeed come down to us. The first, On Marvels, we might well expect to find a mention of Jesus in. The second, On Long-Lived Persons—less so. 
A good number of the writers listed weren’t writers at all, but consuls, generals, even a king (Vardanes I) and an emperor (Tiberius). It must be noted that in this category of non-writers there are at least three who are characters in the TV series I, Claudius.   
Long story short: of the 126 people listed by Paulkovich, there are only 10 or so whom we might expect to have written about Jesus. And it’s probably worth mentioning that there are, of course, writers from the first centuries CE who refer to Jesus, and even write quite extensively about him. But since those authors all got bundled into a collection called the New Testament, we should probably just dismiss them from the discussion. (Emphasis mine)
That Coyne would uncritically accept claims made in a popular level article by a non-historian who relied on a fringe figure whose claims had been taken apart by respected professionals in relevant areas of scholarly expertise shows what happens when an expert strays outside of his own area of competence. The lesson is clear - outside your own area of competence, your opinion (and competence to assess claims out of that area) are often no better than that of an educated layperson, and sometimes even lower.

NT scholar James McGrath, in commenting on Moss and Baden's takedown of Paulkovich's asinine claims refers to another takedown of the Paulkovich list by atheist bloger Steve Bollinger ends with this comment which is not a little relevant to this case:
As an atheist, I long for a much better class of atheists, atheists writing about history who are not historically illiterate.
Amen to that.

1. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 1:87.