The Commentator's Task
by G. A. Wells
from his 1996 book The Jesus Legend
1. Motivation and Bias
The way motivation affects a commentator's ideas has been the subject of much unfruitful dogmatizing. The German historian Friedrich Meinecke supposed that the historian cannot do his job properly unless he feels love towards his subject-matter -- hatred or indifference being equally pernicious. This view was obviously prompted by distaste for the way in which Enlightenment historians had written of Christianity. Thus he complained of Hume's "sober, detached empiricism", of lack of "spiritual depth" in Gibbon and "lack of antiquarian love" in Voltaire. The Jewish scholar Geza Vermes tells us that "religious writings disclose their meaning only to those who approach them in a spirit of sympathy" (Jesus, p. 63). This can all too easily be taken to mean that one should be favourably disposed towards their claims, whereas in fact -- as I am sure Vermes would agree -- what is decisive in the pursuit of truth is solid argument, not sunny dispositions. Some Christian writers go so far as to claim that one must be a Christian believer to investigate Christianity most effectively. N.T. Wright, for instance, is convinced that "serious study of Jesus and the gospels is best done within the context of a worshipping community," such as that of his own chapel (at Worcester College, Oxford), to which he dedicates his book. Benedetto Croce supposed that I shall vainly scan the pages of the Gospels or the Pauline epistles if I have no feelings, however quiescent, of Christian love, of salvation by faith". He would perhaps not have regarded it as vain to read Mein Kempf without some feelings, however quiescent, for Naziism. It is true that we must interpret the words we read, and can do so only in terms of our own experience. Yet one may learn by observation how people think and behave, without finding in oneself a proclivity to do the same, as one may get to know the habits of hyenas without any tendency to imitate them. Neither sympathy with nor hostility to a given material, religious or other, need necessarily warp the reasoning process, but may make the mind work all the harder to produce results which will stand up to searching scrutiny. Meinecke had to admit that, even though Voltaire was "concerned only to tear away the halo from the chosen people", he understood Jewish history better than some of his predecessors (pp. 101-02). Gibbon's attitude to early Christianity was hardly sympathetic, yet it is remarkable how few corrections to his account editors of his work have found it necessary to make. Collingwood, in his attempt to discredit him, was reduced to arguing that it is inappropriate to annotate his work at all. He complained that Bury's annotations added new facts "without suspecting that the very discovery of these facts resulted from an historical mentality so different from Gibbon's own that the result was not unlike adding a saxophone obligato to an Elizabethan madrigal. He never saw that one new fact added to a mass of old ones involved the complete transformation of the old".
Collingwood does not explain the process of 'transforming' old facts. Bury's annotations may either supplement Gibbon or correct him. In the former case, gaps in Gibbon's story may be filled, or doubts he expressed resolved; in the latter, his views may be superseded. But it is hardly necessary to pretend that every additional fact makes the previous story obsolete. As for the saxophone and the madrigal, we think that an Elizabethan poem sounds better in an Elizabethan setting because this is what we are used to -- although we have no objection to hearing the sonatas of Mozart on a modern pianoforte, or arrangements of old music for modern orchestras. There is of course no real parallel between the setting of old music to modern instruments and the annotation of old history books. Gibbon's attitude towards the facts he related was very different from Collingwood's, and that, for Collingwood, was his real fault. One might conjecture that the author of The Idea of History was suffering from the effects of an Oxford course in philosophy, and that his troubles arose from taking lectures on Plato and Kant too seriously. This may be part of the mischief, although he was surely not an altogether unwilling victim, as his 'philosophy' seems to offer an escape from the all too intelligible implications of the work of the Enlightenment.
Emphasis on sympathy and commitment may well be a reaction against demands for impartiality and absence of presuppositions. These demands are, however, more justly met with the retort that it is impossible to recount events or doctrines without purpose; even the most detailed account is a selection, and every selection must be guided by some aim. Nevertheless, a single presentment may be useful for more purposes than one. If there is occasion to inquire about something outside the common fields of social or religious history, a work composed with this end in view may not exist, yet the relevant facts may sometimes be collected from the standard histories. it is not necessary to compile a new history of the world every time one has a particular problem to solve.
If selection is inevitable even when mere description of events or situations is being attempted, it is equally necessary in the early stages of a quest for fruitful generalizations. At these stages, progress in any scientific inquiry is possible only by stressing broad tendencies and ignoring disturbing factors. The Periodic Table of the chemical elements would hardly have been established if too much weight had been attached to irregularities and anomalies. Eventually, of course, it is the more careful scrutiny of these exceptions which provides clues for further discovery. But it is of great importance to establish preliminary generalizations, for these give purpose and direction to subsequent research.
Any writing which consistently defends some overall thesis is liable to be regarded as biased; and imputing bias is encouraged by the fact that it is less laborious to explain someone's views in this way than by analysing his reasoning. If an author does have some propagandist aim, we may suspect his accuracy; but the accuracy is what primarily concerns us.
Historians of science have given evidence enough to correct the view that scientific work is normally motivated by pure love of truth. Rudwick, for instance, has shown that one of the principal contenders in nineteenth-century geology -- Sir Roderick Murchison -- was driven "by a determination to gain all the glory of discovery for himself" and to minimize the achievements of rivals by emphasizing their mistakes. Yet, adds Rudwick, "such morally ambiguous passions are often what sustain scientific activity." Quite so: while the reasoning process may serve to guide us towards our goal, the goal must first exert some kind of attraction before this process can be brought into play. Hume summed this up well when he wrote: "Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery". The immense application and industry demanded of the competent historian or scientist cannot easily be sustained without the impelling force of some emotion.
Citizens of a country and supporters of a political party or a creed often respond with obvious signs of resentment to criticism of that to which they are committed. Self-esteem may well be involved here. An individual whose own achievements do not sufficiently justify the requisite degree of self-esteem seeks to feed the appetite for it vicariously. He expands his conception of self to include his country, his party, his creed, and criticisms of any of these he regards as equivalent to attacks on himself. The habit of relying on such an expanded self for the satisfaction of self-esteem has the disadvantage that one cannot easily contract again to one's normal dimensions when one's country or creed is humiliated. Hence the perennial need for some grounds on which to base a high opinion of them. The phenomenon is particularly clear in the case of militant nationalism, but political and religious militancy frequently illustrate it.
ii. Guidelines for Hostile Writing and Illustrations of Their Use
What I have just said is more likely to be true of the rank and file members than of a creed's or nation's spokesmen and leaders, with whom I am here principally concerned. It is perhaps worth summarizing the guidelines they all too often follow in making hostile comments on an author. I am of course particularly concerned with remarks aimed at one who is critical of religious orthodoxy, and all the guidelines are represented in comments I have seen on my own work:
Bruce (Documents, pp. 15-16) gives a signal example of this final guide-line when he rebuts arguments against the trustworthiness of the New Testament by pointing to its rich manuscript tradition -- the mass evidence for it being "ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors". one can only comment that if there had been a Tacitus club in every European town for a thousand or more years with as much influence as the local Christian clergy, sections of the Annals would not have been lost. And if, instead of copying again and again the books of the New Testament, scribes had copied works which they regarded as heretical; and if the authorities had also allowed works downright hostile to Christianity to survive instead of suppressing them, then we should have a much clearer picture of what underlay Christianity's successful struggle against opposing forces. Mere possession of Porphyry's work Against the Christians became a capital offence under Constantine. It has been repeatedly pointed out that papyrus quickly deteriorates in a humid climate, so that a work was likely to survive only if recopied at intervals; and that this would be done only if it was officially sponsored or if it was both popular and free from official vetoes.
The following example comprises passages which seem to rely heavily on guidelines 1, 2, and 3 in the above list. The author is Carsten Thistle, described on the cover of his book as "a member of Council of Germany's Institute for Education and Knowledge", who lives in Wuppertal with his English wife. He writes in English, and begins:
Occasionally it has been suggested by ill-informed controversialists that the Gospels in their present state are 'purified' fabrications of later centuries, with an invented picture of a Jesus who never existed like this, if he ever existed at all.
"Ill-informed" implements guideline 1, and the dismissive tone ('controversialists', not 'scholars') guidelines 2 and 3. Worse than ellipsis (guideline 10) is the suggestion that dissent has been but 'occasional' and has characteristically consisted in assigning the gospels to 'later centuries' (plural). But what are Thiede's readers expected to understand from his statement that the gospels have been called "purified" fabrications? He is too contemptuous of the unnamed ill-informed controversialists to whom he ascribes such a view to tell us, but is obviously alluding -- clumsily and in garbled fashion -- to those NT scholars (particularly Helmut Koester, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard) who hold that one gospel (canonical Mark) is an abbreviated version, purified from gnostic views, of an earlier gospel of Mark.
Thiede goes on to refer to an essay of 1988 in which an "assistant editor-in-chief of a scientific magazine" (guideline 1 again) "claims that some of the most important elements of the Gospels are inventions; and he is only imitating what others have tried before him". 'Imitation' we all recognize as a low and menial capacity, resorted to by those incapable of creativity and originality (guideline 3). He then adds:
The most notorious of these [others], perhaps, was G.A. Wells, a professor of German at Birkbeck College, London [guideline I with a vengeance here], who managed to distort the evidence [guideline 2] until he reached the conclusion that Jesus never existed at all [guideline 10]. And the middle ground is occupied by those who make their own selections about what they think can be true [a suggestion of guideline 7] and what must be wrong, from the virgin birth to the empty tomb.
It is very difficult to represent an author fairly by means of a few select quotations. But if the audience envisaged is sufficiently naive, there is no need to quote or to give references; all that is necessary is to present, as here, in one's own way the case opposed, omitting anything that might arouse the reader's interest or tempt him to read the author in question, and suggesting by any means that he is arbitrary, unscholarly, unqualified.
Thistle's whole book is a totally uncritical acceptance of patristic traditions, which he represents as "facts reported by early historians" (p. 4). It illustrates how fortresses of theology, long since abandoned by a majority of serious scholars I continue to be walled with libraries of 'learning' by their residual defenders. It is sobering to turn from such confident apologetic to frank appraisals from perplexed theologians who know of what they speak. John Bowden well represents them when he says ('Nerve', p. 82): "There are [today] virtually no new substantial and intellectually attractive statements of traditional Christian belief which counter successfully the now well-established criticisms of it."
I do not suppose that deliberate malice is commonly the motive in following any of the guidelines I have specified. The situation is rather this. A scholar makes up his mind on certain issues over years of intensive study and then comes across a closely-argued book which puts quite contrary views. To assimilate it properly would require considerable time and effort, and if he were finally to accept its arguments, he would have drastically to revise the convictions he has so laboriously built up over a long period. He thus has a double motive for convincing himself that it is not worth serious attention.
That motives of this kind have repeatedly been efficacious is familiar to historians of science. Alfred Wegener's theory of 'continental drift' may serve as an example. The theory is now regarded as so obviously true, and of such importance in bringing together apparently disparate phenomena under a single explanatory principle, that surprise has been expressed that it was not given a sympathetic hearing when first propounded. But there need be no surprise, for the audience originally addressed felt (rightly) that they were being asked to discard so much of what they had so painstakingly learned as well-established.