Later today I will be posting some of my notes from event I attended last night where Marcus Borg and Paul Anderson discussed the origin of the gospels. One remark I want to make this morning is in regards to rhetoric. It is often the case that conservative scholars are challenged for presenting something as having an “apostolic consesus” or unanimity amongst “genuine” Christians (e.g. Bart D. Ehrman’s criticisms of early Christian scholars who ignore the diversity of early Christian beliefs). As an example I know that if I said, “All Christians believe in the actual space-time bodily resurrection of Jesus” there would be protest. Why? It would be asserted that I am stacking the deck by defining “Christians” as people who “believe in the actual-space time bodily resurrection of Jesus”. It would not be possible to defeat my argument because of the presupposition of what constitutes a “genuine Christian”. A necessary rebuttal would be to accuse me of begging the question, namely I am asking you to accept my definition of “Christian”.
Likewise, if I assert that “all Christians” in the apostolic era or early church believed the same thing about this or that there is a defining process. I am saying “all Christians” = emerging orthodoxy. This would essentially stack the deck in my favor because if someone responds “What about the Syrian ‘Thomistic’ Christians?” or “What about Roman Valentinian Christians?” all I have to do to show unanimity is to discredit the association with Thomistic and Valentinians groups with authentic Christianity (which may be legitimate, but further steps need to be taken).
What this does not do is get to the truth of the matter. In the first case it does not prove that the resurrection occurred, or even that it is an essential “Christian” doctrine, simply because those who have been determined “orthodox” believe it. Likewise, I cannot disprove that some early Christians believed this or that simply by denying their status as Christians. No one would allow this. As I have come to understand, this is a rhetorical ploy (for better or worse) that may have value but does not prove the point either way.
Yet I have noticed that Borg does something very similar. He often asserts that this or that understanding of the evolution of the gospels is a “scholarly consensus”. The problem with this is simple: it is not necessarily true. What he does is defines “scholars” in such a way that those who disagree with the findings of the Jesus Seminar are often not considered authentic “scholars” for one reason or another. Most evangelical “scholars” would be dismissed due to unobjective faith commitments or something akin.
For the untrained ear this seems to mean that what Borg is about to say is an unchallenged, open-and-shut case. It is not. He has written books with N.T. Wright who is a scholar and who does not agree with him on many of the premises he presented. Nick Perrin, D.A. Carson, Markus Bockmuehl, Simon J. Gathercole, Richard Bauckham, and many, many others disagree with the “findings” of Borg and the Seminar. Even if it could be proven that Borg holds the majority view on this or that subject this is not a “consensus”.
The problem I have with Borg’s assertion is that it defines scholars as people that tend to agree with him and accept his paradigm. Even if you agree with some of Borg’s premises (which Anderson affirmed last night) this does not mean what Borg would lead his audience to believe (as was exemplified by Anderson’s disagreements with Borg on the historical nature of the Fourth Gospel). Before he presented his own view last night he tossed it out there a few times that this is the “scholarly consensus”. While I would agree that several points were it is also evident that many conclusions are not.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric works by drawing the listener into affirming points 1, 2, and 3 only to affirm point 4 as being the same categorically when it is not. Borg could have been a bit more objective if he would have been a bit more honest when he reached certain points that are not the consensus toward the end by explaining that these are his conclusions, or even popular conclusions, but not a consensus (unless by consensus we mean something like “51% or higher” which is not what people usually think of when they hear the word “consensus”).
For a discussion on the subject of “scholarly consensus” that may be worth reading go here.