There are some people who are self-designated apologists that I struggle to take seriously. I am skeptical of what they write because I sense that it is tainted with a misguided agenda. I imagine that if I sat down for coffee with one of these folks he would raise his voice until it got uncomfortable, then he’d storm out of the building if he couldn’t convince me of his position. I understand why people want to avoid these types.

Yet I think it has become a bit too easy to call someone with which one disagrees an “apologist” as if this automatically eliminates the responsibility to address their claims. Some figures whom I have seen unfairly labeled over the years include people like Richard Bauckham, Craig A. Evans, Larry Hurtado, Craig Keener, Michael Licona, and N.T. Wright among others. There is no denying that they are “conservative”, and it is possible that they use their scholarship at times for apologetical puposes, but a backhanded dismissal of their work because it is “apologetic” makes me lose confidence in the the accusers and not the accused.

In one SBL session this year Darrell L. Bock was asked how he could do good historical work considering his confessional stance in favor of inerrancy and dispensationalism. I share this concern with both of those paradigms. Personally, I think they can hinder good research. Yet I respected Bock’s response: Read by argument on the topic at hand and judge it’s merit.

I think it would be wrong for me to dismiss outright the work of an atheist or agnostic, e.g. Bart D. Ehrman. I may think that his presuppositions handicap his work, but that doesn’t automatically disqualify his argument. If I read what he writes and I find it unconvincing this may be because I think his presuppositions mislead him, but it should be the argument itself that I find flawed–not the person.

Sometimes critics of more conservative scholars come dangerously close to dismissing their colleagues ad hominem. This doesn’t make them look bad. It makes you look nervous.

Let me take two examples: Michael Licona’s reworked historiography regarding the resurrection of Jesus and Craig Keener’s regarding accounts of the miraculous. While I believe in both (A) the resurrection of Jesus and (B) miracles I admit that I wrestle with whether or not we can say much about these things when we agree to limit ourselves to the confines of historiography. I worry that there will be a bit too much “begging the question” involved and that some Christian scholars may ask for exceptions that they would not give Buddhist or Muslim scholars in an AAR meeting.

There does seem to be a place where historiography ends and philosophy and/or theology begins. At times the line is blurry and it is hard to know when you’ve crossed from one side to another. I am wrestling with this myself. Is there a place where as a historian I can say no more than, “Jesus’ followers really, really believed that he has risen from the dead. They thought this experience was physical and that he had a body both similar and dissimilar to his body before the crucifixion. Yet there is no way to know for sure what the disciples experienced.” Then as a Christian state, “I believe that the best explanation of the data is that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

I think the main factor is epistemology. How do we use the word “know” in relation to our historiography? Is this a very strict term that limits us to a list like that organized by E.P. Sanders where we know Jesus was a Jew, that he was affiliated with John the Baptist, that he was crucified, and a few other items. If so, then the projects of many scholars move quickly from the firm “knowables” to questions of plausibility. When I think of the projects of scholars like J.D. Crossan and Marcus Borg I think most of their work is spent in this area of reconstructing a Jesus that moves further and further away from what we can “know” about Jesus. This isn’t the project of conservative scholars alone.

One thing that Lynn Cohick emphasized at another SBL panel I attended is the need to be forthright with our presuppositions. This is what I respected most about Licona’s project. Wright’s books on the historical Jesus provide his philosophical approach as well. Some scholars seem to assume we are on the same page and they never tell the reader from where they are coming.

If one person dislikes another’s presuppositions there is room for that debate. Yet we cannot end conversation if we can’t agree on presuppositions. If someone is a confessing Christian who approaches their historiography from that angle they will bring their blind spots to their work, but so do other people with other views. At the end of the day it comes down to whether or not the argument is good or bad, whether it does a good job at explaining the data or not. We can’t ignore someone simply because they are a “conservative” or a “liberal”.