More Discussion over Accreditation

Jim West has been making some interesting points on his blog about Accreditation and the ‘scheme’ that drives it. However, I must again stress that it is important to have a means in place to judge proficiency in the Humanities, particularly in the field of history.Richard Carrier explains why having the most qualified people keep track of the most probabilistic data and interpretations on the past is important:

By contrast, true historians will identity every primary source, every shred of relevant evidence, so the reader will be able to check their claims. Where the evidence is incomplete and they have to speculate, they will admit it, keeping facts and judgment distinct. They seek to understand why things happened the way they did, and will openly use evidence to support their accounts, and by concealing nothing, and by not pretending their assumptions are facts, they permit the reader to reach his or her own judgment about the truth. Above all, they open themselves to the examination of their peers, and facilitate future scholarship by checking and correcting the claims of other historians. That is why their results are far more trustworthy, far more useful, than the products of dogmatists and demagogues.
We obviously do not want history in the hands of ideologues or mythmakers who don’t care about facts, but who will simply make up whatever suits their particular agenda. We want history in the hands of skilled researchers held to high standards of evidence and argument within a widespread framework of expert peer review, criticism, debate, and openness to progress and admission of error. As in science, a willingness to accept and live with uncertainty and doubt is essential to progress toward truth in history: for you cannot approach the truth without being willing to abandon the false. Truth in history, no less than in science, is conditional on future discoveries, and is built on probability, not any sort of unachievable certainty. The dogmatists, demagogues, and mythmakers will mislead and manipulate us and try to confuse our memory, but the historians will try their best to keep our collective memory deep and accurate, and above all brutally honest. In other words, to have a sharp and reliable memory, and to enjoy its benefits, we need the scientific historian. It is essential. But not just anyone can do the job. To have such experts requires years of highly specialized training.

In truth, we rely on qualified people, certified–at least in some manner–as experts so we can at least have a better idea as to who is more reliable towards interpreting the data available.  Most people are not proficient in Latin, Greek, German, Hebrew, Cuneiform, Oscan, Arabic, or Italian.  Most individuals could not tell you the difference between a piece of a stele from  the New Kingdom of Eygpt or an inscription from an ancient school in Mesopotamia.  Perhaps they could make some good guesses and perhaps they might get it correct.  But when it comes to preserving the past of civilization, of what might have come before, we should not be asking people with no background in the field of study to make a guess.  If we’re going to get a guess (which, admittedly, is a good portion of historical inquiry), we should want someone who has at least proven themselves reliably proficient in the languages, in the cultural milieux, in exegesis.

I concur with Jim that it doesn’t always mean the person has to have an advanced degree (or any degree); there are plenty of bright, sophisticated amateur researchers who are honest, diligent, and deliberate in their studies on historical subjects.   That said, I do however feel that those individuals should be judged according to similar practices as those who hold degrees in order to show they are reliable.  Whether that be through Peer Review, or through publication of their theories, or through a period of observation from those who are credible, or some other form of verification whereby it can be shown that such individuals are not mere ideologues or dogmatists or whatever you want to call them, a system should exist (perhaps it already does?  Biblioblogging–does that count?) to weigh the veracity of what a person says to the majority of those who hold credible degrees.  The irony, though, is that many who hold these degrees are less credible at times than those who do not.  If there is one strength to Jim’s argument (I believe there are, actually, many strengths to it), it is this.  But just the same, I think I’ll stay in school and work towards those accredited degrees, nonetheless.  Check out Jim’s blog post below:

Fortune Tellers are Being Accredited... Starting this week, fortune tellers in Warren, Mich., must be fingerprinted and pay an annual fee of $150 – plus $10 for a police background check – to practice their craft. The new rules are among America’s strictest on palmists, fortune readers and other psychics, part of a growing push to regulate a business that has never been taken, or overseen, very seriously. But officials in Warren, a town of 138,000 near Detroit, say it’s time to weed ou … Read More

via Zwinglius Redivivus

6 Responses

  1. what can i say- im an iconoclast.

  2. i didnt say anything about amateurs. i think people should be highly qualified. especially in the field of biblical studies. my beef isnt with education at all- it’s with the false notion that accreditation is anything more than a scam. it authenticates nothing and it verifies nothing.

    don’t mistake my disdain of the accreditation industry for a beef with education. that’s not the case at all. i have no tolerance for dilettantes.

  3. So the question then becomes: How is it determinable who has sufficient education to be considered ‘qualified’?

  4. I just finished skimming through the post, and was intrigued by the statement that “there are plenty of bright, sophisticated amateur researchers who are honest, diligent, and deliberate in their studies… I do however feel that those individuals should be judged according to similar practices as those who hold degrees…”

    The opposite situation is equally interesting. A paper written by a professional scholar may, under certain circumstances, be rejected even when the referee reports are all positive. Early Christianity is not my subject, but I have learned from reliable sources that scholars working in this field, if they happen to reach conclusions that do not conform to the conventional paradigms, have a hard time being published. Put differently, papers are rejected for ideological reasons.

    Early Christianity is, of course, not the only example, but the interplay between theology and scholarly methods makes this field unusual. Asking wrong questions and even challenging a few preconceived notions may prove problematic. To me it seems intuitively wrong that a scholarly paper in which the reader is, in effect, encouraged to believe in Jesus’ miracles may have better chances of being accepted than, say, a paper presenting hard evidence that the First Epistle of Clement should be re-dated from 96 CE to somewhere near 150 CE.

    This holds for books as well. The doors of the publishers may be closed even when the writer most certainly meets the criteria of being highly qualified and honest. Dr. Carrier is quoted above. His latest book, Not the Impossible Faith, is, in every sense of the word, a scholarly achievement, and yet the author had to resort to self-publishing.

  5. Michael, thanks for your comments. I think you are a little misinformed though about the current trends in Biblical Studies relating to New Testament. If anything, papers are more frequently accepted if it challenges older ideas. The SBL, even as it is overburdened with Evangelicals at present, still publishes a great deal of work which challenges traditional (i.e. pre-Redaction History scholarship) perspectives. For example, there is an ongoing seminar in the SBL on John and its relevancy, its dating, its authorship, and so forth. There is also a seminar from the Westar Institute (the same people who brought you the Jesus Seminar) on Luke-Acts which is being headed up by some very strong players (Joe Tyson among them) which challenges the current dating of Luke-Acts, placing it in the second century rather than at the end of the first century. Also, believe it or not, there are a great deal of critical journals which will publish on subjects which are controversial. They are, in some cases, more prominent and more accepted than those which only publish works which conform to ideologies (which does not happen so much anymore, and is rather frowned upon). The only real instance where you find you have to conform is if you publish through a journal run by a Seminary with some form of confessional theology at its core. And they are the sorts of journals most academics try to avoid.

    As for redating Clement, I suggest you read Bart Ehrman’s translations of the Apostolic fathers from the LCL (Loeb Classical Library); he makes the case there (as do others, but Loeb is considered the go-to source for translations) for a later dating of Clement c. 90 CE (some have suggested even earlier). I do not believe there is any reason to date it so early, but he makes his case and if a scholar were to challenge this, he could. I don’t have the background in the arguments to do so, but someone who does is open to this and it is a generally accepted practice. However, challenging a consensus is no easy task and often involves a lot of leg work and research into some of the most obscure titles (I should know, since I’ve had to do this for my own consensus-defying paper to be published soon enough).

    Richard self-published for the same reasons I did. It had absolutely nothing to do with not being able to find a publisher to accept his work, it had everything to do with what we wanted to do with his work. Richard and I both wanted to publish quickly, we both wanted complete control over sales, and we both wanted to have rights over the book (when you publish under a regular, popular press, they often get the rights and that makes it difficult to sell books at events if you don’t take certain steps ahead of time; with POD, you can get copies of books quickly and forgo the red tape). It was not because he could not find a publisher. And there is always an academic publisher ready to look at a manuscript for publication; but lets be honest, there is no money in publishing academically. You don’t publish in a journal or a monograph series because you want to make a lot of money, you do it because you want the prestige, the experience, to be taken seriously. If you want to make money, you publish via popular press or POD.

  6. Many thanks for your considerate explanation and clarification. There are still a couple of comments I would like to add.

    (1) I agree that Dr. Carrier’s book may have been an ill-chosen example of what I was trying to say. For lack of a better example, I would suggest reflecting on the scholarship of Darrell J. Doughty (1936-2009), who taught New Testament and early Christianity at Drew Theological Seminary for 35 years. One of the reasons why Doughty (a pupil of the well-known German scholar Hans Conzelmann) and Robert M. Price in 1994 initiated the Journal of Higher Criticism was, according to themselves, the need for a forum where “the bold historical hypotheses and critical interpretations associated with the great names of F. C. Baur and Tübingen” could be heard. The implication of this statement is that mainstream journals were, at least in those days, reluctant to publish papers whose findings were at odds with conventional understandings of early Christianity. (I have yet to see proof that the situation has changed.)

    What strikes me as peculiar about the scholarship of Doughty is the low number of papers he submitted to mainstream journals. His most-read essays are found in his own journal, which is not readily available at most university libraries. Unnecessary to say, these essays are not frequently cited by other scholars. Doughty realized that the discussion presented in, say, “Pauline Paradigms and Pauline Authenticity” would never have been allowed to appear in journals such as the Harvard Theological Review and the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. He therefore refrained from submitting in the first place.

    I am not suggesting that the presuppositions of the religious discourse of the church have been taken over within non-confessional biblical studies. The point I am trying to make is that scholars of Doherty’s skeptical disposition are apparently met with more mistrust than scholars such as Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and N. T. Wright, who implicitly argue that biblical miracles should be regarded as “real” events; see

    From my point of view, any suggestion concerning the suspension of physical laws is an intrusion into the domain of physicists. By taking up this issue, Swinburne, Craig, and Wright have drifted away from their fields of expertise. However, peer reviewers see it differently.

    (2) The dating of 1 Clement was used as a mere example, but please allow me to recommend Otto Zwierlein’s thorough study, Petrus in Rom: Die literarischen Zeugnisse (Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010). Zwierlein shows that 1 Clement can not have been written before 125 CE.

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