Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Apologist's Mind: Komoszewski's Report

I have covered some of this in previous posts, but I thought I would try to pull some thoughts together here.

Komoszewski introduced himself before plunging into his description of the debate: What follows are my personal impressions from Friday night.

Most readers of Parchment & Pen will recognize me as a coauthor of Dan
Wallace’s, as well as a former student of his at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Though I can’t help but be unconsciously biased (who can?), I’ve tried to simply
“call ’em as I see ’em.”

If you substitute “blatantly and shamelessly” for “unconsciously,” I think you would be closer to the mark. Anyone interested in what an unbiased account looks like should take a look Tim Ricchuiti’s blog. Mr. Ricchuiti is one of Wallace’s students so his sympathies are on that side, but he provides a wonderfully fair-minded account.

Komoszweski said of the opening presentation: “Though Ehrman was lively and offered some nice discussions, I was disappointed on a few fronts.” Frankly, I was a little disappointed as well. It seemed to be a standard rehash of Misquoting Jesus geared to a broad audience rather than the kind of seminary students and professors that he was addressing. However, unlike Komoszewski, I did not find Ehrman’s stammering to be that annoying.

Unlike Komoszewski, I found much of Wallace’s talk to be standard rehash as well. I thought that he did an awful lot of apologetics that did not rise much above Josh McDowell level. He said most of what Ehrman said was well known to biblical scholars and the reason we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts. He compared our evidence for the New Testament manuscripts with the evidence for other ancient texts and he asserted that none of the variants affected essential Christian doctrine.

Komoszewski was very impressed by Wallace's debating tactics:

Wallace then began addressing their disagreements, but he did so in a surprising
way: he put up extensive quotations from Ehrman’s own writings and showed that
what Ehrman said to professional colleagues was quite different than what he
said to laypersons. In other words, Wallace showed that Ehrman disagreed with
Ehrman! The implication was clear: Ehrman is too certain in scholarly circles
and too skeptical in popular circles. He presents himself as an extreme
modernist in one place and an extreme postmodernist in the other.

It wasn’t surprising to Ed though who confessed that he had gotten a copy of Wallace’s presentation two days before the conference. What really bothers me though is that Komoszewski never reports Ehrman response:

Dan started out by saying that he was confused by two different things I’ve said
in two different contexts and implied that maybe I try to sensationalize things
to popular audiences but I am a little more circumspect in front of my
colleagues. Let me explain the situation: What I have said to my
colleagues is that we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine
as the original text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t
know whether we can get back to the original text and I stand by both
statements. We don’t know what Paul originally wrote to the Galatians and
we have no hope of getting any closer now in the future than we are already
now. We have no evidence that can get us further back then we have already
gotten and our earliest is from the year 200, 150 years later.
Whether are not you are persuaded by Ehrman’s response, I think it is grossly misleading not to acknowledge that he dealt with Wallace’s criticism.

Komoszewski also thought that that Wallace effectively met Ehrman’s oft repeated statement about “copies of copies of copies.”

[Wallace] said that such rhetoric comes dangerously close to saying that New
Testament copying was like the telephone game. He then proceeded to show six
ways in which the telephone game is not at all like New Testament copying
practices. I think it’s fair to say that this evidence alone should have retired
Ehrman’s non-nuanced quip, but Ehrman continued saying it for the duration of
the conference!
As far as I am concerned, the only non-nuanced thing is Wallace’s argument.

Ehrman never uses the telephone analogy. He never suggests that the copies are that wildly dissimilar to the originals. What he did say was that very small changes can make a big difference. The omission or inclusion of the word “not” might change a whole passage. Anyone who wants to see an example of this can take a look at my post on Gary Habermas’ citation of historian A.N. Sherwin-White. By dropping the word “not,” Habermas managed to turn a quote that directly contradicted his argument into one that supported it. Unlike the New Testament scribes, Habermas probably had the benefit of editors and research assistants. The telephone game analogy is Wallace’s non-nuanced straw man, not Ehrman's.

I also part company with Komoszewski’s take on another one of Wallace’s arguments:
Perhaps the most provocative part of Wallace’s lecture was his comparison of
what Ehrman claimed was true about New Testament transmission with the
transmission of sacred texts in another religion: Islam. Wallace gave three
basic points that showed that what Ehrman wanted to see in New Testament
manuscripts simply wasn’t there—specifically, an early, controlled text in which
the earlier manuscripts were destroyed. Wallace noted that, “You can’t have wild
copying by untrained scribes and a proto-orthodox conspiracy simultaneously
producing the same variants. Conspiracy implies control and wild copying is
anything but controlled.” As far as I was concerned, this was the silver bullet
that ripped a hole through Ehrman’s entire thesis.
Personally, I thought this was one of the worst straw-man arguments in Wallace’s talk. This notion of a “proto-orthodox conspiracy” is something that Wallace teased out of Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and Faiths We Never Knew where Ehrman writes about the battles between the version of Christianity that eventually came to be accepted as orthodox and the various other beliefs that were rejected as heresies. The major fronts in this battle were the polemics of writers like Irenaeous in his book Against Heresies. Many of the textual variants that Ehrman discusses in Misquoting Jesus were inserted in the New Testament by scribes as a result of these battles, but in a sense, they were collateral damage. That is my reading of Ehrman anyway, but I am reasonably confident that he doesn’t argue that there was any sort of conspiracy among the scribes themselves.

On a broader note: What possible difference in the world could it make what happened in Islam? If Ehrman had alleged a conspiracy, would it matter in the least that Islam had subsequently carried out a more successful one? Wallace seems to be trying to make it sound like Ehrman is a student who has confused what happened in different religions on an exam. It is completely irrelevant.

There was of course some discussion of specific textual variants but I find it hard to say much about these points. I suspect that lack of access to Wallace’s PowerPoint presentation made it hard for me to follow these discussions. On the other hand, it may simply be my lack of expertise in the field of textual criticism. For all I know, Komoszewski's enthusiasm for the way Wallace handled these could be justified although I would be inclined to take it with a grain of salt.

Komoszewski assessment?

Overall, Wallace’s lecture was polished, focused, and clear. He dealt with the
very objections that Ehrman raised (copies of copies, tons of variants) and
offered a far more coherent and carefully nuanced picture of the transmission of
the text. While Wallace was lecturing, Ehrman looked, at times, uncomfortable.
I’m not a mind reader, but I’m guessing that he realized that he had come
underprepared for this dialogue and had little time to rectify things in his
remaining ownership of the floor

Obviously, I disagree with this. Although I was not there to see how Ehrman looked, it is hard for me to imagine that he was intimidated by anything Wallace said and I suspect that he was disappointed by it. I doubt he had come in prepared to discuss Lost Christianities in detail or to discuss the orthodox corruption of the Koran, but he did not bother to respond to these points.

Komoszewski then described Ehrman's response:

He started by saying, “I was under the impression that this was supposed to be
on the reliability of the text of the New Testament, not the reliability of the
writings of Bart Ehrman.” It got a laugh, but it was clear that Ehrman was not
pleased with the evidence that Wallace had put forth. To be sure, Wallace never
did anything that looked ad hominem, so it seemed as though this was a fair
thing to do. Wallace later explained why he took the approach he did, and Dale
Martin (Ehrman’s team member!) would defend this same approach the next day.
Ehrman then critiqued Wallace’s lecture as simply a message meant to comfort
Christians into not doubting their Bibles, even saying that Wallace had provided
no evidence for his position. (This is a debater’s standard technique: instead
of wrestling with the arguments that his opponent brings up, he simply says that
the opponent never said anything worth saying. But in this instance, I can only
conclude that Ehrman was blowing smoke.)

Now doesn’t basic fairness and honestly mandate that Komoszewski mention Ehrman’s answer to the charge that he made conflicting statements? I do think there was some irritation in his voice, but I think it was warranted. Moreover, don’t we deserve to know what Wallace’s reason was for taking this approach? I asked Komoszewski on the blog and he did not answer, but here is what Wallace had to say in his final response of the debate:

Frankly we all know that he’s the star right now. He’s the guy that’s doing
academics in the public square, biblical scholarship in the public square. The
Publishers Weekly actually had a thing called the “Ehrman effect” about how
vastly significant he is in getting to people to write books on his behalf as
well as against his views and I think that is the reason you are here because
you’ve read Misquoting Jesus. You may never have heard of me but you’ve
certainly heard of Bart Ehrman. And so I wanted to critique his views and point
out that what he is saying in one sphere is not the same as the other.
I don’t quite buy this but I guess reasonable minds can differ.

I do think that what Dale Martin did the next day was much different than what Wallace did. Martin’s talk was on the need to develop a more sophisticated theology of scripture and he cited Ehrman’s description of his own theological development in Misquoting Jesus as an example of what can happen without one. Ehrman quipped “Dale and I used to be friends.” He then voiced his objection to talking about his personal faith at the conference, but I think that it was an effective illustration. Martin asserted that Ehrman had put the question in play by incorporating it into his book on textual criticism, which led to one of the better exchanges:

MARTIN:You think you would be invited here if you were a completely unknown
text critic?

EHRMAN: You were.

MARTIN: I am definitely unknown. What I take offense at is you calling me a text
Komoszewski claimed that Martin “essentially ripped” Ehrman and described the exchange as “little heated,” but I would go with Tim Ricchuiti's description: “They, cheerily enough, sniped at each other on stage a bit.” The difference between Martin and Wallace is that Martin was illustrating the central point of his talk while Wallace was trying to show that Ehrman talked out of both sides of his mouth.

Komoszewski then describes the heart of Ehrman’s response to Wallace's talk.
Ehrman then argued that we can’t, for example, really tell what the original
text of Galatians looked like if it was sent multiple times to the churches of
Galatia. That is, since they were churches (plural), each one of them probably
got a letter, and thus the “original” of the letter would actually have been
comprised of multiple copies. Ehrman suggested that such multiple copies would
all look different from each other. Further, he argued that a secretary probably
wrote the letter to the Galatians, with Paul signing off on it at the end of the
letter. And the secretary could have made quite a few mistakes as well that
would have gone uncorrected.

Wrong! Ehrman said that we couldn’t tell what the original text of Galatians looked like because our first copy dates to about 200 A.D., 150 years after it was written. Funny how Komoszewski left that out. The text was copied and recopied multiple times during those years with variants being introduced at every stage. He did suggest the possibility that Paul sent individual copies to each of the churches in Galatia and he did suggest the possibility that Paul dictated the letter to a scribe who could have made mistakes. However, these possibilities merely illustrated the fact that errors in the text might have been present from the very beginning. Even if the letter went out exactly as Paul intended, there would still have been 149 ¾ years of copying and recopying in which errors could have been introduced. Wallace missed (or ignored) this completely by responding that it could have been one letter that was passed along to various churches and that Paul could have proof read the letter before it went out.

Naturally, Komoszewski thought that Wallace got the best of the debate and he is entitled to his opinion. However, if that's “callin ’em as he sees ’em,” I think he only sees what he wants to see.

1 comment:

  1. I am very impressed by your writings, particularly your defense of Ehrman. I just wanted to mention briefly that this talk about the Quran conspiracy and the role of Uthman is a wholesale distortion of the history of Quranic compilation and transmission.

    For this distortion Wallace is dependent upon an unpublished Phd thesis in a London university (I am deliberately withholding the name of the researcher and the university name) by a Christian missionary with a history of involvement in polemics towards Islam. According to this Phd thesis, to summarise briefly, from the time of Uthman (around 20-24 years after the death of Muhammed) to the present time there is absolutely no doubt about the accurate transmission of the Quranic text. We do not encounter in the Quranic manuscripts anywhere close to the type and range of variations as we encounter in the manuscripts of the New Testament. The author argues that it is in the period between Muhammed and Uthman - some 20-24 years, that something drastic 'must' have occurred so that the Quranic text as it existed in Uthman's time was radically and substantially different, if not completely different, from the Quran left by Muhammed 20-24 years earlier. Since the Quranic manuscripts reveal no where close to the range of textual variants we encounter in the New Testament manuscripts, the author interprets this fact to be a major indication of something 'fishy' having occurred between the period of Muhammed's passing away and Uthman. Because Uthman burnt the personal Quranic notebooks and fragments after having the Quran copied in multiple copies, this is taken as additional indication that the burnt material contained radically different Quranic text. Therefore, the whole case of this author, whose investigaion appears to be treated by Wallace as authoritative, is based on a remarkable conspiracy theory. The whole theory is based on the presumption that there could be no continuity between the Uthmanic copies and the Quran prior to it and the two were just radically different. That Uthman, somehow, managed to impose something 'unknown' and 'different' upon a vast geographical area (from Arabia to Azerbaijan) with no notable opposition to his copies from anyone (but getting killed a few years later over comparatively minute reasons!)!

    Suffice it to say that this 'controlled copying', which is taken as a negative point, is being implemented by folks such as Uthman, Zaid, Ubay etc All of whom were DISCIPLES of Muhammed, his close personal confidents, who had spent years under his supervision and were, under the leadership of Uthman, working together in a combined effort.

    The actually Muslim account of Quranic compilation and transmission is to be found in a number of English books on the subject which deal with the above summarised distortions. One book by probably the most prominent Islamic scholar alive is, M. M. Azami, The History Of The Qur’anic Text From Revelation To Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments, 2003, UK Islamic Academy, Leicester, England.