Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Apologist's Mind

From the final Q&A at the Greer-Heard Forum:

QUESTIONER: One of your critiques or comments to Dr. Parker was in terms of probability and that just raised the question in my mind as far as ascribing to a particular theory or method of textual criticism and one of the most difficult things I have in reading some of your works is finding a consistent theory and I was just wondering if you ascribe to a particular theory such as reasoned eclecticism because I guess I just don’t see a consistency in how you were dealing with that issue methodologically.
DR. EHRMAN: Yeah, the reason you don’t see a consistency is because usually the way I argue is I figure out what I think is right and then I argue for it.(audience laughter) So, actually, I would call myself a reasoned eclectic but that’s why you don’t see a consistency because the way reasoned eclecticism works--sorry if this is coded language for the rest of you but sorry--is you look at the external evidence, you look at what kind of manuscripts support a particular reading, you look for the earliest manuscripts, you look for the best quality manuscripts, but you also look at intrinsic probabilities and you look at transcriptional probabilities, and the reason you don’t see, you don’t detect a certain thing in my argumentation, is because for every variant you have to argue all the best arguments. And for some variants, the transcriptional argument is going to be superior to the manuscript argument and in other variants the manuscript argument is going to be superior to the intrinsic evidence and so you have to argue it out in every instance and come up with the most convincing argument. So if, you know, I were just sticking to transcriptional probability the whole time, then you would see that kind of consistency, but precisely because I am a reasoned eclectic, you don’t see it. Whereas, David [Parker] for example, you would clearly see a genealogical method and probably transcriptional probability, but he would never use intrinsic probability the way I’m understanding what he is saying.

Did Dr. Bart Ehrman, the evangelical’s bete noire, just admit that his method of practicing textual criticism is to decide what reading he likes and then to look for evidence to support his conclusion? Personally, I don’t think so. I do not think that is a reasonable interpretation of his answer. Moreover, I don't even think that it is a reasonable interpretation of the initial remark that drew the laugh, even when considered in isolation. However, we can all make our decision by listening to the tape of the conference (if we don’t mind paying $10) and hearing the words he actually said in context. That is, of course, unless we are evangelical Christian apologists and textual critics like Ed Komoszewski and Dr. Daniel Wallace. In that case, we can just rely on our initial impression of a single sentence in Ehrman’s comment and our recollection of the audience’s reaction. We don’t need to verify what Ehrman actually said.

In a series of comments at Parchment and Pen, I challenged Dr. Wallace to answer a simple question three times: “Do you think it is fair to construe Dr. Ehrman’s remark as an admission that he reaches his conclusion first and then looks for the evidence to support it afterwards?” I never got an answer. He acknowledged “that whether Dr. Ehrman was saying that he came to his conclusions first and then looked for the evidence to support it is not something to trifle with.” Wallace said he could “certainly give him some leeway on whether this was meant to be funny.” He said it could have been “a Freudian slip.” He “pointed out that there has indeed been some debate about whether Ehrman was serious or not.” However, he would not say whether Ehrman’s words could fairly be considered an admission of unscholarly practices.

The point is that we don’t have to rely on the audience’s initial impression of a single sentence. We can listen to the tape to hear what Ehrman actually said in context.

Ed Komoszewski, who first claimed that Ehrman had made the admission, was equally insistent on relying on his initial impression of the remark.

Now, if Ehrman meant something along the lines of what you’re suggesting, he could have made that clear. And he had sufficient cues as to the impression that he left on the audience. He got laughs, gasps, and stunned looks from people in attendance. (The questioner was so stunned that he stopped in his tracks, turned around to face Ehrman again, and widened his eyes to cartoonish proportions.) The crowd didn’t interpret Ehrman’s statement innocuously. If this was intended as a joke, then the fact that Ehrman didn’t clarify can only mean that, at least in this instance, he wasn’t exactly a savvy communicator.
Really Ed? Cartoonish proportions? Did steam come out of his ears? Did he have question marks dancing about his head?

The point is that we don’t have to rely on the audience’s initial impression of a single sentence. We can listen to the tape to hear what Ehrman actually said in context.

Both Komoszewski and Wallace kept trying to come back to the question of my biases. Wallace: “But Vinny, again, I must ask: What are you afraid of?” Komoszewski: “Yet you’ve continued to ignore Dan’s questions (at least as far as I have seen) with respect to whatever baggage you personally bring to the discussion.” Wallace: "In the end, I must be frank with you: You have seemed to come to quick conclusions about things, trying hard to nullify any kind of legitimate Christian perspective on events.” Yes we all have biases, but one way to control for biases is to be meticulous about the facts that can be verified. If the facts can be verified, then the question of perspective becomes much more manageable.

The point is that we don’t have to rely on the audience’s initial impression of a single sentence. We can listen to the tape to hear what Ehrman actually said in context.

I have often said that I have a big problem with apologists' notion of what constitutes evidence and how they reason from evidence to facts. For people who claim to believe in objective truth, they sure seem willing to rely on their personal perspective over verifiable facts.


  1. It's interesting to hear your take on Ehrman's admission.

    1- Ehrman is too smart to say something that he doesn't mean without clarifying it as either a joke or sarcastis snip. His whole life centers arounds words and placements he was full aware of his here and revealed his bias.

    2- As stated, Ehrman's presuppositionalism does not allow him to follow evidences where they might lead. That is the problem with ALL of his arguments in my opinion and why he can't be relied upon for full complete and OBJECTIVE assessment of literary history.

    You've mentioned Wallace's and Koz's (short) incomplete disclosure as it pertains to Ehrman's responses, and their supposed creation of "strawmen" at times. The truth is that Ehrman DOES NOT disclose complete facts when presenting information PERIOD. In most cases he (As he admits)ONLY presents information in favor of his belief. That's not scholarship...That's playing to sensationalism, being disingenuous (sp) to the subjects and finding out what SELLS.

    There are plenty instances that could be pointed to in his own writings, but I'll leave it at that for now.


  2. The problem is that I don't think his comment can be fairly construed as admitting any unscholarly practice. In fact, Wallace seems to believe that a great many of his arguments can be relied upon for full complete and objective assessment of literary history.