Monday, April 28, 2008

Climbing that Mountain

This post is part of a dialogue that I have been having with Tim Ricchuitti at If I Were a Bell, I'd Ring.

Back when I was practicing law in Chicago, I learned something about how to handle evidence that makes your client look bad. You don’t want to simply deny everything because it will be obvious that your client is lying. You want to admit the truth of as much of the damning evidence as possible to make it look like your client is being honest about his failings. Then you concentrate on finding those few crucial points upon which your opponent’s case hangs and you come up with a good story to counter them. Happily, I no longer practice law in Chicago.

So I think the fact that the letter to the Galatians still reflects Paul’s anger is not enough to establish that it is free from tampering. Suppose that the letter first went to Antioch where it fell into the hands of an elder named Flabulus. He reads the letter and realizes that it will be devastating for his friend Festivus, who is a leader of the church in Iconium. Flabulus realizes that Festivus is a terrible theologian but he thinks that he is a much better leader than his opponents would be. He is sure that Paul would not want to see Festivus ousted if he knew how badly the new leaders would take advantage of the congregation. He knows that he cannot make the letter congratulatory, but he finds a way to alter the letter to make the other side look as bad as his friend. Is this probable? Certainly not. Is it possible? I think so.

On the other hand, perhaps Flabulus is one of those people who can sit in the front pew every week (and I know the Galatians didn’t have pews) listening to sermon after sermon about the evils of sin without once thinking that any of it applies to him. When he reads Paul’s letter, he says “My goodness! Paul certainly is angry with the church in Iconium.” While copying the letter, it occurs to him that someone who did not know better might think that Paul was mad at the believers in Antioch. Flabulus is sure that Paul would not want anyone to make that mistake so he takes it upon himself to edit those portions that might be interpreted as pointing at his congregation. Once again, it’s not probable, but it’s possible.

At the Greer-Heard conference, Dan Wallace stressed the idea that we have to think in terms of probability, but I don’t find that all that helpful. Suppose for example that there is a 95% chance that the first copyist of Galatians faithfully and accurately captured Paul’s meaning and intent and only a 5% chance that any of the intentional or unintentional problems occurred. At that rate, there is only a 70% chance that the letter came through unscathed after all seven churches had copied it and passed it along. (It would of course be better if the churches kept the copies and passed along the original.) These are admittedly quite arbitrary numbers, but the point is that even if the odds of a bad result are pretty small on any given copy, the chance of one occuring increases as the process is repeated. The roulette wheel in a casino has thirty-six out of thirty-eight numbers upon which the customer wins, but the zero and double zero come up often enough that the house is always a winner at the end of the night.

Tim Ricchuiti notes that “The transmission history we see attests to the stability of the copying.” This may be true, but can we extrapolate from the period we see to the period we don’t see? The period we don’t see is the period during which the vast majority of variants were created, which already tells us that it did not have the same stability as the later period. Writing in the early third century, Origen warned about the transmission during that earlier period:
The differences among the manuscripts have become great either through the
negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; the
neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of
checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.
Cited in Misquoting Jesus p. 52.

The transmission history we see comes from the period after Constantine, when orthodox Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, while the history we don’t see comes from a period in which Christianity was a persecuted religion composed of various sects battling over who truly understood Jesus’ message. This was also the period of the forgeries. As early as 2 Thessalonians, Paul warned that someone was attaching his name to letters that he did not write. Some scholars believe that 2 Thessalonians itself was such a letter. The Pauline authorship of many letters in the New Testament is questioned and there were many more forgeries that never made it into the New Testament. The period of the variants was the period of the Gnostic texts, the Marcionite texts, and various other heretical texts. It was also the period of many apocryphal texts that were nonetheless orthodox.

At the Greer-Heard forum, Bart Ehrman said we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine as the original text . . . and we have no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us further back then we have already gotten . . . .” Tim offers the analogy “that we're 200 feet away from the summit of Everest. And some of us are turning around and going back!” I would like to take that analogy a little farther.

I tend to think that we are still 1000 feet from the summit although that’s not bad since it means that we have successfully climbed 28,000. But it is not really the distance left to the summit that is the problem. It is the fact that we can see that the terrain we have to cover is much worse than the terrain that we covered up until now. It is the fact that the difficulty increases exponentially the farther up we get. The next 500 feet is going to be harder than the first 28,000 were and the next 100 feet after that will be harder still. On top of that, the weather is turning against us and we have used all the oxygen we brought with us and have no way to get anymore. In short, there are some very compelling reasons to think that we have gotten as far as it is reasonable to think we can go.

Obviously, the optimists want to push on, but I would use the Everest analogy to sound one more note of caution. If you push on without the pessimists, you lose an important check. Without a Bart Ehrman to challenge your conclusions, it may be tempting for the optimists to believe that they are making a lot more progress than they are really making. When all the climbers are convinced that they can make it to the top, they may end up convincing each other that they have covered another 50 feet when it is really only five.

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