Monday, November 24, 2008

An Over-the-Top Analogy

In my last post, I opined that that skeptics' reservations about the authorship and transmission of the New Testament texts are no greater than any thinking person's reservations about any other ancient writings. I began thinking about this after reading Jeremy Pierce's post entitled Bart Ehrman's Master Argument on his Parableman blog and I made similar comments there. When I argued that any classical scholar would readily acknowledge the possibility that someone other than Plato could have written Plato, Mr. Pierce suggests an analogy that that is impressive in its audacity:

I was saying that Ehrman's skeptical standard would undermine ordinary knowledge
if you applied it to ordinary cases. Ehrman thinks that you can't know anything
if there's any possibility that your belief is wrong. The mere possibility that
any textual reading we've got was changed with no manuscript evidence of the
original reading is enough for him to say that we have no knowledge of the
original text, even though we've almost certainly got the overwhelming majority
of the original text. I don't think it's very likely that I'm in the Matrix, but
there is that possibility. I can't rule it out for sure. If I applied Ehrman's
standard to that, then I'd have to say that I don't know my wife exists or that
what I remember doing yesterday even happened.

Wow! A skeptic's doubts about the integrity of first century copying is comparable to believing that people live in pods providing nutrition for machines. That seems like quite a stretch, even for apologetics.

What I think Mr. Pierce misses here is that certainty and skepticism are functions of the available evidence. When a classicist speaks of being "confident" that something was written by Plato, we don’t interpret him as meaning the same thing as a Civil War historian who is "confident" that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. With Plato, we cannot fix the day and time that any particular work was first made public. We cannot trace Plato’s movements in the preceding days. We have no reports from contemporaries who saw him working on it or who discussed it with him. A scholar’s confidence that Plato wrote some particular work is not confidence in any absolute sense, but confidence relative to the surety we can have about anything that happened that long ago.

To be skeptical about whether or not Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address may start to implicate some Matrix-like doubts about our ability to know anything about the past. However, to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge of who wrote Plato or the New Testament, or how the manuscripts might have been altered during transmission is nothing more than mere rationality. The evidence that Mr. Pierce's wife exists is (I suspect) substantially greater than the evidence that the New Testaments writings were not corrupted during copying in the first couple centuries after they were written.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Agnostics and atheists are frequently criticized for applying a level of skepticism to the writings of the New Testament that they would never apply to any other historical document. Christian apologists argue that unbelievers hold reservations about the historicity of the Gospels and the transmission of the texts that are out of all proportion to the reservations they have about other ancient historical events and writings. I believe that this criticism is for the most part utter malarkey. The problem is not that skeptics have greater reservations about the origins of Christianity than they have about other ancient events and writings. The fact is that these reservations are so completely unremarkable as applied to any other subject that no one ever bothers to mention them. It is only conservative Christians who work themselves into a tizzy over them.

Would a classicist utterly and completely dismiss the possibility that the works of Plato were not really written by a man named Plato? If it could be demonstrated that the works were actually written by a brilliant but unknown philosopher living twenty-five years after Plato died who used a more famous person’s name simply to get his works read, would it in any way make anyone feel hopeless about the security of ordinary knowledge? I doubt it. Given the scarcity of ancient documents, most thinking people would acknowledge the possibility that this could have happened. However, no one is concerned about this possibility because the cultural and historical significance of The Republic does not depend on whether it was actually written by the man we think of as the historical Plato. It is the power of its ideas that has influenced philosophers throughout the ages.

The books of the New Testament, on the other hand, present an entirely different situation for the conservative Christian because their theological significance is wholly dependent on who actually wrote them. We are told that one of the key criteria for the early church in deciding which books belonged in the New Testament canon was apostolicity. A specific group of historical people, the Apostles, had a special relationship with a specific historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, which causes conservative Christians to believe that they wrote under the special inspiration of God in a way that no other human being has ever written since. While the impact of The Merchant of Venice and Othello does not depend on whether they were written by Francis Bacon or William Shakespeare, the theological authority of the Gospel of Mark depends crucially on whether it was a factual account written by a companion of the Apostle Peter or simply a work of fiction by an unknown writer. No one in the world is bothered by the possibility that the words attributed to Socrates weren’t really spoken by the historical Socrates, but the beliefs of millions of Christians are completely false if the words attributed to Jesus weren’t really spoken by the historical Jesus.

I don’t think that my reservations about the historicity of the Gospels and the transmission of the early texts are any greater than those that most scholars have about the transmission of other ancient texts. In fact, I doubt that they are any greater than the reservations that conservative Christians have about ancient documents other than the Bible. However, the reservations that are utterly trivial with respect to any other ancient text become extremely important to conservative Christians because their beliefs and practices are contingent on the authority of their scriptures and that authority depends on that extent to which the words of scripture can be attributed to specific historical persons.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Seeing Russia From Alaska

I have been fascinated by the various details that have been coming out of the McCain campaign about Sarah Palin's body of knowledge about the world outside of Alaska. Some people seem to think they can cover their own ass by attacking Palin while others think that self preservation dictates that they defend her. At this point, it is hard to find any of the stories particularly credible.

As much as I enjoy watching the Republicans tear each other apart, the story I am most eager to hear is how Palin came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to sell Alaska's proximity to Russia as foreign policy experience. From what I can tell, the first person to float this idea publicly was Fox News' Steve Doocy on August 29th. The first I heard of it was when Cindy McCain brought it up in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on August 31st. At the time, I thought it was just silly and I could not imagine that anyone would take it seriously.

I was stunned when Palin trotted out this argument with Charles Gibson a week later:
GIBSON: What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of
weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?
PALIN: They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.
Was that really the best she could do? Wouldn't it have been better simply to say that as a governor, her attention had been focused on running her state, but that mastering new areas of knowledge and new challenges was part of her skill set?

A couple days after the Gibson interview, on September 13th, Tina Fey unleashed her Palin impression on Saturday Night Live with a wonderfully ditsy delivery of "I can see Russia from my house."

Despite a week and a half to come up with a better answer to the foreign policy question Palin went to the same well in her interview with Katie Couric:
It’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia.
As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of
America, where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is
from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on
this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right
next to our state.
This led to the following line on the September 27th episode of Saturday Night Live:
COURIC(Amy Poehler): How do you do that exactly?
PALIN(Tina Fey): Every morning when Alaskans wake up, one of the
first things they do, is look outside to see if there are any Russians
hanging around. If there are, you have to go up to them and ask "What are
you doin' here?" And if they can give you a good reason, if they can't,
it's our responsibility to say, you know, "Shoo. Get back over

Not surprisingly, it was this interview that caused even conservatives to start questioning Palin's competence.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Palin stuck with this. Unlike her dubious claim about saying "No thanks" to the bridge to nowhere, claiming that proximity to Russia gave her foreign policy experience wasn't going to fire up the base. On the other hand, it made her look foolish to independents, moderates, and even some previously reliable culture warriors like Kathleen Parker. Moreover, Palin knew what the reaction to this claim was going to be before she ever uttered it because it had already been run up the flag pole by both Steve Doocy and Cindy McCain.

I couldn't begin to guess what Palin really knows about Africa or NAFTA, but I find it hard to believe that a reasonably bright person couldn't have answered a question about foreign policy experience with something better than Alaska's proximity to Russia. I also wonder what was going on with her advisers within the McCain that they decided to let her go ahead with that answer. Did they try to get her to give some other answer or was she simply so stubborn and unteachable that they figured that was as good as anything they could hope for?

I would love to hear the story behind this.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Media Bias?

If you could infer bias solely from the quantity of criticism, you would have to conclude that historians are biased against James Buchanan and biased in favor of Abraham Lincoln because there are more negative evaluations of the former’s presidency than the latter’s. To take it to an even greater level of absurdity, you would have to conclude that historians "are in the bag" for Churchill and Roosevelt as opposed to Stalin and Hitler.

I certainly would not argue for the complete absence of bias in the media, but the American people decided to go with the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 after many years of preferring the Republicans. One must at least consider the possibility that there might be some objective basis for being more critical of the Republicans.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Scum v. Dumb

Could Sarah Palin really be so poorly informed that she does not know that North America is made up of Canada, the United States, and Mexico? Based on the Katie Couric interview, I could believe it. On the other hand, when I did some googling, I found sources that include Greenland, the islands of the Caribbean, and parts of Central America within North America so maybe the answer is not really so obvious.

I am frankly disgusted by the weasels in the McCain campaign. They deserve scorn if they are just trying to cover up for the failures of their candidate and themselves. They deserve even greater scorn if they really knew that Palin was that stupid and they did nothing to stop her from coming within a heartbeat of the Presidency.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Clear Thinking Evangelicals

The rage and despair that many conservative Christians have expressed over the election of Barack Obama has put a damper on my excitement, however, I have been heartened to find that there are many evangelicals who also think that some of their fellow believers are overreacting. I found the following thoughts from Scott Grace very encouraging:

America elects a pro-choice candidate and suddenly my fellow Christian brothers
and sisters head for the hills screaming the world has come to an end. Are not
abortion rates much higher in several other countries? Why aren't we just as
concerned about "life" in those countries?

America elects an economically progressive candidate and people are screaming
"socialism" preparing for a Rapture. (An mid-1800's invention of conservative
Christian theology). Doesn't America know that Democracy is one of the youngest
political philosophies to be employed? Why do we think the fate of the world
depends on the success of our economical and political philosophies
America is struggling economically, and Jesus is now coming back to rescue his
2000 year old church from this difficult tribulation. Doesn't America remember
that its only 232 years old? Why does God's blessing equate with monetary
Why do American Christians constantly tie the end of the world to the "demise"
of America? Isn't America only 5% of the world's population?
I've said it before, I will say it again. Christians in America are more
American than they are Christian. God forgive us for being so earthly minded.

I doubt that Scott and I would agree on many issues, but I think maybe we can agree that we are all Americans.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Condi Seems Positively Giddy

Nicely Done America!

Congratulations to John McCain on a classy concession speech. I wish we had seen more of that guy.