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.


  1. Well I'm showing up late to this conversation so if this was brought up before, I apologize. The difference between knowing authorship of Plato and authorship of the Bible is beyond apples and oranges. The Bible makes outrageous claims, and the religion is predicated on those claims. Were it instead a simple philosophy, with nothing more to back it up than the merit of what it espouses, than yes, authorship wouldn't be so important. But when it's all predicated upon a magical being who's vengeful and petty and who will torture you for eternity if you don't comply IN FULL, the that's different.

    Were it merely philosophy, we'd be free to pick it's bones for sensible contributions to humanity and discard the crap like we do for Plato or anything else comparable. It's the outrageous stories offered which are supposed to be the evidence for the incredibly outrageous claim of a deity backing the whole kit and kaboodle up that begs skepticism, starting with authorship. Paine did a number on the OT, and Ehrman is the latest to inquire into the NT. All would be merely academic exercises if not for the magical element, and as the old saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you can't even show who wrote this crap, then why should anyone accept the magic crap?

  2. Well-said, Chief, but you've underlined precisely what I find to be the problem with this line of discussion. You can question the authorship of the bible using academic principles and standards, but your opponent will always be able to find an academic who will tell them that in fact, we can be sure of who made those magical claims.

    You're not going to get anywhere until they grow up and stop believing in magic.

  3. Well of course. If they're going to believe in people rising from the dead and walking around, burning bushes which speak, parting seas, prophecies, heaven and hell, virgin births and so forth, they can believe anything.

    What you describe is what I think is indicative of religious arguments. They're never actual arguments for the belief, but rather for believing. What's the difference? Think of smokers. They can rationalize hundreds of excuses for smoking, but they can't argue for smoking. Most, if not all religious arguments are essentially excuses to believe. If just one "authority" claims that the Bible authors are who we're told they are (ie, Mathew, Mark, etc), then that's enough excuse to believe. It works the same way for creationism, no global warming, vaccines and autism, ufos, Big Foot, or whatever someone wants an excuse for believing.

    Discrediting the excuses is good, but yes, ultimately you have to do something about the need to believe. Imo, the best thing for that is education. I don't think it's a coincidence that the US is simultaneously the most religious and the worst educated of the Western nations. A foundation for our education must be critical thinking. Simply dumping knowledge on kids with teaching them critical thinking skills is largely a waste.

  4. Is it possible that the capacity for magical thinking is an essential element in the human psyche? The capacity to imagine a world that extends beyond what we can directly perceive is exploited by religion as a thing to be feared, but it may also be the thing that makes all human progress possible.

    I have always been fascinated by the fact that the same Catholic Church that has repressed so many people for daring to think for themselves is also the institution that founded so many universities. Moreover, the Jesuits, who have been among the fiercest defenders of the faith, are responsible for many of the finest.

  5. At a price.

    I think we definitely need to draw the line at magical books.

  6. Except that's not what I said. What I said is that Ehrman's standards, as he words them, are a lot more radical than justifying just skepticism about this sort of thing. That sort of argument really is a worry for a lot of philosophers, but the only way to respond to it satisfactorily is to develop an epistemology, and the best response to questions of the more radical sort also will apply to his less radical skepticism.

    That's certainly not the same thing as saying the two cases are exactly analogous. The question is in what way they are similar, and I do think they're similar in the relevant way, which is that they both require too high a standard. I think skepticism even of the more historically distant kind relies on the same kind (even if a greater degree) of skepticism, a kind that is warrantless if we already have in place the kind of epistemology that best responds to the most radical kind of skepticism at all.

  7. Rather than looking at how Ehrman standards "as he words them," I suggest we look at Ehrman's standards as he applies them. Consider, for example, these comments from a Q&A session at last year's Greer-Heard Forum: We can know some things with relative certainty. We can know what Bibles look liked in the twelfth century. We can know what Christian churches in the twelfth century, what their Bibles looked like. We can know what Bibles looked like in some areas in the seventh century. We can know what one community’s Bible looked like in the fourth century and the farther you get back, the less you can know. . . . It’s the nature of historical evidence that you have to go with the evidence if you are going to be a historian and you can’t fill in the gaps when you don’t have evidence. And in the early period, we not only have very few manuscripts, but the other striking phenomenon, is that the manuscripts we have vary from one another far more often in the earlier period than in the later period. And so the variation is immense and there aren’t very many manuscripts. So the historical result, whether we like it or not, is that we just can’t know. It seems pretty clear to me that his doubts and certainties are dictated by his evaluation of the evidence rather than some overly skeptical epistemology.