Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Thoughts on "Expelled"

From the time that someone figured out that the sun was not a chariot driven across the sky by Helios, science has been in the business of replacing supernatural explanations with natural ones. Religion has occasionally slowed the process, but it has never stopped it. More importantly, it has never made the process work in the other direction. Nevertheless, the Intelligent Design folks think that they can get science to pull off this unprecedented feat. In a way, their confidence in science's explanatory power is far greater than that of the most committed naturalist. While I admire their chutzpah, I doubt that they will be successful.

Damon Runyan wisely observed "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet." I don't think that the antipathy towards Intelligent Design has anything to do with suppressing free speech. I think the scientific community reasonably views ID as a quixotic pursuit whose probability of success lies somewhere south of perpetual motion and the transformation of lead into gold. I would not expect research universities or peer reviewed journals to support tilting at windmills.

What I have found most fascinating is the credulity of evangelical Christians when it comes to the contents of Expelled.* I will admit that I am favorably inclined towards liberal filmmakers like Michael Moore, but I realize that he is prone to hyperbole and I certainly would never cite one of his films as proof of any fact in a discussion with a conservative. I would realize that I would need to verify his claims with some reasonably independent source because I fully appreciate that people who share my views are fully capable of shoveling manure. On the other hand, before the film even opened I was being challenged by evangelical Christians to watch the trailer for Expelled as if no reasonable person could fail to be convinced by that alone.

*I would like to salute ChrisB over at Homeward Bound for considering the possibility that the movie needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

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.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Student of Wallace v. Fan of Ehrman

This is a response to Tim Riucchuiti who responded to my last post on If I Were A Bell, I'd Ring.

Thanks for responding Tim. I realize that I can get a little bombastic. I would also like to note that I was not impressed by Bart Ehrman’s opening presentation either. It really did seem like nothing more than a rehash of Misquoting Jesus. Given the audience, it is hard for me to believe that he couldn’t have provided some more challenging insights. However, I really did not feel like Dan Wallace’s presentation provided any deeper insights than popular apologetics.

As a skeptic (and even when I was an evangelical Christian in my late teens), I have always seen the lack of evidence from the earliest days of Christianity as the challenge that apologetics most fails to meet. To quote Ehrman, “We just don’t know.” I thought it significant that both members of Wallace’s team noted both the scarcity of evidence and the higher rate of variants during that period. Michael Holmes said that the first century years of any document are the time when alterations are disruptions are most likely to arise. William Warren noted that during this period the scribes were not professionals and they did not recognize what they were copying as being canonical documents.

This is why I thought that Ehrman’s first response to Wallace got to the heart of the matter. For Galatians as well as at least 60% of the New Testament verses, we have no evidence at all. This is the period when the documents were being copied by less skilled scribes with increased probability of errors. It is the period when Christians were still developing their understanding of the life and death of Jesus, increasing the possibility that variants could arise because copyists did not understand the meaning of what they were copying. This is also the period when the copyists did not see what they were copying as canonical documents increasing the possibility that they would feel free to make a change if they thought that it improved the text.

One of the things I would have liked to seen better developed is the distinction between the known variants in the manuscripts we have and the unknown variants that arose during that first century after composition for which we have so little evidence. When Wallace asserts that none of the variants affect essential Christian doctrines he is only talking about the known variants. Regarding the unknown variants, he can only say that he thinks it is probable that they would not affect any essential Christian doctrines. For me, the implication of the existence of unknown variants is the crux of the problem and I don’t think that Wallace addressed it.

My problem with the “telephone game” analogy is that I think Ehrman made it clear that he was not talking about that level of distortion. I thought that one of his most interesting examples came in his closing remarks when he talked about Luke 22:19 where Jesus says “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Ehrman suggested that the “for you” was a scribal addition intended to impose the doctrine of substitutionary atonement on Luke. While I don’t claim to know whether Ehrman is interpreting this correctly, I think it does illustrate that it only takes the addition or subtraction of a few words to significantly change the way a passage or even a whole book should be read.

Ehrman also pointed out that the single word “not” can completely change the interpretation of a passage and I can give you a modern example of this. In Why I Believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable, Gary Habermas argues that "The sort of thoroughgoing propaganda literature that some critics believe the Gospels to be was actually nonexistent in ancient times. Sherwin-White declares, 'We are not acquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography.'" The problem is that A.N. Sherwin-White said the exact opposite. He wrote that "we are not unacquainted with this type of writing."(emphasis added) Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament p. 189. He was saying that historians were familiar with such propaganda and able to deal with the distortions that characterized these types of writings. I don’t know how Habermas came to make this error, but it did not take anything like a “telephone game” distortion for him to completely change the meaning of the passage.

I think that the telephone game analogy was a straw man in large part because I don’t think that the distinctions Wallace drew between it and the textual transmission of the New Testament really address any of the problems created by the early copying. For example, textual critics cannot go back to manuscripts and multiple streams in the first and second century, when the text was most at risk, because the evidence is not available. Wallace cited the witness of the apostolic fathers, but one of the things that Michael Holmes noted is that the early fathers like Ignatius and Justin Martyr did not cite things in a form that allows any firm conclusions about the texts they were citing. The factors cited by Wallace might avoid telephone game like distortions in the later manuscripts, but I don’t think they help much for the early period.

I think it is important to distinguish between the first century A.D. and the first century after the writing of the New Testament, which is in fact, the second century A.D. There were several times that speakers mixed both modes of speaking, as in one of Michael Holmes comments.
With the 15 percent from the 1st millennium of the text’s existence, the closer
in time that you get to the origins of the New Testament, the more scarce the
manuscript evidence becomes, and indeed, for the first century or more after its
compositions, from roughly the end of the late first century to the beginning of
the third century we have almost no manuscript evidence for any of the New
Testament Documents and for some books the gap extends to two centuries or
In fact, Holmes critiqued three scholars who thought that more could be known about the early texts than the evidence warranted.

I don’t think it is accurate to say, as you do, that “[t]o believe that something other than that conservation in later scribal practices was happening in the 1st century is to ignore all available evidence in favor of an argument from silence.” I thought that several affirmative reasons were offered to raise concerns about the earlier scribal practices. Ehrman pointed out that the rate of variants for the second century manuscripts we do have is higher. Holmes pointed out Origen’s complaints about poor practices among early scribes. He also pointed out that the citations in Clement’s letter to the Corinthians in 95 A.D. already reflect fluidity in the texts of Paul’s letters. Warren noted that the earliest copyists would not have viewed themselves as copying canonical scripture. It would of course be wrong to say that all the scholars agreed about the implications of these problems, but I think they all recognized their existence.

That is why I was dissatisfied that Wallace discussed of the number of manuscripts from within the first three hundred years of the originals without discussing the unique problems posed by the earliest period. You might argue as Warren and Holmes did that these impediments should not cause despair. On the other hand, you might argue as Ehrman did that historical methods are unable to overcome this uncertainty. However, I felt that Wallace simply glossed over the problems.

Regarding the idea of conspiracy in the scribal corruption, I still think this is a red herring. Here is what Ed Komoszewski had to say about it:
Vinny, I think you need to read Misquoting Jesus and Lost Christianities again.
Ehrman clearly sees the proto-orthodox doing something with the text that was
not out in the open. Further, he hints here and there that they would have
suppressed the heterodox manuscripts. These two points in combination suggest a
soft conspiracy.
Well, I have been reading them again and I am not finding it.

In Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and Faiths We Never Knew, 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 front in this battle was the polemics of writers like Irenaeous in his book Against Heresies. Ehrman believes that many of the textual variants he discusses in Misquoting Jesus were inserted in the New Testament as a result of these battles, but I don’t find anything alleging a conspiracy, even a soft one. In a sense, the textual variants were collateral damage from the battles rather than a planned attack. However, even if Ehrman had alleged proto-orthodox conspiracy and control, I cannot see why it would matter that Islam had pulled off a similar scheme more effectively several centuries later. Perhaps the Caliphs decided not to make the same mistakes that the early church had made.

I cannot argue with your assessment of Ehrman’s opening statement and you are certainly in a better position to judge who won the weekend. However, as a reasonably thoughtful skeptic, I can tell you that Wallace’s presentation did not make any points that I felt warranted a prolonged response. On the other hand, I thought Ehrman’s discussion of the 150 years before our first copy of Galatians really highlighted the problems that needed to be addressed. I found it interesting that both Wallace’s team members, Warren and Holmes, addressed these problems and neither of them seemed to have any factual disputes with Ehrman in the discussions that followed.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Defending Textual Reliability by Setting the Bar Low

The basic apologetic strategy for defending textual reliability is to set the bar low enough to make the New Testament look good by comparison. You simply compare the New Testament to something that is much worse. Dan Wallace used the following comparisons in his debate with Bart Ehrman at the recent Greer-Heard Forum to demonstrate that we could imagine barriers even higher than the ones Ehrman identified:

  • The Telephone Game: Even though no one ever claimed that the first and second century transmission of the New Testament texts was anything like the telephone game, Wallace seems to thinks the fact that it wasn't should make Bible believers feel better.
  • The Transmission of the Koran: Even though no one ever claimed that the transmission of the New Testament texts was anything like the Koran, Wallace apparently thinks believers can feel good that is wasn't.
  • Earlier Copies than Other Ancient Manuscripts: Even though Ehrman argued that we could never be sure of what Plato actually wrote either, Wallace thinks believers can be comforted that we have earlier manuscripts of the New Testament than we have of other ancient works.
  • Manuscripts Within 300 Years of Originals: Even though conservative scholar Michael W. Holmes said that we know next to nothing about the shape of manuscripts within 100 years of the originals and that this is the crucial time period for alterations and disruptions, Wallace thinks believers can be comforted by the fact that there are lots of manuscripts within 300 years.
  • Degree of Uncertainty: Even though Ehrman never claimed absolute skepticism about the text of the New Testament, Wallace thinks believers can be happy that the uncertainty is not wholesale.
  • Conspiracies: Even though Ehrman did not claim that scribes conspired with one another, Wallace comforts believers with the thought the orthodox corruption of scripture was not as pernicious, sinister, and conspiratorial as believers might think after reading Misquoting Jesus.

Ehrman’s summary of Wallace’s straw man arguments was nothing if not frank.

I think I want to tell you honestly what I think that Dan’s talk was. I
think Dan’s talk was a very learned presentation that was designed by it high
intelligence to comfort you with the thought that you can trust that the
text of the New Testament is reliable and that it was designed less to convince
by evidence than by intelligence.
I personally suspect that Ehrman may have been more that a little disappointed that this was the best that Wallace could come up with.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Meaning of "Reliable"

The thing of it is that I don’t think Ehrman and Wallace really disagree that much about text criticism. For me, the question of whether the text of the New Testament is reliable boils down to the question “Reliable for what?”

My point is that reliability is not a fixed concept; it varies with the application. Sometimes, lack of information is enough to render a thing unreliable. If an airplane has not been through the standard pre-flight safety check, it’s not reliable. Even if it’s in perfect working order and capable of passing the check with flying colors, no pilot should take it up and no passenger should board it. On the other end of the spectrum might be my fifteen-year-old lawn mower. If I can get it started by the tenth try and it doesn’t die more than a half dozen times while I am cutting the grass, it meets my criteria for reliability. The same electric motor that might be perfectly reliable in a vacuum cleaner might not be reliable in a respirator.

That’s why I am not persuaded by people who compare the textual reliability of the New Testament to something like the Iliad. After all, what am I going to use the Iliad for other than having an enjoyable read and getting some insight into an ancient culture? There could be an awful lot of variants in there and I would still consider it perfectly reliable for those purposes.

The New Testament, on the other hand, is used for so much more and my question is whether it is reliable for the purposes that it is used. For instance, suppose that Paul wrote something sympathetic about homosexuals in his letter to the Galatians. If we had that verse, we might look at the other verses in his letters that touch on the subject as being directed only against specific groups at specific times and we might look at the Old Testament passages on the subject as anachronisms on a par with the bans on eating shellfish. However, suppose that some scribe in those first 150 years looked at it and said, “This can’t be right,” and deleted it.

Is the text of the New Testament reliable for purposes of deciding social policy towards homosexuals? Is it reliable enough to ban homosexuals from military service? Is it reliable enough to saddle people with a lifetime of guilt over a trait that they cannot control? Is it reliable enough to send a young person into a coercive and potentially destructive course of therapy in order to repress his or her natural desires? I would certainly never think that the Iliad was that reliable.

In my opinion, the problem is that the New Testament text is not sufficiently reliable for the purposes to which it is put.

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.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

More on the Apologist's Mind

One of the things that drives me nuts about Christian apologists is the way that they are always sniffing around for admissions. At Parchment and Pen, Daniel Wallace described the big admission he thinks he extracted from Bart Ehrman during their debate:
But one thing I did learn: Ehrman conceded that no essential belief of the NT
was compromised by the textual variants. That’s the main thing that I wanted to
press for at the Greer-Heard.

This is an important point that should not be missed: Many Muslims, atheists,
and anti-Christian groups have seen Ehrman as a champion for their views. But
regardless of how much doubt he may have about the wording of the original text,
or how much doubt those who believe they are following his lead have, no one can
claim Ehrman as an advocate of an original text that did not speak of the deity
of Christ or his bodily resurrection.

Let’s look at what Ehrman actually said on the subject:
My view of changing theology is that it’s very hard to change people’s
theology. I’ve found this over the last twenty-five years with Dan.
It doesn’t matter whether you interpret one passage one way, he’ll find
another passage that says what he wants it to say. If you argue about that
passage, there’s always another passage. You can get rid of three or four
passages and you can still come up with a doctrine.
Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament?
No! Does that stop people from believing it? No! Well what if you
take out the Great Commission in Matthew 28? People will still believe in
the Trinity. What if you take out some of the references in 1st
Thessalonians to the Father, Son and the Spirit? People will still believe
in the Trinity.

Doctrine is not affected by textual variants because generally doctrine
isn’t affected by these things. People have doctrines for other reasons
and it’s very hard to change people’s doctrines. So I agree that yes these
textual variants don’t effect doctrines for the most part. That’s not
though the criterion of what is significant and what is insignificant

Does anyone really think Ehrman and Wallace’s views are even remotely similar here? Nevertheless, Wallace brought up the fact that he and Ehrman “agreed” on this several times during his exchange with me. Moreover, I have no doubt that he will cite this admission for years to come in lectures, articles, interviews. Does it really help Wallace’s position?

Best Line from the Greer-Heard Forum

QUESTIONER: You asked the question why study variants if they don’t make a significant difference. Since many people abandon their faith because they don’t believe the truths taught by scripture can be relied on, wouldn’t one of the most important reasons for Christians to study textual criticism be to defend its integrity from people like you?

DR. EHRMAN: Good luck!

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.

Friday, April 18, 2008

It Wasn't Sandbagging--Just Distortion

It seems that I have worn out my welcome at Dan Wallace’s Parchment and Pen blog. This is somewhat disappointing as I find textual criticism interesting and I generally found Dr. Wallace to be fair-minded and intellectually honest in dealing with questions and challenges. However, he did not appreciate the comments I made in response to Ed Komoszewski’s account of Wallace’s debate with Bart Ehrman at the Greer-Heard conference on April 4, 2008. After listening to tapes of the debate, I apologized for suggesting that Ehrman was sandbagged by Wallace. I do think that a couple of Wallace’s points were slightly off-topic, but these were a very small part of his presentation. They may have been somewhat irrelevant, but not particularly unfair. However, Komoszewski claimed that these points had completely refuted Ehrman’s entire thesis, which led me to believe that they had been the main focus of Wallace’s arguments. My opinions of Komoszewski are what drew Wallace’s ire.

Is anyone else as sick as me of Christian apologists who think that acknowledging their biases gives them free rein to play fast and loose with the facts? The following comes from Komoszewski’s comments on the final Q&A session of the conference:
First a questioner asked Ehrman about his text-critical method, noting that Ehrman seemed to always find the least orthodox readings and argue that they were the original readings. What Ehrman said was, frankly, unbelievable. He basically said that he would find the reading that he liked, and then find the evidence to support it! This sure sounded as though he was starting from his conclusions rather than beginning with a question. Not surprisingly, some folks audibly gasped at this response.
Wow! Ehrman must be a real jerk, right? Maybe he would be if Komoszewski were telling the truth.

Here is the question that was actually asked:

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.

Ehrman responded: “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.” The response I heard on the tape was laughter, not gasps. Ehrman went on to say that he considered himself a reasoned eclectic and explained what reasoned eclecticism meant and why its application did not produce the kind of consistency that other approaches might. Ehrman said absolutely nothing to suggest that that he reached his conclusion first and only looked for evidence afterwards. It was only after Ehrman’s initial response that the questioner noted that Ehrman had reached conclusions that other reasoned eclectics had not agreed with. Unfortunately, the questioner seemed to have moved away from the microphone and it was very hard to tell exactly what he said. Ehrman’s response was quite audible and it got another big laugh: “They’re just not reasoned enough.” Ehrman went on to explain that he believed that he was applying the same basic method as his mentor, Bruce Metger, although he noted differences in the way he applied it.

Anyone who has heard Ehrman answer questions will note that he often responds with some sort of quip before going into a more detailed explanation. Other examples from the conference include his first response to Wallace, “I didn’t realize we were talking about the textual reliability of Bart Ehrman.,” and his response to Dr. Dale Martin’s presentation in which he criticized some of Ehrman’s conclusions, “Dale and I used to be friends.” If his initial remark draws a laugh, then the odds are pretty good that he intended it, at least in some part, to be humorous. So it was horseshit for Komoszewski to take the remark as an admission (which it wasn’t in any case) that Ehrman reaches conclusions before looking at the evidence when Ehrman followed it up with an explanation of how he evaluates the evidence.

When I expressed my opinion of Komoszewski's account, Wallace came to his defense:
I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to call into question Ed’s integrity in his report. All you can report is what you heard in the audio; you cannot report what was seen, or heard in parts of the auditorium, because you weren’t there. Ed was there and I was there. Further, you didn’t mention the question that led up to this particular question. Maybe it was muffled in the audio, but it is what prompted the questioner to ask what he did.

From where I was standing, here’s what I saw and heard: When the man asked that question, it was a follow-up question on some of the kinds of text-critical decisions that Ehrman had made. Indeed, Ehrman even doubted having gone in one direction on a certain passage (John 1.1), and the previous questioner and I both reminded him of what he said in his Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Now, I do not doubt Ehrman’s integrity in the matter; he simply didn’t remember what he had written. But he was essentially saying that he was open to the reading of Codex L in John 1.1 (which, with only one other 7th-8th century manuscript, has ‘the’ before ‘God’ in John 1.1c). This is what prompted the question about Ehrman’s method. Ehrman’s response then showed that he was outside the bounds of normal reasoned eclecticism in this matter and was approaching rigorous eclecticism—-a method that virtually rejects the testimony of the most important manuscripts and works things out on the basis of what a scribe would be likely to do and what the author would have been likely to do.

The questioner did not ask a follow-up question because he was allowed to ask only one question. When he asked the question, he turned and headed back toward his seat. When Ehrman made his response, I was stunned, the questioner was stunned (he quickly turned around and looked shocked!), and several people in the audience were stunned. There was indeed an audible gasp from many people, but this was probably drowned out by the laughter.

I will freely admit that I don’t know whether Ehrman’s eclecticism is reasoned or rigorous or what the difference is, but there is something I learned in the days when I was practicing law: Never rely on your memory if there is a tape! The tape makes clear that the question on methodology was not a follow up to the question on John 1:1. The question on methodology was asked first. Wallace simply remembered things in the wrong order because it helped him rationalize Komoszewski’s twisting of Ehrman’s quip.

“Of course, we’re ALL biased!” wrote Wallace. Yes Dan, we are. However, one of the ways we can control for those biases is by being meticulous about our facts. I would like to think that readers of this blog can tell that I dislike being surprised by facts of which I am not aware. If am going to charge a noted scholar with making an embarrassing admission, I go to the tape or the transcript to make sure that he really did make that admission. I don’t use acknowledgement of bias as an excuse for taking liberties with the facts.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Our Broken Health Care System

From Monday's Chicago Tribune:

$325 Monthly co-pay charged Roberta Steinwald, 53, for the drug Copaxone, which she takes for multiple sclerosis. The Maryland woman previously paid $20, but her insurance policy with Kaiser Permanente switched from a fixed co-pay amount to a percentage of the the drug's $1,900 monthly cost. "I charged it, then got into my car and burst into tears," Steinwald said. Health insurance companies are rapidly adopting the new pricing system for very expensive drugs.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sandbagging Bart Ehrman

On April 4, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary hosted a debate between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace on the textual reliability of the New Testament. According to two attendees, Tim Richutti and Ed Komoszewski, Ehrman’s opening statement was a somewhat uninspired rehash of Misquoting Jesus. In his opening statement, Wallace chose to present a number of quotes from Ehrman’s own works that were designed, according to Ed to show “what Ehrman said to professional colleagues was quite different than what he said to laypersons.” Interestingly, in his comments on Wallace’s opening statement, Ricchutti did not even mention the use of quotations, although he did note Ehrman’s response. “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.”

From Ricchutti’s summary, it sounded to me like Wallace generally made the same points that he made when Lee Strobel interviewed him for The Case for the Real Jesus. Komoszewski, on the other hand, seemed to think that Wallace had delivered a “silver bullet that ripped a hole through Ehrman’s entire thesis.” That bullet apparently consisted of Wallace’s observation 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.” This struck me as odd because I don’t recall anything about a proto-orthodox conspiracy in Misquoting Jesus.

As it turns out, Komoszewski co-authored Reinventing Jesus with Wallace and Dan Sawyer, a book that “[c]onfronts issues raised by the two most popular assaults on historic Christianity: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” He is also a former director of research for Josh McDowell Ministries. When I asked Komoszewski whether he had helped prepare Wallace’s presentation for the debate, he acted as if the idea were ludicrous: “I couldn’t help Wallace with his work in this area if he hit his head and forgot everything he knows! Wallace is a world-class textual critic and I by no means specialize in this area.” It kind of makes me wonder why Wallace would choose him as a co-author.

When I questioned Komoszewski about his theory that Ehrman’s entire thesis was based on a proto-orthodox conspiracy, he advised me to reread Misquoting Jesus and an earlier book by Ehrman titled Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. The earlier book discusses the competing understandings of Christianity that flourished in the first few centuries such as Docetism, Gnosticism, and Marcionism. These Chrisianities eventually lost out to the proto-orthodox position which came to be considered orthodoxy while the rest were dismissed as heresies, but according to Ehrman, there was a time when it was not clear which version of Christianity would triumph. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman suggests that some of the variants that appear in the New Testament manuscripts reflect a scribe's attempt to oppose some allegedly heretical by making the text conform more closely to the proto-orthodox position. However, Misquoting Jesus only deals with alternative Christianities to the extent to which the competition is reflected in the manuscript record. It does not deal with the manner in which proto-orthodoxy eventually triumphed and does not implicate any conspiracies.

Of course, evangelical Christians utterly reject the thesis Ehrman develops in Lost Christianities and a similar book, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament. They insist that their present understanding of Christianity is the same one that Jesus himself taught and the apostles themselves preached. They reject the notion that competing Christianities with an equal claim to historical legitimacy ever could have existed. They believe that Christianity was monolithic at least through the completion of the writing of the books of the New Testament and that the heresies arose later in the second century. After all, it wouldn’t do to think that there might be some Gnostic influence on Paul’s writings. It also would not do to think that the gospels were written to defend one particular viewpoint from competition rather than to accurately record historical events.

So it sounds to me like Wallace sandbagged Ehrman by expanding the debate beyond textual criticism. Ehrman would have been prepared to address the textual reliability of the New Testament which he had written about in Misquoting Jesus and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. In fact, Ehman did so in his opening statement. Wallace, on the other hand, decided to use the opportunity to attack Ehrman's arguments that competing versions of Chrisitianity in the first few centuries might have had an equal claim to historical legitimacy. Wallace accused Ehrman of believing some conspiracy theory that was inconsistent with his positions on textual criticism. This would certainly make for an interesting debate, but one for which Ehrman deserved fair warning.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Further Thoughts on Clement of Rome

Apologists argue that original witnesses to Jesus life and ministry were still alive at the time the gospels were written. They say this is important because the influence of the eyewitnesses would have served as a check on fabrications. I have previously questioned the logic of this argument in On the Lack of Debunking and Further Thoughts on the Lack of Debunking. However, after reading the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, another possibility occurs to me.

Maybe Clement's declined to cite Mark and Luke not because he did not know of them, but because he knew that they were not authetic. Maybe he did not cite them because he knew that they did not accurately reflect what he had learned from Peter and Paul. Maybe it was the influence of the original disciples that delayed the general acceptance of the gospels until they had all been gone for almost a century.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Case for the Real Jesus (9): Licona's Minimal Facts

In The Case for the Real Jesus, Mike Licona claims that the vast majority of scholars on the subject accept that Jesus's disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them. He quotes Paula Fredricksen of Boston University who he describes as "a very liberal scholar":
I know in there own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and all the historic evidence we have attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know as a historian that they must have seen something.
(TCFTRJ p.119) While I might not accuse Licona of lying, I think he is certainly spinning things pretty vigorously.

The gist of the “minimal fact” which Paula Fredicksen accepts is that the disciples saw “something.” There is no agreement about the number of disciples who saw this something. No agreement that the nature of the appearance was physical rather than visionary. No agreement about the location of the appearance, whether it was in Jerusalem or Galilee. No agreement about how soon the appearance took place after Jesus’ crucifixion. No agreement to an instantaneous transition from timid cowering to bold preaching. No agreement to a rapid spread of the belief. No agreement to anything in the gospel accounts other than that some unnamed disciples saw something. If the fact that somebody believed they saw something requires a supernatural explanation than we have to believe that Joseph Smith spoke with the angel Moroni and the Blessed Virgin Mary really appeared at Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, Knock, and on that grilled cheese sandwich that sold on e-Bay (or was that Jesus?).

So how does Licona get from scholars agreeing that some disciples saw something to the historical resurrection as the most likely explanation? He does it by reading back into his minimal facts the details from the gospel accounts that he needs to dismiss alternative explanations. He dismisses the hallucination theory on the grounds that hallucinations don’t happen to multiple people at once. However, this assumes the factual accuracy of the appearance accounts in the gospels. He dismisses the theory that Peter had a vision and then convinced the others on the grounds that someone would have produced the body. However this assumes the accuracy of the burial accounts in the gospels and assumes that Peter’s vision took place in Jerusalem rather than Galilee. He dismisses the swoon theory (which I agree sounds silly) on the grounds that it does not comport with the details in the gospels.

Licona claims that his case is based on the minimal facts that are accepted by the majority of scholars, but in fact, he liberally supplements those facts with other details from the gospels for which he can claim no such consensus.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Minimal Facts = Maximal Crap

That leads me, then, to my first major contention, namely: There are four historical facts which must be explained by any adequate historical hypothesis: Jesus’ burial; the discovery of his empty tomb; his post-mortem appearances; the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. Now, let’s look at that first contention more closely. I want to share four facts which are widely accepted by historians today.
William Lane Craig (from his 2006 Debate with Bart Ehrman).

Is this really the way history works? Is there any intellectual legitimacy in picking out a handful of facts that support a predetermined conclusion and insisting that a conclusion be reached solely on that handful of facts? Isn’t this what crackpot conspiracy theorists do? The 911 nuts find a couple of clips that make it look like there were explosions at lower levels of the buildings. They find a couple of witnesses who report hearing explosions or report seeing flashes. Then they triumphantly claim that only their theory of a controlled demolition explains those clips and quotes. They see no need to consider the overwhelming mountain of evidence that establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Twin Towers fell because terrorist hijackers flew airplanes into the buildings.

Of course, we know that conservative Christians think that medicine works that way, too. Who can forget the carefully edited video of Terri Schiavo that seemed to show her responding to the people in her hospital room? Would any sane person think that her condition could be diagnosed solely on that video? Republican Senator Bill Frist did! After looking at the video for an hour, he declared on the Senate floor, “There just seems to be insufficient information to conclude that Terri Schiavo is [in a] persistent vegetative state.” Bill was quite right. The video did not contain the information that was available to the doctors who had examined and treated Schiavo over the fifteen years since her accident.

Real historians do history by weighing all the facts and evidence in order to reach a conclusion. Crackpots do history by cherry-picking the evidence.

My Favorite Story About Charlton Heston

During the making of Ben Hur, the actor Stephen Boyd had some problems understanding his character Massala's motivation. The Roman Massala had once been the childhood friend of the Jewish Judah Ben Hur, but wound up being his sworn enemy. Director William Wyler suggested that Massala and Judah had been homosexual lovers as boys and that Massala wished to renew the relationship when he returned to Jerusalem as an adult. According to Wyler, Massala turned against Judah when his amorous advances were rebuffed.

Wyler never told Charlton Heston about this because Heston was so straight-laced, but if you watch the initial scenes between Heston and Boyd, you can see the lust in Boyd's eyes.

Charlton Heston (1924-2008)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Case for the Real Jesus (8): Clement of Rome

You may call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I have this dream that someday I am going to go look up some source that some apologist has cited and find that it actually says what the apologist claims it says and actually supports the apologist's argument. When it happens though, I'm pretty sure it won't be anything cited in any of Lee Strobel's books.
I recently decided to read the earliest known Christian writing outside the New Testament canon, the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians 1 written about 95 A.D. In part, my curiosity was piqued by Mike Licona's claim that Clement confirmed the gospel accounts of the resurrection:
In his letter to the Corinthian church, which was written in the first century, he writes: "Therefore having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit's certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come." (TCFTRJ p. 117 citing 1 Clement 42:3)
A minor quibble here is that Licona quotes from a translation that he and Gary Habermas made. It is not that the translation I found on line is dramatically different, it just seems like citing your own translation is like citing your own book as authority for your argument.

My major quibble is that Clement’s letter reflects little if any familiarity with any of the four gospels. Clement quotes extensively from the letters of Paul and from the Old Testament, but only quotes two of Jesus’ sayings. These sayings are similar to ones found in the synoptic gospels, but they vary enough that it is hard to believe that he is quoting from any of the canonical texts.2 If the church tradition cited by Licona is correct and Clement was ordained by Peter himself, why doesn’t Clement quote from the gospel that was supposedly written by Peter’s secretary Mark? If Clement has so many of Paul’s letters and knew Paul personally, why doesn’t he quote from the gospel that was supposedly written by Paul’s traveling companion Luke?
More significant than the variation in the two quotes is the fact that Clement found nothing else from Jesus' life and teaching relevant to his message to the Corinthians. Clement’s purpose was to urge the Corinthians to reinstate certain church elders whom they had deposed. In his letter, he advises repentance, humility, obedience, faith, love and other Christian virtues and he illustrates his points with the Old Testament stories of Jacob and Esau, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, David, Rahab, Lot, Moses, Job, and Jonah. Yet he never uses a single story from the life of Jesus to drive home a point. He exhorts the Corinthians with admonitions from Psalms, Proverbs, and Paul’s letters, but never mentions the Sermon on the Mount or a single parable. When it comes to the resurrection, he cites the legend of the phoenix rising from the ashes but completely neglects the Passion narratives. It just seems ludicrous to cite Clement as confirming anything in the gospels when he does not demonstrate the slightest familiarity with them.

I realize that arguments from silence need to be taken with a grain of salt. The fact that an event or an earlier document is not mentioned in a particular writing does not prove that event did not take place or that the author was unaware of the earlier document. In fact, I have often criticized apologists for using similar reasoning, e.g., arguing that the traditional authorship of the gospels can be accepted because we have no record of competing claims. Nevertheless, I would challenge anyone to read Clement’s letter and explain why he includes nothing from the Gospels of Luke and Mark if in fact he was familiar with them and believed that they were authoritative eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus.
I have not read much about how scholars estimate the composition dates for the gospels, but Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians seems like pretty powerful evidence that they were not known in Rome in 95 A.D. This would in turn seem to rule out Mark and Luke as the authors of the books attributed to them.3

1 There are in fact two letters to the Corinthians attributed to Clement but scholars only believe the first one to be authentic.

2 “Be ye merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you; as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you.” 1 Clement 13 (Similar but not identical to Matt. 6:12-15, Matt. 7:2, and Luke 6:36-38)

“Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones.” 1 Clement 46 (Similar but not identical to Matt. 23:6, Matt. 26:24, Mark 9:42, and Luke 17:2)

3 I gained many valuable insights from Richard Carrier's The Formation of the New Testament Canon.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Were the Evangelists Stupid?

The second earmark of authenticity for the New Testament is that it contains
all sorts of embarrassing material about the disciples; things like the unbelief
and their cowardice and their grandiosity and even their stupidity. And
then there are these hard to explain sayings of Jesus that would have been
embarrassing to his culture. Things like his attitude towards sinners and
towards women and towards legalism, and his displays of anger, and here’s the
point: if the writers of the New Testament were inclined to manipulate or
whitewash the record, surely they would have edited out this embarrassing
material, but the material is in the Bible which is simply more evidence of
their desire to be complete and to be accurate even if their own image was
tarnished in the process.
Lee Strobel

Isn't it possible that the authors of the gospels understood that they were telling the story of a messiah who had the power to transform the lives of the weak and the lowly? Couldn't it be that they understood that portraying the apostles as flawed human beings prior to Jesus' death and resurrection was an integral part of the story. Isn't that why Strobel portrays himself as a immoral atheist before he began his journey of faith? Isn't it even possible that the authors would have portrayed the apostles in a worse light prior to Jesus' resurrection just so their transformation would appear even more dramatic?

It seems to me that Strobel must think that the writers of the gospels were too stupid to understand what made Jesus such a compelling figure and too stupid to tell the story in a way that conveyed the message they wanted to convey.