Friday, May 11, 2012

DJE? (12); Interpolations of Convenience

One way that some mythicists have gotten around the problem that this, our earliest Christian source, refers to the historical Jesus in several places is by claiming that these references to Jesus were not originally in Paul's writings but were inserted by later Christian scribes who wanted to think that he referred to the historical Jesus. This approach to Paul can be thought of as historical research based on the principle of convenience. If historical evidence proves inconsistent to one's views, then simply claim that the evidence does not exist, and suddenly you're right.
Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? p.118.

I am sometimes accused of proposing interpolations of convenience when I suggest the possibility that maybe Paul did not write "I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother." Gal. 1:19. Maybe he only wrote "I saw none of the other apostles—only James." Maybe some later scribe inserted "the Lord's brother" because he thought readers might be confused about which James it was that Paul met. For that matter, maybe Paul only wrote "I saw none of the other apostles." Maybe the insertion of "only James, the Lord’s brother" was the result of some theological turf war where a member of some James faction was trying to make him equal to Peter by putting him at those first meetings with Paul.  Given the 150 year gap between the composition of Galatians and the earliest surviving manuscripts, there are no doubt many interpolations that didn't leave any evidence in the manuscript tradition and whose motivations we might not recognize.  What if this is one of them?

In a discussion over at Exploring our Matrix, one comment seemed to sum up the the anti-interpolation viewpoint pretty well:
I also have a real problem with people reading in interpolations wherever it's convenient for their theory (rather than on textual critcal evidence), as it makes their theories unfalsifiable. And if they are unfalsifiable, are they really acceptable theories?

In the absence of the original autograph, could you prove that any passage in any classical text isn't an interpolation? If you think there's a gap between Paul and our earliest extant copy of his letters, think about how big that gap is for other classical authors: it's well over 1,000 years for Herodotus, I think.
This seems like a perfectly reasonable position, i.e., absent evidence to the contrary, why not presume that the text we have is what the author originally wrote?  But like so many arguments in this field, it can be turned around:

Given that we can't prove that any passage isn't an interpolation, why would we treat any text as any more than an approximation of the original, i.e., our best guess?  Why would we claim any more certainty about a passage being original than is warranted by the gap between the original and the earliest manuscripts?  Why would we propose any theory that was not robust enough to withstand the possibility of interpolations?  If we can't prove that any passage is original even where our manuscripts agree, how can we adopt the presumption that it is, even if that presumption is rebuttable?  Isn't it more logical to adjust the conclusions we draw to the appropriate level of certainty?

The objection that is raised to answering yes to any of these questions is that it puts us on a slippery slope to a place where nothing is certain, but I think that this is overblown.   First off, if we can reliably date the earliest extant manuscripts to the end of the second century, then we can reliably say what the church at that time understood Paul to be saying.  Admittedly, that is not nearly as satisfying as thinking we know what Paul actually said, but it's still valuable.  Second off, we can develop positive reasons for thinking that a particular word or passage does go back farther.  In Paul's case, we can look for ideas that are expressed consistently in several places in several letters or ideas that fit well with his overall themes and concerns. One of the reasons historians always look for corroboration from multiple sources is because any single piece of evidence could be wrong or mistaken.  The more evidence you have bearing on a point, the stronger the conclusion.

Moreover, I do not think that this would necessarily open the door to just any old interpolation based argument.  The probability of any argument being correct is still going to decrease as the number of proposed interpolations increases.  If someone needs eight cherry picked interpolations to support a particular hypothesis, the odds are going to be pretty small that it is correct.   (One of the reasons that I remain agnostic about a historical Jesus is that it does seem to me that mythicists are frequently guilty of this.)  On the other hand, if positing a single interpolation would dramatically change our overall understanding of the text, then perhaps our understanding is too fragile.  Perhaps we shouldn't be proposing any interpretation of the text that would be vulnerable to an interpolation or two.

I often see it claimed that allowing for more interpolation based arguments would throw all ancient texts into question, but I don't see that either.  With texts like Plato and Aristotle, we don't worry as much about the autographs.  What  matters is what has come down to us as Plato and Aristotle and the influence those ideas have had on western thought throughout the ages. Very little depends on whether any specific word or passage came from the actual pen of the author to whom it is attributed. With texts like Herodotus, everything he writes is taken with the appropriate grain of salt anyway. Historians are always looking for corroboration from other ancient writings or from archaeology.  In the reading I have done,  historians of the ancient world don't seem to claim significant degrees of certainty on the kind of issues that depend on a single passage being the original writing of an ancient author.

It is only with the Bible that it becomes important to assert that we have the originals.  If you believe that God inspired certain men to deliver his inerrant truths to the world, then it is very important to be able to say whether the specific words were written by those specific men.  If someone unknown philosopher reworked a passage twenty-five years after Plato died in order to insert his own ideas, those ideas hold the exact same significance in the development of western thought as if Plato wrote them himself.  However, if someone reworked a passage in Galatians twenty-five years after Paul died, the ideas lose any authority they had by virtue of inspiration.  We cannot know that the changes were sanctioned by the Holy Spirit.

I suspect that the presumption in favor of originality is ultimately driven by concerns that are more theological than historical.  To many of the scholars working with the texts of the New Testament, it is very important to have some method that enables them to determine the original words of the New Testament because the original words have theological authority.  It is not enough for these scholars  to determine the words of the earliest extant manuscripts.  Therefore they have adopted a presumption in favor of originality based on the earliest manuscripts that is not logically justified.  It seems to me that this is scholarship of convenience.

For Ehrman the agnostic, the words don't carry any extra-historical authority by virtue of being written by Paul in 50 A.D rather than inserted by some unknown scribe in 125 A.D.  Nevertheless, even a secular historian can draw much stronger conclusions if he knows that he has the words of an early witness to events so it would be nice to think we can know that we do. However, as Ehrman clearly seemed to understand in his 2008 debate with Dan Wallace, wanting to know what Paul wrote and knowing what he wrote are two different things.
Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know.
. . . .
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 earliest text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t know if 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 no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us any further back than we have already gotten and our earliest evidence is from the year 200, 150 years later. So can we know for certain? No. We can’t know for certain that the text is reliable. You might want to think it is. You might want to hope it is. You might want to say there are intelligent people who say it is so probably it is. But think about it. There are people copying these texts year after year, decade after decade.

Friday, May 4, 2012

DJE? (11): When Did Jesus Become the Messiah?

One of the things that frustrated me so much about Did Jesus Exist? was Ehrman’s failure to discuss the mythicist implications of many of the issues he raised. For example, at one point he discusses how the the point at which Jesus was thought to have become the messiah changed from his baptism by John to his conception to the Gospel of John's doctrine that he had been the Son of God from the beginning of the universe.According to Ehrman,
There were yet earlier traditions about Jesus that did not speak of him as the son of God from eternity past or from his miraculous birth or from the time he began his ministry. In these, probably the oldest, Christian traditions, Jesus became the Son of God when God raised him from dead. It was then that God showered special favor on the man Jesus, calling him the son, the messiah, the Lord. Even though this view is not precisely that of Paul, it is found in an ancient creed (that is, a preliterary tradition) that Paul quotes a the beginning of his letter to the Romans, where he speaks of Christ as God's "son who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness at his resurrection. . . . It is, in other words, a very ancient tradition that predates Paul's writings. (p.111)
Ehrman raises this point as part of an argument assigning an early date to the traditions underlying Acts, but it seems to me that its mythicist implications are fairly obvious and might have been addressed.

Why would the earliest Christians, presumably the ones that Paul persecuted before his conversion, believe that Jesus became the messiah only upon his resurrection if they understood him to have been anything like the wonder working messianic claimant that we find in the gospels?  Had their been any known traditions concerning a Galilean teacher and healer, wouldn't the early Christians have believed that Jesus was the messiah and the Son of God throughout his entire earthly ministry?   Doesn't the fact that the earliest Christians thought of Jesus as becoming the anointed one only upon his resurrection at least suggest that the stories about the activities of the earthly Jesus were added sometime later.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cool Jesus

As I've said, many times, if somebody can offer me a better explanation for Christian origins than "A guy called Jesus lived a couple of thousand years ago and some people thought he was pretty cool" I would be happy to listen to it.  
Paul Regnier commenting at Exploring Our Matrix.

I think that Cool Jesus is a very reasonable explanation for Christian origins, and I can't claim to have a better one.  Moreover, I like Cool Jesus.  I like the guy who hung out with the peasants, the prostitutes and the tax-gatherers and said to them "You guys are every bit as important in God's eyes as any rich prick sitting in the front pew at the temple."  I even like that Cool Jesus may have been just deluded enough to think that he had some special role in God's plan to bring about a just and righteous world.  What I really like is that Cool Jesus inspired his followers to form communities in which they treated each other well enough that outsiders sat up and took notice.

I'm just not so sure that the evidence is strong enough to say that Cool Jesus wasn't invented.  When I look at the earliest sources, I don't see much evidence that Paul knew anything about Cool Jesus.  In the earliest sources, I only find Mystic Christ who appears to certain select individuals and reveals deep spiritual truths.  Mystic Christ is the heavenly being through whom God Almighty is going to bring about His grand scheme of reconciling the world to Himself.  Mystic Christ inspires admirable behavior in his followers, too, but he doesn't do it by the personal example he sets because he doesn't have much personality.  It's kind of hard to relate to Mystic Christ.   So maybe it's almost inevitable that someone would invent Cool Jesus just to make Mystic Christ more accessible.

The ferocity of the debate over Did Jesus Exist?  seems to have surprised a lot of atheists and agnostics who didn't realize that anyone cared about the question so much.  One of the most frequent comments I have seen is "Who cares?  The important thing is that we all know that Magic Jesus didn't exist."    However, it does seem like a lot of people care about whether Cool Jesus existed while others think that debunking Cool Jesus is just as important as debunking Magic Jesus.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

DJE? (10): It's Not What Ehrman Read, It's How He Read It

In his review of Did Jesus Exist?, Richard Carrier suggests that Bart Ehrman didn't read Pliny and hadn't understood Plutarch. Ehrman responded that he has read Pliny many times and that he has taught seminars on Plutarch.

While I have no reason to doubt that Ehrman has read all the things he says he has read, I wonder whether the problem is that he has never tried to think about them from a mythicist perspective.  As a former fundamentalist, Ehrman has no trouble recognizing the fundamentalist implications of anything he reads in Pliny or Plutarch or Tacitus.  He knows how any source might be used by someone who believes that the Bible is inspired and inerrant. Ehrman has never been a mythicist though so I don't think that he is as adept at spotting the mythicist implications.

In a comment to a post titled The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant?, I asked Erhman the question I posed in a previous post here, i.e., how can our certainty about Paul thinking that James was Jesus' biological brother be any greater than our certainty about the textual integrity of Galatians? Ehrman answered that all of our manuscripts include the reference to James as "the brother of the Lord" and that "we know from other sources that the James who headed the church in Jerusalem was in fact known to be the brother of Jesus." This prompted  the following exchange between Steven Carr and Dr. Ehrman:
Carr:      Out of curiosity, which sources would they be? Luke/Acts, the Epistle of James, Jude? Does Josephus ever claim James was the head of the church?"

Ehrman:  In the NT, just Acts. But later traditions of the second century are uniform in making this claim, I believe. And they got the idea from *somewhere*!

Carr:      Acts claims that James the brother of Jesus was a church leader. Where does it say that?

Ehrman:  Ah good point. Acts does indicate that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and it does differentiate this James from the disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, but it never explicitly says he was Jesus’ brother.

I was rather taken aback by this as was Steven.  How can Ehrman cite Paul knowing the biological brother of Jesus as one of the key points that shows "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt" that there was a historical Jesus and not even notice that the only other New Testament book that talks about this James doesn't identify him as Jesus' brother?   I have no doubt that Ehrman has read Luke and Acts countless times, but apparently he never thought about the fact that while Mark 6:31 explicitly gives James as the name of one of Jesus' biological brothers, the author of Luke drops that reference.  Luke knows that Jesus has brothers, but he never tells us any of their names.

This is what leads me to believe that Ehrman has never thought about the mythicist implications of the things he has read.  Perhaps he simply assumed that there weren't any, but plainly if the question of Jesus' existence turns on whether the leader in Jerusalem named James was the biological brother of Jesus, it matters that the only two references in the New Testament don't say the same thing.   If you are going to rely heavily on Galatians 1:19, you need to have some explanation for why Acts doesn't corroborate.

As I pointed out to Dr. Ehrman, the simplest reading is that the James in Acts 15 and 21 is James the son of Alphaeus mentioned in Acts 1 and Luke 6, and that the author doesn't bother to mention his father in the later chapters because James the son of Zebedee had been killed off in Acts 12.  With only one James left in the story, there was no need to identify his father in order to distinguish him.  Occam's Razor would suggest that this is a simpler solution than positing that the author is introducing a third James into the narrative without bothering to distinguish him from the ones who had been mentioned earlier in the story.  This interpretation is not mandatory, but it seems to be the most natural.

Dr. Ehrman responded to this with the well known "everybody knew it" defense:
Well, if everyone knew who James was, there may in fact be no reason to identify him — especially if it is his custom to identify some other James (son of Alphaeus) with an identifying marker precisely becuase he wsa *not* well known.
I have never thought that the "everybody knew it" defense was a particularly convincing argument when used to explain why Paul is so silent about the historical Jesus, but I think it is even weaker with respect to Luke/Acts. At the beginning of his gospel, Luke says that he is writing his gospel because earlier works were unsatisfactory. I have to think that he expected his work to be the definitive account. When Luke/Acts departs from Mark, I think we have to assume that the author thought that Mark had gotten something wrong.

My good friend Dagoods is also less than impressed with the argument
“Everyone knew it” is a failed methodology. The Acts author narrows the “James” in 12:2 as “James, brother of John” and the “James” of 1:13 as “James of Alphaeus.” But this method alleges the author did NOT list “James” of 21:18 as “James, brother of Jesus” because everyone knew it? It would seem to follow, that meant no one knew who James, brother of John was. Or who James, son of Alphaeus was.

Don’t forget, Luke/Acts knew Jesus had brothers, but does not list their names. Even though his source (Mark) DOES indicate there is a brother to Jesus named James. Under a straight reading of Acts, the better argument is that James of 21:18 is James, son of Alphaeus—NOT the unknown “brother of Jesus” who never is identified by Luke/Acts.

See Also the author’s treatment of “Philip” in distinguishing between “Philip the Disciple” and “Philip the Evangelist” that equally shows a tendency to make distinctions for intended recipients.

I’ve been on the fence regarding Ehrman’s scholarship in reading these reviews, but if he really did use the method “everyone knew it” for arguing the silence on James in Acts; I find this devastating to his credibility. This is Mythical Skepticism 101 stuff.
Well, Ehrman really did use the "everyone knew it" defense and it leads me to think that he really didn't put enough effort into thinking about about the mythicists' arguments.  He shouldn't have been surprised when someone pointed out that Acts does not corroborate a biological relationship between James and Jesus, and he should have been ready with a stronger reason for discarding Acts.