Saturday, February 7, 2015

On Occam's Razor in New Testament Studies

Suppose that a student submitted an essay to a professor that is suspiciously similar to an essay submitted to the professor a previous term. Hypothesis A might be the second student copied from the first and hypothesis B would be that they both copied independently from a third source. How would the professor go about determining which hypothesis is more likely?

Hypothesis A is somewhat more parsimonious than B in that there is no need to posit the existence of a third source, so Okkam's Razor might favor A.  On the other hand, it is easy to see how the effect of parsimony would be quickly overwhelmed by evidential factors. For example, if investigation established that the two students were friends, that would incline the professor towards A much more than mere parsimony ever could. By the same token, if no connection between the two students could be discerned, B would look better regardless of its slightly greater prodigality. If the professor was the only one who taught that class or assigned that essay topic, A would be favored much more than if the course was offered every term by different professors who assigned similar topics.  I suspect that there is probably a laundry list of evidential factors that would trivialize the influence of parsimony in the final assessment.

I was recently involved in a discussion of whether the occurrence of “the worker deserves his wages” in both 1 Timothy 5:18 and Luke 10:7 makes it more likely that the former is quoting the latter than that both are drawn from some other source.  I personally cannot see how parsimony gives us much more to go on than it does in the case of two students with similar essays.

To my mind, the virtue of Okkam's Razor in historiography is mostly as a guide to investigation. You should start with the simplest hypothesis not because it is the most likely to be true.  Indeed, considering the complex forces that shape history, any simple explanation will likely leave much to be desired.   However, it is still good to start with the simplest explanation because it will be the one that is easiest to verify or falsify as there are fewer variables for which to control.  If it proves impossible to come to a conclusion about a simple explanation, the chances of having any certainty about more complex conclusions are remote.

I read a fair amount of history, but the only place I ever see Occam’s Razor invoked with any frequency is in New Testament studies. I suspect this is because the evidence is simply so sparse that there is little left to fall back on. Unfortunately, like many of the other criteria that New Testament scholars have developed, I just don’t think it can bear anywhere near the weight that they place on it.


  1. Hello, I'm an atheist, and my view of the historiography issue in apologetics is that neither side of the debate clarifies to what end they are arguing. For example, when an apologist argues that Papias "is reliable" for establishing that Matthew wrote the gospel bearing his name, how compelling is the apologist saying that evidence is? Only good enough to give Christians a glimmer of hope that traditional authorship can be defended? Or so good that anybody denying Matthian authorship is being irrational?

    When the atheist says Papias is not to be trusted, does he mean merely that he can provide rational reasons for his personal distrust of Papias? Or does he mean anybody who trusts the Papias-testimony is irrational?

    The only people who are bothered by the inherently relative subjective nature of investigation into ancient history, are Christians, who know they stand to lose much if they allow for any relativity. Hence, they continue pushing their weak evidence as if Matthew authoring Matthew is as obviously true Lincoln having once been president.

  2. Hello, Vinny! I see that like many, you are not blogging as much (if at all anymore) as you once did. Too bad. Though I don't agree with you much, I do like your stuff more than others with whom I disagree.

    I think it's pretty clear that both the Luke and Timothy verses are based on OT teachings (DT 24), so I don't see where the problem is. In the Luke version, Christ is simply referring to OT teachings as He so often did. But if you are referring to Luke's claim that Christ actually said “the worker deserves his wages”, there's really no way to substantiate it one way or the other.

    With 1 Timothy, certainly by this time both New and Old Testament are considered equally valid for teaching, and references by Paul to the OT is also not surprising...particularly since his background involved study of the Scripture of his time.

    I don't know if this actually addresses the point of your post, but I was wondering about why such a discussion as that to which you referred would even take place.

    1. I no longer have a job where I sit in front of a computer all day, so I've gradually drifted away from the blogosphere. Apparently, I no longer get email notification of comments since I didn't see yours until yesterday.

      I don't remember the context of this post very well. I think it arose from several different discussion that I had about Occam's razor.

  3. To davewave,

    I don't see that too many Christians would ever have stressed over the authorship of any of the Gospels (or any book of the Bible for that matter) had atheists not seen fit to question authorship. The issue is simply not as important as the teachings found therein. So, to use your own words to give what I feel is a more accurate assessment of the issue...

    The only people who are bothered by the inherently relative subjective nature of investigation into ancient history, are atheists, who know they stand to lose much if they cannot convince themselves that Scripture is true.