Friday, April 21, 2017

On the Possibility of Interpolation

If I were to argue that we cannot be certain about Matthew's account of the guards at the tomb both because none of the other gospels corroborate it and because there is an obvious, plausible motive for its invention (i.e., to counter claims that Jesus' body was stolen), no liberal scholar would bat an eye. Moreover, even many conservative scholars would see the need to offer affirmative reasons for believing Matthew's account.

On the other hand, if I suggest that we cannot be certain about Galatians 1:19's reference to James as the "brother of the Lord" due to lack of early corroboration (i.e., no other 1st century writing describes Jesus' brother James as a leader in the movement) as well as an obvious, plausible motive for interpolation (i.e., to clarify which James it was that Paul met), I am met with howls of outrage from liberals and conservatives alike. Moreover, my argument is deemed to be so spurious that it does not even warrant a response.

While I am happy to concede that different factors may lead to different conclusions in each case, the basic logic and structure of the two arguments is nonetheless the same. I am hard pressed to see why the former should be uncontroversial while the latter is viewed as some sort of dirty trick.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Who Are the Snowflakes?

I have very little patience with my fellow Baby Boomers ranting about "Snowflake Millenials."

It is true that we reached adulthood without the benefit of seat belts and bicycle helmets. We played with toy guns and ate candy cigarettes. We told jokes loaded with ethic slurs and ate breakfast cereals loaded with sugar. We learned math without calculators.

So what? It didn't make us tough. We were the original snowflakes.

It was the generation before us that lived through the Great Depression and fought World War II. We simply enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. We were able to get decent jobs without going to college, and we could go to college without mortgaging our futures.

The generations that preceded the Baby Boomers were justified in thinking that all subsequent generations were soft and spoiled. We aren't. As a generation, we had things so much easier than the ones that came before that we have little basis to think ourselves any tougher than the ones that have come after.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Get over it.

Dear fundagelical Christians,

Why not just accept that the law now accords same sex couples the same right it accords opposite sex couples to enter a relationship with a particular set of legal consequences. You are still free to believe that these are not "real" marriages in the eyes of God, just as you are free to believe that Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Unitarians are not "real" Christians in the eyes of God. You just don't get to control how the rest of us use the language.

Friday, March 27, 2015

On Presuppositions

Assessing the probability of miracles as low is no more a matter of presuppositions than is assessing as low the probability that the sun will rise in the west. It is a conclusion based on knowledge and experience.

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.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Doubts About the Consensus of New Testament Scholars

I am entirely open to the possibility that it is objectively more probable than not that Jesus was a historical person.  However, when a scholar claims that he can be almost certain about specific things that Jesus said or did, I think that he is badly overestimating the weight that the evidence will bear.   As a result, when he urges me to trust the consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars like himself concerning the certainty of Jesus' historicity, I cannot help but wonder whether the weight the evidence will bear isn't being overestimated again.