Archive for April, 2013

Contending with Bart Ehrman


This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.


Contending with history


This is a review of the second section of the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Jesus of History

There are six essays in this section, but my reactions to most of them are similar enough that it really isn’t worth reviewing them separately.

The thing is, they all tend to lean on evidence from within the books of the Bible to support their claims. And that’s just silly. I mean, really? You have a collection of books, culled by a particular religious group from many alternatives and, in several cases, selectively edited in the process. This highly biased set of texts is then used as evidence – sometimes, different books within the set are put forward as independent sources of evidence! – of the theological position of the religious group that collected them.

Now, let’s be fair. If orthodox Christian beliefs do represent a faithful history of early-first-century events, then we would expect to have the books of the New Testament more or less as they exist today. (Perhaps with fewer internal contradictions, but not necessarily error-free.)

But then, if those beliefs are false, given people’s natural tendency to believe, even in spite of evidence to the contrary, it isn’t all that surprising that we have the books of the New Testament as they exist today. Including contradictions.

Now, for some brief responses to the individual essays.

First, Robert H. Stein outlines “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity”. Some of them sound plausible, others less so. The examples from the gospels – particularly for the “criterion of embarrassment” – tend to be very weak. The only criterion that seems at all persuasive to me is the linguistic one: there are elements in the gospels that point to translation from an Aramaic oral tradition, and that point to a Palestinian geography. So yes, I’ll accept that the oral traditions that were the sources for the (Greek) gospels came from Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. To the extent that the others give anything reliable, it is about elements that skeptics (such as Bart Ehrman) would not disagree with: Jesus existed; he said certain things; he was crucified; his followers started a religion in the wake of his demise that flourished, evolved, and has come down to us as a thousand different communities, all with slightly different takes on slightly different subsets of text and tradition from that time. Unimpressive.

A further barrier to my accepting this approach is the assertion, made for example by Richard Carrier here and here, that the “criteria” approach is bankrupt. It is not a valid historical method for ascertaining reliability. I wonder if he elaborates on this in the next book in our series (The Christian Delusion contains 2 of his essays)? If any historians are reading this, please let us know your thoughts.

Ben Witherington III closes his essay “Jesus the Seer” by reminding us that “who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can be different.” (p111) And yet Witherington hangs all his certainty about who Jesus claimed to be on indirect evidence of what others said he was. Unimpressive.

Gary Habermas, in “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line”, works back from a small sample of late, non-eyewitness textual accounts, through two or three levels of extrapolation. At each stage, possibilities are exaggerated to certainties with little or no consideration of alternative explanations. At no point is the inherently incredible nature of the resurrection claims even acknowledged, let alone accounted for. Habermas concludes that “this is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.” (p125) Really? So, are critical scholars recanting their skepticism en masse and accepting the literal resurrection? I can’t say for sure, but the content of Ehrman’s very recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, and the existence of the next volume in our challenge (The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus) seem to speak against this claim. Unimpressive.

“How Scholars Fabricate Jesus”, by Craig A. Evans, is an interesting walk through some of the better-known extra-canonical Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which, Evans notes, is featured in The Da Vinci Code). While Evans seems to be exaggerating the weight that critical scholars give to extracanonical material, this essay is largely an informative, interesting account of that material. (Note that, at least as Ehrman builds the case in Jesus, Interrupted, this material is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of the Gospels. They can be competently challenged on internal grounds alone.)

Daniel B Wallace’s essay, “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”, is one I was particularly looking forward to, as it directly responds to Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond to Jesus, Interrupted (JI), the Ehrman book that opened the philosophy challenge. Instead, it tackles Misquoting Jesus. I actually took the time to look through the latter book before reviewing this essay. This review will be presented in its own post – there’s a fair bit to chew on there. But, perhaps predictably, my overall conclusion was that Wallace’s arguments are unimpressive.

Michael Wilkins’ essay, “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”, draws on gospel material to affirm the claim that Jesus saw himself as the same saviour that modern Christians see him as. Interestingly, Wilkins actually weaves in the fact that the Jewish picture of the Messiah presented in the Old Testament, the character expected by Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) is not the messiah that Jesus turned out to be. He suggests that this failure to fulfil the prophecies supports, rather than undermines, the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It is an odd and quirky approach, but not particularly impressive.

In all, this section was vaguely interesting – particularly Wallace’s essay. But all of the essays suffer from one central shortcoming, in the context of the Ultimate Challenge. By leaning on the texts of the Bible, they give insufficient reason to take any of their conclusions seriously. It is extremely unlikely that a reasonable outsider will accept the claims of any religion, based only on the texts that its adherents pick out as divinely inspired.

It should be noted that the book wasn’t (of course) written for the Ultimate Challenge. It reads more like a book that was written to give believers an excuse to keep believing, if they are worrying about the arguments offered by critics. Sort of an internal apologetics. So I can’t say whether the writers failed at their own goal. I can only say that their arguments fall flat from the perspective of this outsider.

Insights as mutations


“Insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means.” – Bertrand Russell, in his essay “Mysticism and Logic”

I like this line. I like it because Russell manages to combine the rational person’s wariness of “gut feelings” as tests of truth, with an acknowledgement of the great value that such intuitions have in formulating hypotheses for science to test.

I also like it because it triggered a connection in my mind that I hadn’t considered before, between the operation of science and the operation of evolution. It boils down to a simple analogy:

Insight is to science as mutation is to evolution.

The great strength of modern science is of course the rigorous methods we have developed (methods of measuring, methods of analysing, and methods of thinking) for testing competing hypotheses and determining which is more likely to be true. But none of this would be worth anything without hypotheses to test, and the birth of many hypotheses is in personal intuitions that sprang into people’s minds, for reasons that may have little or nothing to do with reasoning or logic.

The great strength of evolution as a process is the tremendous power of selection – through competition, predation, sexual selection, whatever. Variations in the genetic instructions that confer advantages tend to proliferate, because the organisms carrying them reproduce more. But selection would be powerless without variations to work on. Variations are largely produced by mutation, a process that is blind to the selective advantage of any particular genetic change.

Insights are the raw material for scientific advances, just as mutations are the raw material for evolution.

There’s more.

The popular conception of science is rather mixed, but you often see in movies a lone scientist working away and then, at a critical moment, shouting “Eureka!” and solving the problem. The coolest thing about science in the eyes of moviemakers is (I suspect) the moment of intuitive insight. (The other side is that scientists are often thought of as following set procedures to come up with answers, without any creativity or spontaneity allowed.)

A common conception of evolution (frequently trotted out by creationists) is that it’s all about random change miraculously producing complexity. This is understandably laughed at – by creationists, who suggest that therefore evolution couldn’t be true, and by biologists, who suggest that evolution is not just random mutations. (The other side of popular conceptions of evolution is that it’s an inexorable progression – all about moving from more primitive to less primitive, from simple to complex – which is just as wrong.)

I don’t want to stretch an already thin metaphor, so I think I’ll stop there.

I’m not trying to suggest that any of these parallels provide support for either the scientific method or evolution. (Each of those stands very firmly on its own grounds.)

I also don’t think that the parallels above reflect any deeper symmetries or underlying message. We are pattern-matching machines, and I think this was just an example of my brain making a match and sitting back to say “wow”.

Let me know if you think this is cool too. Or if you think I have missed some key consideration that demolishes the beautiful analogy.

At any rate, thanks to Bertrand Russell for inspiring this train of thought. Russell was the “New Atheist” of his day, and received at least as much ill-conceived condemnation and vilification as today’s generation get.

What tweaks Tim today


I’m feeling under the weather right now (sore throat, since you ask), and it has left me feeling a tad peevish. So I thought, what better time to put pen to friendly blog?

I’ll try to make my tetchiness entertaining. Here for your edification are ten things that annoy me:

  1. “Humanists are just atheists who don’t want the pejorative label.” Oh, the gems that come from within one’s own tribe. I’ve only heard this one from other atheists. They ought to know better! The words “humanist” and “atheist” have different meanings. It may be that some people avoid the label “atheist” because of the negative optics associated with it; but for many of us the term “humanist” more completely describes our beliefs and values. It is, communicatively, a better word for what we’re trying to say. And for the record, I am a humanist and an atheist.
  2. “You need as much faith to be an atheist as to be a believer.” Give me a break. Saying “I don’t have enough evidence to believe, so I won’t believe” is not on the same level as saying “I don’t have enough evidence to believe, but I’ll believe anyway.” Sure, some atheists assign an unnecessarily pejorative definition to the word “faith”, but even under the most generous meaning, the above claim is ridiculous. Do you accept the tenets of Government-Binding Theory (in the syntactic analysis of language)? If you do, without seeing any evidence for it, then you are making a leap of faith. If you do not accept it, then you are not making a leap of faith. You are sensibly reserving judgment. That is the position of the atheist.
  3. Malapropisms, bad grammar, and vague language. Communication is such a fragile thing. Much suffering and strife can be traced back to unclear transmission of ideas, yet many people use language in any old slapdash way they fancy. You can almost feel the social glue dissolving as they speak. It’s like they want misunderstanding, confusion, and strife. (And yes, the Oxford comma is the appropriate, clear, and logical way to behave in civilized English prose.)
  4. If there’s even a possibility that Jesus died for your sins, isn’t that an offer worth considering? Emotional blackmail? Seriously? But leaving that aside, consider the proposition. People tell me that an all-powerful guy who created the universe arranged a brutal sacrifice of himself* to himself in order to permit himself to forgive me for the imperfections built into me by himself. And they expect me to be grateful?! No, if Jesus died for my sins as they describe, the universe is being run badly by an evil being. Human sacrifice is a practice that thoughtful, compassionate humans have grown out of. If gods have not also grown out of it, so much the worse for them. (*Part of himself, anyway. Temporarily.)
  5. Who are you to judge God? Who am I? I’m the one being asked to commit my life and behaviour to a being accused of child sacrifice, genocide, and helping people in statistically imperceptible but psychologically compelling ways. The believer who judges God to be good enough to worship is at least as arrogant as the disbeliever who judges him to be fictional and/or not worthy of worship.
  6. Rhetorical questions that beg for answers. For example, a creationist rhetorically asks, “What could possibly account for the way giraffes’ cardiovascular system is perfectly adapted to the problems of a long neck?” (example) Asking the question betrays a culpable lack of curiosity in the world around use. The only way someone can ask that and not get an answer is if they’re saying it in a one-way medium, like a film (thanks, Netflix, for that half-hour I’ll never get back), or if they’re talking to people who are even less curious about the real answers than the speaker. (By the way, the answer to the giraffe question is evolution. Like, real evolution, not the strange straw man that creationists imagine when they compose their semi-coherent polemics.)
  7. God is beyond human understanding. Then stop claiming to understand him! Saying “God is mysterious” when he seems to have done something bad, but “God is good” when he seems to have done something good is what we call special pleading, and it is monumentally unpersuasive. Take Government Binding Theory again. If I tell you it’s beyond human understanding, then catalogue how it concisely explains syntactic structure across a variety of languages and predicts what patterns we should and should not see in new languages, you will suspect that (a) it’s not actually beyond human understanding, and (b) my empirical claims are weak and I want to have an out. At any rate, you will approach the theory with sensible, appropriate skepticism.
  8. My internal grammar-nazi. Let me be completely clear here: I am very grateful to Mrs Church for guiding me through some of my key formative literary years. I have benefited greatly from her strict, no-nonsense approach to what is appropriate and what is heinous in grammatical constructions. But is it really a matter for moral repugnance when someone uses a double-negative? Does someone’s failure to use the Oxford comma really merit a black mark in my mental Rolodex? Is there really a word that one should never end a sentence with?
  9. Overstating the role of religion in the world’s evils. Honestly, atheists, there are a lot of other things out there that lead to more evil. Like money. Well, okay, that seems to seep into organized religion and produce some amazing exploitation. What about power? Hmm, same problem. The human tendency to tribalism and divisiveness? There we go: religions often preach unity and universality, so they’re free of that at least. Of course, they often disagree about whose unity and universality should be used. And those disagreements often turn violent, divisive, and tribal. Gah. Anyway, snarkiness aside, my original complaint stands. Religions aren’t the source for any of the world’s evils. The source is human nature. Religions are just really, really convenient conduits for them, made more amenable by their tendency to encourage blind faith over careful questioning and scrupulous doubt.
  10. Hell. One of the worst ideas that humans have ever come up with. What sort of person threatens a child, her friends, and her family with hell for honest dissent? I once met an otherwise pleasant woman who happily explained that, if she ended up in heaven and a loved one ended up in hell, it wouldn’t matter, because God would give her some sort of emotional lobotomy to prevent her from caring about the eternal torment of others. The idea of hell was not inflicted on my impressionable young psyche, for which I am very grateful to my parents. But I have known people who have been deeply scarred by the doctrine of hell. Some of them have since escaped its psychological prison; others have not. While I have no grand dream of a world without religion, hell is one meme that I would happily consign to the flames if I could.

(Yes, I see what I did there. What can I say? It’s a repugnant idea, but it’s a useful metaphor.)