Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Secular munchkins on the march

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays)

Robert Price, a sometime fellow of the Jesus Cemetery…uh…I mean…Seminar, has posted a predictably negative review of an old essay by Gary Habermas.

Since Price is a high-profile apostate with some advanced degrees in theology, it’s worth reviewing his review.

I’d add that since Habermas is more of an evidentialist, and I’m more of a presuppositionalist, it’s not as if I’m predisposed to rubberstamp whatever he says. So let’s see how it goes.

That is to say, he [Habermas] poses as an objective researcher into open questions regarding the early Christian literature and history, but his conclusions are determined in advance by a dogmatic agenda.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is a correct assessment, and sufficient to discredit whatever Habermas has to say, doesn’t the charge cut both ways?

Habermas writes to persuade, while Price writes to dissuade. Habermas has a theological agenda while Price has an atheological agenda.
Because he is a spin-doctor on behalf of inerrantism (the real presupposition underlying all this blather), he has never met a resurrection story he doesn’t like, and if you (or Dodd) don’t like this one, maybe you’ll buy that one. Habermas himself obviously cares nothing for the judgment of the critical scholars he cites except that he may use them cosmetically in a warmed-over piece of fundamentalist apologetics.
More of the same. But couldn’t we rephrase this just a bit:

Because he is a spin-doctor on behalf of errantism (the real presupposition underlying all this blather), Price has never met a resurrection story he likes. He himself obviously cares nothing for comparative mythology except twhen he may use it cosmetically in a warmed-over piece of atheology.

As a member of the Liberty University faculty, Dr. Habermas is honor-bound to believe in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, the dogma that the Bible is free from all historical errors, and even that its authors never expressed differences of opinion on religious matters.

To which we might add that, as a member of the Jesus Seminar, Dr. Price is honor-bound to believe in the absolute errancy of the Bible, the dogma that the Bible is rife with all manner of historical errors.

But back to Habermas, Price’s characterization is transparently scurrilous. It’s true that, given his institutional position, Habermas is sworn to uphold the inerrancy of Scripture.

But what this characterization chooses to ignore is that no one is forcing Habermas to teach at such an institution. It’s not as if he’s a conscript who’s been drafted into the army of Field Marshal Falwell. It’s not as if he must follow orders and play the good German.

The fact that Habermas teaches at an institution in which the faculty are expected to believe and teach inerrancy is no more discreditable to his motives than the fact that Edward Witten teaches at an institution in which the faculty are expected to believe and teach modern physics.

It’s rather like accusing the framers of the Constitution with towing the party line. No, they were actually the architects of the party line.

Since Price is not unintelligent, why does he level such unintelligent objections to the work of Habermas?

The only explanation is that if you have no intelligent objections to offer, all you’re left with are unintelligent objections. Having dealt himself a losing hand, Price has to play his losing hand as if it were a royal flush.

Three major difficulties beset this erudite and clearly written essay. The first is the character of the whole as essentially an exercise in the fallacious argument of appeal to the majority. Habermas does not want to commit this logical sin, so he admits in the beginning that the mere fact of the (supposed) consensus of scholarly opinion to which he repeatedly appeals does not settle anything, and as if to head off the charge I have just made, he says he supplies sufficient clues in his endnotes to enable the interested reader to follow up the original scholars’ arguments, which, he admits, must bear the brunt of the analysis. I’m sorry, but that is simple misdirection like that practiced by a sleight-of-hand artist. You can say you reject the appeal to consensus fallacy, but that makes no difference if all you do afterward is to cite big names on the subject.

Observe that, in the course of this paragraph, Price actually says two very different things. On the one hand, he says that Habermas is guilty of a fallacious appeal to consensus. On the other hand, he also says that “Habermas supplies sufficient clues in his endnotes to enable the interested reader to follow up the original scholars’ arguments, which, he admits, must bear the brunt of the analysis.”

So, according to Price’s own admission -- and this is coming from a hostile source, remember -- what Habermas actually does is not to appeal to mere consensus, but rather, to scholarly “arguments.” Not a survey of scholarly opinions, but scholarly arguments.

True, that’s relegated to the footnotes, but let us recall that Price is reviewing an essay, not a book. In the space of an essay, we wouldn’t expect Habermas to lay out all of the detailed argumentation.

So Price’s allegation of name-dropping is false on Price’s own representation. And considering that Price is trying to cast the essay in the worst possible light, any favorable admission you can squeeze out of him makes you suspect -- even if you’d never read the essay -- that it must be far better than Price allows.

The second besetting sin is Habermas’s neglect of much recent scholarship…contemporary studies of Acts are increasingly inclined to treat the narrative as a tissue of second-century fictions and legends no different in principle and little different in degree from the Apocryphal Acts, though it is better written than these others (see Richard I. Pervo, Profit With Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles, 1987). You will know that J.C. O’Neill (The Theology of Acts in its Historical Setting, 1961) and others regard the supposed bits of early tradition found in the speeches in Acts to be signs of a late date, of the Christology and theology of the Apostolic Fathers, not of the primitive church.

So Habermas is guilty of yet another besetting sin because, in his 1997 essay, he neglected to consider such “recent” scholarship as the 1961 title by O’Neill.

And while we’re on the subject of recent Lucan scholarship -- within the publication date of the essay by Habermas, what about Bruce’s revised commentary on the Greek text of Acts, Colin Hemer’s posthumous monograph on The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellentistic History, as well as five volumes in the six-volume series on The Book of Acts in Its First-Century Setting?

Do these works document the trend of which Price is speaking? Or do they generally move in the opposing direction?

I’d add, just to bring things up to date, that I believe Craig Keener, Stanley Porter, Darrell Bock, Walter Gasque, and Joel Green are all in process of composing major commentaries on the Book of Acts. And I don’t think their viewpoint would serve to confirm a sceptical trend in Lucan scholarship.

You will be familiar with the fact that a number of scholars (not just me!) have spotlighted the appearance list in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a later interpolation into the text, an alternate explanation for all the non-Pauline linguistic features Habermas invokes as evidence that Paul is quoting early tradition (Arthur Drews, Winsome Munro, R. Joseph Hoffmann, William O. Walker, J.C. O’Neill, G.A. Wells).

G. A. Wells? Isn’t he a retired German teacher? Yes, Price is definitely rolling out the heavy artillery.

You would know that there may be quite a gap between whomever and whatever the earliest Christians may have been (if you can even draw a firm line where proto-Christianity split off from Essenism or the Mystery Religions).

Split off from Essenism or the Mystery Religions? Which is it? Aren’t Essenism and the Mystery Religions rather different historical phenomena? For Price, anything will do as long as it’s unorthodox.

The third big problem with the essay is the lamentable leap in logic whereby, like a Scientific Creationist, Habermas seems to assume that the (supposed) absence of viable naturalistic explanations of the first resurrection-sightings proves the objective reality of the resurrection. This is to pull the reins of scientific investigation much too quickly! And in fact one may never yank them in the name of miracle, for that is a total abdication of the scientific method itself, which never proceeds except on the assumption that a next, traceable, i.e., naturalistic, step may be found. And if it never is, then science must confess itself forever stymied.

Well, I suppose that’s true enough if, in tightly circular fashion, you define science as a godless enterprise. Who needs an argument when truth by definition is such a time-saver? Just don’t draw the noose so tight that you asphyxiate on the secular insularity of the whole procedure.

We need to take a closer look at his cards. First, There is little doubt, even in critical circles, that the apostle Paul is the author of the book of 1 Corinthians. Rarely is this conclusion questioned (p. 264) But there is reason to question it, and this is where the appeal to the majority is so misleading.

But if, even in “critical circles,” the Pauline authorship of 1 Corinthians goes unquestioned, although critical circles operate with a sceptical bias to begin with, then why is it unreasonable of Habermas to invoke the support of those who are predisposed to be antagonistic to his overall position? That’s a standard argumentative strategy, and a pretty strong argument. Isn’t the onus on Price and his fellow fringe-group to prove otherwise?

Bruno Bauer and a whole subsequent school of New Testament critics.. all rejected the authenticity of 1 Corinthians as a Pauline epistle. And they did so with astonishing arguments that remain unanswered to this day.

Except that Price doesn’t cue the reader into the actual content of their “astonishing” arguments to the contrary.

And if Price denies the Pauline authorship of 1 Corinthians in toto, then what becomes of the argument, if you care to call it an argument, that 1 Cor 15:3-11 is a post-Pauline interpolation? A post-Pauline interpolation in a post-Pauline letter?

Clearly, Price is prepared to grasp at any grab-bag of objections, however contradictory of one another, as long as they all contradict the Bible. Thankfully, though, it’s only Habermas who’s guilty of a “lamentable leap in logic.”

Second, Virtually all scholars agree that in this text [1 Corinthians 15:3ff] Paul recorded an ancient tradition(s) about the origins of the Christian gospel. Numerous evidences indicate that this report is much earlier than the date of the book in which it appears (ibid.) This is not really a separate argument from the next two following, but let us briefly note the oddity of the whole notion of Paul, if he is indeed the author, passing down a tradition, much less an ancient one (though perhaps Habermas means ancient in relation to us, but then that’s true of the whole epistle, isn’t it?). Habermas has set foot on one of the land mines in Van Manen’s territory: the anachronism of the picture of Paul, a founder of Christianity, already being able to appeal to hoary traditions, much less creedal formulae! All this demands a date long after Paul.

This objection is a verbal trick, based on denoting the tradition as “ancient” tradition. Of course, the tradition wasn’t “ancient” to Paul. The word “ancient” connotes something from the distant past in relation to the timeframe of the speaker.

The standard argument is not that 1 Cor 15:3-11 represents ancient tradition, but merely primitive tradition.

The conflation of the lists (to say nothing of the addition of gross apocryphal elements like the appearance to the half-thousand!) presupposes much historical water under the bridge, way too much for Paul.

How is the appearance of 500 witnesses a “grossly apocryphal element”? According to the Gospels, Jesus had thousands of followers before his arrest and crucifixion.

Wouldn’t we expect rumors of his Resurrection to attract a crowd of 500 or so? Sheer curiosity would have that effect.

The text as we read it gives no hint that Paul is supposed to be citing some older material (though I agree the material is alien to the context, not being the writer's own words.

Older than what? Older than Paul? No. He’s a contemporary of the other Apostles.

But the list is a living, apostolic tradition. It’s older than the time of writing (of 1 Corinthians). Once again, Price is trading on equivocations.

First, one may ask concerning all this what it is that Paul was supposed to have been preaching prior to this visit, since 1 Corinthians 15:1 makes the list the very content of his initial preaching to the Corinthian church!… But if he does regard the list as a piece of earlier material, he leaves no interval between the beginning of his apostolic preaching and the learning of this so-crucial list. Ouch.

Paul is not personally dependent on this material. That’s not how it functions in his argument.

He’s dealing with Corinthian sceptics. So he cites corroborative testimony from other witnesses. That’s a standard form of argument.

Nor should we forget how Galatians tells us in no uncertain terms that the gospel message of Paul was in no way mediated through any human agency, which would just not be true if he was simply handing on tradition like a plastered cistern that loses not a drop.

Continues to miss the aforesaid point of how this appeal functions in the argument of 1 Cor 15. This is not for Paul’s personal benefit, but the benefit of the Corinthian sceptics.

Conservatives have elevated to a dogma the premature and groundless judgment that we can take for granted that no important interpolations crept into the text during that early period for which there is absolutely no manuscript evidence either way.

Conservatives have no monopoly on textual criticism. What Price is complaining about isn’t “conservative” textual criticism, but mainstream textual criticism.

Indeed, there are some King James-only types who regard Westcott and Hort as minions of the dark side.

And in general, we must recognize that references to what the apostles may or may not have said, occurring not in writings by them but rather in writings by a different author have no independent historical value.

Really? Price has it exactly backwards. It’s precisely what one writer says about a second party that would give it independent historical value. By definition, what a writer says about himself has no “independent” historical value, although it may be historically accurate in its own right.

But to have “independent” historical value, the claim must be made about someone by someone other than the claimant himself.

Would Price insist that nothing said by Tacitus or Cicero or Julius Caesar about a fellow Roman has any independent historical value?

Price has written a whole book on his deconversion experience. In that book he talks about many other individuals whom he has known. Does his book have no independent historical value the instant he switches from a strictly autobiographical claim to a biographical claim?

In other words, we have it on Paul’s authority that these resurrection appearances were also being proclaimed by the original apostles (p. 267). But we cannot say we know they were preaching the same list or the same listed appearances until we read some other document by one of them that has the list in common with 1 Corinthians 15. And we have no such text.

And if we had such a text, Price would simply dismiss it as apocryphal or legendary or interpolative, &c.

Likewise, [Mt 28:]16-20 are a mere pastiche-summary of a resurrection-commission narrative…This is a reference back to something he forgot to include in his story, like somebody getting ahead of himself and spoiling the ending of a joke.

i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this analysis is correct, so what? The Apostles didn’t have word processors. They couldn’t churn out multiple drafts of a gospel, moving paragraphs around a scroll the way we cut/paste a Word document.

So suppose, ex hypothesi, that Mt 28:16-20 was an afterthought. Suppose it is out of place, chronologically speaking. That’s no evidence that 16-20 were interpolated.

ii) I’d add, though, that the historical narratives of Scripture often employ flashbacks as well as foreshadowings.

Some of the language is Matthean (unto the consummation of the age; to disciple ); the rest is derived from both the Septuagint and Theodotion’s translation of Daniel 7, as Randel Helms (Gospel Fictions, 1988) has shown.

According to Emanuel Tov (the world’s foremost OT textual critic), Theodotion “apparently lived at the end of the second century CE,” Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press 1992), 145.

So, if Mt 28:16-20 is a non-canonical interpolation, the wording of which is modeled on Theodotion, then it must have been composed in the 3C AD at the earliest, and thereafter managed to edge out every preexisting copy of Matthew’s Gospel.

Where is the textual or patristic evidence for such a radical claim?

And let’s get it straight: vv. 44-49 are not independent L tradition, which is to appropriate source criticism as apologetics. No, Luke just made it up, as one can see from the material’s similarity to the speech in 24:25-27 as well many of the speeches in Acts, also Lukan compositions.

i) How would the parallels between Lk 24:25-27 and 44-49 furnish any evidence that Luke made it all up? Why would we not expect Jesus to appeal to OT prophecy on both occasions?

ii) Are the speeches in Acts made up? There’s a considerable body of scholarship to the contrary.

In fact, this way of reading Luke’s story makes it remarkably similar to the episode in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana

Other issues aside, Luke is a 1C account of a 1C figure while Philostratus is a 3C account of a 1C figure.

The Doubting Thomas story closely parallels one from Philostratus.

Same disanalogy (see above).

This is one of the ironies of hyper-sceptics like Price. Their scepticism begins and ends with Scripture. They never subject extrabiblical sources to the same treatment as Biblical sources.

Hallucinations are not shared by groups. Then I guess Habermas accepts the historicity of the dancing of the sun in the sky at Fatima. Plenty of people saw that, too.

This counterexample is recycled by a number of unbelievers. In fact, this stock comparison is a good example of secular urban legend. The incident has undergone legendary embellishment in the process of oral tradition as it’s handed down, by word-of-mouth, from one unbeliever to another.

But as I pointed out in my review of TET, if you study the scholarly literature on Fatima, the state of the record preserves a number of conflicting accounts.

So all that Price et al. have demonstrated is the unreliability of militant unbelievers to accurately transmit tradition.

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