Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Review Of James White's Debate With Robert Price (Part 1)

I recently watched a DVD of James White's debate with Robert Price this past May. (You can order a copy of the debate here.) The topic was "Is The Bible True?", but it focused primarily on the gospels and secondarily on the writings of Paul, with an occasional reference to some other portion of scripture.

James White did well, and I won't repeat all of the many good points he made during the course of the debate. I'll repeat some of his points and make some of my own.

In his opening remarks, Price constructs a series of straw men to burn down. If the historical transmission of Jesus' teachings was reliable by normal historical standards, then why do Christians appeal to Divine protection of that transmission process in order to argue for its reliability? Were Jesus' disciples some sort of ancient equivalent to Snopes, tracking down and refuting false accounts that were circulating about Jesus? Doesn't Acts 6:1-4 suggest that they already had their hands full with other things? If Jesus couldn't stop people from saying things He didn't want them to say (e.g., Mark 1:44-45), why think that Jesus' disciples were able to prevent people from spreading false accounts about Jesus? Price suggests it's unlikely that "all early Christians" were "always careful" in what they reported about Jesus.

He uses similar argumentation later in the debate. He appeals to pagan influence among Jews in some pre-Christian literature and in some later sources, including some that postdate Christianity by hundreds of years. He says that there may have been an early standardizing of the New Testament text, much as later occurred with Islam. Since the text was standardized, we don't have manuscript evidence for some of the textual corruptions Price suggests. Christians collectively changed the text.

What Price is doing, again and again, is demanding too much of his opponent and too little of himself. A historical argument for the truthfulness of Christianity doesn't require that "all early Christians" were "always careful". It just requires that enough of them were sufficiently careful enough of the time. It's not as though the existence of some carelessness, some false accounts about Jesus, etc. inherently falsifies Christianity or inherently makes Price's theories probable. If some Christian scribes were dishonest or careless in transmitting the New Testament text, for example, we still have other scribes who weren't. Some people didn't do what Jesus asked them to do (e.g., Mark 1:44-45), but others did. The original Christians didn't need to be an ancient equivalent to Snopes in order to generally preserve some accurate historical information about Jesus. The acceptance of pagan religious concepts by some Jews in some contexts doesn't tell us what a Jew is likely to have believed in the context of early Christianity. Etc.

During White's first cross examination, Price refers to studies in which eyewitnesses can't remember "anything". He uses the example of a study in which a clown unexpectedly enters a classroom. Apparently, the students in that classroom disagreed with each other in what they reported about what had happened. But does it therefore follow that they didn't remember anything? Did one student think the incident happened in 1980, while the other thought it happened in 1994? Did one think it happened in Mexico, while another thought it happened in France? Did one think that a dog entered the classroom, whereas another thought a motorcycle rode through? Or did they agree for the most part while disagreeing on some details? Is one unexpected clown visit to a group of modern students in one room comparable to behavior by Jesus that He often repeated, involving issues of high significance, with thousands of witnesses in an oral culture? A surprise visit from a clown is hardly comparable, and Price even misrepresents his clown example as far as it goes. Why does Price trust the memories of the people who conducted the study and his own memory regarding what he read about it?

One way to appreciate the erroneous nature of Price's argumentation is to apply it to other contexts. Would we dismiss what Josephus or Tacitus reports on the basis of the existence of some false information in their day, what people remember when a clown unexpectedly enters a classroom, etc.? Sometimes skeptics will attempt to be more consistent if you press them about applying their standards consistently. But, in my experience, their initial approach is to be highly inconsistent. When they're so inconsistent, what does that suggest about their standards and what they actually believe about the subjects involved? If they keep trusting human testimony on issue after issue and in context after context, but then become far more skeptical of human testimony when the topic of Christianity comes up, what does that contrast suggest?

As White mentions during the debate, the textual corruptions suggested by Price should have shown up in our textual record if they had occurred. Appealing to the possibility that the corruptions occurred without being reflected in the textual record (and without being mentioned elsewhere) doesn't overturn the probability of the general principle White is appealing to.

As White mentions, Price's speculation about an early Christian standardization of the text, similar to what occurred in Islam, has a series of problems. The Islamic effort left traces in the historical record. Price's proposed scenario didn't. And the Islamic effort, though somewhat successful, wasn't entirely successful. Yet, Price wants us to believe that the early Christians (an often persecuted minority in the earliest centuries, without Islam's later cultural status) were able to entirely eliminate all of the relevant traces of Price's alleged textual corruptions, like the supposed alteration of 1 Corinthians 15. The appeal to Islam works against Price's theory instead of supporting it. We would expect such a Christian effort to standardize the text to leave many traces in the historical record. We don't find those traces. And think of just how many people would have to be involved in such a process and how difficult it would be to carry it out in Christianity's early context. The fact that Price and those who follow him in his argument suggest such a scenario reflects poorly on them. It suggests a major misjudgment of the nature of the claim they're making and the status of the evidence.


  1. Do you think Dr. White is making a probability argument?

    I was at the debate, and I have watched it twice since then - don't remember him using that language. It would be strange, coming from a presupper.

  2. I don't think that's intrinsically incompatible with presuppositionalism. Van Til's point is that you can't have probability in a vacuum. You can't talk about what's probable or improbable before you can talk about what's possible, impossible, or necessary. It's relative to those background conditions. And those are theory-laden distinctions. But with the right metaphysical grounding (i.e. the Christian worldview), it wouldn't be out of place to use probabalistic arguments.