Sunday, March 20, 2016

Bock v. Ehrman

Recently I listened to Darrell Bock debate Bart Ehrman:

Bock did well given the constraints of the medium. Unfortunately, the exchanges were often inconclusive because Justin Brierley rushes the discussion along from one topic to another to fit within the allotted timeframe. I'd like to follow-up on some issues raised in the debate:

1. Ehrman thinks many of the NT documents must be pseudonymous because the disciples were illiterate, uneducated Aramaic-speaking peasants. That, however, raises a host of issues:

i) He mentioned the well-worn claim that the Greek in 1 Peter is too good to be written by someone with Peter's rustic background. But as Karen Jobes has demonstrated, that fails to distinguish between syntax and diction. Although the diction is sophisticated, the syntax is unsophisticated, and syntax is harder to master than vocabulary. 

ii) Presumably, Paul was quite capable of writing his own letters, yet he found it convenient to dictate his letters. If even a well-educated man like Paul used scribes, why not less educated Christian leaders?

iii) Moreover, Paul's use of scribes implies the availability of competent Christian scribes in NT times. 

iv) Ehrman says dictating a text requires the same level of education as writing it yourself. But that's clearly false. Take oral histories of emancipated slaves. These were uneducated speakers, but that hardly hindered them from giving interviews. Consider the WPA slave narratives. Their interviews were transcribed. 

v) Apropos (iv), take Frederick Douglass. He had no formal education. Yet he taught himself to read and write. 

vi) But let us grant, for the sake of argument, that Matthew, Peter, James, John, and Jude only knew Aramaic. In that event, suppose they had bilingual scribes. They spoke in Aramaic, while a scribe translated their statements into Greek. 

Consider simultaneous translation. Take immigrant families where parents and grandparents barely know the language of the host country. At best, they speak broken English (or whatever). But their young kids quickly become fluent in the new language, and function as simultaneous translators for their parents. This also happens in more formal settings like the UN, or diplomatic meetings and press conferences between heads of state. 

Moreover, in writing down what the speaker said, a scribe would have greater opportunity to consider the choice of words. Ask the speaker for clarification. The final product would be more accurate than simultaneous translation. 

vii) In his book (Forged, 76), Ehrman objects to this in part because 1 Peter quotes the OT from the LXX. But it's hard to see the force of that objection.

Suppose a scholar translates a book by Martin Hengel or Adolf Schlatter into English. When Schlatter or Hengel quote the Bible in German, will the scholar directly translate their German rendering of Scripture into English, or will he substitute a familiar English version (e.g. NIV, ESV)? For an English-speaking audience, it would make more sense to use a familiar English version of the Bible. 

In addition, Ehrman says that can't account for the "Greek rhetorical flourishes" in 1 Peter. But even if his objection held against 1 Peter, that can't be extrapolated to works like John's Gospel or 1 John. Do those exhibit the same "Greek rhetorical flourishes"? 

viii) A potential objection to this theory is whether that's consistent with the verbal inspiration of Scripture. But since Ehrman rejects the inspiration of Scripture–there's no reason he'd object, in principle, to Peter or John speaking in Aramaic while a scribe turns that into Greek. In fact, Ehrman's own position invites that alternative explanation.

For Christians, this would require inspiration to extend to the scribe. But on the face of it, there doesn't seem to be any antecedent reason to preclude that possibility. It's no more effort for God to inspire two people than one person. To inspire the scribe as well as the speaker. 

That's not ad hoc. Since dictation is a collaborative effort, having inspiration cover both parties to the transaction is reasonable. 

Of course, an atheist will reject inspiration. But given a theological framework, that's not outlandish by any means. Indeed, it might even be necessary. Traditional formulations of inspiration overlook the role of scribes, but there's no a priori reason why scribes can't be included in the process. 

ix) Another problem with Erhman's objection is that even if the Greek in 1 Peter is too classy to be written by Peter bar Jonah, the Gospel of John is written in very simple Greek, Mark is syntactically primitive, while Revelation has never been upheld as a model of Greek composition. In addition, Mark was an urbanite, not a peasant. Likewise, Luke was not a Jewish, Aramaic-speaking peasant. So Ehrman has to stretch his thesis to cover documents that are hardly analogous to 1 Peter. 

x) Ehrman's appeal to Josephus is counterproductive. For Josephus only learned Greek later in life. If he can do it, why not one or more of the disciples or stepbrothers of Jesus? 

2. Ehrman thinks writers resorted to pseudonymity to get their material accepted under false auspices. And he cite examples of 2C apocrypha. 

i) That, however, courts anachronism. For instance, Ehrman thinks Matthew is pseudonymous. But that appeal may well be circular. Was a Gospel named after Matthew because he was famous, or was he famous because a Gospel was named after him? 

Ehrman is viewing the reputation of the Apostles through the rear window of church history. They became famous. But can we use their posthumous reputation to explain pseudonymity? Put another way, how long would it take for them to become sufficiently famous and sufficiently revered that their name would facilitate acceptance of a document? For Ehrman's theory to work, we first need to abstract away the contribution which the NT had on their status. For you and me, it's the NT that makes them famous. But how well-known would Matthew be apart from the Gospel of Matthew? 

ii) Presumably, early Christians were interested in documents by people who knew Jesus. To that extent, there'd be a a built-in constituency for writings by the disciples or the stepbrothers of Jesus. Mind you, even that isn't straightforward. How did they know who his disciples or stepbrothers were? In 1C Palestine, some people would have firsthand knowledge of their identity. But outside that ambit, it would depend on the Gospels and Acts. So we're back to circularity. 

iii) Furthermore, Paul didn't have that advantage. He had to work very hard to become established in the nascent church. In addition, he was a controversial figure with well-connected opponents (e.g. the Judaizers). How widely was his apostolic authority acknowledged in his lifetime? 

So why would an author write under Paul's name? In hindsight, that might be an obvious choice. After all, Paul became the most influential theologian in church history. But, of course, we can't expect a forger to enjoy that opportunistic foresight. How late would Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus need to be before Paul's reputation was sufficiently prestigious to name letters after him? Consider how Paul was challenged even in churches he personally founded and oversaw. You can't assume that his standing in the 2C is equivalent to his position a century earlier.  

3. Ehrman says he operates with a "show me the evidence" condition. Sounds reasonable. Who can argue with that? But it depends on how we define evidence. Does he mean direct documentary evidence?

i) For instance, Ehrman is certain that stories about Jesus underwent extensive creative reformulation before they were finally committed to writing. But in the nature of the case, how can there be direct documentary evidence for a theory of creative oral tradition? 

ii) Sometimes the lack of evidence can be evidentiary. For instance, archeologists may determine whether or not a site was populated by Jews based on the presence or absence of pig bones. That's not documentary evidence. And that's not positive evidence. The assumption, rather, is that a kosher diet explains the absence (or paucity) of pig bones. 

iii) Likewise, there's the role of inference in historical reconstructions. It "stands to reason" that certain things will be the case, even if there's no direct surviving evidence. If, say, 1C Palestine was under Gentile rule and occupation, with Greek as the lingua franca, we'd expect many Jews to know conversational Greek, and some to be able to read and write in Greek. That would be necessary for commercial and political transactions. Even if you have no specific evidence, the circumstances may demand it. 

4. Ehrman says he applies the same criteria (e.g. theology, style, situation) to NT pseudepigrapha that Bock applies to NT apocrypha (e.g. 3 Corinthians). But that's disanalogous. One reason for excluding NT apocrypha is dating. If 3 Corinthians was clearly written sometime in the 2C, then it cannot be authored by Paul. 

5. Ehrman says Josephus is the only 1C Palestinian Jewish author we know of writing literary Greek. But, of course, he can only use that claim to exclude NT evidence on pain of vicious circularity. For the NT is prima facie evidence to the contrary. 

Moreover, it's not coincidental that Josephus and the NT survived. As sacred Scripture, the NT was preserved. Likewise, Christians to an interest in Josephus. Other material didn't survive, not because there were no other 1C Palestinian Jews who might be literate in Greek, but because there was not the same incentive to copy their works for posterity. 


  1. I think your comments about inerrancy/inspiration extending to a scribe and the circularity of authorship claims, for example Matthew being "famous" for writing a Gospel being logical only in hindsight, are particularly trenchant.

    Nice article. Apostates like Ehrman are useful foils insofar as they give Christians an opportunity to defend the faith against spurious arguments, demonstrating the truth of the faith, and help sharpen and refine apologetic arguments,

  2. Steve- Maybe a simpler argument would be that the bible describes scripture as being inspired, and not the author or scribe. Would you agree?

    1. True. Strictly speaking, it's the agent that's inspired. But since the end-product is the result of inspiration, it's logical to speak of the inspired result (i.e. the Bible).

  3. I remember that debate, and made some comments at the time. Dr. Bock even came to the blog and made some comments also.

  4. Since that time of the debate, and thinking about 2 Peter and Jude and their similarities; I have come to think there is a lot of credibility to Jude (half brother of Jesus and author of the epistle of Jude) being the one who wrote 2 Peter for Peter, Peter dictating it to Jude from prison (before being executed around 67 AD); which may explain the similar content and style; and why it was lesser known for a while.

    If so, then Mark wrote his gospel from Peter's sermons and memories; Silvanus wrote 1 Peter for Peter, and Jude wrote 2 Peter from Peter's oral dictation.

    1. E. E. Ellis, in The Making of the New Testament Documents, contends that 2 Peter incorporates preexisting materials into the letter. If so, the style would mirror the preexisting materials–rather than some allegedly distinctive Petrine style.

      I'd add that since Peter wasn't a professional writer, there's no reason to presume he'd have a distinctive style in the first place.