Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ehrman down for the count

I'm going to make some comments on the debate between Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew:

I don't normally comment on live debates because it's a nuisance to locate and manually transcribe the relevant statements. I may summarize or paraphrase what they said, although that will incorporate their own phrases. Anyone can listen to the debate for himself to get the verbatim account. It's well worthing hearing the entire debate for McGrew's side of the exchange. I don't have much to add to part 1, so much of my comments will be about part 2. I'll begin by summarizing their exchange:

I. Recap

Ehrman asked McGrew if he was an inerrantist, thereby attempting to change the topic of the debate–which was about the reliability of the Gospels, not the inerrancy of the Gospels. McGrew refused to be pinned down. Later, McGrew said he rejects a "tape recorder" view of inerrancy. 

Ehrman raised the issue of inerrancy because that's a presupposition which skews how we assess the historicity of the Gospels. 

Ehrman says that when Pilate interrogates Jesus in Jn 18, no one else is in the room. Just Jesus and Pilate. So how did John know what was said? (Implication: he didn't know. He just made it up.) 

Ehrman compares that to Charles Dickens reporting conversations that never happened. That hardly means he had special access to some sort of historical information about what David Copperfield actually said. Likewise, ancient historians (e.g. Herodotus) made up speeches. They do it because it helps the story along.

McGrew counters that Ehrman is overgeneralizing about ancient historians. McGrew points out that Ehrman is making unjustified assumptions about Jn 18. Undoubtedly guards were present. Likewise, since John had connections with the high priest, he might been allowed in. 

McGrew says nobody picks up David Copperfield looking for answers to those unresolved questions you had about Moby-Dick. These are not anchored in the same independent reality. Therefore, you can't compare undesigned coincidences to fiction or oral traditions in general circulation. 

Ehrman says John mitigates or exculpates Pilate because, with the passage of time, Christians were in heightened situations of antagonism with Jews, so they increasingly pinned the blame on Jews rather than Romans. That's why, in later sources, Pilate has to have his arm twisted. There's a trajectory from Mark through Matthew, Luke, and John, into the 2C, viz. Justin Martyr and the Gospel of Peter. By the mid-2C, Christians call Jews Christ-killers; by the end of the 2C, they accuse them of Deicide. 

McGrew counters that Ehrman is cherry-picking the evidence to fabricate a trajectory. Ehrman is in the grip of a literary theory of development, a type of literary criticism that gives certain branches of NT scholarship a bad name.

Ehrman replies by asking who actually says that? 

McGrew responds by quoting two Classicists: E. M. Blaiklock and John M. Rist.

Ehrman complains that you can quote people who are opposed to anything. Take Christ mythicism. So you must consider the source. Is the opinion justified?

Ehrman says we shouldn't use one author to explain what another author is trying to say.

McGrew says that's not a general rule of historical inquiry. He gives an example from the Battle of Midway. 

Ehrman says it's not that historians must assume miracles never happen. Rather, they must bracket the question. Historians can't operate on the basis of supernatural assumptions. Doesn't necessarily mean Resurrection didn't happen, but as a historian you can't show it happened on historical grounds. Outside of people writing about the Bible, every other modern historian takes that approach. Would McGrew credit miracles in other sources of that sort?

McGrew says it depends on the quality of the evidence. Is it the same kind of evidence?

Ehrman mentions reported miracles associated with the founder of Hassidism.  

McGrew counters that you need to distinguish stories that circulated within a sympathetic community from stories in the face of hostile authorities. Whether or not they were subjected to searching scrutiny from outsiders affects their credibility. 

Ehrman denies that most early Christians were persecuted for sharing their faith. They weren't preaching that on street corners. 

McGrew counters that, in fact, that's precisely the scenario we have in Acts: open-air preaching and official persecution. 

Ehrman says only two Christian leaders were arrested (Peter, John) out of 8,000 converts. Early Christians in general weren't threatened with persecution, imprisonment, and martyrdom. 

McGrew counters by citing the Neronian persecution, recounted by Tacitus. 

Ehrman accuses of McGrew of creating undesigned coincidences by picking a detail here and a detail there. 

McGrew counters that Ehrman creates contradictions by picking a detail here and a detail there. Moreover, Ehrman disregards the larger pattern of undesigned coincidences. 

Ehrman accuses McGrew of repristinating 19C apologetics. 

McGrew counters by citing 20C exemplars like F. F. Bruce and modern commentaries. 

II. Analysis

1. McGrew doesn't frame the issue in terms of inerrancy, both because that wasn't the actual topic of the debate, and because he approaches the Bible as a philosopher and historian rather than a theologian; because he approaches the Bible as an evidentialist rather than a presuppositionalist. 

A document can be reliable without being inerrant. Indeed, we rely on secondhand information for most of what we believe, and our secondhand information is rarely inerrant. That's a deceptive diversionary tactic on Ehrman's part. 

Of course, inerrancy is worth discussing and defending in its own right. But it's a different issue. 

2. Ehrman acts as though his approach is neutral and objective, following the evidence wherever it leads–in contrast to McGrew's position, which is a foregone conclusion due to hidden presuppositions. But that just means Ehrman is oblivious to his own presuppositions. Take two examples:

i) Ehrman has a prior commitment to methodological naturalism. But that's a powerful presupposition which filters out a supernatural explanation in advance of the facts even if a supernatural cause happens to be the right explanation. 

ii) Ehrman denied the possibility that Jesus could get away with cleansing the temple twice since he'd be arrested and executed the first time. But that treats Jesus as an ordinary human being. If, however, he's the omnipotent Son of God, then Roman soldiers would be impotent to intervene, unless Jesus allowed them to take him into custody. So Ehrman's position in that regard depends on his unstated presupposition regarding the person of Christ. 

3. Ehrman frequently said he agreed with McGrew's caveats. But that's misleading, because Ehrman acts as if that's a concession to Ehrman's position. But rejecting a "tape recorder" model of inerrancy is not a denial of inerrancy. Sophisticated proponents of inerrancy like John Frame, Paul Helm, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Robert Stein, and Vern Poythress don't operate with a tape-recorder model of inerrancy. Neither does the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy or the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics. Likewise, to say that Gospel writers sometimes rearrange the order of events is consistent with how inerrancy is defined by conservative evangelicals. 

4. Ehrman's theory about John wishing to exonerate Pilate because, by that time, Christians were shifting blame for the crucifixion from Roman authorities to Jewish authorities–or Jews in general–is odd. 

i) To begin with, he downplays Jewish persecution of Christians when McGrew responded to Baal Shem Tov's reputation as a miracle-worker. It's hard to see how Ehrman can have it both ways.

ii) The problem with Ehrman's trajectory is that while Jewish persecution of Christians intensified for a time, Roman persecution of Christians intensified over time. That was already in case in NT times. You have the persecutions of Nero and Domitian. The book of Revelation bears witness to Roman persecution. And this escalates until Constantine decriminalized the Christian faith. For instance:

Therefore, by Ehrman's own logic, there's no reason NT writers would minimize or deemphasize Pilate's guilt or complicity in the death of Christ. Rather, there's evidence to the contrary. Moreover, official Roman persecution was clearly more threatening and more sustained than Jewish persecution. 

5. Regarding the nature of "critical" NT scholarship, Ehrman said you need to consider the source. But McGrew didn't cite crackpots. Rather, he cited two respected Classicists. Let's give some additional examples:

From the early patristic period you learn a lot about the continuities and discontinuities of the Christian faith as it developed, and a lot about how the first readers of the NT books understood those books. This often creates important pathways back to the text. Seeing the early impact that Jesus and his message made in the Greco-Roman world can help correct the sometimes anachronistic suppositions we bring to the text. I think there is always a tendency for NT scholarship to get cooped up and even ingrown in its own debates. 
Third, a really substantial proportion of the arguments the skeptics employ are very bad arguments. (For example: if one of the Gospels says that Jesus said thus-and-so, and if his having said thus-and-so was useful to the early church, then he probably didn't say thus-and-so.)  
Fourth, the arguments of many of the skeptics have premises that are philosophical rather than historical--that miracles are impossible, for example, or that it is methodologically essential to objective historical writing that it regard any miraculous narrative as unhistorical. These philosophical premises may be defensible, but they are rarely defended. And when they are--well, as a philosopher, I can testify that I have never seen a defense of them by a historical scholar that I would regard as philosophically competent.  
Finally, the community of skeptical critics is entirely naive and unself-critical as regards its own claims to objectivity. Its members regard the New Testament authors and the students of the Bible who lived before the advent of modern scholarship as simply creatures of their time and culture; the idea that skeptical twentieth-century scholars might be creatures of their time and culture is an idea that they seem not to have considered. 
I have few of the skills and little of the knowledge New Testament criticism requires…But I do know something about reasoning, and I have been simply amazed by some of the arguments employed by redaction critics. My first reaction to these arguments, written up a bit, could be put in these words: "I'm missing something here. These appear to be glaringly invalid arguments, employing methods transparently engineered to produce negative judgments of authenticity. But no one, however badly he might want to produce a given set of conclusions, would "cook" his methods to produce the desired results quite so transparently. These arguments must depend on tacit premises, premises the reaction critics regard as so obvious that they don't bother to mention them." Peter van Inwagen, "Do You Want us to Listen to You?" C. Bartholomew et al. eds. "Behind" the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation (Zondervan, 2003), 127.

6. Regarding Ehrman's claim that we shouldn't use one author to explain another, that depends. Where possible, we should normally avoid using one author to determine what another author intended or had in mind. 

However, in historical reconstructions, it is both legitimate and necessary to use one source to supplement another to help determine what the source is referring to. The historical, extratextual referent. 

Ehrman himself attempted to do that when he tried to explain John's treatment of Pilate by placing that within an alleged trajectory of anti-Semitism in the early church.

7. Ehrman says historians must bracket the question of whether miracles happen. 

i) But an obvious problem with that a priori stricture is that historians wish to determine what happened and why it happened. Historical causation.

If the Resurrection caused the empty tomb and subsequent appearances of Christ, if that event underlies the accounts in Mt 28, Lk 24, Jn 20-21, Acts 9, Rev 1, &c., then Ehrman is saying a historian should discount the very event that explains the historical outcome.  He is saying historians should suppress probative evidence that doesn't fit with their naturalistic rules of evidence. But if the rules of evidence screen out true causes of historical effects, then the rules impede historical investigation. The rules misdirect the historian. The rules become false leads.

ii) As one philosopher observes:

Atheism which is held for some reason or reasons may, however, also be vulnerable to reports of putative miracles. A person who denies that a miracle-working god exists might find that well-attested, weighty reports of violations of natural law properly require him to review the force of his reasons for his atheism, or his belief that there is no miracle-working God, and to consider revising his worldview accordingly, especially where some point which those miracles would have in the purpose of the divine worker of the miracles can reasonably be suggested. His denial that there is a god who works miracles, is, presumably, either an empirically defeasible hypothesis or is proposed as a necessary truth for which supporting reasoning may be mistaken. (It is unlikely to be thought simply self-evident.) Either way, the emergence of putative-miracle reports which cannot satisfactorily be accounted for as a species of error puts a strain on this worldview. J. Houston, Reported Miracles (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 163. 
Only what one might call a fideistic atheism which refuses to consider its rational credentials will refuse to countenance the possibility that a theistic explanation may account better for the range of phenomena, including some putatively miraculous phenomena, than atheism. Ibid. 166.

8. Ehrman accuses McGrew (and other Christian Bible scholars) of a double standard. But there are problems with that allegation:

i) Surely that's not confined to Christians. Would it not include some Orthodox Jewish historians or Muslim historians? 

Ehrman's contention boils down to the tautology that supernaturalists allow for supernatural explanations while naturalists only allow for naturalistic explanations. But that, alone, is hardly a rational basis to disallow supernatural explanations unless methodological naturalism is underwritten by metaphysical naturalism. Otherwise, methodological naturalism is unjustified. 

ii) In addition, there are cognate disciplines like anthropology that are open to paranormal explanations. Take academic anthropologists like Clyde Kluckhohn, Felicitas Goodman, Sidney M. Greenfield, and Edith Turner, or David J. Hufford (an academic folklorist), or M. Scott Peck (a prominent psychiatrist).

Based on their fieldwork, they seriously entertain the reality of paranormal events. At the very least, that's analogous to miracles and historiography. 

9. Ehrman tried to put McGrew in a bind by citing Baal Shem Tov as a counterexample. For a refutation:

11. Ehrman's treatment of persecution in Acts is decidedly odd. 

i) For two reasons, it was logical for the authorities to initially round up Christian leaders:

a) That's a decapitation strike. The hope is that by eliminating the upper echelon, a budding movement will fall apart from lack of leadership in key positions.

b) It sends a message to followers. Making an example of the leaders serves as a warning to followers. An implicit threat that they will suffer the same fate unless they desist and disband.

ii) Of course, that tactic sometimes fails, in which cause persecution expands and escalates. In fact, that's exactly what happens in the Book of Acts (e.g. Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2). We have the same pattern in the Book of Revelation. And that continues until Constantine and Theodosius. 

iii) Furthermore, the leadership is most salient to McGrew's argument since the disciples were eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. They had direct knowledge of the event, which they proclaimed in the teeth of persecution and martyrdom.

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