Friday, September 29, 2017

It's Greek to me!

This is a follow-up to my previous post:

Mike Licona said:

I agree with all Johannine scholars that Johannine adaptation is present in his Gospel.

At the risk of stating the obvious, scholarly consensus is unreliable. Bible studies undergo periodic "revolutions" and paradigm-shifts. The scholarly consensus of a former generation may be contradicted and replaced by the scholarly consensus of the up-and-coming generation. By the same token, each generation of OT or NT scholars is trained in the hot new school of criticism. The Bible is filtered through that lens until the method has exhausted itself. Boredom leads to a new school of criticism. 

What matters isn't scholarly opinion, but scholarly argument. What evidence and reasons do scholars provide in support of their conclusions? That's the only relevant consideration.

The foremost Bible scholars are indifferent to consensus. They are independent thinkers who base their conclusions on original research and reflection. Most Bible scholars are followers, not leaders. 

It's not necessary good to be a leader, and it's not necessarily bad to be a follower. Depends on the position. But appeal to consensus is a vacuous, unreliable intellectual shortcut. 

Lydia needs to do is spend years in the text…in their original language.

Does Licona know for a fact that Lydia doesn't read the Greek NT?

While we're on the subject, I daresay most NT scholars only have a workaday knowledge of Greek. The scholars with a truly impressive command of Greek are a subset of the whole, and fall into a few basic categories:

i) There are scholars who are natural linguists. They have a knack for foreign languages. 

ii) Some NT scholars are Classicists by training.

John Lightfoot, F. F. Bruce, and Bruce Metzger are examples of both (i-ii). They could sightread a Greek text from any period or genre. They had memorized huge swaths of Greek.

As a result, although they didn't necessary have an analytical grasp of Greek, they had a natural feeling for the Greek language, due to their fluency, and how large and wide a sample of Greek they carried around in their heads.

iii) Some scholars may lack that particular skill set, but they have a highly analytical knowledge of Greek. Greek grammarians and lexicographers, as well as scholars who take a keen interest in discourse analysis, verbal aspect theory, &c. (e.g. Stanley Porter, Steven Baugh, Buist Fanning, David Mathewson). 

Another example, who straddles categories, is Gordon Fee. I believe he majored in Greek in college. In addition, he's a leading textual critic, which requires him not only to have a fluent command of the Greek NT but the Greek Fathers, since patristic quotations of the Greek NT figure in textual criticism.

By contrast, I think it's safe to say that most NT scholar are not sophisticated Greek scholars. They can get by. Oftentimes, their training is heavy on hermeneutics rather than lexical semantics. 

Finally, it's silly to complain about people from a different field who comment on Bible studies. Bible studies borrows from outside fields. Consider the work of Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg. Consider how secular literary criticism feeds into biblical hermeneutics, viz. Anthony Thiselton, Stanley Porter, Vern Poythress.


  1. As a matter of fact, I don't read Greek. I wouldn't want to hide that fact. I'm also trying studiously to ignore Licona's heavy-handed patronization. But as Licona himself is forced to admit, the so-called "Johannine" style of Jesus' speech in John 3, etc., comes through quite clearly in a good English translation as well. If someone has an answer to the argument based upon that style, it's just silly to imply that the person's answer would be so fragile that reading the same passages in Greek "several times" would overthrow it, as though reading in Greek directly has some magical power.

  2. I note, too, that the argument Licona sketched out for John's making up Jesus' sayings (which he later said was merely representing the arguments of other scholars, but which apparently he considers strong enough to make him agnostic about the I am statements) leaned most heavily on the counterfactual claim that Jesus would not have been explicit about his deity if he was hushing people up about his Messiahship.

    This does not depend upon some esoteric linguistic point.

    I would go so far as to say that what is needed far more now in NT scholarship is expertise in *arguments* rather than expertise in *languages.* In NT scholarship we have a surfeit of people who have "weights without scales." They are full of strenuously acquired knowledge of languages but have a very poor sense for the strength or weakness of an argument, when that is what they *have* to have. Esoteric linguistic points can be explained, but if you think a bad argument is a good one, there's little that can be done for you.

    My own qualifications are in two areas: English and analytic philosophy. The latter has given me a lot of knowledge about the difference between bad arguments and good ones. The former, of course, has exposed me to a lot of literary criticism. Given that a great deal of what is going on in NT scholarship today is nothing but literary criticism (indeed, Licona's own argument is that these are *literary devices*), a combo of training in literature and analytic philosophy seems particularly well-suited to an evaluation of the strength of the arguments in question.

    And frankly, the arguments in question remind me of why I didn't decide to make my career in English after getting a PhD in it: Even many of the best people in the field don't know the difference between a strong argument and a weak one. And they won't be taught.

  3. Steve and Lydia, do you have recommendations for introductory work in logic and argumentation?


  4. Good question. I'll see if Tim has any ideas. What I would chiefly advise is simply trying to think about these things in a common sense way. Ask yourself how you would read a passage of Scripture if it were someone telling you this story. What sort of explanations would you normally use for apparent oddities or discrepancies with someone else's story? Would you not take it to be *intended to be believed*?

    To give an example: In the doubting Thomas case, if person A says that someone spoke to "the eleven" and person B carefully mentions that so-and-so wasn't there on that occasion (which would make the particular group of eleven really only ten), what sorts of *normal* explanations would you consider? If person B went on to give an entire sequence that hung crucially upon the absence of that one person, and if person B has some claim not to being a hoaxer, would you take with great seriousness the idea that person B totally made up that sequence and then only reject it narrowly in favor of the theory that person A deliberately wrote about two different meetings as if they were the same meeting? Aren't both of these extremely complex hypotheses? (Though the rejected one obviously more complex than the accepted one.) A much *simpler* hypothesis would be that person A merely *hadn't been informed* of the absence of that one person from the occasion, that he had been told that the group was present, and that he wrote about the group's presence without mentioning something that nobody had informed him of--the absence of one member.

    Sensible biblical interpretation recognizes hyper-complexity in an hypothesis as undesirable and takes simpler, more common explanations as more probable. This needn't be understood in technical terms (though both induction and simplicity considerations can be modeled probabilistically). It doesn't get done in biblical studies because biblical studies teaches people to prefer the more complex, redactive explanation. In some ways, almost *any* moderately reasonable person who knows how to evaluate testimony in daily life and who doesn't get bowled over by the allegedly highly specialized nature of biblical interpretation should be in a pretty good position to see how completely unnecessary these complex theories are. To do that, the chief prerequisite is not so much special training of any kind but rather a thick skin, because you have to be prepared not to mind when you're told that you're doing it wrong because you aren't doing it like the specialists.

    1. Thanks for the advice and helpful example. It seems an Occam's Razor approach is best when trying to filter through the noise.

  5. In the meantime, Muslims are enjoying using Licona and Craig Evans in seeking to cause doubt on all of John and then all of the gospels also - see the use of a more liberal scholar, Christopher Tuckett, who takes that "scholarly consensus" on John and applies doubts and skepticism to the synoptics also.

    I am amazed at Licona's view of not affirming the "I am" statements of John. He is becoming more and more of a disappointment all the time.

    The British convert to Islam, Paul Williams, is enjoying writing this, and writes in such a way that implies the right thing to do is reject both Lydia's view and Licona and go full Tuckett / Ehrman (Bauer, Butlmann, Crossan, Funk, Schleirmacker, etc.) type understanding.