Tuesday, May 09, 2006

John Loftus' "Educated Americans" Disagree With Him

I said that I expected John Loftus to continue modifying his arguments as my discussion with him progressed. His latest article begins with a significantly diminished version of his previous argument:

"I believe no one who truly looks at the evidence can come away thinking that ours is as superstitious of an age as the ancient people were, especially with the rise of science, newspaper reporters, and the rise of an historical consciousness. We are comparing the masses of people in the ancient world, like Jonah, the Ephesians, the people of Lystra, those on the island of Malta with your average educated American."

What Loftus is arguing now is significantly different from what he argued earlier. The ancient world can be more superstitious than our world, yet still have been discerning enough for Christianity to be credible. And what reason do we have to compare "the masses" of several centuries of the ancient world to "your average educated American" during a much shorter period of time in the modern era? Where is Loftus getting this standard? Why is he now adding the qualifier of "educated American"? Why compare "the masses" of the ancient world to educated people in the most prosperous nation of the modern world? What does such a comparison prove? Most of the New Testament was written by men like Paul and Luke, who were above the average of their day in terms of education and in other ways.

I've already given examples of how we can have reason to trust people in some contexts who are ignorant or undiscerning in other contexts (children testifying in a court of law, etc.). "Educated Americans" aren't the only people who are credible in our world today, and nothing Loftus has said about astrology, the prophets of Baal, the Ephesians in Acts 19, etc. gives us reason to doubt the claims of the Biblical authors. Loftus keeps giving us generalizations that don't address the relevant details of the Biblical record, and when he sometimes attempts to address the details, he often gets them wrong.

Loftus writes:

"Even among God’s people we see divination through the Casting of Lots. In the OT the lot was cast to discover God’s will for the allocation of territory (Jos. 18–19, etc.), the choice of the goat to be sacrificed on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), the detection of a guilty person (Josh. 7:14; Jonah. 1:7), the allocation of Temple duties (1 Chr. 24:5), the discovery of a lucky day by Haman (Esther 3:7). The Urim and the Thummim are lots used to make important decisions where the answer was either yes or no (1 Sam. 14:41; 28:6; Exod. 28:29; Deut. 33:8; Lev. 8:7; Num. 27:21). In the NT Christ’s clothes were allocated by lot (Mt. 27:35). The last occasion in the Bible on which the lot is used to divine the will of God is in the choice of Matthias (Acts 1:15–26). Can you imagine any judges today casting lots to divide up land or to make any decisions?"

Not all of the examples Loftus cites are approved by the Biblical authors. But where the practice is approved, what is Loftus objecting to? Nothing in these passages requires that lots be cast by modern judges. God sometimes used lots in guiding people in some situations in the past, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. We wouldn't follow the practice today unless we had reason to expect Divine guidance accompanying the casting of the lots. If Loftus is assuming that there was no evidence of Divine guidance in the cases where the Bible approves of casting lots for guidance, then he needs to prove that assessment rather than just asserting it. All that he's done so far is combine cases scripture approves of with cases scripture doesn't approve of, assume without argument that no Divine guidance was involved, then ask us whether we would want judges casting lots today, even though nothing in the Biblical record leads to the conclusion that modern judges should be following the practice.

Loftus continues:

"Dreams in the ancient world were believed to be communication from God."

Some dreams were believed to be from God. And how would John Loftus go about disproving that belief?

Part of the problem in these discussions is that Loftus keeps raising issues that we can't directly examine, such as whether Jonah had good reason to think that he was a prophet of God and whether dreams thought to be from God actually were from God. Those are questions we can't directly answer with the data available to us today. We could indirectly answer such questions by examining something like the evidence for the Divine inspiration of the Biblical books in question. But we can't directly examine whether a dream of Joseph or some other Biblical figure was truly from God.

What Loftus seems to be doing is starting with the assumption that God wouldn't use dreams in the manner scripture tells us He has, so he thinks that just mentioning that such accounts exist in the Bible is a sufficient argument for his position about the alleged gullibility of ancient people. But why should we think that God would never use dreams as the Bible describes? And why do such errors in Loftus' reasoning need to be pointed out to him? Why doesn't he see these problems in his reasoning before he posts his comments?

He goes on to write:

"Today’s modern educated people simply don’t accept that view of magic, divination, blessings, curses or dreams."

At the beginning of Loftus' latest article, he tells us that he's discussing educated Americans, so let's focus on America. The large majority of Americans profess to be Christians. The most recent polling I've seen, such as this polling reported by Newsweek, shows that the large majority of Americans believe in concepts such as Jesus' virgin birth and the Divine dreams in Matthew's infancy account. There are many scientists and other highly educated people in American universities and other contexts who accept the historicity of Divine dreams and other supernatural occurrences mentioned in scripture. Loftus' assessment is false, and it would fail to make his case even if true. We don't determine whether a Bible passage is true by asking what modern Americans (or other people in the modern world) think about it. If Loftus wants to keep making these appeals to what modern people think is acceptable, then how many people in the modern world agree with Loftus' naturalism? He would lose that poll.

He continues:

"Sometimes Jesus is called demon possessed simply because he says things that seemed to his hearers just plain crazy"

No, these religious leaders had a history of interactions with Jesus. The fact that they accuse Him of demon possession after He said something doesn't prove that the comment they were responding to was the only data they were taking into account. People would have evaluated Jesus' comments in light of a background of cultural traditions, Messianic expectations, what Jesus had said on other occasions, etc.

Notice that Loftus keeps citing examples that don't prove his case, all the while ignoring or saying little about the more relevant evidence, such as what I cited earlier concerning Paul's credibility. You can tell a lot about the weakness of Loftus' position by what he chooses to discuss and what he tries to avoid discussing.

He writes:

"One huge piece of evidence that leads most scholars to believe John’s Gospel was written very late is his usage of the phrase, 'the Jews.' It occurs about seventy times, in contrast to five occurrences in the other Gospels."

Notice that Loftus ignores the direct, explicit evidence I cited from manuscripts, how the document itself describes its author, and what the earliest external sources tell us. Loftus ignores that far more relevant data and tries to turn our attention to John's use of the phrase "the Jews". How does the use of such a phrase prove a dating of the document that would be too late for the apostle John? It doesn't.

Loftus continues:

"In John’s gospel it is a stereotype for Jesus’ opponents."

The phrase is also used neutrally or positively (John 2:13, 4:22, 11:45, etc.).

Loftus writes:

"But they were all Jews! How do Jews fear the Jews? The Gospel writer himself was a Jew, if it was John! Such a usage reveals the complete break between official Judaism and Christianity, which occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Roman army."

My position is the traditional position that John wrote the fourth gospel near the end of the first century. A post-70 date is what I expect.

Other Jewish authors referred to "the Jews". Nothing in the phrase requires a Gentile author. The author nowhere speaks of himself as a Gentile, no manuscript identifies a Gentile author, and no early source names a Gentile as the document's author. The author is highly familiar with the land of Israel and Jewish history and customs. Some scholars have called the gospel of John one of the most Jewish books of the New Testament. See the comments on this issue in the article I linked to earlier. Compare the explicit, detailed evidence I cite in that article to the non-explicit, soft evidence Loftus gives us.

Not only does Loftus claim that the phrase "the Jews" indicates that John wasn't the author, but he even derives conclusions of non-historicity from that two-word phrase:

"It is a very odd use of the phrase, leading some to believe John the Apostle didn’t even write this gospel, because he himself was a Jew. At the minimum it reveals that the author was not so much interested in historical facts, but in elaborating on history, and even creating history."

How does John's use of "the Jews" prove that he was "creating history"? It doesn't. Similarly, the other Jewish authors who used the phrase weren't proving that they were "creating history" by using it.

Loftus quotes James Dunn arguing that John's gospel is significantly different from the other three gospels, and Loftus draws the conclusion that John's gospel must be unhistorical. I can quote other scholars, like Craig Keener, reaching other conclusions. Since some of the earliest sources to comment on John's gospel tell us that John intended to produce a gospel different from the other three, we should expect it to be different. If John was the last of the four to write, and he wanted to include information the other three didn't mention, then the differences are to be expected. The differences aren't as significant as some people suggest, and the similarities the fourth gospel has with the other three are far weightier. As Craig Keener mentions in the article I linked to earlier, John's gospel contains a large amount of historically verifiable details and traditions that can be dated prior to 70 A.D., so characterizing the gospel as unhistorical because of some differences from the Synoptics doesn't make sense.

Again, consider the explicit, hard data I cited in the article I linked to earlier and compare it to the non-explicit, soft data John Loftus is giving us. Notice that Loftus doesn't cite a single manuscript or ancient source in support of his theory. He doesn't even attempt to explain the large amount of evidence that runs contrary to his conclusion.

Loftus writes:

"Furthermore, James D.G. Dunn asks a very important question with regard to the 'I am' claims of Jesus: 'If they were part of the original words of Jesus himself, how could it be that ONLY John has picked them up, and NONE of the others (emphasis his)? Call it scholarly skepticism if you will, but I must confess that I find it almost incredible that such sayings should have been neglected HAD they been known as a feature of Jesus’ teaching (p. 36)."

In what sense are the "I am" statements a feature of Jesus' teaching in John's gospel? John gives several examples of Jesus' use of the terminology, but it's found in the other gospels in some form as well (Matthew 14:27, Mark 14:62). The other gospels also refer to Jesus as God in other ways, but John focuses on the "I am" statements more than the others do. Is that fact sufficient to overturn the large amount of evidence we have for Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel? No. And it isn't sufficient to lead us to the conclusion that John's gospel is unhistorical either. Loftus keeps trying to counter large amounts of hard evidence with small amounts of soft evidence.

He writes:

"It is just wrong that Enoch, the 'seventh from Adam' said this, even though this is quoted from the Book of Enoch. Because it was written in the 2nd century B.C. and couldn’t have come from Enoch himself!"

How can Loftus possibly know what the historical Enoch did and didn't say? The issue isn't the canonicity of 1 Enoch (which I'll address below, since Loftus mentioned it). The issue is whether something he said could have been accurately reflected in 1 Enoch. (Jude alters the text somewhat, but largely follows what we find in 1 Enoch.) Yet again, Loftus is claiming to know something he couldn't possibly know. He supposedly knows that God can't guide people through the casting of lots, that God can't communicate with people through dreams, that nothing 1 Enoch says about Enoch could be an accurate tradition, etc. Where does Loftus get this information?

Regarding the canonicity of 1 Enoch, Loftus quotes James Barr:

"Enoch is regarded as having ‘prophesied’, just as Moses or Elijah or Isaiah had done. As all true prophets were, he must have been inspired. The citation of Enoch had, for the purposes of Jude’s argument, just the same validity and the same effect as the citation of the scriptures which came later to be deemed canonical….He quoted Enoch because it was an authoritative utterance of a prophet of ancient times, accepted as such in the church. To say…Enoch’s book ‘was not scripture’ would have been unintelligible to Jude."

We have early Jewish canonical lists, such as the list of Josephus. 1 Enoch wasn't accepted by the Jews, and Jesus and the apostles seem to have accepted the Jewish consensus on the canon. The earliest church father to list the Old Testament canon is Melito of Sardis, and he doesn't include 1 Enoch. The large majority of patristic sources who give us a listing of the Old Testament canon exclude 1 Enoch. If somebody as influential as Jude, one of Jesus' brothers, had taught the canonicity of 1 Enoch, we would expect to see more Christians following his example. You can find a small handful of Christians who have believed in the canonicity of 1 Enoch, but its canonicity has been rejected by the large majority of Jews and Christians. Jude's wording can reasonably be interpreted either way, but the larger Jewish and Christian contexts suggest that an identification of 1 Enoch as scripture is unlikely to have been Jude's intent.

As we come to the end of another response to another article by John Loftus, I would ask the reader to again consider the number and variety of errors in Loftus' material and how often he gives us insufficient evidence to support his conclusions. Does it seem that he's making much of an effort to be reasonable?

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. "Enoch is regarded as having ‘prophesied’, just as Moses or Elijah or Isaiah had done. As all true prophets were, he must have been inspired. The citation of Enoch had, for the purposes of Jude’s argument, just the same validity and the same effect as the citation of the scriptures which came later to be deemed canonical….He quoted Enoch because it was an authoritative utterance of a prophet of ancient times, accepted as such in the church. To say…Enoch’s book ‘was not scripture’ would have been unintelligible to Jude."

    This is hopelessly jejune. This is a non sequitur. Talk about "ad hocery."

    Paul refers to a heathen poet in Acts 17:28 and takes it as his point of departure for presenting the gospel. He mentions the names of the 2 Egyptian priests who opposed Moses, and refers to a midrash in 1 Cor. 10:4. Jude is investing no more canonical authority to 1 Enoch than Paul was to the Jewish midrash or Epimenedes or his source for the 2 names. Jude is merely offering a quote that he finds true with respect to the ungodly teachers about whom he is writing, a quote with which he expects his audience is familar. Nothing more, nothing less.

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  3. JL: ""I believe no one who truly looks at the evidence can come away thinking that ours is as superstitious of an age as the ancient people were, especially with the rise of science, newspaper reporters, and the rise of an historical consciousness. We are comparing the masses of people in the ancient world, like Jonah, the Ephesians, the people of Lystra, those on the island of Malta with your average educated American."




    PM: Unfortunatley, Loftus has said elsewhere that we (our modern age) are in a CRISIS of superstitionism. Being in a CRISIS of superstitionism is as bad, if not worse, than the ancients. Loftus writes,


    "Prof James Strauss has documented that whenever there is a crisis in the dominant metaphysical belief system of a western culture then people will gravitate towards the occult, and all kinds of superstitious beliefs looking for answers. We are in such a crisis now."


    "That [his] own words may be used against [him]."

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  4. Yes we are in a crisis. Part of it is a scientific illiteracy, part of it is that there is nothing else to believe. But among educated Americans who have scientific literacy this is not the case. Which one of YOU will resort to divination, interpretation of dreams, and/or magic?

    Besides, if Christianity were born today among scientifically illiterate people today in the back woods, like the majority of people Christianity reached (not all) then I would have the same type of skepticism (as YOU would) of their movement.

    It'd be a different story if it were reported and documented by Nature, the Scientific American, and so forth. But magazines like those were not published in ancient times. In fact none were, and the only ones to read scholarly works were the well off people who went to schools for that sort of stuff. The masses didn't even need a trade vocational school, since they learned from their parents.

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  5. Yes, drawing lots, how primitive. Aren't we lucky that today, educated Americans select jurors using a Frink-O-Meter [TM], which automatically weeds out the ignorant and the biased.

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