Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ehrman, Lewis & Clark

I'm going to comment on the Erman's latest installment in his debate with Mike Licona:

This post will be longish, not because I have that much to say, but because it will contain longish block quotes.

I myself came out of a similar religious context to that which Mike now finds himself in — the context within which he acquired his views about the Bible and about history. 
I need to say that that kind of context is not the one in which historical scholars typically develop and advance their views. It is a highly unusual context, and the views, assumptions, and presuppositions held by people who live and work in those contexts are not those of academics who work in any other context. Sometimes, we see something the way we do simply because that’s how everyone in our immediate context sees it, as well. It seems normal to us. So normal that we think that it is normal. Even if it is not at all normal.
My colleagues in both places have been specialists in a wide range of academic disciplines: classics, anthropology, American studies, philosophy, and lots of other disciplines, especially history. I live with and move among people who do serious historical research for a living. 
I can simply tell you as someone who lives and works with historians, that this is not the kind of view that you would ever find in the context of a major research university. You may find it at Baptist colleges, or independent fundamentalist colleges, or other kinds of denominational schools (whether colleges or seminaries). But at least in my experience, you will not find it in major research universities. You will never, ever have a history class that argues for supernatural occurrences in the past. Never.

One obvious problem with his comparison is that Ehrman acts as though the status quo is self-validating. As if the fact that secular academics operate a certain way carries some presumption that that's how they ought to operate. But that's like the naturalistic fallacy. Indeed, this is a good example of uncritical peer pressure. 

What do we mean by historical accuracy? Let me tell you what I think most people mean. My sense is that when people today want to know whether the Gospels are historically accurate, what they want to know is this: Did the events that are narrated in the Gospels actually happen in the way the stories are told or not? People in general are interested in that basic question, not so much in the points that Mike raises. That is to say, people are not overly interested in the question of whether the Gospels stack up nicely in comparison with ancient biographers such as Plutarch and Suetonius. Of course they’re not interested in that. Most people have never read Plutarch and Suetonius. I’d venture to say that most Bible readers have never even heard of Plutarch or Suetonius, or if they have, it’s simply as some vague name of someone from the ancient world.People don’t care much, as a rule, about other ancient biographers and their tactics when talking about the Bible. They are interested in the Bible. Is it accurate? For most people that means: Did the stories happen in the way they are described or not? If they did happen that way, then the stories are accurate. If they did not happen in that way, they are not.

Several problems:

i) Note Ehrman's duplicity. On the one hand, to rationalize methodological atheism, he appeals to an elitist standard: how secular academic historians operate. On the other hand, to debunk the historicity of the Gospels, he appeals to a populist standard: what "people in general," or Christian laymen, who aren't academic historians, mean by historical accuracy. So Ehrman has a glaring double standard. He switches from elitist standards to populist standards, depending on the immediate needs of his argument. 

ii) His statement is a half-truth. It's true that we need to have transcultural standards for historical accuracy. However, before you can even evaluate the veracity of a document, you need to interpret the document. You need to understand how the writer communicates. What he intends to affirm or deny. Making allowance for literary conventions is a necessary preliminary step.

iii) We do need to adjust for the period in question. Take The Journals of Lewis & Clark. A modern audience would be interested in film footage. A modern-day expedition would bring along a camera crew. In a way, that would make it more realistic. More "accurate". The viewer could see it for himself. That would be more exciting and informative. 

But it would be ridiculous to judge the expedition of Lewis & Clark by that anachronistic standard. They didn't have video cameras back then. So you have to settle for a written record and drawings. 

In addition, there's a tradeoff. On the one hand, we have equipment they don't. On the other hand, the nation they explored, back in 1803-1806, no longer exists. The landscape has changed. You no longer have the same Indian tribes, in all the same places. The distribution of animals has changed. We have better equipment than they did to record their findings, but we can't see what they did due to the passage of time. Our only source of information for that time and place are records like The Journals of Lewis & Clark. So we need to judge it, and to appreciate it, by the standards of the day. It was accurate for its time. Nowadays, in the age of audio and video recordings, we have a different standard of accuracy. That doesn't make The Journals of Lewis & Clark historically unreliable. It just means they don't include the kind of supplementary information that video cameras could record. 

If it were, however, important to talk about the relationship of the Gospels to such ancient authors, then it would be worth pointing out, as Mike knows full well, that Plutarch and Suetonius are themselves not thought of as historically reliable sources in the way that many people hope and want the Gospels of the New Testament to be. Both authors tell a lot of unsubstantiated anecdotes about the subjects of their biographies; they include scandalous rumors and hearsay; they shape their accounts in light of their own interests; and they are far less interested in giving abundant historically accurate detail than in making overarching points about the moral qualities of their characters. Mike thinks the Gospels are like Plutarch, and I completely agree. They are far more like Plutarch, and Suetonius, than they are like modern attempts at biography. In modern biographies, an author is concerned to make sure that everything told has been verified and documented and represents events as they really and truly happened. Ancient biographies, including the Gospels, are not at all like that.

i) That is a genuine weakness with Licona's comparison. 

ii) Ehrman fails to distinguish between firsthand biographies and secondhand biographies. For instance, people who dictate an oral history don't need to document and verify what they say. Rather, they simply tell the interviewer their personal experience of the recent past. If the traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark, and John is correct, then Matthew and John are eyewitness accounts. That's very different than an academic historian who didn't participate in the events he recounts. 

Conversely, Luke is getting his information from firsthand informants. Of course, he doesn't include dates and footnotes. It would be absurdly anachronistic to judge an ancient biography by that modern convention. 

First, I was confused when Mike wants to argue that the Gospels contain “no historical anachronisms.” My handy Webster’s Dictionary defines an “anachronism” as “a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs.” The reason I’m confused by Mike’s claim is this: He already has told us that he thinks the Gospels contain historical anachronisms. That’s what it means to say that an author, because of artistic license, has changed the sequence of historical events so that they are no longer accurate.

Either Ehrman is playing dumb or he really is that dense. In historical scholarship, an anachronism is typically a statement or description that's too late for the ostensible period in which the narrative is set. That can sometimes be a telltale sign that the story was written much later by somebody who didn't live through the period in question, who's writing about the past based on his knowledge of the present, who's writing a fictional story set in the past. He puts his story in the past, archaizes his story, but because he doesn't know much about that historical period (or locale), his story reflects a knowledge of his own time and place–since that's his actual frame of reference. This can be a hallmark of OT and NT apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. Historical retroactions.

However, we have to be careful not to jump the gun. An account can be written by a contemporary, but edited at a later date. The editor may update the account based on subsequent developments. That will be anachronistic, but not because the account was unhistorical. 

The Gospel of Luke is quite explicit (see 2:2) that Jesus was born when Quirinius was the governor of Syria; this was also during the reign of Herod, King of Israel (1:5; and, of course, Matthew 2). But this is an enormous problem. Luke appears not to have known the history of Palestine as well as we might like. We know from clear and certain statements in Josephus (the prominent Jewish historian) and inscriptions that Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE. But Herod died in 4 BCE, ten years earlier. Their reigns did not overlap. Luke has simply made a historical mistake. It’s an anachronism. (Christian apologists always try to reconcile this one: Mike may try to do so as well; but let me tell you, ancient historians who do not have a horse in this race have never ever been convinced by the extreme lengths one has to go to in order to make Quirinius and Herod rule at the same time. It simply is a historical mistake.)

That's a familiar chestnut. Among other things, notice how Ehrman uses Josephus as the standard of comparison. He treats Josephus as ipso facto accurate. Yet Josephus exercises literary license in his writings. Josephus believes in miracles. He relates portends and prodigies. Why isn't Ehrman as dismissive of Josephus as he is of Plutarch and Suetonius? Once again, we see how Ehrman switches his standards depending on the immediate needs of his argument.  

Using the right names has no bearing on whether the stories are accurate or not. It simply means that the storytellers knew what names they should use in telling their tales.

Ehrman routinely says the Gospels were written long after the fact by people living in different countries, speaking a different language. In that case, using the right names would be surprising. 

Each of us can remember things that happened to us many, many years ago. Often, these memories are still quite vivid to us. Right? Mike gives a number of personal examples. I’m afraid this is one area where Mike simply does not know the scholarship.
All of us have vivid memories of the past. These are the memories we trust the most. We are absolutely certain it happened the way we remember: Why else would it be vivid? The answer is that it might be vivid because we have replayed the event in our memory time and time again in the same, wrong, way. So now that’s how we remember it. Vividly.

Here's an example of a 60-year-old man reminiscing about his childhood:

I was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas (though, as a young child, I spent seven years in Fremont, Nebraska). My father was a salesman for a corrugated box company; my mother was a secretary. 
Ours was a religious home. We went to church every Sunday, said grace before every evening meal, and talked about God at ease. I would say my mother was the steady rock when it came to religious upbringing. When we moved back to Lawrence, when I was in the fifth grade, we started attending Trinity Episcopal Church. We had tried several other churches, but my mom preferred that one since it seemed to be the only one that “talked about God”(!). I was an altar boy there all the way through high school, faithfully in church every week.
I preferred playing baseball and tennis. But in my junior year in high school, I started to excel on the high school debate team, and in my senior year, I more or less went crazy on it.

Guess who that is? Why, it's Bart Ehrman! Notice how confidently he talks about his childhood. About events in his life that took place 40-50 years ago. If he lives to be 70, 80, or 90, don't you think he'll be telling the very same stories about his childhood? 

Can historians talk about miracles? Here, I would like to issue a challenge to Mike. If Mike wants to maintain that respectable historians can and do appeal to miracle, I want him to give us some examples. I would like the names of four or five reputable historians — not conservative evangelical Christians who are personally committed to a belief in the resurrection (as is the main figure that he cites, Gary Habermas). But just regular ole academic historians. There are thousands in the country, in many historical fields (ancient Rome; European Middle Ages; American history; and on and on). Which of them agree that we can demonstrate miracles and which of them in fact to argue for miracles in the books that they have written about past events?

i) Of course, the challenge is rigged. What about academic historians who are personally committed to methodological atheism? What makes them the standard of comparison? Ehrman's challenge is circular: by definition, secular historians will only consider naturalistic explanations. 

ii) Moreover, Licona already addressed that issue:

Most biblical scholars neither mention nor employ them in their work, probably because they don’t receive any training in matters pertaining to the philosophy of history. 
The laws of nature inform us of what typically occurs in the universe when left to itself. If I hold a pen in front of me and then let go, it will drop to the floor. I can repeat this act a million times over and get the same result. Now, let’s say I let go of the pen and catch it before it drops even the slightest distance. That the pen did not drop is not a violation or suspension of the laws of nature, because my hand entered the scene and altered the normal course of events.
In a sense, then, we should say that nature has not always been left to itself. A miracle is not a violation or suspension of the laws of nature. Rather, it is when the hand of God enters our world and alters the normal course of events. Everyone will agree that the laws of nature inform us that a corpse will not return to life when left to itself. But if Jesus’s resurrection occurred, it was God, the author of life, who altered the normal course of events and raised Jesus. His corpse was not left to itself.

Instead of engaging Licona's argument, Ehrman ignores it. 

In addition, I would like Mike to take some specific historical events that we might believe God had a hand in, for example, the discovery of America by Columbus, or the victory of the Allies in World War II, or the election of Ronald Reagan — take any example. 

Why those examples? Why not evidence of miraculous healing or a miraculous answer to prayer? Why not small scale historical incidents?

And as to hallucinations, if Mike really and truly believes that groups of people cannot have hallucinations, I would love to know how he explains the fact that we have extremely well-documented instances of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing to large groups of her followers — within the past few decades!)

i) Ehrman needs to get specific. 

ii) Moreover, to say the postmortem appearances of Jesus were hallucinatory fails to comport with the evidence. For one thing, some observers didn't immediately recognize Jesus. But if it's their personal hallucination of Jesus, then that should be an exact match for what they think Jesus is supposed to look like. 

Incidentally, that's true for Marian apparitions. Instant recognition. Not surprisingly, reported Marian apparitions dovetail with traditional Catholic iconography. The "Mary" who appears to them looks just like artistic representations of Mary they see in church. (Of course, that's unhistorical.)

For example, he suggests that maybe Jesus was not raised from the dead, but that he had a “near-death experience,” as people sometimes have. This is an interesting thesis, and I wonder if Mike would be willing to pursue it. It would be possible, of course, for historians to make this argument (some have!) — that Jesus’s return from “the dead” was from being “nearly dead,” since near-death experiences do not require the existence of the supernatural (you may think they do, but they don’t; neurologists have given various completely natural explanations for why these things happen; you may not agree with the scientific explanations, but my point is that they exist and you don’t need to believe in the supernatural to think that some people have these experiences for completely natural reasons). And so, is Mike seriously proposing this as an alternative to the idea that God raised Jesus from the dead? Does he really think that it’s possible that Jesus did not really die on the cross? That he simply woke up in the tomb, just as some people wake up on the operating table? If that is his view, I’d like to see him explain it more fully. If it’s not his view, I’d like to know why he rejects it.

i) That's a complete misunderstanding of what Licona said. He never suggested the Resurrection was actually an NDE. Rather, he mentioned NDEs and other paranormal phenomena to challenge Ehrman's plausibility structure. That was the context: "Plausibility is the degree to which a hypothesis is compatible with our background knowledge." He uses those examples to demonstrate that methodological naturalism should not be the default paradigm.  

ii) Moreover, Ehrman isn't paying attention to Licona's specific claim. Licona appealed to veridical NDEs. These resist "completely natural" explanations. A naturalistic explanation attempts to explain an NDE in terms of what was happening in the patient's brain, and what he could be physically aware of, in terms of his immediate surroundings. But the evidence for veridical NDEs goes beyond what's explicable in that regard. Now, Erhman can attempt to deny veridical NDEs, but he's not engaging the actual cases. Here's what Licona actually said was:

There are about 100 cases of well-evidenced Near Death Experiences, in which a person who had died by all accounts (e.g., flat EKG and/or EEG) claimed to have gone somewhere or seen and heard things going on they could not have possibly known but turn out being accurate, apparitions of the dead in which percipients received accurate information from the apparition they could not have otherwise known, and extreme answered prayer. The evidence for a supernatural component to reality is very strong and provides significant background knowledge suggesting there is a supernatural element to reality. For this reason, the resurrection hypothesis has little if any ad hoc element to it.

Moreover, when one considers about a hundred cases of well-evidenced Near Death Experiences, apparitions of the dead in which percipients received accurate information from the apparition they could not have otherwise known, extreme answered prayer, and the historical case for Jesus’s resurrection, the evidence for a supernatural component to reality is so strong that atheism becomes untenable. The evidence strongly suggests that the world in which we live is far more compatible with theism than atheism. 

Back to Ehrman:

Sometimes, we can’t show what happened because we just don’t have sources of information. That’s usually the case. Very rarely do we have sources of information for the trillions of things that happen every second of the day. It’s no one’s fault. History just can’t accommodate all of the past. There are some things that are simply inaccessible to us, even if they are in the past.

That's another example of Ehrman's double standards. Consider how he says the traditional authorship of the Gospels must be wrong because Josephus is the only 1C Palestinian Jew who wrote in literary Greek. But, of course, that carries no presumption that he's the only Jew who did it–given the ravages of time. 

The historical disciplines are forced by the very nature of things to build their case about what happened in the past on shared assumptions — shared by everyone engaged in the investigation. That means that historians — using historical methods — cannot show that the Christian God has intervened in history in order to accomplish his will. They may think so, some of them. But belief in the Christian God is not one of the assumptions that historians share, and so when doing history, it cannot be part of the equation.

That's illogical. He acts as if secular consensus is self-validating. But the fact that secular historians agree with each other on methodological atheism doesn't make it rational. You can't use agreement to justify agreement. "Historical methods" can't properly preempt historical evidence. If they screen out historical evidence, that makes the methods unhistorical. 

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