Tuesday, April 19, 2016

I forgot I had amnesia

I'm going to comment on Part 2 of the debate between Bart Ehrman and Richard Bauckham:

(I swiped the title of my post from a song by Win Corduin.)

1. I suspect Ehrman's influence is actually quite limited. Whose mind is he changing? He's not changing the minds of conservative Bible scholars–because they reject his definition of inerrancy. He's not changing the minds of moderate Bible scholars–because they reject his definition of historicity. Moreover, both groups are quite familiar with his stock examples. Both groups are quite familiar with the same data that he is. They arrived at their own explanations before he became a celebrity apostate.

Some liberal scholars agree with him, but he didn't change their minds. Rather, they already shared a similar outlook.

Apostates and atheists rubberstamp anything he says so long as he is bashing the Bible and Christianity. He could contradict himself, and they'd still root for him. 

I think the only group he has much impact on are stereotypical young people growing up in intellectually lazy evangelical churches. They make easy targets. 

2. Here's one of Ehrman's tactics: if his opponent happens to agree with him on the "phenomena" of Scripture, he acts as though they made a damaging concession. Problem is, they don't think the phenomena have the same implications that he does. 

For instance, one problem with the debate was failure to define a "story". Do Matthew and Luke change Mark's "story". 

That's equivocal. For one thing, it fails to distinguish between the underlying event and narrating the event. Although there's only one event (in any given case), it's not like there's just one right way to describe the same event. To the contrary, there are different ways to accurately present or represent the same event. 

Take the difference between expository documentaries, observational documentaries, linear narration, nonlinear narration, immersive journalism, &c. These can all be accurate depictions. Indeed, the multiplicity of viewpoints makes a variety of techniques more accurate. 

3. Apropos (2), Erhman said the Gospels are historically inaccurate because narrators provide the framework, which varies from one Gospel to the next. But that's equivocal. There's a difference between providing the framework in the sense of arranging scenes in a narrative sequence, and inventing a physical or temporal setting. 

Ehrman said the Gospel biographies not historically accurate in any modern sense of the term. Really?

What's the modern standard of comparison, exactly? For instance, I've seen hundreds–probably thousands–of documentaries in my lifetime. Is Ehrman denying that historical and biographical documentaries are selective? Use narrative compression? Nonlinear narrative (e.g. flashbacks)? Paraphrastic quotes?

There are different kinds of documentaries. For instance, you have expository documentaries with voiceover narrators. Both the narration and the narrative structure impose an editorial viewpoint. The genre may include reenactments to fill gaps in the record. They edit the raw material to form a logical rather than chronological progression that makes it flow smoothly, so that a viewer can follow the story more easily. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum are observational documentaries, where unobtrusive cameras simply record what happens spontaneously, with minimal editorial intervention. Just let events speak for themselves. Presents material from the viewpoint of participants. 

Is one more accurate than the other. Genre alone doesn't settle that question. Observational documentaries are more ostensively lifelike. More realistic. More like verbatim quotation and strict chronology. 

But that can be propagandistic. If subjects know they are being filmed, that affects how they behave. They may exploit that to influence the viewer through the image that participants consciously project. Rather than a director staging their actions, they stage their own actions to create a favorable impression. Conversely, the overtly interpretive nature of an expository documentary may be truer to events by evaluating events in light of the larger context and supporting evidence. 

Ehrman has a positivist view of historiography. Just record things as they happened. But that's simplistic and misleading. On 9/11, airplanes flew into skyscrapers. Just showing what happened is barely informative. That fails to distinguish between an accident and a calculated attack. What motivated the pilots? You have to go behind the events to explain why it happened. Ehrman has a bad habit of making oracular pronouncements that fail to consider obvious counterexamples to his confident generalities. 

4. Ehrman labored to impugn testimonial evidence. But a basic problem with Ehrman's position is that even if, for the sake of argument, we say the Gospel writers had fallible memories, there's a big difference between the occasional memory lapse and systematically misremembering the life of Jesus. Unless the Gospel writers suffered from senile dementia, Ehrman cannot impugn the historical reliability of the Gospels by giving us cliches about how eyewitness testimony isn't "necessarily" trustworthy. His position requires a far more ambitious claim: observers consisitently misremembered what Jesus said and did. 

For instance, I've read reviews of biographies about C. S. Lewis which mention that Lewis is unreliable when it comes to dating events in his own life. biographers have to correct some of his dates. They go to great pains to work out a careful chronology of his life. 

It would, however, be ridiculous to conclude that since Lewis misremembered when some events happened, that he misremembered what happened. Those are two very different things.

Indeed, it's often not a case of misremembering the date, but not remembering the date in the first place. If you didn't write it down or make a mental note, then it's not a case of forgetting or misremembering the date; rather, you never took notice of what day it was.

Later, you may attempt to reconstruct the date. But that's a different process. That's about attempting to remember something else that happened around the same time, and using that as a frame of reference to fix the rough timeframe of the incident whose calendar date you can't remember directly. 

5. Bauckham noted that witnesses may misremember the details of an accident because it was unexpected. To expand on what he said, they didn't see it coming. They were surprised. Unprepared. They only focus on the accident after it happens. After the initial shock wears off. 

He also said most forgetting occurs in the first few hours or a couple of days after the incident. Memories that survive that window are likely to stick. Moreover, once we begin to rehearse what happened, it falls into a standard stable form.  

We remember the gist rather than details. A persistent narrative core. He cited Synoptic parallels regarding Peter's denials, where the gist remains despite variations. 

Regarding oral cultures, Bauckam drew a distinction between two different genres: stories that are meant to be entertaining, that have a new plot twist each time you tell it–and stories that try to faithfully preserve what happened. In addition, we need to consider what cultures bother to remember. 

Bauckham says Gospel writers sometimes arrange material topically rather than chronologically. Mark has a whole series of miracles miracles that happen one after another. That doesn't mean they all happened on the same day. That doesn't mean Mark is trying to put them in the "right" (i.e. chronological) order. Rather, he's grouping incidents by topic. Sometimes the order is pedagogical rather than chronological. 

Conversely, there are times when chronology matters. The baptism of Jesus needs to be at the beginning of his public ministry. By the same token, there's a natural sequence of events leading up to his death, in the final week of his life. 

In editing Mark, Bauckham pointed out that Matthew and Luke feel freer to vary his plot than vary the sayings of Jesus. 

He noted historians who vary their own accounts. To expand on his statement, Josephus has some overlapping material in the Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War. The variations aren't due to oral tradition. It's the same author in both instances. 

Bauckham doesn't think you can or should evaluate the historicity of the sayings by assessing them line-by-line, but by assessing the general reliability of the source. Bauckham dates Mark and Luke to the 60s. 

6. Ehrman labored to use the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate the historical unreliability of the Gospels. How could anyone recall the Sermon on the Mount after hearing it one time 50 years ago?

Several issues:

i) He dates Matthew to 80-85. Of course, you have scholars who date it about 20 years earlier.

ii) Traditionally, Christians didn't assume that Bible narrators had to rely on their unaided memory of events. Rather, they had inspired memories. 

Of course, Ehrman rejects the inspiration of Scripture. Indeed, he's an atheist. However, since he's challenging the plausibility of the traditional view of Scripture, he needs to take inspiration into account for the sake of argument. 

iii) His objection presumes the unity of the Sermon on the Mount. But you can affirm the inerrancy of Matthew or historical reliability of Matthew without assuming this was all said at one sitting. It could be a composite discourse. A compilation of independent sayings. 

These independent sayings are individually memorable. Pithy sayings. Catchy phrasing. Memorable imagery. Memorable vignettes. 

Moreover, Jesus would have occasion to repeat these sayings on multiple occasions. If Matthew's Gospel was written by an apostle, he'd have occasion to hear these sayings many times.

On this view, Jesus really did address a large audience on that occasion. Matthew is quoting things Jesus actually said at the time. But Matthew is taking the opportunity to piggyback other things Jesus said on other occasions. In addition to a core message, Matthew takes advantage of the situation to collate many independent sayings of Jesus and attach them to the original address. Grouping material makes it easier for his readers to keep track of the material. On that view, Matthew didn't have to absorb it all at one sitting. And that's perfectly consistent with the inerrancy of Scripture. 

(Another view is that Jesus said it all at the same place, but not at the same time. That this was spread out over a few days.)

7. More than once, Ehrman compared the canonical Gospels to the Gospel of Thomas. For instance, he said about half the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are not at all like Matthew and Luke.

But that's very deceptive. That's not about "changing" sayings of Jesus, but inventing sayings of Jesus. Ehrman banking on the fact that the average listener knows next to nothing about the Gospel of Thomas. 

The Gospel of Thomas isn't comparable to the canonical Gospels. The document is just a collection of sayings with no narrative context. According to Simon Gathercole, it was written sometime between 135 AD and c. 200 AD. Cf. S. Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Brill, 2014), 121,124.

It borrows from Matthew, Luke, Romans, and Hebrews (120). So this is not an independent historical source.

Moreover, we only have fragments in the original Greek (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1). The full text is preserved in a 4C Coptic translation. Gathercole says "Clearly the Coptic is not a straightforwardly literal translation that would enable us to reconstruct the Greek behind it" (19); cf. S. Gathercole, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences (Cambridge, 2012).

Let's take stock. Consider how duplicitous it is for Ehrman to bring this up. He alleges that the Synoptic Gospels are historically unreliable because they were written some 50 years after the event. In other books and debates he questions the textual authenticity of the canonical Gospels.

Yet he's now citing an apocryphal Gospel that at a low-end estimate was written at least a century after the event. And at a high-end estimate, 170 years later! Moreover, we must rely on a loose, Coptic translation from the 4C for the full text. So this is filtered through a translation. And, of course, the MS attestation for the Gospel of Thomas is far inferior to the canonical Gospels. His comparison commits a whole litany of double standards.

8. Ehrman said the Challenger disaster happened on Jan 28, 1986. He uses the Challenger disaster to illustrate how reliable memory is, yet he recites from memory the exact date of the incident. 

Indeed, throughout the debate, he cited from memory his recollection of memory studies about the unreliability of memory. He said he'd read hundreds of books and articles on memory studies. That's a lot to remember. So he had to rely on his unreliable memory of memory studies to demonstrate that memory is unreliable. But if memory is unreliable, why should we trust his summary of the evidence? 

Ehrman is a NT textual critic by training. That's a very dry discipline. It requires you to memorize tons of arcane minutiae. How can you be a textual critic if memory is so fickle? 

9. Memory isn't any one thing. When we discuss the reliability of memory, we need to draw many distinctions. For instance:

‘Propositional memory’ is ‘semantic memory’ or memory for facts, the vast network of conceptual information underlying our general knowledge of the world: this is naturally expressed as ‘remembering that’, for example, that Descartes died in Sweden. 
‘Recollective memory’ is ‘episodic memory’, also sometimes called ‘personal memory’, ‘experiential memory’, or ‘direct memory’ by philosophers: this is memory for experienced events and episodes, such as a conversation this morning or the death of a friend eight years ago. 

10. Ehrman cited studies of students who misremembered details of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. 

i) I resisted the impulse to Google it in order to refresh my recollection. So here's my 30-year-old recollection of the Challenger disaster:

I remember that morning switching on the TV and seeing footage of a rocket rising, then exploding. I remember the shocked, almost speechless reaction of the TV reporter.

It's possible that I saw it live, or maybe a replay. I'm guessing the latter.

I then had to drive a relative to a hair appointment. That's all I heard about the incident until I came home and saw the evening news, hours later. 

I myself didn't think it was a huge deal when I first saw it. Sure, it was tragic for the astronauts, but accidents kill hundreds of people everyday. 

I don't recall the number of astronauts. I believe it was between 5 and 10.

One of the astronauts was a woman. A school teacher. 

I recall reporters who said her students were watching the liftoff live, and remarked on their reaction when they realized that their teacher went up in smoke. 

I remember social commentators saying that for the younger generation, this was equivalent to the JFK assassination: Where were you when it happened? 

I recall lots of subsequent news coverage about the investigation into the accident. I remember a Congressional hearing where Richard Feynman testified and performed a simple demonstration about what went wrong. He put rings in a glass of clear fluid and they began to disintegrate. Something like that. 

I remember allegations that NASA administrators knew the O-rings were a design flaw, an accident waiting to happen (mechanical failure), but they refused to delay the launch.

ii) In general, I don't think the Challenger disaster is a good test of memory. What makes it memorable? For whom is it memorable?

You can have the same number of people killed in a freeway pileup. You can have hundreds of people killed in an airplane crash. 

Is it the incident itself that was so memorable, or did the sustained coverage make it memorable? 

Do people remember the incident itself, or coverage of the incident–including the personal interest story about the teacher who was killed, the scandal involving NASA administrators, &c? 

The coverage can change how they remember it. That doesn't necessarily mean they misremember it. It changes the emphasis. Changes what they remember. That isn't inaccurate. Rather, that's additional information. 

NASA has, or used to have, a certain iconic significance in American culture. So that hyped the coverage. 

I think it was more memorable to a certain age group because they had nothing bigger to compare it with. By contrast, I was in my mid-20s when it happened. I lived through some harrowing coverage of the Vietnam War. The assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. 

In addition to public events, my grandmother had died three months after I graduated from high school, some 8 years prior. From a personal standpoint, that was far more memorable to me than the Challenger disaster. I don't wish to sound cruel, but by the time the Challenger disaster rolled around, I was already somewhat jaded. 

1 comment:

  1. I think it's interesting that at about a half-hour into the second program Bart Ehrman recalled what he learned in graduate school in the '70s. I wonder if he thinks he recalled it accurately.