Saturday, April 02, 2016

Just build a wall

I'll like to make a brief observation about Trump's proposal to build a wall to keep illegal aliens out. Presumably, the idea is to build a wall across the US-Mexico border.

There's one little logistical hitch: last time I checked, the USA was not a landlocked country. So Trump's wall would have to extend across the West Coast, Gulf Coast, and East Coast to seal our borders. The US shoreline is about 95,500 miles long. (The US-Mexico border is about 2000 miles.) 

That presents some intriguing engineering challenges. To begin with, the wall has to be deep enough to reach the continental shelf. 

In addition, a coastal seawall would completely impede fishing, shipping, naval operations, &c. 

Furthermore, a border wall would dam the Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers. 

Then there's the question of what to do about pesky illegals who try to sneak in through the northern border via Alaska. Admittedly, that's not a big deal right now, but if we wall off the East coast, West coast, Gulf coast, and US–Mexico border, that will make other points of entry more popular. 

An alternative might be a build a geodesic dome or plexiglass dome over the continental US. Make the US a giant terrarium. Of course, that would eliminate international air transport, &c. But it's a small price to pay for sealing the border. 

Standing Bear

1. To infidels, the talking "snake" in Gen 3 is all you need to know to know that Scripture is ridiculous mythological fiction. I've discussed the identity of the tempter on various occasions. Now I'd like to approach the issue from two new angles.

2. When we read a book from a different culture, it's easy for us to think we know what something means even though we are way off the mark. Likewise, the things that strike us as the most palpably false may seem that way because we misunderstand it. It didn't seem false to the original audience.

Suppose a Biblically and theologically illiterate college student were to pick up a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. There's a lot that still comes through. The plot still works. Our reader can still appreciate the psychological characterizations. 

However, consider some of the names of the characters, viz. Christian, Evangelist, Worldly Wiseman, Formalist, Prudence, Piety, Charity, Apollyon.

Bunyan is an evangelist as well as a storyteller. He isn't subtle. He gives the reader very broad clues by how he names the characters.

Even so, for a biblically and theologically illiterate reader, these names would be opaque. There are lots of things a reader will miss if he lacks the requisite theological background. 

3. The frame of reference that a modern, Western, secularized reader brings to Gen 2-3 doesn't necessarily equip him to catch certain nuances. Suppose we compare that to a storyteller from a very different cultural milieu. For instance, suppose a village atheist read a traditional American Indian story. The story has characters with names like Raven, Black Elk, Black Hawk, Black Fox, Standing Bear, Running Eagle, and Lone Wolf. In addition, the characters speak. 

Our village atheist shakes his head: "Those poor primitive Indians with their superstitious belief in talking animals!"

That illustrates the danger of interpretation when you don't know the cultural code language. The reader thinks the storyteller is ignorant when, in fact, it's the reader who's ignorant. The patronizing reader makes himself look foolish. 

The fact that an American Indian story has characters with animal names doesn't mean these were talking animals. Rather, it means Indians gave people animal names. Real people! 

I think that's the kind of thing we should keep in mind when we read Gen 3. We need to make allowance for these interpretive options. 

4. When reading the Bible, it's useful to appreciate the emblematic significance of venomous snakes in the ANE and Roman Empire. The connotations of snakes in cultures that practice ophiolatry and ophiomancy. 

However, that's not just a thing of the past. Venomous snakes (as well as constrictors) exert a perennial fascination. That's transcultural. 

Lots of boys like to collect snakes, including venomous snakes–much to the consternation of their mothers. Some of these boys grow up to be herpetologists. And some of these boys grow up to be private snake collectors. 

They import the most dangerous snakes on the planet. Mambas, cobras, kraits, Bushmasters, gaboon vipers, golden lancehead vipers, &c. For some men, venomous snakes have a magnetic appeal: the more death-defying, the more appealing. So the aura that venomous snakes had in the ancient world isn't culturebound. 

5. I'd add that this can illustrate the limitations of Bible scholarship. Boys who grow up to be Bible scholars tend to be nerdy, bookish boys. I daresay few Bible scholars are herpetologists or private snake collectors. 

When they write commentaries on Gen 3, there's a dimension to the "snake" that's apt to elude Bible scholars–a dimension which a herpetologist or snake collector might naturally tune into. 

6. This, in turn, may help explain why the narrator gave the tempter a serpentine name. He's trading on popular connotations of snakes. 

i) A venomous snake is a natural symbol of death. To call a character a snake clues the reader into the fact that this is a threatening character. A potentially deadly character. 

Indeed, I think that's what motivates some snake collectors. They are literally staring death in the face. In fact, some of them take it to the next level by handling venomous snakes with their bare hands. You have the same dynamic with Appalachian snake-handling cults. Tempting fate. 

The fact that Eve is oblivious to the malevolent character of the tempter generates dramatic tension. The reader knows something she doesn't. Notice that she doesn't address the tempter as a snake. That's between the reader and the narrator. 

ii) Not only are venomous snakes natural symbols of death, but uncanny death. Except for pythons and anacondas, snakes don't look dangerous. It's only their reputation that makes them fearsome. 

Especially for a prescientific audience, there's something mysterious about how snakes kill their prey–or humans. What makes a snakebite fatal? If you're bitten by a house cat, that won't kill you. But if you're bitten by a venomous snake, you may pine away in a few hours, or less.  

Of course, we have some understanding of venom, as well as different kinds of venom (e.g. haemotoxic, neurotoxic). But ancient people weren't privy to that information. 

There's nothing mysterious about how a lion, bear, or crocodile kills its prey. And predators like that look dangerous! There's nothing inexplicable about the lethality of a lion or crocodile, but there is something inexplicable about the lethality of a snake, if you lack scientific knowhow.

So that may be an additional reason why the narrator gave the temper a serpentine name. That triggers magical associations.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Lydia McGrew on undesigned coincidences

Prolife strategy

Trump blundered into the abortion this week by remarking on the need to punish women who have abortions. Of course, Trump doesn't really believe that. It did, however, make an old issue resurface, and I see some confusion on the part of Christians in responding to Trump.

i) Certainly there are women who have uncoerced abortions. There are women who have abortions for convenience. There are men and women who have no compunction about killing somebody who's an obstacle to their ambitions, so long as they can get away with it.

ii) That said, laws have more than one function. Some laws are designed to exact justice. Conversely, some laws are designed to deter certain kinds of social behavior. And many laws attempt to do both.

iii) As a practical matter, it isn't politically feasible to pass laws that punish women who have abortions. Not only do such laws have no possibility of passage, but the very effort to sponsor bills to that effect would backfire. It would play right into the hands of the abortion lobby. 

That isn't fair, but in a just world, we wouldn't have abortion on demand in the first place. 

iv) In addition, the dispensation of justice is ultimately up to God. Up to a point, it's good to have laws that punish wrongdoing, but at the end of the day, no one will elude justice. That's what the final judgment is about. 

v) In the meantime, the primary goal of the prolife movement is to prevent as many abortions as possible, given the political realities. With that in mind, we focus on deterrence rather than retribution. The priority is to save lives, not exact justice. 

Moreover, given the political climate, these are competing values. Ideally, it's good to have laws that deter wrongdoing and punish wrongdoing alike. But if you can't do both, then you should prioritize saving babies, and leave it to God to right the scales of justice. We have no duty to engage in futile, counterproductive tactics. 

Mao v. Stalin

Trump v. Clinton is often framed in terms of the lesser-evil principle. I think that’s a valid principle.

However, I think the principle becomes worthless if it never bottoms out. If there’s no threshold below which a candidate, however atrocious, can ever be out-of-bounds, then the comparison is morally compromised beyond recognition.

For instance, some people say not voting for Trump is a vote for Clinton. In a sense.
But suppose you had a choice between Stalin and Mao. Suppose you concluded that Mao was marginally better than Stalin (or vice versa). But when two candidates are as bad as Stalin and Mao (in my hypothetical), is the lesser-evil principle even germane anymore?

What if you said, not voting for Mao is a vote for Stalin. Even if there’s a sense in which that’s the case, so what?

The real problem of evil

It's funny how atheist philosophers are unconsciously conditioned by a particular way of viewing issues. Because the problem of evil is conventionally framed in certain terms, atheist philosophers are stuck in that rut. They just keep moving in the same groove. 

I've already noted this in reference to the God who's targeted by the argument from evil. Even though atheist philosophers are usually training their guns on Christianity, albeit tacitly, they don't formulate the argument of evil in terms of Yahweh. Instead, it's much more generic.

Part of the reason is that some (or many) atheist philosophers don't take the Bible as their frame of reference–despite the fact that they are usually targeting Christianity. 

Now let's consider another example. To my knowledge, the argument from evil is always formulated in general terms. Human suffering generally, or even animal suffering. 

It's striking to contrast that orientation with the viewpoint of Scripture. In Scripture, the problem of suffering isn't about human suffering in general–much less animal suffering–but the suffering of God's people in particular. The issue of why God doesn't intercede more often to deliver his people from suffering. From a Biblical perspective, that's the real problem of evil.

To the extent that Scripture indicates a tension between God and suffering, it's not in reference to suffering in general. Moreover, it's not about God's existence, but God's benevolence. Atheists fail to engage the argument where Scripture engages the argument. If you wish to attack Christian theism, you must assume the viewpoint of Scripture for the sake of argument. 

Of course, the very fact that Scripture is filled with believers who complain to God about their dereliction goes to show that while the plight of believers may seem inexplicable, it is not unexpected. In that practical sense, it's consistent with God's existence, even if that's not an explanation.

The tension is exacerbated by certain divine assurances that seem to promise more than they deliver, viz. unqualified prayer promises. 

Is there any way to relieve the tension? A few suggestions:

i) The soul-making theodicy has something to offer. That's not a complete answer, but it makes a contribution. For instance, suppose you have two high school buddies who go hiking. One of them sprains his ankle. Of course, that will slow them way down. Because we're bipedal creatures, we can barely walk with a sprained ankle. That one injury almost immobilizes a man. 

Suppose there's a storm in the forecast. If they are overtaken by the storm, there's the risk of death by exposure. If the uninjured hiker leaves his companion behind, he can make it to shelter in time. But that will mean leaving his companion to fend for himself. 

If the injured hiker knew that his buddy was going to abandon him in a pinch, they'd never be friends in the first place. If he had a premonition that this was going happen if they went hiking that day, he'd never look at his classmate the same way. The crisis reveals something that was always missing, but only came to the fore when their friendship was put to the test. 

Conversely, suppose his buddy hazards his own prospects for survival by remaining with his injured companion. That, too, taps into something hidden. Something only a crisis brings out into the open. 

ii) When believers and unbelievers suffer alike, when they experience the same kinds of afflictions, how believers cope with suffering can be a witness to the world. And that's a biblical theme. Unless believers and unbelievers were in comparable situations, it would not be possible to compare and contrast how they deal with the same challenges. 

iii) You also have the principle of eschatological compensations, viz. "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom 8:18); "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor 4:17).

In some measure, promises of divine deliverance are ultimately about what's ultimate. Not about deliverance in this life, but deliverance from this life.

Bergoglio’s Gig: Siding With the “Progressives” on Sexuality?

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna
“Pope Francis” Taps “Progressive” To Introduce “Exhortation on the Family”
ROME – In a move possibly hinting that Pope Francis will side with progressives on some contentious matters regarding family life, the Vatican announced Thursday that a keenly anticipated document from the pontiff will be released April 8 and presented by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria.

The document, technically known as an “apostolic exhortation,” is designed to draw conclusions from two tumultuous summits of Catholic bishops from around the world, called “synods,” on issues pertaining to the family held in October 2014 and October 2015.

Thorns and thistles

We don't know a lot about the Garden of Eden. According to Gen 2, it was located somewhere in Mesopotamia. It was irrigated by river water. It contained fruit trees and tame animals. 

It's interesting to compare Eden to an oasis. For instance:

The oasis presents a drastic contrast involving a miniature "paradise" embedded in the vast, enveloping desolation. This is a very extreme example. 

One can imagine a little paradise that's utterly idyllic on the inside. If you're within the confines of the enchanted sanctuary, it will be lush in all directions. A thin rim of trees obstructs the view of the outside world. Yet only that ring of foliage a few trees deep partitions paradise from desolation. If you were to take a few steps into the verdant barrier, then step outside and see the world from the other side, your impression would be completely different. There's so little that separates you from the wasteland. An oasis, fringed by fruit trees and shade trees. An eye drop of life in a sea of sand. 

Imagine if you were banished from the oasis. Nothing but desert as far as the eye can see. 

I'm not suggesting that the buffer between the Garden of Eden and the world beyond was quite that tenuous. For one thing, the Garden was a riverine setting rather than an oasis. Still, the Garden may well have been situated in a narrow river valley. The countryside just over the ridge might be arid and barren. The Garden was a gift. 

Crossing the finish line

Scroll down to the interview with Paul Helm:

Persons and policies

So the National Enquirer accuses Cruz of having affairs. Thus far, this story doesn't seem to have any legs. I think there are several reasons for that:

i) The National Enquirer lacks credibility. That doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong, but there's no presumption that it's right. Every week, as you wait in line at the checkout stand, you're subjected to hyperbolic headlines. The print equivalent of clickbait. 

ii) I've read that two of the named women in the story have denied the allegations. 

iii) Another problem is how the allegations cut against the grain of Cruz's dorky image. These aren't accusations of harassment, but affairs. Sexual harassment involves unwanted  overtures, but affairs are consensual. Cruz's dweebish demeanor makes him an implausible ladykiller. I'm not saying it can't be true, yet he seems miscast for the role that the National Inquirer has assigned to him. 

iv) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the charges are true. Let's further assume that Hillary will be the Democrat nominee:

Given a choice, I'd vote for a vicious candidate with virtuous policies over a vicious candidate with vicious policies.

What is more, I'd vote for a vicious candidate with virtuous policies over a virtuous candidate with vicious policies.

When I vote for a candidate, that's not an endorsement of the person. That just means I think they have better policies. The pertinent question is not, in the first instance, is he (or she) a good or bad person, but will he do good things for Americans or bad things to Americans. It's less about his personal morality than the morality of his presidential initiatives. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016


One of Bart Ehrman's stock examples of alleged discrepancies in this Gospels is his contention that Mark and Luke present contradictory accounts of the Passion. I'll make a few observations:

i) Part of the problem is with his illogical assumption that if one account includes information not mentioned in another account, that must be fictional or unhistorical.

ii) It doesn't occur to Ehrman that if someone is in a state of extreme physical and emotional distress, that person may well be subject to mood swings. Surely that's a commonplace of human experience. People in that condition may oscillate between hope to despair. It's perfectly realistic for the same person to have conflicting feelings–especially when traumatized. It would be surprising of Jesus did not experience a gamut of emotions during this crisis. 

iii) In addition, a subjective feeling of divine abandonment is entirely consistent with an objective reality of divine provision. That's a common motif in the Prophets and Psalms. A sense of utter desolation doesn't mean the sufferer has in fact been deserted by God. 

Carrier's flawed argument that God is improbable

The Urtext and textual criticism

Traditionally, the aim of OT and NT textual criticism has been to determine the original text (or autograph) of the canonical books. However, some contemporary critics have challenged the operating assumption. Take Bart Ehrman:

Assume, for a second, just for the sake of the argument, that chapter 21 and 1:1 — 18 were not original components of the Gospel. What does that do for the textual critic who wants to reconstruct the "original" text? Which original is being constructed? All our Greek manuscripts contain the passages in question. So does the textual critic reconstruct as the original text the form of the Gospel that originally contained them? But shouldn't we consider the "original" form to be the earlier version, which lacked them ? And if one wants to reconstruct that earlier form, is it fair to stop there, with reconstructing, say, the first edition of John's Gospel? Why not go even further and try to reconstruct the sources that lie behind the Gospel, such as the signs sources and the discourse sources, or even the oral traditions that lie behind them? B. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (HarperCollins, 2005), 61-62.

There are many problems with that example:

i) Textual criticism is scarcely unique to the Bible. Producing critical editions of Shakespeare's plays involves the same notion–an original text.

ii) It's true that words like "original" or "autograph" are vague without further definition. These are terms of art in textual criticism.

iii) Ehrman's statement is silly and confused. It willfully confounds textual criticism with source criticism. But there's no good reason to conflate the two. A preliminary, unpublished draft is not a different edition of the same book, but an earlier compositional stage. The question at issue is not the stages of composition, or sources (if any) which may have fed into the composition, but the final product. Not a rough draft, but a final draft. The text that the Bible writer issued and intended for popular consumption. 

iv) Here's how one textual critic defines it: 

When we speak of the original text, we are referring to the "published" text–that is, the text as it was in its final edited form and released for circulation in the Christian community. For some books of the NT, there is little difference between the original composition and the published text. After the author wrote or dictated his word, he (or an associate) made the final editorial corrections and then released it for distribution. Philip Comfort, "Texts and Manuscripts of the New Testament," P. Comfort, ed. The Origin of the Bible (Tyndale, 1992), 183. 

If that involves collaboration between the author and a scribe, we could dub the original or autograph the authorized text. Say a scribe takes dictation in shorthand. After he writes it out in longhand, the author reviews the transcript, edits it, the scribe then produces a final draft, incorporating the corrections. If the revision meets with the satisfaction of the author, he signs off on that. If we postulate that the scribe is inspired, then that simplifies the process. 

v) This is not an arbitrary definition. The books of Scripture aren't diaries. The author isn't writing to and for himself. Rather, he produces a text for wider circulation. The autograph doesn't consist of his notes, but the edition he intended for popular consumption and issued for general distribution. That's how it was meant to function. 

vi) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that there was more than one authentic edition in circulation, or more than one authorized copy in circulation. Why does Ehrman think that would be a problem? They'd all be authentic literary products of the writer. All of them would meet with his approval. They'd all be authoritative. It's not as if the prologue and epilogue of John contradiction what's in-between. 

vii) However, we can approach the identification from the other end: Instead of asking, What is the original?, we can ask, What is not the original? 

The traditional objective of textual criticism is to strip away changes in the text that were introduced by subsequent scribes. What is unoriginal, what is not the autograph, are changes or variations added to the text by someone other than the author or the author in collaboration with his amanuensis. That's a clear-cut distinction. A principled distinction, not an ad hoc distinction. 

To take a secular illustration, consider an editor who tampers with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to eliminate the racist slurs, without alerting the reader to his changes. 

viii) I'd mention a further qualification. Some changes don't affect the sense. Suppose a 4C scribe spelled a few words differently than the author or his amanuensis. Recovering the autograph hardly requires us to recover the original spelling. It's the same word. I don't think there was standardized spelling back then. It would be mindlessly pedantic to insist that restoring the autographic text requires us to identify and "correct" changes that have no bearing on the semantic content of the text. 

Chuck Hill on the original text

Bart Ehrman raises questions about the identity of the original text. How's how one scholar delineates the issue:

In The Early Text of the NT, you suggest that David Parker “gives the impression that concern for the original text is simply a religious phenomenon, driven by pressure from churches who desire an ‘authoritative text’” (p. 4). You point out, rightly in my opinion, that religious belief is hardly the only motivation for seeking a work’s original text. But what is the relationship between a high view of Scripture (as found, say, in the Westminster Confession) and the quest for the original text? Is such a view of scripture viable without the concept of a single original text?

Having a high view of Scripture, as you pointed out, is not the only motivation for seeking an original text. I don’t know why anyone would make that assumption. But is a high view of Scripture viable without ‘the concept of a single original text’? The short answer, I suppose, has to be ‘yes’, but it depends, of course, on what is meant by ‘the concept of a single original text.’ You can, of course, make a distinction between the original text (let’s just define it as the text as it left the author’s hands for the last time, with the author’s intent for release) and the ‘Initial text’ or Ausgangstext (the text we reconstruct as the source of all the known readings). But even the ‘Initial text’ is a form of the text that originated with the author. Different compositional stages of a book (e.g., a book before the author added a prologue, or decided to insert new material, etc.) are not different editions of the book, and it just seems like obfuscation to bring them into the picture.

The main, possible complication, I suppose, would be if the author did make a second edition (as some people have argued for the text of Acts). Let’s say (for the sake of argument) Paul sent a letter to the Roman church and kept his own personal copy, then later modified his copy in some way, intending to make this revised copy the basis for copies that would be more widely distributed to the churches, perhaps along with a collection of his letters. In this case you could say there are two ‘original’, authorial texts of Romans, essentially two editions.

Each of these would have originated with the author with his intention to be ‘released’ or published. Each one, I think we would have to say, was inspired, written by Paul in the exercise of his apostolic ministry. So here we would have two ‘originals’. In my opinion, the natural standard we would be seeking (if we could tell the difference) would be the final version that left Paul’s control, as representing the author’s final, intended ‘original’, even if it was not the ‘original’ original.

Or, let’s say that the ‘release’ of a book like Revelation, or even one of the Gospels, for that matter, was marked by the sending out of several ‘initial’ copies as part of the release. What if there were minor scribal differences between them? In this case, presumably there was still one single master copy from which other copies were made, which would be the logical ‘original’. But what if this, or any other, first exemplar itself contained errors that were made and somehow not corrected, in the inscription process? Then the ‘original’ text, or the normative text, would presumably go back to the author’s intention, no matter what happened between thought and words appearing on a page. This is why Warfield, in his book on NT textual criticism, identified the original text as the text intended by the author.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

If at first you don't secede, try try again

Looks like the South has found a way to win the Civil War after all. If Southern states pass laws against unisex restrooms and locker rooms, blue states will secede from the union by splitting from the South: 

It's secession in reverse. The effect is the same, but without the body count and destruction of infrastructure. Red states now have a nonviolent method of indirectly seceding from the union by provoking blue states to suspend interstate relations between blue state governments and red state governments. All red states have to do is pass laws against unisex restrooms and locker rooms, then sit back and watch blue states break with red states. 

The concept of a norm

The evangelical flotilla

I recently did a post on folk Catholicism. There is, of course, such a thing as folk Protestantism. Does it have the same problems? Is it a double standard to attack folk Catholicism, but act as though folk Protestantism isn't in the same (sinking) boat? Should we put our own house in order before we presume to take aim at Catholicism? 

i) Catholicism and Protestantism share some generic problems in common, apart from problems distinctive to Catholicism (or some particular branch of Protestantism). Due to human sin and human foibles, to some degree you'd have similar problems in any human organization. Put the same people in different organizations, and the same problems will resurface. 

ii) In addition, specific theological traditions, and denominations which exemplify those traditions, can have problems distinctive to defects in their traditions. This can be true for Catholicism and Protestantism alike, although it's variable across the spectrum of Protestant belief and practice. That's not a uniform problem in Protestantism.

iii) As a blogger, I focus on the war of ideas, because that's where I can make a broader contribution. There's a sense in which what ultimately counts isn't orthodoxy, per se, but the degree to which we internalize orthodoxy. Sanctification. But that's a question of individual appropriation. I have my own life to live. I can't live your life for you. What you do with your own life and opportunities is up to you. That's between you and God. At most, I can give advice.  

iv) Because Protestants reject a Magisterium, Protestantism is inherently decentralized. As such, no one individual, or oligarchy, directs the Protestant movement in general. Likewise, church officers generally have limited ecclesiastical authority even in the local church.

So beyond the war of ideas, I don't fret over the state of Protestantism. I criticize what I think is wrong. But I'm not ultimately responsible for what other people do. I didn't create the situation. And I have no direct control over what happens. It is what it is.

v) In addition, although there are problems in the Protestant movement, I don't criticize Protestantism the same way I criticize Catholicism since I don't think Protestantism, per se, is misguided. I don't object to Protestantism in principle. After all, that's what I am!

In another sense, I care more about what happens in Protestantism than Catholicism. But because it's individualistic, the fortunes of my faith aren't tied to the fortunes of the movement in general, or any particular denomination, or independent church, or evangelical college, or whatever. We're not in the same boat. Protestantism is a flotilla, not a passenger ship. If your boat springs a leak, my boat doesn't take on water. Our boats sink or float independently. If your boat capsizes, I'll throw you a lifeline. Planks connect some boats to other boats in the flotilla. But these can be withdrawn. 

vi) By contrast, the pope is an absolute monarchy. He has tremendous authority over what happens under his roof. He can set policy. He can establish an accountability structure. He can impose discipline. In fact, the papacy use to run a tight ship.

That doesn't mean there weren't abuses in Catholicism, but that wasn't because the papacy lost control; rather, the papacy fostered or consciously allowed abuses. 

Hobby Lobby and Apple

Peter Williams reviews Misquoting Jesus

Gnostic communion

Protestants who deny the Real Presence are sometimes branded as Gnostics. They "spiritualize" the sacraments. Reduce them to "mere" symbols or "nude signs". They're allergic to any connection between grace and physicality. So goes the allegation.

Before getting to the main point, I'd like to make a few preliminary observations:

1. Professing Christians who affirm the Real Presence vary in the specificity of what they affirm. Some leave a lot of room for "mystery". In principle, if you affirm the Real Presence, then that commits you to one of two basic options:

i) The communion elements are actually the physical body of Christ (or Jesus in toto) rather than bread and wine. That's either/or.

ii) The communion elements are the physical body of Christ in addition to bread and wine. That's both/and.

2. Some Christians don't try to explain it. They punt to "mystery". They just call it a miracle.

i) In principle, I can respect that. However, that's an argument from authority, so it's only as good as the ostensible authority. Only as good as their prooftexts or ecclesiastical authority. 

ii) Another problem with that appeal is that the NT nowhere depicts the Eucharist as a miracle. It doesn't use miracle terminology. It doesn't show Christians reacting to the Eucharist as a miracle–unlike how people Scripture react to public miracles. So there's no indication that the Eucharist is miraculous. 

3. Let's examine the both/and option. On that view, the Eucharist is real bread and wine as well as the real body of Christ. However, it only appears to be bread and wine. The appearance is true insofar as the bread and wine are real enough, and that's in part what the Eucharist is.

But, conversely, by not appearing to be something it is, it appears to be something it's not–for the most important thing about the Eucharist (on this view) is the physical body of Christ (or Jesus in toto), yet it doesn't seem to be that at all. It doesn't seem to be anything other than bread and wine. So the appearance is deceptive. 

So why isn't that Gnostic? We might call this epistemological Gnosticism. Even though there's more to the Eucharist than meets the eye (or other senses, or chemical analysis), all you can perceive is bread and wine. 

Suppose, during WWII, a French art collector covered his Monets and Renoirs with cheap canvas paintings to disguise them from the Nazis. They look like cheap paintings. And what the viewer sees is real enough. But right beneath the canvas of the cheap painting is a priceless Monet or Renoir. 

4. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we propose a model for the both/and option. The bread and wine exists in our universe, while Jesus exists in a parallel universe. At the moment when a priest pronounces the words of consecration, an invisible wormhole opens up connecting the two. 

That still doesn't explain how different individuals can ingest one and the same body. So let's say the body of Jesus exists in multiple parallel worlds. The body of Jesus is fissioned in a multiverse. Each communicant ingests the body of Jesus, which has infinitely many counterparts in parallel worlds. Like Hilbert's Hotel, you never run out of bodies to ingest at communion.

Even if the body/and option is something like that, the parallel universe is indetectable from our side of the event horizon. So there's a chasm between appearance and reality. Once again, that's awfully Gnostic.

5. Now let's explore the either/or option. That's classically represented by the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation.

i) Some Catholic apologists might try to deflect criticism by claiming it's a miracle and invoke mystery. I don't object to that in general. However, that won't work in this case, in part because Rome did not content itself with calling it a miracle and leaving it at that. Rather, transubstantiation is a philosophical explanation. A rational attempt to account for how it can actually be Jesus despite all appearances to the contrary. In that event, the explanation is properly subject to rational scrutiny.

ii) In fairness to Aquinas, if you're going to say the communion elements are really Jesus, then that commits you to something like transubstantiation. Even if you don't subscribe to Aristotelian physics or Thomistic metaphysics, your dogma requires you to drive a wedge between the primary properties and the secondary properties. So you will end up with something similar (if not identical) to transubstantiation. Given the either/or option, there's no affinity between the phenomenal qualia of the bread and wine and what the communicant is actually ingesting. Jesus takes the place of the communion elements. He supplants the communion elements. 

It seems to be bread and wine all the way down. According to our five unaided senses, it's bread and wine. According to chemical analysis, it's bread and wine. Put the wafer under an electronic microscope, and it seems to be just that. So the empirical properties are systematically misleading. Delusive.

Moreover, this extends beyond epistemological Gnosticism to embrace metaphysical (or ontological) Gnosticism. Just as Jesus only appeared to be human (a la Gnosticism), and only appeared to die on the cross (a la Gnosticism), the Eucharist only appears to be bread and wine, while the reality is something entirely different. 

Porter on Misquoting Jesus

Commenting on Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, Stanley Porter says (among other things):

Ehrman notes, as I already mentioned above, that John Mill [c. 1645-1707] examined around one hundred manuscripts and found thirty thousand variants. Now, Ehrman notes, with over 5,700 manuscripts, we have somewhere between two hundred thousand and four hundred thousand variants. Or, as Ehrman likes to say, we have more variants than words in the New Testament. This sounds rather shocking; in fact, it is sensationally so. Mill had on average three hundred variants per manuscript. Is that a lot? Given that some of these are minor variants, others changes in word order, and others obviously slips of the pen, I think not. However, with roughly 5,800 manuscripts and, for the sake of argument, four hundred thousand variants (the largest number selected), this means only seventy variants per manuscript. With 5,800 manuscripts and two hundred thousand variants, that reflects only thirty-five variants per manuscript. So in fact, the situation with variants is getting better with the discovery of new manuscripts, not worse. Eherman should be applauding rather than disclaiming. Another way to look at these statistics is to recognize that, on a conservative estimate, 80 percent of the text is established (some say 90 percent or more), regardless of the textual variants present in the manuscripts. If textual variants are distributed equally throughout manuscripts–they may or may not be, but there is no other way to examine this, and some of them, such as spelling, transpositions, and accidental scribal errors, almost certainly will be–this means that, if there are four hundred thousand total variants, there are only eighty thousand in the part of the New Testament that is not established, or an average of only fourteen variants per manuscript in the disputed portion; or if there are only two hundred thousand total variants, only seven variants per manuscript in the disputed portion. This is manuscript production–remember, the copying of ancient manuscripts was done by hand–that nearly rivals that sometimes found today in modern print! Ehrman's comments, then, are a clear instance of  unwarranted sensationalism. Of course, the way to treat variants is not simply to average them, but there is no need to sensationalize and exaggerate the situation so as to engage in fearmongering. After all, besides those mentioned above, many if not most of these variants will be unique variants, probably (on the basis of the distribution of dates of manuscripts, in which the vast majority are late) in later manuscripts, with little impact on the text; others will simply be the repeating of similar types of errors, again with little impact. This no doubt accounts for why in his treatment of the subject Ehrman returns to the same relatively limited number of examples of textual variants.  
In Misquoting Jesus Ehrman's sensationalism, besides a few incidental examples, begins with the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 7:53-8:11) and the ending of Mark's Gospel (Mk 16:9-20)…Ehrman is misleading on at least two fronts. First, he makes it seem as if many, if not most, of the textual variants are ten to fourteen verses in length, as these two passages are, when he knows better. In fact, most of the others that he discusses in the book are a word or a phrase in length. This latter length is far more representative. Second, Ehrman gives the possible impression that the scribes, in changing the text, deleted two valuable early passages, when quite the contrary is true. Later scribes, for whatever motives, added later material, but material that on the best textual grounds was never originally there in the first place. 
An examination of several of these other shorter examples, however, shows that Ehrman is on thin ice to claim that there is radical and gratuitous change of the text of the New Testament. I will not treat accidental errors, because to know that it is an accident assumes that we know what it is not to have the accident. In other words, where such occurs, the original is easily discernible. I will also not treat intentional changes where it is clear why the change was made–for historical, theological, or factual reasons–but where the original or unchanged text is easily restored, or where the Byzantine tradition is the only one that supports it. S. Porter, How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Baker, 2013), 65-69.  

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Kinky Catholicism

It's customary in some circles to distinguish between Indian philosophy and folk Buddhism or folk Hinduism. However, that doesn't mean folk Hindus and folk Buddhists aren't real Hindus or Buddhists. To the contrary, theirs is the lived religion, as opposed to philosophical abstractions. 

We might draw the same distinction with regard to Catholicism. On the one hand, you have the hoity-toity version of Catholicism promoted by apologists like Called to Communion.

On the other hand, you have folk Catholicism. That's how the Catholic faithful over the centuries have often understood their faith and put that into practice. That's at least as authentic as the sanitized, artificial version put forward by apologists. For instance, consider the cult of the Holy Prepuce:

To my knowledge, the papacy never concemned it. Indeed, it's on all fours with the Catholic cult of relics generally. 

Or take the Lactation of St. Bernard. According to pious tradition, he was praying before a statue of the Madonna when he said: "Show yourself a mother" ("Monstra te esse Matrem"). The statue came to life and squirted breastmilk into his mouth. This is widely represented in European art. Take the rendition by the 17C Spanish priest and artist Alonso Cano:

That's normal Catholic piety. 

Or take the venerable tradition of cephalophores:

The end of ufology

I'd say the age of aerial drones closes a chapter in the history of ufology. With the proliferation of drones, it will be so reasonable to discount reported sightings of UFOs as drones. Even if the observer was sincere, it will be so easy to chalk that up to mistaken identity–combined with the fact that SF films and ufology lore have fostered an expectation and preconception. We tend to see what we expect to see. What dovetails with our interpretive grid. 

Short of the mother ship descending on the White House lawn, with shape-shifting reptilian aliens emerging from the craft to give a world press conference, I'd say future evidence for ufology based on reported sightings is doomed. 

In principle, you could still have new stories about alien abductions. However, that trope has become such a well-worn genre that I don't see how additional stories will tip the balance. The question is whether you find that kind of claim to be credible or not. 

Unless SETI starts getting hits, I think the fortunes of ufology now depend on the state of past evidence (such as it is), and rehashing gov't coverups.  

Of course, as students of Hellboy know, ufology is actually a garbled version of something more prosaic:

In 1944, with the help of Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin, the Nazis build a dimensional portal off the coast of Scotland and intend to free the Ogdru Jahad—monstrous entities imprisoned in deep space—to aid them in defeating the Allies. Rasputin opens the portal with the aid of his disciples, Ilsa von Haupstein and Obersturmbannführer Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, member of the Thule Society and Adolf Hitler's top assassin. An Allied team is sent to destroy the portal, guided by a young Trevor Bruttenholm, who is well-versed in the occult. The German team is killed and the portal is destroyed—in the process absorbing Rasputin—while Haupstein and Kroenen escape. The Allied team discovers that an infant demon with a right hand of stone came through the portal.

Unfortunately, ufologists are dissatisfied with such a mundane explanation, so they go in search of far-fetched answers. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

“Did Jesus Really Exist?” and Social Memory

HT: Alan E. Kurschner

"Jesus was indignant"

Bart Ehrman harps on Mk 1:41. He uses that as a showcase example to demonstrate the allegedly problematic state of the NT text. Consider two translations representing the two different variants:

Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" (NIV). 
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean” (ESV).

i) Was Jesus "moved with anger" or "moved with pity"? A number of scholars think this verse presents a text-critical dilemma, because the two rival readings confront us with conflicting textual criteria. On the one hand, the "compassionate" reading enjoys far stronger external attestation. On the other hand, it's hard to see what would prompt a scribe to intentionally change the original from "moved with pity" to "moved with anger". So internal grounds favor the  "indigent" reading. 

Keep on mind that on this view, it's only a dilemma if the scribal variation was intentional. 

ii) Peter Williams thinks this was an accidental scribal error:

If his explanation is correct, that would dissolve the dilemma. An unintentional mistranscription would be consistent with the external attestation. Indeed, if this was an unusual, but accidental mistake, then it's unsurprising that it wasn't more widely disseminated in the MSS record, inasmuch as few scribes would independently repeat that kind of mistake in that particular location.

iii) Other textual critics propose a different explanation. See the ensuing discussion in the Evangelical Textual Criticism post I linked to.

iv) In that event, we don't have to puzzle over why Jesus was angry, since that's not the original reading.

v) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we think the "indignant" variation represents the original. On the face of it, it's perplexing that Jesus would get mad at a leper who approached him for healing. 

Mind you, it's easy to speculate. Suppose a serial killer developed Parkinson's disease, and sought out Jesus for healing. Jesus knows something about his double life that the reader does not. And it's understandable that Jesus would take umbrage at the prospect of healing an evildoer like that. So there's nothing inherently inexplicable about the notion that Jesus would irate about a certain kind of person who came to him for healing. His disapproval would be based on his divine insight into the character of the supplicant. But the reader isn't privy to that information. 

However, that conjecture fails to explain why Jesus complied with the leper's request despite his disapproval. 

vi) Another explanation is that Jesus is not indigent at the leaper, but his condition. Jesus is outraged by the suffering itself.

vii) But whichever reading is original, that's consistent with Markan Christology, Synoptic Christology, and NT Christology generally. Our doctrine of Christ doesn't hinge on which reading is original in Mk 1:41. We needn't revise it depending on which reading is original. At worst, it means we can't read Christ's mind. We don't always understand what motivated his actions. But that's realistic.  

Copies of copies

As part of my ongoing review of Bart Erhman debates, I'm going to comment on a few positions Ehrman staked out in his debate with James White:

1. Ehrman said: let's say Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, and they got a copy, and then somebody made a copy of that original, and then made a couple of mistakes, then somebody copied that copy made a few mistakes, then original was lost and the first copy was lost, and that all other MSS ultimately derive from that third copy. The original wasn't copied any more, the first copy wasn't copied any more, the second copy was copied twice, and both of those were copied five they all go back in a genealogical line to the third copy rather than to the original. All you can reconstruct is what was in the third copy. 

The claim is that we can't recover the original text because we hit a wall. We can't go behind the earliest extant MS, or the extant MS with the fewest intervening links in-between the copy and the original autograph. We can't go back any further than the extant MSS. So we can't get back to the original. 

I'm not a textual critic, but on the face of it, Ehman's contention is obviously and demonstrably false. For instance, I read lots of articles, books, and book reviews. Sometimes I run across typos. Now all I have is my copy of the book or article. I don't have anything to compare it to. I don't have direct access to the author's original. 

Yet when I encounter typos in the text, I normally I have no difficulty going behind the text to reconstruct what he meant. If he (or the publisher) used the wrong word, that mistake is generally obvious. Moreover, it's generally obvious what word he intended to use in its place. If you know the language, you can usually figure that out. You can infer the original word.

And it's not just me. Some book reviewers do the same thing. Near the end of the review they may list notable typos in the book. Not only do they flag the mistakes, but they have no hesitation correcting the typos. They will confidently say the book mistakenly used this word when the right word is such-and-such. Ironically, reviewers have done that in reference to Bart Ehrman's own publications. Now all they have to go by is the text before them; a single text. Yet they can go behind the errant text to say what word the author meant to use. This is just routine. I could give many examples from online book reviews. 

2. In the debate, Ehrman repeated his stock objection that if God wanted to give us his words, why didn't he preserve his words? He then spelled out his alternative. How did he think God could and should have gone about that? He didn't propose that God ought to make every scribe infallible. He didn't propose automatic writing. 

Rather, he said God could have preserved the original autographa. And that would give later scribes a standard of comparison. 

i) Well, that's consider that scenario. The problem with Ehrman's suggestion is that it's too compartmentalized. When you propose these counterfactual scenarios, it's hardly enough to say, why did God do this instead of that, and leave it there. That's only a beginning. You can't stop there. It's not just a matter of changing one variable, for these are not isolated variables. You must take into account everything that flows from this or everything that flows from that. 

It's like asking, what if Hitler won WWII or the South won the Civil War? But a major point of those alternate historical scenarios is to explore the downstream consequences of damming or diverting the river upstream. What follows from the counterfactual? How would that alter the course of history? 

ii) Apropos (i), if you know much church history, it doesn't take much historical imagination to generally predict what would happen if God preserved the originals indefinitely. For starters, these would become relics. Objects of veneration. You'd have pilgrimage churches where these relics were enshrined. 

In addition, you'd have religious wars over possession of these relics. They'd be prized as talismans. Lucky charms for kings and conquerors, to ensure success in battle or ward off invaders. 

iii) Whoever had custody of the relics would use for self-aggrandizement. Imagine how the papacy or the patriarchate of Constantinople would use them in self-promotion, as the keeper of the holy relics. 

iv) In addition, having custody would result in restricted access. The keeper of the relicts would determine who gets to see them–for a price! 

v) Ironically, preserving the originals indefinitely would be an unparalleled opportunity to tamper with the text of Scripture. Due to restricted access, those in charge could swap out the original and swap in a doctored version that contained readings which endorse the papacy, the patriarchate of Constantinople, or whatever. 

Although having the originals would be useful to scribes early on, when the church was decentralized, yet over the passage of time, as ecclesiastical power becomes consolidated in "Apostolic sees," the originals would be weaponized to exalt Apostolic sees. This would be a mutual dynamic. Custody of the relics would expand the authority of the custodian, while expanded authority would further augment control over the relics. 

3. Here and elsewhere, Ehrman keeps insisting that unless we have the autographa, we no longer have the words of God. But that confuses the medium with the message. That confounds God's word with a record of God's word. The word of God isn't the paper and ink, but the message. A MSS is just a storage and retrieval mechanism–like a CD. The same information, the same word of God, can be instantiated in various media. It can be written. Or spoken. Or digitized. Or memorized. In the latter case, the word of God is mentally rather than materially exemplified. God's word isn't lost whenever a physical record of God's word is lost.

(Peter J. Williams makes a similar point, although he uses different terminology to draw these distinctions.) 

4. During the debate, Ehrman said that because some of Matthew's OT quotations don't exactly match the LXX or underlying Hebrew, in the extant samples at our disposal (e.g. MT, DDS), Matthew had different form of the text.

But although it's possible that Matthew's quotations bear witness to a different textual tradition, surely that's not the only explanation. He may simply be editing the passage to incorporate it into his narrative. An interpretive paraphrase. Combining two different passages. That sort of thing. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Bart Blunderbuss

I've been on a Bart Ehrman kick lately. I didn't plan it that way. It began when I reviewed his debate with Tim McGrew. Then, about the same time, he and Mike Licona began a serial debate. So I decided, for the sake of completeness, to view and review some of his other debates. I'm going to comment on this one:

Having now listened to several of his debate, I notice that Ehrman has a stump speech. He uses the same examples. He always raises the same objections. It's a cumulative case against the Christian faith. 

1. In their three debase, Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans speak past each other. That's because, as Evans explains at one point, even when he agrees with Ehrman on the phenomena of Scripture, he disagrees with Ehrman's inferences and conclusions.