Monday, January 11, 2021

Miracle reports, independence, and mutual support

This is the somewhat technical post to go along with my recent video on miracles and mutual support. It's been fun for me to revisit these topics mentally in the last week or so as I've been planning the video. Since 2008 when Tim and I published our mutual support paper in Erkenntnis, I've published individually a lot more work on independence and testimony. I'm going to include below a list of some relevant publications, some of them (alas) probably available only through institutional subscriptions. But some of them may be available to independent scholars through a free JSTOR account, so do give that a try. 

First, here is the diagram that I used in the talk. (Hat tip to Esteemed Husband for making it look nice.)

As I emphasized in the video, no line of support contains a loop. The discussion is necessarily simplified, especially as regards the role of background evidence concerning the reliability of a source (such as a single Gospel) that reports both the resurrection and the other miracle. Let me say a little more about that.

First, whether you have evidence that two reports are true or false, if they truly support one another in some way, this is always one-directional, even if you think that the people involved are lying or mistaken. The possibility of fabricated reports doesn't in any way mean that you have a loop. Let me make this concrete: Suppose that Joe tells you two different stories. In both of these stories, Joe is set upon by an enemy or by enemies who try to beat him up, and he wins the fist fight. You may suspect that Joe is lying in both cases. This would mean that you think he is a braggart who is trying to make himself look tough. Even so, there would be no loops of support. Call one story Report A and the other Report B. Call their contents Fight A and Fight B. Suppose that you, based on your other information about Joe (e.g., that he's a puny little guy) decide that neither Fight A nor Fight B happened. In that case, the reports still support each other, in the sense that receiving Report A gives you some additional reason to expect Report B, since Report A supports the umbrella hypothesis that Joe is a braggart who wants to look tough by telling fight stories. Hence, you have somewhat of an expectation that he will tell another story of the same general kind. By the same token Report B gives you some reason to think you may receive Report A, via the same route in the other direction. (Here it is somewhat helpful to imagine receiving the reports at different times and imagining that you receive them in one order and then imagining that you receive them in the other order, but this is just to help keep things clear.) So the reports are mutually supporting (each raises the probability of the other) via the proposition that Joe is a particular kind of liar, and that mutual support is non-circular. 

On the other hand, if you have, or gain, information that leads you to think of Joe as truthful and humble, as a person who tells things that are embarrassing to himself and doesn't make things up, if you learn independently that Joe has studied martial arts, and the like, this will decrease the probability that he is lying. In that case, Report A will have more force for Fight A (that that fight actually occurred). By the same token, you will have support from Report A (given your other background evidence about Joe's truthfulness) for a different umbrella hypothesis concerning character and circumstances--e.g., that Joe has (or tends to attract) enemies who try to beat him up, and that when that happens he is a good fighter. This "truthful" or "positive" unifying hypothesis will give you some additional reason to expect another actual fight in the real world, won by Joe. In this way, Report A supports Fight A; Fight A supports the hypothesis that Joe is a fellow who tends to get into fights and win them, which in turn raises the prior probability of Fight B. That also increases at least somewhat the prior probability that you will receive Report B, since Joe seems to tell you about these things. In turn, if you receive from Joe the input Report B, that provides some evidence via the opposite (non-looped) route that raises the prior probability of Fight A.

This means that in these kinds of scenarios, other background evidence that supports the truthfulness of a source that tells both stories tends to focus the evidential force of each report in such a way as to support the content of the other story. To apply this to a Gospel: The more separate reason we have to believe that John the evangelist is truthful and does not make up stories that promote a theological agenda, the more reason we have to believe (all else being equal) that his story about the healing of the man born blind is true. That, in turn, helps to support the hypothesis that there is something very special about Jesus (that he is at least a prophet, if not God himself), which increases at least somewhat the prior probability of the resurrection. And vice versa. The reports can be thought of as inputs. (Technically, as a strong foundationalist, I'm going to take the inputs at any given time to be things like your apparent memories at time t of reading the reports at time t - 1 and so forth--things to which you have direct access.) The force of each input in favor both of its own content and of the content reported by the other input is increased by other evidence that supports the truthfulness of a source that contains both reports.

On the other hand, if we were to have independent evidence that John the evangelist makes up marvellous stories about Jesus, the story about the man born blind would have little force to support the resurrection of Jesus, not only because it would probably be false (would have little force for its own content), but also because it wouldn't support a positive "unifying hypothesis" (such as Jesus' deity or the idea that there is something special and supernatural about Jesus) that would in turn increase the probability that Jesus would really rise from the dead. A negative "unifying hypothesis" (that John makes up theological stories) could still unify the reports--the report of the man born blind in John might give us some additional reason to think that John would also report the resurrection--but not by way of allowing each report to support the truth of its own content and thereby to support the other event.

To put it briefly, as we come to have more and more justified confidence that this person/author doesn’t make stuff up, we get closer and closer to an uncomplicated situation in which we can reasonably say, “Well, since that event happened, that makes it more likely that this other event happened, too.”

Another point: While the testimony of an otherwise highly reliable source is itself good evidence that the next thing he tells us is true, it is of course especially helpful if the story in question contains specific marks of realism. That makes the report even stronger evidence for what it attests, and this comes on a quasi-continuum. We should not be agnostic about each report on a passage-by-passage basis. That is something I have always spoken out against and will have much more to say about in The Eye of the Beholder. On the other hand, a brief, undetailed report will in the nature of the case carry less weight that a longer report in which we can point to specific marks of truth. In the accompanying video I draw a contrast in this regard between the account in John 9 of the healing of the man born blind and Mark's account of Jesus' healing of a blind man in Mark 8:22-26. Even the latter is not a bare statement, "Jesus healed a blind man near Bethsaida" and nothing more. It contains the oddity of Jesus spitting on the man's eyes (similar to his creating a paste from saliva and mud in John 9). It contains the bit of dialogue in which the man says he sees people walking like trees and Jesus touches his eyes again, which could potentially be embarrassing to a person wanting to make Jesus look more powerful. (Yes, I know that one can make up theological meanings for this, but those are subjective and unconvincing.) And there is Jesus' attempt to get him not to tell others about the miracle, which fits with other cases in the Gospels. So even here there are indicators of truth. An example of an even more spare account would be John 2:23, which just says that Jesus performed "signs," unspecified, when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover. The healing of the man born blind in John 9, being longer and more detailed, provides more opportunity for markers of truth to come up. 

The discussion of general reliability above concerns one source that tells both stories. If you have additional evidence from another document, another person, etc., for one or both of the events or for details mentioned in the story, all the better. That, too, would be included in the direct evidence for that story as modeled in the diagram. In the video, I included a bundle of different things in E1. In the case of the resurrection, we have several different Gospel accounts, evidence for the reliability of those other Gospels, as well as other evidence (e.g., in Acts) for the disciples' early attestation of the physical resurrection under conditions of great personal danger. Undesigned coincidences between accounts help to show independence as well as truth--a twofer. Apparent contradictions help to show independence.

As I say, it's been a lot of fun to return to this material, and believe it or not, there are still more complexities that I haven't discussed here. I've been making some additional notes in a document of some other thoughts on the probabilistic issues that I'm not including here.

Below is a small bibliography, ordered from most recent on top to oldest on the bottom, of some of my professional publications on these topics, including a more recent individual publication in Erkenntnis on undesigned coincidences. At a minimum, the combination of the video and this post shows that it is possible to "keep accounts" so that we are not using loops of support when there really is mutual support between miracle accounts (or between any accounts). Evidence for Gospel reliability is highly relevant to all of these issues, though "keeping accounts" is somewhat complex.


“Undesigned Coincidences and Coherence for an Hypothesis,” Erkenntnis, 85 (4) (August 15, 2020), pp. 801-828. On-Line First, August 6, 2018, Author’s accepted manuscript version archived here.

“Finessing Independent Attestation: A Study in Interdisciplinary Biblical Criticism,” Themelios 44.1, pp. 89-102 (April, 2019)

“Accounting for Dependence: Relative Consilience as a Correction Factor in Cumulative Case Arguments,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 95:3 (2017), 560-572, DOI 10.1080/00048402.2016.1219753. Abstract here. Does not include whole article.

“Evidential Diversity and the Negation of H: A Probabilistic Account of the Value of Varied Evidence,”  Ergo 3:10 (2016), available here.

“Foundationalism, Probability, and Mutual Support,” With Timothy McGrew, Erkenntnis 68 (2008):55-77. JSTOR entry here (does not include whole article).

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Pain is the price of patriotism

The events of the last few days here in the U.S. could almost have been calculated to break the heart of anyone who loves this country. First I'm referring to the loss of the Senate to the Democrats. And here I solidly blame none other than our feckless man-child of a President, Donald Trump. In a distant alternative possible universe, had Trump been less narcissistic, had he thought that something mattered besides himself, he would have taken the spotlight off the presidential election shortly after November 3 (whatever he thought about the fairness of the results) and focused solidly on using his considerable influence with his base to rally the voters for the Georgia runoffs. Well, we all know how that went, including Lin Wood's insane recommendation to Republican voters to stay home. The elections were close. Had Trump barnstormed Georgia on behalf of those candidates, the Democrats might not have won the Senate. I don't usually indulge in such what-ifs, and there are plenty of places where I think Trump gets blamed that are far more complicated than they are made to appear in Punditland, but this one is just too darned obvious. 

And then, of course, the Capitol-storming yesterday, deadly for at least four people, deadly for any remaining shred of American dignity. (The news media seem to be notably coy about three of these--who they were and what exactly happened--but about Ashli Babbitt, the woman whom the police shot, there seems to be little doubt about what happened.) This ridiculous attempt at insurrection (seriously?) will be treated as iconic of conservatism for decades to come (at least) and used as a stick with which to beat everyone who supports conservative ideals and ideas. Don't like gay "marriage"? Well, you're just like those terrifying insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol building. Maybe you're planning terrorism, even. Don't think a man can turn into a woman? The same. Support the lives of the unborn--man, you're a scary person. And on, ad infinitum. 

If that hasn't upset some readers already ("How terrible that that is why she's upset!" "She didn't say what I wanted her to say!"), here follows my really upsetting paragraph, so feel free to skip, especially if you lean a bit left or are wanting me to say some predetermined thing you have in mind to prove my non-partisanship. I basically like this take by Ben Domenech, with a caveat or two. More about the caveats below. He is so right about the demonization of the really peaceful Tea Partiers not so long ago, the boy who cried wolf phenomenon, and so forth. The most I can say to prove my non-partisanship is that, while I think it tragic, I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for Ashli Babbitt, whom the police shot. She paid high for her mad folly, for her anarchic action; death in that context could have been foreseen as a not-implausible result. This is horrible. If she was motivated by malice, her death would be less tragic, but I don't at all know that she was motivated by malice and suspect (call me naive) that she was incurably muddle-headed by ideology. But everybody who invaded that building forcibly certainly deserves arrest. What I'd really like to see at this point is for the same spirit of get-tough-on-rioters to travel to Portland and other cities so that the truly malicious evildoers who burn down innocent people's businesses would also have a credible deterrent thought to think: "Hey, maybe the police will shoot me if I try to do that." Supported (in my fantasy world) by the eager tough-mindedness of the media that stridently reported yesterday's invasion of the Capitol. But no, "Civil Rights Groups Raise Alarms About Mayor's Harsher Stance on Protesters," as the anarchy in Portland goes on without apparent end and peaceful businessmen have no credible hope of living their peaceful lives. That is shameful. And those who are saying diametrically opposite things now about the rioters yesterday from what they were saying this summer are nothing but despicable partisan hacks whom I will never try to satisfy. (I'm looking at you, Sally Kohn: 5/30 on Twitter, "I don't like violent protests, but I understand them. And those wagging their fingers against them need to read up on their American history." Yesterday, "The mobs storming the Capitol right now are neither patriots nor revolutionaries. They are traitors and cowards, trying to upend our democracy by force." I'm looking at Nancy I-don't-know-why-there-aren't-uprisings-all-over-the-country Pelosi. And more.) Yes, this paragraph probably means that I don't evaluate these two types of mobs exactly as some reading this would like me to. But I do condemn them both, believe both are shameful and both should be arrested and stopped, violently if there is no other way, and that's the most you're going to get out of me.

All that said, the last few days have been dark, in more senses than one. The take from Domenech doesn't give us a whole lot to hope for. If, as he says, the anarchic spirit is now running loose on the American right and is not going away, how in the world can principled conservatives speak credibly to the legitimate concerns of that political element while firmly refusing to become like them? That's the million-dollar question, and I don't have a good answer. Neither, apparently, does Domenech. If he does, he's not revealing it. What has just happened is, like so much of the last four years, a mix of tragedy and farce and turns the country into a mix of tragedy and farce. Yesterday is in some ways the unkindest cut of all. Who could have imagined four years ago the image of "Buffalo horns guy" posing in the Senate chamber with some people (on both sides) actually believing that he is a representative of "the right" in the U.S.? 

And in response we have the President, apparently really shocked (is it possible?) at what his incessant, narcissistic drum-beating of the past few weeks and days has raised, calling for non-violence after it's too late. Can he really be that stupid? I suppose he can. And that is the best we can say for him! Dear Lord, I can remember being a child and being told quite solemnly all about respecting the "office of the President" no matter who was in office. There was still some vestige then of respect for the processes of our governance--respect owed, perhaps, to history, to the vision of the Founders, and to that partly-abstract, partly-concrete entity that we called "our country." The land of the free and the home of the brave, remember? The land of Presidents we could be really proud to get behind, or who could (to put it no higher) at least pretend to behave themselves. Are we now either free or brave? I wonder.

Cynicism is a luxury we cannot afford. And that is my main caveat about Ben Domenech's otherwise insightful piece. He says he wasn't as depressed as others were (presumably conservatives) about yesterday's events. I have to say it: Maybe he should be more depressed. Being hurt by the slow, painful death of ideals in our society is what we pay for being human. Pain is the price of patriotism. If we are to rebuild anything from the ruins of conservatism, if we are even to survive the current and growing totalitarianism of leftism, we have to continue to hurt and to have ideals. This is something that my recent re-reading of Witness by Whittaker Chambers has taught me. Chambers regained his humanity when he learned to love--first his wife, then their unborn child, then his farm and his country--and thus learned again to suffer, but to suffer creatively, to suffer as a witness. That painful process of learning to love was what made him give up the Communist idea that the ends justify the means. We cannot travel the opposite road now. Clear-eyed we must be, and being clear-eyed will undoubtedly lead to pessimism. But hardened we cannot be.

I could close there, but since I'm not blogging a whole lot these days and was only moved by these recent events to blog now, I want to add this: The future of this country and of Western civilization lies, I now firmly believe, with those who are willing to share constructive ideals and truths in person as well as virtually. To do that, we must be both brave and free--free in heart, at least, and claiming our freedom with our actions as much as we are able. While I'm quite willing and even grateful to use the blessings of technology, and while I hope to continue to have the opportunity to do so and to reach more people that way, we can't convey everything that needs to be conveyed that way. The John MacArthurs of the world, these courageous Canadian pastors and elders, and many others quietly "breaking" the insane lockdown "rules" to meet in their churches, to meet with their friends and neighbors and loved ones, to fall in love without masks and get married, to baptize (which you can't do six feet apart), to hug the grieving, to teach children (yea, even children outside their own households) by standing at their elbows while tutor and student see each others' faces, the builders of incarnate community and interpersonal love are the future of mankind. Does that sound over-the-top to you? So be it. 

I hear people speak of our hope in Jesus and of their hope for revival in the U.S. or in the West. That's all well and good. But the high probability is that revival will bear fruit in the dark, lonely spaces of individual hearts and souls only insofar as those souls become strongly connected to in-person communities of saints and brethren. So pastors: Open up your doors and invite them to come in. And sing. And pray together. And speak the truth about unpopular social subjects, and encourage your people by word and example to be willing to lose everything for the truth. It's the only way. It will hurt. But pain is the price not only of patriotism but also of discipleship.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The weary world rejoices

I don't need to tell you that the world is weary. And anybody who has been reading my posts here and on Facebook can figure out some of the reasons why I think the world is weary. There are, of course, plenty more. I don't need to start listing all the evils of the world, some of which you can agree with me about even if we disagree about others.

Those of us who are Christians and also "literary types" know of a certain kind of literature in which the characters have big epiphanies about the eternal import of their smallest actions. You might call this the Charles Williams trope. Williams has a scene where a woman is being annoying and a guard announcing the trains at a train station is entirely polite to her. Williams goes into rather purple rhapsodies about the eternal value of his two words, "Yes, lady." Similarly, in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is ordered to desecrate a crucifix. He's an agnostic, so the symbol means nothing to him, and he can't figure out why he's being told to do it. His wicked employer Frost tells him that they have found this to be necessary to the training of people in their organization. Studdock finally says, "It's all nonsense, and I'm damned if I'll do any such thing." Lewis, of course, means the reader to realize that Studdock's words have far more literal meaning than he intends. Like Caiaphas, we all sometimes speak prophecy without knowing it, and everything means more than we can possibly realize.

But this creates a bit of a problem in its own right for imaginative types.

For if all the good things and all the bad things have vast, eternal meaning, what happens if there are more bad things going on in the world than good things? What right have I to comfort myself with the thought of that one smile exchanged between neighbors on the street (and perhaps now more than ever when it is almost a subversive act to let one's smile show when passing one's neighbor), that one eternal flower that blooms forever in the mind of God, the one evergreen act of courage, while not offsetting it with the thought of many acts of torture and destruction, the vast amounts of filth on the Internet, the souls hunted down, corrupted, and devoured, the suicides, the insane, the injustice? If they are also of infinite importance (and surely in one sense they are), who is to say which outweighs which in the eternal scales? What is the weight of my one little act of charity when there is so much bad in the world? And on this thought, the mind bows down, crushed with the weight of too much knowledge, the thought of too much darkness.

But then I remember St. Paul's statement that the sufferings of this present world are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. And I remember, too, that evil is a privation. And I remember that God is glorious beyond all the evil that man can do.

C.S. Lewis seems to have wrestled with this notion of "too much darkness" in his fiction. In Perelandra the Un-man tries to tell Ransom that the "real world" is the world of filth and darkness and that the courage of the saints and the innocence of children is as nothing in comparison. The scene is creepy, and one can tell that Lewis has really confronted this possibility. But the whole point is that the Un-man is a damned soul and is uttering the falsehoods of Satan. Why? Because ultimately, it just isn't true that that is a "greater reality." It's not, of course, that our sense of something wrong is an illusion. Rather, it's that the "something wrong" is a twisting of what is good, and what is good, the Good Himself, is over and above all the evil. This is true no matter how much evil rational creatures do and suffer. So in The Great Divorce, George McDonald tells Lewis (as a character in his own book) that one glorious, redeemed soul could not fit into Hell:

All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this worldthe Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swalled all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste....All loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell's miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.

Now there's a man who has truly rejected the dualism of two equal and opposite Powers (good and evil), ever-contending. But he has not rejected it without feeling its pull and the despair to which it leads. If God is just the "light side of the Force," we're all doomed. Thank God He isn't.

And so at the tag end of this dark year, I offer you a thrill of hope. No, it's not a vaccine. No, it's not anything of earth at all. And yet it affirms the flesh and promises a new heaven and a new earth. He makes all things new. There we shall see him, and each other, face to face. This is possible because the Word was made flesh, and the Virgin bore to men a Savior when half-spent was the night.

Merry Christmas!

(Cross-posted at What's Wrong With the World)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Some more notes on the census in Luke

The census in Luke 2 is a gigantic topic on which much ink has been spilled. I certainly had to deal with it in my series on the Virgin Birth, but I'm trying not to write a treatise! This post contains some extra notes on the subject that I didn't include in my recent video, in the interests of keeping the video streamlined and digestible. Here also is my recent debate with atheist Jonathan Pearce on the Unbelievable show.

In my Youtube  video about the census I make the following points:

1) Luke is an historical source in himself, at least as credible (based on track record) as Josephus. The fact that we have no other source for a census in Judea at this time is thus the merest argument from silence, and an especially poor one. Luke is giving us information. There is nothing about Luke's being a Christian author that makes him likely to be unreliable about a boring historical matter like a census. This point goes beyond saying that we should "give Luke the benefit of the doubt" based on his track record elsewhere, though that's true as well. The mere absence of a census in this time and place in the relatively meager set of non-biblical historical literature that we have for that time period does not constitute a strike of any significance against Luke. We can learn about this census from Luke.

2) It's outright false that Luke and Matthew contradict each other about when Jesus' birth took place, with only Matthew placing his birth at the time of Herod the Great. Luke says the same thing. (Luke 1:5)

3) Skeptics will say that Luke's census is improbable to the point of being historically impossible, even on its own terms. They are wrong about that, and they get there by insisting on an overly wooden reading of Luke and an exaggerated idea of what the census would have involved.

4) Skeptics will say that there is only one possible meaning of Luke's reference to Quirinius in connection with the census and that all other suggested translations are attempts by Christian apologists to wriggle out of admitting that Luke was wrong. They're wrong about that, too. What Luke says about Quirinius and "the first census" is genuinely difficult to translate and interpret, which is why there is legitimate scholarly debate about it.

Here I want to add a couple of points to #3 and #4.

Concerning #3, one claim that you will here is that Rome would never order a census (either for purposes of counting or for purposes of taxation) under a client king such as Herod the Great. This is a really strong claim, and there is little to back it up. It's mostly just an assertion, based on the fact that client kingdoms did have some measure of independence. But it's not as though we have a contemporary statement anywhere that the Romans would never meddle in taxation in a client kingdom or would never order a tally of the people in a client kingdom.

On the contrary, here is some evidence that Rome would sometimes do so: In the 30s A.D., as Tacitus tells us (Annals, Book VI, 41.1), a rather war-like tribe (the Cietae) residing in the Roman client kingdom of Cilicia was "pressed to conform with Roman usage by making a return of their property and submitting to a tribute." They were originally from the mountainous region of Cappadocia, and they retreated there and fought. The client king, named Archelaus, required the help of the Roman legions to defeat them. 

As it turns out, there were several rulers about in the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. named "Archelaus." This one (whom Tacitus calls "Archelaus of Cappadocia") was not the same person as the Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, whom I've mentioned elsewhere (see Matt. 2:22). Making things more confusing, the Archelaus ruling the client kingdom of Cilicia, mentioned by Tacitus, was also not the "Archelaus of Cappadocia" who had died about 17 years previously. That was his father, who actually did rule Cappadocia. (Are you confused yet?) I bring all this up because the atheist blogger Jonathan Pearce (who debated me on the Nativity) has claimed that the Biblical Archaeology Report has blundered horribly by mentioning this tribute/census of the Cietae as evidence that you could have Roman censuses in client kingdoms. Pearce assumes that they are referring to a census made in Cappadocia after it was no longer a client kingdom, when Archelaus of Cappadocia had already been dead for years. But he's mistaken. The requirement to "conform to Roman usage" was indeed made within a client kingdom, in the year A.D. 36, when that client kingdom was ruled over by a different "Archelaus of Cappadocia," the son of the one Pearce is thinking of, and (to make matters more confusing) the client kingdom in question was actually Cilicia rather than Cappadocia! The confusion over this obscure fact partly arose because the Biblical Archaeology Report cited a secondary source rather than citing Tacitus directly. I was lucky enough to find the Tacitus reference in this really fascinating article about the census by John Thorley (hat tip to Jason Engwer for recommending it), and I chased it down from there. (Note: You can get a free on-line account with JSTOR for independent scholars that lets you read up to 100 articles per month.)

This is a cautionary tale in a lot of ways: It illustrates the complexity of historical reality (always something skeptics and some Christian biblical scholars need to be reminded of). It illustrates the plausibility of theories that there were multiple people by the same name. (This comes up in discussing other supposed Gospel "errors.") In this case, Wikipedia even calls the Cietae a "Cappadocian tribe," which is confusing and interesting. How could there be a Cappadocian tribe in Cilicia? Well, you know, history is complicated! Anyway, all of this also illustrates the value of tracing things back to original sources.

And bringing us back to the argumentative point: We absolutely should not be doing a priori history about what "wouldn't ever happen" in a client kingdom. We should discover what it meant to be a "client kingdom" in regards to tribute, census, taxation, etc., by reading historical sources (including Luke). The phrase "client kingdom" isn't some kind of talisman that automatically entails the conclusion the skeptic is going for. That's not how history is done. So...yes, Rome under Augustus could certainly have ordered that a client kingdom (or maybe even several of them) must count their people, or their property-owning people. Herod would have had to agree to carry this out or to allow a designated Roman authority to carry it out. As Biblical Archaeology Report notes, Augustus ordered after Herod's death that Samaria didn't have to pay as much tax to Archelaus, Herod's son, because they hadn't joined in a revolt. Even though Archelaus was confirmed as a ruler under Rome and was supposed to have the tribute from the Samaritans himself, Caesar altered the amount. This is indirectly relevant in that it shows how Rome tweaked taxation under client rulers.

In fact, Thorley suggests that that is what Luke is saying when he says that "in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed [registered]." Thorley's idea is that this means that at that general time period Augustus decided to tell the various provinces on the edge of the Roman empire to register/count their inhabitants, this extension of census-taking to all parts of the Roman world being a new practice. Of course, there could be plenty of reasons for this. It would be useful for taxation, for one thing, even if some part of the tax went to the local client king. (Miller, link below, mentions the suggestion that Rome might have wanted to assess the region when a client king was getting older.) The story of the Cietae in Cilicia shows that this is not merely theoretical. A tribe in a client kingdom was required to make a tribute of a portion of their property according to Roman usage, which would have required that the property be counted, and the client ruler had to attempt to carry out this order. While Tacitus doesn't say whose idea this census was (it could in theory have been the idea of Archelaus II himself), he certainly doesn't say that it was not Rome's own idea, and the fact that the legions helped to enforce it certainly shows their involvement. For more on this tribe see Glenn Miller's extensive discussion here. I haven't even had time to read it all and therefore am not endorsing everything he says, but it contains a lot of information. (HT to Jason Engwer for the link.)

It's also worth pointing out that Herod's relationship with Augustus as a client king was not always strewn with hearts and flowers. Some time between 12 and 9 B.C., Herod fell into significant disgrace with Augustus over his treatment of the Nabateans. While he was supposedly reconciled to Augustus, such a reconciliation wouldn't have meant that they both forgot the recent unpleasantness, even if they were formally friends again by the time of Jesus' birth, Augustus had made it quite clear recently that he considered himself fully empowered to interfere in Herod's management of his affairs.

Rome had a passion for counting people, not to mention taxing them. Augustus proudly talks about several lustrum censuses he did, including one beginning in 8 B.C., and how many Roman citizens he counted in those censuses. I should clarify here something that I was not clear enough about in my debate with Pearce: In itself, a lustrum census was for purposes of counting Roman citizens, not all inhabitants per se. There doubtless were Roman citizens in Judea, but if the census at the time of Jesus' birth was related to the 8 B.C. lustrum as it came around to Syria, that would be an extension of its independently known purpose, since Joseph was probably not a Roman citizen. But as Thorley points out, that isn't in itself implausible.

Concerning #4, here are a couple more points (which may or may not have been covered in the video):

Skeptics insist that Luke must be saying that this census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria and that, moreover, he is saying that it was the 6 A. D. census. So there you go! Luke was wrong! Because Jesus wasn't born in 6 A.D.!

But that claim has all sorts of problems of its own. It runs afoul of Luke's clear assertion that John the Baptist was conceived during the time of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5). It runs afoul of Luke's clear knowledge of the 6 A.D. census at its own time period (Acts 5:37). It runs afoul of the fact that Luke has all kinds of definite indicators of the time of the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry and hence Jesus' ministry (Luke 3:1, 3:23), and that on these indicators Jesus would be much too young if Luke thought he was born in 6 A.D. In other words, it just doesn't make sense within Luke's own corpus as an interpretation of what Luke is saying about Quirinius and the census in 2:2. Whatever else is going on, that isn't what's going on. Even if one thinks Luke is incorrect here in some way, that isn't what he's saying just as a matter of interpretation of Luke.

Moreover, the skeptical interpretation leaves out the meaning of the word "first" in Luke 2:2. If all that Luke meant to say was that this was the census taken under Quirinius, the one and only, why didn't he just say, "This was the census made when Quirinius was governor of Syria," full stop? Why include that pesky word "first" (or whatever it should be translated as)? The skeptics apparently think it means "the first census in Judea," but that is far from being the only reasonable interpretation, even if we take "first" to be just an ordinary adjective modifying "census."

Let me also add: In order for us to be justified in thinking that Luke is accurate about the census (in particular), it isn't necessary for any one specific possibility to be probable. What is needed is for the disjunction to be probable--A or B or C. And given that each of these ideas does have some real plausibility (it isn't just barely logically possible), the probability of that disjunction is reasonably high. If one allows for Luke to be right that Jesus was born during a census or registration but wrong about the specific Roman governor/hegemon, through confusing two Roman names (see below), a minor error, then the probability of the disjunction is higher still. So when I mention in the video that this or that is possible, I am not saying either a) that being possible means being probable or b) that these are individually just barely possible. In fact, common sense shows us that many of these ideas that I've suggested about the nativity (such as Joseph's having a connection to Bethlehem stronger than just being descended from David) are entirely plausible, and they are the kind of thing that we invoke in ordinary life all the time to explain what someone says when we have incomplete information. Jonathan Pearce, my atheist opponent in my recent debate, repeatedly states that "apologists" invoke the idea that to be possible is to be probable. This misunderstands the entire point. Moreover, it's particularly ironic that he should repeat this criticism so often, since he himself invokes, and treats as highly probable, extremely implausible theories, such as the idea that Luke 1-2 were added to the Gospel later on or the idea that Luke is secretly trying to make a reference to Psalm 87:6 by making up/moving the census.

Thorley's suggestion, which I'm inclined to endorse as my "first line" of translation, is that Luke is saying that this was the first census (of two) made when Quirinius was "hegemon" of Syria. Again, that "first" has to mean something. We can't just leave it untranslated. Luke is trying to communicate something. I add, which Thorley doesn't talk about, that "hegemon" doesn't have to mean "governor" in the technical sense and that Quirinius could have been in charge of a census in Syria without being governor in the sense that Josephus talks about when he lists the governors. But Thorley, (refreshingly) taking Luke to be an historical source, also says that for all we know Luke is more accurate than Josephus here and knew of a short, earlier governorship of Quirinius wedged between those listed by Josephus, which is also possible.

There is some controversy over the suggested translation, "This census was made before Quirinius was governor of Syria," though it would certainly be a simple way to fit all the data together (always a good thing in an historical hypothesis). I find its simplicity attractive. That translation, by the way, would mean that Luke is particularly accurate here. Here is Daniel Wallace making a case against it. But N. T. Wright endorses it (Who Was Jesus? p. 89). (So did a whole roster of other scholars who were no slouches in Greek, including T.R. Birks. I owe this reference to Tim McGrew.) Maybe we should let Wallace and Wright duke it out on this one. In any event, the contemptuous skeptical dismissal of the "before" translation as a desperate apologetic expedient is unwarranted. It deserves consideration.

Another worthy contender is, "This enrollment was first completed (i.e., used) when Quirinius was governor of Syria."  This is Calvin’s suggestion, endorsed by Beard, Rawlinson, Edersheim, and numerous other scholars. As Paul Maier points out, it took forty years to complete a census in Gaul around this time, so it could well be that a count was made or begun in Judea before the death of Herod and that Quirinius only made use of it to collect tax in A.D. 6 when he came to clean up the mess after the death of Herod the Great's son, the tetrarch Archelaus. Luke 11:28, referring to a famine that at that time was merely predicted, uses the same Greek term (egeneto). Agabus predicts the famine, and Luke comments that it happened, came to pass, etc., under Claudius, in a future time. Similarly, Luke could be saying that this census came fully to fruition when Quirinius was governor of Syria, later on. (I owe information about this option to Tim McGrew.) It occurs to me that this could explain why there was a revolt later in A.D. 6 but not at this time, if this was the count and that was the taxation based on the count. This is just a conjecture but is worth throwing into the mix.

Thorley suggests that Luke may have been mistaken, but only in a narrow sense. Luke may indeed have said, "This was the first [of two] censuses made when Quirinius was governor of Syria," thinking that Quirinius was hegemon of Syria twice, based upon a mistaken memory or reading of the name Quinctilius, since the hapless P. Quinctilius Varus was, according to Josephus, governor of Syria around this time. That would indeed be an error on Luke's part, but a very limited and to some extent understandable one, and it certainly wouldn't at all mean that Luke invented the census. Indeed, Luke's very attempt to nail down the relationship of this census to the one that he knows about later under Quirinius shows an extremely Lukan concern for literal history.

In fact, the whole idea that Luke made up the census (or moved Jesus' birth to much later), as I point out in the video, is fairly absurd. It is using a steamroller to crack a nut. All that Luke had to do, if he wanted to "make" Jesus be born in Bethlehem contrary to fact, was to have Mary and Joseph start out in Bethlehem and later travel to Nazareth. There was no need for him to invent the idea that Mary was from Nazareth and that they had to travel from there, while she was pregnant, down to Bethlehem and then back to Nazareth. And to invent a Roman census for such a purpose would be a wildly exaggerated plot device. Luke's deliberately connecting it falsely with Quirinius and placing it at a date that is in great tension with all of Luke's own other date indicators is overwhelmingly implausible. Why do a thing like that? Luke didn't have to mention Quirinius at all if he was inventing a census out of thin air.

Luke shows not the slightest awareness of any Old Testament passage that is fulfilled by Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. He may or may not have known of Micah 5:2. I think it's a good principle not to attribute theological motives to the evangelists that they say nothing about. They generally aren't shy about mentioning OT parallels or fulfillments of prophecy, so why invent private intentions for which we have no textual evidence?

All of our evidence points to the conclusion that Luke sincerely believed what he said in Luke 2:1-2. And there are plenty of reasons to think that, as a reliable historian, Luke is telling us about a real census that really took place in Judea at the time, whether or not Quirinius was in charge of it. To say that we wouldn't think there had been such a census if it weren't for Luke is no real criticism. There are plenty of historical events that we wouldn't think happened if it weren't for the historical document (sometimes a single document) that mentions them! That's how history works.

Have a look at the video, and be sure to subscribe to my Youtube channel if you haven't already!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Aphorism for the day

 The legitimacy of historical harmonization rests on the observed complexity of reality.

Apropos of which, here's a Youtube video on reconcilable variation in the nativity stories.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

What I'm up to this Advent

 Sorry that there haven't been new posts here recently. I've begun occasionally posting again at What's Wrong With the World. Also, if you follow my public content on Facebook, you will see more of my links and thoughts. The one annoying thing is that Facebook now seems to be changing its algorithms, so even "following" may not be enough to see everything. You may need to "favorite" me as well to be sure not to miss anything.

I've gotten pulled into quite a bit of conversation about the Virgin Birth this Advent season. I've just started a Youtube series about the Virgin Birth, and the first video of that is out, here. Please consider subscribing to my Youtube channel and hitting the bell so that you get notifications. 

Recording on it may be somewhat slow, though, because I've agreed to a debate on the Virgin Birth and infancy narratives (I usually refuse debates), which will be recorded on December 11. Plus I'm indexing The Eye of the Beholder--a huge and rather boring task. I did an interview yesterday about some objections to the birth narratives. That link is here.

Triablogue has a roundup of some great resources on the veracity of the infancy accounts and the Virgin Birth. See that link roundup here. Jason Engwer has done some stalwart work there. Theological blogger Steve Hays of Triablogue passed away from cancer during 2020. He was a great soldier for the faith and is missed.

So a blessed Advent to everyone, and if you don't hear from me again for a while, a Merry Christmas.

By the way, I heard a new Gospel Christmas song on the radio yesterday that Mr. Google does not seem to know about. It was mostly about the lost sheep. Here, from memory, are a few fragments of the words:

"Mary gave birth to light." "...the darkness we mistook for the light." 


O what love the Good Shepherd has shown

To leave the ninety and nine

To go back for that one sheep, lost and alone.

I'm the one he came back to find.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Undesigned coincidences vs. Literary Devices (archived from May, 2018)

 (Originally posted at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at "permalink" below.)

Undesigned coincidences vs. Literary Devices on Bellator Christi [Updated]

[Update: I've decided to put into this post itself a list of some counterexamples to Licona's misleading claims about his, and others' positions. See below. These are also in the podcast on Bellator Christi.]

I had the privilege today to be on the Bellator Christi podcast with Brian Chilton discussing the contrast between the view of the Gospels supported by undesigned coincidences and that of the "literary device" theorists.

The link to the podcast is here. It was great fun being on the show and bringing these various strands together. These really are very different views of what kind of documents the Gospels are. I say this not because I start from an unargued assumption that the Gospels are artless, historical reportage but rather because this is what I find the Gospels to be upon investigation. Undesigned coincidences are just one portion of that argument. Brian was an excellent host, and we had a great conversation.

The podcast is a good introduction generally to undesigned coincidences, and the first good-sized segment of the show is devoted to that positive argument.

Brian introduced the discussion by mentioning the fact that the apologetics community is divided concerning the merit of the literary device theories. Brian mentioned that Tim Stratton has recently hosted a series of conversations with Michael Licona about his (Dr. Licona's) views and suggested that listeners give both sides a hearing.

Naturally, this doesn't mean that I was giving a point-by-point response to what Dr. Licona said in those interviews. For my detailed response to Dr. Licona's actual views, which he has not rebutted or confronted, please see the wrap-up post here of my series and browse from there to posts as your interest and time allow.

One point that I did want to reply to, though, is a completely incorrect characterization that Dr. Licona has made of the views that I (and Esteemed Husband, see here) are criticizing--those of himself, Craig Evans, and Dan Wallace, for example. At minute 23 and following here, in one of the interviews with Tim Stratton, Dr. Licona states that none of these evangelical scholars "who have become targets" (as he puts it) are saying that Jesus did not say the things reported in the Gospels but rather only suggesting that Jesus may not have used those words. They are, he says, saying that some of the reports in the Gospels might be a "loose paraphrase."

This is just false, and even a quick look at my wrap-up post will give examples to the contrary. I do reply to that point in this interview with Rev. Chilton. Please listen to the entire podcast, but that portion begins at about minute 31 in the podcast, here. Here are the counterexamples I give there:

--One idea promoted by scholars Dan Wallace and Mike Licona is that Jesus did not historically, at all, say, “I thirst” while he was on the cross. This isn’t just saying that he really said, “Please give me some water” instead but that there was nothing like that at all. Instead, he said, “My God, why have you forsaken me” and John changed that into “I thirst.” "I thirst" is not even a "loose paraphrase" of "My God, why have you forsaken me."

--Licona has argued (most recently in a debate with Bart Ehrman) that Jesus did not appear first to his male disciples in Jerusalem at all but rather first in Galilee and that Luke “moved” the first appearance to Jerusalem in his gospel for literary reasons. This is not just a matter of our not having Jesus' exact words, nor is it a loose paraphrase of something else. Indeed, this claim of "moving" itself calls into question the historicity of the entire Doubting Thomas scene, since John makes it quite clear that that occurred in Jerusalem before they went to Galilee, and Thomas would have been very unlikely to travel to Galilee if he hadn’t yet seen Jesus at all. This is part and parcel of Licona's theory that Luke "made" all of the resurrection appearances occur on one day rather than forty days.

--One theory, promoted by Craig Evans, is that Jesus never historically said “I am the light of the world” or “I am the bread of life.” Not because he used somewhat different words and said, “I am the lamp of the world” or something instead, but because these sayings didn’t occur historically at all. They were just dramatic portrayals by the “Johannine community” of their theological reflections on Jesus’ other teachings. See video for several minutes here. This is not just a matter of a loose paraphrase, much less of our not having Jesus' very words.

--Another idea, which Dr. Licona attributes to “many Johannine scholars,” is that Jesus would not have been as explicit about his deity as we find him being in John, and saying things like, “Before Abraham was, I am” or “I and the Father are one.” Instead, he just presented himself as God as we find him doing in Mark, by claiming to be able to forgive sins and do these other deeds, and John wrote up these other scenes, which didn’t really occur, in which Jesus makes these “more explicit” claims to deity for himself. See the argument Licona presents for that view here, particularly this statement: "Now, if Jesus was hesitant to announce publicly that He is the Messiah, we would not expect for Him to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting." Obviously, this is not just a matter of John's making a "loose paraphrase" of Jesus' historical words and deeds as we find them in Mark but rather of his inventing whole sayings and scenes in which Jesus claims to be God publicly and in such a relatively clear manner as reported in John.

I would like to emphasize again, in addition to what I said in the podcast with Brian, that these examples are not even "loose paraphrases." Jesus' saying, "I thirst" is not even a "loose paraphrase" of "My God, why have you forsaken me." And so forth.

One example I didn't mention in the podcast (but again, there are so many) to the contrary is Dr. Licona's own suggestion on pp. 180-181 of his Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? that John may have invented the scene in which Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Allegedly he did so in order to "weave mention" of Pentecost into his own Gospel, since he would not be writing about that event directly. (Were the many references to the coming of the Comforter in Jesus' words in John 14-16 not enough of a mention?) Obviously, if that event didn't happen at all, this is a great deal more than merely saying that Jesus may not have used those words! Nor is it even to say that we have a "loose paraphrase" of an historical teaching of Jesus in that real, historical context, where Jesus engaged in a real action (breathing on the disciples). It's an invention of an entire incident.

If we are going to discuss these matters intelligently and with care, it's very important that we be clear about what we're discussing. It is extremely unhelpful for Dr. Licona or anyone else to suggest that these are mere matters of verbal changes or paraphrase or even "loose" paraphrase. When entire sayings of Jesus or events in Jesus' life are said not to have occurred historically at all, these do not turn into "paraphrases" of something else merely because we say that these invented events are true to the general meaning or spirit of Jesus' completely different teaching or self-presentation in other events. That is simply not what is meant by any sort of "paraphrase." And that is aside from all of the alleged literary devices in which other factual matters besides Jesus' words are changed.

Those considering these matters, both scholars and laymen, should not be chivvied by way of a false dilemma. The false dilemma is the insinuation that either you are opposed to reasonable paraphrase such as what can occur in real, literal historical reportage or else you must adopt the theories of Licona, Evans, et. al., including those "many Johannine scholars" that Dr. Licona keeps talking about who think that the real Jesus would not have claimed to be God in such a clear and public manner as we find John reporting. (See Dr. Licona's own characterization of that argument in those terms to the effect that Jesus would not have claimed to be God in such a clear and public manner, here.) That is not a paraphrase view. That is an outright dehistoricization of Jesus' unique Johannine claims to deity.

We must be clear, and I think that once we are clear, it will become evident that these questions are worth looking into. They are not just trivial differences of opinion. Do the results of scholarship really force us to believe that the Gospels are like bio-pics, including made-up dialogue, made-up scenes, and factually altered events? I have argued, in detail, that there is no such evidence--not from Plutarch and not from the Gospels themselves. And there is much evidence to the contrary. That argument has not been answered. Again, I strongly urge those who are interested to look into these matters for themselves.