Thursday, October 12, 2017

All is not well in Russia

We pause in our usual programing to bring you this blast from the Soviet past: Russian government frames dissidents to punish for embarrassing revelations.

In case you were wondering what to do the next time you meet a Russophile "conservative" who tells you how great Vladimir Putin is, the answer is

back away slowly and then run.

Monday, October 09, 2017

On Roman history "literary devices"

I have a new, long post at W4 on some examples discussed by Mike Licona from Plutarch and one from Tacitus. I know it's long, and some readers may prefer to sample it rather than reading the whole thing, which is entirely understandable. It's interesting that it takes far fewer words to claim that there is a discrepancy and a fictionalizing "literary device" than to respond to such a claim.

I will be somewhat curious to see whether Licona or someone else on his behalf attempts to respond to the substance of the post, offering specific answers to the arguments made.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Rob Bowman on the "I Am" sayings

Here is an excellent contribution on the historicity of the "I Am" sayings by Rob Bowman. I would especially draw attention to reasons 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 9 in rebuttal to doubts about the historicity of these parts of John. Some of these I had not thought of explicitly before, particularly reasons 3 and 4.

I have only two caveats, which should not be allowed to obscure the many interesting arguments. I myself would not make a hat-tip to Richard Burridge, or to the supposed discovery that the gospels "are Greco-Roman bioi." I have serious doubts about the strength of the arguments for that thesis.

Second, while I very much appreciate Rob's attempt to distinguish a legitimate from a "too loose" sense of the phrase "ipsissima vox" in New Testament studies, I'm inclined to think that the phrase is an unnecessary technical term and is now causing more confusion than enlightenment. Indeed, in the hands of Craig Evans it is being used as a vehicle for a false dichotomy--either you don't allow for the possibility that, say, Jesus' words were originally uttered in Aramaic and hence not in Greek as in the Gospels, that they had to be translated, or you think that some saying attributed to Jesus might well have never been uttered by him in anything like the form we find it, that the form we find it is a mere elaborative exposition upon some completely different incident as found in the synoptics. If the former is "ipsissima verba" and the latter is taken to be "ipsissima vox," then this is obviously using "ipsissima vox" in what Rob rightly calls a "too loose" sense. But that sense appears to be increasingly common even in evangelical New Testament studies, which means that the phrase carries a false air of technical precision while actually being radically ambiguous. So we might as well do without it. But that's just my opinion on a terminological issue.

Lots of good arguments here, so enjoy the piece.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Response to Licona

Dr. Michael Licona has posted the current version of a response to my remarks here. A fair bit of it is assertion without argument, but there are some points I would like to discuss and reply to. (I should mention that McAfee Site Adviser gives a "medium" risky rating to the Risen Jesus site. It's difficult to say precisely why. Eventually, after a number of other people had reported going to the link without ill effect, I clicked through anyway and have not seen any resulting problem. I mention the point for readers who might want to know.)

I will say little about the notable alteration Licona's post underwent between the time that he provided the link in comments and its current incarnation. A big part of the difference consists in cutting out tediously, strenuously repeated assertions to the effect that I, having merely a degree in English literature, am unqualified even to address the subject on which Licona and I disagree. Since I find credentialism boring in the extreme, I will strongly urge readers to remember that the ideas and the arguments are the thing, not who said them. I will also urge readers to believe that they both can and should (if they're interested in this topic at all and consider it important) make their own judgements on the level of detail rather than just picking a person and hitching their wagon to that person's star on the basis of bare authority. I would say the same for myself as for anyone else. Check out my arguments. Don't believe whatever I say because you respect me or think I have good credentials. I have collected in the second update to this post (scroll down) links to all of my previous posts thus far on Licona's views. More are in the works. Please read and think for yourself.

On the issue of credentials, the only point I will make here in favor of my own credentials is to draw attention to my extensive work in professional analytic philosophy and in particular the analysis of evidence, arguments, and probability. If interested, one can view a list of recent peer-reviewed philosophy publications under the "articles" heading here. While that is not the same thing as the highly specific credentials that Licona has chosen to demand for worthiness to draw one's own conclusions on these topics (or at least worthiness to disagree with his positions), it seems somewhat relevant. I am guessing that perhaps Licona has been unaware that I'm academically speaking more a probability theorist and epistemologist than anything else.

If an entire field is fairly badly messed up (as we have reason to believe is the case, sadly, for New Testament studies), it is most likely that those who are able and willing to say that the Emperor has no clothes will be "outsiders," not part of the guild. If the guild of New Testament studies is to be protected from outside criticism, that is a recipe for a self-affirming mutual congratulation society, which others are not allowed to challenge because they lack the Secret Knowledge. I suggest instead that we look at the arguments and see whether they hold up or not.

A note on the question of whether at any time in this exchange I have misrepresented Dr. Licona. I stand by what I have already said in my response to that accusation (Update 1). In his most recent post, Licona (oddly enough) actually incorporates the argument in which he appears at first to argue in his own voice that "we would not expect for Jesus to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting"--in other words, that Jesus claimed to be God only implicitly, as in the synoptics, but not more clearly, as in John. In fact, he even adds a new "argument" for it--namely, the weak interpretation of the statement that Jesus "did not teach them without a parable" (Matthew 13:34-35) as a supposed "suggestion" that Jesus wouldn't have taught his deity as clearly as he does in John. Is it really necessary to point out that such a statement, which can well be interpreted to concern a particular set of Jesus' discourses, can only be stretched by a kind of bizarre woodenness to mean that Jesus literally did not teach any doctrine explicitly in public? Jesus even teaches things explicitly in public in Matthew itself! And if the argument is that we are to suspect John of making up Jesus' clear claims to deity as "elaborations upon" nothing more explicit than we find in the synoptics, on the grounds that we don't find parables in John, how exactly is that argument supposed to go? Why should we think a thing like that? The parables were already available in the synoptics, and John would probably have known that they were there. There was no need for him to repeat them, and indeed it makes sense that he would instead provide discourses and statements that the synoptic authors had not included. These arguments against John's (real, normal) accuracy are extremely poor.

But now, after offering fairly extensive argument that Jesus didn't and wouldn't declare his deity as clearly as he does in John, Licona goes on and disavows the idea that these arguments actually represent his own views, since he claims utter agnosticism on the subject. This disclaimer was certainly not available initially. Licona's statement in his initial comment, made only after laying out arguments apparently in his own voice, that "those are just some of the reasons why scholars see John adapting Jesus’ teachings" appeared in its original context to be an attempt to muster the opinion of "scholars" to bolster his own argument for his own view as just given. (This invocation of "scholars" to back up his own views is something Licona does quite often, so it was hardly surprising to see him apparently doing so there.)

I'm quite surprised at Licona's new complaint that my original piece "border[ed] on deceit" when I said this,
Jesus’ claims to deity are, to put it mildly, important, and so people should know when scholars think he didn’t make them.
Licona's complaint, apparently, is that the argument he meant to represent (from which he is now partially distancing himself) against the "I am" statements merely denies that Jesus made the statements claiming deity recorded in John, but that he himself believes that Jesus did consider himself to be God and made (at least) statements such as those recorded in the synoptics claiming the prerogatives of Godhood. Evans's comments at least leave open the possibility that those synoptic statements (such as Jesus' claim in Mark to have power to forgive sins) are historical, and indeed Evans seems to have more positive things to say about the historical accuracy of the synoptics than of John.

I would never throw around willy-nilly the claim that my words have been taken out of context, but this objection to my original piece, going so far as to use the phrase "borders on deceit," is ridiculous, based on a fairly blatant ripping of the sentence out of context. In that original piece alone, not even counting the update, I used the phrase "in John" to describe the claims to deity in question four times. I repeatedly there use terms like "explicit" and its cognates and "overtly" and "publicly" to describe the statements in question being denied literal historicity. I keep referring over and over again to "the I am" statements. It would be clear to any even moderately attentive reader that those statements constitute the referent of "them" in the phrase "didn't make them," to which Licona objects so sharply.

Moreover, speaking as an epistemologist, I can say definitely that removing Jesus' clearest claims to deity precisely because they are his clearest (as the argument Licona represented from "scholars" does) significantly weakens the historical case for saying that Jesus claimed to be God. You cannot delete the historicity of Jesus' clearest claims, considering them elaborations on his more cryptic claims, calling them merely "'he is' confessions of the Johannine community," and not have a notably weaker case for the deity of Jesus. Cumulative cases depend on their instances and on the force of those instances, and these are some very important instances, epistemically speaking. Indeed, it shouldn't take an epistemologist to see that. And that is also part of the thrust of the sentence Licona objects to.

I have never said anything about Licona's views or Evans's views that "borders on deceit," and I utterly repudiate that accusation.

Licona himself now claims agnosticism on whether Jesus very clearly claimed to be God as portrayed in John, so we'll go on from that point.

I want to address Licona's oddly truncated summary of the views of Craig Evans. Licona says that he "wouldn't go as far as" Evans, though one is forced to wonder why not, given how reasonable Licona makes them sound! Summarizing Evans's conversation with Bart Ehrman, Licona says,

In the video, Ehrman asks Evans if he thinks Jesus actually uttered the “I am . . .” statements in John’s Gospel. Evans answered that most of them were probably not uttered as recorded and that John was probably of a genre different than the other Gospels. Yet, he adds, “John is studded with historical details” and goes on to say, “Bart, I object to saying it’s not historically accurate.”
Licona then patronizingly suggests that it is only his "conservative brothers and sisters in Christ" who will "experience some discomfort" at Evans's statements. Yet he himself "wouldn't go as far as" Evans, he says in another paragraph. Does he still experience some of that apparently irrational "conservative discomfort"? Or what?

Perhaps we will understand better why anyone who thinks the historical reliability of John is important would be concerned by Evans's comments, regardless of whether the "conservative" label applies to that person or not, if we eschew Licona's cherry picking and instead look at more length at what Evans actually said. I strongly, strongly urge that if you're interested in this, you watch Evans and Ehrman talking. Evans has plenty of opportunities to make himself clear, and he is utterly explicit. Consider, for example, those "historical details" with which, Licona says, Evans says the Gospel of John is "studded." Actually, Evans brings those up only to contrast the overall historical accuracy of John with that of the synoptics, raising those details only to downgrade them to mere "nuggets" of historicity in the midst of John, a gospel he likens explicitly in the discussion to a "parable" or to allegory.

My view is the gospel of John is a horse of another color altogether. It’s a different genre. John is often compared to the wisdom literature. It’s like Wisdom is personified. Chokhmah, lady Wisdom, or in Greek, Sophia. She wanders the streets. She calls out to people, she does things. Well, nobody would read that and think, “Oh, did you see Wisdom going down the street the other day.” Nobody would think that is a literal person. What is mysterious to me about John is that once you say that and say, “Okay, perhaps we should interpret the ‘I am’ statements as ‘He is’ confessions – ‘He is the light of the world,’ ‘He is the way, truth, and the life’, ‘He is the bread of life,’” a confession of the Johannine community that likely generated that version of the Gospel – About the time you think John is a gigantic parable, then along comes a scholar who says, “Y’know, it’s loaded with historical details, also.” And so that’s what makes John so tricky. There is a Society of Biblical Literature section devoted to John and the historical Jesus chaired by a scholar named Paul Anderson. So that’s probably more [of an] answer than you want. So, I don’t disagree with you too much on that point. I think John is studded with historical details. Maybe you called them nuggets. That’s not a bad way of describing John. But I think the synoptics are more than just some nuggets.

So he doesn't disagree with Bart Ehrman too much on this point, and he explicitly praises Ehrman's deliberately dismissive term "nuggets" to describe those inconvenient true historical details in John.

What about the place where Evans objects to calling the Gospel of John historically inaccurate? Well, Evans expands upon what he means, which (he indicates) is that the concept of historical accuracy does not apply to the Gospel of John (after all, it's a "horse of another color altogether"), because it is like a parable! Ehrman has just referred to "toss[ing] out John." Evans replies,

I’m not tossing John out. And by the way, Bart, I object to saying it’s not historically accurate. Well, if something that isn’t...isn’t exactly historical, how is it not historically accurate? It’d be like saying “You mean the parable, the parable was a fiction Jesus told? It’s not historically accurate?”
That is Evans's answer to the accusation that John, on his view, is not historically accurate--that the complaint is a category error, not that John is historically accurate memoir/history.

Again, I cannot urge you too strongly to watch the video for yourself. Evans himself makes points about John as a whole and sets his comments about the "I Am" statements within a larger view of John that is extremely dismissive from the point of view of historical reliability. One need not even merely infer such a view of John from Evans's comments about the "I Am" statements. He makes it explicit. Any attempt to create confusion on the scope and nature of what Evans says, at this point, is obfuscation, and it is obfuscation that cannot begin to pass muster with Evans's comments right out there in front of us, available for anyone to see, and quite clear.

But enough of Evans for the moment. Back to Licona's response.
What I mean by misjudging others is that some folks who have not spent years looking at these matters might be concerned that many evangelical scholars have lost their way using historical criticism and that there ought to be a “clean house.” But consider the unintended consequences of this proposal. Many of conservative Christianity’s finest New Testament scholars would find themselves out of work. Take Craig Keener, for example. He has spent far more time studying the Gospel of John than perhaps everyone reading this post combined. Keener is one of the most informed and honest scholars I know. He is also one who models Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount more closely than almost anyone I know. He walks with God while being committed to scholarship of the highest level. So, if some evangelicals wish to “clean house” in their community then Keener would find himself out on the street. What a loss that would be for that community!

Licona gives an extreme interpretation to the phrase "clean house," applied to biblical studies, which a commentator on Facebook used. For a person so focused on "literary devices," Licona is quite wooden when understanding a manner of speaking like "clean house." He implies, for example, that anyone who holds any incorrect views in the neighborhood of his own views would have to be fired from whatever job he holds and would then be "out on the street" if the evangelical world were to engage in a "house cleaning" in the area of biblical studies. Surely this is a rather extreme notion of "cleaning house." Would it not be possible to refute those views, perhaps even to convince the scholars in question to change their minds? Would it not be possible even for institutions to make distinctions between and among people on the basis of the degree of wrongness and number of seriously incorrect views they hold? Might it not happen, depending on where the person in question worked, only that such a person's views on a particular topic were refuted and then not widely believed anymore if the evangelical world engaged in a "house cleaning"? I would take a phrase like "cleaning house" to refer to ideas more directly than to persons. Further, the invocation of Craig Keener's personal holiness seems quite out of place in a scholarly debate, as I'm sure Dr. Keener would be the first to agree. Let's keep the ad hominems, whether positive or negative, out of it and talk about truth and arguments. In any event, this is supposedly an answer to me, and I have never at any time in this debate called for anyone to be thrown out of his job, much less out onto the streets, so I think we can easily stick to the arguments.

After this post, I for one intend to go back to working on a post on some of Licona's Roman examples, which will later be followed by further discussion of his gospel examples. In other words, I'm just carrying on with making arguments about specifics, not with arguing about either credentials or people or who should have what job where.

When Licona gives the argument that Jesus did not explicitly (but only implicitly, as in the synoptics) claim to be God (an argument from which he now wishes to distance himself to some extent) he emphatically states that, even if this were the case, "By no means does this mean that John is historically unreliable." Similarly, later in his post, he objects to my use of the phrase "factually crappy gospels" for what this degree of fictionalization would demote the gospels to. Says Licona, allegedly summarizing me:

As a result, she makes erroneous assertions that a number of evangelical New Testament scholars think “God gave us factually crappy gospels” and that it is “no big deal if we are left with only a poor and unreliable record in John of what Jesus taught about one of the most important truths in the world—that Jesus is God.” This is hardly the truth.
I introduced the phrase "if God gave us factually crappy gospels" with the phrase, "what it comes to is," so let me clarify here with an analogy: Does Lois Lane think that she is in love with Clark Kent? No, because she doesn't believe that Superman is Clark Kent. But in fact, Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. Similarly, attributing even the degree of fictionalization that Licona argues for in his book, and a fortiori the degree of fictionalization that Evans is endorsing in the video discussed above, amounts to turning the gospels into factually unreliable history, whether Evans and Licona think/admit to themselves that it does or not. In fact, I included the word "factually" in the phrase quite deliberately. Their theories entail that we cannot tell when the gospels are fictionalizing on the level of empirical and literal facts--e.g., when writing up an incident (a la Evans) in which Jesus explicitly claims to be God, publicly, and the Jews try to stone him, all of which must not have happened if these explicit claims to deity were merely confessional elaborations by the "Johannine community" of the entirely different incidents and statements, or ones like them, recorded in the synoptics.

Here a quotation from Licona's own recent book is relevant:
John often chose to sacrifice accuracy on the ground level of precise reporting, preferring to provide his readers with an accurate, higher-level view of the person and mission of Jesus. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 115

Note the word "often" there. This is not just saying that John occasionally "sacrificed" accuracy "on the ground level of precise reporting." It's saying that he often did so. Licona in this response to me makes a similar statement, but somewhat confusingly, he drops both the qualifier "often" and "on the ground level of precise reporting."
 They wrote accurate accounts of Jesus and, to different degrees, wrote with literary artistry that sometimes sacrificed precision in order to communicate points more clearly and to bring out the even deeper meanings behind them.  
The distinction between accuracy "at the ground level" and "accuracy" merely at the level of some higher-level, theological truth is clearer in the quotation from the book. What Licona is not saying is that John was scrupulous about literal, factual accuracy in what Licona himself disdains as a purely modern sense of that word, apparently (according to his recent response to me) first widely accepted only in the 19th century. (A point I'll return to momentarily.) He's saying just the opposite, and in  his book he applies the notion of license to the synoptics as well. In the quotation from p. 115 he is saying that John in particular considered himself licensed to sacrifice that kind of factual accuracy for other reasons and even did so often.

At that point, I say without the slightest hesitation that this is, de facto, turning the gospels into factually unreliable history. Licona prefers his own euphemisms and ways of talking and thinking about the matter, but others are not obligated to adopt those euphemisms and those evaluations of his views and their implications in order to be understanding and representing him accurately. Others are free to think that Superman is Clark Kent and therefore that Lois Lane, unbeknownst to her, is in love with the man who is Clark Kent--that is, that Licona and Evans are advocating the view that the gospels are factually unreliable history even if they do not think that the gospels, as they picture them, are what they would choose to call factually unreliable history.

Licona says,

And why require the Gospels to have been written using literary conventions for historical reporting that were not generally accepted until the nineteenth century while eschewing attempts to understand them within the cultural and literary context of their own day?

The sweeping idea that trying to tell literal, factual truth in putatively historical work, with the intention of being believed by one's audience, is itself a "literary convention" (that not using fictionalizing literary conventions is a literary convention) would come as a surprise to a great many people writing and living before the 19th century.

Here it is appropriate to quote Colin Hemer on the subject of the genre of Luke, as I did in an earlier post:
It is my contention that one of the inevitable questions posed as a result of the document [Luke's gospel] was whether it really happened. Ancient biography, no less than ancient historiography, may need to serve as a historical source. The question here is whether the work is a good source. And it needs to be measured by the stricter rather than the laxer measure. Rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke's world: Luke must be judged by his performance rather than on the slippery ground of parallels. (Hemer, pp. 93-94, hardcover edition published by J.C.B. Mohr, emphasis added)

Hemer's statement that rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke's world, and his sensible point that, if we are going to use Luke as a source, we need to ask whether he is a reliable source in the ordinary sense, runs quite contrary to Licona's implication that it is anachronistic to apply such standards to Luke because they were so little understood and accepted in the "cultural context" of Luke's day. I have found repeatedly that the 19th century is a sort of mythic age to which scholars relegate sensible ideas they wish to dismiss, against which they have no better arguments.

At this point I would like to turn to my statement, which I stand by, that Licona in his book hypothesizes that John might have made up the Doubting Thomas sequence. The passage in question, which Licona himself quotes in his reply to me, runs like this, from pp. 177-78 of his recent book.

Moreover, with Judas now dead, there were eleven main disciples. Thus Luke 24:33 can speak of Jesus’s first appearance to a group of his male disciples as including “the eleven and those with them.” However, John 20:19–24 tells us Thomas was absent during that event. Thus, only ten of the main disciples would have been present. Accordingly, either Luke conflated the first and second appearances to the male disciples, or John crafted the second appearance in order to rebuke those who, like Thomas, heard about Jesus’s resurrection and failed to believe. Some have sug­gested that the “eleven” may have been a way of referring to the core of the apostolic body. However, while scholars generally agree that “the Twelve” became a nickname for Jesus’s main disciples (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:5), there is no indication that “the eleven” was ever used in a similar sense. Thus, it seems more probable in this instance that Luke has conflated the first and second appearances of Jesus to his male disciples.

The most striking point here is not the fact that Licona somewhat weakly comes down on the side of fictionalization by Luke rather than by John ("it seems more probable in this instance that Luke has conflated...") but rather the high antecedent probability he implicitly grants to the hypothesis that John invented the entire Doubting Thomas sequence. He treats it as one of only two theories that are real contenders, both of them fictionalization theories, and he gives it a higher status than the more reasonable and simple idea that, by the time Luke was written, the phrase "the eleven" was a name for a group rather than a counting noun. The latter gets very short shrift. It isn't included as a live possibility at all when Licona states positively that either John or Luke has fictionalized. The idea about the meaning of "the eleven" is held hostage to fairly strict standards, much stricter than those applied to the theory that John invented Doubting Thomas. Apparently Licona is looking for some place where the term "the eleven" is used when we know independently that fewer disciples were present. But it's hard to know how he'd recognize such a case when he dismisses the case in question, which appears to be just such an instance!

My problem here is the obvious overestimate of the probability of John's making up an entire incident, together with the comparative underestimate of simpler theories. Perhaps this arises from Licona's conviction that John often sacrifices accuracy--in this case it would be sacrificing it to the point of making up an entire incident altogether. If Licona thinks in any meaningful sense at all that we have independent reason to think that John is historically reliable (!), as opposed to merely writing a heavily fictionalized story "based on" the events of Jesus' life, why would he give such apparently high probability to John's making up the entire Doubting Thomas sequence? Once again, this casts doubt on the assertion that nobody among respected evangelical NT scholars is questioning the gospels' historical reliability. Moreover, the idea that John would have made up such an incident out of whole cloth is quite improbable given John's own evident sense of the importance of the events related and his repeated assertions of his own truthfulness as an eyewitness. These are historical, not per se theological, considerations.

If Licona replies that he is trying to be a scrupulous historian and thus consider "all possibilities," we should first point out that one can't literally consider all possibilities. One considers those that are plausible, and Licona rhetorically boosts the plausibility of the idea that John might have made up an entire important episode. We should also notice the complete absence of another highly plausible, simple hypothesis--namely, that Luke simply hadn't been told by his human sources that Thomas wasn't present on this first occasion! Why run after a highly dubious theory that John made up the entire Doubting Thomas episode and make that one of your only two live options when this other, far more probable, option exists? Nor can this be said to be what Licona means by Luke's "conflating" the two episodes, for no such thing is required in the theory I'm bringing up. Luke need not have been writing of two different episodes as though they were one. He could be writing about the very same episode that John recounts as Jesus' first appearance but simply not have known that there were ten rather than eleven main disciples there at the time. Perhaps he was told that "the apostles" were there but not the exact number, and reasonably concluded that all eleven were there. Look ma, no fictionalization needed. Either this hypothesis or the idea about the generic meaning of "the eleven" would be more probable than either of the complex fictionalization theories that Licona treats as his either/or options. Licona opts in the end for the idea that Luke deliberately writes of two different episodes (the second being the instance where Thomas is invited to put his hand in Jesus' side) as if they were one. ("Conflation," as explained in Licona's book, involves deliberately writing of two or more episodes as if they were only one.)

This sort of weak reasoning is rampant in Licona's book and in his lectures and writings. He repeatedly treats fictionalization theories as either plausible candidates or as conclusions for virtually no reason at all, dragging them in utterly unnecessarily when far more common explanations for the stories, explanations we see operating all the time in daily life, exist and would fully account for the evidence. I object to this because it is poor historical argumentation.

Strangely enough, Licona states that "some of Lydia's criticisms might have been avoided" by attending to this passage from his book, which he quotes from p.119:

My proposed solutions are tentative. Others have offered different solutions. Some New Testament scholars may prefer to view some of the differences as resulting from an evangelist redacting the tradition in order to make a theological point rather than seeing the use of a compositional device. Such an approach may sometimes be preferable. In these pericopes, I am primarily attempting to view the differences in light of compositional devices to see if a greater understanding of what lays behind the differences may be obtained in some instances.

This is not particularly enlightening. I had certainly read those sentences and noted them. I have spent many hours reading and indeed studying Licona's book in detail. But they do not address any of my criticisms. In fact, I note that in this very passage Licona's two suggested possibilities are that the evangelists "redacted the tradition" to make a theological point and that they engaged in (often fictionalizing, as he discusses in the examples) "compositional devices."  So either they are fictionalizing for theological reasons or are doing so for literary reasons. How is any "tentativeness" in that context supposed to answer objections to the hypothesis that they engaged in such deliberate alterations of fact?

Perhaps merely the statement "my proposed solutions are tentative" is supposed to allay all concerns. But Licona obviously did not write an entire book arguing that these compositional devices which he thinks he's found in Plutarch (several of which he defines in explicit terms that entail fictionalization) are enlightening about the gospels if he were merely tentatively concluding that the gospels do use such devices! On the contrary, he is wont to lecture readers patronizingly, as in his conclusion to the book, that they need to lump it and like it that the gospel authors did do so. They need to treat their resulting "discomfort" as their own problem:
Fortunately, historical nearsightedness can be corrected with the proper glasses. We craft the proper lenses by reading a significant amount of literature from the period, which improves our understanding of the genre to which the Gospels belong. Like anyone who begins to wear glasses, some initial discomfort and adjusting will occur. But a truly high view of the Gospels as holy writ requires us to accept and respect them as God has given them to us rather than to force them into a frame shaped by how we think he should have. (p. 201)
On that same page he states that a "large majority of the differences [between the gospels] can quite easily and rightly be appreciated and/or resolved in light of the literary conventions of ancient biography and history writing."

Licona is not always tentative even about his individual conclusions. For example, in the case of the Doubting Thomas scenario, he is quite sure that either John fictionalized (by making up the entire sequence) or that Luke did (by deliberately mashing together two different appearances of Jesus). Similarly, he expressly states that "we have previously observed how either Mark or John changed the day when the woman anointed Jesus" (pp. 163-164), which again does not amount to being tentative about whether chronological fictionalization has taken place. Nor are these the only instances where he does not restrict himself to saying that something "may" be the case, and in other cases where he does use a word like "may," the rhetorical emphasis is quite strongly in favor of the suggested "device," with no non-fictionalizing theory considered equally seriously. In general, Licona is quite confident, not tentative, about the wide applicability of fictionalizing literary devices in the gospels. So by no means does a general statement that "my solutions are tentative" have any real relevance to the debate between us.

Onward to the motive Licona ascribes to me for objecting to his treatment of the Doubting Thomas incident. Licona, rather to my surprise, appears to have me confused with someone else. He thinks that I object because of theological commitments.
For her, John could not have done this. Why not? Apparently, because God would not have allowed it in the process of divine inspiration.
As already pointed out, my objections to Licona's treatment of these passages are evidential. See above for more. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the "process of divine inspiration." Elsewhere in his response, Licona spends a fair bit of time talking about how he is an historian and therefore "cannot bring a theological conviction that the Bible is God’s infallible Word to that investigation." By its inclusion in his response to me, I infer that this, also, is supposed to have something to do with my position, and it fits with Licona's attribution to me of a motive related to a theory of the "process of divine inspiration."

Licona’s attempts to categorize me conveniently as a die-hard fundamentalist inerrantist are as blatant as they are misguided. The label will not fit at all. Had he carefully read my previous critiques of his work (see update 2 here for a set of links), he would know that I repeatedly have disavowed holding to inerrancy. In fact, quite to the contrary, I have said that it would be better (in two senses) for Licona himself to be more willing than he appears to be to consider quite common things such as minor memory error, lack of information, misunderstanding, or remembering things differently on the part of the evangelists. Better both in the sense of being less historically corrosive and in the sense of being more probable

As the old saying goes, when you see hoof prints, think horses, not zebras. If a garden-variety human event like “Luke was not informed of Thomas’s absence and wrote on the understandable assumption that eleven disciples were present on a given occasion” will account quite easily for a difference in the accounts, there is no need to bring up either the theory that John made up the entire Doubting Thomas sequence or the theory that Luke engaged in an elaborate “literary device” of deliberately writing as though two appearances of Jesus were only one appearance.

On p. 150 (and again on pp. 164 and 191) when discussing when Jesus was anointed in Passion Week, Licona is quite definite that either John or Mark deliberately fictionalized the chronology for some special reason or other--either symbolic, or to tie the event more closely to the raising of Lazarus. He literally does not even bring up for a moment the possibility that either evangelist made a minor good-faith error about what day the anointing occurred on. Yet I consider that to be entirely plausible, especially since Jesus apparently went out to sleep and presumably eat at Bethany on several different evenings just before and during Passion Week. Which of us gives the greater appearance of going to extreme lengths to avoid attributing garden-variety error to the evangelists, or even contemplating the possibility? (Though I should add that Licona also often jumps to the conclusion that Plutarch has deliberately fictionalized when Plutarch's making an error or relying on at least one source that was in error would be a simpler explanation. Still, Licona occasionally attributes genuine, good faith error to Plutarch but virtually never does so for the evangelists.) 

As I pointed out above, Licona frequently drags in "literary artistry" and "compositional devices" entirely unnecessarily. A particularly egregious example, which I will probably write at more length about in a later post, is Licona's out-of-nowhere idea that Jesus never said "I thirst" on the cross but instead said, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me." (p. 166) "I thirst," Licona says, is a "dynamic equivalent transformation" for the completely different phrase in Mark. A perfectly sensible question is, "Why in the world couldn't Jesus have said both?" There is not even any need here for what one would normally call harmonization, since there is not even an apparent discrepancy between Jesus' two utterances! They just appear to be entirely different utterances, and there is not the slightest reason to think that "I thirst" was anything but a human expression of his sufferings on the cross, including dehydration--a major feature of crucifixion after brutal flogging. Why would one think otherwise? Licona seems to think that the use of thirst as a metaphor for spiritual lack elsewhere in John, together with the occurrences of the statements at approximately the same point in the crucifixion, is sufficient! The common sense point that Jesus' using water and thirst as spiritual metaphors elsewhere hardly precludes his suffering and expressing real thirst while dying on the cross does not seem to have weighed much in Licona's calculations. From the fact that Jesus sometimes used water as a spiritual metaphor are we to conclude that he was never really thirsty or never mentioned it?

I note in passing how foggy, un-knowable, and inhuman a figure Jesus becomes when we apply fictionalization theories so readily, in contrast to the highly concrete and vivid character the gospels actually give us.

This is what I mean by poor reasoning and dragging in extraneous literary "explanations" of things that are far more simply explained.

As I said in the Q and A of a recent talk, I use my imagination and take harmonization very seriously because I consider it good historical practice, based on what we actually find in testimony and in human experience, not because of theological assumptions. I would do the same for Plutarch, by the way. But sometimes it's hard to see why one should even call the obvious rejoinders to New Testament scholars' strange theories "harmonizations," as there is not even a discrepancy to harmonize.

For another example of creating a problem where none exists from Richard Burridge, concerning the nickname "Peter" for Simon, see my post here. Similarly, Evans's idea that the "Johannine community" wrote Jesus' clear statements to deity as theological elaborations upon and reworkings of the doctrine found less clearly in the synoptics (or perhaps in otherwise unrecorded teachings) is an utterly unforced error. There isn't even any discrepancy to harmonize! There is no discrepancy between Jesus' claiming to have the power to forgive sins at the healing of the lame man in Mark and his claiming "Before Abraham was, I am" to the Jews in John. Very much to the contrary, the claiming of divine prerogative in Mark makes an overt "I am" statement in John that much more plausible. The idea that one of these is a redactive elaboration of the other is dragged in on the flimsiest of argumentative pretexts.

These objections, again, are not a priori theological hangups but rational, epistemological objections to hyper-sophisticated literary criticism run amok.

Certainly I have emphasized again and again the historically corrosive nature of Licona's theories. This is relevant in multiple ways: First, the fact that a theory would eliminate the possibility of telling when an historian, speaker, or memoirist is telling the truth or making things up puts it at odds with the common human desire to be believed, especially in speech or writing that purports to tell about real events (as opposed to, say, fairy tale). The burden of proof lies firmly on someone who is hypothesizing so complicated a "social contract" between reader and author that the reader doesn't care, for any of the putatively historical writings of his time, whether the author is making stuff up invisibly at multiple points. Second, some writers of the gospels themselves, or their sources (in the case of Peter) are quite explicit that they are testifying truthfully at the empirical level--to what they have heard and seen, making empirical truthfulness the apologetic basis of their witness. This makes it improbable that they would fictionalize in the way Licona so casually and frequently hypothesizes, or that their audiences would take fictionalization on such important matters as Jesus' life and teaching as lightly as he implies they would have. They also include many details, so they seem to think details are important, and many of these details are verified--again, counteracting the idea that details were not intended to be taken as literal. Third, it would be evidentially a great loss to Christianity if Licona's theories were true, contrary to his repeated avowals that this is all no big deal and his confusing uses of terms like "accurate," "reliable," and "paraphrase." Therefore, it behooves us not to accept such conclusions passively, as from an authority figure, but to search the documents in question for ourselves to see whether these things are so. Much of the time I am simply trying to motivate people to do this, finding passivity, timidity, and a positive determination to believe (sometimes without even reading what he has written!) that Licona's position wouldn't be a big deal if it were true, to be distressingly more common than such attitudes ought to be. 

As for theological motivations and driving biases, I have more than once had those sympathetic to Licona’s ideas tell me in so many words that they feel that they must accept his fictionalizing literary device theories in order to avoid attributing ordinary error to the evangelists! I have argued that this is an extremely Pyrrhic victory for “inerrancy” (both by major redefinition and by rendering the gospels functionally unreliable). But also, not having the theological hangup of needing to avoid attributing even the most minor and rare factual error to the authors of the Gospels, I do not feel driven to accept the unjustified theory of a vast, complex superstructure of societally understood, frequent, invisible fictionalization so that I can say that, in some odd sense or other, the gospel authors never “affirmed” anything that was even trivially incorrect. Licona would do better to look among his own followers for driving theological motivations and agendas than to look at me. 

I am free to find reasonable harmonizations when they exist (and they exist far more often than Licona recognizes), which do not attribute any error at all, and to conclude (which I rarely do) that there are occasional errors in these documents, if that seems to be the best explanation in some given case. 

It's striking, as it turns out, how very well they stand up to those strange, allegedly modern (but not really) standards of literal truthfulness, just like truthful, knowledgeable witnesses and reporters in any age. This allows us to conclude that they are very reliable, not "reliable" only in some attenuated sense, not reliable only in some theological sense, not merely on some "core" events while throwing the details to the winds of agnosticism, not accurate only on "nuggets" (per Evans on John), not in a sense that involves the evangelists' making up entirely different sayings that were never said and attributing them to Jesus and our then twisting the meaning of the term "paraphrase" to cover their invention, but highly reliable in the factual sense, throughout their documents, on the "ground level" of reportage, and even concerning details. In Hemer's terminology, they turn out to be good sources. And for that, we Christians, who have extraordinary claims to support, should all be humbly grateful to the Providence of Almighty God. I urge readers to acknowledge the importance of the gospels' reliability in this sense and to question vigorously for themselves those theories that undermine it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

New post up talking about Hidden in Plain View

A Reasonable Faith group in Tennessee invited me to address their group. Since I had heard that they have rather lengthy meetings, I prepared a rather lengthy talk. I'm sure that anyone who has heard me talk about UCs will have heard some or most of these examples. The Q & A gets into some issues that I haven't been asked about before. Thanks to Robert Vroom who hosted and who put this up on Youtube.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Jesus never said the "I am" statements?

In the following video, New Testament scholar Craig Evans agrees with Bart Ehrman that Jesus never made the "I am" statements recorded in John. Anyone who thinks this "literary device" stuff is no big deal needs to realize that, if one goes where Evans is going, that no longer passes the laugh test.

Evans gives no argument. He makes a bizarre analogy between John's gospel and the personification of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs. But of course he isn't a myther, so Jesus did exist and did say things, right? So that's obviously a really poor analogy, and it's not clear precisely what Evans thinks it does for his argument. Using the term "genre" doesn't help, since obviously John is not writing an allegorical personification of a characteristic like wisdom. This is a lazy use of the concept of "genre." He then explicitly says that these were "he is" confessions of "the Johannine community" rather than statements made by Jesus.

Evans has to admit the awkwardness of all the historical facts confirmed in John (!) but apparently doesn't let this stop him from having an agreement-fest with skeptical scholar Ehrman (who goes for the jugular, unsurprisingly) that Jesus never made the "I am" statements. Watch here. It's short.


Apologist Jonathan McLatchie shared this video in a public forum on Facebook with the comment that the field of New Testament studies needs to be reformed.

In the ensuing thread, Mike Licona, still regarded by many as in some measure a conservative biblical scholar, came in and apparently defended Evans's comments throwing all of the "I am" statements under the bus. He is, to my mind, fairly explicit, though not quite as explicit as Evans.

1. Although the message is the same, the way Jesus "sounds" in John is very different than the way He "sounds" in the Synoptics.

2. The way Jesus "sounds" in John's Gospel sounds very much like how John "sounds" in 1 John. That is, the grammar, vocabulary, and overall style of writing in both are strikingly similar.

Number 2 could be because John adjusted his style to be similar to his Master after spending much time with him. This would be similar to how some married couples adapt their laughs and expressions to one another over time. The other option and the one believed by most scholars is that John paraphrased Jesus using his own style. The reason scholars go with this latter view is because Jesus "sounds" so differently in John than in the Synoptics.
By no means does this mean John is historically unreliable. It means that John is often communicating Jesus' teachings in a manner closer to a modern paraphrase than a literal translation. Stated differently, John will often recast Jesus saying something explicitly the Synoptics have Him saying implicitly. For example, one does not observe Jesus making his "I am" statements in the Synoptics that are so prominent in John, such as "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). That's a pretty clear claim to deity. Mark presents Jesus as deity through His deeds and even some of the things He says about Himself. But nothing is nearly as overt as we find in John. Granted, the Synoptics do not preserve everything Jesus said. However, if Jesus is cryptic in public even pertaining to His claim to be Messiah as He is in Mark--hence the "Messianic Secret," we would not expect for Jesus to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting. Those are just some of the reasons why scholars see John adapting Jesus' teachings. Jesus' precise words (ipsissima verba) may not be preserved in John but His voice (ipsissima vox) certainly is. (emphasis added)

To be blunt, the talk of paraphrase here merely fogs the issue. Evans is not saying that the "I am" sayings in John are paraphrases in any normal sense of that term of explicit claims to deity that Jesus actually made, and if Jesus did not publicly and explicitly claim to be God as he does in John, then calling what we find in John a "paraphrase" is merely creating confusion. That isn't a paraphrase. That's making stuff up.  And if that's how the phrase "ipsissima vox" is going to be used, then it is just another phrase for "making stuff up," not a mere reference to what ordinary people call "paraphrasing." Licona is expressly arguing that Jesus would not and hence did not publicly, clearly, and overtly claim to be God in the real world. But in John he does do so. No use of the term "paraphrase" nor the phrase "ipsissima vox" (which I believe Evans originated) can get around this.

Needless to say, Licona's arguments here are extremely weak. There is a large difference between claiming to be God and encouraging the crowds in messianic expectations. Jesus never at any time hesitated to offend the religious leaders of his day and even in the synoptics seems to have gone out of his way to do so. As for Jesus "sounding different" in the synoptics, there is that awkward bit of John that escaped and got into Matthew somehow, Matthew 11:25-27. Moreover, real people do talk in different styles at different times, and John seems to have had a memory for long, connected discourse. Mostly this is assertion disguised as argument for a very strong claim--that Jesus did not overtly and explicitly claim identity with the Father as he is portrayed as doing in John. What argument there is is the typical weak sauce of New Testament literary criticism.

Every time I think that some new shift from Dr. Licona can't surprise me, he surprises me. I was surprised when he hypothesized that the whole Doubting Thomas episode might be made up, but I thought he'd be more uncomfortable about publicly endorsing Evans's comments throwing the "I am" statements under the bus. Evidently not.

Again, this post and hence the comments are set to public, which is why I can read them even while on Facebook hiatus. I am not publicizing anything that has not been said in public, but I am "boosting" it. Saddened as I am by what Dr. Licona is apparently endorsing, I'm afraid that I think this is a crucial enough matter that it needs to be known. Jesus' claims to deity are, to put it mildly, important, and so people should know when scholars think he didn't make them. I pray that the Lord will use any such publicizing and/or criticisms that come as a result to motivate Dr. Licona to reconsider. Needless to say, I urge that such criticisms and corrections always be made in a spirit of Christian love and with the best good in mind of Dr. Licona as well as of the Christian community as a whole, including his followers.

Update: Dr. Licona has responded in "grieved" fashion to my critique in this post, adding an entirely ex post facto caveat to his original comment, a change which in any event does not render his comments unobjectionable or unimportant. And certainly does not make me a misrepresenter of what he said. I will quote his response, leaving out only an unnecessary name of a participant on Facebook and, at the end, some irrelevant ad hominem patronization directed towards me.

I'm grieved to see Lydia once again stretching my words to say more than I did. I try to nuance my words carefully, especially in view of some like Lydia who look for things to criticize. But sometimes I'm not as careful as I should be and assume (wrongly) that others will grant some leeway in communications and be charitable.
So, I'll try to be a little clearer here. I agree with all Johannine scholars that Johannine adaptation is present in his Gospel. However, scholars differ on the degree of adaptation that is present. I wouldn't go as far as Craig A. Evans for whom I have the highest regard. To be honest, I do not know how much John adapted certain traditions. But some is obviously present to anyone who spends a significant amount of time studying the Gospels. Are the "'I am' without predicate" statements in John part of his adapting things Jesus implicitly said and presenting them in a manner in which Jesus says them explicitly? In other words, are we reading the ipsissima vox (his voice) of Jesus here rather than the ipsissima verba (his very words). I don't know. In my single reply to [another commenter], I provided reasons why many, perhaps even a majority of Johannine scholars say they are Johannine adaptations. I have argued elsewhere that historical data strongly suggests Jesus believed He was deity. So, if Jesus made implicit claims to deity and John recasts those claims in a manner that has Jesus making them in an explicit sense, then that's what John did and we need to be comfortable with that. Otherwise, we take issue with the way God gave us the Gospels.
Licona gave not the slightest hint in his original comment that he was representing the views of other scholars and not his own view. He made the comment in his own person. Indeed, even had he added the phrase "in the view of the majority of scholars," the comment as a whole still would have implied an endorsement of that argument, given all his wording that followed. But he did not even bother adding any such mildly distancing (though not very distancing) phrase. Here is the lead-in to the original comment, as originally given:

Keener has said that "all" Johannine scholars acknowledge Johannine adaptation of the Jesus tradition. To see this in action, I recommend that you read through the Synoptic Gospels several times in Greek. Then read John's Gospel and 1 John several times in Greek. (One can also observe this in English but it is far clearer and even more striking in Greek.) You will observe a few items relevant to this discussion:
1. Although the message is the same, the way Jesus "sounds" in John is very different than the way He "sounds" in the Synoptics. 

That was the lead-in. No mention of this as merely a neutral representation of what other scholars think. Now he wishes to backtrack and say, instead, that he is agnostic about whether Jesus made the "I am" statements. This is hardly much better. The headline now would be "Leading Apologist Completely Unsure About Whether Jesus said 'I am'" rather than "Leading Apologist Thinks Jesus Never Said 'I Am.'"

This is, pace Licona, still a very low view of John's accuracy, even after the backtrack. And if John made up the "I am" statements, the doubts of his accuracy are cast far wider than even those statements. As far as what we have to "be comfortable with," foot-stomping and saying, "We have to be comfortable with that" is pointless. It does not take the place of a good argument for what God, and John, actually did. What it comes to is, "If God gave us factually crappy gospels, we have to live with that, and I'm going to deem anybody impious who is bothered by the possibility." This is faux piety. God didn't have to send Jesus to die at all. He didn't have to give us such good records of Jesus' life. But he seems to have done so. Let's not pretend that it's no big deal if we are left with only a poor and unreliable record in John of what Jesus taught about one of the most important truths in the world--that Jesus is God. It is a big deal. Merely saying that if these records are poor, we have to "be comfortable with that," is ridiculous. Actually, we don't have to be comfortable. We should mourn if that's the situation, not "be comfortable." Fortunately, there are not good arguments for Licona's agnosticism about Jesus' explicit claims to deity. So please, stop patronizingly telling us what we need to be comfortable about.

Update 2: Since I realize that a lot of people are going to read this post who haven't been reading either of my blogs before, since this post has gotten more publicity, I want to take this opportunity to point out that I've been carefully and in detail writing in response to Dr. Licona's ideas for over a year and a half now. Some of these are quite lengthy posts. They all involve argumentation and ideas, not personalities. I'd like to make people aware of this body of work so that they can read it for themselves. This news concerning the I Am statements came up in the midst of an on-going project that I have concerning Licona's work. It is not precisely a side show but certainly was an unexpected sudden illustration of the reasons for the concerns I have always voiced about the "literary devices" work. My arguments against that work have already to some degree been laid out but also are in the process of being laid out further. I am planning posts on quite a few of Licona's Roman examples in the book followed by posts on his gospel examples. I have previously written about some of the same gospel examples he uses, based upon his long, on-line lectures.

Here are my old posts on Licona's work, written last year:

A Gospel Fictionalization Theory is No Help to the Gospel

More on Licona, Genre, and Reliability

An announcement of the previous post at this blog containing some more content

Straining to Find a Genre

New Post on "Genre" in the Gospels

Here is the beginning of my new series:

New Testament Interpretation in the Real World

Hoaxer or Historical Witness: The Johannine Dilemma

Flowchart: On Alleged Literary Devices

For those who haven't followed my work before, below is a brief bio. I would just note that, if anything, my professional work in probability theory is more recent and prominent than my doctorate in English, and it is relevant to the evaluation of arguments. Though of course a degree in literature may well be relevant where (poor and highly speculative) literary criticism appears to be the order of the day in a field like biblical studies. I can be reached with direct correspondence at lydiamcgrew [at] gmail [dot] com.

Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher who specializes in classical and formal epistemology, probability theory, and philosophy of religion. She is the co-author (with Timothy McGrew) of Internalism and Epistemology: The Architecture of Reason (Routledge, 2007) and of the article on the argument from miracles in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009). She received her PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995. Since then she has published extensively in analytic philosophy, specializing in probability theory and epistemology.  Her articles have appeared in such journals as ErkenntnisTheoriaActa AnalyticaPhilosophia Christi, and Philosophical Studies, and she is the author of the entry on historical inquiry and theism in The Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). She home schools, and in her spare time, she blogs about apologetics, Christianity, culture, and politics. She lives in southwest Michigan with her husband and children. She is the author most recently of Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (2017).

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Undesigned coincidence talk--recent

Here are Esteemed Husband and I speaking via Skype to a church group in Tucson, AZ, on September 10. We tag team, and Tim does some OT coincidences while I do some NT ones.