Friday, March 09, 2018

Transcript and commentary: The "I am" statements, again

Regular readers will remember the dust-up last fall in which I discussed the fact that ostensibly evangelical scholar Craig A. Evans had agreed with skeptic Bart Ehrman, strongly implying that Jesus never uttered the "I am" statements or "I and the Father are one" in an historically recognizable fashion. Instead, he said, these were "he is" declarations of the "Johannine community."

At that time, NT scholar Michael Licona rather surprisingly jumped to Evans's defense, going on at some length to bolster and stand up for his views. When I (quite understandably) concluded that Licona shared those views, Licona accused me of misrepresentation, claiming that he, personally, is agnostic on the historicity of these sayings in John and merely was explaining what "many scholars" think on the subject. However, it was apparently sufficiently important to explain and defend what these "many scholars" think that he did so repeatedly and at some length, adding a great deal to what Evans had said. Exchanges on the topic from that time can be followed here and here.

On February 21, 2018, Dr. Licona debated Bart Ehrman on the question of the reliability of the Gospels. There is much that I could say about this debate, the most notable point of which is that, frankly, Dr. Licona didn't really defend the reliability of the Gospels. One of the more painful portions is the place beginning around 1:46 and in the minutes following where Licona insists that Luke knowingly, and contrary to fact, places the first meeting between Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem, even though it really took place in Galilee (minute 1:47), but that this is nonetheless "accurate" because Licona dubs Luke's deliberate fictionalization on this factual point a "compositional device." Ehrman is (predictably) merciless. Ehrman: "The appearance was in Galilee but Luke says it was in Jerusalem, and you think that that's accurate?"

If that's the case, one wonders what becomes of Doubting Thomas? (Recall that Licona casts some doubt on the historicity of the Doubting Thomas sequence in the book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, p. 178, but doesn't quite conclude there that it is ahistorical.) Given Licona's relative confidence now (according to his statements in this debate) that the first meeting between Jesus and his disciples really took place in Galilee, where does that leave the Thomas sequence? Did the other disciples send a message from Galilee down to Thomas, who was still hanging around dubiously in Jerusalem, that they had seen Jesus? What happened next? Moreover, since the meeting that Licona is now saying is the true first meeting, as recorded in Matthew 28:16ff, uses the phrase "the eleven" for the number of central male disciples present, and since Licona has already insisted in his book that this must be a counting noun rather than a generic term for the group, this would also (on Licona's interpretation that this was the first meeting) seem once again to contradict the Doubting Thomas sequence. One wonders if Licona has thought of this, or if it is a matter of any concern to him.

In this post I chiefly want to transcribe and discuss Licona's answer to Ehrman's argument from silence concerning Jesus' comparatively more explicit claims to deity (such as "Before Abraham was, I am" and "I and the Father are one") in the Gospel of John. In his usual bullying fashion, Ehrman goes on about this at some length around from 1:14 and following, trying to make it sound like John is in opposition to the synoptics concerning the deity of Christ and as though it is just too incredible that Jesus could have made these statements historically without their being mentioned in the synoptic Gospels. It is sheer sleight of hand and should be called out as such, but it is difficult for most people just to stand up to Ehrman when he does this kind of thing.

A questioner in the Q & A reminds Licona of that portion of Ehrman's discussion. Licona thanks the questioner for reminding him, since he had not responded to it in his first rebuttal. He then goes on a tour of alleged places in the Gospel of Mark that imply Jesus' deity by Jesus' actions. Some of them are solid, such as the claim to the divine prerogative to forgive sins in Mark 2. Others are highly dubious as claims to deity. These include Jesus' claim in Mark 3:27 to be able to bind Satan, which isn't a claim to deity at all. It is of course a claim to represent the one true God, who is stronger than Satan. But the archangel Michael can bind and cast down Satan, per the Book of Revelation, though he is a created being.

Anyway, there is nothing at all wrong with challenging Bart's implication that the synoptics don't give the faintest hint that Jesus is God. That is Bart's typical exaggeration, and it's fine to call it out.

But Licona, who is getting set up to call the historicity of Jesus' unique claims in John "irrelevant" (!), exaggerates the strength of the case for Jesus' deity from the Gospel of Mark alone. He continues by calling into question the historicity of the unique statements in John:

So what Mark does is he gives us a literary portrait of Jesus, of Jesus claiming to be God through his deeds. Whereas what I think in John’s gospel, and virtually every single Johannine scholar will say, that John is giving us a paraphrase. He’s taking Jesus’ stuff and he’s restating it in Johannine idiom. And many will say that John takes what Jesus would have said and done implicitly and he restates it in an explicit manner. So did Jesus actually make some of these divine claims explicitly, word-for-word, like he does in John? Who knows? But whether he did or not is irrelevant. He still made claims through his actions and the things that he did that came to the same thing.
The first point I want to note here is the increasing difficulty Licona should have in plausibly denying that he is expressing his own view that the statements in John are not recognizably historical. Here he actually says, "Whereas what I think in John's gospel..." then shifts mid-sentence to "virtually every single Johannine scholar," then to "many will say" and finally to "Who knows?" But he started out with "Whereas what I think in John's gospel..." in contrast to the apparently historical events just recounted from Mark.

If this is what he thinks, then this is what he thinks, and he should be willing to admit it rather than being unclear.

Next, the apparent implication that "virtually every single Johannine scholar" denies the literal, recognizable historicity of the unique deity sayings in John is fairly hyperbolic and dubious. It is certainly false if we include the "democracy of the dead." It is questionable even if applied to evangelical scholars living today.

But perhaps Mike meant to do what he does elsewhere, which is to make some extremely strong statement such as "virtually every Johannine scholar says" that John "adapted Jesus' sayings"--a statement so vague as to be nearly contentless--and then to use that broad claim as a jumping-off point for some more specific claim concerning ahistoricity in the Gospel of John. Thus "virtually every Johannine scholar" ends up being an unwitting endorser of some specific claim concerning John's allegedly altering facts. He does this, in fact, with the very point at issue (the historicity of the unique deity claims in John) in this post. There, he moves from a statement by Craig Keener that all "Johannine scholars acknowledge Johannine adaptation of the Jesus tradition" to John's alleged "adaptation" in the form of completely making up the more explicit claims to deity in John in contrast to this, a conclusion (wrongly) inferred from the synoptics: "Jesus spoke of His identity implicitly, even in terms that were somewhat cryptic" rather than anything "nearly as overt as we find in John."

We don't actually know that virtually every Johannine scholar, much less "all" such scholars, believe that John did that. Even if they did, of course, this is a fairly blatant argument from authority in the worst of senses and a poor argument. Popularity, especially popularity among the living alone, has always been a terrible test of truth. And the same applies to "many scholars," with which Licona continues.

The next point I want to note is the abuse of the term "paraphrase." If, as discussed by Licona elsewhere, all that Jesus said and did concerning his deity is the kind of implication that we find in the synoptic Gospels, if the scenes surrounding John 8:58 and John 10:31 and the shocking statements by Jesus in those verses never took place in any recognizable form, and if John wrote the scenes as they occur in his Gospel anyway, knowing that they never took place historically in a recognizable fashion, this is not paraphrase. It is not remotely like paraphrase. It is fiction, pure and simple. It might or might not be fiction based on theological truth as taught by Jesus in some other fashion. But that does not make it a paraphrase. To use "paraphrase" in this way is the sheerest word kidnapping, and it needs to be called out sharply and unequivocally.

The next point to which I want to draw attention is the straw man technique of suddenly talking about whether or not Jesus uttered these sayings "word-for-word." That is not the question, and Licona must know that it is not the question. If Jesus said, "I and the Father are a unity" rather than "I and the Father are one," or if he spoke in Aramaic and we have a good translation into Greek, or if he said, "Before Abraham was living in Canaan, I am," etc., and if the dialogue and the attempted stoning took place recognizably as recounted in John, that would still be a direct denial of what Ehrman is saying--that the events did not take place historically. Those who disagree with Ehrman on this point and who are willing to take him on head-to-head, rather than conceding his denial of historicity, do not have to hold that Jesus' words and the dialogue leading up to them is precisely, exactly, word-for-word as we have it. That is a blatant straw man representation of anyone on the "conservative" side who would not concede what Licona is conceding. It is meant to make it sound as though Licona (and/or the "many scholars" whose view he is putting forward) are not actually denying historicity in any important sense that deserves scrutiny, when in fact they are.

Finally, there is the blatantly false statement that the historicity of these fairly explicit statements in John is "irrelevant" and that the claims Licona has laid out from Mark "come to the same thing." This is completely incorrect from an epistemic point of view. You simply cannot make implicit claims equivalent to explicit claims, or even nearly explicit claims. The latter are always going to have epistemic vectors that the former don't have. It can never be epistemically irrelevant whether or not Jesus claimed, so clearly that he was nearly stoned, to be the "I am" of the Old Testament and whether he said (again, so clearly that the Jews tried to stone him) that he was one with Yahweh. To try to get away with brushing off the importance of the question, as Licona does, is just breathtaking. I have no doubt that Dr. Licona has convinced himself of what he says about the "irrelevance" of the historicity of these statements in John, but it is certainly untrue, and Christians need to reject it decisively. I fear that the reason some are not doing so is, quite simply, that they are afraid that they cannot defend the historicity of John.

Making false epistemic claims merely gives us false comfort. Let us, as knowledgeable and informed Christians, instead admit the importance of John's Gospel and then defend it vigorously, with reasons and evidence. But it appears that we will have to do so without the help of Dr. Evans and Dr. Licona and perhaps others. If so, be it so. Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world, Bart Ehrman included. (I John 4:4)