Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Gary Habermas's misunderstandings of C. H. Dodd, Part 4: The "concise" narratives themselves

 Apologies for the delay after the previous post in this series. I've been considering writing a professional philosophy article in the meanwhile and also doing some presentations which have taken my time and energy. This may be the last blog post in this series.

Here are all of the earlier posts in the series.

Review of Dodd's "concise" narrative concept

As mentioned before, Gary Habermas vastly overestimates the concessions made by form critic C. H. Dodd concerning Jesus' resurrection appearances. Habermas misunderstands what Dodd means by various concepts and statements, including Dodd's distinction between Type I and Type II narratives. Habermas thinks that a narrative in Luke 24 is "probably" one of Dodd's "concise" narratives when in fact Dodd says that it is not but rather the "concis" aspects are heavily overlaid with apologetic embellishment. Habermas appears not to understand that Dodd thinks that several crucial resurrection stories are complete inventions by the evangelists. Sometimes this is because Habermas doesn't realize that Dodd classifies a narrative as a "tale." In another case it is because Habermas doesn't understand that Dodd says a story is not a tale, but only because it is less literary than a "tale" as he defines it, with a less realistic character, not because it is more historical than a "tale." All of this is explored in the earlier posts.

Now we come to the resurrection narrative class that Dodd calls "concise," which Habermas takes (with somewhat more excuse) to mean "historical." As a form critic, Dodd is focused on seeing if he can find some extremely short set of verses, some snippet clipped out of what appears to be a continuous narrative, in which he thinks he can discern a brief bit of "tradition" that goes back to the early church. 

This procedure, contra Dodd, is highly subjective and unsound, and by no means should scholars imply that Dodd really has some objective way of finding such snippets of tradition buried under layers of "apologetic" accretion.

But now we must ask: When it comes at least to these snippets, does Dodd take them to be historical? Or does Dodd at least take them to be what the original disciples (who would have been the relevant witnesses of the events they contain) claimed, while sincerely believing what they claimed?

The answer, it turns out, is no. Dodd's article can be legally checked out for free for one hour at a time (renewable) from Open Library, here.

Dodd thinks even the concise bits of narrative contain apologetic add-ons

On p. 105 Dodd lays out in parallel columns the three narrative bits that he is characterizing as "concise." These are Matt. 28:8-10, Matt. 28:16-20, and John 20:19-21. I encourage you to look up those passages and notice how extremely limited they are, to begin with. For example, the first snippet from Matthew is literally only three verses, meaning that Dodd has snipped off the previous verses that are narrated continuously with it--the women coming to the tomb and seeing an angel there and receiving the angel's message. That portion is not included in Dodd's "concise narrative." As Dodd himself notes (see later in this post), even the names of two of the women who went to the tomb are not included in these three verses.

By laying out these three snippets in parallel columns, Dodd is able to explain how he thinks that they exemplify the elements that he treats as included in a polished-down "concise" bit of tradition. These are 1) the situation (disciples bereft of their Lord), 2) the initial appearance of Jesus, 3) a greeting from Jesus, 4) their recognition of Jesus, 5) a word of command from Jesus. 

The very brevity of these snippets and of these narrowly-defined elements guarantees that any lengthy conversation with Jesus is ruled out a priori by Dodd's method of analysis, even though such a lengthy conversation or discourse from Jesus (mentioned in different contexts in both John and Luke), given in a setting where multiple people are present, provides some of the best evidence that Jesus was risen bodily. As we have seen in previous posts and will see again here, this is a feature, not a bug, of Dodd's entire approach. Dodd's approach involves a priori historical distrust of anything that is of apologetic value for the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus, which guarantees that what is left after Dodd gets done snipping is not of any significant evidential value for that conclusion! See here for a recent video I did on the phenomenon of treating anything of apologetic value as epistemically suspect.

After laying the snippets out in columns showing how they treat the supposed elements of a concise narrative, Dodd makes the following important statement:

It is to be observed that the bare pattern is expanded at certain points, but in so brief a way as not to alter the character of the pericope. The expansions add nothing fresh, but emphasize what is already in the pattern, though scarcely explicit. Thus, in all three pericopae there is at least a hint of an element of doubt or fear. In Matt. 28:17 it is explicit: ‘some doubted’. In Matt. 28:10, it is implied in the words ‘Fear not’. In Jn. 20:20 nothing is said of any doubt in the minds of the disciples, but the Lord ‘showed them his hands and His side’, thus setting at rest, by proof tendered, a doubt which was there though unexpressed. (p. 105, emphasis added)

The importance of the first sentence could easily be missed. Dodd is saying that there are fictional details added even to these concise snippets. Dodd's assurance that these inventions "add nothing fresh" and do not alter the form-critical categorization of the pericope is not very reassuring once one realizes that Jesus' showing of his hands and side is, according to Dodd, such an add-on.

If there were any doubt of this interpretation, a statement later in the article makes it even clearer. In the context of this later comment, Dodd is emphasizing the absence of specific names of witnesses within the very brief snippets. He goes so far as to suggest that the names of the women stated in Matthew 28 (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary) may not have been there in the tradition originally, and brings in support of this the fact that he has separated out just a couple of verses which don't happen to include the names. What is the point of this? For Dodd, it is that these concise snippets are appealing to the audience to believe what is attested on the basis of trusting the apostolic body corporately rather than particular, named individuals.

[T]he intention in general seems to be to present the facts as attested corporately by the apostolic body (using that term in the widest sense), in the spirit of I John 1:1-3. Credence is invited, not on the testimony of a given witness, but on the authority of the apostolic tradition embodied in the Church. Where we have apologetic expansions of the narrative, they are directed towards meeting the objection that the disciples may have had insufficient grounds for making the claims they do make. (p. 128, emphasis added) 

This final sentence bears pondering. Notice Dodd's use of the phrase "apologetic expansions," which undoubtedly refers to non-factual expansions. That is always how Dodd uses the term "apologetic." This serves as a gloss on the term "expansions" in the earlier quote in the same article about these same passages. Something more is striking here: Dodd is here explicitly saying that someone who was shaping this very early tradition made up details and inserted them even into these early, concise snippets in order to convince potential believers that the disciples themselves had good reason to believe that Jesus really was risen. And apparently whoever did this, on Dodd's view, had no qualms of conscience about doing so.

Consider the fact that one of my greatest concerns about the minimal facts approach centers precisely on the question of whether or not the disciples were rational in believing that Jesus was physically risen. Here we find C. H. Dodd, one of Gary Habermas's prime exhibits of a critical scholar who supposedly makes big concessions that favor the case for the bodily resurrection, saying that the early Christians falsely inserted details even into their short, early, orally transmitted resurrection traditions in order to make potential converts think that the disciples were rational in their belief that Jesus was risen.

The implication of this, of course, is that they didn't have true details to tell that would demonstrate that the disciples were rational. Why engage in "apologetic expansion" to say that they had this or that bit of concrete evidence if you have real details that make that point? So Jesus' showing his wounds in the first appearance in John 20 and the women's grasping his feet in Matthew 28 serve this purpose. In his first discussion of these passages Dodd comments:

….[I]n [Matt.] 28.9 the fact that the women touch his feet may be held to carry an implicit assurance that there is a real Person before them. It is perhaps legitimate to say that this type of resurrection narrative carries within it, as an integral element, a suggestion that the appearance of the Lord does not bring full or immediate conviction to the beholders, who require some form of assurance: the sight of his wounds, contact with his body, or his word of authority. (p. 106) 

Taken in conjunction with the later statement about "apologetic expansions" that "are directed towards meeting the objection that the disciples may have had insufficient grounds for making the claims they do make," it is hard to doubt that Dodd is implying that the physical contact and sight of wounds, at least, are places where such "apologetic expansions" enter even the "concise" stories.

Here once again we are up against a fundamental problem with the attempt to use critical scholars' admissions to provide data that will sustain a strong resurrection apologetic. Since it is a given to such scholars that the parts of the resurrection stories that are most epistemically useful for defending the bodily resurrection (and even the apostles' own rationality in believing that proposition) are the parts that were made up, we should not expect them to allow some portion of these stories past the critical gatekeeping that will strongly support the conclusions that Christian apologists are aiming for.

A further troubling implication of Dodd on apologetic expansions

Since I have other projects and limited energy, and since I'm not sure how many people are reading, this may be the last post in this series. Therefore I'm going to include this section here so that it doesn't just get left out.

For now, one or two comments about Habermas's references to "sermon summaries in Acts," for which he cites a different piece by Dodd on apostolic preaching. (Available for check-out here.) That piece includes statements by Dodd that cause great excitement in minimalist circles, such as that (in his opinion) there are signs of an Aramaic original lying behind certain specific verses included in the speeches in Acts and that Peter's speeches in Acts represent "the kerygma of the Church at Jerusalem" (Apostolic Preaching, p. 21).

What is less well-known, however, is that in this same work Dodd strongly emphasizes that these sermons shouldn't be thought to have been spoken by Peter himself on the occasions in question. Nor is he merely referring to the idea that these may have not been verbatim records. Rather, he casts into explicit doubt the idea that it was Peter who preached these things on these recognizable occasions.

We may with some confidence take these speeches to represent, not indeed what Peter said upon this or that occasion, but the kerygma of the Church at Jerusalem at an early period. (Apostolic Preaching, p. 21, emphasis added)

In this context we should probably take special note of the exceedingly restrained, understated phrasing of Dodd's wording concerning the speech to Cornelius' household, and this despite his suggestion of an Aramaic original for a portion of this speech:

We may perhaps take it that the speech before Cornelius represents the form of kerygma used by the primitive Church in its earliest approaches to a wider public (p. 28). 

Note that again this is cast in terms of "the kerygma used by the primitive church in its earliest approaches" rather than something Peter said on a concrete occasion. 

Notice too that even though a very brief reference to the apostles eating and drinking with Jesus does occur in this speech to Cornelius (Acts 10:41), every single instance in a Gospel resurrection story where Jesus is portrayed as eating and drinking with his disciples is treated as an invention in Dodd's other work on resurrection appearances, whether we're talking about the scene in Emmaus, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or in Jesus' first appearance in the upper room. If Jesus really ate and drank with them (or seemed to do so) in his appearances, we shouldn't be surprised to find at least one narrative of his doing so, containing more detail than the brief mention in Acts 10:41. Yet Dodd dismisses all of the eating and drinking narratives.

Along these same lines, Dodd also airily suggests (p. 20) that the entire second arrest of the apostles in Acts 5:17-40 is a "doublet" invented out of whole cloth and thus that what the apostles say to the Sanhedrin on that alleged occasion is also invention that merely doubles an earlier speech. 

None of these qualifications and assumptions of invention appear to be noted by Habermas.

But there's more: Consider the point made in the previous section--that Dodd appears to think that very early Christians thought nothing whatsoever of inventing and adding details to make it appear that the apostles were justified in believing what they preached. While it blunts the rhetorical edge of this a bit to attribute it vaguely to the early church or to anonymous formers of the earliest "concise" traditions, one wonders how much of a conscience Dodd thinks the "apostolic body" itself had.

Dodd certainly doesn't say that these inventors did not include members of the twelve, or Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. In fact, the whole question of whether there was any conscientious scruple about such wholesale invention of apologetically important details (or even of Gospel stories like Doubting Thomas) never seems to occur to Dodd. Or perhaps it would be most accurate to say that for Dodd, it's already settled: Not only the evangelists but the tradents of the early church had no such scruples. 

That being the case, does Dodd allow for the very real possibility that even the apostles themselves sometimes knowingly lied in order to add details that never happened, to convince potential converts? Dodd doesn't address this question directly, because he keeps referring to the "kerygma" and the "Jerusalem church," but I see nothing whatsoever in Dodd that pulls against this conclusion, and a great deal that fits with it. 

Here is a supreme irony: Supposedly the one thing that the minimal facts argument definitely does is to show that the vast majority of critical scholars at least admit that the apostles themselves were sincere about whatever-it-was that they told people. The big question then becomes, what do they think the apostles themselves told people?

But this deep dive into Dodd suggests that even that assumption may be insufficiently nuanced. It may be that scholars like Dodd think that the apostles were sincere about some kind of "big picture" that they told the people but had no qualms about making the evidence for a bodily resurrection look better than it was by lying additions, things that they knew were not part of what they actually experienced, like Jesus eating with them, showing his wounds, or allowing them to touch him.

If that is correct, then we have not even gained from the admissions of critical scholars the bare assumption of sincerity in everything that the disciples told people about their experience. Yes, some, perhaps many, liberal scholars will agree that they believed that Jesus was physically risen. But did the disciples themselves sometimes fictionally "improve upon" the evidence on which that conclusion was based? Even for Dodd, rather a moderate among critical scholars, that possibility is lurking in the wings.

Of course, I think such a suggestion is ludicrous. But then, I am willing to argue that the Gospels and Acts represent definitely what the earliest apostles, the people actually involved in the events, claimed. And I am willing to argue that Acts is historically reliable (not, for example, making up a "doublet" of the Apostles being arrested a second time), making clear the context in which they testified. And I'm willing to argue that multiple lines of evidence support the idea that the early church didn't think literal truth was dispensible. These include, for example, taking seriously the introductory verses of Luke and the Beloved Disciple's protestation of truthfulness in John 19:35.

Scholars like Dodd seem to call into very strong question the possibility of knowing the content of the disciples' claims. In fact, they pretty much unanimously dismiss the most important details of the Gospel resurrection stories as inventions by someone-or-other. And it now looks to me like they aren't all that convinced of the disciples' own sincerity either.

That being the case, remind me again: How does a case based solely upon what the majority of critical scholars grant supply strong evidence for the resurrection? 

Monday, June 03, 2024

Gary Habermas's Misunderstandings of C. H. Dodd, Part 3: Jesus' Appearance to his male disciples in Luke 24:36-49

Habermas on Dodd on Luke 24:36-49

This is Part 3 in a series on the misunderstandings of C. H. Dodd by Gary Habermas in Habermas's recently published volume on the resurrection. You can find parts 1 and 2 by going here here.

In those posts I've documented that Habermas radically misunderstands what Dodd says about the story of Doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29) and the stories of Jesus' appearances on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25) and to the group of seven male disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21). Habermas repeatedly implies that Dodd is granting some significant degree of historicity to stories that Dodd is in fact dehistoricizing. In this way he implies that Dodd's form criticism strengthens the case for the resurrection, which supposedly means that one can argue for the resurrection while using only things that critical scholars already accept. 

Here I'll focus on Habermas's over-optimistic understanding of Dodd's position concerning the first appearance to "the eleven" (possibly just a group title as used here) in Luke 24:36-49. Here is what Habermas says about Dodd's position on this passage:

An older but quite influential study on the appearance narratives in the Gospels was published in 1968 by the celebrated Cambridge University New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd. Distinguishing between “concise” and “circumstantial” Gospel resurrection appearances, Dodd argues that the former were “drawn directly from the oral tradition” and were shorter and more succinct, whereas other accounts involved greater freedom to give additional details. “Concise” resurrection appearance texts include Matt 28:8–10, 16–20; John 20:19–21; and probably Luke 24:36–49…. Applying Dodd’s influential study to our two texts here, Luke 24:34 is definitely an early tradition. Luke 24:36–49 is most likely considered a concise appearance account in the Gospels, at least in its core details. In the latter text, while apologetic aspects do appear, the core aspects of conciseness are also present, though modified. Habermas, On the Resurrection, p. 846, emphasis added.

As documented in a previous post, Habermas is aware that the designation of "conciseness" has some sort of relationship to historicity in Dodd, though he doesn't fully understand the ramifications of this. (For example, he thinks that if a narrative is designated "concise," that means it is fully historical, according to Dodd, which is not correct, and he thinks that if a narrative is not designated as a "tale," that means it's not entirely invented, which isn't correct either.) So Habermas's statements here that Luke 24:36-49 is "probably" or "most likely" a "concise" narrative according to Dodd give the impression that Dodd regards the narrative as probably historical, or probably mostly historical. The phrase "core details" is important, and I'll return to it shortly.

In point of fact, Dodd says that the passage is "of mixed character," and he does not list it in his examples of Class I (concise) narratives. His explanation of what he means by that "mixed" designation shows that he's calling into question the historicity of the narrative overall. Moreover, Dodd definitely regards those "apologetic aspects" of this passage, which are some of the most important in the Gospels, as unhistorical additions, which (if we're trying to use Dodd) rules out the use those very aspects (e.g., Jesus eating fish) to support the conclusion that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

C. H. Dodd on Luke 24:36-49

Here is what Dodd actually says about this passage:

Luke 24:36-49 We have here a pericope of mixed character. The main items in the pattern of ‘concise’ narratives re-appear, though much modified….The process of recognition is greatly spun out. At first the disciples are terrified (cf. Matt. 28:10) and think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus tenders proof by pointing to his hands and feet (cf. John 20:27). They are still incredulous, and He tenders final proof by eating in their presence….The concluding word of command is here replaced by a longish address consisting of (a) instruction regarding the use of testimonies from the Old Testament…(b) a commission to preach…and (c) the assurance of the help of the Spirit….It is clear that we have here an extensive working-over of the common pattern….The pericope is thus no longer a simple, traditional story of the appearance of the Lord: it is a piece of controversial apologetic set in the framework of such a story. The simpler narratives conveyed something of the na├»ve, spontaneous sense of the primitive believers that something almost too good to be true has happened. Here we are aware of something different: the faith must be defended by argument, not against the natural doubts of simple people, but against a reflective and sophisticated skepticism. Yet it would not be right to class this pericope with the ‘Tales’. There is no detail in the narrative (with one exception) which is not strictly necessary to it as a piece justificatif. The one exception is the statement that the Lord ate broiled fish. It would have been sufficient for the narrator’s immediate purpose to affirm that Christ ate food in the presence of His disciples. The added detail is the kind of trait that marks the story-teller….It may perhaps best be characterized as an example of the ‘concise’ type of narrative in which apologetic motives have caused everything else to be subordinated to an elaborate presentation, not indeed of the [anagnorisis—discovery, climactic dramatic moment] itself, but of the grounds upon which such recognition was based. It is certainly more remote from the original tradition, orally handed down, than the typical narratives of Class I, but the obvious work of an author has not altogether disguised the form of the tradition which underlies. Dodd "Appearances of the Risen Christ" in More New Testament Studies, pp. 111-113 (emphasis added)


In the quotation from Dodd, we see immediately that Dodd is not saying that this passage is "probably" or "most likely" a "concise" narrative. That wording (Habermas's) gives the impression that Dodd is simply less confident in characterizing the passage as "concise" than he is concerning some other passages but that he thinks it probably is "concise."

On the contrary, Dodd is actually pretty definite about what he thinks of the passage. It is "of mixed character," which is to say that, on his view, it does not fit clearly and unambiguously into his category of Class I. This is because it has too much information in it. Dodd designates tiny snippets as "concise" (Class I) only when they include, within just a very few verses, all of the motifs that he has identified as being present in a "concise" form. Dodd explains at the beginning of the essay that a "concise" narrative in his form-critical taxonomy must use the "fewest possible words." It must tell nothing "which is not absolutely essential" (Dodd, "Appearances," p. 103). Luke 24:36-49 simply doesn't fit that form, because it's too long and, from Dodd's perspective, too elaborated. 

As in the case of the story of Doubting Thomas, the Road to Emmaus, and the meeting by the seashore, here too we find Dodd treating Jesus and the disciples as fictional characters subject to the manipulations of the author. The author thus "spins out" the process of recognition rather than recording a process of recognition that he has reason to believe actually happened. The author replaces the "word of command" by inventing the idea of Jesus' giving a longish address. Again, this all lies within the author's control.

Most important of all, all of the material in the story that is of value in actually defending the bodily resurrection is, according to Dodd, invented and added fictionally. The "unsophisticated" form of recognition (which apparently is supposed to be pretty epistemically uninteresting!) is here, says Dodd, replaced by fictional elements that are intended to create a "controversial piece of apologetic" with the intention of defending the resurrection against a sophisticated skeptic. 

Indeed, the very idea that the recognition by the disciples was based on something that made it reasonable for them to think that Jesus was present in a literal body is something Dodd rejects. According to Dodd, the "grounds upon which such a recognition was based" in the passage are precisely the elements the author has invented to expand the recognition motif to meet a sophisticated form of skepticism.

No slightest breath of a thought enters Dodd's mind that the resurrection might be really defensible against sophisticated skepticism! 

This point is going to be important in the next post as well, where we see how Dodd treats even the resurrection snippets that he calls "concise narratives." In a bizarre evidential reversal, Dodd back-solves to find and eliminate as an elaboration anything that has evidential value, even from those narratives. The five elements of a "concise" narratives are 1) the situation (the disciples bereft), 2) the appearance of the Lord, 3) the greeting, 4) the recognition, and 5) the word of command (Dodd, "Appearances," p. 104). But Dodd's assumption is that anything beyond the briefest and least evidentially helpful statements of these elements has definitely been added to the story. As I will emphasize again in the next post, once even the concise narrative has been further whittled down to its most non-specific elements, and once these are treated preferentially precisely because they are non-specific, there is nothing left that could not be well explained by an extremely brief, non-physical, visionary or ghostly experience.

I think we really need to challenge the identification of "of apologetic value" with "made up." This is undoubtedly the way that Dodd thinks of the matter, and it is in a sense a kind of question begging against the very possibility of an evidentially robust case for the resurrection. If Jesus really did rise bodily from the dead, it's not at all improbable that he would make this manifest to at least some of his followers, in which case they would likely make known to others the means by which they recognized that he was risen bodily. An indispensible step in rejecting the assumption that anything of apologetic value is historically dubious is to recognize when someone (in this case, Dodd) is making that assumption. Trying to co-opt Dodd's form criticism as a tool to strengthen the apologetic case for Jesus' bodily resurrection, rather than recognizing what Dodd is really doing, is therefore misguided.

It is not surprising, given his assumptions, that Dodd strips away from Luke 24:36-49, quite systematically, all elements of the story that make this appearance a unique event taking place at a particular time and place and involving particular details of interaction between Jesus and the disciples. He treats all these as ipso facto unhistorical. This is especially evident when we remember that, as shown in the previous post, the story of the Road to Emmaus is, per Dodd, one of the "tales" and completely fictional. The day and time of this appearance to "the eleven and those who were with them"--evening of Easter Sunday--have been set by the Emmaus story immediately previous. Recall that Dodd even said that the dialogue between the two from Emmaus and the group back in Jerusalem (after they run back to Jerusalem) has been "made" by the author, so that those in Jerusalem are made to "cap" the story told by Clopas and his companion by saying that Jesus has appeared to Peter. Luke 24:36 says that Jesus is suddenly there among them while they are having that discussion. Since that is fictional, and since that is the way in which the time and day of this appearance in vss. 36-49 is indicated, this one is cut free from any specific location in space and time.

Did you want to make this appearance specific, unique, by reference to the reaction of the disciples, their fear, their thought that they are seeing a ghost, and Jesus' response to it? Nope, none of that is left either. That is all a part of the "elaborate presentation" that the author has invented to defend the resurrection against sophisticated skepticism.

But Dodd says this doesn't belong with the tales. Doesn't that mean that he considers it probably historical or somewhat historical, or something exciting?

Not really. We saw this issue in the case of Doubting Thomas. Recall that the Doubting Thomas story is, in Dodd's view, completely invented, but that he doesn't class it with the "tales" only because Doubting Thomas is (he thinks) a stock character and not psychologically sophisticated and because the story doesn't seem to him to be literarily interesting. Since "tales" is not only a historical designation but also a literary designation for Dodd, a pericope that doesn't have a lot of the "storyteller's art," a lot of realism, doesn't get designated as one of the "tales" even if Dodd thinks it is invented.

Something similar is going on here. Dodd explicitly says that the reason he doesn't designate this as one of the "tales" is that the story contains only one extra detail (the specific statement that Jesus ate broiled fish) that goes beyond what is required to fulfill the author's apologetic motive. So everything that makes this scene unique is (according to Dodd) invented as part of its apologetic embellishment, but only the broiled fish is made up in a way that Dodd considers artistic. The author could have fictionally included the fictional claim that Jesus ate (for apologetic reasons) without saying what he ate. Without more such purely artistic inventions, Dodd decides not to characterize this story as one of the "Tales."

To quote again the sentences that say that in some sense or other this is sorta kinda a "concise" narrative, "It may perhaps best be characterized as an example of the ‘concise’ type of narrative in which apologetic motives have caused everything else to be subordinated to an elaborate presentation, not indeed of the [anagnorisis—discovery, climactic dramatic moment] itself, but of the grounds upon which such recognition was based. It is certainly more remote from the original tradition, orally handed down, than the typical narratives of Class I, but the obvious work of an author has not altogether disguised the form of the tradition which underlies." In other words, it's neither literarily concise nor literarily a tale, in Dodd's form-critical terms. It's invented, but not invented in the particularly literary style of a tale, and Dodd believes that he can still descry, deeply buried under the author's fictionalizations, some of the elements of "tradition," such as an entirely generic appearance, greeting, recognition, and word of command.

This statement about not entirely disguising the form of the tradition is the only thing actually found in Dodd that Habermas could mean by "most likely a concise narrative at least in its core details." But this is a confusing use of the phrase "core details." How many people who are familiar with this passage would spontaneously say that the disciples' fear that Jesus is a ghost, his assurances to the contrary, and his eating are not "core details" of the story? Indeed, the very word "details" (in Habermas's phrase) contradicts the word "core" here if by "core" one means the same thing that Dodd means by the "form of the tradition that underlies." For by that phrase Dodd means only those generic elements that are not detailed

Dodd's conclusions about Luke 24:36-49 are 1) that it isn't really a concise narrative because it is so apologetically embellished and hence so "remote from original tradition" but 2) that one can abstract a few wholly generic elements that it shares in common with the narratives he designates as concise, and 3) that one can't call it a "tale" because, though it's heavily fictionalized, it isn't literarily interesting enough. 

That's it.

Once again, we see that Habermas's intense desire to interpret Dodd as optimistically as possible has led to a confused and confusing summary of what Dodd actually says.

Next post: The bad news (for the apologist wanting to use Dodd) even about the "concise" narratives, according to Dodd.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Gary Habermas's Misunderstandings of C. H. Dodd, Part 2: Two Tales

This is the second in a series on Dr. Habermas's faulty understanding of the work of C. H. Dodd. Thee first installment is here

When one understands Dodd's comments on the Gospel resurrection accounts correctly, one realizes that Dodd acknowledges so little that his work does not provide anything really helpful to the argument for Jesus' resurrection. Here, beginning on p. 102, available for free checkout, is the Dodd article on form criticism and resurrection narratives. His method of chiseling out very tiny snippets of "tradition" by means of form criticism is highly dubious, and even the snippets produced thereby are (as I'll argue in a later post) subject to further qualification indicating that Dodd thinks even they are non-historically expanded at important points.

Dr. Habermas consistently interprets Dodd in an overly optimistic manner. In the last post I discussed the fact that he seems not to understand that Dodd regards the entire story of Doubting Thomas as a Johannine invention. In this part I will show that Habermas doesn't seem to realize that Dodd thinks that the story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and of the meeting and breakfast by the Sea of Galilee (John 21) are also fabrications.

Habermas on Dodd on Emmaus (Luke 24) and the meeting by the Sea of Galilee (John 21)

In his recently published volume on the resurrection, Habermas has this to say about Dodd's view of these two stories:

It has already been noted that Jesus’s appearance to the women in Matt 28:8–10, then to the disciples in Matt 28:16–20 and John 20:19–21, are other examples of concise texts. On the other hand, Dodd judges that Jesus’s appearance to the two men on the way to Emmaus, as well as John’s three accounts of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene on her return trip to the tomb, to “doubting Thomas,” and at the seashore, do not quite make the same grade of “conciseness.” Habermas 846-847

Here we are faced with an unfortunate but unavoidable dilemma. Either Habermas does realize that Dodd thinks Doubting Thomas, the Road to Emmaus, and the appearance at the seashore are completely invented, or he does not. If he does realize it, the wording here would be so misleading as to be dishonest. But perhaps I should say if he did realize it, since I'm going to opt (in charity) for the other horn of the dilemma: He's radically misunderstood Dodd's statements about these three stories. This is still somewhat unpalatable, since for a scholar of Habermas's fame and standing, writing his magnum opus, seriously to misunderstand another scholar, in the course of an argument based in no small part on statements about what critical scholars believe and grant, is rather serious. But I'm afraid those are our only options. "Do not quite make the same grade of conciseness" (where "concise" narratives are, Habermas summarizes, "deemed likeliest to be reliable," p. 870) is hardly sufficient to describe the view, "Are completely made up." In the previous post I substantiated the fact that Dodd thinks Doubting Thomas is completely made up.

In this post I will argue that Dodd thinks the Road to Emmaus and the meeting by the Sea of Galilee are completely made up.

But first, why might Habermas use the phrase "do not quite make the same grade of conciseness"? At first sight, it is difficult to understand where Habermas gets that language since the claim that there are different "grades" of narratives that are all "concise" is found nowhere in the article by Dodd.

A possible explanation, but one which only points to a further misunderstanding, may be found in a footnote. In the main text on p. 847, Habermas says, concerning the group appearance stories in the Gospels,

The other mentions above are narrated accounts of the appearance(s) to the disciples, and as types or forms, these are usually differentiated by critical scholars.

Habermas follows this sentence with the following footnote (note 33):

Perhaps one would even want to make use of Dodd’s study above and differentiate the narrated appearances even further by distinguishing between the “concise” and the “circumstantial” accounts (or “Tales”), as well as the further differentiation between “Class I” and “Class II” examples of the concise narratives. The distinctions are found in Dodd, “Appearances of the Risen Christ,” particularly 102–9. (Emphasis added)

Habermas appears to be saying that "Class I" and "Class II" are two different types of concise narratives. But as we shall see, this is completely wrong. Class I narratives are, in Dodd, those he calls concise narratives. Class II narratives are the "Tales" in Dodd's classification. They emphatically are not a different "example" or "grade" of concise narratives. This is a very serious blunder in interpreting Dodd. 

It should have been obvious to Habermas that what he says here about Class I and Class II narratives must be wrong, both from the quotations that I give below from Dodd's article, and, if that were not enough, from this simple consideration: If Class II Gospel narratives are a "grade" of concise narratives in Dodd, rather than Tales, then there are no resurrection narratives discussed in Dodd's article that he classifies as Tales. There are no other candidates for Tales in the article besides those he discusses under the heading of "Class II." Yet Dodd makes it clear from the beginning that he intends to apply the distinction between "concise" narratives and Tales to the resurrection stories. So there have to be some resurrection stories that, according to Dodd, are Tales rather than "concise."

Apparently this point did not occur to Habermas, nor did he correctly understand Dodd's extremely clear statements that Class II narratives are the Tales, rather than another "grade" of concise narrative, and this may be what led to the incorrect statement that Dodd merely thinks that the Road to Emmaus and the meeting by the seashore don't quite make the "same grade of conciseness."

Dodd on Class I and Class II narratives

The very first sentences of Dodd's article, on p. 102, read,

The form critics distinguish with some unanimity two main types of narrative in the gospels. Their nomenclature differs, but if we say that there is a concise and a circumstantial type of narrative, we shall beg no questions.

Two main types: concise and circumstantial. 

Dodd then immediately makes it clear that "circumstantial" and "tales" refer to the same form-critical category:

[A]nyone can feel the difference in character between, let us say, the story of the Withered Hand or of the Blessing of the Children, and the stories of the Epileptic Boy and the Gadarene Swine. The latter trace the course of an incident from stage to stage with heightening interest, and make it vivid to the reader by means of arresting details, and traits of character in the actors and interlocutors….All such details are part of the art and craft of the story-teller, who, himself excited by the story he tells, seeks to kindle the imagination of his auditors. These stories are sometimes labelled “Novellen’, for which, perhaps, the best English equivalent is ‘Tales.’ Dodd, p. 102

In other words, "circumstantial" narratives are characterized by circumstantial details, which is what causes Dodd to classify them as "Tales." (As mentioned in the previous post, this is an extremely poor methodological principle, but it is, indeed, Dodd's principle, and one he considers almost beyond question.) 

Dodd continues:

In sharp contrast to these ‘tales’, the ‘concise’ type of narrative tells us nothing which is not absolutely essential to a bare report of what happened or what was said. pp. 102-103

So the Tales and the circumstantial narratives are the same type. and this is contrasted with the concise narratives (which I've referred to as "snippets").

Dodd then proceeds:

These two types of narrative which have been distinguished in the evangelical records of the ministry of Jesus may be recognized also in those parts of the gospels which follow upon the account opf the discovery of the empty Tomb on Easter morning. Here we are given a number of narratives of appearances of the risen Christ to certain of his followers. Some of these narratives have a character similar to that of the ‘Tales’. For example, the stories of the Walk to Emmaus in Lk. xxiv, and of the meal by the Sea of Galilee in Jn. xxi, are full of the kind of dramatic detail and characterization which we have noted in such stories as those of the Epileptic Boy and the Gadarene Swine. On the other hand there are other narratives which equally clearly show the traits of such ‘concise’ narratives as the Withered Hand and the Blessing of the Children. p. 104 

Nothing could be clearer: The Walk to Emmaus and the meeting by the seashore are not concise narratives at all according to Dodd but are instead what he calls "Tales."

Below on that page he outlines what he considers to be features of the concise narratives and then says,

I shall label narratives of this type, Class I, and those of the circumstantial type, Class II. 

In Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (HTFG), Dodd says the same thing. 

Two types [of narrative] are represented, the concise (analogous to so-called 'paradigms'...or 'pronouncement stories') and the circumstantial (analogous to the Novellen, or ‘Tales’). HTFG, p. 143

So, "circumstantial," "Tales," and "Class II" are all different labels for the same thing in Dodd. Class I and Class II are not different "grades" of concise narratives. Rather, Dodd uses the phrase "Class I" for "concise" narratives in his system and "Class II" for "tales," and the Emmaus Road and meeting by the seashore are in the latter category. Habermas has just made a mistake. 

Tales in Dodd are invented 

Well, okay, you may say, maybe Habermas makes a mistaken when he seems to imply that the walk to Emmaus and the meeting by the seashore, according to Dodd, are just a different "grade" of concise narrative rather than tales, but maybe "tales" is such a highly technical term for Dodd that it doesn't really mean that they were fictionally invented.

But what Dodd says in longer quotations really admits of no other interpretation than that he thinks these stories are fictional.

On the Road to Emmaus:

The Walk to Emmaus is a highly-finished literary composition, in which the author, dwelling with loving interest upon every detail of his theme has lost no opportunity of evoking an imaginative response in the reader. We observe also the precise identification of persons and places: the name of one of the travelers, Cleopas; the village of Emmaus, sixty stades from Jerusalem. All these are not traits of a corporate tradition. They are characteristic of the practised story-teller, who knows just how to ‘put his story across’. But further, the writer has used the captivating narrative as a setting for a comprehensive treatment of the theme of Christ’s resurrection in its character of a reunion of the Lord with his followers. The dialogue is so managed that it leads up to a basic programme for the study of ‘testimonies’ from the Old Testament, which was the foundation of the earliest theological enterprise of the primitive Church. The recognition of the Lord at table carries a significant suggestion to a community which made the ‘breaking o bread’ the centre of its fellowship. Not only so: The narrative is so contrived as to include, by means of ‘flash-backs’, the discovery of the empty Tomb, the angelic announcement, and the appearaance of the Lord to Peter…, so that the pericope as a whole forms a kind of summary ‘Gospel of the Resurrection’. It is clear, then, that we have no mere expansion of the general pattern, but a carefully-composed statement, which, in the framework of a narrative of intense dramatic interest, includes most of what (from this evangelist’s point of view) needs to be said about the resurrection of Christ….[T]he dramatic centre of the whole incident is the [anagnorisis]—for it seems proper in this case to use the technical term applied by ancient literary critics to the recognition-scene which was so often the crucial point of a Greek drama. pp. 107-108 (emphasis added)

When Dodd praises the "precise identification of persons and places," he is indicating that these are invented. He is praising them as literary creations. As he has said repeatedly in his article, this is not a matter of literal historical identification but rather of the art of the story-teller, with the intention of "putting his story across." Moreover, Dodd attributes the entire structure of the story to the literary and theological intention of the author to including everything that "needs to be said" about Jesus' resurrection in dramatic fashion in one story. And the dramatic recognition of Jesus itself is there for literary dramatic value. The dialogue is "managed" toward the author's purpose; the narrative is "contrived" for this purpose. It is not that the two on the road actually did mention to Jesus what had happened earlier that day. No, the author makes this up so as to be sure to include the earlier events in this one tale, in the form of flashback. It is not that Jesus, rebuking them for their lack of perception, really did teach them at length about the prophecies (which, by the way, Luke doesn't actually report in detail) but rather that Luke wants to make Jesus say this so as to support the way that the early church used the Old Testament. Dodd's point is that this is a well-crafted fictional story, contrived for theological purposes, rather than a story that comes from a reliable source and tells us what literally happened.

Later in the article Dodd again strongly implies that Luke "makes" characters say things that they didn't really say, as part of his agenda to force a single narrative to include everything that he wants to say about the resurrection.

Luke intends here, as we have seen, to present a kind of comprehensive ‘Gospel of the Resurrection’ within the framework of a single narrative. In pursuance of this intention he makes ‘the Eleven and those who were with them’ cap the remarkable news which Cleopas and his companion have brought from Emmaus by announcing, ‘The Lord has indeed risen, and he appeared to Simon’. pp. 125-126 (emphasis added)

Similarly, in Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospelp. 141, Dodd says that Luke “makes the two travelers rehearse the main facts of Easter morning…” (emphasis added)

Concerning the meeting by the seashore, Dodd speaks similarly, leaving little doubt of his position on its historicity:

The account of the appearance of the Lord to seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee, contained in the appendix to the Fourth Gospel…, is recorded within the framework of a complex narrative, covering a considerable lapse of time from the evening of one day, all through the night, to the morning of a seconde day. The narrative comprises two distinct but interlocking incidents: the fishing of the disciples and breakfast on the shore. Each is told with a wealth of picturesque detail. The incidents are dramatic, the dialogue lively and in character….All this is strictly unnecessary to the main theme. It is characteristic of the story-teller, and reflects his interest in the story and his mastery of his craft. The centre of interest is the recognition of the risen Lord, but here the recognition is not immediate but spread over an appreciable period. It begins with the dramatic exclamation of the beloved disciple, which impels Peter to jump overboard, but it is not complete until the party has landed and Jesus, having invited them to breakfast, distributes bread and fish. The motive of the breaking of bread appears once again, as in the Emmaus story….[T]he pericope does not embody didactic passages in the story itself, which is a straightforward, uninterrupted, dramatic narrative. But it is made to lead up to a significant dialogue, in the course of which Peter receives his apostolic commission. Thus the motive of Matt. xxviii.19 and Jn. xx.21 reappears in a different setting. pp. 108-109 (emphasis added)

As in the Emmaus story in Luke, Dodd here treats the people in this appearance account as the fourth evangelist's characters and the plot as his plot. John makes the action lead up to a significant dialogue between Jesus and Peter. He spreads the recognition of Jesus over a longer period of time than it would take in a concise narrative. The details are created by the evangelist himself as part of a story-teller's craft. John makes the idea of an apostolic commission from Jesus appear in a "different setting" from the one in the concise narratives--in other words, a different dramatic setting. 

Dodd says the same thing about John 21 in HTFG:

There is a tendency [in the circumstantial narratives] to expand section E of the pattern [Jesus’ word of command] with didactic material, having in general the character of a last charge or ‘testament’ to the Church, or else to make the story an introduction to a discourse or dialogue having that character. Thus in John 20.19-21 the appearance of the Lord (which properly ends…with the word of command…) is made to lead up to the gift of the Spirit and the investing of the apostles with authority in the Church; and in [John] 21 the word of command is replaced by the long dialogue with Peter and the Beloved Disciple, 15-23, which is in some sort an equivalent for the commissioning of the apostles in John 20.21b, Matt. 28.18-20, ... Luke 24.44-9. HTFG, p. 144

In this quotation I have deliberately changed the Roman numerals for the references to Arabic, to make more immediately clear the parallels Dodd is drawing. Here once again we see the notion of the author himself expanding a portion of a pattern (there appears to be no idea that he is reporting what actually happened) and making certain things happen in the story for purposes of including material that the author desires to communicate to his readers. Notice too that here Dodd makes it quite clear that the sub-incident of Jesus' breathing on his disciples in John 20 is invented, even though it is portrayed as part of one and the same meeting that includes one of Dodd's concise snippets. This just emphasizes how little it really means that Dodd designates anything as a concise narrative. He's taking a pair of scissors and clipping out a few verses here and there while treating the entire rest of the very same episode as probably ahistorical. I'll have more to say about the "concise" narratives in a later post.

Here, too, Dodd is suggesting that the dialogue with Peter (and the Beloved Disciple) appears in this "Tale" of the meeting by the seashore as an "in some sort an equivalent" of the commissioning of the disciples in completely different stories. But of course the listed references portray entirely different settings and/or different content: The first meeting in Jerusalem on Easter evening, the Great Commission apparently given at a meeting in Galilee on a mountain (hence, not by the seashore), Jesus' words in Jerusalem (in Luke) on the subject of prophecy and of how his disciples are to be his witnesses. These are not "equivalent" at all. It is only in the form critics' mind, which thinks in terms of  motifs forming patterns in form-critical types, rather than literal historical occurrences, that they could be thought of as "in some sort equivalent."


These passages in Dodd remind me of a great phrase coined by the late blogger Steve Hays, referring to some theories of Dan Wallace about Jesus' words. Hayes referred to the view of Jesus in the Wallace article in question as "Silly Putty Jesus." 

Here in Dodd is the same idea. With no self-consciousness at all, Dodd matter-of-factly treats the people involved in these stories, including Jesus, as characters, literary silly putty. Dodd views the stories as literary productions in which things are "made" to happen by the author. The stories themselves, then, are inventions. There really is no room left in Dodd's exposition of these two "Tales" for any historicity to them, as separate incidents. What makes these stories what they are is what separates them from other stories of Jesus' appearances. The Doddean snippet of John 20:19-21 is a completely separate incident in John. Merely to say that Dodd allows for the existence of "concise" narratives that have some similar motifs (such as Jesus appearing, being recognized, commissioning his disciples, etc.) says nothing positive about Dodd's view of the historicity of these distinct stories, in which people meet Jesus under specific circumstances and have specific conversations with him. For Dodd, the Emmaus Road and the disciples' meeting with Jesus by the seashore are just inventions.

If you, like Habermas, do not see that, there's not much more I can do to convince you, but I think you should be able to see that from the extensive quotations given here.

Next up in this series: What Dodd really says about the meeting between Jesus and "the eleven" in Luke 24:36-49, and Habermas's erroneous summary of Dodd's opinion on that story.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

More on independence after a recent conversation

Two days ago (5/20/24) I had a very interesting conversation about minimal facts with theist (but not at this time Christian) Youtuber and philosophy student Matthew Adelstein. Toward the end of our conversation he brought up the issue of independence, multiplying Bayes factors, and the very large cumulative Bayes factor in Tim's and my 2009 paper on the resurrection. Matthew was critical of this very large cumulative factor on the grounds a) that it's just too large for any empirical matter (I just disagree) and b) that if some non-resurrection explanation would explain some of the individual testimonies, it would probably explain more of them, so that there should be diminishing returns, and the individual Bayes factors should not be multiplied.

In our conversation, I felt that this very interesting and complex topic was arising too close to the end of our time together to receive a good enough discussion, so I indicated serious awareness of it and tried to make a somewhat different but related point about maximal data, which was the topic of our overall conversation. But I'm concerned that that looked dismissive, so I've decided to follow up here.

Here I'd like to restate that point that I was trying to make in the video and also discuss some more of the issues surrounding independence in the argument for the resurrection.

In the discussion context, I was urging the importance of the maximal data approach and mentioned that in Tim's and my original resurrection article, the Bayes factor that we used was explicitly based on the claim that the detailed, polymodal resurrection stories in the Gospels give us the content of what the original (alleged) witnesses claimed. Matt immediately stated that he thinks that Bayes factor is wildly over-optimistic anyway and gave as one of his reasons the problem of independence. The cumulative Bayes factor was calculated by multiplying individual disciple testimony factors together.

The point that I wanted to make in response in the video was this: Even the individual Bayes factors of 10^3 depended upon the polymodal and detailed nature of the claims. For any one ostensible witness, the question arises whether this is the kind of thing that he could be simply mistaken about, whether it was the kind of thing that, if he really experienced it, would reasonably lead him to think that Jesus was risen bodily (as opposed to unreasonably over-interpreting his experience), and whether it was the kind of thing that could have some other plausible non-resurrection explanation. The answers to these questions depend crucially upon the content of the testimony. If we don't have detailed testimony but just something like "He was seen by the disciples," that makes it much harder to argue for even a single strong Bayes factor in favor of the resurrection. And if many liberal scholars are right that the disciples didn't experience anything detailed and physical-like, as reported in the Gospels, in a group, then a "mistaken" option of some kind becomes much more plausible. (I note here that Matthew himself, earlier in our discussion, really pressed on the idea that the Gospels have signs of "development" and "apologetic additions," so he should be in a good position to realize how important it is to have a good answer to these claims that the most interesting parts of the Gospel narratives are just made up!)

So even before we get to the concern about independence and multiplying Bayes factors, the issues between minimalists and maximalists become relevant. In raising Tim's and my Blackwell article, I wasn't trying to inaugurate a debate about the actual cumulative Bayes factor we gave there; rather, I was trying to point out that even that long ago we were advocating a maximalist approach in the sense that we recognized the extreme epistemic importance of the detailed and extensive nature of the disciples' testimony, which can be found only in the Gospels (and Acts) if it is to be found anywhere.

Next, I want to point out that the detailed Gospel accounts are also related to the issue of independence and group appearances in a way that is positive for the resurrection case. In a series of technical articles, I've picked up on a suggestion that Tim made in the Blackwell article and run with it; this suggestion concerns a way of correcting for dependence among individual items of evidence. A slightly non-technical way to describe it is to say that we need to ask whether the individual items of evidence are more dependent upon one another given the affirmation of the hypothesis in question (in this case, the resurrection) or more dependent upon one another given its negation, and finally what the ratio is between dependence given the affirmation and given the negation of H. I argued here (in the journal Ergo) that independence given the negation sheds important light on the value of diverse evidence, long recognized in the philosophy of science. In two other articles (not currently available online for free) I discussed the use of the correction factor to correct for dependence in cumulative case arguments. (It appears that I now have permission to post the accepted manuscript version of both of these to a personal website. If I do that I'll post links here. Otherwise, if you are an academic, you probably have institutional electronic access to the journals in question. The Ergo article is available by open access.)

“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.

“Bayes Factors All the Way: Toward a New View of Coherence and Truth,” Theoria (2016) 82:329-350. DOI 10.1111/theo.12102.

Matthew was emphasizing the plausibility of dependence on the negation of R: If something-or-other had the explanatory power to explain one disciple's testimony to a group experience, given that R was false, then that same something-or-other would plausibly explain some other disciple's testimony, given ~R. 

But that's not even close to being the only question. Consider the possibility of dependence on R given the following aspects of the testimony: 

--Jesus appeared to them in various groupings.
--Jesus didn't just appear visually in some paranormal-like way; rather, he was tangible and audible as well, to multiple people at a time, on more than one occasion.
--On multiple occasions, he gave long speeches and/or had detailed conversations with multiple people at once.
--On more than one occasion, he was able to eat and on one occasion even suggested to them that they give him something to eat in order to show that he was not a ghost.
--It seemed to them, in groups, that Jesus was physically present in the room, present in 3D, solid, standing before them with his feet on the ground, not floating in the sky or appearing from heaven.

Now, suppose that Jesus really rose bodily from the dead--R. (I am not counting as R merely his exaltation to heaven.) In that case, if one of his friends claims the above things, including that that person himself was present at such a group experience (T1), then the probability that another such friend will say the same (T2), given (R & T1), is greater than given R alone. T1 gives us information about when and how Jesus appeared to a group or groups, leading us to have greater reason to expect multiple testimonies indicating the same type of thing. An analogy would be this: Let H be, "Lydia McGrew lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan." Let T1 be some specific person's statement, "I saw Lydia McGrew at____church in Michigan on ____date, at the morning service." Let T2 be a similar testimony from some other person who goes to that church. P(T2|H & T1) > P(T2|H). There is helpful dependence among the testimonies given the truth of the proposition that I live in Kalamazoo, since the statement that I was really present on a particular occasion in a particular place in Kalamazoo, attested by one witness, gives us reason to believe that I was genuinely, physically encountered on that occasion by more than one person and hence that someone else will also be able to confirm this.

What all this means is that there is arguably dependence on R among the attestations by multiple disciples, not just on ~R. (And as I've pointed out in some recent videos, Acts 1 very carefully lists the eleven by name and reports that Peter urged the election of a replacement, who ended up being Matthias, so that there would be at least twelve people to attest to Jesus' resurrection.)

Moreover, the importance of the highly detailed stories in the Gospels to a cumulative Bayes factor is also relevant to dependence on the negation. Here's why: Above I mentioned that dependence on the negation involves some kind of subhypothesis of ~H, a something-or-other that would explain one testimony for H (though H is false) and would simultaneously explain multiple testimonies to H (though H is false). Something we emphasized in our Blackwell article is that the probability of a subhypothesis of ~H given ~H is an important issue when it comes to how helpful that subhypothesis is in explaining away evidence for H. (Actually I think I coined the term "subhypothesis" later than that article and used it in the Ergo article, which I wrote individually, but the concept is there, and the point about the probability given ~H was originally Tim's.) The specific subhypothesis of ~R that would act as the "something-or-other" mentioned above becomes more and more bizarre and improbable given ~H itself when it has to explain the detailed stories in the Gospels. This is extremely important. 

One skeptic (Arif Ahmed) has written a technical article about dependence given the negation of a miracle story with reference to an event like a magic show, someone appearing to walk across a swimming pool in front of a large audience.

But in the case of the Gospel stories, the disciples are all present together in a place where they are able to get close to Jesus. He invites them to touch him. He talks to them at length. Etc. This is far more difficult to account for than some kind of illusion, put across to an audience sitting at a performance, using modern technological resources for creating illusions. It's all very well to say that if something-or-other could explain why one person would describe such a group experience, even though Jesus wasn't bodily risen, it's somewhat plausible that multiple people who were allegedly present at the same event would say the same. But when we consider these details, what would such a something-or-other be? It's precisely here that group hallucination theories become so improbable. Even if you think that there are real group hallucinations in some sense (like a bunch of people simultaneously thinking they see some shape at a distance, which they identify with a saint), these kinds of detailed, polymodal, lengthy group hallucinations are the kind that we really can say we don't have any instances of. 

This supports the point I was making in the conversation--namely, the great importance of a maximal data approach. The minimalists like to brush off the hallucination possibility; what they don't seem to realize is that really wildly improbable hallucination theories aren't in fact needed to explain the facts found in a minimal facts case. For suppose that all that we had, instead, were summary statements like those found in I Corinthians 15--he appeared to the twelve, he appeared to this person, he appeared to that person. No criticism of the Apostle Paul. He's just giving a summary. He couldn't have known that in the 20th and 21st centuries people would be trying to lean on his summary instead of more detailed accounts! If we have no idea what their experiences were like, we are fairly free to develop some not-R subhypothesis that would explain such bare claims, even from multiple people. This, indeed, is what Bart Ehrman himself does. He says that he doesn't grant group experiences anyway, but that if they did have group experiences, they were merely seeing at a distance, like alleged Marian apparitions. Norman Perrin suggests that they had some feeling of theological enlightenment while they were together (that Jesus was "risen into their lives") and that this (he may also have in mind some kind of garden-variety mental imagery) was called "seeing" Jesus. 

Or suppose that we had to make our argument for Jesus' bodily resurrection while relying on "the appearance experiences" as understood by Dale Allison. Allison thinks that Jesus spoke only briefly and that the highly physical-like experiences, like his asking for food to eat and offering to let Thomas touch his scars, simply didn't happen. (Notice here the similarity to Matthew's own concerns about "apologetic development" in the accounts, shared by so many critical scholars.) In that case it's much  easier to find a subhypothesis of ~R that explains even multiple testimonies to that sort of experience. Indeed, that's Allison's whole point. In his opinion, the experiences were vision-like rather than physical-like. So some sort of exaltation followed by visions rather than a bodily resurrection (R) would make a better explanation of the fact that multiple people testified to...vision-like experiences. 

One more point: As I've argued in an older post, there is variation present in the maximal data resurrection evidence that we didn't really access in the Blackwell article. Remember that variation in testimony is helpful in avoiding dependence on the negation of H. This includes variation in the backgrounds of the people involved, their peer groups and influences on them, the geographical settings of the events, and the groupings involved. While the post refers specifically to conspiracy theories, the same point is relevant to "mistake" theories and dependence on the negation of H.

This has been a rather technical post, but I didn't want it to seem that I was brushing off Matthew's question about dependence on the negation, and I've decided to put this into a blog post, as that is a more permanent form (more so than Facebook) for such lengthy comments.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Gary Habermas's misunderstandings of C. H. Dodd, Part 1: Intro and Doubting Thomas

This is Part 1. Links to other posts in the series will be added as they are published.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4


It's been a long time since I wrote in blog post form, but I decided that this is a good format for this information. Eventually all parts of this series will be linked at the top of this first post.

For several years now I've been publicly criticizing the "minimal facts" approach to arguing for the resurrection. Here is my three-part series on this topic from 2021. But there are multiple different ways in which the minimal facts argument has problems. In that series I focused on the epistemological problems with the very structure of the argument. In order to claim a large scholarly consensus for the "appearance" fact in the argument, scholars have to be counted who actually deny the phenomenological kind of experiences needed actually to support the bodily resurrection. Just affirming that the disciples had some kind of experience doesn't automatically support the resurrection if (as most non-conservative scholars think) we either have no way of knowing what kind of experiences they had (or claimed to have had) or they had a kind of experience that (given that it was the only type of experience they had) would count against a bodily resurrection instead. You can read more about that in the other series.

It is important that Christians not use deeply faulty arguments, and it behoves Christians to be open to internal critique of the arguments that we use.

In the present series I'm going to explore a different, but related, problem.

Most of the claims being made by minimalists about what "the majority of scholars across the spectrum" believe are based upon literature surveys performed by other people; we don't have the raw data. Nor are these claims based on question-and-answer surveys in which scholars answer questions put directly to them. So we're dependent on those who did the literature surveys to interpret scholars' writings correctly and to represent that data correctly. Recently on my Youtube channel (here and here) I discussed a sheer mistake (a pretty big one) about the authorship of Mark that made it into Dr. Gary Habermas's recently published book on the resurrection.

An important place where problems can arise for the MFA is in Habermas's own interpretations of scholarly writings and his statistical calculations. Many (including myself in the past) are inclined just to take his word for it that he interpreted what he read correctly and found that x% of scholars think y. But as I've begun chasing down his footnotes and reading the scholars he summarizes for myself, I've found a disturbing number of cases where the scholar just doesn't seem to be saying what Habermas attributes to him. The problem has become so severe that at this point I literally do not think that Habermas's summary of what a scholar thinks has much value at all, and even when he gives a short quotation, I want to chase down the context. It's not that I think he's being deliberately deceptive. It's just that unfortunately he's not doing a good job of interpretation at all. He's highly over-optimistic. After finding so many serious mistakes of interpretation, t's impossible to avoid the impression that he deeply desires to find critical scholars who grant something exciting and helpful to an apologetic case for the resurrection. This seems to have severely compromised his ability to understand what he's reading. He seems to be skimming rapidly, sometimes quote-mining, and often summarizing in a way that gives an inaccurate impression. Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to have to come to this conclusion.

This matters because the minimal facts case is based upon aggregated data supposedly showing what a "majority of scholars across the ideological spectrum" think about something. It heavily emphasizes the allegedly surprising concessions made by non-conservative scholars.

This problem of interpretation matters even when Habermas is inconsistent in his methodology and tries to supplement claims about the "majority of scholars" by speaking confusingly of "underlying data" and using the views of selected, somewhat less-critical scholars whose views are not representative of "the majority across the critical spectrum." Nor do their views represent  "underlying data" that explains the alleged concessions made by their more skeptical colleagues. C. H. Dodd is one of these. (E.g. Dodd's form criticism is not "underlying data" that explains why, say, Gerd Ludemann thinks that the disciples had some kind of experiences after Jesus' crucifixion.) I've found minimalists inaccurately summarizing or making inaccurate implications about the views not only of very skeptical scholars like Gerd Ludemann and Norman Perrin (see here on Perrin) but also of relative "moderates" like Dodd and E. P. Sanders.

This serious interpretive issue plagues the MFA in addition to the epistemological issues I've pointed out elsewhere. To see how these two issues work, consider the "minimal fact" about James. First we have to ask whether, as Habermas claims, a majority of scholars "across the theological spectrum" believe that Jesus' brother James was converted by what he took to be an experience of the risen Jesus. There is reason to doubt this, given the interpretive issues we find when we read some of the scholars Habermas cites as believing this.  Is Habermas including scholars in this supposed majority who don't even say that James was converted by an appearance experience? Is he including scholars who don't clearly address that question? Is he including some (like Dale Allison) who think it's just as likely, for all we know, that he converted first and had a vision of Jesus later? Beyond that, we would still have to ask what the epistemological payoff of this is within the MFA context, in which supposedly we are able to grant that the Gospels are unreliable. Are many of these scholars saying that James had a non-physical-like experience (an experience that didn't even seem like Jesus was physically present) and converted irrationally? (See here for my discussion of a maximal data use of the conversion of James, in which we do not grant the unreliability of the Gospels and Acts.)

In this series on Dodd I'm not going to discuss that James question and why I think Habermas is over-counting scholars who grant his "minimal fact" about James. I'm just using it as an example to show how the misinterpretation/overinterpretation issue dogs the MFA in addition to other problems of epistemological structure.

General Background on Dodd

C. H. Dodd's article on post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (pp. 102-133 in the anthology which you can e-borrow legally free, here) is very important to Habermas and has been for decades. Habermas treats Dodd as a famous scholar who nonetheless has supposedly detected some kind of historically interesting and helpful "core" narratives within the Gospels' resurrection stories. Since Dodd is in fact a critical scholar, Habermas sometimes speaks as though his conclusions can be used as-is by a minimal facts apologist as arguments for the resurrection, without asking whether these allegedly helpful admissions by Dodd are really "granted by the vast majority of scholars."

Classifying Dodd is a whole interesting issue in itself. As D. A. Carson notes, some scholars who are more liberal than Dodd think Dodd's too conservative, because he admits that there is some history in the Gospel of John. From an evangelical perspective, Dodd falls into the wide category of liberal scholars due to the fact that he takes it for granted that the Gospel authors felt free to make stuff up, including whole incidents--a point that we'll see illustrated repeatedly in this series. Dodd thinks several of the resurrection narratives were completely made up. It would probably be legitimate to speak of Dodd as a "moderate" on the spectrum of actual New Testament scholars. 

This means that even if Dodd says something that sounds rather conservative-ish, it cannot be automatically considered typical of what "all scholars across the scholarly spectrum" think or of what "underlies" what they think. An example that I'll be discussing later is this: He admits half-reluctantly and with many qualifications to having a "feeling," which he emphasizes can be "no more than a feeling" that there is something indefinably "first hand" about the story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus at the tomb, told in John 20. I seriously doubt that any scholars more liberal than Dodd himself--and there are plenty of those--have that same indefinable feeling about that specific scene. (Dale Allison, something of a moderate scholar himself, is quite explicit about this. In The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 29, he says that he does not share Dodd's feeling and that the most he thinks we can conclude is that there was probably some old tradition about a "Christophany" to Mary Magdalene after Jesus' death. Which, it must be emphasized, Allison sees as fully compatible with the entire invention of the actual scene between Jesus and Mary in John 20.)

So one shouldn't assume that, just because Dodd was a highly respected critical scholar, his positions are those held by a large majority of scholars, nor even that Bart Ehrman or some other skeptic is epistemologically obligated to accept Dodd's position if he says something helpful to the resurrection argument. 

But it seems like a rhetorical coup to find what sound like exciting admissions from a critical scholar of Dodd's standing. Habermas likes to use Dodd's article on resurrection appearances of Jesus because it is a critical scholarly article and yet says that there are some kind of early traditions that lie behind (some of) the stories in the Gospels. This is supposed to mean that we can make an argument, using Dodd, that non-conservatives at least should feel themselves obligated to accept, since Dodd is using a non-naive, critical methodology. 

But the epistemological value of what Dodd really says about the Gospel resurrection narratives is, I will argue, extremely meagre. Dodd's methodology when discussing the resurrection appearance stories in the Gospels leaves very little to work with in arguing for the resurrection when one understands him accurately. And most unfortunately, Habermas doesn't realize this.

Background on Dodd and resurrection narratives

Dodd claims to be able to discern within some of the Gospel resurrection stories an earlier layer of "corporate tradition." Each one of these "concise" segments is no more than a little snippet of text--usually no more than a few verses apiece. For example, Matthew 28:8-10 (one of these "concise narratives") is only a tiny portion of the story, which Matthew tells as a continuous narrative, of the women finding the tomb and then seeing Jesus on the road. Similarly, Dodd designates John 20:19-21 as one of these "concise" narratives, even though it is continuous with Jesus' breathing on the disciples (immediately after) and the story of Doubting Thomas. Dodd claims to be able to use form criticism to pick out these tiny snippets from the rest of the story and designate them as representing "corporate tradition." It is misleading to speak of these tiny snippets as containing the "basic facts" or the "gist" of the story. After all, Jesus' breathing on the disciples is as much a part of the narrative in John as Jesus' greeting the disciples. The women's seeing the angel at the tomb is as much a part of the narrative in Matthew as their seeing Jesus a little while later. So Dodd is already cutting out most of these narratives before coming up with these snippets.

As I'll argue in a later post, even when Dodd has whittled a story down to one of these tiny snippets, he still thinks that these snippets sometimes contain "apologetic expansions"--these being (no surprise) the parts like the women grasping Jesus' feet which are most relevant to an argument for Jesus' bodily resurrection. One of Habermas's important misunderstandings of Dodd, which I'll discuss in detail later, is that he doesn't seem to realize that Dodd casts doubt on important aspects even of the "concise" snippets themselves.

But some stories don't even, in Dodd's view, have such 3-4-verse snippets of "corporate tradition" embedded within them. They don't even rate that "high," historically. Dodd calls some of these "doubtful" or "intermediate" and others "Tales," the latter being a form-critical term for a heavily fictionalized work made up by a really good story-teller who crafts a (literarily) high-quality narrative to make theological points that are important to him while entertaining his audience. As we'll see in the next post in this series, Dodd places both the story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and the story of the encounter with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee (John 21) into this category of "tales," but Habermas doesn't seem to realize that Dodd does so, nor what the designation of "tales" means for historicity.

There are a few resurrection appearance stories that Dodd says don't fall clearly into either of these categories ("concise" or "Tales"). He calls these "mixed," "doubtful" or "intermediate" in form, but as we shall see, that doesn't mean that, in Dodd's view, they are close to history. In fact, a story can, in Dodd's view, be completely made up yet fall into this so-called "intermediate" category. The Doubting Thomas story is one of these.

Let me add right here that this whole form-critical method of claiming to be able to use some kind of scholarly second sight to discern an underlying layer of tradition "behind" the actual stories we have is all nonsense. And in fact, Richard Bauckham is pretty anti-form criticism, and Habermas wants to use Bauckham's arguments elsewhere in the book, without apparently realizing that these so-called "widely-used standards" (a phrase Habermas uses for Dodd's method of approaching the resurrection stories) have come under pretty strong doubt in recent decades, and not even just from "fundamentalists." In fact, there are no legitimate "standards" involved here. There is nothing more apparently historical about John 20:19-21 than about the verses following it. Dodd's method is heavily subjective and highly dubious. Be that as it may, this is Dodds' approach, and a major problem is that Habermas doesn't understand at all how little it leaves of the Gospel resurrection stories.

Habermas on Dodd on Doubting Thomas

In this series I will argue that the statements Habermas makes in his recently published resurrection book represent very serious misunderstandings of what Dodd says about resurrection appearance narratives in the Gospels. Let's start with Doubting Thomas.

Here is what Habermas has to say about Dodd on Doubting Thomas (and some other stories that we'll discuss later): 

It has already been noted that Jesus’s appearance to the women in Matt 28:8–10, then to the disciples in Matt 28:16–20 and John 20:19–21, are other examples of concise texts. On the other hand, Dodd judges that Jesus’s appearance to the two men on the way to Emmaus, as well as John’s three accounts of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene on her return trip to the tomb, to “doubting Thomas,” and at the seashore, do not quite make the same grade of “conciseness.” Habermas, On the Resurrection, Vol. 1, 846-847.

On C. H. Dodd’s very influential grid of “concise” narratives versus the “tales” or “circumstantial” accounts already discussed in an earlier chapter, the “concise” passages indicate those Gospel texts that are “drawn directly from the oral tradition” or that “represent most closely the corporate oral tradition of the primitive Church.” The significance here is that these “concise” narratives are deemed likeliest to be reliable reports. According to these widely used standards, John 20:19–21 makes the grade as a concise narrative, while John 20:26–29 is viewed as a sort of appendage to the earlier account, in that it depends on it for much of its meaning.

Perhaps quite surprisingly, the Jesus Seminar also lists John 20:19–23 as a “concise” account, while referring to John 20:26–29 as an “intermediate” story, which is also a category used by Dodd. The Seminar employs this group of texts as those being ranked somewhere in between “concise” passages and “legends.” Brown also agrees with Dodd (given a few caveats) regarding the “concise” designation for John 20:19–23, though he concludes that John actually created the Thomas story. Still, the respect given to at least the first appearance to the disciples (and to a lesser degree the Thomas account, at least for Dodd and the Seminar) all the way across the wide range of views from Brown and Dodd to the members of the Jesus Seminar is rather amazing. Habermas, 870-871.

Page numbers throughout this series are to the Kindle version of Habermas's book.

In these passages Habermas downplays Dodd's historical dismissal of the non-concise stories and gives the impression that they are just slightly less historical (in Dodd's view) than the "concise" ones, and even that Dodd gives them some measure of historical respect. From reading what Habermas says there, one would get the impression that Dodd thinks that the stories of Doubting Thomas, of Jesus' meeting with the disciples by the seashore in John 21, and of the Road to Emmaus (in Luke) just don't quiite "make the same grade of conciseness" as other stories (and hence don't quite make the same grade of probable historicity). 

Habermas's contrast between Dodd and Brown on Doubting Thomas gives the impression that Dodd thinks that John didn't wholly invent the Doubting Thomas story. Notice that Habermas says that Brown (sort of) agrees with Dodd about the earlier appearance story of Jesus in John 20:19-21, though Brown thinks that John invented the Doubting Thomas story. 

But actually, Dodd also thinks that John invented Doubting Thomas.

What Dodd really says about Doubting Thomas

Dodd could scarcely be clearer on this matter:

The story of Doubting Thomas is a pendant to the ‘concise’ narrative of the appearance to the Disciples in 20:19-21….It hardly forms a separable pericope, for it is not fully intelligible without the connecting narrative of 20:24-25. Its theological and apologetic motives are obvious. Its broad pattern scarcely differs from that of our typical’concise’ narratives of Class I, and there is little in the way of picturesque detail (not directly demanded by the main motive) to associate it with the ‘circumstantial’ narratives of Class II. Thomas is hardly an individual as Mary Magdalen is; he is a type of the ‘some’ who ‘doubted’, according to Matt. 28:17. We should not be far wrong in saying that John has chosen to split up the composite traditional picture of a group, some of whom recognize the Lord while others doubt, and to give contrasting pictures of the believers and the doubter, in order to make a point which is essentially theological. (Dodd, "Appearances," pp. 115-116, emphasis added)

Of course, the fact that the Doubting Thomas story depends on vss. 19-21 for background context in no way implies a positive historical evaluation of the Doubting Thomas incident. But more: Habermas, as quoted above, apparently thinks that Dodd is giving at least some degree of "respect" to the Doubting Thomas story (just not as much as to the "concise" narratives), and that he is not saying (as Brown does) that John made it up. 

Habermas's apparent reason for this is that Dodd says that the story isn't a circumstantial narrative. ("Circumstantial" is another word that Dodd uses for "Tales.") The false assumption here (which Dodd's own words refute) is that circumstantial detail is the only type of thing that leads Dodd to claim that something is fictional. 

(It should go without saying that Dodd is completely wrong to think that circumstantial detail indicates fictionalization by a tale-teller. If anything, verisimilitude should be an indication of historicity, all the more so when, as in the Gospels, the document presents itself as historical and when its verisimilitude does not resemble the ancient fiction that we have. But this upside-down view of the epistemological importance of detail is held by Dodd.) 

What Habermas apparently doesn't see is that psychological realism and circumstantial detail are not the only routes by which Dodd concludes fictional status.  

In the case of Doubting Thomas, Dodd seems to be reasoning from (what he views as) the lack of psychological depth in Thomas to the fictional status of the story. (So it's heads John loses, tails John loses.) While Dodd doesn't think the Doubting Thomas story has the high literary quality that he attributes to the "tales," he thinks he can tell that it's made-up because, he says, Thomas is just a "type" of the doubter, and John is rebuking and rebutting that doubt by personifying it in Thomas and making up a story of how Jesus rebuked and refuted it.

(Supplementary point: Dale Allison, The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 64, thinks that Doubting Thomas is made up for apologetic purposes and quotes Dodd's words above in support of his own view.)

For good measure, if there could still be any doubt of Dodd's view here (and there shouldn't be), here is a passage saying the very same thing in slightly different words in his rather famous book on John, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel.

John, it appears, has brought out this contrast of belief and unbelief by making Thomas the spokesman of the incredulous, and representing him as having been absent when Christ appeared to his disciples. HTFG, p. 145 (emphasis added)

And on that "dependent" status with the earlier verses:

The episode of Doubting Thomas in xx.26-9 is linked with the preceding episode in a way which is no less artificial than subtle. HTFG, p. 149 (emphasis added)

If the story of Doubting Thomas were true, there would be nothing artificial, nor for that matter subtle, about the link between it and the preceding verses telling about Jesus' first appearance to the male disciples. It's a very natural connection and presents itself as a simple statement of fact: Thomas wasn't there the first time, and that's why he doubts, then he is there when Jesus comes to them again a week later. The connection is only "artificial" if you think it's made up.

One more quote from Historical Tradition is relevant here:

[W]e may say that the tradition behind the Fourth Gospel, as distinct from the gospel in its present form, knew, like Matthew, only one appearance of the Risen Christ in Jerusalem...HTFG, pp. 149-150 (emphasis added)

The logic (for interpreting Dodd) is inescapable: If the only historical tradition lying behind the Gospel of John contained only one appearance in Jerusalem, then, since John narrates two appearances in Jerusalem to the male disciples, one of them must be ahistorically invented without its own separate historical tradition behind it. 

Dodd's words about Doubting Thomas make it clear that that story is the one that, in his opinion, the evangelist invented without even a historical "core." That it doesn't fall into the allegedly highly polished literary type of a "circumstantial" narrative makes no difference to that historical judgement on Dodd's part.

That Habermas does not see that Dodd considers the story a total fiction, given Dodd's clear statement about John's "splitting up the composite traditional picture of a group" in order to make a theological point, is rather disturbing.

Next up: Two "tales" discussed by Dodd, which Habermas doesn't seem to realize that Dodd considers fictional.