Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Greco-Roman bioi and traditional authorship of the Gospels

Yesterday at a lunch with a well-known apologist, the "bioi thesis" about the Gospels came up, as did the fact that the famously bull-dog-ish inerrantist Norm Geisler is opposed to the thesis. I don't follow Geisler and haven't read anything he's said about that specific topic, and I'm not an inerrantist in the usual sense of the word, but I launched into a little rant (so I'm told by on-lookers) about how it's actually understandable that someone would have problems with the thesis as it's currently being promoted. And especially that Geisler would.

One of the most difficult points here is that there are various things one could mean by saying that the gospels "are" something so specific as Greco-Roman bioi.

What people naturally think when they hear that scholarship is now showing this is that scholarship is giving us good reason to believe that the authors of the gospels were actually influenced by Greco-Roman literature and were consciously working in such a specific literary genre. Well, I've read Burridge's locus classicus on the subject, and I'm here to tell you that Burridge gives no strong defense of any such clear, causal thesis. He has only a few pages even touching on that specific question, and the arguments there are very weak. They are mostly arguments for the bare possibility of such influence, which in turn are sometimes based upon the assumption that the books were not written by the traditional authors (more about that in a moment). In addition he has a couple of very weak arguments such as, for example, the hypothesis that Matthew and Luke were deliberately including infancy narratives and genealogies for Jesus in order to bring their works more into line with the conventions of Greco-Roman bioi, in contrast to Mark, which still (Burridge thinks) "counts" as being in the genre by family resemblance but which has fewer of the characteristics. Now, this is a really poor argument. Jews were obsessed with genealogy. Of course Matthew would include one if he thought he had one! Moreover, all of this material is of intrinsic interest. If either Matthew or Luke believed he had information about Jesus' genealogy and infancy, it would be worth including for its own sake. No Greco-Roman influence is necessary.

For the most part, however, Burridge is more like a person sorting rocks by color. "Greco-Roman bioi" is like "the blue rock pile." He puts very little energy into arguing for a causal thesis, being more interested in what he himself calls "family resemblance." But rocks may end up in a blue pile because they were painted blue or because they have different kinds of minerals in them, and so forth. A generic family resemblance claim is just a thesis about the very general characteristics of the narratives, and those characteristics are so broad that they don't require any very specific causal history to explain them beyond the obvious intention to write a medium-length, generally historical work about the life of a particular individual. It's unfortunate, then, that such a specific term as "Greco-Roman bioi" has come to be used, because it sounds like something technical that really means that the best explanation is actual literary influence. Burridge even hypothesizes that one or more of the gospels may have fallen into the bioi genre by accident! But of course if that were the case, then the genre designation itself gives us no independent evidence, beyond what we could have gathered in much less specific terms, regarding the author's intentions. That is, we can't infer, "Because this author considered himself to be writing within the Greco-Roman bioi genre, he and his audience would have had such-and-such expectations about his relationship to truth."

Of course, simply by reading the gospels with common sense, one can see that they intend to be presenting memoirs of Jesus that are truthful. As C.S. Lewis once said, anybody who thinks the gospels are myths doesn't know anything about myths. But that sense of "genre" is not something we particularly need classical learning to gather, nor does it give us additional information.

Originally I believe that the bioi thesis was welcomed as a corrective to the ludicrous view that we have no idea whether or not the gospels are intended to be historical. In that sense, the bioi thesis was seen as giving us a "floor" to the amount of ahistoricity to attribute to the gospels: They wouldn't be less historical than this, because they are really intended to be biographies of Jesus.

But when scholars grabbed the thesis and ran with it, and especially when they considered that it could be taken as established that there was actual Greco-Roman influence on the intentions of the gospel authors, something rather different happened. Repeatedly, one apologist has argued that the gospel authors would have considered themselves "licensed" to change things in the gospels because they were writing in the bioi genre, and the bioi genre "allowed" for such license. But this is a confusion. Burridge never argues that anything that falls into his family resemblance pile would have been written by an author who considered himself licensed to change historical fact! Rather, the genre itself (the pile of "blue rocks") contains some documents that, scholars think, bear a somewhat looser connection to historical facts. So it is the genre as a whole that is "flexible," in the sense that it contains both less and more stringently historical works, not the individual authors that are "flexible," in the sense that they all consider themselves licensed in virtue of the genre to change historical facts.

When the "Greco-Roman bioi" thesis is used in this way to argue for a sense of license, it produces a ceiling to the reliability of the accounts. It implies that we shouldn't consider them to be more precise, more accurate, more reliable than such-and-such a level, because after all, they were writing "Greco-Roman bioi," so they would have thought of themselves as "licensed" to take some liberties with the facts. But that has never been established at all.

Moreover (and this is where I get to my title), if one really takes it that the authors of the gospels were educated in such a way as to be actually influenced by Greco-Roman literature, this is negatively relevant to the traditional ascriptions of authorship. It may not be strictly impossible, but it isn't very probable that John the son of Zebedee, Matthew the tax collector, and Peter the fisherman and apostle (to whom the content of Mark is attributed), or his young Jewish relative John Mark, would have been trained in Greco-Roman literature. Indeed, the higher probability is that they had little or no contact with it at all. Luke the physician might be different, given that he was probably a Gentile and writes a particularly high type of Greek.

As I mentioned above, Burridge, in arguing for the possibility of contact with Greco-Roman literature, assumes that the traditional ascriptions of authorship have no scholarly weight. This is understandable. He's a classicist and is just taking "mainstream New Testament scholarship" at face value. So, for example, he says that someone in the Johannine community, which wrote the gospel of John (!), might have been classically educated.

Nor am I bringing this up in a fundamentalist fashion: "Oh, noes! If I accept this thesis I may have to abandon traditional authorship. What shall I dooooo??"

The point, rather, is this: The traditional authorship of the gospels has extremely strong external evidence for it, evidence that would be accepted without question if these were any other ancient documents. The pull against traditional authorship has been entirely driven, originally, in the messed-up field of New Testament studies, by hyper-skeptical biases. Then even some conservative and evangelical scholars have gotten nervous and diffident, because they don't want to go up against the whole field, so they are unwilling to take their stand on the strong external (and internal) evidence. So they may believe in traditional authorship themselves but are unwilling to say that this is the only reasonable position, given all the evidence.

To the extent that we have strong evidence for the traditional authorship of, say, John (and we do) or of Matthew, we have reason to be skeptical about the thesis that the author of John was actually influenced by Greco-Roman bioi. And as for the claim that a young Matthew "would have been taught" some literary compositional devices of Greco-Roman writing as a boy in school, there is reason to be very skeptical indeed. That is going not only far beyond the evidence but, indeed, contrary to the evidence. (Moreover, the idea that these "compositional textbooks," which were giving writing exercises, were teaching kids that it's totally okay for serious history to fictionalize is dubious in itself.)

I've already said some of this in earlier posts (here, here, and here), but I think it needs to be repeated because, as I heard at lunch yesterday, "The bioi thesis is where scholarship is at right now." This appeal to "where the scholarship is at" just really doesn't impress me. There are much more robust and direct ways to argue that the gospel authors were writing true history than a round-the-barn, weakly supported thesis that they viewed themselves as writing within a Greco-Roman genre. And an approach that doesn't try to do it that way also doesn't saddle itself with a causal thesis that pulls against the strong evidence for traditional authorship. And no, it shouldn't matter if nobody outside of the evangelical world takes traditional authorship of, say, Matthew and John seriously. Who cares? Popularity is not a good test of truth or of evidential strength. Moreover, to the extent that "the bioi thesis" is now being used to undermine a strong concept of the reliability of the gospels, it's doing harm, so it isn't a bandwagon we should be eager to jump on. If that's what's bothering Geisler, then I must say that I can't view him as a witch-hunter or a scholarly knuckle-dragger on account of his opposition to the thesis. There are reasons to be concerned here and to call for a rethinking, and not only from an inerrantist perspective.

Monday, February 27, 2017

One catchy sentence on undesigned coincidences

For a long time I've wanted a catchy, one-sentence answer to, "What is an undesigned coincidence?" Necessarily, a one-sentence, catchy answer is going to give the other person only a vague notion of what a UC is. One is going to have to go on to say more, and probably give a short example. But if I'm being interviewed out loud (e.g., for radio), I want to have a sentence to *start* with in answer to this natural question. With the release date of my book this week and one radio interview already in the works (I will be interviewed by Frank Turek this week for CrossExamined and the interview aired later on), I want to have something ready on this front.
What do people think of this? 

An undesigned coincidence is an incidental connection between accounts that points to truth.

I'm repressing my grammar Nazi urge to say "between or among," because there might be more than two! "Incidental" is meant to do duty both for the fact that UCs usually concern ancillary details and the fact that they appear casual and unplanned. I could add "that doesn't seem to have been planned," but that makes the sentence less of a soundbite. Thoughts?

Thursday, February 02, 2017

A Pause for Poetry

I've recently been enjoying again the poems of Lizette Woodworth Reese. The poems below include some that I haven't shared in my earlier posts about her.

              The Plowman

The delicate gray trees stand up
    There by the old fenced ways;
One or two are crimson-tipped,
    And soon will start to blaze.

The plowman follows, as of yore,
   Along the furrows cold,
Homeric shape against the boughs;
   Sharp is the air with mold.

The sweating horses heave and strain;
   The crows with thick, high note
Break black across the windless land,
   Fade off and are remote.

Oh, new days, yet long known and old!
   Lo, as we look about,
This immemorial act of faith,
   That takes the heart from doubt!

Kingdoms decay and creeds are not,
   Yet still the plowman goes
Down the spring fields, so he may make
   Ready for him that sows.

               In Winter

I dig amongst the roots of life,
And hear the rushing of the sap
That soon in silken white will wrap
The sagged pear bough. I hear the strife

Of change with change: of riot that goes
Rebellious; last, of law and pain;
Each battling to restore the lane
Its lost, hereditary rose.

The dwindled hearth, and the spent mould
A double flowering will yield;--
New loveliness for house, for field,
And with it the ghost of the old. 

                         (In Autumn)

So sharp a tooth has gnawed their gold,
Eaten it in holes from foot to crown,
The wayside bough hangs a dulled brown,
And the stooped garden's looks are cold.

Is the old robbery not done?
Must they who live by what is fair,
Go hungry for it, and go bare
Down a pale, disillusioned sun?

As in a glass, we see and learn
Darkly. No tooth, in bough and mould
Can gnaw their secret, other gold;
Something escapes, that will return.

For what is fair is permanent,
And nought can rob us of our right.
Shall we not watch the road blow white,
And the blue hyacinth choke in scent?


Battles nor songs can from oblivion save,
   But Fame upon a white deed loves to build;
From out that cup of water Sidney gave,
   Not one drop has been spilled.


Whether we climb, whether we plod,
   Space for one task the scant years lend--
To choose some path that leads to God,
   And keep it to the end.


I climb that was a clod;
   I run whose steps were slow;
I reap the very wheat of God
   That once had none to sow.

Is Joy a lamp outblown?
   Truth out of grasping set?
But nay, for Laughter is mine own;
   I knock and answer get.

Nor is the last word said;
   Nor is the battle done;
Somewhat of glory and of dread
   Remains for set of sun.

For I have scattered seed
   Shall ripen at the end;
Old Age holds more than I shall need,
   Death more than I can spend.

Today, as it happens, is Candlemas. So I will post a poem I posted before by Reese for Candlemas.

     A Song for Candlemas

There’s never a rose upon the bush,
And never a bud on any tree;
In wood and field nor hint nor sign
Of one green thing for you or me.
Come in, come in, sweet love of mine,
And let the bitter weather be!

Coated with ice the garden wall;
The river reeds are stark and still;
The wind goes plunging to the sea,
And last week’s flakes the hollows fill.
Come in, come in, sweet love, to me,
And let the year blow as it will!