Monday, October 09, 2017

On Roman history "literary devices"

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

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


Callum said...

Looking forward to reading it. I strongly second your point about a response. There's nothing worse than ignoring an interlocutor!

Lydia McGrew said...

In general I have a certain amount of sympathy for people who don't have time to reply to criticisms. There is, for example, a certain skeptic who has written up really clueless "critiques" of undesigned coincidences (I believe he was originally responding to Tim's lectures) that show that he really, really does not follow the argument and that he will postulate truly implausible theories that don't do any explaining and then claim, voila!, these explain away an undesigned coincidence. I'm not inclined to write up a long response to him. If I had a correspondent who were bothered by it, I would probably write up a response for that person and then might post it as a blog post. So I do understand that we all, including Dr. Licona, have to decide how to apportion our time.

In this case, of course, since I'm *writing* the critiques, I think they are quite serious and shouldn't just be blown off. And I fear that Licona may not even be reading them. For example, when he wrote his first response to me, he expressly stated that he assumed my objections were founded on my theories about the divine inspiration of Scripture, when that was *way* off the mark and *obviously* so to anyone who had read the rather large amount of material I had written. Since I think I have good arguments, I'd like it if he'd at least *read* them. I think that would be a good thing for him to confront in his own mind, if nothing else.

The other thing that seems to be happening is the use of the *purest* credentialism: She doesn't have a degree in x field, or I bet she doesn't read Greek. (Which in fact is true--I don't read Greek, though there are excellent tools now available to anyone to help evaluate particular claims, and Licona's argument actually doesn't depend on esoteric points in Greek. And if it did, he should bring these out and explain them so that they can be evaluated.) Now *that* is a *poor* reason for just ignoring my arguments, because it totally ignores the quality of the ideas themselves.

Tony said...

It's true about responding to counterclaims: it can take a whole book to explain the error in a simple one sentence, like "Of course God is not three, He is one." Part of the reason for this that a truth can be misunderstood in an almost infinity of different ways, whereas only the truth is actually true. Error naturally has a multiplicity that truth does not.

I suspect that Dr. Licona may have been trying to engage in credentialism at first, Dr. McGrew, but upon finding out that you have published scholarly articles on evidence and epistemological issues, there is no way he could pursue that nonsense. Not and succeed, anyway.

His claim about the original Greek sounds like a really good point. But when you look at it carefully, you have to wonder just how solid it could be. For one thing, the "read it several times, and you'll get it" cannot but represent a bit of a subjective claim. Perhaps there are many Greek speakers (such as a whole boat load of the early Christian Fathers) who read them and didn't think so. For another, (as you pointed out), any good author is capable of writing in a completely different style if he wants. For instance, Isaac Asimov wrote scholarly stuff on chemistry (his dissertation, for example), and then he wrote science popularizing books for young readers, in a different style from his science popularizing for adults, and his mystery stories, all in quite different tones. Surely Jesus is capable of speaking in different ways at different times to different audiences: "he spoke only in parables to them", while on solemn occasions he used a different tone and when he was calling out the pharisees ("you whited sepulchres") he was not using that same solemn tone. People vary their way of speaking both for occasion and audience. All the more so for God the Word, who speaks the universe into being. If you look at it a little differently, it is just short of blasphemy to assert that Jesus could not have spoken in the way John reports (even assuming that He spoke the way Matthew reports). My guess is that when Jesus was one-on-one with Matthew, He spoke one way, and when He was one-on-one with John, He spoke a different way, each attuned specially to that one apostle's own mind and ear.

When the gospel writers were deciding which sayings of Jesus to report, naturally they are going to report the sayings (and events) that most resonated with themselves especially, when there is a choice. That's perfectly natural personal witness biography. So if Matt has a different sort of mind and way of getting at things (as compared to John), he will be more struck by certain things Jesus said, as compared to John who will be struck by other things. That's also perfectly natural. Thus there need not be any fictionalizing for these two writers to be reporting Jesus speaking in different manner at different times.

Lydia McGrew said...

All correct about Jesus' having different styles at different times. Craig Keener (interesting, no?) has also pointed out that the discourses in John are mostly taking place in Jerusalem with religious leaders as at least part of the audience while those in the synoptics are taking place in the region of the Galilee with quite a different audience. (I myself note that the Bread of Life discourse, unique to John, is one exception here.) Keener also notes that Jesus may have spoken at different times in different languages, and this of course could affect style. In other words, he doesn't grant the assumption that everything said by Jesus was said in Aramaic and translated into Greek in the gospels, though no doubt some was. The discussion with Nicodemus, I note, *was* one-on-one, and contra many scholars, I see no reason why it could not have occurred in Greek rather than Aramaic. This is relevant to a claim that is often made by NT scholars that there is a pun on "born from above" and "born again," and Nicodemus's misunderstanding, that would occur in Greek but not in Aramaic, and that *therefore*, John must be "crafting" the dialogue, since *of course* the original dialogue would have taken place in Aramaic if it happened at all. I'm not totally convinced of the alleged pun in the first place, but Nicodemus is a Greek name, so this could well have been a conversation in Greek.)

As far as the relevance of knowing Greek to disputing the claims concerning either Plutarch or the gospels, I would say that any scholar in the humanities has a responsibility to be able to make his arguments accessible rather than implying that others must simply take his word for things. If there are esoteric points in the Greek that are relevant to the discussion, it is up to Licona to say what they are and explain how the argument is strengthened by them. In the book itself and in his other lectures and presentations he almost never relies on any specific Greek point. I was just reading one place where he does so the other day (concerning the emphasis upon the word for "there" in Jesus' words to the women after his resurrection), and I'm quite capable of seeing that it cannot bear the weight that he wishes to put on it. Namely, that because the word for "there" is placed in an emphatic position in the Greek sentence, "There they shall see me," Matthew is decisively placing the *first* appearance to Jesus' male disciples in Galilee, which contradicts Luke and John, in which Jesus first appears to his male disciples in Jerusalem. And of course there are people (including A.T. Robertson and John Wenham) who could not doubt spot Dr. Licona a few "Greek points" who also do not take that to mean that Jesus is insisting that he will see the eleven in Galilee first, before he sees them anywhere else.

But that's about as tough as I'm seeing any Greek points get, and for the most part no such points are brought up at all.

Presumably we are supposed to believe in some kind of "Greek magic" whereby knowledge of the correctness of these literary theories simply falls ineffably upon one upon obtaining enough knowledge of Greek and reading the documents in that language. But the experience cannot be transmitted to others nor translated into any argument that can be evaluated on its own merits, so those who cannot have the ineffable mystical Greek experience must simply be told to trust the priests and prophets for high-level interpretive theories.

I'm not buyin' it. :-)