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


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.

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