Textual criticism

I mentioned Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus in my response to nlj21‘s complaint that Karen Armstrong does not provide a source for her claim that the Apostle Paul didn’t write the Pastoral Epistles.

I re-read the book while we were on holiday recently. I’d recommend it, despite the rather sensationalist cover advertising (“OMG the King James Version’s text is bollox, sorry, ‘corrupted and inferior'”: we all knew that, right?), as a lucid introduction to New Testament textual criticism. Luckily, if you’re too cheap to buy it, there’s a video of a lecture covering the book’s key points, available from Google. Ehrman’s an engaging speaker. His responses to questions at the end are particularly good (especially the one from the bloke who’s clearly read Elvis Shot Kennedy: Freemasonry’s Hidden Agenda and therefore “knows” that Jesus spent a lot of time travelling round India before marrying Mary Magdalene).

Ehrman’s another ex-evangelical, who now describes himself as an agnostic. The Washington Post article on him attributes his loss of faith to textual problems (Erhman started out as an inerrantist, a position he found untenable as he studied the NT texts) and the problem of suffering.

On suffering, if, like me, you’re a fan of Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright and of Ehrman, you’ll probably enjoy their blog debate on the Problem of Evil.

On the Biblical text, people can and do dispute Ehrman’s claims. This review on Ben Witherington’s blog has some good comments from both sides of the debate (if anyone does speak Greek, I’d be interested in whether the grammar of Matthew 28:19 does imply that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one person as Ben says). Some of the Bible’s defenders are at pains to point out that one can still believe even knowing that the Bible is a very human document which records religious experiences (some of them wouldn’t say that, of course, and defend something like inerrancy). But Dan Barker’s comment evokes the sort of feeling I can imagine Ehrman having as his inerrantist beliefs collapsed, that is, the feeling that he’d been lied to by his evangelical teachers.

There are other good reasons for thinking evangelicalism is probably incorrect, namely that it’s an extra-biblical tradition despite claiming not to be and that it commits you to interpretations which do violence to the Biblical text in an attempt to maintain its inerrancy. Ehrman’s reason seems to strike at the heart of the thing, though: study the history of the text enough and it becomes impossible to take the attitude to it that evangelicals do.

11 thoughts on “Textual criticism”

  1. εις το ονομα = into the name (nomative? singular)
    του πατρος = of the father (genetive singular)
    και του υιου = and of the son (genetive singular)
    και του αγιου πνευματος = and of the holy spirit (genetive singular)

    I know nowhere near enough Greek to be able to start theologizing from it with any authority. But my guess would be his argument is based on “ονομα” being singular, not plural. So the father/son/spirit have a single name, rather them each having their own name.

    nlj21

    1. Yep, I was curious whether Greek has the same idiom as the English one that Steven Carr uses in the comments, which would mean that the singular name didn’t mean everything which follows it was one thing (“the name of the poor, and the downtrodden, and the huddled masses” or whatever).

  2. I’ve also being investigating the arguments for pastoral epistles being non-Pauline. The argument seems to hinge on statistical analysis of the vocabulary and seeing that different words are used in them and other of Paul’s letters. Therefore they can’t be written by the same person.

    But it would seem to me that there are other perfectly reasonable alternative explanations for a different vocabulary. e.g. Paul might just have a different style when writing to a city instead of an individual?

    I bet if we did a statistical analysis of your LJ posts and compared it to your e-mail inbox we could conclude you were in fact two different people!

  3. namely that it’s an extra-biblical tradition despite claiming not to be
    I don’t doubt that Evangelicals have traditions that are not clearly outlined in the text. You shouldn’t be surprised by this as StAG would have said the same. Some things are inferred from what the text talks about, what it doesn’t talk about, what the apostles seemed to believe, and so on.

    The idea that the Bible is the word of God is something it claims for itself, and which Jesus also thought to be the case.

    I have read the Ehrman links you referred to (I read the debate one before). In fact, it was because of reading some of his stuff and the debates online in the past that I found Ehrman’s position to be weak, and that contributed to my decision that Christianity was probably true.

    1. The foundational traditions of evangelicalism are not in the text, for example, which books constitute the canon, and how to interpret them (picking the evangelical interpretative method among the others the church has used through history when faced with the Bible).

      The Bible’s claim to be the word of God is circular. Why do you believe the Bible’s claim and not, say, the Koran’s?

      I think the article you linked over-reaches itself, even if (for the sake of argument) one accepts the existence of God. It starts off by assuming God wrote the Bible so that Biblical quotations about the “word of God” can be said to refer to the Bible, and then concludes that the Bible must be true or God would be a liar. This doesn’t hold water: perhaps the Bible isn’t the very words of God, so that it could contain errors without God being a liar. Whatever hand God did have in it, even believers must admit that God isn’t that keen on people having correct information, or there wouldn’t be all these other believers around who don’t go to my church and therefore believe some wrong stuff. It’s not clear that this makes God a “liar”, although it is a bit annoying if you’re trying to work out what he wants.

      gjm11‘s essay on inerrantism has a variety of other arguments from a believer’s perspective (as he was at the time).

      What’s weak about Ehrman’s position? Do you mean his position on the Bible, or that on suffering?

      1. The foundational traditions of evangelicalism are not in the text, for example, which books constitute the canon
        Yeah, there are various foundational things that aren’t in the ‘Bible’ before you have these foundational things because you need to determine them before you have ‘the Bible’. You talk about Evangelicals having extra-biblical tradition as if this were big news when you ought to have known that when you were an Evangelical, and in fact it’s obvious and necessary that it’d be the case.

        In terms of which books are canonical in a sense you have a bootstrapping problem, but this problem doesn’t exist in practice because we are not constrained in the way that you suggest. You seem to forget that Christianity is an extension / continuation of Judaism, Jesus was a Jew who accepted that the OT was canonical, and the Jews would have had essentially the same problem that you identify that Christians have in determining which NT books are canonical. As you know there are criteria that were used, some of which are clearly very reasonable – that a book was written by an apostle for instance, some of which will only seem reasonable to those who know God – such as God’s inner witness (which you’ve previously mentioned you’ve never experienced). The NT is no different from the OT in this respect (generally speaking).

        how to interpret them
        Without getting bogged down in the details here (which I’m sure you’ll want to do – but I don’t have the time or the interest for right now), the kind of questions an Evangelical asks of a text are “What would the original readers have understood from this text? What did the writer intend for them to understand? What of that understanding is universal and relevant to me?” – that’s the foundation of Evangelical interpretation. Sure there are complex theological ideas built on top of that, some of which are theological methods that predate Christianity (e.g. typology), some of which aren’t. Fine, maybe some of them aren’t good, that’s not a major problem because the general approach is to try to get back to what the original authors intent. Evangelicals and their approaches are imperfect, no one is claiming otherwise.

        The Bible’s claim to be the word of God is circular. Why do you believe the Bible’s claim and not, say, the Koran’s?
        Because there are very good reasons to trust the account in the Bible historically (or at least bits of it), the Holy Spirit witnesses to me that it is true, and most importantly I have a relationship with God – the God of the Bible. I know the latter two are completely unconvincing to you, but you asked me why I believe the Bible’s claims. For me Christianity is not a purely intellectual exercise (which I guess it was for you), it is (partly) a day to day relationship with a person.

        I think the article you linked over-reaches itself…
        No, I don’t think so. First of all, it’s written to people who accept that God exists – for someone very skeptical such as yourself you’re not going to find it convincing of course, it assumes the reader already accepts certain things – otherwise it’d be a lot longer. It doesn’t assume that God wrote the Bible, it explains why we ought to think that (for example showing that Jesus thought Genesis represented what God said). I almost feel like you didn’t read the link because your response is so off base, but I know you must have done.

        You’re trying to push the ‘but Christians come to different conclusions’ argument far beyond it’s reasonable bounds here. Evangelicals don’t argue that they are definitely right about everything because there is uncertainty in our understanding of the text, there are small bits of the Bible where we’re not sure exactly what the originals said, bits are missing, etc. etc. That’s like arguing that something isn’t circular because it lacks platonic perfect circularity.

        I can’t remember the details of which of Ehrman’s stuff I read (my memory is not very good), but I do remember the debate with Craig about the resurrection. I also read the debate about suffering but I can’t remember my conclusions from that.

        1. I did know (or should have known) that there was a bootstrapping problem when I was an evangelical, but I think I took the Bible as axiomatic because I felt that was the right thing to do. You might say that was God’s inner witness. I might say that I was an enthusiastic participant in a group which had that attitude and didn’t see any reason not to (which is the wrong way about, of course, but people get carried away sometimes). BTW: I hope I haven’t said I never felt that God was there or the Bible was true (because I did), but I have said that I’ve never felt/seen anything I couldn’t otherwise explain and that I never felt I got direct “words of knowledge”, I think.

          The idea that there was a NT canon, and the books which were in it, seems to have developed over time. Most books there was always agreement over, some (Hebrews, for example) were only agreed upon later. Some letters regarded as authoritative by some church fathers, like 1 Clement, didn’t make it, despite their apostolic authority. I think that people now regarded as heretics, like Marcion, forced the issue of a canon to some extent by arguing that some books were not trustworthy. At the fringes, the church decided over time who was in and who was out. The Catholic church says that the church continues in its authority to adjudicate on doctrine. What’s not clear to me is why evangelicals think that authority stopped some time around the 4th century. As tifferrobinson said, it seems evangelicals do acknowledge the authority of certain church councils (that, or they’re left claiming that they just happened to agree with orthodox non-evangelicals about the canon, the Trinity and so on).

          I’m puzzled by your comment about God’s inner witness in relation to the canon, especially as you mention me, so I assume you’re talking about something happening now rather than in the past. Does God witness to you that Hebrews is canon but 1 Clement is not?

          Evangelicals and their approaches are imperfect, no one is claiming otherwise.

          Well, some evangelicals are claiming their way of interpreting the Bible is the right way, or at least, that other ways are wrong, even if their way does not produce perfect results. My problem with that is it seems to imply (a) that the NT authors interpreted the OT wrongly (although there’s nlj21‘s counter-argument that the NT authors were uniquely inspired, I suppose); and (b) that the church has been doing it wrong until evangelicals came along, as I argued with Matt a while back. For instance, your bit about working out what the author meant and the original hearers heard seems more restrictive than Augustine’s principle of interpretation. Why has God only raised up evangelicals relatively recently, and what was he doing in the meantime?

          (continued in another comment as I’ve exceeded the max length!)

        2. For me Christianity is not a purely intellectual exercise (which I guess it was for you), it is (partly) a day to day relationship with a person.

          My usual questions about the whole “Christianity is a relationship” thing: What form does that relationship take? Do you think you and Steve Chalke (who I guess you defriended during the penal substitionary atonement wank) both have one (you’re allowed to claim Chalke isn’t a Christian here without being manually moderated :-)? If so, why don’t you agree on something which evangelicals think is very important?

          I do remember the debate with Craig about the resurrection

          Ehrman’s debate with Craig is interesting. I think they were mostly talking at cross-purposes throughout. Ehrman maintains wants to put clear water between history and theology, which is no good to Craig, who, as an evangelist, wants to make a case which rests on the historicity of the resurrection. There were shades of Monsieur, (a+b^n)/n=x, donc Dieu existe: repondez! in Craig’s slides about Ehrman’s “blunder”, which I thought was cheap: although there are apparently people who take Swinburne seriously, that debate didn’t seem the place for Powerpoint slides with equations on.

          ISTM that the debate showed that the answer you get when looking at historical documents of fiercely contested events depends on where you start from (Ehrman’s point about Craig’s inerrantist beliefs was well made). I’m not sure such debates are fruitful for evangelists of atheism or Christianity: it seems much more fruitful to talk about what God is (or isn’t) doing now.

          1. Ehrman maintains wants to put clear water between history and theology

            This is dubious. You don’t think that when Ehrman says “miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance” (my emphasis) that he’s bringing his own, rather strong, philosophical assumptions to his study?

            And what do you take “Ehrman’s point about Craig’s inerrantist beliefs” to be? It seemed like an ad hominen argument to me, of the type “Craig gives reasons a-d for believing in the resurrection, but I know he really believes in it because of reason e, so we can forget about his arguments”. Although I suppose I can be expected to say that from my perspective. On that topic, my favourite part of the debate has to be the following exchange:

            “Dr. Ehrman: I am sorry. I have trouble believing that we’re having a serious conversation about the statistical probability of the resurrection or the statistical probability of the existence of God. I think in any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a
            group of academics we would be howled off the stage—

            Dr. Craig: That’s not true.

            Dr. Ehrman: Well, it may not be true at the school you teach at, but at the research institution I teach at —

            Dr. Craig: Well, what about Oxford University, where Professor Swinburne teaches?”

            Chuckle.

            1. Ehrman says he isn’t reprising Hume (see this old thread for gjm11‘s argument against Hume, by the way) but merely talking about the discipline of being a historian. So, I think Ehrman’s arguing that historians must be methodological naturalists. That historical method makes it impossible for Craig to speak of theological things as history, so Craig’s out of bounds straight away. I take Ehrman’s point about how one does history (and science) but it makes the debate rather fruitless. If Ehrman doesn’t want to talk about God stuff, what’s he doing in a debate on the resurrection?

              On the other hand, Craig wants to make the same distinction between theology and history as soon as Ehrman questions the assumptions he’s bringing to the table. If Craig’s an inerrantist, his argument that simpler accounts are more likely to be true seems to be in bad faith, because we know that Craig doesn’t believe that, he believes that all the gospel accounts are just true, and apparent discrepancies and embellishments must be harmonised away. Does that make his arguments about simple accounts wrong? No, but he’s got little cause to complain about Ehrman’s assumptions when he’s adopted their mirror-image.

              I’ve not read Swinburne, but I think Ehrman’s apparent lack of maths lets him down here, hence the comparison to Diderot. Craig says that his probably of the resurrection has the form X/(X+Y), which goes to 1 as Y gets small. Since Craig apparently concedes that P(R/B) is small, P(R’/B) is big (since, unless I’m missing something, those two sum to 1, just like if R is “smokes” and B is “is male” in this example, say), and we’re arguing whether P(E/B & R’) is really small, so that when you multiply them, you’re still left with something small. That is, is the evidence really unlikely given that the resurrection didn’t happen? Ehrman continually presents reasonable explanations for the evidence given our background knowledge and given that the resurrection didn’t happen (that second “given” being unquestionably valid in this case, since that’s the probability we’re asked to think about). He’s arguing that Y is big enough.

              Dr. Craig: Well, what about Oxford University, where Professor Swinburne teaches?

              Everyone knows that the people at the Other Place are credulous fools, of course 🙂

              1. If Ehrman doesn’t want to talk about God stuff, what’s he doing in a debate on the resurrection?

                I agree. I’m also not convinced that historians have to be methodological naturalists (obviously).

                Craig wants to make the same distinction between theology and history as soon as Ehrman questions the assumptions he’s bringing to the table […] he’s got little cause to complain about Ehrman’s assumptions when he’s adopted their mirror-image.

                The difference is that Craig’s arguments, as stated, don’t depend on his assumptions, whereas Ehrman’s do. So there’s an asymmetry here.

                I have read some Swinburne, though not The Resurrection of God Incarnate. My understanding is that his argument in that book depends to some degree on the success of his arguments in books like The Existence of God in showing that God’s existence is more probable than not, precisely in order to raise the prior probabilities re: miracles. So I agree the Bayesian argument seems out of place in this debate. Craig does try to explain it in the Q&A but the whole thing’s too rushed.

                He’s arguing that Y is big enough

                Except he’s already effectively said that if Y > 0, then it’s big enough. And like you say, in that case why debate?

                Everyone knows that the people at the Other Place are credulous fools

                I take it you mean, except for Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, Peter King….
                (FYI I’m an alumnus of the “Other Place”, but the comment still made me chuckle.)

                Oh, and thanks for the steer to the thread discussing Hume.

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