Stephen Law and the existence of Jesus

Stephen Law’s paper Evidence, miracles and the existence of Jesus argues that the New Testament (NT) is not good evidence for the existence of Jesus. He takes an interesting approach: he argues that the evidence for the NT miracles isn’t good enough, and that the presence of the miracle stories contaminates the non-miraculous parts of the story such that we should be sceptical of those too.

Law introduces and defends two principles:

P1 Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.


P2 Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

He then uses these in a deductive argument, concluding that “there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed”.

Debating P2

Most of the debate in the comments on Law’s blog is about P2. Law says that “Because once we know that a powerful, false-testimony-producing mechanism (or combination of mechanisms) may well have produced a significant chunk of a narrative (e.g. the miraculous parts), we can no longer be confident that the same mechanism is not responsible for what remains.”

Bradley C. came up with some counter-examples to P2. Bradley rightly says that the false-testimony-producing mechanism is key. What feels different about the ancient miracle reports (and perhaps Law’s “sixth islander” thought experiment) compared to Bradley’s examples is that in the ancient reports, we don’t really know what the mechanism was, we just know something has gone wrong. (In Bradley’s examples, we know that magicians and faith healers do tricks). If we don’t know quite what has gone wrong, we have to consider various possible mechanisms, which includes ones where the mundane testimony is also false. If we give such mechanisms any weight, that makes the mundane testimony less convincing (though it may still be positive evidence for the mundane events). But I think we’d have to consider how much weight to give them based on the circumstances, which makes it hard to come up with something general like P2.

So, I think Bradley’s come up with the equivalent of Gettier cases for P2 as it stands: even if they’re contrived, they show P2 needs changing.

Law responds to Bradley saying “You need to identify a mechanism as being the likely mechanism accounting for the false miracle claims, and then explain why that mechanism wouldn’t quite likely result in false mundane claims too.”

I don’t agree with Law here. If all we know is that something’s gone wrong with the testimony but the mechanism is obscure, perhaps it’s reasonable to say that it’s as likely that we’d have the testimony if it’s mundane parts were true as it is that we’d have it if the mundane parts were false. Then the testimony is no evidence for or against the mundane events: you should consider the events as likely as you did before you heard the testimony.

I’m not sure I’d want to go further than that and say that the burden of proof is on the people who believe the mundane portion of the testimony to show why it isn’t contaminated: mightn’t they equally well argue that the burden is on you to show that it is? But that’s what P2 says, I think: in P2, the testimony becomes evidence against the mundane events.

If you give a mechanism, though, maybe that’s just what you can argue: if you think Jesus’ disciples made it up, for example, who’s to say where the made up stuff ends? (Though why not make stuff up based on a real person, for verisimilitude?)

It looks like someone who wants to justify their belief in the mundane stuff has a motive to push the unbeliever to identify the mechanism so they can criticise it. The problem with my “average over possible mechanisms” idea, above, is that it’s pretty hard to identify them all. I don’t think we have a duty to do that with every weird testimony, though. Earlier, in defence of P1, Law correctly says that “the fact that it remains blankly mysterious why such reports would be made if they were not true does not provide us with very much additional reason to suppose that they are true.”

So, I’m not that convinced by Law’s general contamination principle, but I think he makes some good points along the way. For example, Law says:

It would also be foolish to try to construct a two part case for Jesus’ miraculous resurrection by (i) bracketing the miraculous parts of the Gospel narrative and using what remains to build a case for the truth of certain non-miraculous claims (about Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, and so on), and then (ii) using these supposedly now “firmly established facts” to argue that Jesus’ miraculous resurrection is what best explains them (yet several apologetic works – e.g. Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? – appear implicitly to rely on this strategy).

William Lane Craig’s rebuttal

The apologetical strategy Law talks about is used by William Lane Craig in his “4 facts” defence of the resurrection (see Craig vs Ehrman, for example). Craig read Law’s paper and attempted a rebuttal on his own blog, which I think was only partially successful.

Craig’s stuff about Ehrman is weird. I guess Craig’s point here is to show how reasonable he’s being by pointing out that even this bloke he beat in a debate (Ehrman) agrees with him. But Ehrman is not a radical sceptic, Law is not die-hard mythicist. The conclusion of Law’s argument is that we should be sceptical about J’s existence, not “Therefore J never existed”, so it’s not even clear that Ehrman’s ire applies to Law, or that we should care if it does, unless Ehrman’s arguments are made more explicit.

On Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, Craig writes: “This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. … Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself.”

Craig makes a reasonable statement of Bayes Theorem. However, Sagan’s dictum can be read in a Bayesian way (by incorporating all the probabilities Craig mentions, so that the evidence is Bayesian evidence). Craig gives no good argument that the dictum must mean what Craig takes it to mean, or that Law’s argument relies on taking it to mean what Craig thinks it means.

Craig continues: “In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.”

This might be Craig’s attempt at that argument, namely, Craig saying that Law hasn’t considered that it’s unlikely we’d have the evidence we do if Jesus didn’t do miracles. But Craig plays fast and loose: the facts are that we have the gospel narratives (and whatever other historical documents we have to hand). The empty tomb and post-mortem appearances are not facts, and Law’s argument against the “bracketing” strategy is that they cannot be treated as facts. Craig cannot have the empty tomb or the post-mortem appearances as “facts” without addressing Law’s arguments.

Oddly, Craig doesn’t address really P2 or Law’s arguments for it at all: he just says “oh no it isn’t”. Craig’s strongest when he says that there is extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence. I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that Josephus’ mentions of Jesus is thought by historians to have a core around which Christian interpolations accreted, for example. Since even if we grant P2, Law’s argument fails without premise 6 (“There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)”), perhaps this is a good tactic on Craig’s part. Law appears to agree that premise 6 is his weakest empirical premise: “6 is at the very least debatable”. In a way, it’s odd that everyone is concentrating on P2.

So, I think Craig casts doubt on Law’s conclusion about Jesus’ existence, but he doesn’t do much to convince us that Jesus rose from the dead or did any other miracles.

Jerry Coyne’s blog has some good comments on Craig’s rebuttal.

David B Marshall’s rebuttal

David Marshall also had a go at rebutting Law. He didn’t do as well as Craig, as his arguments relied on attempts to differentiate Law’s thought experiments (“Ted and Sarah”, and “The Sixth Islander”) from the claims about Jesus, but the distinctions he made between these, distinguishing magic from miracles, weren’t relevant to Law’s arguments, as far as I can tell. You can see my response to him here , his reply here and my response to that here, another attempt by Marshall here and my final response here.

I think this rebuttal is interesting for what it shows about what ordinary believers (rather than super-apologists like Craig) think are good arguments. Marshall appears to think that because the Jesus story is more fleshed out and more meaningful, it’s more likely to be true. I’m not sure whether this is a straightforward example of conjuction bias (obligatory Less Wrong link), or of the notion that the point of religion is to be in a meaningful story. Charitably, it might be an attempt at inference to the best explanation, but I don’t think the stuff that Marshall mentions means that the best explanation of the NT stories is that they are true.

So what do you think?

There was bloke called Jesus who was the basis of the NT stories. Pre-moderns had porous selves, so it’s pretty difficult to understand their writings in modern terms, but there is no good evidence that this bloke did miracles or rose from the dead. I don’t know how much of the NT is true, but I don’t accept Craig’s bracketing or 4 facts arguments: taking out the core miracle but leaving the context which points to a miracle does look like cheating without independent evidence of the context, because mechanisms where both the context and miracle are made up seem pretty likely to me.

Link blog: christianity, andrew-wakefield, jesus, ehrman

GMC | Determinations

The General Medical Council ruling on Dr Andrew Wakefield, where you can read why he was actually struck off (via Ben Goldacre).
(tags: medicine mmr uk wakefield andrew-wakefield vaccine vaccination gmc)

Searching for Jesus in the Gospels : The New Yorker

Adam Gopnik writes about the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith, bringing in people like Bart Ehrman and Philip Pullman. Interesting stuff.
(tags: religion christianity history jesus christ paul bart-ehrman ehrman adam-gopnik philip-pullman)

Failing The Insider Test: The Problem of Hell

One of the reasons I'm not a Christian any more is that I realised the God I was being asked to worship was evil. Jeffrey Amos explains what I mean with great clarity, and also addresses the "ah ha, but how do you know what's evil without God, eh?" argument.
(tags: hell god evil christianity religion morality)

The Swinger « Music Machinery

Turn anything into a jive (well, anything in 4/4 anyway): "The Swinger is a bit of python code that takes any song and makes it swing. It does this be taking each beat and time-stretching the first half of each beat while time-shrinking the second half. It has quite a magical effect."
(tags: music python audio programming software swing jive)

Linkdump: Ehrman, divine hiddenness, morality, gays

Time to close some browser tabs by writing about what’s in them:

Ehrman not out to destroy Christianity

Bart Ehrman has a new book out. Jesus, Interrupted aims to make stuff about the Bible that Christian ministers are taught in seminaries available to the public. Ehrman was interviewed at Salon. Despite Ehrman’s adoption by the neo-atheist fundamentalist secularists, he seems pretty mild-mannered about religion. In the Washington Post, Ehrman says he’s not out to destroy Christianity, although he hopes that his book will show up the problems with an evangelical approach to the Bible.

Why is God hidden?

There’s a good post from Jeffrey at Failing the Insider Test on the problem of why God is hidden if he wants people to know him. In previous discussions here, apologists say there’s no evidence that God being more obvious would make people come into a loving relationship with him. They say the Bible contains examples of people who saw miracles and didn’t believe, and as the Epistle of James says, even the demons believe (and tremble). Yet even granted the premise that the Bible’s account is accurate (which seems to be generalising from fictional evidence), Jeffrey points out that the Bible itself contains examples of people who believe on evidence from God. Jesus complains that if Sodom had seen his miracles, it would have repented, unlike the towns he’s been visiting. While compelling evidence doesn’t reliably produce the relationship Christians say God wants, it can hardly make it less likely.

Morality again

John W Loftus mentioned a debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan of Yale. You can listen here. Kagan does well against Craig, thus proving that it is possible to beat him.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the moral argument for the existence of God is pretty unclear to me: some people just seem to feel that if there’s no God, there can’t be “real” morality. Kagan talks about what rational agents would do and the idea of a veil of ignorance. Craig doesn’t see how being moral matters if the universe will die a Heat Death. Kagan says that there is significance even if this significance is not eternal, and that eternal significance is not needed for morality.

I’m being oppressed

Slacktivist talks about that awful video which the National Organization for Marriage made, and the tendency of American evangelicals to believe both that they are, and should be, in a Chrisitan nation and that Christians are horribly persecuted.

I suspect that American evangelicals’ persecution complex is an inevitable side effect of sectarian hegemony. Once you believe that your faith requires cultural dominance, and that it deserves it, then any threat to that dominance — even just the unwelcome reminder of the existence of alternative points of view — is perceived as a threat, as a kind of persecution.

The NOM video has spawned many parodies, of which A Gaythering Storm is perhaps the best. NOM were even advertising here on LJ until LJ’s staff booted them. Well done, LJ.

Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Richard Carrier vs William Lane Craig

Richard Carrier recently debated with William Lane Craig. That’s them in the picture, you see (I’ll leave it to you to decide which one’s which). The topic was the Resurrection of Jesus. You can listen here, though the audio is a bit crappy, or watch the debate on Youtube.

Carrier doesn’t think he did very well. He correctly says that he was a lot less organised than Craig and couldn’t keep up with all the things he’d need to rebut. As I’ve previously noted, Craig has a lot of arguments and a very polished delivery.

<lj-cut text=”Summary of the arguments”>Craig’s main points are that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea; Jesus’s tomb was empty; the tomb was discovered empty by women; Mark’s story is simple and lacks theological embellishment (unlike Matthew’s, presumably?); and finally that the earliest Jewish response, that the disciples stole the body, recorded in Matthew, pre-supposes the empty tomb. He backs these points up with references to NT scholars and historians.

Carrier’s response takes issue with Craig’s evidence. He attacks both the NT gospels and Paul’s letters. He notes that Paul says Jesus was raised and appeared to people (1 Cor 15), not specifically that Jesus’s tomb was empty. Appearances can be hallucinations. Looking at Acts and Paul’s letters, it seems the early Christians did have visions. Paul himself says his gospel came from God, not men. Carrier is not saying the early Christians were mentally ill, but rather, that hallucinations in the sane are common in some people, who may even find them comforting (Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World also makes the point that hallucinations are more common than we think and don’t mean that the person experiencing them is crazy). We know these hallucinations have a role in other religions, so why not Christianity? So far, fair enough.

Carrier then argued that that gospel accounts were full of myths, that is, stories told to express a point rather than being historical narrative. He outlined a theory that the release of Barabbas was an allegory for the scapegoat ceremony on Yom Kippur. This has been noted by scholars and also by Christian believers. Though the Christians would argue that just because something is an allegory doesn’t mean it didn’t also happen, Carrier claims that the gospels are chock full of these sorts of things, and so we cannot tell what they record as history.

Craig says in his comments prior to the debate that for the purpose of debating the Resurrection, it doesn’t matter whether the gospels are completely reliable (Craig thinks they are, but wisely doesn’t attempt to defend inerrancy in debate), because we accept that historical sources may contain errors and truths. But Carrier’s argument is that the gospels are chock-full of symbolic tales, so it’s unlikely that any given account is historical: the gospels are not just a mixture of history and myth, but mostly myth.

Carrier talks about a hypothetical world where Jesus appeared to lots of people in lots of places after his resurrection, with records of appearances in many countries. Carrier thinks that in that world he would have much greater chance of accepting that Jesus was raised, so the fact that we’re not in that world is better explained by atheism than Christianity. Craig initially refuses to address this, saying that the question of what God would do is a theological one, not a historical one. When pressed in the Q&A, Craig says that there are Christianities where it makes sense that Jesus didn’t appear all over the world: for example, one might be a universalist, that is, a Christian who believes nobody goes to hell. Of course, Craig’s not a universalist. He’s a Molinist, so he believes God knows what would have happened in every possible circumstance. If Jesus didn’t appear all over the world, Craig says it must be because doing so wouldn’t make more Christians. Craig seems fond of saying that having more evidence for God’s existence wouldn’t make more people become Christians: see, for example, this thread where robhu linked to an article of Craig’s. Yet Carrier seems to be saying he would believe in the resurrection in the hypothetical world, and a lot of ex-Christian atheists say they left the church when they realised there wasn’t enough evidence for their beliefs.

So much for Craig, what about Carrier? In Are You a Solar Deity?, Yvain cautions against theories which can be applied to anything (the specific example Yvain uses is related to religious myths, in fact). Some of Carrier’s examples of myth seem a bit of a stretch. He needs to do more work to show that the gospels are generally unreliable, more than he has time for in a debate, it seems. He’s written a book outlining his theories, but I don’t think he’s carried out a Spot the Fakes test. I’m not convinced the gospels are mostly myth.

On the other hand, the gospels do contain mythologised history based on Old Testament passages. Christians without a prior commitment to Biblical inerrancy recognise this, as do other readers. For example, scribb1e noticed when she read through the Old Testament. (If you’re an inerrantist, you can accommodate this evidence into your web of belief in other ways, for example by saying that the OT passages were foreshadowing). Craig concedes this for the sake of argument, but says we still extract history from unreliable sources. True, but historians don’t extract belief in miracles from other sources either, do they? The apologist is right to argue that the gospels should not be treated more strictly than other historical documents, but historians don’t believe that Vespasian cured the blind, either. Without the presumption that the source is totally reliable, they’re going to treat miracles as the unreliable part.

That steers things back into the territory of the Ehrman vs Craig debate I’ve mentioned previously. When you’ve watched enough of these debates, you realise there are standard openings, like in chess. If you’re an evangelist and someone says to you that historians don’t accept your religion’s miracle, you counter by accusing the historians of metaphysical naturalism and hence of begging the question. Your sensible sceptic will say that this has nothing to do with grand philosophical statements about how everything supervenes on the physical, and more about the way everyone, even Christians, agrees that miracles are pretty uncommon. You need a lot of evidence to back up a miraculous claim, and in the case of the Resurrection, if you really start with a low prior probability, there just isn’t enough evidence.

Notice that Craig never puts numbers into his equation when he’s beating Ehrman with it (not that this would have helped Ehrman, because he’s an arts graduate, poor soul). Craig doesn’t seem very sure what his prior would be. Barefoot Bum and I argued about this, because I’d not noticed Craig talks about it in two places in the Ehrman debate: at one point he says it’s “terribly low” but then, as the Bum notes, he later says “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” Craig’s argument seems to be that there’s sufficient evidence to believe in the Resurrection if you already believe that God is the sort of God who’d do something like raise Jesus from the dead. That seems fair enough, but as an evangelist, shouldn’t Craig be concerned with how people come to believe in that sort of God? Not by examining the evidence for the Resurrection, it seems.

Still, Craig duffed Carrier up. Let’s not lose heart: over at Evangelical Agnosticism they talk about the rare atheists who don’t get duffed up by Craig. Paul Draper did well, and is well worth a listen. Also, Craig’s debating with Christopher Hitchens on 4th April, which will be entertaining, if nothing else.

More Ehrman: God’s Problem: why do we suffer?

Bart Ehrman’s been on Unbelievable again, this time talking about the Problem of Evil: if God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world? His opposite number this time was Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher. Both of them have written books on the subject. I’ve read Ehrman’s God’s Problem but not Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.

The programme consisted of them both trying to get the arguments from their books into an hour long discussion. There’s an MP3 of the programme available on Premier’s site. If you get annoyed with people posting links to audio and video without summaries, you could read my notes, below the cut, or skip to the conclusion.

<lj-cut text=”What was said”>Free will

Ehrman mentions Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When bad things happen to good people (summarised here), in which Kushner says God is not all-powerful. Swinburne points out that being all-powerful doesn’t include being able to do something logically contradictory. His argument is that there are good states which can’t occur without allowing for the possibility of suffering. For example, you can’t give people free choice (a good thing) to people without allowing them to chose evil. Responsibility for others is a good, but we can’t really be responsible for them unless their well-being depends on our actions. God, as our creator, has the right to allow us to experience suffering if it’s ultimately for our own good.

Ehrman responds that free will doesn’t explain why many people suffer and don’t receive benefit from it. A child dies of starvation every 5 seconds, and it’s hard to argue that the child benefits from it. Christians think there will be no suffering in heaven, and yet there will, presumably, be free will in heaven. Hence there is no logical inconsistency between free will and the absence of suffering.

Natural evil

Justin Brierley (the presenter) mentions natural disasters. Swinburne says that if the only suffering we experienced was from other people, some of us would barely suffer at all. He thinks this would in some ways be a bad thing. Natural evils (earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts) allow us opportunities to practice being cheerful in the face of suffering, to make significant decisions, and to help others. Making good choices improves our character. Deciding the kind of person we’re to be is a good, but only serious situations allow those choices.

Ehrman is unconvinced by this. The 700 children who starved to death in the course of the programme did not have the choice to be cheerful about it, nor does it seem right to excuse the suffering of others (the starving) by saying it gives us an opportunity to make moral choices.

The Holocaust

Swinburne talks of soldiers who die in just wars. We regard it as a good thing for them that they give up their lives for the good of others (to save their country from tyranny, say). The starving children are starving because our governments aren’t doing enough about it, and neither are we as individuals, but Swinburne seems to be arguing that the starving children or murdered Jews (he explicitly mentions the Holocaust at this point) give something good to others, just as the soldiers who die defending their country do. The good here is the opportunity for people to make decisions that matter. Swinburne realises this sounds callous, but thinks we have to step back from our emotional response to the problem.

Ehrman thinks the Swinburne’s cool detached approach to the Holocaust isn’t good enough.

What The Bible Says

The programme moves on to the Bible’s attitude to suffering. As he does in God’s problem, Ehrman says that the Bible doesn’t tend to give modern philosophically based answers, but its authors have a range of answers of their own. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible often say that suffering is punishment for Israel’s sins. In some places, suffering is caused by the actions of other people (the closest the Bible gets to the free will argument, though it doesn’t ever mention the argument explicitly). In other places, suffering is redemptive, so that people suffer to bring salvation (Jesus in the NT). Some Biblical authors attribute suffering to supernatural powers who work against God, and believe God will sort the baddies out at the end of time. Others (one of the authors of Job) think that it’s wrong to even question God about this. Finally, Ecclesiastes (summarised by scribb1e here) says that life, including suffering, just doesn’t make sense sometimes, so we may as well be happy as best we can.

Justin Brierley quotes Ehrman’s God’s Problem, where Ehrman describes sitting in a church near Cambridge (he has family locally) in a Christmas service, being moved by the intecessory prayers for God to come into the darkness. Ehrman says that the story of Jesus is that God does intervene, but looking around the world, this doesn’t seem to make a difference now.

Swinburne agrees that the Bible has a number of different answers to why people suffer, because there are number of reasons that God might allow suffering. He adds some that Ehrman hasn’t mentioned: Hebrews 12 talks suffering as character formation, John 9 talks of a man born blind so that Jesus could show something by healing him.

Ehrman thinks that some of the understandings in the Bible contradict each other, for example, the apocalyptic understanding where suffering is caused by the powers of darkness disagrees with the prophetic understanding where suffering is caused by God. Swinburne says that apocalyptic teaching says that the powers of evil are ultimately allowed by God. He talks about how God suffered himself in the person of Jesus.

Ehrman says that Swinburne’s views are not the views of the Biblical authors, but rather theological views derived from the Bible (Ehrman sounds a bit evangelical here, arguing with Swinburne’s view that the church has authority over the Bible). The earliest Christians believed that God would soon bring an end to suffering, with the return of Jesus. Jesus didn’t arrive, what arrived was the church. These days, God is inert. Swinburne doesn’t quite disagree with Ehrman’s assertion on when early Christians expected the world to end (because he’s presumably not an inerrantist), but starts to go into the standard rationalisations on this point when Brierley asks for a summing up from each of them.

Summing up

Ehrman agrees with Brierley that the Bible isn’t trying to come up with a philosophical explanation of suffering, but that the authors have various answers to what God’s doing about it. Ehrman thinks the most important thing is that we should do something about it.

Swinburne says we are privileged to be allowed to do something about suffering. He says a world without suffering would be a world without resonsibility for each other. There’s a hurried digression about free will in heaven, and parable about how it’s better to suffer for the greater good than to live a live of bliss.

Stiff upper lips

Swinburne’s theodicy is that of the public school games master, telling the boys that cross-country runs, cold showers and being made to play rugby against the masters will build character, however unpleasant these things are at the time. By contrast, in God’s problem, Ehrman tells us he has his students read Elie Wiesel’s Night. Ehrman’s book quotes Primo Levi’s Auschwitz Report, as well as the memoirs of Rudolf Hoss, written shortly before he was hanged by the Poles near the crematorium of the death camp over which he presided. In the face of sort of thing, Swinburne sounds like Pangloss (5 points to anyone who can write an “Objection: What about Nazis?” verse expounding Swinburnism: the lyrics to the existing ones about snakes and war are here, so you can get the metre).

Still, we ought to be careful of using the Holocaust as a sort of trump card in these debates, because it seems disrespectful of the dead, and also because it can be used as a tactic to imply that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically a bad person, which is the sort of thing that Christians might do, dammit (holding to a doctrine of total depravity is a big help with that sort of thing). So, what of Swinburne’s argument?

Why is this blog called “GCU Dancer on the Midway”, anyway?

I’ve mostly been ignoring Saunt Eliezer’s recent stuff on Fun Theory over at Overcoming Bias because it triggers my (badly evidenced and probably irrational) “transhumanism: phooey” reaction, but as he says, “if you can’t say how God could have better created the world without sliding into an antiseptic Wellsian Utopia, you can’t carry Epicurus’s argument“.

Luckily, I’ve had this argument before, and chose the Culture over my present existence. I think Swinburne is partly right, in that eliminating all possible causes of suffering actually does more harm than good. After all, one of those causes is other people making their choices, and other people who can make their own choices are interesting, even if the choices can lead to us ending up wearing the diaper (scroll down) from time to time. But why allow those choices to actually kill and maim people? Why aren’t there angels acting as slap drones? (Saunt Eliezer thinks there are problems with the Culture, but they also apply to Christianity. I’m sure he’ll tell us the right answer soon 🙂

There’s not much point getting angry with a fictional character, but on the off-chance we encounter God on judgement day, we ought to say that he could have done better.

Bart Ehrman on Premier Christian Radio

Bart Ehrman recently turned up on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking to Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House. You can listen to the programme on Premier’s site.

The subject of the programme was Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus (which, confusingly, is also available in the UK as Whose Word Is It?), a book which we’ve discussed here before. Williams has written about the book over at (scroll to the bottom for more, including Williams interviewing Ehrman).

Ehrman the evangelical

What’s perhaps surprising is how much Williams and Ehrman agree on matters of fact, but disagree on interpretation. Williams describes himself as a “glass half full” person when it comes to the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. His most convincing argument is that an Ehrman-approved NT translation would differ very little from the ones used by most Christians, and, says Williams, would still be sufficient for God’s purposes. Ehrman himself says on the programme that, while some variants do alter the meaning of passages, he wouldn’t expect a theologian to change their mind as a result of those variants.

When robhu mentioned Ehrman a while back, we ended up concluding that Ehrman’s knowledge of the manuscript evidence is not so very different from that of evangelical scholars (see Article X and section E of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example). But Ehrman couldn’t carry on being an evangelical knowing what he did. So what’s going on here?

Obligatory dig at CICCU

At least part of it it seems to be bad communication from the evangelical scholars to evangelical flocks, as Williams says on his blog. Perhaps one of the evangelical churches or colleges Ehrman attended was unwise enough to ask him to assent to doctrinal statement which asserted “the divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given”, for example. Perhaps they were even silly enough to speak of verbal, plenary, inspiration, rather than of Williams’s ideas of the “immaterial text” which is encoded in the manuscripts as genes are in DNA (clearly one can’t say the word “meme” on a religious blog).

Making inerrancy pay rent

Ehrman questions just what Christians are claiming is inerrant, and how it got that way. He expected assertions of inerrancy to mean something definite about the Bible he was actually reading, both in terms of how it got into his hands and what it says. Manuscript errors and internal contradictions bothered him because they seem to cast doubt on the text in his hand, but the Section III, C of the Chicago Statement makes it clear that errors aren’t errors if they’re not things God meant to get right anyway, and any contradictions aren’t. Well, I’m convinced.

OK, so I’m taking the mickey, but there are some interesting bits of psychology in something like the Chicago Statement. According to this interesting article on the philosophy of science as it pertains to inerrancy (no, really), there’s a logical way to maintain any belief whatever evidence comes in. Simply calling inerrantists illogical or deluded won’t cut it, however tempting it may be. So, let’s say that Ehrman’s commitment was to a version of inerrancy which couldn’t fit in his web of belief alongside the problems he knew about. Williams’s version can fit, but is far less clear. Williams’s version pays less rent, that is, it’s closer to, if not the same as, saying nothing more than “The Bible has an attribute called ‘inerrancy'” (like saying “Wulky Wilkinsen is actually a ‘post-utopian'” in Eliezer’s example)


Next week on the programme, Ehrman is talking to Richard Swinburne about the Problem of Evil. I hope he’s learned something about Bayes Theorem by now, after the unfortunate events of his debate with William Lane Craig.

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.