Tuesday, March 26, 2013

David Marshall v. Richard Carrier debate

Richard Carrier offers an argument against the reasonableness of the Christian faith based on a form of the problem of evil. Carrier argues that Jesus failed to inform people about things like germs, parasites, and proper sanitation and thus it is not reasonable to believe that Jesus is God as Christianity claims. The basic form of the argument can be summarized this way: “if Jesus had been God, he would have done X, Y, and Z; Jesus did not do X, Y, and Z; therefore Jesus was not God.” The fatal flaw in this argument is in justifying the first premise, but that issue can be set aside for the moment. Let’s start by looking at Carrier’s specific examples of what Jesus “should have done.”

Carrier argues that in order to prevent centuries of unnecessary deaths, Jesus should have taught people about germ theory, parasites, and proper sanitation. First, there is a considerable amount of naivety in such a statement. Even modern missionaries who travel to tribal cultures in today’s world can require years to communicate basic concepts of modern medicine to people from non-Western cultures, and that's only after said missionaries have had extensive training in cultural anthropology. While it’s easy to assume that things like modern medicine and science are culturally neutral and value-free, anthropologists know that this is not the case. So the idea that Jesus should have given lectures on germ theory strikes me as misguided. It would not have been understood. On the other hand it might have been a great strategy for him if he wanted to be followed and remembered by nobody.

But even supposing that this knowledge could have been accepted and understood by those first century Jews (which is simply not realistic), so what? Would these apostles of good hygiene have then been responsible to take that message to the Romans, and would the Romans have been expected to adopt it themselves? Perhaps in Carrier’s mind, if God had wanted to come to earth as a human being he would have done so as something other than an ancient Jew. Perhaps God should have made himself into a time-travelling 21st-century Westerner, because that’s what Richard Carrier would do. This appears to be the honest force of Carrier’s words.

Thus the premise that if Jesus had been God that he should have done X, Y, and Z has the dubious foundation that it simply starts from Carrier’s own assumptions about what God should do – and of course one of those assumptions is that teaching about things like repentance, sin, faith, reconciliation to God, and life after death don’t matter because – well, presumably because Carrier doesn’t think those things are real or rational. If Carrier DID think those things were real, he would probably have a correspondingly higher view of how important they are – and perhaps a different evaluation with regard to whether or not Jesus did what he should have done. If Jesus’ mission was to prevent as many premature deaths as possible, then perhaps Carrier is right, and Jesus should have taught about germs (even given the likelihood that such a teaching could never have been effective in the cultural context). If, however, his mission was something else (such as inaugurating the kingdom of God), then it’s possible that Carrier is totally off base. Rather than being a strong argument against the reasonableness of Christianity, Carrier’s argument turns out to be simple question-begging.

There are other problems with Carrier’s argumentation which are more nitpicky. Carrier alleges that Jesus said “nothing we put into us can harm us,” and implies that this is simply wrong because of course germs can make us sick. My best guess is that Carrier is doing a botch paraphrase of Mark 7:15-23 or the parallel passage in Matthew 15:11-20. However, Jesus does not say that nothing we put into us can harm us, he says that no food can make anyone “unclean,” meaning in the Old Testament ceremonial sense.

This is a bit of a surprising gaffe by Carrier – any lay person who has attentively read the Old Testament will have noticed that there are a lot of foods which are “clean” and others which are “unclean” for the Jews. This is known as kosher. Jesus was certainly not saying that nothing we eat can harm us, he was saying that food does not defile a person spiritually. This is a significant theological point but it has nothing to do with what Carrier seems to think it does, namely physical health.

Carrier also says that according to Jesus not even poison can hurt us (although the verse actually only applies to believers), but this verse is found in the long ending of Mark which almost all scholars agree is not authentic. Carrier should know that full well.

Carrier charges Jesus with incorrectly teaching people to eat without washing their hands in spite of the unhygienic nature of such advice. Clearly, argues Carrier, Jesus could not have been God and have made such a statement. Again Carrier’s argument flops because of his evident lack of understanding of rabbinic Judaism. The neglect of hand washing which the Jews who charged Jesus with(actually the charge was against Jesus’ disciples) was not simple hand washing for hygiene. It was the ritual hand washing that they believed good Jews were supposed to practice before, during, and after meals. Without the ritual hand washing, they believed the disciples were ceremonially unclean.

A bit of background is necessary here. The rabbinic system of ritual hand washing is not found in the Torah, but was later developed by the Jews. Thus Jesus responds to the challenge by challenging them: why do they break the commands of God because of traditions made by men? Jesus’ response to the question of hand washing was that food doesn’t defile a person spiritually, rather it is evil desires which motivate evil actions which defile a person. The entire discussion of hand washing (which is found in only one passage in Mark and Matthew) has to do with ceremonial cleanness and the theological discussion about the status of the Torah, a discussion which continued into the early church. Again, it’s an important theological point, but it has nothing to do with the use that Carrier wants to make of it. The idea of washing your hands for simple hygiene is not even in view. Carrier is misreading a theological discussion as a medical one.

Carrier’s entire argument also fails in principle. The argument is based on the premise that if a good human being would do X if it was in his or her power, then God should also do X. However, unlike human beings, God sees “the end from the beginning.” He is not so limited in his perspective as to see only the immediate effects of some action or inaction. We can make an analogy from parenthood. Very often as a parent I have to make a decision, sometimes painfully, to not do what my children would like me to do or to make them do what they do not want to do. Because I fail to do what they would do if they were in my position, from their perspective it would appear that I have fallen short of their moral standard. Often when this happens they announce, “No fair!” However, as a (hopefully) wise parent, I am able to make judgments about what is best which they are not yet able to make.

The analogy to God is imperfect, because God’s wisdom is not merely significantly different in degree from ours in the way that mine is from that of my children. My children will grow up and in a few short years reach the level of understanding of an adult and perhaps one day become parents themselves. God’s wisdom, however, will always be above us, so it is not certain that anyone knows what God should do in any given situation. It’s even conceivable that they might be way off, possibly coming to a conclusion which is the opposite of the truth as God sees it.

Thus the basic form of the argument as it stands is not effective for the simple reason that it begins with the very dubious premise that Richard Carrier knows exactly what Jesus should have done if he had been divine. It’s a variation on any number of skeptical arguments from evil – if there is a God, he should have done X, or he should have prevented Y from happening. The basic justification for the premise is that any good human being would have done X or prevented Y if it was in his or her power, so God should do the same, most often accompanied by an emotional appeal which Carrier also makes heavy use of. It seems to me that it is rather more likely that if God exists (which I am convinced that he does), that he would do things which nobody would expect. A God who only did what humans expected or thought he should do would be no god at all.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The City of Nazareth and why Arguments from Silence are a bad idea

The basic idea behind an argument from silence (argumentum ex silentio), is to argue for a conclusion based on lack of evidence. Of course, given that this is the skeptic's favorite form of argument, we shouldn't be surprised to see it cropping up often. In fact virtually any argument can be made based on silence or lack of evidence (or supposed lack of evidence) - which is exactly why skeptics love it so much. Now, an argument from silence can be a good argument under the right circumstances. For example, if you had an exhaustive list of U.S. Presidents, then you could prove that Benjamin Franklin was never the President of the U.S. by pointing to the fact that his name is not on that list. That would be a good argument from silence.

One skeptic I saw tried to "prove" that there was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus (a rather popular skeptical argument, especially among the looney-tune "Jesus was a myth" crowd) by means of various arguments from silence. The arguments for this are that 1) Nazareth is not mentioned in the OT, 2) historical sources from the time of Jesus don't say anything about Nazareth, 3) Josephus doesn't mention Nazareth, but does mention 40-50 cities and towns of Galilee. Notice that all three of these are forms of argument from silence - some particular source doesn't say anything about Nazareth, therefore we conclude that Nazareth didn't exist at the time that source was from.

For the moment we'll leave aside the archaeological evidence that Nazareth was a city which was populated during Jesus' time. I'll get to that at the end. Let's just consider these arguments on their face.

1) The fact that Nazareth is not mentioned in the OT means absolutely nothing. The last of the OT was written 400 years or so before Jesus was born, so even if we could read into the silence of the OT on Nazareth, it wouldn't mean that there was no city of Nazareth in Jesus' day. This is an awful argument from silence, completely brainless. Strike one.

2) In fact we do have historical sources from that time period that talk about the city of Nazareth - namely Luke and Matthew. While the skeptic might want to say that these don't count, in fact they count just as much as any other historical source from the time period. Elsewhere I've presented some of the copious amounts of evidence for Luke's accuracy as a historian. Even in many cases where scholars thought Luke made this or that error, it later turned out that Luke was right and the critics were wrong.

Now, the skeptic might be tempted to argue that this is circular reasoning - to use the Gospels to prove that the Gospels are accurate. But this is a separate question than simply asking whether there was a city of Nazareth in the time of Jesus. It would be completely bogus, for example, to take a historical source that talks about some city, and say that this particular source doesn't count in determining whether that city existed. And in this case you have four sources saying that Jesus was from Nazareth, two of them saying that Nazareth was a city (polis). In any other context, this would be about as conclusive as you can get that Nazareth existed in Jesus' time (keeping in mind that the argument is not whether there was a city of Nazareth, but whether it was populated in the time of Jesus or not).

So this second argument fares little better than the first one, particularly given the archaeological corroboration. Strike two.

3) This third argument sounds more plausible on the surface. Josephus never mentions Nazareth, and he was the governor of Galilee for a while. He mentions by name 45 cities and villages from Galilee, and yet Nazareth is not among them. Could this be a good argument from silence?

To answer that, the first question we have to ask is whether or not he mentioned all or even most of the cities and villages of Galilee. It was actually in trying to find the answer to that question that I came upon a discovery. Josephus himself, governor of Galilee, tells us how many cities and villages there were there. In his autobiography (The Life of Flavius Josephus), 45th chapter, he writes that there were 240 cities and villages in Galilee. He wrote this in a letter to one of his enemies, saying he would be willing to meet him in any of those places except for two of them which were in league with him.

This simple fact changes what looks like a plausible argument from silence into an utterly disastrous one. While it might sound like a big deal that Josephus mentions 45 cities and villages in his writings, that's not quite so impressive when you realize that that is less than 19% of the total. In other words, more than 80% of the cities and villages of Galilee have not been mentioned by him, or 4 out of every 5. It isn't even necessary to argue that Nazareth wasn't a very big city in his time to explain why it might not have been mentioned by Josephus - the majority of them weren't mentioned. This likewise renders moot the related argument sometimes used by skeptics that Nazareth is not included among the 63 Galilean cities and villages mentioned in the Talmud, either. Even 63 is only about 25% of the total. Even if you assumed that the ones mentioned by Josephus don't overlap at all with the 63 mentioned in the Talmud (which seems pretty unlikely though I haven't seen an actual comprehensive list of either), that would still be less than half! It would still only be 45%. So neither of these arguments are actually any good, in spite of their apparent plausibility (and the fact that they get widely repeated on the internet by skeptics who simply copy and paste bad arguments from each other). Strike three. That's called a strikeout.

Finally, a word about archaeology. The following three links deal with recent archaological finds in the area around Nazareth. Some scholars have suggested that it was inhabited at the time of Jesus, but was a small village. In that case, Jesus still could have been from Nazareth, but calling it a city would have been a mistake. However, as the last two links show, evidence of an early Roman bath house in Nazareth suggests that it may have been larger than believed. As the article in the Guardian (that well-known fundamentalist rag [irony alert]) notes, there actually hasn't been much archaeological work done in Nazareth for some reason, which is all the more reason why arguments from silence based on lack of archaeological evidence from Nazareth is a bad idea.




The skeptic will likely argue that the archaeological evidence doesn't count for this or that reason, such as the fact that it involves religious artifacts and could be a boon to tourism. Well, certainly finding a bath house that Jesus might have used (though that would be difficult to prove) would be a boon to tourism, but that has nothing to do with the authenticity of the find. Virtually any important archaeological find is going to be a boon to tourism for somebody. And while I don't suggest that these finds are conclusive proof (history rarely works that way), they certainly give enough reason to say that the conclusion of the skeptic that Nazareth didn't exist at the time of Jesus is unwarranted to put it mildly. So remember this the next time some skeptic repeats one or more of these bad arguments.
First link updated: Sept. 23, 2014

Monday, February 28, 2011

The problem with Ehrman (part 1)

New Testament scholar Dirk Jongkind gives a striking rebuttal to Bart Ehrman’s arguments against the reliability of the text of the New Testament. Ehrman frequently appeals to the fact that there are more variant readings for the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament. This is true, as there are between 300,000 and 400,000 manuscript variants for the New Testament, and approximately 134,000 words in the New Testament. To the uneducated, these stats give the impression that not one single word of the New Testament (or at best very few of them) can be considered authentic. This, however, is complete nonsense.

First, we must understand what constitutes a variant. A textual variant is any word or reading of a verse or passage which is different from another one in any way. So, for example, if the name of King David is spelled differently in one hand-written Greek manuscript from how it is spelled in another one, that’s a variant. One feature of writing before the modern period (and not just in Greek) is that there were no standardized spellings for proper names. Jongkind points out that William Shakespeare spelled his own name 13 different ways! There are at least four different ways that “David” is spelled in New Testament manuscripts. Each of these is a variant; moreover, each of them is a variant each time it occurs. The name David appears 59 times in the New Testament. That is potentially 236 variants just on that one name alone. You can multiply that by all of the other proper names in the New Testament – not just names of people, but also of places. These kinds of inconsequential variants account for about 99% of all variants in the New Testament. This fact is well known by anyone who has studied criticism of the New Testament text – including Bart Ehrman. His use of this statistic can only be described as disingenuous and misleading.

But there is another fact which sheds a very different light on the number of NT variants. The total number of manuscript pages of handwritten Greek texts of the NT is estimated to be about 2,600,000 pages. This is the reason why we have so many variants – because we have so many texts. But this means that on average there is about 1 variant for every 8 pages of handwritten Greek text. Try copying the New Testament by hand and see if you can do that well! But keep in mind that 99% of these variants have nothing to do with the meaning of the text and are merely a question of the spelling of proper names, word order (which in Greek is flexible and can be changed without affecting the meaning). This is far from Ehrman’s only problem, but it is quite a notorious one given the frequency with which he publicly uses this highly misleading stat without explaining what it really means.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the authenticity of the Gospels and Acts

Skeptics have attempted to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Gospels and Acts for centuries. When the arguments are examined in detail, however, they crumble in the face of the evidence. The first issue has to do with dating the Gospels and Acts. Skeptics have alleged that the Gospels and Acts were written much later than traditionally believed. It is noteworthy that in recent decades the tide has shifted in the direction of the traditional dating simply because of the evidence.

To begin the examination, we need to start by looking at the dating of Acts and the historical confirmation of it. Even the vast majority of skeptical scholars agree that Acts was written by the same person as the Gospel of Luke, and the prefaces indicate they are a two-part work. Thus Luke can be dated to the same period as Acts. Some skeptical scholars have claimed that Acts was written in the second century or later even though it describes events between approximately 30-60 AD. This conclusion is not based on evidence, but rather on assumptions. The assumption is that there must have been a significant time gap to allow for the development of what the skeptic believes were myths and legends. The question is, how does this conclusion fit with the evidence? The answer is that it doesn't.

A.N. Sherwin-White devoted a series of lectures to the evidence that Acts was a first-century work. Sherwin-White was not a Christian apologist, but a Roman historian. Among the evidence cited by Sherwin-White is the correctness of the charges against Paul in his trail before Felix and Festus. Sherwin-White shows that the charge of stirring up strife was normal under the existing system of the period as reflected in a letter from Claudius to the Alexandrines which contains similar language to the charge against Paul. Although this detail was considered unhistorical by many scholars, Sherwin-White concludes that “the narrative of Acts is using contemporary language.” Likewise in his handling of the status of the province of Cilicia and Felix’s decision to hear Paul’s case in Acts 23:34-35, Luke shows “remarkable familiarity with the provincial and juridical situation in the last years of Claudius.” Other examples include the situation in Acts 24:18-19 when the Asian Jews who brought charges against Paul withdrew, giving Paul a valid technical objection against them, properly corresponding to the offence of destitio. Acts also correctly handles the appeal of Paul as it would have been done under the rule of provocatio, which differed in many ways from the later procedure of appellatio which would have been in effect in the time period when critics believe Acts was written. Sherwin-White remarks that in this the author of Acts “has the advantage over some modern critics.” Sherwin-White’s conclusion? “The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case.”

Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay stumbled upon this same conclusion almost by accident. He was conducted field research in Asia minor, and had been thoroughly indoctrinated with the view that Acts was a second-century work. But Ramsay discovered that one of the many errors that Luke had been charged with was not an error at all. It had long been held that the statement in Acts 14:6 that Paul and Barnabas fled from Iconium to the province of Lycaonia was nonsense, since Iconium was believed to have been in Lycaonia. Writing in the second century as was supposed, the author of Acts simply was using outdated and incorrect information. However, Ramsay shows in great detail that in fact at the time of Paul’s journeys, Iconium was part of Phyrigia and not of Lycaonia as the critics had believed. His subsequent research showed that in fact Acts was a remarkably accurate book. On issue after issue, Luke was right and the critics were wrong.

The instances of skeptical malpractice with regard to Acts can be multiplied over and over. Critics of Acts have had a history of seizing upon difficulties and arguments from silence to buttress their claims that Acts was written late, only to be refuted by later evidence. An example is given by Adolf Deissmann, who commented on the claim by critics that Luke’s use of kurios as a title for the Roman Emperor in Acts 25:26 reflected the development of a later period. However, it was discovered that this title was used for the Emperor as far back as the Ptolemaic period in Egypt and the East, and the usage became widespread under Nero. Deissmann comments that “the insignificant detail, questioned by various commentators, who, seated at their writing-tables in Tübingen or Berlin, vainly imagined that they knew the period better than St. Luke, now appears thoroughly credible.”

Sherwin-White made the observation that Roman historians had long since taken for granted the basic historicity of Acts “even in matters of detail.” This is not to suggest that he endorsed or even commented on the element of Acts that critics find objectionable – namely the miracle stories. In fact his comments had to do with the historical setting, and the fact that the evidence simply precludes a late-dating for Acts which all of the skeptical theories require. He also makes the point that the skeptical methods that have been applied to the New Testament simply don't work in the field of Roman antiquities. But critics who make use of these skeptical methods are not usually historians. W. Ward Gasque similarly observed that as a general rule it was theologians and not historians who questioned the basic historicity and dating of Acts. These theologians were ideological descendents of the Tübingen school in Germany. As a result, continental scholars have differed substantially from British scholars in regard to the historicity of Acts. The evidence, however, is on the side of Acts. Recent efforts to discredit Acts by arguing that it was not written as historiography, a view championed by Richard Pervo, has gained very little acceptance from scholars. Pervo simply fails to engage with the historical evidence in any meaningful way.

The external evidence is overwhelming that Acts was written by someone from the same time period as the events it describes. That the writer was a sometimes travelling companion of Paul also has considerable internal and external support. Scholars almost universally agree that the writer of Acts did not have access to Paul’s letters, but nevertheless numerous parallels and congruencies with Paul’s letter even in small details which are inexplicable as simply coincidence. That the Gospel has been universally attributed to Luke leaves the skeptic with an insurmountable problem: if these books were forgeries, why would they be attributed to such an obscure figure in the church who was neither an apostle nor, as far as we know, an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? The simple answer is they wouldn’t. Forged gospels, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, or the Gospel of Mary were attributed to apostles or important church figures.

The oft-repeated claim that we don’t know who wrote the Gospels is simply bunk. The skepticism towards these books is based on methods that simply don’t fly in any other field except New Testament studies, and are universally based on a priori rejection of the miraculous. Such theories do not stand up to the evidence.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

On A. N. Sherwin-White and Vince Hart’s Abuse of Christian Apologists UPDATED: Deleted Comments on Hart's Blog

A blogger by the name of Vince Hart, who apparently has an undergraduate degree in finance and a graduate degree in law, wrote in 2007 that Christian apologists abuse Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White by taking his arguments from his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament out of context. I’ve actually seen Hart’s blog cited a few times by skeptics who link to Hart as if he knows what he’s talking about. However, Hart is clearly an amateur hack as a historian. He’s good at finding nit-picky errors (although sometimes not so good), but when it comes to substance he’s clearly out of his depth in this field. It was actually after someone referenced Hart’s blog to me a couple of years ago that I decided to buy a copy of Sherwin-White’s book to see for myself what was going on. It was well worth the price. While there are a few quotes of Sherwin-White’s that rightly get a lot of air time, there is a lot of highly valuable material in it that in my opinion is under-utilized. My overall conclusion, however, was that the apologists’ use of Sherwin-White is perfectly acceptable and that Hart is out to lunch. What Hart points to as a couple of minor misquotations are insubstantial and don’t affect the arguments. And as we will see shortly, Hart is guilty of a few howlers of his own.

After an introductory paragraph, Hart begins his critique with a glaring misinterpretation: “The first thing I noticed is that the book has nothing to do with the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts or any of the miracle stories.”

This is a highly misleading statement for several reasons. Sherwin-White repeatedly addresses questions pertaining to the historical and legal setting of the Gospels and Acts, and frequently through the course of his lectures refers to instances where the skeptics have completely blown it because of their assumption that the Gospels and Acts were myths and legends that developed over several generations. It’s simply incorrect (and rather ridiculous) to say that this has nothing to do with the historical reliability of the specific stories, and actually Sherwin-White himself refutes such a misunderstanding later in the book as we will see. Hart is correct only insofar as Sherwin-White does not directly render a historical verdict on the Resurrection or the miracle stories of the Gospels and Acts, but since no Christian apologist that I am aware of argues that he does, this is simply a non-issue. Hart appears to simply not understand the point, but appears to want to poison the well as early as possible by making it sound as if Christian apologists are citing Sherwin-White for purposes which in fact they are not. In fact Hart repeatedly engages in these kinds of straw men arguments. Over and over he says, “Sherwin-White never says X,” implying that Christian apologists say that Sherwin-White says X when in fact that’s not the case. Hart weaves a web of deception that is hard to untangle if you aren’t familiar with Sherwin-White’s book and with the way Christian apologists use his arguments.

Hart continues: “As the book’s title suggests, Sherwin-White’s interest was Roman law and society. The book addresses the procedural and jurisdictional issues that arise in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and the issues of Paul's Roman citizenship that arise in the book of Acts. "[O]ne may show how the various historical and social and legal problems raised by the Gospels and Acts now look to a Roman historian. That, and only that, is the intention of these lectures." (emphasis added) (RSRLNT p. iv)””

Here Hart has taken a half a sentence, but what he’s done with it is simply bizarre. First, the sentence in its entirety reads, “But one may learn what are the questions requiring answers, and one may show how the various historical and legal and social problems raised by the Gospels and Acts now look to a Roman historian. That, and only that, is the intention of these lectures” (the quote is from p. vi, not p. iv). Hart omitted the phrase, “one may learn what are the questions requiring answers,” which in the context refers to Sherwin-White’s statement that while he is an outsider to the field of New Testament criticism, he can still bring insights as a Roman historian. In other words, his intention is to show how the field of New Testament criticism looks to a Roman historian, which he does quite forcefully. Whatever point Hart wants to make with this statement is quite obscure, except that he seems to interpret Sherwin-White as saying that he’s not going to say anything that has to do with the historicity of the events in the NT (even though "historical" was one of the categories that Sherwin-White explicitly mentioned!). But that would be a gross misinterpretation, as Sherwin-White’s implicit and explicit statements in the book itself shows. Hart seems to think that Sherwin-White is simply using the New Testament to give insight into the field of Roman law and history. In fact, the opposite is the case – Sherwin-White is bringing his considerable expertise in Roman law and history to bear on New Testament studies. Hart has gotten it completely backwards.

Hart writes, “Sherwin-White’s analysis did not require him to reach any conclusions about the historical reliability of the New Testament stories. He simply offered his opinion on the extent to which the accounts reflected what historians knew about the legal system of ancient Rome. . . . This does not mean that Sherwin-White either affirmed or denied that any particular story in the New Testament was factual or fictional. For his purposes, the question was not relevant.”

This is simply false. It is absolutely untrue to say that the question of historicity of any particular story in the NT was not relevant for his purposes. In fact the final chapter is titled “Aspects of Roman Citizenship, and the Question of Historicity.” In the second section of the chapter, which is subtitled “The Historicity of the Gospels and Graeco-Roman Historiography,” Sherwin-White writes in the first paragraph, “it is fitting for a professional Graeco-Roman historian to consider the whole topic of historicity briefly and very generally, and boldly to state a case” (186). Hart makes much ado of the phrase “briefly and very generally” in his ludicrous attack on Lee Strobel, but ignores the “boldly to state a case” bit. In fact Hart seems oblivious to what case it is that Sherwin-White is even making in the entire book, but seems confident that it has nothing to do with the historicity of any of the events in the Gospels and Acts! Hart himself is good at making mountains out of molehills while apparently missing the point of the entire thrust of Sherwin-White’s lectures. In any case, Sherwin-White makes it quite explicit when he says, “Yet however one accepts form-criticism, its principles do not inevitably contradict the notion of the basic historicity of the particular stories of which the Gospel narratives are composed, even if these were not shored up and confirmed by the external guarantee of their fabric and setting” (p. 188). So it’s astounding that Hart can say the historicity of any particular story in the NT was irrelevant for Sherwin-White’s purposes! Hart is simply applying his own skeptical slant to Sherwin-White’s words and badly misinterpreting them.

In his next paragraph, Hart moves to an argument from silence, but even that isn’t very good. He writes, “[Sherwin-White] did not assert that the gospels were historically factual. He asserted that they could be used to do history.” This is a bizarre statement. If the Gospels are not historically factual at all (which is the essence of the skeptical theories which Sherwin-White rightly castigates), then they are of no use for doing history! Hart appears to be saying that Sherwin-White didn’t say that the Gospels are 100% accurate or inerrant or anything of that nature. That’s certainly true, but again no apologist that I have ever seen says that Sherwin-White said that. Hart is again engaging in some straw man manufacturing by implying that Christian apologists are using Sherwin-White for a purpose for which in fact they are not using him. The entire comment of Hart’s is irrelevant except in advancing his anti-apologist agenda. One might well ask the question what Hart even makes of Sherwin-White’s comments. How does Hart think the Gospels should be used to do history according to Sherwin-White? What does he think we can know from them? Clearly Sherwin-White thought we could know a great deal more than the skeptics believed.

Hart’s misunderstanding continues: “Professor Sherwin-White noted that even the “most deplorable” sources can be read critically by historians to yield a “basic layer of historical truth.” While he did not claim that the Bible was a deplorable source, he repeatedly compared it to writings that are replete with problems.”

Another very misleading statement from Hart, this one more egregious. Sherwin-White compares the Gospels with a variety of Roman sources, some of which are replete with problems and some of which aren’t. He doesn’t only compare them to Herodotus, he also compares them to Thucydides, Plutarch, Arrian, Tacitus, and others. Hart is being appallingly selective in his quotes here, and appears to be simply quote-mining (a practice in which he demonstrated great proficiency during some personal interaction with yours truly as well).

More from Hart: “Sherwin-White did not “suggest the literal accuracy of ancient sources, ecclesiastical or secular;” (RSRLNT p.192-193 n.2) he merely rejected the view “that the historical Christ is unknowable.””

Again this is misleading. Sherwin-White did not “merely” reject the hyper-skeptical view - in fact he found that view to be “astonishing” (187 – Sherwin-White’s own word). But this is a great part of Sherwin-White’s point which Hart has completely missed; it’s not just that the skeptics are a little off in their thinking, they are wildly mistaken, and their conclusions simply wouldn’t fly in the field of Roman history. Hart apparently misses the point because of his own amateur understanding of the field.

Hart continues his adventure in misinterpretation with some more silliness: “However, contrary to Craig, Strobel, Geisler and a host of others, he did not attempt to calculate a rate of legendary accumulation that is universally applicable. Nor did he lay out a rule that enables an historian to identify a point before which an oral tradition can still be considered historical.”

The first sentence is strange. In fact Sherwin-White does lay out a general principle concerning what he calls the tempo of mythmaking. While Sherwin-White didn’t say the words, “universally applicable,” it’s quite clear that he believed it was applicable to the Gospels and Acts – otherwise there would have been no point in putting it in the book! But once again, Hart seems to be wanting to put words in the mouths of Christian apologists which they have never said and then indict them for it. As for “laying out a rule that enables an historian . . .,” it’s hard to understand the point of this sentence. Again, unless someone has used Sherwin-White this way, Hart appears to be simply fantasizing about arguments that have never appeared in print.

The first concrete charge against an apologist that Hart attempts after his several paragraphs of straw men and misinterpretation of Sherwin-White is with William Lane Craig. Hart writes, “The apologetic abuse of the Oxford professor starts with William Lane Craig. His claim that Sherwin-White “states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable’" is at least a gross distortion if not an outright falsehood. Sherwin-White never classified the gospels as either legend or fact. Nor did he ever use the word “unbelievable” despite Craig application of quotation marks.”

It does appear to be the case that Craig has incorrectly used quotations around the word “unbelievable.” Here is the section where Hart found this: http://www.accordingtothescriptures.org/doctrine/evidenceforjesus.html

It’s worth looking at the entire paragraph from Craig to see how significant this issue is. Craig writes,
One of the major problems with the legend hypothesis, however, which is almost never addressed by sceptical critics, is that the time between Jesus's death and the writing of the gospels is just too short for this to happen. This point has been well-explained by A. N. Sherwin-White in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament.{2} Professor Sherwin-White is not a theologian; he is a professional historian of times prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus. According to Sherwin-White, the sources for Roman and Greek history are usually biased and removed one or two generations or even centuries from the events they record. Yet, he says, historians reconstruct with confidence the course of Roman and Greek history.

What Craig has written here accurately summarizes Sherwin-White’s comments on p. 186 of his book.

Craig goes on to say,
For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than 400 years after Alexander's death, and yet classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. The fabulous legends about Alexander the Great did not develop until during the centuries after these two writers.

Here Craig is bringing in material which is not explicitly stated by Sherwin-White, but is still correct. Undoubtedly he is referring to the Alexander Romance with his last sentence.

Craig continues:
According to Sherwin-White, the writings of Herodotus enable us to determine the rate at which legend accumulates, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts.

This is a paraphrase of Sherwin-White, who wrote that “Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” Here Craig’s paraphrase is spot-on.

Craig again,
When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be "unbelievable." More generations would be needed.

Hart objects to Craig’s use of “unbelievable” in quotation marks, saying that it’s “at least a gross distortion if not an outright falsehood.” I will say that the use of quotation marks is puzzling, since I can’t see where Sherwin-White uses that word in that way. However, neither do I agree with Hart that it’s a “gross distortion” of Sherwin-White’s words. In fact Sherwin-White does write, specifically with regard to the tempo of mythological development, that “the agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case” (189). Sherwin-White has demonstrated in careful detail throughout his book that the Gospels can’t have been written as late as the skeptical theories required. Here he simply says outright that the agnostic form-criticism would be more credible if the Gospels were written a lot later than they actually were. But that’s his point – the theories AREN’T credible because the Gospels COULDN’T have been written as late as the skeptics said they were. So Sherwin-White is, in fact, making the point that Craig says he’s making, just in different, more restrained words. Craig might also have been thinking of Sherwin-White’s use of the word “astonishing” with regard to the skepticism of New Testament studies. Should Craig re-word his point? Yes, probably. But it’s certainly not the “gross distortion” that Hart imagines it to be. In fact Craig’s comments on the whole are exactly in line with what Sherwin-White has said quite explicitly.

Hart’s objection that “Sherwin-White never classified the gospels as either legend or fact” is positively bizarre. Since Craig doesn’t say that he classified them as either, it’s hard to know why Hart would even say this except in the cause of continuing to produce straw men. Craig simply says that according to Sherwin-White, in order for the Gospels to be legends the rate of legendary development would have had to have been unbelievable. He doesn’t say either that Sherwin-White classified them as legend or as fact.

Hart continues, “Throughout his essay, the Oxford professor acknowledged that all of his ancient sources contain both fact and fiction. What he did argue is that it would usually take more than two generations for the legendary elements to so completely displace the historical facts as to make the gospels useless to the critical historian. But he made no attempt to identify where such displacement occurred in the gospels or which parts could be considered historical.”

Sherwin-White did NOT say that it would “usually take more than two generations for the legendary elements to so completely displace the historical facts as to make the gospels useless to the critical historian.” In fact the word, “usually” doesn’t appear at all! Hart has made a botch of a paraphrase here, implying that there might be some cases where two generations would be sufficient for the kind of mythological development that the skeptics imagine occurred. Here’s the actual quote again: “Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” There’s no “usually” here – that word, ironically, is a product of Hart’s imagination.

Hart has again put words in the apologist’s mouth that the apologist has not argued, and then wrestled the straw man to the ground. No apologist that I have seen argues that Sherwin-White DID identify which specific part could be considered historical. Rather, apologists use Sherwin-White to demonstrate that the skeptical view that the Gospels are not historically reliable at all is wrong. The skeptical view is that myth has completely obliterated historical fact, because no matter how deeply you look into the traditions, you find the miraculous. But Hart is fallaciously intimating that because Sherwin-White hasn’t explicitly said which parts are historical, he’s affirming that we can’t know if any of it is historical. Hart is actually implicitly using Sherwin-White’s words to argue in favor of a position which Sherwin-White is explicitly disavowing. He’s reading Sherwin-White as agnostic when Sherwin-White has explicitly said the agnostic position is not credible!

Probably the clearest demonstration of Hart’s desire to smear apologists is revealed by his ridiculous attack on Lee Strobel. Here are Hart’s own words:

“Not surprisingly, Lee Strobel is even less circumspect in his use of Sherwin-White. In his summary in The Case for Christ, Strobel bloviates
What clinched it for me was the famous study by A. N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford University, which William Lane alluded to in our interview. Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world. His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth. (The Case for Christ p. 264)
"Contrary to Strobel’s imagination, the comments in Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament do not constitute a “study” and they do not reflect “meticulous” examination. No such study was required to support the rest of the book, which is why Sherwin-White described himself as considering the topic of historicity “briefly and very generally.” (RSRLNT p. 186) Most importantly, Strobel ignores the fact that it still takes critical historical methodology to identify that "solid core." Sherwin-White did not admit the possibility of accepting the gospels at face value.”

The first point to notice is Hart’s derogatory use of “bloviates” which adds nothing to the argument and is simply a gratuitous (and completely unjustified) ad hominem. But what is the substance of Hart’s complaint against Strobel? It’s that Strobel refers to Sherwin-White’s work as “meticulous” and a “study.” In interacting with Hart on his blog about this issue, part of the problem seems to stem from Hart interpreting Strobel’s use of the word “study” as referring particularly to the section in which Sherwin-White talks about the rate of mythmaking with reference to Herodotus. That’s far from obvious from his single use of the word, which more plausibly refers to the whole book. Hart also complains about Strobel using the word “meticulous.” This is simply a bizarre complaint, and hardly constitutes an abuse! Sherwin-White talks about the rate of mythmaking by examining the story of the murder of Hipparchus as it is related by Herodotus and later by Thucydides. Actually, it’s difficult to summarize the point without getting into details (I wonder if Hart could pull that off!), which in my mind indicates that it is fairly meticulous. Indeed, Sherwin-White was remembered as a very meticulous scholar. So this complaint of Hart’s is simply mindless. By the end of my exchange with him on his blog, he had quietly dropped the subject altogether. But it does reveal an intent to simply defame Christian apologists regardless of how much merit there is in the complaint.

In defending his absurd attack on Strobel in the comments section, Hart committed a howler and a clear distortion of his own. He wrote, “What Strobel characterizes as a “study” consists of a single anecdote from Herodotus concerning Alexander the Great. (Moreover, as Sherwin-White admits in a footnote, “There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds with the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate.”)”

Hart’s distortion is manifest with his cherry-picked quote from the footnote. He says that Sherwin-White “admits” that there was a remarkable growth of myth around Alexander the Great in his lifetime. The reader is left with the impression that Sherwin-White actually refuted the idea that myth didn’t develop as fast as what the apologists have said. But here is the full quote from Sherwin-White: “Mr. P. A. Brunt has suggested in private correspondence that a study of the Alexander sources is less encouraging for my thesis. There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate. But the hard core still remains, and an alternative but neglected source – or pair of sources – survived for the serious inquirer Arrian to utilize in the second century A.D. This seems to me encouraging rather than the reverse.” This is clear deception on Hart’s part. First, he made it appear as if this was simply an observation which Sherwin-White had made, when in fact it was made by someone else. Second, he deliberately omitted the response of Sherwin-White to this argument in which Sherwin-White not only refutes it, but actually points out that in the end it supports his point rather than hurting it! Amazingly, Hart has gone quote-mining to make it look like Sherwin-White has said the opposite of what he actually said, precisely the charge which he tries to level against Habermas (see below).

As for the howler, Hart mistakenly thought that the example Sherwin-White gave to illustrate the tempo of myth-making in Roman history was from Herodotus talking about something from the life of Alexander the Great. While this might be an understandable confusion for a layman (he obviously got confused about the footnote concerning Alexander), the problem is that Herodotus lived a century before Alexander was born! As anyone familiar with this era of history knows full well, our earliest existing biographies of Alexander come from four centuries after his death. We only know about earlier sources because parts of them are preserved in these later writings. The idea that Herodotus wrote about Alexander would be like saying that David Hume (philosopher and historian who died in 1776) wrote something about Abraham Lincoln! As I said at the beginning, Hart is clearly an amateur hack as a historian – and it shows.

But Hart’s closing statement in this paragraph is incredible. He writes, “Sherwin-White did not admit the possibility of accepting the gospels at face value.” This really IS a distortion. It seems to imply that Sherwin-White said, “we can’t accept the Gospels at face value” or some such thing. In fact he made no statement at all of the kind. When someone says “so-and-so doesn’t admit the possibility of X,” that implies that they have explicitly disavowed X. Hart is simply engaging in some creative writing at this point, inventing statements which Sherwin-White simply never made.

Hart’s complaint against Habermas appears to be more significant on the surface. Hart writes, “Another interesting misuse of Sherwin-White comes from Gary Habermas who appears to simply alter words to meet his own purposes in Why I Believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable. According to Habermas, "The sort of thoroughgoing propaganda literature that some critics believe the Gospels to be was actually nonexistent in ancient times. Sherwin-White declares, 'We are not acquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography.'" The only problem is that Sherwin-White did not declare that! He declared that "we are not unacquainted with this type of writing."(emphasis added)(RSRLNT p. 189) The point of Sherwin-White’s essay is that historians were familiar with this type of literature and were capable of using critical analysis to get at the historical content despite the difficulties posed by the genre.”

If Habermas said this, then it is a misquote that should be corrected. But does it show that Habermas’ use of Sherwin-White is an abuse? Without the full context of the quote it’s difficult to say, but it appears that Habermas is saying that according to Sherwin-White, the skeptical view of the NT (that it is essentially entirely myth and legend) is wrong. Well, that IS what Sherwin-White is saying. The type of literature that Sherwin-White is actually referring to in the quote in question is what he calls “didactic myths.” This actually leads into Sherwin-White’s comments on the tempo of myth-making, in which he says that even two generations are too short for the mythmaking tendency to prevail over the historical core. So when Sherwin-White says, “we are not unacquainted with this type of writing,” he isn’t talking about writing that is pure myth which arose in short order – rather he’s talking about material which has been somewhat distorted but still retains the historical core. Notice that Sherwin-White is NOT saying that the Gospels have been distorted in this way (although he doesn’t deny it, either), rather his emphasis is on the fact that the historical core must still be intact, something which the skeptics deny. But that’s exactly what Christian apologists are also saying. Thus their use of Sherwin-White appears to be consistent with what he himself wrote.

So Hart has failed to demonstrate that Christian apologists have misused the work of A. N. Sherwin-White. All Hart has done is to fabricate some straw men and locate a couple of misquotes which nevertheless retain the gist of what Sherwin-White was saying. Perhaps Hart’s argument is with Sherwin-White himself. However, amateur hack that he is, it is unlikely that Hart has anything worthwhile to say about whether Sherwin-White’s observations were correct. A. N. Sherwin-White was known and respected as a careful and serious-minded scholar. His slender but detailed work on the New Testament contains rich material that confounds the ludicrous theories of skeptics as I have gone into some detail in showing elsewhere. Hart’s straw men and nitpicky attacks on Christian apologists can’t change that fact.


While attempting to engage with Hart on his blog, he reached the point where he decided to simply start deleting my comments. Was I being profane or defamatory? No, I simply demonstrated where he was clearly misreading Sherwin-White and he was unable to answer the point.

On the comments thread on his most recent blog post, Hart said, "On the question of whether Sherwin-White thinks that the New Testament accounts contain both legend and fact just as the Roman sources do, I don't think there can be any doubt; it is the nature of ancient sources."

I pointed out that in fact Sherwin-White says absolutely nothing even remotely resembling this in his book, and doesn't use the word legend this way. He certainly doesn't say that it's the nature of ancient sources that they contain both legend and fact. Assuming that legend means "a story with no historical basis whatsoever," Sherwin-White doesn't even hint that the sources he deals with contain such stories, and says nothing that implies the New Testament contains such legends. Even his use of the word "myth" is very different from the skeptical use of this word, as I pointed out in a comment which Vinny allowed to remain. But in a comment which he deleted, I reiterated the point which Vinny failed to respond to - Sherwin-White nowhere says or suggests that the New Testament contains legends, nor does he say that it's the nature of ancient sources to do so. In fact everything he says actually argues against that view. In talking about Herodotus and the possible application of form-criticism to his writings, he says, "The notions of form-criticism have not been applied systematically to Herodotus. His stories are obviously open to treatment of this kind. The investigation would cast much light on his literary method, but would not affect seriously the basic historicity of his material, which is sufficiently established." He ends this with the footnote about Alexander that I discussed above, which Vinny seriously mangled, taking part of it out of context in his misinterpretation of Sherwin-White. But since he has now taken to simply deleting comments that he can't adequately refute, further discussion of the topic is apparently not going to happen unless he comes and posts his comments here (which I will be happy to allow to remain as long as they contain no profanity, which is my criteria for removing comments).

Update 2:

When I called Hart's attention to this update, he responded by suggesting that the reason he deleted my comments was because I wasn't civil enough and was dishonest. When I challenged him to demonstrate where I had been dishonest and how it was that I wasn't civil enough for his blog when he charges Christian apologists with "abusing" Sherwin-White and "bloviating" when simply stating what Sherwin-White said, he responded by deleting the comment! I think if anyone reads my comments over at Vince's blog you will see that his charges of incivility and dishonesty are entirely without merit. He has yet to actually respond to the substance of the above charge, that he is just clearly putting words in Sherwin-White's mouth - words which toe the skeptical line even though Sherwin-White argues against the skeptical position throughout his book. So as for who is engaging in dishonesty here, I have to say that's pretty clear.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Diary of a Conversion

I came across a wonderful and powerful testimony of a woman (Jennifer Fulwiler) who describes herself as having been a life-long atheist who had "never once believed in God, not even as a child." This is somewhat unusual, as I have seen studies which have shown that belief in the supernatural is almost universal among children across all cultures. It's striking that she also describes herself as having been "vocally anti-Christian" before her conversion.

The story of Jennifer's conversion to Christianity (particularly Catholicism) is simply beautiful, and well worth reading. It's a story of what happens when someone decides to give God a chance. While I can relate to some aspects of her testimony (such as how the world and her life made so much more sense after her conversion compared with prior to it), I can't relate to never having believed in God. I'm one of those for whom the existence of God seemed obvious, although I didn't know who He was and didn't live my life for Him until my conversion at the age of 19.

Sometimes it can be discouraging in trying to share the Gospel with atheists and skeptics, presenting the arguments and evidence, and often seeing nothing as a result. But those arguments can and do work to break down the intellectual barriers to faith that many people have. Jennifer writes, "When I first started reading works by Christian apologists I was quite surprised at how reasonable they were, that their arguments in favor of God and Christ his Son were more involved than the one's I'd always heard (mainly "Shut up," and the old standby "You're going to hell"). I decided to take Pascal up on his wager, to follow St. Augustine on his advice to believe so that you might understand, and to just live my life for a while as if God did exist."

Jennifer listed some of the books that helped influence her in coming to faith, a list that included The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, books which I have used in teaching apologetics in Hungary. It was a blessing to me to see these books included in Jennifer's list!

Monday, December 21, 2009

From Lowly Beginnings

Of all of the skeptical arguments marshaled against the historicity of the New Testament, few are as absurd as one promulgated by atheist Frank Zindler and propagated on the internet: that there was no town of Nazareth in the time of Jesus, and that the description of Jesus as having grown up there was a later fabrication, possibly based on a corruption of the Hebrew word for Nazarite. The basis for this argument was entirely an argument from ignorance, and not a very good one at that. Zindler’s points include the following:

• No "ancient historians or geographers mention [Nazareth] before the beginning of the fourth century.”
• Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, the Talmud, nor in the Apocrypha and it does not appear in any early rabbinic literature.
• Nazareth was not included in the list of settlements of the tribes of Zebulun (Joshua 19:10-16) which mentions twelve towns and six villages
• Nazareth is not included among the 45 cities of Galilee that were mentioned by Josephus (37AD-100AD).
• Nazareth is also missing from the 63 towns of Galilee mentioned in the Talmud.

Apparently someone forgot to tell him that arguments from ignorance don’t prove anything, and that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But what really makes this argument rather bizarre is that it has been known for a long time that the area around the modern city of Nazareth was inhabited in the periods before and after the time of Jesus. Some skeptics speculated that it was uninhabited for the period in which Jesus was a child, but not because of evidence that it wasn’t. It was based on the lack of solid evidence that it was, and apparently this was enough to try to throw more doubt on the historical details and setting of the New Testament, even though those details have been well confirmed by historians.

In any case, today the announcement was made of the discovery of a dwelling in ancient Nazareth from the time period of Jesus, in this article from the AP: “The humble dwelling is the first dating to the era of Jesus to be discovered in Nazareth, then a hamlet of around 50 impoverished Jewish families where Jesus spent his boyhood.” This points to the most obvious reason why Nazareth was left off of the lists of towns pointed out by Zindler - Nazareth was too small and insignificant. Even the response of Nathaniel to Philip in John 1:46 points to the lowly status of this little town: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

This is yet another victory for the Gospels in the long-standing war of skeptics who have tried to undermine it on various grounds. Recently I spoke in a Sunday School class on the historical evidence for the NT, and mentioned the story of Sir William Ramsay, the skeptical archaeologist who set out to prove that the book of Acts was a late second- or early third-century forgery, and ended up becoming a Christian instead because of the overwhelming historical evidence supporting Acts.

In the middle of the Christmas season, it’s also worth reflecting on the background of the One who was born in a lowly manger in Bethlehem and lived his childhood in a poor Jewish village with no status and no prestige, the One who came to redeem the world, to exalt the humble and to tear down the proud. In a world that still values the prestige and honor of the “elites” above all else, it’s a reminder that ultimately it will not be the elites who will inherit the earth, but the meek.

About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.