Thursday, February 28, 2008

Debating Christians on the Bible...

One thing Ray Comfort will not do is make any concrete statements of his views on complicated biblical issues like authorship, dating, and archaeological support. There is, however, one fellow on Ray's blog who will; a guy named Garret who is quite well versed in apologetics. In general this guy is pretty pleasant to talk to, because among other things he's at least pretty consistent and seems knowledgeable about his material. Whether he intends to be or not, he's Ray's bulldog who goes on the attack whenever someone asked a biblical question Ray won't answer (read: whenever someone asks a biblical question). He and I have recently been butting heads.

Something that has become problematically apparent is that we dispute the authority of one another's sources almost completely. Some of his sources, like Josh McDowell, are avowed literalists who are well outside the mainstream of scholarship. Others, like Gregory Boyd, who I have some respect for due to his public rejection of dominionist claims, either make pretty familiar arguments or argue subjects that do not necessarily address the point at hand (Boyd is tremendously interested in arguing for the legendary view rather than historical view of Jesus.) I prefer sources like Ehrman, Metzger, and Friedman - all of whom he seems to lump into a class of "liberal theologians" whose arguments he believes to have been "brutalized" by "conservative theologians".

Another situation has cropped up regarding the Johannine Comma, a bit of text in 1 John 5:7 that represents the only explicit delineation of the Trinity in the Bible. It is extremely poorly attested to in Greek sources before the time of Erasmus (Eight references, four of the obvious write-ins, none of them dating earlier than 10th cent. CE.) but it appears in a number of later Latin translations. It currently exists in the modern KJV that the Baptists around here trot around. There is some evidence that it was being referenced by theologians in a time period before we have direct manuscript evidence of it. In the process of glossing over the issue for someone else, I (foolishly) simplified the issue by saying that it did not appear in the Greek before Erasmus. Garret called me on the carpet over it and referred me to this link.

Now, the link is from Logos Resources, a typical apologetics site, and it lays out an argument for why the Johannine Comma is awesome and folks should "regard it as authentic and employ it as the clearest proof-text in the Scripture for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity." I don't think that it was unreasonable of me to take this as a defense of the Johannine Comma on his part, so I typed up a long, kind of grumpy, refutation. But wait, amazingly I was somewhat indignantly informed that the Johannine Comma is a textual aberration (something on which we both agree) and he wouldn't be caught dead with it in his NIV and NASB Bibles - but he was using a source defending it tooth and nail to correct me on the dating. A strange misunderstanding ensued, with me claiming that he used a lame source and Garret asking "where is there a problem" and then proceeding to make the weirdest argument about biblical inerrancy I've ever encountered.

I'm going to post it in his own words because I like the guy and I don't want to be accused of putting words in his mouth:

They [the books of the Bible] are inerrant in their ORIGINAL manuscripts, which no longer exist, but textual critics pull out the original with estimated 99.5% accuracy

I'm not sure where he's pulling the 99.5% accuracy thing from. I've heard it put in Bart Ehrman's mouth, but I've never seen it in his texts. I've seen him use the term "with reasonable accuracy", something with which I would probably tend to agree, but 99.5% is laughable. Maybe that's an assertion of the "conservative" scholarship that I'm just not familiar with. I've asked him to clarify and I imagine he will when he gets the chance. What bothers me more is the perfect out he's crafted for himself with this "inerrant originals but errant copies" thing.

When he says "inerrant", he means (quoting again) "conservative evangelical, bible thumping, hell fire and brimstone preaching, potluck picknicking, homeschoolin' definition of inerrancy" - I think it's fair to say that he subscribes to the "inspired word of God" school of thought. BUT if you can always appeal to an inerrant, perfectly correct original, doesn't that mean you ALWAYS have an out if there's a problem in the modern versions? Sure the Bible says bats are a kind of bird and that there are four-footed flying things (Keizer Ghidorah?) - but the ORIGINAL manuscript had it right. Sure the Bible says pi = 3 and that there were tribal Hebrew armies larger than than the modern U.S. army - but the ORIGINAL manuscript had it right. That's problematic to me, and it should be problematic for him too, for myriad reasons. It's the very definition of special pleading.

I've actually found the whole exchange disheartening because he's obviously a smart guy, but he puts his faith blinders on when it comes to issues of (among other things) comparative religion and the refutations of some apologetics - "I have heard them all, and no objections bug me." I've asked him about egregious archaeological issues, notably the Flood, but he has yet to respond. (Can't be helped- Comments on Ray's blog aren't real time so he can edit them if someone says a no-no.)

I'll grant him that I shouldn't dismiss his arguments out of hand, and I have to admit that I came across that way a couple of times in our recent discussions, but there's also an extent to which I'm rankled by the "no objections bug me" thing - it seems to me like he's reserving the right to reject all interpretations that aren't in line with -his- out of hand. After all, when you can, with a straight face, claim that you have 99.5% inerrant knowledge from the creator of the universe, how can you lose?


Vinny said...

In The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel quotes Norman Geisler and William Nix for the 99.5% figure.

I think that most literalists consider Metzger to be one of their own. Ehrman may have left the fold, but many evangelicals will concede his expertise in textual criticism.

I don't know that McDowell has ever done any original research. Everything I have seen from him just repackages the work of others. The only thing I have read by Boyd is Lord or Legend?: The Jesus Dilemma and I was not impressed.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Thanks brother. I've seen Geisler cite it as coming from Bruce Metzger in a transcript of his debate with Farril Till. It looks like he's citing from Metzger's "Chapters in the History of New Testament Textual Criticism" from 1963, but I haven't seen the actual quote. I've also seen at least two articles that specifically dispute that Metzger says this as it's quoted.

Even apologist J.P. Holding has this to say in an otherwise fierce defense of textual preservation: "...I indeed cannot find the referenced citation in Metzger's older book, I would suspect a mis-citation by Geisler as opposed to pure invention."


So Strobel is citing Geisler, who is citing a quote from Metzger that may not exist...?

Something, my friend, is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Vinny said...

That is very interesting. In The Case for Christ, the Geisler quote appears in the chapter where Strobel is interviewing Metzger himself. The only reason I can think of why Strobel wouldn't have elicited the information directly from Metzger is that he knew that Metzger never said it.

Frankly, I am not sure that miscitation is opposed to pure invention when it comes to apologetics. In citing legitimate scholars, it is not unusual to find apologists stretching their sources far beyond the bounds of intellectual integrity, whereupon subsequent apologists like Strobel cite the first apologist rather than the original scholarship.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Garret has noted some ambiguity as to Geisler's source in that debate.

Here's the full quote from Geisler:

"The noted historian Philip Schaff calculated that of the variants known in his day, only 50 were of real significance, and not even one affected an article of faith or a precept of duty. By comparison with the New Testament, most other books from the ancient world are not nearly so well authenticated. Professor Bruce Metzger, of Princeton, estimated that the Mahabharata of Hinduism is copied with only about 90% accuracy and Homer's Illiad with 95%. By comparison, he calculated that the New Testament is about 99.5% accurate."

Garret suggests that in the last sentence "he" is a reference to Schaff rather than Metzger. Since Garret himself sourced the 99.5% thing to Metzger earlier, I'm not entirely clear on whether he's now saying that 99.5% comes completely from Schaff or that just that one reference to it does.

Jay said...

It might be worthwhile to contact Bart Ehrman and ask if he knows the source of that figure. Since he's Metzger's protege, he'd probably be able to tell you if it's an authentic quote.

Ultimately, though, the 99.5% figure appears to be an unsupported (or at best a poorly supported) number. (You've already come to this conclusion, Skippy. As you no doubt know, there's a marked tendency for the apologetic press to quote, and quotemine, itself, so numbers like this, once introduced, take on lives of their own.)

(Vinny, you're spot on about McDowell. I can't for the life of me figure out why he has such currency in apologetic circles.)

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I actually looked for contact information on Ehrman recently for another reason and couldn't find it. His word would mean jack to that Garret dude because he already dismissed Ehrman's scholarship thusly:

"Bart Ehrman went to seminary as a bible thumper conservative with a misguided notion about inerrancy, when he was shown by conservatives that he was mistaken, this hit his faith and destroyed it, sending him to the opposite extreme."

Note that despite Ehrman's "misguided notions about inerrancy", Garret still argues for inerrancy himself. :-\ Just some magical "containing errors" kind of inerrancy.

Likewise Ehrman didn't become agnostic because of Biblical errors- he was an active churchgoer and even pastor for years after he began his scholarly work. He was driven to agnosticism by the lack of adequate answers to the problem of theodicy. I know because I'm looking at "God's Problem" right now and reading his deconversion story in his own words.

Weirdly Garret is still maintaining that Metzger is the source of the 99.5% quote...his logic has become convoluted to the point that I can't begin describe it here. He's also invoking a McDowell-flavored quote from Eddy and Boyd to show that I'm blinding myself to "real evidence" with a "closed continuum of natural causes".

This is pretty tepid because things like the Flood and Sodom & Gomorrah need to first be proven to have occured/existed (neither thus far) before we can start arguing over causes.

Vinny said...

As a teenager back in the mid-1970’s, I embraced evangelical Christianity primarily (I think) because it promised the answers and meaning that I wanted in my life. One of the first books I read was McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. I remember being profoundly disappointed. I really wanted to believe that there was evidence for my beliefs but all of McDowell’s arguments seemed to require the assumption that everything in the Bible was true. That did not immediately cause me to abandon the faith but it certainly contributed to the fact that I only lasted about two years.

It can be fascinating tracking down the source for apologists claims. A few months back The Uncredible Hallq did a very interesting post debunking McDowell’s atheist-convinced-by-the-evidence shtick.

Jay said...

Thanks for the Hallq link, vinny. I've actually been looking for something like this for a while. A good friend of mine puts a lot of stock in McDowell. I had an IIDB thread on him a while back, but there wasn't a lot that came out of that - mostly restatements of things I'd already heard.

Vinny said...

You are quite welcome JAK.

Do you ever run into the argument that the Gospels have to be historical because legends couldn't have developed that quickly? If so, you might enjoy some posts I did on The Apologists Abuse of A.N. Sherwin White.

Jay said...

Vinny, I've not happened across that particular argument, although from a quick read of your postings on the matter, it seems to rely on a host of presuppositions and not a lot of solid data.

I would offer the opinion that, given GMk as the earliest of our canonical Gospels, and given that the author of Mark was probably writing in or near Rome, distance rather than time may have been a more important contributor to the legendary character of the work. (I'm drawing on Raymond E. Brown's work here, from memory since I'm too lazy at the moment to walk downstairs.)

A bigger problem, though, is that a lot of the legend was already in place, via the Hebrew scriptures, or more precisely through early Christian reinterpretation of the Hebrew scriptures as Messianic foreshadowing.

Most Christians seem to operate under the belief that Christianity in the 1st century CE was a revolutionary, high-profile movement that turned the contemporary establishment on its' ear. The lack of extrabiblical attestation of any such movement strongly suggests to me that such was not the case.

Garret G said...

Hi Skippy, its the quoted, Garret, you treated me failrly in your blurb here, I like you too, we have a fun exchange,
God bless you, and I can come here too if you like, sometimes!

Garret G said...

Just a quicky note here, we probably do agree on many things.
You said...
"I don't think that it was unreasonable of me to take this as a defense of the Johannine Comma on his part"
Yes, but no! This was a misunderstanding- my fault. Unfortunately I only looked at the first paragraph of that page, I did not look at the rest....If he tried to defend the Johannine Comma, I see NO good reason to do so, simply flick it off the page as an erroneous addition. The removal of the Johannine Comma (which appears to be a distortion of the original text) does no violence to the trinitarian concept.
I am an "old earther", I am not "pre-trib" -that appears to be a "modern" evangelical fabrication (certainly very late, the 19th century, I believe).
I have other problems with some modern evangelical fabrications, and I am an evangelical Christian!
I am heavily influenced by Greg Koukl and , I have listened to all of his radio shows, via podcast, and a lot of my thoughts on the Christian way, and its modern American forms and its problems "come from" him. Many modern Christians are VERY IGNORANT of why they should believe what they believe.
So how about Skippy, are you agnostic, atheist, "christian", what do you call yourself?

Jay said...

Vinny -

Shortly after I responded to your question about the Gospels, I ran into this thread at IIDB:

If the Gospels Are Not Historical...

It's related, but not exact. The line of argumentation by the OP isn't particularly persuasive, IMHO.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Garret - I'm a formerly Catholic atheist.

The whole Johannine Comma thing (for some reason my spell check keeps trim to change that to "Josephine Comma" seems to have been quite a big misunderstanding, exacerbated by the huge swathes of time where no comments get posted on Ray's.

Jay said...

It's a little stale now, but I'll add this for sake of completenes.

I've been in touch with Dr. Ehrman, and he states that the 99.5% number is not one that he stands behind, nor is he is aware of Dr. Metzger ever making such an assertion.

I have his permission to post the text of his e-mail, if there's interest.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Couldn't hurt to post the whole thing. At least then it will be immortalized on here for all eternity.

That leads even more credence to my theory that it's an estimation from Schaff that's accidentally attributed to Metzger thanks to Geisler's funky citation.

Thanks for getting in touch with Dr. Ehrman, btw. I had looked for his contact info but had been unable to find it.

Love and peace,

Jay said...

My original e-mail to Dr. Ehrman:

Dr Ehrman:

Please forgive the intrusion - I know you're very busy.

I'm peripherally involved in an on-line discussion of issues of Biblical inerrancy.

Part of the discussion turns on the claim that the Biblical books are "inerrant in the original autographs".

One of the supporters of this position has made the claim that modern scholars have reconstructed the original autographs with "99.5% accuracy".

This number is variously attributed to you and to the late Bruce Metzger, always via a secondary source like Norman Geisler.

I have been unable to locate this assertion in (admittedly quick) surveys of either your work or Dr. Metzger's.

In order to clarify the matter, I'd like to ask if this 99.5% number is one you have cited, or if (to your knowledge) it is one that Dr. Metzger considered valid?

As a second question, would it be acceptable to you if I were to post your response, with attribution, in a public forum?

Very Respectfully,

[name deleted]

Jay said...

Dr. Ehrman's response:


Thanks for your note. No, to my *knowledge* I have never indicated that
we have been able to reconstruct the originals with 99.5% accuracy. That's
certainly not something I believe. I don't recall Prof. Metzger every
putting a statistic on our efforts either, though I haven't checked all his
writings (In the eight years I studied with him, I don't recall him ever
saying such a thing.)

The reason such statistical certainty is impossible is that one would
need to have the originals themselves to see whether our reconstruction is
99.5% correct in relation to them. Without the originals as a base text,
there is no way to know.

Let me give you a hypothetical situation. Paul writes his letter to the
Galatians. The first church (in the region of Galatia) that receives it
decides to have someone make a copy. That person is not a trained scribe,
just a literate Christian, and he doesn't do a very good job (remember, I'm
just speaking *hypothetically* here! But why *couldn't* this be possible?).
He leaves out some words, he adds some words, he corrects the grammar, he
adds a few thoughts of his own -- these things happen! Suppose, then, that
he changes something like 10% of the letter in one way or another. And
suppose the original was destroyed in a fire, so that all subsequent copies
are made from this one copy that is 10% different from the original. How
would we ever know that this is what happened? We'd have absolutely no way
to know -- all of our subsequent copies would go back to this one copy,
which was off by 10%. So even if we could reconstruct the exemplar from
which all surviving copies derive with 99.5% certainty (which I doubt), we
would be reconstructing an "original" that was in fact 10% removed from the
*real* original.

There are hundreds of such possibilities that could be imagined. We
simply don't know what the original looked like -- in some places that we
know we don't know (since scholars regularly debate dozens and dozens of
places) and probably in places where we don't know (since the oldest form of
the text may itself be a change of the original text). People who want to
put a statistic to it do so because they are afraid of the implications of
not knowing. But fear is not a historical criterion.

Yes, feel free to post my response as you wish. Thanks again for the
question. Best wishes,

-- Bart Ehrman