Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bad Arguments (and Non Arguments) Against the Higher Critics

I keep an eye on Triablogue just to see what they are up to. I mostly ignore all of them except Jason Engwer, who usually does try to formulate arguments. I'm always interested in good arguments against my view. Recently he commented on the beliefs of some skeptics regarding the authorship of the NT documents. My interest is piqued as it usually is when Jason goes into these issues. Perhaps we'll see some arguments this time.

He often starts with a little ad hominem. Those that deny the authorship attributions of all the books of the NT are "a small minority and usually of the more ignorant variety". You're used to this sort of thing if you read Jason regularly, but I find sometimes it's worth wading through the insults to try and find some substance.

Unfortunately there's little payoff in this case. I'll summarize his so called arguments here.

1-Critics are inconsistent in their skepticism, accepting authorship attributions for such writings as those of Tacitus or Josephus on less evidence.
2-Critics assert errors in the Bible, such as the Lukan census, on the basis of the acceptance of extra-Biblical texts like Josephus and Tacitus. This while they are less critical towards these extra-biblical sources (I assume he talking about "critical" with regards to the authorship attribution, though this is not entirely clear).
3-Jason offered a quote from the conservative evangelical Christian Craig Keener who likewise affirmed point 1 above.
4-Writing styles can change with time
5-Sometimes critics are just overly cynical
6-Jason quotes a more liberal scholar that agrees that some critics have gone too far in their skepticism
7-The same liberal scholar also asserts that Bauer's critical theories have been debunked

Notice what's missing here. An actual description of the critical arguments and a refutation of them. This is a constant annoyance to people like Robert Price, who advocates the view that all the NT authorship attributions are not justified. Why doesn't someone actually try and deal with the arguments?

Let me first comment on arguments 2-7 briefly, then I'll come back to the first one.

2-Let's suppose that the authorship attribution to Josephus is wrong. Do we base our confidence in Josephus on the fact that we know his name? No. Even if the author was really a guy named Steve, this author has demonstrated reliability over and over again. He shows the markers of being a reliable historian and he has been proved to be accurate often (not always). That's why he's preferred to Luke.

3-We expect such assertions from Craig Keener. Who cares?

4-Nobody disputes that writing styles change over time.

5-Yes, sometimes critics are overly cynical. Does this show that the arguments against authenticity of a text like Romans are bad? No.

6 and 7-Yes, lots of liberals don't agree with some other liberals. Yes, people constantly assert that the higher critics have been debunked. But why don't we take a look at the evidence, rather than taking the assertions of various people.

Jason's first argument reminded me of something he had written while debating Roman Catholics long ago. I was an evangelical Protestant like him and I admired his work against Roman Catholics. The difference between Jason and me is that I apply valid logical principles to Roman Catholic beliefs and my own beliefs. I don't think Jason does that.

Roman Catholics claim that we must posit an infallible magisterium in order to establish a canon of Scripture. How do we know which books belong in the Canon? How does Jason know that Hebrews belongs in the Canon? Jason says the evidence supports it. But the evidence is pretty weak. We don't even know who wrote it, says the Roman Catholic. Jason's response to this argument was spot on.

It should be emphasized that even if people disagree about which books meet the canonical criterion, the criterion remains the same. In other words, Catholic apologists cannot validate the Roman Catholic approach toward the canon by casting doubt on whether Matthew wrote the gospel attributed to him, whether Jude is an apostolic book, etc. The solution to canonical disputes is to arrive at the right canon, not to just uncritically follow the ruling of a church hierarchy so as to avoid any disputes. If the evidence doesn't support including Matthew in the canon, the solution is to not include Matthew in the canon. The solution is not to just believe whatever the Roman Catholic hierarchy says about the canon so as to avoid any controversies and difficulties. We shouldn't set up a false authority just for the sake of having an authority.

Pretty good stuff. But does this reasoning apply to Jason, or only to Roman Catholics? Scholars don't nit pick Tacitus and Josephus like they do the NT. If they did, and they were consistent, they'd reject the authorship attributions. OK. So what does this mean? Is the solution to therefore uncritically accept everything then? If the evidence does not justify the authenticity of accepting Tacitus, the solution is not to therefore assume all the claimed authorship attributions uncritically. The solution is to reject the authorship attribution to Tacitus. The arguments against the NT authorship attributions stand on their own. They are not dependent on other beliefs regarding Tacitus.


Vinny said...

I recently had some one challenge me to prove that Tacitus wrote Tacitus. He apparently believed that my inability to do so so prohibited me from challenging the authorship of Matthew. Although I am not overly familiar with Tacitus, it would not surprise me if there were some uncertainty among scholars as to whether he actually wrote all the things that have been attributed to him.

I doubt that any scholar of Plato would dismiss the possibility that some of the works attributed to him were actually written by some student or some anonymous philosopher decades later who used Plato's name to get his own works read. It would not matter though because the significance of the ideas and their influence on later philosophers would not be diminished by the fact that some of them were not written by the man we think of as the historical Plato.

On the other hand, inspiration and inerrancy depend on the apostolic origin of the New Testament writings. Their claim to authority rests entirely on whether they were written by exact historical persons who had particular connections to the historical Jesus.

The possibility that someone other than Tacitus or Josephus wrote something that is attributed to them would be unlikely to make a historian throw out the writing. However, the possibility that someone other than the Apostles or their close associates wrote the Gospels and Epistles has profound theological implications.

Jon said...
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Jon said...

Jason has responded to my post here.

This is the first of two responses he offered for my post here. The first one focuses on a single comment I had written:

"Notice what's missing here. An actual description of the critical arguments and a refutation of them. This is a constant annoyance to people like Robert Price, who advocates the view that all the NT authorship attributions are not justified. Why doesn't someone actually try and deal with the arguments?"

But Jason says no. Some internet apologists have said something about these things. There's a webcast discussion that may touch on it a little. A couple of conservatives said something about something in Bible commentaries they wrote. Fair enough. To the extent that this statement would imply that I think nobody in the history if internet apologism has ever uttered a single word in response to the higher critics, I take it back. Some people have written some stuff in the web based upon their haphazard understanding of the higher critics. Jason would be such a person. What Price actually has claimed is that nobody really made a serious attempt to respond to the arguments. Mostly it's laughing things off, quoting one another to the effect that the arguments are silly. Name calling. Certain critical people "prove their own incompetence" with these claims, as a commentor at Triablogue said. Basically, the stuff Jason offered in the post I responded to.

The theories of the higher critics are not credible says Jason. Has Jason read these critics? If not, how does he know except by relying on the opinions of friendly sources or some liberals who may or may not actually be familiar with the work of the higher critics? I suspect the real reasons are the reasons I listed and responded to above. This is poor reasoning.

Jon said...

Jason has responded to other statements in my post here with a separate post.

Should we approach Jon and his sources in the same manner? Should we ignore the content of Jon's citations of, say, Richard Carrier by commenting that "Jon offered a quote from the liberal atheist Richard Carrier. We expect such assertions from Richard Carrier. Who cares?"

Most definitely you should, if I offered Carrier's bare assertion on a controversial topic you disagreed with. Carrier is a well known skeptic. Why would his bare assertion that I'm in the right and you're in the wrong carry any weight with you?

Now, if I point to an article from Carrier which contains arguments, that is a different matter. An argument is quite different from an assertion. Arguments are relevant. Assertions are not.

Jon should tell us where he got his information about Josephus. Instead of Googling the subject now, or looking something up on Wikipedia, for example, he ought to tell us what sources he was relying on for his conclusions about Josephus at the time when he wrote the comments quoted above.

Sounds like a fine idea. While we're at it we'll have you tell us where you got your information regarding your assertions as well. Here is what you had said:

The same critic who claims that the textual evidence for the New Testament documents is insufficient, or rejects an authorship attribution as reasonable as Mark's authorship of the second gospel, for example, will accept the text and authorship attributions of many extra-Biblical documents that have comparable or worse evidence, like the Annals of Tacitus.

You claim that the critics arguments for acceptance of Tacitus are based on worse evidence. I guess that means you know the evidence the critics use as the basis for their claims regarding Tacitus as well as those same critics arguments regarding things like the gospels. Why don't you tell us what the basis for their claims regarding Tacitus are and also their claims regarding Luke so we can compare them? Don't just google it now. Don't just use Wikipedia. Tell us the people you have in mind and their specific arguments so that we can judge if you know what you're talking about or if you are just repeating statements from Keener and others.

Before offering reasons for regarding Josephus as reliable, let me first address one comment that you made to re-iterate what I have above regarding quotations from someone like Carrier. You write:

He doesn't want me citing men like Craig Keener and Kent Clarke in the manner in which I've cited them. Surely, then, we shouldn't accept such citations of somebody like Richard Carrier either.

Jason is writing articles in rebuttal to skeptics like myself. In that case to simply quote a friendly source and assert that he agrees with Jason and not me is really not very significant or interesting. This is not to say that experts cannot be cited to provide a basis for certain facts that are offered in a discussion. For instance if I want to discuss the existence of an interpolation, I might quote Bart Ehrman even though I haven't read the manuscripts myself. Ehrman is an expert in NT manuscripts, and in quoting him I'm not offering anything that is controversial. I've never heard anybody dispute that Ehrman is correct in the interpolations he describes. If however I simply offered Ehrman's opinion about how the NT text has not been reliably preserved, I don't expect that makes much difference in a discussion with fundamentalist Christians like Jason. Jason would portray me as saying quoting experts is always wrong and you must only look directly at the hard evidence. That is not what I'm saying. I'm saying there's a right way and a wrong way to invoke authorities and Jason is doing it the wrong way.

So what is the basis for the belief in the reliability of Josephus. Here is what I base my belief on.

1-Josephus gives us a detailed autobiography which informs us of the position he has attained as well as other details about his life. These details can be cross checked with his claims. We can note his biases. We can note those facts when he reports where he ought to have first hand knowledge and see how it looks (he is an eyewitness to some of his reporting). We can decide if the biases we would expect are consistent with the apparent biases in what he writes. The position he attained informs us that he would be well suited to provide the accounts about Palestine that he offers.

2-Robert Eisenmann is an expert in texts relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls community and the writings of Josephus. He writes in "James the Brother of Jesus" that Josephus "presents such a plethora of details that one can only marvel at his mind's retentiveness. He obviously wrote it all down from memory and his own experience immediately after amassing the information he presents, much no doubt from his interrogations of Jewish prisoners."

To clarify on this point, I'm not qualified to say whether Josephus relates details as Eisenmann claims, but I trust it is true and I would expect it is a non-controversial claim. I don't expect that Jason disagrees with it, so I regard it as a legitmate use of a scholar. If I knew that Jason did not agree with this claim and perhaps he does not agree that Josephus goes into this type of detail, then it would be silly for me to offer this quote. What I would need to do is present the hard evidence.

3-Jospehus discusses in detail the background political situation when he describes events, which permits more cross checking and a better understanding of events, which allows his claims to be more thoroughly evaluated.

4-Josephus in his introduction to Jewish War admits that his passions can cause him to deviate from unbiased historical reporting, and he asks his readers to indulge him in these areas where he feels a personal stake. This shows that he recognizes that his own biases can affect accuracy. Of course this is all lacking in the gospels.

I'll summarize with a quote from Eisenmann

Josephus is, therefore, inaccurate when it comes to matters having a direct bearing on his own survival; in particular, his questionable relations with revolutionaries, apocalyptic groups, and sedition, as well as his attempts to ingratiate himself with his new masters. These can be corrected by compensating for them, as they can to a certain extent in the New Testament. But his meticulous reproduction of the minutiae of day-to-day events is unparalleled. He tells us everything he can remember within the parameters of his own necessary well-being and personal survival. For this reason, we have an encyclopaedic presentation of events and persons in Palestine in this period without equal in almost any time or place up to the era of modern record-keeping and reportage. James the Brother of Jesus, 29-30.

Jason writes that he agrees with me that we should be consistent in the acceptance of documents, and then goes on to offer several reasons why either Josephus or Tacitus should be doubted if we apply the same standard to them that we do to the NT. In supposedly agreeing with me one would think that my point is the need for consistency. It is not. Actually my point is sort of like the opposite. I'm saying it is better to be inconsistent and accept few spurious texts than consistent and accept many spurious texts.

So all this talk of reasons to reject Josephus or Tacitus is more of the same bad reasoning that has already been dealt with. Are there good reasons to reject Josephus or Tacitus? Fine. Reject them. Persuade us that we should reject them. I'm open to it. This doesn't mean we should accept the NT. Didn't I already say this?

Jon said...

I am going to respond to this post separately and offer a new post on my usage of Josephus.

He gives us what he calls a "purely speculative" analysis of why scholars who aren't conservative Christians agree with the conclusions of conservative Christians, but he gives us no reason to trust that speculation.

And I also explained how the whole thing was irrelevant, which is why it doesn't matter whether or not you trust my speculation. People are allowed to speculate and comment in a blog, especially when that speculation is in no way a basis for an argument. It's just discussion.

He continues to ignore the content of my citation from Craig Keener, both the evidence Keener discusses within that quote and the argumentation and documentation Keener provides in the work I cited.

I wonder if Jason is interested more in bogging things down and confusing things than actually furthering learning. If he cites a book and you don't go out and read it and rebut it immediately, this is proof that you are dodging. Here's the flow of the conversation.

Jason-Here's a quote out of a book from a friendly source asserting I'm right.
Jon-The opinions of conservatives to the effect that conservatives are right and liberals are wrong is not very compelling.
Jason-So we should likewise ignore similar assertions from Richard Carrier?
Jason-Jon is ignoring me and he hasn't yet read the book I cited.

Well OK. And by the way, evidence itself doesn't necessarily make for an argument. I'm not disputing that Keener is correct when he describes certain features of Euripides. What I would like to see is an attempt to justify the claim that critics are inconsistent. Since Keener has not expressed the critical arguments or how this methodology would also apply to the treatment of Euripides there is nothing for me to respond to.

He supports his trust in Josephus by quoting an assessment of Josephus by Robert Eisenmann. After disregarding his own previously stated standards for evaluating historical sources, and after failing to tell us what sources he would compare Josephus to in order to judge that he's accurate, and after failing in other ways to hold Josephus to the same standards to which he holds Christian sources, Jon tells us:

A person is only guilty of a special pleading fallacy if he makes an exemption without justifying the exemption. I spent a couple of paragraphs in the post Jason is supposedly replying to explaining the difference between an appropriate use of a citation and an inappropriate one. Jason simply ignores all of that and repeats the initial objection he offered. There's not much I can do if Jason is simply going to pay no attention to the arguments I make. When in the future he ignores my arguments but offers some verbiage in reply and I just simply call it quits because he refuses to deal with what I say he'll accuse me of abandoning the discussion.

Why be inconsistent? I'm consistent in accepting both Josephus and a document like 1 Corinthians or Philemon.

Nobody is suggesting we ought to be inconsistent. I'm simply saying that I wasn't arguing for consistency as Jason seemed to read me. I don't think he's reading what I write carefully because he's responding as if he doesn't understand my point.

Imagine that Jason responded to my recent point and said "I agree with Jon that adultery is wrong." And when I say that I wasn't really arguing that adultery is wrong he says "So Jon thinks adultery is fine." No. I think adultery is wrong, but this has no bearing on the argument I'm making right now.

Jon, on the other hand, would be inconsistent to accept Josephus while rejecting the others, for reasons I've explained. The fact that it's better to accept "few spurious texts" than "many" isn't an adequate defense of an inconsistent method.

I just offered multiple reasons for regarding Josephus as reliable. Some of those points are based on facts asserted by a skeptical scholar, but I explained why my use of the scholar was appropriate. These are reasons that apply to Josephus and not to the gospels. Yet Jason thinks he can say I must accept the reliability of the gospels if I accept that Josephus is reliable. Again, if Jason is just going to ignore the arguments I make and respond with verbiage that has no substance, there is not much I can do about that.

If he's acknowledging that he's been inconsistent, but is giving a partial defense of that inconsistency by telling us that his inconsistency supposedly results in accepting fewer spurious texts, then why should anybody think that such a partial defense is sufficient?

Where did I acknowledge my inconsistency? What is Jason seeing when he reads my arguments? I offered multiple reasons for accepting Josephus. None of these reasons apply to the gospels. So I regard Josephus as more reliable than the gospels? How am I supposed to reply to such claims from Jason?

But if Jon is acknowledging that he's been inconsistent, as his comments above suggest, then we're in agreement on that point.

What the heck is Jason reading that causes him to make such statements?

For example, Jon has often cited Bart Ehrman on textual issues, including general statements that Ehrman has made about the New Testament text as a whole. Thus, if Ehrman says that we have better textual evidence for the New Testament than for the other documents of antiquity, and Jon has been so critical of the New Testament text, then the implications for the text of somebody like Josephus or Tacitus are obvious.

I don't know what Bart Ehrman has to do with it. Everybody knows that the earliest NT manuscripts are dated far closer to the originals than the earliest manuscripts of Josephus. Did I argue that since the manuscripts of Josephus are early we should accept them?

Late manuscripts are not ideal, but in and of themselves they don't necessarily indicate a problem. It's a problem if it is clear that there is a widespread effort to modify the texts, forge documents in the name of said authors, etc. We know for a fact that people are writing spurious gospels about Jesus. Lots of them. We know for a fact that manuscripts are being modified by copyists in a manner that alters the meaning in significant ways. We ought to approach such texts with caution. Are people forging documents in the name of Josephus? No. Are people modifying the text of Josephus to suit their own agenda? Actually, yes they are. This does mean that some skepticism is warranted, especially for texts where we might think are being driven by motives other than historical accuracy.

I've also explained that the ancient Jews produced many forgeries, which is a point that Jon often makes about the ancient Christians in order to undermine the credibility of the ancient Christians in general.

I've already explained that we don't trust Josephus because we know that his name is Josephus rather than Steve. There are details in his writings which make good sense as reliable information. Encyclopadaeic details, eyewitness information, details that we would expect Josephus could reliably know based upon the position he attained (we know the autobiography of Josephus. We have nothing like that from the gospel authors).

I've explained that just as the patristic Christians sometimes destroyed documents, so did the Roman government.

That doesn't change the fact that we have info from Josephus that can be cross checked and that we have his autobiography which permits us to further cross check his claims. But yes, destruction of documents by the Romans and the historian's tendency to glamorize the Romans (which Josephus is also guilty of) is a problem that makes it difficult to have high confidence for many things, and in fact causes us to positively doubt some of the claims Josephus makes. I have no problem with that.

What documents can I present that permit cross checking? Go back to my argument about an appropriate use of a scholar and an inappropriate use. A claim from a scholar that this is done is proof of the point. If you dispute the point, then it wouldn't make sense for me to just cite the scholar. I would need to look into the evidence. Do you dispute the point?

Jon isn't interacting with what I've already said.

One of us isn't interacting, but it's not me.

Isn't it highly irresponsible to spend years arguing against the New Testament documents in public forums, then make inconsistent claims about other documents in that context and expect other people to research those other documents for you and explain to you why you shouldn't accept them by your own standards?

I'm still waiting for Jason to show me where I've been inconsistent. The fact that I believe it is better to be inconsistent and more correct than consistent and completely wrong is not the same as admitting to being inconsistent. Jason is once again erroneously drawing inferences that are not implied in the statements I write and he's critiquing me on the basis of those errors of his rather than my actual words.

Further, Jason does not seem to understand basic rules of argumentation. He complains that I'm asking him to research documents for me. What I asked him to do is back up his assertions regarding Tacitus. I made an assertion regarding Josephus and Jason asked me to back it up. That's fair. He who asserts must prove. I wasn't going to complain about it and say "why should I do your research for you?" I made a claim. It's my burden to back it up. Jason made a claim but won't back it up. He thinks that's my fault, but it isn't.

Here's what Jon said about himself in a discussion with me in 2006:

Yeah, I think that's a great quote. One of us recognizes his own limitations. One of us doesn't feel the need to pontificate on how his arguments cannot be dealt with and how his opponent has very feeble arguments. One of us recognizes his own biases. One of us admits to his errors. The other likes to talk about how all his opponents arguments are poor. He declares himself the victor in debates. He doesn't admit to obvious and blatant errors but instead just won't address them. He doesn't seem to recognize that perhaps he's not the best judge of whether his arguments are superior or if his opponents arguments are superior. He resorts to personal attacks and insults frequently.

Jason thinks I should be ashamed that I have limitations and weaknesses and I admit to them. He thinks I should be ashamed that I recognize that I'd been indoctrinated. But I'm not ashamed of that. I think it's better to recognize your flaws and recognize how certain influences placed on you have made it difficult for you to recognize the truth. What I say about myself is probably true of Jason as well. He just won't admit it. Which of us then is more trustworthy?

Anonymous said...
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