Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Debating the Textually Critical

Richard Carrier has finally posted some of his own thoughts on our debate. Here’s my commentary on his look at it, which I am reporting in full. (It was placed as a comment on his original entry on the debate back in April.)

Holding called it a win-win, which I suppose depends on what you thought was the important conclusion.

Well, no, not from here. I specified why I called it a win-win in my post here before:

Yep, that's what we'll call it. Richard Carrier and I each presented our views, didn't intersect that much in doing so -- and actually got along fairly well in person. I'm content, and think we both did a good job presenting our cases.

So in other words, I count us both winners for having successfully communicated our ideas. But I don’t think we met head to head enough for a real “debate” to have occurred.

As to the actual debate topic, he conceded that debate in his opening and moved the goal posts by defending a different position (something like "Yes, the NT text is unreliable, but it's reliable enough for supporting the core things of the gospel" without ever specifying what those core things are).

Hmm, well --- not too many would disagree what the core doctrines of the Christian faith are, and this is also a statement drawn more or less from Bruce Metzger, and also reused by Bart Ehrman. I also would hardly say I moved the goalposts. The topic was: Is what we have what they had? I answered yes, in substance, completely; in exact words, not so much, but still quite a bit, and what we don’t have is not that important. If the topic had been, “Is what we have in terms of exact words what they had?” then this would be a valid objection.

I didn't bother rebutting that argument because he never stated what things were reliably supported by the extant text, so there was nothing to rebut.

Perhaps not. 15 and 10 minutes doesn’t really allow for that many specifics. I could spend an hour, I imagine, on texts about the Trinity alone. But I am certain there are enough things that Carrier could recognize as core values of Christianity that he could have picked one or two to discuss, and also discuss how they are (if they are) affected by textual questions.

So he can claim to have "won" that argument if we are unbothered by it being one big fallacy of special pleading.

I can’t really say how that’s arrived at. Perhaps if the debate were all the information anyone had, we could say that. But that general statement is backed by Metzger, Wallace, and even Ehrman with an ample amount of data. But no, the argument wasn’t “won” or lost…because again I don’t think we really addressed each other’s views head on that much.

As to the actual topic of the debate, it was a clear and informative win for me.

Of course I agree. And add that it was a clear and informative win for me as well.

"We do not have what they had," and many changes made to the text are undetectable to us now. Holding didn't even argue against that.

I didn’t, in specific terms, because I don’t find that the substance is affected by even hypothetical changes that could be reasonably suggested. There surely are undetectable changes, but based on the record we have, if we are extrapolating backwards from known data, the undetectable changes also would have to have been inconsequential.

There was one overall exception to his "goal post" move being special pleading. I think he made a point to the effect that broad claims in the NT, like that Jesus was crucified or Mark described the discovery of an empty tomb, were not "textually" dubious, and I agree.

Well, if I did make such points, I don’t recall it. There’s no mention of the crucifixion or empty tomb in my notes for either round. But of course I would agree in any event.

But as I pointed out, the NT isn't just used for broad stroke claims like that, it is used to make countless specific points from specific passages (even specific word choices in those passages), and on that point he certainly lost. What isn't clear is whether he even cared about losing that argument. But it will certainly complicate his attempt to make those kind of arguments in future.

This reaches to the fundamental problem of substance vs exact words. What Carrier seems to refer to – a sort of vacuous prooftexting of the sort you hear from pulpits frequently – isn’t the sort of thing I engage in. It’s a practice of naïve fundamentalists and those who would fail to recognize what I say about substance vs exact words as valid. In fact, some such persons would condemn me as a heretic.

I remarked to Carrier more than once that he doesn’t seem to know much about me. This would be another example – it’s very seldom that I engage in this kind of prooftexting, if at all; and if I do, it is only a small part of what I present as a case.

There are certainly persons for whom Carrier’s argument would be a serious problem. For example, consider this statement made by a hyperpreterist I engaged. I had indicated the need to use informing contexts like intertestamental literature to inform our understanding of the NT, and he replied:

Maybe this is a good time to inform you that we are having a “Bible” discussion here, not a discussion of “opinions” held during the inter-testamental period. While they may offer some educational value, they are not the final authority. The word of God must prevail in all cases. God always reserves the right to choose and define his own terms. So, without equivocation, I will readily ignore reams of contexts which are outside of the Bible when they contradict what is “inside” the Bible.

So yes – I’d say I don’t care if I lose that argument, because it isn’t one I’d make in the first place. For someone like this hyperpreterist, Carrier’s points are an unmitigated exegetical disaster. For someone like me – or a Dan Wallace, or a Ben Witherington – the points have little if any impact.

Let’s consider some examples Carrier presented on his slides. One is a case where copies of Matthew had added to them bits from John about Jesus being pierced by a spear. But exactly are we supposed to be concerned with here? John’s testimony is more than sufficient; apart from questionable ideas that we need a second or third or fourth source for such claims, that we find the claim in John alone is of no moment. Further, of what relevance is the spear thrust in the first place? I doubt if John was anticipating modern “Passover plot” scenarios. He also didn’t need it for prophecy fulfillment, despite what some exegetes may claim: That idea reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the use of the OT (not as a repository of prophecy future, but rather, of validation past), and at any rate, he could have suggested it was fulfilled when Jesus’ wrists and ankles were “pierced” by nails.

Another example offered was Luke 23:53, where it was added that the stone closing Jesus’ tomb was so large it took 20 men to move it. Are we solely dependent on Luke for this information? Isn’t archaeological data about Jewish tombs worth far more than this interpolated statement?

Another: Luke 2:14 could read “peace on earth, good will towards men” or “peace on earth, good will for men with whom he is pleased.” (I take that reading from the NET Bible; Carrier has it as, “for whom God pleases” on his slide, which I take to be a mistake.) Carrier describes the latter reading as less lofty and more ominous. But this evaluation would not be possible unless we had the later reading, so what would we be missing if the second reading had never existed? Beyond that, it is patently obvious that God, as a patron, would express His good will only towards those that please Him. Indeed, in my own view, the former reading causes my theology far more difficulty than the latter one.

Is the number of the beast 616 or 666? I commented on this earlier:

Now I don’t expect that Carrier is aware that I hold to an entirely different eschatological view than the majority of Christians. He likely expected that most of his Christian audience at the debate were standard dispensationalists who were scanning the horizon for a figure that used “666” conspicuously and was ready to tattoo it on their foreheads.

Well, I’m not one of those people. I think “the beast” was most likely Nero, and that nearly all of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century. As a result, for me “666” is probably either a numeric rendering of a Greek rendering of “Nero Caesar” transliterated into Hebrew (using an admittedly defective spelling), or perhaps a numeric rendering of the Hebrew word for “beast” (with the note that this word was sometimes used to describe Nero). The 616 variant would just come from a transliteration of the Latin form of Nero’s name into Hebrew – if it isn’t simply a “typo.” But whatever the case, this is just one aspect of my case for Nero as holding the position which so many modern dispensationalist identify with a future anti-Christ figure, and the “616” variant doesn’t really cause me any problem.

Finally, as a sample, Carrier offered the example of 1 Cor. 15:49: “And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, let us also bear the image of the man of heaven.” Carrier invoked the variation, “we will also bear…” The NET Bible’s comments on this tell the story:

A few significant witnesses have the future indicative (foresomen, “we will bear”; B I 6 630 1881 al sa) instead of the aorist subjunctive (foreswmen, “let us bear”; Ì46 א A C D F G Ψ 075 0243 33 1739 Ï latt bo). If the original reading is the future tense, then “we will bear” would be a guarantee that believers would be like Jesus (and unlike Adam) in the resurrection. If the aorist subjunctive is original, then “let us bear” would be a command to show forth the image of Jesus, i.e., to live as citizens of the kingdom that believers will one day inherit. The future indicative is not widespread geographically. At the same time, it fits the context well: Not only are there indicatives in this section (especially vv. 42-49), but the conjunction (kai) introducing the comparative (kaqws) seems best to connect to the preceding by furthering the same argument (what is, not what ought to be). For this reason, though, the future indicative could be a reading thus motivated by an early scribe. In light of the extremely weighty evidence for the aorist subjunctive, it is probably best to regard the aorist subjunctive as original. This connects well with v. 50, for there Paul makes a pronouncement that seems to presuppose some sort of exhortation. G. D. Fee (First Corinthians [NICNT], 795) argues for the originality of the subjunctive, stating that “it is nearly impossible to account for anyone’s having changed a clearly understandable future to the hortatory subjunctive so early and so often that it made its way into every textual history as the predominant reading.” The subjunctive makes a great deal of sense in view of the occasion of 1 Corinthians. Paul wrote to combat an over-realized eschatology in which some of the Corinthians evidently believed they were experiencing all the benefits of the resurrection body in the present, and thus that their behavior did not matter. If the subjunctive is the correct reading, it seems Paul makes two points: (1) that the resurrection is a bodily one, as distinct from an out-of-body experience, and (2) that one’s behavior in the interim does make a difference (see 15:32-34, 58).

All that offered, my own answer would also include an understanding of the use and meaning of the word “image” to refer to the carrying of authority (see The Mormon Defenders Ch 1 on this). This meaning would hands-down stand only for the aorist subjunctive described above. Indeed, the future indicative makes no sense at all, and is completely incoherent with language of the “body of Christ” indicating our shared identity with him. I wouldn't even need the NT to decide which view is correct.

In closing – if there was a fulcrum for my viewpoint, it was found in this statement from Round 1:

And classical scholar Rosalind Thomas adds, “…to apply the concept of original and copy to ancient documents is anachronistic…we must abandon the modern concept of authenticity and the modern requirement of exact verbatim correspondence down to the very punctuation.”

Carrier’s views cause severe problems for those who do adhere to the modern requirement of exact verbatim correspondence – but they have very little bearing on someone like me who does not. In that light, maybe we can arrange for Carrier to debate that hyperpreterist. He does do live debates...and it would probably be more raucous than the debate we had.


  1. Yes, there is a trope for that.


    And boy does this bug me about modern society: the need to be "technically" correct about everything instead of grasping the more salient point. (perhaps there's some desire to avoid thinking about a things... more evidence on why Sloth is such a deadly sin?)

    JP, you've given me yet more evidence that I might have been born in the wrong time period.

  2. It's a shame your views didn't interact more. I was hoping for some progress along that front since that debate is kind of stuck in limbo between qualified skeptics and qualified Christians. Oh well...