Monday, May 23, 2011

Is the Bible full of 'forgeries'?

My friend pointed me to this article about a new book by a Bart Ehrman outlining a theory that many books in the New Testament were forged for an attempt to deceive people.  He asked for comment.  I figured I'd blog the comment, because my comment turned out to be quite long.

First, I have to say I'm not a complete expert on the subject of Biblical text validity, but I fortunately do know enough to get my feet wet and raise my hand when something smells funny.  Anytime someone claims something about the validity of Biblical text (or rather, lack thereof), something smells funny because the topic is a well-researched topic already.  On that note, I've read the 8 blog posts to which the article links, which are written by a supposed expert.  That guy, Ben Witherington, does a lot to decompose the linkbait into much ado about nothing.  It is good that the original article links to Witherington for balance, but the author of the original article doesn't say much about Witherington's commentary.

I find Witherington's text to be quite dry (as is common for academic people), but it is quite comprehensive and carries a balanced tone.  He explains when he agrees with Ehrman, when he thinks Ehrman is just a bit off, and when he thinks Ehrman is outright wrong.  He gives Ehrman credit when he feels credit is due instead of completely dismissing Ehrman, which I think is important for demonstrating that an argument received thorough consideration.  But most importantly, he's thorough.  Maybe too thorough; I fear that most people wouldn't have the stomach to read through all 8 blog posts.

Witherington's chief criticisms that stand out for me are that:
     a) Ehrman defines forgery specifically to suit his purposes, then frames the data to say that forgery happened, while if the data is in fact analyzed wholly and properly, it would not fit Ehrman's argument.
     b) Ehrman takes texts that are categorically dismissed as valid scriptures and unfairly lumps them together with texts that are categorically accepted as valid scriptures.  He attempts to make the argument that if one was dismissed, the other should also be considered for dismissal, even though that debate has long passed.
     c) Ehrman does not spend much time in his book analyzing the principles and historical knowledge that allow us to put a lot of trust into what is accepted as Biblical text.  This lack of balanced attention would easily result in a one-sided, biased argument; he ignores counter-evidence.

On the first point of framing definitions and data to suit his interests, it's sufficient to note that Ehrman accuses people of forgery where no attempt for forgery is apparent.  Witherington goes into a LOT of detail (those 8 blog posts are not short blog posts), but the gist of it is that Ehrman is drastically mischaracterizing people's intentions, writing practices, and written works.  If I tell you that I'm playing soccer today, and then you see me cooking fish, you're jumping to conclusions if you call me a liar.  One does not have anything to do with the other, and one does not exclude the other.

Whether Ehrman does this intentionally is probably unknown.  I know a lot of atheists and skeptics do similar things with scriptural texts, but completely unintentionally.  They're just too ignorant about what they're discussing to make proper judgments.  The most famous example I can think of is Bertrand Russell's commentary on Jesus and the fig tree in his classic, Why I Am Not a Christian.  Russell had no idea how far off the mark he was with his contentions.

On the second point of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable as a Biblical text, there is a wealth of academic information on what is known as the gnostic gospels or apocryphal texts.  The gnostic gospels clearly cannot be accepted as valid scriptural texts, for reasons as simple as date written (several centuries after the time of Jesus Christ), among many other reasons.  Some of Ehrman's arguments seem excellent for rejecting texts like the gnostic gospels.  However, the church already did that a long time ago, as experts still do today.  There's nothing new here.

According to Witherington, the new claim by Ehrman is that the accepted writings and the unaccepted writings should be compared as apples to apples.  This is unfair, as the topic is well-studied and the debate is over for experts who have studied the topic in depth.  Unfortunately, laypeople would not understand that, and would see Ehrman's views as a striking, controversial breath of fresh air.  On a side note, it's important to note that the phenomenon of these special texts that attempt to glorify certain historical figures with mystical stories written centuries after their lifetime is not unique to the person of Jesus Christ.  This in turn makes it even easier to reject the gnostic gospels and ascertain what can be considered acceptable.  Deep research into this specific topic was one of the turning points for Lee Strobel (now a famous pastor and Christian author) to change from atheism to Christianity.

On the third point, there is again a litany of points by Witherington.  But more importantly, I find this particular Ehrman quote from the original article most interesting:
"I'm not a Christian anymore, but it's not because of this kind of thing," he told me. "I got to a point where I could no longer believe that there's a good and powerful God in charge of the world, given all the pain and misery that's in it. ... I don't think that the God of the Bible exists."
That an academic should base his decision to abandon his faith based on such an emotional response to a difficult subject gives me cause for concern as to the rigor of his logic.  The logical aspects of the problem of pain and suffering has been studied quite thoroughly by many people, ranging from academics of yesteryear like C.S. Lewis (himself an atheist-turned-Christian) to modern experts like William Lane Craig today.  From a logical standpoint, the arguments are quite solid.  As many logicians will acknowledge, emotions are not so easy to handle in a similar manner.  Although the logic is quite solid, it may still be too difficult to accept the logic on an emotional level.

That being said, if people base a faith decision on emotion, rather than logic (as this author seems to do), it will then indicate to me that their subsequent works (such as his book on Biblical forgeries) would be prone to influence from such emotional bias and therefore lack logical rigor.  This honestly sounds like another guy who thinks that the world should be simple, easy, and nice without heavily contemplating the root causes and answers of the issues of evil.  That's a complaint I have with many folks who bring up the "problem of evil" argument against the existence of God.

Meanwhile, Christianity has explained that problem: it's at the core of the Christian faith, described in such texts as Genesis, Isaiah ch 59, Ezekiel ch 16, Epistle to the Romans, Epistle to the Hebrews, etc (well, pretty much the whole Bible).  Christianity also offers a solution, claiming that it's the only solution: salvation through Jesus Christ.  I can point to various friends and societies who have had their lives turned around by their faith experience as to the solution in action.  Of course, there are also counter-examples where the church has created evil and caused pain.  Let's be careful here and recognize that the problem of evil and the problem of hypocrisy are two separate problems.  One should not affect the other in terms of analysis.  Again, logic vs. emotion.

Ehrman's bias does seem to play itself out in the book according to Witherington's commentary, even in the gathering of the data.  As per Witherington's 2nd blog post on the book:
Here is where I say  ‘caveat emptor’—let the buyer beware when Bart begins to make sweeping claims like “Second Thessalonians… is itself widely thought by scholars not to be by Paul”  (p. 19).   I called Bart on this very point when we were debating at New Orleans Baptist Seminary last month.  I pointed out, that if one does the head count of what commentators say about 2 Thessalonians, in fact the majority of commentators, even if one restricts one’s self to  so-called critical commentators,  still believe Paul is responsible for 2 Thessalonians. 
Bart’s rebuttal was that he was not counting conservative  or orthodox commentators.   My response to the response was that in fact he was ruling out the majority of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, not to mention some Jewish scholars at this point.    In other words,  his ‘canon’ of critical scholars is small, a distinct minority of the total number of NT scholars around the world,  with whom he has chosen to agree.     My point here is,  don’t believe such claims as ‘widely believed’  or  ‘the majority of good scholars think’  without first doing the math.   In fact, Bart’s math does not add up.   Thus while it is true that often forgers throw people off their trail by warning about forgery in their own forged documents,  in fact, there were plenty of genuine warnings of this sort by authors like Galen, who were really upset with people writing documents in their own name.   Galen even published a list of his authentic writings to make clear what was a forgery.   As it turn out, many ancients were very concerned about the dangers of forgery,  and Paul was one of them.
The original article does good to link to Witherington to provide balance.  But I fear that many atheists and skeptics would take the linkbait and run with it without wanting to consider the other side first, much as the original author seems to do.  All logicians on both sides of the debate need to hold themselves up to higher standards.  As well, people in general need to appreciate that any subject can be quite complicated.  If Witherington's analysis of Ehrman's text is accurate, Ehrman takes the analysis of scripture too lightly, just like Bertrand Russell did.

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