Sunday, March 15, 2009

Extreme Right v. Extreme Left: A Hopeless Debate?

Over the past few days, I've become belatedly aware of a vigorous (and occasionally downright nasty) debate between atheists and conservative Christian apologists raging throughout the blogosphere, particularly involving exchanges between John Loftus and J.P. Holding--who represent the former and latter camps, respectively. Nick Norelli notes a list of claims recently posted by Holding in response to Loftus:

1) I have answers to ANY claim of “contradiction” you can come up with.

2) The authorship of the NT Biblical books is more solid than it is for any secular work of the ancient world.

3) We don’t have originals for ANY ancient work, but only nimwits like you think this is a problem, and can’t explain why.

4) You wouldn’t know how the canon was put together, since you think Dan Brown is a good source; much less could you criticize its composition intelligently.

5) The textual tradition of the NT is far more secure than that of any secular document, with zero evidence of tampering or corruption; nothing but legitimate interpretive modifications to accommodate shifting language and cultural needs.

6) The NT books were all written within 40 years of Jesus’ lifetime.

7) You couldn’t argue with me ten seconds on any of these points.

Nick provides brief responses to the first, second, fifth, and sixth of these points (after stating that he "couldn't care less" about the others):

(1) I’m sure that this is true but I doubt that all of the answers are equally good or persuasive.

(2) This is worded in such a way as to indicate that we know who the authors of all the NT books are, but clearly we don’t. Maybe we can argue that the authorship for the Pauline corpus is solid (and there’s more than a few of his books that are disputed) and I’d venture to say that Luke-Acts is pretty well established, but that’s about it. We simply don’t know the rest.

(5) This is just false when it comes to the claim of “zero evidence of tampering or corruption.” Maybe he’s defining those terms in a special way but if he simply means intentional changes that may or may not affect the meaning of a given passage then he’s wrong.

(6) Holding’s preterism colors his dating of the NT but I don’t see any convincing arguments for dating John, 1-3 John, Revelation, Jude, or 1-2 Peter within 40 years of Jesus’ lifetime. Good luck proving it.

I find myself in agreement with Nick's responses. I would briefly take up Holding's third point, however, and reply that ancient historians are absolutely concerned with the fact that the majority of texts have survived in copies of a very late date. As Helmut Koester and any number of others have convincingly argued, textual emendation most frequently occurs in the century immediately following the initial publication, an issue which often forces the editors of classical texts to propose conjectural readings not found in any surviving manuscript. Furthermore, works such as the writings of Josephus (e.g., the so-called "Testimonium Flavianum") and the Sybilline Oracles display unmistakable evidence of alteration by later generations of editors, to say nothing of the innumerable form-critical and text-critical studies of the New Testament. So, I would say that all historians of antiquity are frustrated by the lack of autographic texts, as it makes their studies more difficult and tenuous from the outset.

To briefly supplement Nick's comments, I would add that while almost all scholars and critics accept Luke-Acts as the product of a single author, the actual identity of that author remains unknown. As for the Pauline corpus, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon are universally acclaimed as authentic, with some occasionally advocating the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians, and only the most conservative commentators identifying Paul as the author of the Pastoral Epistles. In his Anchor Bible (now Anchor Yale Bible) commentary on the Letter of James, Luke Timothy Johnson argues that the letter should be attributed to James the brother of Jesus, but this view has not won widespread acceptance (and was not universally accepted even in the patristic era).

Nick is absolutely correct when he identifies Holding's statement that the text of the New Testament displays "zero evidence of tampering or corruption" as "absolutely false." I can't see how anyone could defend such a claim, given the astronomical number of variant readings among the approximately 5500 extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the fact that the Western text of Acts is approximately ten percent longer than the Alexandrian text, etc. Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament provides summary treatments of many problematic passages; Bart Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is also worth reading on this subject. And as for questions of dating, apart from J.A.T. Robinson's bold but flawed Redating the New Testament, which placed the origins of all of the books before 70 CE, I haven't seen any recent publications make such an argument. If anything, some arguments for second-century dates are intensifying; Richard Pervo has made a strong case that Acts belongs to this period.

Generally, I've found both of the extremes of this debate sorely wanting, usually resorting to bombastic and poorly constructed rhetoric rather than a sober exchange of thoughts and opinions. And I'm left wondering why they're even bothering to engage one another. Perhaps they simply enjoy the battle, even if there's no end in sight.


mike said...

Is this Holding guy aware that the NT only covers less than a third of the Bible and that we're significantly far worse off textually for the OT?

J. P Holding said...

"As Helmut Koester and any number of others have convincingly argued, textual emendation most frequently occurs in the century immediately following the initial publication, an issue which often forces the editors of classical texts to propose conjectural readings not found in any surviving manuscript."

Oh really.

Can you please name some classical texts for which we have manuscripts from the "century immediately following the initial publication"?
Or did you just want to swallow Koester's comment uncritically?

Let's see you do better than vague assertions, Matty Boy. Poor Nicky didn't want to put his money where his mouth was....maybe you can do better?