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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Earth to New Testament critics!

(Note: I'm at a weird hotel computer with a twisted mind of its own -- probably owned by the Unabomber in a past life.  Excuse the caps, that's the least of its perversities.)

I ha
d the chance to spend most of Thursday in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with a remarkable philosopher named Timothy McGrew.  Tim teaches philosophy of science, among other subjects, at Western Michigan University.  He is also an expert on, besides chess, the application of probability to history, and Lord knows what else, modern apologetics from the 17th to the early 20th Centuries.  Many of these old apologists have a great deal that proves strangely pertinent to share, that is sadly neglected, and often with a literary flair that makes their works just plain fun to read.  

Here's a particularly biting 61 year old passage from an old scholar with too many names for his own good, which Tim dug up from his home library and read me.   It was a good thing, frankly, I wasn't drinking milk while listening.  On my request, he also posted these paragraphs at his Library of Historical Apologetics, which he informs me is due to grow dramatically in the future, with logistical help from a number of other scholars in Texas and the UK.   

I expect many of my readers will enjoy this, as well. 

The Strange World of New Testament Scholarship

 
There is a world—I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit—which is not the world in which I live. In my world, if The Times and The Telegraph both tell one story in somewhat different terms, nobody concludes that one of them must have copied the other, nor that the variations in the story have some esoteric significance. But in that world of which I am speaking this would be taken for granted. There, no story is ever derived from the facts but always from somebody else’s version of the same story.

Writers of books need earlier books as sources when they write ‘em.
Those earlier books, yet earlier books, and so ad infinitum.

In my world, almost every book, except some of those produced by Government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is produced by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees. In my world, if I read that Mr. Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was heading for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world no prophecy, however vaguely worded, is ever made except after the event.

In my world we say, ‘The first world-war took place in 1914–1918. In that world they say, ‘The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century’. In my world men and women live for a considerable time—seventy, eighty, even a hundred years—and they are equipped with a thing called memory. In that world (it would appear) they come into being, write a book, and forthwith perish, all in a flash, and it is noted of them with astonishment that they ‘preserve traces of a primitive tradition’ about things which happened well within their own adult lifetime.

Turning to more detailed matters, in my world, if a fisherman makes an unusually good catch, he counts and weighs and measures each fish and can accurately (even maddeningly) recall these statistics to memory until the end of his life. In that world a ‘draught of 153 great fishes’ is necessarily fictitious and the number must be symbolical. In my world, if a party of uneducated and probably superstitious men is sent out by moonlight to arrest a man who is said to be in league with the devil and to be able to work miracles, they go in some trepidation; and when the wizard suddenly appears out of the darkness and challenges them, using those words so awe-inspiring to Jewish ears, ‘I AM’, they are apt to be considerably taken aback. But in that other world it is ‘ludicrously unhistorical’ to suppose that the high priest’s servants ‘went back and fell to the ground’ in precisely these circumstances. In my world a man of even the humblest origin can become, by the end of his life, a very learned man. In that world a Galilean fisherman can never, as long as he lives, become acquainted with the writings of Philo or the terminology of contemporary religious and philosophical thought.

-- Adrian Howell North Green-Armytage, John Who Saw: A Layman’s Essay on the Authorship of the Fourth Gospel (London: Faber & Faber, 1952), pp. 11-13.

3 comments:

Derek said...

This is one of the best things I have read in a long time.

June Smith said...

'There is a world—I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit—which is not the world in which I live. In my world, if The Times and The Telegraph both tell one story in somewhat different terms, nobody concludes that one of them must have copied the other, nor that the variations in the story have some esoteric significance. But in that world of which I am speaking this would be taken for granted. There, no story is ever derived from the facts but always from somebody else’s version of the same story.'

This is false. Reporters cite facts. So do atheists. These facts can be disputed and historical investigations have concluded that the Bible is a untrustworthy guide to history. No one ever said that the NYT printing a single story that is different from other paper's means that the entire paper is now suspect. The NYT has a history of good news reporting. The Bible on the other hand does not. This is a horrible argument. Apologetics is just as useless now as it was in the 50's.

David B Marshall said...

June: The reason Dr. McGrew read this passage to me, the reason I laughed, and the reason Green-Armitage wrote it, and I assume the reason Derek enjoyed it too, is because we are very familiar with the kind of reasoning in skeptical NT studies that is being satired. This is not an invention of his, independently imagined by the rest of us -- this is a description of pervasive false assumptions, which I detail in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.

I've read both sides, as has Tim, and we have found sounder historical method, for the most part, on the side of those scholars who conclude that the NT is pretty reliable, historically. I detail twelve common historical and philosophical errors made by skeptics in that book, giving examples of each. That book awaits refutation; feel free.

For the past few weeks the number one best-seller in the US was a book by a second-rate religion scholar who tried to debunk the orthodox view of Jesus. I detail many of its errors two posts back. Yet the book got rave reviews from hundreds of skeptics. Don't tell me skeptics don't need to learn to read their own stuff more critically.