Monday, August 03, 2015

Reply to Matthew Ferguson I: On Scholarship and Genre

Matthew Ferguson has now responded to my critique of his analysis of how the gospels relate to ancient literature, in a two-part rebuttal of some 50 printed pages. 

The first part, and fortunately somewhat the shorter, contains his criticism of me.  I don't plan to say much about that.  Ferguson repeatedly says or implies that I'm trying to hide or cover up my faults and errors: let those who are afraid that I am up to such mischief, read Ferguson's critique for themselves, if they like.  I don't really mind.  To tell the truth, I am indeed quite flawed.  Yes, I can be "acerbic," and my intended wit does indeed sometimes flows to rudeness, especially when I'm tired.  On the other hand, I think Ferguson was the first case in which (two years ago) I criticized someone who happened to share a pseudonym and a set of interests with my intended target, in lieu of the target himself, and also the first case in which I mistakenly described someone as a Christ-mythicist who actually was not.  Those are serious blunders.  As for describing Ferguson as "blind as a bat" in relation to the qualities of the gospels, I'm afraid I still think so, so can't apologize for that -- but that is not a "falsehood about identity," it is a perception (accurate or not) about awareness.  (I also think some more advanced and eminent scholars are just as blind, after all.)

Anyway, given two admittedly flagrant errors, Ferguson may be forgiven for thinking me sloppier than I probably am (on major issues, never mind typos).  Fair enough.  I have other flaws Ferguson doesn't know about.  So even if his critique is often off the mark in other respects (as I think it is), let readers conclude, "Marshall is not always so charming as he ought to be," and they'll be more right than wrong.   

As for Ferguson's own cheap shots, he doesn't seem to recognize them as such.  That's fine, too.  What interests me is the historicity of the gospels, and alleged parallels to them.  I have no desire to hide any good analogy Ferguson, Richard Carrier, or Bart Erhman, can offer between the Gospels and any ancient text -- indeed, far from covering such alleged parallels up, I have been searching out such purported parallels and trying to bring them to light.  Read both sides, by all means!  Still less do I wish readers to think poorly of Mr. Ferguson. 

Ferguson has read some interesting materials, as have better-known and more experienced skeptics.  And his theories are generally more reasonable than those of Carrier, for instance, and a lot better than the muck that someone like Raphael Lataster (or that other Celsus, with whom I conflated Ferguson) produces.  No doubt his arguments will continue to improve: as iron sharpens iron: in a perfect world, my critique might help expedite that process.

And I think that's enough response to Part I of Ferguson's critique, the personal criticism.  On to the important stuff.  (As far as I can go today -- I'm leaving for Canada again this afternoon, and probably won't be able to touch on all the important issues before we take off.)

I. Who is Qualified to do Historical Jesus Studies? 

One of the most important initial matters on which Ferguson takes issue with me, is the question of whether I, or some of the thinkers whom I cite, are even competent to contribute to the "search for the historical Jesus."  Our views on who can or ought to contribute to the Jesus debate, and indeed on how scholarship ought to be done, seem to diverge quite sharply.

On a personal level, Ferguson makes it clear that he thinks I'm out of my depth, or meddling in matters I know too little of.  I am an "apologist," after all -- this is the term he uses, again and again, to describe me.  Ferguson describes his own academic credentials, but does not (so far as I have read thus far) say anything about mine.  He also describes me as a "troll," which according to one on-line dictionary, means:

"A person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community . . . with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion."

Ferguson adds that I admit to not reading Latin, and that my Greek is probably not nearly as good as his own. He argues:

"The question of the Gospels' genre, and where they fit into their literary context, pertains specifically to literary developments that had been occurring in the 5th century BCE -- 2nd century CE Mediterranean world, particularly in literature written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (all languages that I have expertise in)."

In addition, Ferguson accuses me of "dropping Richard Burridge's name," which is "one of the keywords that many apologists know when they try to argue about the Gospels' genre."  

Let me answer these first three charges, before addressing broader issues of authority. 

* First, on the "troll" charge.  No doubt my critique of his argument did upset Ferguson, and perhaps some of his readers.  But there was nothing off-topic about my  challenging his arguments, or in flipping them to demonstrate the credibility of the gospels.  And my goal is not to provoke an emotional reaction, but to better understand the nature of the gospels and their relation to ancient literature -- which Ferguson says is also his own goal.  So this description of me is simply false. I am dead serious in my interest in this subject: one would think the fact that I published a book on it ten years ago, and am writing another now, would be sufficient evidence of that.

* As for the value of learning language, I believe I also pegged that right.  I have been studying languages for forty years, and comparing texts in different languages for some thirty-five.  One can pick up many nuances only by learning the original language, and one might say that some poetry, or poetic speech (Shakespeare or Li Bai), simply can't be translated, or that a great deal of the wonder of the original is lost in translation.  But to determine genre or historicity, a good translation will usually do.  So far as I have read his long rebuttal, I haven't noticed any points at which Ferguson claims that language alone betrays any errors on my part.  So even judging by his own argument, it appears that my original comments were correct. One does not need to be fluent in Latin, say, to recognize the genre of Confessions or Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, so long as these works have been translated with any competence. 

In fact, I don't think facility in three ancient languages has helped Mr. Ferguson recognize what stands out most about the gospels and is most important.  I think my analysis demonstrates that.  But as I said, I would like to avoid (from here on, at least) implying disrespect. We all make mistakes.  We all have biases and blind spots.  And I have offered similar criticism of other scholars who are more advanced and highly credentialed than Mr. Ferguson. So he need not take my criticism quite so very personally. 

* Ferguson is willing to dismiss authorities I cite, anyway, so why complain when I dismiss far less eminent and accomplished authorities?

Section Five in the second part of Ferguson's rebuttal does just that:  

"Marshall's bogus authorities in trying to dismiss the novel and hagiography comparison."

Ferguson writes in that section:

"One of the big emphases of Marshall's response is to claim that the comparison of the Gospels to the ancient novel is absurd.  As Marshall claims: 

"'You also describe the gospels as 'novels.'  This is complete and utter nonsense . . . Anyone who reads the gospels and thinks it's one of those is, frankly, as blind as a bat."  

"When citing authorities against this comparison, however, Marshall appeals to a number of outdated and irrelevant persons.  In order to argue that the Gospels are historical in genre, Marshall appeals to Augustine (yes, Augustine), Blaise Pascal, English literature scholar C. S. Lewis, and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, all of whom are almost fully irrelevant to modern Classical and NT scholarship.  Among actual New Testament scholars he lists NT Wright and Richard Bauckham (both minorities in the field), in addition to name dropping Richard Burridge."

There are several misconceptions, here.

* As I explained clearly in that earlier post, my main interest lies not in "genre," but in historicity.  And I do not "argue that the Gospels are historical in genre."  Rather I argue (Ferguson quotes my argument) that they are historical in character.  I mean they tell what really happened, by and large, but I say directly that I don't think they belong to any genre that can be described as "history."  Rather, they are best described as biography.

Ferguson knows this, and we will touch on our disagreements about ancient biography later.  So "historical in genre" is confusing or a red herring: my argument is that they are historical in substance.

* Also, I do not "name drop" Richard Burridge.  (This is the second time Ferguson uses this term.)  Name-dropping means, according to the Oxford Dictionary:

"The practice of casually mentioning the names of famous people one knows or claims to know in order to impress others."

But I do not desire that much to impress Mr. Ferguson: what I care about is the historical truth, or error, of the gospels.  Nor do I ever claim to know Dr. Burridge.  Furthermore, I regard the genre of the gospels, the issue on which I cite Burridge, as secondary to their truth.  

So "name-dropping" is false on every level.  

What Ferguson no doubt means is that I haven't really read Burridge, and am just throwing his name around because other people like me ("apologists") do likewise.  But if that is the case, then why is there a four-star review of his book under my name, written eleven years ago, posted as the lead-off review on Amazon, with 24 of 27 "helpful" votes?  Ferguson often complains about my not reading his entire on-line oevre before commenting: wouldn't it have been wise for him to do a little google-search, before making this false charge?  

But more on Burridge's arguments below, and what they imply for the gospels.  

* More substantially, by dismissing my citations of Augustine, Lewis, and Peck, Ferguson seems to betray a vision of how scholarship works very different from the vision that I long ago came to embrace.   

In my last year of High School, I ran between Russian and journalism classes, which were down the hall from one another, because they both seemed so interesting.  My professors during my BA and MA years at the University of Washington further encouraged me to see different fields of study as informing one another -- indeed, I often tell my own students that this concept is implicit in the term "university."  For my BA, I created my own research classes under the guidance of professors in Russian, Anthropology, and the head of the History Department, to create a major that drew from all three subjects.  My MA was guided primarily by one historian and by the head the Anthropology Department, though I also took courses in Classical Chinese, Art History, and Religious Studies which, again, informed the research I did for my MA papers.  The same was true of my PhD, and such was the vision of holistic scholarship in which different fields inform one another, that most of my fellow scholars seemed to embrace.  

No field of study is an island.  Disparate areas of research can often inform one another profoundly, even when they seem, at first glance, to be separated by oceans.  

This is also commonly recognized in New Testament studies.  Liberal scholars like John Crossan and James Crossley, as well as conservatives like Rodney Stark, are often rightly lauded for helpfully bringing the perspective of other fields of study to bear on early Christianity. (Which means, of course, that deep fluency in a given language is not always crucial to making contributions to a field.) 

So why did I cite M. Scott Peck?  

Peck is a Harvard-trained psychologist, with decades of experience in observing human beings.  I thus noted:

"What is really startling, as M. Scott Peck noted, along with Lewis, is how utterly the gospels fail to resemble hagiographic literature."

Peck approached the Jesus of the Gospels as a psychologist, out of a well of deep experience and scholarship, and wrote with great intellectual force, in my opinion.  He believed that in all his years of studying men and women who make the human mind their subject, Jesus was the "smartest man who ever lived."  Of course no hagiographer could invent the Jesus who appears in the gospels, and none ever did.  Peck's observations, informed by a richly understood field of psychology, and decades of clinical experience, furnish a legitimate way in which one discipline can inform another.  

Augustine would also appear on many informed lists of "the smartest people who ever lived."  He was read more widely in ancient Latin literature, probably, than anyone can be today.  And he knew the process of creating literature from the inside, as author of so brilliant a narrative as Confessions, of so sweeping and widely-informed an argument as City of God.  

Yet Ferguson tosses Augustine's perception aside with contempt.  Seriously?  Augustine?  Yes, seriously: we need to hear from geniuses who produce great literature, and whose genius transcends the mere art of words, especially those who drank in knowledge of the ancients with their mother's milk.  Blaise Pascal was also psychologically astute, and of a deeply logical turn of mind.  The acute insights of all three men, the latter two among the world's great minds, their keen and informed insight focused on literature which they knew inside and out, are not to be tossed lightly away, merely because none of them happened to take any Classics courses at the University of California, Irvine.  (Augustine admitted that Greek gave him trouble.)

What about C. S. Lewis?  

Ferguson persists in identifying Lewis as merely an "English literature scholar."  But as I pointed out, Lewis was extremely well-read in ancient Greek and Latin literature.  He even conducted a correspondence with  Dom Giovanni Calabria in Latin.  (Could Mr. Ferguson do that?)

Why would anyone want to deny so great a literary genius as C. S. Lewis a seat at this table?  Author of a magisterial volume in the Oxford History of English Literature, insightful critic of Milton and Shakespeare, who goaded J. R. R. Tolkien into publishing what many regard as the 20th Century's greatest work of fiction, Lewis breathed ancient Greek for some fifty years, himself creating brilliant works in a variety of genres.  So when Lewis writes:

"I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.   I know that not one of them is like this."

It is wise to pay heed.  

* But even more importantly, my argument for the historicity of the gospels is not mainly an Argument from Authority.  Frankly, I think the analysis I offer in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and to a truncated and preliminary degree in the post Ferguson responds to, goes beyond any of these writers.  That is not, of course, because I consider myself an equal genius, but because I support their true insights with more thorough analysis.  That is how scholarship makes progress -- dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.  What I attempt to do, and I think succeed in doing, is to show that Lewis' concisely expressed analysis of the gospels in relation to ancient literature, is on the money, across dozens of crucial criteria that he did not stop to systematically analyze.  

That such thinkers are giants, and that their insight is highly relevant to NT studies, ought to be obvious.

What about the specialists we cite?  Let's look again at Richard Burridge.

II. What's Wrong with Burridge's Argument? 

What Ferguson fails to notice is that I treat Richard Burridge not as a name to "drop," but as a fellow scholar with whom I partially agree, partially disagree, and whose arguments (like Ferguson's own) do not entirely address the issues that concern me.  Thus, Ferguson cites several other scholars who disagree with Burridge, or who tweak his thesis in various ways.  He fails to recognize that I have long disagreed with Burridge on some of the very same points!  Here is part of my review, eleven years ago:

"I think Burridge proves his case, that the canonical Gospels do belong to the category of ancient bioi, or biography . . . But what does that mean to call the Gospels "biography?" Among the examples of bioi he considers are Tacitus' Agricola, a sober account of a Roman general written by his son in law a few years after his death, and Apollonius of Tyana, a tall tale loosely based on a New Age guru that talks about various breeds of dragon in India, and was written more than a hundred years after the alleged life it portrays.  So the simple fact that a work belongs to the category of bioi, does not prove that it is true.

"Burridge notes however that Apollonius is rather on the fringe of the genre.  In some ways, the Gospels are closer to Agricola.   Having closely compared these two texts with the Gospels on my own, I came to the conclusion that in terms of historical reliability, the Gospels are closer to Agricola, and hardly resemble Apollonius of Tyana at all.  In fact, in some ways the Gospels seem more historical than Agricola.

"But Burridge does not discuss the historicity of the books he reviews directly.  Instead, he conducts a somewhat plodding, but careful, convincing, and I think useful argument that helps one better understand literary genre, ancient literature, the Gospels, and how they all fit together."

I also critiqued Burridge ten years ago, in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus:

"Burridge showed that the gospels are bioiWhat he did not do was explain what genre has to do with historicity.  The water is muddied by the fact that of the works Burridge discussed, most were fairly sober, but at least one might be described as 'science fiction.'"

So I have been well aware of the diversity within the genre that Burridge identified as "Greek biography" for a very long time.  Nothing the authorities Ferguson cites say, comes as a surprise to me, on this topic.  My point, and the point with which I vehemently disagree with Ferguson, is when he argues that the Gospels resemble the less-reliable and more dubious biographies, along with ancient hagiographies and other semi-fictional accounts, more than the better biographies.  In fact, I argue that internal characteristics mark the Gospels as in many ways more credible than even relatively sober ancient biographies. 
But despite the warning in my last post, and the fact that he addresses this issue at length, in my view Ferguson confuses historicity and genre even more seriously in his recent post. 

III. Do the Gospels belong to the same Genre as the Contest of Hesiod and Homer?  

As I said in my first post, I think Ferguson conflates the questions of genre with historicity.  I tried to put this in a polite way, by means of a good deal of circumlocution: 

"Historical" can mean two things: (1) belonging to a specific genre, the genre of historical narratives, or (2) historically accurate, baring truthful content about the past.  The danger in Ferguson's wording here seems to be equivocation, confusing these two meanings of the term.  He does not overtly commit this error, but it seems to lie latent throughout his argument, and must be deliberately avoided."

* The odd thing in Ferguson's rather offended response is that he seems to argue that (a) no, he does not commit equivocation (actually I did not accuse him of doing so); (b) but I do; (c) it should be clear that he was really talking about historicity, because after writing about several ancient works that belong to the historical genre, he then brought in a few biographies; (d) however, I am confused to conflate his pure genre criticism when it comes to The Contest of Hesiod and Homer, with arguments about historicity! 

Readers may read the posts I originally responded to, and Ferguson's rebuttal to my arguments, and judge for themselves whether Ferguson is talking mainly about genre, or about historicity, or now one, now the other, mixing the two together and conflating them. 

* But again, historicity is what matters to me most, and I suspect to most people: genre is of secondary importance.  It is clear from his posts that Ferguson does think his comparisons bear on the historicity of the gospels, and that that matters to him, too.

* Consider, for example, Ferguson's arguments that the Gospels share many characteristics of the same genre with The Contest of Hesiod and Homer.  

What does the word "genre" mean?  Funk and Wagnall define the word, in part, as follows: 

"A particular sort, kind, or category, especially a category of art or literature characterized by a certain form, style, or subject matter."  

Now observe how Ferguson compares the Gospels to the Contest: 

"If the Gospels are not like the historical biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius, is there a better parallel within the genre of Greco-Roman biography for what they are like?  In my essay 'The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda,' I compare the Gospels to the more popular and legendary form, using the example of the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, which is a kind of dual biography about the epic poets Homer and Hesiod."  

Notice the word "legendary" here, which I have underlined.  It is clear that Ferguson means to mark the gospels as less reliable than some other set of biographies.  (While I argue that the Gospels show much stronger marks of credibility.)  

Now observe how Ferguson actually does compare the Gospels to The Contest (Let's add some numbers to make it easier to keep tract of the alleged points of comparison): 

" . . .their main similarity is based around their language, structure, and storytelling conventions.   These are the kinds of considerations relevant to the genre of a narrative, not necessarily its content.

"The similarities in genre . . . include the fact that (1) the Certamen was an 'open text,' which was redacted through multiple stages of composition . . . (2) they largely circulated anonymously . . .(3)  the language and structure of these 'open texts' are likewise far more simple and fluid.  (4) They include far less analytical elements and (5) are written to a more general audience.  (6) The main emphasis of the text is likewise on stage-setting and scripting, (7) with the biographical elements more at the periphery of the narrative . . . (8) The Certamen scripts Homer and Hesiod to deliver certain lines of poetry, not unlike how the Gospels script Jesus to deliver parables and sermons .  . "

Some of these assertions are, I think, simply mistaken.  Clearly, the "biographical" element in the Gospels takes center stage.  The Gospels are focused on the final days of Jesus, which is not at all true of The Contest.  It is absurd to claim the narrative of Jesus life lies at the "periphery" of the Gospels.  

It is also a little bizarre to say two works are alike, because a poet in one delivers lines of poetry (from works well-known from other sources), while in the other, a teacher teaches (from sermons known originally from nowhere else!).  That a biographer records what is famous about his subject is hardly what one can call a "coincidence:" that is the essence of the biographer's art.  (Thus, shockingly, accounts of Socrates' life "script" him doing public philosophy!   Just so biography of Alexander the Great "scripts" him fighting battles!)   

But the funny thing is, many of the characteristics that the two bodies of work allegedly share, have little to do with the core meaning of the word "genre:"  ". . . characterized by a certain form, style, or subject matter."  (1) How a work was (allegedly) redacted -- a story NT scholars debate, anyway -- does not bear directly on the form, style, or subject matter of a work.  (2) Neither does whether it was written anonymously or with the name of the author on its first page.  The name of a book's author has nothing to do with its genre.  (3) Simplicity of language bears on style, perhaps, but is not usually important in defining genre.  For instance, some ancient novels are complex and sophisticated in language, others crude and rather gauche.  That doesn't prevent them from all being recognized as novels.  (5) Audience is also not generally part of the definition of genre, certainly not according to Funk and Wagnall.  (6) and (7), as we have seen, are simply mistaken.  (8) Poetry does not belong to the same genre as sermons or parables.  

In other words, not a single one of these alleged parallels is both clearly true and clearly bears on genre -- even if that were what we cared about.    

Ferguson has not clearly started with a coherent definition of "genre," with a set number of traits, then compared these works on each characteristic objectively.   Rather, his argument seems to involve the subjective, loose, rather uncritical picking of cherries from a tree of undetermined shape and fecundity.  What these works share in common seems trivial, and not particularly important in marking genre, still less historicity.

In fact, as I showed in my previous post, there is no reason to believe anything like the events in "The Contest" ever occurred at all.   I doubt Mr. Ferguson disagrees.  By contrast, there are dozens of reasons to think that the gospels are largely historical accounts, and attempts to find parallels to them only throw their uniqueness and historical credibility into deeper relief.  

Again, my purpose is not to deride Matthew Ferguson.  C. S. Lewis wrote more than 70 years ago, about how secular "Jesus theories" succeed one another with the "restless fertility of bewilderment."  The novel hypotheses posited by the likes of the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, Richard Carrier, and Matthew Ferguson, are evidence that that bewilderment, recognized or not, has yet to abate.  



steve said...

Ferguson's complaint about original languages is a doubled-edged sword inasmuch as you have Classicists turned NT scholars like F.F. Bruce and Bruce Metzger (we might include Hemer while we're at it) who are several notches above Ferguson in their command of ancient languages and literature, yet take the historicity of the Gospels far more seriously than Ferguson.

David B Marshall said...

It's a butter knife, not a sword. It's simply irrelevant to the issue.