Sunday, January 17, 2016

Can Matthew Ferguson Read?

In his usual charitable style, Ken ("Arizona Atheist") responded to my post rebutting a grotesque and baseless allegation from Matthew Ferguson (that I wished his demise: may he live long and prosper) as follows:

"You haven't addressed Matthew's post in any substantive way.  Evasions, excuses, and other tricks of your trade.  Perhaps if I have some free time I will go through line by line and point out all the reasons you have not directly addressed his post.  Which, by the way, can be found HERE since you placed the link in the middle of this large post, making very difficult to find.  Was that on purpose, in an attempt to keep it somewhat hidden?  Makes one wonder...."

That is the sort of thing Ken may wonder about, but I think it unnecessary to address.  After all, Matthew was accusing me of hoping to drive him to suicide, or worse: having refuted slander of that magnitude, who cares about the accusation that I secreted his supposed rebuttal over The Contest of Hesiod and Homer away from prying eyes? 

But for the record, no, I don't find Matthew's other false criticisms frightening.  The main problem with his other arguments, as with the "I hope he kills himself" charge, is his apparently chronic failure to read and accurately decipher ordinary English prose.  How can Matthew refute my argument if he doesn't comprehend a thing I say?   I feel like I might as well be writing in Chinese. 

I told Ken: 

As I explained above, when one person slanders another as crudely and as seriously as Matthew does here, pointing out that error is entirely sufficient . . .

I have been accused of desiring Mr. Ferguson's death -- based on nothing.  That he would make such an accusation shows either just how poorly he reads English, or just how low he is willing to go in what ought to be a contest of facts and ideas, at most of wits . . . 

In fact, almost everything he has written in response to me is entirely bogus.  Like Hector Avalos, who appears to be his mentor, again and again he picks a few words and then goes off on a long "scholarly" riff to rebut them.  But unfortunately, again and again he grossly misinterprets the (carefully chosen) words that he is trying to rebut.  So whereas Avalos' riffs tend to be about almost nothing, Ferguson's riffs tend to be about nothing at all . . .   

This fits a clear pattern.  Ferguson claims to read "between the lines" of obscure ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew writers.  (As C. S. Lewis put it.)  But his evident inability is to read, in any sense worth speaking of, the lines themselves -- even in English. 

And I'll get back to The Contest of Hesiod and Homer in due course . . . 

But this post is about reading, and about Matthew Ferguson's failure to understand my arguments for the gospels, rebutting his own arguments against them.  I will also suggest that this failure to accurately interpret standard English bodes ill for Mr. Ferguson's efforts to interpret the meaning of Greco-Roman texts correctly for his audience.  Then in a later post (sorry for the delay, so much street-sweeping before the ponies show up), I'll return to Ferguson's interesting analogy between The Contest of Hesiod and Homer and the gospels, and show (for those who harbor doubts) why Ferguson's argument fails, and the gospels emerge from his critique looking stronger than ever.

On Reading

Reading well is not as easy as it sounds.  I often told my earlier students, as high school juniors, that of the three legs of the pre-reform SAT test, math is a whiz for most Chinese students, with a little preparation, and "writing" (grammar, plus an essay) can improve dramatically for most students, over a couple months.  But learning how to read well, even to score high on the SAT test, let alone succeed in college and as mature scholars, is the work of years or a lifetime, not weeks or months.  For reading means understanding what another person is saying, a person with a "vast hinterland" of ideas, experience, and linguistic practice that one can never completely share.  Good communication is an art, one that takes a lifetime to master only in part. 

It is especially hard to read accurately, and fairly represent, texts that challenge one's point of view, or written by someone towards whom one feels hostility.   A critique from those quarters feels intuitively like an attack, and it is natural to want to shoot back hard with deadly force, never mind if anything in that attack may prove sound or worthy of consideration.   

A peculiar kind of blindness often seems to afflict those who read the gospels with hostile intent.   C. S. Lewis compared one brilliant critic of the gospels, Rudolf Bultmann, to someone so blind he couldn't spot an elephant standing a few yards in bright daylight. 

My last post gave several egregious examples of Mr. Ferguson's failure to read and correctly decode phrases written in standard and fairly easily decodable English.

I do not wish to upset Mr. Ferguson, who as we have seen tends to take criticism in the worst way, then imaginatively expand that worst beyond prudent interpretive boundaries.  But Ferguson's criticism of the gospels is intended to persuade publicly, to debunk the foundational texts of Christianity.   For better or for worse, his articles on the gospels and historical writings, and comparing the gospels to the Contest of Hesiod and Homer, constitute a small part of the public discourse on the gospels.  So it is fitting that informed Christians analyze and respond to them publicly.  I am also interested in attempts by skeptics to find parallels to the gospels, so in that sense, I am grateful to Ferguson for his highly original analysis, faulty though I deem it to be. 

But before we get back to those fascinating texts, having been challenged by Ferguson's fans, it appears that I must first respond to a broader swath of his criticism of what he deems (or pretends) to be my answer.  I intend to do so by showing that much of Ferguson's critique is based upon serious and needless misreadings of what I am actually saying.  And for anyone who is impressed by the appearance of scholarship that Ferguson does manage, I think such blatant misreadings should be deeply troubling.  After all, we are writing in English -- if he can't get that right, why trust his interpretation of texts written in ancient Latin or Greek? 

In the remainder of this post, I give four egregious examples, each of which undermines a large portion of his critique, not to mention his credibility as a mature and faithful interpreter of written texts in any language. 

I.  (New) Misreading the First: does "many" mean "all?" 

We begin a couple pages into Section Eight of Ferguson's long rebuttal.  Ferguson has been writing about an advantage "many" works of Greek history (his word) allegedly enjoy over the gospels.  Ferguson accurately quotes me as responding, in part: 

"The gospels were written far closer to the time in which their subject lived, than 'many' historical works.  Furthermore, the Christian faith was persecuted and officially prescribed.  Works on much older historical figures like Alexander the Great required long explanations about sources, and it was safe to give them.  Richard Bauckham argues that the writers of the gospels also refer to their sources. . . "

"Here Marshall is trying to act as if ancient historians only cited their sources when they were writing hundreds of years after the event.  And yet I have come across examples in Greek historiographical literature just these last couple weeks (doing readings in the original language), where historical authors discuss their sources 'far closer' to events . . . "

But "only" isn't what I said.  As Ferguson rightly quotes me, I say that the gospels were written closer to the life of Jesus than many historical works.  That is one of three reasons I give here why Ferguson's generalization that the gospels are less trustworthy than "Greco-Roman historical works" is in my view unpersuasive.

So what does Ferguson do?  Aside from ignoring my actual point, and aside from ignoring my other arguments, Ferguson "tries to act," to use his own words, as if I said "all" rather than "many."  And then he goes on a long riff refuting a claim I did not make, and did not think to make ("no Greek historians cite sources when writing about recent events"), by citing an example of what I never denied, or thought to deny.

Let's be charitable, and call this bad reading.  Ferguson did, after all, quote my actual word "many," before "trying to acts as if" it meant "all."  It's hard to believe he would have been so bold as to furnish proof that his reading was wrong, so close to his false interpretation of that reading, if he recognized his own error.  

Notice that Ferguson also makes a point, again, of having read Herodotus in Greek.  But what good does studying ancient languages do, if he can't tell the difference between the words "many" and "all" in modern English?  

II.  Misreading the Second: didn't, or couldn't?

Point 2 . . . Marshall again makes the same excuse that Gospels are writing 'too close' to discuss contradictions in their source material:

"Actually, the authors of the gospels do not tell us how they judged between sources.  We know that in fact, they did not accept everything from Mark without adjusting it.  And if, as they probably knew (and as Bauckham argues) Mark was based on the accounts of Peter, of course such a source would naturally be given priority.  Given, again, that the evangelists were 'often' closer to the time when their subject lived than historians were, and wrote when many of the first eyewitnesses were still around and in potential danger, again, their failure to explicitly detail sources is neither surprising nor need it act as an impediment."

Immediately following his first misreading, above, Ferguson again misrepresents my argument -- before quoting it in full, showing to better readers than himself that he has, yet again, simply misread words in plain English. 

Ferguson CLAIMS that I am saying the gospels were written "too close to discuss contradictions in their source material."  But again, that is not what I say (or think).  I never say they could not have done so.  I merely point out that (a) they did not in fact do so, (b) since they were so close to the facts, it's not surprising that they didn't (not couldn't) do so, and (c) given that closeness, failure to explicitly cite source (Bauckham argues that they do so implicitly) is no real problem for historicity.

I do not say they are "too close to discuss contradictions," as Ferguson claims.   

He follows that false claim with a riff of about 400 words rebutting precisely the point I didn't make in the first place, citing Thucydides to show that an ancient historian could, in fact, discuss sources for recent events.  But I never thought to deny that, still less did I actually do so. 

So that long riff, as well, does absolutely nothing to undermine my actual claim, because Ferguson has yet again simply garbled plain words in standard modern English.

III.  Misreading the Third: Genre or Historicity? 

Probably the most egregious and intellectually troublesome error in reading Ferguson makes in his response, is to repeatedly misinterpret my criticism of his arguments as genre criticism.  (Even though I say again and again that the historical credibility of the gospels, not the genre to which they belong, is the focus of my arguments.)

I bend over backwards to make that point clear:

"Ferguson's original point, that the gospels are not "ancient historical writing," does not seem of great importance, since no one I know of claims they are."

"I'll show why Ferguson's critique of the gospels fails.  This, with Part III, will constitute the bulk of this post.  I''ll go through each of Ferguson's ten points, and show why none of them is a good reason to dismiss the historicity of the gospels."

"I'll linger over The Contest of Homer and Hesiod, showing why this work is light-years away from the gospels in qualities that make for historicity."

"Finally I'll explain why I think Ferguson's attacks on the gospels actually help to show why they are, in fact, credible, historically."

"Note the adjective "historical" before the noun "prose."  "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."

"Given that the gospels were early, and show many signs of historicity (as I have shown here and elsewhere before), a failure to name sources or offer detailed explanation of methodology is no barrier to historicity, if the gospels appear historical, as I and others argue." 

"The evangelists did not need to follow the conventions of a genre different from their own, to be historically accurate."\

"Again, I don't expect the reasoning behind each of these points to be equally clear, at this point. I plan to explain that reasoning at greater length, later on.  But enough of these should be clear enough, as to make complete and utter nonsense of Ferguson's claim that The Contest of Hesiod and Homer can be seriously compared to the gospels, for its historical reliability."

You get the idea. 

Matthew did not seem to.  Despite my warning against conflating genre and historicity (which Ferguson has batted back at me, as if I were not the one to first point to the conflation in his own writing), Ferguson repeatedly responds to my argument as if it were about genre, not historicity:

"After complaining about confirmation bias, consider some of the following literary criteria that Marshall uses to contrast the genre of the Gospels with the Certamen:"

"And Homer and Hesiod, being poets, recite poetry.  So what?  That is a difference in content, not genre."

"Once more, is the setting in which a story takes place a matter of content, or genre?"

"Whether a novel or a historical biography has an accurate description of geography is  irrelevant to the question of its language and literary structure.  Again, Marshall is confusing historical and / or geographical reliability with literary genre." 
Clearly, Matthew Ferguson has simply misread the main, oft-repeated, emphasized, and underlined point of my argument, which is the vital question of historicity, not the (to me) far more trivial issue of genre. 

Is this simply a matter of us talking past one another?  Have I read and responded to an article that was really just about genre, with irrelevant talk about historicity? 

Not in the slightest.  In fact, Ferguson's original articles were laced with oblique and direct shots at the historicity of the gospels.  He made it crystal clear -- as clear as I made MY interest in the subject -- that he thought his arguments told against the historicity of the gospels.  First, in his article comparing ancient history to the gospels:

"The genre of ancient historical prose has key features that are crucial to understanding which works belong to the category and why they are more trustworthy than sources that do not."

"It is clear to me that the Gospels are not historical writing. These texts instead read like ancient prose novels."

 "What is even a greater problem with the Gospels’ historical reliability . . . "

" . . . it is the way that the Gospels treat contradictions that makes them less credible."

"This is a hallmark of history as a genre, which is an investigation in the present of past events, rather than a mere story set in the past."

Ferguson's digs against the historicity of the gospels, comparing them to The Contest of Hesiod and Homer, are also manifest:

"Both the Gospels and the Certamen, therefore, went through multiple stages of composition. In this way they were ‘open texts,’ far more like the novelistic and legendary kinds of biography discussed above."

"the Gospels claim (more likely invent) certain prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, suggest that the Gospels were inspired more by earlier literature than earlier historical events. They are highly legendary elements, which again reflect how the Gospels are written more as novelistic and legendary biographies."

"In this way, the Certamen is actually being more historically responsible than the Gospels."
So it is crystal clear that Ferguson means not merely to talk in the abstract about genre, but that he intends to deny the historical character of the gospels.  And when I warned him above of the danger of confusing the issues of genre and historicity, Ferguson directly stated that he meant the Gospels were historical neither in genre nor in the sense of being accurate records of the past. 

So why does Ferguson write, in so much of his response to my articles, as if I were primarily challenging his arguments about genre?  (As shown above?) 

Mind you, I do think he is wrong about genre, too.  Not that the gospels belong to the same category of writing as the works of Thucydides, Polybius or Herodotus.   (I never make that claim, though Ben Witherington, for one, has made it for Acts.)  But comparing the gospels to ancient novels, as Ferguson does several times in these two articles, is ludicrous, for reasons I already began to explain in my 2005 book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.  I intend to further demonstrate the failure of such analogies in my upcoming book, in painstaking detail. 

But there, too, the focus will be on historicity.  Let's not pretend either Ferguson or myself is merely concerned about proper literary classification in the abstract: Ferguson writes to attack the credibility of the gospels, and I to defend it. 

He might do that job better, if he learned how to read.   

Much of Ferguson's response fails because of this one fundamental misreading of my arguments -- for which there is no excuse, given the clarity of the words in red (many of which appear in the introduction to my article, to make my point as clear as possible) and, for that matter, Ferguson's own words in blue above.  But that is not the last such misreading. 

IV. Misreading the Fourth: My Argument Against Ehrman

"Marshall used similar bogus criteria when attempting to deconstruct NT scholar Bart Ehrman's comparison of the accounts of Jesus to those of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.  In that post, Marshall's objections basically boil down to 'Jesus did this, Ball (sic) Shem Tov didn't,' with very little structural analysis about the broader and more general features between the accounts.  It's extremely easy to cook up bogus criteria like this, filled with confirmation bias, all day on your couch."

Misreadings here are legion. 

As is his want, Ferguson here accuses me of committing the scholarly sin of which he himself seems almost constantly guilty.   His criteria comparing the gospels to ancient works of Greek history really do appear ad hoc, and have little to do with either genre or genuinely historical issues, in most cases.  Simplicity of language is not relevant to whether a work intends to relate history.  Neither is the supposed education level of the audience.  Ferguson does not seem to have formulated his criteria before he looked at the works he wanted to compare to the gospels.  If he did, let's see the prior writing in which he lists those criteria already.  And I doubt even more seriously that he came up with his "criteria" for comparing The Contest of Hesiod and Homer to the gospels, beforehand.  

But if he had read my argument carefully, he should know his critique of my analysis is demonstrably false. 

His primary accusation is that I "cooked up" some "bogus criteria" to present the gospels as quite different from The Contest.  That implies that I read The Contest first, and only having done so, formulated ("cooked up") a set of criteria explicitly designed to prove my point ("confirmation bias"). 

But in fact, I never read The Contest until last year, after I saw Ferguson's analysis of the work.

The criteria I used to compare the two sets of texts almost all appeared in my 2005 book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.   I extracted more than two dozen criteria which touch on the historicity of each work, out of 50 total criteria.  The other criteria I use to compare the gospels to The Contest are commonly used by scholars like John Crossan, Bart Erhman, N. T. Wright, and Tim and Lydia McGrew. 

So clearly I did not "cook up bogus criteria . . . filled with confirmation bias" to prove Ferguson's comparison was wrong.  That is one of many advantages my criteria enjoy over Ferguson's, and those used by Ehrman, Carrier, and other skeptics.  My criteria were mostly selected before I began analyzing other works. 

In addition, contrary to Ferguson's claims, the criteria I use are far more detailed, central, and relevant to historicity than most of those on Ferguson's ad hoc and much shorter list.  The first of my 32 criteria, for instance, is the fact that The Contest, unlike at least three of the gospels, doesn't even claim to be historical!  The second is the fact that The Contest was written hundreds of years after the alleged events it pretends to relate -- vastly further in time from the lives it tells about than are the gospels from Jesus' life. 

What kind of historical analysis would fail to take such basic points of contrast as those into account?  The kind Matthew Ferguson prefers, it seems.  For he compares The Contest FAVORABLY to the gospels for historicity, without so much as mentioning either than Contest does not even claim historicity, or that it was written centuries, not decades, after the alleged facts!   Not to mention most of the 30 other often mostly very important points of comparison I bring up. 

What kind of objective scholarly analysis is that? 

Nor (a third gross misrepresentation) was my argument anything like "Jesus did this, Baal Shem Tov didn't."  This sort of caricature again demonstrates extremely poor reading skills, or a fundamental intellectual laziness -- at least when Ferguson is faced with arguments leading to a conclusion that trouble him. 

On the contrary, I began by describing what is actually IN the biography of the Besht, which is just as damning as what it lacks.  (Such as the conversation with the 500 year old reincarnated frog.)  Then I briefly discuss my dozens of criteria (which I will discuss in more detail in the new book), including such traditional criteria as Multiple Attestation, Embarrassment, and Coherence, along with NT Wright's Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity, and the McGrew's Undersigned Coincidences.  These are neither ad hoc nor in any sense marginal to the more important issue I, and Ferguson, are discussing -- historicity.  I also discuss central features of the texts that bare on historicity involving setting, characterization, literary style, moral teaching, social qualities, and the varying nature of miracles in the two sets of biography. 

I do not like to use the word "lie" if I can avoid it.   Ferguson's misrepresentations are grotesque.  But let us fall again back on my theory, which Ferguson's outlandish claim that I wished him to harm himself also supports.  Scholar though Ferguson may be, having learned much of the vocabulary and grammar of at least three ancient languages, Matthew Ferguson has yet to, it seems, fully mastered the difficult art of reading. 

There is much else wrong with Ferguson's arguments defending his case against the gospels.   But I think that should be more than enough. 

In a sense, Ferguson shows himself to be a worthy disciple of a more seasoned scholar like Hector Avalos.   He makes much of his language study, he cites texts and makes distinctions and, in general, has the scholarly style down pretty fluently.  (Unlike, for instance, Raphael Lataster, another hard-core atheist working on his PhD, who has also entered the lines of public discourse over atheism and Christianity.)   But unfortunately, Matthew Ferguson does not read accurately, does not faithfully reproduce opposing arguments, and tends to miss what is most critically important about the texts he claims to be carefully analyzing. 

In my next post on this, ignoring any further personal response from Ferguson or allies (that I wish for the plague to break out?  That I hope all atheists will catch the hiccups?), I intend to return to The Contest of Hesiod and Homer, and Ferguson's more substantive (though, as I will show, equally futile) attempts to derail the force of the powerful "forensic" argument for the gospels. 

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