Saturday, 31 January 2015

Simultaneous criteria for textual variants in the New Testament - a possible little breakthrough!

I feel slightly excited, as I consider today's post. Although I enjoy wrestling with theological questions and engaging with people's ideas about Scriptures, their assumptions and opinions, I rarely feel like I have come up with something especially new to contribute myself, until just now. The question is how to explain it clearly!

I have been engaging with textual criticism for a little bit, and the two authors, Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace, in particular. Textual criticism is quite scientific actually - it weighs up the various manuscript, historical and archaeological evidence to provide probabilities of textual change direction. This requires us to understand the indisputable claim that there are hundreds of thousands of differences between the extant (existing/found) manuscripts. That is not nearly as bad as it sounds - the slightest difference between any one of the thousands of manuscripts relative to any one other manuscript (e.g. a variant spelling) constitutes a difference.

Actually, of the most significant type of variants in the manuscripts, we can identify a top 7, which include texts like the woman caught in adultery, the long ending of Mark, and an omission in Matthew 24 "nor the son" during the Olivet Discourse and knowledge of the day and hour of the coming of the Son of Man.

It is argued convincingly by Wallace, along with Gordon Fee and Philip Miller and Matthew Morgan and Adam Messer and Tim Ricchuiti and Brian Wright, that Bart Ehrman applies a too systematic and overarching criterion of orthodox corruption of significant variant passages. The person agreeing with Ehrman is basically saying: scribes changed the wording to align it better with the orthodox belief of the time.

As it turns out, Bart Ehrman is so confident of his views, unfortunately, that he does not take the time to properly answer these serious purported flaws in his methodology (see his blog post here).

My basic idea is the following, and is unique, as far as I can tell in their debate, particularly with regard to the variant in Matthew. I believe that it is highly possible for more than one factor to be acting at the same time on a scribe. Whether or not you want to call this multiple causes or multiple factors resulting in a single cause is inconsequential.  What it does do is place this view, and as far as I know, in disagreement with both Wallace and Ehrman (thank goodness I don't know them personally, they would have my guts for garters!) Let me unpack it, as so far I am being vague.

In Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, on page 36, Wallace states [his italics]: "One cannot have it both ways; there cannot be wild copying by untrained scribes and a proto-orthodox conspiracy simultaneously producing the same variants. Conspiracy implies control, and wild copying is anything but controlled". I basically disagree with Wallace's thesis, although I need to untangle it first. Wallace is zooming in on an observation that Ehrman makes, that copying seems to be less careful the further back you go (I have not yet come across his use of "wild"). On the surface, Wallace's argument quoted above sounds pretty solid, but unfortunately, he subtly and probably unconsciously uses that premise to draw the reader into a false dichotomy that permeates significant portions of the book. I certainly missed it until I re-read his opening chapter "Lost in Transmission" today, and cross-referencing it with Miller in the subsequent chapter discussing the variant in Hebrews 2:9 (p79) and the discussions surrounding Matthew 24:36.

This verse either states that Jesus' death was by the grace of God, or apart from God. Miller correctly points out, as Ehrman should have noted, the very high similarity between the majuscule of the two words in Greek. He rightly notes that it is plausible that the copyist made a mistake and changed it to "apart" from God. What if Ehrman, though, is right, along with the (admittedly fewer) manuscripts? Can he argue uniquely the existence of the "grace" manuscripts based on orthodox corruption? Given the extreme similarity of the words, the answer has to be "no". Given the definite existence of orthodox corruptions, could we rule out the influence of theological commitments? Again, the answer is "no". The point is that Wallace's textual approach (and possibly Ehrman, although I am not so sure) seems to be based on the need to find a single criterion. What is needed here is to invite in new fields of research, notably psychology.

Some fields of psychology attempt to work on the unconscious parts of our minds, which is generally widely affirmed to highly affect our actions and responses. Sigmund Freud was obviously a classic example. For him, it was the unconscious repressed desires of childhood that governed our behaviour. But the area of unconsciousness is now understood to be much wider and more complex than that. Where this interests us is in the area of theological commitment. We all know that theological commitment is an area people feel so strongly about, and it is because it affects our various social groups and helps define our identity. That is some serious unconscious "welly". So why would a scribe, a human, flawed, theologically committed scribe not be doubly affected, both by his brain confusing two very similar words and also by what he would prefer it to say?

I feel so sure that this is significant, because it seems to me it could help us better explain how orthodox corruption might occur, while doing away with any unnecessary pressure to assume that everything was conscious, thus contributing to a rather untenable position that looks conspiratorial.

To conclude, I critique Wallace's methodology to be underpinned by an unspoken mutual exclusivity of criteria - it is far from obvious that this is necessary. I.e. - In the example of Hebrews 2:9 (although John 1:18 would have been a better example), both Wallace and Ehrman can be correct about their hypotheses of causation. It requires further investigation and particularly bringing in specialist psychological research.

Wallace is clear that more than one simultaneous factor is not possible. I am not so sure for Ehrman, and will attempt to find out on his blog in the forum area.

So how migh Ehrman respond? In order of probability from what I have seen of him thus far:
1. Probably not at all - heck, even Wallace is small fry for him!
2. Very short response, dismissive, sticking to his initial guns: it is all about the orthodoxy... kinda (unfortunately, this response will invite a quote from him about how other considerations need to be examined first)
3. Positive, curious, discussion-opener.

How might Wallace respond?
- I have no idea how to interact with Wallace. He seems like an open-minded kind of guy though, so if I ever do get through, I would expect some careful reconsideration of his exclusive view.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

There is garbage out there .... but how much?

There are two points of this post:
1. There is Christian junk out there, seriously stinky.
2. We are okay with scrutinising the Bible, but not the lenses.

Sadly, I just discovered this, which is sad, but I would say almost certainly symptomatic of other unconfessed elaborations. This is definitely not shining like stars among the warped and crooked as children of God, this is simply being warped and crooked generation. (Phil 2:15)". So the boy who came back from Heaven", did not go anywhere. He made it all up, and admits it, the dying, heaven, meeting Jesus, the Devil, being raised back to life... It casts doubt, of course, on other similar stories (which may of course be true). One thing is definite, they sell loads of copies, because people are desperate for the details of what happens next.

But there is also a quote from the teenager, now 16, who has made the confession. It is very simple and reminds me of my own quest. Never thought I would quote a sixteen year-old on here, but there we go!

"I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible."

"The Bible ... is enough... the only source of truth". Sounds like this young guy found God, who could be redeeming for himself something here.

There are so many Christians out there who basically, although sometimes extremely loosely, hold to a Nicene form of trinitarianism (and one key feature of this blog journey has been to discover that there are multiple forms of trinitarianism - in fact I myself am finding myself adopting a non-Nicene form of it, more on that soon). My hypothesis - and this is based in part on my own experience, but also observation of others - is that the Nicene cornerstone of the Christian faith (is it the cornerstone?) is preached, but it goes pretty much unscrutinised. THE BIBLE gets more scrutiny than Nicea, it is respectfully exegeted by believers, seeking to both determine true and original meaning while simultaneously careful to ensure the interpretation does not stray from other parts of Scripture. But not Nicea. That is because Nicea - and a whole procession of creeds, canons and councils to follow, that have to follow to try to clean up the mess made - are lenses through which we read scripture. We do not read the lenses.

We look at the Bible, we look through the creeds. Since the Bible reveals who God is, I am arguing that the lenses are seriously worth checking out if we are serious about knowing the guy[s] we are looking at. My grandmother at the end of her life lost nearly all of her sight. However, as it turns out, a certain tint of yellow lens helped her see contrasts better. She needed a lens, it was not like she could see without it. But the lens makes everything yellowish, and that is key information also. She knew that she couldn't argue that the tree really is yellow because she knew about her lens, its usefulness and its limits.

The creeds hold unbelievable and unidentified influence over us Christians today. Rant over - for now!

Monday, 19 January 2015

The over-importance of "he" in John 1:2

Some folk stress huge importance here of "he" rather than "the one" (see KJV and others), it is described as a "correction" for John 1:2. They probably should not stake so much on this tweak in my view. Four points should be born in mind:

1. Of course the pre-existance of Jesus feels much more real with a "he", but the KJV hardly inspired a generation of unitarian theology because of its "this one" back in the early 16th century.

2. Unitarians do not have an issue with poetic personification. Their clearest example of this, they would say, is found in the feminine personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8. Yes she really is a she!

3. The word translated as "he", Οὗτος, is - I do not think it can be disputed - most commonly translated this or this one. Since it can also be translated "it", and "she", as well as "he", we still need to be careful not to overstate the pre-existent (male) Jesus.

4. Of the four tranlsations I checked in French, all state "elle" [she] and not "il" [he], because the Greek is so clearly referring to the LOGOS, which in French is the feminine word Parole.

My conclusion is that the "he" emphasis is a clear overstatement in English that both the Greek and the French bring us back to the author's intention, to restate the one in question is the word.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Bart Ehrman blogs on the back foot to my email

As you may have realised from previous posts, I am going through Daniel Wallace's interesting book Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament. Actually, the full title is worth noting ...Testament: manuscript, patristic, and apocryphal evidence.

Bart Ehrman is central to every chapter of this book, which is a response to his much earlier work: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. If I had to summarise what I understand the basic point of this book to be, it would be that the corruptions that took place need to be weighed without bias between the various criteria available in order to come up with sound hypotheses to the reasons motivating the changes, and placed within a wider context of overall reliability.

I need page references for this so I apologise, but Bart is quoted as recognising that the criterion of orthodoxy needed to be a secondary issue and not a primary one, while seems to be shown to making the orthodoxy criterion not only a primary criterion, but almost like some kind of supreme cause for manuscript miscopying. I already believe this to be an overstatement because when I consider the criterion applied by Bart of "embarrassment", it is difficult to see that as being a strict issue of orthodoxy. That said, the discussions in the book around Matthew 24:36 do indeed seem to reveal some possible bias from Bart.

I do not know Bart Ehrman. I neither like him, nor dislike him. For a very interesting discussion on para-social relationships, I would direct anyone interested to the Liturgists podcast episode 10, which deals effectively with the work-identity separation, which I think Bart should hear because he has taken this the wrong way (i.e. personally), which seems confirmed by the very title of his blog post hyper-linked below. By the way, for reference, I am also a "thin-skinned" individual, and I thought it was good and very open for Bart to acknowledge this aspect of his character.

So in reverse order:

1. Bart Ehrman's response (obviously I cannot prove that it was in response to my email, but I will leave that to you to judge). I leave a comment there and a link to this post. The comment will essentially be a brief reference to the value of dialogue between scholars and the potential for progress in our understanding.

2. My 2nd email:

Before I worry too much about which side of the intelligence fence I sit, I think I might put this question out to the members forum for their views to see if I can get a bit more discussion going on this. There's something missing here. 

I also note that this may have been written in the night which may have affected your tone, as I am sure you are not usually so dismissive of Wallace's credentials!

Have a good day.

3. Bart's initial response:
No, I haven’t responded.  I think anyone with intelligence can read what I have to say and what they have to say to figure out who has the better argument!

4. My 1st email: Dear Bart, thanks for all your hard work and commitment to this blog, I do find it informative and have just become a member.

I am wondering if there is somewhere here or perhaps in print that you have responded to Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Wallace and co.), and in particular the allegations of the criterion of orthodoxy?
....[technical issue]
Many thanks,

NB I note that I made have also harmed this discussion by using the word "allegations", which was a much too loaded word. Sorry for that, Bart, if you ever read this!

Friday, 9 January 2015

Death threats: John 8:59

This post completes the summary of Trinities episode 66 that I wrote here. Here, Tuggy is convincing in showing that while death threats is a possible consequence of blasphemous association with the divine identity of the unpronounceable Yahweh, you cannot reasonably argue for it to be the only possible reason, and this can be proven from other instances in Jesus' own life. The verse in question immediately follows the verse we have been focussing on, and is from John 8:59:

(58) Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am." (59) Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.

So here's a couple of notes:
Patrick Navas: To us, this is a strange verb construction: Before X [past tense], Y [present tense]. Not strange to Greeks. Idiomatic. Meaning: Began in the past and is still continuing. But not so startling that he can "only" be making a claim to divine eternal or timeless existence. Belcham: the meaning concerns the past, even though it is still true today, Jesus is still the Messiah.

Navas comments on the angry reaction of the Jews. Some say that he is claiming to be God himself or a divine attribute that only God has. Navas points out there have been harsh words exchanged on both sides. There is a growing sense of offence, and this is the "straw that broke the camel's back". People had already tried to kill him - because he had claimed to be God? No. He had claimed in the synagogue that the messianic prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled in their hearing. Conclusion: other things are sufficient to get yourself killed, like falsely claiming to be God's Messiah and insulting the religious establishment [me: note the trouble this got the Wycliffe follower, Jan Hus, into in the 15th century]. See also: healing on the sabbath (Mark 3:6) and speaking of God's love for the gentiles (Luke 4:29).

This interpretation cuts across unitarian and trinitarian lines. Some unitarians believe or at least hold open the possibility that Jesus is claiming to have existed before Abraham, for Tertullian and Origin that's the point of it, affirms Tuggy. Agreement that you could agree with John and basically exist long before (or eternally before) you were born. Again, modern-day trinitarians might take this the same way, and just try to prove the divinity of Christ or that Jesus is one of the Trinity by many other passages. "You could say that the interpretation that Dr Smith, Belcham etc share with me [Tuggy] is deflationary, less exciting, what it is, is that it is less metaphysical. He is not making a point about his own essence or nature or the mode of his existance or his relationship to time, rather he is speaking in a common Jewish idiom wherein very important people or events or things are described as having always existed with God, they can be described as real in the past or present even if they are still only going to come about in the future, and Smith and Belcham gave many examples of this from Scripture".

Perhaps I should have a separate post on my final views on this verse, but you can probably tell which way I am now headed, and it is a similar direction as to most of the trinitarian passages I have been spood-fed in the past. A bientôt!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

John 8:58, Dale Tuggy takes on my questions on John 8 (iii)

Dale Tuggy has examined on his Trinities podcast the question of pre-existence, before looking at various scholars' responses to John 8:58, especially that of Thomas Belsham in episode 63. This prompted me to ask a question about when the current interpretation came about, and this "got me started on a quest", says Tuggy. He thus commits his 66th episode to probing the implied connections we often hear surrounding readings of John 8:58 from the pulpit and in popular Christian literature. This also follows on from two other posts on my blog, part 1 and part 2. Here is part 3, sorry it is a bit long and notey. There will also be a small extra post on the John 8:59, which was mentioned at the end of the podcast, and I feel less related to my original question, but still worth a separate mention.

What I found really insightful was the picture Tuggy sketched of the "Logos theologians" (2nd-3rd centuries, pre-Nicea) and the way he interacts with the next question of listener, "Sarah", when she quotes an interesting passage in Justin Martyr's writings (First Apology), recounting the Son of God speaking on God's behalf, as both "an angel and an apostle": an angel of God spake to Moses. the son of God, who is called both angel and apostle. After this, Irenaeus focuses in on the question of Jesus' pre-existence, and does use John 8:58 to emphasise this point.

Reminder: Dr Dustin Smith showed how it was ancient Jewish custom to talk about future events in the past tense that are determined in the mind and heart of God. We are also reminded that we all know this and apply this rule almost unconsciously to the Old Testament prophecies, e.g. He WAS PIERCED for our transgressions.

The logos theory came first. It was quite controversial. "Of course, this is not what the gospel of John is saying at all, there is no direct interaction between Jesus and Abraham recorded there", says Tuggy.
God now (in the 2nd and 3rd centuries) is seen to interact with creation through a go-between, none other than the Logos in John 1, a "pre-human" Jesus. Philo of Alexandria had a very transcendent view of God, and had clear platonic views. In the Scriptures that describe "god" being seen, these sightings had to be Jesus, as no-one can see God and live. So the Logos theologians were responsible for developing a theology first of indirect interaction of the transcendent God through his pre-existent son. (me: Remember how important Proverbs 8 was as a proof-text for the pro-Nicene movement, but which includes in v21: The LORD possessed/fathered/created me [wisdom] at the beginning of his work(s) - some of the Logos theologians seem to take this to mean Jesus was created first, but still a very long time ago).

So Irenaeus, Origen, and others begin to refer to this verse as support for the pre-existence of Christ. But the interesting point is what they are attempting to draw from this verse. Is it the twofold argument of both Jesus pre-existing and Jesus simply is Yahweh, doing "I AM" wordplay? (remember, we are not assuming that John himself intended any of this, although I suspect Bart Ehrman might disagree - since he claims very different christologies between the gospel writers)

1. I am God myself.
2. I have a timeless existence, a divine attribute, implying that I am god myself
3. I am implying that I have existed a long time, since before Abraham.

Novation is another early theologian, from the mid 200s, and he examined the idea of immortality for men, deification of man from Christ (not even "via"). When he refers to John 8:58 he is definitely affirming that Christ pre-existed, but he implies more than that, providing early arguments for Christ's two natures.
In fact, quite a lot of what he says sounds a bit like he is Trinitarian, but when you get to the end of Novatian's work, you realise that still, the one true God is the Father. For him, however, Jesus was
i) foreknown and
ii) divine and
iii) has two natures.

I gather from Dale that Novation was writing in Latin, and Latin apparently does not have or did not have the word "the", hence the ambiguity around "deus" (God/divine).

(Here I think Dale makes a bit of a mistake, though, or at least I am not at all sure he can so casually state comprehensible use of the definite article in Koine Greek. I hope one day to blog on this serious textual problem!)

Surprising omissions for such a "clear" text: The Arian controversy makes no reference to John 8:58, nor does Augustin On the Trinity, or the City of God, nor does Hansen's Search for the Christian doctrine of God, the best history resource of the Nicene controversy.

Finally finds a text from a 7th century forgery claiming to be written by Matthew, but that is a bit of a half-funny aside that Dale includes.

John Calvin's commentary, based on Chrisostoms Homily 55 (AD 355 - 4??). Like Novation, it attempts to prove that Jesus is divine and has eternal existence, two natures.

Augustin, bishop of Hippo: Before Abraham, I am - not "was". "Was" and "will be" he knows not. "From eternity begotten". "This his name he told to Moses, You shall say to them he that IS has sent me to you." Augustin is a clear Trinitarian, on the heels of Nicea.

Dale's conclusion: So clearly by the early 400s, when Augustin is making his comments about John and 1st John, from that time on it's part of catholic tradition to see Jesus not merely alluding to the statement of God to Moses, but really asserting that he has eternal existence and thereby asserting that he is fully divine. Is this a discovery?

For Dale this is a classic case of Eisegesis, reading into it what you want to find there rather than drawing out what is actually there, expounding what the author actually meant.

The last part of this podcast I felt strayed back to more contemporary analysis that would with retrospect be better placed, perhaps, in the Belcham episode 63, but it is relevant to our interpretations of John 8:59. Let's look at that quickly in the next post.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Ehrman on Mary

Ehrman does a wonderful and, for me, helpful summary here on Mary, which is a topic I now realise we have really misunderstood in the Protestant tradition (see also its bearings on the creeds in an earlier blog post I wrote).
Please note I do not really agree with his analysis of Mark implicitly arguing against the virgin birth: I have read this post also and the argument seems far from sound.
His summary of the summary (click link for his more detailed post):
am now ready to end this thread of posts dealing with the stories of Jesus’ virgin birth – told differently in Matthew and Luke, not at all in John, and seemingly argued against in the Gospel of Mark. Earlier I should have given some terminology so that we could all be on the sam page.There are different terms that are often confused: Immaculate Conception. This doctrine is *not* about Jesus’ mother conceiving as a virgin; it is about Mary’s *own* mother and how she conceived Mary.

Published: 03/01/2015 16:07:32 * Post Link: * Feed: Christianity in Antiquity (CIA): The Bart Ehrman Blog (

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Impoverished (1)

A recent challenge laid at the feet of Unitarian theology by my good friend D. was most strangely timed: I had been considering this exact argument before seeing him yesterday! Part of his reaction, as he himself states, is connected with a couple of Trinities episodes (61 and 62) that he found very difficult to listen to. These are on the theme of pre-existence with Dustin Smith, and he really senses that the discussion with Dale Tuggy was "twisting" Scripture. 

He also points out just how dry and flat Dale Tuggy appears on the podcast, and I think he meant lifeless. My friends in Marseille are crying out for where's the life? What's the real alternative? D. insists it is not because of Dale's analytical approach - he compares him to "Science Mike" from the Liturgists. Science Mike de-constructs everything and analyses it, but yet he is very personal and you can sense that personal application and spiritual life
The basic logic to the argument seems to be (although I should check with D and possibly update this post accordingly)

1. Truth is known by its fruit.
2. All Christian fruit (I think D means here good works but also spiritual life and transformation) has come from a Nicene-trinitarian foundation.
3. Unitarian tradition has no fruit and is ultimately stale and lifeless discussion.
4. Since 1, 2, and 3 are true, unitarian belief is false and leads to spiritual death.
I have considered this for a bit, and I am basically not comfortable with either the conclusion here or the way the premises are worked. I will explain my issues with this thinking in a part 2 of this post ("Impoverished (2)). But first, what's with the "Impoverished" title? Where I completely agree, is that unitarianism - God is one not three - relative to the trinitarian tradition, this unitarianism is not just weak in terms of spiritual life and "fruit" : it is IMPOVERISHED.

But absolutely no way does impoverished necessarily mean misleading or wrong.