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New Testament interpretation in the real world

New Testament scholars are particularly prone to ivory tower disease. A symptom of this disease is that one interprets one's subject matter texts (in this case, the books of the New Testament) without any reference to the ways in which people behave in the real world. This leads to a preference for convoluted redactive, literary theories over far more probable theories such as, "This author had additional information" or "This author remembered the wording at this point slightly differently from the other author," or "This author was not attempting to give an explicit chronology but was just relating events that happened at around the same time," and so forth. Recently I have been realizing that some Roman historians have ivory tower disease as well--a subject on which I will have a lot more to say in later posts.

Ivory tower disease leads to a lot of silly statements, and for some reason John the Evangelist comes in for many of the worst of these. For example, here is the influential classicist (who also does New Testament studies) Richard Burridge throwing John under the bus as an accurate reporter and doing so by way of dubious generalizations about ancient people and the concept of truth:

We must not transfer these modern concepts to ancient texts without considering their understandings of truth and myth, lies and fiction. To modern minds, 'myth' means something untrue, a 'fairy-story'; in the ancient world, myth was the medium whereby profound truth, more truly true than mere facts could ever be, was communicated. The opposite of truth is not fiction, but lies and deception; yet even history can be used to deceive, while stories can bring truth. This issue of truth and fiction in the ancient world is too complex to cover in detail here. However, the most important point to remember is that the ancients were more interested in the moral worth and philosophical value of statements than their logical status, in truth more than facts....Unfortunately, the debate between so-called 'conservatives' and 'liberals' about authenticity is often conducted in twenty-first-century terms. As one student asked me, 'Why does John keep fabricating material about Jesus despite his expressed concern for the "truth"?' However, the negative connotation of 'fabrication' is modern. Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading, pp. 169-170

I say, without qualification, that this is all nonsense and that we have no evidence whatsoever that John thought this way. Richard Burridge may think this way, but we have abundant evidence that John the Evangelist had no such weaselly, semi-post-modern notions to the effect that garden-variety facts are dispensable in the service of higher truth. Yet one runs across these sorts of mealy-mouthed, sweeping generalizations about "ancient people," the Gospel authors, and often John in particular, far too often.

I'm also struck by how pernicious this is. What this quotation tells us is that Richard Burridge is out there teaching his students that John "keeps fabricating material about Jesus" but that this is okay because he didn't have our modern hangups. He's also trying to inoculate his students against a straightforward interpretation of John's earnest affirmations that he's speaking the truth. Which, quite frankly, is outrageous.

Burridge's previous chapter in this book is about John, and I want to go back to that chapter and just pick one example that is all too typical of the difficulty scholars seem to have with the real world. When describing the Last Supper as told in John, Burridge says this:

Two other figures at the Last Supper attract our attention. Peter was brought to Jesus by his brother, rather than being called directly, and Jesus renames him immediately, rather than after his confession (cp. 1:42 with Matt. 16.18). (p. 157)

In case you aren't following that, Burridge is insinuating that these are instances where John, without any actual warrant in those pesky, non-fictional facts, changed things up a bit in order to, I dunno, make some higher-level point. Whatever that might be.

The first fictional alteration is supposed to be that Peter is called first directly by Jesus in the synoptics (e.g., Mark 1:16ff) but that, supposedly in contrast, Peter is brought to Jesus by his brother Andrew first in John 1:40-42. The second is supposed to be that Jesus gives Simon Bar-Jonah the nickname "Peter" for the first time (!) in Matthew 16:18 after Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but does so for the first time when he first meets him upon their introduction by Andrew in John 1:42.

As to the first of these, I won't go on at length. Hint: Despite all the Sunday school stories you heard and what they implied or stated, the synoptics never say that Jesus had never met Peter and Andrew prior to the famous "Follow me" scene. Indeed, their readiness to follow him may be well explained by the fact that they had already known him for some time through the early Judean ministry recorded in John.

It's the second I want to say more about. I was inspired by it to feel that Richard Burridge, though for all I know he may be a very nice guy, doesn't seem to have ever known anyone with a nickname, given anyone a nickname, or lived with anyone who has a nickname. Has he never had a child with a nickname? A good friend?

Why in the world, in the name of the real world, would Burridge assume that Jesus' statement in Matthew 16:18 is the first time that Jesus has mentioned this nickname to Simon the son of Jonah? Here is the passage:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. Matthew 16:13-18

I'm quite happy to acknowledge the obvious fact that this is much later in Jesus' ministry than the instance in John 1:42, which occurs when Jesus is in Judea apparently after having been baptized by John and (most probably) after his temptation in the wilderness, before his first Galilean ministry. Here is how that passage goes:

One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (John 1:40-42)

This is, quite plausibly, the first time that Jesus dubbed Simon Bar-Jonah with the nickname "Cephas" and/or "Peter."

But there is not the remotest indication in Matthew 16 that that was the first time Jesus gave such a nickname to Simon. As a matter of fact, Matthew calls him "Peter" repeatedly earlier in that Gospel! It isn't impossible that Matthew would have called him that at points in the narrative voice even before the dubbing actually took place, but it is surely some indication, and a much stronger indication than Burridge's unargued assumption that Matthew 16:18 is, according to Matthew, the first time Jesus gave him that name!

There is clearly some sort of pun on the word "rock" going on in the Matthew passage, and Protestants and Catholics regularly duke it out over what the "rock" was upon which Jesus would build his church. Whatever one concludes about that, it's undeniable that Jesus is making a play of some sort on the nickname "Petros" and the word "rock." Which leads me again to ask: Has Burridge never had a dear friend with a nickname? Has he no idea how natural it is, in a happy company of friends or in a close-knit family, to bring up the nickname repeatedly, to use it, to make elaborate puns with it, to make jokes about it, even to drag it in quite unnecessarily?

Certainly there is something quite deliberate about Jesus' words to Peter here, something rather formal. He does indeed start out with his original name--Simon bar-Jonah--and then says, "You are Peter." Fine and dandy. But why take that to mean that this is the first, original dubbing? This is the kind of thing people say. Mothers and fathers, in particular, love giving their children their full, formal names and then making a transition to a nickname. "Simon bar-Jonah, you're the (small) Rock, and upon this (big) Rock I will build my church." Etc. We can argue all day about what Jesus meant, but there is nothing in his formally using "Simon bar-Jonah" and then bringing in "Petros" and telling Peter pointedly that that is his name that requires us to think that this was the first dubbing with "Peter." And evidence to the contrary: The narrative in Matthew and, y'know, John. Because John's narrative is evidence that the initial dubbing took place earlier, and if one is not befuddled by Ivory Tower Syndrome one makes the natural move of quite easily bringing together the two narratives and concluding that Jesus first dubbed Simon bar-Jonah as "Peter" early on, upon their first meeting, and that he brought the nickname back up in a deliberate fashion upon the occasion of Peter's solemn affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. One gets confused about this only if one is looking under every rock (pun intended) for lame excuses to conclude that John, not being burdened with our modern notions of factual accuracy, made up an earlier dubbing for vague literary or theological reasons. Or, if one happens to feel like throwing Matthew under the bus that day, that Matthew made up a later dubbing. Or heck, maybe they both made up both scenes and we have no idea when or whether Simon bar-Jonah was dubbed "Peter." Because after all, "the negative connotation of 'fabrication' is modern."

This is just one tiny sample of what you will encounter all day long if you read much New Testament scholarship. And this is a pretty good example of how poor the arguments are. So next time someone, using his "expert credentials," tells you all about those ancient guys and their higher views of truth and how that freed them from attempting boring old factual accuracy, bear this example in mind, and question the meme.

Burridge, by the way, is having quite a bump of influence among evangelicals right now. I suggest that this sort of thing should make us seriously question his hermeneutical and historical judgement. Having an imagination infused with common sense, based on everyday knowledge of the real world, should be a prerequisite for being a highly respected expert on what the disciples and Jesus did and said...in the real world.

Comments (21)

It is virtually impossible to imagine 13 men (plus others moving in and out) living in tight proximity for 3 years and not have had some nicknames. Most of the nicknames would have been generated by the apostles and other disciples themselves, (because there are more of them), but any nickname given directly by Jesus would have stood out with more gravitas just because it came from him. If Peter's is the only one that came from Jesus, then all the more so would it stand out. (The "sons of thunder" nickname more than likely had already been attached to those brothers before they joined Jesus, or at least that's my impression, but I could be wrong.)

Speaking as a Catholic, I find it more internally sensible to reflect on Jesus giving Simon his nickname right at the first (as in John), but without clearly explaining why, and then the Matt 16 event being the "why" for his earlier naming. (It is a particularly authoritative behavior to name something, and it is part of what we are supposed to notice when God renames Abram as Abraham: He is staking a claim of authority over him in some sense.) That doesn't mean that it happened that way, but that's OK, with Lydia I always take the fact that an eye witness claimed it happened as evidence that it happened.

(The "sons of thunder" nickname more than likely had already been attached to those brothers before they joined Jesus, or at least that's my impression, but I could be wrong.)

Mark 3:17 says that Jesus gave them that name. Mark 3:16 says that Jesus gave Simon the name Peter.

I discovered an interesting textual variant last night that I'd never known about. In John 6 Jesus asks the twelve if they will also cease following him. Peter says, "Lord, to whom shall we go" and goes on to say, "We believe that you are the holy one of God." I had memorized this from childhood in the King James as "You are the Christ, the son of the living God," identical to Peter's confession in Matthew 16. The textual scholars seem pretty confident that "the holy one of God" was earlier and probably original. (The Douay goes with the majority text and gives "The Christ, the Son of God.") These may have been completely separate confessions by Peter, and the interesting question arises--which happened first? They are both recorded as occurring (very generally) *around* the same time in Jesus' ministry. One would most naturally (though defeasibly) take "the holy one of God" to have been uttered in Capernaum not long after the feeding of the five thousand and the Matthew 16 affirmation that he is "the Christ, the son of God" to have been uttered somewhat later after the feeding of the four thousand, when Jesus was northeast near Caesarea Philippi, but they could have occurred in the opposite order, if we don't assume that everything in John 6 happened *very* close together in time.

Lydia what would your reply be to the claim that you are being idiosyncratic when thinking about how first century history was written?

I'm not even sure what that would mean. There's nothing "idiosyncratic" about reading the books as prima facie historical documents, which is what they present themselves as being. When one possesses such documents, it's actually strained interpretation to *construct* conflicts where no conflict needs to exist. The incident discussed in the main post is one where no conflict needs to exist. Burridge is straining to create one. It's not like we have evidence of some kind of special 1st century custom (!) of never using a nickname more than once!

But I think what you mean is this: What if someone just asserted the sort of amorphous mental fog that Burridge asserts and then, without argument, accused *me* of being anachronistic for denying this amorphous mental fog?

And I will tell you what I would answer such a person:

Prove it.

Show me.

Don't just assert this never-ending, oft-repeated, semi-pomo MEME that says that, "Oh, the ancients thought so diffffferently than we do. They believed in TRRRRRRUUUUUTH which was different than [spits contemptuously] mere fact."

Give me the evidence.

Show me the data.

Because I'll tell you what: I have just recently been going through hours. and hours. and hours of work that involved checking up on supposed instances of such changes occasioned by this extremely different view of truth possessed by the ancient historians. And they are all cr*p. Every. Single. One.

This is in *secular* history, mind you. Not just the gospels. We're talking about Roman history.

The vast majority are harmonizable by the sheerest common sense with scarcely any effort. One just has to stop reading in this incredibly rigid fashion that scholars have that involves a kind of mental crick in the neck--e.g., assuming that narrative order *even without any notes of time*, must be chronological order. Just give up your incredible rigidity and read like a normal human being. Ironically, the real anachronism *there* is that older writers were somewhat less inclined than we are to use sheer narrative order to indicate chronological order, but the rigid scholars trying to defend the "ancients have a different view of truth" thesis will be *extremely* anachronistic in their assumption of chronological order. The remaining few (and they are few) are readily explicable, *if* they include contradictions at all, as simple error, change of mind, gaining new evidence, and the like. *At the most*, it might turn out that some of these stories in secular history involved garden variety propaganda or carelessness, playing fast and loose with truth, which the audience would, for all we can tell to the contrary, be just as annoyed by as we are bugged by "fake news." Not a single one requires or gives us reason to believe in anything like a sweeping "different view of truth" by historians in a "different time period." This whole "1st century people had a different view of truth" thing is, it turns out, just a sexy-sounding but unsupported scholarly talking point being foisted on the laymen.

And I will stand on that.

It seems to me that it is the moderns, or post-moderns or whatever they call themselves, who have the problem of reconciling truth and facts. It is they who tell us with a straight face that two of the same sex can 'marry'; that a man can simply declare himself a woman and it is so and that anyone who might not agree is merely blinded by his bigotry; that a baby in the womb is less than human if its mother decides this is so.

I lack any expertise in these matters and can be counted as among the most common and ignorant of readers of Scripture, but to me it comes across as reportage (with the obvious qualification of allowing for the damage done to reportage by the calumnies and untruths of our modern media). It is telling us what happened.

What astonishes me (without wanting to jump too much on commenter Joseph) is that I wrote a whole post debunking a particular claim that John changed something without regard to truthful reportage, *precisely* the sort of individual claim that is supposed to support generalizations about "1st century historians," and then I'm simply asked, as if I'd made no argument about particulars, what I would say to a claim that I don't understand how 1st century history was written! With the unstated implication (I take it) that Burridge's assertions about that might be true after all. Why is the burden of proof still just as much on me to respond to such claims when I've just debunked precisely one of the supposed supporting instances? Are we just to assume that, if someone like Burridge *says* something like that, he must have so many *good* supporting instances in his back pocket that any particular debunking never casts doubt upon the generalization? How long would that go on?

The truth of these matters is always in the particulars. One can never just accept a generalization. God and the devil are in the details.

One of the things that bothers me about the "different attitude about truth" theory is that it is patently insufficient as stated.

All peoples, everywhere, know and care about the difference between the plain, straight, flat truth, and some kind of "truth" that is curved, crooked, discontinuous, varnished, or "improved", even if all the improvements lend themselves to "Truth". The ancient Israelites had laws about perjury, and it could get a person stoned to death. The Romans took it seriously also, and they had laws about libel and slander. There is a reason the word "crook" for a thief connects with "crooked". You simply can't operate in any social environment without some kind of honoring of the plain, flat, unvarnished truth for most contexts.

Which means that the stories that did have some sort of varnishing could never have been the sum total of story-telling, and so they must ALWAYS have had a sense of the distinction between those with and those without. Just because a society tolerates fairy tales, legends, myths, and tall tales doesn't in the least imply that they don't distinguish those from the plain, flat truth. Which, come to think of it, is JUST LIKE US.

So, it really doesn't hold a lot of weight, the theory that "they had a different attitude about truth". And even if there is some limited sense in which there is a kernel of truth in it, its proclaimers must STILL argue in each individual case which type of story you have.

One of the cases I'll be discussing in a later post about Roman history concerned the historian Tacitus. In 1999 we find a particular modern Roman historian saying blithely that Tacitus changed something about a date when a trial took place but throwing in some talk like Burridge's about how Tacitus would have thought nothing about doing this since he would have thought it more important to serve a higher moral end, etc. Oddly (but I'm coming to expect this) he didn't even bother to say how moving the trial date would have served some higher moral end! And the relevant section of Tacitus just looks like ordinary reportage, not to mention that even the dating of the trial is indirect.

Anyway, this same modern historian then *changed his mind* and in 2010 was saying that Tacitus's dating of the trial was correct. Needless to say, he didn't make a big announcement. One just finds him quietly saying something later in 2010.

I found in a different book that actually it was quite a big deal in Tacitus studies to think he might have deliberately changed something like that. Contra the impression in the 1999 book, Roman historians *didn't* generally just think that Tacitus casually changed things because of a "different view of truth." They thought of him as a pretty sober reporter, at least when it came to events like that. (When it came to speeches, there may be more evidence that Tacitus was prone to compose them for his historical characters, but not just pushing around the dating of events.) But the meme just came to the (metaphoric) lips of that 1999 author so, so easily when he temporarily thought he had to invoke it!

Dont worry Lydia I don't take it personally.

I was just under the impression that it was quite well known for ancient historians to add words to people's mouths or edit their testimony to suite the audience etc. Granted this is just an impression. A kind of from the grape vine thing.

Don't get me wrong. Ancient historians (it seems to me) did intend to tell the broad facts. But the minutiae seemed acceptable to change. Didn't a few ancient historians see it acceptable to add speeches that fit tue characters in their story, for example?

I do accept that your post was a strong rebuttal to the specific example of Burridge and even that the flexibility of ancient historians can be taken too far. But surely it's still important to stress the difference between ancient and modern historians? Especially the flexibility that former had. That was my gripe with idiosyncrasy.

Actually, Polybius *complains* about historians who make up speeches. Which means that it was something some people did but was not just generally acceptable because ancient and modern are different or whatever. Unless you want to say Polybius wasn't an ancient guy. :-)

As far as I can tell, there is no *general* acceptability in ancient times of "editing the testimony to suit the audience" any more than there is now. Different authors might in fact do so, but others might chide them for it and might consider it (if it involved actual fictionalization) to be lying, just as we would be disappointed to learn that what purported to be a true memoir in fact included manufactured incidents.

As far as minutiae, what we actually find in the gospels in particular is their getting the minutiae right in ways that we can check. So apparently they intended to tell the truth on the minutiae! This is something that can be checked out, both internally (by undesigned coincidences, for example) and externally.

This should lead us to think that, when John says (e.g.) that there were six water pots at the wedding at Cana, he meant there were six waterpots. He wasn't just putting that in there as a made up minute thing because this was "acceptable in his culture." I find no evidence of that.

From my own study even of secular historians recently, I would say that my own respect for their accuracy on minutiae has grown precisely in proportion to my studying supposed examples of their inaccuracy!

In other words, I don't see any pattern there, either, of thinking it's okay to change the date or time or saying that Bill said something when it was really Tom, etc. I don't see any sharp distinction between "broad facts" and "minutiae," where the latter are generally acceptable to change.

I'm just not seeing it.

Making up speeches was a known thing, but as I say it was also griped about, so it's not like it was just generally accepted.

Interestingly, we can sometimes even confirm that the *way* that a sermon is given in Acts is accurate by, for example, the way that the Apostle Paul himself tells his own story in different ways to different audiences. This doesn't mean that Luke may not at times be partly paraphrasing, just as an historian might paraphrase today, on the basis of consulting eyewitnesses or of his own memories and/or partial notes if he was present. But it does mean that Luke does not appear to be inventing speeches to fit the characters.

It's not surprising that you've gotten the impression you've gotten. As I say, one hears it A LOT.

I'm saying that these generalizations about ancient/modern differences turn out to be largely false.

Ok Lydia. The fact that Polybius comes a century before Jesus helps in my opinion. It would have been questionable to cite a historian a century or more after as evidence for how the NT authors saw the correct way to write history. Out of interest, do we have any examples of this type in the first century? (I seem to remember Josephus apparently adding speeches and even people in different renderings of an event. But I may be mistaken).

I'll concede that undesigned coincidences is direct textual evidence for the gospels being more accurate and literal. I'll have to look into it more.

If this view concerning the flexibility of ancient historians is wrong, I hope it becomes more widely noted as it seems to be something most ancient historians are saying. As a non specialist it's hard not to take their word for it.

Out of interest, do we have any examples of this type in the first century?

Not that I have in my back pocket. However, I would refer you to this post in which I quote Colin Hemer and would, especially, direct you to this phrase of his: "Rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke's world..."


I would also point out that even an historian who invented speeches may well have been scrupulous in narrative. Tacitus appears to be a plausible example here. Please see my above comment concerning Tacitus.

To be clear, I am *not* saying that the NT authors read Polybius! I am simply saying that he is a good counterexample to the *incredibly* broad generalizations we read about a "different view of truth."

Let me also point out that an author's altering matters *does not* really do much to support this "different view of truth" concept.

Consider: Someone reads news stories in the 21st century that are biased, misleading, or even downright false and that the author should have known (and perhaps did know) were incorrect or misleading at crucial points. Does this happen? Of course it does. Does this support high-falutin' ideas that news constitutes a "genre" in which it isn't really lying to write false stories, because that is a "literary convention"? Baloney. That would be absolute baloney.

If an ancient author played fast and loose with the truth at some point, it *does not follow* that there was some vast "license" for him to do so in a "literary genre." It may well just be that he was a propagandist, careless, or unscrupulous.

At that point we need to ask what evidence we have that the gospel authors were propagandists, careless, or unscrupulous and played fast and loose with the truth.

This meme of *generally* different "concepts of truth" in the ancient world has been allowed to go on without evidence *for* it for long enough.

The burden of proof is not (I repeat, not) on me to find more and more Polybiuses! The burden of proof is on Burridge and co. to show not just that this or that person was a fictionalizer (which they often think they have shown but haven't really gotten to first base with) but that there was this "literary license" that actually made it okay in the eyes of the audience and expected practice. And then they have a burden to show that this carried over or would have carried over to the gospel authors when writing about so crucial a matter as the life of Jesus, the Son of God, a matter on which the authors repeatedly insist they are telling the truth!

This burden of proof, which comes up at stage after stage after stage, the Burridges of the world have not discharged.

I suggest to you that you start looking at it that way rather than asking me to prove a negative, asking me to prove that when John says he's speaking the truth he means, you know, the truth. Ask instead if they have supported their extremely complex claim in the first place.

Joseph, I don't know if this will make any difference to you, but I can give example after example, both in secular history and in the gospels, where claims have been made that someone changed something deliberately and where a very ordinary kind of harmonization is not only possible, but obviously the much simpler and better explanation than "so-and-so deliberately changed this event." Moreover, the next level is just a garden-variety mistake or an author's having changed his mind or having received additional information.

These are precisely the examples that are supposed to show this "different view of truth."

Am I saying that I could never be convinced that an author deliberately altered something from factual to non-factual or fictionalized? No, I'm not saying that. But at that point, the question of "license in a literary genre" would become acute, wouldn't it? As opposed to just being unscrupulous about factual accuracy.

In other words, this stuff is rebuttable, and I intend to write more posts on the subject.

But I get this odd feeling, I don't know quite how to put a finger on it, but it's something to the effect that I could do all of this and you would still be looking for something else. I'm not quite sure what. Perhaps a trophy in the form of an official Roman historian who changed his mind on the subject? For me to have a credential I don't have, never mind my concrete arguments? I'm not really sure, and I don't want to misjudge you, but I really think you should be a little more struck by the incredible *weakness* of the examples given by Burridge himself (you know, one of those credentialed guys who seems to have impressed you quite a bit) which I discussed in the main post. If he can serve up such weak sauce, showing such poor judgement and such unwillingness to engage in the *simplest and easiest* harmonization, to support his extremely strong generalization, shouldn't that in itself shake up your willingness just to take his word for this matter?

If this view concerning the flexibility of ancient historians is wrong, I hope it becomes more widely noted as it seems to be something most ancient historians are saying. As a non specialist it's hard not to take their word for it.

Joseph, I used to think the same: hey, they are professionals, surely they have good reasons for making those claims.

Then I started looking into the good reasons.

Boy, was that an eye opener. As Lydia says, you can look at example after example of supposed "inconsistencies", (that's where I was looking at the time), and come away saying: "gee, there wasn't hardly a real good difficulty in the lot. Even I, with my poor knowledge of the Bible and history, can solve several of them right off the top of my head, and several more are fairly obviously question-begging. And now that I think about it, more of them would require, as "sufficient evidence" for the theory, stuff that not only do I doubt that we know from history, but stuff that I doubt that we COULD know. And..."

Eventually I just lost any residual respect for their professionalism, and now I suspect that most of them actually have a deep-seated animus against traditional Christianity.

I don't know how it is in Catholicism, Tony, but the saddest part of what is happening in evangelicalism is that these theories are being adopted by people who are still, in recognizable ways, adherents to traditional Christianity. (Doctrines, belief in miracles, etc.)

I truly believe that certain disciplines have something akin to diseases. Hyper-skepticism about positions deemed "conservative" (even if not involving miracles--such as authorship positions), the manufacture of unnecessary difficulties, a preference for complicated over obvious and simple hypotheses--these are diseases of New Testament studies. I'm also realizing that some of them are diseases of Roman history, where no bias against Christianity can be motivating them. For example, in my recent studies I've found very similar habits of exaggerating or manufacturing unnecessary "discrepancies" in the work of scholars on Plutarch and Tacitus. Why? I don't fully know why, but I suspect part of it is the need to have something interesting-sounding to say! Also, once a meme catches on (such as that "they had different concepts of truth in the ancient world") then confirmation bias sets in, and subsequent scholars tend to find "instances" of this because that's what they were expecting to find.

I would suspect, Lydia, that it happening to Roman history is due to bleed-over from Bible studies, since surely some of the same men practice both.

You'd be surprised. The humanities have had major problems for a long time. People just don't know how to argue. Over twenty years ago I decided that the field of English literature was not for me and that I wouldn't be continuing to try to publish in it. What moved that decision, despite the fact that I was getting my PhD in that field, was this: The conservatives in English literature, the people who were against the post-moderns, who believed even (radically!) in the importance of authorial intention in determining the meaning of a literary text, these very people did not understand argumentative rigor and would be taken in by silly, incredibly complicated theories about what the author was trying to do. I remember so clearly standing in my dining room with the acceptance letter from a journal in my hand. (This was all done with physical media back then.) This was an acceptance letter, so in a sense it was good news. But the editor accepted my article on Spenser in this very reluctant almost snide way and was particularly dismissive of my use of the phrase "canons of evidence" in the body of my article. "What do you mean by 'canons of evidence'?" he asked. This was one of the most well-known, highly academically conservative Spenser scholars alive at the time. We should have been allies. And he did publish my article eventually. But what in the world did I mean by bringing up "canons of evidence" for deciding what Spenser was up to? The idea!

Hello Dr. McGrew,

Do you mind summarizing your view of inerrancy, or pointing me to a post or other writing of yours where you do so? My view has been in flux, within a conservative range, over the past 30 years or so of bible study. I am always interested to read about others' views.

It seems I am am always engaged in some dialectical reconciliation of previous views to new scholarship. By that I mean scholarship that is new to me.

As I am currently enrolled in graduate-level training in apologetics, it has be come more important than ever to zero in on sources which are historically, inferentially, and hermeneutically reliable. I have found Licona's defense of the Resurrection valuable, although it seems he may be sliding to far to the skeptical side of late.

I like Daniel Wallace for textual crticism, Blomberg for historical reliability, Keener for NT historical context and background, Kruger for history of the Canon, and a few others (I like your work on undesired coincidences, but I haven't delved deep enough to have areal feel for it as of yet). I don't really have a source I like for OT historical background yet.

I have found myself on a journey that involves leaving behind more and more of a framework of "kid's sunday school flannelgraph" ideas and beliefs about the events in the Bible. Therefore I am always trying to be willing to let go of the traditons of men, so I can grasp, teach and defend the actual Word of God, always keeping in mind that, (to quote Blomberg et al's hermeneutics textbook) "we worship a person, not a book."

Your thoughts, and whoever else has input here, are always appreciated.

Ha, that should be "undesigned coincidences," obviously. Albeit they may be quite "undesired" by the skeptic.

Kevin, I'm going to answer kind of briefly (but feel free to e-mail me if I don't answer your question satisfactorily), and I encourage you to search for the term "inerrancy" in my posts on Licona's view.

In brief, then: I do not call myself an inerrantist, because I consider it possible and even plausible that there are places where the authors of Scripture were permitted by God to make minor factual errors. However, I consider the gospels and Acts in particular *highly* reliable based upon my own investigation. (That is not to "diss" the Old Testament but merely to say that I have not had as much opportunity there for personal investigation.) I consider high reliability, in a normal sense of "reliability" (no weaseling), to be far *more* important for doctrine, correction, reproof, and instruction in righteousness than inerrancy. And I would go farther and emphasize this strongly: I consider it a *terrible* path to go down, and a very great undermining of doctrine and of the reality of what Scripture attests, to *redefine* inerrancy as Licona and others have done so that one throws reliability in the ordinary sense of that term under the bus while retaining some weird concept of "inerrancy" that permits the documents to be extremely unreliable on any matter of "detail," but that's okay and consistent with "inerrancy" because now we just say that they aren't "affirming" the details.

That is, in my opinion, a far, far *lower* view of the truthfulness and authority of Scripture than my view, which permits minor factual errors, and it is far more corrosive of doctrinal truth as well. To take just one example, if one casts doubt upon all the so-called "details" of the resurrection accounts, what becomes of the doctrine of the *bodily* resurrection of Jesus? It is in the details that we find the clear, unequivocal affirmation that he was not a spirit, that his resurrection was bodily and literal, which should be at least a leeetle bit doctrinally important, I should say! And I don't, frankly, care much if someone who calls such details into question then salvages some bizarre, redefined notion of "inerrancy" in which they could have made up Jesus' eating fish but are still "inerrant" because the "expectation at the time" was *supposedly* that they weren't really "affirming" that he ate fish! The physicality of his resurrection is thereby undermined, whatever semantic games we choose to play with terms like "error."

Far better (both in terms of where the evidence points and in terms of theological adherence to a high view of Scripture) to be a non-inerrantist like me who thinks the gospel authors never made stuff up on purpose than to be an "inerrantist" like that.

It even seems to me possible that the Holy Spirit may have permitted some minor errors on occasion (while the authors' natural abilities, their carefulness, and perhaps spiritual guidance preserved from so many as to undermine high reliability) in order to show the independence of the accounts. If the New Testament scholars would only permit themselves to see it, the very difficulties they constantly raise concerning alleged contradictions and the need for harmonization (most of which are quite readily resolvable, by the way) are evidence *against* the redactive theories and assumptions of heavy, literary dependence they hold so dear. But those in the grip of a theory rarely can see such points. I see it as a big part of my scholarly calling to bring people back to that vivid, normal, human, imaginative approach to the texts which is the very antithesis of the redactive approach. That will, it's true, sometimes allow for the possibility of minor, good-faith error. But far *more* often (as in the cases discussed in the main post) such an approach will enable us to have a hearty laugh (though perhaps becoming a little sad immediately thereafter) at the extreme woodenness of the readings that give rise, in the minds of "scholars," to supposed tensions and problems.

In short, I'm not an inerrantist in theory, but in practice I do just about as much harmonization as an inerrantist of the Geisler variety, because I consider it good historical practice and important for that reason. I would do the same for secular works as well that had decent claim to be historical in nature and/or to represent witness testimony, though of course engaging in good practice is all the more important when more is at stake.

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