On J. P. Holding’s response to Vridar critique re authenticity of Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

J. P. Holding has responded to my earlier article on this blog, Authenticity of Paul’s Letters: Holding versus Detering, with a webpage critiquing my post.

It is an interesting response. I had seen it earlier on a discussion board but dismissed it at the time as not worth the effort of a response. But since then it has appeared in a more stable form as a webpage on his site so I have decided to point out the fallacies and dishonesty in his claims here. Not that I expect Holding to link this response to his page, of course.

Letter openings

In my original post I wrote:

Either Holding is simply not familiar with ancient letters or assumes his audience would not be familiar with them or both. Anyone who is familiar with ancient letters knows that the example Detering provides is quite sufficient to jog their memories.

Holding responded:

Wrong. I am very familiar with ancient letters, and have used many sources that are, such as Richards’ work on the use of a secretary in the letters of Paul. As it is, this is typical of Vridar, who merely babbles that an opponent is “not familiar” with some topic, but then manages to fail to give specifics demonstrating the alleged lack of familiarity. In this case, the issue is that Detering needs to show that letter openings as a whole lacked “pretense” (whatever that is supposed to mean) and then also show that in the specific case of Galatians, this “pretense” is unwarranted. I ask for evidence; Vridar gives none, but rather babbles on for a paragraph about “argument from authority.”

I have highlighted in red Holding’s implied assertion that I failed to offer evidence for my claim that ancient letters routinely opened with unpretentious introductions. (All red highlighting of Holding’s words in this post is mine.)

Here is a section from my following paragraph that Holding suppressed:

I don’t know if this could be attributed to laziness or fear of what he might find if he checked all the other letters in a collection of Cicero or Pliny. Or any of the fictional letters that set themselves the task of convincing readers of their plausible authenticity and to this end contained the same unpretentious introductions.

I cited the letters of Cicero, Pliny, and a host of others discussed by Rosenmeyer which all point to the same form of letter opening as Detering cites. All of these are available online. If I thought it necessary I could have taken the effort to quote scores of letter openings from all of these, but they are public knowledge and easily verifiable with a couple of computer clicks. To do so would have been a bit like citing a pages of classification numbers from various libraries to prove that library collections routinely contain items with class numbers.

I have pointed to evidence that supports Detering’s claim about the openings of Greek and Roman letters, and Holding has failed to provide any evidence from ancient letters that disputes this claim. He has chosen instead to quote only half of my response and say I did not cite any evidence. All Holding has to do to refute the claim is cite specific evidence of letter openings to the contrary.

But the positive point of Detering is being lost with this focus on the negative. Of Paul’s introductions, Detering writes:

Does someone write here about himself or about someone else? Do we have to do here with a statement about one’s self or with a statement about the (revered) apostle (of a legendary past)? (p.54)

Given the unusualness of these openings vis a vis letters in the Greco-Roman world, the simplest explanation would appear to be in the affirmative. Yes, the openings do suggest someone else is writing an introduction here to impress readers with the authority of Paul. Recall how controversial Paul was as an authority in the first century and throughout much of the second.

Unbiased umpires

In response to Holding’s appeal to an apparently neutral authority, a classical scholar, to settle a contentious biblical discussion, I wrote:

So I googled that classicist’s name and university, found his homepage in one shot, and lo and behold, there in its left hand margin is a nice bright golden crucifix link that takes one to that classicist’s homepage of zillions of bible-study tools. So much for Holding attempting to give the impression he was appealing to “the authority” of an umpire with no conflict of interest.

Holding responded:

It is no surprise that someone with no answers and even less intellgience (sic) immediately resorts to the old “bias” canard. This is not an answer to the classicist’s argument, but it does how (sic) that Vridar does not have such an answer.

Bias is a “canard”? Presumably this only applies to bias in favour of the fundamentalist views about the Bible? I doubt Holding really believes this, and I suspect that is why he suppressed the fact in his original post that this classical scholar also was linked, like Holding himself, to evidence of a very deep personal commitment to religious apologetics.

Rationalizing the sole exception

Holding justified the unusualness of Paul’s letter openings by special pleading. He claimed that we have to remember the culture in which Paul wrote and the personal circumstances he faced. I responded:

Okay, so Paul was the only one who wrote letters from an unusual situation in that culture? Paul’s situation was so unique that he was the only one to use the letter’s introduction to argue a controversial point?

Here is Holding’s rebuttal of my point:

That’s for YOU to answer, Vridar — not me. I’m not going to create your arguments for you.

Holding presents himself here as being (deliberately?) oblivious to the import and nature of rhetorical questions. Holding is attempting to argue that Paul’s situation within his culture and in the nature of his personal circumstances were unique and therefore all other cultural norms and examples of normal letters do not apply to Paul.

This, of course, is arguing from the opposite stance he attempted to take above. In my discussion of letter-openings above, Holding was attempting to argue that Paul’s letters were not out unusual for his time and culture. But later here he attempts to argue that Paul’s situation was so unusual as to make his letters different from others found within his time and culture!

On humility

Holding had originally argued against Detering:

There are other contextual reasons for the length in these cases: matters of identity and honor, and the insertion of Christological material, for example, which would not apply to something like “Cicero greets Atticus

There were many ways I could have responded to this. One way I had considered was to remind Holding and his readers that not even letters from a Roman Emperor himself (e.g. Trajan) to subordinates contained the pretentious introductions we find in Paul’s letters.

Another response would have been to repeat a point I had already made: that the contextual reasons Holding appeals applied not only to Paul, so they do not explain why Paul’s letter openings are different from the norms at all.

But instead I opted to reply with a reference to other Pauline writings:

Yes, the honor based culture thing again. Didn’t Paul pass on Christ’s teaching to come out of the world’s ways and follow humility? But of course it is surely obvious that Holding is arguing in a circle here. He is simply repeating the contents of the introductions as if that is sufficient to explain why the introductions contained such material in the first place.

I thought Holding would have been biblically versed enough to have recognized Paul’s teachings on “humility” in the “biblical-Christian” sense in passages like Matthew 18:4; Luke 22:25-26; Philippians 2:1-8; Ephesians 3:8, 4:2; 2 Corinthians 11:30; Galatians 6:14; Colossians 3:12. Somehow the bombastic openings of Paul’s letters do not sit well with those instructions.

But Holding opts to turn away from the “biblical context” and the “revolutionary” teachings of Christianity and respond thus:

I think it speaks for Vridar’s ignorance that he tries to find some dichotomy between “honor” and “humility” here. There was none — Vridar is manifestly ignorant of the workings of honor-based cultures and so has nothing worthwhile to say. As Pilch and Malina note (Handbook of Biblical Social Values, 118) “humility” meant staying within one’s status and not claiming more for yourself than was warranted — and Paul was claiming no more for himself than was true. It remains that none of this is an answer — it is the vain mouthings of someone with no relevant education and no answers.

Had I bothered to repeat myself and argue (once again) that Paul was not the only person in living in his culture (by definition obviously) so for Holding to appeal to culture to explain why Paul’s letters are different from others in his culture . . . ???

The poor letter carrier!

I recently put in a plug for Eddie Izzard’s comedy sketch on Paul’s letters to “the Corinthians”. He hits on an aspect of this point too.

Detering follows other critics in commenting on the vagueness of the addressees in Paul’s letters, and cites “the churches in Galatia” address. Holding missed Detering’s point entirely (though he later denied this) and patiently tried to explain that letter-carriers were robust enough to find ways of traveling far and wide. (Holding tried to say his answer would apply to both cases. It wouldn’t. His answer was about means of getting to places; the issue raised by Detering is having no defined place to go in the first place.)

I wrote:

Holding appears not to have comprehended Detering’s argument. It was all about the vagueness of the addressees. Holding completely ignores this, the only point Detering was discussing.

So Holding returns with:

“Vagueness” of the addressees? If that is so, then Detering’s point is even stupider than I realized. Does he think the carriers of the letter had no instructions as to where to go? THEY would see no vagueness; they would know their job. But no, I got Detering’s point, and the answer is the same. There were plenty of ways to get letters around. It’s a goofy objection, and Vridar is merely distracting from the answer.

Holding overlooks the literary form of a letter that is used to write a tract for a general audience, not for a specific one. Paul’s letters fall into that literary category. Holding may choose to disagree with this argument, but he has simply asserted that he disagrees with it.

I would be interested if he could actually find any evidence to rebut Detering’s argument here. Presumably he knows of other ancient letters addressed to whole cities or “assemblies or institutions” throughout an entire province, with no specific addressee attached, on the understanding that all of such details were spoken “off-papyrus”?

Past tense and strange antecedents

I initially pointed out a logical error in one of Holding’s rebuttals of a Detering point (See Point 3, titled “Holding 3“, on this page for details), to which Holding responds:

There isn’t [a Vridar response]. Vridar just mumbles and jumbles and the only thing approaching a “reply” is to say, He completely fails to see that he (Holding) is actually arguing that the author of the letter of Galatians believes that Peter, James and John were only apostles by a “former status” within the Jerusalem community. Not hardly. Aside from failing to defend Detering’s silly idea that “were” means they were dead, Vridar has stupidly equated Peter, James and John with the “those” named in 2:6. A far closer antecedent is the “false brethren” in 2:4 — suitably unnamed, as would be appropriate if Paul is shaming them.

Holding appears not to comprehend his logical error. That can be excusable. It is a subtle one. Maybe I should attempt to explain it better. I certainly did “defend” the semantic point that the author is writing of persons who he describes as apostles in the past tense. That was Detering’s point.

Why were? “Are” the apostles then no longer present when the author of Galatians writes his letter? Have they already died? Does the author of Galatians by this time look back on the apostolic age as closed? (p.54-55)

I find Holding’s attempt to change the antecedent of “those” in 2:6 quite interesting. If Holding is correct, it would mean that it was “false brethren” who came to see that Paul preached the same gospel as Peter. But the “those” in 2:6 is of course qualified by phrases throughout the ensuing lines that clearly link it to the Jerusalem apostles, as every commentator and scholarly article I have read on this passage understands. I would be interested to read peer-reviewed scholarly discussions supporting Holding’s claim. I am not implying there aren’t any. I don’t know. I’m always willing to learn something new. And if Holding is right I’d be very interested in seeing the arguments. Because on the face of it, his claim that my understanding is “stupid” would seem to imply that most conservative bible commentaries I have also read are “stupid”. It would also mean a terribly confusing transition of thought throughout that passage from verses4 to 10. I welcome a link to a scholarly article supporting Holding’s interpretation.

No evidence to refute your own argument? That’s YOUR fault!

Galatians 6:11(“See with what large letters I am writing with my [own] hand”) is an attempt by the author to establish the authenticity of the letter. Detering challenges the assumption implicit in this verse that even in the lifetime of Paul there were forged letters circulating in his name.

Holding responds:

. . . . people did not just forge letters from dead people — then or now — as Detering indicates, which means that therew was every reason for Paul to be on guard. The rest is not my burden to explain just because Vridar can’t answer the argument and needs a distraction. The subject here is Galatians, not every letter from antiquity. In any event, Vridar would upend Detering with any examples of letters forged in the name of contemporaries; if he wants to do that, he can. As I see it, the argument was dumb enough to be refuted without such examples.

This is surely a Holding classic. Earlier he had said:

That’s for YOU to answer, Vridar — not me. I’m not going to create your arguments for you.

Now here he is telling me I have to find evidence (which I don’t believe exists) to refute my own argument, and that he is not going to do it for me! Um . . . . presumably because he knows there is no evidence to support his case?? But I’m the one he castigates for not finding it!

This is getting tedious so I’ll take some shortcuts. The full texts of what I wrote and Holding’s response have been linked above for anyone interested in that much detail at this stage.

Holding reminds readers that it was common practice for authors of letters to write their autographs at the end of a letter that had been penned by a scribe on their behalf. I assume everyone knows that. But it’s not the point. The point is the way in a couple of cases in the Pauline correspondence the author appears to “protesteth too much” by drawing overt attention to this. In one case (2 Thess. 3:17) this overt indicator of something that was not supposed to be abnormal at all is widely recognized as a sign of forgery. Detering is arguing for consistency and that the same conclusion be drawn from the Galatians autograph.

Holding further appears to insist that a mere signature was enough to dispel any possibility of the letter being passed off as a forgery:

in an age when 90% of the people were illiterate, it was hardly difficult to have a form of writing that was distinctive, certainly within a limited peer group; and it is hardly unlikely that copies were needed when simple memory would do.

It’s truly amazing that people in ancient times didn’t think of that themselves. If they had, they could have prevented all possibility of forgeries. Silly people.

I wrote:

Of course, no scribe could ever make a second copy of the letter. Or if he did, he would have to omit those last words or at best add a gloss to them.

I then added a hypothetical exception to this obvious point, but Holding thought my hypothetical point (an attempt to extend the logic of his argument to the limit) was my primary argument!

He responded:

Sorry, no. A scribe cannot make a second copy of the letter with Paul’s handwriting at the end and pass it off as authentic

There was more to this point, but to address that here I would be repeating what I wrote a few paragraphs above beginning “Holding reminds readers that it was common practice . . . ”

Who has the biggest imagination?

The final point (see links above for details) had to do with the psychological implausibility of Paul avoiding contact with apostolic eyewitnesses of Jesus after his conversion, as Galatians 1:15-17.

I tried to hold imagination within the bounds of the textual evidence we have to work with, and within the plausibilities of normal human psychology. Holding responds by merely repeating his arguments, along with a couple more “maybe this is what happened” and “what if he was doing or thinking this” type replies to explain the passage, and some supposedly relevant (?) reference to trouble with Aretas. Refer to the links to see what I mean if insomnia is troubling you.

Acts contradicts the imaginative scenarios rationalizing Galatians

I also took exception to the claim that Paul would not have returned to Jerusalem for fear of facing the Pharisees who had sent him out to jail Christians.

Holding responded:

Finally, Vridar finds it odd that Paul might avoid his Pharisee superiors, because a later Paul took on the leading apostles and the high priest. To which we can only say that Vridar’s one-dimensional understanding of human nature needs some polishing. He might also consider that if Paul has been told that he had a job to do by the Risen Jesus, it hardly makes sense for him to immediately go back home where he will likely be executed or imprisoned.

Let the Bible answer Holding. Acts 9:20-22tells us that after Paul’s conversion:

Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues . . . Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose . . . But Saul increased all the more in strength and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus . . .

Paul was known from the very beginning to have the courage to take on his own side, even though he knew full well he was in their eyes turning traitor. The passage in Acts continues by saying that those Jews plotted to kill him. That can hardly have been a surprise to Paul, given the type of character he has been depicted as having. (Recall that Paul or Saul himself had believed Christians should be murdered.) Holding has to portray Paul as a bit of a wuss at first. He has to imagine Paul gradually acquiring confidence over time. That is clearly NOT the Acts portrayal of Paul!

Holding’s second point is just as contradictory of the biblical account. Paul clearly knowingly risked his life in Damascus by preaching Christ. When he escaped, he did indeed go back to Jerusalem! Paul escaped persecution in Damascus by fleeing to Jerusalem where the authorities who had commissioned him to carry out the original persecution were waiting! I have written elsewhere in more detail on the complete nonsense of this narrative — Paul’s Basket Escape from Damascus: the nonsense of the Acts narrative.

But of course Acts completely contradicts Galatians.

Indeed, the author of Acts seems to be making sure all the gates are shut on any possibility that the events in Galatians ever really happened. I have discussed this more fully in my post How Acts Subverts Galatians. Look at the sequence of events in Acts 9:17-30:

  1. Paul is converted and baptized.
  2. Then Paul “spent some days with the disciples in Damascus” (v.19)
  3. Immediately he preached in Damascus
  4. Then the Jews of Damascus plotted to kill him
  5. Then Paul escaped to Jerusalem
  6. Paul spent time with the apostles in Jerusalem
  7. Paul preached publicly in Jerusalem (so much for fear of the authorities who had commissioned him to destroy the faith!)
  8. Plots by Hellenists to kill him
  9. Paul is taken to Caesarea from where he sails to Tarsus

It is as if the author of Acts is making sure there can be no room for any wayward runaway efforts to Arabia!

Luke’s agenda to establish the authority of Jerusalem and the apostles is well known (and discussed at length on this blog — see the Category links in right margin). His motive for re-writing the Galatians narrative is not hard to fathom.

  • 2008-07-13 05:29:09 UTC - 05:29 | Permalink

    To tell you the truth, that’s one of the biggest post I’ve ever seen 😉

  • 2008-07-13 08:16:26 UTC - 08:16 | Permalink

    I’m sorry 🙁

    but ha! I’m glad you have enough of a life to have said “seen” and not “read”! 😉

    even i got bored writing it as anyone with enough perseverance to get to my “shortcut” comment within the post can see. the things one does when one is laid up with a cold! 🙁

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