2014-11-29

On Christians and Christianity, Bible Scholars and Bible Scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

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Campus evangelism

I have some sympathy for people who embrace religious faith, even Christianity. I have a lot of respect for scholarly research, including that into Christian origins.

But I loathe some forms of Christianity that do irreparable damage to many people. I also have little respect for public intellectuals (scholars) who betray their public by fostering personal antipathy towards those who raise radical questions about the foundations of their work and protect their professional status and faith by means of culpably ignorant and fallacious arguments.

So I have some reservations about attacking religious belief head on. I’m reminded of Tamas Pataki’s point about the importance of trying to understand the function of religion for so many: “its emotional significance for its adherent, its intimate relations to human needs.” I know I am much better off as a person since having turned my back on religion. I do believe (in theory) that all of humanity should be much better off without religion. But then I wonder if that belief assumes some kind of overly optimistic view of human nature.

I don’t mean that I’m comfortable with the way things are. I suppose I would find myself rejoicing like an angel in heaven over learning of another friend who learned to leave God behind and walk through life as a humanist, naturalist, rationalist, atheist, or whatever term they thought most apt for capturing their new identity.

And it’s certainly good that there are others who take the time to expose the follies of faith for those whose time has come to listen. I am riled every Thursday when I see members of a religious cult setting up at a main crossroads on campus a display stand of their tracts and standing there attempting to invite young overseas students who are away from family, friends, cultural roots into conversation. Preying on the vulnerable (many have scarcely heard anything about Christianity before they arrive) looking for a new friendly community. Lovebombing. I wish I could do a Christ and overturn their table and whip them out of the grounds.

On the other hand I have no desire to go out of my way to try to deconvert my grandmother.

Then there are the bible scholars.

I don’t mean scholarship. The distinction is important. Richard Carrier’s point is pertinent: 

Finally, however, one last remark is needed on mistaking Christian apologetics for objective (or even mainstream) scholarship (a point I’ll briefly revisit in the next chapter). It will not be the aim of this book to debunk apologetic reconstructions of the historical Jesus or the origins of Christianity. I take only secular scholarship seriously-which doesn’t mean secular scholars (since a great deal of secular scholarship is produced by the devout), but rather scholars who rely on secular methods and principles of scholarship (a good example being the late Raymond Brown). Because apologetics differs from scholarship. Apologists ignore methodological distinctions between the possible and the probable in order to maintain the defensibility of a religious dogma. But that isn’t how objective scholars behave. (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 14)

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http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/about/

My recent attempt to prompt Professor Larry Hurtado to explain how he can write so confidently for his readers that the Book of Acts is a reliable source for certain historical problems facing the early church ended in disaster. At every point he avoided directly answering my question — until his final comment when he swept it aside with the very fallacy Carrier points to in the above extract.

I have to conclude that Hurtado is an apologist. Now he has also produced some fine genuinely scholarly publications. It makes no difference for me if his motive was to find scholarly rationales for his biblical faith. I have a brain, some background in formal education, have read reasonably widely and engaged in informative discussions with many academics. I can generally see when his arguments are sound — both with respect to logical coherence and evidence — and when they are less firm. I follow up many of his citations to assess the strength of the support he claims for his arguments. That’s when I feel I begin to come up to a reasonable footing that enables me to dialogue with his arguments.

I am also conscious of my own biases and interests and can recognize when I find myself leaning towards a certain scholarly conclusion because it provides support for my own perspective. So when Hurtado argues for a very early high Christology I can see the value in that idea for my own view that Christianity quite probably began with a celestial Christ who was later (i.e. after the chaos of the first Jewish War and its aftermath) anthropomorphized. That worries me. I have to ask myself how sound my own arguments are if they are so quickly attracted to conclusions before I examine all the evidence in detail. I’ve been seriously wrong before. I don’t want to go there again if I can at all help it. So I seek out books making the opposing arguments and study them always aware of my own bias and limitations in knowledge.

I expect professional scholars to do the same. I’m an amateur and if I can do it it’s the least I expect of the professionals.

It’s the same for my political and social views. As I learned more I came to see that ideology (I mean “good” ideology that supported human rights) was dictating certain views of my leftist-socialist friends that contradicted the scientific or scholarly research. One friend even censured me for merely having two politically incorrect books in my collection.

So when Professor Hurtado

  • literally deletes my point that other historians have more sound and valid evidence for the existence of even certain slaves and rhetors and side-walk teachers in ancient times than they have for the historicity of the Hellenist sect in the early chapters of Acts . . .
  • and proceeds to castigate me in effect for intellectual dishonesty and incompetence . . .
  • and then claims we can be sure these Hellenists did exist by pointing to data that makes no difference whatever to whether the Acts account is remotely historical . . .
  • and apparently conscious that his points are not really doing the job adds the vague words “and other” evidence . . .

then I feel pretty sure I am not dealing with a genuine professional but a defensive apologist. I also wonder why my questions and arguments are met with such hostility and no sound answers.

We know some Jews spoke Greek and some of these moved from the Diaspora to Jerusalem; ergo (Hurtado “reasons”) we can be confident the Acts account about the Hellenists is “probably” historical — therefore it is historical. Deep down it seems Hurtado does acknowledge that his reasoning is flawed, that these prove no such thing, so he adds “and other” evidence. But at that point he closed the thread so no-one can question him any further.

“Mired in naiveté and possibiliter fallacies” as Carrier would say (OHJ p. 251).

One could well ignore this sort of apologetics if it were not for the fact that these scholars are presenting themselves as public educators. Hurtado has explained that that is the purpose of his own blog.

I have little patience with certain types of religion because of the damage they inflict. Everyone has a right to information that affects their lives. But public intellectuals like Hurtado in this instance are betraying the public by their agenda-driven intellectual . . . . (should we call it incompetence or dishonesty?)

James Crossley has put his finger on the problem. See

Crossley has also teamed up with two leading exponents (Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith) of the use of memory theory as a tool for investigating the historical Jesus and Christian origins at The Jesus Blog. Can we hope for something better from this quarter? I’d love to think so. But my hopes are not lifted when I see one of their recent posts is a panegyric to “hope in Christ”.

And Crossley himself, though not a believer, refused to allow a question of mine pitting scientific research in genetics against his ideological message about Jewish racial history.

No man can serve two masters. What do they love more? Critical scholarship or faith?

Perhaps they believe their faith is strong enough to survive any reshaping that honest intellectual inquiry will demand. If so, one must wonder if they have pre-judged the outcome and conditions of their scholarly pursuits.

 

28 Comments

  • p'doff
    2014-11-30 00:26:22 UTC - 00:26 | Permalink

    How any intellectual ‘discipline’ can impart ‘knowledge’ on so many different levels and still be thought worthy of consideration beats me.
    I have read several introductions to the new Testament for example and each clashes with the other on may counts.
    Opinion (hermeneutics?) rather than an honest assessment of the evidence seems to reign.

    The biblical knowledge taught in respectable university faculties never reaches the person in the pew as if they are not capable or resilient enough to absorb it.
    Then there are the Bible colleges probably ignoring and not engaging with those studies not to mention those brave enough (amateur or professional) who are pushing the boundaries of research and are just pooh- poohed by many of the above who refuse to actually engage with their arguments.

    I appreciate that it is not a discipline like the hard sciences but how the hell can some scholars accept, for example, the historicity of Acts in spite of the evidence to the contrary.

    This a good reason to relegate Bible studies to the Classics, Sociology and Anthropology departments of universities and dismantle theological faculties completely. In that way the Christian apologetic scholars will have to have their tea and sandwiches with those who might disabuse them of their self appointed authority
    and teach them something new and useful.

    My advice to any layman who seeks to learn about the subject – caveat emptor and keep reading Vridar.

  • John A. Broussard
    2014-11-30 01:48:07 UTC - 01:48 | Permalink

    “Bible scholarship” is a contradiction in terms if, by “scholarship” is meant a rational analysis of what is written in those pages. If it is merely a literary analysis, then it is no different than a similar study of Beowulf or the Iliad and it should be so stated.

    But to wade into a discussion about the explanation for Jesus ascending into heaven, Joshua stopping the sun, Jonah being swallowed by a big fish or any of the other wonders contained in the Bible’s pages is meaningful if, and only if, miraculous explanations are disallowed.

    Once one miracle has been accepted, then all bets are off—any attempt at a rational discussion is an exercise in futility. One might as well spend one’s time giving a cogent anatomical explanation for how Athena could have sprung, fully armed, from Zeus’s brow.

  • Blood
    2014-11-30 02:39:24 UTC - 02:39 | Permalink

    “Apologists ignore methodological distinctions between the possible and the probable in order to maintain the defensibility of a religious dogma.”

    William H.C. Propp is one of the few scholars with a PhD in both Ancient History and Biblical Studies. Says it all. Nearly everyone who enters theology school does so from the stance of an apologist. They study history or use the tools of history not for their own sake but to defend the faith in some sense. They do not understand that Christianity’s claim to be a supposedly “historic” religion is part of the myth.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-11-30 03:23:26 UTC - 03:23 | Permalink

      Where does Propp address this? Any other readings of his of particular interest?

      • Blood
        2014-12-01 02:44:47 UTC - 02:44 | Permalink

        Propp doesn’t address Christianity, but he accepts the Exodus as mythological.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6TsppQ5UNY

        It is during this lecture that he says, “”Unlike almost all biblical scholars, who operate in departments of religious studies, or religion, I am a professor of history … in history, the evidentiary bar is considerably higher than it is in religion.”

        You will rarely hear any Bible scholar make a remark like that, or remotely suggest that what they are doing isn’t the same thing that the history department is doing.

        Propp’s 2 volume commentary on the Book of Exodus is excellent.

  • Pingback: Why the study of religion is a maze, full of dead ends and bear traps | the suppository depository

  • 2014-11-30 12:33:08 UTC - 12:33 | Permalink

    Bible research is a very complicated affair that cannot create more clarity if a limited faith viewpoint interferes with the analysis.
    However a purely secular approach may also have its drawbacks.
    The New Testament is a very diverse amalgam of writings by people with different types of ideologies which have on top of that been (sometimes heavily) edited and used second-hand, changing their original meaning in the process.

    Purely secular methods can help you greatly in separating different layers and bringing forward earlier ideologies.
    But if you don’t have enough knowledge of the deeper contents of those ideologies (and the way they are expressed), you are going to make too many mistakes because you will fail to recognize the deeper meanings of certain texts and parts of texts within the ideologies in which they functioned.

    Someone like Roger Parvus e.g. can recognize the gnostic original (“Simon Magus”) parts in the letters of Paul because he better understands the ideology of Simon Magus and gnosticism.
    Someone like Burton Mack however fails to separate Q1 from Q2 in the correct way, because he has insufficient knowledge of the ideology that lies behind Q1.
    I think good biblical scholar should definitely not be believing Christians but should have as wide a range as possible in their knowledge of different types of ideologies.

    • Ken Browning
      2014-12-01 17:04:51 UTC - 17:04 | Permalink

      What tools of methodology not used by secular scholars would uncover history? What is the methodological difference between the presumed weakness in “purely secular methods” and the presumed better methodology you propose? What in the work of Parvus is decisive but not methodology that would be generally applied by secular scholars?

      • 2014-12-01 18:02:31 UTC - 18:02 | Permalink

        The New Testament writings do not have the purpose of reflecting history, they are a mixture of myth, anecdote, religious dogmatic ideas and (distorted) spiritual philosophy.
        So it is impossible to prove anything historical from the NT writings.
        I think the best you can do is to separate the different authors from one another and try to understand their motives and ideologies (also from external sources) and show how the separate individual texts functioned in their separate communities.

        You cannot recognize a more spiritual text properly if you don’t understand its ideology thoroughly and practice this ideology yourself as well.
        Mere methodology will not help you to understand the deeper meaning of secretive mystic texts that try to veil their inner meaning.
        The failure of intelligent biblical scholars to correctly analyze and find the ‘sitz im leben’ of Q1 illustrates this.

        Like when analyzing whether a Rembrandt is genuine, you certainly have to use different methods of research. But an expert will also have to use his intuition, which he developed during a long time of studying and becoming intimately acquainted with Rembrandt, his pupils and their paintings. Many Rembrandt paintings have been painted only in part by himself and were finished by his pupils trying to follow his style.

        It would of course be more satisfying if you could use only literary criteria to separate and reconstruct the original texts, but without knowing more about the minds of the persons who created the texts this will be an impossible task.

  • MichaelT
    2014-12-01 23:39:41 UTC - 23:39 | Permalink

    I’m not sure I follow the grounds for the condemnation of Hurtado. You think he is trying to cover up the thought that

    other historians have more sound and valid evidence for the existence of even certain slaves and rhetors and side-walk teachers in ancient times than they have for the historicity of the Hellenist sect in the early chapters of Acts

    but this is exactly what he himself is affirming in the body of the blog post. His principal point is about what Acts is saying and not saying: it is not saying there was a Hellenist sect. The intended point, as far as I can see, is independent of all historical claims; it is purely textual. The later discussion with you on the page is abstract and about the possibility of using Acts as a historical source. No doubt he is too sanguine himself, but he is mostly admitting that inferences are pretty dicey. But he just doesn’t seem to be doing what you say he is doing, in particular, he nowhere affirms the historicity of a Hellenist sect.

    Or am I not following this? One sentence of yours that baffles me is

    We know some Jews spoke Greek and some of these moved from the Diaspora to Jerusalem; ergo (Hurtado “reasons”) we can be confident the Acts account about the Hellenists is “probably” historical — therefore it is historical. Deep down it seems Hurtado does acknowledge that his reasoning is flawed, that these prove no such thing, so he adds “and other” evidence. But at that point he closed the thread so no-one can question him any further.

    The only use of the word “probably” by Hurtado is in the sentence:

    In Acts 11:20, we’re probably looking at Greek-speaking Syrians (in Antioch), i.e., locals who took up Greek language and other cultural elements.

    His claim is about what Acts is saying when it says people spoke “προς τους ελληνιστας ευαγγελιζομενοι τον κυριον ιησουν” — his claim is that here again, Acts is not imagining a sect of Christians styled ‘Hellenists.’ It is not an inference from the text, but about the internal content of the text. In any case we don’t need Acts to know that Antioch was a Greek city.

    As far as I can see, he doesn’t (on that webpage!) make any concrete inference from Acts to history.

  • 2014-12-02 00:16:52 UTC - 00:16 | Permalink

    Larry and I have been engaged in offline personal correspondence on this issue and I cannot see that we would have anything to discuss at all if he considered the historicity of the Hellenists a moot point. He clearly considers them historical and that historical evidence supports this.

    • MichaelT
      2014-12-07 20:28:51 UTC - 20:28 | Permalink

      I am guessing from Hurtado’s later post about the Theodotus stone that you were suggesting to him that it was unreasonable and speculative to think that there were any natively Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem — in particular, that one could only think any Jews there spoke Greek by a naive, apologetic reading of Acts. My remarks above presupposing were that you couldn’t be doubting the ‘historicity’ of hellenistes taken in that sense (which I was arguing was Hurtado’s, thinking you were miscommunicating) … but it seems you were?

      • Neil Godfrey
        2014-12-07 20:52:59 UTC - 20:52 | Permalink

        No doubt there were Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem. I was addressing Hurtado’s assumption of the historicity of a cult of Hellenists as per Acts 6. Such a cult or sect or whatever is demonstrated by Penner to have been a literary device to advance the theme of the author (theme of how the gospel moved from JewishOT provenance to gentiles) and Hurtado was reflecting the common inclination to simply assume historicity in addition to such demonstrations. Hurtado did attempt to explain there was evidence for the historicity of the account (apart from Penner’s demonstration) and pointed to evidence for Greek speaking Jews and Jews interested in things Hellenic. But of course this is comparable to saying the Gospels are historical because Pilate was historical and so were Pharisees and Sadducees.

        See:
        http://vridar.org/2013/12/23/lukes-ahistorical-widows-hellenists-and-deacons/

        http://vridar.org/2014/01/27/acts-1-7-as-creative-literature-not-history-illustrated/

        Obviously none of this proves Acts 6 was not historical or based on historical events but it does leave such a proposition untestable and therefore moot.

        • MichaelT
          2014-12-08 00:36:40 UTC - 00:36 | Permalink

          Yes, I think you didn’t understand him then. The exact point of his blog post was to deny that Acts provides any basis for for accepting the ‘historicity of a cult of Hellenists’ . He denies in every imaginable way that we have any reason to affirm this historicity.

          His reasoning is that the only reason anyone thought there was such a sect was that Acts; but (he thinks) Acts is just alluding to what everybody knows, that there were native speakers of both Greek and Aramaic in Jerusalem and making basically nothing of it.

          The ground Hurtado gives is itself a purely literary claim, so it may cross Penner, given what you impute to him: it is independent of the question whether Acts is a fantasy or a transcript of events, or anything in between.

          • 2014-12-08 01:00:54 UTC - 01:00 | Permalink

            Maybe we are looking at different posts? The one I originally addressed was Larry’s argument that we should not presume any theological divide in the early church between Hellenists and others.

            • MichaelT
              2014-12-08 01:51:20 UTC - 01:51 | Permalink

              Right, I think that you keep missing what he is saying because you yourself believe that Acts is describing something that you are calling ‘Hellenists’, and understand to mean a sort of sect or system of ideas or something, instead of just ‘some people who spoke Greek’ — thus, if I understand, you want to consider the idea that this sect or system of ideas is projected backward by the author of Acts, though it need never have existed. Hurtado is saying that even if Acts is 100% such projection, a “hellenistic” sect is not among the things projected — since it doesn’t appear in the text, but only in overwrought translations into modern languages. He thinks it’s as if the text had said e.g. that Stephen had auburn-colored hair and 19th c German scholars had hypothesized a ‘sect of the auburn-haired’, and then later more skeptical and advanced scholars had declared this ‘sect of the auburn-haired’ to be a projection in the past to explain auburn haired contemporaries. Then somebody finally points out that the text doesn’t say anything about a sect of the auburn haired.

              • 2014-12-08 02:09:30 UTC - 02:09 | Permalink

                Isn’t the point of Hurtado’s post the question of a theological divide between two early Christian groups?

              • MichaelT
                2014-12-08 02:33:02 UTC - 02:33 | Permalink

                Right, and his way of doing this is to deny the text posits two ‘groups’ in any sense.

                You interpret him as inferring from the text that there really were two groups (say, ‘churches’) … and then imagining that they agreed on theology, as e.g. the Coptic Church and the Armenian Church are in theological agreement on ‘monophysitism’. Against this you want to argue the equivalent of saying that Act’s distinction between the Coptic and Armenian patriarchates is a later back-projection to explain the Armenians in the then contemporary church.

                But Hurtado’s position was that the text just doesn’t say anything about different ‘churches’ or ‘groups’, whether their theologies be the same or different.

              • 2014-12-08 03:07:54 UTC - 03:07 | Permalink

                I think you have misread both Hurtado and me.

                I am not denying that there was a theological rift between Greek speaking Jews and others in the first Jerusalem church but saying that such a view is historically untestable.

                I am saying that there is a simpler explanation for the supposed rift between the two groups and that explanation is entirely the literary/thematic interests of the author (citing Penner). The whole shebang — the rift and the “Hellenists” as a party to occasion the rift — is a literary invention. This is the conclusion of the internal evidence (literary) of Acts.

                Hurtado responds by saying that he agrees with my basic point but that it does not preclude the “fact” that the event is also historical.

                Hurtado points out that a literary way of telling a tale does not mean that it also lacks historicity.

                My point in response is to ask on what grounds we can say it is historical given that the only evidence we have points to literary creativity.

                Hurtado responded by saying that among the evidence for it being historical is the fact that we know there were Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem.

                To my mind that is not evidence but merely background information that makes the Acts story plausible but does nothing to affirm its historicity.

              • MichaelT
                2014-12-08 03:41:10 UTC - 03:41 | Permalink

                “I am saying that there is a simpler explanation for the supposed rift between the two groups and that explanation is entirely the literary/thematic interests of the author (citing Penner).”

                Right, but Hurtado’s approach in the post was even more minimalist: it denied that anyone had ever said anything about a rift that needed explaining, either through real history *or* through mere literary imperatives. The text itself just refers to a few Greek-speaking Jerusalemite Jews here and there, same as any well-informed novelist today would if she were writing a novel about 1st c. Jerusalem.

                It does seem natural to impute a literary function to the Greeks v. Hebrews passage in Acts 6. The anecdote helps advance a picture of a period of beautiful apostolic coziness in which things are shared and widows well cared for. This theme really is the sort of thing you’d think might be a happy back projection by later members of a community on its imagined origin.

                In order to give realistic color to this favorite theme, the author imagines that the general-Jerusalem language divide occasioned some problem about the Greek speaking widows; with this device he gets to bring out the social security system. He proves the rule by throwing in an exception. The language divide is as familiar to us as his readers (we may suppose he was writing, e.g. after Marcion.) There is nothing theological in this, nor anything about ‘groups’ in the imagined apostolic church: only a familiar atmosphere of sharing and caring.

                The ‘simpler explanation’ you offer is, for Hurtado, a translation of a fairly spectacular Protestant scholarly hypothesis from ‘reality’ into the ‘thematic interests of the author’. This doesn’t make it any less baroque. And it is in that sense a historical claim too. Hurtado’s claim (again, in the blog post!) is much more historically minimal than any you are so far envisaging.

              • 2014-12-08 03:54:33 UTC - 03:54 | Permalink

                The differences between Larry and myself emerged in the ensuing discussion. Larry thought I was setting up a false dichotomy in my initial comment and I tried to explain that was not the case at all. I was not setting up an either-or scenario.

                That led to the discussion in which we failed to communicate. Larry was insisting throughout that I was wrong to suggest that there was no historical basis for the particular Acts account. He was emphatic that the literary explanation did not nullify the historical one as well.

                My point was to ask the basis for his assumption of historicity.

                Larry certainly insisted that it was a historical fact — even as historical as Alexander or Caesar — that there was no theological divide between Hellenists and others and that I was misguided for suggesting otherwise.

                This appears to me to be another instance of Larry’s conclusions always happily demonstrating that the orthodox narrative and teachings of the Bible are indeed basically true. I have never known Larry to be a minimalist.

              • 2014-12-08 04:17:55 UTC - 04:17 | Permalink

                These are the words of Larry Hurtado confirming his position of historicity:

                Some scholars (including yours truly) would also contend that even the sort of historical narrative described by Penner may preserve information useful for “what really happened” type queries. How do we know? By looking for any corroborative evidence, just as all other historical work proceeds. . . .

                A rhetorically crafted text may still very well be capable of being mined for historical information. . . .

                “rhetorical craft” is one thing, but not the whole thing. When a lawyer argues for or against an accused in court, that’s “rhetorical craft”. But it doesn’t mean that a crime hasn’t been committed, or that the accused might or might not be guilty.
                So, in ancient texts, when someone crafts a figure’s speech (e.g., Alexander, or Julius Caesar, or some military leader, or whomever), there is still the question of whether the writer is drawing upon tradition about that figure. So, Occam’s razor is a valid tool, but not to be used to cut away at the bone! . . . .

                The specifics of the Acts account of them can be tested at least indirectly by such data and others. . . . .

                As I said, the communication broke down because I saw that Larry was repeatedly overlooking what I was actually writing: Larry repeatedly thought I was denying historicity when I repeatedly tried to explain historicity was a moot question until we could establish valid reasons for making the case.

                When I finally got through on that point Larry indicated that he believed I was flat wrong to be implying all biblical scholars don’t have valid methods of determining historicity. I do imply that of many biblical scholars but Larry also suggested I was ill-read and uninformed. He closed the discussion at that point leaving me no opportunity to publicly reply.

              • MichaelT
                2014-12-08 04:52:08 UTC - 04:52 | Permalink

                Right, his claim is clearly this: history has left not a trace of any supposed theological rift between any hellenistes or hebraioi among early Jewish followers of the Christ-movement in Judea. I guess you can call that a ‘historicity’ claim.

                Your theory is that history has, actually, left such a trace, namely in the text of Acts, but that we can explain this away by appeal to literary purposes. You are claiming the ‘historicity’ of a particular purpose in the mind of the author of Acts.

                “Larry was insisting throughout that I was wrong to suggest that there was no historical basis for the particular Acts account”

                Hurtado did not assert the existence of any under-fed Greek speaking Christian widows. He says repeatedly that he is prepared to reject any particular vignette. The only feature of the account that anyone is interested in is the distinction between hellenistes and hebraioi. When you denied that there was a historical basis for *this*, you were, in his mind, flying in the face of what everyone knows apart from anything to do with Christianity or apologetic or anything — and really elementary facts about empire, basically.

                Of course the thing that you really doubted, as far as I can tell, was the existence, in that period, of an opposition of sects organized by language — but of course that is exactly what Hurtado himself was denying from the outset.

                As regards the facts in 1st century Jerusalem you are in this matter in complete factual agreement with Hurtado. The *only* difference is that he thinks the author of Acts agrees with both of you, while you think the author of Acts is trying to suggest something like what e.g. Hengel hypothesizes.

              • MichaelT
                2014-12-08 05:29:52 UTC - 05:29 | Permalink

                Note that the long bit from Hurtado you quote is entirely abstract. It contains no historical affirmation, just epistemological common sense.

                I’m not sure I’m managing to parse this:

                “As I said, the communication broke down because I saw that Larry was repeatedly overlooking what I was actually writing: Larry repeatedly thought I was denying historicity when I repeatedly tried to explain historicity was a moot question until we could establish valid reasons for making the case.”

                … the case that what? That the Jews of Jerusalem were divided into the Greek- and Aramaic-speaking? …or that there was an opposition of Hellenistic and Hebraic sects in the early ‘church’? The former we know, nothing to declare moot. The latter we would only worry about if Acts was telling about it. But his argument was that it isn’t telling us any such thing. So large questions about how much we can learn about reality from Acts don’t bear on the issue he was posing, and you were simply changing the subject, or refusing to focus. When he addressed the large question, he only affirmed platitudes that anyone would accept, like the ones you quoted.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2014-12-08 10:23:11 UTC - 10:23 | Permalink

                Your theory is that history has, actually, left such a trace, namely in the text of Acts, but that we can explain this away by appeal to literary purposes. You are claiming the ‘historicity’ of a particular purpose in the mind of the author of Acts.

                No, not at all. I am not claiming that. That in fact is what I am refuting. There is nothing to “explain away”.

                You are claiming the ‘historicity’ of a particular purpose in the mind of the author of Acts.

                No, not at all. I am referring to the literary analysis of the text. How could I know the mind of the author? Where did I mention anything about that?

                Hurtado did not assert the existence of any under-fed Greek speaking Christian widows. He says repeatedly that he is prepared to reject any particular vignette.

                Only if you are a casuistic pettifogger like a Jonathan Burke and co who can find a way to argue a circle is a square and when it is day it is really night — Is that who I’m talking to? Hurtado did indeed cite what he claimed was evidence for the Hellenists of Acts as per Acts 6 and did indeed argue for the basic historicity of Acts 6 denying only that the rift was theological in nature.

                The only feature of the account that anyone is interested in is the distinction between hellenistes and hebraioi. When you denied that there was a historical basis for *this*, you were, in his mind, flying in the face of what everyone knows apart from anything to do with Christianity or apologetic or anything — and really elementary facts about empire, basically.

                So what is the historical basis for that? Hurtado produced only evidence for the plausibility of the tale but not evidence for its historicity.

                Of course the thing that you really doubted, as far as I can tell, was the existence, in that period, of an opposition of sects organized by language — but of course that is exactly what Hurtado himself was denying from the outset.

                No, that is not what I doubted. I told you what I doubted and you could quite easily quote my words instead of rewriting something to suit your own assertions. You really are another Burk, aren’t you.

                Hurtado was NOT denying the existence of such sects either. He was denying a theological nature of a rift between two groups (one called Hellenists) as per Acts 6.

                I was not denying language division in the early church. Such a division at some level sounds entirely natural to me. The question I raised was NOT how we can determine the historicity of the church being divided between Greek and Aramaic speakers. It was how we can determine the historicity of what Hurtado took for granted in his discussion — a rift of some sort (but not a theological one) between the two groups.

                That is, Hurtado took/takes for granted the historicity of the basic description of the early church as per Acts 6.

                As regards the facts in 1st century Jerusalem you are in this matter in complete factual agreement with Hurtado. The *only* difference is that he thinks the author of Acts agrees with both of you, while you think the author of Acts is trying to suggest something like what e.g. Hengel hypothesizes.

                No, my disagreement with Hurtado was not over whether or not some details were or were not historical but over the method by which we may assume or believe certain statements in a narrative have a historical basis.

                Read that again. You have failed to grasp that from the outset — or have determined to ignore it and re-write it in some other way entirely to mean something else that you want it to mean.

                This has nothing to do with Hengel. The question of the historicity of this or that, I believe, should be moot. The reason for that is because no method can enable us to decide either way. The only evidence we have is that the narrative was creative literature.

                Hurtado preferred to close the discussion down rather than defend his position on methodology.

                You, on the other hand, want to renew the discussion by twisting what I have said — and twisting even what Hurtado himself said.

                … the case that what? That the Jews of Jerusalem were divided into the Greek- and Aramaic-speaking? …or that there was an opposition of Hellenistic and Hebraic sects in the early ‘church’? The former we know, nothing to declare moot. The latter we would only worry about if Acts was telling about it. But his argument was that it isn’t telling us any such thing.

                At no time did I address whether Jews of Jerusalem were divided into Greek and Aramaic speaking groups. I was addressing no such thing. I presume there would have been such natural cultural-linguistic groupings at some level but that is entirely beside the point. That is not the question I am doubting at all. I raised no such question with Larry.

                Larry was the one who at the end brought up the likelihood of such a division by reminding me of the obvious — that there were Greek speaking Jews and Jews with Hellenistic interests in Jerusalem. Right. I agree. But that is not proof of the historicity of anything in Acts.

                That sort of argument — (i.e. it’s plausible therefore it’s historical) — is the very method I am attempting to question with Larry. That is the question Larry did not want to pursue.

                I consider such a point quite irrelevant (not false– I assume it’s true!) and that’s why I said that background information is not proof of historicity of an event/situation in Acts 6.

                The methodological question is also the point you are failing to acknowledge here by twisting my words into something quite else.

                So large questions about how much we can learn about reality from Acts don’t bear on the issue he was posing, and you were simply changing the subject, or refusing to focus.

                The forum was a public blog. Comments tend to be conversational and some latitude is given for a certain meandering within limits. But you will notice my original post was reminding Larry of an alternative way of viewing the episode he was addressing — with reference to another highly respected scholar. I did not think that was out of line and nor, apparently, did Larry. He let it pass moderation, after all.

                But if you consider that as a naughty refusal to focus in class then you will have to keep me back after school and make me write 100 lines.

                When he addressed the large question, he only affirmed platitudes that anyone would accept, like the ones you quoted.

                Exactly. When he addressed methodology — (notice that he refused to focus on his original post and let himself address my comment on it) — he responded with platitudes that many of his peers would accept. A few of his peers do disagree and I was attempting to raise their view that NT historical methodology is circular.

                I think it’s time for friends and avatars of Burk to say farewell.

              • MichaelT
                2014-12-08 16:02:58 UTC - 16:02 | Permalink

                “So what is the historical basis for that? Hurtado produced only evidence for the plausibility of the tale but not evidence for its historicity.”

                The question is: what is the exact proposition or ‘tale’ that you think is false or maybe-false? The text just says that as the mathētēs multiplied, some Greek speaking ones complained that widows were being neglected. Is it that the mathētēs multiplied? If the proposition you are holding in suspense is that *some Jewish Messianist widows were not getting taken care of and that people in communication with them complained*, then Hurtado was emphatically holding it in suspense too. If it is that there was a division of churches by language, whether theologically united or not, he is saying the text isn’t saying anything about such a division of churches or organizations, so there is nothing to affirm or deny the ‘historicity; of. If the proposition was the implicit presupposition of this story, that Jerusalem was divided in to hellenistēs and hebraioi, or that the diaspora institution of the synagogue had made it even into Jerusalem, then it is a question of general history of the Levant, not about ‘the structure of the church’, and the answer is clear enough from other sources. Acts is in any case not purporting to be evidence of it, it takes it as common ground. But you keep objecting to Hurtado for affirming this. Which do you doubt: that Aramaic was spoken in Jerusalem, or that Greek was? The evidence for either proposition is overwhelming. Acts doesn’t represent itself as telling us that there was such ‘divide’, it takes it for granted that its readers know this, just as we do. It is not intimating something to the reader about ecclesiastical structure but using general knowledge the reader possesses. The text is simply misread by Hengel and you (as he thinks) as making a remark about the structure of the church.

                “This has nothing to do with Hengel. The question of the historicity of this or that, I believe, should be moot.” How can you say “the historicity of this or that, I believe, should be moot” without mentioning any propositions? Apart from fixed propositions we are dealing in abstractions.

                “The reason for that is because no method can enable us to decide either way. The only evidence we have is that the narrative was creative literature.” Right, what Hurtado is saying about “The Hellenists” was that the literature isn’t saying anything about such any such sect; the text is not introducing us to a division of any kind in the ‘church’, but just the one in Jerusalem we already knew about. That is, he objects to you on a purely literary-internal ground.

                “How could I know the mind of the author? Where did I mention anything about that?”

                You use many, many verbs above that impute complex and highly determinate psychological states to a 1st or 2nd century author, e.g. ‘invented’, ‘had a literary interest’, and you impute chains of reasoning to him (as I did in my hypothesis about his wanting the reader to picture a primitive communism.) There’s nothing wrong with this, but it is just more historical inference, and thus ‘historicity’ claims, not whit different from claims about the disposition of streets in !st c Jerusalem. Hurtado is saying, there is no point imputing to the text a literary interest in telling us there were sects, ‘theologically’ unified or not; it only has a literary use for a fact that was already *as familiar to the readers as to us*, that Jerusalem was bilingual. He is saying that “The Hellenists” are just the hellenistēs that even readers unfamiliar with the Apostles etc. will know about; the hellenistēs are like Cyrene, the existence of which is taken for granted by the text, the reader and by us.

  • Stuart
    2014-12-05 02:44:36 UTC - 02:44 | Permalink

    Niel,

    I have two observations about your commentary. Most of what you dislike is cult behavior, and you confuse it with Christianity. My experience growing was quite different, when idiots tried to teach me things I thought were wrong I didn’t affix blame on Christianity, but instead chalked it up to individuals not really understanding what they were saying or trying to teach. I never worried about their motives, and as I got older and went on about life I found the same behavior (which I notice at the time in school teachers and others) everywhere with or without religion.

    My second observation when you made your comment about “good” ideology, is similar to the criticism I make of my brother tolerating such people as agree with him. (We are both on the political right, but its the same lesson as on the left.)

    There is no good ideology. Ideology is like intuition, it is a shortcut to avoid the hard work of analysis and thinking without presumptions. I can see ideology still influences you in the statement that “good” ideology supports human rights, with the assumption that is a left of center position. That is a fallacy, both factual and logical. I wont debate it, I’ll let you think about it.

    Ideology is always bad because it reduces the world to black and white. You know that intellectually, as I do, but it take work to constantly remind yourself that somebody arriving at a different position is not doing so from bad intentions, but rather from a different equation of balancing rights and responsibilities, placing different emphasis on different principles. (I am discounting ideologues who left and right have a tendency to simply oppose whatever the opposite says and come up with often dubious reasoning to keep their ideology intact).

    OK back to ranting on why some obscure duded named Larry is a jerk, reason #179.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-12-05 21:51:23 UTC - 21:51 | Permalink

      I understand why some people associate me with a cultic past but what fewer seem to know is that I also grew up in a liberal Methodist church and after leaving the cult I very happily fellowshipped with liberal congregations — Anglicans among them. My background is more varied than many people realize.

      I think we agree on more than you think unless I am quite mistaken. After leaving the cult I at first expected to re-enter a world of reason etc (sort of) and was a little dismayed at first to observe the same fallacious reasoning and reacting among people at large as I had experienced in such a negative way in the cult. I compared cults with hard drugs and the mainstream religions with milder aspirins, with happy pentecostal marijuanas in the middle, etc. But yes, faulty analysis etc is a human condition, not the preserve of the religious. I have some compassion and sympathy for many religious, too — I have been where they have been and understand a little what they gain from it. But we are all products of a mix of our own genetic makeup and unique experiences.

      I have posted here my own learning and changing in relation to political/social ideas, too — not just religious ones — and my disappointment with some of the ways of my political activist friends.

      Yes, I agree “ideology” is dangerous. I have often said that “people” are more important than ideology and ideology too easily destroys people in a variety of ways.

      Having said all that, let me say that lately I have been taking peeks at other biblioblogs. I am quite surprised at the religious tone of many of them. I am having a hard time finding one that addresses biblical questions from a truly secular point of view. It seems nearly all are clearly interested in evangelism and apologetics in varying degrees. (There are a few exceptions — I may discuss these some time here.)

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