Author Archives: Tim Widowfield

How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives”

In his recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, Michael Licona struggles to show that we skeptics make far too much of the differences in the canonical gospels. Many of these differences, he argues, result from ordinary compositional devices typically used by authors of Greco-Roman biographies.

This volume will pursue the identification of several techniques employed in the writing of ancient history and biography that can be gleaned from compositional textbooks and inferred from observations of the differences in how Plutarch reported the same events in nine of his Lives. We will also observe how the employment of these techniques by the evangelists would result in precisely the types of differences we often observe in the Gospels. (Licona, 2017, Location 268, Kindle Edition)

Licona’s methodology, such as it is, invites us to concentrate our attention on actions as mere techniques. Imagine, for example, watching a large truck barreling down a multilane highway at great speed, then swerving for some reason. Now imagine a bicyclist riding down a country path, then swerving for some reason. Since NT scholars “know” that a bicycle is really just a truck, can we infer that swerving is just some sort of “driving technique” employed by all truckers?

Motiveless motion?

Perhaps not. Maybe the key is not to focus on the act, but on the motives. When we ask the truck driver, he may tell us that he was trying to avoid a deer, while the bicyclist may explain that she hit a rock lying in the path. Our superficial concentration on the event with the truck tells us nothing of consequence with respect to the adventure of the solitary cyclist. read more »

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?

Plutarch

Plutarch

Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

Happy Anniversary to Vridar!

Seven years ago, Neil registered with WordPress.com and Vridar was born. Thanks, Neil!

Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »

Is Jesus’ Itinerancy a Secure Fact or a Narrative Device?

Scholars who study the historical Jesus will sometimes compile lists of minimal “secure facts” — the few things we can be reasonably certain “must be” true about the life of Christ. At the barest minimum, we have: “An itinerant Jewish teacher or preacher from Galilee who was crucified by Pilate.”

In the words of E. P. Sanders:

We have seen that the gospels depict Jesus and his disciples as itinerant. Some or all of them had homes and families, but they spent a lot of time on the road, and there is no mention of their working during Jesus’ active career. In part they were busy proclaim­ing the kingdom; in part the condition of the call of the close disciples was that they give up everything. (Sanders 1993, p. 107)

Bricks and mortar

The overwhelming number of NT scholars today would likely tell us that the reason the gospels portray a traveling Jesus is that such a portrayal reflects reality. But recently, while reading Redactional Style in the Marcan Gospel by E. J. Pryke, it struck me that many of the key redactional elements in Mark, our first narrative gospel, have to do with time and place. In other words, when Mark joined his stories together he needed some brief connecting language to create some sort of flow. Changing the time and place provides an implicit explanation for a change in subject and audience.

Mark, as you know, frequently didn’t care to elaborate on these shifts in place and time. In fact, quite often he barely takes the time to say Jesus and his cohorts “immediately” went from location A to location B.

And immediately after they came out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. (Mark 1:29, NASB)

Redaction critics look for linguistic markers (peculiar usage, telltale vocabulary, etc.) that would tend to signify the parts of the gospels that are probably redactional. In other words, they look for indicators that help discriminate between the story-bricks and the redaction-mortar that holds them together.

Each evangelist had his own set of quirks. Pryke notes that Mark, for example, had a habit of using the genitive absolute when introducing a new pericope. In a nutshell, the genitive absolute is a short participial phrase unrelated to the main clause except, in Mark’s case, as a kind of introductory scene-setting device. In Mark 5:2, for example, we have: read more »

Paul and Eschatalogical Morality

In a recent post (What a Bizarre Profession), Neil cited James McGrath over at The Pigeon Trough, discussing Paul’s admonition to the Romans not to resist the powers that be.

13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  (NASB)

English: The Apostle Paul

English: The Apostle Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naturally, McGrath mainly wished to take a few fizzling fusillades at mythicists, and that’s no surprise. What did surprise me was the number of respected scholars who actually take the scripture so seriously (if not literally), they feel obliged to tie themselves into rhetorical knots over whether and when to refuse to submit to governing authorities.

As Neil rightly said:

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

But even if he had written more clearly, and we fully understood the context of Romans 13, would we have any reason to consider Paul a trustworthy advocate for ethical behavior?

The question intrigues me, so I thought I’d compile a little list of reasons we might not want to trust Paul’s advice.

♦ Imminent Eschatology

Paul was clearly a believer in the imminent eschaton. He seems to have arrived at this belief by analyzing recent events, especially the resurrection, in light of scriptural reinterpretation. We might find his method somewhat odd, since he could have cited the teachings of his Christ instead. However, Paul either chose not to mention Jesus’ predictions concerning the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, or else he was unaware of them. read more »

They Love Trump Because You Hate Him

The French smoke because Americans don’t. Or at least that’s what they used to tell us, only partly joking. But nobody would injure himself just to spite someone else, would he? Seems unlikely.

But if you skim the web looking for reasons why people smoke, beyond the typical reason (they enjoy it), you’ll find a surprising number say that they do it because they know it’s bad. If it annoys others, then so much the better. In a world where people have precious little control over their own lives, smoking can become an act of individuality and rebellion.

In the first episode of True Detective, Rustin “Rust” Cohle asks for “a sixer o’ Old Milwaukee or Lone Star, nothin’ snooty.”

 

When I heard him say that, I immediately thought, “I know this guy.” I grew up when mainstream beers in the U.S. were pretty tolerable. Did they become more watered-down and more bitter over the past few decades? I would argue that they did. Some of the low-calorie beers that people drink by the gallon every weekend barely taste like beer to me.

Just the fact I admitted publicly that I hate cheap American beer shows that I’m outside of Rust’s circle. Only a fool would pay more than he needs to to get drunk. Only a snob would ask the bartender, “What’s on draft?” Authentic people see value in bad beer, bad coffee, and gummy white bread.

That’s one of the keys to unlocking the mystery behind Donald Trump’s winning the presidency. If you didn’t vote for him, you can probably rattle off a hundred reasons why you think he’ll be a disaster. You may even be in the middle of “explaining it” to somebody on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit right now. Or maybe you’re laying out your case in an strongly worded email email to an uncle who doesn’t have the good sense to keep his racist comments to himself. read more »

What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 2)

Witch of Endor by Nikolay Ge

Witch of Endor by Nikolay Ge

In the previous post we began to discuss the fundamental difference between the Bayesian and frequentist approaches to probability. A Bayesian defines probability as a subjective belief about the world, often expressed as a wagering proposition. “How much am I willing to bet that the next card will give me a flush?”

To a frequentist, however, probability exists in the physical world. It doesn’t change, and it isn’t subjective. Probability is the hard reality that over the long haul, if you flip a fair coin it will land heads up half the time and tails up the other half. We call them “frequentists,” because they maintain they can prove that the unchanging parameter is fixed and objectively true by measuring the frequency of repeated runs of the same event over and over.

Fairies and witches

But does objective probability really exist? After reading several books focused on subjective probability published in the past few decades, I couldn’t help noticing that Bruno de Finetti‘s Theory of Probability stands as a kind of watershed. In the preface he says that objective probability, the very foundation of frequentism, is a superstition. If he’s correct, that means it isn’t just bad science; it’s anti-science. He writes: read more »

What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 1)

English: Picturing 50 realisations of a 95%-co...

English: Picturing 50 realisations of a 95%-confidence interval (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As my thesis partner and I gathered up the evidence we had collected, it began to dawn on us — as well as on our thesis advisers — that we didn’t have enough for ordinary, “normal” statistics. Our chief adviser, an Air Force colonel, and his captain assistant were on the faculty at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), where my partner and I were both seeking a master’s degree in logistics management.

We had traveled to the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia to talk with a group of supply-chain managers and to administer a survey. We were trying to find out if they adapted their behavior based on what the Air Force expected of them. Our problem, we later came to understand, was a paucity of data. Not a problem, said our advisers. We could instead use non-parametric statistics; we just had to take care in how we framed our conclusions and to state clearly our level of confidence in the results.

Shopping for Stats

In the end, I think our thesis held up pretty well. Most of the conclusions we reached rang true and matched both common sense and the emerging consensus in logistics management based on Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. But the work we did to prove our claims mathematically, with page after page of computer output, sometimes felt like voodoo. To be sure, we were careful not to put too much faith in them, not to “put too much weight on the saw,” but in some ways it seemed as though we were shopping for equations that proved our point.

I bring up this story from the previous century only to let you know that I am in no way a mathematician or a statistician. However, I still use statistics in my work. Oddly enough, when I left AFIT I simultaneously left the military (because of the “draw-down” of the early ’90s) and never worked in the logistics field again. I spent the next 24 years working in information technology. Still, my statistical background from AFIT has come in handy in things like data correlation, troubleshooting, reporting, data mining, etc.

We spent little, if any, time at AFIT learning about Bayes’ Theorem (BT). I think looking back on it, we might have done better in our thesis, chucking our esoteric non-parametric voodoo and replacing it with Bayesian statistics. I first had exposure to BT back around the turn of the century when I was spending a great deal of time both managing a mail server and maintaining an email interface program written in the most hideous dialect of C the world has ever produced. read more »

Just How Dangerous Is Mythicism?

Demon

Demon

In hindsight, I think we were unnecessarily cruel to Mr. Griffin, our misfit freshman science teacher. Behind his back, we referred to him by his initials, R.A.G., and sang that old “Rag Mop” song. He was a bit of a goof, but to RAG’s credit, he chose an innovative science text intended to take the student on an “odyssey of discovery.”

That high school textbook focused on a mysterious crystalline substance called bluestone. Over the course of the semester, we would test hypotheses and run several experiments trying to identify this stuff. I think it was my friend, Doug Simpson, who very early on sneaked a peak at the instructor’s edition lying on RAG’s desk and who shouted out, “It’s copper sulfate!

RAG was furious.

MacGuffins

You could, of course, consider bluestone as a sort of MacGuffin. To be sure, we were learning basic chemistry; however, the main purpose of the text was to teach us the scientific method. At the beginning the book invited the student to consider the demon hypothesis, the notion that tiny invisible beings were causing our bluestone to react to exposure to heat, dilution in water, combination with other chemicals, etc. After each experiment we’d evaluate the results and alter our hypothesis. Eventually, we would develop a new, more scientific hypothesis — one that better predicted future experiments and more rationally explained our observations.

Our so-called demon hypothesis had some features in common with other early natural theories such as the chemical theory of phlogiston, which postulated an imaginary, immaterial substance released during combustion. But it had even more in common with prescientific theories that required supernatural intervention in the natural world to explain mundane phenomena. We could also draw similarities with the concept of the devil’s advocate, inasmuch as our placeholder hypothesis was obviously wrong and decidedly nonscientific (or even antiscientific).

Pigeons

To hear Dr. James McGrath tell it, no variation of the Jesus Myth hypothesis has merit. In fact, he consistently compares it to creationism. Actually, he always takes care to call it Young Earth Creationism, in deference to Old Earth Creationism and Guided Evolution, pseudo-scientific theories he finds perfectly acceptable.

Incidentally, here on Vridar we did not adequately mark the passage of The Exploding Cakemix, which McGrath has renamed “Religion Prof.” Of course, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Hereinafter, I shall refer to his blog by a moniker that will “retain that dear perfection,” namely The Pigeon Trough. read more »

29 October 2016: Planned Maintenance — Expect Outages

Hello, Vridarians. We’re about to undergo some changes here. You will likely see rather long outages this weekend as we move to a new platform.

–Tim

Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »

What Is a Prophet?

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.

Uncertain terms

On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.

Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.

In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short. read more »

September 11 and the Surveillance State

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. (George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 1)

Our world, sixteen years after 11 September 2001, has changed dramatically in both subtle and obvious ways. We scarcely notice one of the most all-encompassing changes, namely the loss of privacy in almost every facet of our lives. Cameras track us everywhere we go. Our credit card payments betray our every purchase. Our cell phones share our GPS locations. We voluntarily tell people where we are, where we’re going, what we’re eating, and what we’re thinking on social media platforms.

Mostly, we relinquished our illusion of privacy without a peep. Our language shows the voluntary nature of our loss: We share with people, and simultaneously, we share with our governments. Once upon a time in the West, we trusted our governments to spy only on suspects. If they gathered enough evidence, they might arrest those suspects. But now our governments “surveil” those whom it deems “persons of interest.” If those persons act “suspiciously,” they may be “detained.”

Presumably, we allowed these changes to occur because of 9/11, specifically, because our intelligence agencies had failed. Surely, if a small band of terrorists could bring down skyscrapers in Manhattan and strike the Pentagon, someone must have failed somewhere. We can’t deny that. But exactly where did that failure occur? read more »