2008-01-14

Comprehension, honesty and logical issues in a debate with a fundamentalist

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by Neil Godfrey

Over the years I have jotted notes from books I have read and when opportunity permits I have edited some of these and posted on this blog. My purpose is to share some of the ideas and studies I have found interesting. That does not necessarily mean I agree with everything that is expressed. In some cases I have moved on as further reading has opened me to more questions and a deeper understanding of the issues. My quest is a positive one, of attempting to better understand the origins of Christianity and the Biblical literature. (Fundamentalists please note, I am well aware that faith in dogma is by definition impervious to reason and evidence so I am not attempting to “attack” your beliefs in these posts.)

I have also attempted on a few occasions to raise critical questions on the Cadre blog when I thought the author was attempting to address a reasoned argument but generally to be met with a mix of insult, ridicule, arrogant condescension from those good Christian folk. Twice they have deleted posts of mine that contained a link to something I had written here that I thought addressed a question they raised in some depth. They have also deleted other entire posts of mine there without explanation. (Though admittedly the second time the moderator cavalierly offered to reinstate one of the links but without offering any explanation why he deleted it in the first place nor with any apology.) So rather than reply to a critique of one of my posts on their blog I am posting my response here where I can be confident it will not be deleted and where I have some control over personal abuse — more on that at the end of this post.

For some reason my critic on Cadre failed to inform me that they even had a critique of my post online. I only stumbled across it by chance when clearing out another link to their website from an old email address. But it is not hard to see why they have decided to have their little incestuous discussion of my post in the privacy and security of their own “be all of one mind” blog. There they are free to re-write what I in fact wrote in the first place. (In the course of my followups I also discovered that a regular contributor to Cadre has his own website where he critiques other questioners of the Bible without given the benefit of a link to the original’s site for the sake of even a modicum of fairness.)

In my initial post attempting to introduce the arguments of Pervo on the literary genre of Acts (The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues) I wrote:

But Pervo’s comparison with ancient novels has persuaded him that Acts shared their particular qualities that excited and entertained his audiences. I have read many ancient novels over recent years — and many ancient historians over a longer period of time — and fully agree with him.

In attempting to counter the arguments expressed in my post, and apparently in particular in attempting to discredit me, an author on a fundamentalist website has twisted this to assert:

Neil begins by stating his “full” agreement with the theory of Richard Pervo that Acts is an ancient romance novel.

I am not sure if this author simply fails to comprehend what I wrote or is carelessly dishonest. I clearly expressed full agreement with Pervo’s claim that Acts shares with ancient novels “their particular qualities that excited and entertained his audiences.” I nowhere stated I “fully agree” with “the theory of Richard Pervo that Acts is an ancient romance novel”. My full agreement was carefully limited to Pervo’s discussion of particular qualities shared by ancient novels and the book of Acts. (Personally I think there is some historical matter behind some of the episodes in Acts, although I also think it has been the author’s intent to rewrite or deny the facts of history in those cases.)

I then wrote:

This is not to deny that the author of Acts wanted his narrative to be read as history. But by the standards of the day it was very much a history told like a popular novel. It was pitched at an audience whose tastes were more towards light and exciting reading than for the heavier and drier tomes of Thucydides. (I avoid the term “historical fiction” because the work was not read as fiction. It was meant to be read as history but it was pitched at the tastes of the wider public.)

My critic interprets this in the following way:

  1. Neil says it is significant Acts was targeted at a popular audience
  2. Acts is not like the the drier “tombs” (sic) of Thucydides
  3. Neil “concedes” Acts was meant to be read as history
  4. Nevertheless “Neil claims Acts cannot be understood as ancient historiography”

He then comes in with his devastating critique:

  1. “It is unclear why the fact that Acts was written to a more popular audience means that it cannot be ancient historiography.”
  2. Even dry novels (meaning as dry as Thucydides history) are still novels.
  3. Even real histories can be written in a popularizing style.

Again, I don’t know if the critic simply failed to comprehend what I wrote or is being carelessly dishonest. Firstly I nowhere argue or claim — nor, I think, does Pervo — that a writing for a popular audience “cannot be ancient historiography”. Secondly, nowhere is it Pervo’s or my argument that novels can be dry and heavy reading and histories can be popular. The critic has completely misunderstood what I have written.

My critic further wrote:

Given that genre is intended to communicate authorial intent, it would seem that the scales would tilt toward historiography.

Here we have less an error of comprehension than one of logic, coupled with perhaps a lack of knowledge of literary-rhetorical studies. Yes, genre is intended to communicate intent. But it does not follow that a historical genre or a biographical genre can tell us what that intent is. It does not follow that a epistolic genre proves that a document is a genuine epistle. See Rosenmeyer. Logically genre can do no more than tell us how an author intends his work to be read. Forgeries and lying propaganda do exist. Few question this in the case of noncanonical texts. I can’t imagine any historian worth his or her salt treating a document as true history or true biography on the basis of its genre alone.

And never let a chance for a snide put-down go by: my Christian critic wrote –

Neil, you see, has read ancient histories and ancient novels and avoids this trap.

I really do wish the Bible itself had far fewer instances of the likes of Jesus and Paul and Moses abusing those they take to be their opponents so as to set a better example for such believers.

I wrote:

Students of biblical literature should read widely in literature contemporary with those biblical books. It’s the only way to really dispel impressions we pick up from our religious background that the Bible’s books are like no others. I suspect that a cultural predisposition to read Acts as a devotional-like religious history has focused many till now on attempting to find parallels with ancient historians at the expense of “less serious” literature.

One major pillar of the dogma that Acts is ancient historiography comes from the use of a preface, the employment of speeches, and of course, the sustained narrative of events, including references to secular history. For those nurtured on the classics, Acts looks a bit of somewhat familiar ground. (p.4, Profit)

My fundamentalist critic somehow fancies this means that I “argue”, “as usual”:

those scholars who identify Acts as ancient historiography do so because of bias. . .[they] cannot help but see Acts as religiously significant and simply lack familiarity with contemporary classical works.

Well, the one part of the first sentence is an oversimplification but yes, I do “suspect” that “students of biblical literature” (I was not discussing “scholars” although I would not discount “all” scholars) do read Acts with a certain bias. Bias is simply inevitable. It comes with the human condition. I have my biases too. The trick is not to escape bias — that would be to escape the human condition and ability to relate to any sector of society — but to become increasingly aware of them and how they influence our judgments, our explorations, our discoveries, our reasoning and interpretations. Pervo is not suggesting anything “bad” or unusual when he addresses past bias in scholarship. He is merely alerting readers to be aware that he is addressing a particular bias found in the scholarship with an alternative way of looking at a problem, evidence and argument. The point is not to think one can be free of bias (an illusion at best, or a delusion) but to be aware of the biases underpinning an argument. That is not relativism. A decent scholar needs also to be able to explain or even justify his or her biases for them to be acceptable to peers.

Nor did I ever suggest these scholars “lack familiarity” with contemporary literature, though many do.

What I did say was that they have not sought comparisons between Acts and other literature, and then I quoted Pervo saying that familiarity with the classics leads one to see many points in common with Acts. That is not to deny that Pervo’s interpretations are open to debate. Of course they are. Some scholars will take a different interpretation. But my critic seems to find it necessary to twist what I say into the straw man he feels more confident of beating.

My critic then launches into a page or more of quotations from “classical historians”, including “an avowed atheist” who say nice things about the historicity of the book of Acts — as if that must somehow undermine the case Pervo is making. This is called the in discussions of logic the “argument from authority fallacy”.

He cites Fox when he follows the same assumptions as other scholars who read Acts at face value — as genuine history.

He then cites Sherwin-White as “an imminent (sic) Roman historian” quite logically arguing that any argument doubting the historicity of Acts appears “absurd”.

Well then, let the assumptions and assertions of Fox and Sherwin-White be included among those assessed against the arguments of Pervo and others. Let’s begin the debate. Let’s see what Pervo says and see if there is reason to question Fox’s and others’ views.

Critic:

Neil’s contention that familiarity with classical writings leads to a rejection to (sic) Acts as ancient history is simply wrong.

Challenge: Where did Neil ever say this? He didn’t. It certainly CAN in conjunction with other analysis help lead to that conclusion. But the critic has chosen to bypass what Pervo is quoted as saying or any of my actual words.

Finally my critic says

Neil sells many New Testament scholars short by implying they are ignorant or dismissive of classical studies.

He then lists five scholars who do in fact “seriously engage the biblical literature in their discussions of the purpose and genre of Acts”. The continuing implication is of course that I have made some claim that NT scholars are in general ignorant and dismissive of classical studies. Of course I have never suggested anything like that and I would challenge my critic to point to where I have so much as indicated this – but to point to my own words and their context, and not to rely on something he claims to be his own paraphrase of what I said.

But the mere fact of thinking that by bringing in nonbiblical scholars as authorities demonstrates the critics complete lack of understanding of Pervo’s (and in this case my) positions. We are not lining up “biblical scholars” against “classical scholars”. We are not attacking some religious position out of some sort of irrational bias. It is the proposition that is being addressed, — whether it asserted by biblical or nonbiblical historians is immaterial. Although of course most of those holding the proposition under discussion are biblical historians and it is only reasonable to posit reasons why Pervo’s analysis has not before now been undertaken to the extent it now has.

Again, I cannot tell if the critic is lacking comprehension, is dishonest, or just logically challenged. The mere use and application of classical studies to Acts is not the point at issue in Pervo’s book. (The critic insists for some reason in crediting Pervo’s arguments to me.) What is at issue is the way they are applied, and a different analysis and interpretation than hitherto undertaken by any of the scholars he mentions.

But even where scholars in the past have compared Acts to ancient novels and found the comparisons wanting, there is no question that they have simply not done so in the detailed level of enquiry that Pervo has undertaken. It seems my critic is really upset that someone — a scholar no less — is raising questions and exploring new paths that throw open to question long entrenched positions held by other scholars. What a scandal! No wonder a quick straw-man reconstruction of the challenge is called for!

Finally, the reason I have not linked to the Cadre site directly in this post (though I have done so till now in other dialogue with them) is because this critic, this good Christian fellow, has demonstrated a willingness to resort to the gutter with filthy ad hominem in his critique — presented in a way to appear as a harmless aside of course so that his own halo remains untarnished. Such is the dirty grubby tactic of this good Christian gentleman who pretends to engage in “honest intellectual debate”.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2008-01-14 19:52:32 GMT+0000 - 19:52 | Permalink

    P.S. Forgot to add that my critic quoted Sherwin-White’s complaint about how form-criticism undermined the ability of scholars to discover a historical Christ. — this of course is in logic known as the non-sequitur fallacy. Literary criticism of the type explored by a number of recent scholars including Pervo is an alternative approach to form-criticism. It rejects the methods and conclusions of form criticism.

  • 2008-01-15 02:22:59 GMT+0000 - 02:22 | Permalink

    By any chance did your critic quote A.N. Sherwin-White as follows?

    “For Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. . . . But any attempt to reject its basic historicity, even in matters of detail, must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted. (Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament p. 189)”

    You might be interested to see what is being omitted.

    “Yet Acts is, in simple terms and judged externally, no less of a propaganda narrative than the Gospels, liable to similar distortions.”

    In you are interested, I detail the apologists misrepresentation of Sherwin-White’s work on my blog: http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/search/label/A.N.%20Sherwin-White.

  • 2008-01-15 06:39:49 GMT+0000 - 06:39 | Permalink

    Thanks for your link to the Sherwin-White discussion. It’s an important one. I’ve added your blog to my blogroll too.

    And yes, of course my critic omitted the critical sentence you point out.

    The fundamentalist cherry picks citations from any other “authority”, not just their bible verses, and regardless of context, to make their point — from “authority” of course. They love their “sound bytes” of quotations. The thought of actually taking the trouble to go out and find the original books they come from, and then read them from cover to cover to come to terms with the whole picture of what the author is really arguing, — as opposed to skimming to find the bits they can use or distort — is little in evidence.

    What of course many confuse is the meaning of “historicity” as used by some historians. Much true historical information can be learned from a well researched historical novel or movie today. As students of ancient history we read selected ancient novels, plays and satirical poems to better grasp the ancient ways of life and thought.

    But I confess I wrote that post in a depressed peeve — I felt as scandalized and guilty as those Israelites who witnessed, and must have felt in part responsible for, the Moabite king resorting to the “grubby tactic” of sacrificing his eldest son in an attempt to win his battle, 2 Kings 3:27.

  • 2008-01-15 09:36:27 GMT+0000 - 09:36 | Permalink

    Since the fundamentalist Christian already knows that his conclusion is true, he knows that anything that supports his position must be true as well. Therefore, he has no need to verify anything.

  • 2008-01-15 10:15:46 GMT+0000 - 10:15 | Permalink

    Touche. Perfectly put.

    And the only reason there is any need to find supports for their position is to “convict” their opponents from their own mouths/camp, and to satisfy themselves that even the whole world would agree with them if only they were so honest.

  • Pingback: The literary genre of Acts: Richard Pervo replies to Chris Price / Layman (for Cadre blog readers only!) « Vridar

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