Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Snap: Sami Ameri's "Hunting for the Word of God"

I haven't had much in the way of dealings with Muslim apologists; my few encounters have shown me that Muslim apologetics has a highly derivative nature, which is to say, they tend to just borrow ammo from others rather than come up with their own material. Sami Ameri's Hunting for the Word of God is a case in point; the bulk of this book could be summed up as a case of Ameri hunting for any statement by any textual critic suggesting the least amount of doubt on any issue related to the textual criticism of the New Testament, and collecting them all into one big mishmash, and then smugly posing as though Christians ought to panic because he's managed to assemble this Frankenstein.

What continually escapes Ameri, however, is that Christians as a whole don't need a Bible that is handed down as though still dictated word for word. In fact, much of his projected worrywarting obviously derives from an assumption that Christians need for the Bible to be as he supposes the Quran to be -- preserved with often word for word accuracy from Day 1 of writing until now.

Well, sorry, Sami -- that's not the case. And while I didn't find anything in this book that I don't handle in Trusting the New Testament (including Ameri's apparent obsession with the "obscure zone" between the time of the writing of the NT, and the earliest substantial manuscripts), it is rather breathtaking the way Ameri (who has no qualifications in the field of textual criticism) presumes to dictate to what he calls the "inflated arrogance" of those who practice textual criticism [9] just because they won't drop into panic-crisis mode when he thinks  they should.
Needless to say, Ameri doesn't deal with the fact that his paranoid criteria for textual reliability would render the whole of ancient history a blank slate. He bypasses that matter quickly and quietly in one paragraph, declaring that "it is nonsensical to use books for whose texts no one can vouchsafe complete integrity to prove the faithful transmission of the New Testament," [37] adding rather irrelevantly that we can't be certain of the Homeric authorship of the Iliad. So there you have it folks: Latin scholars are being "nonsensical" for relying on a text like Tactitus' Annals. Isn't it nice to know that Ameri is here to set all those people straight? And yet he also has the nerve to speak of "inflated arrogance"?

Even when Ameri gets down to specific textual problems, he's as lost in the woods as Hansel and Gretel being followed by a vacuum cleaner.  For some reason, he expects intelligent Christians like Daniel Wallace to wring their hands because later scribes expanding Luke 11:11-12 so that there is a third pair of items in opposition.  The panic-polemic brings to mind for me to draw a cartoon of Ameri as a tiny chihuahua, jumping up and down and barking, "Worry! Worry! Worry!!!" Inflated arrogance? Not him.

A final section of his book discusses the textual state of the Quran, which frankly would not interest me even if all that Ameri said about it were accurate.
I'll leave that aspect to others rather than collect sound bites a la Ameri.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Snap: Rob Bell's "What We Talk About When We Talk About God"

The emergent church specializes in the production of books that combine aptly the traits of having minimal substance while producing maximal annoyance. Rob Bell's What We Talk About When We Talk About God (hereafter WWT) exceeds in both of those categories, to the extent that I could not bear to finish it; I made it to page 110 before giving up.

WWT is exactly the kind of book you might expect from Bell as someone who compares experiencing God to jumping on a trampoline (as he does in a prior volume). If WWT were a picture book, it would be pictures of Bell jumping up and down on a trampoline and shouting, "God! WHEEEE!" 

Yes, there is that little substance to it. The first major chapter consists of Bell citing litanies about the wonders of creation, as a sort of vague version of the argument from design mashed in with the argument from beauty. His chapters are given annoying one-word titles like "Both" and "With"; but for all the substance of this book, the contents of each chapter may as well have been one word in total too. 

There's not much more that can be said of WWT; there's nothing of value here to any intelligent reader, since the design of the text (which is also annoyingly justified in peculiar ways throughout) is apparently to provide a thumb for persons obsessed with "relevance" to suck on.  Otherwise it's just the usual "right problem, wrong solution" diatribe we're used to from emergent literature.

But there is one piece of good news: In the first 110 pages, at least, Bell didn't say that Mithra was crucified.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Seven Irrefutable Points: Part 2

Now for the second from our “Red Flag” critic:

2)…100% FACT: not only are the gospels anonymously written, but they are written in the 3rd person (deepening the anonymity of these unknown ancient authors) …RED FLAG!!!!

100% FACT: Like the last one, this is both bogus reasoning, an arbitrary criterion, and poor scholarship. 

For one thing, third person presentation does not “deepen anonymity.” Whether a work is written in first, second, or third person is not, and never has been, used by scholars to gauge authorship.

But more importantly, there’s a rather obvious reason (to informed persons) why the Gospels are written in third person: They are of the genre of ancient history/biography.

By way of example, note this from the biography of Agricola, by Tacitus:

He served his military apprenticeship in Britain to the satisfaction of Suetonius Paullinus, a painstaking and judicious officer, who, to test his merits, selected him to share his tent. Without the recklessness with which young men often make the profession of arms a mere pastime, and without indolence, he never availed himself of his tribune's rank or his inexperience to procure enjoyment or to escape from duty. He sought to make himself acquainted with the province and known to the army; he would learn from the skilful, and keep pace with the bravest, would attempt nothing for display, would avoid nothing from fear, and would be at once careful and vigilant. Never indeed had Britain been more excited, or in a more critical condition. Veteran soldiers had been massacred, colonies burnt, armies cut off. The struggle was then for safety; it was soon to be for victory. And though all this was conducted under the leadership and direction of another, though the final issue and the glory of having won back the province belonged to the general, yet skill, experience, and ambition were acquired by the young officer. His soul too was penetrated with the desire of warlike renown, a sentiment unwelcome to an age which put a sinister construction on eminent merit, and made glory as perilous as infamy.

As can be seen, this is third person through and through. Yet not one commentator would make such an absurd claim as that this somehow disqualifies Tacitus as the author.

I might add of course that some parts of the Gospel literature is not written in third person; e.g., the “we” passages in Acts. But it doesn’t really matter, because this idea that “third person” somehow disqualifies authorship is merely nonsensical.

So now, questions for this critic, to add to that last one:

Why should “third person” give us any sign of authorship?

Based on the answer to this, how do you explain that scholars do not discount e.g., Tacitus’ authorship of Agricola on this basis?

I won’t be expecting an answer. Not a real one, anyway.

Related post by Nick Peters.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Seven Irrefutable Points? Part 1

Over the next few entries, we’re going to have a look at some claimed “FACTS” posted by a rather ill-informed critic who has a rather inflated self-assessment, but not the scholarship or the courage to back it up with a direct debate on TheologyWeb (see link below). We won't name him in this post, because he likes the attention, but we will put a label on the post so that search engines can find it.

1)…100% FACT: we don’t know who wrote the gospels (guess all you want but at the end of the day we don’t know who wrote them because no one signed their name to them) …RED FLAG!!!!

100% FACT: This is not only bogus reasoning and arbitrary criterion, it’s poor scholarship.

To begin, it is hard to tell if what is meant here is literal and personal  written signatures,  or else some sort of simple affixing of a name (by any writer, including a copyist). If the former is meant, then there is virtually no document that passes this test even today. Tacitus certainly didn’t personally sign any copy of the Annals, Histories, or Agricola we have in our possession. Edmund Morris didn’t personally sign my copies of his (alleged) multi-volume history of the life of Theodore Roosevelt. This “100% FACT” effectively declares a direct causal relationship between a signature not being affixed and being able to determine authorship of a document, so the conclusion would have to be that any document not personally signed by the author is one we can only “guess” at the authorship of.  

I have surveyed large number of volumes on classical and historical literature, as well as thousands of other books in my lifetime, and I can count on one hand the number I have had in my possession that have such a signature affixed to them – like Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. But then again – I didn’t see him sign it; it could have been his publicist, or some faker, so I can’t even be sure then, if we’re going to be strict about this. I have also yet to find any scholar that believes that an affixed, personal signature is a requirement to determine authorship.

On the other hand, if this means simply any affixing of a name, not necessarily a personal signature, then by this reasoning, we do know who wrote the Gospels – the names of the authors are affixed at the very beginning, just as they are for the works of Tacitus and multiple other ancient documents, whether histories, biographies, or poetry. 

In Trusting the New Testament , I surveyed the evidence for authorship of New Testament document, and compared the evidence for their authorship to that of secular documents like the works of Tacitus. Compared to those, even the NT document with the weakest evidence, 2 Peter, wins hands down in terms of volume and quality of evidence.  

The real questions are: 

What criteria does Our critic use to decide the authorship of documents?

How would they fare when applied to sources like Tacitus’ Annals, which are universally acknowledged by serious scholars as the work of Tacitus?

And more to the point…is our critic really looking for objective tests for authorship, or just making up things as he goes along as a way of excluding the New Testament, by arbitrarily raising the bar of evidence to unjustified, artificially stratospheric heights?

I’ve checked our critic’s record on other blogs when confronted with these points. His response has been one of the following:

       Leave the blog, sometimes saying he’s busy.

    Repeat back the same argument as though nothing has happened – along with one or more of many other slogans he has collected.

That’s a pretty clear indicating he’s making the rules up as he goes along.

Link to forum thread

Link to another treatment by Nick Peters

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Archko Volume

From the April 2010 E-Block.
A reader requested that we do a piece on an item titled The Archko Volume. I remember this book being both in my public library (and it still is), and in a local Christian bookstore. It didn’t take too long to see it was one of those “too good to be true” sort of things – like the story of how NASA allegedly proved Joshua’s “long day”.

In a nutshell, The Archko Volume (hereafter TAV) claims to provide a compilation of correspondence from people like Pilate, Caiaphas, and Gamaliel, reputedly confirming various accounts in the New Testament. That this volume is a fraud is not open to question, so what we’ll discuss here is, “Just how obvious of a fraud is it?”

The alleged story of the discovery of these documents raises red flags all by itself. The author, “Rev. W. D. Mahan,” says that one winter day in 1856 he hosted one “H. C. Whydaman” had availed himself of a library in the Vatican, with over 560,000 volumes in it, where he had found some of the material featured now in TAV. (The Vatican? How interesting that this is the same place all the conspiracy theorists find their material as well.) Whydaman offered to send him a translation of one of these works, and thereafter, Mahan says, he became interested enough to take a trip there himself in 1883 – for in his own mind, it seemed incredible that there had been no records left of Jesus by his enemies and by the courts. 

Curious indeed: The same charge is also made by Skeptics who object that there is no record of Jesus’ trial in the court records of Pilate. Apparently it no more occurred to Mahan than it did to them that we don’t have the court records of ANY provincial governor of Rome, on any subject matter. Nor do we have anything written by Caiaphas or Gamaliel, or any of the other persons Mahan supposes ought to have written about Jesus. In essence this is Remsberg’s objection refurbished for a new purpose. 

But as to the details of the letters themselves – there’s more than a few red flags within as well, though not as many as might be supposed, if only because Mahan stuck as closely to simply reporting what was in the Bible as he could, thereby avoiding many problems of anachronism. He also avoided such problems by offering a number of non-disprovable personal stories, so short on detail that there would be little chance for anachronism to creep in.

Even then, however, he didn’t escape all such problems. The most glaring by far – which by itself kills any chance of TAV containing authentic material – has characters referencing Biblical texts by chapter/verse designations that would not exist for the Old Testament until 1448 AD. Mahan tried to hide this by using slightly different terms (e.g., “section” rather than “chapter”) but that cat simply won’t stay in the bag so easily.

Other than this, we have the spectre of Biblical characters acting a great deal like 19th century American people and not like first century members of an agonistic society – e.g., we can hardly imagine a distinguished teacher like Gamaliel, in such a society, gently teasing Mary (Martha’s sister) about being in love with Jesus [93], the fantasies of Nikos Kazantakis notwithstanding. We also have the somewhat unbelievable picture of men like Pilate describing Jesus in highly flattering, adoring terms – which is so contrary to what we know of the historical Pilate that it too gives away TAV as a forgery all by itself. I imagine we could readily find more such problems, but we don’t really need to go any further. The problems listed here by themselves are enough.

In close, it may be wondered whether items like TAV are worth the bother. Sadly, they are. About 20 years ago, when I saw it in the Christian bookstore, I advised the manager of the store that the book was a fraud. He immediately removed the book from the shelves, since he knew I was a trustworthy source. But that it could have been found at all in the first place tells us that we still have work to do when it comes to getting the church to board the Discernment Express. And we also continue to find that gullible people accept this work as authentic (see here for a particularly sad example; in contrast see here for a report on more problems).