Thursday, January 19, 2006

Philosophy and New Testament Scholarship

Randy wrote:
Since you agree that one can be an anti-Humean and come to the completely opposite conclusion regarding the historical validity of the Bible as you do, that seems to go along with my point that one's a priori commitement in regards to the supernatural is irrelevant in reaching that conclusion.
If an anti-Humean after closely examining the text finds that say John has almost zero historical validity while Mark has more, then why can't a Humean using that same methodology also be allowed to reach the same conclusion?
By the way, I looked into Stephen T. Davis. He appears to be a philosopher and not a biblical scholar. At least I could see little indication from his curriculum vitae, that he is personally engaged in analyzing ancient texts in their original language. IMHO, it's much better spending the time reading scholars like Brown or Metzger or Ehrman who actually work directly with the texts than a secondary work like Mr. Davis's. But if you can point me to info regarding Mr. Davis that indicates I'm mistaken about him, I'll be more than happy to try and get a look at his book.
5:38 PM

VR: I happen to like Davis because, as a philosopher, he is aware of the philosophical issues surrounding the study of biblical documents. To get the best answers in biblical studies you not only need to have studied the documents themselves, you need a familiarity with literary criticism in general, as Lewis pointed out, and you also have to be sure that you have a clear understanding of the underlying philosophical issues behind the study of these documents.

In 1990, I was a fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame. There was a conference on philosophy and biblical criticism. The philosophers tended to be more traditional in their understanding of the biblical documents and were critical of the left-wing biblical scholars because of a failure to understand logic, argumentation, and the underlying philosophical issues that bore on biblical studies. The Bible scholars thought that the philosophers didn't know as much as they ought to have about biblical studies to be making those criticism. Things got very heated because the keynote speaker was Michael Dummett, a Catholic philosopher of language who had done little in the area of philosophy of religion but had blasted left-wing biblical scholarship in a recent issue of New Blackfriars. His commentator, John Collins, was very harsh in his response and said that Jesus would be turning over in his grave if he could hear what Dummett had said.

The session that was fascinating to me, was a paper read by Marilyn McCord Adams on the miracle stories in Luke-Acts. Adams had just completed a divinity degree at Princeton thoelogy seminary, but for many years she had, along with her husband Robert M. Adams, been part of a highly-regarded husband-wife team of Christian philosophers at UCLA. She argued that much of the literature concerning miracle stories in Acts was driven (that's the word she used) by an attempt to avoid accepting miracles. She then pointed out that the literature on the rational acceptability of miracle claims did not show that one should avoid accepting them at all costs, mentioning, for example, Richard Swinburne's work on the subject.

A Bible scholar next to me raised his hand and said that in his studies he had simply been following Bultmann's lead on the subject, and that he was willing to study the philosophical literature on miracles to see if there was good reason to change his mind.

The point I want to make is that you can be very versed in the original documents and not have much of an understanding of literary criticism in general, which, as Lewis points out, is a serious problem. A lot of Bible scholars seem to me to adopt what I take to be a naive Bultmannian position with respect to miracles, or are influenced by those who do. When I read a Bible scholar who believes in biblical inerrancy along the lines defined by the early Pinnock, I expect these presuppositions to affect the conclusions he draws. And the same with question of Humean presuppositions.

Can someone who is operating from Humean presuppositions give arguments that might persuade non-Humeans that a passage is not authentic? Of course. But I expect the scholar to recognize that other people just might not share their Humeanism, and to address the issue with that in mind.


Randy said...

I gather some of the papers from this conference were collected in the book "Hermes and Athena."

I'm not trying to argue that philosophers or theologians can have nothing to contribute to biblical studies. In particular, their expertise on the ancient philosophies that were influential at the time of Jesus and Paul can be extremely helpful. And of course, they can always help to correct errors in logic and reasoning. Other than that, unless they have a good grounding in the original languages, principles of textual studies and literary analysis, I tend to see their impact being rather minimal and perhaps even deleterious.

To repeat the example I gave earlier, one's philosophical stance is irrelevant to the conclusion that the woman taken in adultery episode found in John is not part of the original gospel. I believe there is very broad consesus among conservative and liberal scholars of this being the case. There's always going to be the inerrantist who will never accept something like that.

Earlier you gave the example of the need to explain the empty tomb. But that simply begs the question of whether or not there really was an empty tomb. When one looks at the disrepencies between the gospel narratives, one is not exactly encouraged to suppose that one can simply assume the events related in them actually happened.

Bart Ehrman in his latest book "Misquoting Jesus" spends a good deal of time detailing why Luke 22:43-44 is most likely not part of the original text. He has to use the manuscript evidence, Luke's use of the Greek language, literary analysis of the text, comparison with the other synoptics and the overall theological message of that gospel in order to reach his conclusion. Now the verses he is discarding describe an angel coming down to give comfort to Jesus. One could accuse him of trying to avoid the angelic miracle. After looking at the evidence he presented, I think he was drawing the best conclusion he could from that evidence. One could come to a different conclusion, but then they would have to actually deal with the evidence Ehrman presents and provide arguments or new evidence for their position.
Seems to me it is much more useful to focus on the actual evidence and arguments than to worry so much about the a priori positions of the scholars.

I think we would both agree that all people have biases and those biases need to be recognized. I could be misreading you here, but it seem you place a lot more importance on those biases than I would. I'm concerned that worrying so much about the a priori positions various scholars may have in regards to the supernatural will result in drawing attention away from the actual evidence that they have relied on to support their views. One who didn't actually consider the evidence Ehrman used to reach the above conclusion could easily just point to his conclusion and claim Ehrman was a captive to an a priori stance opposing miracles.

Am a little discouraged by your anecdote regarding the scholar who seemed to be blindly following Bultmann. I would like to think that scholars take their job a little more seriously than that fellow apparently does.
Also, it is not just Humeans who are questioning traditional interpretations of scripture. I think there are a few believing scholars doing the same.

Anyways, thanks for expanding a little more on your views regarding this issue.

Randy said...

You might be interested in this thread over at the biblical-studies discussion site:
"Query - distribution of minimalists and maximalists."

Edward T. Babinski said...

Speaking of Bart Ehrman, pick up a copy of the latest issue of Bible Review with Ehrman's expansion of the points he made in his book concerning the verses in Luke and also the translation of a word in Mark, very interesting stuff, BIBLE REVIEW 21:3 Win. 2005, "Did Jesus Get Angry or Agonize?" Bart D. Ehrman (How do we know what the gospel writers originally wrote about Jesus? A text critic takes us two steps closer to the original gospel stories.)