Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Jason Pratt responds to Parsons

Part I: broccoli, and plenty of steak

How to summarize (or even how to introduce for summarization!) a set of notes that originally ran over 9600 words? Anything I do is likely to seem more abrupt than I would prefer.

Especially for the first topic. But at least I can get it out of the way first, on the broccoli principle.

I suppose the easiest way to present it, is by collecting together some insistences from Dr. Parsons, as given in his reply:

"First of all, I proffer no theory at all about the events that led to the early Christians’ beliefs about the resurrection. [...] I do not think that any theory (including the traditional Christian one) about the beginnings of Christianity is or can be terribly well supported. [...] But, again, my aim is not to support any hypothesis about what did happen."

I have omitted a few other statements along this line, because they could be said to apply to one particular work of Dr. Parsons (specifically his essay in _The Empty Tomb_); or else are qualified by goals I have much less (indeed no) problem with. (Plus I do not classify in this group his admission that, as I wondered, "The burden of proof that I take on, therefore, is not to provide a compelling account of Christian origins...", which in itself I have no positive problem with; although I do have some cautions related to it, which have already been covered extensively in my previous comments.)

I have quoted the statements above, because they go beyond the careful (and usually sensible) qualifications given by Dr. Parsons elsewhere, into self-refuting absurdity. If I took them seriously, and applied them as such, I would simply dismiss most of what Dr. Parsons would (I think) prefer I take seriously elsewhere in his work.

I could go into this at _painful_ length (9600 words of notes, remember). I am willing to hope it is only an overreaching of rhetorical coloring; but I have concerns.


Having chewed the broccoli only long enough to mention my concern with it, I proceed along to the main course of Dr. Parsons' reply. Fortunately, much of what follows will involve my agreeing with him in one way or degree or another. (Call this the steak and cake portion!--though I _shall_ be getting some of the cake myself...)


Before I begin the steak, however, I wish to ask about something that may be only a result of an editing blip by Dr. Parsons. But I am intrigued by his statement: "[The canonical Gospels] were written by persons unknown, with the exception of Luke [etc.]" As it stands, I can make no sense of this: surely Dr. Parsons cannot mean that we have no idea which persons are being attributed as the authors and/or authorities of the other three accounts. On the other hand, I am having extreme difficulty imagining how one authorship has been confirmed to be by Luke without using methods that would apply just as well in weighing toward John Mark, the Apostle Matthew, and John (the Apostle and/or the "Elder"). So, what did Dr. Parsons mean by this?


Leaving this possibly trivial (though still intriguing) question behind, I gladly advance to the steak of Dr. Parsons' letter. Thanks to his generous attempts at explanation, and a closer check of what he provided in his original letter, I am able to confirm that I _did_ in fact misunderstand what he was attempting to do in regard to answering the objection of JPH concerning the hallucination hypothesis. And I have been able to piece together how this happened.

In Dr. Parsons' original letter (an open reply to JPH's criticism, etc.), Holding is reported as saying that one argument shows the hallucination theory to be totally untenable: specifically, the disciples were not expecting a bodily resurrection, therefore any hallucination of Jesus would be interpreted in various other ways (due to this lack of expectation.)

I misunderstood JPH's criticism, because I latched onto that lack-of-expectation factor as being (as I still think it is) the key factor (since the other follows from it as a therefore).

But when _I_ consider lack-of-expectation to be a key factor, _I_ think in terms of generating a hallucination in the _first_ place. No hallucination, no attributing something (even partly) _to_ the hallucination. This is not, however, what JPH was arguing. (Or at least, it was not the element reported by Dr. Parsons, to which he was replying.)

Consequently, I proceeded to misunderstand Dr. Parsons to be trying to build up the tenability of the hallucination itself, upon which (of course) any theory _about_ beliefs subsequent to a hallucination, necessarily depends. But he was doing no such thing.

Thus, although I still contend that my countercriticism stands in principle, I willingly acceed that it is directed to something Dr. Parsons was _not_, in that letter, doing.

And, since I was criticising something himself was not in fact doing, then his distraction from my agreement with what he _was_ in fact doing is (of course) very easily excused.

For I _did_ in fact agree (in principle, if not precisely in detail) with what he defends himself as doing: "If [Dr. Parsons] wants to explain the radically new concepts in the disciples' minds, as being a product of Jesus' teaching _and_ of the experiences [whatever those experiences were]—fair enough. No dissension from me. No dissension, in principle, from any conservative Christian apologist I know of, for that matter." The dissension obviously involves the character of experiences; not the principle that the experiences (and teaching) subsequently affected the disciples' beliefs.

Similarly, I wrote note long after that: " Concerning Keith's remarks about Jesus being _subsequently_ regarded as the first fruits of the general Res: in fairness I can see no problem with this being a later conclusion by followers, on Keith's hallucination-experience hypothesis per se--in abstraction from other considerations.


It is slightly less easy (though only slightly less, I willingly allow) to excuse his misunderstanding of what my argument actually involved against the tenability of the hallucination hypothesis. It did _NOT_ (in itself) involve requiring that the hallucination opponent be selecting arbitrarily between accepting and rejecting certain portions of the chronologically prior account as being historically accurate.

My main argument (which stretches back to the very beginning of my letter) involved the intrinsic problem of proportionate strength in relation to what _are_ established historical facts (i.e. certain characteristics of the texts, given and received by established congregations as being authoritative and thus in some keeping with key principles they are already familiar with.) My argument is entirely about synching a hypothesis (the experiences were hallucinations) with known facts (common story characteristics in subsequent authoritative accounts) as a factor of development to the known facts.

Having said that, Dr. Parsons' misunderstanding of what I was doing is still pretty easily excused, since:

a.) I suspect my objection may be rather unusual in the field--not what fits easily into expectations.

b.) I did after all wonder, in passing, what explanation Dr. Parsons would give for (as I understood him to be doing, and as I think he confirmed by trying to defend it at some length) giving credence (provisional or otherwise) to one set of textual characteristics and not to another. Since that sort of thing is what Dr. Parsons seems used to seeing as an objection, it isn't surprising that he thought this was in fact my main criticism. (Despite the fact I specifically set aside the objection, while mentioning it for precisely one paragraph, and indeed contrasted it to my main point.)

c.) Most importantly, there was _my_ misunderstanding still in play, which I was also connecting this to by contrast. That could only have been distracting.


This leads, among other directions, to a discussion of principles in Dr. Parsons' uses (and attempts at justifying his uses) of material typically proposed by his opponents for belief. Boiled down, my position would be this:

If he plays on the believer's ground, for purposes of demonstrating their attempt has holes in it, then he needs to accept _all_ their premises leading to the point he's contesting, not a convenient selection of his own as a sceptic. (Questioning those premises is another operation altogether.) But he _can_, along this line, retain the personal advantage of not having to accept these as being more than provisional for sake of argument.

If, on the other hand, he plays on sceptical ground concerning data presented by believers for belief, then he's more-or-less free to select what he likes, hopefully for eminently reasonable reasons, as being data that as a sceptic _he_ would also be willing to accept. But then he shouldn't waffle out of inconvenient implications later, on the grounds that a sceptic doesn't have to accept any data believed by a believer.

I think so long as he does this, he will certainly be playing fairly and consistently.



Part 2: lots of cake (some for him, some for me)

I am going to try restricting cake-points to numbered paragraphs henceforth. So:

1.) In regard to his survey beginning " Our best sources are the four canonical gospels...", I refer him to my de facto Part 3 (included as the first comment to my reply to Steven Carr's attempts at defending Dr. Parsons--which Part he may have excusably missed), where I say something similar myself regarding such difficulties and my sympathies for sceptics in various regards. (Also my main reason for writing my criticism of his letter is more broadly reported there.)

2.) In regard to disagreements about the details in World War II, I reply that historians are not (so far as I know) in vehement disagreement about the outcome of World War II; and that this kind of centrality of fact is what is at stake in Resurrection debates. We can trace the history of Europe subsequent to 1945 back to the fact that Germany lost the war. We can trace the history of Europe subsequent to 29-or-thereabouts, back to the fact that a group of mostly Galilean people had a particular experience. Without that experience having happened, and without those people having acted according to what they believed about that experience, not only European but world history would have been drastically different, possibly to the extent of being unrecognizable in terms we know today. (There would be no dates of 1945 or 29 CE, for instance.) The Palestinian situation is more remote, and the sources more fragmentary; but on the other hand neither are they even distantly as complex as 'the history of World War II'. Given the importance of the earlier event on world history (including WWII, by the way), I'm willing to have some optimism on reaching a decent conclusion about it from a historical study. (Crashing into philosophical constraints in the process is another problem, though one I respect.)

3.) I am unsure why I am being taken to task for (merely?) "alleging" that Dr. Parsons offers insufficient (I would say problematic) support for a hypothesis or claim; when he goes to some effort to demonstrate that nothing he says on such topics can have support any better than a position (the traditional Christian one) he himself rejects. I suppose I was succeeding at more than merely alleging, then, at least.

4.) Dr. Parsons tells us, "Therefore, I am not arguing that Jesus’s teaching created an expectation in the disciples’ minds that prompted hallucinatory experiences as a vindication of that expectation." I agree, he wasn't doing this in his original letter. But if he is not arguing for such a thing in _this_ letter, then the best that can be said is that he is trying to approach it by innuendo in his discussion.

5.) Having said that, I fully agree that Dr. Parsons is doing exactly right to be suspicious about the oddity of that story characteristic in the texts. Also, I don't have much respect for some common pro-apologetic defenses along this line. (Which is why I don't use them myself. I could go into some extensive detail on the subject, by the way, concerning what I expect would be several strong agreements with Dr. Parsons on this.)

6.) However: it does no good to try to imply that there ought to have been strong expectations (enough to generate hallucinations) anyway; because that still runs right into the same problem as before, with clarified force: then the subsequent authoritative tradition would have been crucially dependent on the disciples being _vindicated_ in _their_ expectations. The weirdness of the claimed ignorances cannot be resolved by presenting (nor implying) a hypothesis that makes the claims of ignorance even weirder!

7.) I will add, as some cake, that I must agree to there being some kind of practical limit to how far initial scepticism by the disciples can be carried, before reports of this-and-that start to undermine the scepticism (even of the extreme sort I will be defending in a minute)--possibly enough to generate expectations sufficient for hallucinations.

8.) I will also caution, however, that such a qualification in favor of easing constraints on the establishment of hallucinations as the experiences, is going to lead eventually (if the implications are carefully followed out) to an empty tomb being a historical fact! (Obviously it would take me too long to cover this here, but I was more than a little amused to discover where _that_ trail leads.)

9.) Several things could be said in regard to the effect of works of power (according to story detail) on the expectations of the disciples; the first of which is that the observation doesn't have much practical use, unless the sceptic is willing to accept some rather serious works-o-power as being historical fact--which acceptance seems a bit untenable. (Simply calling attention to the weirdness of juxtaposing mighty works of power with the disciples not trusting him on one final work of mighty power, doesn't explain anything because it doesn't _account_ for anything. The juxtaposition is part of what is causing the trouble along this line of inquiry, and so its existence is what needs to be explained.)

10.) For another thing, the objection requires overlooking a key factor in those mighty works-o-power. Jesus did them. But how could he raise himself if he dies? True, God might directly raise him from the dead--but this will be discussed later.

11.) Far more importantly: all four of the canonical accounts give some indications that Jesus considered those works of power to be _distracting from_ properly receiving and understanding the teaching (and was right to consider them that way). This is a theme I could enter into at near-book length; and in a direction which I find most Christians even now completely failing to grasp. Not incidentally, the failure to grasp this understanding is a central element to the story of the disciples in all four canonical accounts, and I find no evidence that the disciples have finally understood this crucial point by the end of any of the accounts. Also not incidentally, a failure to grasp this point (which I have not here related--near-book length, remember!) would greatly hinder the disciples from expecting the prediction of death to be literal, no matter how many times or how bluntly Jesus might tell them.

12.) But aside from my appealing in an increasingly obscure way to a central thematic in all four accounts, I think the disciples' failure to believe the death and resurrection predictions can also be explained rather more bluntly.

Jesus, under popular belief (and the disciples are clearly shown to be constantly on the side of popular belief), was supposed to save the good people from the bad people. But he didn't. He was caught, and bad people tortured him to death (partly on a charge of being a terrible traitor to God) in a way that was (popularly!) understood to be cursed by God. And he didn't use his awesome superpowers to get out of it. Why not?

On terms of popular belief, there could be only one reason why. Jesus claimed to have received his power from God. God (apparently) abandoned him. That meant Jesus either was (as his opponents were saying) a traitor working with the devil instead of with God, or it meant something even worse. It meant that he was once a good person whom God had indeed been helping and giving authority, but then he somehow went bad--just like Satan.

That's why the death can only look to the disciples like a failure beyond intensity of description. A dead man is not going to raise himself from the dead; and God is not going to raise a traitor (or worse a Satan) from the dead. It isn't just over. It's _worse_ than over. The _best_ case scenario is that Jesus made some kind of horrible (even damnable) mistake with good intentions. All the apocalyptic preaching means nothing--worse than nothing, if he was being heretical! It would (in their mis-understanding) be only another nail in the coffin (so to speak).

13.) As a follow-up, I will mention that appealing to the unconventional teaching of Jesus as being interesting enough for his disciples to keep in mind despite their expectations to the contrary, runs into a problem in itself: even in my own experience, I sometimes find that a person's unconventional tactics are _so_ unexpected that they simply don't register, even after the person has repeatedly emphasized them.

14.) So, for instance, I spent two paragraphs, one before and one after my discussion on missing-body problems, explicitly saying that I was _also_ not impressed by what Dr. Parsons has called 'that common apologetical chestnut' concerning the lack of a body being presented by the Sanhedrin; and that my discussion of the body-issue was not even intended to be an argument for the vanishing of the body. (And then another paragraph or two in a comment to Steven Carr, being even more explicit against the c.a.ch.) I still agree with Dr. Parsons that (if I may put it less politely this time) I think the c.a.ch is poo.

15.) My criticisms of Dr. Parsons' discussion against the c.a.ch, consequently, are exactly what I said they were: an analysis of how well his contentions would fit into larger story contexts, as an illustration of the importance of thinking along those lines even when making defenses to objections. (I didn't deny he was trying to present falsifications to the options he later labels a, b and c. I only denied they were effective falsifications.)

16.) Yes, I agree that the position I developed looks problematic for the pro-apologist, and on the face of it much moreso than it does for the con. I knew that very well going in. I didn't present it in order to score points for my side, though. I presented it, because I think it makes sense. If it causes difficulties for my side, then that's just how it is.

17.) For what it's worth, I would come down eventually on option c (something prevented them from doing it--obviously not the lack of the actual body, if there was such a lack). But it isn't something I can present without a lot of prior analysis, so I have no objection to letting the apparent difficulty for my side stand in the meanwhile.

18.) My position on this topic doesn't depend on the populace having a specially positive opinion of the Sanhedrin. (I _did_ include that joke about them reassuring the people that stones for killing heretics would be free this time, remember?) My position _does_ depend, as I emphasized several times, on the people having a normally low opinion of blaspheming heretics dying a cursed death abandoned by God. The apostles are the ones having to go against the natural grain here--and without a living Jesus to point to, either. The Sanhedrin doesn't even have to be especially convincing about the body to fotz them. And whatever strong opinion the people have about the Sanhedrin only makes the situation worse for the Jesus case. (See point 12 above.)

19.) Since the body quickly becoming putrescent goo has now been leaned on (so to speak) several times: even this is not really an issue. That was the _ideal_ result in 1st C. Palestine (it's what the spices and flowers were for, to accelerate the body's composition down to the bones faster.) If the Sanhedrin says they decided to preserve the body instead for such a contingency, it's plausible enough to be believed; and even today we're still sometimes pulling fairly intact bodies out of the ground dating back to that time and place. (Such as the man recovered from a tomb of the 1st Cent Jerusalem super-rich back in the year 2000. He died of tuberculosis; but he wasn't quite yet putrescent goo.)


(Part 3?)

20.) It would of course be stupid to claim that Paul was familiar with Gospels that had not yet been written. Fortunately, nothing in what I wrote concerning the tediousness of 'no-tomb-before-Gospels' claims, involved any such argument at all. In fact, I don't even recall grounding a point on Paul _having to be_ (in principle) familiar with Christian tradition! (Beyond the virtually tautological claim that Paul might at least possibly be familiar with tradition he says he is familiar with.)

21.) Nor did I try to make a (possibly even more ridiculous) argument along the lines of 'Paul's audience would have already known about the stories, therefore Paul would have not had to elaborate on them, _THEREFORE_ Paul knew about the stories.'

22.) I _did_ make a point, later in my letter, that would seem to be simply common sense: if there was an empty tomb, then Paul (as prosecutor for the Sanhedrin) would have known about _that_. In which case, as I put it, any attempt at trying to tease out some kind of alternate meaning to the dead body itself being raised in 1 Cor 15 (and elsewhere) becomes simply moonshine. I also specifically said, however, that I would _NOT_ go to Paul to establish the empty tomb as a historical fact. I would go somewhere else. (And not to the GosMatt polemic, either, for that purpose.)

23.) Another proper (and very limited) inference I did refer to, is: _if_ Paul's audience already knew about the stories, _then_ Paul would not necessarily have had to do more than tangentially refer to them. This has _absolutely nothing_ to do with trying to establish that either Paul _or_ his audience knew any such stories.

As to whether Paul knew traditional material which echoes material eventually found in the Gospels: that's a whole other kettle of fish, which could be gone into at booklength. (Meaning I'm not going to do it here.) Personally, I find the divergences to be far more striking and interesting than the convergences (especially in working toward developing a coherent largescale historical theory); but I also find the convergences significantly outnumber the divergences.

24.) I agree, and specifically agreed at the time, that there is no reference to the stories of Joseph of Arimathea or the women at the tomb, in the surviving epistles. This, of course, means exactly as much as a lack of the shape of the cross or a mention of the name of the hill would mean, if all the canonical accounts contained them: exactly nothing, one way or another.

If Dr. Parsons would find that old pro-apologetic argument from silence about the lack of a body, to be tedious at best (and remember that _I_ _agree_ it is); then he should have some sympathy, in principle, for why I consider the con-apologetic argument from silence concerning lack of explicit references to a tomb in the epistles, to be at least as tedious. And moreso when (as I find to be common) the position isn't even presented as an argument for something, but as a protracted innuendo from silence. (At least pro-apologists usually bother to spell out their argument from silence...)

25.) What makes it more tedious still, is that the whole thing is a smokescreen. It draws attention away from what _is_ actually said in 1 Cor (and elsewhere) concerning the importance of that body for Christian belief.

I was not surprised when Dr. Parsons wrote, "All we can really say with complete assurance is that the earliest Christians preached that Jesus had risen." Myself, I think any fair evaluation would pick up at least a little more than that from early kerygmatic language preserved in various epistles (not to say in Acts as well.) But the obvious minimum addition would be this: the "risen" doesn't stand alone (so to speak) in 1 Cor 15. It follows, in parallel kerygmatic language, being buried. (Etouff├ęd, as I've been colorfully putting it.)

And Paul, at least, thinks that etouff├ęd body is equally important for his claim, because he spends a lot of his subsequent discussion in talking about its relationship to the raised one. The buried one is changed into the risen one, by being clothed in the risen one.

What the heck does a _tomb_ have to do with the importance of any of that??

Nothing at all. Neither does its lack of mention.


And that covers the meal, I think. (If I missed some important bits, I'm sure someone will let me know.) I apologize for the length, but since a significant fraction involved agreeing with Dr. Parsons, perhaps it won't try the patience of his readers too much. (If I had cut the agreements out, I could have easily written something shorter than Dr. Parsons' own letter--but I fully believe the agreements are as important as the disagreements, if not moreso in some ways.)

I'll be out of pocket for a week or so. But I'll check for comments when I get back.

Jason Pratt

1 comment:

Jason said...

Argh. Comes from trying to finish up an edit sometime after 11:00 at night...


"since I was criticising something himself was not in fact doing"

Should be a 'he' before 'himself'.

"Similarly, I wrote note long after that:"

'not', instead of 'note'.

"and thus in some keeping"

'thus in some *way* keeping'

"to accelerate the body's composition"

'*de*composition'

One of my quotes from my previous letter lacks a quote mark at the end of the paragraph, too. (It's where I miswrote 'note long after that'. {g} Late editing.)


One important piece of cake in Dr. Parsons' favor, that I had fully intended to include, didn't make it from one set of sheets to the other during the editing process (ironically because I thought I had already included it.) I will append the original note here:

"My aim [Dr. Parsons wrote] is the much more modest one of establishing what, given the little that is indisputably known, can be reasonably surmised or conjectured by persons, like myself, who begin from a position of rather deep skepticism about Christian claims."

I have no problem with that, either in principle or in practice (so long as it's fair practice). I am very sympathetic to the philosophical restrictions sceptics find themselves laboring under before even going to the data. (I would call this "narrow dogmatism" if I was being facetious--but I'm not. Unlike many other Christian apologists, I actually do respect it. It could practically be the mission statement of a book I have been sketching for several years on the Res.)

Jason Pratt

PS: actually, I've already been gone a couple of weeks (finishing another project), and am back now. {g} Though I will probably give a few days before checking in again.