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Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (10)

This post continues from the original post in this series.

Carrier’s Roundup

Richard Carrier has posted his interpretation of the exchanges between himself and Bart Ehrman on the subject of the historicity of Jesus. Carrier’s description of these exchanges is open to criticism.

Doherty and scholars

Richard Carrier: “Ehrman wrote that Earl Doherty “quotes professional scholars at length when their views prove useful for developing aspects of his argument, but he fails to point out that not a single one of these scholars agrees with his overarching thesis,” which is simply false.”

Carrier misrepresents Ehrmans by truncating what he wrote. Ehrman said Doherty cites scholars in support of his specific thesis that Paul thought Jesus was crucified by demons in a spiritual realm, without saying that these scholars disagree with Doherty’s overarching thesis that ‘Jesus was crucified in the spiritual realm’. There is abundant evidence that Ehrman is correct on this point. See more here.

Ehrman on Tacitus

Richard Carrier: “Ehrman falsely claims that no “trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome” have ever questioned the authenticity of the reference to Christ in Tacitus.”

Ehrman did not claim that. Here is what Ehrman actually wrote.

Bart Ehrman: ‘Some mythicists argue that this reference in Tacitus was not actually written by him—they claim the same thing for Pliny and Suetonius, where the references are less important— but were inserted into his writings (interpolated) by Christians who copied them, producing the manuscripts of Tacitus we have today. (We have no originals, only later copies.) I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who thinks this, and it seems highly unlikely’.

Erhman is referring explicitly to the specific interpolation theory he describes, and he says ‘I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think this‘. He does not say ‘No trained classicsists or scholars of ancient Rome have ever questioned the authenticity of the reference to Christ in Tacitus’. See more here.

Erhman on sources

Richard Carrier: “Ehrman falsely claims “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events” (of the 30s A.D.) is “the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all.””

This is misleading. Ehrman then goes on to list exactly which sources he is referring to; the four canonical gospels, the gospel sources, and the non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus. Ehrman was referring to the sources he was about to enumerate in the same paragraph as this sentence.

Carrier wrongly takes Ehrman to task for not mentioning writings which didn’t exist until 300 years and more after Jesus lived, and which are typically not regarded by scholars as sources for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The only scholars Carrier cites who treat these sources as valid sources for the historicity and history of Jesus, are those Carrier acknowledges himself are ‘fringe’. See more here.

Ehrman on Osiris

Richard Carrier: “Ehrman falsely claims that Osiris “return[ing] to life on earth by being raised from the dead” is a fabrication because “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods).” “

Actually Ehrman addressed Carrier’s claim that Osiris ‘did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body’. The specificity was Carrier’s; he said explicitly ‘in his resurrected body’. Erhman disproved this claim, and Carrier immediately abandoned this original claim for a new one.

Originally Carrier claimed Osiris is a legitimate parallel to Jesus because they both returned to earth in their resurrected body. When Ehrman proved Osiris didn’t return to earth in his resurrected body, Carrier dropped that claim and switched to a completely different claim, that Osiris is a legitimate parallel to Jesus because neither of them returned to earth in their resurrected body.

First Carrier said Osiris and Jesus are both said to have returned to earth in their resurrected body, and then he claimed neither of them are said to have done so. Then Carrier said that the difference wasn’t important anyway, despite the fact that this difference was a point he himself appealed to previously. See more here.

Well poisoning?

Richard Carrier: “Ehrman neatly combines a no-true-Scotsman fallacy with a fallacy of poisoning the well, by (perhaps unintentionally) misrepresenting my credentials (saying my Ph.D. is in “classics” and not, as it is in fact, “history” with a specialization in ancient religion and historiography), thus making it seem as if I’m less qualified to discuss this subject than I am.”

This is a highly misleading representation of what Ehrman wrote. Despite referring wrongly to Carrier’s degree as being in classics, Ehrman said the complete opposite of what Carrier claims. Here are Ehrman’s words:

Bart Ehrman:Richard Carrier, who along with Price is the only mythicist to my knowledge with graduate training in a relevant field (Ph.D. in classics from Columbia University)”

Carrier has represented Ehrman as saying the opposite of what he actually said. He did not commit a ‘no-true-Scotsman’ fallacy, nor did he commit the fallacy of poisoning the well. He identified Carrier as having graduate training in a relevant field. Carrier promptly represented him as saying the opposite.

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Were New Testament texts corrupted by misogynists?

The Claim

‘We rely on a large number of handwritten manuscripts in Greek to provide us with our text of the New Testament. Interestingly, it can be observed that alterations were made in the second century in such a way as to downplay the reported involvement and importance of women.

Because these changes are not followed in the majority of manuscripts, the original text can easily be identified. But the changes suggest a climate in which some scribes were not happy to see women prominently involved. The changes are slight, but significant in the thinking they betray. They indicate an anti-women swing in at least some circles in the early churches.’[1]

The Facts

Readers will note that the changes are described as slight, and not followed in the majority of manuscripts. This is a considerable understatement. It would be far more accurate to say that in the vast majority of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, less than a dozen such alterations have been found. Furthermore, these alterations are limited to a tiny number of texts.

Although it was said ‘it can be observed that alterations were made in the second century’, [2] they actually provide no evidence for this (whether they realise it or not). [3] Neither of the two sources cited actually says this. One source cited (Ben Witherington), says ‘it appears that there was a concerted effort by some part of the Church, perhaps as early as the late first century or beginning of the second’[4].

However, when it comes to presenting the actual evidence which can be observed, Witherington does not cite any textual evidence earlier than the 4th century,[5] some 200 years after the 2nd century,[6] and most of his textual witnesses date to the 5th century.

It is significant that these errors are all found in the Western text type.  This text type is most well known not for its ‘anti-feminist’ bias, but for its general tendency to paraphrase and edit the text in a particularly arbitrary manner.[7] It is also significant that almost all of these errors are found in only one manuscript tradition of the Western text (D), with only three errors appearing in any other Western manuscript tradition (Gpm, ita, b, d, k ), [8] as this demonstrates that these are not even systematic changes to one particular manuscript tradition, let alone the entire Western text type.

This is one of the reasons why modern textual scholars generally view few (if any), of these alterations as genuinely motivated by a desire to minimize the role of women in the early church. They are so few, so inconsistently found, and some of them are so much more readily attributable to accidental scribal error or the desire to render the text more grammatically, that they contradict the idea that the New Testament was revised studiously by groups of ‘anti-feminist’ scribes as a result of changing attitudes to women in early Christian history.

Scholarly Commentary

It should be pointed out that Witherington is an egalitarian scholar, whose interpretation of these textual alterations is influenced by his own sensitivity to the subject.  Comparing Witherington’s statements on the texts with the statements of the United Bible Societies’ Committee edited by Bruce Metzger,[9] shows that in a number of cases there is a more likely explanation for the text’s alteration than any ‘anti-feminist’ attitude by a particular scribe.

Matthew 5:32: Metzger makes the point that the scribal tendency to smooth the text (in this case to create a neat parallel), and to remove material perceived as redundant, is an adequate cause for the alteration, so there is no necessity to attribute to this alteration an ‘anti-feminist’ motivation.

Acts 1:14: Metzger notes it is characteristic of the Western text type to alter the text to make it more stylistically ‘interesting’, and in this case Metzger also points out that the scribe altered the text to conform to the grammatical pattern already existing in Acts 21:5, an alteration which the scribe considered to be more likely to be in conformity with the original. This is characteristic of the Western text type, so there is no necessity to attribute this alteration to an ‘anti-feminist’ motivation.

Acts 17:4: Both Witherington and Metzger agree that the text here is actually ambiguous in the first place, and could be read either way. This is therefore not clearly a matter of a deliberately ‘anti-feminist’ reading being introduced, but a scribal decision as to which particular interpretation of the text made more sense to them.

Acts 17:12: Metzger points out that the reason for Codex Bezae (D), altering the text was to smooth the grammar and render it into better Greek. This is a common feature of the Western text type, especially in Codex Bezae, so the alteration is simply what the scribes of this text type typically did in any case. There is therefore no need to attribute to this alteration an ‘anti-feminist’ motivation.

Acts 17:34: There is a case to be made that the alteration is a deliberate attempt to diminish the importance of the women in the text, but Metzger says ‘It is, however, more likely, as A. C. Clark suggests,10 that a line in an ancestor of codex Bezae had been accidentally omitted’, [10] so there is no necessity to attribute to this alteration an ‘anti-feminist’ motivation.

Acts 18:  Although it is possible to read the tendency in some of the Western witnesses to place Aquila first or insert Aqulia’s name without including Priscilla as a desire to reduce the prominence of Priscilla, there is also the fact (as Metzger observes), that the general tendency of the Western text type scribes was to ‘change the unusual to the usual’. They altered the text to conform to what they considered to be more likely to be original. The fact that they did this with many other passages having nothing to do with women indicates that there is no necessity to attribute to this alteration an ‘anti-feminist’ motivation, even though in this case it is entirely likely.

Colossians 4:15: Metzger notes that the gender of the name was uncertain to start with, giving rise to variations in the text. The difference between the female name Nympha and the male name Nymphas was a matter of accenting the Greek letters one way or another, but the earliest manuscripts did not use any accents at all, meaning that later scribes had to make interpretative decisions at times. There is therefore no need to attribute to this alteration an ‘anti-feminist’ motivation, even though the ambiguity was settled in favour of the male name Nymphas.


[1] ‘All One’, p. 181 (March 2009).

[2] ‘All One’, p. 181 (March 2009).

[3] In the February 2010 edition of ‘All One’, Ian and Averil have revised their previously dogmatic statement so that it is less certain; ‘Interestingly, it can be observed that alterations were made, probably in the second century, in such a way as to downplay the reported involvement and importance of women.’, ‘All One’, p. 221 (February 2010).

[4] Witherington, ‘The Anti-Feminist Tendencies of the ‘Western’ Text in Acts’, Journal of Biblical Literature (103.1.83).

[5] In fact he only cites one text as early as the 4th century

[6] Witherington’s most frequently referred to text is the 5th century text D (Codex Bezae), but the Greek text type (called ‘Western’), which D preserves cannot be dated any earlier than 250 AD, even if quotations from early Christian writers are used (there are no Western type Greek manuscripts or papyri earlier than the 4th century).

[7] ‘The chief characteristic of Western readings is fondness for paraphrase. Words, clauses, and even whole sentences are freely changed, omitted, or inserted. Sometimes the motive appears to have been harmonization, while at other times it was the enrichment of the narrative by the inclusion of traditional or apocryphal material. Some readings involve quite trivial alterations for which no special reason can be assigned’, Metzger, ’A Textual Commentary On the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition)’, p. xx (2nd edition 1994).

[8] The text referred to as ‘Gpm’ (the ‘pm’ stands for the Latin ‘permulti, meaning ‘very many’, and indicates that many manuscripts of this tradition have this reading), is a 9th century Greek/Latin interlinear diglot also known as Codex Boernerianus (Gregory-Aland number 012); Witherington (Ibid., p. 84), says ‘D, G pm, et al. [and others]’, but does not say which other manuscripts he is referring to. The text referred to as ‘ita’ is  an African Old Latin copy of an earlier Greek text (the ‘it’ stands for ‘Itala’, meaning Latin, and the other letters stand for various specific copies of this Latin manuscript); this same reading is also found in Greek and Latin manuscripts, according to the 4th-5th century Christian writer Augustine.

[9] The committee responsible for the UBS Greek New Testament, 4th edition, the Greek text from which almost all modern English Bible translations are made.

[10] Metzger, ’A Textual Commentary On the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition)’, p. 407 (2nd edition 1994).

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