Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Misquoting Jesus: a review

I just finished Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, and as I told a friend, my faith hasn't been shaken. The book contains a lot of interesting background on the task of reconstructing the original text of the New Testament, a discipline referred to as textual criticism. Anyone who has spent time with a modern Bible translation will be familiar with the footnotes that read like: "Many manuscripts ..." which explains that there is a question about what the passage originally said. One should also notice that these notes are fairly rare thanks to the progress textual criticism has made sorting through the variations.

If that were the whole of the book, it would not have ended up on the best-seller lists or stirred up controversy. Ehrman did not write the book merely to popularize his subject, but as a result of his journey away from Christianity. In the introduction he explains that his faith was shaken to the core when he realized that Mark (or Jesus himself!) might have made a mistake in Mark 2:25-26: 'He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."' (TNIV) The mistake is that the high priest in the story was Ahimelech: 'David answered Ahimelek the priest, "The king sent me on a mission and said to me, 'No one is to know anything about the mission I am sending you on.' As for my men, I have told them to meet me at a certain place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find."' (1st Samuel 21:2-3, TNIV) Interestingly, there are no textual variations in these passages, so someone made a mistake somewhere.

The bulk of the book explores variations that have come into various manuscript copies of the New Testament. Ehrman constructs plausible theories for why scribes failed to make perfect copies and even introduced variations for doctrinal purposes. Further, he explains how scholars have approached the variants had reconstructed the originals. The journey has many twists and turns, which might trouble people who assume the Bible has been handed down to us in an idealized process. But once you get used to the idea that people copied the texts, made mistakes and sometimes altered words or inserted whole stories for their own purposes, the history Ehrman presents is fascinating. At the end, I found myself wondering what the big deal was. There aren't nearly as many problem texts as it first appears, and modern techniques have solved most of the problems with some certainty. Only a handful of issues remain, and none of those seem terribly dire to the basic picture of Jesus.

Overall, I'd say this book is not an attack on Christianity in general, but on the inerrancy doctrine. Over and over, Ehrman points out that if scribes made mistakes, we don't know what the New Testament originally said and if we don't know the original words, we can't say they are from God. But then he turns around and says that textual criticism can recover the original for the most part. So what is the problem? As far as I can tell, he seems to think that God ought to have supernaturally preserved his word for all generations and that any mistake is a sign that He does not care about scripture. The fact that we have always had a New Testament that is almost identical to the original is of no solace to someone who demands perfection from God's word.

Here's what Paul has to say on the matter: 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.' (2nd Timothy 3:16-7, TNIV) It strikes me that Paul focuses on the Scripture's utility rather than its perfection. I get the feeling that if confronted with Mark 2:25, Paul would have been surprised but unconcerned with Abiathar being there. Instead, he would have praised the teaching of Jesus that "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27b, TNIV) In the same way, the Bible ought to be a benefit to us and not a stumbling block.

Bart Ehrman should be praised for his dedication to the truth, even when it doesn't provide the maximum support for his position. (Compare his books with those of Richard Dawkins, who seems to think any idea that helps make his case should be passed off as true if possible.) There are a variety of people for whom this work will be very troubling—especially those who believe the Bible ought to be perfect. But I found the evidence lacking that the Bible can not be trusted because of errors either in transmission or in the original. Certainly the work of copying and translating the Bible has been entrusted to human hands. Even the composition of the Bible was the responsibility of imperfect people. From the moment God inspired His word until today, it has been at risk of corruption. Incredibly, Misquoting Jesus can be read as the story of how the text of the Bible managed to survive at great odds. For those of us who place our trust on Him (and not merely on the Bible), this should be no surprise.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Aliens and atheists

Richard Dawkins is fighting back against a documentary (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed) that he unwittingly provided material for. I've not seen the film, but I'm willing to bet it will be entertaining if Professor Dawkins said on camera what he's saying in print. I'd suggest he expand his education to philosophical considerations if he intends to grapple with the God question any further.

Theologians attempt two (mutually incompatible and pathetically inadequate) answers to this unanswerable point. Some say their God is not complex but simple. This obviously won't wash. No simple god could design bacterial flagellar motors or universes, let alone forgive sins or impregnate virgins. Presumably recognizing the justice of that, other theologians go to the opposite extreme. They admit that their god is complex but assert that he had no beginning: He was always there and always complex. But if you are going to resort to that facile cop-out, you might as well say flagellar motors were always there. You cannot have it both ways. Visitations from distant star systems are improbable enough to attract ridicule, not least from the advocates of intelligent design themselves. A creator god who had always existed would be far more improbable still.

The sort of complexity theologians argue against when they call God simple is philosophical complexity. God is not difficult to explain: He isn't merely powerful—He's all-powerful. He isn't merely intelligent—He's all-knowing. God, if He exists at all, must be simple to the extreme. One argument for God's existence, suggests that if He is possible, He must exist in all logically possible universes. This might be difficult to understand, but it's simple to describe. Bertrand Russel noted of that argument, "it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than to find out precisely where the fallacy lies."

Further, as any Darwinian would be fully aware, complexity arises from simplicity all the time. The elegance of Darwin's theory is that a relatively small and simple set of rules could explain a mind-boggling variety of species. One of the joys of reading Richard Dawkins' non-religious books is the detailed descriptions of extraordinary species and conjectures about their origin. To cite another example, the mathematics of fractal geometry shows how simple rules produce the most amazingly complex, almost organic, shapes.

On the other part of his argument, Professor Dawkins seems even more out of touch with the subject he expounds upon. Surely he can't be unaware that philosophers from pre-history until this very day have known that the simplest and most probable explanation of an entity's origin is that it has always existed? Until forced by the evidence discovered nearly 100 years ago, secular philosophers have universally taken the universe to be eternal. God, if He exists, can have no origin with a probability of 1.

This technique of arguing against a theory by setting up its most plausible version and dismissing it is commonly used in science and philosophy. The late, great evolutionist John Maynard Smith used it in his 1964 attack on the then-popular theory of "group selection." He set himself the task of devising the best possible argument for group selection. The details don't matter; he called it the Haystack Model. He then proceeded to show that the assumptions that the Haystack Model needed to make were highly unrealistic.

I must claim ignorance of John Maynard Smith's work, but it sounds an awful lot like a straw man argument (oddly enough). Generally, the technique of building your opponent's position so that you can knock it down is considered a fallacy. Again, I can scarcely believe Professor Dawkins could be unaware of this. Only if one earnestly creates the strongest possible argument would it be valid to claim victory when the argument is refuted. So I struggle to see how the "alien theory" could be considered by anyone to be the best Intelligent Design theory unless God is ruled out a priori.

And that, of course, is the problem Professor Dawkins has. He isn't defending himself against people who believe Intelligent Design (there are much worthier opponents) but against other atheists. It would appear that he was caught making fairly ridiculous claims in the documentary and is now attempting to right his ship with somewhat less ridiculous claims in the opinion section of the LA Times. Unless he can correct his delusion that he is a philosopher, I doubt that he will succeed.