Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Historical Credibility

A fierce debate is raging in New South Wales, Australia, about state schools offering Special Religious Education ("SRE"). There is an equally fierce debate about about the Federal Government's funding of chaplains in state high schools. The following article is from the "Religion and Ethics" website of the Australian Broadcasting Commission ("ABC"). The author, Dr John Dickson, is the founding co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University. He also teaches a course on the historical Jesus for the Department of Jewish and Biblical Studies at the University of Sydney.

Tamas Pataki, a trained philosopher and well-known figure on the atheist circuit, recently put up four arguments against state schools offering Special Religious Education (SRE). It leads to divisiveness, strengthens group identity (a bad thing because of the first), is factually untrue and, unlike Graeco-Roman wisdom, argues from parable and dogma instead of by reasoning. Pataki is wrong on all four counts.

It was ironic to me that his first two points were grounded not in reasoning or in evidence (such as a social study of the ill-effects of SRE in school life) but in a 1000-word personal parable of a young Jewish boy made to feel alienated in a Melbourne schoolyard.

The story itself was not at all amusing; it shows the damage that can be done when passion - whether religious or political - is not coupled with compassion.

The anecdote was notable on another level. It struck a motif quite common in atheist literature: the boy wounded or disillusioned, sometimes understandably, by early religious experiences grows up to be an ardent atheist (Richard Dawkins's testimonial is the most famous example).

Such stories seem to provide a partial explanation for the puzzling superficiality of the engagement with the intellectual sources of faith that we sometimes see on display. The "religion" that atheists most often parody, quite successfully, is like an imaginary enemy from childhood, an object frozen in the mind of a twelve year old and never seriously examined since.


But back to the point. In a secularizing society like ours, I fear that Pataki may be right that the case for SRE today carries little force for many Australians.

The only argument I personally think has weight - and on which he was noticeably wobbly - is that Judeo-Christianity significantly influences Western culture, art, politics, ethics and history.

Children should be taught Judaism and Christianity - and, in the interests of multicultural fairness, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism too - in order to grasp something of Australia's cultural heritage and, more generally, how powerful ideas have shaped the realities of the modern world.

This could be taught by existing teachers and as a "secular subject," but it is hard to predict how successful this would be in conveying the essential content and inner strength of the different worldviews.

Pataki skirts around the issue when he says that the influence of the Judeo-Christian worldview on Western history has been "exaggerated." This is itself a flimsy assertion, which he hopes readers will believe on account of the fact that, in other respects, he is a thoughtful writer. But I do not see how any serious ancient or medieval historian could accept that.

Western culture has been shaped decisively by its Hebrew and Christian cultural sources, as many specialists qualified to speak on the subject have shown, including Oxford's Peter Harrison, Princeton's Peter Brown, Baylor's Rodney Stark, Macquarie's Edwin Judge and others.

The Judeo-Christian shape of Western civilization is hardly discussed in the media, let alone given the opportunity to be "exaggerated." Sadly, such insights are usually left to the cultural historians and political philosophers. One such expert, the atheist Jurgen Habermas of the Goethe University in Frankfurt, famously conceded:

"Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love ... Everything else is just idle postmodern talk."


But I have a particular bone to pick with Pataki. He slips into a presumption very common among both religious preachers and atheist writers at the moment: competency extrapolation, where expertise in one area is taken to justify grandiose claims about things far outside your field.

It's not that people can't comment on important matters outside their area of study. We all do that. But when we do, we should proceed with some caution, citing relevant evidence and experts to support our case.

Tamas Pataki is a technical philosopher, but his knowledge of historical scholarship leaves much to be desired. He begins well. "Truth in history matters," he says as he introduces his section on the hopeless unreliability of the Bible. But then come the baseless assertions, errors of fact and serious misrepresentations of scholarship.

This is something of a trend in recent atheist literature. Leaving aside the small, pardonable mistakes of those who haven't felt it necessary to read any Bible since childhood (Dawkins's placement of the Magi story in Luke's Gospel, for instance), harder to overlook are the serious misrepresentations of scholarship found in atheist apologetics.

For example, Michel Onfray, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins all suggest that the very existence of Jesus is still in doubt among the historians. Dawkins cites an authority who has made what he describes as a "serious historical case that Jesus never lived at all," one "Prof. G.A. Wells of the University of London." But what Dawkins doesn't say is that Wells is Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of London.

How would he react if someone made an eccentric biological claim and then cited a language professor as the "serious" authority. In reality, the Jesus-never-lived hypothesis is about as marginal in historical scholarship as young-earth-creationism is in biological science.

Pataki's essay displays a comparable tendency toward competency extrapolation - though, at least he seems to take for granted the historicity of the figure of Jesus. He frequently makes bold historical assertions, which appear to carry force only because of his winsome writing style and good credentials as a philosopher. It certainly is not because they are accurate.

I won't dwell on the small errors, such as the statement that Matthew and Luke were "largely based" on the Q-source (Q accounts for less than 20% of these Gospels' material; hardly any kind of basis).

But I will point to the several historical pontifications in his piece that grossly misrepresent scholarly opinion and highlight again the rhetorical excess of the evangelizing atheists. They will cite any scholarship, even non-scholarship, so long as it furthers the cause of unbelief. They get away with this only because they assume their readership, like the authors themselves, haven't read any serious writings on the subject.


First was Pataki's obvious kicking-against-the-goads of his Jewish heritage:

"There was no Egyptian bondage, covenant on real estate, exodus or conquest. Our best archaeology, history and biblical scholarship tell us that the Israelites crystallized out of local Canaanite peoples and culture, and their exclusive monotheism was a late post-Exilic development shaped by a host of political, cultural and theological influences."

This is an outrageous misrepresentation. It holds up one strand of contemporary archaeology, known as the "minimalist" perspective, as if it stood for all scholarship. Pataki thereby ignores the majority of the field, made up of "maximalists" and "centrists," which would reject the caricature of Israelite history offered in the above paragraph.

Ken Kitchen, for example, has laid out the contemporary evidence for early Israelite monotheism, an Egyptian bondage, a mass exodus and a Canaanite conquest. Kitchen is no maverick. As Professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool (retired) he is in an excellent position to assess of the Bible's conviction that the Israelites began their journey to nationhood from the Nile Delta.

By contrast, Pataki's sole authority in these matters is a journalist:

"As Robert Wright affirms in The Evolution of God, virtually no biblical historians today believe that the biblical accounts of these matters are reliable."

That certainly is not true, but my larger question is why Pataki would call as his witness a popular author with no relevant credentials.


And the Robert Wright references don't end there. Pataki cites him later as an authority on "the historical Jesus" too. He tries to make the case that even sublime sayings, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke's Gospel, are "unlikely to have been teachings of the historical Jesus."

This particular parable, he says, is not found in the earliest Gospel (Mark), nor in the early Gospel-source known as Q. It is therefore a late addition, an invention.

Bizarrely, he then adds that the universalistic trend of the parable, where a Samaritan is more morally heroic than a Jewish priest, is contrary to the "historical Jesus's ethnocentric ejaculations." Here, he relies squarely on Wright, whom he quotes as follows:

"The real Jesus believes you should love your neighbours, but that isn't to be confused with loving all humankind. He believes you should love God but there's no mention of God loving you ... 'love your enemy' like 'love your neighbour' is a recipe for Israelite social cohesion, not for interethnic bonding."

Almost everything in Pataki's (and Wright's) foray into biblical commentary is wrong.

While it is true that Mark and Q do not have the parable of the Good Samaritan, most scholars in fact think this teaching comes from the early Gospel-source known as L (see the major studies of K. Paffenroth, J. Fitzmyer and C.F. Evans). That gives it a date earlier than Mark's Gospel and roughly contemporary with Q.

It certainly is not an editorial invention of Luke, as both the grammar and syntax of the parable and its clunky segue from the previous section make clear.

What of the alleged "ethnocentricity" of the historical Jesus. This argument reminds me of a section in Richard Dawkins's God Delusion under the title "Love They Neighbour." Here Dawkins, like Wright and Pataki, tries to suggest that Jesus was nowhere near as kind and loving as Christians make out.

"Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group morality - coupled with out-group hostility - that was taken for granted in the Old Testament."

He freely admits his source for this historical insight, an article in the Skeptic Magazine by John Hartung, whom he enthusiastically describes as an "American physician and evolutionary anthropologist."

How do these credentials qualify someone to dogmatize about what a first-century Palestinian Jew thought, especially when the conclusion is counter to one of the most securely established consensuses of Jesus-scholarship over the last thirty years: Jesus deliberately broke down "out-group hostility."

From E.P. Sanders to M. Borg, from G. Theissen to the Jewish specialist G. Vermes, scholars are in agreement that one of Jesus's core critiques of his own people was their antagonism toward the "sinner," the tax-collector, the Samaritan and the Gentile.

According to a passage in Q (the earliest Gospel-source), the religious elite slandered Jesus as the "friend of sinners." In another Q passage, Jesus declares that the pagans of Tyre and Sidon have more chance of entering God's kingdom than his fellow Jewish communities in Capernaum and Bethsaida. And, finally, yet another Q text has Jesus praise a Roman centurion for his faith and then announce to the astonished home crowd, "Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven."

The "universalistic trend" of the parable of the Good Samaritan coheres completely with what our earliest sources say about the teacher from Nazareth.

He was one of a number of Jewish teachers in the period who insisted, largely on the basis of the universalistic hopes of the Old Testament book of Isaiah, that the God of Israel loved all of humanity, the righteous and the wicked alike.

Pataki's attempt to argue otherwise, and his reliance on questionable sources, reveal the disturbing tendency of the new atheists to use any assertion to bolster their case. It is the mirror image of the Christian apologetics of yesteryear. It works for no one but the uninformed or already-convinced.


Pataki's next faux pas concerns the famous incident of the woman caught in adultery, about whom Jesus says in John's Gospel, "Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone." It is an "excellent story," writes Pataki, but it "was added centuries after John was written."

He has confused the fact that this narrative doesn't appear in the best manuscripts of John's Gospel, something all modern Bibles acknowledge in their text of John 8, with a conclusion that the story was concocted "centuries" later.

In fact, it is acknowledged that the story has a very ancient, if not first-century, provenance, as C.K. Barrett, J. Charlesworth and others have argued. It is an additional piece of oral testimony that was placed in Luke's Gospel in some ancient manuscripts and in John's in others (usually with a copyist's asterisks to indicate its uncertain origin).

A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, the volume explaining the decisions of the committee that establishes the Greek text of the New Testament (from which modern translations are then made), states that

"the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western Church ... in deference to the evident antiquity of the passage, a majority [of the committee] decided to print it."


But Pataki is at his rashest and, thus, weakest when trying to argue that the West, far from being the product of the biblical worldview, has really inherited its best ideas from the earlier, Graeco-Roman cultures:

"In fact, the fundamentals of our legal, political, civic and economic structures, as well as nearly every fruitful form of investigation, including moral exploration, we owe to Graeco-Roman civilization, itself complex and pluralistic."

Indeed, Pataki thinks that it is only to the degree that Christianity "absorbed and preserved" some of the wisdom of Greece and Rome and "failed to destroy entirely the rest" that we can say that Christendom shaped Western civilization.

His sharpest claim is his most vulnerable, namely, that the Judeo-Christian worldview argues only by parable, poetry and pronouncement, whereas the Greeks insisted that "knowledge entails rational argument."

Moreover, the Bible is a "regression to a more primitive state of affairs," but a true education, as cultivated by the Greeks, urges students to "search for answers in texts or experience, through equations or experiments, and they are asked to justify their answers rationally by appeal to evidence, mathematical proofs and so on."

Pataki fails to describe the real significance of the Greeks and he conflates two types of knowledge that were really quite separate in the ancient world. He is correct to say that the sixth-century BC philosophers launched a revolution in knowledge, centred on a pure rationalism.

As a result, they made huge advances in mathematics (Pythagoras, born 580 BC), offered powerful rationalizations of nature (Aristotle, 384 BC), reasonably accurately calculated celestial movements (Ptolemy, AD 100) and started to explore what we now call medicine (Galen, AD 129).

But for all the advances, there was a major intellectual roadblock at the heart of Greek thought that prevented them from making the leap into what we now think of as science.

The methodology of empirical testing fundamental to our Western intellectual tradition did not come from the Greeks. Indeed, it could not. The Greeks closed the door on verification through experience. "The whole business of testing for truth," says Professor Edwin Judge, a specialist on the reception of Graeco-Roman culture into the modern world and founder of Macquarie University's Ancient History Department, "was explicitly rejected in classical culture as being illogical."

Why? Because the Greeks believed the universe operated according to a fixed, eternal logic, which was accessible to the logical mind of human beings. What was needed in order to comprehend the world, whether the movements of the stars or the circulation of the blood, was not testing but careful reasoning from unchallenged axioms.

So long as we are amply trained, we can think our way to reality. Experimentation was therefore irrational. From Parmenides (born 515 BC) to Aristotle (384 BC), from Chrysippus (280 BC) to Plotinus (AD 205), the Greek intellectual method, for all its advances, erected a giant blockade in front of what we today recognize as the only valid path to true science.

According to Peter Harrison, Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford:

"The revolution which gave rise to a proper natural history was not the result of new facts or observations, nor of the discarding of irrelevant and extraneous material, but of a change to the mental field in which generally accepted facts were located."

This "change in mental field" involved giving up the Greek obsession with rationalism, says Harrison, and adopting the pathway to knowledge called "empiricism," testing by experience.

Rationalism imagines that we can think our way to a true account of the world; empiricism concedes our limited grasp of reality and sets out to observe nature, propose theories to explain it, tests those theories with experiments and invites others to confirm or disprove the explanation.


This revolution in the path to knowledge was the result of the shattering of the Greek worldview by the Judeo-Christian worldview. And we can date it precisely.

In AD 529 the Christian philosopher John Philoponus published his Refutation of Proclus echoing his Refutation of Aristotle. These were a stunning dismantling of the Greek doctrine of the rational, eternal universe in favour of a philosophical defence of the biblical notion of the universe as a created object with a beginning. And this gave us science as we now think of it.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary states things plainly: Philoponus: "influenced subsequent science to Galileo by replacing many of Aristotle's theories with an account centred on the Christian idea that the universe had an absolute beginning."

The breakthrough was immense. If the world is not an eternal, logical system but a creative work of art, we cannot simply think our way to understanding reality.

We must humbly inspect what the Creator, of his own free will, has produced and apply our rational powers of testing to comprehend what He has manufactured. Testing of what is, not rationalizing from first principles, will lead us to the truth about the physical world.

This is precisely the path John Philoponus opened up and it is exactly how the first modern scientists thought about their work. Isaac Newton, John Ray, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, Robert Boyle and the others: they were all inspired by the doctrine that the universe is a work of art from an utterly free Hand, not an eternally rational system.

What was required therefore was not more confident philosophical (or theological) rationalizing about the world but more probing of what is there in front of us, proposing theories about how it might work, testing those theories against other available facts and seeking confirmation from others: in short, the modern scientific method.

The monographs on the origins of science by Oxford's Peter Harrison bear this out in compelling detail.

Tamas Pataki is totally wrong to suggest that the Greeks gave us the path of testing, experience and appeal to evidence. They gave us logic, for sure. But it was the followers of the Bible who insisted that logic alone cannot establish ultimate reality by deduction.

What is needed is "experience" - criticizing hypothesis from evidence and so verifying what is, not what ought logically to be. They applied this method first to the historical discipline, giving birth to the modern practice of history through research into primary sources (another story worth telling), and then to the physical world, giving birth to the empirical sciences.

What is perfectly clear is that Pataki's dewy-eyed ode to the wonders of Greek thought and his caricature of the bumbling "soothsaying" of the Jews and Christians owe more to his own dogma than to either evidence or contemporary scholarship on any of the questions he touches upon.


Alice C. Linsley said...

I assume that Pataki is either from Pakistan or India. He certainly doesn't know the history of that region if he thinks that Abraham, Moses and their Horite people didn't have a great influence on every area of cultural development in the Afro-Asiatic dominion.

Read this: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2011/06/nimrod-was-kushite-ruler.html

And this:

Post a Comment