What price apologetics?

I have to ask myself why we do apologetics. It seems to me that it just brings our religion into disrepute and at best makes us look at best a set of idiots and at worst a set of liars. It just isn’t possible to argue it as being rational without a set of unprovable assumptions. I grant that anyone who’s read Godel can criticise scientific rationalism on exactly the same basis. Sadly, most haven’t

Who are we seeking to convince? We aren’t going to convince any scientific rationalists. They have a different set of unprovable assumptions, which they aren’t going to abandon in a hurry.

The term “preaching to the choir” springs to mind. I’t’s easy, but it ain’t much use

This has been a critique of Elgin Hushbeck’s “Consider Christianity” series, which will continue (sorry Elgin!)

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  1. I think that after my start, I should say that I enjoyed reading Elgin’s first two “Consider Christianity” books (I haven’t got the last one yet), as the style is very readable. My trouble is that I think he’s attempting an impossible task – though doing it better than most other conservative apologists I can recall reading.

    What concerns me is that he’s going for a “balance of probabilities” consideration here, on the surface – hey, I’m a lawyer, I consider things in those terms – and there are a number of things one cannot do when trying to convince a reasonably intelligent audience. The biggest, of course, is not to be found out concealing evidence. There are also the huge range of logical fallacies, and getting caught in one of those seriously weakens a case.

    I’ll admit my heart sank when I found an “assumed conclusion” in the introduction when he quoted John 14:6. Never mind, though, that’ll come up later as a “false dichotomy” as well.

    I find little to criticise in his comments on the Old Testament, except to say that with the oldest possible manuscript fragments dating from around 500 BCE, it is a severe stretch to say that this is “the same written down by the prophets”. The earliest texts would be the Torah, and if 1400 BCE is correct for the dating, there’s a 900 year gap. Stylistic arguments equally support the Documentary Hypothesis, which assumes frequent redactions for the Torah; my recollection is that the earliest complete single manuscript of the Hebrew Scriptures is third century CE, though their canonisation over the period first century BCE to second century CE seems most probable (though Josephus certainly accepted 22). Of course, then those compiling the Hebrew Scriptures omitted the Apocrpyha, most of which appear in the Septuagint.

    Things seem to me to become fanciful when claiming that the existence of fragmentary portions of NT texts at an earlier date than Codex Vaticanus demonstrates that they were unchanged. Of course it doesn’t, it demonstrates that that portion of wording existed earlier. Stylistic critics commonly point to at least some redaction of the texts being evident on the face of them, and alterations were made after Codex Vaticanus

    What surprises me most is that Elgin later quotes from Eusebius’ quote of Papias as to attribution, but doesn’t mention it in the context of determining when the Gospels were written. If we can’t rely on odd fragments, can we supplement that from references in the works of other writers? Well, yes. Paul quotes nothing much recognisable from the Gospels, and neither do Clement of Rome or Ignatius of Antioch (though some scholars see echoes). Polycarp of Smyrna quotes more, though he refers to them as “sayings of Jesus” rather than as scripture – that’s in around 110.

    But Papias of Hieraconpolis was probably writing around that time (the earliest date might have been about 95). He preferred oral tradition, but does mention Gospels of Matthew and Mark – but what does he say about them? “Matthew composed the sayings in a Hebrew dialect, and each one interpreted them as best he could”. Clearly there has been at least a translation, and one might expect the addition of incident.

    Of Mark, he says, helpfully, that Mark was Peter’s secretary and wrote down what he remembered of Peter’s preaching. But he then says “For he neither followed the Lord or heard him, but afterwards, as I have said, Peter, who adapted his discourse to the needs, but not making as it were an arrangment of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them”. (I’m indebted to Bruce Metzger in “The Canon of the New Testament” for the translations).

    That clearly is not the Mark we know either – at the least it’s been rearranged, and there’s an implication that that too was a “sayings” gospel, so it’s probably been added to as well.

    Papias doesn’t discuss Luke or John, so I think there’s reasonable evidence they’re both later.

    We therefore have an earliest date for the writing of the Gospels in current form of around 95 CE, so the statement “the books of the New Testament were copied and distributed very widely during the lifetime of the apostles” seems impossible – this is at least 65 years later, Clement and Ignatius didn’t seem to know them well, and Papias describes something different. Of course, all the evidence is that the Pauline Epistles were in circulation earlier than this.

    Contrary to what Elgin goes on to say, we do have evidence that the books were changed – indeed that that was going on considerably later, and Bart Ehrmann makes a scholarly analysis of this situation in “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” in which he shows that there is clear evidence of scribal actions which had a significant effect on doctrine.

    He may be correct that in the time of Diocletian some Christians would die to protect the texts. It is also true that as late as 110 CE no recorded Church Father seems to have regarded them in that light, and that equally has to be persuasive as to earlier attitudes. 2 Peter is thought by many scholars to be a forgery. As to the mass of documents preserved – well, the reason for that is evident. It came to be that accepted NT documents were carefully preserved, whereas the works of other writers were just recopied (or, the evidence seems to be, if you were of the mind of Irenaus, destroyed).

    Now, I can accept that there was an oral tradition (Papias was keen to learn of it in preference to writings) and I can accept that some of it may have been written down earlier in versions we don’t now have – indeed, Papias gives evidence of that. The witch hunts for heretical documents which are catalogued widely and the current absence of copies of many of them (somewhat relieved by the fortuitous preservations at Oxyrhyncus and Nag Hammadi) demonstrate as well that documents which some Christians revered, others would destroy. In summary, I can have no confidence from the documentary evidencethat tradition was in fact faithfully preserved.

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