Consider Christianity – part 3

This is the third of my set of comments on Elgin Hushbeck’s “Consider Christianity” series. In the previous two messages I introduced my approach and dealt with Chapter 1. I now move on to Chapter 2.

Chapter 2 is called “The Bible and Modern Criticism”. Now, Elgin doesn’t like modern criticism very much. To quote him:-

“Where prophecies and miracles do occur, they must somehow be explained away. This was very clearly stated by the German scholar Frank, when he wrote:- ‘The representation of a course of history is a priori to be regarded as untrue and unhistorical if supernatural factors interpose in it. Everything must be naturalised and likened to the course of natural history’.
“Conservative scholars have no such limitations. They believe that those who wrote the Bible were inspired by God. Prophecies and miracles are not seen as proof that the Bible cannot be relied upon. Instead they serve to confirm it’s divine origins. It is often the different assumptions which scholars make that lead them to their different conclusions”

He adds a footnote:-

“It is important to note that scholars need not assume that the writers of the Bible were inspired by God. A scholar need only leave the question of the supernatural open and examine the evidence for alleged occurrences to see if they happened”.

Neglecting for a moment that God may well inspire a writer to write something in a historical style without it being intended to be historical, and a wholly uninspired writer might yet faithfully report an historical supernatural event, doesn’t that sound reasonable? It did to me at first reading.

But it isn’t setting out a level playing field between Christianity and any other historical document. Frank’s statement is not exclusive to Christianity, it is standard historical practice when dealing with any historical document. An a priori assumption can be rebutted – but supernatural events are extraordinary by definition, and extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence. (I’m quite happy to accept Bill’s statement that he walked down to the shops today, but I’d need a lot of convincing if he then claimed he teleported back).

The Conservative scholar will clearly not think extraordinary evidence necessary. Will the Mainstream or Liberal scholar? Well, perhaps not the extremes of Liberal scholarship, who probably won’t accept even extraordinary evidence (there’s an excluded middle logical fallacy here – there isn’t just Jesus Seminar and Conservative) but certainly a significant swathe of Mainstream.

I personally criticise Frank’s statement mildly, in that it’s too close to “the supernatural never occurs”, and I criticise some of the Jesus Fellowship scholars on the same basis. But Elgin admits openly that Conservative Scholars “believe the Bible to be inspired by God”. I’ve no problem with them doing that for purposes of theology, but for purposes of Apologetics it’s the “assuming your conclusion” logical fallacy.

In addition, if you accept that in Christianity, an account of something supernatural is possibly correct (and particularly if you go on to say that if it’s witnessed to and there’s no contradictory evidence it’s true), you have to do the same with accounts of supernatural events linked with any other religion. Of course, historians don’t do this, but I can see the possibility that, to be even handed, we might need to accept that Augustus Caesar was a God – after all, it’s hugely multiply attested by contemporary archaological inscriptions and therefore better attested than anything in the new Testament.

Movind on to Elgin’s account of the Documentary hypothesis, he struggles hard to demonstrate one very conservative Jewish legend about the composition of Torah, and ignores another Jewish legend which has the Prophet Ezra assembling scholars to collect and edit an oral tradition, which is hardly advancing all the evidence. I note Elgin’s footnote referring to Exodus 24:4 and Deuteronomy 31:9, but the first refers only to such law as had already been expounded in Exodus (and at least one Jewish tradition has it that the later restating after the breaking of the tablets revoked this portion), and the second may well only refer to the succeding passages of Deuteronomy.

My attitude to his section on Historical Criticism can be summed up by the statement that on the basis he suggests, “Gone With the Wind” should be regarded as authentic history, as it has some authentic historical detail in it.
Yes, Luke uses a correct term for the then leader of Malta. But then, John gets his Palestinian geography right, and the synoptics broadly don’t.

For the remainder of the chapter, I think it can be summed up by his section entitled “On shaky ground”. He’s right that it isn’t possible to state that, say, the Q hypothesis or the late dating of the Fourth Gospel are proven. However, he proceeds to imply that in the absence of proof, we should accept a contrary view which is equally shaky as being accurate. There are many views; scholars disagree. Were his apparent objective to reassure Conservative Christians that certain of their positions were rationally compatible with the evidence, to date he’d be doing fairly well. But the title is “Consider Christianity”, and the introduction is aimed at someone who is not already a Conservative Christian believer, and probably not a Christian believer at all.

Demonstrating that something is possible is not demonstrating that it is correct.

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