Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Trusting Expert Consensus

Following up on yesterday's rant, which was not really meant to be a rant, and which was not directed at anyone in particular, I want to talk today about expert or scholarly consensus.

While I said in my last post that one should not disagree with experts if one is not qualified to do so, I should give the following caveat: what I was really talking about was expert or scholarly consensus. Individual experts may not be correct. A particular scholar may hold an idiosyncratic, minority, or fringe opinion.  Individually, experts are often wrong on particular issues. Yet, there is something called scholarly consensus which non-experts have no ability to judge adequately.

A scholarly consensus is when the vast majority of experts in a given field, with the relevant skills and knowledge, agree that the evidence points to one conclusion. Depending on the field of study, scholarly consensuses can be quite rare.  Experts within any given field disagree on plenty of issues. Scholars are not inherently prone to agree with each other.  Therefore, when the vast majority in a given field do agree, non-experts ought to respect that scholarly process that led to the consensus. Why these consensuses ought to be trusted is that what is being claimed when a consensus is reached is that, of all of the people with the relevant skills and expertise, looking at the same evidence, the vast majority reach the same conclusion. Scholarly consensuses are hard-fought and contentious matters and are not reached lightly.

Another reason scholarly consensus ought to be trusted by non-experts is because, built in to the very fabric of the scholarly world is a strong motivation to overturn consensus.  Most scholars, myself included, want to be respected by one's peers.  Because scholars spend their lives thinking and producing ideas, we want those ideas recognized for their merit by other scholars. One of the best ways to gain notoriety and respect in one's field is to successfully challenge a scholarly consensus. If that occurs, what it means is that a particular scholar has gone against the majority opinion of experts, and has been able to convince the vast majority that his or her position is correct. He or she as caused the majority of experts to change their mind.  Therefore, there is a built in motivation for scholars to challenge consensuses. And, this does happen.  Long-held consensuses are often challenged.  Most of these challenges are not successful because the evidence does not support them.  But, sometimes they are successful, and the consensus is overturned, a new consensus is formed, and the collective knowledge of experts in the field grows.

Now, let me give a very brief (and surely oversimplified) overview of such a development in my field of synoptic gospel study.  The synoptic gospels are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it has been recognized almost since the birth of Christianity that these gospels bore a special literary relationship.  In fact, it was clear as early as Augustine, that these gospel writers had copied portions of their gospels. I often tell my students that if Matthew, Mark, and Luke turned in their gospels to me, I would turn them in to my dean for committing plagiarism. Augustine proposed the following order of composition: Matthew, Mark, Luke (also the canonical order).  He also noted that Mark copied portions of Matthew, and Luke copied portions of both Matthew and Mark. This view was held for over 1000 years without any serious contention.  Then, in the 1700s a German scholar named Johan Jakob Griesbach argued for a different order of composition: Matthew, Luke, Mark.  In his view, Matthew wrote first, Luke copied portions of Matthew, and then Mark condensed both Luke and Matthew into his shorter gospel.  This hypothesis, called the Griesbach hypothesis, then won the assent of the majority of scholars for nearly 100 years, thus forming a consensus on what was called "Markan Posteriority" (the view that Mark was the latest gospel of the synoptics).  Over the next 100 years or so, several challenges to this consensus were presented in scholarship, and the consensus began to crumble in the 1800s with the works of scholars like Christian Hermann Weiss and Heirnrich Holtzmann.  Then through the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new consensus was formed that held a different order: Mark, Matthew, Luke.  This is the theory of Markan Priority and this has been the consensus view in New Testament scholarship for about the last 100 years.  This consensus has been challenged many times over the past century, but none have succeeded in persuading a large number of scholars.  Thus, the consensus of Markan priority is still very much in place in New Testament studies.

So, this example should tell us several things about scholarly consensuses. 1) Scholarly consensuses are not always right.  2) They are often challenged. 3) Some challenges fail and are forgotten. 4) Some challenges succeed and often form a new consensus. 5) Scholarship is always progressing and learning more. 6) Rarely, if ever, do consensuses return to previously overturned majority opinions (i.e., scholarship rarely goes backwards).  Once a view is discounted, it is usually not resurrected. 7) Scholarly consensuses fall because other experts with the relevant skills and knowledge challenge them.  They do not fall because non-experts do not like certain scholarly conclusions.

All of this is to say that when the vast majority of experts in a field agree on certain conclusions (scholarly consensus), then non-experts ought to trust that they are right, or at least that they are more likely to be right than the non-expert.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Trusting the Experts

The world needs experts.  This may sound like a trivial claim, but I think we see too often people scoff at experts. Take any number of issues in the news these days and you get non-experts scoffing at the hard wrought opinions of experts.  The internet has made the airing of one's opinion on various matters both easy and ubiquitous.  And thus comes with one of the most vexing problems of the internet age: how to tell if what you read on the internet is coming from someone who actually knows what s/he is talking about. 

So, how do we even define the term expert?  Well, how about this definition from Google:
An expert is, "a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area."
That sounds like a good working definition to me. I find the terms "comprehensive," and "authoritative" to be the key words in that definition. An expert knows the breadth of his or her field and can make authoritative claims for that field.

Now, something needs to be said here about limiting the fields of expertise. The 20th century gave us the term "renaissance man," which referred to someone who had developed their intellectual abilities across multiple fields. The quintessential renaissance man was idealized in Leonardo da Vinci. Now, as noble as the idea of a renaissance man, or woman for that matter, may be, in our current world it is impossible to master multiple fields.  Human knowledge is too vast to be mastered by any one individual. We have to specialize. In fact, we have to specialize to a high degree.  For example, my Ph.D. degree is in Religion, yet I am not an expert in all things pertaining to religion.  Moreover, my focus was in Biblical Studies, but neither am I an expert in all things pertaining to the Bible.  Further, my specialization was New Testament, but I am certainly not an expert equally in the whole of the NT. I further specialize in the gospels, and my only publication is on the Gospel of Luke and Rhetorical Criticism.  One might say that I am one of the world's foremost experts in the extremely narrow field of rhetorical figures of speech in the gospel of Luke (but who cares).  In our world, to truly be an expert, means one has to narrow the focus of one's expertise.

Once one has achieved a level of expertise in a subject, his or her hard wrought conclusions ought to be trusted, at least by those with no business questioning them.  We ought to trust that those who have put in the hard work of learning the depth and breadth of their field know what they are talking about when it comes to their conclusions in their field.  Yet, since the internet seems to democratize all voices, many feel it their duty to inform the public that the experts are wrong.  This is a shameful practice and one that ought to be ignored.  Yet, all too often people listen to those spouting on about things they have no business spouting on about. Is there a good solution to this problem, or is this the price one pays for the convenience of the internet?  What do you think?

Friday, January 29, 2016

Pauline Publication and Dating the Gospels

I am continuing through E. P. Sanders' new book on Paul and came across this gem:
"The tendency to use quotations from Paul, once his writings became available, was so strong that we may confidently think that Christian literature that does not contain quotations or allusions to his letters was written prior to the publication of the Pauline letter corpus. This literature includes all four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles." (E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 149.)
I found this comment fascinating for several reasons.  First, I had never heard anything like this argument, especially with regard to the dating of the Gospels and Acts. If I am correct in my understanding of Sanders basic claim, it is that virtually all early Christian literature carries either quotations or allusions to Paul.  Therefore, if any literature does not, it must have been written before the collection and publication of the Pauline corpus, which, according to Sanders, took place in the 90s C.E.  All four Gospels and Acts do not contain quotations or allusions to Paul, and therefore must have been written before the 90s.  Is that how you read Sanders' claim?

Now, if my reading is correct, I find it interesting on many fronts. First, I am curious that I have not heard this argument before.  Certainly I have not heard it in Gospel scholarship, which is where I spend most of my time.  Nor have I heard it in Pauline scholarship, in which I dabble.  Have others heard this claim before?

Second, it could be an interesting argument for setting a terminus ad quem for the gospels in the 90s C.E. Some would like to argue for a later date for either Luke or John.  If Sanders is correct, a later date for these gospels would bear signs of the Pauline corpus.

Third, for Gospel studies, this does not overturn majority opinions on the dating of the gospels, with the latest, Luke and John, usually placed in the 80s or 90s.

Fourth, I find it odd that if this is a truly new claim, that Sanders makes no sustained argument for his position.  The paragraph stands alone, almost as an aside, in his conversation of the Pauline collection and publication.

Now, we could, if we had the time, test the veracity of Sanders' claim.  One could comb all early Christian literature post 90s and see if it shows traces of Paul.  One could also comb through the Gospels and look for traces of Paul.  One interesting passage comes to mind.  It has long been noted that Luke's version of the Lord's Supper is most closely paralleled in 1 Corinthians 11.  Could this be a sign of Pauline influence, and moreover, an argument for later date for Luke in say the 90s-120s?

What do you think?  Had you heard this argument before?  Do you find it compelling or interesting in any way?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Paul's Name Change

This is a follow up post from Monday's post on Paul's supposed conversion.  I want to briefly discuss the change of name from Saul to Paul that we see in the book of Acts.

Now, it is a popular opinion that Saul, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians changed his name to Paul at the time of, and because of his dramatic conversion.  This popular opinion is confirmed by my students and by a quick google search.  The idea is that when Paul saw the light and left his wicked Judaism for the truth of Christianity (his conversion), he had to symbolize this dramatic conversion with a name change. Here is a somewhat typical expression of this view from a website called BibleHub: 
"Jesus Christ gave the Apostle whom He called to Himself in the early days, a new name, in order to prophesy the change which, by the discipline of sorrow and the communication of the grace of God, should pass over Simon Barjona, making him into a Peter, a 'Man of Rock.' With characteristic independence, Saul chooses for himself a new name, which shall express the change that he feels has passed over his inmost being. True, he does not assume it at his conversion, but that is no reason why we should not believe that he assumes it because he is beginning to understand what it is that has happened to him at his conversion."
Here the author connects the concept of Paul's name change with the name change of Peter which was given by Jesus in Matthew 16.

Now, I already questioned in my previous post the fitness of the word conversion for what happened to Paul, as if Paul were converting from one religion (Judaism) to another (Christianity).  Now, I am not denying that Paul underwent a radical change.  He did, and he says as much in his letters.  Yet, I do not think that in any way Paul would say he left Judaism behind to follow a different religion.

Moreover, if the name change was linked to Paul's experience (conversion) on the Damascus road, as in Acts 9, the author of Acts certainly does not make this connection clear.  Saul is called Saul 24 times in the book of Acts. Saul's supposed conversion takes place in Acts 9, and the conversion is complete by Acts 9:19.  Of the 24 times Saul is called Saul in Acts, 10 of those take place either before, or during Saul's supposed conversion in chapter 9 (7:58, 8:1, 8:3, 9:1, 9:4(twice), 9:11, and 9:17 (twice)). Another five times he is called Saul occur in Paul's retelling of that event in Chapters 22 and 26 (22:7(twice), 22:13, and 26:14(twice)).  Interestingly, the other nine times that Paul is called Saul in the book of Acts occur after this supposed conversion and over a span of five chapters in the book (9:22, 9:24, 11:25, 11:30, 12:25, 13:1(twice), 13:7, and 13:9).  In each case, Saul is engaged in one way or another in his ministry as a follower of Jesus.   So, if the author of Acts meant to communicate that the change of name from Saul to Paul was a result of and emblematic of his dramatic conversion from Judaism to Christianity, he failed miserably.  Saul continues under the name Saul to minister as a follower of Jesus for quite some time before the name is changed to Paul. The change of name takes place in Chapter 13 without much warning or comment.  Acts 13 narrates what is commonly called Paul's first missionary journey which he undertakes with Barnabus.  In 13:1 he is called Saul and is commissioned along with Barnabus to go abroad with the message of Jesus. On the Island of Crete, Saul and Barnabus minister in 13:7.  In 13:9, we get the following phrase: "But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him." Finally, the change is complete at 13:13 and the name Paul is used for the rest of the book except in Paul's recounting of his experience from Acts 9 in chapters 22 and 26.

So, what can we make of this name change?  Was it a change prompted by Saul's dramatic conversion to Christianity?  First let me say, we cannot know for sure why Saul changed his name to Paul.  In his letters, Paul only calls himself Paul and never mentions Saul.  Acts gives no explanatory comment about the name change.  But, I think that the evidence does not lead to the idea that Saul's name change was based on a supposed conversion.  I think the answer is much more practical and mundane.  The name change occurs in Acts during Saul's first missionary interactions with Gentiles. Gentiles would have been familiar with the name Paul (a common Roman name), but Saul, a Jewish name, would have been unfamiliar, and would probably have sounded odd and foreign.  I am of the opinion that the name change was a merely practical decision on the part of Paul so that he could more effectively minister to Gentiles.  It would be more akin to someone of Hispanic heritage named Alejandro, adopting the anglicized name Alex upon moving to America. It is even possible that Saul/Paul had always had both names since he was a Jew born and raised in a Gentile city of Tarsus and was possibly even a Roman Citizen. Either way, I do not think that the evidence leads to the conclusion that this name change was due to a dramatic religious conversion.  What do you think?

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Conversion of Paul?

I have been reading E. P. Sanders new massive tome on Paul and have been thoroughly enjoying the read. As always, Sanders' treats his subject matter with excellent clarity.  Reading Sanders' prose is pure joy.  In the volume he weighs in on the debate concerning whether or not to call what happened to Paul a "conversion" or not.

Here is a little of what Sanders has to say:
"The debate over whether or not Paul 'converted' is actually a debate about the meaning of the word conversion.  If it means 'turn from the worship of one god to the worship of another,' then Paul did not convert. If it means 'turn from one set of religious practices to another set,' then one could argue that Paul partially converted, since... he sometimes gave up some Jewish practices... 
"But, if by 'conversion' we mean not 'turn from,' but only 'turn to,' then we may say that Paul converted. He turned to a new revelation from the God of Israel, a revelation that transformed the old in a fairly radical way... My own inclination is to use 'convert' in the third way--turn to--and consequently to speak of Paul's conversion, but I would not wish to fight to death over this usage." (E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 101-102.)
Now, I do not substantively disagree with anything Sanders says here.  But, I still find the language of conversion problematic. If one defines conversion as Sanders does in his third definition, then of course Paul converted.  Yet, the only problem is that this is not how most people, IMO, conceptualize the word conversion. I teach undergraduates as a full time job, and I understand that redefining words is not always successful. You need to work really hard to redefine words and concepts that are already embedded in a student's mind. I think that the common "street" definition of the word "conversion" is much more along the lines of the following definition from "change from one religion, political belief, viewpoint, etc., to another."  Specifically, within the context of Paul, I think many would take the word conversion to mean that Paul converted from one religion, Judaism, to another different religion, Christianity.  Now, I do not think that you would find a single New Testament scholar that would agree with the preceding statement. Paul did not see himself as leaving Judaism. He had a "revelation" (Paul's word, apocalypsai, Gal 1:16), and that revelation dramatically transformed his understanding of the the God of Israel, nevertheless, it did not represent a conversion from one religion to another.

The problem, of course, is that today, Judaism and Christianity are legitimately two distinct religions. But this was not so in the first century.  At their earliest stages, Christianity and Pharisaism (later Rabbinic Judaism) were competing forms of Judaism. So, to use the word conversion in the context of Paul is to confuse the issue, because to most people, they will hear this as a conversion from one religion to another, and that is not at all what was going on. Using the language of conversion for Paul perpetuates the worst in historical Christianity, the supersessionism and antisemitism, which is responsible for some of the worst injustices carried out in the name of God.  Can we find a better word for what happened to Paul?  One that will not carry on age old misunderstandings that have plagued Jewish and Christian relations for nearly 2000 years?

In my lectures on Paul, I have used the phrase, "change of heart," for what happened to Paul.  Yet, even so, I am not sure that that phrase really captures what is going on with Paul.  Does anyone have any other suggestions or ways that they have spoken about Paul's experience?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


(I began this post over a month ago, in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings.  The holidays intervened, so here we go again).

Guns!  This is a topic that is in the news right now.  Everyone has an opinion.  Why not me?  Well, I'm sure I do have an opinion, but I am not sure I have worked it all out yet.  So, I am going to work my opinion out here on this blog.  This is an area where my thoughts have changed over the past 5-10 years, but I have never worked out a clear opinion before, so I am going to give it a shot here.

First of all, I have worked out my opinion (I think) on the 2nd Amendment, so you can go read that here.  To sum that up, I think that the second amendment is obsolete and should probably be repealed.

With that out of the way, back to the idea of guns in general.  Now, I am a big proponent of the idea that no technology is in itself evil.  As someone who teaches ethics, I believe that inanimate objects do not carry moral responsibilities.  Only humans can make moral choices.  So, it is not that any technology, in itself, is evil in any way, but rather the way it is used by moral agents, i.e., humans.  See image to the right.

Guns are a piece of technology.  They solve a technological problem.  Namely, guns give humans the ability to hurl small pieces of metal (bullets) at great speeds over great distances. Now, there could be many purposes for hurling bullets over great distances at great speeds.  Maybe I want to put holes in a sheet of plywood from 250 feet away.  A gun would do the trick.  Yet I cannot imagine that this would be a good technological solution to putting holes in plywood.  Surely a much cheaper piece of technology, say a drill, could do the same thing, and much more accurately, yet not at a great distance.  Clearly, the purpose of hurling bullets is to inflict damage on something.  Almost exclusively, guns are used to disable moving objects at distances.  Now, these objects most commonly are animals, whether they be of the human variety or otherwise.

Let me say at this point, that what I will be discussing below is the ownership of guns by private citizens.  I am not yet ready to tackle the questions of  government agents, law enforcement, or war. What I will be discussing below is simply gun ownership by private citizens for private use. Let me also get the hunting issue out of the way.  I have at this point no problem with responsible and legal hunting either for food or sport.  I am not a hunter, but I have hunted and married into a hunting family.

Now, I am not a gun expert, but I think I can classify three big categories of guns to be discussed here: 1) Rifles, 2) Handguns, and 3) Shotguns.  There are two types of guns from this list that are useful for hunting: rifles and shotguns.  I have hunted deer, and you use a rifle.  I have hunted dove and you use a shotgun.  I have no problems with these weapons when used for hunting purposes.  But interestingly, neither of these weapons are the weapon of choice for mass shooters, and for an obvious reason: they don't carry enough bullets to effectively kill multiple people.  A deer hunting rifle carries one bullet.  And that is enough.  Anyone who has hunted a deer before knows that you just get one shot.  If you miss, you don't get a second chance.  A typical dove hunting shotgun carries two-four rounds.  Once again, not tremendously useful in a mass shooting.

Now to the guns that give me pause for a moment:  semi-automatic handguns and assault style rifles.
Both of these types of weapons carry multiple round magazines.  What gives me pause here is the following question: what useful purpose do these weapons carry for your average citizen?  Once again, I am not talking about government agents, law enforcement, or the military here.  These multiple round weapons obviously have a possibly legitimate purpose in the realm of law enforcement and war.  But, for your average citizen, what legitimate purpose can these guns have? Simply by virtue of the form of these weapons, they have but one design: kill lots of people quickly. No one hunts with a semi-automatic handgun, they are not accurate enough at distance and there is no need for so many bullets.  The handgun has the added lethality of being able to be concealed until a perpetrator is close to his or her victims. Assault style rifles are also of no use in hunting.  Once again, multiple bullets are a redundancy. In sum total, I see no legitimate need for private citizens to own guns that carry multiple rounds.  Interestingly, if these guns were not readily available, it might significantly cut down on mass shootings (see image above).  This leads to an interesting question, but one that I will not have time to address here and now.  That is, if mass shootings were drastically reduced because these guns were no longer readily available, would the justification of private citizens owning these guns for personal protection be a less compelling position?  What do you think?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Rafael Rodriguez and The Lukan Beatitudes

In a recent post on the Jesus blog, Rafael Rodriguez, a scholar for whom I have the utmost respect, definitively pronounced that two other scholars (Francis Watson and Mark Goodacre, for whom I also have the utmost respect) were wrong.  Here is what he said,
"Therefore, Watson (and Goodacre) are wrong to insist on translating the Lukan beatitudes, "Blessed are those who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."
Now, I am not a big fan of definitive pronouncements in general, and I think that Rodriguez was unfair to do so in this case.

Now, the issue is the translation of Luke 6:20-21 in which Jesus pronounces three groups of people as blessed. Grammatically, the form of these three groups is in the masculine, plural, nominative, which would normally translate as "the poor, the hungry, and the weeping."  So, per Watson and Goodacre, the verses would be translated, "blessed are the poor," "blessed are the hungry," and "blessed are the weeping (or those who weep)."

Now, Rodriguez makes his case that the construction should be translated as "blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, blessed are you who weep," based on a grammatical argument. According to Rodriguez, the nominative case is actually functioning here as a vocative due to the second clause in each beatitude which is unambiguously translated, "for yours is... for you shall...for you shall."  In support of this, Rodriguez calls on the grammar of Blass, Debrunner, and Funk, one of the authoritative Greek grammars in the field.  BDF uses as an example of the nominative functioning as vocative, Luke 6:25, which is one of Luke's corresponding woes (see BDF §147, p. 81).  6:25 is also unambiguously translated, "woe to you who are full."  But in this case, the woe to you is unambiguously in the text in the first clause.  Not so, in 6:20-21.  So, even though BDF draws an example from a verse that is in close proximity to 6:20-21, it is not a slam dunk therefore to argue that 6:20 must therefore be translated as a vocative, "blessed are you."  All that this proves, in my mind, is that it is certainly possible to translate the three blessings in 6:20-21 as vocatives, i.e., "blessed are you."

But, for the moment I don't want to dwell solely on the grammar,since I think that both translations ("blessed are the..." and "blessed are you...") are grammatically possible, but I want to highlight the possible rhetorical figure of speech in 6:21-22 which may play into the argument and possible translation.  In my 2011 book Figuring Jesus  (Keith Reich, Figuring Jesus: The Power of Rhetorical Figures of Speech in the Gospel of Luke, BINS 107, Leiden: Brill, 2011) I highlighted Luke 6:20-21 as the figure of speech Apostrophe (p. 59).  According to  Heinrich Lausberg, Apostrophe "is 'turning away' from the normal audience and the addressing of another, second audience, surprisingly chosen by the speaker.  The practice has an emotive effect on the normal audience, since it is an expression, on the part of the speaker, of a pathos." (Heinrich Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric, (Leiden: Brill, 1998), § 762 p. 338.).  At the time I wrote that book, the figure seemed obvious.  In 6:21, Luke begins his blessings with a general audience, "blessed are the poor."  But then, using the figure of Apostrophe, he changes audience and directly addresses the disciples, "for your's is the Kingdom of God."  This shift in audience has already occurred once in the passage.  In Luke 6:17, Jesus is said to be "with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon."  So, we envision a large crowd of all sorts of people surrounding Jesus. But then, at 6:20, Jesus "lifting up his eyes to his disciples, he said."  I think the interplay here is a switching between one audience, the large crowd gathered around Jesus, and a second, more specific audience, Jesus' disciples.  So, in each of the blessings, the first clause is pronounced to the large crowd ("blessed are the poor..." "Blessed are the hungry now..." "Blessed are those who weep now..."), while the second clause is a direct address to Jesus' disciples.

If this figure is at play in 6:20-21, then Watson and Goodacre are correct in their translation and Rodriguez is mistaken.  What do you think?