The Amazing Colossal Apostle

I recently read The Amazing Colossal Apostle by Robert Price, from 2012. It is always a pleasure to read a book by a real scholar. Price is often dismissed as a fringe figure, but to me he has that special combination of feisty aggressiveness and being well-read that marks someone that demands to be reckoned with.  It is no longer fashionable to take Baur or van Manen seriously, but Price does, and it is refreshing to see a lengthy analysis of the Pauline corpus that refuses to yet again reinforce the middle of the road.

The general thesis is twofold. First, all the Pauline letters – even the four Baur admitted as authentic – are also forgeries, and that any historical Paul is more or less lost. Second, typical Pauline scholarship unfortunately resembles historical Jesus work in that the Paul that critics find is the Paul they want to find – thus the title, where an essential fictitious Paul often is a more convenient place to place one’s theological flag than the more radical Jesus. The Paul of Romans, then, is just another layer of early church development. There are also some interesting sub-theses, such as Marcion being the likely author of many of the “authentic” letters.

This is what biblical studies should look like – pushing, prodding, challenging, and thoughtful. I have mentioned before that academics tend to defend, but scholars almost always attack; this is yet another example of this law (let’s call it the Law of Scholarly Aggressiveness) in effect.

 

 

 

Funded Leave & Other News

I got an email tonight saying that I have been awarded a Funded Faculty Leave (FFL). Other universities call this a sabbatical. In this case, it means that I will get paid to do little but research for one semester (likely Spring 2019) – no teaching and no service (though I suspect some will sneak in). This is good news. I will use it to draft a new book on the gospels and rhetoric.

In other news, I sent out another article today. That makes four journal submissions in four months. M is due May 7; I should be able to do one more, a chapter in a collection, before he arrives. Actually, I already have a draft, it’s mostly editing at this point.

I could grade, but it’s late, almost 9:15. I think some time with Stellaris is in order…

Bandwagon arguments in academia

One of my pet peeves when reading academic arguments is the persistent and lazy use of the bandwagon fallacy – i.e. “many people think X, so X is right.” Although, in this particular version, it is more along the lines of “The vast majority of qualified scholars in this subfield think X, so X is right.”

Where should I begin my critique, I wonder? That popularity is no guarantee of validity? That popular ideas deserve to be interrogated just as much as unpopular ones? That the unprofessional arrogance displayed by using this fallacy is only trumped by its stupidity? That taking such a position attempts to cut off future productive scholarship at the knees? And, perhaps finally, that using it is a sure sign of the weakness of one’s position?

Yes, this is a target-rich environment, to be sure. Let’s try some examples.

Exhibit A: “Best Practices”

If I had a nickel for everytime someone appealed to “best practices” in my semi-home field of rhetoric and composition and its sister technical communication, I would be able to take my family out to a series of nice dinners.

Behind the concept of “best practices,” it turns out, is a crude bandwagon argument. To follow “best practices” in teaching in tech comm, for example, is to use the techniques that are well attested in the scholarship, supported by “name” academics whose “names” can be dropped liberally in conversation, and that are ultimately safe and uncontroversial.

Screw that.

I don’t care if 99.9% of the members of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English, BTW) support a given mode of instruction. I only care about whether or not it works. Show me whether or not it works – not how popular it is, or what academics happen to endorse it. Give me evidence, not sponsorship.

I have known very few real top-flight scholars in my career thus far. If they have something in common, though, it would be that none of them follow trends or take a poll before they plant a flag. The pursuit of knowledge eschews such petty and empty considerations – and so does logic. Someone dedicated to such an ideal would never use popularity as evidence of anything except popularity. Academic arguments are to be evaluated on their own merits, not on whether or not they are in season.

So, in short, while “best practices” might have once had a more innocent connotation, now it just makes me irritable. It represents the worst of academia, when it is at its pettiest – when it is political.

Exhibit B – A Historical Jesus

I’m gearing up to teach the Synoptic Problem in “Studies in Religious Texts” again, so this has been on my mind of late. One of the subtopics that naturally comes up with the SP is how much of the gospel materials are based on any historical Jesus – which then leads to whether there was a historical Jesus, and if so, what can we say about him?

“Mythicist” arguments, arguing that Jesus has no historical basis and instead is a kind of assembled myth, are as old as the hills, dating back to the first pagan critics of Christianity. I’m agnostic on the issue due to what I see as a failure of everyone writing or speaking on the matter to make a decisive case (due to the paucity of evidence in any direction) but I am frankly peeved at the standard position – that mythicism is nonsense because no mainstream biblical studies or religious studies academic thinks there wasn’t a historical Jesus.

Now, I hardly need to point out at this point in my post that such an “argument” is one big bandwagon fallacy (as well as an argument to authority, but I’ll leave that one for some other day). It is telling a questioning undergraduate to sit down and shut up, pulling rank, asserting the primacy of one’s subdiscipline, and being an arrogant twerp, all at once. These are all things I despise and oppose.

So I have a certain sympathy for the mythicists as underdogs. That doesn’t mean they are right – they still have to make a case, and so far no smoking gun has appeared – but they have a decent case that is just as strong as the default one.

So why do they get such a hostile reception? Why the flippant and repeated use of the bandwagon fallacy in response (occasionally laced with a choice insult about one’s employment prospects, educational background, and sanity)?

Well, let’s return to rhetcomp for a moment. The most telling and long-lived idea in rhetcomp is process pedagogy – the belief that writing is a “process” rather than a “product” and should be taught accordingly as a series of repeating and mutally informing steps instead of emphasizing the text that results. Now, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a single instance of a “process” compositionist slapping down anyone who challenged or questioned process by saying, “The vast majority of composition academics support process theory. Therefore, your argument is a fringe belief and  not worthy of a full treatment.” If such a pretentious mandarin exists, please send me a citation, but I don’t think one does.

Now, at the same time, there is that old chestnut mentioned before – “best practices” – that is used instead to enforce consistency. But as it turns out, “best practices” is mostly political cover, because it can mean whatever the instructor wants it to. Composition is a field full of rugged individualists. Some are old-school grammar mavens, some are process fanatics, some are post-process theorists, and others are expressivists, and others (really most) defy easy categorization. We know how to selectively cite. Some of us resist this, of course, but not all – not even most.

Back to the historical Jesus. There is a great wiki page that has collected countless putdowns of mythicists:

https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory

(they are all down near the bottom).

Perusing them will reveal that they are basically all variants of the same technique: bandwagon fallacy + insult to education, occupation, or sanity + optional ridiculous comparison to Holocaust denial.

Why are they all the same? Why so prevelant?

First, there is no downside. Picking on mythicists is a risk-free power projection. It’s functionally no different than a bunch of jocks stuffing a nerdy kid into a locker. I have more power than you, so in the locker you go. There is no penalty.

Second, more fundamentally, the nerdy kid is a existential threat. He represents a counterargument to the jocks’ primacy – that logic and curiosity might trump their relative powerlessness outside of the artificial world of the school. Similiarly, the biblical studies folks know their authority is severely limited outside of academia. Outside of it, free thought reigns. Can’t have that. The existing pecking order must be maintained, at least temporarily. In the locker you go.

In a perfect world, biblical studies academics would lay open the question of a historical Jesus. But in order to do that they would have to open their minds. And if you think the average person has trouble with that little task… well. It’s not a question of a threat to existence of the discipline. Opening up the question would doubtlessly lead to an explosion of relevant literature. It would be good for the field, showcasing at last a bit of historical respectability.

But the possibility is a clear a threat to individual egos – which is why I think the jock-bully comparison is apt. There is nothing more fragile than a bully’s ego. It has to be constantly fluffed and pampered like Donald Trump’s psuedo-hair, otherwise it falls apart. Why? Because, ultimately, there isn’t much under the combover. There is no defense for a historical Jesus that doesn’t special plead Christian sources – which brings me to my favorite example.

Exhibit #3 – The Book of Mormon

The non-Mormon academic consensus is that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was a fraud. The Book of Mormon was not written from golden plates handed over by the angel
Moroni, but cobbled together from 19th century mythicism and the KJV. The jocks are very clear about this.

However, there is another body of academics that call themselves experts on the Book of Mormon – and they are all Mormons. They have all kinds of arguments supporting the authentic nature of the text, including sworn eyewitness statements – the famous “Three” and “Eight” – to the existence of the golden plates, literary analysis showing its originality (check out Orson Scott Card’s defense sometime – it’s fascinatingly doltish).

So there is a problem here, namely that there is more historical evidence for the inspired composition of the Book of Mormon than there is for Jesus – despite the fact that the form of the offered evidence – multiple “eyewitnesses” – is basically the same. And yet the mainstream historicans make quick sport of Smith, and defend Jesus’s historicity to the death.

How, do you wonder, can they expose as a fraud the recent formation of a religion so easily, but secure certain historicity for someone supposedly dead for nearly two thousand years for which we have no reliable non-Christian attestation?

The reason the dice keep coming up seven and eleven is not the incredible luck of biblical studies. It’s because the dice are loaded. And if you point this out? Well, the majority of academics support X. Back in the locker, you.

One more thing.

Another quality I have noticed in quality scholars, as opposed to average academics, is that they almost never defend anything. Instead, they assault. It might be an unexplored area, or an old position or subject has been neglected, or a trend that has spiraled out of control – but they are always aggressive, constantly stalking and pouncing like half-starved tigers, relentlessly seeking improved understanding.

Playing defense is, after all, the slow death of anything resembling intellectualism. You trade a life of seeking new ideas and understanding in for the apologetic goal of preserving the beliefs of the past, usually in exchange for minor power of some sort – employment, tenure,  social respectibility, money – the usual earthly rewards. Maybe you get paid in spirtual coin, but either way, sounds like a devil’s bargain for me.

But what do I know? I’m just an English professor, of questionable sanity, and probably deny the Holocaust in my spare time. My arguments couldn’t possibly have any merit. I’m a member of the lunatic fringe – a crackpot, a vertifable crank, a babbling child talking of adult things he couldn’t possibly comprehend.

And that is how the bandwagon fallacy is essentially the ad hominem fallacy in another guise; by elevating the group, it savages the individual. This is why it deserves the fiercest opposition we can muster.

The Mind of the Bible-Believer

A really great book, though it suffers from 1) verbosity, and that 2) the idea that the gospels are mind-controlling is interesting, but not possible from what I understand of form-criticism, i.e. the gospel authors are largely independent. Although, in regards to 2), it might make our readings of Luke more fruitful if we consider the possibility that he is writing his gospel to obfuscate as much as to enlighten the gospels beforehand.

This book was written in the late ’80s by an Edmund D. Cohen. I would like to contact the author if possible by email, but email wasn’t a thing back then! I will see if I can find a postal address.

Happy holidays

It’s a pretty lazy holidays for me so far. I’m sitting here with the dogs at my feet, doing some ancillary reading for a spring project. Tomorrow we go see my mother and stepfather and grandmother, which is good.

Some other good news recently – another accepted article, this time at Rhetorica (see the About page) – though I don’t know when it will appear. This one is particularly important as it’s the first time a chapter from my dissertation has made it to print. Previously I had a big idea from a chapter appear (the article on Origen) but not a whole rewritten chapter. So I’m pleased.

Specious reasoning

There’s an interesting piece on William Lane Craig here at the Chronicle: it reminds me strongly of a piece that the NYT did on Rush Limbaugh years ago.

Both men are of interest to me as a rhetorician because of the power of their speciousness.  Craig is a master of the Gish Gallop and other debating maneuvers, which I first noted after listening to a debate between him and Richard Carrier. His modus operandi is both predictable and devastating. I have to wonder why anyone accepts a debate with him when the odds are so heavily weighted in his favor; Craig is an apex predator of sorts, almost perfectly adapted to his statement/rebuttal/rejoinder environment.

The only effective defense against his tactics would seem to be either disengagement or incredulity (either of which he can dispatch as intellectual bluster!)

Another person Craig reminds me of other than Limbaugh is Ayn Rand, who still has followers. Both are dangerous entities to encounter as an undergraduate, who may lack (although some have) the philosophical depth to recognize what is specious reasoning and how what is specious reasoning can be persuasive despite its nature.

Frustration

Having this website is frustrating sometimes, because I can’t really write in detail about most of the things that I’m currently engaged in or find interesting. I’m working on an article on Luke-Acts, but posting unfinished work seems unwise. Ditto for another article on workplace documentation. I’m not concerned about ideas being pilfered, but my personal quest for perfection gets in the way.

I just finished Bioshock: Infinite, but that game is so easily spoiled that I dare not say a word about it lest some virgin wander by. Ever since I, purely by accident, told H that a certain someone killed a certain someone in a certain book, I have been trying to be careful about such sensitive information. I will simply say that it is very, very good.

In the end, I suppose, I have absolutely nothing to say at the moment, but that beats 90% of the web most days.

Historical Jesus

There’s an interesting debate between Richard Carrier and Mark Goodacre here, two of my favorite scholars, and some post-analysis here (by Carrier) and here (by Vridar). They’re debating the historical nature of Jesus, as in whether or not he was a real person, or a myth.

As for my current thinking on this question, I’ll say what I’ve said for awhile – historical information in the NT is very difficult to come by. If you’re looking for some, you have to do three things. One, look at the probably authentic Paul’s letters – 1 Thess, Galatians, 1 Cor and 2 Cor, and Romans. Two, look at the gospel of Mark. Three, do these things while forgetting about the rest of the New Testament as if it didn’t exist, chiefly because the rest is of later composition and thus suspect.

It’s not critical or important to me whether or not there was a historical Jesus. I sit on the fence on that one. Either way, it doesn’t affect my research that much, since the gospels, which I’m interested in, were written decades after the supposed fact under debate. It’s important to note that at some point Jesus was ‘historicized’ by the gospels, regardless of his earlier status, but the original status pales in comparison to the influence of what came after.

It is nearly impossible to strip the gospel accounts off of Jesus. They aim to, and succeed, in reaching backward in time and confusing us as to what is fact, what is tradition, and what is fiction. The tide is turning, in a scholarly sense, toward tradition and fiction and away from fact and tradition, but there is still a long way to go.

Talk on Luke-Acts – the ascension problem

I gave a talk at the Willow Pump Station at UHD last Thursday, delineating my theory on the authorship of Luke-Acts. In short, I no longer think Luke and Acts were written by the same person. In this wild and crazy idea, I join Patrica Walters (2009) and A.C. Clark (1933) as well as, I suppose, F.C. Baur and a few others. I think an imitator of the Gospel of Luke’s style wrote Acts, making it a very long piece of false writing, as well as a fine piece of Paulinist apology – someone wearing a ‘Luke hat’, in other words (a metaphor gifted to me by a commenter), wrote it.

Why do I hold this position? Two reasons.

First, as Walters has ably demonstrated, the stylistic studies ‘proving’ common authorship are similarity hunts. They fail a very basic methodology test.  Studying both similarities and differences, like Clark, ends on a far more cautious note of agnosticism.

Two,  there’s that pesky ascension, depicted at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts, which I spent most of my talk on. In short, if we are to take the author of Luke’s introduction to heart, the two ascensions should square up on very basic things like 1) when the ascension occurred, 2) what Jesus said, and 3) the presence of angels. They do not. The typical  counterarguments to  multiple problems with the ascension amount to special pleading. What we have points to something far more shady.

I should note that I am aware of the various arguments for multiple authors/redactors working on Luke/Acts, the influence of sources and Aramaic, and the possibility of Marcion’s gospel predating Luke. I’m just saying that none of them explain the ascension problem satisfactorily, enough that if you look at the major commentaries on Luke and Acts – Conzelmann, Pervo, Parsons, Fitzmyer, etc – they avoid or sidestep the issue.

So what’s the ‘so what’? Why care if Luke and Acts had separate authors? It mostly changes how Acts should be interpreted; its contents, already historically suspicious, become even more suspicious. It also introduces the idea of not just a Pauline ‘school’ of writing, but a Lucan one as well!

My talk was designed for a lay audience, so it will take me some time to work it into an article that will likely position itself as an extension of Walters’s arguments.