January 21, 2012

After The Debate: Simple Vs Simplistic

On Thursday night I got to watch a debate that I had been looking forward to for a number of months, Religion Soup hosted at Saint Mary's University by the Navigators. This was the first of what is shaping up to be an annual event. What a first debate it was, we listened to the arguments for and against the historical reliability of the gospels. Bart Ehrman argued that they were not reliable; Craig A. Evans argued that they were.

Before Ehrman began his opening statement he asked two questions. First he asked how many Christians were in the audience, to which a large percentage of hands went up. Then second he asked how many people wanted to see him get thumped, to which a similarly large percentage of hands went up.

I suspect that a similarly large percentage of people went home disappointed. In my opinion Ehrman won the debate.

Dr. Evans argument was a highly thought out argument. It rested on a number of what I would call strong points;

First scholars across theological, denominational and even religion persuasions all use the gospels as historical documents. His point was that it wasn't only crazy closed minded hyper fundamentalists that thought that the gospels correctly portrayed the historical Jesus. He named a number of names, but I did not know any of them.

Second the gospels contained actuate information about 1st century Palestine, including familiarity with customs, people, places and so on. He used a Latin phrase to describe this which I cannot for the life of me remember; though I think it has the word veritas in it which is Latin for truth. (Edit: A helpful reader supplied me with this word, verisimilitude):

Third he stated that the gospels conformed to a well documented Greek teaching practice where students would learn their master's teachings, fully understand the core elements but in the retelling details change as new situations present themselves. This process has a Greek name, which I do remember but I can't figure out how to spell it to look it up to link to it. After 45 minutes of trying different spellings, and different variations of the definition of the concept I have given up trying to Google it. (Edit: they also gave me this word, kraia. This one still seems to be missing a wiki-link)

Like I said these are all good points, they are well thought out, they are nuanced and they help to explain the differences we see in the gospels. It is a complex argument that takes seriously a complex problem.

Ehrman took a different approach. He spent thirty minutes or so hammering two points over and over again.

First he argued that it didn't matter what the ancients thought good history looked like, we need to care about what good history for us is. We want to know what actually happened not the interpretation of someone else decades removed from the event.

Second if you have two people telling the same story but there are differences they both cannot be right, therefore they both cannot be historically accurate. One or the other is, or both are not, but both cannot be historically accurate. He challenged the audience to not simply take his word for it all of us could go home sit down and quickly jot down the differences we find in the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, his genealogy, resurrection, and so on.

Ehrman's points were simple, easy to follow, and easy to understand. He presented them with passion, conviction and humor. More to the point they were somewhat natural. You could look for yourself and see what he was saying, you didn't need to have an extensive knowledge of Greek teaching practices, Latin phrases, or biblical scholarship. All you need was a bible, a pen and a piece of paper.

Don't let the armchairs confuse you, this was a no hold bar duke'm out fight
It is for this reason that I think Ehrman won the debate. People left with a better understanding what he was saying than what Evans was saying. The problem is that Ehrman's argument is too simple,to the point of being of simplistic.

In a lot of ways his argument  reminds me of how young earth creationists debate biologists. They make very simple statements and stick to them. Ehrman arguments to me sounded a lot like, 'evolution cannot be true because it claims humans evolved from monkeys, BUT there are still monkeys. Don't believe me, check the local zoo.'

I've been reflecting for the past day and a half wondering how would I rebuttal Ehrman's simplistic argument without appearing to invoke ivory tower academia which most people don't care about and many do not trust. This morning at my breakfast table my almost 3 year old son helped me to understand Evans argument in simpler terms.

Over breakfast Simeon told me that there are three suns. I being the highly educated man I am knew he was wrong. Yes there are lots of stars, but in our solar system there is only one star which we call the Sun. 'Silly boy', I thought, 'someone has misinformed you. You must be getting the sun and moon, and something else confused to think there are three suns.' 

I explained to him that there was only one sun. He disagreed. 

We went back and forth for a few minutes until it hit me. He has a Gro-clock to help him sleep, which has a digital sun on it. Then I noticed the picture hanging on the wall beside the kitchen table. It is a painting of  five smiling people and one smiling sun. I asked him did he mean; the big sun outside, the sun in his room and the sun in the picture. He smiled and said yes. His poor duller of a father who seemingly couldn't count to three finally got it.

My son wasn't inaccurate, there were three suns. My frame of reference was incorrect. I thought we were talking astronomy, but we were not. I unknowingly discounted a great deal of information because it didn't fit my frame of reference. But when I stopped and tried to understand what he was saying on his terms, the inaccuracies disappeared. I understood the discrepancies between what he was saying and what I knew to be true. 

We have to treat the bible in much the same way. Now don't get me wrong I am not saying that culturally we are the adult and they are the children. But the ancient world did have a different frame of reference than we do. Evans is right we cannot treat the gospel accounts of Jesus as if they were written by a dispassionate modern newspaper reporter with modern understandings of how to report events. We have to enter into that world, and try to understand it for what it is.

Now I am not saying that it is easy to do. It will take work. But I think if we do the hard work, we can present a simply to understand presentation on the gospels that counters the flawed simplistic arguments many use. 

We have a lot of work to do.