29 June 2010

Reading the Unreadable

Posted by at 7:43 AM
Some ancient scrolls are so deteriorated that unfolding them would completely destroy them, would pulverize them.

Here's a link to a cool video about a new technique that's been devised to enable us to read text which would otherwise be destroyed in the reading.

ResearchChannel - Reading the Unreadable


26 June 2010

the problem with P-52 . . .

Posted by at 7:24 PM

I have a cousin named Miriam. She has had a distinctive handwriting for as long as I can remember. She has the prettiest writing I have ever seen. She obviously takes pride in her flawless penmanship. It's not excessively ornate, per çe. Rather, what makes it beautiful and memorable is her use of crisp and clean lines, her consistently sized letters, her careful attention to spacing and symmetry. She's in her early fifties now, but like the rest of us, she learned how to write sometime around age 5 or so. What makes some people meticulous scribes and other not-so-meticulous?
Me, I write like a barbarian.
Miriam's script is lovely.
I doubt that her style has changed much if at all in all the ensuing years.
I wonder: If she had been asked at age 8 and then at her present age, to make two copies of the preamble to the U.S Constitution, let's say, or even of the Gospel of John, would I be able to tell which copy was done in the sixties and which today? Would her style be useful to me in discerning this?
A further question ... a bit more abstract: Was her style influenced perhaps by a former stylist's own flair for symmetry (her first grade teacher, for example—we tend to stress our own peeves in our students)?
And another: Might Miriam not herself influence a younger scribe so that her distinctive style would show up later . . . say in the coming decade or two? In other words . . . might Miriam's script not look similar to both her teacher's AND her student's? How many years would be the range of this style? 
Ok, now go back 1900 years or so . . .
Above and to the right is a fotograf of P52 (Rylands Library Papyrus P-52). It's a piece of papyrus that measures about 3½ inches by 2½ inches. It is inscribed with some Greek writing. One side reads (roughly):

"... the Jews for us ...
... anyone so that the word ...
... spoke signifying ...
... to die entered ...
... rium Pilate ...
...and he said ...
... Jews ...

the other side reads:

"... this I have been born ...
... world so that I would ...
... of the truth ...
... said to him ...
... and this ...
... the Jews ...
... not one ..."
As we can clearly see, there's a top margin there—a left margin too. What we see here is therefore the verso side of a top outside corner of a page of a codex. We can calculate from all this that it is in fact a chunk of a page from the Gospel of John (verso: 18:31–33, where Pilate is compelled to interrogate Jesus by the Jews, and the recto side: 18:37–38, the bit where Pilate finally asks his perennial question, "What is truth?", respectively).
Paleographers who have examined the fragment have identified the style of Greek as Hadriatic. It's the only kind of dating that has been done on it.  Based on this paleographical verdict, a date range of 117–138 CE has been proposed. The dating process basically consisted of comparing and contrasting this specimen with other known samples of ancient writing (you'd be surprised to know how precious few there actually exist). It was subsequently placed on what they speculate is an appropriate place on a historical time-line. It is thus hailed as the earliest extant manuscript of any New Testament text that we have anywhere. This date range has been repeated so often that it has become almost axiomatic; scholars take it for granted these days. Most people in fact just round it off and say 125.
But it seems problematic to me that ONLY the comparative-paleography method was used to date this fragment.   Such a subjective, semi-tangible criterion does not  necessitate that the stylistic idiosyncrasies of individual scribes can be isolated and narrowed down accurately to such a fixed date. Paleographic dating is not as conclusive as that. It's no better than an educated guess. 
While I recognize the value that such a method would have as a secondary form of verification of a date, by itself the method lacks the empirical precision that would be required for the kind of certitude that is bestowed on the dating of this fragment by scholarship in recent years. It seems to me that a wider window is likely needed, given this intrinsic subjectivity. Perhaps from 100-160 (adding a couple of decades to each end of the scale). This is not an insignificant difference. 
Should we not perhaps radiocarbon date the fragment?
I realize that some folks would be up in arms about destroying a portion of such an old fragment of a gospel in the process (it's pretty tiny to begin with, it's true), but i think it is far more important for the furthering of our understanding of these texts to precisely date this manuscript, than it is to revere it to the point where we preclude any further scholarly examination of it.
I mean, we already KNOW what the Gospel of John says (right?) —it's not like it's the only piece we have. Besides, if we only use a small section of margin, the text will still be intact.
I know that this will probably never take place, but until it does, I will take the consensus on the dating of P-52 with a grain of salt.


11 June 2010

a year short and a dollar late . . .

Posted by at 12:36 AM
I stopped staring at television sets 'round '91. Those were the days of Desert Storm and its thousand points of lights in the sky, the days when I and the rest of my family were in the process of becoming informed of my father's recently diagnosed terminal illness.
School was heavy enough at the time, so I figured TV was a good bad habit to drop right then.

I'm not a prude about it. I won't turn your television off like some crazed Nazi when I walk into your home or anything like that; I simply won't turn it on of my own accord, especially when I'm at home. Any of my friends will tell you; there is no TV set in my living room. There is an ancient model in my bedroom, the one that used to be connected to a VCR (no cable), but it hasn't been turned on in years now.

Nineteen years have passed since my self-imposed exile. Rarely has it been an inconvenience to me. Occasionally it is, as when a conversation that revolves around some recently minted meme or catchphrase completely goes over my head, or when I have no idea who a celebrity is. But then, that's not much of an inconvenience. Is it? Real tragedy is when I hear some report of an amazing moment in history that was broadcast on the air, such as when Peter Gabriel sang a tune accompanied by Randy Newman on the piano during one of the Academy Award ceremonies in the nineties.

God, I wish I had seen that.

So, yeah, I'm sure I've missed a few gems in my obstinacy.
I guess the same goes for the internet. There are only so many hours in a day and so many sites out there. One is bound to miss much. Most times it doesn't matter. Sometimes it's too bad.

As I was surfing around the other day, I accidentally stumbled onto an almost-two-year-old conversation between two men with opposing views on the resurrection of Jesus. In this case, the two men were Robert Price and Don Johnson.

The premise of the show apparently was to highlight various highly contested topics (Monthly? Weekly? It's not very clear) and then have opponents alternately discuss the strength of their respective opposing positions in an open-format debate process, one in which time restrictions and protocol would ideally take a back seat to allowing a given point to be followed through to its logical end if need be, if clarity or coherence require it. Sporadic pauses—pit-stops— need to take place between rounds so that definitions and premises are understood and agreed upon as they fly by in real time, so as to leave little room for evasive or dissembling maneuvers on the part of the participants.

I had no idea that this podcast had ever existed. I realize that it has run its course and that I am likely trying to feed a dead horse here. I am nevertheless inspired to comment on it, so affected was I by what a great thing such an extended format might be. I listened to the series twice, in fact, just to make sure that I am being fair and accurate in my analysis. When I then tried to add my own comment to the last episode in that particular series, it didn't show up. I guess that no new comments are allowed after a certain time.
So i decided to comment here on my own blog.
I highly recommend this series to anyone with an interest in historical Jesus research or in the origins of Christianity.

First I want to give kudos to Paul Erins(sp?), the host of this podcast. Like him, I've often objected to the conventional approach to debate wherein the participants merely talk past each other, seldom straying from their rehearsed strategies. Like him, I find that very little genuine communication is actually possible within such a limiting format and I heartily commend him for his experiment here. Though it has its own speacial problems, as one might expect from such an unorthodox approach, this is possibly the best debate on this particular subject that I have heard so far online.

That said, episode 11 was almost painful to listen to. This was the episode where the two apologist gentlemen spend their time objecting to the host's not allowing their introduction of "worldview" as evidence. It made me extremely embarrassed for the two of them. Their insistence that worldview should be allowed into the debate is clearly nothing more than special pleading.

After this emotionally charged gambit, Paul (the host) was right to conclude (in episode 12) that the conversation could only come to a screeching halt at that point. It is interesting to note, however, that the apologists are essentially indirectly admitting that, without interjecting the limitlessnes of a supernatural into the mix to prop it up, their "historical" case cannot stand. This “evidence” of worldview is so vital to their otherwise impotent argument that they cannot continue without it. I found that fascinating.

So the debate is deemed a failur. I think that the host was extremely gracious in ascribing to himself the blame for the dead end, even unduly so, in my opinion. This is a testament to his honorable intentions in all of this, but anyone with eyes to see can see what really happened here. (i.e. — Somebody tried to use a figurative get-out-of-jail-free card in a game that doesn't allow such desperate fix-all tactics.)

At any rate, Paul is right. In the end, he was left with only two choices:

  • a:Allow for the “possibility” of miraculous intervention in the world by a “god”—whatever that might be(definitions!)—and thus render a historical debate absurd.
  • b:Don’t allow such special pleading as evidence, and thus make the apologist “uncomfortable” about continuing his participation in the debate.

Personally, I would choose the latter, but then it wouldn’t bother me at all to make Mr Johnson (clearly a very nice gentleman) “uncomfortable” about this point of contention.
This is not about comfort. Mr Johnson is a nice-enough guy, but congenial nonsense is still nonsense, and it must be called out. The civility/restraint displayed by the host, although admirable in one respect, is somewhat unfortunate in another, in fact, for it risks giving off the impression that the debate ended in a stalemate. It didn't. To me it looks more like the game was forfeited by the apologist side.

That's cool, though.
I can forgive people for being so emotionally attached to some obsession that they will try to sneak some face-saving "hallelujah" pass into their defense.

What I have a hard time forgiving, however, worse still than all that, is the claim, made at least two or three times during episode 11, as I recall, that Mr. Johnson had in fact spelled out a positive case for the historicity of the resurrection during his interview segments.
This shocked me.
I had to listen to those again, because I figured I had missed it the first two times. So I listened attentively this time to the Johnson interviews again.

But no dice; it turns out that I had not missed anything, after all. The closest that Mr. Johnson actually came to offering up a positive case for anything was when he posited that the Jewish context of the gospels (to his eyes) made the notion that Jesus had not existed improbable. This, however, a repudiation of mythicist thinking, is far from a defense of the historicity of the resurrection on its own merits.

What this means (in the end) is that when Paul the host disallowed the “worldview” defense, Mr. Johnson had absolutely nothing to offer in the positive. When I hear him saying, in effect, “well, you are not letting me use all of the evidence available to me” I can’t help but feel embarrassment for him. This was an incredibly disingenuous tack to have taken in a scholarly debate. Par for the course of general apologetic practice, perhaps, but transparently dishonest nonetheless.

I can't help but wonder if Mr Johnson realizes that if his appeal to worldview had been allowed as evidence, the best that Mr. Johnson could have reaped from this appeal would have been the plausibility of divine intervention. In other words: “I believe that gosh exists, therefore the fantastical claim contained in the New Testament could have happened.” Could have is not a positive case for anything, however; it never has been. Just because something could have happened doesn't necessarily mean that it did. One is still left with the burden of demonstrating reasons for why it is that we think it did happen.
Moreover, if our worldview allows us to accept a particular miracle story as historical, why would one accept these particular texts while not accepting other miraculous claims of other holy books and traditions. On what ground? When he did try to address this problem, Mr. Johnson went on to commit yet another logical fallacy, this time that of selective observation. Specifically, Johnson cites the fact that Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard were known mountebanks before they produced their respective holy texts, and so he confidently distinguishes his rejection of their claims from his acceptance of the New Testament's own claims.
But does he have a reason to think that Mohammed was a huckster as well? Bahaullah? Philostratus? By counting the “hits” and forgetting the “misses” in this way, Johnson reveals himself to be more entrenched in his "worldview" than he probably realizes.

The essence of the problem with this debate could be summed up by one of the brief exchanges between Paul and Mr. Price (episode 9):

host: When you described your principle of analogy originally [what you are saying is that] we‘ve got this event that‘s disanalogous to anything we observe today and you‘ve got these other accounts that are analogous to this one, so why would you take the explanation that that disanalogous event happened and these other analogies don‘t hold. […] Don reacted to that whole thing […] He said that, basically, you couldn‘t know anything, […] couldn‘t ever have historic evidence of uncommon events under that. It‘s almost [...] circular […] The construction ruled out the ability to ever derive the conclusion that some unique or uncommon thing happened in history […] because you immediately say that you have to go to the more likely alternatives.”

Price: What‘s the problem with that, other than it doesn‘t allow a guy to say that you could prove that his favorite dogma is true?”

Amen to that, I say.

It’s as if some players are sitting at a poker table.
One almost has a royal flush—but not quite—so he reserves the right to draw a joker (not from the deck, mind you—he himself provides this joker) as a wild card that will finish the flush for him.

Don (the player in question) is complaining that it is not fair to disallow this tactic. I think, however, that any other player at the table would be completely justified in calling that player a “lowdown dirty four flusher.”

Anyway . . . Paul produced a great podcast series. It doesn’t seem to have continued after this debate and that's too bad. I think he was really onto something.

for now . . .



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