Thursday, June 2, 2011

Response to Richard Carrier

Richard Carrier is well-known as a historical scholar. He examines issues relating to textual criticism and the ancient world that formed the backdrop for the New Testament. He is also a thorough-going skeptic, going so far as to deny Jesus ever lived. He recently presented an argument that two passages—1 Thessalonians -16 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35—are actually interpolations (that is, later insertions by editors or copyists as though it were by the original author).This article can be found here. We should examine his claims, in order of the texts.

1. His conclusions are not warranted.

First, Carrier says if these two are interpolations, then Christians “had no problem doctoring” the words of Paul to whatever suited them. While strictly true (that is, at least one Christian felt the liberty to do so if they are interpolations), he gives the distinct impression that this was true of Christians in general (see his very next sentence). Further, he illicitly transfers this unwarranted assumption to question literally every passage of Scripture. For an example of this absurdity, consider: simply because one intuitive belief is shown to be false, it does not follow that any others are false! Similarly, if one passage can be shown to be not genuine, how would it follow that one has a defeater for belief in every other passage as genuine?

2. The problem from Greek if vs. 14-16 is viewed as an interpolation.

The original text would read, according to Carrier, as “the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe . . . But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time.” This seems not to make sense. Further, the words for “but we” in Greek are ημεις δε, the latter of which is a conjunction of negation, showing contrast. But what contrast does Carrier suggest is being shown by Paul?

Reinsert the missing verses, and the contrast makes perfect sense. Verses 14-16 deal with the believers at Thessalonica enduring persecution, Paul’s comparison of that to the persecution of believers in Judea by their own countrymen, and how the Jews prevented Paul from preaching to the Gentiles. Verse 17 is about the theme of separation (from the Gentiles) extended to the original audience, yet there will be a planned reunion. The text flows better and makes more sense than without the “interpolation.”

3. His points examined in order.

First, he claims Paul never assigns any blame to the Jews for the death of Jesus Christ. In response, it must initially be pointed out that Carrier seems to misunderstand the usage of the term “the Jews” as primarily an ethnic or racial term, rather than an ideological group (much like the term is used in the Gospel of John). However, Carrier is only correct in the most technical of terms. Acts 13:27-30 is part of Paul’s preaching in the synagogue to the Jews. Note carefully verse 27’s mention of Jerusalem’s not receiving the prophets, and verse 28’s desire of the Jews that Jesus be killed. If that isn’t Paul’s laying at least some responsibility at the feet of the religious leaders, I don’t know what is.

Next, he complains that Paul never speaks of God’s wrath as anything but in futuristic terms. Carrier’s argument is that since Jerusalem did not fall until at least six years after Paul’s death, Paul could not possibly have said this, and thus this is an interpolation. While it is undoubtedly true God’s wrath extended to the destruction of Jerusalem, a couple of points remain. First, it is not at all clear that only the destruction of Jerusalem is in view. In 1 Thessalonians 5:9, Paul speaks of wrath in terms of the “day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord is widely viewed in biblical scholarship as a time of God’s wrath—and the time of Jacob’s (or Israel’s) trouble. Secondly, even if we restrict the wrath to mean only the coming destruction of Jerusalem, we must point out Jesus himself prophesied the event—Jesus’ speaking of this event in the Gospels predated Paul and was known, especially to the apostles. Only by assuming an anti-supernatural bias (that is, that Jesus could not have said these words because there is no possibility of prophecies) can Carrier overcome this.

Third, Carrier claims that the teaching here indicates that the Jews will be destroyed, contradicting Paul’s teaching in Romans that they will be saved. First, please remember that Paul does not mean nationalistic Israel; Paul means the Jews. But not just any and all Jews. Paul means the Jews who were responsible for the Lord’s death and the prophets. He is indicating those who are of the ideology to reject God and his word. For those who do this there is no salvation. Paul’s teaching of a remnant of Israel and those all being saved in the end does not happen until the end of the age, and certainly not by rejecting God. It is a profound misunderstanding of Pauline theology to say Paul expected every last Jew who ever lived to be saved.

Carrier’s final point, that Paul was dead by the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, has already been dealt with in the second post. It is clear that some of Carrier’s boldest assertions are plainly false, and his others are suspect at best. He has also misunderstood the comparison Paul makes in verse 14. Paul clearly compares the suffering of the Thessalonians at the hands of their countrymen to the persecution of Jews at the hands of their countrymen. It is clear Carrier’s claim that this is an interpolation, “obvious to anyone of sense,” is false and has been refuted. The 1 Corinthians 14 text will be examined next.
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