Dr. Jeffrey Tripp on the failure of undesigned coincidences

Dr. Jeffrey Tripp has a PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity. He is also the author of a text titled, Direct Internal Quotation in the Gospel of John. His academic publications can be found here. In this interview with Derek Lambert of Mythvision, Dr. Tripp critiques the argument from undesigned coincidences developed by Christian apologist Dr. Lydia McGrew in her book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts. I have to say that Dr. Tripp’s rebuttal of Dr. McGrew’s argument is about the best I’ve seen yet: it’s fair, thorough, courteous and scholarly. What do viewers think?

37 thoughts on “Dr. Jeffrey Tripp on the failure of undesigned coincidences

  1. What do viewers think?

    What do I think? I think it is about 3 hours too long.

    I’ve listened to about half way through, and will shortly give up. I agree that it does seem like a pretty good analysis.

  2. I only watched some ten minutes into it and won’t go further.

    vjtorley: Dr. Tripp critiques the argument from undesigned coincidences developed by Christian apologist Dr. Lydia McGrew in her book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts. I have to say that Dr. Tripp’s rebuttal of Dr. McGrew’s argument is about the best I’ve seen yet: it’s fair, thorough, courteous and scholarly.

    No. The rebuttal completely misses the mark.

    The first thing one needs to do when assessing the veracity or relevance of a piece of writing is to determine its genre. McGrew thinks that gospels are historical accounts. Tripp thinks that gospels are fiction. Therefore these two people are simply not talking about the same thing. They are talking past each other, like theists and atheists commonly do.

    Now, Tripp may claim that he is approaching the gospels impartially without prejudice, without attributing any genre. Unfortunately, this is not how the analysis of the veracity of the text works. For example, say you have a text that says “tomato, cucumber, rice, candy, Coca-Cola”. This can plausibly be a shopping list, but not a planting plan for things to grow in one’s garden. Without candy and Coca-Cola, it can be a shopping list, a planting plan or a recipe. Or it can be a child practising handwriting. The genre matters.

    I’m not saying whether McGrew or Tripp is right in attributing the particular genre. I’m saying that it is false to assume that it is possible to analyse a text without attributing a genre. You necessarily attribute a genre, then you can analyse the veracity or coherence or whatever it is you want to analyse about it.

    The “undesigned coincidences” as McGrew calls them, or confirming evidence as it is called elsewhere (the opposite of contradictions or “tensions in the text”), make sense to be considered as reinforcing the historical veracity of the written events when one has deemed the genre of the writings to be historical accounts, much more so when one considers them independent historical accounts. But of course the “undesigned coincidences” can be debunked as a failure when one considers the gospels fiction, because it does not make sense to look for any historicity in fiction in the first place.

    I looked up Tripp’s Youtube channel and started taking a look at his videos. He clearly approaches the Bible based on the currently trendy presuppositions (e.g. presuppositions on gender, which are easily proven false, but the more serious failure is his lack of historical context) and deems the text myth/fiction. His attempted conceptual analysis is devoid of any understanding of the original languages, apart from a rare isolated tendentiously interpreted word. Or flat-out misinterpreted word, e.g. he seems to think that the Greek word heteros in “sarkos heteras” has something to do with heterosexuality and that this interpretation proves a point.

    In conclusion, Tripp is not enough of a Dr. for me.

  3. Erik,

    You wrote (bolding mine):

    I only watched some ten minutes into it and won’t go further...

    The first thing one needs to do when assessing the veracity or relevance of a piece of writing is to determine its genre. McGrew thinks that gospels are historical accounts. Tripp thinks that gospels are fiction. Therefore these two people are simply not talking about the same thing. They are talking past each other, like theists and atheists commonly do.

    1. Nowhere in the first ten minutes of the video does Dr. Tripp assert or imply that he thinks the gospels are fiction, so your charge is baseless.

    2. It’s simplistic to assume that historical accounts written 2,000 years ago contained no fictitious episodes, just as it would be simplistic to assume that a piece of fiction written 2,000 years ago contained no historical references. “History” and “fiction” are not watertight categories.

    I’m not saying whether McGrew or Tripp is right in attributing the particular genre. I’m saying that it is false to assume that it is possible to analyse a text without attributing a genre.

    Even if a text is written in the genre of a historical account, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the text is (a) truthful or (b) historically accurate.

    I looked up Tripp’s Youtube channel and started taking a look at his videos. He clearly approaches the Bible based on the currently trendy presuppositions (e.g. presuppositions on gender, which are easily proven false, …

    This OP is about undesigned coincidences, not gender studies. Please stick to the point.

  4. vjtorley:

    2. It’s simplistic to assume that historical accounts written 2,000 years ago contained no fictitious episodes, just as it would be simplistic to assume that a piece of fiction written 2,000 years ago contained no historical references. “History” and “fiction” are not watertight categories.

    Even if a text is written in the genre of a historical account, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the text is (a) truthful or (b) historically accurate.

    Not just history, either. Even the most fantasmical fantasy novels are set in a recognizable time and place, and generally have references to real-world locations, events, even people. Generally in the world of fiction (most novels), only the immediate foreground events are imaginary, and the background is the world as we know it (or as we think it used to be, in historical novels).

    Literarily speaking, the gospels are most definitely NOT written in the history genre of the day. Historians of that time, be they Jewish or Greek or Roman, were meticulous about naming their sources and authors. With the gospels, the authors are unknown, no sources are referenced. But that doesn’t mean the sources are entirely unknown, since there are distinct parallels, almost exact copies (with the key characters names changed) of the works of Homer, for example. Homer, it seems, wrote the plots of many if not most of the tales in some of the gospels.

    The gospels were not written either as history or as entertainment; they were written for persuasion purposes – propaganda. So it doesn’t matter to Luke, for example, that he has Paul doing and saying things Paul says (in his genuine letters) explicitly that he didn’t do, that he did something entirely different.

    If we regard the gospels as something at least with a kernel of historical events at the core, then the main problem is that there is NO valid external verification of any of it. In the gospels, Jesus is famous far and wide, and the events he was part of couldn’t help but be noticed and written about extensively. The sun stopping for hours? Herod killing all the children? Multiple miraculous events (loaves and fishes) with thousands of participants? Destruction of the Temple? All of these and more were MAJOR events. And there were many histories of the time and place written, and many letters exchanged, and many records kept, and somehow outside the gospel authors, nobody saw fit to mention any of these?

    Our overall problem is the exasperating paucity of surviving texts from the first century. There’s Paul’s genuine letters (and most of his letters were not preserved) and practically nothing else. This ties in with the fact that for many centuries following the first, textual preservation was done by the Church, which saw fit to preserve only what fit the doctrine of the dominant political faction (or was not relevant to church doctrine). Much of what we know was written is third-hand – that is, the original was not preserved, and critiques of the original were not preserved, but here and there is a reference to someone’s (not preserved) reference to someone’s (not preserved) books.

    This yawning textual vacuum is easy, almost unavoidably, filled with all manner of speculation, often no more than guesses to fill in the blanks, because far more is blank than is known.

  5. History is written by writers.

    Even fiction exhibits narrator problems that are let to the reader to untangle.

  6. vjtorley: 1. Nowhere in the first ten minutes of the video does Dr. Tripp assert or imply that he thinks the gospels are fiction, so your charge is baseless.

    Did you watch any other videos by Tripp? I did. So, YOUR charge is baseless. And Tripp is wrong in claiming impartiality.

    vjtorley:
    2. It’s simplistic to assume that historical accounts written 2,000 years ago contained no fictitious episodes, just as it would be simplistic to assume that a piece of fiction written 2,000 years ago contained no historical references. “History” and “fiction” are not watertight categories.

    Yes, it is simplistic to treat history and fiction as watertight categories. My point is that both McGrew and Tripp do this. They are both tightly in their respective presuppositions. And, all that said, it is also fundamentally wrong to claim to have anything worthwhile to say about the text without attributing any genre at all. You must attribute a genre. This step cannot be skipped.

    vjtorley: This OP is about undesigned coincidences, not gender studies. Please stick to the point.

    “Undesigned coincidences” is just mutually confirming documentary evidence, which is normal in multiple independent historical accounts. McGrew treats gospels as multiple independent historical accounts. Tripp treats gospels as (closely knit) myth/fiction, where of course “undesigned coincidences” don’t imply any historicity. So, Tripp does not debunk “undesigned coincidences” at all. The whole issue is about genre attribution and nothing else.

    And it does not matter that you have not spotted Tripp spelling out, “I treat gospels as myth.” He says it in his other videos, and he behaves like it in this video too. Had he never said it anywhere, then he would just not be academically rigorous enough to be taken seriously.

  7. Now I listened half an hour into the video. It was pointless, because it only confirmed my immediate impression.

    Tripp at 27:48: “Why did I enjoy [McGrew’s book] even though I had all those critical things to say about it? Because this is a [New Testament] fan theory and I enjoy fan theories… [Then, after presenting an example of a fan theory based on some movie until 29:42] It’s just physically impossible to do that.”

    This gets debunking wrong because it gets fan theory wrong. Movies do not have to be physically possible, neither do fan theories, as far as they concern events inside movies, have to be physically possible, so complaining that it’s physically impossible does not address the fan theory at all.

    Tripp is not debunking “undesigned coincidences”. He laughs away McGrew’s entire approach as a fan theory. This does nothing to touch the particular element of “undesigned coincidences” which are perfectly normal given a different genre, and it so happens that McGrew appropriately assumes a different genre. So the failure here is failure to have a dialogue. Before talking make sure that you talk about the same thing.

    (And my apologies, earlier I was wrong in saying that I had watched only ten minutes into it. I had actually watched 15 minutes into it, plus another 15 minutes of clicking on videos on the Doubter’s Commentary Youtube channel. Altogether now no less than two hours of watching and commenting on stuff that told me nothing I did not already know.)

  8. The parallels between story lines in the gospels and those in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are intriguing. There’s a list somewhere I’ve seen before. I’ll try and find it.

  9. Hi Erik,

    Your assertion that “Tripp treats gospels as (closely knit) myth/fiction” rests entirely on approximately two minutes of the video which you watched (27:48 to 29:42) concerning fan theories. It is a great pity that you stopped there, because you completely missed the point. Had you watched the seven-minute segment from 32:34 to 39:19, you would have had your questions answered. In the segment, Dr. Tripp makes it clear that he thinks it is Dr. McGrew who is treating the Gospels (and also Acts and Paul’s letters) as a fan theory – and on that level, he is prepared to concede, her book succeeds, even if it fails as a work of historical investigation. How so? According to Tripp, fan theories work like this:

    1. Focus on a beloved story. (“Story” here doesn’t necessarily mean a work of fiction; it simply means a narrative.) McGrew greatly enjoys reading the books of the New Testament over and over again; hence, for her, they are beloved stories: “She loves these narrative worlds.” (Of course, McGrew would add that they’re true stories, but that’s irrelevant to Tripp’s point.)

    2. Notice an inconsistency or an unanswered question. In the case of the Gospels, it’s the differing timelines, differing geography, differing presentation of scenes. McGrew’s book is thus a reaction to Biblical studies, which highlighted these problems in the first place.

    3. Seek an “in-universe” solution to the problemnot an “out-of-universe” explanation. Literary dependence, creative rewriting, storytelling tropes and unreliable information are all possible explanations that have been proposed by Biblical scholars for the apparent inconsistencies and unanswered questions in the Gospels, but they’re “out-of-universe” explanations. As such, McGrew isn’t interested in them: “She doesn’t want those sorts of answers.” Rather, she puts forward “undesigned coincidences” as her own preferred, “in-universe” explanation for these puzzling features of the Gospels.

    Dr. Tripp concludes, “I think the book works as New Testament fan theory…[and] I enjoyed it as fan theory. When she tries to make it work as historical method, that’s when I see problems.” He then proceeds to outline those problems from 41:00 onwards – but you’ll have to watch that for yourself.

    There is thus no difference between Dr. Tripp and Dr. McGrew on the question of genre, as you mistakenly suppose. Rather than “laughing away” Dr. McGrew, Dr. Tripp is actually being complimentary towards Dr. McGrew, at this point in the argument: on one level, her approach is successful. He is not accusing her of treating the Gospels as fiction; rather, he is simply pointing out that for her, the Gospels are narratives that she loves. His disagreement with her is not over genre, but over her approach to history. And as a New Testament scholar, he’s certainly entitled to do that.

    You could have saved yourself going on a wild goose chase and writing several posts in defense of your position, by simply watching the video up until 2:01:30. Had you really been pressed for time, you could have simply watched the six-minute segment from 1:55:53 to 2:01:40, where Tripp states his overall conclusions. I could sum it up in a single sentence: “Even if we grant the geographical and historical verisimilitude of the New Testament accounts (which is a pretty big “if”), it doesn’t follow that the miracles they narrate actually happened.” In other words, Tripp thinks Dr. McGrew is trying to prove the miraculous by extrapolation: if the Gospels are reliable in their historical details, they’re reliable when they say Jesus is the Son of God.

    I shall stop here, as I feel I’ve written enough.

  10. vjtorley: In other words, Tripp thinks Dr. McGrew is trying to prove the miraculous by extrapolation: if the Gospels are reliable in their historical details, they’re reliable when they say Jesus is the Son of God.

    I think this is a good point, as far as it goes. According to other schools of scholarship, it ought to go much further. That is, just because there are stories relating the tales of Jesus doesn’t mean there WAS any Jesus. Most biblical scholars seem to accept that the gospels are not historical at all. In fact, they contradict one another in multiple ways so if there is any actual history in any of them, which version might it be? We do not know any authors or sources, but there are plenty of quotes from, for example, Psalms and other OT scripture, plenty of parallels with Homer, plenty of parallels on the rank-raglan scale, etc. What we do NOT have is supporting extra-biblical sources.

    But just because the gospels might be entirely fiction doesn’t mean there was a Jesus any more than it means there wasn’t, and it doesn’t mean the postulated Jesus either was or wasn’t the Son of God, and of course nothing in the bible means there are any gods, whether it be the god of the Jews or any others.

    The bible may be a great inspiration for a lot of people, but it’s not a book of history.

  11. vjtorley: Dr. Tripp makes it clear that he thinks it is Dr. McGrew who is treating the Gospels (and also Acts and Paul’s letters) as a fan theory – and on that level, he is prepared to concede, her book succeeds, even if it fails as a work of historical investigation.

    This means that as far as I watched it, I got everything out of it and there was nothing else there.

    It stands confirmed that it is all about genre attribution, as I surmised.

    It stands confirmed that, given McGrew’s genre attribution, her theory of “undesigned coincidences” works and does not fail. Indeed cannot fail and one should not attempt to undermine it.

    It stands confirmed that Tripp does not demonstrate the failure of “undesigned coincidences”, but rather questions McGrew’s genre attribution.

    Here’s a little real-life story for you. Once upon a time I went to see the movie called Blair Witch Project (the first one) with a friend. At the beginning of the movie there’s a title-card saying that the movie is based around footage discovered after an unsolved disappearance of three students. Then follows the rest of the movie and I assume you know how it goes.

    Now, my friend took the title-card literally and assumed the movie was a documentary. After seeing it, all my friend could think was that those were terrible events to happen and what could be the solution or explanation to the disappearance incident.

    Would it work to demonstrate the failure of “solutions to disappearance incidents” in this case? No. Documentaries can legitimately be expected to depict real-life events and this is not the point to debunk. Instead, one can start to accumulate indications that Blair Witch Project was a spoof documentary, not a real documentary.

    In conclusion, you fell entirely for the headline of the video.

    ETA:

    vjtorley: His disagreement with her is not over genre, but over her approach to history.

    So you mistakenly think that historical writings *are* history and not a genre? This is a very fundamental blunder on your part. I will not stay around to correct it. You’re a grown man, you will have to sort it out on your own.

    And yes, I noticed that Tripp was kinda slippery on this point too. It is not clear that he understands historical writings as a genre among other genres.

  12. Erik,

    You continue to assert, without evidence, that Dr. Tripp misattributes the genre of the Gospels (as well as Acts and Paul’s letters), and that his understanding of this genre is at odds with Dr. McGrew’s.

    You attribute to me the view that “historical writings *are* history and not a genre.” I said no such thing. My point was precisely the opposite: that not all writings which are written as if they’re history, actually are history.

    Dr. Tripp is perfectly entitled to criticize Dr. McGrew’s approach to history, if he so wishes. That’s not a genre question. Rather, the question is: given that we have some documents that belong to the genre of historical writings, how do they stack up? Are they the real deal or not?

    You really should have watched the video before attempting to critique it.

  13. vjtorley:
    You attribute to me the view that “historical writings *are* history and not a genre.” I said no such thing. My point was precisely the opposite: that not all writings which are written as if they’re history, actually are history.

    Recently I read an argument that the gospels are not intended as fiction, as history, or even as persuasion. According to this argument, there were multiple factions at the time, each with their own gospels. And the gospels they each wrote and accepted reflected their spin on the proper beliefs, values, and behaviors Christians should follow.

    This situation naturally led to disputes as to what it meant to be a Christian, and the “winning” coalition was faced with a tradeoff – the final set of formally accepted gospels (out of perhaps 40 or more candidates) had on the one hand to be inclusive enough of enough factions to make Christianity a thing, but on the other hand couldn’t be so wide-ranging that Christianity didn’t mean anything coherent.

    The inclusion of multiple gospels into the bible came at a cost – the chosen gospels were necessarily inconsistent. Mark included as much as he could, but subsequent gospels, written by different factions, added and changed, extended or omitted pieces of Mark to fit their views and values. It’s important to note that none of the gospels actually dispute any others, they simply present their position as though they were the only one.

    It’s notable in this context that those factions who followed Paul lost this contest, because Paul’s celestial Jesus was a minority faction, and had less appeal to the majority than an actual historical Jesus, who was then placed at a time and location where nobody would be around to say “Hey, I was there and that didn’t happen.” But what was important to the gospel writers wasn’t that Jesus actually existed or had an earthly history (they made up quite a few inconsistent histories), what was important was the nature, teachings, and philosophy of the Jesus across the gospels.

    (As a footnote here, many scholars have commented on how odd it is that most of the tales in Mark take place at sea, and all the apostles were fishermen — despite the ministry of Jesus being placed in a land-locked location. But most agree that this isn’t very mysterious when you realize that Mark’s tales are simply reformulations of tales from the Odyssey, and that DID happen mostly at sea.)

  14. vjtorley: You continue to assert, without evidence, that Dr. Tripp misattributes the genre of the Gospels (as well as Acts and Paul’s letters), and that his understanding of this genre is at odds with Dr. McGrew’s.

    Two people attribute different genres to a text. This is a situation likely to cause fundamental miscommunication. It certainly invalidates the heading of the video.

    vjtorley: You attribute to me the view that “historical writings *are* history and not a genre.” I said no such thing. My point was precisely the opposite: that not all writings which are written as if they’re history, actually are history.

    As is often the case, you don’t know what you are saying. Here’s again what you said, “His disagreement with her is not over genre, but over her approach to history.” It so happens that even when writings are written so that they “actually are history” as you say (which is an impossible thing to say for someone who has a clue about what it is to be a historian), they remain *writings*, i.e. texts where you need to attribute the genre. History “an Sich” as it were is a subject of the philosophy of history, not of history as science.

    In history as science, the scientists deal with documents and artifacts that need to be interpreted, and the main point of interpretation is genre attribution. This is always so in every case. It’s not occasional and not optional. It’s not a step that can be skipped. It is clear from all details and context (that I have gleaned and that you have provided) that whatever else may be going on between Tripp and McGrew, they also have a disagreement in genre attribution, and reformulating it as “approach to history” does not diminish it one bit.

  15. Erik:
    I’m not sure I follow what you’re trying to say. Nothing in the NT is or really intends history as we know it (that is, “here are things that actually happened”). I don’t believe the NT or the gospels or Acts was written in an effort to describe the past in any way. So there is no genre as we understand that term today. Instead, what we have is an effort to provide “Christians” with both a suitable narrative and a coherent philosophy and value system – at a time when multiple tribes were competing to create a narrative according to their views.

    To do this, indirect evidence suggests that there were multiple versions of Jesus, multiple versions of the resurrection (indeed, the gospels ended up with multiple versions of the resurrection), multiple tales of miracles in support of multiple viewpoints. The surviving NT is very much a political compromise, an amalgam of several varying “party platforms”.

    I believe that trying to force-fit the NT into one genre or other is an invitation to misinterpretation. It’s not fiction, not history, not really propaganda (though there is an element of propaganda). And treating it as any of these is to miss the point.

  16. petrushka:
    Even eyewitnesses recall wildly differing events.

    You miss the point. The NT is not trying to describe past events. That’s not the purpose.

  17. Flint: The NT is not trying to describe past events. That’s not the purpose.

    I’m wondering, knowing nothing of the authors or editors of the books of the New Testament, how one assigns purpose to their efforts? Fair enough, we can say the writers wrote competently enough in Greek that this was their spoken language, but who they were, when and where they wrote are unknown. Nearly two thousand years of cultural separation since can only provide limited insight.

  18. Flint:
    I’m not sure I follow what you’re trying to say. Nothing in the NT is or really intends history as we know it (that is, “here are things that actually happened”).

    By “here are things that actually happened” you are describing history as you would like it to be, not history as it is. Historians (honest historians, that is) deal with history as it is, not as they would like it to be.

    NT is as it is. Traces of its preserved manuscripts get back closer to its dateable time period than any other historical manuscripts. You may not like the way they look but it is what it is and historians have to deal with it.

    Flint: So there is no genre as we understand that term today.

    It’s not about genre “as we understand that term today”. It’s about genre. Let’s say you find a piece of wood and you decide it is a bow, or a spear, or something different altogether. That’s genre. Genre means “kind”. It is the answer to the question, “What kind of thing is it that I am looking at?” Historians (or any other scientists really) cannot skip this question. It’s what makes history science.

    Just when I thought that my expectations are low enough for this place, you proved me wrong.

    Flint: …indirect evidence suggests that there were multiple versions of Jesus, multiple versions of the resurrection (indeed, the gospels ended up with multiple versions of the resurrection), multiple tales of miracles in support of multiple viewpoints. The surviving NT is very much a political compromise, an amalgamof several varying “party platforms”.

    Several varying party platforms imply several varying parties. And yes, evidence does suggest it. The gospels polemicise against Jews and the epistles polemicise against what they call heretics. And there are also suppressed gospels, apocryphal and Gnostic, as is normal when there are rival factions and parties.

    And here’s the thing: Rivalry is normal in history, so it can be expected that it happened, particularly when evidence suggests it. You should ask yourself: Since the rival factions were evidently real, then what was their rivalry all about? Was it about “nothing”? Was it about something that did not happen? About someone who did not exist? Everybody wrote passionately about what they simply dreamed up and the whole fight was about who can dream bigger? It certainly was about something serious for them, as is evident in the writings, and the genre of the writings can be determined accordingly. The genre called “scripture” or “religious writings” may be a total mystery to you, but to historians it is not a mystery or a puzzling exception or a rarity.

    What I am getting at is that both McGrew and Tripp are wrong. Too often modern apologists narrow the Bible down to mere history. The problem is that something like “historically reliable, therefore True Religion” does not follow. There are plenty of historically reliable writings that do not imply any religion whatsoever. Religion is something more (and other) than “historically reliable”. On the other hand, atheists rarely even try to understand religion. Tripp makes the common mistake of “not modern journalism/science, therefore gobbledygook” or, since he is in a kind mood on a given day, “fan theory”. Take a look at his other videos when he is not in a kind mood.

  19. Erik: On the other hand, atheists rarely even try to understand religion.

    But you, not being an atheist, have presumably spent some considerable time developing an understanding of Hinduism, or Shinto. But if I presume incorrectly, perhaps you regard anyone with religious beliefs different from yours to be atheists because if they TRIED to understand your faith, they’d hold it.

  20. Flint: But you, not being an atheist, have presumably spent some considerable time developing an understanding of Hinduism, or Shinto. But if I presume incorrectly, perhaps you regard anyone with religious beliefs different from yours to be atheists because if they TRIED to understand your faith, they’d hold it.

    Ain’t that sweet. You make this all about faith (even my particular faith), while I make it about competence. Vincent incompetently praises Tripp who incompetently criticises McGrew in a misleadingly titled interview. And you all demonstrate your incompetence about the basics of historical research, which are the basics of pretty much any research really.

    It’s not about my faith, but about professionalism. Whether you discuss religion or history, be professional about it. It should not be too hard with the help of some googling to live up to at least to the level of a fifth-grader, so give it a try. Will this website ever get to that level?

    Alan Fox: Explain it then

    Yeah, right, it must be my fault when website admin can’t wrap his head around stuff that people commonly learn in high school if not earlier.

  21. Erik: Alan Fox: Explain it then [Erik’s statement : On the other hand, atheists rarely even try to understand religion.]

    Yeah, right, it must be my fault when website admin can’t wrap his head around stuff that people commonly learn in high school if not earlier.

    I can’t explain any religion, except in terms of emotion. The rituals, chants, singing, confessing and so forth only make sense within an emotional context. You seem to be suggesting there is more than an emotional explanation.

    Are you?

  22. Alan Fox:
    Are you?

    I’d say all you’ve done is demonstrated that you are as incompetent as I, as Tripp. as McGrew, and as Vincent.

    Nonetheless, I think you’re right. There is nothing beyond emotional substance to religion, unless you count superstition. Atheists are WAY under-represented in prisons.

  23. Erik: It should not be too hard with the help of some googling to live up to at least to the level of a fifth-grader, so give it a try. Will this website ever get to that level?

    And even more important, how would you ever be able to tell?

  24. Erik,

    I’m normally a patient, fairly easygoing person, but I’m getting just a little tired of your continual sarcasm, snark and verbal put-downs. A few examples:

    I only watched some ten minutes into it and won’t go further.

    Now I listened half an hour into the video. It was pointless, because it only confirmed my immediate impression.

    In conclusion, you fell entirely for the headline of the video.

    As is often the case, you don’t know what you are saying.

    The genre called “scripture” or “religious writings” may be a total mystery to you, but to historians it is not a mystery or a puzzling exception or a rarity.

    Just when I thought that my expectations are low enough for this place, you proved me wrong.

    Vincent incompetently praises Tripp who incompetently criticises McGrew in a misleadingly titled interview. And you all demonstrate your incompetence about the basics of historical research, which are the basics of pretty much any research really.

    Whether you discuss religion or history, be professional about it. It should not be too hard with the help of some googling to live up to at least to the level of a fifth-grader, so give it a try. Will this website ever get to that level?

    Yeah, right, it must be my fault when website admin can’t wrap his head around stuff that people commonly learn in high school if not earlier.

    Anyone who knows me can Google my academic qualifications (B.Sc., B.A, B.Ec., M.A., Ph.D., Grad Dip. Ed.). I trust that’s past “the level of a fifth-grader.” Erik, I would take your criticisms a lot more seriously if you revealed what your academic background is, and whether you have published anything in the field of literary studies or historical research.

    I know for a fact that Lydia McGrew, who doesn’t read Greek and has no historical qualifications, heartily dislikes what she calls “credentialism,” but to her credit, she does have a Ph.D. in English literature (her C.V. is here), she has published extensively, and she is polite. You are not. If you’re going to poop all over this thread, then I’m going to call your bluff. Tell us what you’ve studied and let us see what you’ve written.

    You accuse Dr. Jeffrey Tripp of being clueless about genre. On the contrary, I think he is somewhat better informed on the subject than you are. Here’s the evidence for my claim:

    Tripp, Jeffrey Michael, “Remember the Word That I Told You: Direct Internal Quotation in the Gospel of John” (2016). Dissertations. 2154.
    https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/2154

    In his Ph.D. dissertation on John’s Gospel, Dr. Tripp has quite a lot to say about the genre of the Gospel. What stands out is that first, even scholars can’t agree on this question; second, it’s highly misleading to speak of “the” genre of John’s Gospel, as it contains many different genres; and third, the question of genre is less important than that of the motif running through the Gospel. A few quotes from the dissertation will suffice to illustrate these points:

    The gospel begins by repeatedly referring to the testimony of John the Baptist (see 1:7-8, 15, 19, 32, 34)(60) and ends by referring to the testimony of the Beloved Disciple, marked as the authority behind the gospel (21:24; cf. 19:35?): “In the theological vision of the Fourth Gospel, therefore, the entire life of Jesus is a legal drama that begins and ends with the testimony of reliable witnesses.”(61)

    The implied author’s role as a witness is also important in understanding how the gospel presents the conflicts of Jesus and the Jews: “It is as if John, like an advocate, reopens the case of Jesus, drawing on new evidence provided by divine testimonies and the legal precedents of the Law, which are appropriate in order to plead for a new assessment of the case.”(62) The gospel’s function as testimony to its audience allows the narrator to testify, to comment on testimony, and to present a case against Jesus’ opponents. On the model of the heavenly lawsuit found in Isaiah 40-55, Andrew Lincoln presents the trial as running throughout the gospel while George Parsenios, on models taken from Greek rhetoric and tragedy, understands much of the gospel as a legal investigation (ζήτησις) leading up to the depiction of Jesus’ actual trial before Pilate.(63) Per Jarle Bekken, meanwhile, understands John as a “crimes-legal proceedings-execution” report, with analogies in Jewish historiographical writings and in Greco-Roman texts.(64) For us, the particular generic aspirations of the authors are less important than the pervasiveness of the lawsuit motif in the Fourth Gospel. (pp. 140-141)

    Stepping back from these more refined discussions, each of the various genres of testament, farewell, and consolation to which John 14-17 has been linked addresses a singular concern: the real absence of the speaker.(15) (p. 285)

    John’s genius is in taking elements from the farewell and testament genres which acknowledge Jesus’ departures in death and ascension to the Father, and redirecting them toward his presence among believers and, as I will argue, his appearance in visions experienced by an inner circle of his disciples. (pp. 285-286)

    Another article I’ll direct you to is a very fair-minded review of Dr. Lydia McGrew’s latest book, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices by Joel R. Sanford, who has an MA in Comparative Religion and describes himself as “a student of religion and philosophy,” a “liberal Christian” who falls “somewhere between an Agnostic and a Christian,” and finally, as “a die-hard skeptic and pessimist married to a die-hard (Christian) believer and optimist.”

    In his review, dated 5 August 2021, Sanford has some interesting things to say about the genre of the Gospels. His position is somewhat different from Dr. McGrew’s, but in the end, he too considers the question of genre to be of secondary importance. Here are a few relevant quotes:

    In a previous post I reviewed New Testament scholar Michael R. Licona’s book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, in which he makes the case that many differences between the four Christian Gospels can be accounted for by their authors’ use of certain compositional conventions, or devices, common to the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biography. In making his case, Licona follows and agrees with the work of a number of other scholars who share a similar understanding of the Gospels as being part of, or at least closely related to, the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biography, and therefore influenced by its conventions. In The Mirror or the Mask, analytic philosopher Lydia McGrew argues against this view on several counts and, in the process, makes her own case for an alternate approach to understanding the composition of the Gospels and explaining their differences.(1) McGrew critically analyzes the evidence and reasoning behind the literary device view and contends both that it is unlikely the Gospel authors were significantly influenced by Greco-Roman literary conventions and that, even if they were, it is unlikely that many of the types of literary devices identified and cited by the scholars who hold this view were truly as widely accepted and influential within that genre as those scholars suggest. She is especially concerned with arguing against “fictionalizing literary devices,” which allegedly gave ancient authors license to knowingly alter facts, and she instead argues for “a commonsense model of the Gospels as honest historical reportage, based on eyewitness testimony”(2) — a view she calls “the reportage model.”(3).

    The first of McGrew’s objections to literary device theory is that, from the start, it is based upon a dubious underlying assumption, namely that the Gospels belong in any meaningful sense to the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biography. She maintains this assumption is dubious because it stands on rather thin evidence and because there is evidence to the contrary…

    But, suppose the Gospels were a part of, or somehow influenced by, Greco-Roman biography. McGrew argues that, even in this case, it is not likely that such influence led to the use by the Gospel authors of many of the types of literary devices cited by modern theorists…

    …[S]he quotes testimony from numerous ancient Greek and Roman writers to show that their own (at least, purported) understandings of truth and commitments to historical veracity are much closer to modern standards than theorists have suggested…

    Finally, supposing that, despite the points above, one is still inclined to look for fictionalizing literary devices to explain differences between historical accounts, McGrew makes the case that, in terms of probability, this requires an extremely high burden of proof…

    …[S]he doesn’t just argue against literary device theory; she also argues for an alternate theory concerning Gospel differences, one based on a model of the Gospels as “ordinary historical reportage.”(13).

    As McGrew describes it, “the reportage model” is quite simply the idea that the Gospel authors intended to report historical events honestly and accurately without compromising this accuracy in the interest of literary, artistic, or any other goals.(14)

    In this sense, the gospels authors can be called “artless;” that is, they are “truthful in a plain and unvarnished sense.”(15)

    In support of the reportage model, McGrew offers a number of arguments that mostly depend on evidence from the Gospel texts themselves. Foremost among these arguments is an appeal to what she calls “undesigned coincidences.” (16)…

    In addition to the evidence of undesigned coincidences, McGrew discusses several other types of evidence present in the Gospels that similarly seem to support the reportage model…

    In the end, McGrew finds the reportage model better able to account for Gospel differences than literary device theory primarily by producing consistently simpler and more plausible explanations of the differences. These explanations are simpler in the sense that they have fewer moving parts and require less speculation or conjecture. Many of them instead involve harmonization — discovering plausible interpretations(25) and/or circumstances(26) by which all accounts might reasonably be true without contradiction — a practice she maintains is sound historical methodology despite its having fallen out of favor in certain scholarly circles…

    …[T]here are really two parts to McGrew’s thesis: the first part being an argument against literary device theory, the second being an argument for the reportage model…

    I think McGrew succeeds in showing that the Gospels don’t fit neatly or unproblematically into the genre of Greco-Roman biography. In fact, in doing so, she shows that this genre itself (like all genres) isn’t so well-defined or standardized as to necessarily tell us much about the composition or reliability of particular texts within it. In other words, “genre” itself is a rather fuzzy category, and in the case of the Gospels in particular, they likely don’t fit into any one identifiable genre...

    When it comes to the Gospels, then, if we’re primarily concerned with assessing reliability (which I am), maybe the question of whether they “fit” into this or that genre is largely beside the point. If so, we need to look for other criteria with which to judge them. This is the direction McGrew takes in her book, but it is also the point at which I would part ways with her somewhat…

    …[M]y position would be one of caution against extreme or simplistic views on either side. As I argue below, maybe our answer to the question of reliability concerning the Gospel texts shouldn’t be a simple “yes” or “no,” but involves some more considerations and is really one of degree: how reliable are the Gospels? …

    My main reasons for parting ways with McGrew here have to do with questions of authorship and the method of the original authors — i.e. who wrote these things, and how did they go about doing it? It is my understanding that the majority view among scholars who study these issues is that much of the material in the Gospels is probably not simply direct eyewitness testimony put into writing, that even if the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony, the actual composition of them involved an indirect process of compilation and editing…

    When it comes to the second half of McGrew’s thesis — her argument for the reportage model — I think she builds a fairly strong case, but I’m not convinced it goes quite so far as she concludes….

    …It is one thing to acknowledge that the Gospels are based on true events and quite another to conclude from this that they are entirely or mostly true. The question is always one of degree: just how reliable are they?…

    …Furthermore, when it comes to analyzing and explaining individual Gospel differences, I don’t believe the reportage model is invariably more convincing than the alternatives on offer from literary device theorists…

    For what it’s worth, then, my own current position could be expressed something like this: The Gospel narratives are the product of a complex process of collecting, recording, editing, and transmitting that took place several decades after the events they describe. Their material thus likely comes from a variety of sources, both written and oral, first-hand and more removed. Some of these sources were no doubt more reliable than others. Furthermore, there was quite likely some creative editing and embellishment on the part of the original authors, later editors, or their sources, but within limits. Whether or not fictionalizing literary conventions were accepted within a certain genre at the time, we should be open to the very real possibility that the Gospel authors utilized, at the very least, some creative guesswork in crafting their narratives.(45)…

    To summarize my position about as briefly as possible, then, I think that The Mirror or the Mask rightly problematizes literary device theory regarding the Gospels, but the reportage model that it sets up as an alternative is too simple to be the whole story. The truth is likely more complicated and lies somewhere in the middle of these two theories.

    To sum up: both Dr. Tripp and Dr. McGrew know quite a lot about literary genres, but at the same time, they’re both intelligent enough to realize that these genres are not always clearly defined, that each of the Gospels contains multiple genres, and that the question of which genre they belong to is subordinate to the larger questions of what motifs run through them, and how they should best be judged for their historical reliability. Contemporary fiction alone includes some 144 different genres and subgenres, to say nothing of the 25-or-so main categories of contemporary nonfiction. And if we go back some 2,000 years, there are bound to be still more genres, many of which we’ll struggle to wrap our heads around, because they’re so foreign to us. The assertion that we cannot assess the historicity of a work of literature without first having pigeonholed it in some genre strikes me as self-limiting. Alas, life isn’t that simple. During my 62 years on Earth, I’ve seen scholarly opinion move back and forth on the genre of the Gospels. When I was 16, I recall reading a book in my R.E. class which insisted that the Gospels were not biographies. Three decades later, I found that many scholars now regarded them as Greco-Roman biographies. I’m also aware of differing opinions and minority viewpoints. Who’s right? Don’t ask me. Time will tell. As a philosopher, what I can do in the meantime is assess the merits of an argument put forward by Dr. McGrew (i.e. the argument from undesigned coincidences) which seeks to establish that the Gospels are indeed historically reliable, and that they can be legitimately described as “historical reportage.” My own conclusion, at this point in time, after having listened to the arguments on both sides, is that while Dr. McGrew has made her position on the Gospels academically respectable, she hasn’t established her case, and that in any case, it is not strong enough to support the claim that the Gospels are reliable on supernatural as well as natural matters.

    I think I’ll leave it there. If you’re going to reply, kindly refrain from patronizing us.

  25. The King James translators did a bang up job of turning artless stories into something that competes with Shakespeare.

  26. vjtorley,

    My own conclusion, at this point in time, after having listened to the arguments on both sides, is that while Dr. McGrew has made her position on the Gospels academically respectable, she hasn’t established her case, and that in any case, it is not strong enough to support the claim that the Gospels are reliable on supernatural as well as natural matters.

    Hi VJ
    I have only had time to listen to the first argument about the gospel of John and the washing of feet. While the history or fiction of this event is interesting the more interesting issue is the consistency of the theology of Jesus teaching. The upside down idea of the master being the servant. Is this possibly what Lydia is point to as the commonality?

  27. Hi colewd,

    Here are Dr. Lydia McGrew’s own remarks on the episode, in an interview with Sean McDowell (February 24, 2017):

    In John 13 we’re told that Jesus got up after eating the Last Supper and washed the disciples’ feet. It just sort of happens out of the blue. Reading only John, you might think that Jesus thought of this idea for no special reason, and it does raise the question, “Why did he do that just then?” If you go over to Luke 22, though, there is an explanation: It says that the disciples had been bickering at that very meal about who would be greatest in the kingdom. So the foot-washing in John is explained. Jesus was giving them an example of humility and service when they had just been competing and fighting. Luke never mentions the foot-washing, and John never mentions the argument. Those same two passages have a coincidence in the other direction. In Luke, Jesus scolds the disciples for bickering and says, of himself, that though he is their master, “I am among you as the one who serves.” This is a slightly weird expression in Luke, because he hasn’t done anything especially servant-like. But if you read about the foot-washing in John, you see that he has just dressed himself like a servant and washed their feet. He has literally been among them as one who serves. So the two passages fit together extremely tightly because of what each one contains and each one leaves out. Luke explains John, and John explains Luke.

    I have to acknowledge that this is one of the more impressive examples of an undesigned coincidence cited by Dr. Lydia McGrew. The two accounts seem to dovetail very well on this particular episode.

    Regarding Jesus’ revolutionary teaching about the master being the servant, it seems that this runs through all four Gospels. In Matthew 23:11, for instance, Jesus declares: “The greatest among you will be your servant.” Mark has a similar teaching: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). I think we can reasonably conclude that this is an authentic element of Jesus’ teaching. Cheers.

  28. vjtorley: I think we can reasonably conclude that this is an authentic element of Jesus’ teaching. Cheers.

    I don’t quite understand the work that the word “authentic” is doing here. I’m guessing you mean something like “one aspect where all 4 canonical gospels appear to be consistent.” Or perhaps you mean “an element found in more than one gospel and not in conflict with anything in any other gospel.” Or, digging a bit deeper, perhaps you are saying that this “master being the servant” philosophy was an important aspect of the background Jewish beliefs, some of which evolved into what became Christianity? Perhaps this came out of pre-Christian scripture, or is found in various other Hellenistic-influenced mystery cults of which Christianity was one?

  29. vjtorley:
    Erik,
    I’m normally a patient, fairly easygoing person, but I’m getting just a little tired of your continual sarcasm, snark and verbal put-downs. A few examples:
    Anyone who knows me can Google my academic qualifications (B.Sc., B.A, B.Ec., M.A., Ph.D., Grad Dip. Ed.). I trust that’s past “the level of a fifth-grader.”

    In addition to your academic qualifications, anyone can Google your online career, from advocating ID theory, arguing about it with Edward Feser, then going anti-AT and anti-Ed in general, finally ending up so skeptical of Christianity that you can hardly be counted as a Christian any longer. This is a track record of decaying intellectual and academic commitment, which was flimsy to begin with. Advocating ID theory is a pretty bad start, but the continuation has not been any better.

    vjtorley:
    You accuse Dr. Jeffrey Tripp of being clueless about genre. On the contrary, I think he is somewhat better informed on the subject than you are. […]

    In his Ph.D. dissertation on John’s Gospel, Dr. Tripp has quite a lot to say about the genre of the Gospel. What stands out is that first, even scholars can’t agree on this question; second, it’s highly misleading to speak of “the” genre of John’s Gospel, as it contains many different genres; and third, the question of genre is less important than that of the motif running through the Gospel.

    This confirms my point: Tripp is very shaky in attributing the genre. Moreover, he is operating with the wrong definition of genre, evident from when he says “the question of genre is less important than that of the motif running through the Gospel”.

    Genre means kind. Attributing the genre means answering the question, “What kind of thing am I looking at here?” So, “motif running through the Gospel” is not contrary to genre — it is genre.

    Genre is not “action/adventure”, “romance”, or “Greco-Roman biographies” whereof you pick just one. The genre of a particular text is a thorough description and analysis of the text, including its transmission history, context and subtext. The broadest single-word label of genre I can give to the gospels is “scripture”. If other discussion partners reject my attribution without reason while failing to attribute a genre on their own part or display deep misgivings about the concept of attributing a genre altogether, then we are not really having a discussion.

    vjtorley:
    I think I’ll leave it there. If you’re going to reply, kindly refrain from patronizing us.

    My purpose is constructive. Once you manage to up your game sufficiently, you may be able to publish at some better place than TSZ or in commentary boxes of other people’s blogs.

  30. Erik: I
    Genre is not “action/adventure”, “romance”, or “Greco-Roman biographies” whereof you pick just one. The genre of a particular text is a thorough description and analysis of the text, including its transmission history, context and subtext. The broadest single-word label of genre I can give to the gospels is “scripture”.

    This is misleading. Writings by Romans, Greeks and Jews around the time the NT was written were explicitly histories, or biographies, or philosophical essays. And each of these formats had structures that were followed. They specified who the author was, what their purpose was, who or what their sources were. Plutarch wrote explicit biographies, even though some of his biographies were of fictional people like Hercules or Romulus.

  31. Flint: This is misleading. Writings by Romans, Greeks and Jews around the time the NT was written were explicitly histories, or biographies, or philosophical essays. And each of these formats had structures that were followed. They specified who the author was, what their purpose was, who or what their sources were. Plutarch wrote explicit biographies, even though some of his biographies were of fictional people like Hercules or Romulus.

    Additionally there are laws (both in seed form like Twelve Tables of Romans or Ten Commandments of Jews and in fully elaborate form), prose, plays, poetry, and spiritual literature like epic mythology, incantations, prophesies, and commentaries on scriptures like Talmud or Corpus Hermeticum. And all sorts of inscriptions on gravestones, in temples, clay tablets etc.

    So actually you are misleading here because you only know a slice of the kinds of writings available from the era. Somehow you managed to delimit the genres so that they cannot apply to NT except very tortuously, which makes your point (if there was one) rather off topic.

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