I will be dealing with two interesting questions in this weeks’ Readers Mailbag, one involving a criticism of my work by the well-known New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who apparently challenges me (publicly) for taking a position that, in fact, I have never taken, and the other about whether it is pure anti-supernatural bias to think that prophets like Daniel did not predict the future.
N. T. Wright is the author of several books, including Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense and The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion.
I saw a Youtube clip with Dr N T Wright giving a short talk on Gnosticism, where he mentioned Elaine Pagels’ and your names, stating: “…scholars like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, several others, have said quite stridently: this [Gnosticism] was the real early Christianity; and Mathew, Mark, Luke and John tried to cover it up, muddle it up, and they told this very Jewish story about things going on on earth, and with, um, sacraments and all of these things, um, whereas this Gnosticism was the really exciting, subversive stuff, which the orthodox church then squelched…”
Let me say at the outset that I have not seen this Youtube clip and cannot vouch for the accuracy of the questioner’s quotation of it. Possibly someone else on the blog can. But it appears that he is quoting it verbatim.
I have to admit that I find the quotation very surprising indeed, since it indicates that I “have said quite stridently” something that in fact I’ve never said at all. And never thought at all. Ever, in my entire career.
N. T. Wright is one of the best known scholars of the New Testament in the world. He and I are on friendly terms but are not close and do not really spend any time together. He is an extraordinarily committed Christian (he was for a time the Anglican bishop of Durham, England), tends to be conservative in his historical and interpretive views, and is much beloved by American evangelical Christians who consider him a bulwark of faithful biblical scholarship. Like me he can be polemical at times, and this quotation from him comes from one of those times.
He is claiming that I have argued Gnostic Christianity was the original Christianity, which came earlier than the Gospels of the New Testament, and the Gospels of the New Testament were trying to attack and cover up this “original” form of the faith.
The truth is that I have never argued any such thing, written such a thing, taught such a thing, lectured such a thing, believed such a thing, or thought such a thing. Ever.
My view has always been – from the time I first started studying about Gnosticism over forty years ago, until today – that it was a second century development within the Christian tradition; we don’t have any secure evidence of what we might think of as actual Gnosticism until the middle of the second century, some six or seven decades after the Gospel of Mark was first written, at best. It is a much later development from the forms of Christianity found in the Gospels (or in any of the other books of the New Testament). True, I think these earlier forms of Christianity were very different from one another, and that early Christianity was amazingly diverse. But I have never ever thought Gnosticism was one of the earliest forms of the Christian religion, let alone the “original” form.
Why does Wright assert otherwise? I suppose because he hasn’t actually read what I’ve written about it, and because it is much easier to attack a straw man than a serious scholar. But I think it’s too bad. I don’t agree with a lot of what he himself has to say about the New Testament, the historical Jesus, the sweep of the biblical narrative, and lots of other things. But I do try my best to understand someone’s views before attacking them. I suspect he usually does as well – but this time, for some reason, it didn’t happen!
Just to play Devil’s advocate…I’ve read others saying, and would have said myself years ago something like, ‘Your anti-supernatural bias is showing. Just because the events occurred exactly as predicted doesn’t mean they were written afterwards. These are prophecies and God worked them out.” Are there any textual/grammatical/historical evidences that Daniel was written late?
This is a question about my statement that modern biblical scholars recognize that the book of Daniel was not written in the sixth century BCE by a Hebrew prophet named Daniel who was sent into exile to Babylon in the days of king Nebuchadnezzar, but much later – chapters 7-12 around the time of the Maccabean revolt (in the 160s CE). One reason for thinking so is that “prophecies” of these chapters appear to be related specifically to the rule of the Syrian monarch Antiochus Epiphanes, whose rule (in 175-164 BCE), policies, and demise are with fair specificity predicted. Doesn’t that indicate that the book was written precisely by someone who knew about Antiochus Epiphanes? Or does that question itself suggest an anti-supernaturalist bias, that God couldn’t inspire a 6th century prophet to predict precisely what was going to happen four hundred years later?
It is a very good question and I think it is important to address it head on. The first point to make is that this view can hardly be as ascribed to anti-supernaturalist bias, since it was a view I had when I was a supernaturalist! This is the view taught in every major divinity school and seminary in America – apart from the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical schools that do not engage in critical scholarship. It was the view avidly embraced by my professors at Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the leading seminaries, by any count, in North America, training Presbyterian ministers (none of whom is an anti-supernaturalist!) for their pastoral ministries. It is the view you will find in all the standard critical commentaries on the book (none of them that I can think of written by someone outside an established faith tradition).
Taking such a view is not anti-supernaturalist. It is simply taking a historical approach to the task of interpretation, instead of a non-critical one. There are indeed linguistic reasons for thinking that Daniel was written long after the period of the Babylonian exile. About half the book is written in Aramaic (unlike virtually all the rest of the Hebrew Bible), which became the lingua franca of Palestine only after the Persian period, and philologists who have examined the language have argued that it appears to derive from this later period.
But the most convincing point for most critical investigators – whether believers (the vast majority) or non-believers (a few of us lone voices crying in the wilderness) — is the specificity of the predictions about what was going to happen in the decades and centuries after the Exile. If you want to see what I mean, just read Daniel 11.
Here’s the deal. Of course it is possible for people to have a sense of what might happen in the future in a rough sense. But if you read someone predicting in great and very specific detail what is “going” to happen, and you have no reason to think the person was actually living before the events “predicted,” you’re going to be suspicious.
It’s like this. Suppose a writing was uncovered, allegedly from the 1990s, that said there would be an attack on America soil by foreign terrorists. Fair enough, one could imagine that someone could foresee later tragic events in general terms. But what if the writing instead said that on the morning of September 11, 2001, four American airplanes would be highjacked by Al-Quaeda terrorists, and two of them would be flown into the twin towers of the World Trade center causing the collapse of the buildings and killing some 3000 persons? Would you really be inclined to think this was something written in 1995? And would you really think that they only reason to suspect it was written after 9/11 was because of an anti-supernaturalist bias?
People who charge interpreters of Daniel with an anti-supernaturalist bias are deeply influenced by their own supernatural biases, in thinking that if a book is in the Bible it must be inspired by God. But remember, whoever wrote Daniel did not know he was writing the Bible. His book was included in the Bible only long after he wrote it. He was simply writing an apocalypse – as other authors were doing in his time. He had no way of knowing that a later group of people would decide that he had been divinely inspired, and that later readers would take his words to be the Word of God. That shouldn’t stop us, though, from applying reason, common sense, logic, and critical historical acumen to interpreting his writing, not in an anti-supernaturalist way but in a way that tries to the best of its ability to situate the writing in its own, actual historical context.
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