Friday, May 18, 2007

Why I wouldn't trust J. P. Holding's scholarship

I've been aware of the existence of J. P. Holding for some time. He's gotten into his share of rows from people at Internet Infidels like Farrell Till, as well as Debunking Christianity members like Matthew Green. The consensus seemed to be that he was an arrogant, inflammatory, buffoon, not worth taking seriously. I think Matthew in particular nailed him on his ridiculous attempts to belittle the intelligence of scholars who specialize in ancient history/Biblical scholarship, when Holding only has a degree in library science. (For example, he says Bart Ehrman "needs to take a Metzger reading." Ehrman has not only read Metzger, he studied under him.) It makes for a boring if somewhat strange reading experience. The insults are attached to everything he disagrees with, attached to kooks and scholars alike, until they become a meaningless idiosyncrasy, like making every third word blinky. His insults don't even have much correlation to the content of what he's attacking and often seem to be more about machismo than anything: "I busted Carrier's noggin!" "Michael Shermer'd end up on the business end of a stream roller!" Really quite tiresome.

I did spend some time reading Richard Carrier's Was Christianity To Improbable to Be False?, his reply to Holding's The Impossible Faith, which argues that Christianity did everything wrong as a start up religion and the only explanation for its success was that early Christians had irrefutable evidence for the resurrection. It didn't strike me as badly in need of refuting--it's assertions and quotes slapped together without much careful thought, and the whole approach makes little sense. Aside from the general strangeness of appealing to hypothetical evidence, it ignores the well-established facts that 1) people often believe things that leave you scratching your head saying, "How'd they come up with that one?" and the fact that they can be gotten to believe the most extraordinary things on scant evidence. I don't think Holding is stupid or ignorant enough not to know this; rather, I take it as a simple failure to apply the Outsider Test. My reason for thinking so is Holding claims to be a fan of James Randi and Michael Shermer so long as the piece of nonsense they're targeting isn't Christianity. You can't read their writings and not have some idea of how baffling human behavior is. Both lament the willingness of people to believe things on crummy evidence. Randi seems to have resigned himself to being baffled and embittered by human irrationality. Shermer takes a more cheerful approach, but his assessment of the situation is the same: debunking off the wall claims is easy, what makes writing about them interesting and challenging is figuring out why people believe them. To accept Holding's assumptions is to prove the truth of all kinds of nonsense. To use an example solely because it's the most recent one I've stumbled across, there's apparently a guy in Puerto Rico who's made the novel move of claiming to be both Christ and the Antichrist, who has in fact built up quite a following. Golly! There's no way he could get people to believe it unless it were true, so it must be true!

I don't think Holding needs much more of a rebuttal than that, much less one eight times as long as the original article. The thing is, though, that the material is fascinating, especially in the hands of a good writer who knows the material. Carrier, unlike Holding, has extensive training in ancient history (currently finishing up his Ph.D. dissertation), and even when I disagree with him, his knowledge of the ancient world is impressive and refreshing. I say refreshing especially because in discussions of the Bible, too many of the alleged experts have spent too much time re-reading the same texts, trying to extract information from them we're not in a position to learn, and thinking little of the broader historical picture.

Anyway, I more recently began having regular contact with a local Campus Crusade member who's a huge fan of Holding, so I thought it would be worth the investment of time to give him a closer look. I read the entire original essay and finished Carrier's critique (Carrier's response is book-length and I had only been casually browsing it), and then began looking at the back-and-forth. Holding occasionally shows evidence of reading-comprehension difficulties, something Carrier pointed out at the very beginning of his half of the back and forth:
Most of Holding's criticisms worth responding to are not important enough to warrant emending the text of my critique. Rather than identifying actual errors of fact or critical omissions that significantly affect my arguments, or clear flaws in my reasoning or manner of expression, most responses amount to an unjustified misunderstanding of what I actually wrote, or new groundless assertions or even outright false claims.
To cite just one example I noticed myself: "It is hard to believe that Carrier is so insensate that he does not see that 'insult to honor' and 'shaming' are synonymous!" The original version of the piece this refers to makes perfectly clear that the point is that an insult does not automatically result in people feeling ashamed, rather, they are likely to defend their honor.

The other thing that comes out prominently is that Carrier and Holding disagree wildly on what their sources say. My first thought when I noticed this is that if I were to say anything meaningful on the exchange, I'd have to spend a lot of time tracking down sources. My second thought was that one of the most important sources was something I had already read, in its entirety, and it it was obvious here Holding was flagrantly misrepresenting it.

The source: the New Testament. The point in Holding's argument where this becomes key is section 17, Encouraging People to Check Facts for Themselves. It's a little unclear who wrote the section originally; the original presentation gives the impression it was someone else's idea that Holding wrote up, but he got testy about Carrier attributing it to him before going on to defend it. Anyway, he defended it, he can't disown it now and say it's just something he posted without reading it carefully for accuracy.

The simple truth of the matter is that the general attitude of the New Testament is flatly dogmatic and irrational. This should be obvious to anyone who's read it carefully. An excellent example comes in Galatians 1, where Paul instructs his readers to simply dismiss other theologies (not only other religions, but other versions of Christianity!) even if told to do so by the apostles or even an angel. Unless something is getting seriously lost in translation, which Holding doesn't attempt to argue for a second, this is slam-dunk evidence against early Christians encouraging critical inquiry. Holding's attempted rationalization is that Paul "gave the Galatians all the facts years before!"--so they would be just sticking to a well-evidenced claim and ignoring inferior evidence. I had to re-read that several times to make sure Holding really said what he seemed to have said. Does he think Paul's preaching would have given them enough evidence to ignore a clear supernatural sign? Remember here, we're talking about the only sort of evidence anyone was alleged to have had for Christianity, and probably better than anything the Galatians themselves had seen first hand? Clearly, when Paul talked about his doctrines as something to hold on to even if all the apostles plus an angel said otherwise, he reaching for the best counter-evidence he could think of to show they should not change their minds under any circumstances.

This is conclusive enough that rather than go on at length in this area, I'll just deal with one passage cited in the original article, Acts 17:1. Holding claims that is shows an example of good fact checking.

First problem: Holding's main thesis is that for Christianity to succeed, it would have needed strong evidence for Jesus' resurrection. Unfortunately, the "fact checking" seen in Acts was entirely a matter of looking at the Old Testament. The Jews in the passage showed no interest in the evidence for the resurrection. Thus, in response, Holding claims that "matters such as, 'Was Jesus raised from the dead' were already established beyond a reasonable doubt, and all that remained was matters such as, 'Does Jesus cohere with the OT message?' that would be of concern to Jews who accepted the authority of the OT." This takes the appeal to hypothetical evidence to a ridiculous extreme. Even the Bible doesn't claim that non-Christians in Jesus' time accepted the resurrection as demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. He's imposing something on the text that isn't there, and remember folks, he was originally claiming the passage supported his thesis, it isn't enough to show the passage is compatible with it (which it isn't anyway).

Second problem: The appeal to prophecy is absurdly fallacious. Normally, this would be a controversial point I wouldn't try to press in this context, except Holding agrees, and its point 10 in his list of "Leading Christian Myths." Can't help but point out that even if if you accept Acts 17:11 as an example of converts trying to do the rational thing, they were still using fallacious reasoning, and not looking into the evidence for the resurrection.

This summer, I hope to find the time to read some of the other books in dispute simply because the material is interesting, and its worth getting right. However, I'm fairly sure which side of the debate will be vindicated. Holding's thesis is heavily dependent on a projection of modern rationalism back into the 1st century, and quick look at the New Testament blows this to shreds. Also, Holding has demonstrated that he simply cannot be trusted to accurately represent his sources.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent work, and, for what its worth, the most lucid prose I've seen on your site. I'll be returning to this one for further study.
Thanks.

John W. Loftus said...

JP Holding is a hack, plain and simple.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Holding's thesis is heavily dependent on a projection of modern rationalism back into the 1st century, and quick look at the New Testament blows this to shreds.
Oh, wow. If memory serves, isn't it Miller or Holding that accuses skeptics of anachronistic tendencies (i.e., projecting the current POV onto a different culture)?
Both sides of the mouth, as the theists are fond of saying.
Bobby's a big turd in a little bowl, he is.

Hallq said...

KA,

In fairness to Holding, he would probably strongly deny that criticism. But it is my judgement, from reading his work, that he is guilty of it.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hallq:
Yeah, my 1st exposure to apologetics was McDowell. Then Holding.
An hour of Listerine proves insufficient to get the taste out of one's mouth.

Stephan Huller said...

This idiot just hit my blog and attack my book which questions the origins of Christianity. I wonder what he does for a living? What a fool. Anyway it gets me in contact with new people. Just saying hi

Thom Stark said...

What does he do for a living? He fundraises from his readers, over $20,000 annually.