Month: June 2013

a confused France and Morris dancing?

At present, because I have a little spare time before my viva, I’m reading two different commentaries (as you do): one on Matthew (by R.T. France) and the other on 1-2 Thessalonians (by L.L. Morris). In both I was struck by particular lines of argument on specific points (different ones, of course) and was, quite frankly, unimpressed. My umimpressedness was not necessarily due to the specific arguments themselves, rather it was because of the underlying (and unexplained/unjustified) reasons supporting them. Let me explain.

To France:
A common approach for associating Mark’s Gospel with a Gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) audience is to point out the frequent authorial explanations of Jewish practices and terms (e.g. Mk 5.41; 7.3-4, 34; 12.18; 15.22, 34, 43). The gist of the argument is: Mark would not need to offer such explanations if he were writing to a (predominantly) Jewish audience. Fair enough.

A similar line of argument is used (albeit in the opposite direction) for associating Matthew’s Gospel with a Jewish audience: apart from the decidedly Jewish genealogy (and its usage), the persistent appeal to the Hebrew scriptures, and the allusive parallels between Jesus and Moses (or Mosaic traditions); Matthew leaves unexplained the key Jewish practices and terms (e.g. Mt 1.21; 5.22; 15.2; 23.5; 27.6), and he employes ideas and concepts that would resonate strongly with a Jewish audience (e.g. “son of David”, “kingdom of heaven”, “lost sheep of the house of Israel”). Thus, so the argument goes: the best explanation for this is that Matthew is writing to a (predominantly) Jewish audience–a line of argument that France adopts (and obviously accepts). Again, fair enough.

But then France says this (pp. 68-69–emphasis added):

Alongside this very striking concentration on introducing Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament runs a higher note: Jesus is the Son of God. This, one of the main themes of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, is clearly implied by his stress on the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit (1:18, 20), and by the name Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23), and becomes explicit in 2:15 and 3:17, from which it is taken up to become the central theme of the testing of Jesus in 4:1-11.

Here’s what troubles me: when he addresses 1.23 in particular, specifically the name Immanuel and its emphatic links with Isaiah (see pp. 79-80), France says nothing about Matthew’s need to offer a translation of the name. (NB: France leaves off the key bit of the verse–i.e. “which translated means”). Why would a term like “Immanuel”, with strong ties with Isaianic (i.e. Jewish) prophecy need to be defined for a (predominantly) Jewish audience? More to the point: why does France (p. 17) allow for a shared understanding between Matthew and his audience of the name “Jesus” (1.21) yet not offer the same allowance for Immanuel? I’m asking in earnest; I’m not trying to be cheeky (for once).

To Morris:
One of the more sticky passages in Paul’s letters is 2Thess 2.6-7, particularly the identity of the so-called “restrainer”. I’ve been working on a slightly longer post dealing with that particular translation, so there will be more details about it later. For now, suffice to say that commentators have almost categorically translated the term, κατεχω as “restrain”. But this is not the only translation. Morris, thankfully, acknowledges the three possible ways in which κατεχω can be used (p. 130):

The verb can mean (a) “to hold fast” (as in 1 Thes 5:21), (b) “to hold back” (as in Phm 13), (c) “to hold sway” (if intransitive).

While I am grateful for Morris recognizing these possibilities, something not usually done, he immediately goes on to say this (p. 130–emphasis added):

D.W.B. Robinson argues for this third meaning, but the verb does not have this meaning elsewhere in the New Testament and not many have been convinced.

With all due respect to Morris (and I do respect a lot of his work), this twofold response is not a good counterargument; it’s not even a good argument. The second part operates on the (unjustified) assumption that wide acceptance of a particular translation equals right/correct translation. That seems to be flirting dangerously with argumentum populum. But it’s the first part of Morris’ counterargument that bothers me.

Just because κατεχω is not used intransitively elsewhere in the New Testament does not exclude the possibility that Paul is using it intransitively here in 2Thess 2.6-7.[1] Not only is Paul known for hapax legomena, but he is also know for taking familiar terms and applying to them rare (if not obscure) meanings (cf. e.g. 1 Cor 2.4). Moreover, in arguing for the authenticity of the eschatology in 2 Thessalonians, Morris acknowledges that “[Paul] is just the kind of thinker to come up with an idea that nobody else in the early church could have produced” (p. 27). So, if creativity is allowed to Paul on the concept level, why does Morris not extend the same allowance at the word level–especially when there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Paul was lexically creative? Besides, being create with concepts seems to require creativity in language to articulate those concepts.

[1] Yes, I do think Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. Don’t agree with me? No worries; you are entitled to do so. Don’t like it? Sorry you feel that way.

more statistical loathing

I have grown to dislike and even distrust the use of statistics, particularly in the form of percentages. (See here and here for examples of why this is so). Admittedly, some uses are rather comical. For instance, just the other day there was an advert on TV for mascara (Maxfactor, I think it was) and the voice-over made grand statements about women’s views on the product. Based on the VO’s claims, one would think that he was speaking for the whole of womankind. Hardly. At the bottom of the screen appeared the percentage of women supporting the claims made and number surveyed. The figures? 74% of 70 women!¹ No typo. Seven, zero. My first (cynical) thought was: “So, you [Maxfactor] basically got your own PR department to offer some opinions.”

As benign or even banal as this instance might be, it adheres to or relies on (and possibly even perpetuates) a rather malignant rhetorical ploy: shape opinion on the basis of persuasively strong claims supported by high percentages.² For example: “The majority of people (78%) believe _[insert hot-button issue here]_ should be permitted” or “…feel that _____ is unfair.” The underlying assumption appears to be: with language such as “majority” or “most people” and percentages exceeding 50%, we can make the issue appear to be prevailing and widespread, and if we can get people to believe the language and percentages, then we can shape public opinion in a particular direction. To remain in my cynicism, this usually means: the “majority” we’re documenting is the cultural norm, so you might want to get on board rather than fight against the “majority” view.

However, because I am that annoying person who asks, when confronted with percentages: ” ‘x’% of how many surveyed?”, and because the survey pool is hardly ever deep and wide enough or representative of the whole, I will neither be persuaded by the claims made (because they do not represent the whole they claim to) nor accept the data to be empirical evidence of public views/opinions (because it’s not). Moreover, I will not pretend that, say, 1500 people surveyed constitute a “majority” view and that I must accept their view, which is really a “minority” one (based on comparative figures), simply because they’re touted as the majority in a particular survey. In fact, I don’t have to accept anything simply because a few say so–and do so rather loudly (i.e. delusionally pretending to be the many).³ I accept things because they are worthy of acceptance, but that requires an entirely different (and more substantial) kind of conversation.

¹ I’m not sure if they’re doing this in the States (or anywhere else), but here in the UK it is now common practice in adverts to show both the percentage and the number of people surveyed.
² It is, therefore, no wonder that the survey-data is either tucked away at the end of the article or on a completely different site.
³ Current issues in American politics illustrate what happens when a few are allowed to shape the many, and do so on the assumption that the few are portrayed as more powerful than the many.