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Monday, June 15, 2009

Why John Loftus Runs Away from TheologyWeb

According to recent statistical study, posts over at Debunking Christianity these days can be broken down as follows:

* 87% by John Loftus, consisting of either self-congratulatory rhetoric because he has either deconverted another Christian whose intelligence quotient can be stated in terms of a single-digit number; or, because he has received a good review at from an atheist teenager who is mad that a loving, all-powerful God won’t give him a cell phone.

* 10% by Harry “Obscene Phone” McCall, who is either whining about some Christian being mean to him, or else believing in some screwy Neanderthal-fundamentalist doctrine that Harry himself used to believe, and assumes that all Christians everywhere still do.

*2% by one of the other Useful Idiots at DC, such as Lee Randolph complaining that because he can’t figure out the Bible, obviously no one can.

*1% by Loftus actually arguing something.

It’s not hard to see why Loftus so seldom ventures into that last territory – especially when it comes to “hard data” questions that don’t rely on him sniveling that a really, REALLY good God wouldn’t have caused mosquitoes to exist. Back when he first ventured on to TheologyWeb, I challenged Loftus to defend a number of premises from his first book related to hard, practical issues such as the authorship of various Biblical books. Like a spoiled child, each time I did he said, “Waaah, not interested!”

You can see why based in his June 1 reposting of a scholar’s assessment of the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. As usual in such cases, Loftus just puts his mind on “NUMB” and uncritically swallows whatever he is told – just like he did when he was a fundy Christian. That’s why he ran like a screaming little girl each time I challenged him on such things: He wouldn’t know how to defend such views even if you offered to buy all the leftover copies of his second edition.

Having just completed my own book which includes a serious study of authorship issues, I can tell you that Loftus and his source haven’t got a clue how to arrive at epistemic determination for how authorship of a document – especially an ancient document – is determined. In the main, internal and external evidence of attestation tends to be ignored in favor of contrived, statistically meaningless arguments based on writing style and content that scholars who have the knowledge, but not the ability to process it meaningfully, come up with after smoking mushrooms.

Arguments like the ones Loftus cites would draw little but jeers from persons with a background in serious literary study and/or statistical study (myself included, on both counts). (By the way, I am assuming that he has represented the scholar accurately; but with Loftus, you never know. It could be a fake citation like his fake blog was.)

How so? Let’s look at some examples, but with a preface first.

One of the critical factors in analyzing ancient documents has to do with the presence and use of scribes in the ancient world. Writing was such a cumbersome, tedious business that even fully literate people would hire scribes to do their writing for them at times. As Randolph Richards shows in his classic study on the subject, the role of a scribe could vary considerably based on the trust ascribed to them by the named author. It could range from straight dictation to, “write a letter to so and so about such and such” and letting the scribe do the whole thing, with the author merely “signing off” after reviewing the text.

Many scholars, because they have lived in a society where writing is so simple to do, have failed to appreciate the implications of this factor when it comes to tests of authorship. By itself, it makes arguments based on statistics completely worthless. In the case of 2 Thessalonians especially, we have three people – Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy – credited as authors of the letter. Any arguments against authenticity that fail to take this point seriously themselves do not deserve to be taken seriously.

But that’s assuming that the arguments are even meaningful in the first place, and in this case, nearly all the arguments Loftus quotes are statistically and epistemically meaningless in terms of usefulness for deciding authorship. Let’s look at some examples from the area of vocabulary and style.

We can skip a section after which the scholar quoted rightly says, “Such word statistics allow no firm conclusions.” Indeed they don’t, but the scholar fails to see how this expands to other matters. Here’s one:”Rigaux (1956: 89) called attention to Paul’s development of thought by triadic groupings in 1 Thessalonians. He identified sixteen such triads. But 2 Thessalonians has only one such triad (2 Thess 2:9).”

That’s nice. The question is, “so what?” Triadic groupings, actually, are an artifact of a carefully-crafted oral style. The use of a triadic pattern serves as a memory enhancement and rhetorical device, even today.

Counting noses for this kind of thing, however, is no more worthwhile than counting word uses as a means of determining authorship, in the way the scholar already rejected as valid a few lines before. Paul (or any author) does not have a list of techniques that they have to check off on a list to use, nor do they have any requirement laying out how many times they have to use any particular technique.

At the same time, the most critical aspect of comparing 1 and 2 Thessalonians has to do with their respective situations. 2 Thessalonians was written under far more stressful urgent conditions, with Paul and his friends answering for a crisis that had occurred due to a misunderstanding. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Paul et al. are not crafting a carefully-structured treatise full of balance and harmony – though not because of the urgency of the situation per see. This is not just a matter of Paul’s own situation, but a matter of the situation of the recipients of his letter.

Paul was well-trained in Greco-Roman rhetorical techniques. He would knew when to use certain techniques and why. Carefully-structured triads would not as well reflect the urgency of the situation, and Paul (or any writer) would know this.

On the other hand, “pleonasm” and “fullness of expression” – which is said to reflect a striking difference between the two letters – would. Paul is anxious to be understood in light of a crisis where it seems he has not been understand. Something like pleonasm is just what we would expect a skilled author to employ under the circumstances. Keep in mind especially that this letter, like all ancient works, would be read aloud to a mostly-illiterate audience – so that it is all the more important for Paul or any writer to get the point across in an effective, memorable way.

Let’s take a second example under the heading “verbal similarity”. It is said:
“Bornemann (1894: 473) already pointed out that the similarity of 1 and 2 Thessalonians went far beyond structure to include ‘sequence of thought, clauses, turns of phrase and expressions.’ Wrede (1903: 3–36) provided massive documentation by presenting the parallels in tabular form, by showing that every paragraph in 2 Thessalonians has a conceptually related section in 2 Thessalonians. He demonstrates that these significant parallels occur in the same order in both letters… Wrede finally concludes in an impassioned paragraph (pp. 29–30) that the coincidence of memory or historical situation is not adequate to explain the similarity.”

That’s nice. Unfortunately, Wrede wasn’t particularly well-versed in ancient rhetorical technique either. Memory and situation are not the answer, no – mimesis is. This was the ancient art of recombining prior written material in a skillful yet seemingly new way. For this reason, it is no surprise to find this sort of similarity between the two letters. It’s exactly what we would expect – even if by the same authors.

Finally, there is what is frankly the most idiotic of the arguments, “Lack of Personal Warmth.” Once again, critics are often clueless to the relative context of these letters. One is reflecting an answer to an urgent crisis situation; the other is not. “Personal warmth” in a crisis letter is the last thing we would expect from someone skilled in the practice of ancient rhetorical composition. This is not to say it could not possibly be found – but the person who did use it in this situation would be a remarkably inept rhetorician. Paul was not one of those.
To indicate the idiocy of this argument, it can be compared by analogy to one saying that Loftus himself could not have written his desperate “I quit” posting a few months back, because so many of his other posts seem so happy-go-lucky. Obviously no one is saying Loftus didn’t write that post because of his lack of “happy go luckiness” (or in his case, Dunning’s disorder).

So in sum, that Loftus uncritically swallows arguments like these speaks for itself – and speaks for his gullibility as well as his lack of academic rigor.

It’s little wonder he doesn’t come to see us at TWeb any more.


  1. Hi JP.

    Perhaps you'd be interested in addressing the following posts:




  2. We'll see. I only have time to post here once a month. If Loftus says something stupider (which is almost guaranteed) that will get priority.

  3. Isn't writing style the same as internal evidence?

    Anyway, I think writing style is a stupid argument. It doesn't prove a forger, at best it proves a scribe.

  4. I was referring to internal evidence of attestation there.

    What you refer to is internal evidence of content, and writing style is one aspect of that, yes.

  5. Excellent J.P.,

    Man you bless me sooo much. I appreciate your sharing and when will the book be released?

  6. Heya Harvey,

    Thanks! It's been out for about a month now:

  7. 10% by Harry “Obscene Phone” McCall, who is either whining about some Christian being mean to him, or else believing in some screwy Neanderthal-fundamentalist doctrine that Harry himself used to believe, and assumes that all Christians everywhere still do.

    Nice count Holdie, but as of July 27 I am no longer associated with either John Loftis or his DC blog. There will be no more 10% post from me or any posts from me on his blog; ever again.

    My name is removed as a contributor and I have broken all contacts with him and his blog. I told him he could ban me from DC as I don’t give damn! Screw him!

    If you two want to bitch and bash each other’s character brains out for a cash first, be my guess!

    John and his ego blog are history for me!!


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