Monday, May 22, 2006

Ruth Ann Dailey confused about her profession

Bill O'Reilly gets it, but one of our local pundits is completely confused about the difference between journalism and theology. See here.

Can anybody spot the problem with this analogy between the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's coverage of the Pennsylvania legislature and the Gospel of Matthew's "coverage" of the life and death of Jesus?

"Here's how [journalism] usually works: You have a busy life, filled with jobs and kids and chores and charity work, so you don't have time to attend, say, most sessions of the Legislature in Harrisburg. (If you're lucky, you haven't attended any at all.)

"Instead, you drop 50 cents into a little box and pull out a newspaper with regular, detailed reports on what our fine state reps are up to. The newspaper also carries first-hand accounts of things such as war, natural disasters, crime and government -- or crime in government.

"The newspaper's managers pool together all those quarters you drop at the newsstand (it costs less if you subscribe!) to pay reporters to do the observing and fact-gathering on your behalf.

"It's a good system, don't you think? It also happens to be the reason that I believe Jesus was divine, performed countless miracles, preached radical truths and didn't father children with Mary Magdalene.

"The eyewitnesses who heard his sermons, witnessed his miracles and touched his living body after they'd watched him die wrote about these events in both detail and great accord. Though they give Mary Magdalene credit for arriving first at Jesus' empty tomb, they don't mention a romantic relationship or children. They understood that the gospel concerns his blood, not his bloodline.

"There are far more early copies of their reporting and a far shorter gap between the originals and the surviving copies than for any other document from ancient times. And the authors of these journalistic accounts chose to die rather than renounce what they'd written."

If you are having trouble answering my challenge (to spot the faulty logic in the analogy), I recommend any basic textbook on the history of early Christianity.

In the meantime, two salient points:
1) The earliest of the four Gospels (Mark) dates from at least 3 decades after the death of Jesus. The usual range of dates given by historians for the four Gospels (without total consensus on when each was written) is circa 70 CE to circa 120 CE.

2) The penultimate sentence I quoted from Ms. Dailey is a red herring: yes, there are lots of early manuscript copies of the four Gospels. But all this tells us is that Christian communities in the late first century and early second century accepted these accounts and transmitted them as accurately as possible. It doesn't tell us anything about the reliability of the accounts regarding early first century events.

Ms. Dailey and other Christians are perfectly free to believe that the Gospel accounts are true. But if she is basing her religious faith on a notion that the Gospels have the same epistemological status as the AP wire, she is working from faulty premises.


JLevine said...

A General Response: Pop culture and Religious studies departments are strange bedfellows. Dan Brown loves Ms. Dailey (because she generates controversy) as much as he loves anyone who has read the book, read the books that critique the book, watched every sensationalist program on the History and Discovery channels about the book, plans to watch the movie, and plans to buy the Tom Hanks action figure. I wouldn't be surprised if some PhD student right now is writing about the Da Vinci code, New Testament history, pop culture and postmodern religion as we speak. Which brings up a point: Religious Studies departments are having an identity crisis. Pop culture dictates the content of PhD theses. Religious studies professors (you excluded) need pop culture to ensure that the university doesn't cut the program.
For better or worse, people like Bart Ehrman, who wrote Misquoting Jesus (a NY Times bestseller) just in time for the Da Vinci movie is cashing in as are a host of others.
Is this the best way academics can introduce their scholarly work to the masses?
Finally, check out Ten Commandments movie parody:

Adam said...

Two questions for you:

1) Why didn't you tell me about your blog?

2) Where can I get one of those Tom Hanks action figures?