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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

JB18250 - Jason #36: So long 

(JB18250) Jason BeDuhn [Tue Jul 19, 2005 7:05 am] (So long)

Well, with Rob's departure, I will be signing off, too. We dragged out the John 8:58 thing nearly a year. I think the light generated constitutes the barest fraction of the 500 pages compared to the smoke, and I apologize to you all for that. I think it is no secret that after a while I found it exceedingly tedious to deal with the "try anything" approach of my opponent. My own reading of the debate is that it loses coherence after last November, as Rob tries to keep too many balls in the air at the same time and picks up threads of arguments that one has to look back to much earlier postings to make any sense of. His "helpful" quotes of the relevant parts of the earlier discussion are often too selective or too out of context to truly help (although towards the end of the debate he made an effort to quote more systematically). Far too often I found in his postings serious misrepresentations of sources and truly phenomenal leaps of argument, and it became much more like correcting student papers than engaging in a discussion of the issues. And we rather got stuck there, complaining about each other's arguments rather than moving ahead with the topic at hand. Of course, students don't usually object to my corrections of their mistakes. Well, what can I say? Rob is a man of deep convictions, and they rule him. I don't imagine he would find that attribute anything he would need to apologize for. He is an apologist for the dominant theological position in modern Christianity and that gives him the assurance of numbers and tradition and defending what already so many accept without thinking. He
completely missed the irony of his using that "Boldly spoken" anecdote on someone else, when he is the one in the fortunate position of speaking in the company of likeminded fellows.

Unfortunately, being in that position militates against looking at things from a fresh and objective perspective. It also makes it difficult to understand a person like myself, who is not coming at this subject as a theological opponent. Rob never could shake off the mistaken notion that this was about interpretation, that to concede any of my grammatical points would be, in effect, to endorse a different theology than the one he holds. All along I have repeated that the translation I have been explaining as the most accurate of the original Greek ("have been" or "have existed" as you please -- one of the more quixotic and pointless issues Rob raised) does not necessitate the Jehovah's Witness Christology any more or less than it does the Trinitarian one. It definitely rules out, as John's representation of Jesus intended, the idea that Christ was a mere human being. Beyond that, it could be interpreted along the lines of a number of different supernatural or divine Christologies, which is precisely what happened historically. This history of diverse interpretation (with Athanasius and Chrysostom on one side, and a cavalcade of nearly forgotten figures on other sides) demonstrates my
point that the original Greek had a greater flexibility of understanding than that which is imposed on it by the traditional English rendering. And this same circumstance of confusing interpretation with translation has put Rob in the position of defending a translation that simply makes no sense to the innocent reader, but relies on a great deal of exposition, supposed connections to other passages that the person must be told about, odd word games that make the verb a secret code for a name (this is the "I AM nonsense," which is exactly like taking the sentence "The rainBOW MANaged to peek out over the hill," and saying it is actually a reference to Rob Bowman), and so forth. Of course, that's not how John's Gospel was first read in his own time, and it is not how it is read by anyone coming to it new today. Coming from so deep within a theological tradition makes it difficult to step back and see how the text worked in its original setting, which is why I as a historian have work to do.

Let me further add that I objected in private communication with Rob to the idea of posting summaries, since these only invite the temptation to badly represent the arguments of the other and try to lead the reader to see in the debate what we want the reader to see. Rob has now posted two such summaries, neither of which bear even the slightest scrutiny as fair and accurate representations of what they purport to summarize. Indeed, I found his last posting almost a caricature of his method in this debate, and simply not worth responding to. Since we were supposed to be talking about the essential matters of John 8:58, I long ago grew tired of constantly needing to deviate from this purpose to correct Rob's claims about what had just happened in the debate, and his slick efforts to dodge getting caught at some dubious tactics, not to mention the several times when he apparently unawares actually ascribed to and criticized in me something that was his own position (such as the absolute copula)! So I did have a few laughs along the way. But the truly frustrating thing was Rob's tactic of blithely carrying on without answering my direct questions and without ever taking a position on the actual grammatical construct involved in John 8:58. The fact that he could take one position on Tuesday, a completely different one on Wednesday, and say that I couldn't criticize him for taking Tuesday's position when it was Wednesday, or vice versa, was just the most absurd situation I have ever found myself in intellectually. The fact that he could devote dozens of pages to a position, and then say it was not his position when it was shown to be indefensible, then revert to that position as if nothing had happened, finally brought me to recognize that I was not dealing with the normal conditions of intellectual exchange.

In the end, then, true dialogue never happened. I suppose no one expected that it really would. So everyone will take from the record of this debate what they want to. This is hardly a forum for open-minded mutual exploration, which is a shame because the two parties on this site share a deep conviction in the importance of these matters, which others do not. I share the view that these matters are important, but from the very different perspective of a historian and investigator. I know Rob ridicules the notion of an objective researcher, and it is all too easy for him to see my work as biased because it takes a position different from his own. The point I make about bias in my book is different. It is not identified simply by someone taking a position different from yours. It is identified by someone taking a position that does not accord with the ordinarily valid bases for a position, in particular exposed by self-contradiction. What I showed in my book in the case of John 8:58 as in other cases is that translators deviate from how they ordinarily handle similar grammatical constructs. That is, they don't deviate from some standard that I set; they deviate from a standard they themselves set. Towards the end of the debate, Rob himself identified sentences identical to the traditional translation of John 8:58 as ungrammatical. This is a classic example of the revealed hand of bias. Rob kept trying to pin on me that I am biased in favor of the JWs. I am not. I criticize the NWT for its own weaknesses using the same principles I apply to other translations. And I explain at the end of my book my opinion about why the NWT tends to come out as more literally accurate than many other translations, which has to do with the circumstances in which the JWs formed as a radical break from existing traditions of reading the Bible. This is a historical observation and hypothesis that has nothing to do with favoring or disfavoring JW interpretations and theology. I explain in my book the pressure of tradition on reading things into the biblical text, and this is exactly the phenomenon involved in Rob's defense of the traditional reading of John 8:58, which was never very far from theological grounding, while I slogged on naively talking about how Greek works as a language, slow to realize that for Rob God trumps all rules and practices of grammar. That might sound good in theological circles, but the fact remains that the Bible was communicated in ordinary language and did not come with a decoder ring. We have no viable alternative to taking the language on its own normal terms, unless so full of our own convictions we have ceased to listen to it.

I think one may fairly conclude that the historian and the theologian belong to separate domains, and the difficulties of this debate suggest how hard it is to find common ground on which to have a meeting of minds. Well, it was worth a try. I was invited here as a guest on this one subject, and now take my leave of you. My best wishes to you all.

Jason B.

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