Thursday, February 18, 2016

Adventures in the Process of Science, Part One. The Magdalen Papyrus

According to the book Eyewitness to Jesus, by the late Carsten Peter Thiede, the Magdalen Papyrus isn’t much to look at. A couple of square inches of papyrus with a dozen or so Greek letters on it. But to Thiede, a German archaeologist and Bible scholar, it proved that the New Testament of the Bible was written immediately after the events that it describes, and therefore contains no errors that might have been introduced by imperfect memory or legendary accretion.

To me, Thiede’s approach is a perfect example of how not to use the scientific method.

The first problem is construct validity. Thiede avers that the fragment dates back to the first century CE—that is, from a period of time in which many of the apostles were still alive, rather than from the third or fourth century, after church catechisms had begun to replace actual history. How could one prove this? Radiocarbon dating? But this would destroy the fragment. So Thiede uses the style of the lettering—a style, he claims, that was used in the first century but not in the third or fourth. But not all people in the first century wrote in the same way, nor did all people in the third or fourth. People, then as now, write in more than one way. This cannot be used to prove that the fragment is from before 100 CE.

The second problem is whether this fragment is a representative sample. The letters appeared to be a few words from the Gospel of Matthew. And this tiny section is worded the same way as this section is worded in later versions. But this is hardly surprising. The different versions of ancient scriptures (note: there are different versions) have some passages that are identical to one another. This cannot therefore be used to prove that the whole book of Matthew, and the whole New Testament, was written by actual eyewitnesses to Jesus.

Thiede was successful in one way. He sold a fair number of books, including to me, in my more religiously and scientifically naïve days.

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