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Small Tracer, Big Tracer

January 27, 2020

So here’s my small tracer, which will soon end with a line of asterisks indicating that the baseball-only content of this article is over, and my main subject will, as Casey Stengel liked to say, commence. (I don’t know why, but Casey is the only figure in my too-extensive reading who used the verb "commence" regularly; other folks would say that something "began" or "started" or even "was initiated" but only Casey would say it "commenced.")

Casey almost figures in this small tracer, which concerns one of his greatest players, Roger Maris, just before Casey’s Yankees acquired Maris, and it derives from a passage in the memoirs of one of Casey’s disciples, Whitey Herzog. In You’re Missin’ a Great Game (p. 65), Whitey writes that Maris would habitually

tail off at the end of the season. One year in Kansas City, he was hitting .340 and then went 9-for-96 to end the year. But how many players are hitting that high in September?

Since Maris played fewer than two seasons for Kansas City, part of 1958 and all of 1959, this is pretty simple to trace. It ain’t 1958, because Maris’s average crept above the .300 mark for exactly one day of 1958, and that on April 18th.  After that early date, he spent the entire 1958 season batting between .221 and .298, so 1958 is out. In 1959, Maris quite astonishingly was batting in the .340s as late as July, way north of his usual latitude, but then, commencing on July 25, he forgot how to hit, which follows the general observation that Whitey made. 

It will not surprise you, given that I’ve described this as a tracer, that Whitey made some small errors in arithmetic: instead of going 9-for-96, Maris actually got his next 10 hits in the space of 89 at bats, which I file under "N" for "nit-picking," but I find it interesting that Whitey just makes up the number of hits and at-bats, or remembers them slightly off, when it’s not all that hard to look them up.  I mean, if he isn’t going to bother to look up the precise numbers, it would have been perfectly fine to write "Maris was hitting .340 or so but then he went into a huge slump and ended the year in the .270s," which  in addition to requiring less research has the added virtue of being accurate.

Maris’s decline was a little quicker than Whitey has it, btw: batting .345 on July 25th, Maris went 8 for his next 84, shedding .062 BA points along the way, in less than a month’s time. Nit-picking, as I say, and scarcely worth mentioning. Whitey’s point was that Maris was streaky, and no better example can be found than his BA in 1959 BUT (you may be wondering) if we add 84 at-bats (or 96 or whatever) to July 25th, how does that get us to September?

Answer: it doesn’t.  Maris’s supposed season-ending slump did not have him fading in September. He kinda bounced out of his pronounced slump in late August and in September. After his 8-for-84 streak (.095) that ended on August 23rd, a date that will live in infamy, Maris batted a Maris-like .237 for the remainder of the year, which ended with him batting a very Maris-like .273.  (His lifetime BA was .260.)

Now maybe Maris was more prone to streaks and slumps than your average (so to speak) hitter. Home run hitters generally tend to go into grooves and out of them, perhaps more than non-sluggers do, and maybe Maris was more pronounced in this regard than other sluggers. Maybe.

But maybe not, and picking one season when he had his most extreme slumps to document your case brings two compound words to mind, both rooted in the word "pick": "nit-picking" and "cherry-picking." If you took any hitter’s worst streak of 80 or 90 at-bats, I’d imagine few of them wouldn’t have one or two with 10 or fewer hits. Whitey was just trying to argue that Maris was more neurotic than most major-league hitters. (His term for "a neurotic" was "a worrier." He wrote, "I don’t care if he never hit .300. Roger was a worrier, so he was susceptible to slumps; when he got cold, he couldn’t hit his first-grade teacher.")  I don’t really see any connection between "hitting .300" and "not worrying"—in my view, Maris wasn’t a .300 hitter because his hitting talents just didn’t go in that direction—a lot of fly balls, few infield hits, a big swing. I don’t see where worrying or not-worrying enters into it very much.

That’s all a small point, though, and mostly this tracer has been to show how unreliable Whitey’s stats are in this one instance. You don’t want to lay a wad of money down on the bar to say that Maris went 9-for-96 one September on Whitey’s say-so, because you’re going to lose that wad. End of small tracer.


The part that truly interests me is the concept of "reliability." I’ve been coming across that concept, specifically of "historical reliability," in the works of Bart D. Ehrman recently, and I’ve just signed up to receive his blog (at a modest cost, about 2/3rds of an annual BJOL subscription) because I’m interested in his work, which is mainly tracing out the historical reliability of ancient authors, specifically of New Testament authors. Ehrman is a figure of mild BJOL interest, in that he was born and raised in Bill’s hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, and he’s roughly Bill’s age (born six years apart, to the day), so I thought maybe they’d bumped elbows at some point, these two paragons of truth-seeking, but no. Bill once answered my query about Ehrman with something like "Don’t know him from Adam’s off-ox," so I never bothered asking Bart if he knew of Bill’s work. But it seems remarkable to me that two men, in two such widely disparate fields of work, from the same corner of the world, could strike such similarly admirable philosophical positions. Essentially both men are driven by an impassioned, almost obsessive, search for the truth, excavating in a landmine field of falsehoods, and have acquired reputations as deeply learned iconoclasts in each of their explosive fields.

Bill and Bart each began as a straightforward, true-believing consumer of a product, baseball statistics or Christianity, but early on both became skeptical of what they were being asked to consume. You all know Bill’s journey well, from reading the backs of baseball cards and the like to asking if these numbers really told the whole story, or the right story, or the accurate story, so I won’t re-tell that journey, other than to note that Bart’s path covered similar ground, if slightly more extreme:  raised as an Episcopalian, Bart converted to a conservative, Bible-revering, born-again fundamentalism in his teens. At age 21, he graduated from the Moody Bible Institute, where he discovered he was no moodier than most of his peers, and then took a BA and a Master’s of Divinity, and finally a Ph.D., the final two degrees from Princeton’s Theological Seminary. Beginning (commencing?), he says, as a firm believer in the inerrancy of the Bible, he studied its text (learning ancient Greek, among other languages) in order to read its exact language in its original context, so as to argue authoritatively for its accuracy against those who derided the Bible as an inaccurate text. Along that path, however, he found inconsistencies in the New Testament, grave inconsistencies that seemed to him to present substantial and serious textual problems. Trying to reconcile these problems with his Christian faith, he found the problems prevailing over his faith. Now a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, he describes himself today as an agnostic, sometimes as an atheist. (It’s possible to be both, by the way.)  He insists that he is doing the same exact thing he set out to do, which is to discover the truth by examining very closely the available evidence, and he teaches his students to value the truth above the other values their teachers, or family, or preachers have sought to indoctrinate them with.

It’s that principle of truth, above all else, truth founded on evidence, that links Bill to Bart and Bart to Bill in my mind. It seems to me a very easy course to sail by the truths we all receive, and a very challenging course to decide, "No, I have a mind, and I can use that mind to study things myself, and not rely on the authority of others to tell me which end is up."

Not all of us have the intellectual firepower of Bill or Bart, of course. Few people do. To listen to Bart Ehrman lecture or debate on the New Testament is to be amazed at the quantity and quality of information he has at his fingertips, quoting Scripture, chapter and verse, in the King James translation or the original Greek or (when he alludes to the Old Testament) the original Hebrew as quickly and as easily as someone can cite that particular passage to him. It’s really something to behold, a scholar who knows his chosen text backwards and forwards, and can discuss it in depth wherever a questioner takes him. I had a professor in graduate school who could perform this sort of magic with Shakespeare or Alexander Pope or several other authors, and it was quite daunting to realize that A) there were people this knowledgeable in my chosen field, and B) I would need to acquire knowledge approaching his scale if I ever wanted to become an authority in that field. I mean, talk about setting your goals high. It’s really something to understand that this isn’t some fictional, Sherlock-Holmes-like figure with this super-human memory, and understanding, and depth of knowledge, but a real-live person sitting right in front of you who really and truly understands this entire field of work, and is furthermore passionate in his beliefs based on that deep understanding and reading.

Ehrman lectures and debates all over the place, usually facing a staunch Bible-hugging Christian, sometimes several of them at once, in front of audiences who are uniformly opposed to his skeptical positions. (Here’s a typical debate with a devout Christian in front of an overwhelmingly Christian audience: These debates are all over YouTube—I don’t see where he gets the time to do this while holding down a full-time teaching position and writing as many books as he does, but he does.) Often he begins his part of a debate by asking his audience for a show of hands of believers in an inerrant Bible, and then for a show of hands of those who came out to the debate to witness him get creamed. When he gets an overwhelming full-frontal display of naked hostility, as he usually does, he grins with delight, and then informs his audience that all he’s going to try to do is to ask them to examine the evidence he will present, which he then sets to do. In this, Ehrman’s approach differs from Bill’s somewhat, in that his tone is unflappably affable—not more than a shred of Bill’s impatience with fools, or Bill’s dismissiveness of ideologues who present a slice of evidence as the entire pie. (Though Bill’s testiness usually crops up in his writing, not his public speaking, where his demeanor approaches Bart Ehrman’s equanimity. It’s an age-old debating tactic, of course, pretending to be more accepting of opponents’ positions than you actually are, though Ehrman’s seems more genuine than most, and certainly more consistent than Bill’s sometimes even-tempered geniality. But that’s just my judgment call, I guess.) Ehrman is perpetually showing the points on which he agrees with his interlocutors-- on Jesus’s existence, for example (which he has taken the position of defending in debate against one of the numerous learned deniers that Jesus is anything other than a mythical figure like Zeus or Thor. See this link where he takes the more traditional theological position of the two, , and ends up creaming his opponent)  or on the vast civilizing advances that Christianity has brought to Western culture. He tries very hard to find points of agreement, or at least to demonstrate that there are some.

Because Ehrman opposed his own current positions into his late teens, when he re-thought his fire-breathing, Bible-thumping fundamentalism, he is able to empathize with those who still adhere to that position. He seems genuinely not to think of believing Christians as foolish or misguided, and certainly not as evil or stupid, but instead merely views them as thoughtful sincere people who haven’t yet examined the evidence as closely as they might.

That’s his whole thing in a three-word mantra: "Examine the evidence." That’s the sum total of what he’s asking Christians (and other theists) to do, look at what the Bible actually says, in its actual language (which very few can read, but which he’s expert in) and in its historical context (which perhaps fewer can even imagine—the world of the first century A.D. obeyed all sorts of principles and practices that we can hardly wrap our heads around).  Examine the evidence. He beseeches his mostly-hostile audiences simply to read the Bible with a critical eye, e.g. to hold one passage in Luke against another passage in Mark where both describe the same event. If one’s own reading of both Gospels contains diametrically opposed facts, as they must to any reader, then Ehrman asks what to make of the contradiction. Is one wrong? If so, which one? Are both wrong? If so, why do we think so, and what evidence exists to suggest some sort of compromise, or of a third resolution entirely?  The starting point is simply to read both texts and to decide that they contain opposing facts.

Any audience unwilling to do that, Ehrman suggests, is refusing to examine the evidence, and is committing itself (for now) to a purely theological reading of the Scripture, which (he says) is fine with him. Ehrman claims to have no quarrel with those who need to take a theological position exclusively. After all, that’s the position he was raised to take, an unquestioning belief in Christian dogma, so he can hardly castigate those who take that same position now. But compelled by his own intellectual curiosity, he came to examine the evidence closely, and he asks those who haven’t done that yet to do that and see where the evidence takes them.

That’s the same position, I think, that Bill takes with those he disagrees with: look at the evidence, and try your best to use the brains God gave you to make sense of it. His own natural talent, and Ehrman’s, is to suggest inventive and creative and sensible ways to make that sense, but their whole approach depends on their audiences themselves looking at the evidence. They are authorities who preach against the value of authority.

The real unspoken sticking point, for both of them, is "What is evidence?" Bill’s early readers were skeptical that Range Factor, for example, constituted genuine evidence. I can remember true believers in traditional fielding metrics asking Bill sincerely how Larry Bowa’s lousy Range Factors might not be simply evidence that Mike Schmidt was gobbling up all the ground balls that either Phillie might have caught. Range Factor, in other words, might not be good evidence—Bill spent a few years showing its validity, to his satisfaction (and mine, and probably yours) but I’m sure there are still a few true believers who refuse to accept Bill’s findings as evidence.

I don’t believe such people are capable of conversion, at least not any time soon, but I think Bill and Bart make real progress in demonstrating that the stumbling block is not that such opponents have argued successfully against the evidence, but instead that stumbling block is simply that they don’t accept it as evidence.

Another type of refusal is to accept the evidence but to deny its significance. With Range Factor, for example, the refuser might have accepted the principle but to have claimed that half of a play per game was insignificant in distinguishing between two fielders. What’s one play every other game? Nearly nothing—or so this argument goes. In Ehrman’s case, his interlocutors will concede that, yes, Bart, you’re right about this contradiction in the Bible, but so what? Luke says one thing, Paul says another, so one of them messed up—but the important thing, the gist of the Bible, the big picture, the sum total, the narrative as a whole is still true.

This gets us back to tracers. "Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus" is the principle I apply to evidence, and it’s a very harsh statement with which I don’t even agree as stated. "False in one detail, false in all details" is simply too sweeping to be absolutely true across the board—plainly if someone misremembers one small detail in sworn testimony, that doesn’t necessitate striking his testimony entirely. But it certainly impeaches that testimony, and it’s up to its audience, or its jurors, to decide how much to accept it, if at all. (I am literally sitting in a jury room as I write these words, during a hiatus in a criminal trial in which I am a juror, so I’ll be paying particular attention to the phenomenon I’m describing here. I’ve been forbidden from describing the trial online in any shape or form, so I’ll need to publish this after the trial concludes, which I hope is very soon. It is incredible to me that Palm Beach County has so far devoted 129 people-hours—judge-hours, bailiff-hours, lawyer-hours, witness-hours and juror-hours—to adjudicating an embezzlement of thirty---count ‘em, 30—dollars from a 7-11, but maybe that’s just me. I’d have gladly forked over 30 bucks just to get these two days back.)

Anyways, "Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus" is the main point of contention against my presentation of tracers over the years—that I’m being absurdly picky, that I’m jumping down the throat of sincere chroniclers whose memories of fine details has gotten a little hazy, and I’m blowing up that haziness to form a wholesale denunciation of their entire memories or books or lives. Inaccuracy in writing bugs me, as it doesn’t necessarily bug you, but all I can do is point it out, and rant a little bit about it. It’s up to each of us to decide how much we want to get worked up over it, if at all.

One of my chief objections to small inaccuracies is a point that Bart Ehrman brings up: that most of the tiny scriptural inaccuracies that have come down to us over the past few thousand years were originally made innocently, not out of malice or design. With some exceptions, the inaccuracies in the Bible resulted from innocent transcription errors made by some overworked and undertrained scribe copying by hand one ancient text in a sincere attempt to spread the truth, or were the result of someone sincerely believing that some false textual interpolation was part of the original text, or the result of someone correcting an obvious transcription error in an ancient text by substituting another error instead of choosing the correct original word. Stuff like that isn’t the stuff of complex conspiracy theories, just the stuff of Murphy’s Law on top of Murphy’s Law on top of Murphy’s Law, for generations and generations of monks, copyists, textual reviewers, and so on.  Each error by itself is but a flyspeck, but compounded for centuries, they blot out the entire page.

This is the stuff that first attracted me to Ehrman’s work, which I first got interested in as a student of textual criticism. Applied to literature, textual criticism helps to clear up some mysteries in Shakespeare and other authors whose texts have gotten corrupted over the past few centuries. It’s a forensics-style approach to understanding difficult and suspect passages in the work—we start with what we think we know, and apply that knowledge to what we don’t understand, applying techniques that were not available in the 1600s but which we have acquired four centuries later. (Here’s a lecture featuring Ehrman mostly discussing textual criticism of the New Testament, and how it developed over the past couple of millennia: .) In Shakespeare, I can illustrate textual criticism best via his most famous text, that of Hamlet: you may know that we don’t actually have a single reliable text for this famous play, but rather three very different texts, a  Bad Quarto, usually dated 1603 ("Bad" because it’s much shorter than the others, and has a much higher proportion of screwy lines and garbled, difficult phrases, probably because it comes from the memory of one of the earliest actors in the play), a Good Quarto, thought to be printed in 1604, and the Folio edition, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The version you read (or pretended to read) in college is based on all three of these, and thousands of corrected, improved, revised readings and interpretations of the text by hundreds of editors in the centuries between 1603 and this afternoon. All of these latter-day scholars have tried to find in all of these corrupted early texts the best, truest reading of each line of the play, and as you might imagine there have been metaphorical wars fought over every line.

The Shakespeare Wars, by the brilliant cultural historian Ron Rosenbaum, in fact, describes one word in Act V of the play that exemplifies textual criticism: as Hamlet lays dying, his friend Horatio assures him that he will tell the world of Hamlet’s action. "I’ll…tell…thus didst thou" are the words Shakespeare puts in his mouth in the Good Quarto version, adding a syllable to the pronunciation in the Folio version ("didest" rather than "didst"—both are just archaic forms of "did," i.e., "I’ll tell everyone what you did.") But the Bad Quarto has the line as "thus diest thou" -- in other words, "I’ll tell the world how you died," which may be the more sensible reading of the line, since Hamlet croaks within three seconds of the line being spoken, and since (some scholars argue ) the way the letter "e" was written in the 1600s was very close to the way the letter "d" looked, which would explain how easily some transcriber made the error.

They’ve been arguing over such textual variants for over 400 years, and it may be another 4000 before they resolve this one, or any of the thousands of other textual issues in this one play of Shakespeare. And Shakespeare is relatively easy compared to textual criticism of the New Testament, which dates to about 1500 years before Shakespeare (1500 B.S.), written in ancient Greek (Shakespeare is classified as "early modern" English, meaning that any English-speaker can read it, or pretend to read it, simply by knowing how to read today’s newspaper), and we don’t have an actual complete copy (of a copy of a copy etc.) of any Gospel until the original author had been dead for hundreds of years.

Although I got started when I studied Shakespeare in grad school, I really got into textual criticism when I saw Tom Stoppard’s play THE INVENTION OF LOVE on Broadway (several times)—I’ve seen it, read it and re-read it, taken my kids to see it, taught it, love it. It may be my favorite play ever, and it concerns the life of A.E. Housman, the 20th century British poet who, for his living, taught classical languages at Cambridge. (Not a whole lot of money in writing poems, and never was.)

Housman was a textual critic, specializing in the poems of Manilius, an ancient Roman whose poems I’ve never read in Latin (because I can’t) or in translation (because Housman says they’re awful poems). Stoppard’s play explained the concept of "textual criticism," which is not translation, though it influences translation greatly, nor is it literary commentary in the sense we think of "criticism" now. Rather, it’s a quasi-scientific approach to corrupted texts (which is most of ancient texts, and a lot of modern ones) that attempts to deduce, through logic and reasoning, what the original text actually said. Almost a hundred years ago, in 1921, Housman published a scholarly paper entitled "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism" which strongly implied that his fellow scholars failed to apply sufficiently their brains to textual criticism, in a passage that approached the frustration and caustic wit of Bill James: "Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head." Textual criticism is the literary equivalent of sabermetric study, an attempt to push away the curtains of romance and preconception to find the actual thing itself and to study it closely. It requires a lot of work to do it, and a lot of brainpower to do it right, and that’s what Bart Ehrman specializes in, only using the New Testament as his text, and not Shakespeare or Manilius or the Baseball Encyclopedia as his primary subject.  

To me, it’s just about the best thing that a learned person can do with his or her learning, to understand a field intimately and to explain what it truly is, so that a not-so-learned person can understand your reasoning process even if that not-so-learned person can’t master the skills you’ve managed to acquire. (This is the case for expertise.) Bill has it, Bart has it, Alfred Edward Housman had it, Shakespeare had it, Stoppard may have it, and I stand in awe of it.

An example came up recently in Readers Posts, where some of us looked at Rube Waddell’s intelligence and tried to figure out if he was perhaps autistic or hyper-active or low-IQ or somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum or just plain dumb or crazy or an eccentric or a drunk or a combination of any or all of these. We just don’t know for sure.  Maybe our terms and our metrics are not yet advanced enough to figure this stuff out in 2020, but we certainly understand these terms a lot better than we did a hundred years ago, which is why history will never run out of raw material. We’re creating new material all the time, of course, but we’re also able to review older material with newer tools. In Rube Waddell’s case, we’re still dependent on the material gathered over a hundred years ago—what Waddell said, and what he did, and what others observed about him, and how accurate their observations were—in order to make any sense of him. If we’re dealing with a close observer of Waddell’s speech, however, we must test out the accuracy of his observations more generally than just his direct observations of Waddell. We need to figure out how good an observer he was in general so we can give weight (or not) to his observations of Waddell. If he, for example, commits a lot of factual errors in his observations of the baseball games Waddell played in—gets the score wrong or the dates or the stats—then we might conclude that his other, more subjective, observations are equally dubious as well.

Even if he’s simply gullible, and not malicious, in reporting things that we think aren’t exactly true, we can discount his observations, and that’s where small tracers become important tools. There are baseball books where I can find something to trace on every page, and some where I can find a potential tracer in almost every paragraph. In other baseball texts, tracers may be few and far between—one every few chapters, for example. It doesn’t matter (much) how extreme the errors are in judging the author’s reliability, though an author who commits an error, even a small error, on every page can certainly be judged as unreliable. There are baseball authors of both solid and gaseous reputations—Halberstam and Golenbock jump straight to mind—whose every assertion I mistrust instantly. These authors can write of the blueness of the sky, and my first thought is "Show your work."

I suppose that my admiration for Bill James and Bart Ehrman derives from their knowledge in areas that I am very weak in. I have no talent for mathematical computation beyond long division, and less talent for most ancient languages, so I’m grateful to these writers for sharing their expertise with me. I have no way to verify their expertise in computation or ancient Greek, but I’ve never seen those subjects questioned by people with better credentials than I have. 

In some Platonic version of this world, I would wish that one’s reputation for truth-telling mattered more. In this sordid world, however, I find people telling lies, or distorting the truth, as a matter of course, and when the truth is found, they just go blithely on, telling more mistruths. Why doesn’t lying bear a greater stigma than it does? Not wishing to bring politics into this friendly topic, but when a public figure unapologetically tells lie after lie, I cannot for the life of me figure out why he or she isn’t simply ineligible from delivering further public discourse.   (Nor can I figure out why anyone would want to heed such a person.) I don’t mean prohibited by law, or anything like that, but rather that person’s word being accepted by anyone. Once your reputation for honesty or accuracy or reliability is shattered, can it be repaired? Maybe it can be patched up by expressing regret for one’s previous mistake, but as often as not, one lie is simply succeeded by another lie, with no stigma attached to either one. People lie deliberately, they lie mistakenly, they lie unwillingly—does it matter which cause is attached? Beyond a point, a habitual liar’s reputation for reliability gets shot, and that shot ought to be fatal more often than it is.

People make mistakes, and they can own up to them, and acknowledge their error, and move on with their lives, with a slightly tarnished reputation for making errors and fessing up to them. But some cannot acknowledge their errors, and continue to insist on their correctness in statements long since proven to be blatantly false. Most of the time, such habitual fabricators and prevaricators have alternate, often lucrative, lines of work they can perform rather than opining on events, so it beats me why they’re invited again (and again and again) to hold forth, and why they accept these invitations, once their unreliability has been exposed. I’ll cite Al Sharpton as an example of someone who, to my mind, has destroyed his own credibility: in the Tawana Brawley case of 1987, he swore falsehoods to be true, yet he’s often treated in the media as an honest, credible source of information. To my mind, he has used up his credibility on any subject, including race relations, electoral politics and Kobe Bryant, all of which I’ve heard him opining on in the past 24 hours. Whatever Sharpton’s motives or values were, he places "truth" much lower in his priorities than my ideal public speaker. If we upheld higher respect for truth-telling than we do, as a society, including disregarding those who’ve lied much more readily than we do, we would be making our society into one where the truth assumed a more important place than it now does.

What is truth?, as jesting Pilate once asked (not a very funny stand-up comedian, was he?), though it’s a very serious question, and one to which I wish I had an answer for you.  To me, "truth" is a necessary product of examining evidence, and as we’ve already established, admitting and dismissing evidence is ultimately going to be subjective. So truth remains an ever-moving goal, not nearly as self-evident as Thomas Jefferson would have it. Where we trust in truths uncovered by others, we are basing that trust on our perceptions of their credibility.

And lately, credibility seems to depend much more on which team you’re on than it does on any neutral analysis of the statements you make. In Seinfeld’s metaphor of "rooting for the laundry" (a bit of synecdoche, actually), our judgments of truth and falsity are mostly decided, not by the statements or by the evidence itself, but by who makes them or cites them. This is an inevitable extension of "Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus," and the most harmful result of applying that axiom too liberally. Once someone on the other team has made a single statement, or presented a bit of evidence, that you consider to be false, that person is forever branded a liar, in your mind, and you can never hear another statement or bit of evidence with an open mind again.

And, on that note of subjectivity and potential bias, I should note my own prejudices here: my interest in the New Testament is astonishingly free of any interest in religion at all. I had my share shoved down my throat up to about the time I got Bar Mitzvahed, by which time I was pretty skeptical of the shoving process and of the shovers, and I was a thorough skeptic when I got to my doctoral program where, to study early American writers, who were almost to a man religious extremists, I was steeped in New Testament theology to the same degree I’d been indoctrinated as a boy in the Old one. So I’ve probably read both testaments as much as any atheist this side of Bart Ehrman, with as little reverence for the contents as your average atheist.  My interest in Ehrman’s work is almost wholly an interest in his scholarship, a sociological interest in a phenomenon that has an outsized influence on American culture to this day, which I suppose you could say of sports as well.

If you think about it, both baseball and religion could easily exist outside of mainstream culture in America, and many other countries seem to get along just fine without either obsession. Sometimes I marvel at the colossal man-hours that we devote to both, hours that could be devoted to real-world problems we face—or rather that we choose to turn our faces away from so we can delve further into the minutia of sporting events and religion.

And speaking of wasted man-hours, as a wasted man, my jury duty is over now, with well over 200  total people-hours devoted to deciding a theft of $30, and unsurprisingly I still can’t tell you how the verdict went: turns out I was the alternate juror all along. I was hearing the testimony just in case one of the other jurors had to be dismissed before the jury deliberations began. Instead, I got dismissed right before the others entered the jury room to deliberate, with the court’s gracious thanks for my service, but at least I got to do a little research and some writing during the long breaks in the trial. I hope parts of this discursive 6000-word essay appealed to some of you.



COMMENTS (21 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
In addition to the charity (which was the final incentive for me to cough up the 25 bucks to join I also failed to mention that about one in five blog posts are free to the general (non-paying) public, so if you visit, you can read a goodly sample of his blog posts, and see if you like them.
3:58 PM Feb 2nd
While “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” is probably not the standard to use for ordinary humans or witness testimony, I think it is much more applicable when applied to a book the claims to be inerrant and directly inspired by God.

Bart Ehrman is one of the most productive people I know of. Besides being a professor of religion at UNC at Chapel Hill, he has written or edited 30 books (divided between scholarly books, textbooks, and trade books for a general audience).

In addition, he lectures and participates in the debates you mentioned. He typically writes 5-6 blog entries a week, which has to take a few hours.

Something you did not mention is that all the money collected by his blog is put into his foundation and spent on fighting poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Dr. Ehrman personally pays all the overhead and expenses of the foundation, so every cent of the blog subscriptions goes to the causes.

2:39 PM Feb 2nd
Kazantzakis makes clear that Judas has Jesus on his side, or vice versa.

Hat tip to Elliott's correspondents for having the common courtesy to respond, without telling him to piss up a rope.

I've never read Ehrman, but Elaine Pagels' many books on early Christianity are unfailingly interesting, in particular those on the writings that were suppressed by the early church and discovered in the middle of the last century at Nag Hammadi.
4:50 PM Feb 1st
Steven Goldleaf
The A.E. Housman poem that Bill Tweet-quoted on 1/27, by the way, was from "To An Athlete Dying Young": it was the line "Today, the road all runners run. . .", referring of course to Kobe Bryant's death.​
12:21 AM Feb 1st
I have been fascinated by Judas Iscariot since I first heard Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side.." Forty years later I decided to write a poem about why I had decided Iscariot did have God on his side, but had reached an impasse,

a few years later, about twelve years ago, after reading three books about the recently rediscovered and translated Gospel of Judas: "Reading Judas," by Dr. Elaine Pagel's,"Judas, a Biography," by Dr. Susan Gubar, and , "the Lost Gospel of Judas", by Dr Bart Ehrman,
I was inspired to finish the poem.

I wrote each essentially the same note and sent a copy of the poem. Each responded with thanks and appreciation for sharing. The following is my correspondence with Dr. Ehrman.

From: Elliott Kolker, To: Dr Bart Ehrman, Sent: Monday, April 13, 2009 2:50 PMTo: Subject: Fw: Judas poem

Dr. Ehrman: I had been working on the following poem for some time, but inspired by your book, "The Lost Gospel of Judas," I was able to complete it. Thank you, Elliott Kolker

On Monday, April 13, 2009 8:47 PM, Bart Ehrman wrote:

Elliott, Very interesting! Many thanks for sharing it with me.-- Bart Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
1:08 AM Jan 31st
This was a brilliant read. Thank you.
12:33 PM Jan 30th
Steven Goldleaf
AAAAND....this friendly discussion devolves into the "go piss up a rope" section of the conversation. I shall of course convey those sentiments to Dr. Ehrman immediately....
3:10 PM Jan 29th
Ahhhhh Ehrman and Croissan and Funk and the rest of the Westar Institute can go piss up a rope. I'll pass.
8:06 PM Jan 28th
According to the great apologetic Frank Turek,

Here’s what Ehrman says in an interview found in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus (p. 252):

"Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament."

So why does Ehrman give one impression to the general public and the opposite to the academic world? Could it be because he can get away with casting doubt on the New Testament to an uninformed public, but not to his academic peers? Does selling books have anything to do with it? I don’t know. I just find the contradiction here quite telling– the man who gets all the attention for casting doubt on the text of the Bible, upon further review, doesn’t really doubt it himself.

8:01 PM Jan 28th
Steven, I think it's a great book. But you and I have not talked about literature all that much (strangely, since it means so much to both of us), so I can't predict how you'll react.

I do know that I don't read like an English professor, which is why it was very lucky that I decided as a freshman not to become one. What does that mean? I can sum it up like this: Emma is a great novel, but I prefer Pride and Prejudice.
2:19 PM Jan 28th
Thanks for a provocative read, Steven. I read it from beginning to end, only rough-scanning perhaps 30% of the time, which for me indicates praise.

My problem with the truth is that one has to be thorough to even arrive at a rough approximation. I prefer the poetic truth to the factual truth. But I accept the importance of the facts because they are the bedrock of effective poetry.

That's the problem with the Father of Lies, that it sees the facts not as an opportunity to discern the truth, but as tools to be either ignored or used to deceive.


Gary Fletcherr
11:18 AM Jan 28th
Steven Goldleaf
Is the Last Temptation of Christ readable? I've often been tempted but A) it's long, B)it's written in Greek (so I'd be reading a translation, which vary in quality) C) the film was so-so (and I'm a big Willem Dafoe fan). Three strikes against it, but if you tell me it's a great book....
9:55 AM Jan 28th
One of my favorite passages in Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ has Jesus complaining to Matthew that some of the things he's writing about him are false, that some of the events didn't happen. Matthew replies (my paraphrase) that Jesus doesn't understand the requirements of public relations.

This is fiction about fiction, since of course The Gospel oif Matthew wasn't written by the apostle Matthew: that attribution didn't arise until about a century later.

"I don’t believe such people are capable of conversion, at least not any time soon, but I think Bill and Bart make real progress in demonstrating that the stumbling block is not that such opponents have argued successfully against the evidence, but instead that stumbling block is simply that they don’t accept it as evidence." I think is was Swift who said that you can't reason a man out of something he wasn't reasoned into.
9:23 AM Jan 28th
Steven Goldleaf
stevemillburg--I hope your philosophy professor passed on the famous anecdote of Dr. Sam'l Johnson's response to Berkeley, kicking a rock and saying "Thus I refute Berkeley." I wonder about the size of the rock, and the force of his kick. Did he need to kick it so hard that his agony would be obvious? Or was gently touching the toe of his boot to a small stone sufficient? Is this rock some sort of monument today? Did anyone actually witness this rock-kicking incident? BTW, I'm not at all sure what your professor meant by "the insight will come to you."
4:51 AM Jan 28th
(....."get to the library and look it up some time...)
11:35 PM Jan 27th
In one of those stray coincidences which might make us wonder if there's some order to the universe after all.....

Y'know how we get these questions in our minds and say, "I gotta look that up and see"...
(used to be, I gotta get to the library and look it up some times, but we never did; now it's look it up online, which doesn't require a special trip and so a lot of the time we actually do)

For a while (don't ask why; I don't know) I've had the Purple People Eater Song rattling around, but a lot of the lines were fuzzy, and I'd been meaning to look up the lyrics some time. Just now I finally did.

The third line was the first one that I was fuzzy on, so I went straight there.
It begins with: "I commenced to shakin'...."

I do realize it's possible that the "commence" thing in the article prompted me unconsciously, and I'm not capable of knowing it's not so; but I have no conscious awareness of having ever known that the word was in the song.
11:34 PM Jan 27th
Actually, I think a lot of people who habitually say things that aren't accurate do give "truth" a very high priority — a much higher priority than they give to "facts." They KNOW in their souls that what they are saying is true. Facts that seem to show otherwise are distorted or misunderstood or taken out of context or improperly understood or hoaxes or lies.

Whether they are conspiracy theorists or adherents of supply-side economics or political ideologues or believers in the inerrancy of the Bible, they will never, ever be persuaded that they are wrong, no matter how many inconvenient facts stand against them.

In college, I had a philosophy teacher who was especially scornful of the Empiricist philosophers, notably Bishop George Berkeley. Berkeley said, more or less, that we cannot directly know anything; we can know only what we perceive with our senses, which is just an idea or a representation of the thing being perceived. My professor said that was ridiculous; if I see a table, I'm directly perceiving the table, not just perceiving light reflected from it.

The professor was also an avid astronomer, so I said, "What if I look through a telescope and see a star that's 10 million light years away, and that star actually exploded in a supernova 5 million years ago and was destroyed? You're saying that I can directly perceive something that hasn't existed for 5 million years. How can that be?"

He said, "Think on it, and the insight will come to you."

I did think on it, and the insight that came to me was this: He was a man who knew the Truth, and his faith would not be shaken by such trivialities as facts. So I did learn something important, even if it wasn't what he was trying to teach me.
11:30 PM Jan 27th
(dam, we need an edit function)
The beginning of my 2nd paragraph down there was unclear.

"left me with the same feeling" was supposed to mean, same feeling with which it left you.
(not same feeling as what I was talking about right before that)
11:14 PM Jan 27th
Your having started this article with Maris was what led me to look at the rest. :-)
(The smiley actually serves some purpose in this case, to hopefully avoid any impression of dislike about the rest, which I think would otherwise have been there.)
The content is mostly stuff that isn't my kind of stuff, so I just brushed through most of it, but indeed many "parts of this discursive 6000-word essay" did appeal -- and many bits of it made me laugh.

Sharpton-Brawley left me with the same feeling, although over the last decade or so it has begun losing some of its force. I've gotten to where I'm maybe 10% willing to think about what Sharpton says.

I wish to hell we had some film of Waddell, even without any audio. If maybe there [i]is[/is] some film of him somewhere, I think it would help our surmisements.

I didn't know there was that degree of uncertainty about Shakespeare's texts. And BTW if there's ever a resolution to the "didst/didest/diest" question, I hope it'll be on page 1 of the newspaper, because I'm diesting to know.

BTW, in college English classes, I mostly pretended to read Shakespeare (and more or less got away with it), but please keep it quiet.
11:11 PM Jan 27th
I've written in some detail on Reader Posts about that 1959 season of Maris, including about that extended non-hitting run.
(BTW: I say "non-hitting run" out of idiosyncratic avoidance of the word "slump," because I don't find it meaningful; I find it avoidant. So, I avoid the avoidance with an avoidance of the avoidance.) :-)

First of all, after this avoidance of an avoidance, I'm going to do a correction on your correction.
Or really, not a correction, because it's not that what you said was wrong, but just that it didn't really set it right.

You're right that Herzog's stating of "9 for 96 to end the year" wasn't right. Firstly, Maris's atrocious stretch wasn't at the very end of the year. He actually hit very well in the end portion. But when he did have that slump (oops, I stumbled into the word), it was even worse than what Herzog said.
Herzog misremembered exactly when it was, and he actually minimized it.

The extended non-hitting run was from July 30 (my sister's birthday; no cause and effect implied) through September 7 (my anniversary, ditto).

It was 9 for 102.


AND, I think it's a good guess that this wasn't some general example of Maris's streakiness but some kind of physical or medical thing. I think a lot of "slumps" are like that -- maybe reflecting nothing more than some bruise or soreness or out-of-sort-ness, but what I mean is, involving some specific physical (or mental) factor that renders "slump" an unfair wastebasket.

Maris had been out for a month, from late May to late June, with appendicitis. His wikipedia page shows a misunderstanding on this. It says he "missed 45 games during the second half of the season as a result of an appendix operation." Most of his missed games -- actually more than just "most" (28 out of 32) -- were in the first half of the season; he missed only 4 in the second half.
But what's funny is that he didn't have any "slump" or any such thing when he first came back after the appendicitis and surgery (nor had he been bad right before, except an oh-fer in the last game before going out). In his first game back he was 2 for 5 (2 doubles); in his first 4 games back, he was 6 for 17. Then, after a mediocre week and a half, he went on a tear. From July 9 (the inverse of my anniversary) to July 28, he was 35 for 76, .461/.522/.737, raising his batting average to .344., which I think led the league (a point higher than Harvey Kuenn, the eventual #1; notice I didn't say "batting champ" which is another silly term).

I haven't been able to find anything about any specific physical issue that he was having in July. Probably if I looked through the 2 or 3 bios of him that I have on the shelf over there >> ....I'd find something, but until I do, I'm figuring that maybe he was having some delayed whatever from the appendix operation.

Oh, forgot to say: Thanks very much for writing about him as you did.
8:43 PM Jan 27th
As a believer I read many of Bert Ehrman's books and enjoyed them. I like it he looks at the evidence and I learned a lot about the bible and Christ from him outside the church. I like the way he takes a stand based on what the historical evidence says. It upset his biggest fans when he wrote a book that Jesus did exist as a human. Reading his Amazon reviews is entertaining in itself.
5:55 PM Jan 27th
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