The Fallacy of Division: A Note On Methodology

Seeing as my computer is still in the shop, and I only have access to my wife’s laptop, I decided to write up a very brief post on a subject that has been bugging me for some time: The proper role of historical research in Biblical criticism. While historical research can yield some enlightening information about the time period in which the texts of the New Testament were written, there are many who are guilty of comitting the fallacy of division when appropriating such information in their critical analyses of the New Testament.

What is the fallacy of division? Logicalfallacies.info defines it as follows:

The fallacy of division is the reverse of the fallacy of composition. It is committed by inferences from the fact that a whole has a property to the conclusion that a part of the whole also has that property. (See here for more)

Here is an example I modeled upon Barclay’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (specifically, ch. 8:28-34).

Major Premise: The Ancient World largely believed that all sickness was the result of demonic activity.

Minor Premise: The Writers of the Gospel belonged to the Ancient World.

Conclusion: Therefore, the writers of the Gospels believed all sickness was the result of demonic activity.

The argument is logically invalid, but it is also Scripturally inaccurate. Even in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we see that there is a distinction  made between the sickness experienced by Peter’s mother in law (Mk 1:29-31), the leprosy He heals (Mk 1:40-46) , and the man possessed by a demon in the synagogue (Mk 1:21-28). And if this isn’t clear enough, in Mark 1:32-34 we read:

At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door.  Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him.

Mark, a man who belonged to the ancient world, clearly differentiates between sicknesses and demonic possession. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t other places in the Gospels that attribute sickness to demonic activity (cf. the woman with “a spirit of infirmity” in Luke 13:10-17) ; it is simply to say that they do not do so exclusively. Furthermore, the overall Biblical portrait of sickness is a complex one that involves: (a.) God’s sovereignty as Creator over His creation (cf. Deuteronomy 32:39), (b.) the “natural” state of affairs in a fallen universe (cf. Romans 8:20-23), and (c.) spiritual warfare (cf. Job 2:1-8). Barclay’s historical insight, contrary to his own assumptions and intended purposes, serves to underscore the fact that the evangelists’ conceptions of sickness and demonic possession do not suffer from the indulgences of the widespread superstitions of the ancient world. In fact, the evangelists stand in contradistinction to the superstitions of the ancient world by dint of their own conservative and peculiar conceptions of sickness and demon possession.

While historical research can give us a wealth of information upon which to form our basic understanding of the ancient world in which the writers of the Gospels, let’s say, wrote, it doesn’t give us the right to do violence to the Bible’s text by committing the fallacy of division.

Why can’t scholars simply treat the Bible with respect?

-h.

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