Our Blessed Mother & The Saints


Eric Svendsen's Compounding Errors

by David Palm


Hes hou in Matt 1:25:

I have been following the debate over the meaning of hes hou in Matt 1:25 for almost a decade now and I agree with John Pacheco that the conclusions of the “research” advanced by Eric Svendsen and James White on this Greek construction will shortly be relegated to the dustbin of history. It is high time. May God be pleased that what I say here can hasten that end. But in addressing this issue once again, one thing I am anxious to avoid is that the important truths at stake get clouded in the testosterone storm that frequently whirls up when Protestant and Catholic apologists clash. All too often, I fear, the personalities involved in these disputes tend to overshadow the really salient points. With that in mind, I submit these comments in the hope that they will generate considerably more light than heat.

On Svendsen's error on hes hou in Greek lexica:

I want to address first what some might consider a trivial point. But behind this point lies a larger principle, to which I have just alluded. John Pacheco has caught Svendsen in a clear error. In his debate with Gerry Matatics, Svendsen stated that, “lexicons do not handle grammatical constructions. They handle words. You’ll find hes. You’ll find hou. You won’t find hes hou or any other grammatical construction.” As Pacheco has demonstrated, this statement is false since all major Greek lexica make reference to the construction hes hou. This is a rather palpable blunder for one who has spent so much time looking up these words in various Greek lexica.

Now elsewhere, Svendsen has chided Bob Sungenis for failing to admit an alleged mistake:

“Sungenis erred, but that's not the worst part. It's really not a showstopper on his part simply to admit the counting error and go on. If that were the case, Sungenis loses nothing, and gains quite a bit of credibility that he can admit to a mistake here. But Sungenis for some reason can't do that—he can’t concede that he may have gotten this wrong. There apparently is far too much at stake for Sungenis to exercise judiciousness and simply admit the error.”

But now that he has been presented with concrete evidence that he erred in his debate with Matatics, did Svendsen play the man and humbly correct his mistake? No. Instead, he has compounded his error. His explanation of his statement is that:

“Gerry Matatics insisted we limit ourselves to lexicons to exhaust the meaning of a Greek construction. Lexicons are focused on words, not on grammatical constructions. They are simply not intended to exhaust the usage of a Greek construction. That’s why grammars exist. Hes hou can, of course, be found in lexicons under general headings of hes (as can other grammatical constructions). But a lexicon is not where one goes to determine usage of that Greek construction. That was my point. Unfortunately, in a fast-paced debate, you don’t always have time to clarify your meaning just the way you’d like.”

There are two problems here. First, Gerry said no such thing. Svendsen is misrepresenting his opponent in order to dodge Pacheco’s critique. If he thinks otherwise, then let Svendsen cite the exact words of Gerry that mean anything like, “we [must] limit ourselves to lexicons to exhaust the meaning of a Greek construction.”

Second, his recent admission that hes hou “can, of course, be found in lexicons” remains exactly contrary to his categorical insistence in the debate that, “You’ll find hes. You’ll find hou. You won’t find hes hou or any other grammatical construction.” His recent “explanation” has bought him nothing.

A small point? Yes, perhaps. But it illustrates a larger point. Too often these apologetic battles end up being bull fights, with lots of rushing and dodging and cheering. But if truth and integrity are sacrificed along the way then it is just a lot of sound and fury, signifying less than nothing. That goes for all sides involved, of course, but let me hasten to add that it is very clearly Eric Svendsen who is in the dock right now. (James White and Eric Svendsen need look no further than this example—which unfortunately could be multiplied any number of times over—to understand why I and several other Catholic apologists refuse to debate them publicly. In these public debates, truth and honesty are too often sacrificed to the desire to score rhetorical points.)

Humility and honesty beckon us to own up, not cover up, when we have erred. How about it, Eric? Will you admit that you erred in your debate with Gerry and that you have now sought to cover up your error by misrepresenting what he said? Or is there “far too much at stake . . . to exercise judiciousness and simply admit the error[s]?”

On Joseph and Aseneth:

With regard to the instance of hes hou in Joseph and Aseneth, Svendsen has sought to deflect the impact of the text by appeal to an uncertain date: “The reason it wasn’t included in my work is quite simple; most scholars—even most 20th-century scholars—place it outside the specific time frame in question, estimating it to be closer to a mid-second century AD document.”

There are two errors here. The first has to do with why this text wasn’t in Svendsen’s work and the second has to do with the scholarship with respect to the dating of Joseph and Aseneth. Let’s take the second one first. Even in the citations that Svendsen himself has unearthed concerning the dating of Joseph and Aseneth it is stated clearly that most twentieth century scholars date the work pretty much right smack on top of the range that Svendsen considered for his study (“. . . twentieth century scholars, . . . generally tend to agree regarding the text's date (between 100 BC and AD 135)” (Elaine Pardoe, http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~www_sd/josasen.html). It’s strange that he did not see that before posting this as somehow vindicating his failure to consider this text.

But more importantly, with respect to the first point, let’s be quite clear that the real reason this text wasn’t included in Svendsen’s work is that he was unaware of it until Pacheco brought it to his attention, via Gerry Matatics. He has admitted this. It appears that when researching his “dissertation”, Svendsen simply looked up Greek texts using the TLG and assumed, without further inquiry, that any text that fell outside of his range according to the TLG could be safely ignored. But that’s not the way real doctoral dissertations work. A doctoral candidate is expected to have thoroughly exhausted his topic (which is why real dissertation topics need to be extremely narrow in scope.) Certainly he should not be caught later unaware of a piece of readily accessible evidence, which a significant portion of contemporary scholarship dates right smack in the middle of the period under study. Such an oversight illustrates a lack of scholarly acumen.

Then, too, when it is discovered such evidence needs to be handled with scholarly propriety. If evidence is to be discounted from the study, this should be done only after interaction with the opinions of specialists on the matter, especially if there is a preponderance of scholarly opinion, as there is in this case. But now that Svendsen has been caught in an oversight, he compounds the oversight by failing to interact at all with the arguments in favor of this text being relevant for his thesis. He prefers instead simply to hide behind uncertainty, which he inflates to look as imposing as possible.

Svendsen may fluff off the text of Joseph and Aseneth as if it matters little to him. But if I had been caught in such a major oversight in my putative doctoral dissertation, I would feel the sting of that oversight deeply. Still, the sting can be eased by an honest admission of one’s weaknesses and oversights, as difficult and humbling as that is. Then, although a black eye is inevitable, one can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that he took the hit like a man.

On the Apocalypse of Moses:

As Pacheco has pointed out, this text is even more damaging to Svendsen’s credibility since he included it in his book, but failed to note that it runs contrary to his thesis. Here it is as cited in Svendsen’s book:

“But when I die, leave me alone and let no one touch me until the angel of the Lord shall say something about me; for God will not forget me, but will seek his own vessel which he has formed. But rather rise to pray to God until I shall give back my spirit into the hands of the one who has given it.”

Commenting on this text, Svendsen says, “Here it seems reasonable to suppose that in both instances the action in the main clause would cease after the action in the subordinate clause, so that in both cases, the meaning is only ‘until [but not after]’.” (WIMM, p. 69) In his most recent piece, Svendsen insists that, “Context is heavily involved in making these decisions, which is why I thoroughly examined the context of each passage in question.” But apparently he did not examine the context of this text sufficiently to notice that there is, in fact, no cessation of the action of the main verb in the first sentence. Adam’s hearers do not touch Adam before the Angel of the Lord “says something concerning him”, nor do they touch him after. In fact, it really is not even implied that they would touch him at all, for Adam seems to have a sort of premonition that God Himself would take care of his body (“for God will not forget me but will seek His own vessel…”) I believe this is a clear example of the usage of hes hou with the meaning “until [with no reference to continuation or discontinuation]”, or perhaps even leaning toward, “until [and continuing]”. It is certainly very damaging to Svendsen’s thesis that this example is cited in his study, but not properly categorized.

We await Svendsen’s admission of this oversight.

On Matthew 18:34:

Several of us who listened in to the “debate” between Gerry Matatics, Eric Svendsen, and James White were appalled to hear James White’s reply when Gerry unveiled the Joseph and Aseneth and Apocalypse of Moses texts. Instead of honestly interacting with the evidence that his opponent had offered, White immediately jumped to change the subject: “And can you show us any of that in the New Testament” (What was that I was saying about sacrificing honesty in order to score debating points? Do we need a clearer example?)

Gerry tried valiantly to overcome White’s transparent attempt to deflect attention from this issue, but ultimately White simply shut him down with the gratuitous comment that, “You're really filibustering and I think everyone can see that” and then headed off in a completely different direction. Of course, armchair quarterbacks like me were saying, first of all, “Don’t let him get away with that! Make him answer the evidence on the table…”, but then also, “Okay, then, hit them with Matt 18:34!”

Although Svendsen does acknowledge in his book that hes hou occurs in this verse, his interaction with it leaves much to be desired: “The wicked servant was to be tortured ‘until he should pay back all he owed’ (Matt 18:34), but that torture (it is implied) would cease after payment had been rendered” (WIMM, p.52).

Even if one concedes that it is “implied” that the torture should cease, the fact is that numerous New Testament exegetes have held that there is NO cessation in the action of the main verb in this verse, for they argue that the servant can never pay the debt. This view is argued strenuously, as Pacheco has pointed out, by no less an exegete than John Calvin. Indeed, one could find any number of commentators on the New Testament who would argue that, even if it might be said to be implied that the servant would escape the torturers if he paid the debt, nevertheless he can never do so. Therefore, the action of the main clause does not cease, according to these commentators, after the action in the subordinate. For example, Matthew Henry says on this passage:

“Thus he would have payment to be made, that is, something done towards it; though it is impossible that the sale of one so worthless should amount to the payment of so great a debt. By the damnation of sinners divine justice will be to eternity in the satisfying, but never satisfied” (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, “Matthew”, http://www.ccel.org/h/henry/mhc2/MHC40018.HTM)

Or let us hear Dr. Don Carson, at whose feet Svendsen is so proud to have studied: “With neither resources nor hope, he begs for time and promises to pay everything back (v.26)—an impossibility. . . . The servant is to be tortured till he pays back all he owes (v.34), which he can never do.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984, 406-7).

Through their interpretation of this verse, these commentators hold a position that, regardless of what might be implied, the use of hes hou does not automatically indicate that the action of the main clause ceases after the action of the subordinate clause. As I have said in my foreword to John Pacheco’s original rebuttal of Svendsen’s thesis, the burden of proof is fully on Svendsen to show that each and every counter-example we bring forth cannot mean what we say it means. In this case, it is his burden to prove John Calvin, Matthew Henry, Don Carson and a host of other New Testament exegetes wrong in their interpretation of Matt 18:34. And if they are not wrong—if in fact the servant is able somehow to pay the debt and be released from torture—then Svendsen needs to explain just what spiritual reality lies behind the parable, if not purgatory. For, as Matthew Henry points out in full harmony with Protestant theology:

“Note, Our debts to God are never compounded; either all is forgiven or all is exacted; glorified saints in heaven are pardoned all, through Christ's complete satisfaction; damned sinners in hell are paying all, that is, are punished for all. The offence done to God by sin is in point of honour, which cannot be compounded for without such a diminution as the case will by no means admit, and therefore, some way or other, by the sinner or by his surety, it must be satisfied” (http://www.ccel.org/h/henry/mhc2/MHC40018.HTM).

It is only Catholic theology that has a category for a temporal punishment in the afterlife for sins—namely, purgatory. So let Svendsen take his choice. Let him admit that the action of the main clause does not cease after the action of the secondary clause in Matt 18:34, thus nullifying his thesis, or let him admit that it does cease, in which case he will have conceded that Matt 18:34 is indeed a biblical proof for the existence of purgatory. I am satisfied with either outcome.

An interesting reversal:

In following this renewed debate over the meaning of hes hou in Matt 1:25 I noticed a very interesting reversal by Svendsen. Recently he wrote: “I freely concede in my book . . . that if a clear example of this usage can be found in the literature of Matthew’s own day, then Roman Catholics may have a case for their understanding of Matt 1:25.” But actually, he concedes quite a bit more than that; here is exactly what he says in his book:

“[I]f this usage for the phrase can also be found in literature contemporaneous to Matthew's gospel (i.e., the first century AD), then there can be little objection to seeing this same usage in the passage in question, and Mary's perpetual virginity becomes a strong exegetical option.” (WIMM, 77).

I think this is a fair and reasonable statement. But now that the “Jack Chick of Catholic Apologetics” (aka John Pacheco) has actually looked at the evidence and found serious holes in Svendsen’s thesis, Svendsen has suddenly changed his tune. For now he states:

“But even [if such a usage can be found], the Roman Catholic interpretation would simply move from the realm of exceedingly improbable to the realm of highly improbable. It would be a remarkable admission, indeed, for someone candidly to assert that his dogmatic belief is based on improbabilities regarding the Greek language. Yet, that is the most the discovery of one contrary instance of this phrase will yield the Roman Catholic position.”

Excuse me, Mr. Svendsen, but where did “there can be little objection” go? How did “strong exegetical option” suddenly disappear? Were you being disingenuous when you wrote those phrases in your book, or are you just in damage control mode now? Please tell us.

Conclusion:

My guess is that we are not going to receive satisfactory answers to the questions I have posed here. But the central fact is this. The evidence shows that, well within the boundaries of normal statistical deviation for such a small sample group, the usage of hes hou meaning “until [and continuing]” or “until [with no reference to continuation or discontinuation]” is no less common in the one hundred years bracketing the writing of St. Matthew’s gospel than it is in the centuries before or after that period. Eric Svendsen’s thesis on this point is simply wrong and he needs publicly to retract it.

David Palm
Catholic Writer and Apologist
December 8, 2003
Feast of the Immaculate Conception



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