Improbable Probability Statements

From: Clayton Bartholomew (
Date: Thu May 22 1997 - 16:33:35 EDT

Improbable Probability Statements

I have dinner twice a month with an old friend who is a professional
mathematician. I've talked to him several times about validity in
probability arguments. He has been doing operations research for 25
years and knows this stuff. I've given him sample arguments from
serious NT research by major scholars which he picks to pieces without
the least effort.

Apparently much of what passes for probability argumentation in NT
studies will not stand up to close scrutiny. I raise this issue here
because I hear this kind of talk on the b-greek list now and then.

Here is a concrete example:

Bruce Metzger in his textual commentary on the GNT 3rd ed. (page
320-21) has a full discussion of the variants for Acts 4:24. His
concluding remark is all we are concerned with. He says that energeia
is used nowhere else in Luke, and in the NT it is only used by Paul.
Metzger considers this evidence against the reading of D for this

I am not the least bit interested in which variant is original in Acts
4:24. What interests me is that a world class scholar (understatement)
would consider this an argument.

Luke has a large vocabulary. Luke has a number of NT hapax. Luke uses
a number of words only once. So how do we concluded that it is
*improbable* that Luke would use energeia only once? It does not

Here is another kind of Argument:

The relative pronoun normally follows it's antecedent therefore . . .

The premise is true. But what comes in the second half of the
statement is often not a valid inference from the premise. This is a
type of probability statement. It may fall apart because it does not
take indeterminacy seriously. Improbabilities taken as a class are
frequent occurrences in any ancient text, the NT included. What I am
saying is indeterminacy is part of the nature of phenomena in general.
Language is no exception. Ancient texts are no exception.

Probability statements don't become useless simply because
indeterminacy happens. Language is not chaos. But the kind of
probability argumentation used by 19th century science is going to
draw some smiles of disbelief at this stage of the game.

Any sharp observer will see that these two examples are not identical
nor do they make the same point. The second example is fuzzy and open
ended. The second example does not prove anything. It only raises a

Clay Bartholomew
Three Tree Point

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