February 23, 2006

Presupposing Perfection: Bart Ehrman and N.T. Textual Transmission

Whenever I encounter the work of a new biblical scholar who is critical of orthodox Christianity, I have to admit to feeling a twinge of anxiety. Is it because I fear that I'll be exposed to some new facts that will destroy the foundation of my beliefs? Well, I suppose that's logically possible, but I am more consciously concerned that I'll hit an objection that I am unable to engage without first dedicating years of time acquiring the background to even begin the task. Fortunately, I've found few such issues. Most can be addressed at a fairly high level before even going into the details. And I find that it's not always the details that are the problem anyway, but the presuppositions applied to the data.

This gives some background as to why I had both apprehension and enthusiasm about hearing Dr. Bart D. Ehrman's critiques. It seems that I've been hearing Ehrman's name come up quite a bit this last year and when I did some investigation I came to the conclusion that he was one of the better class of skeptics. No Dan Brown conspiricist or John Crossan stealth-atheist: Ehrman is a UNC Chapel Hill scholar and author (most recently, Misquoting Jesus) who knows his biblical history and says exactly what he believes about it without straying too far from the data itself. So, hearing him speak in his own words on the Issues, Etc. radio show turned out to be both a treat and an education, in ways he did not intend.

Todd Wilken, the host, did a wonderful job of drawing out Ehrman's position and the basis of his conclusions. It seems that Ehrman discovered at some point in his theological education that there are variants in the ancient biblical manuscripts, and this set him down a road that caused him to question the inspiration of the original text and, ultimately, his own faith. Let us review, then, this compelling data that has driven Ehrman to reject classical Christianity.

Confronting the changes

The first thing to note is his point regarding the variations in the manuscripts. Somehow this fact, or the implications of it, managed to escape his attention all those years he read his Bible, most versions of which are footnoted with the more substantial variant readings. This is no secret, and is available information to any willing to look at the widely published materials (even from conservative sources). In fact, Ehrman admits that we have an "honest record of the changes." That is to say, there are no rumors of hidden ancient manuscripts and no incriminating documents that "fundamentalists" won't admit onto the field.

Ehrman did not just learn these things from liberal scholars. Indeed, one of his mentors was Bruce Metzger, a conservative whom Ehrman calls "the world's leading New Testament scholar." When Wilken asked how he came to differ from Metzger, Ehrman admits that they are both using the same raw data, but they simply take different things away from it. And Ehrman freely offers the grounds of his own conclusions, which turn out to be dependent upon a rather problematic presupposition about the way God ought to work in inspiring and transmitting the Scriptures.

Ehrman suggests that if God didn't go to the trouble of preserving the words of Scripture, He probably didn't inspire them in the first place. To be honest, he's got a compelling point. I've even used a form of this argument against Mormons and Muslims, who depend on the idea of a radical corruption of the text to support their departure from it. If God couldn't manage to get a meaningful record of His words and deeds down for posterity, then why bother, or what kind of God is that?

Inflating the problem

So, just how bad are the damages? Is there any hope of sifting the wreckage for the surviving original? Here's where it gets interesting. Enigmatically, Ehrman admits that the New Testament is "not fundamentally unreliable," and that for approximately 95 percent of the material "we know pretty much exactly what the text said." In fact, the whole reason we know that there's been any changes at all is because we've got a raft of surviving original language copies against which we can make comparisons, and the age of some of these copies dates to within 50 years after the originals were penned. Ehrman is forced to admit that we are in far worse shape in regards to most other classical texts.

But, detectable as they may be, what are these changes in the text? Perhaps there is a conspiracy afoot to mythologize the story of Jesus and weave "orthodoxy" into the text, which Ehrman does seem to believe. Wilken invited Ehrman to give an example of a variation that affects an important doctrine of Christianity. This was his big chance to drop a bombshell on the listeners. Did he have an example to offer, like Jesus "blessed" the water rather than "turned it into wine," or the tomb was "ransacked" rather than "empty?" No. The example he did give relates to Jesus' reaction to the lepers in Mark 1:41. In most manuscripts it says He had "compassion," but in a few it says He expressed "anger."

This is an example of his faith-destroying changes? In fact, most of the variant readings in the texts turn out to be even less consequential than this — things like grammatical and copyist errors. Ehrman thinks, though, that this particular change in Mark is an example of an intentional edit in order to soften the perplexing "anger" saying, which he takes to be the original. Ehrman finds these kinds of helping-the-author-along changes incriminating, and of even more concern to him than the innocent, though more common, copyist errors. The two together are enough to make him question the whole orthodox Christian enterprise.

Missing the point

But Ehrman fails to make the case that any particular copy or family of manuscripts is so riddled with errors as to affect one's ability to glean orthodox Christianity from it. Indeed, the individual manuscript differences are rather sparse and seldom alter the overall meaning of any given passage. Additionally, even if some copyists wrongly took liberties with the text to make it more palatable, understandable, or "orthodox," it does not follow that they were crafting orthodoxy in doing so, only following an existing stream of theology that can clearly be found in the rest of the text.

For example, one variant of Luke 2:33 reads, "Joseph and His mother were amazed at the things which were being said about [Jesus]," rather than "His father and mother" were amazed. Ehrman, in his writings, claims this is done to buttress the case for the virgin birth. But this seems a trivial concern in light of the fact that Luke 1:26-38, which is found in all manuscripts, explicitly tells the story of the virgin conception (not to mention Matthew's inclusion of it). While annotating and clarifying are not desirable in a formal copy of the text, it is exactly what we do with our modern paraphrase translations; and while the Luke 2:33 change may represent a liberty taken with the text, it does not represent a theological corruption given the previously established premise of the virgin birth.

The ironic thing is that in Ehrman's focus upon these textual variants he neglects the stunning claims made within the very same chapters that are not a matter of dispute. For instance, in Mark 1:41, Ehrman may not know the scope of emotions with which Jesus approached the lepers, but the remarkable thing is that all texts agree that Jesus healed them. And in Hebrews 2:9, Ehrman points out the variant of "by the grace of God," but in the very same chapter we find Jesus being attested to by miracles (v.4) and making propitiation for our sins (v.17). It would seem that Ehrman is swatting at gnats while ignoring the camel.

Surviving the ages

I think, though, that when Ehrman points out these variants he is suggesting a sort of evolutionary case for the corruption of the text. This would imply that year-by-year, copy-by-copy these little incidental changes would add up to make later manuscripts that are unrecognizable from the originals. There are at least four problems with this theory.

1) It is not just a case of scribes making copies of copies, which mutate endlessly. At various places and points in history there are intersections where manuscripts come together for comparison, which permit auditing of the text. Examples would be the Textus Receptus from around the Reformation, and the Westcott and Hort text from the late 1800's.

2) We have in our possession numerous writings from the early church fathers who quote extensively from the biblical texts. Indeed, the fact that we can clearly identify those quotes demonstrates that they closely match the surviving Scriptures.

3) If the biblical texts have indeed mutated over time beyond recognition, then we should expect that any discovered ancient manuscripts should be largely alien in nature. As it turns out, in the last century or so we have acquired numerous very old documents, none of which supports a radical corruption theory. In fact, a couple of these — the Rylands Papyrus (P52) and Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 3523 (P90) — date to the first half of the 2nd century and are mere scraps. But even with such scant text for comparison, they are so similar to later, complete works that we can easily tell the book, chapter, and verses to which they relate.

4) As mentioned above, Ehrman himself states that "we know pretty much exactly what the text said."

Imagination and presuppositions

So, where is the big disconnect from the reality of what was written to the copies we are left to investigate? Ehrman tentatively suggests that those initial copies of the originals could have been complete hack jobs. This seems improbable in light of the fact that the church for centuries has shown itself to be disinclined toward substantive revision of the text. Also, this theory evokes an image of a single individual or group of copyists who acted as gatekeepers for all of the canonical texts. However, it is far more complex than that.

The individual books that make up our New Testament were written at diverse times and places all around the Mediterranean at a period where there was no organized and centralized church. Copies were made and distributed, usually in isolation from the other manuscripts (especially so with the epistles), and it is absurd to believe that in every case only one reengineered copy was produced with the original being suppressed or destroyed. This means that there would be many copies of many different manuscripts in circulation among various autonomous groups, each seeking to add what they could to their collections. The fact that the surviving copies are so consistent both with each other and, theologically, across all other writings suggests that we either have a faithful tradition of textual transmission or there was some remarkable transcontinental conspiracy to edit all the documents and purge the field of every last trace of the originals. Ehrman does not prefer the former though he does not suggest the latter, but it seems to be his necessary conclusion.

In light of the fact that there are no grounds to assert that the substance of the New Testament documents has been lost, Ehrman must be depending upon his presupposition about God's preservation of the text to claim that it has been lost. His assumptions seem to run both ways: he thinks that the text can only be faithfully transmitted if it is inspired in the first place, and it can only be inspired if it is faithfully transmitted. But even assuming that God is not behind the text does not imply that it must have been corrupted. It only implies that the authors were wrong about what they wrote, but that is not Ehrman's starting point (though he has stated it as one of his ultimate conclusions).

Ehrman's rejection of the documented resurrection and divinity of Jesus doesn't seem to be based on his unwillingness to accept this as possible truth (if we are to believe his former claim to faith), and it doesn't seem to be based on any evidence we have that the Scriptures are forged or fictional manuscripts. It seems to be based, as evidenced by his own personal reflections, on his presupposition that God must perfectly preserve His words if He is to offer them at all. Let's take a minute to think through the implications of this requirement.

Kevlar® Gospels

What would it look like for God to superintend the textual transmission process in the simple and straightforward way that Ehrman demands? Well, first of all, there would be no copying mistakes. Every resulting manuscript, some taking days or weeks to complete, would be flawless reproductions. Any manuscripts slated for reproduction would be immune to stain or damage. The words "I intend to copy this" would be like a magical incantation, turning any document into Kevlar®, at least until copies were completed.

There would never be any liberties taken with the material by well intentioned, misguided, or malicious scribes. Such persons would either be mysteriously barred from scribal duties or would often find their pens acting on their own behalves. Scribal training and quality control would become superfluous because of every person's uncanny ability to reproduce Scripture without error. In fact, the selection of the canon would have been automatic for the church fathers, since they could merely identify which texts were being flawlessly reproduced and which not. Copying the text blindfolded would be a popular party trick, and letting atheists try their best to make a flawed reproduction would be an evangelism tactic.

But possession of a flawless text would be only half the battle for Ehrman's God. After all, what's the point of having perfect revelation in a book if it can't be perfectly transmitted into the eyes, ears, and minds of the people? For this reason, these perfect Bibles must make it into the hands of perfectly literate people who would perfectly comprehend it with the acumen of a master theologian. Either that or the evangelists and preachers must have photographic memories and flawless presentations. Language barriers would be no problem either, as every foreign encounter would be a guaranteed occasion to repeat the miracle of Pentecost. And leaving anything out, embellishing, or paraphrasing would be divinely prohibited. A commission to preach would instantly make one a walking Bible.

If this seems ridiculous, then at least some localized imperfections in the copies must be tolerated. But it does not mean that God cannot divinely preserve the content through history in more broad and subtle ways, or that the essential messages cannot be found in some of the worst reproductions.

Conclusion

How important is it to have absolute precision in the miscellaneous areas that Ehrman points out as containing variants? There are Christians who have lived and died without knowledge even of the passages themselves. In the earliest church not all manuscripts were completed or widely circulated during the lives of some Christians, and in the medieval church a copy of the Bible was a rare commodity. But the central message of Christ was preached, and through it all the canonical documents were copied and spread by, and in spite of, fallible men, giving naysayers like Ehrman both the cause and privilege to spot the inaccuracies and improve future editions.

Has God preserved His message to us? Effectively, yes, in spite of the fallibility of men and even with the unwitting participation of some like Ehrman. It is ironic that at a time, two thousand years after the events, when we have more documents than ever before, and more global community among scholars to share, analyze, and reconcile these documents, that "Christian" scholars like Bart Ehrman can raise the protest that God hasn't done His job in preserving His revelation. Bart Ehrman may have other grounds for rejecting Christianity, but it would seem that his initial cause for doubt is ill-conceived and neglects the valuable contribution that his own area of scholarship has offered to the church.

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24 Comments:

At 2/24/2006 3:32 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I think Bart Erhman and N.T. Wright are supposed to have a debate soon. I can't remember where I found that. Does anybody know anything about it? I got one of Erhman's books on the corruption of the New Testament a while back, but I haven't read it yet.

 
At 2/24/2006 10:39 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Maybe you're thinking of the forum with Crossan and Wright, or this upcoming one between Craig and Ehrman.

 
At 2/24/2006 3:08 PM, Blogger P J Williams said...

Paul, I think your assessment is basically fair. Here are a few minor points:

'a conservative who Ehrman calls'

In British English we would say 'whom' and I suspect that this is also correct in US English.

'a rather spurious presupposition'

It might be better just to say 'a presupposition'

'Ehrman admits that the New Testament is "not fundamentally unreliable," and that for approximately 99 percent of the material "we know pretty much exactly what the text said."'

I'd be interested to know where he has used this figure of 99%. It might be worth using his exact words at this point.

'This is an example of his faith-destroying changes? In fact, most of the variant readings in the texts turn out to be even more mundane than this...'

Of course Mark 1:41 is part of a wider argument of his that our whole picture of Jesus in mark depends on this variant. He thus argues that it is not 'mundane'.

'Examples would be the Caesarean Text of the 3rd century'

The Caesarean text is a complex and debated entity. It may be better not to refer to it.

'date to the early 2nd century'

Perhaps you could say 'date to the first half of the 2nd century'.

 
At 2/24/2006 5:24 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Pete,

Thank you so much for taking time to look this over. I'll incorporate your input into the final copy. I'll make a point of listening through the interview again to insure that the 99% figure is indeed what he affirmed. I wasn't sure if I should include the "Caesarean text" reference, but from what I can discern it is taken to be (at least in theory) a blend of the "Western" and Alexandrian texts, which seemed to suggest itself to me as an example worth using

 
At 2/25/2006 10:54 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

No, I'm sure it was N.T. Wright and Bart Ehrman, because I remember wanting to send a link to a friend of mine who took one of Ehrman's classes.

 
At 2/25/2006 11:41 AM, Blogger Paul said...

That would be a good one, since I find Ehrman's critiques to be far more lucid than Crossan's, and Wright probably carries more weight with liberals and non-theists than Craig. Unfortunately, I can't find any info on this.

 
At 2/25/2006 4:01 PM, Blogger Vman said...

A new document has been uncovered called the Gospel of Judas, it suggests that Judas wasn't as bad as the bible suggests and may actually be more heroic than the canonical gospels suggest. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1161238,00.html

 
At 2/25/2006 11:21 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I only know some preliminaries on this but there seems to be various problems with the "Gospel of Judas."

1) It's not formally translated yet, so it's a bit early to make any judgments on it.

2) It appears to date from around the 4th century, and the oldest known reference to it in historical writings is from the late 2nd century, so it cannot even be demonstrated to originate from the apostolic period, like the canonical materials.

3) It is a part of the (rather diverse) Gnostic tradition, which can be answered and rejected under the umbrella of that debate. If the orthodox picture of the events of Jesus' life is correct, then those documents that are not in harmony with it are to be rejected. The skeptic's assumption is that orthodoxy is wrong, and so anything contrary must be "truer" (or at least makes a good stick with which to beat orthodoxy). Note that there was never a debate over the 4 gospels, the Gnostics simply wanted to add their own unique spin to the commonly accepted data. But it's the data itself that most skeptics cannot stomach.

4) For anyone who is impressed by the idea of these "other" Gospels, I merely suggest they read them in comparison with the canon. Unless one is inclined toward arcane spirituality, I think the inferiority will soon make itself apparent. Here is a sample excerpt of a preliminary translation of the "Gospel of Judas":

And he said: "why are you surprised about your star and his next lines of the aeons. There is a cry..., who is called Jesus, that are ... received ... he spoke to the mind. And the people ... The sixth star is mistaken about our five soldiers. And they will all perish with their creations." But Judas spoke to Jesus: they will not be sedated, those who are cleansed in your name. Jesus spoke: There will be hatred ... and then this cleansing ...
Jesus' arrest ...
(Note: elipses indicate damaged or indecipherable sections)

The document also goes on to discuss "Sakla" (assumed to be Satan), who is the evil creator of the world. Sound more palatable and credible than the traditional Gospels? If you want to take Judas as a good guy, like these Gnostics suggest, then it seems to me that you'd have to also assume their metaphysical system.

 
At 2/26/2006 1:36 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Paul – to be clear, are you saying that God was or was not involved in the copying/transmission of the inspired scripture? If He was, to what extent? If you don’t know, how can you be in a position to complain or compare any other person’s claim as to how much He was or was not?

It seemed to me (and I could be very wrong) that you do not understand Ehrman’s argument. It may be that you do, and simply ignore them. Can’t tell.

I was going to leave this alone (I think you may be tired of hearing from a skeptic) but one of your points in the last comment was so wrong, it should be clarified, for those who desire to do some research:
If the orthodox picture of the events of Jesus' life is correct, ….. Pretty big “if” don’t you think? “If” the orthodox picture is wrong, then you can throw out the entire argument. If we don’t know, we need to do further research. I opt for the third, but others are different.

…then those documents that are not in harmony with it are to be rejected. This made me laugh. What “documents” are not “in harmony”? The Gospels are “not in harmony” with the epistle’s picture of Christ. The Author of Matthew copied the Gospel of Mark, and IT is not in harmony with Mark. Luke is not in harmony with either. John is in a world of its own. (This was part of Ehrman’s point on Mark 1:41, which made me question whether you understood the argument.)

We are coming at it from a Twentieth Century perspective, attempting to harmonize the chosen books.

The skeptic's assumption is that orthodoxy is wrong, and so anything contrary must be "truer" (or at least makes a good stick with which to beat orthodoxy). I would agree. Any skeptic that merely assumed that which was not “orthodox” (which I am not sure what that is) must be true would be equally at fault. Don’t see many textual critics, or Biblical scholars that do this. Most recognize that varying pictures of Jesus were drawn in the First Century, and that all were trying to establish their “orthodoxy” through a variety of writings. To claim one was “true” over another, without a methodology by which to do so would be error.

Which came first, Paul? Gnostics or what you would term “orthodox”? Or did they develop at the same time? You know there were numerous varying competing views of Jesus (even Paul talks of this) that were all appeared at the same time?

Note that there was never a debate over the 4 gospels,…LOL! This gets better and better. Who gave the name of “Mark” and “Matthew” to the Gospels? Papias. He rejected written word as less than valid as compared to oral tradition. The very person that gave your Gospels their name debated their validity. Both the Authors of Matthew and Luke apparently debated the accuracy of Mark, as they modified what he said on numerous occasions, without the need for explanation.

Marcion clearly debated the accuracy of Gospel of Luke, and, if the others were in existence, clearly felt they were not canonical. Over the course of time people added to the Gospels “correcting” them. Like the ending of Mark, and the Pericope Adultera.

To say there was “never” a debate is not exactly accurate, true? There was quite a bit of debate at their initiation.

And let’s not forget Irenaeus’ “brilliant” argumentation as to why the four gospels were canonical: “It is not possible that he Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are, since there are four directions of the world in which we are and four principal winds…the four living creatures [of Revelation] symbolize the four Gospels.. and there were four principal covenants made with humanity through Noah, Abraham, Moses and Christ.”

the Gnostics simply wanted to add their own unique spin to the commonly accepted data. But it's the data itself that most skeptics cannot stomach.
The Gnostics “added”? So did (as I point out ) Matthew and Luke. So did Mark. So did the person who modified the words as it was translated.

See, that is exactly the problem, Paul. We can’t tell who “added” who “subtracted” and who “modified.” Hence the field of textual criticism stays thriving. It is the attempts to figure out who said what and when that is all the fun.

Why would you say “skeptics cannot stomach” the data? We stomach it quite well. We see the problems of development, and the complete lack of non-Christian validation of the events as claimed. We see the historical vs. mythical debate and the difficulty in resolving the issues. We just don’t jump to conclusions based upon presuppositional doctrines. We try and actually figure out what happened (as best we can) rather than say what happened, and try and fit the facts to that conclusion.

 
At 2/26/2006 11:53 PM, Blogger Vman said...

what happened to jeff, he hasn't commented anywhere in a while/

 
At 2/27/2006 9:48 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Jeff and I have been extremely busy with an enormous project that is affecting the entire IT staff at LifeWay, which is cutting into our personal time and energy to post and comment (lunches, evenings). You'll be seeing less of me as well, and I'll probably be posting less often.

 
At 3/01/2006 12:49 PM, Anonymous J.R. said...

I'm sorry, but can you show me, DaGoodS, where the epistles contradict the gospels, and where the gospels contradict each other? I'm curious.

 
At 3/01/2006 10:27 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Dagoods,

Paul – to be clear, are you saying that God was or was not involved in the copying/transmission of the inspired scripture? If He was, to what extent? If you don’t know, how can you be in a position to complain or compare any other person’s claim as to how much He was or was not?

I believe that God is sovereign over everything related to the church, and I would agree to an extent with Ehrman's point that if the record of God's words and actions are defaced beyond recognition, and the message has been lost, then I have a difficult time in seeing the point of it all. However, I don't see any indication that this is the case. I see reason to engage in textual criticism, but I think Ehrman is making too much of the variants.

It seemed to me (and I could be very wrong) that you do not understand Ehrman’s argument. It may be that you do, and simply ignore them. Can’t tell.

I'll freely admit that I haven't read any of his books, but I have read some articles by him, some about him, and heard him now in a couple of interviews. I understand something of his larger argument for the different perspectives that he believes the Gospel authors (or maybe "editors") imposed upon the text, as Pete Williams hints at in his review of my post. However, this nuanced argument is secondary to my main point here about the rather favorable results of textual transmission. Here is an article that talks about Ehrman's mistake of mixing categories when he talks about textual criticism vs. his speculations in the area of higher criticism.

The Gospels are “not in harmony” with the epistle’s picture of Christ. The Author of Matthew copied the Gospel of Mark, and IT is not in harmony with Mark. Luke is not in harmony with either. John is in a world of its own.

I think if they were in the kind of "harmony" you are demanding, then we'd be having a different argument over whether they were in collusion. The kind of disharmony I'm talking about is the radical metaphysical differences between orthodoxy (and Judaism) and the Gnostic sects. It seems to me that this wide divide is fairly commonly understood.

We are coming at it from a Twentieth Century perspective, attempting to harmonize the chosen books.

20th Century perspective? Christians have been "harmonizing" the canon texts very nicely from the beginning. When I first read Clement of Rome, the letters of Ignatius, and Polycarp, for example, I found them not at all alien to my own understanding of the Bible.

Most recognize that varying pictures of Jesus were drawn in the First Century, and that all were trying to establish their “orthodoxy” through a variety of writings. To claim one was “true” over another, without a methodology by which to do so would be error.

Do you have any hard evidence that there were any texts from the Gnostics in existence prior to or at the same time as the Epistles and Gospels? I've not seen anything to suggest that they were flourishing and producing materials prior to the 2nd Century. My "methodology" is that if you want to know what someone said, did, and meant, you go to those who were his companions. All indications are that the apostles and their direct beneficiaries held to the orthodox view and wrote against the Gnostics. Indeed, this was one of the arguments used against them: that they had no apostolic pedigree, and that the direct students of Jesus and the apostles had heard no word of these "secret" Gnostic teachings.

Who gave the name of “Mark” and “Matthew” to the Gospels? Papias. He rejected written word as less than valid as compared to oral tradition. The very person that gave your Gospels their name debated their validity.

I think you've misunderstood his point. He wasn't saying that the writings were "invalid"; he merely said that if he had a question he'd much rather go and talk to the apostles and their cohorts (who were still alive) rather than be confined to what was thus far written. I'd have to agree with him there, since clearly not everything was ultimately written down, and even after much study I'd love to discuss a thing or two with the first and second-hand witnesses.

Even so, if we're going to use Papias as a reference, you'll have to accept the fact that he only quoted the canon documents (even assuming anything else existed at his time), and he mentions miracles, the resurrection of the dead, and the return of Christ.

Both the Authors of Matthew and Luke apparently debated the accuracy of Mark, as they modified what he said on numerous occasions, without the need for explanation.

First, it is an assumption (even if reasonable) that they were working off of the Markan material setting in front of them rather than some common oral traditions. Second, it was not their intention to make a "copy" of Mark, only to add their own unique contributions for diverse audiences. I see no problem with being more or less verbose in the retelling of stories and including your own personal insights. To say this is "debating the accuracy" does not seem warranted.

Marcion clearly debated the accuracy of Gospel of Luke, and, if the others were in existence, clearly felt they were not canonical.

First of all, Marcion is post-apostolic and of less authority than those like Polycarp or Ignatius, who have apostolic ties and vouch for orthodoxy.

Second, Marcion had to hack up Luke and the letters of Paul to justify his theology (mostly eliminating all references to the Old Testament and the humanity of Christ). I would rather rely upon the best reconstructions of the original texts to inform my views.

Third, Marcion's theology is a unique departure from both orthodoxy and Gnosticism, which he seems to have developed himself, with some influences. This does not seem to fit the idea that he was simply carrying on the "authentic" teaching tradition of Christ and the apostles.

Over the course of time people added to the Gospels “correcting” them. Like the ending of Mark, and the Pericope Adultera.

Yes, it would appear that there has been some "editing" of the copies, though far less in orthodox circles than with someone like Marcion. However, I'm arguing that it has not resulted in the loss of the original content (else you could not point out these "additions"). Also, I'm not sure that I'd be willing to say that these additions (which happen to be the best and largest examples by far) are necessarily fictitious, uninspired, or were not in one of the source editions published by the author or amanuensis. But even the "cleanest" texts you can find still make a powerful case for orthodoxy.

And let’s not forget Irenaeus’ “brilliant” argumentation as to why the four gospels were canonical...

I might be tempted to reply that Irenaeus is no brilliant apologist, but I hesitate to underestimate his point. Assuming that God did intend four Gospels we might then wonder, "Why four?" Though he fails to make a deductive argument (assuming that was his point), he does proceed to make some interesting numerical and characteristic connections with other elements of Scripture in a similar way that I might if asked, "Why 12 apostles?" (e.g., the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 gates to the temple.)

However, it should be noted that he assumes the four canonical Gospels as his starting point rather than arguing against some other collection of "four," so strong are these as the touchstone of orthodoxy and debate. In fact, let me quote from the paragraph that precedes your excerpt:

"So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavors to establish his own peculiar doctrine."

And later in the same work he offers this refutation of one of the representative Gnostic gospels that they would seek to add:

"But the followers of Valentinus, putting away all fear, bring forward their own compositions and boast that they have more Gospels than really exist. Indeed their audacity has gone so far that they entitle their recent composition the Gospel of Truth, though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the apostles, and so no Gospel of theirs is free from blasphemy. For if what they produce is the Gospel of Truth, and is different from those which the apostles handed down to us, those who care to can learn how it can be show from the Scriptures themselves that [then] what is handed down from the apostles is not the Gospel of Truth."

The Gnostics “added”? So did (as I point out ) Matthew and Luke. So did Mark. So did the person who modified the words as it was translated.

There's a big difference between adding your own radically new books and theology and simply adding detail and perspective. And it's not just a matter of degree with the Gnostics, but a matter of kind.

See, that is exactly the problem, Paul. We can’t tell who “added” who “subtracted” and who “modified.” Hence the field of textual criticism stays thriving. It is the attempts to figure out who said what and when that is all the fun.

Bart Ehrman and company think they've done a pretty good job of this. My point is based on his claim that we pretty much know what the originals must have looked like. When even a skeptic makes such a claim, I sit up and listen.

Why would you say “skeptics cannot stomach” the data? We stomach it quite well. We see the problems of development, and the complete lack of non-Christian validation of the events as claimed.

I don't mean stomach the debate, I mean stomach those things that are common to the canonical documents in any copy you care to reference — supernatural things and hard teachings that violate naturalistic presuppositions. Even the various Gnostic groups admitted things about Jesus and the spiritual realm that atheism cannot allow. Even if Marcion or Valentinus were somehow right about Jesus, it would utterly falsify your atheism.

 
At 3/02/2006 3:22 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

J.R., there are books and books and BOOKS as to where the Gospels contradict, the Epistles contradict, and they contradict each other. At the time, I was referring to the fact that they disagree as to the statements/actions of Jesus in particular.

I could point out the problem that the Epistles fail to quote Jesus, even when appropriate to the argument. (Except the Eucharist, of course) Or that the Epistles fail to point any miracles of Jesus. Or where He was born. Or Mary. Or specifics in His life. We are left with an extremely vague description of a Jew, betrayed, crucified, and then resurrected. Not much more.

Within the Epistles there is conflict, (that’s why James and Hebrews have been debated through the years) and Paul seems to have a developing theology of a salvation by works in 1 Thess. to a salvation by faith in Romans.

Within the (four) Gospels we have contradictions as to when Jesus was born, what prophecies he fulfilled, how long His ministry was, the events following the resurrection. And countless minor problems of names of the disciples, places, persons, who said what, etc. I hardly would know where to begin! But, being lazy, I have recently been studying “signs” so if you want one example that is as good as any.

Did the First Century citizenry receive a sign of Jesus’ ministry?

Starting with Paul.

1 Corinthians 1. The Jews look for a sign (miracles) the Greeks look for wisdom. Paul provides neither. No miracles here. No signs for the Jew. Just “Christ crucified.” However, by Chap. 14, he indicates that tongues are a “sign” for the unbeliever. A “sign” for what is left unclear.

By 2 Corinthians 12:12 Paul indicates that he gave “signs” of being an apostle by signs and wonders and mighty deeds. It is unclear whether this constitutes a miracle, or something else. Paul recognizes that concept of “miracles” (1 Cor. 12:29) but seems to differentiate it from the office of apostleship. Paul never records doing a “miracle” although he records miracles being done.

In Romans 15:19, Paul again refers to performing signs and wonders through the Holy Spirit, although these remain unclear. Particularly troubling is Rom. 1:20, where Paul uses nature as an argument there is a God, not the recent supernatural events of Jesus’ life. (Although to be fair, some have argued that vs. 20 relates back to vs. 4, and this IS actually a claim of a miracle. I see a transition, though from the introduction to the body of the letter.)

We are left vaguely uncertain as to what signs, if any, Paul claims Jesus performed, or required.

Hebrews 2:4, says God bore witness with signs, wonders and miracles. What miracles or signs are left to determine elsewhere.

That’s it on signs from the Epistles. Now let’s look at what the Gospels say.

Mark 8:12. Jesus says “No sign shall be given this generation.” That seems pretty clear. “No” means “No.” None. Zip. Nada. This would appear to conflict with Hebrews, and agree with Paul (1 Cor. 1) and disagree with Paul (1 Cor. 12 and Romans 15)

Matthew (12:39) and Luke (11:29) change this from “0” to “1” by indicating that Jesus says the generation will only be given one sign—the sign of Jonah. There is argument that this is a saying from “Q” that both Matthew and Luke incorporated. It does seem a bit odd, to have this statement come from Jesus, when He is doing all these miracles all over the place. Makes no sense. “You get one sign. Oh, by the way, here is another miracle, one after another.”

Jesus recognizes He did mighty works (Mt. 11:20) In fact, when John the Baptist asks if Jesus is “the one” Jesus says “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up..” (Mt. 11:5) which is a direct reference to the signs of the Day of the Lord recorded in Isaiah 35:5-6!

Now we hit the Gospel of John. Wow! John can’t say enough about signs that Jesus performed:

This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee…Jn. 2:11
…many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. Jn. 2:23
…for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him. Jn. 3:2
Then Jesus said to him, "Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe." Jn. 4:48
This again is the second sign Jesus did when He had come out of Judea into Galilee Jn. 4:54
Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs…Jn. 6:2
…they heard that He had done this sign. Jn. 12:18
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples…Jn. 20:30

We have signs everywhere!

Finally the addition to Mark includes signs that those who believe will demonstrate, being, “In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16:17-18

My original point, J.R., was that saying “If the orthodox picture of the events of Jesus’ life is correct, then those documents that are not in harmony with it are to be rejected” is too broad a statement to be applicable. An argument could be made, based upon this one little problem, that if Mark and 1 Corinthians give the “orthodox picture” of Jesus’ life, then Matthew, Luke and John are not “in harmony” and should be rejected. Likewise if Matthew and Luke do, then Mark, 1 Cor., and John are not “in harmony” and should be rejected.

No Christian is going to hold to this standard, so it should be modified to clearly indicate what “in harmony” means. Unfortunately, I fear it will assume its own conclusion, by claiming the canon is in harmony with itself.

That is exactly what Ehrman is attempting to get people to open their minds and investigate all of the possibilities, not just assume the “orthodox” (whatever that means) is the only possibility.

To save you the time (in case you are inclined), J.R., I am uninterested in arguing inerrancy. Human arguments for human resolutions to what appear to be human inconsistencies does not persuade me of the divinity of a certain book. I just posted this to be polite to answer your question.

 
At 3/02/2006 3:23 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Paul, it is with mixed emotions I type this. I debated with myself whether to reply to the initial post. I figured you are tired of hearing from a skeptic. In a rare moment of self-control, I declined. Seeing your comment to vman, I thought I should clarify that the creation of the canon, even the initial books themselves, was not so crystal clear.

I shall attempt to, then, briefly reply to some of your points, in the hopes that you, or others, will go and do the research themselves. Perhaps I should have exerted more self-control, but there it is. :)

Ehrman Ehrman presupposed orthodoxy Christianity, and upon further investigation, was willing to modify his presuppositions. You seemed to indicate that it was through the lens of this “new” presupposition that he derives all his conclusions. Should he abandon this new determination, and why? Ironically, you appear to view the Bible through the narrow “orthodox” (still not sure what that is, but for purposes of communication, will use the term) and are just as dogma-bound as you claim Ehrman is. More on this later.

Copying/Transmission You gave a rather humorous hyperbolic argument of a “Kevlar” Gospel. I originally considered replying in kind with the opposite end of the spectrum—a deistic inspiration in which God gave the inspired scripture once and then completely left it to humans to translate, discard, or modify at will.

Not very productive, as I assumed you would fall somewhere in the middle, that God was partly involved. That’s why I asked “If God was involved, to what extent?” Your answer was…..well…..cryptic at best. “God is sovereign over everything related to the church…” [I’ll bet you believe God is sovereign over everything else, too!] and then the standard you use is if it was “defaced beyond recognition.” Are you saying that anything we have, as long as we can “recognize it” means that God was involved in the transmission? If so, to what extent? How can I determine if God was involved or not? Since we have varying texts, which ones was God involved in and which ones was he not?

This answer seemed so vague as to leave any number of possibilities open, all the way from a deistic inspiration (if you get my drift) to Kevlar Gospels.

Gospel Harmony

Your original statement: If the orthodox picture of the events of Jesus’ life is correct, then those documents that are not in harmony with it are to be rejected. I point out that even the Gospels and epistles are not in harmony, and you seem to agree!

I think if they were in the kind of "harmony" you are demanding, then we'd be having a different argument over whether they were in collusion. The kind of disharmony I'm talking about is the radical metaphysical differences between orthodoxy (and Judaism) and the Gnostic sects. (Side note. We do see the collusion. Matthew copying Mark. Luke copying Mark (possibly Matthew or “Q”) and copying Josephus. 2 Peter copying Jude. The Authors of Ephesians and Colossians copying Paul. The reason we don’t argument “collusion” per se, is that none of them felt this was a fraud, or error to do so. It was accepted practice!)

There was a lot more than “orthodox” and Gnostics, true? We had Judaziers, those that felt Christ became God, Arianism, Pauline, Peterine, Johannine, Essene, Nazarenes, “The way.” It is never quite the clear cut class picture as painted. As soon as Christianity was formed, it started to argue against “heresies.” All of which depended on what side of the fence one is on.

And yes, the “divide” is widely understood. By you. The Orthodox Christians have attempted to distant themselves from it, thus creating their own “divide.” That is like saying the “divide” between Christians and Jews in the First Century is “widely understood.” Further research indicates there were differing sects of Jews, and differing sects of Christians, so any “divide” is dependant on what factors one uses. Methodology, again.

20th Century Perspective? You are right. I should have emphasized that is what “we” do, as in “we in the Twentieth Century.” It has been happening for 1000’s of years. The better question is how did the First Century people view miracles, claims of miracles, resurrections, logos/mythos, and how they would have viewed the claims of Christianity, or the varying of transmitted texts.

When I first read Clement of Rome, the letters of Ignatius, and Polycarp, for example, I found them not at all alien to my own understanding of the Bible. So why aren’t they included? If they “fit” the orthodox picture, they shouldn’t be excluded. They have been preserved (quite well in regards to 1 Clement) and therefore God is involved in their transmission and copying. You indicate that additions could be inspired, so these certainly are. They are from the apostolic period. In fact, especially 1 Clement, they fit every set of criteria that other canonical books fit.

Are they in your canon? I couldn’t help notice that you skipped the Shepard of Hermas. Should that, also be included? What about the Epistle of Barnabas? It, too, fits the same set of criteria of canonical books, and your own listed set.

Do you have any hard evidence that there were any texts form the Gnostics in existence prior to or at the same time as the Epistles and Gospels?

Oh, my. Hard Evidence! None of that “soft” stuff for you, eh? In order to respond, I guess I would have to know what the “time” of the Epistles and Gospels are? Oh, and none of the “soft” evidence, either. Only the hard evidence!

Paul, when it comes to dating, all we have is “soft” evidence. We don’t have signed, dated copies for anything. I generally agree that P52 should be dated from 125-150 C.E. But we don’t get more than scraps until after 200 C.E. This is the perpetual problem for dating of the Gospels and Epistles.

If the Christian places them close to Jesus’ life that gives plenty of time to make alterations before the copies we have appear. If they place the writings close to the copies, that gives plenty of time for the myths to develop, prior to them being written down. Where, oh where to place that date? Since I am interested in the facts as best we can discern them, it makes no difference to me whether GMark was written in 50 C.E., 100 C.E. or 135 C.E. It is only when these writings become attached to a necessary doctrine does the date start to appear as a problem.

Second, why is the “date” of texts important? If Gnosticism dated to 40 C.E., and Christianity started in 50 C.E., but Christians began saving writings in 100 C.E. and the Gnostics waited until 150 C.E., does that mean the Christians win? ‘Cause they started writing first? If you have read Polycarp and Ignatius, you know they both wrote against Heresy. Paul (not you, the other one) wrote about Heresy in one of the first books written! (Gal. 5:20) What is the hard evidence that it existed? Because the authors you hold as orthodox wrote against them. Wouldn’t need to write against them if they didn’t exist, eh?

Thirdly, and most importantly, please go to www.earlychristianwritings.com. If you look through the various books there (including Basilides) you will see the date ranges for all of the early books on Christianity, including orthodox. While I disagree with some of the dates (from my own study) if you click each book, you can see the arguments for the dating, as well as more resources to peruse. That’s the best evidence (hard or otherwise) we have.

All indications are that the apostles and their direct beneficiaries held to the orthodox view and wrote against the Gnostics. Indeed, this was one of the arguments used against them: that they had no apostolic pedigree, and that the direct students of Jesus and the apostles had heard no word of these "secret" Gnostic teachings. Oh, you have been indoctrinated too long. What “apostles” wrote? You know the authorship of all of the books of the New Testament is contested. (Except Paul’s, obviously) Mark (according to Papais) didn’t put things in order. Matthew couldn’t have been the disciple. Luke admits he is getting things through hearsay. 1 & 2 Peter were not written by the same person, let alone Peter. Jude is an unknown. Hebrews has ALWAYS been an unknown. Ephesians, Colossians and the Pastorals were written by unknowns.

Not even knowing who the authors are makes claims of “apostles and direct beneficiaries” a guess.

(This is why I hesitate to respond to this post. By stating “all indications are…” I get the feeling you are writing for a Christian audience, not to convince a skeptic. I know the “indications.” There are not “all held to orthodox view.” So I wouldn’t expect you to say this to me.)

Secondly this is framing an argument. See it all the time. Trying to say what is important is a factor upon which one can win:

Lawyer A: Your Honor. What is important is when the contract was signed.
Lawyer B: Your Honor. What is important is who signed the contract.

Guess which argument Lawyer A will win, and on which one Lawyer B will win? If someone claimed they got their information from an apostle, obviously they are going to claim it has “higher” validation.

Orthodox: What is important is that it came from an apostle.
Gnostic: What is important is that we learned it through contemplation on God.

Worse, if we could figure that out, so could they. Want to push an Epistle? No sense attributing it to “Bob.” Better to place someone else’s name on it. Like “Paul” or “Peter” or “John.” Why do you think we see the Gospels of Thomas, Judas, Magdalene, Phillip, etc? The question is—when did they figure this out? And what if there was already a Gospel out there, and to bolster it, one placed a name on it? Or, if there was a name that is somewhere mentioned, like “Mark,” connect as best one can with an apostle?

It is bothersome to me that the only way we even have much of Celsus’ writing is that people quoted it when writing against it. We didn’t find the Nag Hammadi library until recently, which is further disconcerting, meaning these documents were in existence, yet suppressed.

But there is a huge fly in this ointment. Paul. (Not you—the other one.) He literally brags about NOT getting his information from the apostles, and disciples, but getting it directly from God.

But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12)

But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Gal. 1:15-17)


The only time that any Epistle quotes Jesus (EVER), Paul brags, AGAIN, that he did not get this information from any apostle. 1 Cor. 11:23. After his conversion, he waits three years, and even then only spends a total of 2 weeks in Jerusalem. And only talks to Peter and James.

Now, if the Gnostics chose to frame the argument, “I got my information directly from God” that one-ups the claim that it came through apostles!

My “methodology” is that if you want to know what someone said, did and meant, you go to those who were his companions.

Paul disagreed with your methodology. He didn’t, do it and it is evident in that he appears to have no knowledge as to what Jesus said, did, or meant. Are you saying that we should toss out Paul for failure to use this method?

This also assumes that Jesus was historical, and a person would bother. Or that the friends were alive. How would you know if someone said, “I was his friend” whether they were telling the truth or not? Or “a friend of his friend.” What if a person wants you to believe something and knows (as you have stated) that you would be more inclined to believe it if they said they were a “friend”?

Further, are you willing to abide by this methodology? In order to question the validity of Mormonism, for example, would you rely upon what Mr. Smith’s friends said? Or would you look to other factors?

I understand why you would choose this methodology. Just not one I see historians employ to determine (as best they can) what the facts of the matter are.

Papias I didn’t say Papias felt writings were “invalid.” I was making the point you indicated, that between writings and oral tradition, he preferred oral tradition. If you want the exact quote, he said, “For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.”

Even so, if we’re going to use Papias as a reference, you’ll have to accept the fact the he only quoted the canon documents…

I do? You must have a wider canon than most. I can’t find:

The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, 'I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.'

Papias

Matthew copy Mark

If you do not hold to Markan priority, what is your solution to the Synoptic Problem? Paul, it is quite a bit more than being “more verbose.” I see you really did not understand Ehrman’s problem with Mark 1:41. Both Matthew and Luke demonstrate a freedom to utilize Mark as the basis of the story (hence showing they are not eyewitnesses) but an equal freedom to modify the story. It is not so much “debating the accuracy” (poor word choice on my part) but recognition that they are not bound by historical facts of Mark.

Notice that Mark does not have a birth story, or a post resurrection story. Matthew and Luke demonstrate the freedom to add their own. And they conflict. A good example is the “greatest commandment”

In Mark, a scribe asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus answers the “Love God, then Love your neighbor.” The scribe responds that Jesus answered correctly, and Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 12:28-34)

Matthew changes this story around, making the question an accusation from a lawyer, (Matt. 22:35-40, and removes the corresponding rehabilitation of the lawyer.

Luke changes the story even more. Luke has the lawyer testing Jesus, but then has the Lawyer answering the question correctly! Jesus says, “You have answered correctly.” (Lk 10:25-28)

Again, and again and again, we see these modifications. Improvement in Greek, incorporation of other stories. This is more than a “new personal insight.” It is the first update. Mark version 2.0, if you will.

First of all, Marcion is post-apostolic and of less authority….(snip) Oh. I didn’t understand that when you said, ”There was never a debate over the 4 gospels… “ you meant a debate by those that already agreed with them. That I will grant you—those that agreed with the four never debated them. ‘Course, those that agreed with Marcion’s Luke didn’t debate it either. I thought you meant “never a debate” as in “never a debate.

I don’t mean stomach the debate Didn’t say that. Said we can “stomach the data.” Can you “stomach” stories of Iliad, Homer, Norse mythology? Sure. Because you think they are just stories. Can you “stomach” the very books you are tossing out of your canon? Sure, you don’t think they are factual.

Why can’t we employ your methodology, and do the same? Why is it for us, all of a sudden, some “naturalistic presupposition.”? (And that makes no sense. There are plenty of stories that are thrown out by people with theistic presuppositions.)

Even if Marcion or Valentius were somehow right about Jesus, it would utterly falsify your atheism. So you would be thrilled to bits if I became a Gnostic? All you care about is that I believe in some god, no matter how correct or not it is? Thanks for the concern.

Why this constant, constant dichotomy? Just because I point out Marcion, doesn’t mean I have to hold to EITHER Marcion or Peter. I am not trying to “prove” atheism. I just wonder how much research and investigation people have done in this area.

 
At 3/08/2006 1:00 PM, Blogger Paul said...

FYI. A reply is in the works, but personal obligations continue to delay my attention.

 
At 3/12/2006 2:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ehrmann is one of the biggest frauds yet produced by hopelessly corrupt university environments. In an audio interview found here,
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5052156
where he is promoting his new book (click on "Listen" button there), he completely misleads the ordinary and sincere listener into thinking that the Pericope de Adultera (John 7:53-8:11)was added by a scribe from the margin in the TWELFTH century A.D.(!). For those who don't know it, The passage is found in the majority of Greek and Latin manuscripts from about 350 A.D. onward until the invention of printing. If it was "inserted" at all, it would have to have been inserted early in the 4th century. No one in Ehrmann's position could 'accidentally' be so utterly erroneous and misleading about this, unless he was deliberately lying. Why? He hates orthodox Christianity but won't come out of the closet. What an incredible jerk. (Sorry, I mean JACKASS.)

 
At 3/12/2006 9:55 AM, Blogger Paul said...

I hate to find myself in the position of defending Ehrman, but in the interest of fairness I must point out the following. He began his education in a conservative environment and even later, he was a student of the great conservative scholar, Bruce Metzger. He has already come out of the closet, as documented in his latest book. And I don't think it serves our cause to call critics like Ehrman names, especially given that he is one who is willing to engage the genuine historical record, as opposed to, say, the authors of Holy Bood, Holy Grail.

All that being said, I do think he is susceptible to mistakes and I have seen him spin the data and make misleading statements. The difference between the NPR interviews and the one on Issues, Etc. is noteworthy, since on NPR he was encouraged and allowed to portray the data in the worst possible light, whereas on Issues, Etc. he was forced to answer straightforward questions from someone who knows the extent of what it is reasonable to claim.

 
At 3/17/2006 11:29 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Dagoods,

I figured you are tired of hearing from a skeptic.

I've spent the last 6 years seeking out and dialoging with skeptics; it's certainly not something I've avoided. However, in all that time I've discovered the truth in the words of Jesus that it is only those who have "ears to hear" who will be compelled by anything that I have to say (whenever I manage to say anything truthful). No matter how flawed or eccentric someone's beliefs are, if they are not of a certain disposition, then the best I can do is make them refine their arguments (or avoid them) and realize that Christianity is not just a refuge for mindless and bigoted "fundamentalists." For this reason, I have settled in to the alternate mode of posting my thoughts (blogging) for those who might find them interesting, and trying to confine my dialog to those whom I think might give it a hearing.

As you might imagine, based on my knowledge of your past history and your present position, I have no delusions that I will be changing your mind in any substantial way. And the reasons for my own worldview are at least as broad and rooted as are your own. Consequently, that leaves the question of what we will be accomplishing here. Are you proselytizing me or simply entertaining yourself by matching wits with the silly Christian? Perhaps you are merely proselytizing my readers. Perhaps you are so concerned for "truth" that you believe that it must be defended at the expense of your valuable time. Very noble. If only there were a God to be impressed :-)

As for my part, you've left your comments on my blog, so I feel compelled to reply, whether or not I believe that it will be of any value to you. I will admit, though, that responding to your comments is challenging and a unique learning opportunity for me, since I quite often need to check my facts or do further reading to answer some of your questions. While time consuming, I value the deepening (and correction) of my knowledge that results.

Ehrman presupposed orthodoxy Christianity, and upon further investigation, was willing to modify his presuppositions. You seemed to indicate that it was through the lens of this “new” presupposition that [Ehrman] derives all his conclusions.

I can see the confusion. I think Ehrman came to his conclusion through a faulty presupposition (that copy mistakes/edits imply no inspiration of the originals), and once arriving at that conclusion it became a working presupposition with which he returned to view everything else. For example: Since the scriptures are not inspired, then that means God is not behind them. And if God is not back of them, then there really isn't any "orthodoxy"; nobody has any claim to a "truth" that is non-existent. And the miracles are surely fiction as well, so somewhere along the line somebody had to have taken some seed of truth about Jesus and embellished it with fantasy and metaphor, each adding his own unique flavor. The only interesting questions, then, are to figure out where and how the myth was infused and what the "real" Jesus was like.

Ironically, you appear to view the Bible through the narrow “orthodox” (still not sure what that is, but for purposes of communication, will use the term)

Dag, you claim to have been a Christian for the majority of your life — an informed one at that. I shouldn't have to tell you what "orthodoxy" means. I think you are either adverse to giving my position that name, or you are making the point that we "orthodox" are just the winning faction (there's no "true" position anyways), or you are assuming that differences in theology even among the "orthodox" in some way negates that category. For the purpose of communication, let me give an informal summary of what I and most other churches (including the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) would agree to, which would separate us from the liberals and cults: The Bible documents authentic history and the actual words of God. Jesus is a pre-existent being who is best expressed as the Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus came to earth in bodily form and lived a sinless life preaching, prophecying, and healing. Jesus is the fulfillment of the O.T. Law and Prophets. Sin is real and it's a terminal disease. Jesus performed a unique work on our behalf on the cross. Jesus bodily rose from the dead. There will be a general resurrection of the dead. Jesus will come again to take His church and judge the world. And there are various other things, but you get the idea.

As far as me viewing the Bible through the lens of these orthodox beliefs, you seem to be suggesting that I have acquired them independent of the Bible and then strained the text to find justification for them. But where the heck do you suppose I got such remarkable ideas in the first place? I got them from the Bible itself. You see, the first time I read the Bible I was quite ignorant of the majority of Christian theology. I simply had determined to read it after much procrastination in favor of ANY book rather than THAT one. After reading it I did not straightaway become a Christian, but I did succeed in disabusing myself of any naïve ideas that it supported my own esoteric beliefs about it. I found myself saying on more than one occasion, "Oh, that's why they say that." Even after I became a Christian, I did not immediately jump at certain doctrines, like the Trinity, on the basis of mere authority. I had to first arrive at them from my own personal study and reflection.

You may happen to believe that the Bible is an arbitrary collection of writings that are loaded with fiction, but taken as it stands it makes a plain case for orthodoxy. If this were not so then the cults (and the ancient Gnostics) would have no need to introduce their own sacred books (like the Book of Mormon) or translations (like the New World Translation) in order to "explain," correct, or supplement the canon.

Are you saying that anything we have, as long as we can “recognize it” means that God was involved in the transmission? If so, to what extent? How can I determine if God was involved or not? Since we have varying texts, which ones was God involved in and which ones was he not?

I was vague for a reason. This is a major discussion in its own right, and I am not in any position to define exactly how God must exercise His sovereignty in this or any other matter. Most of these "varying texts" under consideration seem to make it clear that God's sovereignty involves some very intricate interplay of wills (both with those persons for and against Him). And it is an on-going, in-house debate as to how this plays out.

In fact, I think this is the very mistake that Ehrman makes, and against which I wrote. He has based His (initial) rejection of God on his presupposition about exactly how it is that God must be constrained to operate. I think it is a subjectively understandable presupposition, though unwarranted. As I tried to communicate, I wouldn't be comfortable applying a similar presupposition unless the extant text indicated unsalvageable chaos. I don't think we are anywhere near that state (according to Ehrman's own testimony) and so this is a non-issue for me.

I point out that even the Gospels and epistles are not in harmony, and you seem to agree!

I still contend that you are looking at a categorically different kind of distinction between orthodoxy and what the Gnostics held to and the "disharmony" you find between the Gospels and epistles. I'm sorry, but I just don't find aeons, Demiurges, a non-physical Jesus, etc. in the Gospels and epistles (though I do find connections to these things in the surrounding Hellenistic culture). However, I do find that, for instance, John's Gospel, Hebrews, and Paul's writings are very workable systematics of the synoptic Gospels and the Old Testament.

There was a lot more than “orthodox” and Gnostics, true? We had Judaziers, those that felt Christ became God, Arianism, Pauline, Peterine, Johannine, Essene, Nazarenes, “The way.” It is never quite the clear cut class picture as painted. As soon as Christianity was formed, it started to argue against “heresies.” All of which depended on what side of the fence one is on.

Yes, I cannot deny this, but this does not imply that there is no truth-of-the-matter. I only included the Gnostic material because this seems to be the most popular challenger to orthodoxy these days and the only thing that you have appealed to thus far. It is also one of the only movements that relies on its own materials for its primary justifications, which those like Elaine Pagels would like to date as early as possible. For this reason, addressing the issues with most of these other groups is simply a matter of Biblical exegesis, but since you do not accept the canon as anything more than an arbitrary collection of mythologized pseudo-biographies (or something like that), that debate is well beyond the scope of this discussion.

The other interesting thing to notice is that these groups generally start with the same data — Jesus was divine, did miracles, rose from the dead — and simply digest that differently, i.e., what that means for us; what ceremonial laws we must still follow; in what sense Jesus was divine and human, etc. Debating over the differences in theology between such groups is interesting and important in the proper context, but you do not even accept the common ground upon which such a debate would proceed.

The better question is how did the First Century people view miracles, claims of miracles, resurrections, logos/mythos, and how they would have viewed the claims of Christianity, or the varying of transmitted texts.

Yes, that is a very good question. I'm certainly not willing to simply write them off as being pre-scientific myth-mongers who thought people were healed of lifelong, crippling diseases and raised from the dead every day. I'm sure those things were just as rare for them as for us. And I could point you to plenty of examples of present-day followers of myth and superstition in which we "enlightened" moderns engage.

However, it may be instructive to know how these First Century Jews dealt with oral and written traditions, how they committed things to memory and what latitude they allowed in the faithful retelling of stories, and how their Jewishness should play in to the hermeneutic of understanding their theology.

So why aren’t [Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp] included? If they “fit” the orthodox picture, they shouldn’t be excluded. They have been preserved (quite well in regards to 1 Clement) and therefore God is involved in their transmission and copying. You indicate that additions could be inspired, so these certainly are. They are from the apostolic period. In fact, especially 1 Clement, they fit every set of criteria that other canonical books fit.

Are they in your canon? I couldn’t help notice that you skipped the Shepard of Hermas. Should that, also be included? What about the Epistle of Barnabas? It, too, fits the same set of criteria of canonical books, and your own listed set.


You are right that Clement was considered for the canon, some of the others as well, though not with nearly as much concensus as those documents that eventually made it. You are also right that they fit many of the criteria for canon inclusion (and by implication, you also seem to understand why the Gnostic books were excluded). There is one thing that they seem to lack, though. That is the direct authorship, sponsoring, or review (to our knowledge) of an apostle. They are a kind of second generation effort that the church found edifying, worthwhile, and authoritative, though not an anvil against which to hammer out theology — not that there is much novelty in them, though. Perhaps the criterion used is wrong and we should include them in a new Dagoodsian canon. What would that buy you, though, since they are all remarkably orthodox in flavor?

Oh, my. Hard Evidence! None of that “soft” stuff for you, eh?

First, I was looking to see if you would attempt any of the gymnastics that someone like Elaine Pagels would do in order to get the Gnostic texts into the First Century. Second, I wanted to make the point that the hard evidence we do have puts the canon documents prior to anything opposed to them, and there are not even any references to books or organized movements of Gnostics until at least the Second Century (other than Simon Magus, who was more of a competitor of the Christians rather than a claimant to be the true student of it).

If the Christian places [the Gospels] close to Jesus’ life that gives plenty of time to make alterations before the copies we have appear. If they place the writings close to the copies, that gives plenty of time for the myths to develop, prior to them being written down. Where, oh where to place that date?

Yes, this is the foggy area in which the modern skeptics must weave their conspiracy theories. In times past they had fewer extant ancient manuscript to constrain their speculations. Nowadays the window has tightened up substantially. I can give you little hard data (that you might accept) to make an airtight case for the integrity of the testimony from Jesus' lips down to the first extant papyruses.

However, I might point out that all the earliest writings of the church fathers quote the Gospels and epistles as we find them later. I might point out that even most critical scholars are willing to date most of the writings in the First Century, which permits them to be peer reviewed by first and second-hand witnesses. I might point out that the writings were distributed and copied far and wide from their inception, thus reducing the success of pulling off a major "edit" without detection.

I'm sure you can come up with lots of theories about what happened during those apostolic decades that denies the record given in Acts and the Church Fathers, but I'm not sure why it is reasonable to believe that immediately after Christ's death those early Christians were engaged in a mad orgy of myth and deception (unremarked upon by the surrounding culture) and only ceased their undetectable machinations prior to the time when those first documents began to be preserved in the sands of time.

Second, why is the “date” of texts important? If Gnosticism dated to 40 C.E., and Christianity started in 50 C.E., but Christians began saving writings in 100 C.E. and the Gnostics waited until 150 C.E., does that mean the Christians win? ‘Cause they started writing first?

The date is only important to me insofar as it connects the texts to the contemporaries of Jesus. It looks very much like the "orthodox" books arose in the first generation after (or of) Christ, whereas the Gnostic books begin appearing in approximately the third generation afterwards. If it were simply a matter of "who wrote first" within the same general timeframe, then your point would be well taken.

Let me also offer this relevant quote from Tertullian:
"That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the Gospel, even before any of the older heretics, much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas. In this principle also we must henceforth find a presumption of equal force against all heresies whatsoever-that whatever is first is true, whereas that is spurious which is later in date."

Perhaps you will take issue with his "first is true" methodology, but this at least adds testimony to thesis that the heretics were late arrivers on the scene and adding discordant voices. There ought to be some continuity with the original events, and that we find evidenced most strongly (perhaps exclusively) in orthodoxy.

If you have read Polycarp and Ignatius, you know they both wrote against Heresy. Paul wrote about Heresy in one of the first books written! (Gal. 5:20) What is the hard evidence that it existed? Because the authors you hold as orthodox wrote against them. Wouldn’t need to write against them if they didn’t exist, eh?

Yes, Paul mentions heresies along with a list of other behaviors as the deeds of the flesh "of which I forewarn you." Not a very explicit reference to work with. I will grant that there is apparent dissention written against by various canon authors (Docetic ideas in 1 John 4, for example), however, they seem to be responding to general ideas, but not named leaders, books, or movements. This doesn't give much traction to the idea that there were genuine apostles or credible witnesses who were bearers of the real truth, which the "orthodox" faction simply wrestled away by force and propaganda.

Thirdly, and most importantly, please go to www.earlychristianwritings.com. If you look through the various books there (including Basilides) you will see the date ranges for all of the early books on Christianity, including orthodox. While I disagree with some of the dates (from my own study) if you click each book, you can see the arguments for the dating, as well as more resources to peruse. That’s the best evidence (hard or otherwise) we have.

Been there. Seems loaded toward the liberal end of the spectrum (I would dispute some of the dates, for reasons different than your own), but it does give a good sense of the playing field, and I would recommend it to any skeptic who has no knowledge of the extra-biblical defense of orthodoxy (e.g., someone believing that Dan Brown's books are "impeccably researched").

What “apostles” wrote? You know the authorship of all of the books of the New Testament is contested. (Except Paul’s, obviously) Mark (according to Papais) didn’t put things in order. Matthew couldn’t have been the disciple. Luke admits he is getting things through hearsay. 1 & 2 Peter were not written by the same person, let alone Peter. Jude is an unknown. Hebrews has ALWAYS been an unknown. Ephesians, Colossians and the Pastorals were written by unknowns.

Here, I'm afraid, we will simply have to agree to differ. The reason that authorship is "contested" is because there are grounds for belief in more than one thing about the authorship of these books. I find shortcomings in many of these arguments against the historically accepted authorship, which seems to me to be based on the eagerness of the skeptic to date any given work as late as possible. But even outside of a defense of the actual authors, I don't know of any ancient writings that are critical of the Gospels as frauds or as not having come out of the apostolic community. Maybe you would argue that this inner and early circle was lousy with liars and mythologizers, but I would argue against that differently than the question of whether or not the Gospels are representative of what they were testifying.

As to your comments, let me offer two obvious corrections. Papias wasn't implying that Mark "didn't put things in order" (as he received them from Peter) in the sense of a complaint, merely as a comment that it was not a chronological biography. As I understand it, that was a common literary form of the era. And saying that Luke got things through "hearsay" may be a legally accurate way to term it, but it doesn't capture the sense in which he intends to convey to the reader that he "investigated everything carefully" in order to confirm the stories "just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses." And there is reason to believe that Luke's "investigation" took him into the heart of the apostolic community. You may think this a bogus appeal to authority, but it is the kind of claim not readily found among the Gnostics who, in Paul Johnson's words, "seized on bits of Christianity, but tended to cut it off from its historical origins" (A History of Christianity, London: Penguin, 1988).

Secondly this is framing an argument. See it all the time. Trying to say what is important is a factor upon which one can win . . .
Orthodox: What is important is that it came from an apostle.
Gnostic: What is important is that we learned it through contemplation on God.


As an attorney (and materialist), I would think you could appreciate the "orthodox" methodology. Since the Gospels are an attempt to record what Jesus did, said, and meant, then I would think that mystical contemplation would lack some weight against a more empirical approach.

Want to push an Epistle? No sense attributing it to “Bob.” Better to place someone else’s name on it. Like “Paul” or “Peter” or “John.” Why do you think we see the Gospels of Thomas, Judas, Magdalene, Phillip, etc? The question is—when did they figure this out? And what if there was already a Gospel out there, and to bolster it, one placed a name on it?

This seems more to be a point in my favor. We know that the later Gnostic authors had a habit of name-dropping like this, but it is only theory that the earlier writers had done such a thing themselves (and could get away with it). Also, it seems odd that if they were falsely ascribing authorship, that they 1) did not make those autographs clearer, and 2) picked non-apostolic names like, Mark and Luke.

It is bothersome to me that the only way we even have much of Celsus’ writing is that people quoted it when writing against it. We didn’t find the Nag Hammadi library until recently, which is further disconcerting, meaning these documents were in existence, yet suppressed.

Are you suggesting the Gnostic writings were "more" true, and so we have lost the genuine history of the life of Jesus? I don't think so. I would suggest they are as "true" as the writings of Holocaust deniers and as edifying as Harlequin Romances, and "suppressed" only in the same sense as these. Lack of interest in copying and preserving a document does not equate to an active conspiracy against it. In any case, finding the rejection of such writings "bothersome" begs the question as to whether orthodoxy is indeed true.

But there is a huge fly in this ointment. Paul. (Not you—the other one.) He literally brags about NOT getting his information from the apostles, and disciples, but getting it directly from God.

This is one of your most interesting points, but I believe it fails on several accounts.

Paul (Saul) did not have his conversion experience in a vacuum. He was persecuting the Christians exactly because he knew what they were teaching and thought it blasphemous. In fact, Acts 7:58 mentions that he was right in the middle of the Gospel proclamations of the Christian community. Therefore, when Saul heard Jesus ask "why are you persecuting me," he immediately would have known that he was playing for the wrong team. Also, after his experience, Acts 9 mentions that he was immediately directed into the Christian community, where "for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus." I'm sure that something must have been learned or confirmed at that time.

Paul is "bragging" (Galatians) in an attempt to prove to his audience his apostolic credentials, which required personal contact with Jesus and an eyewitness to the resurrection. This affects the way he employs his facts and experiences in this letter. Even so, he goes on to confirm his contact with the apostolic leaders twice (which is also mentioned in Acts 9 & 15) and assure the readers that they gave their blessing to what he had independently received. Note Galatians 2 where he mentions that 14 years later he went up to Jerusalem for the Council (which I'm sure had more than a few "in the know'). He says, "I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. . . . James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship."

Paul is generally accepted by the early fathers, e.g., Ignatius calls both Peter and Paul apostles, and Clement holds both Peter and Paul in high regard.

Paul is in tune with the essential data we see in the Gospels (resurrection, Jewish continuity, human/divine distinction, death on the cross, demonology, 2nd Coming, etc.), unlike the radical departure of the Gnostics (though you would surely assert that Paul has gone beyond the Gospels).

Paul's experience was not simply an inner knowledge and contemplation, as with the Gnostics; it was a tangible visitation (by his account and the author of Acts) that knocked him on his can and blinded him for days. And he was healed and baptized only at the hands of an orthodox Christian. So, we have both a connection to the orthodox community and an empirical element to the revelation itself — both things which are absent among the Gnostics.

The only time that any Epistle quotes Jesus (EVER), Paul brags, AGAIN, that he did not get this information from any apostle. 1 Cor. 11:23. After his conversion, he waits three years, and even then only spends a total of 2 weeks in Jerusalem. And only talks to Peter and James.

"Ever" quote Jesus? How about, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" But of course, that's in Acts (an independent attestation of his conversion, BTW) so I suppose it doesn't count for you. But if his first-person encounter was genuine, then I'm willing to consider that many things he said were "quotes" of Jesus. Of course, I could discuss reasons why Paul might not think it necessary to quote Jesus when he is neither writing a Gospel nor writing to persons unfamiliar with the Gospel tradition, but this is an aside from your main point, which I will respond to now.

Paul "only" talks to Peter and James? You mean, Peter, the lead apostle and the authority behind the book of Mark, and James, the head of the Jerusalem Church? I would say that their input and stamp of approval is surely worth something! And it is certainly more than any Gnostic ever received. But even so, as I mention above, Paul comes back into the company of the apostles again at the Jerusalem council, where, besides being exposed to the entire leadership of the Church, he adds John to the list of those who approve him. How much do you want, man?

I SAID: My “methodology” is that if you want to know what someone said, did and meant, you go to those who were his companions.
YOU SAID: This also assumes that Jesus was historical, and a person would bother.


Ah, so the illusion is broken then. You may after all rest in the company of those Jesus-is-a-myth conspiricist who believe that the entire historical record is, in the words of one atheist I attempted to dialog with about this, a great "phantasmagoria." I have counted myself fortunate to find you so far confining your arguments to the extant historical documents. If you want to go off-the-record, then anything is fair game I suppose. Name your alternate history, then. It is as good as mine.

Or that the friends were alive. How would you know if someone said, “I was his friend” whether they were telling the truth or not? Or “a friend of his friend.” What if a person wants you to believe something and knows (as you have stated) that you would be more inclined to believe it if they said they were a “friend”?

Well, I suppose this would be something of a problem if we had opposing parties employing this tactic. As it stands, it is mostly a case of the "orthodox" making appeals to historical connections and the Gnostic making appeals to hidden knowledge. Maybe all the orthodox were liars, but they are at least consistent, both the authors of the canon documents and the church fathers, in their appeals to such authority. I am at least impressed by their chosen methodology and their persistence in employing it.

Further, are you willing to abide by this methodology? In order to question the validity of Mormonism, for example, would you rely upon what Mr. Smith’s friends said? Or would you look to other factors?

This is a bad example to use, since most of Smith's inner circle had words against him at one point or another. In fact, I believe Smith personally excommunicated a number of them. Even so, I believe the most remarkable thing that they testified to was the alleged Golden Plates. But saying that they viewed them "with the eyes of faith" is a bit less impressive than saying that you beheld the risen Christ with your eyes, ears, and hands. Lastly, I think the issue of motive would play far less in favor of Smith and his lieutenants. For a fair equivalence we'd have to see Jesus and his apostles collecting young women for themselves, founding autocratic communities, and meeting opposition with arson and gunfire.

I understand why you would choose this methodology. Just not one I see historians employ to determine (as best they can) what the facts of the matter are.

I certainly wouldn't think the testimony of an enemy much better. A "neutral" observer would be ideal, I suppose, but unfortunately this Jesus didn't seem to elicit much in the way of neutrality. I wonder what methodology could survive your skepticism and allow the numerous orthodox writings to be admitted as evidence. Must it all be excluded simply because it is "friendly" to Jesus? Certainly you wouldn't exclude it all a priori simply because it include miraculous claims.

I can at least say that we have a shortage of witnesses saying Jesus didn't do miracles and rise from the dead (oh, that's right, it was all "suppressed" and destroyed by the iron-fisted early Christians who ruled the world from the very beginning and never suffered non-Christian writings to exist within their domain). Even so, we do have a handful of secular sources saying things, like the early Christians were dying for the belief in this Christ who was crucified and whom they worship as a God.

I SAID: if we’re going to use Papias as a reference, you’ll have to accept the fact the he only quoted the canon documents…
YOU SAID: I do? You must have a wider canon than most. I can’t find:
"The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, 'I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.'"


Hmm... nice point, but I can't seem to find another "document" from which this is quoted, or even another later book which includes this quote, Gnostic or otherwise. And this is not claimed to come from another writing; this is simply a quote from the oral tradition attributed to John, who has already told us that his Gospel is not inclusive of all such material. Ahh, but then you might say that the Gnostic documents could simply be some of that extra-biblical, yet authentic, material. Well, I might be inclined to consider that idea were most of it not so discordant in nature.

If you do not hold to Markan priority, what is your solution to the Synoptic Problem?

My solution? See your own link for possible scenarios. I don't presume to have the training to offer a "solution" to this "problem." Neither would I confidently assert, as you do, exactly how the synoptic books were composed (i.e., Mark first, then Matthew adds his vandalism, etc.). However, I do think there are several plausible theories, and I do not think the raw text demands that the authors of Matthew and Luke were blind copyists and editors. Here is my own current favorite, though unexplored, pet theory:

If Papias was right, then Matthew wrote his original work in Hebrew (or Aramaic, more probably). This could have predated Mark, and it also may have been a work somewhat different from the Greek "Matthew." Mark could have then used this Aramaic work as a template upon which he added Petrine materials, or he could have worked independent of this. Later, Matthew himself could have done a Greek edition of his own work, adding to it and reorganizing it in the process. He could either have incorporated some of Mark himself, or the similarities to Mark could merely be due to his inclusion of the proto-Matthew materials.

In any event, I am not opposed to Markan priority or the existence of a "Q" source, which may be either written, oral, or some combination. I also do not imagine it is as simple a progression as G1—>G2—>G3. It seems entirely likely that there were numerous sources feeding into the synoptic Gospels, which would include such things as "Q", proto-Gospels, interviews, and the personal knowledge of the author.

Both Matthew and Luke demonstrate a freedom to utilize Mark as the basis of the story (hence showing they are not eyewitnesses)

Ipso facto, eh? The premise of liberal scholarship here seems to be that it is unthinkable for an eyewitness to lean upon any of the text of an independent author. I am willing to consider that Mark and/or Matthew may have used one or more other sources as templates upon which to build. As far as Luke, we know in advance from his introduction that his document is the result of second-hand research (assuming he is not a liar). It does not follow that his distinct material is necessarily the product of his own imagination.

It is not so much “debating the accuracy” (poor word choice on my part) but recognition that they are not bound by historical facts of Mark.

"Historical facts?" I think this may be another poor word choice on your part. If not, I might be tempted to cry, "check mate." If you will grant me only Mark, then I will show you Satan, angels, demons, heaven, hell, the voice of God from heaven, Jewish responsibility in Jesus' execution, connections to O.T. prophecy along with Jesus healings all forms of illness, personally forgiving sins, raising people from the dead, feeding thousands from thin air, walking on water, mind reading, claiming Messianic status, predicting His own death and resurrection, predicting the destruction of the temple, predicting His second coming and the final judgment, predicting Judas' betrayal and Peter's denial, and finally, the empty tomb and the report of Jesus' resurrection and scheduled appearances. The book is lousy with the supernatural.

Notice that Mark does not have a birth story, or a post resurrection story.

You go and read Mark again and tell me that the resurrection is an ad hoc insertion. The entire book leads up to it; it is predicted and foreshadowed throughout, as well as proclaimed at the end by a mysterious fellow in the empty tomb. It is either a case of, "and the rest is history" storytelling, or the end was temporarily (or permanently) lost.

And as far as a birth story, Jesus didn't "preach" it even though it is logistically important. Perhaps Mark didn't think it a necessary inclusion in his shorter Gospel, which seems to be concerned only with the period from the baptism of Jesus onward (the period of His "ministry"). Again, this is not an ad hoc insertion; it fits systematically, assuming the truths of all other things that Mark does cover.

Matthew and Luke demonstrate the freedom to add their own. And they conflict. A good example is the “greatest commandment”. (Mark 12:28, Matt 22:35, Luke 10:25)

So, do we not know what the greatest commandment is then? Has one writer said it is to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, and another writer said it is to practice tolerance and social justice? The primary point of this story is not lost, nor even is the secondary point of Jesus' affirmation of the authority of the Law and Prophets.

Mark and Matthew's stories are completely reconcilable. It is the scribe who asks the question, and it is Jesus who answers with the same two foundational commands. Matthew merely abbreviates the story, which, by the way, is one of the many cases where we have an exception to the supposed idea that Mark was first and then Matthew and Luke simply added to his stories (the Markan priority theory is not tidy). And as for Luke: he is only arguably addressing the same incident. Do you not think it possible that Jesus ever had similar discussions over the course of 3 years, especially about important things like this?

Again, and again and again, we see these modifications. Improvement in Greek, incorporation of other stories...

And these change the message and doctrines where? I think it is an unwarranted extrapolation to take a willingness to paraphrase and expand/truncate certain stories (with little effect) and extend this to a willingness to make up radically new materials whole-cloth. Must the additional stories in Matthew and Luke be fictions? Are you merely forcing your late-date, blind copyist presuppositions upon the text?

I have no need to debate word-for-word historical accuracy or inerrancy of the text with you. All I need for orthodox Christianity to be true is for the scriptures and Church Father's to make an earnest attempt to record authentic events. Your presupposition seems to be either that disharmony means pure fiction or that little changes where detectible mean big embellishments where not detectible. Even if I were to grant incidences of disharmony, it still would not demand these radical conclusions.

I SAID: "There was never a debate over the 4 gospels." Then we discussed Marcion's small and hacked canon.
YOU SAID: "That I will grant you—those that agreed with the four never debated them."


Okay, I overreached myself. I'll fold on this one. But it is a small victory, since Marcion's personal canon excludes the very Gospel to which you would ascribe the most credibility (Mark), and he only takes portions of Paul's writings and hacks up some of those which are conceded as authentic (like Galatians) by most critical scholars. Your point is technically accurate (as would be the statement that "there are people who dispute that the world is round"), but am I supposed to take Marcion as a credible dissenter?

Can you “stomach” stories of Iliad, Homer, Norse mythology? Sure. Because you think they are just stories.

I am not forced to contend with them, since they are not contextualized as history, and where they may be they don't say things like, "we did not follow cleverly devised tales," "so that you may know the exact truth," "and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you," etc. Neither do they stake claims upon my soul.

Can you “stomach” the very books you are tossing out of your canon? Sure, you don’t think they are factual.

My point with the "stomach" comment was that every one of these writings, canon or Gnostic — whatever their differences may be — are all dancing around some common themes (e.g., Jesus' miracles and divinity) which you do no accept. You merely fixate on the differences.

But to be fair, you did begin your response to me by challenging my assertion that there was broad agreement over the status of the Gospels. I do not really know your personal grounds for rejecting the supernatural portrait of Jesus, but I do think it must ultimately depend upon you charging the vast majority of the patristic writers (orthodox and heretical) with fraud and collusion. I am willing to concede that some intended or unintended error must be in play among these groups (since there are profound differences between them they can't all be right), but must we assume that none are right and reject any common starting point?

So you would be thrilled to bits if I became a Gnostic? All you care about is that I believe in some god, no matter how correct or not it is? Thanks for the concern.

I'm sorry, if you would rather put this debate aside and talk man to man about personal concerns and my hope for you, then by all means, let's get to that. To be honest, I see you in a pit with a ladder out. Gnosticism would not be an escape, per se, but it would at least be a step onto the ladder. Theism would at least give us more common ground upon which to build.

Originally, though, I was just making the point that even if the Gnostics (or any other "heretical" group) turned out to be the rightful heirs to "orthodoxy," then it still collapses your atheism. Every one of these groups of people who claim to have knowledge of Jesus lends no support to your non-theism. Perhaps this is why the "Jesus never existed" defense is an appealing escape route even for smart fellows like you: because there's just no good naturalistic option that history offers us for this remarkable character.

 
At 3/18/2006 3:51 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

paul, thank you for the response. Debate aside, you grant what I say, give it thoughtful consideration, and do not merely dismiss it because it comes from an “infidel.” This gives you high marks in my book, which is rare enough to take note.

I am not going to go line item by line item. I would like to highlight, on some broad brush, a few things. The reason I post is to provide a chance to learn. That’s it. Am I going to “deconvert” you with a few, well-placed 100 words? We both know the answer to that. However, this is a chance to interact with someone that believes wildly different than you, and learn, why still respecting each other.

For example – you originally indicated that Papias quoted only canonical books. You got a chance to learn that he most certainly did not. You indicated you could not find where he got it from. He got it from the Apocalypse of Baruch. You have now learned that Papias most certainly quoted, and it was most certainly not from a canonical book!

What you do with that is for you to decide. I am not going to follow you around the ‘net, and say, “Ha! You can never say Papias only quoted from the canon.” What I sincerely hope is that you do more research, and study as to the canon, and if the early church fathers quoted from non-canonical books, what that means. Also study Jude quoting the Book of Enoch. And Esther quoted by nobody. Not even the DSS.

And the Gospel of Mark is most certainly NOT “not in order” as to chronologically. It is laid out in a very deliberate fashion, copying Greek novelist style, with specific statements at specific times for very deliberate reasons. It follows the Tanakh, and the Elijah-Elisha cycle. For further study, I highly recommend this site. One argument as to why Papias even attached Peter to the Gospel of Mark was to grant it some legitimacy. Which is the point I made as to authorship being attributed to well-known personages.

Which brings me to what was most disconcerting. Paul, even conservatives recognize that the authors of the various books of the Bible are not who they have historically been attributed. Udo Schelle is a conservative Christian, who wrote The History and theology of the New Testament Writings. I simply cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Again, this is a conservative Christian. He notes, as to the authorship of Pastorals, (after listing out the various reasons why they were not written by Paul) “The overwhelming majority of exegetes regard the Pastorals as pseudepigraphical writings….”) Pg. 331.

As to Matthew, Schnelle agrees that “It is very unlikely that an eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus would have used the work of the non-eyewitness as the basis for his own work.” (Pg 219)

I could go through each author, and again, point out this conservative scholar who agrees that the books of the New Testament (except, of course, the actual Pauline letters) were not written by the persons to whom they are ascribed.

The helpful thing about his book, is that he lists the authors who hold both positions, and is a good starting point to do further study. He does list authors that hold to the original authors, and their arguments.

As the to synoptic problem, here. is a great article by Dr. Dan Wallace, a professor at DTS. Not exactly a hotbed of liberal scholarship! He, too, holds to the Markan priority, after previously holding to the Matthean priority.

Don’t get me wrong, the fun of the study, is that your theory, paul, could be right! What I saw, though in your response, was a division between what you said were “liberal” scholars, when, in fact, conservative scholarship has also come to the point of admitting these books were not written by apostles. Doesn’t mean one loses their Christianity. Just a recognition of the facts that it becomes self-defeating to hold to a position that is obviously not true.

Apologists may still argue for the original authors. But scholars no longer do. I would hope that sends a signal as to how we should broach the subject.

And talking about liberal scholars—you have been kind enough to talk to an atheist skeptic, without dismissing my thoughts simply because of my belief. I would hope that you could do the same with liberal scholarship. While you may not initially, or in the middle, or after, agree with it, at least be able to address it without dismissing it because of the person that says it.

For example, I am not a mythical theorist when it comes to Jesus. (The crucifixion and baptism are too embarrassing. Plus myths tend to be focused around a certain person.) However, just because I don’t hold to the premise, I read their works, and attempt to frame a counter to their arguments. It may not convince them, but it convinces me. (And face it—life is all about me! :-) )

However, in studying them, I do learn interesting facts, and things that I cannot simply dismiss. Paul’s failure to quote Jesus (‘cept the Eucharist), failure to cite a miracle by Jesus, and failure to inform any facts about Jesus’ life, especially when such citations would be beneficial to his presentation is troubling. The failure of any other sect to even take notice of this Jesus, neutral or anti- is troubling. The cyric philosophers that existed at the time, making statements similar to Jesus’. There are numerous points that draw out questions that cannot be simply dismissed because the person believes Jesus is a myth.

I think I can address them, but it is important to recognize the debate.

Finally – why must the original authors be of “fraud” and “collusion”? Please avoid the dichotomy you have been taught.

Paul, there were at least 30 different sects of Judaism in the first part of the First Century. None were prevailing. As Christians we were always painted the picture there was one or two, and that they hated the Christians as being the “competitive” religion. But is that accurate? Was Christianity just one of many religions raging at the time? Like Heaven’s Gate, no one bothers to prove it wrong, because no one cared. Further, as discussed, there were various schools of Christianity that merged and broke off. It, too, did not have the clean lineage that has been portrayed.

Paul was certainly intense on promulgating this religion. My jury is still out as to whether he started it, or simply picked up on something that had already been started.

If you read about First Century, you will find it was a time of strong belief in mythology. They howled at the full moon to make it go away. They believed demons were the cause of bad crops, illnesses and troubled times. They believed statutes cried, talked, and magic happened. There were fantastic claims of miraculous happenings at every corner.

A religion claiming resurrection of a person would not even be a blip on the radar. Despite the picture painted, Christianity was not some unique experience that blazed its way onto the frontier.

Mark was writing a story. He used the Tanakh, and created the life of Jesus, becoming familiar with it from the writings of Paul. Matthew and Luke were from already established Christian communities that had oral traditions, and felt free to create a history of Jesus with Mark.

See, paul, this was considered acceptable. Josephus puts words in Moses’ mouth, and other individuals, not because he actually knew they said it, but because he felt it would have been something they would have said. While now, this would be considered rotten factual basis for history, at the time, it was not.

No one would consider this fraud. What they recorded Jesus said, whether he actually did or not, it would be acceptable to say it, because he could have!

When the Gnostics started to use writing as a basis for validity, what is now classified as “orthodoxy” started using writings of their own in response. Thus the canon was formed, and the race was on.

For me (not saying you have to do this) once I attempted to frame a method by which we can determine fact from fiction, it became clear that there simply is no easy method by which we can determine what is authentic, and what is not in the Gospels.

Final note – no, I do not include Acts as being accurate to Paul. Acts gives two contradictory stories as to Paul’s conversion which contradict with what Paul says happened! Further, it appears that Luke relied upon Josephus, which puts Luke/Acts after 94 C.E., and therefore suspect as to historical accuracy. For example, it places the Pharisees in charge, when the Sadducees were actually in charge. Further it is very pro-Pharisee, making it questionable if it was written during a time the Pharisees were in charge.

Anyway, no response is necessary, or expected. If you will recall, I joined this originally, only because of the “four gospels never contested” statement.

I think I beat this horse to death, dug it back up, and beat it some more.

 
At 3/29/2006 6:36 PM, Blogger Roger Yang said...

Might I suggest using a different template, one which does not have a 3 inch collum for text O_O

 
At 5/17/2006 9:16 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

You touched on this briefly, but it deserves to be stressed because it's so central to Ehrman's position:

If Ehrman doubts inspiration because he hasn't seen preservation he's missing a very important point. Namely that the fact that he can see any variation at all is itself proof-positive of preservation! Why can't we see the existence of the original in one variant as preservation? Why must we see erroneous variants as a lack of preservation? That conclusion is logically incoherent.

 
At 6/25/2007 11:10 PM, Blogger stoxusa said...

I believe C.S. Lewis, a professor of medieval literature, held that the Gospels were not myth or legend because "they weren't good enough." They are fairly boring. Also, the lack of detail about Jesus' upbringing would never be allowed in a good legend. Dagoods mentions that the crucifiction was embarrassing. Not much of a legend finale. In a juicy, epic legend gripping enough to survive 2000 some-odd years, the hero should dramatically defeat his enemies.

And what about the motivation to rewrite all this stuff? What did the early authors get out of it? Crucifiction, beheading, or for John, boiling in oil? The common complaint I hear is that, "the early church did it for CONTROL of everyone." Paranoia. Granted, control over people did come, but that was much later. Interesting that even during the darkest times of the Church, we don't see any editing going on (at least I've never heard of such, despite many arguments from skeptics about control). Maybe those police state churchmen were looking at the prohibition on editing/adding in Revelation. At any rate, those original church fathers must have been visionary entrepeneurs, (who went broke without a penny of income from all that control centuries later). Seems to fall flat to make an argument about how, when, what, etc, without the why for motivation. Who would die for a lie, considering especially the stringent moral code espoused by all these writers and personalities?

Also, C.S. Lewis brought up a great difficulty in proposing the writing of "historical ficiton," in the time of the NT. He mentions that if this were the case, then all of a sudden, without any precursor, an eclectic bunch of Jews would have had to make it all up together, without example, and then the whole idea would lie fallow for the next 1500 years or more (until Cervantes? Chaucer? Milton?).

 
At 6/26/2007 8:35 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Good thoughts, stoxusa. I always welcome another friendly voice around here.

 

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