“New Testament Historicity: A Response” by Daniel Bastian [GUEST POST]


run-down-Bible

(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)

Today continues an on-going exchange between myself and a friend of mine, Daniel Bastian. These were inspired by a Facebook post he wrote about why he is Atheist (in this current post, whenever he says “OP”, he means “original post” and is referencing that). Last week, I wrote a post about the trustworthiness of the Scriptures and miracles. Here is his response.

Update: I have some responses posted for his section on miracles in this post. And, honestly, I feel he gets so many things wrong int his post, I’ll have to write another response to this tomorrow. 

More important update: I have a full response to this article now posted.

Paul,

Thank you for the thoughtful post. I think this is your most cohesive piece yet and, better yet, even dives below the surface of a few of my arguments. And allow me to just say up front that it is truly a breath of fresh air to commune with a non-fundamentalist on matters of faith. Rarely do I find a Christian with a sophisticated understanding of the faith’s foundational texts and the underlying nuance operative in these discussions. It is truly refreshing.

In my response I’d like to first address the broader themes of your post and then drill into a few of the more specific items you have noted. Along the way, I will correct some errors, highlight some omitted details, and point out some oversights and oversimplifications that obscure the analysis of New Testament historicity.

At the first, it seems that you still resist recognizing the non-Christian-centric applications of my arguments. Yes, some of my arguments did single out Christianity, as that is the religion I retired from at age 25 and is thus the one in which I am most conversant. However, if you were to step outside the hermetically sealed Christian bubble for just a moment, their broader implications should become apparent. Let’s try again.

If there exists a personal deity who cares about humanity and who wishes to communicate wisdom and truth to us in the form of a book, what might be a candidate book? Might we expect a book inspired by the Creator of the universe to be riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies and stagnant, outmoded morality or one with none of that? What would be more convincing? I’m honestly open to crowd-sourced opinion here.

Consumed without any knowledge of Christianity at all, would a book that contains prescient ancecdotes about discoveries that wouldn’t be substantiated until centuries later be more or less convincing in terms of divine authorship compared with a book that is completely and utterly confined to its cultural era?

How would you assess the likelihood of divine origin if an ancient religious text contained the ethical directive: “It’s immoral to own other people as slaves.” Or how about an express injunction of rape? Or, yes, a revelation that conveyed the ethically neutral nature of homosexual relations? How extraordinary would it be to observe in history a course of events shaped by wisdoms like these! How many more adherents there would be to a faith which had these pronouncements in its source texts! I would almost become a follower overnight! The halls of skepticism would be routed.

Yet no known religious text passes the test. The Bible? Fails on each account.

As you can see, these arguments have broad applicability for any and all allegedly divinely inspired religious texts (even though I understand full well that there is a broad spectrum of approaches within Christian tradition specifically). The underlying point I’d like to make is that a religious text is not “proof” of the divine, it is the CLAIM. And in order to assess such a claim we must rely on a set of neutral criteria, which I laid out quite explicitly in my OP. There is no ambiguity there with respect to which predictions or circumstances I would count as evidence toward divine authorship of certain texts.

It’s clear to me that you continue to skirt the main thrust of the arguments in my OP.

Apropos the Bible in particular, you are absolutely correct in pointing out that a couple of my arguments are targeting fundamentalist conceptions of the Bible-the “inelegantists” (as I’ve taken to calling them) who rip the Bible out of its historical context and place more of a burden on it than a thousands of years old text can possibly endure. This decontextualization is a travestying of the source material, the bane of biblical scholarship, and is a strain I inveigh against frequently. The vast majority of the Christians with which I am connected on social media fall into this camp and so a couple of the arguments were indeed aimed squarely in their direction. Yet insofar as there are far more responsible ways to engage the Bible than a fundamentalist reading allows, we are in agreement.

There’s much bathwater that needs throwing out in the Christian camp. Certainly. And I’m under no noetic pretense that the inevitable bankruptcy of a fundamentalist/literalist/decontextualized approach denotes the coup de grace for the Christian faith.

So indeed, let’s move on from here. Once the uncharitable strains of biblical understanding are discarded, what are we left with? I’d like to briefly offer three basic points of consideration that I feel dramatically resculpt the framing of your piece last week. You discuss heavily the New Testament texts, so let’s examine them.

1. Time Gap and Accretion

The first point to consider is that each gospel narrative is separated in both time and place from the events they narrate-several decades in fact. If we assume that the reference in Mark to the destruction of the Temple is not a later interpolation, then the earliest of the four is dated ~CE 70 or later, or some 40 years from the time of Jesus’ death.

A core rubric for establishing historical authenticity is not how long ago an event took place, but the gap between when the event took place and when it was recorded. Every extant account of this historical figure at the center of your faith was the product of several decades of oral transmission, which may have been originally based on eyewitness accounts but which were subsequently euhemerized.

As you note, oral transmission played a significant cultural role in the absence of a prevalent writing system or literacy, as personified in 1st century Palestine. But elongated oral transmission is a recipe for distortion and the chronology in place here allows for plenty of time for mythologization/euhemerization to accrue (more on this to follow). Oral history is far less reliable than (independently attested) written history for the simple fact that oral words are more easily changed.

2. Theology, Not History

The second point of consideration and one that is emphasized from Day 1 in intro New Testament courses is that the gospels were written theologically, not historically. The gospel texts are not anything like the surviving texts of Josephus, Tacitus, Plutarch, Suetonius and other works of Roman era historians. As stories about the historical Jesus developed, a diverse spectrum of thought began to take shape. And the gospels provide a window into these 1st century conversations. The point here is that rather than a featureless transmission of history, the gospels originated in different communities from different authors speaking to different issues to address different needs. These men had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own needs, their own desires, their own understandings, their own theologies. And this kaleidoscope of inspirations is what we see preserved in the Christian New Testament.

3. The Synoptic Trinity

The third point that you omit from your piece is that the gospel writers clearly borrowed from each other, especially from Mark, the earliest gospel, and altered the message to create a Jesus of their own. The three gospels Mark, Matthew and Luke include many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and similar wording. They clearly adapted each others’ work. As I am sure you are aware, this has come to be known as the Synoptic Problem. Now the reason this degree of parallelism is problematic is because they cannot each be considered independent attestation. One of the most important criteria for historical criticism is corroboration without collaboration, and this is a failure of the New Testament gospels. Each of the stories is not based on independent accounts of the historical Jesus, but are clearly derivative of Mark (in tandem with a hypothetical ‘Q’ source, which some scholars affirm).

This would seem to place a lot of the burden on Mark, as it is the earliest and most heavily adapted of the four gospels. Unfortunately, Mark’s gospel makes numerous errors about the social and religious customs, geography, etc., that no Jew or anyone living in Judea in the 1st century would have made. Mark’s gospel makes so many blatant geographical blunders, in fact, that Origen gives up completely trying to make sense of it, concluding that Mark’s geography can only be interpreted symbolically! To add to this embarrassment, Matthew’s gospel actually corrects a lot of the mistakes made in Mark. Clearly, proximity to the actual events matter. A lot.

John’s gospel is a different animal altogether, as it is the most theologically embellished and was initially rejected for canonization by Church fathers. For example, the “born again” doctrine is only mentioned in a single story in John. John’s is also the only gospel to include the spearing element, with water and blood flowing from Jesus’ sides on the cross. This, like many other motifs embedded in the disparate texts, is believed to be a literary invention by John. (We actually have some mss of Matthew in which the writers added this element to the crucifixion account in Matthew.) In the end, we really don’t know what John is based on and may just be an example of literary license run amok.

Paul, on the other hand, writes earlier than the gospel writers and can thus be considered independent attestation. However, his writings share very little in common with the canonical gospels and is silent on much of the events they narrate that we wouldn’t expect him to omit if true (more on this below).

Why does any of this matter? Because it’s not just that the gospel writers copied each other (even down to phrasing and wording), but that they conflict with each other in various details. I linked several compilations of these contradictions in my OP (herehere, and here). From an historical perspective, this reduces our confidence tenfold, as not only is there little independent corroboration but irreconcilable discrepancy as well.

The gospel writers didn’t just borrow from each other, either. Many passages found in their texts are believed to have been lifted from Philo Judaeus’s writings, a preeminent Jewish philosopher living around the time of Jesus. His writings precede by decades the canonical gospels, yet there is a very Christian-like character and philosophy in his writings. Some passages are lifted verbatim, such as Philo’s concept of the logos and incarnation. Even more intriguingly, Philo documents a pre-Christian Jewish belief of a celestial being named: ‘Jesus’. It would be too much of a coincidence if the New Testament writers did not copy from Philo’s works.

So, what do we have? We have first of all the time gap: the preserved writings were first penned several decades after the death of its central protagonist, plenty of time to allot for a distortion of history; second we have the human writers-each of whom had distinctive views and perspectives they wished to overlay on this narrative of the Jewish Jesus, giving rise to the various Christologies which thematically typify each text; and third we have the four writers who borrowed from each other and from manuscripts already in circulation, which is akin to 20 students drafting a history research paper from a single source which may have never been accurate in the first place since it was written primarily from a non-historical perspective.

Evolving Mythos

Let’s see if we can now draw together the threads of these interrelated points of inquiry. One clear mark of an evolving mythical tradition is that the further from the supposed event you regress the more miraculous and embellished the stories about it become.

The earliest references to Jesus we have are the Pauline epistles, of which I Corinthians is a close proximation to the events in question. I Cor. is dated to within ~20-25 years of Jesus’ death. In it, Paul relays the stories of others who had visions along with his own “vision” experience. Next we have Mark, who invents a three-hour darkness covering the whole world upon Christ’s passing. Then we have Matthew who invents not only a rock-splitting earthquake but a parade of zombie corpses leaving empty tombs behind. And then you have John which scarcely belongs in the same sentence as the word ‘history’.

In the FFRF link I provided above, the number of extraordinary events are tabulated as follows:

  • Paul: 0
  • Mark: 1
  • Matthew: 4
  • Luke: 5
  • Peter: 6
  • John: 8+

(I would disagree with the author here that Paul should be 0, but the monotonic progression is clear.) You can see the time graph for yourself in the link. The chronology is just what we would expect from ancient mythos. A fun exercise to illustrate this is instead of reading the New Testament canonically, try reading it chronologically; the accretions can be traced with ease.

I do want to address your question below before proceeding:

“Ehrman is a vehement defender of the historical existence of Christ. Though it’s not made explicitly clear, I don’t think Daniel was implying that Jesus himself never existed. I think he was more saying that, if Jesus was so awesome and divine, it’s odd that there’s no mention of him in the “most well-documented era in history” (which I’d still like a citation on that, but I’ll grant him it for the time being).”

Like Ehrman, I am not a mythicist and did not suggest otherwise in my OP. The current scholarship in the hands of Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, Robert Price and others, while compelling, has not convinced me to accept their conclusions. (That said, I do intend to read with great interest Carrier’s latest, “On the Historicity of Jesus Christ”, set to release in a couple months.) While I do not shy away from minority scholarship, I do approach them with more serrated skepticism.

Secondly, the vacancy of non-canonical attestation is well-established fact. There’s no Roman evidence of Jesus in the 1st century. The first external evidence we have is from Pliny and Tacitus in the 2nd century.

You requested citation. John E. Remsburg, in his classic book The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidence of His Existence (The Truth Seeker Company, NY, pp. 24-25), lists the following writers who lived during the time, or within a century after the time, that Jesus is supposed to have lived:

Flavius Josephus, Philo Judæus (of Alexandria), Seneca Justus of Tiberius, Pliny the Elder, Arrian, Petronius, Dion Pruseus (Pliny the Younger), Paterculus, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, Martial, Persius, Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus), Epictetus, Cornelius Tacitus, Justus of Tiberius, Apollonius of Tyana, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (Quintilian), Hermogenes of Tarsus, Lucanus, Silius Italicus, Juvenal, Publius Papinius Statius, Lucanus, Ptolemy, Florus Lucius, Appian, Phlegon of Tralles, Damis, Phædrus, Valerius Maximus, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, Pausanias, Florus, Quintius Curtius, Aulus Gellius, Dio Chrysostom, Columella, Valerius Flaccus, Damis, Pomponius Mela, Favorinus of Arelate, Lysias, Appion of Alexandria, and Theon of Smyrna.

According to Remsburg: “Enough of the writings of the authors named in the foregoing list remains to form a library. Yet in this mass of Jewish and Pagan literature, aside from two forged passages in the works of the Jewish historian Josephus, and two disputed passages in the works of Roman writers, there is to be found no mention of Jesus Christ.”

I don’t think this is controversial among historians today (though feel free to challenge this if you think otherwise).

Now, this fact is actually of less significance than one might think upon first brush since, as you say, 1st century Palestine was remote, and it simply may have taken several decades for word of Jesus to travel. I think that’s a stretch given how momentously extraordinary the events ascribed to him were, but let’s grant it for the moment. Even if it did take that long for transmission to occur, that fails to address why there are elements to the gospel narratives that are not recorded ANYWHERE ELSE, EVER, that we would expect to be recorded, if they were historical.

Take the three-hour darkness in Mark that no one else apparently saw (Mark 15:33). Where are the extra-canonical accounts? Show me.

How about the rock-splitting earthquake in Matthew and the parade of corpses walking the streets of Jerusalem (Matthew 27)? Where are the extra-canonical accounts? Show me.

Most problematically, not even the other New Testament writers mention these events. Not even Paul, whose letters are the closest to the purported life of Jesus, makes mention of them and is apparently ignorant of all of it.

So it’s not just that the accounts are separated in time and place. It’s not just that they were not written with historical context. It’s not just that they borrow from and contradict each other. It’s also that none of the extraordinary events is corroborated outside of the canon.

As I see it, whether you accept or do not accept the Christian narrative ultimately boils down to how much stock you assign these texts.

A Case Study in Credulity

In this section I’d like to debunk your claim below:

“So we’re not talking about a 100 year period, we’re more talking about a 65-year period from 35ish CE to 100 CE. This would be just about right for a peaceful word-of-mouth movement showing up on Roman radars, and it definitely would not be long enough for an entire fully-developed Jesus myth to form.”

Is there, in fact, a similar archetype to which we could compare and better illumine the story of Jesus? We actually don’t need to go back very far to see a contemporary illustration of humans ascribing divine status to another human. One need only examine the life and narrative of Sathya Sai Baba.

Sathya claims to be the reincarnation of an earlier saint heavily revered by the religions of both Hinduism and Islam and, similar to Jesus, was later identified with the almighty Shiva, a major Hindu deity that is considered the “Supreme God” within the Hindu pantheon. Like Jesus, Sathya’s mother claims his birth was the result of miraculous conception and that his arrival was harbingered by miracles and signs. His followers claim he performs thousands of miracles each year, which his devotees cite as evidence of his divinity. His undeniable charisma and incisive, winsome speeches over the years have gained him millions upon millions of followers and converts. Just about every miracle that appears in the gospels, in fact, has been attributed to Sathya Sai Baba.

Thousands of Western-educated people travel to India each year, spend time with Sai Baba, and return attesting to his miraculous exploits and accomplishments. Millions of people, right now, claim he is a living god, with thousands of living eyewitness accounts of his miracles, not to mention the dozens of books, the radio shows and the many organizations and transcultural movements he’s inspired. Given the sphere of influence this man has accomplished abroad, it’s quite extraordinary how few people in the West have even heard of this man. I imagine most Christians would dismiss such claims without a second glance.

Sathya Sai Baba passed away in 2011. His legacy surely hasn’t. Baba’s influence spread to many corners of the globe, and his devotees continue to further the teachings and preachments of this venerated figure. Far from a fringe character, Sathya is just one of the more notable on a long list of spiritual gurus of India and surrounding regions who have amassed both European and American followings in their day.

Here’s the point: While not as prevalent compared with the ancient world, beliefs like this are common, even in more highly educated, less superstitious regions of the world. Now imagine how much more likely it would be for beliefs like this to form and propagate in 1st century Palestine, one of the most uncultivated, illiterate, entrenchedly superstitious regions of the Middle East, where mythology was as entwined with the cultural milieu as the internet is with our own.

Thus your assertion that it doesn’t take that long for myths to develop is just patently unfounded. Figures like Genghis Khan and Sathya Sai Baba and a laundry list of mystical gurus were mythologized in their own lifetimes. Consider the Roswell incident. In just 30 years, an entire narrative was created around a flying saucer, a crash and recovered debris, all of which was quickly adopted by pop culture, just one of the many “truther” movements. Elvis Presley, even, died in 1977. All in the 20th century West no less.

I encourage you to consider these things.

Sincerely Wrong

So how can one account for the gospels and other stories in the New Testament?

What I think is much more likely (and this is the majority view of secular scholarship) is that an itinerant Galilean preacher came to Jerusalem, paid lip service about being a Messiah, got crucified for insurrection, and then his followers interpreted this colossal failure as some kind of spiritual success. These distortions then permeated into the annals of history as more and more people were won into the faith by emotionally moving tales of salvation, bodily renewal and guarantees of an elysian afterlife.

It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. It is a fact of history that often incredible details accrue around mundane events. That’s the kind of process that you find all through history, and it is a better fit for the evidence than the idea that a jingoistic tribal deity incarnated himself in a remote, sparsely populated, illiterate desert region of the Middle East to gruesomely sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself. It is also a better fit than a grand conspiracy tale.

I don’t doubt that early followers were sincere in their beliefs. But you can be sincere, and you can be sincerely wrong.

Before closing I will address a few other points you made in last week’s piece.

“Even if the Gospels were written “several decades after Jesus” (which is a really rough average) they’d still be written during the time when eyewitnesses were still around and could easily discount this “Resurrection craziness” these over-zealous rebels were fabricating.”

This actually isn’t true for two reasons. If I recall, the average life expectancy of 1st century Roman Empire was ~29 years of age (the absurdly high IMR at the time pulls this average down). So if you date Jesus’ death at CE 30 and Mark at the time of the Temple collapse (CE 70), then that would mean anyone still alive from Jesus’ time would have to be older than 40 (quite a bit older if they were an adult at the time of his death). What is more likely is that by the time the first gospel account was compiled, most adults involved in some capacity with Jesus, his ministry and his death had passed away.

Secondly, your comment here confuses the situation. In fact, the “over-zealous rebels” were the ones spreading these resurrection and other fables and many communities DID refute them, vehemently in fact. While the dying-and-rising god motif was certainly prevalent in the ancient world, there was no such messianic expectation of this in Jewish thought. This was considered absolute anathema by much of the Jewish world (and we have a few surviving writings which bear testament to this). And it’s still considered anathema by many Jewish sects today.

“Fourth, we don’t treat any other historical New Testament figure this way. Look at Paul. There isn’t a non-Christian reference to him until much later than Jesus, and yet he caused a whole lot more high-profile problems for the Roman government on several occasions and started riots in ancient cities. And again, there’s silence. And yet, no serious scholar I’ve come across thinks that there is a “Paul myth”.”

This is all kinds of wrong and might be the weakest argument in your piece. To reiterate, I’m not a Christ mythicist; I only hold that the historical details of his life are unreliable. There’s a canyon of difference there. Secondly, Paul left writings behind-dozens-unlike Jesus, and also unlike Jesus, is multiply attested outside the New Testament.

Contrary to your assertion, we have several references to Paul in both 1st and 2nd century documents, much earlier than those for Jesus, not later:

  • Pope Clement I’s epistle to the Corinthians (late 1st/early 2nd century)
  • Ignatius of Antioch’s letter To the Romans (early 2nd century)
  • Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians (early 2nd century)
  • The 2nd century document Martyrdom of Polycarp

We also have surviving bits and fragments of several pseudonymous letters of writers impersonating Paul in order to leverage authority, such as the epistle to the Laodiceans, probably dated to the late 1st century as well. So to the contrary, we have far better evidence for Paul than for Jesus, while even then the details of events like Paul’s execution remain murky.

“In my opinion, Mark is actually the Gospel of Peter (as is a common belief). The book certainly focuses on the perspective of Peter. So, I think we do have a Gospel “written by” an apostle (okay, “transcribed”–whatever), contra Daniel’s assertion.”

Of course, it’s nowhere near that simple. Mark, like most of the rest of the biblical texts, is a patchwork of voices and earlier sources, often diverse, sometimes cacophonous, stitched together and revised, added to, subtracted from and redacted an unknown number of times. And we don’t have the originals, so we cannot say with certainty what its original form was, or which portions in the preserved versions we have today are additions, subtractions or revisions. We can employ some educated guesswork however and critical study of Mark has identified several underlying sources, diverse in both form and theology, that may have little connection to a Petrine tradition. This is the majority view of Mark today.

To reiterate, few biblical texts are regarded by scholars as the product of a single individual. All the books of the Old and New Testaments have been edited and revised across the centuries. So the idea that the version we have today is one uninterrupted stream from a single individual is just incorrect on so many levels.

“Lastly, and most importantly, I simply don’t understand how people can so easily write off the Christian sources.”

Most importantly, why do you so summarily dismiss the Quranic, Hindu (Vedas, Puranas canons) and Buddhist (Agama, Tantras, Pali canons) stories? Likely because a) you either haven’t studied them and don’t want to, or b) you just assume they’re myth along with all the other religious holy texts. Or maybe for precisely the same reasons non-Christians dismiss your favorite ones.

“And so God’s purpose in the miraculous is not to show off or even suspend the laws of nature.”

I’m sorry, but you can’t invoke the orderliness of nature as evidence for a being whose only clear definition is “that which can arbitrarily suspend the natural order.” That’s as illegitimate a move as it is possible to make in logic or philosophy. As Einstein pointed out, the only really miraculous thing about physics is that there are no miracles. If you want to prove miracles (and thus a miracle maker) exist, you can’t start out by claiming the entire history of uninterrupted order in the universe is evidence for the opposite. Again, see my post form last week: “The Cocoon of Unfalsifiability“. Indeed.

“This is why most modern miracles (of the explicitly supernatural sort Daniel’s talking about) are mainly reported in communities that are still pre-modern, undeveloped, or have a dearth of medical help. It’s not simply because they’re “stupider” than we are. They know a dead person when they see it. They know illness when they see it. And they can also tell when it’s gone away.”

I had to read this twice over to tell if you were actually saying what I thought you were saying. Do you honestly think that educated people are just as likely to toss the word miracle around as uneducated people? In fact, your argument here plays directly into the hands of what we might predict if all miracle accounts are not actually miracles: their numbers would be distributed according to the developmental stages and socioeconomic tiers of the regions claiming them.

Even more troubling is that you are implying that God is more motivated to heal and intervene in undeveloped nations, as if there aren’t some people in developed states whose suffering is just as real. I think you should seriously reconsider suggesting something like that.

“The Catholic Church even has a panel of doctors and scientists that are skeptics that have to approve all of their miracle claims.”

You are speaking about the canonization process in place within the RCC. I’ve written about this previously. The Vatican heralding such things as “miracles” does a disservice to every discipline of human endeavor which is truly trying to understand the world and develop cures for the sick.

I have asked the following questions in the past: Can a saint’s status be rescinded? If the alleged miracle turns out to be yet another fundamental working of nature (as these examples show time and again), can the Catholic Church recant on their canonization? If there aren’t even bylaws built into the canonization process which govern this possibility, then these labels are meaningless (and dangerous).

I have since looked into this and have found no such bylaws. See this report, quoted below.

“The miracle attributed to Mother Theresa was the healing of a woman, Monica Besra, who had been suffering from intense abdominal pain. The woman testified that she was cured after a medallion blessed by Mother Theresa was placed on her abdomen. Her doctors thought otherwise: the ovarian cyst and the tuberculosis from which she suffered were healed by the drugs they had given her. The Vatican, nevertheless, concluded that it was a miracle.”

In other words, the practitioners concluded no miracle –> the Church ignored them and declared ‘miracle!’ anyway. I shouldn’t need to point out how naive, arrogant and dangerously incurious this is.

In closing, I have tried diligently to not falsely represent the true weight of my arguments nor to misrepresent the latest in biblical scholarship. If you find any inaccuracies or errors, please bring them to my attention. Paul, while your piece yesterday was internally cohesive and well-written, I feel that you conveniently left out several major details which have the greatest import for the arguments under examination and fail to engage the non-Christian-centric substance of those arguments.

Note: If anyone is interested in digging deeper into New Testament literature and would like a solid foundation to this field of study, here is a free e-course offered by Yale. Professor is scholar Dale Martin.

– Daniel

Sources

  • Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Fortress Press. 1998. translated from German (1996 edition).
  • Miller, Robert J. The Complete Gospels. San Francisco: Polebridge Press. 1992.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press. 1996.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testamanet (Second ed.). Freiburg, Germany: UBS. 1994.
  • Ehrman, Bart D.. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperCollins. 2007.
  • “Paul, St” Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
  • Sandweiss, Samuel H. Sai Baba the Holy Man and the Psychiatrist. Birth Day Publishing Company, San Diego, California. 1975.
  • Murphet, Howard, Man of Miracles, Weiser Books, 1977.
  • Hislop, John S. Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba. Birth Day Publishing Company, San Diego, California. 1979.
  • Hislop, John S. My Baba and I. Published by Birth Day Publishing Company, San Diego, California. 1985.
  • Warner, Judy. Transformation of the Heart: Stories by Devotees of Sathya Sai Baba. Red Wheel / Weiser Books. 1990.
  • Krystal, Phyllis. Sai Baba: The Ultimate Experience. Weiser Books. 1994.
  • Mazzoleni, Don Mario. A Catholic Priest Meets Sai Baba. Leela Pr; English Edition. 1994.
  • Haraldsson, Erlendur.Modern Miracles: An Investigative Report on These Psychic Phenomena Associated With Sathya Sai Baba. Hastings House; Rev Upd Su edition. 1997.
  • Antonov, Vladimir. Sathya Sai Baba – The Christ Of Our Days. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2008.
  • Wong, Tommy S. W. How Sai Baba Attracts Without Direct Contact (Book 1). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2009.
  • Srinivas, Tulasi. Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement. Columbia University Press. 2010.
  • Wong, Tommy S. W. How Sai Baba Attracts Without Direct Contact (Book 2). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2011.
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47 thoughts on ““New Testament Historicity: A Response” by Daniel Bastian [GUEST POST]

  1. Wow. In this whole exchange, I’ve not seen you misunderstand me more on something than your miracle response. I still don’t know how you took my quote about a miracle being bigger then merely suspending laws of nature to mean I was trying to “invoke the orderliness of nature as evidence for a being whose only clear definition is ‘that which can arbitrarily suspend the natural order.'”

    To me, a “miracle” is not defined by its “method” or “means”, but its “purpose”. This is why (if I recall correctly) the Bible doesn’t usually (if ever) use the word “miracle”. Instead, it’s “sign”. I miracle is something that FIRSTLY is a “sign” pointing to something else. Many times, the MEANS of doing that will be suspending the laws of nature. But not always.

    I said the purpose of miracles is to be a “sign” of the World to come. ANYTHING that acts as a window into that intended future, is a “miracle”, whether or not is suspends the laws of nature.

    And this was the purpose of my second quote that you fundamentally misunderstood. God’s PRIMARY INTENT in acting in miraculous ways is to bring “signs” of the future into the present, nearly always through the medium of physical, material things (a voice, a touch, mud, etc.). You get more reports of the suspension of the laws of nature in third-world countries, NOT because God is “more motivated to heal and intervene in undeveloped nations”. He is doing the “same number” (if you will) of “miracles” in both undeveloped and developed nations, only in the developed world, these miracles are often done through medicine and science. Is that clear? I’m saying that just as Jesus healed eyes with mud, we now are healing bodies with medicine–and neither of those is “more miraculous” than the other. But in nations where there isn’t medicine, mud must do.

    And lastly, I casually mention the Catholic board using skeptics to validate miracles, or at the very least show that there’s no readily available naturalistic explanation, and you launch into a completely unrelated speech that happens to be one of your pet issues right now: rescinding canonization.

    I say: “skeptics are being used to validate miracles”, and you say: “the Catholic Church doesn’t have by-laws to change their mind.” A valid concern, but of no consequence to my point. Then, you gave one example of something with a POSSIBLE naturalistic explanation, and example that (a) wouldn’t exclude the miraculous in MY definition, (b) STILL has some pretty darn peculiar timing for the medication to “start working”, and (c) has NOTHING to do with my (minor) point that skeptics look over that stuff, and verify when there’s no known natural explanation. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of miracles verified through this process. Your worldview must dictate that not even ONE of them is true, even when the eyes of skeptics are on them. I know many skeptics that have tried to catalog a response to each and every miracle, and they haven’t been able to.
    And so, if you want to insist that your worldview dictates that none of them CAN be miracles, regardless of those findings, then I can respect that and totally get that. What I can’t respect, though, is then taking that ASSUMPTION that none of these are legitimate, regardless of the verification process, and making that itself a “proof” that they have no legitimacy.
    Tomorrow I’ll get to the Bible stuff.

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    • Paul,

      I’ve noticed you’ve grown more defensive and more dogmatic as this series has progressed. I’m simply offering an alternative view, backed by good scholarship.

      Also, you readers aren’t dumb. Like me, I’m sure they have noticed the sharp disproportionality between the number of points I set down and the number you actually respond to.

      And I’m sure everyone notices the goalpost dance here:

      “He is doing the “same number” (if you will) of “miracles” in both undeveloped and developed nations, only in the developed world, these miracles are often done through medicine and science. Is that clear? I’m saying that just as Jesus healed eyes with mud, we now are healing bodies with medicine–and neither of those is “more miraculous” than the other. But in nations where there isn’t medicine, mud must do.”

      Right. So for the first 198,000 years of humanity’s existence, we are utterly defenseless in the face of the vastitude of natural miseries and helpless affliction. And then, oh around 2000 years ago, we start to stumble upon some cures and alimentary reliefs to make our existence a bit less miserable; medicine and science are born. But wait! God gets credit here too! He was the one who is “working through” the medicine and science we’ve derived which, in a relative fraction of time, have reduced IMR tenfold and leaped life expectancy by a full generation. We have no idea why a loving God would wait so long to provide us the keys to misery reduction but I’m sure he had good reasons, right? Unless, oh I don’t know, this is exactly what we would expect given the thesis in my OP. Again, you have shifted the goalposts to ensure that god’s intervention and non-intervention are indistinguishable. Again, there’s the cocoon of unfalsifiability.

      I honestly don’t think you actually buy into some of the things you say.

      And lastly, everything here is backed up by solid scholarship. Once again, my views weren’t forged in a vacuum, Paul and are in fact consistent with secular scholarship. If you disagree with those views, then that’s fine; please voice your disagreement. But you continue to omit important details and oversimplify to the point of completely reshaping the topics in question. This piece was an attempt to correct that and secondly to offer an alternative view (again, the majority view of secular academia) of how to approach the New Testament texts. There is nothing radical or out of the ordinary here and has in fact resonated with many people.

      – Daniel

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      • I’m not growing more defensive. The rest of your posts have focused largely on legitimate concerns, even to Christian theologians, and the Christian case against what you’ve been saying in other posts is (as you have been frustrated by) more abstract and speaks more to first principles than to specific facts and evidence. I tried to start with first principles and presuppositions and move to more evidentiary-based ideas. Here, though, when it comes to the issues in these two posts, I think the case is flipped. Which is why your post has frustrated me so much (and that’s what you’re sensing). I found your case appealing to very shoddy and fringe work (BARELY considered “scholarship”), and yet there’s not a hint of skepticism in your mind towards yourself or these individuals. At least I acknowledged the weaknesses of what I was saying previously in other posts, as it pertained to the material world. I found your post incredibly misleading and twisting of the facts. It could easily be misunderstood by many. When I have come to moments like that in my writing, I’ve tried to stress the minority opinion I hold. I’ve tried to say where others might disagree with me. I’ve tried to offer glimpses into my own self-doubt about things. Not in this post of yours, though. And I found it so very frustrating. But more on this tomorrow.

        As for miracles: the idea of miracles is an entirely different conversation than when you mock about God “waiting around” or whatever. Read your sentence again. It wa a complete non-sequitur. I linked in an earlier post to my own discussions about the problem of evil, death as a vehicle of evolution, and the whole “progressive” nature of God’s project to make all things right. As a wise man once said, “I don’t post links just for the hell of it.”

        And the people of God, even in the Bible, have called things with naturalistic causes “miracles”. One of the Red Sea crossing accounts gives an explicitly naturalistic explanation for it. Battles won, droughts broken, children borne. These are all called miracles throughout the Bible, but not all of them have a sense that natural laws were broken. I’m not saying anything crazy here. The biblical idea of “miracle” has always been bigger than the idea of “suspending natural laws”.

        And I don’t know what “points” you don’t think I’ve at least spoken to to some degree, but offer them and I’ll say something. Whether you think it’s been an adequate response is one thing. But I think I’ve mostly hit (at least in passing) all of your twenty points to one degree or another.

        Sorry for the frustration. When my ideas were more “creative” and abstract, I understood your unwavering lack of skepticism in your self. After all, I conceded the purely-material argument for God. But here, where there is FAR more creative reinterpretation in your post rather than presentation of any facts, your over self-confidence in the face of arguments that a two second google search by a middle schooler could show the weaknesses of, was quite surprising, unexpected, and off-putting.

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        • “I found your case appealing to very shoddy and fringe work (BARELY considered “scholarship”), and yet there’s not a hint of skepticism in your mind towards yourself or these individuals.”

          It’s as if your defensiveness and confirmation bias have smothered your ability to think critically. Bruce Metzger, Bart Ehrman, Robert Miller do not represent “fringe” scholarship. In fact, the opposite is true. Anyone familiar with New Testament scholarship knows that. Again, nothing I’ve stated isn’t supported by solid scholarship. Those following along will plainly see through your distractions and ad hominem attacks.

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          • That’s one of my points tomorrow. Miller is a practicing Catholic, Metzger was a proud Christian believer, and Ehrman is an agnostic. You take their findings, and then find fringe reinterpretations of some isolated parts of their work, and post that up as fact, even when those scholars themselves look at those same facts and come to entirely different conclusions than you. Even Ehrman is far more charitable and understanding of the Christian position, and is even open to it, but right now just doesn’t think it’s likely. Ehrman’s only argument against the resurrection is historical and scientific probability, not necessarily that the facts speak directly against it. He simply thinks that historians don’t have the tools to determine conclusively one way OR the other. But at least there’s a reasoned humility to his skepticism. So no, you’re not simply appealing to “mainstream secular scholarship” (and once more, 2/3 of the guys you mentioned are Christians).

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      • Whether or not someone is getting defensive (and frankly, I think that charge could just as easily be leveled at you, Dan, for some of your comments/posts in the series – rightly or wrongly) is irrelevant to the actual arguments and facts involved.

        Please don’t waste our time with debates about who’s defensive and who’s not. Stick to what matters.

        That is all.

        Like

    • “He is doing the “same number” (if you will) of “miracles” in both undeveloped and developed nations, only in the developed world, these miracles are often done through medicine and science. Is that clear? ”

      It’s clear enough for me to lol.

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        • Yeah at least you two are all out arguing now. Lol. I love how far away this series has gotten from the OP and your supposedly soon to be forthcoming list of things that would totally convince you of the other side’s way of thinking. I’m still rather convinced that there is nothing that would convince you of the other side because you’re simply willfully choosing to believe. There is no real “reason” behind your belief, as is clearly demonstrated by your grasp of many of the concepts that lead a person using reason to make his conclusion to come to the opposite conclusion from you.

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          • Whoa. For a second i thought you were taking about Daniel.

            Oh, and I’ve been responding to his own “twenty points” before answering his call to post a similar list from my perspective. It’s a pretty simple and clear order to things, but sorry if it wasn’t made absolutely explicit.

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        • Of course not.

          #s 1, 2, 5, 8, 10, 13, 14, 19 I don’t believe have truly been addressed. And based on your comments earlier, I don’t think you actually understand the mechanics of evolution and why it has import not just for Christianity but for any “direct participant” god we might imagine.

          But this is actually beside the point. The imposition was for theists to map out some corresponding criteria to accompany that which I provided. I’ve yet to see anything on that front from you, while a few on Facebook have responded with some delightful items that I found really intriguing. One might take a few cues from how they have engaged.

          – Daniel

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          • So like I said: you don’t think they’ve been “truly” addressed (whatever you mean by that).

            But you are right about the prayer thing. I had forgotten that I was going to say what Eric Gregory said on Facebook about prayer being about aligning oneself with God more than asking for things. It’s formative. I was going to say all that, but I saw Eric say that and you just write him off, so I didn’t say anything. The evolution posts and suffering/evil/death posts I linked to offer responses to the other points you mentioned.

            I’ve said from the beginning, I was intending to write 4 posts and on the 4th, give my own list. You were the one that has insisted going line by line, needing to offer a rebuttal to any single idea that is contrary to your own, thereby delaying that final post. I’m okay gratifying whatever need you have to respond, but don’t continually say that I haven’t answered the call of your post, when you’re the one that’s been delaying that. Hell, it’s already written. I’ve just been going through this process.

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        • Paul,

          “prayer being about aligning oneself with God more than asking for things.”

          I’m curious-what makes your understanding of prayer ‘correct’ over against every other Christian’s definition of prayer. Most Christians would agree that prayer is not all about request and answer, but most say that God responds to prayer in miraculous ways. Why is your (or Eric’s) understanding right and the others wrong?

          “You were the one that has insisted going line by line, needing to offer a rebuttal to any single idea that is contrary to your own, thereby delaying that final post.”

          Fair. I respond line by line oftentimes in order to prevent any misinterpretation or distortion of what I’ve said. Where it seems like you misunderstood me, I have tried to clarify. I do look forward to your final post. Thanks

          – Daniel

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          • I’ll admit it. Prayer is a tough one. It is so subjective, that I don’t know that we can know the exact balance between its effects on us, its effect on God, and the interplay between the two. I mean, ultimately, whatever our idea of prayer is, we have to deal with the fact that the New Testament does not at all shy away from the fact that Jesus–the Son of God–prayed that he would not die, and his Father said “no”. If you were doing a controlled experiment on the “efficacy of prayer”, then that case study would not look favorable. And yet, in the theology of the New Testament, it’s clear that Jesus is the one that would understand prayer better than any of us, and he still prayed regardless of the outcome. And so, there does seem to be some “point” to prayer that is beyond petition.

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      • “Again, you have shifted the goalposts to ensure that god’s intervention and non-intervention are indistinguishable. Again, there’s the cocoon of unfalsifiability.

        Oh but but but, you don’t understand, that is where Paul’s goalposts were already, he’s just now setting them out! Lol.

        Be clear Dan, nothing you can ever say will scratch his belief that god is present in all things, science, medicine, old school miracles, etc. As you have noted, it is the cocoon, and it is impenetrable, not least because it will simply shift.

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        • “But I think I’ve mostly hit (at least in passing) all of your twenty points to one degree or another.”

          Wait wait wait, the 20 points in this thread or in the OP? Because I have yet to see you “touch” on the actual “point” of the OP, the things which would convince you of the other side’s position. The 20 things which would lead Dan to believe your position may have been tangentially touched on, though your touching on them was rather pointless.

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        • As far as i know, the co-doctrines of both transcendence and imminence have always been staples of the Christian understanding of God, but thanks for the insightful comment as always, meat.

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          • Looking back over your list now. Other than God appearing to you personally, MAYBE the “if two cultures had identical revelation”, and the divisions within Christianity, what haven’t I touched on? And know that points 15 through 19, though having been touched upon already will be hit in much greater detail tomorrow. And actually MAYBE you could mention the suffering and death stuff, though I did link to my own earlier treatments of those ideas.

            Does one have to change your mind to have you think they were addressed?

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        • I’d like my final comment on these blog posts to not be my own words, but those of Jesus:

          “At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

          Amen and peace out.

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  2. Paul,

    You of course have to disaggregate which parts are sourced to which scholar. If I had posted this piece on my blog, I would have used inline citations. As I did not know if your blog supported footnotes or not, I collected them all at the bottom of the post. Metzger and Miller are cited with respect to the Synoptic Problem and the content of the gospels. Of course I’m aware they don’t hold to my conclusions!

    The part below is actually a facsimile of statements made by Ehrman both in print and in debates:

    These distortions then permeated into the annals of history as more and more people were won into the faith by emotionally moving tales of salvation, bodily renewal and guarantees of an elysian afterlife.

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  3. Wow. There is sooooo much here that both believing and non-believing Biblical scholars would take issue with. I don’t even know where to start, to be really honest. I’ll let Paul’s responses and posts speak for me – I just don’t have the time.

    Either way, I have enjoyed reading both sides and appreciate the tremendous interest and curiosity about these things both you guys approach these issues with.

    Like

  4. ” than when you mock about God “waiting around” ”

    He’s not mocking god bro, he’s mocking your nonsensical concept that we took 90000+ years to get evolved and we lived in misery most of that time, and then, according to you, he chose the last 2000 years to grant us the gift of science/medicine.

    If you really buy into the 90000 years theory then you must realize that god giving us modern society just recently is preposterous.

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    • Yeah….if i really thought that modern society was the end-all, be-all of everything, then maybe. If anything (and this should mess with your idea of what you think i think), i think the world is just as effed up now as it’s ever been. More people are certainly dying and being killed nor than ever in history. The Legacy of the Enlightenment: killing more efficiently as many people as they happen to save. Yay!

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        • “yeah, the 20th century was peaches and cream. no wars or genocide or anything”

          There were a lot of wars and a lot of deaths, just less than any century prior on a global scale. In terms of casualties from violence and war, the 20th century is the most peaceful on record, and this trend has been consistent for previous ten centuries.

          [Source: “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, Pinker, S.]

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        • such progress – only 6 million Jews killed in cold blood, a couple world wars, civil wars all over the place with ethnic cleansing in tow, use of atomic weapons, etc…the fact that you (and your source apparently) just used the word peaceful in the same sentence as 20th century is laughable

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          • No, these are both right. I was very careful to say that just as many people were being killed as were being saved by the advances of the Enlightenment. Daniel’s right that as a proportion of global population, violence has been going down every century for the past thousand years. I was talking about the fact that the Enlightenment made it possible to kill more people en masse than ever before. That in no way speaks to whether or not our natural capacity to use them in that way has been growing or shrinking, an answer that has little to do with the Enlightenment, as the trend began long before.

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        • Whit: “such progress – only 6 million Jews killed in cold blood, a couple world wars, civil wars all over the place with ethnic cleansing in tow, use of atomic weapons, etc…the fact that you (and your source apparently) just used the word peaceful in the same sentence as 20th century is laughable”

          Something tells me if I were to say “2+2=4” you would disagree with me just to disagree. You clearly are here not to engage but to antagonize.

          It’s not “laughable” at all but supported by empirical data. We do in fact occupy the most peaceful era in our specie’s existence. Pinker collaborated with several researchers on his groundbreaking work. This has been on the marketplace since 2007…

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        • i’m actually not disputing that as a proportion of global population…yeah, all that.

          what i am saying is that if i had a counseling client who abused his wife came in and told me that he only hit his wife 8 times this week instead of 20, I’m not sure I’d call that good progress or that it was a “peaceful week” (besides calling the police on him)

          Like

        • i’m actually not trying to antagonize, but genuinely interact with your point here

          besides, didn’t you say something about ad hominem attacks?

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        • Whit: “what i am saying is that if i had a counseling client who abused his wife came in and told me that he only hit his wife 8 times this week instead of 20, I’m not sure I’d call that good progress or that it was a “peaceful week” (besides calling the police on him)”

          Ah, good point. Yes, it’s all relative for sure. You might wish to use a different label.

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      • Paul: “I was talking about the fact that the Enlightenment made it possible to kill more people en masse than ever before.”

        Would you like to support that statement. I don’t see the connection you keep making between the enlightenment and higher violence. If you’re referring specifically to the nuclear bomb, then yes but that had nothing at all to do with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a cultural movement…nuclear physics could have appeared in any other cultural movement after it so I don’t understand your connection.

        – Daniel

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        • Whenever humans have been given an increase in knowledge/technology, they have been just as eager to find better ways to kill others with it as they are to help others. In fact, I would say that those with the most resources, power, influence, and governments themselves have almost always used these advances FIRSTLY for more/”better” violence than peacemaking. The increase in peace has largely been form development in other realms.

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  5. Also I really wish you could fix the commenting here. The ‘Reply’ button is missing from some comments but not from others, which makes it difficult to reply directly to a specific comment.

    Like

  6. Pingback: New Testament & History: Christians can be confident [a retort] | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  7. Pingback: A Christian & An Atheist: A Discussion [a table of contents] | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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