(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)
Update: Daniel has posted a reply below.
When I have these kinds of exchanges on the blog, I really try to let the other person have the last word. After all, I have home field advantage here. I was absolutely ready to move on to my last part of this ongoing exchange with my friend Daniel Bastian in response to his Facebook post about his Atheism.
Last week, I wrote a post trying to give a cursory response to some of his claims about the Bible and miracles. Daniel wrote a response, posted a couple of days ago. I offered a brief response to his critique of my view of miracles. I was really eager to get back to writing about other things.
But it seems I can’t. Not yet.
I’m starting seminary back up this Fall, not simply because I’m interested in all the “knowledge” about the Bible, but because I feel I actually have a (pastoral?) concern for the spiritual well-being of people. I care a lot about what people might see on this blog, and I care that they are able to receive these things in ways that will be ultimately helpful to them.
And I fear that his post, at least for Christians not well-read in these issues, will cloud the waters more than clear them. Don’t get me wrong. Christians should wrestle with what Daniel has written in earlier posts, especially when it comes to the more abstract philosophical concerns of God’s existence and work in this world. These are things that don’t have easy or even clear responses by Christians. I’m not worried about Christians having restless nights or days as they wrestle with legitimate difficulties in the seeming difference between what they believe about God and the way the world seems to be.
But, when it comes to the Bible and the Resurrection, I don’t think we are on as shaky ground as Daniel makes it seem. Let’s discuss.
Before I begin, normal readers of this blog need to know that this is a long one. Probably the longest blog post I’ve ever written and posted in one chunk. This one post has a word count equal to over a week and a half of usual posts on this blog. And so, if you don’t have the time, I’ll link to a couple of articles that you should read if you can’t read anything else today:
- How Can the Bible be Authoritative? by N.T. Wright
- Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem by N.T. Wright
- Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins by N.T. Wright (a similar article to the previous one, but still good)
- “Can We Trust the Gospels?” by John Drane, an excerpt from his excellent Introducing the New Testament
- “The Resurrection” by John Drane, also from Introducing the New Testament
Okay. Grab some coffee, and let’s go.
In this first part, we’re going to hit some of Daniel’s points that were simply, clearly, flat-out incorrect. I don’t think that Daniel meant to get these things wrong, but they need to be corrected. I will also use each of these points as a launching point to talk of other, broader, more methodological concerns that touch on his other points.
“Q”, the Synoptic Problem, & Ancient “Lying”
Daniel thinks I purposefully omitted some necessary information. I was trying to not get into the biblical studies weeds, especially when I was also trying to discuss Miracles, and History, but apparently Daniel thinks this is especially important. For the record, I’ve not “hidden” or shied away from textual criticism and “Q”. Last summer, I taught a Bible Survey class at my church and talked at length about this.
The book of Mark is believed by most scholars to be the first Gospel written. Something like over 80% of it is reproduced nearly verbatim in both Matthew and Luke. Mark seems to have been the main source off of which they built their Gospels. But, there is other material that Matthew and Luke have in common that’s not in Mark. It’s some unnamed “source”, and so scholars started referring to this source as “Q” (for the German word for “source”. German scholars are known for their creativity).
This has been long known, and hasn’t been too much a source of contention among scholars. In short, it’s not that big of a deal, and yet Daniel thinks it is. But it only is a problem if the original authors were intending to write a modernist historical accounting using modern historical methods.
But no. They used many sources in their writing. In fact, Luke explicitly says that he does. This is nothing that’s been hidden, or secret, or just recently discovered, or anything that most anyone writing the New testament nor commenting later on the New Testament has found to be a problem or undermining to the integrity of the writings.
Daniel seems to have a conception of “source” that thinks it only can be something later added. But when scholars say that there are many “sources” behind the text, they are often referring to it in the same way that Mark is a “source” for Matthew and Luke: an earlier tradition or piece of writing that is present as the main new piece is being written. (Perhaps Daniel is talking about a “redaction”? That would be a later addition, though textual critics are quite well aware of what sections of Scripture those are, and they are nearly all inconsequential theologically.)
And this is the sense that many of the sources of the Gospels are talked about–they are earlier traditions and stories and writings that are even closer to the original events than the writings themselves. And if anything, Matthew and Luke’s use of Mark is meant to speak to the value they placed on Mark as a source in the first place, not some dastardly scheme to fool everyone or bolster their own claims. If that were the case, they could have easily simply excised Mark from the canon altogether (as seems to have been done with Q).
Daniel so clearly imposes an unnecessary western, modernist historical ethic on the gospels. They are not overly concerned with “proving” the Resurrection. It is simply stated, not even over-dramatically or especially embellished (like the baptism and crucifixion scenes arguably are). Multiple sourcing was not a problem in the ancient world. Even the later additions to writers like Josephus (more on that later) were not done in a conspiratorial spirit, but rather trying to offer a fuller sense that the original author may not have known, but was nonetheless believed to be true about what was being talked about.
It was common to write in the name of others–not to fool anyone, but to honor those people or to try and speak in their voice. The Hebrew line that’s translated “A Psalm of David” can also mean “A Psalm in the spirit of David”. This was common. Building off of another’s work was seen to honor that work and show your respect. Or, sometimes it was simply a pragmatic concern. Why invent the wheel? Luke had discovered other accounts of events and so, using Mark and Q as a base, wrote out the rest of his accounting like an investigative journalist (and he was famously accurate in this reporting).
So in the end, Daniel wants to paint this as some sort of blow to the integrity of these works when (1) these facts have been known all along, even by the earliest Christians (Daniel even quotes Origen bemoaning Mark’s geographical inconsistency), (2) they weren’t trying to meticulously build a “case” using modern historical standards for peer-review, they were simply telling the story to fill in the spaces for those believers who had come to faith in Jesus based on verbal proclamations and letters, and (3) all of these writings are perfectly at home in the ancient world as reliable guides for the events of Jesus’ life–no one would have the concerns that Daniel has placed upon these texts.
My personal take on Q was that it was an “oral document” (though there’s no way to prove it, of course) And, contrary to Daniel’s assertion, study after study after study has shown the reliability of ancient oral transmission. And at the very least, no matter how many specifics would get lost or corrupted in transmission, the idea of a Resurrection would not be one of those “incidental” additions.
Twenty witnesses to a car crash (or even later commentators on the witness testimony) might indeed walk away with radically different takes on the details of the events, but they will all nevertheless have, as the center of their accounting, that their was indeed a car crash–an event that inspired this testimony in the first place.
And so, as Daniel reads this, I hope his biggest take-away is this: no matter the details of any other part of the gospels, what was central to the original Christian proclamation was this: Christ came, he died, and he rose again. The rest literally is just details.
The Resurrection is the point. It is the key to Christianity. If it is false, everything else is false, no matter how well-preserved the Scriptures are. If it is true, none of the other contradictions, textual critiques, or historical discrepancies make Christianity any less than the ultimate and final statement on reality and its renewal.
Daniel may take issue with other contradictions, geographical errors, or odd events recounted, but in the end, the entire New Testament is all united in those core assertions of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And before he responds to that statement, I would ask that he read at least one of the Resurrection pieces by Wright linked above and the Drane piece on Resurrection.
And one final word on Mark: In all my study I haven’t ever heard anything about “numerous errors about the social and religious customs” in Mark. I’d heard the geography stuff, but (if early writers were correct about a “Peter core” to the book) I had chalked this up to Peter both being uneducated and not having been originally from most of the places that the Gospel takes place. After all, Papias of Hierapolis wrote in the early 100’s “Mark, having become the transcriber of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.” Mark’s “messiness” is nothing new.
But I will say this: Mark is full of completely unnecessary incidental details that usually accompany true, eyewitness accounts, like the feeding of the 5,00 taking place on “the green grass”, Jesus’ trial taking place on a second floor with the High Priest, there being more than just the disciples’ own ship on the water during the storm Jesus calmed, and that Jesus, at that time, was “asleep on a cushion”, etc. Any Google search can pull out a lot more. Even the scholars that think Mark was compiled from many, many sources believe that at least some of the sources are very, very early. Even if, as Papias put it, everything was out of order, the basic facts seem to be pretty accurate in the book.
The Gospel of John in the BIble
Daniel mentions in passing that the Gospel of John was “initially rejected for canonization by Church fathers”. There was one very small fringe group of heterodox Christians in Asia Minor that didn’t like the logos idea in John’s Gospel and rejected it.
Other than that, no other group or leaders ever argued against that Gospel being in the Bible, much less any “Church Fathers”. There was certainly lots of disagreement over III John and the Apocalypse over how unlikely it was that the John wrote those. Maybe Daniel means this.
Concerning John, I find pretty convincing the minority scholarly opinion on the book that it is in fact very, very early, written at the same time as, or even before, Mark. (Here’s a great defense of that view in a mainstream contemporary commentary.) The “lateness” argument stems from beliefs that exalted ideas about Jesus “surely” would have only come about later on, and because of the conflict motif between Jews and Christians in the book.
But, the Gospel of John seems completely ignorant of any of the other Gospels, there was conflict with the Jews from Day 1 of Christianity, not just later on, the Gospel has no direct, explicit temple destruction prophecy nor confirmation (which you would think would be in there if written in the 90s in the midst of Jew-Christian conflict, as most scholars think), and the whole “evolutionary” idea to theology is borne from a particular worldview and a set of assumptions, and not from facts.
It seems to me that Chapters 2-20 of John were written all at once to a primarily Jewish Christian audience (with some other stories thrown in later, like the woman at the well), and the circulation was very small, probably just within Jerusalem. And then later, the book was prepared for a wider, Gentile audience by John’s church community (perhaps with his input) with the first chapter (the logos introduction) being added, Chapter 21 was tacked on to quash a rumor about John and Peter’s deaths, and some other “greek-ifying” elements were added for its wider circulation.
Philo & The Mythicists
In Daniel’s piece, there is also a mention of Philo of Alexandria and his use of the logos idea and (as Daniel says) the claim that Philo “documents a pre-Christian Jewish belief of a celestial being named: ‘Jesus’.”
Okay, first, Philo mentions the logos only a few times in all of his writings, and each time he refers to something different. Once, it’s the mind of God. Another time, it’s the realm between God and man. Another, it’s human logic. It’s not a human. It’s never thought of as the Messiah. It’s very different from the Greek conception, which is the primary way in which it is employed by the writer(s) of John. Here’s a good, brief summary of all of this. Here’s another summary of the contrast:
(1) Philo’s Logos-Mediator was a metaphysical abstraction while the Logos of the New Testament is a specific, individual, historical person. Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle, postulated to solve various philosophical problems. (2) Given Philo’s commitment to Platonism and its disparagement of the body as a tomb of the soul, Philo could never have believed in anything like the Incarnation. Philo’s God could never make direct contact with matter. But the Jesus described in [the New Testament] not only becomes man but participates in a full range of all that is human, including temptation to sin. Philo would never have tolerated such thinking. (3) Philo’s Logos could never be described as the [New Testament] pictures Jesus: suffering, being tempted to sin, and dying. (4) The repeated stress in [the New Testament] of Jesus’ compassionate concern for His brethren (i.e., Christians) is incompatible with Philo’s view of the emotions.
Second, Philo’s logos ideas are based on pre-Philo Jewish thought connecting the logos to the Old Testament ideas of “Lady Wisdom” in Proverbs and the use of the “Word of the Lord” or the “Word of God”. Once again, these were never thought of as people, incarnations, or connected in any way to the Messiah. It was considered speculative theology and not Jewish dogma. The logos idea still remained entirely a Greek idea that the Jews, in a sense, “played around with” in their theology. It wasn’t central to Philo’s thought, or any other Jewish philosopher. This is why many scholars don’t think Christians were basing anything on Philo, but rather that both the Christians and Philo were borrowing the language of a common source.
Thirdly, about this whole “Philo talking about Jesus” business. In one passage, Philo is making a poetic reference to a priest in (I think) Zechariah that is named “Joshua”. Because Philo–as did most Jews in that day–worked off of the Septuagint (a Greek version of the Old Testament), he used the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name “Joshua”, which is–you guessed it–“Jesus”. In fact, if you look in the Septuagint, there’s an entire book of the Pentateuch called “Jesus”. And that’s because it’s the book that we know as “Joshua”. (OMG!)
And lastly, other than the agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, Daniel spends most of this post filling it with arguments and quotes that come primarily from thinkers that are called “mythicists”. They are those that think that Jesus never existed in the first place. This is an opinion that hardly any professional and serious scholar takes. They may disagree about who this Jesus was, what he said, what he did, and how much we can answer those questions at all, but most all of them agree Jesus was a historical person.
The reason I mention this here is that one of the greatest popularizers of this whole Philo nonsense is a mythicist named Richard Carrier who, yes, has a Ph.D. in ancient history, but isn’t really practicing his scholarship or research anywhere and has only a few writings that have appeared in peer-reviewed journals. Other than that, he writes on lots of blogs and websites. Either way, I don’t know how we’re defining “scholarship”, but this might be kind of loose.
But this is precisely the kind of source that a lot of Daniel’s points come from–probably inadvertently (although he does say that he will read “with great interest” Carrier’s new book. Of all the things I might think about what Daniel believes, I would never accuse him of intentionally trying to mislead.)
A lot of Carrier’s (and some of Daniel’s) arguments focus on the idea that the Jews were expecting a Messiah to come, be divine, die, and resurrect. If this were true, then one can say that Christianity was born out of this expectation, and that early Christians forced this idea on a random preacher, Jesus, when he never would have intended that. Unfortunately, this view is in the extreme minority and garners very little support and respect. Even Ehrman, Daniel’s main source of scholarly credibility (and it certainly is a legitimate one!) has attacked Carrier on numerous occasions on this exact point.
There is absolutely no evidence that there was any Messianic expectation of death at the hands of pagans and subsequent resurrection. Some mythicists try to find odd places (like Philo) to find a smoking gun of some kind, but they are the only ones. There were lots of failed messiahs in ancient Israel. Lots of them. None of the Jews decided to form any idea about them being resurrected. Which is one of the reasons why (as Daniel points out) there was so much immediate conflict between Jews and Christians. And yet, as I said in my other piece, no one who could have clearly countered the claims of Resurrection did so.
Yes, lots of non-Christians thought the idea was silly (also lending to its lack of immediate literary attestation), but no one was able to produce a body, offer proof, or stop this movement from forming, even though there would have been many people not only with the ability to do so, but great incentive as well. There was not just a Resurrection proclamation, but empty tomb evidence.
Documented History & Gospel Weirdness
Speaking of mythicists, Daniel takes from the father of mythicism, John Remsburg, a list of all the writers that lived during or within a century of Jesus to say that this time was the most well-documented time in the ancient world. I had asked him to provide this citation because I didn’t know what he was getting at. Now I know.
Originally, I wondered if he was trying to say that we have more surviving documentation from this time than at most any other. That’s why I was skeptical. And Indeed, he was simply saying that we had more people then that were writing stuff down than we’ve had at many other points in history–not necessarily that those documents have all survived.
I really tried to find a percentage of how many works scholars think we have lost from that time period, and I couldn’t find an exact number. The estimated percentage I could find of those writings we still have ranged from .3% to 3%. So yes, a lot of people were writing back then. We’ve lost nearly all of those writings. The fact that a rural itinerant preacher, who would’ve been on the radar of a couple of regional governors for a week before being killed, got any play in ancient writings–much less writings that have survived until now–is pretty remarkable.
Also, I’ve hesitated mentioning this because the textual history is so complex and there’s a lot of disagreement among scholars on these texts, but there are also fragmented sayings of Jesus found in Egypt that date in the early 200s, that are most certainly copies of even earlier texts, which hints at the speed and distance the words of Christ traveled.
There’s also the Babylonian Talmud which contains references to Jesus having been a wizard and done miraculous things (by way of an evil power), and that there was the claim he was born of a virgin. Like I said, especially with the Talmud, no one knows for sure how early it is, but there’s at least the possibility that even Jews were aware of the miracles he was doing and that were attributed to him.
And lastly, Daniel brings up some of the crazy supernatural things that two of the Gospels talk about at Jesus’ death, that no other Gospel mentions and no one else in the New Testament references: the sky turning dark (Mark), an earthquake, dead people rising, the curtain in the temple being torn in two (all these are in Matthew). I’ll be honest with him: I have no idea. I’m fine with biblical authors adding non-historical items for thematic purposes, but even these events stretch how much the Gospel writers usually do this.
If it’s any encouragement, most Christian commentators are also left scratching their heads. As far as Mark’s darkness, I could see this being a “local darkness” rather than a “global darkness” if indeed it happened. As far as Matthew’s earthquake and rising dead, this would fit thematically with the Jewish emphasis of Matthew and how this messianic death is a rolling back of the original Creative act. But in the end, I don’t know.
But, I will point out (and this is often missed by people who critique the Scriptures), the fact that it’s not mentioned anywhere else, even very late writings, goes to show how much the early church had no problems with these things being there. Daniel (et al) want to point out contradictions, changing narrative chronologies and geographical inconsistencies as if they were the first to notice these. But no, early Christians, and even early Scriptural writers, would have also been aware of the things and what they said and yet still had no problem “keeping those things in” without extra comment.
This either means that they (1) were especially confident in their historicity and needed no extra comment or defense, or (2) (what I think is more likely) they had a particular view of the Bible, writing, and telling stories that would not have precluded non-historical elements being placed in the story, and there still being authoritative truth to the text. In other words, perhaps we’re trying to place an unreasonable modernist expectation on the text to create problems where they would have found none.
It also means that, most importantly, other writers/redactors/commentators of Scripture didn’t view this “other stuff” as the most essential parts of the story. Indeed, the earliest Christian proclamation centered around Jesus’ words and Resurrection, not this odd stuff happening at Christ’s death.
Josephus & Other references outside the Bible
Oh Josephus. A favorite of Christian apologists. In Daniel’s post, he says that Christians “forged” Josephus. This is an unwarranted and casual stretch of wording. Most every scholar out there thinks that the “nucleus” (as they call it) of Josephus’ references to Jesus (and John the Baptist and James, the brother of Jesus) are original. As I said earlier, early Christians simply expanded what Josephus wrote, trying to add to it a fuller sense than Josephus would have known or believed. Yes, this isn’t good, modern methodology. Yes, today this makes us predisposed to skepticism on other references. But, in the ancient world, this was normal practice.
There is no evidence that there was blatant, widespread “forgery” of texts as Daniel puts it. In fact, many of the ancient world’s text, including Josephus’ works were actually preserved by the Christians. They were in their care. If they were trying to egregiously fool anyone by adding stuff, surely they could have added a whole lot more than they did. The additions into Josephus, while certainly using exalted language for Jesus, do not form any “new” basis for “new” ideas Christians would have had. It wasn’t an attempt to “fool”.
And there was another point concerning references to Jesus outside the Bible that I didn’t stress in my last point. Jesus isn’t the only person in this situation that’s mentioned. Christians themselves are as well. Daniel (and others) want to make a big deal that Jesus isn’t mentioned outside the Bible until the early 100s. But in what context are Jesus and Christians mentioned? These Roman references are not just to things at that time, but also in the past.
For example, Tacitus and Seutonius don’t simply talk about Christians in their own day and time (as if they had just recently popped up), but are talking about them being persecuted by Nero around 60CE–less than thirty years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection, and more than 1500 miles away from Jerusalem. The Tacitus account in particular shows us:
(i) that there were a sizable number of Christians in Rome at the time, (ii) that it was possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews in Rome, and (iii) that at the time pagans made a connection between Christianity in Rome and its origin in Judea.
There was also accounts of persecution under Domitian around 90CE. Though the size of this persecution is doubt and contested, it is nonetheless true that, to some extent, Christian were around and big enough to cause problems in Asia Minor before the end of the 1st century.
And on a side note, if there was any imperial persecution, would there not have been things written down about that? Yeah. I mention this to highlight the degree to which we’ve lost writings, especially Roman historical ones.
Life Expectancy & Eyewitness Reportage
Daniel writes, “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).” Yeah, the infant death rate does pull it down. WAY down. So far down that “29” is not a relevant number to this discussion. One simple Google search on the matter brought me to this Wikipedia page, which helpfully pointed out that if you made it age 15, your life expectancy jumped to 52! Way different from the “29” Daniel mentioned.
And we have to remember, that even though this is the case, this is still an average. Ancient historians mention ages for individuals and even among entire groups that even exceed 100. More on this here.
And again, most every serious scholar believes that most of the traditions behind the biblical texts go back to eyewitness accounts, stories, and/or traditions, even if they were not the ones that eventually wrote them down (which is an idea definitely up for debate). At worst, even if Daniel were right, if there was decades of silence with no tradition, preaching, or eyewitness accounts circulating and then suddenly, out of nowhere, these writings popped up nearly half a century after the events they describe, of all the things that would have been lost over the years–all the details, names, locations, et cetera–the idea of a dead man getting up again would not be one of those incidental little transmission errors.
At the core of the gospels are accurate representations of what life looked like among the early 1st century Palestinian people. Life in the region looked very different by the end of the 1st century. And yet, none of our writings (except Revelation) reflect being written in this radically different environment. Unless you approach the texts with some assumptions already in place, there is no reason to believe that the core of all of these texts are around anything other than eyewitness accounts–maybe arranged in a particular order for thematic (not conspiratorial) purposes, but eyewitness nonetheless.
A quick example (talked about in Drane’s Gospel piece above): Luke describes Paul’s recounting of his conversion experience several times through the book of Acts. Every single one of the recountings is different. Now, if an incredibly detailed and careful writer like Luke felt comfortable adapting the details of that story to different audiences within the same piece of writing–and still consider his own piece an “orderly account” (and the early Church agreed with him)–how much more acceptable might it have been to have Gospels that do the same thing?
Once again, I think Daniel is imposing wrong standards on the Bible, unable to shake the fog of modernist thinking from his assessment of these texts.
And something skeptics always seem to forget. If the early writers were setting out to try to create something they even had a suspicion of being false, they did a really crappy job doing so. The fact that the inconsistencies, contradictions, difficulties and such were all existing and all accepted by the earliest Christians must offer us a hint that something else was going on other than a vast “sincere, but wrong” reinterpretation of this Jesus guy. Early Church leaders had lots of time and ability to “smooth things out”, but they never did, in any fundamental way. The texts simply don’t read like it, and their development does not reflect this at all.
And lastly, Daniel says that the texts went through “centuries” of edits and revisions. This is severely misleading. One of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve ever had was reading through Bruce Metzger’s and Bart Ehrman’s seminal work, Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. In it, the authors say:
Even though many of the details [of textual history] are shrouded in mystery, it is possible to trace the general outline of this history and to evaluate the textual character of the major text types attested among our surviving Witnesses…. The complications notwithstanding, most textual critics would agree that our manuscripts for each biblical book…in one way or another go back to a text that was produced–either authored or edited–and published at some specific time and place and that it is this “ﬁnal published” edition that served as the basis for all later copies that the textual critic is trying to reconstruct.
In other words, there is a primary “core text” behind the text we have, and throughout the Metzger and Ehrman’s book, there is an optimism that we can get pretty damn close today to at least the general sense of the writing. We know pretty precisely what “edits and revisions” have been made, and they are not anything like the Dan Brown conspiracy situation to which Daniel is subtly (even if unintentionally) alluding.
The earliest Christians were the first textual critics, nearly all of them comparing manuscripts and wrestling through variants. They were determined to do the painstaking work to try to get to the truest core of the text, not simply “changing things” to fit their own ideas. That was not how textual variants arose. Even when doctrinal things were added or removed (almost always by rogue scribes, not church leaders), they were usually based on other Scriptural ideas, not entirely new doctrines being thrown in or core ideas being taken out.
And (in our well-documented history of variants, including doctrinally-based ones), they were almost always on minor theological issues. Never in our entire history of textual transmission (that I know of, at least) do you have a body of texts that don’t have Jesus, his life, his death, and his Resurrection. That is simply not how textual variants occur, and to imply otherwise is either incredibly dishonest or speaking beyond one’s own knowledge.
There’s an incredible optimism in textual criticism that, though no text is “one continuous stream from one individual”, we can at least know what its original, intended contours were. To suggest that the text can get corrupted to the point where we can’t is very ill-informed, and using the term “edits” and “revisions” is a huge stretch. “Variants” is the technical term here, and we’re talking about–at worst–a phrase here or there that is omitted or added, a paraphrase of an especially wordy set of lines, or harmonizing between gospels. And hardly any of these variants are of any doctrinal or theological import at any level. There weren’t entirely new “editions” or “revisions” of entire books stretching down through the centuries. The vast, vast majority of variants come from errors, not intentional doctrinal moves by scribes.
St. Paul: a clarification & a story
Daniel apparently thought that in my earlier post I was implying that people think Paul isn’t a real person (at least I think that’s how he took what I was saying). Rather, I had a very different point I tried to make when referring to Paul. The Apostle Paul caused more problems and had more reason to be cited by Roman writers than Jesus did, and yet, was not. Daniel read this, and then cited early Christian writers who refer to Paul, and were writing later than the Roman sources for Jesus. This is actually exactly what I said. People make a big deal over Roman historians not writing about Jesus. I was saying that Roman historians had no reason to write about Jesus, and in fact, had more reason to talk about Paul, and yet they did not.
And yet, in spite of non-biblical attestation for Paul, no one thinks that (1) supernatural things are wrongly attributed to him, or (2) that people later added supernatural occurrences to his writing. So….the biblical witness is good enough for facts about Paul even when surviving Roman documents don’t talk about him, and yet even though Paul’s writings are about Jesus, there are more writings “about” Jesus than Paul in the Bible, and surviving Roman writings talk about Jesus much sooner than Paul, skeptics apparently just can’t lend any credibility to the words about Jesus. And yes, Daniel points out we have writings by Paul, but any skeptic can easily just arbitrarily say that none of them were written by this “Paul” fellow (as they already do with half his New Testament writings), so one’s preconceived assumptions drive one’s interpretation of these facts, not the facts themselves.
I once attended a lecture by E.P. Sanders, one of the world’s foremost scholars on Paul. He described himself as a “liberal, secularized, modern Protestant” and does not shy away from any view of the New Testament no matter how much it flies in the face of traditional Christian thought. He went through the lecture outlining much of Paul’s thinking as shown in his letters, and at the end of the lecture, this man who has devoted himself to being at the forefront of “liberal” scholarship closed his binder of notes and said,
“at the end of the day–and I’ve tried to get around this any way I can–I’ve spent so much time with Paul, I feel like I know him through and through. And no matter how I try to look at it, I can’t come to any other conclusion than Paul really truly experienced something in his life. He really believed everything he wrote. And that bothers me. Because I don’t believe the things he believed. I haven’t experienced the things he seems to have experienced. And I don’t know that I ever will. But there’s not a doubt in my mind that Paul did. He really, really did.”
I’ve never forgotten that.
Laodiceans: a quickie
Contrary to Daniel’s assertion, there’s no such thing as a 1st century apocryphal letter to the Laodiceans. There’s one 4th century Latin manuscript that calls itself “Laodiceans”, but its contents are just a mashup of verses from Philippians. Some scholars think (and I agree) that Ephesians might be the actual letter to the Laodiceans that Paul references. This is because Ephesians seems to be written to a group of people Paul had never met, but in fact, by this time, Paul had spent several years in Ephesus and knew them very well. Ephesians looks like it was meant to be a circular letter, perhaps first sent to Laodicea, but the Ephesian copy perhaps became the most widely distributed? No one knows for sure.
Other religious texts & “myths”
I made a comment about how I don’t understand why skeptics like Daniel seem to “so easily write off” the biblical writings as historical sources. Daniel didn’t answer my question but simply said, in essence, “the same reason you disregard other religions’ texts”.
But here’s the thing: I don’t! I was talking about historical veracity; not theological. I may not believe the oil in the Maccabean lamps lasted as long as the story says it did, but that doesn’t mean that the books of the Maccabees are not incredibly valuable historically. The Quran and other religious writings are very important for speaking to a specific historical and cultural mindset. But even this value seems to be abandoned by over-reactive skeptics and fringe scholars. I don’t need extra-Qurannic attestation to believe that the Prophet really believed he had this vision and what effects it caused.
And this connects to Daniel’s reference to Sathya Sai Baba, an indian guru that Daniel cites as a modern example of a “myth in the making” right before our eyes.
First, as C.S. Lewis put it (somewhere I can’t remember at the moment), being a Christian does not necessarily mean that you think every other religion or religious experience is wrong–it’s just that whenever they disagree with Christianity, we think Christianity is right and they are incorrect. Lewis also says (maybe in the same place?) that all religions have the “camera lens”, as it were, turned on the same God and the same Truth. It’s just that Christianity believes that their camera is the most “in focus” (because of Jesus’ revelation of God) whereas other faiths have many of the same contours and experiences, but they are mere shadows of the fullness and clarity of the truth, insomuch as they don’t include Jesus.
I’ve mentioned in another post that the Bible talks about many individuals that are outside the People of God that access and experience the spiritual realm in various ways. I’m not speaking to whether or not Sathya Sai Baba is genuinely one of those people, just that whether or not he is is of no consequence because the key to the Christian faith is not having the market cornered on spiritual experience, but is instead the Resurrection.
But to Daniel’s point more specifically.There are so many variable here that make this fundamentally different. Contemporary analogies will always fail because of the advent of technology that will make “myth” (if that’s what this is) spread faster (and ironically, I had never heard of this guy).
And secondly, as mentioned earlier, even the Babylonian Talmud calls Jesus a sorcerer who did miraculous things like heal people–and yet they write him off. Miracles are not the driving force behind lasting “myth-making” movements (all three of those phrases are very important to what I’m saying) that continue to grow long after the central individual’s death. Preaching is not the driving force either, nor is conquest (Ghengis Khan’s “divine” status died with him and after his sons lost all he gained, that was all but confirmed).
The key, once again, is Resurrection.
Whatever type of movement that is borne from Sathya Sai Baba’s life and teaching, it doesn’t and will not look anything like the development of Christianity in the first century. It will not have the sustaining growth, diversity of ethnicity/geography/class/people, intellectual fortitude, and life-changing power that Christianity has. Groups of people believing seemingly crazy things about individuals and events is nothing new. Christianity is still an utterly unique historical occurrence, with no predecessor or antecedent. There is simply no similar analogy one can find.
The Wrong Kind of Bible?
I need to apologize to Daniel because I’m only now getting to what he says is the core of his main argument: that no matter how amazing the Bible seems to be, it’s a huge gulf to cross from claiming religious authority for a text and that being some proof that God is behind it. In Daniel’s understanding, I’m more or less wasting my time defending this Bible stuff because in the end, it means nothing for what is actually convincing about God Himself (and then he goes on to pen another 5000 words in defense of all the “meaningless” stuff, but whatever, I get it. People don’t like being disagreed with).
First, I would say to Daniel that the single greatest resource on this is N.T. Wright’s classic article How Can the Bible be Authoritative?. No matter what I say, he’s going to be better at addressing this than me, but here goes my thoughts.
Daniel is kind (and intellectually clear) enough to give us very honest, unambiguous criteria by which he would find the Bible compelling. I don’t mean this as an insult, but he is quite open that he would like there to be the kind of religious text that we would easily write off as silly. He wants secret codes and eternal moral truths before humanity had “discovered them”. He wants scientific formulae within the text that unlock the powers of medicine and explanations for all our questions. Or, at least, a book that doesn’t look just so damn human and “uninspired” and messy.
I think too many Christians would write his idea off too easily. Christians need to realize that our book doesn’t–in any way, really–look self-evidently “divine”. Too much work in response to criticisms like Daniel try to make the Bible look like the kind of book that Daniel wants it to be. I grew up with Sunday School teachers telling me that the Bible talked about a round earth, microwaves, germ theory, relativity, and dinosaurs coexisting with humans. But it doesn’t, and the criticism remains.
My own personal take is that Daniel’s criteria are way too culturally conditioned by modernism, and he seems to be wanting a God that, after revealing Himself, looks a whole lot more like a giant “Daniel” in the sky than anything that would actually challenge any of his notions about reality or himself. I can imagine an artist saying that a truly “divine” Book would need to be the most stunning work of Beauty the world had ever known; a Psychologist saying it would need to unpack the secrets of the human psyche; a social worker or politician saying it would need to talk about how to order society such that peace and justice at all levels of society are established.
As the old saying goes: in the beginning, God created Man in His own image. Then, Man returned the favor.
It is a modernist assumption that has limited “Truth” that that which corresponds to material reality. When that became the case, then Science and History became the only vehicles for what was true in the world. Christianity, however, believes that “Truth” is what corresponds to Ultimate reality. And in that case, art, poetry, myths, story, narrative, and ancient messy contradictory and geographically untrustworthy texts (and even seemingly silly ideas like God becoming human and dying) can be vehicles for “Truth”. As I’ve been saying all along, Daniel’s conception of reality is too “simplistic” to understand or conceive of how this book can be “true” in any ultimate sense.
I honestly don’t know what to say that would effectively adjust Daniel’s expectations of the Bible. I wish I did. The Bible does not look like the way he says it would need to look for him to believe what it says in that ultimate sense. So…conversation done, right?
All I can tell him (and any other skeptic) is that the God of Christianity is one that reveals himself among us. This idea of “revelation” seeps upwards from the mud and dirt of the world. As I said in a lecture I did a couple of years ago at my church on the Bible:
The Bible is not some book that stands above history and merely comments on it as time goes on. It is borne out of and is a product of its history and culture and by the time it gets to us, it is not very clean, perfect, or pristine. It carries with it the marks, hits, impacts, wounds, and scars of being written and handled by time-bound, enculturated individuals. This is where so many of our western, post-Enlightenment questions about manuscripts, translations, books being chosen or kicked out, archaeology, history and literalism come from. We have the preconceived notion that a truly “holy” book should be without its own set of marks, wounds, and scars.
But let me encourage you that the Jesus we worship is one that on his post-Resurrection body still carries the scars of the life he lived here on earth. And we may want to look at him and say “Jesus, those are blemishes–’imperfections’ in your skin and your body.” But he will respond with “No, they are precisely the point! They are to show how far I will go and how messy I will let myself get just to reveal myself to you.” And though we have questions and frustrations with every History Channel special we watch, my hope is that we can walk away from those not abandoning or doubting our faith, but having new reasons to stand in awe of the God that traversed heaven and earth to know us and have us know Him.
I find that truth stunning, beautiful, and yes, compelling. It’s probably better for us that we have a messy compilation of stories and poems than a science textbook. But still, there’s some common ground here with Daniel.
Daniels says that a religious book is not proof of the divine, but rather it’s a claim. And you know what? I absolutely agree! This is why Daniel’s reference to ways that a religious text could suddenly be “awesome” enough to win him over is ultimately disingenuous, because his disbelief isn’t really about the book itself (as he said). But, this also a very Christian idea, as even Jesus and Christianity say that defending the Bible is not an ends in and of itself to the Divine (even though many modern fundamentalists act like this is the case).
Rather, defending the integrity of the New Testament is not seen as a proof for God, but it gets us closer to the Resurrection.
And ultimately, Christianity is not fundamentally about the book. It’s about the Resurrection. I’ll once more encourage Daniel (and anyone else reading this) to read N.T. Wright’s two wonderful essays on the historical case for the Resurrection (here and here), as well as John Drane’s treatment of it here.
Daniel said in his post:
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.
I hope reading this and reading the linked articles can show you this is not the case. The real majority scholarly opinion (religious and secular) is that from the earliest days after Jesus’ death, there was the belief that he had physically, bodily risen. Scholars disagree as to why the Christians thought that. But that’s what scholars generally believe; not this whole decades-later myth-development business.
Christopher Hitchens once said that the fact that women (people who could not have even testified in court at that time) were recorded as the first witnesses to the Resurrection (in every Gospel account, by the way), convinced him that something had to have happened on that Easter morning. He followed that by saying that his worldview dictated that it could not have been the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But something must have happened that day. Not decades or even weeks later. But that day.
That is an honest view that does justice to the evidence. Ultimately, I do not think Daniel’s reconstruction is consonant with anything looking like the conclusions of mainstream scholars past and present, and instead relies too much on the theorizing of unscholarly mythicists. I wonder what reconstruction he would offer if he were to bring his opinions in line with scholarship, that from the earliest days of the Church, there was the belief in the physical, bodily Resurrection of Christ. What would he offer as the reason behind this?
I would challenge him to consider these things
Editor’s Note: I know this is really not fair to Daniel, but I’m going to request that any response he offers, he keeps to the comment section of this post and on Facebook. If he does, I’ll add a link to this post. Frankly, I’m really eager to move along to our final post, so Daniel can respond to that. If there is a general uproar over me seeming like I’m not being open to critique, I’ll reconsider this, but for now, I’d ask that this be the case.