New Page: 355 Prophecies

With this post I am introducing a new page on the site – 355 Prophecies (Fulfilled in Jesus Christ?). This is a project that I started a long time ago and have now decided to make public despite the fact that it is largely incomplete. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it will probably take years to “finish”, so I might as well open it up now to the process of peer review and get started making corrections and improvements.

My intent is to continue to slowly work my way through the list and occasionally publish posts that summarize the updates. As of this writing the list is roughly one third complete, though I fully intend that the entries will be continually revised in response to feedback and/or new discoveries; so it will never really be complete. All critiques and comments are welcome.

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There’s something about Daniel

A visitor to Nate’s blog caught my attention a couple months ago when he started defending the ‘traditional’ view of Daniel’s authorship and prophetic legitimacy. I couldn’t resist participating in the discussion, given the time I spent studying Daniel, as documented in my posts on the prophecies of the kingdoms, Daniel’s authorship, and whether Jesus fulfilled the 70 weeks. This is an interesting topic due to the potential it holds as perhaps the best candidate evidence for a divine fingerprint on the text of the Bible.

Before going any further, let me start by saying that this visitor, Tom, has compiled the most thorough and reasonable defense of the traditional view of Daniel that I have ever encountered. I commend him for the time and effort that he put into it, even if I disagree with the conclusion. Regardless, in this post I want to review some of the new data I encountered (or more seriously revisited) during that discussion and offer some insight into why I find these ‘new’ arguments for an early authorship unconvincing.

Ezekiel’s reference to Daniel

It is generally agreed that Ezekiel was initially composed within the period of the Babylonian exile, and more importantly, well before the 165 BCE date attributed to Daniel under the Maccabean thesis. This means that a reference to the person of Daniel in Ezekiel 14 would seem to confirm the existence of the person described by the book of Daniel, which is more consistent with the view that it is an early composition. I didn’t give this a lot of attention in my prior study because it wasn’t obvious, for several reasons, that this was a reference to the Daniel of interest (note that it is spelled slightly differently – דנאל in Ezekiel, versus דניאל in Daniel, with an extra yud – so sometimes people give the Ezekiel name as Dan’el) but it also didn’t seem that this was very important given that I agree with the scholars who see that some of the narratives in Daniel probably have their roots in traditional stories that pre-date the Maccabean composition. Regardless, Tom presented this as a key evidence for the early authorship of Daniel and much discussion ensued.

The main thrust of the argument centered around the coupling of Daniel in Ezekiel 14:12-23 with Noah and Job as an exemplar of righteousness, and as exceedingly wise in Ezekiel 28:3. The primary alternate candidate for Ezekiel’s reference is to a Dan’el character known from Ugaritic sources and Tom argued that he is a poor fit due to his non-Yahwist allegiances. Eventually, Nate pointed out that Ezekiel refers to the “sons and daughters” of Noah, Daniel and Job, which is inconsistent with the life of Daniel from the book of that name. This piqued my interest and so I went back and re-read the passages from Ezekiel, at which point I was struck by a new insight.

Ezekiel 14:12-23 presents itself as a message from Yahweh to Ezekiel, offering insight into the nature of his relationship with Israel in light of the Babylonian conquest and exile. Here’s my summary of the message:

If I [Yahweh] pour out just one type of wrath (famine, animals, sword or plague) on a nation, the righteousness of people like Noah, Daniel and Job will only save themselves and no descendants will be spared. However, if I pour out all four forms of wrath on Jerusalem, you will see a remnant survive and their unrighteousness will show you why I brought punishment.

So it seems like there’s two points being made: (1) the calamity which has befallen Jerusalem was not undeserved, and (2) the Jewish nation is special in that God will show them mercy and not wipe them out entirely. Now, if this is a proper understanding of the passage – and I think it is – then it makes absolutely no sense that Daniel, a member of the Jewish remnant, would be named as a member of the nations that would be devastated by the wrath of Yahweh in contrast to the Jewish nation (though Job and Noah, as pre-Abrahamic characters, do fit). For the first time, it became clear to me that Ezekiel was not referring to a contemporary young Jew named Daniel, regardless of whether he was referring to the Ugaritic Dan’el or not.

The Letter to Aristeas

At one point, Tom suggested that my post on the authorship of Daniel had incorrectly identified the commissioning of the Septuagint in the 3rd century BCE as only including the Torah – he believed that the Letter of Aristeas shows that all the books now included in the Tanakh were part of that effort. If this were true, and Daniel was included in that translation, then this would be a defeater for the Maccabean thesis. So I went back and reviewed the Letter of Aristeas again.

First, a little background. The Letter of Aristeas is generally believed to be a later forgery that draws upon a series of possibly historical events which resulted in the commissioning of the official Greek translation of the Jewish law, known to us as the Septuagint. It claims that this was instigated by a suggestion posed to Demetrius of Phalerum, who was in charge of Ptolemy’s effort to collect “all the books of the world” for the famous Library of Alexandria. The majority of the letter references the “law of the Jews”, but in one spot – a purported memo from Demetrius to Ptolemy – it suggests adding translations of “The books of the law of the Jews (with some few others)”. This is the closest thing we get to a statement that the translation included more than the Torah. However, the purported letter from Ptolemy to the Jewish High Priest Eleazer only requests the law and the subsequent response from Eleazer to Ptolemy says that “I selected six elders from each tribe, good men and true, and I have sent them to you with a copy of our law. At the very best, the initial memo which proposed “some few others” correctly represents the actual effort and those few extra books just weren’t mentioned in the later correspondence. In that case, there may be a slim chance that Daniel would have been included. It seems much more likely, however, that the earliest translation effort only covered the Torah.

References to Daniel in …?

One of the other key arguments raised by Tom was that Daniel had been referenced by several different pre-Maccabean texts. I had not previously encountered this claim for some of the alleged references, so I decided to dig in and take a look. As before, this would be devastating blow to the Maccabean thesis if true.

  1. Tom proposed that “Tobit contains clear verbal allusions to Daniel.” Here he cites a paper by Roger Beckwith that argues for several different links to Daniel from pre-Maccabean sources. In that paper Beckwith states that:

    [Tobit] envisages a second more general return from exile … as the prophets of Israel spoke concerning them, which is to take place at ‘the time when the time of the seasons is fulfilled’. This glorious future rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple is probably seen by the author as foretold by Isaiah and Ezekiel respectively. But who fixed ‘the time when the time of the seasons would be fulfilled’ for this to happen? Could it be anyone but Daniel?

    I was interested to discover that the times and seasons language of Daniel was in fact present in Tobit. However, contra Beckwith, it does not put these words in the mouths of the prophets – rather, this is the language used by Tobit himself in his prophecy. So the direction of borrowing is not established, or even inferred, and it seems equally likely that the author of Daniel picked up this language from Tobit (or from the apocalyptic communities influenced by Tobit).

    It’s also interesting to note that Tobit claims to take place after the Assyrian captivity, which would predate Daniel. This means that if one is to argue for the early authorship of Daniel by suggesting that Tobit borrowed from Daniel, then it logically follows that the arguer accepts that there is precedent for Jews producing pseudoepigraphical works that were written after the fact to appear as if a known event had been prophesied. Sound familiar?

  2. Tom also claimed that “the Hellenistic Jewish historian Demetrius . . . had already . . . drawn up . . . [a] chronology of the seventy-weeks prophecy in Daniel 9 in the late third century B. C.” The footnote pointed us to another publication by Roger Beckwith, but one which is not readily available. Regardless, it didn’t take long to figure out that the original source is Clement’s Stromata Book 1, where it says:

    Demetrius, in his book, On the Kings in Judaea, says that the tribes of Juda, Benjamin, and Levi were not taken captive by Sennacherim; but that there were from this captivity to the last, which Nabuchodonosor made out of Jerusalem, a hundred and twenty-eight years and six months; and from the time that the ten tribes were carried captive from Samaria till Ptolemy the Fourth, were five hundred and seventy-three years, nine months; and from the time that the captivity from Jerusalem took place, three hundred and thirty-eight years and three months.

    I could not extract any allusion to the 70 weeks of Daniel 9 (which proposes 490 years from the Babylonian exile to the final judgment) and Tom never responded with an explanation.

  3. Another claim was that “Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] clearly refers to Daniel and contains a prayer that the prophecies of Daniel would be fulfilled soon“. This points us to Sirach 36:6-7 and 14-15, which says:

    [6] Rouse thy anger and pour out thy wrath; destroy the adversary and wipe out the enemy. [7] Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time, and let people recount thy mighty deeds. … [14] Bear witness to those whom thou didst create in the beginning, and fulfill the prophecies spoken in thy name. [15] Reward those who wait for thee, and let thy prophets be found trustworthy.

    This whole case rests on the prospect that the phrase “the appointed time” is being borrowed from Daniel and that the ‘prophecies’ are referring to Daniel and not any of the other eschatological prophecies in existence at the time. However, there’s no clear reliance on Daniel and the phrasing of an “appointed time” is also present in other eschatological contexts (Psalm 75:2 & 102:13, Habakkuk 2:3).

  4. Lastly, Tom proposed that the visions of Zechariah only makes sense if Daniel was already known. I never really understood this argument and explanations were lacking, but I did discover something new in the process of trying to understand it: many scholars suspect that Zechariah and Haggai were once part of a single text. When taken as a whole, it appears very likely that the prophecies and visions therein point toward an expectation that Yahweh’s eternal kingdom would arise through the reign of Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua (see Haggai 2:6-9 and 21-23, Zechariah 3:8, 4:9 and 6:11-13). This timeline is clearly different than one would expect if Daniel had been in view.

That’s It

There’s a lot more that was covered throughout the discussion and a ton of material in the document Tom put together but at this point I don’t feel the need to systematically dissect every single argument. The time spent researching these additional claims substantiated my suspicions that the ‘clear’, ‘obvious’ and ‘conclusive’ evidence for an early authorship is just as suspect as the data I had already reviewed. In the end, I feel pretty comfortable with the conclusions I’ve reached thus far – namely, that the book of Daniel, as we know it, was largely constructed in the midst of the Maccabean revolt by building upon a pre-Maccabean tradition to introduce prophecies that appear to predict events contemporary with the author. More specifically, my guess is that chapters 3 – 6 form the core of the pre-Maccabean tradition (though probably not as a unified text, and perhaps only as oral traditions). The dream and interpretation in chapter 4 and the hand-writing interpretation of chapter 5 then served as the inspiration for a Maccabean redaction to create the chiastic text of chapters 2 – 7, adding the chapter 2 and 7 prophecies, all in Aramaic. A second contemporary redactor then built upon this to add the introduction in chapter 1 and chapters 8 – 12 in Hebrew. As a young and volatile text, different versions, additions and arrangements of these redactions were available and are reflected in the Greek translations (LXX and Theodotion). This is my best shot at accounting for all the data.

Yeah, I missed April. Hopefully I’ll make it up with an extra post in the near future.

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Pascal’s Wager

As far as I can tell, Pascal’s Wager is rendered impotent by one simple thought experiment. As always, please tell me if there’s something I’ve overlooked. If the text is difficult to read, click on the image for the full scale version.

Pascal's Wager

Created at Storyboard That

It’s important to note that this says nothing about the probability of God’s existence, or about the evidence therein. This only shows that the assignment of unsubstantiated attributes or actions to a god do not serve as reasons to believe in that god. Now, if you can provide evidence of those attributes or actions (e.g., that acceptance or rejection of a particular belief actually determines one’s afterlife), well, then you’ve got something.

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Moral anti-realism and the problem of evil

Italianate_Landscape_with_an_Artist_Sketching_from_NatureOn several recent episodes of the Stand to Reason podcast, Greg Koukl has argued that those who do not hold to moral realism cannot put forth the problem of evil as evidence against the existence of God because, in short, they cannot define evil. J. Warner Wallace makes the same claim in Cold Case Christianity. They tie this back to the moral argument, wherein the existence of objective morality counts as evidence for the existence of God (as the ultimate grounding of that morality). They then show that this results in an ironic turnabout wherein the claim that evil exists actually counts in favor of God’s existence rather than against it.

Support for subjective morality means surrendering the most rhetorically appealing argument against God:  evil.
– Greg Koukl in Solid Ground, May/June 2014

The problem of evil is perhaps the most difficult issue to address … When people complain that there is evil in the world, they are not simply offering their opinion. They are instead saying that true, objective evil exists. … the existence of true evil necessitates the presence of God as a standard of true virtue.
– J. Warner Wallace in Cold Case Christianity, p 134-135

For this post I want to simply consider the claim that a moral anti-realist is being inconsistent if they assert the problem of evil as evidence against the existence of God.

Let me paint a picture…

David Hume said that “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”. As far as I can tell, we generally agree that beauty is a subjective judgment. There is no absolute standard of beauty. What one man finds beautiful, another may not.

Suppose a painter has spent a lifetime creating intricate paintings of serene, natural settings filled with mountains, streams, meadows and wildlife. He doesn’t want credit for his work so he submits everything anonymously and is only known to the art world as “Mr. X”. To each piece he attaches a dialog highlighting the aesthetic merits of the painting – the rich hues, the use of light and shadow and, most importantly, the realism. Throughout the course of his life he has closed every dialog with the phrase “Nothing is more beautiful than reality”. All the while, this same painter has been a vociferous critic of abstract art. He would regularly publish editorials bashing the modern art movements as having produced nothing but pointless garbage. To him, these “artists” were simply wasting perfectly good paint. Everybody knew exactly where Mr. X stood, though they didn’t know who he was.

abstractThen one morning a curator arrives at his museum to find a painting on his doorstep. The painting is little more than a few haphazard lines and a couple splatters of paint. Attached to the painting is a note that simply says “My most beautiful work. – Mr. X”. The curator sets it aside as a curiosity. As the years go by Mr. X continues submitting more of his traditional landscape paintings and more editorials about the irreverence of abstract art. There is no hint that anything has changed.

So what do we make of the curious abstract painting and note attributed to Mr. X? Was it a joke? Did it actually come from somebody else? No matter what the answer is, there is a simple contradiction: either all the other paintings betray Mr. X’s true perspective, or the note on the abstract painting is wrong. The question of “objective beauty” is irrelevant.

Back to the problem of evil

Hopefully its clear how this analogy relates back to the moral anti-realist’s use of the problem of evil, but I’ll dissect it anyway. God is Mr. X, realist art equates to the moral good and abstract art equates to the moral evil. As with Mr. X, repeated exposure to God’s viewpoint, via divine revelation and theology, have shown us what he considers to be good and evil. God’s morality has been spelled out for us directly (e.g., the ten commandments, sermon on the mount), in rules of thumb (e.g., do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and by the moral law that he has written on the hearts of men. We get it. We have a pretty clear picture of what it is that God considers morally good and morally evil and for the most part we share that perspective and are able to identify moral judgments that we know will align with God’s morality.

So what do we make of the presence of evil in God’s dominion? As far as I can tell, moral realism doesn’t even come into play. The problem of evil is not exposing a contradiction between God’s dominion and an objective morality; it is exposing a contradiction between God’s dominion and his revealed character and attributes. Just as with the mysterious painting, the question of objectivity is irrelevant. We perceive evil in accordance with God’s definition of evil, which is generally shared with our definition of evil, and we wonder why he doesn’t stop it.

If moral realism is an unnecessary addition to the problem of evil then the apologists’ turnabout falls flat. So does the problem of evil count against the existence of God? Well, clearly one solution is that he simply isn’t there but that isn’t the only option. You could also accept that either ‘true morality’ feels uncomfortably immoral or that God is not perfect. No matter what, some concession appears to be necessary. The problem of evil is not some half-wit gimmick that can be turned on its head to defend the existence of God. It is a real problem that cannot be ignored.

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The underdog archetype and the criterion of embarrassment

The Babylonian ExileAt a recent church service the speaker gave a message that used Joseph’s story (of technicolor coat fame) as an illustration of how we need to trust God’s timing. As I contemplated the story, I was reminded just how much the theme of overcoming adversity permeates the stories of the Old Testament. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah when it seemed impossible (and after they tried to do it their own way), Jacob was the scrawny second-born but received the blessing and becomes Israel’s namesake, young Joseph was discarded by his brothers and then ends up saving them, Moses is a coward but then leads the exodus and David was the diminutive afterthought who slayed the giant, supplanted the tall, handsome king (Saul) and led Israel to prominence in spite of his transgressions. Then there’s the oft repeated prophetic theme of the nation of Israel breaking free from the dominion of the various regional powers – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and, in the case of Daniel, the Seleucid Empire. Israel was a nation beaten down only to stand tall in the end.

A few centuries later, we are introduced to Jesus. Illegitimately born (in a feed trough, no less) to a couple of unknowns in a little out of the way town up north. Rejected by his own people, misunderstood, denied and betrayed by his disciples, and then crucified like a common criminal. But that is not the whole story and, just as it was in the Old Testament, victory belongs to the underdog.

The criterion of embarrassment

Many apologists have latched onto the unflattering elements of biblical texts as evidence for their veracity. Certainly nobody would fabricate, or even embellish, such claims? This form of argumentation, known as the criterion of embarrassment, carries an intuitive appeal. Though few would suggest that it serves as conclusive evidence, it is commonly offered as a stone that tilts the scales toward upholding the truth of biblical claims. A prime example of the modern use of the criterion of embarrassment comes to us in David Instone-Brewer’s recent book “The Jesus Scandals”, for which he offers the following summary:

“If tabloid newspapers had existed during the first century, Jesus would have featured constantly in the headlines, linked with scandals of all kinds. Details of these were recorded in historical documents by both his friends and his enemies. They provide insights into Jesus’ life and teaching that have been obscured by the centuries. They tell us what his contemporaries really thought. These scandals include:  

  • his parentage and accusations of alcohol abuse and fraudulent miracles
  • the dubious status of his followers – poorly educated, ex-prostitutes and the certifiably mad
  • his anti-religious teaching on temple practices, eternal torment, easy divorces and judgement in this life
  • his thoughts of suicide, shameful execution and impossible resurrection

Faithful to the biblical text, this carefully researched book can be read as a whole or as stand-alone chapters.”

We cannot have it both ways

It is clear that ancient Jewish authors did not always shy away from including less than favorable bits in their hero stories. The criterion of embarrassment would argue that this is an indication that they are true but we often find ourselves drawn to the underdog story. In this regard, the Jews were no different – perhaps most clearly because they were the underdog. In fact, this would appear to be something of a cultural theme that had become entrenched in their identity. As a nation, they constantly found themselves under the thumb of more powerful nations and this engendered a hope which fueled the apocalyptic visions of Israel rising above the ashes. The underdog archetype was alive and well in Jesus’ time and the subjugation to Rome only reinforced it.

So something doesn’t fit. How can we argue that the embarrassing elements of the Jesus’ story only makes sense if they are true while at the same time embracing the corresponding typologies of the Old Testament? We cannot have it both ways.

Though I have never found the criterion of embarrassment especially persuasive, I have also never agreed with those who discount it altogether. While this is still true, my reflection on the presence of the underdog archetype in Jewish tradition has further diminished its power. This is not to suggest that the unsavory details of Jesus life are necessarily fabrications. Rather, my primary concern here is to point out that when the New Testament was authored there was a precedent in place. The story of the victorious underdog was the hope of Israel. We should not think it so odd that the hero of a fledgling Jewish sect would find himself in this role as well.

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My thoughts on The Case for Christ (Part 1, Section 3)

The Case For ChristThis post is the third in a series on Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ. In this post I offer my thoughts on the content of the book’s third section, The Documentary Evidence. In this section Strobel evaluates the preservation of the gospels through the multitudes of copies produced over time. To do this he interviews the renowned textual scholar, Dr. Bruce Metzger. The investigation keys in on:

  1. The number of manuscripts
  2. The dating of the manuscripts
  3. Variants between manuscripts
  4. The formation of the canon
  5. The Gospel of Thomas and other extra-canonical writings

Part 1: Examining the Record

Section 3: The Documentary Evidence

Argument #1: The immense volume of copies of the gospels that we have available allows us to reconstruct with fairly high fidelity the original texts.

My Response: I agree that today we most likely have critically filtered through the variations to compile something that is a reasonable approximation of early versions of the gospels (except where the translators have failed to incorporate those findings). However, I think the term “original” is used too loosely in this discussion. A text is most susceptible to variation in its infancy and there’s good reason to believe that at least both John and Matthew were cultivated within a smaller community before seeing wider distribution and familiarity. The mountains of copies that we have are predominantly much later (by a very large margin) and the earliest manuscripts are all in very small fragments. The thousands of copies that date past the fourth and fifth century do little to help us reconstruct the earliest texts.

Argument #2: The number of copies and the temporal proximity of the copies to the events they describe far exceeds what we have for any other ancient texts.

My Response: Agreed. Relatively speaking, the bible has a strong foundation of manuscript evidence. However, the numbers bantered about in this section are geared toward leaving you with a false impression of the scope of the earliest evidence. No attempt is made to distinguish between the earliest manuscripts and the more abundant manuscripts that come several hundred years after the events. Nowhere do we read that there are only three fragments of the gospels which are likely to predate the third century and that these contain a sum total of 12 verses. See http://www.usefulcharts.com/religion/oldest-bible-manuscripts.html for a clearer perspective of the earliest manuscript evidence.

Argument #3: The variations in the manuscripts don’t jeopardize any theological doctrines. Most variations have to do with word order, spelling and minor changes that don’t impact the message of the text.

My Response: As a percentage, this is true. This is an area where I think that Ehrman has a tendency to overstate the significance of the number of variants. However, the discussion here is not balanced and fails to delve into the implications of the more substantial variants, like the longer ending of Mark or the story of the adulteress in John. These demonstrate that even 200 years after the earliest versions of the gospels were produced some copyists were willing to intentionally introduce noteworthy modifications. Not only that, but those modifications propagated downstream without scrutiny. This is an acknowledged fact that is worth further discussion.

Building on the acknowledgment of these larger variants, I want to take a moment to contemplate how this might have applied to the earliest texts. If our only evidence of the content of the writings that were produced in the first 150 or so years is a few tiny fragments, and if we see that there are some major variations in the subsequent texts, why shouldn’t we expect that some of the earliest copies also had major variations? Is it not more likely that these types of changes would have gone unchecked before the texts were more widely distributed and had gained familiarity? Does it not make sense that the earliest copies, produced by a minority culture without an established orthodoxy and many divergent groups, were handled by relative amateurs who were insiders of those groups and thus more likely to inject corruption? Do we really have good reason to believe that the first couple hundred years of the text’s transmission did not carry with it the introduction of new material that we now consider “original”, despite the fact that this was known to occur in later texts? I think not. Certainly we can’t hypothesize the extent of such redaction, but it is clearly reasonable to suspect that it probably happened.

Argument #4: The books included in the New Testament canon are the writings which meet all of the criteria of apostolic authority, consistency with tradition and acceptance by the church at large. The majority of the canon was unanimously accepted by the end of the second century. The gospels, in particular, bare the marks of authenticity which are not present in other accounts of Jesus’ life.

My Response: When it comes to the gospels, it is fair to recognize the supremacy of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John over the other known gospels. These four gospels are attested by Irenaeus around 180 AD and the early church fathers don’t really lend support to any of the extra-canonical gospels. That said, there is some evidence for additional early descriptions of Jesus which are relatively congruent with the gospels but didn’t make the cut for reasons which are unknown (for example, the Egerton Gospel and the Gospel of Thomas, which is discussed later). Furthermore, the implication in this discussion is that the criteria also hold for the rest of the New Testament, but that’s difficult to support given the likelihood that at least a handful of the epistles are pseudepigraphs, which would supposedly be a problem for identification as the inspired word of God. This topic is never broached.

Argument #5: The gospel of Thomas was properly excluded from the canon because, though it agrees with the gospel accounts more often than not, it is likely a later text and contains pantheistic and misogynist remarks which are in opposition to the picture we see in the gospels.

My Response: I don’t really have an opinion on this. I see merit to the argument that the Gospel of Thomas should be considered to be as authentic as any other gospel. I’m not sure, however, that this is enough to argue for inclusion in the canon. For one, it does not appear to have nearly the widespread recognition and tradition that the other gospels had. This would, at best, make it the least authoritative of the gospels. Regardless, it should not be readily dismissed in the same way that the much later and more clearly fantastical works are.

Closing Thoughts

There’s not all that much in this section that is controversial, but it’s also clear that we are not presented with a truly skeptical investigation. The discussion of the transmission of the gospels employs sweeping generalizations to hide the issues that are present. The presentation of the formation of the canon was about as bare bones as it could possibly be and every controversy related to the canon, except for the Gospel of Thomas, was ignored. However, my biggest objection to the picture painted in this section is the implication of what the “originals” are. It seems that the intent is to make it appear as if the text we have today is much the same as what could have been found shortly after Matthew, Mark, Luke or John had risen from the table where he had just finished composing the gospel. There simply is no good basis for such an inference and plenty of reason to doubt it.

In the next post I’ll look at Part 1, Section 4: The Corroborating Evidence, though I may have to start combining sections and skimming past some of the less significant arguments. It’s taking a lot longer to review and parse out the arguments than I thought it would.

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My thoughts on The Case for Christ (Part 1, Section 2)

The Case For Christ
This post is the second in a series on Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ. In this post I offer my thoughts on the content of the book’s second section, Testing the Eyewitness Evidence. In the second section Strobel evaluates the gospels according to eight tests that are intended to check the integrity of the accounts. These tests are:

  1. The Intention Test (did the authors want to be accurate)
  2. The Ability Test (did the authors have the ability to report the truth)
  3. The Character Test (did the authors have a history of truthfullness)
  4. The Consistency Test (are the authors consistent in their claims)
  5. The Bias Test (is there reason to believe that the claims are biased toward a certain view)
  6. The Cover Up Test (does it appear that the authors withheld relevant information)
  7. The Corroboration Test (do the claims agree with external information)
  8. The Adverse Witness Test (do we have other claims which are contrary to the author’s claims).

Within each of these tests there are sometimes multiple arguments, so I have arranged my discussion to address each argument rather than just each test.

Part 1: Examining the Record

Section 2: Testing The Eyewitness Evidence

Argument #1: We can trust that Luke intended to write an accurate history because he tells us in the opening sentence that he had carefully examined the events. Matthew and Mark can be considered to be equally reliable due to the similar nature of their texts. Despite the admission in John that the text was intended to evangelize (20:31), this book can still be considered truthful because it is necessary to provide an accurate history if the author hopes to find acceptance for his message.

My Response: I’m inclined to believe Luke when he says that he researched the events, but that doesn’t mean he obtained accurate information or intended to uncover the truth at all costs. It seems most likely that his was an exercise of drawing from source texts and documenting oral traditions. It’s clear that Luke was an insider, not some objective investigator that was critically examining the information to arrive at the truth. His goal was to compile the stories circulating about Jesus and present them for a gentile audience. Apologists like to present Luke as if he was a modern day detective or some hyper-critical historian who’s primary concern was the integrity of his work, but there’s little reason to think this is the case and many reasons for questioning such a view.

Given that the synoptics used common source material, it should be obvious that they would then be similar. It doesn’t entail that they were intended to be wholly accurate histories. One of the more apparent counter-examples is the way that Matthew repeatedly takes Old Testament verses way out of context to map them to Jesus. One can’t help but feel that this is in some sense dishonest.

With respect to the Gospel of John, Blomberg again argues that an evangelistic purpose requires dutifully accurate reporting. Again, this is absurd. We don’t say that “history is written by the victors” to imply that the account is thus trustworthy. The implication is just the opposite, that we should wary of bias in the records produced by those in support of a cause or an allegiance.

Argument #2: The gospels were not composed as a response to the fact that Jesus had failed to return in the first few decades after his ascension. We know this because Jesus’ teaching actually suggest a long time span before his return and because his followers were accustomed to the long delayed fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

My Response: I had never before considered that Jesus’ failure to return in short order had actually been a catalyst for the authoring of the gospels. The long delayed rise of God’s eternal kingdom through the nation of Israel certainly does give the Jews a track record of faithfully waiting for prophecies to be fulfilled. However, I must disagree with the assertion that Jesus’ teachings actually infer a long period time before his return. There are clear indications that the events are to occur in the near future and Blomberg offers nothing to support his claim that this is not the case. Furthermore, it seems that the Jews had began to grow impatient and this was in part responsible for the apocalyptic culture of the day. Nowhere in those Old Testament prophecies do we see an indication of two comings separated by a long period of time. Therefore, the earliest followers who believed Jesus to be the messiah almost certainly expected the complete fulfillment of all the prophecies as an immediate consequence of his arrival; and this is exactly what we see in their writings. As to whether Jesus’ lingering absence was an impetus for the introduction of the gospel accounts, I do not see this to be an outlandish claim but I also see no reason to hold that it is true.

Argument #3: We know that the earliest church did not put words into Jesus’ mouth because of the care taken in the epistles to avoid and condemn false teachings and because of the abundant controversies in the early church that could have just as easily been resolved by back-editing the solution into the gospels.

My Response: When it comes to religious doctrine and unverifiable claims, how do we define false teaching? Without a presupposition that certain people have been accurately bestowed with a divine revelation, the identification of false teaching is entirely subjective. As such, an author may be genuinely opposed to false teachings yet actively propagating ideas which do not reflect the truth. The propagation of falsehood does not require blatant deceit, it requires only an ignorance of the truth and it will be spurred on even more by the boldness of one who believes that they have the truth. If proclamations against false teaching are considered an earmark of a trustworthy author then the same standard must also be applied to the Qur’an and other religious texts.

The presence of controversy in the early church in no way precludes the injection of ideology into the gospels. Conversely, it appears likely that this in fact did occur. For example, Mark gives us little indication of Jesus’ divinity and so we see that this is incrementally expanded in the later gospels. To say that controversies still existed even after the gospels had reached general acceptance is only to say that attempts to clarify and defend a particular view were not comprehensively and cohesively implemented across all of the gospels. It is ludicrous to suggest that the injection of ideology would have resulted in a perfect harmonization of the texts. This argument only serves to distract from the theologically driven redaction that did occur.

Argument #4: The reproduction of sayings and events by the eye-witnesses is credible because they were sourced by a culture that stressed the preservation of oral tradition through memorization. The variation in the synoptics is comparable to what we would expect from a group that memorized the key points. This culture of memorizing oral traditions is self-correcting because the collective memory of the community would override the faulty recollections of any one person.

My Response: There’s a lot I could say on this topic but I’d like to focus on one thing in particular. A key implication of this section is that the similarities in the synoptics are not due to plagiarism but rather due to memorization of a common source. Among other issues, there is one gigantic problem with this. Jesus and his followers almost certainly spoke Aramaic. The synoptics are in Greek. In order for the textual similarities to have arisen only due to a common oral tradition, we also have to assert that the translation of those traditions into Greek often produced the same words, sometimes verbatim, but more commonly with a few additions, subtractions or replacements. This claim also requires that events (not just sayings) were recounted with a common phrasing. If this seems a bit far fetched then you can appreciate why nearly all scholars agree that the best explanation for the commonalities in the synoptic gospels is that they were composed by authors who had common source texts on hand.

It’s difficult to describe the nature of the textual similarities that we find in the synoptics. The best way to understand this is by reviewing the side-by-side comparisons, so I encourage you to review the comparisons available at http://www.textexcavation.com/synopticlistedinventory.html. The color highlighting does a great job of demonstrating how words and phrases were added, removed or changed within the scope of a larger common text.

Argument #5: It is unlikely that the gospel sources would put forth dishonest claims because they were devoted to a life of integrity, as taught by their leader, Jesus, and evidenced by their willingness to die for their beliefs.

My Response: First, there is little evidence that the authors of the gospels died for their beliefs. At best, Mark may have been martyred but the others more likely died of old age. Second, I agree that the authors believed the majority of their text to be truthful. As humans engrossed in a religiously charged atmosphere there were almost certainly instances of embellishment, unchecked bias and unquestioning repetition of memes but, as a whole, I see no reason to think that the writers were being deliberately deceitful.

Argument #6: The variations and apparent contradictions in the gospels are actually a testament to their veracity because they demonstrate that the texts were not the result of collusion.

My Response: …except when it’s clear that the text was borrowed (see argument #4). That said, John does appear to be largely independent of the synoptics and this is good evidence of at least two separate but similar traditions. However, this claim completely dismisses the possibility that the apparent contradictions and differences between the texts could be due to:

  1. Actual differences in the veracity of the claims, and
  2. The introduction or revision of claims toward an ideological end.

I agree that the gospels are not a perfectly harmonious testimony that reeks of collusion, but it doesn’t follow that the differences are then thoroughly virtuous and can be dismissed. When we encounter incongruous statements, is not the best explanation that at least one of the delegates is wrong? Or that the parties are partially mistaken and the truth is a selective composite?

Argument #7: Discrepancies between the gospels can be typically explained under careful examination. Strobel raises several examples for which Blomberg then provides an explanation.

My Response: I’ve opted not to look at each of the contradictions individually because, as Strobel indicates in the book, you could go on forever reviewing the possible discrepancies and proposed solutions. Here’s my problem: when you put aside the presumption that the text is inerrant, it is nearly always the case that the proposed solution seems less likely than simply admitting that the author was wrong. We have thousands of years and a wealth of personal experience that confirms the fallibility of humans. These inconsistencies are just what we should expect if the bible was written by humans without some divine guidance that ensured its veracity. The cognitive dissonance created by the mountain of peculiar explanations that are necessary to prop up the doctrine of inerrancy is easily relieved by one simple explanation: sometimes the authors were wrong, just like every other author that has ever existed.

Argument #8: The gospel writers did not present a biased account because they honored and respect Jesus so much that they were prompted to record his life with integrity. The social pressures would have, if anything, influenced them toward downplaying Jesus.

My Response: To be fair, Blomberg only asserts that “I think that’s what happened here”. This is more or less just repeating his opinion than providing an argument. In addition to understating the possibility that the gospel authors intentionally embellished or injected bias, this claim also ignores the unintentional bias that colors everybody’s writing. This subconscious bias is very likely to produce inaccuracies and should not be overlooked.

Argument #9: The hard sayings and embarrassing details that are retained in the gospels are evidence that the authors were not hiding or changing anything because otherwise they would have left those out.

My Response: This is a close cousin to argument #3 and so my response is similar: on what basis should we assume that the inclusion of some unsightly details then necessarily infers that all troublesome passages were not refined or excluded? We cannot claim that this kind of “cover up”, as Strobel calls it, didn’t happen at all just because there are some instances where it would have made sense from our perspective to have glossed over the truth.

It may seem speculative to suggest that maybe there were liberties taken for which we are not aware, but this possibility is not without merit. The gospels reveal several instances where it appears that the later authors (Matthew and Luke) modified the content borrowed from an earlier source (Mark) to make the end result less difficult. For example, Blomberg mentions Mark 6:5 as an example of one of these embarrassing passages but fails to mention how it appears that there actually was an attempt to correct it. Mark says that Jesus could not do miracles in Nazareth and was amazed at their unbelief, whereas Matthews says that he did not do miracles there because of their unbelief. Luke goes a step further and leaves it out altogether.

Argument #10: The archeological corroboration of people and places in the gospels attests to their authenticity and veracity.

My Response: It is to be fully expected that the gospels would reference actual people and places if Jesus is a historical figure. This argument seems to be primarily targeting a mythicist view of Jesus. Regardless, the claims of corroboration exclude any discussion of historical discrepancies, such as the inconsistency between Matthew’s dating of Jesus’ birth in the reign of Herod (before 4 BC) and Luke’s placement of Jesus’ birth during the census of Quirinius* (6 AD). The most lucid explanation is that one or both were mistaken. Instead of facing these, Blomberg suggests that we should consider situations like this to be insignificant because they are overwhelmed by the number of times where the gospel account corresponds with the historical record. This, however, is simply a tactic to divert attention away from the fact that the gospels look just like other texts from the period – texts which are written by humans and contain normal human mistakes.

* Strobel does deal with the census later, in Chapter 5.

Argument #11: The lack of antagonistic efforts to expose the falsehoods in the teachings of the early church serve as evidence that the claims of the early church were authentic. The Jewish recognition of Jesus as a sorcerer is evidence that he did in fact work miracles.

My Response: My initial reaction is that it’s not clear why we should think that the early Christian movement rose to the level which would warrant public opposition (preserved for us) by those who were able to dispute its claims. The only account we have of the local church is in Acts, which very likely inflates the numbers. The most successful evangelist by far, Paul, focused his efforts outside of Israel. So, from the Jewish perspective, the threat had been squelched with the death of Jesus and nothing more was necessary. One could even turn this argument on its head and contend that the lack of opposition is the result of Jews knowing that they didn’t need to do anything because Jesus was dead. I do not wish to defend such a view, due to it’s highly speculative nature, but it doesn’t appear to be much weaker than the apologist’s claim that the opposition was silent because they knew that the Christians’ claims were true.

It is also quite a stretch to assert that the Jewish description of Jesus as a sorcerer somehow authenticates his miracles. First, the remarks in the Talmud come hundreds of years after Jesus, so they are not based on first hand knowledge but are rather a response to the Christianity known in that day. Second, the culture readily accepted the authenticity of sorcery and this was a perfectly acceptable, if not preferred, explanation for the claims that somebody performed miracles.

Closing Thoughts

For the most part, this section is arguing against a very particular brand of skepticism which asserts that the gospels are predominantly fairy tales and were intentionally constructed as such. The arguments presented may serve to combat such a view, but they do nothing to diminish a more moderate view in which the gospels are largely based on actual events that were cumulatively filtered over the years through the lens of a believing community with a predisposition for accepting both the theological and supernatural claims of others.

On the whole we are presented with a false dichotomy. The general inference of this section is that there are two options: either the gospels are reliable or they are a complete fabrication. By presenting a case that they are not a complete fabrication, the apologist claims victory and accepts that the gospels are wholly reliable. There is a blatant disregard for the myriad of possible views in the middle, views which I suspect offer the most probable reconciliation of the data.

In the next post I’ll look at Part 1, Section 3: The Documentary Evidence.

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