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

The Case For ChristSeveral months ago I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ for the first time. I went into the book expecting to see a lot of familiar content and for the most part that was true. There were a few things I hadn’t heard before but overall it served primarily as a refresher. In that sense, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I came away from the book little more inclined toward the Christian view.

As a whole, this book has been hailed among evangelicals as one of the more accessible and forceful arguments for the divinity of Jesus. Given the popularity of the book, and the breadth of the evidence purported by it, I felt like it would be worthwhile to walk back through the claims of the book and see if I can explain why it did little to alter my current view. That’s what this series of posts is intended to be, something like a log of my initial reaction to the claims. These aren’t detailed, scholarly investigations. They’re short, simple responses based on the information I’ve encountered over time.

The book is split into three main parts and within each of these are sub-sections to support the broader claim. I started by thinking I could write one post for each of the larger sections but it didn’t take long to realize that I needed to break it up into smaller chunks. So, I’ve decided that I will write one post for each sub-section. This is the first in the series.

Part 1: Examining the Record

Section 1: The Eyewitness Evidence

Argument #1: There is no good reason to discount the traditional assignment of the gospel authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). These assignments are uniformly asserted in early sources. If we accept these assignments, then the text can be traced to first or second-hand eyewitness accounts.

My Response: The discussion does nothing to consider the timeline and interdependency of the sources which assign authorship and makes it sound like there are multiple independent confirmations of authorship. The agreement can be more reasonably viewed as the result of later writers repeating (and often adding to) the claims of earlier sources. So the question, then, is whether the earliest claims of authorship should be considered to be accurate. There are several reasons why those claims are questionable:

  1. The earliest source we know of is Papias, who probably wrote his claim regarding Mark and Matthew at least 40 years after the first writings appeared. It seems likely that all other claims of authorship are in some form building upon the tradition that Papias’ documents, and adding Luke and John. So, at best, we have one source whose claims regarding two of the books come from at least 40 years of oral tradition.
  2. The patristic sources infer a single, unadulterated authorship in describing the origin of the gospels. This assumption faces numerous challenges in light of the textual criticism that has been applied to those texts.
  3. Widespread redaction is readily acknowledged in the early writings. For example, the church fathers attest to numerous variations of Matthew. Why should we believe that we currently have the right one?
  4. These writings are coming from a culture with a long standing tradition of producing texts that are assigned to somebody other than the actual author. This is evident in both pre-Christian Jewish texts and early Christian texts.

Despite these qualifications, I would not be surprised if there were some truth in the traditional assignment of authorship. The named parties may very well have been in some way connected to some of the source content. I would not be at all surprised if the book of Luke, as we have it, was largely composed by Luke and, on his own admission, drawn from multiple prior sources. Matthew might have provided some of Jesus’ sayings somewhere along the line and these were then merged with other sources to produce his book (note that Papias referred to Matthew’s writing as “the oracles”, written in Hebrew). The gospel of Mark may very well have originated with something that was produced by John Mark and may have been rooted in accounts given by Peter. However, it is a very big jump to go from accepting that these parties may have in some way been involved in the original source material to saying that they faithfully wrote everything according to reliable eye witness accounts and that we now have at least a good approximation of their original text. If you want to dig further into the earliest authorship claims, there is a great collection of these at http://www.textexcavation.com/gospelorigins.html.

Lastly, I’ll just note that any view which finds it probable that Jesus was a historical figure (as I do) then implicitly agrees that the gospels have their origin in eye-witness accounts in some sense. The real question is whether the accounts we have are a fully accurate representation of the truth.

Argument #2: The gospels do not deal with anything except a very small portion of Jesus’ life because that is the portion which is most relevant. Ancient authors were not interested in producing full biographies but instead wanted to present key ideas and the most important aspect of Jesus’ life – the death and resurrection.

My Response: I don’t think it’s odd that the gospels exclude Jesus’ early life since his time as a public figure was clearly limited to this short period before his crucifixion. Of course, one can’t help but wonder how the creator of the universe slips under the radar for 30 years. Regardless, it does feel like Strobel is picking and choosing when he completely fails to discuss the accounts we do have. The virgin birth and other aspects of the nativity are never discussed despite the fact that these accounts in Matthew and Luke, among all the gospel material, bear the greatest resemblance to myth and legend and contain multiple apparent contradictions. If Strobel was really trying to play the role of the skeptic then he missed a gold mine here.

Argument #3: Markan priority is not a problem. Matthew only borrowed from Mark to help fill in the details from the perspective of Jesus’ inner circle, on the assumption that Mark is based on information from Peter.

My Response: Though not irrational, this explanation for the borrowing is complete speculation. I’m planning a separate post regarding the implications of borrowing in the synoptic gospels, so I’ll address this in more detail later. Here again, it seems like Strobel backs off from digging into a controversial area. How does the doctrine of inspiration fit into this borrowing? Was it inspiration when passages were copied verbatim? Doesn’t the accepted order here (Mark then Matthew) contradict the patristic claims of authorship (Matthew then Mark) that were considered to be reliable earlier in the discussion?

Argument #4: John does not reflect an evolution of the divinity of Jesus. The synoptics present ample evidence of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ use of “son of man” in the synoptics does not infer that he was a mere mortal.

My Response: Let me start by addressing the “son of man” topic, which is treated for a couple pages. I agree with the dismissal of Armstrong’s interpretation from A History of God that this infers human weakness. I agree with the assertion that this is an allusion to Daniel 7 – but it is also more than that. It is also found in other apocalyptic second temple writings (e.g., Enoch, 4 Ezra) which appear to be influential in the communities which bear the closest resemblance to early Christianity. The term reflects a brand of Judaism that emphasized the imminent realization of the prophecies of Israel’s restoration at the end of the age. Furthermore, Jesus’ use of the term in direct reference to Daniel implies a future event that contradicts the most likely explanation for the prophecy.

With respect to the lack of theological development in the gospels, I cannot agree. It is clear the Mark offers the lowest Christology, followed by Matthew and Luke, followed by John with the highest Christology. That this sequence coincides with the most likely chronology for the origin of the texts implies an evolution in the view of Jesus.

Argument #5: The distinct theological agendas of the gospels do not detract from their reliability but rather bolster their historicity because they require careful reporting to ensure acceptance of their claims.

My Response: While I appreciate the acknowledgement of the different ideologies in the gospels, I find it preposterous to suggest that “the very ideology that Christians were trying to promote required as careful historical work as possible”. This is so contrary to everyday experience and a wealth of psychological research that I’m not sure I need to say anything else. It is also interesting that Blomberg compared the extraction of truth from the gospels with the extraction of truth from other ideological texts. Does this mean that we should treat the gospels as we do those other texts; that we should not accept them at face value and instead sort through the propaganda to uncover the truth? I’m sure he would not agree.

Argument #6: The amount of time that passed between the events recorded by the gospels and the actual composition is insignificant compared to most other historical documents, which are generally accepted to be trustworthy (e.g., biographies of Alexander the Great from more than 400 years after his death).

My Response: I haven’t investigated this much but I get the impression that the comparison in the time differences is relatively accurate. It doesn’t follow, however, that the gospels are thus reliable. For one, there is a big difference between writings which claim to describe normal, human events which are generally supported by archeology and the records of outsiders, versus writings which claim to describe supernatural, religiously charged events with no hope of verification and come entirely from insiders. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed if the account is distorted in the first place. Furthermore, I find no reason to accept the claim that hundreds of years are required for unexceptional events to be contorted into exceptional stories, particularly when these stories have been nurtured by groups which are devoted to an apocalyptic and supernatural frame of reference. Lastly, this argument raises the same question as before: by comparing the reliability of the gospels with other historical works, are we then allowed to subject the gospels to the same scrutiny and to repudiate the questionable elements? This argument carries no weight unless we are also willing to adopt the same level of acceptance. While Blomberg infers that historians view other texts as generally reliable, I’m sure he knows full well that they are also littered with details that are not accepted as true.

Argument #7: By dating Acts to about the time of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, we can infer that the synoptics were more likely written in the 40-60’s range rather than the 60-80’s range. Also, by reviewing the claims in Paul’s letters we can trace the original claims of the death, resurrection and appearances to as little as two years after the events themselves.

My Response: I’ll admit that I don’t fully appreciate all the methods used to estimate the dates of the gospels, so I will for now defer to the consensus. It does seem a bit shaky to pin the earlier dates on the fact that Acts ends while Paul is in Rome. I also have no problem with the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection was accepted very early. I’m inclined to believe that some of the apostles genuinely believed in the resurrection in short order, but that’s a topic for another day. In short, I don’t see why long periods of legendary development are required before we should begin to suspect that the stories of the resurrection of God incarnate may not be true.

Closing Thoughts

The portrait that Strobel paints in this first section is that in the four gospels we have a record that was originally produced with the utmost integrity for the expressed purpose of presenting an accurate historical account of Jesus. I fail to see how this high-level view has been adequately supported. The link to eye-witnesses is tenuous, the problems in the nativities are avoided, synoptic borrowing is accepted without consideration for its implications on the doctrine of inspiration, the issues of theological evolution and bias are unfairly dismissed and the claims are deemed truthful on the premise that very long periods of time are required for false or legendary material to develop.

Many, if not most, will accept the general outline of the gospels; that there was a man Jesus who developed a following, who purportedly performed miracles, who encouraged a life of humility and poverty, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God, who was killed for disrupting the status quo and who was believed to have been resurrected. This extraction of the general story from the details of the specifics given by the gospels is the type of history that we similarly extract from other historical texts. To assert that the gospels should be treated with no less skepticism than is given to other ancient texts implies that, at the least, we must be willing to concede the improbable in the same way. Despite the implication that this level of scrutiny would be acceptable, I very much doubt that Christian orthodoxy is willing to take that step.

In the next post I’ll look at Part 1, Section 2: Testing the Eyewitness Evidence.

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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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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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