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The God Who Wasn’t There, Part 2

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In The God Who Wasn’t There, filmmaker Brian Flemming attempts to cast doubt upon the reliability of the New Testament, something which is affirmed by the majority of contemporary Biblical scholars. While many may dispute the interpretation of these scriptures, or the ways in which we aught to apply their message to our lives, the historical value of them is not quite up for debate. However, Flemming makes some rather specific comments, which I would like to examine.

"Why is it that Christians can be so specific about the life of Christ but they’re vague about what happened after he left? Aren’t Christian leaders telling them the story? [Regarding the Gospels], the other three are clearly derived from Mark. Mark mentions the destruction of the Jewish Temple which happened in the year 70. So, the Gospels all came later than that; probably much later. There’s a gap of four decades or more. Most of what we know about this period comes from a man who says he saw Jesus Christ come to him in a vision. He was the apostle Paul, formally known as Saul of Tarsus. (The God Who Wasn’t There)"

The allegation that modern Christians know little to nothing about the early Christian church is quite unfounded. There is actually a wealth of information about this time in history that not only allows for a relatively tight chronology, but also verifies the reliability of the New Testament books themselves. The early Christians left such a significant “paper trail” that the entire New Testament can be reconstructed simply from quotes and citations found in the letters and writings of the leaders of the church in the first and second century! While these non-Biblical documents aid in our understanding of the Bible itself, they also provide a great deal of information regarding the practices of the early Christians, the growth of the church, and even the details of heresies as they were discovered and how they were addressed. But Flemming seems more interested in challenging the reliability of the Gospels, specifically on the basis that they were too far removed from the events they describe to be trusted.

First, Flemming alleges that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are derived from Mark. Do all the Gospels derive from Mark? This is hardly the consensus. In fact, while similarities between Matthew and Luke suggest Markan priority, there is plenty of additional information in each that is not found in Mark, possibly suggesting other sources- unless of course the writers were actually just faithful to the message they received from Jesus. Whether these 'other sources' can be accounted for on the basis that the authors of these Gospels were actually who tradition suggests (Mark, a close disciple of Peter, and Matthew the disciple of Jesus himself) is a separate question, but clearly there is too much information within both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke that cannot be accounted for only by the content of The Gospel of Mark. In fact, Luke explicitly states that he embarked to gather information from many sources, and implies that the Christian tradition, then being put into writing, was first established and spread orally:

“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having understanding of all things from the very first, to write you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed (Luke 1:1-4)”

Some scholars infer, on the basis of similarities among the synoptic Gospels, a prior source, called 'Q,' that preceded the writing of any of the canonical Gospels and for some reason was not preserved but would have had to have been established quite soon after Jesus' crucifixion (I have written on the ‘Q’ hypothesis in a previous post titled What About Other Gospels, Part 3). Note, however, that if such a document were to be discovered and did represent the earliest teaching about Jesus, the difficulty which many critics have with the span of time between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels would be even more unfounded. ‘Q,’ then is a hypothesis which would only strengthen Biblical reliability.

Flemming then hones in on a particular target and claims that the Gospel of Mark could not have been written until after AD 70, followed by the other three. He interviews another scholar, by the name of Doherty, to corroborate this:

"The earliest possible date for Mark was used on this timeline [AD 70]. In fact, the 40-year gap is probably much wider. Scholarship shows that Mark could have been written as late as 85-90 A.D. (Flemming)"

"The first Gospel wasn’t written until almost the end of the first century…The others follow over the next several decades (Doherty)."

I happen to think that we have very good reasons to disagree with this scheme of dating, but for the sake of argument, let's give Flemming and Doherty the benefit of the doubt regarding the supposed 40-year gap. To suggest that a 40-year gap between an ancient event and its documentation disqualifies it from being historically reliable is contrary to the process and standards of historical verification. In fact, most of our current data on ancient events relies on documents far more removed from the events they describe than the Gospels. Flemming and Doherty’s suggestion otherwise is intentionally misleading. However, current Biblical scholarship is not in agreement with the dates for the Gospels given by Flemming and Doherty, which I will address later.

Regarding the span of time between the writing of the New Testament documents and the events they describe, Biblical scholar Frederic Kenyon writes,

"This may sound a considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1400 years after the poet's death. (Frederic Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament)."

If Kenyon's statement isn't robust enough for an argument, renowned Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce provides a bit more of a detailed comparison:

"Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar's Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar's day. Of the 142 books of the Roman history of Livy (59 B.C. – A.D. 17), only 35 survive; of the 16 books of his Annals, 10 survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth centruy and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460 – 400 B.C.) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (B.C. 488 – 428). Yet, no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?)."

So assuming that there is such a 40-year gap, as Flemming asserts, this seems to be a fact still in favor of the reliability of the scriptures, especially within the context of other ancient sources and how they are treated historically.

Incidentally, however, Flemming's dates for the Gospels are significantly off from those that many Biblical scholars affirm. While evangelical and skeptical Biblical scholars tend to vary by a factor of ten years in their dating of the New Testament books, one method of pinpointing a date is to start from a suggested dating of the book of Acts and work backward. The final accounts of Acts detail Paul's imprisonment in Rome, but say nothing about his subsequent death, nor the deaths of Peter or James (believed to have occurred sometime between AD 60 – 70). This is remarkable given the final passages of Acts’ primary focus on Paul. Nor does Acts account for the Roman war (AD 66) or the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70), both major events which would have been especially germane to the subject of the book and surely of interest to the apostles. The omission of these relevant facts lead to a likely conclusion that the book itself was completed prior to any of these events, sometime prior to the early 60's AD. Since most scholars affirm that the Gospel of Luke was written prior to Acts and after the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, one can conclude on the basis of historically positioning the book of Acts that all of these books can all be dated before AD 70.

Flemming also notes that the Gospel of Mark mentions the fall of the temple in Jerusalem, which happened in AD 70, therefore Mark could not have been written prior to AD 70. Actually, the passage he is referring to does not explicitly mention the destruction of the temple in AD 70, but contains a cryptic prophesy from Jesus which has subsequently been interpreted to refer to the temple. It reads:

“Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, 'Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!' And Jesus answered and said to him, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down (Mark 13: 1-3).”

Though this has come to be known as a prophecy confirmed by the fall of the temple in AD 70, it is not a specific mention of the event itself. One would have no reason to date this text after the event unless the possibility of prophetic accuracy was rejected prima facie. However, if one were to reject the prophetic, it is certainly plausible that Jesus was simply stating that no building will remain after His second coming, making the fall of the temple decades later a significant coincidence. While exegetical stances may vary in regard to this passage, Mark 13: 1-3 is not helpful in discerning the date of the writing of the Gospel, and certainly should not bar it from having been written prior to AD 70.

Besides the Gospel accounts, the details of Jesus' life are also found in reliable secular historical sources. These include Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Hadrian, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapian, and the Jewish historian Josephus. All of these writers cited information related to Jesus or Christianity within 20 to 150 years of the death of Jesus. For secondary affirmations in history, these are very early and valuable to refuting the claim that we know little of that portion of history. Jewish historian Josephus, for example, provides a detailed account of the rule of Pontius Pilate, and even includes an account of Jesus:

"Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of the Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter III)."

As a disclaimer, I am well aware that portions of this passage which seem to agree with the most supernatural claims about Jesus are likely to be spurious. My point in quoting from Josephus is not to prove that Josephus believed in the deity or even messianic identity of Jesus, but simply to show that Jesus was important enough to have been mentioned by him.

Skeptics might at this point suggest that using the same method of historiography to evaluate the New Testament documents as one might use to evaluate the documents of Herodotus is invalid, given that the Biblical accounts include supernatural and miraculous events, while the ancient histories do not. This is, however, false. In fact, ancient historical accounts do include numerous reports of omens, prophesies, miracles, as well as divine and demonic encounters and activity.

One often cited example comes from Plutarch's account of Alexander the Great, in which he notes that Alexander came from a Herculean genealogical line, as well as other supernatural details such as how the Greek pantheon favored and assisted him in battle, how he had encounters with a priest claiming to be the son of the god Ammon, and how he relied constantly upon oracles for decision making. Tacitus, too, mentions the divinity of the Caesars, the worship of them, and the divine influence upon the crop cycle. Suetonius includes in his writings numerous examples of divine encounters, interactions with the spirits of the dead, worship and prophesies, and many additional citations of omens found in heavenly observation, dreams and visions. While many of the ancient historians not only reported things of a supernatural nature, suggesting that people of that time actually believed in them, it seems that the historians themselves also believed in these phenomena. Why then are these writers forgiven their supernatural inclinations and trusted in their reporting, yet the New Testament writers are not given the same benefit? It seems, then, that this discrepancy is the result of historically retrospective discrimination.

Flemming plays fast and loose with claims of the illegitimacy of the New Testament and infers on such basis that secrets were kept and knowledge suppressed by church leaders for the purpose of misleading people and assuming control over them. Such a conspiracy and manipulation theory is often too easily assumed today without considering the cumulative weight of the evidence to the contrary, especially when the motivation to do so is first established by an emotional appeal to skepticism. I have previously written on the reliability of the New Testament, and am strongly in favor of the position that regardless of what one chooses to believe about the scriptures, their position and authority in history is clear (see my previous post on the reliability of the New Testament).

Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy

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Imagine playing a typical game of ‘telephone,’ in which a phrase or sentence is whispered from one player to another until it reaches the original person who composed it. Often, the words have changed and the result is a hilarious illustration of how easily information can get lost in transmission. According to Bart Ehrman’s recent book, ‘Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,’ the transmission of the Bible by scribes was comparable to a game of ‘telephone,’ (my analogy, not his) as the existence of scores of textual variants among the thousands of existing manuscripts leads Ehrman to the conclusion that the original meaning of the scriptures must be lost. Needless to say, such an allegation is likely to (and has) created controversy of ‘Dan Brownian’ proportions.

It should be initially pointed out that Dr. Ehrman’s reputation as a Biblical scholar and textual critic is exemplary, and his contributions to the study of the transmission of the scriptures are many. However, though he wields considerable authority in this area, his conclusion that the existence of variations in wording among manuscripts calls established Christian doctrines into question is quite overreaching. So, I do not want to suggest that my short article can simply dismiss Ehrman’s work as incorrect. Rather, I would like to examine several of the passages of scripture which he cites and then provide my own response as well as a brief note on the principles of inspiration and inerrancy.

Mark 16:9-20
It has been noted by New Testament scholars for the last century that the ending passage of the Gospel of Mark is absent from the earliest Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian manuscripts. Even subsequent copies reveal that the passage had been marked as questionable in its relationship to the original autograph. The writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origen seem to suggest that they were not aware of this passage, as it is not explicitly mentioned by either. However, later writings by Eusebius and Jerome indicate that they were aware of this passage’s absence from the earlier Greek manuscripts and subsequent addition. So, barring the discovery of an earlier manuscript, the current evidence seems to be in favor of a Gospel of Mark which ends prior to 16:9. Some, however, have argued that the final passage is authentic on the basis of a quote in Ireneaus’ Against Heresies of AD 180, which reads:

“Also, towards the conclusion of his gospel, Mark says, 'So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was received up into heaven and sits on the right hand of God.’”

Regardless of whether the passage is or is not ultimately authentic, the fact remains that some manuscripts contain it while others do not. Dr. Ehrman concludes that a variation of this nature calls the Christian traditions of inspiration and inerrancy into serious question. His expectation is that God would prevent such variations as the scriptures are reproduced. Since variations do, in fact, occur, we must be mistaken about the meaning of the scriptures and ultimately the very character of God. While Ehrman’s conclusions are based upon a presupposition regarding inspiration and innerancy which I will examine at the conclusion of this post, I would initially comment that to suggest that this is some sort of expose on the reliability of the scriptures is incorrect. Many Biblical scholars (his mentor Bruce Metzger included) examine the same data that Ehrman has and reach far different conclusions regarding the inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible.

John 7:53-8:11
Like the above mentioned passage from the Gospel of Mark, the Pericope De Adultera is not found in the earliest manuscript copies of the Gospel of John. St. Augustine wrote of the omission of this passage, suggesting that scribes made an editorial decision based upon the fear that the story was too lenient upon adultery. Again like the Markan verses, absence of commentary on this passage from writers such as Tertullian and Cyprian seems to indicate that they did not know of it. In fact, many scholars point out that Origen’s commentary on this portion of the Gospel of John mentions every verse except those from the passage between 7:53 and 8:11, leading to the conclusion that he, too, had not been aware of it. Though we may be safe in concluding that the passage should not be considered a part of the autograph, some still suggest that the narrative is a true representation of Jesus. Bruce Metzger elaborates on this, affirming that the periscope can be non-canonical and still true:

“When one adds to this impressive and diversified list of external evidence the consideration that the style and vocabulary of the pericope differ noticeably from the rest of the Fourth Gospel (see any critical commentary), and that it interrupts the sequence of 7.52 and 8.12 ff., the case against its being of Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive. At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places. Most copyists apparently thought that it would interrupt John's narrative least if it were inserted after 7.52 (D E F G H K M U G P 28 700 892 al). Others placed it after 7.36 (ms. 225) or after 7.44 (several Georgian mss.) or after 21.25 (1 565 1076 1570 1582 armmss) or after Luke 21.38 (f13). Significantly enough, in many of the witnesses which contain the passage it is marked with asterisks or obeli, indicating that, though the scribes included the account, they were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament).”

It seems quite clear that these two passages, especially the Pericope de Adultera, do not belong in the Bible, though they affirm true things about the character of Jesus and even things He was likely to have done. Biblical scholarship has traditionally affirmed that canonicity is not measured by the veracity of the content of certain books, but by the affirmation of the Holy Spirit. For example, Jude 14-15 quotes from the Book of Enoch, though this book has not been considered part of the canon. The passage, which reads, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners spoke against him,” certainly does not affirm anything necessarily contrary to scripture, yet its veracity does not necessarily qualify it as scripture itself. Additionally, Old Testament apocryphal books like 1 and 2 Maccabees which likely contain accurate historical accounts of the inter-testamental period also contain heretical teachings. Specifically, 2 Macabbees contains passages which affirm suicide, prayers for the dead, Purgatorial suffering as well as the possibility of being granted salvation after death.

Dr. Ehrman is correct in asserting that passages which are unauthentic or spurious should not be considered scripture regardless of our fondness for them or their veracity. However, the fact that some of these passages do remain does not lead to the conclusion that, like a domino effect, the rest of Scripture is dubious as well.

The inspiration of scripture is not at risk due to these variations. Inspiration should be understood as the intentional use of human authors by the Holy Spirit of God in the writing of scripture, such that it contained the exact message He desires. The inspiration was in the production of the autographs, not in the production of copies of the autographs. To suggest that flawed copies indicates a flawed source is without logical basis. In fact, the entire process of reconstructing the autographs by the outstandingly large amount of manuscript attestation we do have has produced a Bible of overwhelming accuracy, and in so doing affirms the emphasis on the inspiration of the autograph, rather than the copies. Even Ehrman agrees here.

Inerrancy, on the other hand, is the conclusion that scripture inspired by God is essentially true. Inerrancy does not mean that copies of the inspired autographs of scripture will be grammatically perfect or even consistent. Yet, it does suggest that the message of God will be both preserved and uncorrupted such that it is accessible to all. This is a crucial point which has major ramifications on the process of reproduction. If inerrancy meant the perfection of the words themselves, rather than the message, then the Word of God would be untranslatable. Such is the dilemma of Islam, where the Koran itself is seen as the ultimate miracle of God, perfect in essence and language. To even interact with the one miracle, the Muslim must understand Arabic, while those that read translations are prohibited from commentary as the act of translation itself is seen as a corrupting agent to the miracle. Yet, this is not the case for the Christian claim of inerrancy of scripture. In fact, the commission of Christ relies upon the ability of His Word to be translated into other languages and even paraphrased by teachers. Thus, the inerrancy of scripture is in the message, rather than the words, or even the sentences, chapters or books.

We should certainly be motivated to have a Bible that is as close to a perfect reproduction of the autographs as possible. To do so means that passages such as the two mentioned here should probably be removed (though it is only fair to mention that virtually every existing modern translation indicates clearly the verses which are varied among the source manuscripts, either by separating the text, footnotes, or other visual cues). However, and this is a big however, the existence of non-authentic passages, even within our latest versions of the Bible, do nothing more to discredit the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture as entire books that were determined as non-canonical, such as the Old and New Testament Apocrypha.

But the more important point is that while inspiration and inerrancy are integral to the Christian faith, they are not principles which override the philosophical grounding of Christian theism, nor the historical grounding of the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. As Dr. Ehrman himself agrees, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, our modern Bible is overwhelmingly reliable as a witness to the original autographs and as a historical account of the time of Christ and the early church. I can only postulate that his incorrect conception of inspiration and inerrancy have led him to prioritize such ideas over the testimony of historical record.