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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).

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The Claims of The DaVinci Code

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As there have been many requests for information regarding the claims of The DaVinci Code, I would like to direct readers to the following posts.

Claim: The four Gospels were chosen from 80 other gospels.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

Claim: Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene and left the church in her charge.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 2

Claim: Pre-Biblical documents tell the true story of Jesus and Mary and are located in Mary's tomb.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 3

Claim: The New Testament scriptures are unreliable.
I discuss this claim in The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures and A Survey of New Testament Documents and The God Who Wasn't There, Part 2

Claim: Leonardo's The Last Supper contains visual clues to the secret of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene.
I discuss this claim in The Last Supper.

Some additional recommended resources:

Biblical scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg has done two excellent lectures related to the claims of The DaVinci Code, available for download here:
The DaVinci Code (Part 1): Was There a Plan to Suppress "Secret" Gospels?
The DaVinci Code (Part 2): Was There a Conspiracy to Concoct a Divine Jesus?

Also, Stand To Reason has produced a great 10-page PDF document addressing The DaVinci Code, available here:
http://www.str.org/site/DocServer/5-6_2006_SG.pdf?docID=961

CNN refutes The DaVinci Code!
Click here to read a decent article on CNN.com dealing with the credibility of the claims of The DaVinci Code.

CBS 60 Minutes debunks Priory of Sion!
Click here to read an article at cbsnews.com detailing the forged origin of Priory of Sion documents used by Dan Brown in his 'historical' research for The DaVinci Code (thanks BB for the link).

US News & World Report sets the record straight!
Click here to read an article at usnews.com generally outlining the historically incorrect claims of the DaVinci Code and the corrections to them.

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.

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 3

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After looking at the Gnostic “other gospels” in light of the recent media attention, as well as in terms of their historical and theological validity, I want to examine one last issue that is often mentioned within the context of the discussion. This concerns the hypothetical “Q” document, supposed by some scholars to be the source of information to which the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke refer.

Suggested by the German scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1832, the “Q” hypothesis (named for the German word Quelle, or “source”) was proposed to account for the parallels between Matthew and Luke’s writings of the sayings of Jesus. Some 250 verses of both Gospels show parallels, in that they have particular similarities that are not found in the Gospel of Mark, which scholars suggest is due to an actual document having pre-existed the Gospels and served as their source. Schleiermacher was prompted to take up this study after encountering the writing of Papias of Hierapolis, who wrote, “Matthew compiled the oracles of the Lord in a Hebrew manner of speech.” It had previously been interpreted that Papias meant that Matthew had written in Hebrew, but Schleiermacher interpreted this quote to mean that there was a document previous to Matthew.

The hypothesis has a particular presupposition of Markan priority, meaning that the Gospel of Mark was written first, to account for the similarities. However, if Matthew was actually written first, the hypothesis has little basis to be defended. Some advocates of the “Q” hypothesis reason that the format of the “Gospel of Thomas” (see What about Other “Gospels?” Part 1) shows that a purely sayings-based document has historical precedent. However this relies upon the assumption that such a format would precede the narrative accounts found in the canonical Gospels, which, given the later date of “Thomas” is not necessarily the case.

Interestingly, an expert character in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code suggests,

Also rumored to be a part of the treasury [of supposed documents hidden in the tomb of Mary Magdalene] is the legendary “Q” document, a manuscript that even the Vatican admits they believe exists. Allegedly, it is a book of Jesus’ teachings, possibly written in his own hand…Another explosive document believed to be in the treasury is a manuscript called the ‘Magdalene Diaries,’ Mary Magdalene’s personal account of her relationship with Christ, His crucifixion, and her time in France.”

To be fair, Brown’s book is, after all, a fictional work, making his completely unfounded suggestion of the existence of a diary written by Mary Magdalene (completely without historical credence) ignorable. However, Brown does open the book with a note explaining that all descriptions of documents within the book are accurate. For the record, however, though the “Q” document is an existing hypothesis and the basis of valid scholarship, no scholar has ever suggested that there is any reason to think it would have been written by Christ himself.

Contrary to the claims of the mostly Gnostic “gospels” I have examined in my previous two posts, the existence of “Q” would not actually cause any theological or historical problems. In fact, it was common for certain able followers of a Rabbi at the time to take notes of his teachings so that they may commit to memory and deliver to others what they had learned. If “Q” did exist, I would assume that it would have been on the level of such notes, since no copy of it has survived nor has it been explicitly referred to by any other early documents. However, we have no tangible evidence for either position, so “Q” must remain a hypothesis until we do.

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

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As the recent release of the so-called “Gospel of Judas” seems to suggest, many skeptics and scholars today allege that in addition to the four Gospels found in the contemporary New Testament, many other gospels were written and yet withheld from the canon for various sinister reasons. In fact, in his book ‘The DaVinci Code,’ Dan Brown suggests (by way of one of his ‘expert’ characters) that more than eighty gospels were considered for inclusion in the New Testament! I would like to briefly examine the veracity of this claim and suggest that, in reality, the number of other documents that could even be (mistakenly) construed as a legitimate gospel is roughly half the total Brown suggests.

Contrary to the popular suggestion of “gospel” rivalry during the growth of the early church, no other gospels were even suggested by first-hand authors for inclusion in the canon, or even by followers of such supposed authors. Only two gospels were mentioned in a favorable light during the time prior to the establishment of the canon, though not judged for canonicity. They include the “Gospel of the Hebrews” and the “Gospel of Thomas.” The “Gospel of the Hebrews” has actually never been found, though it is mentioned among the apostolic fathers’ literature and was said to resemble the Gospel of Matthew. The “Gospel of Thomas,” found among the Nag Hammadi literature, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus rather than a documentary account of His ministry. While a portion, perhaps a third, of the recorded sayings resemble those of the canonical Gospels, the remaining are Gnostic in nature and do not conform to the teachings of Christ as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Interestingly, the Jesus Seminar, a collective of radical liberal Biblical scholars, included “Thomas” as the fifth Gospel in their famous study which sought to prove that little of the words attributed to Jesus actually came from Him. In the case of “Hebrews,” there is no physical evidence allowing for even a debate as to whether it should have been included within the canon; the consensus of the early church is apparent from its lack of preservation. In the case of “Thomas,” its late date and obvious Gnostic corruption set it outside of the body of literature produced within the first century and among the followers who were directly connected to Christ, making the possibility of inspiration or even canonical qualification a non-issue.

During the second and third centuries of church growth, unorthodox teachers began to assemble groups based upon heretical teachings and recommend the use of spurious literature. Three so-called “gospels” tended to be referred to in such instances. They included the “Gospel of Peter,” “A Different Matthew” and, again, the “Gospel of Thomas.” These documents, as I wrote earlier, were written well after the time of the names associated with them, meaning that the authorship was forged. Additionally, like “Thomas,” these documents were thoroughly indicative of Gnostic corruption. In fact, I briefly examined the a passage from the “Gospel of Peter” in my previous post, “The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb),” which showed the remarkably strong influence of mythic symbolism and religious iconography that would not have been present in an early document (see that post for more and a quote from a passage recounting the resurrection of Christ).

There are another nine remaining documents, of which fragments still remain, which bear the name “gospel,” though for similar reasons to the three mentioned above, are apocryphal. These include, the “Gospel of Truth,” “Gospel of Philip,” “Gospel of the Egyptians,” “Gospel of Mary,” “Gospel of Bartholomew,” “The Apocryphon of James,” “The Ascent of James,” the “infancy” “Gospel of Thomas,” and the “Gospel of Nicodemus.” Again, these documents are today, and were at the time of the early church, rejected on the basis of spurious and late authorship, as well as corrupted and Gnostic-influenced doctrinal teaching. In the interest of time and space, I will discuss the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Mary” in more detail in a forthcoming post.

Roughly six or seven additional fragments were found among the documents at Oxyrhychus, which I mentioned in my previous post, “A Survey of New Testament Documents,” that contained duplicate accounts of Jesus’ miracles found in the New Testament Gospels, though they seem to originally be from separate documents. These fragments, however, present nothing controversial, nor do they include extra-Biblical teaching that would have been suppressed. The possible seventh document is of a bit more interest, though it is difficult to even call it a document. In 1958, scholar Morton Smith visited an Egyptian monastery where he claims to have viewed a letter from Clement of Alexandria, who lived around AD 200. Smith said that this letter contained a quote from a distorted version of the Gospel of Mark, which Clement was endeavoring to refute. The quote mentions a young man who visits Jesus in the night wearing nothing but a linen garment, and is “taught the secrets of the kingdom” until the morning. Sadly, it is this quote, having never been verified by one shred of evidence beyond Smith’s verbal account, which leads some to outrageously infer that Jesus was a homosexual. Clearly, and even if it were genuine, the passage overtly contains nothing of the sort. Smith did return to the monastery once more to take photographs of the document, which were reportedly last seen in 1973. Since then, some scholars have attempted to suggest that this “distortion” of the Gospel of Mark was actually the original, of which the Biblical Gospel of Mark was a distortion! Not only is there no evidence to verify that the ancient letter of Clement actually exists, there is no existing evidence to corroborate the supposed distortion of Mark nor the hypothesis that the New Testament Gospel of Mark was a later version of the one cited by Clement. For skeptics, the pre-Mark “gospel” may just be wishful thinking. Finally, among ancient documents, scholars have found twenty-eight other references to texts simply called “gospels,” though none of these have ever been found or corroborated by additional sources.

It appears that, despite the frequent claims of skeptics, the allegation of numerous “gospels” that competed for canonical inclusion is quite incorrect. In fact, the cumulative total of all the documents I have cited here (including the supposed distorted “Gospel of Mark”) is 48 documents. This, by the way, is roughly half the number suggested by Dan Brown. This data is ultimately convincing that the suggestion that there were eighty other “gospels” is quite disingenuous.

A Survey of New Testament Documents

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The reliability of the New Testament is a value indicative of the fantastic catalogue of manuscripts that have been preserved and kept since the beginning of the church at the time of Christ. For the record, and as an addendum to my previous post, I would like to briefly survey some of the most important and ancient manuscripts from among the many available to scholars today.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we depend upon copies of the original scriptural documents, or autographs, as none of them still exist. Now, before this statement fills us with doubt or skepticism regarding the integrity of the message translated from one document to another, it is helpful to keep in mind that no autographs exist of many sources which we depend upon to reconstruct the history and culture of ancient civilization. In other words, the absence of autographs is common and not a mortal blow to the endeavor of discovering the original words or meaning of many ancient documents. Consequently, the more manuscript copies are available, especially those close in proximity to the writing of the original, the more accurate the reconstruction can be. For more on how this principle establishes the reliability of the New Testament documents, see my previous post.

The manuscript that many scholars estimate is closest to the autographs, classified as P46 (otherwise referred to as the Chester Beatty Papyrus II, after its owner), contains all of the Pauline pastoral epistles, and has been dated at the end of the first century. If this dating is correct, it places P46 within twenty to thirty years of Paul’s original letters and would be the largest and oldest collection of New Testament manuscripts currently in our possession. The next document in chronological order, referred to as P52, is dated around 110-125 AD and contains John 18, verses 31-34 and 37-38. This document is a fragment to say the least, but it was part of a larger manuscript copy of the Gospel of John, produced within twenty to thirty years of the original. The following are a selection of some of the other important New Testament papyri:

The Oxyrhychus Papyri
This group of documents was literally recovered from the ancient garbage dumps of Egypt! In 1898, archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt discovered the site in Oxyrhychus, Egypt, which included an enormous amount of written information, including legal documents, literature, business receipts, and letters, as well as over 35 New Testament manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts were fragments of larger works. Included were P1, containing Matthew 1, P5, containing John 1 and 16, P13, containing Hebrews 2-5 and 10-12, and P22, containing John 15-16.

The Chester Beatty Papyri
This collection of documents was found and purchased from an Egyptian dealer in the 1930’s, and bears the name of its owner. As I mentioned above, two of its manuscripts, P46 and P52, are recognized for their age and proximity to the autographs. In addition to those two, P45, which contains portions of the Gospels and Acts and P47, which contains Revelation 9-17, are included.

The Bodmer Papyri
Also named for its owner, M. Martin Bodmer, and purchased from an Egyptian dealer through the 1950’s and 1960’s, this collection includes P66, from 175 AD and containing the majority of the Gospel of John, P72, of the third century and containing both 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, and P75, from 200 AD containing portions of Luke 3 through John 15.

Codex Sinaiticus
This manuscript is a complete edition of the New Testament. It was discovered by Constantin vo Tischendorf in a monastery located near Mount Sinai. It is dated around 350 AD.

Codex Vaticanus
Preserved in the library of the Vatican since 1481, this manuscript was not available for examination until the mid-1800’s! It has been dated prior to Codex Sinaiticus, and includes the entire Old Testament and the New Testament through Hebrews 9:15 in Greek. Still today, Vaticanus is considered one of the most reliable sources of the autograph text.

Codex Alexandrinus
This manuscript is dated in the 5th century and contains almost the entire New Testament. Scholars emphasize its reliability especially in regards to the Pauline epistles and the book of Revelation.

Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus
Also from the 5th century, this particular manuscript is quite interesting. The document itself is a palimpsest, or one which has been written over previously written and erased writing. Ephraemi Rescriptus was restored by Tischendorf using a process of chemical recovery which revealed the New Testament text beneath a collection of the sermons of Ephraemi.

Codex Bezae
Named after the man who discovered it, Theodore Beza, this manuscript contains the Gospels and Acts and is from the 5th century AD.

Codex Washingtonianus
Another 5th century manuscript and also known as the Freer Gospels (named for its owner, Charles Freer), Washingtonianus includes all four Gospels and is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 4 (Addressing Alternative Explanations)

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While I think the historical evidence for the resurrection is more than solid, no case would be air-tight without addressing some of the most common alternative explanations that attempt to cast doubt upon the Gospel accounts.

The Conspiracy Theory
First suggested in 18th century scholarship, though certainly based upon the earliest Jewish polemic against Christian claims, the conspiracy theory asserts that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb and fabricated the story of the resurrection for the purposes of establishing a power-motivated dogma. While this theory is contradicted by the historically trustworthy accounts of multiple independent sources (refer to parts 1, 2 and 3, which discuss the evidences for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, the empty tomb, and the establishment of the Christian church), it persists on the basis of skepticism regarding the motive and character of the disciples.

It is unlikely that the disciples were insincere. History verifies through written accounts the motivations and the sufferings of the disciples of Christ, and despite their failure to appropriate power, they persisted in their faith. They were completely aware of the consequence of the message they spread, both from the swift condemnation they would receive from the Jewish authorities, and the likelihood of penalty from Roman authorities, so a drive for power is simply an absurd hypothesis for motive.

Most importantly, however, the conspiracy theory applies modern perspectives on Jewish and Christian theology to men who would certainly not have conceived of such ideas. For the disciples, the death of Jesus served as a definite end to any notion that he was the promised messiah. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that the messiah became understood as not triumphing over just worldly kingdoms and rule, but over death itself and eternal condemnation of the soul. The disciples, far from being shrewd and manipulative theologians, were fishermen and tax collectors, hardly likely suspects for such a deceptive collaboration.

The Apparent-Death Theory
The apparent death theory, also referred to as the ‘swoon theory,’ suggests that Jesus survived the crucifixion, and therefore never died, nor was resurrected. This is probably the least possible of explanations, on the basis of several points.

The first, and most crucial, point which affirms the probability that Jesus did in fact die on the cross is that the Roman guards were efficient executioners and not likely to be lax in officiating over the penalty of such a public figure. Likewise, the crucifixion is probably the most sure among all information about Jesus of Nazareth, affirmed by multiple, independent sources among Christians and non-Christians alike. Though modern liberal scholarship attempts to undermine many things about Jesus, his death by crucifixion is not one of them.

However, the details provided by the Gospel witnesses regarding the crucifixion provide some astoundingly particular clues that affirm Jesus’ death. Besides clearly stating that Jesus breathed his last on the cross, the gospels note that the Roman guards, in order to expedite the executions of the other condemned men, broke their legs so that they would no longer be able to support themselves as they struggled to breath. The actual cause of death for a crucified man was asphyxiation, due to the position of the body which made it impossible to sustain prolonged breathing. However, it is further noted that the guards did not break the legs of Jesus, because it was determined that he was already dead. Next, the guards drive a spear into Jesus’ side for good measure, at which point it is written, “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:34)” This is surely a peculiar detail to be included, yet modern medical knowledge affirms that pericardial effusion as well as pleural effusion- fluid resembling water that collects in the heart and lungs due to cardiac arrest- would have been expelled had a spear pierced the side of Jesus.

It is sure, then, on the basis of historical consensus and the confirmation of seemingly insignificant details, that Jesus did not survive the crucifixion.

The Hallucination Theory
The hallucination theory posits that the appearances of the resurrected Christ were actually hallucinations on the part of overzealous and emotional followers.

This theory has little ground to stand on due to the nature of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. Had there been only a handful of witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus perhaps in one place at one time, the theory might be adequate. However, the accounts describe many sightings by many people, individuals and large groups, in multiple locations, by believers and skeptics alike!

Hallucinations, had they occurred, would have been unlikely to portray Jesus as bodily resurrected. The nature of a hallucination is that it will portray images based upon preexisting ideas or thoughts in the mind. As shown before, the idea of a bodily resurrection of an individual before the general resurrection of the dead at the final judgment would have been non-existent in the minds of the disciples. Given their point of view, had they experienced hallucinations of Jesus, they would have likely seen him as spiritually raised and enjoying the heavenly fellowship of Abraham, awaiting the final judgment.

Lastly, though the hallucinations might account for appearances of Jesus after his death, had the details of these appearances been much different of course, they do not account for the empty tomb or the rapid growth of the church, consisting of individuals fully convinced of the reality of the risen Christ.

The Pagan Influence Theory
The pagan influence theory, one that originated in the late 18th and early 19th century study of comparative religion, suggests that details of Christian theology, such as the resurrection and virgin birth, were adapted from pre-existing religious myth and tradition and were therefore not real events. This theory, which had been entirely debunked prior to a recent resurgence after the publicity of the Jesus Seminar, a radically liberal “think-tank” which rejects most of the tenets of orthodox Christianity, is inadequate for two significant reasons.

The first reason is due to the lack of resemblance that the Christian doctrines actually have to pagan traditions. For example, the resurrection of Jesus was initially compared to the dying and rising tradition of pagan gods like Osiris, yet the character of Jesus’ resurrection is quite different. The dying/rising myth was an intentional symbol meant to emphasize and reflect upon the crop cycle and never referred to an actual historical individual. Furthermore, the “resurrection” of Osiris was actually limited, in that his “risen” state limited him to exploits in the underworld, as apposed to Jesus, who, after the resurrection, was both able to manifest on the Earth and in heaven. What becomes apparent is that pagan “resurrections” were more transitional than transformational. The virgin birth, often compared to the origin of such Greek characters as Hercules, is also quite distinct. While Hercules was said to have been conceived out of the copulation of Zeus and a mortal woman, Jesus’ conception was through the holy spirit acting upon, and preserving, the virginity of Mary. There was not even a shred of the idea of God taking a human form and actually engaging in sexual intercourse with Mary to accomplish this! When one takes a closer look, these doctrines are more dissimilar than bearing any resemblance to one another.

However, history also shows the unlikelihood that any borrowing on the part of Christianity from pagan ideas occurred. It wasn’t until the second century after the crucifixion of Christ that any kind of Christo-pagan synthesis was even found in the Palestinian region. To suggest the opposite, that Christians borrowed from existing sects of pagan mystery religions in the community, would be historically inaccurate and indicative of a lack of understanding of pagan ideas. More importantly, however, the Jewish-ness of Jesus should not be overlooked, nor undermined for the cause of subversive historical maneuvering. Jesus and his followers were distinctly Jewish, and like all Jews, would have found pagan concepts and practices detestable. The Jewish people had a long-established tradition of resisting pagan influence, and it is unlikely that even the crucifixion of Jesus would have changed their beliefs regarding them.

Conclusion
I think that these theories are shown to be woefully inadequate explanations of the evidence we do have concerning Jesus. So, it is on the basis of the resiliency, diversity and plentitude of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the inadequacy of alternative theories, that I affirm its historicity and confidently establish my faith in Jesus.