On March 28, 2006, the College of the Holy Cross sponsored a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, titled "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?" Since I was not able to actually attend this much-anticipated event, I have been able to review the transcript of the proceedings, which can be found here. Normally, I wouldn't endeavor to analyze or throw my 'two cents' in after the fact, but the debate raised several issues that are particularly germane to philosophical and historical apologetics and which I think merit some attention. I won't necessarily be defending the historical resurrection in this article as previous ones have made clear my position on this matter. However, I would like to examine some philosophical ideas related to the discussion that often cause damage to a debate such as this one.
Aside from a rather unfortunate and embarassing introduction from the moderator, which recounts a medieval debate between a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Monk over whether Jesus was the messiah and seems to suggest that the resulting bedlam is characteristic of Christian 'sore losers,' both Craig and Ehrman seem to have conducted themselves in gentlemanly and scholarly fashion.
Dr. William Lane Craig, representing the affirmative position, is a Christian philosopher by profession, though it should be noted that he has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and his apologetic work tends to focus on issues relevant to the cosmological argument for the existence of God and the historical resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, representing the negative position, is a Biblical historian and textual critic with a doctorate in theology who has been in the limelight recently after the publication of his latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, which discusses the transmission of the Biblical texts and how they were changed over time. In summary, Dr. Craig defended his position that there is, in fact, historical evidence in light of which the resurrection of Jesus is a probable event. He began with what is a classic approach of his, what I will call the 'Four Facts' argument, which propose that there are four facts which must be adequately explained: 1. the burial of Jesus, 2. the discovery of his empty tomb, 3. the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 4. the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection. On the basis of his argument, he concludes that the best explanation of the facts is that Jesus rose from the dead. On the other hand, Dr. Ehrman argued that history is methodologically limited to dealing with information that can be verified through reliable sources and suggests only natural events. It is on the basis of this assertion that Ehrman declares such an event as the resurrection of Jesus non-historical, and therefore not germane to any discussion he would conduct.
This particular methodology, which Ehrman claims carries no bias toward theological issues, does not allow for a historical presence of the supernatural. Thus, the logical conclusion is that supernatural actions of God in history, are by nature non-historical. However, this just seems somewhat difficult to defend. If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. Without a direct communication from God affirming this point, one really has no basis to assume it. However, one does have, again assuming theism, a precedent upon which to expect God to act in history- namely the creation of the universe itself, which must be a historical event though no one was there to write it down or snap a photo as it was happening. Yet, since even the ‘natural’ was created at that point, the act itself must have been supernatural. In any case, suffice it to say that I believe Ehrman’s position on the matter to be a bit of a stretch of the credulity of any philosopher. He may be playing by the rules of historians, but that says nothing of whether a supernatural event actually occurred.
In response to the classic 'four facts' argument put forth by Craig, Ehrman suggests a couple of alternative explanations, which, while he does not subscribe to them personally, he argues are more probable explanations than that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. For example, one he suggested first was that after Jesus' death by crucifixion, He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. However, His family, motive unknown but preferring to have the final say in where Jesus was buried, broke into the tomb at night and removed the body. While transporting it, they encountered some Roman guards who summarily put them to death and cast all the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. Later, the disciples would obviously find the original tomb empty and legend would flourish.
While this explanation is rife with problems, the more important issue at play is, again, the arbitrariness with which it is assembled. The issue here is to find an explanation which satisfactorily deals with all the information available. In other words, and often stated by Craig, such an explanation must have appropriate explanatory scope and power in order to be the most probable and suitable to settle upon. Ehrman's suggestion not only fails in this regard, but it is absurdly ad hoc and ends up not satisfying the actual evidence but creating a list of other points to ground it that are either entirely contrived or at best speculative. For instance, his explanation follows the Gospel narrative in general but inserts an event previously unknown to account for the empty tomb. Not only is this event completely contrived, but it presents a new problem that the explanation does not itself solve. Specifically, had the relatives of Jesus (presumably Mary, and/or his brothers) attempted to move the body and been killed in the process, surely there would be some mention of their absence or at least an explanation of their deaths. In fact, history shows that at least James and Jude could not have been involved in this plot (assuming the authorship of the epistles of James and Jude are not spurious).
Craig, of course, continually returns to his 'four facts' argument and reminds the attending audience that they have not been adequately refuted. Given Ehrman’s inability to diffuse the ‘four facts’ argument, it seems that the issue of the debate sadly came down to one of professional methodology. On the one hand, we have a philosopher, adhering to the laws of logic and the fundamental notion of following the evidence where it leads, while on the other a historian willing to play by rules that satisfy operating in a bubble but seem almost absurd when exposed to the scrutiny of common sense. Needless to say, I was disappointed by this debate. Had the format of the proceedings themselves allowed, the scholars might have had opportunity to unpack the issues of historical and philosophical methodology in a depth necessary for really coming to any worthwhile determinations on the matter. While I find the ‘four facts’ argument to be strongly persuasive, it is only because I am also persuaded that historical methodology must allow for any event, including the miraculous, to occur. What would make for an interesting sequel to this debate would be to have the scholars return to discuss this issue in particular and then perhaps readdress the conclusions in regard to Jesus.
The publication of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, has caused quite a bit of controversy, and I have responded to it, generally, in a previous post titled Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy. However, I began to develop in my response an argument against the often-heard comparison of scriptural textual transmission to the children’s game of Telephone which I think needs a bit more detail.
Actually, I came to the determination that I should elaborate on this subject when a student recently asked, “Doesn’t it seem that the way we got our Bible is a lot like the game of Telephone? How do we know that the message we have now is at all like how it started?” Ironically, this student was not at all familiar with Ehrman’s book, or the field of textual criticism, so it can be rightly concluded that it doesn’t take an eminent scholar to come up with such a theory. Rather, I would argue that the arguments used by scholars, like Ehrman, to conclude the unreliability of the Bible ultimately work against them.
Instead of retracing my previous article on this topic, let me summarize the issue in this way: Ehrman, who is rightly regarded as an expert in the field of Biblical textual criticism, argues in his latest book that due to errors and even intentional changes in the text from one copy to another, the present form of the Bible should not be trusted in its details nor considered a reliable source of theological doctrine. Like the game of telephone, what goes in does not come out without being distorted, if not changed completely. In fact, half the fun of the game tends to be the result of intentional changes rather than incidental ones; apparently such is also the case of the scribes responsible for duplicating Biblical manuscripts.
The particularly ‘bombshell-like’ examples of errors in the Biblical texts that Ehrman documents have already been discussed at length (again, in my previous post on this topic). As I, and many others, have shown, not only are these errors not new to anyone familiar with Biblical scholarship, they are never damaging to the Orthodox theological understanding of Christianity. While I admit that Ehrman delivers a sobering call to Christian scholarship and perhaps even the merited removal of some portions of text from the Bible, his conclusions are generally unfair and likely the result of a desire to come to them, rather than a true mandate.
The process of textual criticism, however, is certainly not like the game of telephone. In the game of telephone, there is no aspect which objectively preserves the initial message, except for the word of the first speaker. Thus, in a hypothetical circle of fifteen, player seven has no way of knowing whether the message whispered into his or her ear is at all like the original. In fact, player seven really has no way of knowing whether that message even resembles what player six received. However, such is not the case with the scriptural manuscripts. Like our modern Bibles, which footnote passages which vary from one manuscript family to another, even some of the early manuscripts contained such warnings! This would be like player seven passing on a message like, “Player six whispered the words ‘banana cheese steak’ into my ears, but I doubt their accuracy and suggest that they really meant banana cheesecake.” In other words, the scribes involved were not copying automatons, but were deeply involved in the process in a critical way. Of course, this does open the door for intentional theological alterations, which Ehrman certainly mentions, but as I will argue, these still do not lead to the conclusion that the resulting transmission of the scriptures cannot be trusted.
Our ability to discern errors in the transmission of the scriptures relies upon the availability of thousands of copies. (In fact, when confronted with daunting numbers of errors, keep in mind that one error in a manuscript duplicated possibly 100 times after results in a total of 100 errors. Really, in such cases only one error exists.) In fact, because certain early manuscripts were copied and lead to traceable ‘families’ of subsequent copies (think of a family tree of documents rather than people), we have a remarkably large amount of information with which to work to discern the probable original wording in the case where an error is found. In other words, the same process by which Ehrman has perceived individual errors and concluded unreliability in general should actually lead to the conclusion that the current version is likely to quite closely resemble the original.
When I answered the original question above, put forth by a student, I pointed out that the game of telephone is intentionally set up to produce distorted and entertaining results. In contrast, the process of textual transmission was one intentionally constructed out of pious stewardship and the awareness that without certain measures, the message of the Bible could be unintentionally (or even intentionally) changed. This responsibility was a tradition inherited from Jewish scribes, who, leaving no spaces between characters in their manuscripts, would produce a word count when finished and compare it to other results. If the count was off, the entire document would have to be checked and corrected. Unlike telephone, community measures were in place to prevent and catch errors. Similarly, Christian scribes would separate verified copies and establish new ‘family’ lines and even make marginal notes or comments in regard to questionable content. What has resulted is an ever-growing supply of copies that enable scholars to reconstruct what were likely the original versions of the scriptural documents. In many ways, comparing the many manuscript copies is like having them in transparency form and overlaying the various versions to see where variances are. Consequently, I would argue that as time passes and the process of discovering more copies and refining translations continues, the reliability of the Bible will only increase.
One of the central images used by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code is the mural Leonardo painted at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which depicts Jesus and the twelve disciples gathering for the Passover meal prior to His crucifixion, The Last Supper. It was at this gathering that Jesus shared with the twelve his coming betrayal by one of them, as well as the practice of sharing communion with one another in remembrance of Him. However, Brown's character Sir Leigh Teabing alleges that the painting provides clues within an elaborate conspiracy to conceal a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene:
"'It's a matter of historical record,' Teabing said, 'and Da Vinci was certainly aware of that fact. The Last Supper practically shouts to the viewer that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a pair.'"
Leonardo, beginning work on the mural in 1495, was known for his desire to depict images in a realistic fashion and his criticism of other artists for embellishing imagery. Yet some conspiracy theorists, like the character of Teabing, argue that Leonardo's painting is an elaborate clue to a secret he was under charge to protect as a member of the Priory of Sion. It might be helpful to point out at the outset that lacing a very public work with overt clues to a secret he was supposed to protect might be a conflict of interest. It would seem to me that a better motive would need to be suggested for Leonardo to want to reveal the "secret" but only through cryptic symbolism in his paintings. Nevertheless, many allege that the incriminating symbols are in fact there.
The famous allegation is that the figure to the right of Jesus, appearing to swoon in the direction of Peter, standing to his right, is actually Mary Magdalene, not John, as was traditionally understood by the Church and art historians alike. The theory cites the feminine appearance of this figure as obvious evidence that Leonardo was intending to paint a woman, rather than a man. Some indicate that Jesus and the figure to His right are painted as mirror images of each other with symmetrically matching clothing, forming a 'V' shape, which represents a female womb and thus homage to the "divine feminine." Additionally, the shape of Jesus and the mysterious figure to His right are also said to form the shape of the letter "M," perhaps for the word "matrimony" or "Magdalene." I think that such interpretations require far too much of the presupposition that Leonardo had some sort of secret agenda with the painting, which ultimately begs the question. However, the claims of Teabing get even more farfetched. He says, "Oddly, Da Vinci appears to have forgotten to paint the cup of Christ," indicating that the absence of an actual cup in front of Christ proves that the grail is something other than a literal cup- perhaps the bloodline of Jesus Himself!
Such theories are ultimately fantasy. In fact, they seem to rely upon the assumption that Leonardo was a reliable source regarding the event of the last supper, as if he had himself been there. However, Leonardo depicted the scene over 1400 years after it occurred, presumably relying upon the Gospel accounts themselves to do so. Given the likely reliance upon the Gospels, it is no surprise that the cup is not a central element of the depiction as it was certainly not in the Biblical narrative. The legend of the Grail having supernatural power resulting from Jesus' use came much later and has no scriptural precedent. Moreover, the assumption that Leonardo would have even been motivated to lace the painting with clues to a conspiracy is based upon his membership in the Priory of Sion, a legendary secret society which has been proven to have been a hoax invented in the 20th century. Without the Priory connection, there really is no substance to the theory.
Art historians, however, have consistently approached The Last Supper as being both typical of Leonardo and typical of contemporary Florentine trends. They interpret the figures and their expressions as follows: From left, Bartholomew, James the Lesser, and Andrew (his hands up as if to say 'stop!') form a group and are surprised. Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form the next group. Judas is depicted as withdrawn and somewhat sinister as he holds a small bag presumably carrying the silver he received as payment for his betrayal. He appears to be in shadow, symbolizing his spiritual lostness. Peter wields a knife, pointing toward Bartholomew (some say to reference Bartholomew’s future martyrdom, others to foreshadow Peter's actions at Gethsemane), while John swoons in Peter's direction. Thomas, James and Philip are the next group to Jesus' left. Thomas shows distress, while James throws his arms out in dismay. Philip seems to ask for clarification. Finally, Matthew, Jude, and Simon the Zealot form the last group, the former two appearing to consult Simon. Incidentally, this interpretive scheme was confirmed by the discovery of a document known as The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, found in the 19th century.
The feminine appearance of the figure historians almost unanimously interpret to be John is no surprise given that it was typical of Leonardo's depiction of young men, as well as the Florentine tradition of painting John as beardless and youthful. What's more, this character appears to be wearing men's clothing, not those of a woman. The traditional interpretation of art historians seems a much more likely explanation than Teabing's, which relies on too many assumptions to be justifiable. Another problem raised by interpreting this figure as Magdalene is that her presence would reduce the count of the disciples to eleven, with one missing, which contradicts the Biblical and traditional accounts.
While Brown creates a compelling narrative around the imagery of Leonardo, conspiracies and esoteric knowledge, the historical credibility is just not there. However, even if Leonardo had been a member of a secret society with fantastic ideas about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which he decided to hide in his paintings, there is no supporting evidence to suggest that anyone should take him seriously in this regard. Even the recently proven hoax of the Priory of Sion set its date of establishment at 1099, a millennium after Christ! Leonardo, painting four-hundred years later, likely did not have accurate insight into the details of the real "last supper," nor does it seem that he had any feasible esoteric agenda.
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).
Beneath the popular current of The DaVinci Code controversy (which I have addressed in several articles) is another attack on the Christian faith, this one more of a grassroots effort, not sheltered by the guise of fiction, but overtly labeling itself as a factual documentary which exposes the “truth” about the Christian faith. This “documentary” is called The God Who Wasn’t There, and was produced by Brian Flemming and distributed through a network of “guerilla-style” operatives who attempt to plant the DVD and other literature on church grounds and other Christian gathering places (I mentioned this project briefly in an earlier post called ‘The War on Easter’).
The basic premise of The God Who Wasn’t There is that Jesus never existed, and that fact, among many others pertaining to the traditional Christian faith, is a fabrication without any historical basis. Now, I must initially state that such a claim is so fantastic and on the extreme fringe of scholarship in theology, religion, history, and other fields as to be simply incredible and not worthy of discussion. However, and as I think the DaVinci phenomenon illustrates, we seem to be at a point at which we are more likely to extract truth from incredible sources, especially fictional ones, rather than those which exist to provide it. In other words, entertainment seems to have a more authoritative voice in our society such that outrageous claims and simply erroneous statements slip by and are taken as reliable while they cleverly hide within a seductive narrative context. To be fair, this is not exactly the sort of context in which The God Who Wasn’t There is presented; as I said before, it clearly intends to be a documentary. However, it is one with a particular agenda which provides a substantially skewed portrayal of just about every known fact pertaining to Christianity, yet its growing popularity suggests that many are convinced by its claims. In my next few posts, I will be examining some of the major issues related to this documentary and its distorted portrayal of the Christian faith.
The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There is essentially a barrage of ad hominem (or "against the man") attacks against the Christian faith, mentioning the Galileo controversy (which I addressed in an earlier post called Valid and Invalid Conclusions from the Galileo Controversy), and several notorious individuals who have associated themselves with Christianity. In particular, Flemming mentions Charles Manson, Pat Robertson, Dena Schlosser, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, and then concludes, "So, I guess it’s kind of a mixed bag." I assume that at this point, the intention is for the viewer to have developed a distaste for Christianity based upon the provided roster of Christian “spokespersons” known for being insane, homicidal, publicly outrageous, and controversial. Yet, attacking individuals for various reasons says nothing about the veracity or the value of the Christian faith.
Augustine of Hippo is known to have said ‘One must not judge a philosophy by its abuse.’ Flemming’s use of Charles Manson as an example of Christianity is an obvious distortion of what Christianity actually is. It would be obviously ridiculous to say that, regardless of whether it is true, Christianity teaches white supremacy and homicide. Additionally, it would be incorrect to conclude that if Charles Manson, an admitted killer, claims to be a Christian, Christianity must be a lie or a failure. What Augustine means to show is that a proposition, or in this case a systematic faith, can be true regardless of how people respond to it or whether people even believe it. Needless to say, we cannot know how sincere any of these people are in their claim to be Christians. What Flemming is doing is establishing a distorted version of Christianity by intentionally selecting a list of notorious figures to represent it, likely hoping to build a strong foundation of resentment and anger upon which to build his weak historical case.
Ironically, while Christianity does not logically establish a basis upon which to behave as someone like Charles Manson has, Atheism cannot logically support the derivation of objective morality and thus can lead to such behavior. In fact, the most notorious crimes against humanity in the 20th century have been committed under the auspices of atheistic regimes like those of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mau and Pol Pot. I am not saying, of course, that an atheist cannot live a moral life. Many atheists do live a moral life, yet they do so by adopting a system of morality from some external source which does not fit within the scheme of atheism. Thus, what I am saying is that atheism as a philosophy cannot account for a moral law and thus opens the door to such atrocities. If there is no God, then there is no moral law objective enough to which we must be accountable. If there is no objective moral law, then there is no logical reason why Stalin, Hitler, et al should have acted differently. On the other hand, Manson, though he may claim to be a Christian, committed acts which represent a clear rejection or diversion from the teachings of Christ, and thus cannot be a credible representative of the teachings of Christ.
The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There, while trying to establish an atmosphere conducive to belittling and debunking Christianity actually backfires and reveals the subjectivity and personal angst of the filmmaker himself. Sadly, this is very common in the church and should serve as a convicting reminder that our works should be indicative of our faith, and will be how the faith is represented to those who are on the outside looking in. While this issue is obviously a logically flawed and illegitimate means of building an argument against the Christian faith, it does show the profound cost of poor stewardship of the church throughout history. We must be compelled to look to the example of Christ and act accordingly!
Like Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus has been reinvented numerous times by theologians and historians alike, mostly in an effort to provide an explanation for the origin of the Christian movement other than the simplest or most obvious one provided by the testimony of the New Testament scriptures. Contrary to the well known theory of explanatory simplicity proposed by William of Ockham, such reconstructed “Pauls” tend to be based upon numerous assumptions that ultimately complicate the explanation itself and require that the most plausible evidence is rejected.
But, do we have any reason to believe that Paul of Tarsus, the late-coming Apostle of Jesus, was not who he claimed to be, or that the testimony of the New Testament is rife with contradictions in regards to his identity? My argument would be a simple “no,” given that the majority of historical information that is used by anyone even trying to reconstruct the life of Paul comes from the New Testament. In other words, historians, both religious and secular, rely upon the Bible as their primary source of information about the life of the Apostle Paul. To be sure, the New Testament does not provide a comprehensive biographical account of Paul, not because it is in some way incomplete or inadequate, but because it’s primary purpose is not to educate people about Paul, but to provide a testimony of God’s relationship with His people, especially in the culminating events surrounding the life of Jesus. However, many attempt to fill in the gaps in the life of Paul through traditional accounts that mention him, such as the writings of early church fathers like Clement, Eusebius, Gaius, and Bede, and other documents.
One particular non-canonical account of Paul comes from a second-century Coptic document known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This apocryphal story describes Paul’s missionary travels and his relationship with a virgin girl named Thecla, who is miraculously delivered from persecution several times, presumably protected by God in reward for her purity. According to the story, Paul primarily preached on the virtues of chastity, which reflects the asceticism of some of the divergent Christian sects of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It also includes the earliest physical description of Paul, who is described as short, stocky, bald and having a rather large nose. While there is good reason to reject the theological implications of the Thecla story, on the basis that it heavily contradicts earlier and better attested accounts, such as Paul’s own letters, it could be possible that Paul did in fact look as this document describes him. In other words, like other apocryphal works which likely contain bits of historical truth, they will not necessarily be helpful in creating a more accurate understanding of who Paul was and what he did.
Even factoring in the various apocryphal accounts of Paul, such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the character of Paul and his significance to the Christian faith does not dramatically change. Rather, incidental details are added, such as remarks about possible stops he made on his journeys, the circumstances of his death, and the location of his burial which most scholars and theologians would agree have little to no theological relevance. This means that alternative accounts of the identity and legacy of Paul, no matter how ‘reinforced’ by collected historical hints and snippets, are actually peculiar reinterpretations of the existing scriptural record on the basis of various political or religious presuppositions with an aim to discredit Christian orthodoxy.
The most typical conclusion of the many reinterpretations of Paul is that Christian doctrine, and in the most extreme cases the person of Jesus, is the creation of Paul for variously argued political reasons. These types of theories, however, are generally defended on the basis of ad hoc assumptions about the veracity of Paul’s statements in his letters. For example, one popular reconstruction comes from the late British scholar Hyam Maccoby, who alleges that Paul invented Christian doctrine by basing the legend of Jesus on the traditions of existing Pagan mystery religions. He comes to this conclusion by arguing that Paul was not a Pharisee, as he claimed to be, nor even a Jew familiar with Hebrew! Specifically, Maccoby argues that Paul’s statements in Romans 5:10, 5:17, 11:15, and 11:24 would not have been made by a Pharisee because they are not in doctrinal agreement with first century Orthodox Judaism. Of course, this claim is outright laughable since no scholar would argue that Paul is writing to defend the perspectives of a Pharisee- these passages are written in direct opposition to the Jewish messianic scheme. No, the validity of Paul’s identity as a Pharisee has little to do with Paul’s defense of Christ, nor are such passages valid in arguing against it. Actually, Maccoby’s entire theory begins and ends with the same presupposition- that the early Christians did not believe in the divinity of Christ, nor could such a belief be possible anyway. Therefore he concludes that Paul must have been a liar and a manipulator. This type of circular reasoning is typical in Pauline ‘reconstructions.’
Yet, on the basis of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents (see The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures for a defense of this), I think that it is quite obvious that Paul is not the subversive figure that some scholars like Maccoby have made him out to be. While Paul is responsible for an enormous portion of the growth of the Christian church, and is without a doubt the most influential apostolic voice in the scriptures, it does not follow that Paul is the creator of Christian doctrine. Neither does his influence as a man merit the great suspicion with which some skeptical scholars approach his writings and the truth of Christianity at large, unless a predisposition towards conspiracy theories is considered valid scholarship.
Having little to hide, Paul freely admits the details of his conversion after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the fact that he was well known as a former persecutor of Christians. Furthermore, Paul seems quite clear that he desired to use the influence he had for the sake of the Gospel, rather than to dictate or manipulate for personal gain. The evidence that his post-conversion life was one of great trials and suffering should speak for itself. Paul, in his letter to the Galatian church, speaks to the fact that though he had encountered the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus road, the details of the Gospel were provided to him by the apostles Peter and James, to whom he submitted and checked with in regards to doctrine. In his letter to the Corinthian church, he elaborates:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)”
This information, given to Paul by James and Peter, can be dated to at least 3 years after the death of Jesus, meaning that it preceded the writing of any Gospel and was taught and believed by the early church independent of any document! This again supports the conclusion that the incidentals of Jesus’ death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances were not Pauline inventions, but facts shared and experienced by the entire Christian community and established as oral tradition before Paul’s conversion.
Paul clearly is not writing with the pretense that this information is unique to him. In fact, many of his letters include material that is now recognized as pre-established Christian hymns and creeds (see Rom. 1:3-4;1 Cor. 11:23 ff.;15:3-8; Phil. 2:6_11; Col.1:15-18;1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:8; see also John 1:1-18; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 John 4:2). New Testament linguistic scholars have discerned that the quality of the language used in these passages is different from what has been recognized as typical of Paul’s writings, suggesting he did not formulate the verses but was actually referring to them. Also, these passages show a remarkable simplicity in being translated from Paul’s Greek into Aramaic, the Hebrew dialect spoken by Jesus and His followers, suggesting that they originated in this language as part of the pre-Gospels Hebrew/Christian oral tradition. Specifically, the terms ‘delivered,’ and ‘received’ derive from Rabbinic oral tradition, presumably an integral part of the early Christian tradition as well. This is remarkably significant considering the fact that all of these passages clearly affirm the doctrines of the death, resurrection and divinity of Jesus.
Another compelling example comes again from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, which was a Greek-speaking community, in which he uses the Aramaic phrase ‘maranatha,’ which refers to Jesus as ‘God’ (mar)*(see Scott Pruett's comment below) and looks forward to his imminent return (anatha). This inclusion of an Aramaic phrase in addressing a Greek audience indicates that the Corinthians were familiar with the phrase and its religious significance prior to Paul’s writing them, which again shows the importance of the early establishment of an oral tradition prior to the writing of any documents.
Lastly, many critics remark that since Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents that we have, it is somewhat incriminating how little biographical information about Jesus they contain. Such skeptics conclude that this is because the information about Jesus contained in the four Gospels was mythological and developed over time. While I think that my above remarks refute this claim satisfactorily, I think it is also important to consider that most of Paul’s writing makes little sense outside of a scheme of the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, the communities to whom Paul wrote would not have needed any kind of ‘recap’ on the life of Jesus in these letters, as they were already part of established Christian church communities assembled on the basis of such truths about Jesus!
It was the judgment of the early Christian community that the teaching and words of Paul were not only consistent with the teaching of Christ, but inspired by the Spirit of God. While many scholars are free to reject that particular spiritual conclusion, the cumulative weight of the evidence affirms that Paul sincerely participated in the growth of a church based upon the historical events of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, it seems likely that with or without Paul, the Gospel of Jesus would still have been preached.
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:
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.