Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Form Criticism, Archaeology, and the Gospels

This is the third post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It will concern portions of pages 7 and 8 of that document, and will discuss how archaeology and form criticism reflect on the reliability of the gospels.

The McGrews begin:

"The assumption that the gospels and Acts are basically historically reliable has
knowledgeable contemporary advocates. But it flies in the face of nearly a century of New
Testament scholarship based on form criticism and its methodological offshoot, redaction
criticism. In brief, these are versions of literary criticism whose adherents have proclaimed the
gospels in their present form to be late productions of the Christian community and have
attempted to excavate the texts as they have come down to us in order to discover the
hypothesized original layers beneath the postulated accretion of oral tradition and legend or to
determine the intentions of the last redactor, or editor."

All of this is accurate to my knowledge. The gospels and the book of Acts are defended by contemporary scholars, and sometimes the strong reliability claimed by those defenders does fly in the face of the more liberal literary critics. This isn't to say that the conservative or liberal position is correct, this only reports that such critics exist. The McGrews continue:

"The chief requirement for this theory of literary layers is time – time for originals to be gradually edited into a radically different form, time for the development of miracle legends, time for the evolution of John’s high Christology that could be grafted onto a set of original simple parables and sayings of Jesus or for those sayings to be midrashically expanded without the fact’s attracting notice or criticism."

I agree, of course, that an extensive project of editing, re-editing, and expanding on some body of material would take time. But the question is, how much time would it take? Miracle stories and other fantastic claims do not take decades to form, even if they are false. They can spring up overnight. Don't believe me? Visit snopes.com and see for yourself.

Of course, literary theories necessarily require a bit of time if they postulate (for example) the Gospel of Q was edited three times and then used as a source for Matthew and Luke. How much time? It's not entirely clear, but it would seem implausible to postulate so much change within ten years, for example. Is such time available for the development of the narratives? I do not know. I may decide to pursue that issue in the future. The McGrews go on:

"It is therefore no accident that the dominant position in New Testament studies since the pioneering Formgeschichtliche work of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann has been that the gospels are very late productions, preferably well into the second century but in all events after A.D. 70, since any earlier dating would require us to attribute to Jesus prophetic abilities with respect to the destruction of Jerusalem that would run afoul of the philosophical naturalism driving the project.

"The role of such naturalism as a motivating factor in the work of the form critics is often
explicit, but as an argument against a more traditional position it suffers from the obvious
drawback of circularity."

I agree that philosophical naturalism shouldn't be merely assumed in this debate, because that would indeed be circular.

I'd like to return to comment that the McGrews made, that the gospels dating well before 70 AD would imply Jesus had prophetic abilities. I think I know what the McGrews are talking about: Mark 13. Mark 13 is typically the chapter used to date the gospels to 70 AD. But what exactly does it say? Read it. The "prophecies" in question appear to be (1) that the temple will be destroyed and (2) that Christians will be persecuted in Jesus' name. Neither one of these strikes me as miraculous, even if it was written down before the fact (and I'm not saying it is, by the way).

But was it written down before the fact? I genuinely do not know. On the one hand, there is James Crossley, a thoroughly secular scholar who argues for dating Mark (the first gospel) at 35-45 AD. He's written an entire book on this entitled The Date of Mark's Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity. Is he right? Again, I don't know. I can't afford the book, and the preview I read on google.books wasn't overly convincing, although it was intriguing.

On the other hand, there is at least one good reason to peg the gospels after 70 AD. This is the fact that all of the gospels say that the stone at Jesus' tomb was "rolled" away, which implies the stone was round. This is important because the vast majority of tombs before 70 AD had stone doors that were square,** i.e. not the sort of shape one would envision as "rolling." Of course, there are some caveats as to whether the Greek word translated as "rolled" might possibly just mean "moved." In spite of this I think this piece of evidence still argues firmly for a post 70 AD date for Mark, although this evidence is not infallible or completely airtight.

On page 7 We read that, "there are good reasons for dismissing the sweeping negative
conclusions of form criticism regarding the authenticity and reliability of the narratives." One reason being that "There are no independent textual traditions preserving the allegedly earliest forms." It's quite ironic that just a few pages ago the McGrews were attempting to show us how worthless arguments from silence are, and yet now, when it is convenient for them, they embrace a sort of argument from silence: the fact that early textual traditions such as the Q document aren't attested to anywhere else means that it didn't exist. We must, as always, consider how strong the absence of the "earlist forms" of textual traditions weighs against their theorized existence. My answer is: not very strongly. It's only too easy to imagine why such documents became lost over time. Readers may want to refer back to my previous post about arguments from absence and silence:

The McGrews go on to detail how they believe that Archaeology has vindicated the gospels and the book of Acts. First, their defense of the gospels: they argue that the pool of Bethesda had five porches (this has been discovered through archaeology) just as the gospel of John said, and then go on to detail similar archaeological discoveries that provide support for the gospels and Acts.

I have no particular bone to pick with the examples they give. I managed to find a book called Jesus and Archaeology, which recieved good reviews in scholarly journals such as Catholic Biblical Quarterly and Review of Biblical Literature, which details many of the sorts of finds that the McGrews refer to. It is interesting to read the comments Jodi Magness made concerning "Jesus and Archaeology":

"despite its clear theological tone and agenda and the presence of obvious anachronisms, the Gospel of John should not be dismissed as ahistorical."*** (emphasis mine)

Reading the McGrews one might get the idea that the gospels have been completely vindicated and shown to be careful and totally accurate histories. But I think the above quote shows the reality of the situation, which is that the gospels contain some historical errors as well as some remarkably correct historical reports.

The McGrews' entire point here is that the level of historical accuracy present in John and Acts is too great to be the result of embellishment and whatnot over several decades. That could be true, but then who's to say that this means that John and Acts, as we know them today, must be very early creations? Perhaps both of these books used sources which had been written in the 30's, 40's, 50's or 60's, and that is why these books have some level of historical accuracy. Indeed, from my reading it is accepted by many in New Testament studies that the gospel of John, as we know it today, has been edited and altered from an earlier edition. See, for example, The Fourth Gospel And Its Predecessor. The theory that the gospel of John was redacted is not simply some contrivance designed to avoid the terrible fate of acknowledging the gospel's early date. There's evidence from within the text that the gospel of John has been fiddled with. Take this passage:

"Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

Sounds like the conclusion of the gospel, doesn't it? But it isn't! Strangely, the gospel of John has entire chapter tacked on to this passage. The conclusion is obvious: the gospel of John originally ended with this passage, but someone came along later and tacked on the extra chapter. And that's not the only evidence of tampering, as any decent book on the gospel of John will tell you, but that's another story and is too much to go into in this blog post.


** See Richard Carrier, "Craig's Empty Tomb and Habermas on Visions" (1999, 2005). Available at:

*** See Jodi Magness, Review of "Jesus and Archaeology," The Journal of the American Oriental Society. 127.1 (January-March 2007) p. 87.


fireballnelson said...

This is a very interesting study and you apparently put plenty research into it. But it's got me thinking, what if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all present for the majority of each of their accounts? They might have been present at different or the same times which would allow for the content of the hypothetical Q gospel. Also, the stone at Jesus' tomb could very well have been round. Just because most of the stones were square before 70 a.d. it doesn't follow that none of them were round.
Over all, very interesting article. I look forward to reading the next one in the series.

AIGBusted said...

Hi fireballnelson,

"But it's got me thinking, what if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all present for the majority of each of their accounts? They might have been present at different or the same times which would allow for the content of the hypothetical Q gospel."

I'm not sure exactly what you mean. If you mean that the author of Matthew and Luke, for example, compared notes when they were writing their gospels, I doubt it since their birth narratives are contradictory. If you mean that Luke borrowed from Matthew or vice versa, that hypothesis is advocated by a few today. On the other hand, I get the feeling that what you mean is that Luke and Matthew may have been eyewitnesses to the events in question and that they were present for many of the same events. That's not plausible, just read Luke 1:1-4 to see why.

"Just because most of the stones were square before 70 a.d. it doesn't follow that none of them were round."

Correct. However, since the vast majority were square, it is likely that Jesus' tomb (assuming he had one) was also square. If the gospel authors were writing after 70 AD, they would be expected to have imagined the stone as exactly the same shape as other stones around them. If they were writing before 70 AD, it is far more probable that they would have reported the stone door as square, since that was what nearly every door around them was.