Monday, January 24, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Reliability and Authorship of NT Documents

This is the fifth post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This post will concern pages 8 through 12.

The McGrews tell us that:

"The extreme late dating of John’s gospel advocated by Loisy had already been undermined by discoveries in another field. The papyrus fragment p52, which is independently dated by paleographers to the first half of the second century, contains a few sentences of John’s gospel."

The source cited for this claim was Bruce Metzger in a publication from 1978 (!). Metzger was a great scholar, no doubt, but I don't think that's legitimate to toss out such an old reference with checking it against newer material. So, I took it upon myself to check the current scholarly thinking about the dating of John. What do they think?

On page 194 of Expectations of the End (2009) Albert Hogeterp tells us that the gospel of John is usually dated about 90 AD, but cautions us in a footnote that papyrus 52 could date as early as the second century or as late as the early third century (!!) based on a recent analysis.

On Page 165 of Jesus in the Gospels and Acts (2009) similar reservations are expressed. It is stated that scholars have questioned the early dating of the papyrus fragment and seems to imply that since the gospel of John underwent at least one major revision, we can't really know which version of John's Gospel this papyrus was, since we have only a tiny fragment.

On Page 108 of John: The Son of Zebedee (2000) we find yet another iteration of current scholarly opinion: that papyrus 52 may date as late as 200 AD.

On the Reliability of Acts

The McGrews take a few stabs at establishing the reliability of the book of Acts. Here are the historical accuracies they have listed:

"The discovery in Caesarea Maritima in 1961 of an inscription bearing Pilate’s name and title, the discovery of a boundary stone of the emperor Claudius bearing the name of Sergius Paulus (cf. Acts 13:7)..."

"Small details [of Acts] were questioned by members of the Tübingen school, such as the use of kyrios as a designation for the emperor in Acts 25:26, have turned out instead to provide evidence for the accuracy of Acts, since numerous papyri subsequently discovered show that this term had been used in Egypt and the East for the reigning emperor since Ptolemaic times, though it became widespread under Nero and later."

It's not been easy for me to tell exactly what they mean with these examples. The first quote: an inscription was discovered which bore Pilate's name and title. To my knowledge the existence of Pontius Pilate has never been in doubt, nor has his title of "prefect" been in doubt or used as some sort of basis to attack the gospels. In fact, Pilate and his title as prefect are mentioned in Tacitus' Annals. So how can this be seen as anything but a trivial detail which that the New Testament documents get right? This isn't overwhelming confirmation by any stretch of charitable imagination. The same can be said for the boundary stone of Claudius and the use of kyrios as a designation for the emperor: these may provide corroboration for Acts, but the corroboration seems to me very, very weak.

With that in mind, are there any reasons not to trust the book of Acts? I think so. In Galatians chapter 1:15-17 Paul gives us his own account of what happened after his vision of Jesus:

"But when it pleased reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus."

On the other hand, the Book of Acts chapter 9:5-18 tells us us that after Paul's vision he met with Ananias (i.e., consorted with flesh and blood) after being brought directly into Damascus (not going to Arabia before returning to Damascus). Acts 9:9 tells us that Paul was without sight three days; and yet Ananias is with Paul when he recieves his sight back. That's important because Paul has just told us that he did "not immediately confer with flesh and blood" after his conversion but according to Acts he did so within three days. There's also the issue of whether or not Paul visited with all of the disciples after his conversion. Acts tells us one thing, Paul himself tells us another in Galatians.

At the present time I don't know of any other reasons for distrusting Acts, but as I've detailed below I am planning on reading a book about Acts, so at some point in the future I'll blog on this issue further.

On the Date of Acts

Should the Book of Acts be dated as early (as in mid-first century) or late (as in early second century)? I am undecided. I have managed to find an online copy of a book cited by the McGrews called Redating the New Testament which argues that the bulk of the New Testament was written before the end of the first century. When I have the time I am going to read it. I've also found a critique of the work on the website Rejection of Pascal's Wager. Yesterday I ordered a copy of Richard Pervo's work The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story which is supposed to be a highly critical work on the Book of Acts that shows that the book is ahistorical. I'm on the lookout for any critiques of that work that I can find, so if anyone can direct me to a criticial review of his work please post a comment letting me know where to find it. At some point in the future when I have managed to read and digest all of these things I will post a summary of my conclusions.

On Q

On page 9 the McGrews once again try to kick sand over New Testament theories they don't like, in this case they go after the Q document. They gleefully report that Q is "entirely hypothetical" and that there is "not a whisper of it in any writing of the early church fathers."
It is true that we don't have a hard copy of Q. Nonetheless, Q, or something like Q, is a practically inescapable deduction from the facts we have. How else would we explain so much common material between Matthew and Luke which aren't found in Mark? The McGrews reasons for doubting Q, that a hard copy of it doesn't exist and that no church fathers mention it, are very weak. First: They are contradicting themselves by making an "Argument from Silence" against the Q document (if you recall, they were extremely dismissive towards arguments from silence... That is, when such arguments were used to cast doubt upon the gospels). Second, we already know that a lot of early church documents weren't handed down to us in the present day. In 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul tells us that he had previously written a letter to the Corinthians... A letter which we don't have, which was lost over time. Nor do we have the Logia of Jesus that Papias refers to, but that doesn't mean there was no such thing. Third, and this is the most damning point of all: The word "Q" is a recent invention to designate the postulated source between Matthew and Luke. If the document originally had a name, it most certainly wasn't Q. And that's important, because some scholars believe that the Logia of Jesus is the Q document, which means that there is no argument from silence to be made after all. In the book Sources of the Jesus Tradition Dennis MacDonald argues that the Logia is the long lost hypothetical Q document, and that in fact this document was a rewritten version of Deuteronomy designed to show Jesus' superiority to Moses (fascinating, I know!).

On the Gospel of Matthew

According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), Papias mentions the Logia of Matthew as being first written in Hebrew, which the McGrews interpret as being the Gospel of Matthew, and at that being the gospel which we have in the New Testament today. This is extremely dubious. As is laid out in the ISBE on pages 280-282, "Logia" probably does not refer to a Gospel, not least because the evidence clearly shows that the Gospel of Matthew we have is not a translated document. Secondly, the Gospel of Matthew that we have today may very well not have been written by Matthew. In fact, if the real Matthew wrote a gospel that wouldn't preclude in any way the possibility that the gospel was lost and Matthew's name was attached to another gospel that he didn't write which became what we now have in our bibles as "The Gospel of Matthew"). As documented by Helmut Koester, more than one early church father attributed the gospel of Thomas to Thomas the follower of Jesus. Would the McGrews accept this evidence as strong indications that the Gospel of Thomas really was written by Thomas? I doubt it, and neither would I. Bottom line: The church traditions concerning the gospels aren't reliable, not least because they are wildly contradictory (which the McGrews give examples of). And that they contradict one another doesn't prove they are totally independent traditions. If, in the early Christian community, there arose a rumor that Matthew wrote one of the gospels circulating, then that rumor might get passed around through many "chinese whisper" generations and evolve into several distinct (yet similar) traditions about the gospel. And if the church fathers were relying purely on their on memory of the traditions in question when they were writing about them, then they become even more unreliable. All of us have seen someone botch the details of a story they are recalling.

Were the Gospels from Eyewitnesses? And if they were then doesn't that mean they're reliable?

No and No. The McGrews quote Richard Bauckham, who believes that the gospels show indications that they were composed on the basis of eyewitness testimony. As John J. Pilch pointed out in his review of Bauckham*: "[A]nyone even superficially familiar with Mediterranean society understandsthat people often report what others want to hear (e.g., eyewitnesses testifying to weaponsof mass destmction in Iraq). In the Bible, consider 1 Kings 22 or Jeremiah 27-28."

And things get even worse. For one of the things Bauckham proposes is that the Twelve Apostles are named in order to identify them as eyewitnesses and also that the twelve were responsible for assuring the accuracy of the gospel narratives. But if that were true, how is it (As Stephen J. Patterson noted**) that we ended up with four wildly divergent accounts? If the Twelve took it upon themselves to "peer review" the manuscripts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, then whence so many discrepancies? I have already pointed to plenty of bullshit in the gospels. As Richard Carrier pointed out in his essay on the Resurrection, why is it that no one else in history noticed the tearing of the temple veil mentioned in Mark's passion narrative, not even the priests whose sole duty was attendance of the veil? Also see my previous post on the subject of gospel reliability here. Fact is, either the gospels are not based on eyewitness testimony or the eyewitnesses are pathological liars. Neither hypothesis is encouraging for someone arguing the resurrection.


* John J. Pilch, Review of "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses," Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan. 2008, Vol. 70 Issue 1, p137-139.

** Stephen J. Patterson, Review of "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses," Review of Biblical Literature; 2010, Vol. 12, p365-369.


Paul said...

Quite interesting -

I looked up Ananias on wiki - here is something directly from it

"During his conversion experience, God had told Paul (or Saul, as he was then known) to go into the city and wait. God then appeared to Ananias in a vision, and told him to go to the "street called Straight", and ask "at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul," (Acts 9:11). Ananias objected that Saul had been persecuting Christians, but God told him that Saul was "a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites," (9:15). Ananias went to Saul and laid hands on him. Scales fell from Saul's eyes, his eyesight was restored, and he was baptized (9:17-18)."

I am sure my question is easily explained away but if God visits people via visions why does God need another human to cure Paul's blindness. He could just will it, could he not? I am not familiar w/ the McGrews but is God unable to act in physical way in the material world? I suspect that they are not evolutionist (non-id), so God is able to act in the physical world so..

I am rambling I suppose.

Steven Carr said...

The McGrews always choose the second half of Acts as the accurate bit.

That's the one where Jesus turns into a light in the sky and a voice in the clouds.

Of course, the author of Luke/Acts could not find one single date for anything Jesus had allegedly said and done, and was forced to rely on an anonymous book for much of his story about Jesus.

In fact, Luke/Acts could not even name the brothers of Jesus accurately!

Jon Green said...

quote: "At the present time I don't know of any other reasons for distrusting Acts,"

How about this?

A statement by John Chrysostom contradicts the belief that Acts of the Apostles was included in the NT canon as long ago as the 2nd century.

In the 2nd century, Irenaeus, we are told, appears to have written about Acts. Yet 200 years later John Chrysostom states that people hardly knew of the existence of the book of Acts and hardly knew its author.

John Chrysostom, Homilies of Acts:

"To many persons this Book is so little known, both it and its author, that they are not even aware that there is such a book in existence.
For this reason especially I have taken this narrative for my subject, that I may draw to it such as do not know it, and not let such a treasure as this remain hidden out of sight....."

At the end of the 4th century the Book of Acts, a book which supposedly had been included in the canon of the New Testament for 200 years, was "so little known" that it was "hidden and out of sight"? At the end of the 4th century the author of Acts, Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke, was "so little known" that many people were "not even aware" that he or his writings existed?

Could it be that the writings of Irenaeus contain later interpolations designed to support an early date for Acts which is itself a false history of Christianity?