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Historical Apologetics: The Standard Evangelical Case

Here is a sketch of standard conservative evangelical historical apologetics. I've also included appendices outlining (i) standard tools employed in New Testament criticism, and common supposed misuses of them by non-conservative NT critics (ii) supposed assumptions of non-conservative NT critics that may skew their conclusions, (iii) standard evangelical criticisms of the Jesus Seminar, and (iv) the main lines of reasoning in standard evangelical defenses of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The notes are a bit of a mess at the moment, but I hope to beat them into shape some time soon. (I offered a short outline of this sort of case here.)

Stages in Establishing the Reliability of the Gospel Portraits of Jesus:

Stage One: Textual Criticism: Checking the quantity, quality and antiquity of manuscripts:

Preliminary Observations: We have 25,000 manuscripts and fragments (5,000 of them Greek), dating from the present and going back to 100-150 AD (The Magdalen papyri, a fragment of one of the gospels, has recently been argued as being dated in the 70's AD). Cross-checking for variants in wording among these manuscripts shows that the NT has been handed down to us substantially unchanged (about 96-98% pure). No variant affects a single doctrine. Compare this to the New Testament’s closest competitor, Homer’s Iliad. We have 650 copies of it, and the earliest copy is about 1,000 years removed from it’s original.

Conclusions of Stage One: Textual criticism shows that we have a reliable New Testament from approximately the end of the first century (or the early second century, given the dating on the Magdalen papyrus) onwards. All scholars concede much this.

Stage Two: Establishing the Authorship and Dates of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke):

Preliminary Observations: The external evidence (the witness of the apostolic and other early church fathers) points to the traditional authorship of the materials in the gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke. Examples: (a) Papius (early 100's AD) said that Mark accurately recorded Peter’s account of Jesus. Also, Matthew compiled the Logia (‘sayings’, or ‘oracles’) in Hebrew (probably the ‘Q’ source [see below], since Q is largely a body of the sayings of Jesus).(b) Irenaeus (late 100's) said “Matthew produced his gospel written among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel and founded the church in Rome” (since Peter and Paul were martyred between 62 and 68, Matthew must have written his gospel earlier than this).

Further reasons for trusting traditional gospel authorship ascription:
1) Unlikely that forgers would attribute Gospels to such authors, since (a) Mark wasn’t even an apostle, and is known for deserting Paul (though later restored to the church). (b) Luke wasn’t an apostle either. (c) Matthew, though an apostle, was a tax-collector. Tax collectors were renowned for being corrupt.
2) Reason (1) is strengthened by the fact that the apocryphal gospels (all second century or later) were attributed to people like Peter, James, Mary, etc.
3) There is no known dissent in the early church or other sources against traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark and Luke (though there was a minor dispute about the authorship of John’s gospel).

Conclusions of Stage Two: eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus underlies the Gospels.

Stage Three: Source Criticism: What written (and/or oral) sources did the gospel writers use?

Detailed examination of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) shows that, probably, Matthew and Luke depend on Mark for a large portion of their material.

Some reasons:
1) Matthew has over 500 verses parallel to Mark’s 661 verses; Luke has about 330 verses of Mark.
2) The common order of passages is probably Mark’s order, since Matthew and Luke never agree in order against Mark. But Matthew and Mark sometimes agree in order against Luke, and Luke and Mark sometimes agree in order against Matthew (Bruce, p.34).
3) Differences in presentation of common material seem to be better accounted for on the assumption that Mark, rather than Matthew or Luke, is the first of these three gospels (Bruce, p. 34).

Detailed examination shows that there is a sizable body of material that is common to Matthew and Luke, but not to Mark. This material is known as ‘Q’. As seen above, Matthew is probably the author of this material.
Further support: Comparison of the Didache (a late 1st century manual on Christian practice and doctrine) only quotes material common to Matthew and Luke (i.e., the Q material) and never material that is found in Mark. This suggests that the Didache is based on Q.

Further examination shows that Matthew has material unique to his gospel, as does Luke. These are called ‘M’ and ‘L’ respectively.
Further support: Early church father Ignatius quotes Matthew’s gospel in his letters. But 75% of that material consists in the material unique to Matthew (i.e., to the M source). Ignatius seems to be depending on M, not Matthew.

The passion narrative (including the narrative of the Lord’s Supper and His Betrayal) predates the gospels, and is a source behind the gospels.
Some evidence: I Corinthians (ca. 55 AD) Presupposes the passion narrative, and quotes from the narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. But since the epistle was written so early, and since the original audience of the epistle was already familiar with the narrative, it follows that it was probably around long before the gospels. Furthermore, the passion narrative uses ancient, Aramaic terms that were abandoned in later New Testament writings, which suggests that it is very old.

Snippets of other early material: The creeds in the epistles, which speak of Jesus as the resurrected Messiah, God, etc. predate the Gospels, since the Pauline epistles were composed in the decade of the 50's, and the creeds predate the epistles in which they’re contained, since they’re presupposed as being known to their original audiences. Significantly, the account of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (with a list of eyewitnesses!) is standardly dated to the very beginning of the Christian church (early 30's AD).

Conclusions of Stage Three: We have a list of some of the probable sources for the Gospels: Mark, Q, M, L, the Passion Narrative, the pre-Pauline creed of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus) and numerous creeds and hymns. These were, in all probability, dated from the early 30's AD through the 40's and 50's. The substance of these sources hasn’t been altered where this can be checked (e.g., Paul’s letters and the Gospels).

Stage Four: Form Criticism (or traditio-historical criticism): Are the oral traditions, upon which the gospel sources are probably based, trustworthy?

Standard features of form criticism: (a) isolate the sayings and deeds of Jesus attributed to Him according to their forms (e.g., parables, miracle stories, proverbial/ wisdom sayings, pronouncement stories) (b) postulate the original setting in which they were used, (c) postulate the history of development of each particular form.

Some evidence that the individual forms were passed down as individual units: A study of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) reveals that the order of the forms varies considerably from gospel to gospel, though a basic chronological framework remains roughly the same. It appears that the individual stories were grouped by their forms (for example, a bunch of stories about Jesus in conflict with the religious leaders), and not their order in time.

Some evidence that these forms were accurately preserved from the beginning:
1. Common practice among the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures in Jesus’ time: Rabbis and other teachers would gather disciples to memorize, practice and accurately disseminate their teachings and deeds. They were admonished to carefully guard these teachings from error. This is what the relationship is between Jesus and his disciples (cf. Paul in 1 Cor. 11: 23; 15:3 “delivering” what he “received”. These were technical rabbinic terms for accurately memorizing and passing on an oral or written tradition.
2. Early male Jewish education: largely consisted in memorizing, word-for-word, large portions of the Old Testament (many rabbis memorized the entire Old Testament)
3. Easily memorizable forms: 90% of Jesus’ teachings are in an easily memorizable form. Recent studies in psycholinguistics (applied to Jesus’ sayings) show that such forms are optimal for easy memorization
4. Studies in ancient folklore and its transmission: shows that it is common, even in contemporary oral cultures (i.e., cultures where information is circulated by word of mouth, like Palestine in Jesus’ time) for oral tradition to be reliably transmitted. In such cultures, there is a designated group of people who memorizes and transmits sacred history and other things to their community. The studies found that within such groups, the wording is allowed to vary in some of the details, while the core facts are fixed -- they are not altered. But this is what we find among the various forms in the gospels
5. The time factor: The time gap between the beginning of the oral tradition and the written gospels (i.e., the period between the early 30s and the 50s or 60s) is too short for much distortion.
-Radical critics try to challenge this point by comparing the oral traditions behind the gospels with other oral traditions, pointing out that the latter traditions sometimes get distorted.
-But this is a bad analogy, since the sources they are using in comparison span several centuries, while the traditions in the gospels spanned a few decades at most. -Furthermore, Oxford Roman Historian, A.N. Sherwin-White, has shown that such a time span is too short for substantial distortion, since comparison with the distortion of ancient writings such as those of Herodotus and others shows that two generations (i.e., after the period when the eyewitnesses die off) is about the minimum span it takes for substantial error to creep into a historical account.
6. In some cases (like Paul’s pre-50's account of Jesus’ inauguration of the Lord’s supper in 1 Cor.) we can compare earlier forms of Jesus’ sayings with those in the gospels. But in such comparisons, the oral tradition has not been distorted.

Conclusions of stage four: the earliest oral (and probably some written) sources behind Q, Mark, M, etc., are reliable accounts of the sayings and deed of Jesus. These sources go back at least to the beginning of the Christian church, and probably to Jesus Himself.

Stage Five: Redaction Criticism and the Criteria of Authenticity: Are there other tools that can confirm our conclusion?

Redaction criticism: The analysis of the way the gospel authors edited their written and oral sources. Here, we see that the authors of the synoptics varied the ordering of the events, forms and wording of the forms to emphasize different things about the life and ministry of Jesus to suit their audience. The significant result of such an analysis is that, while the authors vary the ordering of their material, they refuse to significantly alter the sayings of Jesus. Rather, they expound on their meaning and significance. This shows an unwillingness to distort or make up things about Jesus, and a reverence for the oral traditions handed down to them. Secondly, the Synoptics fail to address a number of issues that the early church were dealing with, viz., circumcision, evangelizing the Gentiles, charismatic gifts, etc. But if they felt free to put words on the lips of Jesus to deal with issues that the early church was dealing with, we would expect that such issues would be covered. But they aren’t, and so this confirms the unwillingness of the gospel authors to distort the traditions about Jesus.

The criteria of authenticity: Many scholars use a set of criteria to analyze the authentic material of the oral traditions behind the gospels. These can be used to establish an authentic core of tradition about Jesus without reference to arguments for the general reliability of the oral traditions like those espoused above. Several commonly used criteria are: (a) Dissimilarity (if a saying attributed to Jesus is dissimilar to anything found in the early church and in early Jewish literature, then Jesus probably said it; (b) Multiple, independent attestation: if a saying or deed attributed to Jesus can be found in multiple sources (e.g., Mark, Q, M, etc.), then Jesus probably said or did it (or something very close to it); (c) Palestinian environment/language/ thought forms: since we can discern three main stages of the early church through time (early Palestinian church, then Palestinian-Hellenistic church, then purely Hellenistic church), then if a tradition about Jesus shows (Say) is easily translatable into Aramaic (which was mainly spoken in the Palestinian era, prior to the 50's), or shows signs of Aramaic ways of speaking, then it stems from the earliest period of the church and can safely be said that Jesus probably said or did this (or something very close to it); (d) coherence: if a tradition about Jesus doesn’t meet criteria (a)-(c), yet coheres nicely with material that passes these criteria, then, with a little less probability, Jesus probably said or did it.

Summary of results of applying the criteria of authenticity: It turns out that the parables, the calling of the twelve, Jesus baptism, the disciples pre-Easter missionary journeys, the “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus, Jesus’ use of “Abba” of the Father, the feeding of the 5,000, and a host of other forms pass the first three criteria. Then, when the criteria of coherence is added, we may add the majority of the tradition to our list of authentic material. In sum, even with the most skeptical criteria, we get a supernatural Jesus who claimed to be Messiah. The early church didn’t just build Jesus up into a divine hero over the years. Rather, such beliefs about Jesus are based on the words and deed of Jesus Himself.


Summary: the layers of the gospel materials, and the tools used to discover them

(Maybe) 1st-20th century: New Testament Manuscripts (textual criticism)

Mid-to-late 1st century: the original gospels (tests of authorship and date)

40's and 60's AD: Mark, Q, M, L, a few others (source criticism)

30's-50's: Oral traditions (including), creeds, hymns, passion narrative, pre-Pauline resurrection account. (Form and redaction criticism, criteria of authenticity)


Appendix 1: Some Common tools of NT criticism, and a critique of some misuses of them:

Form criticism:
-Form criticism described: a tool used to unearth the earliest reports of the sayings and deeds of Jesus. First, one isolates and groups the portions of the gospels according to their literary forms (e.g., miracle stories and mighty deeds, conflict stories, pronouncement stories, parables, wisdom sayings). Each form is assumed to have arisen independently of every other, and that they circulated throughout the Christian community (or, as many assume, only within an isolated Christian community. So, for example, there was a “Markan community”, a “Matthean community”, a “Lukan Community”, a “Pauline community”, etc., and these were isolated from each other. They were, in fact, warring communities who held to their own version of Christianity. This is a common assumption among redaction critics. More on this below). Then, one tries to discover their function, or the role they must have played in the early church. For example, pronouncement stories were probably used as effective illustrations in preaching; miracle stories were used in apologetics against Greek and Roman deities and heroes; etc.

The final step is to determine, based on this information, how much of each form was preserved. This step, in other words, postulates the history and integrity of each unit, each form, of oral tradition. So, for example, parables would have been well preserved due to their distinctive structure. The pronouncement of pronouncement stories were probably well preserved, but their surrounding material was probably radically modified, since it serves merely as decoration, and the evangelists probably changed such material often to make it relevant to a given context, and so on. In fact, early form critics claimed to have discovered laws about the development of the forms: each starts off as primitive (i.e., theologically unsophisticated), portraying a merely human Jesus, who is progressively turned into a divine Son of God.

Below is a summary of some of the main features and assumptions of more liberal NT form critics:

-The information about Jesus started as a very freely modified oral tradition. This tradition consisted of a mixed bag of parables, pronouncements, pithy statements, etc.
-The form of each unit of tradition (parable, miracle story, pronouncement, etc.) indicates the type of setting in which it arose, and each little unit of tradition (e.g., a parable, a miracle story, etc.) was circulated independently in the earliest church. For example, pronouncement stories were probably used as effective illustrations in preaching. Miracle stories were used in apologetics against Greek and Roman deities and heroes.
-Once this work is done, the form critics postulate the oral history of a given tradition before it was written down. For example, parables would have been well preserved due to their distinctive structure. The pronouncement of pronouncement stories were probably well preserved, but their surrounding material was probably radically modified, since it serves merely as decoration, and the evangelists probably changed such material often to make it relevant to a given context.
-Some support offered for this step is study and comparison of other ancient (written?) tradition, which includes Near Eastern tradition as well as Icelandic folk tales.
-The form critics took themselves to have discerned laws of tradition development. The tradition goes from simple, drab stories and sayings to embellished stories with lots of after-the-fact theological meaning/significance read into them. The picture of Jesus evolves from a simple apocalyptic Jewish prophet and teacher to a divine, miracle-working, Son of God.

Positive aspects of form criticism:
1) Enable us to establish the mini-genre of gospel passages, which enable us to establish their main point.
2) Shed light on larger structures of the gospels (most saliently, form criticism reaveals that the gospels are not ordered according to chronology, but according to forms)

Problems with some of the assumptions:
1) Dubious to postulate the original setting/context of the units of oral tradition. For example, there is no clear instance of the use of pronouncement stories in preaching where this can be checked (in the New Testament and early church writings)
2) There are significant problems for postulating oral history of a given unit of tradition:
-the period between the origin of the tradition and their being written down is too short for serious distortion of core facts to take place. Thus, the analogy between the traditions in the gospels and those of other cultures and traditions break down. For the traditions of the latter type span centuries before being written down.
-Eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry were still around during the whole period of the oral tradition stage of the gospel material, and they would have contradicted/corrected the tradition if it went seriously wrong about Jesus.
-The previous point is corroborated by what actually did happen with apocryphal tradition about Jesus. The fanciful, inaccurate stories of Jesus only arose after the disciples and their first followers began to die off, as well as hostile eyewitnesses.
-Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White has further corroborated this point, by documenting the rate of corruption of historical material in ancient Rome (e.g., the writings of Herodotus, etc.). His case studies showed that it takes more than two generations for a solid core of historical material to be distorted.
3) The short span of time between oral and written sources is shortened further by the fact that Q was probably a written source that significantly pre-dates the gospels.
4) Jesus’ disciples probably kept written notes of Jesus’ words and deeds, as was common among rabbinical disciples, as well as among pupils of teachers in Greece and Rome.
-The previous point is reinforced by the disciples’ need for accurate information about Jesus when Jesus sent them on their preaching missions before the crucifixion. So there was a probably a pre-Easter oral and written tradition.
5) Further studies have shown that there are no ‘laws’ of tradition development (see E.P. Sander’s work on this).
-If anything, the material of the traditions becomes more drab and compact, not embellished and expanded.
-Further, it turns out that the earliest layers of tradition portray Jesus as a miracle-working Messiah who is the Son of God. So this assumption is false.
6) A study by James D.G. Dunn has given a much better account of the nature of the oral tradition. His detailed study of work on a large number of ancient oral traditions shows that the core elements of such stories are well preserved, while the details are often freely modified. A close study of the Gospels suggests that the same phenomenon occurs in the various synoptic gospels.
7) It was common practice in early Palestine, as well as in Greece and Rome, for teachers and Rabbis to gather disciples around themselves. The disciples were expected to memorize their teachings and deeds. When the teacher died, the disciples preserved the teachings from serious distortion. They were the “go-to guys” for accurate information about their teacher. This is precisely the relationship between the disciples. In fact, they probably would have been even more careful to preserve his teachings, in light of their belief that he was the Messiah.
8) Much of the traditions show Aramaic style and poetic form. This not only shows that the material probably originated from the earliest Christian communities, but that such literary structures were mnemonic devices to preserve sacred tradition in ancient Jewish culture. They are, as it were, the earmarks of tradition that goes all the way back to Jesus himself.
9) Furthermore, it has been shown that among the material mentioned in point (8), all of the sayings attributed to Jesus that have a characteristic, unique style, that evinces the work of one person. This style is considerably different than the gospel writers themselves. The best explanation of this is that the keepers of the oral and written tradition behind the gospels revered and carefully preserved the teaching of Jesus.
10) The fact that the gospels preserve the “hard sayings” of Jesus (i.e., teachings that were extremely demanding and uncomfortable, e.g., loving your enemies, etc.) contradicts the picture of the early church manufacturing sayings of Jesus in light of their current needs.
11) The gospel materials lack material that was relevant to pressing issues and needs of the early church (e.g., speaking in tongues, circumcision, how to unify Jewish and Gentile churches, etc.). This is isn't what we'd expect on the hypothesis that the early church invented sayings of and stories about Jesus to meet their pressing needs.

Redaction criticism
Redaction criticism described: Redaction criticism is less speculative than form criticism, in that it focuses on the actual gospels that we have. The purpose of redaction criticism is to determine why, how, and to what extent each gospel writer redacted, or edited, the oral traditions about Jesus. First, they give a detailed analysis of the word-for word reproductions, the similarities, the omissions of material in a given gospel, the addition and/or modification of material in a given gospel. Then, they postulate the reasons why a given gospel author redacted the tradition the way he did. This is similar to the step in form criticism of postulating the setting/context in which a given form arose. So, for example, Matthew consistently portrays the disciples in a positive light to encourage the early church.

In short, the gospel authors weren’t “scissors-and-paste men, arbitrarily knitting together units of oral tradition. Rather, they put the material together with a purpose in mind: to encourage, exhort, etc. their community; to emphasize some aspect of Jesus ministry; to display their own theology, etc. Below is a summary of some of the main aspects of redaction criticism, as well as some of the assumptions (excesses) of more liberal redaction critics.

-include all of the assumptions of form critics about the nature of the tradition
-tradition about Jesus began late, after his crucifixion
-support:
-The early church believed, according to some of Jesus’ teaching, that he was coming very soon – in their lifetimes – usher in the end of the world and the final judgement, resurrection of the righteous, etc. So they felt no need to preserve accurately his teaching. But when the generation died off, and Christ had not returned, they felt the need to write down an account of the earthly Jesus. But by then, their memories of the events were to vague and cloudy to give an accurate account of them.
-the earliest church was so caught up in its’ experience of the spiritual presence of Christ, his prophetic utterances of chrasimatics in church services, etc., that they weren’t interested in the earthly ministry of Jesus. In fact, much of the material we have about Jesus comes from the charismatic, prophetic utterances of the members of the early church
-after the crucifixion, the followers of Jesus had visionary experiences that they took to be of Jesus. These visions are the foundation of Christianity.
-the differences of the “same” stories we find among the synoptic gospels are due to redaction (or, “editing”) of the Gospel material they had in front of them (e.g., Matthew had Mark and Q in front of him, Luke had Matthew, Mark, and Q in front of him). This editing is cumulative and linear, in that each editing job constitutes a “layer” of modified tradition. Also, each telling of the oral tradition (before they were written down) was a modification and distortion of the original. These, too, then, are considered as distorted “layers” of tradition that must be stripped away to find the real Jesus.
-These “editings”, or redactions, have no real basis in fact, but are freely modified to answer some need in the early church (e.g., Matthew consistently portrays the disciples in a positive light to encourage the early church)
-Any pair of stories that are similar are taken to have been derived from a single original story (e.g., the feeding of the four thousand and the feeding of the five thousand)
-Every passage that is not in Mark or Q is automatically suspect as having been fabricated
-Every little change in wording is infused with deep significance by redaction critics. That is, each variation corresponds to some attempt to meet a need in the early church, or to show a radical difference in the theology of the gospel writer
-Every word that seems distinctive to a particular gospel author is taken to not reflect actual fact, but as pure fabrication.

Positive aspects of redaction criticism:
-Provides a tool to unearth the distinctive emphases and theologies of the respective gospel writers (e.g., Luke is concerned to show Jesus’ concern for the poor and the outcasts of society)

Problems with redaction criticism (when wrongly used):
-Similar stories don’t at all indicated that they were modifications of a single original story. Furthermore, all good teachers repeat a message or teaching to different audiences. And they often make variations on a theme or topic.
-It is too speculative to postulate a given need or context in the early church for each story in the gospels. And surely some of the material is written so that church members can know some of the factual details of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It is implausible to think that the early church was so caught up in the prophetic utterance of charismatics that they had no historical interest in the earthly Jesus.
-This point is further supported by all the points made above about the reliability of the oral tradition (in the section on form criticism)
-This point is further supported by the fact that the NT materials consistently make a distinction between the words of the earthly Jesus and prophetic utterances
-Many differences in the gospel stories can plausibly be accounted for by the distinctive styles of the gospel authors.
-Many differences can also accounted for by the gospel authors wanting to bring out or highlight different aspects and emphases of Jesus’ person and ministry.
-James D.G. Dunn’s recent account of the nature of oral tradition makes it probable that many differences among the same gospel stories in the different gospels are due to their drawing on different versions of the same oral traditions, as well as their own (sometimes) first-hand account of the event. His thesis also calls into question the thesis that virtually every gospel and every saying of the oral tradition is a distorting “layer” of tradition. For on his account, (i) the oral tradition is extremely stable in its core facts, and (ii) the gospel writers themselves uses this stable oral tradition: They didn’t just freely modify and distort the material of the copies of Mark and Q they had before them.
-The idea that the early church wasn’t interested in preserving tradition about the earthly Jesus because they believed he was coming back soon is implausible.
-the passages taken to teach that Jesus was coming make soon have several more plausible interpretations
-Mark 1:9 might referring to the transfiguration
-The “all these things” of Mark 13: 30 might refer only to the signs before Christ returns
-Matt: 10:23 might be referring to the perennially incomplete ministry to the unbelieving Jews
-Several passages imply that Jesus wasn’t coming back for a long time. Some radical critics take these passages as authentic as well (and so the argument isn’t question begging). Examples include:
-Teachings about marriage and divorce
-Teachings payment of taxes and relations with government
-Application of the Sermon on the Mount
-Since the time of the OT prophets, the Jews were used to hearing of the immanent “coming of the Day of the Lord”. Yet this didn’t keep them from carrying on with the keeping and preserving of God’s Word. The same would hold for the earliest church, since they were Jews


Appendix 2: summary of assumptions shared by the more liberal NT critics, both form and redaction critics alike:

-The information about Jesus started as a very freely modified oral tradition

-The differences of the “same” stories we find among the synoptic gospels are due to redaction (or, “editing”) of the Gospel material they had in front of them (e.g., Matthew had Mark and Q in front of him, Luke had Matthew, Mark, and Q in front of him). This editing is cumulative and linear, in that each editing job constitutes a “layer” of modified tradition. Also, each telling of the oral tradition (before they were written down) was a modification and distortion of the original. These, too, then, are considered as distorted “layers” of tradition that must be stripped away to find the real Jesus.
-These redactions have no real basis in fact, but rather are freely modified to answer some need in the early church (e.g., Matthew consistently portrays the disciples in a positive light to encourage the early church)
- Tradition about Jesus began late, after his crucifixion
-The early church believed, according to some of Jesus’ teaching, that he was coming very soon – in their lifetimes – usher in the end of the world and the final judgement, resurrection of the righteous, etc. So they felt no need to preserve accurately his teaching. But when the generation died off, and Christ had not returned, they felt the need to write down an account of the earthly Jesus. But by then, their memories of the events were to vague and cloudy to give an accurate account of them.
-the earliest church was so caught up in its’ experience of the spiritual presence of Christ, his prophetic utterances of chrasimatics in church services, etc., that they weren’t interested in the earthly ministry of Jesus. In fact, much of the material we have about Jesus comes from the charismatic, prophetic utterances of the members of the early church
-Any pair of stories that are similar are taken to have been derived from a single original story (e.g., the feeding of the four thousand and the feeding of the five thousand)
-Virtually every passage that is not in Mark or Q is automatically suspect as having been fabricated
-Virtually every change in wording has deep significance. Each variation corresponds to some attempt to meet a need in the early church, or to show a significant difference in the theology of the gospel writer
-Virtually every word that seems distinctive to a particular gospel author is taken to reflect the redactor's fabricated creation.

Appendix 3: What about the Jesus Seminar?

Who they are: A group of about 74 persons, formed in 1985, who study the New Testament to come to a consensus among scholars about which portions of the Gospels are authentic and which are not. Their method is to evaluate the authenticity of each passage by a vote. Their method is as follows. First, a passage from the Gospels is cited. Then, each member drops a bead in the jar. Different colored beads represent different levels of confidence about the authenticity of a given passage. Thus, a red bead means that they believed Jesus definitely said it; a pink bead if they think Jesus said something like it; a gray bead if they think Jesus probably didn’t say it; a black bead means that they think Jesus definitely didn’t say it.

A preliminary point: The members of the Jesus Seminar claim to speak for the majority of NT scholars, and that their views are representative of them. This is false. First of all, there are thousands of NT scholars, in Europe and the U.S., and their views span the whole spectrum: from the extremely conservative to the extremely radical and skeptical. They claim to be right in the middle of the spectrum, but in fact, they are at the radical end of the spectrum. This has been stated over and over in print by even fairly skeptical scholars, as they wish to be distanced from the Jesus Seminar.

Further, consider the actual makeup of the Jesus Seminar. Roughly half of them (40 of them) are relative unknowns, who have, at best, published a few minor articles. Several are just barely out of graduate school. Eighteen of the 74 fellows haven’t published anything at all. 36 of them teach at or hold a degree from the three most liberal seminaries in the world: Harvard, Claremont, and Vanderbilt. None of the members are from a European school, so Europe is not represented. Finally, one of them has no theological training, but made the film, Robocop.

In short, the Jesus Seminar speaks falsely when it says that they accurately represent mainstream NT scholarship.

Some of the main assumptions of the Jesus Seminar upon which they base their views of Jesus:

1) The physical world is all there is, and so miraculous phenomena are impossible (this presupposition is explicitly stated in their work, especially in The Five Gospels.

2) There was no single, normative version of Christianity in the earliest years after the crucifixion. Rather, there was a huge diversity of Christian sects. Traditional Christianity is falsely considered the original, authentic version because it “won out” over the others. It then labeled members of all other sects ‘heretics’. It is thus merely a historical accident that traditional Christianity is considered “authentic” Christianity.

3) The Gospel of Thomas, a three-layered Q source (Q1, Q2, Q3), the Gospel of Peter (and a hypothetical source that Crossan thinks he discerns within it, “The Cross Gospel”) , the “Secret Gospel of Mark (a hypothetical source that Crossan thinks is mentioned by Clement of Alexandria) are early, independent streams of tradition about Jesus. However, only Q and the Gospel of Thomas have much of historical value in them.

4) The earliest canonical Gospel (Mark) was written after the fall of Jerusalem, and so wasn’t based on eyewitness testimony. Therefore, neither were the other, later canonical Gospels Matthew, Luke, and John.

5) The oral tradition behind the Gospels was often, and freely, distorted before it was written down. And in light of point (4) above, much of the oral tradition was around for about 40 years after the crucifixion.

One of the main views of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar: John Dominic Crossan:

Some Main Theses
-Radical early Christian diversity:
-Basis:
-Earliest written sources are Q and the Gospel of Thomas.
-These are mainly just lists of little sayings of Jesus
-No mention of Jesus’ passion or resurrection
-Studies in early Christian iconography reveal that the emergence of the cross as a symbol was late
-Indicates that orthodox Christianity was not dominant until later
-Jesus was actually just a Mediterranean peasant and cynic philosopher who was later divinized and worshipped by one of the early Christian sects. He never claimed to be the Messiah, nor did he intend to be crucified or found a church. He didn’t preach of the coming of the end of the world. He merely taught subversive social behavior that would overturn oppressive social structures and form an egalitarian one.
-Basis:
-The triple-layered Q hypothesis, which shows a pattern of Jesus initially portrayed as a merely human Jesus that became progressively “theologized” in later layers of Q.
-Studies in the history and sociology of religions, as well as studies in the sociology of group formation, show a universal pattern of religions starting with a merely human figure, and progressively making him or her more divine.
-Studies of ancient cynic philosophers shows many parallels between them and Jesus.
-This picture of Jesus is confirmed when we look at the earliest layers of tradition about Jesus in Q, the Gospel of Thomas, Secret Mark, and the Gospel of Peter and his Cross gospel, and when we apply the best criteria of authenticity, multiple attestation and early strata (or, layer), and dissimilarity.

The resultant picture of Jesus:
-Using these criteria, we are left with 131 sayings and deeds of Jesus. From these, we re-construct our picture of Jesus. The picture turns out to be one of a cynic philosopher who preached a non-eschatological “kingdom” that is “brought near” when he pronounces his wise, pithy little subversive sayings. These sayings are criticisms of the reigning, oppressive social structures, as well as exhortations to egalitarian living. We also learn that Jesus demonstrated this egalitarian kingdom living by performing exorcisms, and by sharing a common meal with members of every class of people, from the rich to the poor, diseased, and socially outcast.

A critique of Crossan’s reconstruction of our picture of Jesus:
-His use of non-canonical sources is completely idiosyncratic and unwarranted
-The Gospel of Thomas is dated around 150 AD, is derived completely from the canonical gospels, and was used exclusively by Gnostic sects.
-Dating tests give a date of around 150 AD. This is about 110 years after the Gospel of Mark!
-Detailed comparison of the Gospel of Thomas and the canonicals shows that the order of the much of it has no other logic than that is the order found in the canonical gospels.
-The Secret Gospel of Mark probably doesn’t exist.
-It is based on an opaque reference in the writings of Clement.
-Since then, one radical NT critic (James Robinson) claims to have seen it.
And we are asked seriously to believe that this hypothetical source is to be
preferred over Mark!
-Even if it were real, we would still have no reason to date it prior to the
canonical gospels.
-Even the little we know of it, through Clement’s quotation, gives
evidence that it was dependent on the canonical gospels. Finally, Clement
was known for his openness to esoteric, non-orthodox writings. So even
if he did mention it, we should give it little credence.
-The Cross Gospel is completely hypothetical.
-The two layers that Crossan believes lie behind the Gospel of Thomas are completely hypothetical.
-The three layers of the hypothetical Q source are completely hypothetical
-Of the 131 sayings Crossan ends up with, he only considers 75 of them to be actually authentic. But this is wildly skeptical.
-Crossan’s rejection of the canonical gospels is completely idiosyncratic and unwarranted. As we have seen, Mark was probably written between the late forties and the mid-fifties. And the latest one can date Luke, the latest of the synoptic gospels, is about 62 AD
-His skepticism about the oral tradition behind the gospels is completely unwarranted. See our 11 points about the reliability of the oral traditions behind the gospels.
-His layering of the Q source is completely question-begging and unwarranted
-The determination of which layer a given unit of tradition goes into is determined by whether or not it implies supernatural, divine, or Messianic qualities of Jesus. The more divine the elements of the unit, the later the strata it is assigned to. And the units that have no explicit signs of this are assigned to the earlier layers. But this is completely circular! There are no independent grounds for determining what layer a given saying goes into. Indeed, there are no independent grounds for thinking that there are any layers in Q at all! Some members justify an early, non-messianic picture of Jesus in Q1 because they take the Gospel of Thomas to be the earliest gospel, and that its portrait of Christ is non-messianic. But as we have seen, the Gospel of Thomas is very late. And the non-messianic features are accounted for because the text is a Gnostic text. And so the argument collapses.
-The overall picture of Jesus that Crossan constructs is determined by his naturalistic worldview, as he admits: Since there is no God and miracles are impossible, we must reconstruct our picture of Jesus accordingly.
-The Gospel of Peter is very late, dated between the late second century and the early third century. Furthermore, it clearly borrows from the canonical Gospels.
-The view of the Jesus Seminar that there was a wide range of diversity of views about Jesus depend mainly on two things: (a) the belief that the canonical gospel writers and apostles had conflicting theologies, as well as the early churches, and (b) that the non-canonical gospels are earlier than the canonical gospels.
-Reply to point (a): True, there was some diversity among the churches, but not even close to the extent that the Jesus Seminar folks claim there was. They were all unified by several theses: (i) YHWH is Jesus’ Father and creator of the world, and covenant-maker with Israel and the church, (ii) Jesus is the redeemer, due to his crucifixion and resurrection, (iii) a new era has been inaugurated by the resurrection, manifested by the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, and (iv) believers are to model Jesus’ servant-leadership. This is true in all the gospels, and Paul’s letters as well.
-Reply to point (b): As we have already seen, all of the non-canonical gospels are very much later than the canonicals, and they are dependent upon them.
- Also, the book of Acts can be shown to be reliable. But it gives a picture of the unity and diversity within Christianity during the first thirty years. It clearly contradicts the radical diversity thesis of the Jesus Seminar. Therefore, the diversity thesis collapses.
-The case for parallels between Jesus and the Cynics is weak. But even if they were, it wouldn’t show anything significant. For the doctrine of the incarnation leads us to expect that, since Jesus is a man, he must take on some of the characteristics of his culture. And what if he thought some of the aspects of the Cynic philosopher’s lifestyle well suited to his ministry?
-But the evidence indicates that there were few, if any, Cynic philosophers in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime.
-Even if there were, it is unlikely that they would have had a huge impact on orthodox Jews!


Appendix 4: The Resurrection of Jesus: An Outline of a Case

-The Burial of Jesus in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea: establishes that Jews and Gentiles knew where he was buried
-Unlikely that it is fabricated, since:
-It is part of the very old, pre-Markan passion narrative, and this is taken to be authentic
-Counterproductive to invent Joseph of Arimathea as burier, since:
-He was a member of the Sanhedrin, and so was easy to verify
-If he was a real person
-If he did, in fact, bury Jesus
-Burial mentioned in very old creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-8
-No other burial story exists

-The Empty Tomb

-Earliest polemic against the resurrection presupposes or takes for granted the empty tomb
-Part of the ancient pre-Markan passion narrative
-Early creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8 implies it
-Empty tomb reported as discovered by women
-Empty tomb narratives theologically unadorned
-No veneration of Jesus’ tomb

-Putative appearances of Jesus as risen to numerous individuals and groups soon after his death
-These are mentioned in the ancient creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8
-Multiple, independent attestation of appearance reports in source materials of the Gospels
-The accounts are so early that there is not enough time for them to be fabricated
-Hostile eyewitness around to contradict them
-Presence of an authoritative apostolic community around; prevented serious distortion
-The physical, bodily nature of the appearances
-Confirmed by Paul
-Attested in Gospel source material

Origin of the Disciple’s Belief in the Resurrection. Could not have come up with the idea if they didn’t believe Jesus rose bodily; or if base on the appearance point, couldn’t have interpreted the appearances as a resurrection if the appearances weren’t bodily (still needs work)
-Jews believed in exactly one resurrection of all the righteous at the end of the world
-No concept of a dying, rising messiah


Popular rejections of the resurrection of Jesus:

1. Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the tomb:
-Problems:
-general point: 1st century Jews took their faith very seriously. Rejecting Judaism meant damnation of soul to hell if wrong, losing friends and family, position in social structure, etc. Have to have a really goo reason to abandon these things. Further, under Jewish law, crucifixion entails that one is rejected by God, and under His curse. But since Jesus was crucified, a Jew would need very powerful reasons to convert to Christianity.
-Can’t explain their willingness to die for something they knew was a lie
-No recanting
-No conspiracy leak
-Can’t explain why James, Jesus brother, converted
-Can’t explain the conversion of Paul
-No motive
-Hated and killed the early Christians
-Had a high standing as a rich orthodox Jew
-Leading religious figure
-Conversion meant risk of damnation of soul to hell
-No positive evidence for it.
-Can’t explain putative bodily appearances
-Can’t explain why they claimed Jesus rose from the dead.
-No concept of a dying, rising messiah
-No concept of a single resurrection before the eschaton
-Universally rejected by scholars

2. Swoon theory
-Problems:
-Can’t survive crucifixion
-Hanging in low position causes muscles around lungs constrict, causing death by asphyxiation
-Bystanders and guards would notice that he wasn’t pulling himself up to breathe
-In any case, likely to die of hypovolemic shock
-Guard lanced Jesus in the side would have ensured death
-Likely this detail historical, since now known medically that water and blood flow from the piercing of the pericardium, which is near the heart.
-Even if these points are doubted, the biggest problem that the sight of a severely wounded Jesus, who, needing desperate medical attention, and having somehow escaped the tomb and got to his disciples, could produce in the disciples the conviction that Jesus is the risen conqueror of death and Lord of life! Their response would be to seek a doctor, not worship him. The sight would have weakened their confidence in his messiahship, not strengthened it.
-Can’t explain the reported appearances to Paul and James. Would have to tack on hypotheses about hallucinations, conspiracy, being duped and lying about the appearances (in spite of them refusing to recant at the threat of death, etc.)
-Universally rejected by scholars
3. Hallucination theories:
Problems:
-Can’t account for the empty tomb
-Can’t account for the physical aspects of the appearances
-Ad hoc to account for all the appearance reports as appearances; have to tack on hypotheses about some false reports. But then, again, why would they die for false reports that they themselves made up, and so knew that they were false?
-Can’t account for group appearance reports
-Especially the appearance to the 500
-Hallucinations not collective
-Hallucinations not “contagious”
-Can’t account for appearance to Paul
-Fundamentally cannot account for appearances
-Hallucinations depend on a prior expectation of something to occur
-Can only project in a hallucination what is already in the mind
-But since 1st century Jews had no concept of a dying, resurrecting messiah, or of an isolated resurrection before the eschaton, (a) they weren’t expecting a resurrection, (b) no concept of a rising messiah to project (c) would’ve projected a vision of Jesus as disembodied and in heaven with God, or something else commonly thought by Jews to occur to saintly people
-Can’t account for the early churches distinction between resurrection appearances and visions
-Can’t account for why the claimed resurrection appearances stopped abruptly, or even why they stopped at all. Why isn’t a resurrection appearance a rite of entry into Christianity?
-Widely rejected among contemporary NT critics
4. The Legend hypothesis
-Problems:
-Contrary to fact: we have reports that come both directly from eyewitnesses and some that are based on eyewitness testimony. Legends can’t be based on eyewitness testimony
-Creed of 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8ff. Is eyewitness (Paul) and based on eyewitness testimony (other apostles)
-Source material in Gospels traceable to eyewitness testimony or based on such
-Reports are very early: all the way back to the resurrection
-Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White argues that it takes several decades to overturn factual accounts with legendary ones
-Too hard to do when stories told in original location of events, and when eyewitnesses are around to contradict it
-Nature of disciple’s authority: in Jesus’ time, common for a teacher, or, rabbi, to gather disciples to memorize, master his teaching and character, so that when he dies, they can accurately preserve it. Also, when a dispute arose about what the deceased rabbi said or did, the disciples would be the people to go to clear up the disputes. But if so, then it is implausible to suppose that the resurrection reports would be corrupted, especially when the disciples were still around. But this is precisely the time these reports date back to
-Can’t account for the empty tomb. Must tack on a new hypothesis to account for this as well (e.g., it too was a legend)
-Reply: parallels with other mythology shows the concept of a dying, rising god, as well as accompanying appearances, were common. But if you reject these, then you must reject the resurrection story of the NT
-Surrejoinder: the radical dissimilarities with these stories and the resurrection underscore its veracity
-No other case has so many eyewitnesses, and in such varying circumstances (individuals, groups, skeptics (James), and enemies (Paul))
-No other case has accounts so close to the actual putative event(s)
-No other case is of a bodily resurrection
-All other cases were reported visions, not direct perceptions of physical person

Brief summary of the problems for the alternative hypotheses: stolen body: doesn’t account for the (many and various appearances); swoon: doesn’t account for medical facts, appearances to Paul and James; hallucinations: inadequate account of nature of appearances, can’t account for empty tomb, appearances to James and Paul; legend: can’t account for early, eyewitness reports of appearances, empty tomb, appearances, conversion of Paul and James.

Comments

AIGBusted said…
Very good, you've pretty well created the best capsule of New Testament apologetics I've seen, and you're an atheist!

Are you planning on writing a response to all this?
andy.scicluna said…
So, do you support the hallucination theory? It would be great to do a post on it and/or other competing theories.
exapologist said…
AIG,
Thanks. I do indeed plan on writing a response. I hope to say more about this soon.

Andy,
I'm inclined to think that there's an all-purpose defeater for arguments for the bodily resurrection of Jesus: grant, arguendo, that the conditional probability of Jesus' resurrection, given the evidence standardly listed, is very high (say, .8). But when you throw in the evidence that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet of an imminent eschaton, plus the passages that indicate that Yahweh doesn't take too kindly to false prophets, the posterior probability of the resurrection plummets to well below .5.
Great! Keept it sober and reflective like this, please, the internet needs less batshit crazy skeptical junk.

Posted my thoughts about this here.

My main point is that it almost seems like a waste of your talents (despite my first paragraph here :)).

Cut and paste from above link:
I am very stingy. If we had a bunch of eyewitnesses that said a resurrection happened yesterday, I'd be like 'Umm, whatever. Enjoy your crack pipe.' Show me video, multiple reliably skeptical types witnessing, preferably myself as well. News vans, lots of independent recording devices. Plus it has to be someone that we really know is dead. Not some BS with someone being pronounced dead in an ER and "miraculously" coming back in an hour.

Without such relatively strict standards, I'd waste my time exploring every nutball's alien abduction story.

Anyway, it's the above type of reasons that make me think many of these "skeptical" historical scholars aren't really thinking things through. What would make you believe it happened yesterday, much less 2000 years ago filtered through the writings of its advocates? And if it is impossible, in principle, for these ancient writings to meet your standards for yesterday, why do you even bother using your obvious intellectual talents to "debunk" this stuff?
exapologist said…
Hi BDK,

Thanks.

I'm sympathetic to your criticism. As you know, Bayes' Theorem and abductivism both entail that a hypothesis can explain a given range of data, and yet fail to be a probable explanation if they include or entail propositions that conflict with one's background evidence. So your point is well-taken. Here I'm trying to "reach across the aisle", so to speak, by granting arguendo that background evidence and/or prior probabilities are relative to a given person. In due course, I plan on developing a criticism according to which historical apologetical arguments for the bodily resurrection of Jesus fail even if the prior probability of the hypothesis of bare theism isn't especially low.

Best,
EA
XA: that's certainly a useful and necessary approach. If all skeptics were people like me, who are largely ignorant of the historical/theological arguments (not to mention completely lacking knowledge of ancient languages), then things would be quite unbalanced.

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