Big Think On The Historical Jesus

Are scholars coming to doubt Jesus existed? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Ah yes. We’ve been down this road before. Another website claiming that there’s an increasing number of “scholars” who doubt the existence of a historical Jesus. Of course, as we’ll see, when they use the word scholars, there’s really only one reply to that.

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This time the website is Big Think, which is apparently inappropriately named. The article can be found here. I went through it when someone pointed it out to me just groaning at the massive ignorance of the author named Philip Perry. So what are his major errors? (Other than writing the whole thing?)

To begin with, we have the whole idea that Christmas was copied from the pagans, which is something sadly that many Christians fall for. The author claims that the traditions we celebrate came from Norse mythology and from Saturnalia. His source? Just another website. Most of the material if not all is answerable in my ministry partner’s book, Christmas is Pagan And Other MythsI want to focus more on the main article.

When we start talking about Jesus, we then see what the writer means by scholars. As he says “Today more and more, historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed.” Yes. There are bloggers questioning this. There are bloggers also saying 9-11 was an inside job and the moon landing was a hoax. We could say there is a growing number. Will the author start treating them seriously?

The writer of course tells us which sources we shouldn’t accept. We should not accept religious scholars or atheists with an axe to grind. Interestingly, the atheist he cites can be found here and lo and behold, his source is Richard Carrier! (That is, Richard Carrier who is teaching at the prestigious university of…..ummmm…..well….okay. He’s not teaching anywhere for a scholar who is supposed to be world-renowned in philosophy and history, but oh well.)  Of course, Carrier is someone many of us don’t take seriously at all and when I hear his name, I just think of his theme song going through my head.

Let’s look at the question about religious scholars. John Dickson addressed this point in the past when he responded to Raphael Lataster, someone I have responded to as well here and here. John Dickson said about Lataster’s idea that Christians shouldn’t get involved in the study of the historical Jesus said that

Secondly, no student – let alone an aspiring scholar – could get away with suggesting that Christians “ought not to get involved” in the study of the historical Jesus. This is intellectual bigotry and has no place in academia, or journalism. I would likewise fail any Christian student who suggested that atheists should not research Jesus because they have an agenda. Nobody in the vast field of historical Jesus scholarship operates with such an us-and-them mentality. This is why the methods of history are so important. They are how we assess each other’s work. We don’t fret about other scholars’ private beliefs and doubts. We judge their handling of the acknowledged evidence according to the rules of historical inquiry. Anything else would be zealotry.

When it comes to peer-review, no one gets a pass for being a Christian or an atheist. The methodology is the same. Can you show you handle the scholarship and handle it properly? Would Perry be fine with my saying that no Christian should listen to an atheist on evolutionary biology since they come with a bias?

Perry also finds it interesting that we have Jesus go straight from 12 to 30 with nothing about what happened in-between. This is pretty simple. I challenge Perry to go and read other Greco-Roman biographies of the time and see how much time they devoted to someone’s childhood. Jesus’s biographies are nothing unusual in this regard. They are par for the course.

Perry then goes on to say:

Historians have measures in terms of a burden of proof. If an author for instance is writing about a subject more than 100 years after it occurred, it isn’t considered valid. Another important metric is the validity of authorship. If the author cannot be clearly established, it makes the record far less reliable.

Really? This is a rule? I have never heard about this 100 year rule. This rule would rule out most of ancient history. The huge majority of the lives of Plutarch would be thrown out. Our biographies of Alexander the Great would be out the door. Today, no one could write a book about the Civil War. Only people who have no clue about how to do history would say nonsense like this.

As for the rule about an author being clearly established, it can be helpful to know who the author is, but many times, we don’t know. We hold to Plutarch authorship because his grandson said it later on. I find this whole thing a red herring anyway. Do we really think skeptics of Christianity would keel over and accept it if the opening line of Matthew’s Gospel said “The Gospel according to Matthew?” Not a bit. After all, we have letters claiming to be from Paul and that is not accepted as a good enough reason for granting six of them authorship by Paul to them. Of course, Perry could have looked at what E.P. Sanders said about this.

The authors probably wanted to eliminate interest in who wrote the story and to focus the reader on the subject. More important, the claim of an anonymous history was higher than that of a named work. In the ancient world an anonymous book, rather like an encyclopedia article today, implicitly claimed complete knowledge and reliability. It would have reduced the impact of the Gospel of Matthew had the author written ‘this is my version’ instead of ‘this is what Jesus said and did.’  – The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders page 66.

Perry then tells us we have sources written several decades after the fact. First off, his source is Raphael Lataster for this information, which isn’t a big shock. Apparently, sound mythicist argumentation is just quoting other people who agree with your views. Second, again, could he show us some history that’s not like that in the ancient world? The overwhelming majority was written several decades after the fact.

Keep all this in mind about decades and the 100 year rule as it will hurt Perry in the end, but Perry says nothing about the Pauline creed in 1 Cor. 15. What do scholars say about it?

Michael Goulder (Atheist NT Prof. at Birmingham) “…it goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.” [“The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford, 1996), 48.]

Gerd Lüdemann (Atheist Prof of NT at Göttingen): “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.” [The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. by Bowden (Fortress, 1994), 171-72.]

Robert Funk (Non-Christian scholar, founder of the Jesus Seminar): “…The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” [Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, 466.]

Perry also says they were written by people who wanted to promote the faith. Yes. Of course. And? This somehow shows they are unreliable? Should we say that Jewish holocaust museums should be viewed with suspicion? Do we not accept the account of a soldier who was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked because he could have a bias? In the ancient world, everyone had a bias, just like today. History was to be written with passion after all.

He also says the Gospels contradict on events like the Easter story. Of course, many of us have seen these lists of contradictions, but Perry never tells us what they are. Does he throw out the accounts of Polybius and Livy on Hannibal crossing the Alps because those hopelessly contradict? Perry has created a standard that if there is any disagreement, then we throw it out. Unfortunately for him, Mike Licona has recently shown that this kind of disagreement is common even in the writings of Plutarch. For the part about being anonymous, see E.P. Sanders’s quote above. He then tells us that there’s evidence that the Gospels were heavily edited over the years.

There’s also evidence that Philip Perry climbs on top of his car at night and howls at the moon.

Oh, wait? I need to provide actual evidence and not just make a claim? I just figured I would do exactly what Perry has done. Still, let’s look at the claim. What would someone like Bart Ehrman say about it?

If the primary purpose of this discipline is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we’re not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are.… At this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering. There’s something about historical scholarship that refuses to concede that a major task has been accomplished, but there it is. Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior: An Evaluation: TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 1998, a revision of a paper presented at the Textual Criticism section of the 1997 Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco. http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/vol03/Ehrman1998.html

 

In spite of these remarkable [textual] differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 481.

If Perry wants to back his claims that the Gospels are heavily edited, let him. By the way, pointing to Mark 16:9-20 and the pericope of the woman caught in adultery does not show heavily edited. We’ve known about these passages since the time of the early church. If anything, showing that these weren’t in the original manuscripts shows we have a good idea of what was in the original manuscripts.

Perry goes on to say that:

St. Paul is the only one to write about events chronologically. Even then, few facts about Jesus are divulged. Paul’s Epistles rest on the “Heavenly Jesus,” but never mention the living man. For such an important revolutionary and religious figure, there are surprisingly no eyewitness counts. And the writings we do have are biased. Roman historians Josephus and Tacitus do make a few, scant remarks about his life. But that was a century after Jesus’s time. So they may have garnered their information from early Christians. And those threadbare accounts are controversial too, since the manuscripts had been altered over time by Christian scribes whose job it was to preserve them.

As soon as you hear this talk about “Heavenly Jesus” you know where exactly this is coming from. There are a number of things we know about Jesus from Paul, such as His being crucified, having a Passover meal, being descended from David, dying on Passover, being seen after His resurrection, and being born of woman under the law in Galatians 4, which would definitely refer to an earthly existence. Scholars across the board have not taken the heavenly Jesus idea seriously. (By the way Perry, these are real scholars who actually have Ph.Ds and teach at accredited universities and not bloggers.)

Perry also finds it shocking that such an important religious figure wasn’t talked about. Unfortunately, what is really shocking is that Jesus was talked about. Perry is following an anachronism here. It is assuming that because Jesus is all the rage today and everyone talks about Him, that meant everyone was talking about Him in His time. Not at all. As I have in fact argued, in Jesus’s time, He wasn’t worth talking about. He discounts Josephus and Tacitus who wrote a century later. This isn’t accurate anyway. Jesus would have been crucified around 30 A.D. Josephus wrote before the end of the century and Tacitus wrote at the start of the second.

He also claims that their sources are Christian. Unfortunately, this is not demonstrated. Perry can talk all he wants about these accounts being controversial, but this is not according to the scholars of Josephus and Tacitus. The overwhelming majority have no problem with a witness to the historical Jesus being found here.

Next, Perry gives a list of authors who back his thesis supposedly. Let’s look at them.

Reza Aslan in Zealot? Nope. Aslan holds that there is a historical Jesus and that he was a zealot. His claim is wrong, of course, but he is not a mythicist.

Nailed by David Fitzgerald? Fitzgerald has no credentials in the scholarly community. One needs to look at atheist Tim O’Neill taking down Fitzgerald here.

Bart Ehrman with How Jesus Became God? Bart Ehrman has even written the book Did Jesus Exist? taking down the Jesus mythicist movement. He has no patience for these people. Finally of course, we have Richard Carrier with On The Historicity of Jesus. (Carrier to most of scholarship is just someone who happens to have a degree but to most skeptics on the internet, he’s the alpha and omega of scholarship.)

Perry has the quote from Bart Ehrman, but what of it? Ehrman himself doesn’t think that Jesus never existed and if Perry had done just a brief look on Amazon and found Ehrman’s book and read what it’s about, he would have known this. Unfortunately, Perry did not do any real research.

Perry also uses Carrier’s argument of the Rank-Raglan figure to show that Jesus is a mythical figure. Unfortunately, he doesn’t answer the questions like “Why does Carrier use Matthew instead of Mark when Mark is thought to be earlier?” He also doesn’t address the critiques of this position like here and here.

In the first article, I would like to highlight one quote of Ronnblom.

Unfortunately, Carrier subtly changes the criteria to better fit Jesus, and reorders them. Worse still, Carrier does not inform his readers that he has done this. This is amounts to academic dishonesty, since he is clearly misrepresenting his sources

And as McGrath says at the start of his article:

The scale was not designed to determine historicity. Its folklorist users show little or no interest in the attempt to do what historians do, namely peeling back layers of myth in search of underlying history, if there is any. The Rank-Raglan scale does not seem, contrary to Carrier’s claim, to consistently fit figures who were definitely not historical better than ones who certainly were. And so Carrier’s attempt to use the scale to slant his calculations of probability in the direction of the non-historicity of Jesus are at best unpersuasive, and at worst deliberately misleading.

Keep in mind, this is said to be the centerpiece of Carrier’s argument.

It’s also worth pointing out that Carrier has given a talk on the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar and says that all the great historians of the age mention it. Unfortunately, the great historians of the age wrote much later. What happened to that 100-year rule?

Finally, we conclude with Perry bringing up Joseph Atwill. Unfortunately, the media does us a disservice of calling most anyone a Biblical Scholar. This would be like me calling any blogger who critiques evolution a scientist. Atwill’s crazy theory is that the Romans invented the figure of Jesus to control the Jews. Larry Hurtado has taken his own shot at Atwill. Even Carrier said Atwill’s theory was nonsense, but hey, who cares? He made the claim.

We can hope that someday, BigThink will actually follow its own advice and think. Right now, this growing number so far consists of just a small handful of writers. Next story no doubt will be “A number of scientists are seriously questioning evolution”. I will be told that that is inaccurate I am sure, but when it comes to Jesus, you’re allowed to break the rules.

There’s a reason mythicism is rightly seen as nonsense.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Why Are There Differences In The Gospels?

What do I think of Mike Licona’s book published by Oxford University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Go to any debate online about the New Testament and one idea you’ll see pop up regularly will be “It contradicts itself over and over.” Go listen to Bart Ehrman and hear him speak about these and what will he say? “Depends on which Gospel you read?” Gospel differences are something that is a cause of concern to many a skeptic and of course, many a Christian as well. Especially if you hold a high view of inerrancy, you want to know why there are so many differences in the Gospel accounts.

This question isn’t anything new. It goes back to the church fathers. This is in fact why there was even an attempt to turn the four Gospels into one Gospel, but the church didn’t really go for it. As it stands, we have four today and they do contain obvious differences, so do we just have sloppy historians or what? Should we call into question the reliability of the Gospels because of this?

Mike Licona has chosen to answer this question and has done so by doing something that many in our world could consider cheating, but hey, he did it. He actually went back and compared differences in accounts of the same event by an author close to the time of Jesus. His choice was Plutarch and he looked at some of his lives that described figures who lived at about the same time and were quite likely written close to each other chronologically.

Of course, everyone should be warned of possible bias on my part. As many know, Mike Licona is my father-in-law, but at the same time when we have our discussions, if I think he is wrong on something, I do not hesitate to tell him. He got a blunt son-in-law when I married Allie.

Mike’s approach is unique and something that had not been done before. If there is any difficulty I encounter when I am engaging with skeptics of the faith is that they assume the way we do things today is superior simply because that is the way we do them. If we do history this way, well that is the right way to do history. If we want this kind of precision in an account, well that has to be superior and that is what the ancients would want. The greatest error we often make is we impose our own time and culture and society on the ancient world and then misread them.

This is why I say Mike cheated, though in a loose sense of course. He actually went back and saw how they did history and what do you see? You see that the differences that you see in the Gospels that are so problematic are the same kinds of differences you see in Plutarch. Some will no doubt complain and say that surely the Gospel writers would not write Holy Scripture in a style that was known to the pagan world. (Yeah. The second person of the Trinity can condescend to become a human being and die on a cross, but using a certain literary style? God forbid!) Such an opinion is going against the overwhelming majority of Biblical scholarship and ignores how God has often met people where they were and if the writers wanted to write a biography of Jesus to tell about His life and teachings, there weren’t many other options.

Mike goes through the accounts and shows that Plutarch used many different techniques when writing and that the Gospel writers did the same. He has a number of pericopes in Plutarch and a number in the Gospels that give a cross comparison. If one wants to throw out the Gospels as unreliable then, one will have to do the same with Plutarch. This indeed raises the debate to a whole new level. Is the modern skeptic willing to throw out one of the most prolific writers in ancient history just to avoid the Gospels?

What does this say for we moderns as well? It tells us what I said at the beginning. We can too often assume our own standards of accuracy and throw those onto the text not bothering to ask if the ancients followed them. If they did not, then we are being anachronistic with the writers and in fact, being unfair with them. They were not moderns and we should not treat them like moderns.

This should also be taken into account when considering our modern idea of inerrancy. For instance, many of us might think inerrancy means we have to have the exact words of Jesus. What if the Gospel writers did not think that but wanted the exact voice instead? In other words, they wanted the gist of what Jesus said even if it wasn’t exact wordage? That’s okay. We just have to accept that. The ancient works were not modern works and if we impose on them what they aren’t, we will get the wrong message and also miss the true message of them.

Mike’s work has really raised the bar of debate and pushed it beyond just simple harmonization. It is harmonization based on how the ancients did it and not how we moderns do it. I fully hope that other scholars will come alongside and critique the work, both positively and negatively and that we can, in turn, come to a greater understanding of the Gospel texts.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark

What do I think of Dennis MacDonald’s book by Yale University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

It’s hard to really know how to describe a book like this. Reading MacDonald’s book is like reading a prime example of parallelomania. Of course, we can’t doubt that mimesis was used in ancient literature. This is the process of imitating another work in your own writing. We still use this today when we do imitation as well to an extent.

MacDonald’s thesis is that in reading the Gospel of Mark, one can see traces of the Homeric classics being copied. Unfortunately, this is done with a lot of hopscotch as you will take this one part here and then jump over to this other part way over here and then jump back to this other part long long before that. My thinking is if someone did this consistently, they could show that this happens with any ancient work. In fact, I would be quite interested in knowing if anyone has done this.

Something that should give us pause about this is that for nearly two thousand years, no one noticed this but MacDonald. Now that doesn’t mean it’s false of course, but it does mean view with suspicion. After all, these people were even more seeped in the ancient classics than we are. Some of them wrote commentaries on these classics and yet none of them saw any mimesis taking place.

We could also ask what difference it would make. Suppose Mark told his story in the style of Homer. Okay. And? Does that make it false? Could not Mark have taken a true story and used language that he thought was reminiscent of the Homeric Epics? This kind of idea never seems to occur to MacDonald.

Unfortunately, MacDonald often forgets that if there was any place where imitation would take place, Mark already had a ready one. It was the Old Testament. In fact, not only did it happen, we should expect that. If Jesus is showing that He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant YHWH made with His people, then we should expect He will not only imitate the older prophets, but He will essentially one-up them. This He does repeatedly.

Moses gave the Law in the Old Testament. Jesus gives it in the Sermon on the Mount. Elisha feeds 100 with a small amount of food. Jesus feeds 4,000 and 5,000 with a small amount of food. Jonah calms the storm by having himself thrown into it. Jesus calms it by word alone. This is why Jesus can make statements like “One greater than David is here.”

Still, as I said earlier, we could grant MacDonald his thesis and say this is no problem. It’s not as if imitation demonstrates that there is falsity. That needs to take place on other grounds. Those who are too quick to jump to MacDonald don’t seem to realize this.

Despite that, the similarities are often very much strained. Some of them are so commonplace (Jesus getting into a boat with His disciples) that they are really nothing. Others are such a stretch you wonder how MacDonald got to them. Jesus cleaning out the temple in the Gospels is to mirror Odysseus clearing the suitors out of his house?

MacDonald also writes about the Sons of Thunder and how James and John are pictures of the divine twins. Why not call them the Sons of the Thunderer then instead of Thunder? MacDonald sees this even in Acts when a ship is said to have the sign of Castor and Pollux and that this is the only time such a thing is mentioned of a ship. This sounds interesting until you realize that ships aren’t mentioned that much in the account. Are we to think Luke was trying to make a far distant tie to this pagan theme?

MacDonald also has themes in there like clothes that are incredibly white are meant to be a mirror to the Transfiguration or that the healing of Legion is meant to be a mirror to the defeat of a Cyclops. One of the best ways to see how bad the arguments are overall is simply to read the book for yourself. Many times you’ll be left scratching your head wondering what on Earth MacDonald is seeing that is such a clear parallel. If Jesus does something that Odysseus did that’s really similar, it’s a parallel. If Jesus does the exact opposite, it’s a parallel. What doesn’t count then?

It’s a wonder to me that people like Carrier and others place so much stock in this. Where there are parallels, they are not really remarkable but are commonplace and don’t require borrowing from Homer. Where there aren’t, MacDonald will strain and strain at anything to get this to work. Overall, it’s entirely unconvincing because of this.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Once Again, Does Jerry Coyne Have A Clue?

Is mythicism at all viable? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Wednesday, I wrote some on Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, which means he’s naturally capable of being an authority on the historical Jesus. Today, I’d like to look at more of his *cough* arguments *cough* for their not being a historical Jesus. Naturally, I expect to find the same kind of rank nonsense that I find any time I engage with mythicists. As I have said before, mythicism is a conspiracy theory for atheists.

I have to say that I’m coming down on the “mythicist” side, simply because I don’t see any convincing historical records for a Jesus person. Everything written about him was decades after his death, and, as far as I can see, there is no contemporaneous record of a Jesus-person’s existence (what “records” exist have been debunked as forgeries). Yet there should have been some evidence, especially if Jesus had done what the Bible said. But even if he was simply an apocalyptic preacher, as Ehrman insists, there should have been at least a few contemporaneous records. Based on their complete absence, I am for the time being simply a Jesus agnostic. But I don’t pretend to be a scholar in this area, or even to have read a lot of the relevant literature. I haven’t even read Richard Carrier’s new book promoting the mythicist interpretation, though I will.

So let’s see what we have here. We have a claim such as that contemporary records have been debunked as forgeries. This is quite problematic since first off, let’s suppose he’s talking about the Pauline epistles. Seven of those are accepted universally as Pauline. If he’s talking about the Gospels, then how can they be forgeries since the body of the work doesn’t say who wrote the work itself? If he means Tacitus and Josephus and others, this would be news to the scholarly community. So what is he talking about? We don’t know, but Coyne’s followers who are just as historically illiterate as he is will eat this up.

Coyne also says there should be some record. Well why? Jesus was a guy who would have been born in a low ranking town like Nazareth who never went to battle, never wrote a book, never ran for office, etc. and died by crucifixion, the most shameful way to die. As I have said earlier, by these standards, Jesus is not worth talking about. What amazes me is not how few people mentioned Jesus. What amazes me is that anyone at all did.

Normally, we compare like with like, but let’s compare Jesus with someone else. How about Hannibal? Here’s a guy who was the leader of the greatest enemy Rome had who nearly conquered the empire by trouncing over every argument sent his way. This is a man worth talking about! Everyone would have been talking about him. So what do we have with contemporary records?

Zip. Nadda. Not a thing. In fact, let’s take Coyne’s statement and turn it around.

Everything written about him was decades after his death, and, as far as I can see, there is no contemporaneous record of a Hannibal-person’s existence.

This is exactly the same and yet there is no great debate that Hannibal existed. We could say likewise of other figures like Queen Boudica and Arminius who both greatly resisted the Roman empire. These people weren’t mentioned by contemporaries and were written about decades later, but they were definitely real. Yet this little preacher who never traveled the Roman Empire and died by crucifixion? Everyone should have mentioned Him!

Coyne can talk about how he doesn’t pretend to be a scholar, but of course he is. He’s the one who has written a book about Faith vs. Fact. (Which is simply awful. That’s not just me saying that. Look at what Edward Feser had to say.) Coyne also says he hasn’t read Carrier’s book. Well I can assure him that I have, and I find it also just as lacking but hey, at least I do read the scholarship that disagrees with me.

Because of the paucity of evidence, we can expect this question to keep coming up. And so it’s surfaced once again, in a PuffHo piece by Nigel Barber.

We can see it coming up the same way we see debates on evolution taking place. At least there are more Ph.D.s in the field who question evolution than there are those in the field who question Jesus’s existence, yet Coyne would not for a moment think there is a serious debate as to if evolution is true or not. I’m also not saying evolution is true or not true. I really don’t care. I just know that Coyne is not talking about a debate that is taking place in the academy. It’s only taking place on the internet where sadly most anyone can show up and be taken seriously because they have an opinion.

Barber, who has a Ph.D. in biopsychology and a website at Psychology Today (“The Human Beast”), has also written six books.  And in the Sept. 25 edition (is that the right word?) of PuffHo, he takes up the question of the historicity of Jesus. His piece, “If Jesus never existed, religion may be fiction,” briefly lays out the mythicist case. Of course religion itself is nota fiction, but what Barber means is that Christianity’s empirical support, like that of Scientology or Mormonism, may well rest on a person or events that simply didn’t exist.

Ah yes. A Ph.D. in biopsychology and has written six books. Well that means he’s obviously qualified to write on the topic. I suppose then that Coyne would have no problem with N.T. Wright being seen as an authority on evolution. Again, don’t expect Coyne to go with the scholars here. There’s a good reason for that. He’s not really going to find them.

Of course, Barber has a “devastating” argument from Paulkovich. Actually, the argument is about as devastating as Ken Ham would be to Coyne, but oh well. He’s written an article so surely he’s an authority.

Various historical scholars attempted to authenticate Jesus in the historical record, particularly in the work of Jesus-era writers. Michael Paulkovich revived this project as summarized in the current issue of Free Inquiry.

Paulkovich found an astonishing absence of evidence for the existence of Jesus in history. “Historian Flavius Josephus published his Jewish Wars circa 95 CE. He had lived in Japhia, one mile from Nazareth – yet Josephus seems unaware of both Nazareth and Jesus.” He is at pains to discredit interpolations in this work that “made him appear to write of Jesus when he did not.” Most religious historians take a more nuanced view agreeing that Christian scholars added their own pieces much later but maintaining that the historical reference to Jesus was present in the original. Yet, a fudged text is not compelling evidence for anything.

Paulkovich consulted no fewer than 126 historians (including Josephus) who lived in the period and ought to have been aware of Jesus if he had existed and performed the miracles that supposedly drew a great deal of popular attention. Of the 126 writers who should have written about Jesus, not a single one did so (if one accepts Paulkovich’s view that the Jesus references in Josephus are interpolated).

Paulkovich concludes:

“When I consider those 126 writers, all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not – and Paul and Marcion and Athenagoras and Matthew with a tetralogy of opposing Christs, the silence from Qumram and Nazareth and Bethlehem, conflicting Bible stories, and so many other mysteries and omissions – I must conclude that Christ is a mythical character.”

He also considers striking similarities of Jesus to other God-sons such as Mithra, Sandan, Attis, and Horus. Christianity has its own imitator. Mormonism was heavily influenced by the Bible from which founder Joseph Smith borrowed liberally.

On the surface, this looks convincing to a lot of people, but again, it ignores the relevant factors that this is common for people of the time and that Jesus was not worth talking about. But then, to do a Billy Mays impersonation, but wait, there’s more. Paulkovich has had his own number of critics out there.

Let’s start with a look by Candida Moss and Joel Baden who last I checked are not in the tank for evangelical Christianity. They point out numerous problems with the list. By the way Coyne, if you see this, you should know about this:

Let’s get one thing straight: There is nigh universal consensus among biblical scholars—the authentic ones, anyway—that Jesus was, in fact, a real guy. They argue over the details, of course, as scholars are wont to do, but they’re pretty much all on the same page that Jesus walked the earth (if not the Sea of Galilee) in the 1st century CE.

So as I said, the debate going on is not in the academy any more than young-earth creationism and geocentrism are seriously debated in the academy. Moss and Baden go through the list after saying this and note that some figures lived and wrote before Jesus was even born so big shock that they didn’t mention him. Some were philosophers and writers in other areas like Epictetus and Martial who didn’t write much about current events. Some were doctors who would not likely write about Jesus either.

In fact, some people in the list aren’t even writers, but Paulkovich includes them. When the writers are done showing the weaknesses of the list, they go a step further. They show that by his own argument, Paulkovich doesn’t exist since no historians of our age have ever mentioned him before in their writings. He also hasn’t written anything biographical about himself and apparently doesn’t even have a Twitter. (At least at the time of writing that piece) Maybe we should be skeptical that Paulkovich exists.

There are atheists who have critiqued this and even those sympathetic to mythicism. The linked to article here ends with

As an atheist, I long for a much better class of atheists, atheists writing about history who are not historically illiterate.

There is no doubt Jerry Coyne would be included in that. In fact, the above author wrote an open letter that looks at this even further. Jerry Coyne no doubt avoided any serious investigation and just saw that it argued against Christianity and, well, it must be true! It’s as if atheists on the internet have a flowchart they look at and when they see a claim they ask “Does it argue against Christianity?” If so, it is true. If not, it could be true or false, but if it makes Christianity look good, it’s obviously bogus.

Of course, we doubt that Coyne has done any real research beyond reading something on the internet, but hey, if he wants to lower the intellectual standards of his own followers, let him. If he wants people to accept evolution as true, he’s not doing any favors by accepting something that is seen as crank nonsense by scholars in the field. Those of us who read the scholarly literature can only look at Coyne and think he is someone who is entirely gullible with what he will believe. Of course, that doesn’t mean evolution is false, but it sure means we have to question Coyne’s ability to evaluate evidence.

Barber goes on to talk about how the origin of Mormonism was a sham promulgated by a con man (an interpretation I accept). Yet even in that case there’s better evidence than we have for Jesus, for the Book of Mormon opens with two statements from eleven witnesses—people who were contemporaries of Joseph Smith—who swore that they saw the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. Those people are historical figures who can be tracked down, and so the evidence for the existence of the plates is stronger than for the existence of a historical Jesus.

Ah Jerry. You’re so funny. Like I said last time, all you needed to do was talk to some experts on Mormonism about this. I asked Rob Bowman about this on my own podcast. Coyne will not mention facts such as the supposed plates were kept under wraps at Smith’s own home and his own wife wasn’t allowed to look underneath the covers to see them or move them or that Smith would only show the plates to someone if they said they had the “eyes of faith” and even then it’s questionable if they physically saw them. But hey, details. Who needs them?

Barber finishes by describing how credulous people have started sects based on phony gurus and leaders, and, indeed, how an Indian film director decided to create his own religion by pretending he was a guru.  And of course we all know how L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology based on a bunch of science-fiction writings and a phony theology involving Xenu, volcanoes, and thetans. How people can buy that stuff—and there’s a lot of them—is beyond me. But of course you don’t get to learn the theology of Scientology until you’ve spent thousands of dollars, and so are inclined to accept it (bogus as it is) because of the “sunk-costs fallacy.”

The irony here is incredibly thick. Yes. Credulous people have bought into a lot of goofy ideas. They’ve also bought into the goofy idea that Jesus never even existed. Hint. If you’re going to talk about people being credulous for buying into stupid ideas, don’t be endorsing Jesus mythicism on your own blog while admitting you haven’t read the scholarly evidence. Coyne should have no basis now for going after young-earth creationists.

At any rate, if there is no contemporaneous record of Jesus, there should have been, how seriously should we take his historical existence? I am not inclined to accept the Bible as convincing evidence for a historical Jesus.

And if there is no contemporaneous record of Hannibal? Of Queen Boudica? Of Arminius? Be consistent. Many of the lives of Plutarch are considered reliable even centuries later. Richard Carrier mentioned earlier says all the historians of the time mention Caesar crossing the Rubicon, not stating that these historians of the time wrote at least a century later.

Is there anyone in history with so little contemporaneous attestation who is nevertheless seen by millions as having really existed? There is of course Socrates, but of course we have a historical figure, Plato, who attests to his existence. Yet even that is overlain with a patina of mythicism, and I don’t think most scholars would say that Socrates existed with the certainty that Christians (or even atheists like Bart Ehrman) would say that Jesus existed. And there’s no religion based on the historical existence of Socrates. As for Shakespeare, well, we have his signature and a fair amount of contemporaneous evidence that he really did exist; we just don’t know for sure that he wrote those plays (absence of evidence).

Yes. Boudica. Hannibal. Arminius. The list could go on. All Coyne needed to do was just send an email to a professor of ancient history. It would be nice if someone at the University of Chicago where Coyne teaches who teaches ancient history could go and set Coyne straight. He’s not doing any favors to your university right now.

At the end, I do not have any questions about Jesus’s existence. I stand in agreement with the scholars in the field today that he definitely walked. I have a lot of questions about the evidence that Jerry Coyne is a serious thinker in any sense of the word.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

A Reply To Metro on Jesus Mythicism

Do some arguments need to stay dead? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Ah yes. Easter. That time of year when we Christians come together to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and the time of year when the media loves to resurrect arguments that died years ago and ask “Can these bones walk again?” Now it’s wanting to bring Jesus mythicism mainstream.

In some ways, it’s odd writing a reply to this because of my stance on the rise of mythicism. I am convinced that those supporting mythicism are doing a great deal of harm to the secular movement in the U.S. and wherever else they go by making internet atheists who are even more ignorant and invincible in their ignorance and that this will allow Christians to win the day years later when we’ve been the ones, you know, actually studying real scholarship instead of just going by what we see in Google. Still, some Christians will see this and be troubled and some will want something to shame the atheists who post mythicist nonsense.

Today’s drivel can be found here. I’d like to start with a rant about the title. The writer wants to speak about things that are not true, but that does not equal a lie. If a student answers a question wrong on a math test, he is not lying. He honestly thinks that’s what the answer is. He is just mistaken. For it to be a lie, the writer would need to demonstrate that the authors of the Gospels knew they were communicating an untruth and chose to communicate it as a truth anyway. Good luck with that one.

So let’s see how this starts.

If you saw somebody flying up into heaven in a cloud of magic sparkles, you’d probably at least Instagram it, right?

So how come 2,000 years ago, no historian seemed to notice when Jesus did the same – despite ‘dozens of eye-witnesses’ seeing him do it?

Not sure where the cloud of magic sparkles came from. We’re not told anything about that. Still, you have dozens of eyewitnesses and naturally, no one could instagram back then, but I think the parallel they get is “Why didn’t anyone write this down?”

Saying something like that assumes a post-Gutenberg version of society. You see, even up until the Industrial Revolution, most people couldn’t read. You want to spread a story? You use word of mouth. Here are the benefits. Word of mouth is free, it’s seen as more reliable, and it can reach everyone who can speak the language. (Yes. I know about Ehrman’s criticisms and have responded.)

Some people get surprised when I tell them writing was expensive. That seems like a cop-out. Not at all, and keep in mind that this is just for writing the original. The copies would have cost a good deal also if only just for equipment since most copies of the NT were made by amateurs.

The cost of writing and rewriting was not free. A secretary charged by the line. Like anyone whose living depended on billing customers, the secretary kept up with how many lines he wrote each time. Although we do not know the exact charges for making drafts and producing a letter, we can make some educated guesses. A rough, and very conservative, estimate of what it would cost in today’s dollars to prepare a letter like 1 Corinthians would be $2100, $700 for Galatians, and $500 for 1 Thessalonians.” Richards, Capes, and Reeves, Rediscovering Paul p. 78

Now suppose you had someone to read the manuscript? Well this would be one person listening to someone else read a manuscript. That sounds a lot like oral tradition and how would these other people tell others? It would still be word of mouth. Of course, those wanting to better understand oral tradition are invited to check a book like The Lost World of Scripture.

Now why would no historian mention this? Well most historians were outside of Judea at the time. Now suppose you’re in a city like Rome and you hear about this rabbi in Judea, which is seen as a more backwaters area, and he is supposedly doing miracles. Chances are, you won’t take this seriously as most of the elite would be skeptical of miracles. Then you hear he was crucified. Okay. Definitely not taking him seriously. No one worthy of a good reputation would be crucified. People didn’t take the claims seriously today for the same reason most people don’t take claims of Benny Hinn seriously. When the Christian movement started, most would not want to dignify it with a response hoping it would just go away. Celsus is one of our first critics and by the time we get to Porphyry, it’s pretty clear Christianity is here to stay, but it’s still combated.

In fact, we know a lot about Messianic claimants who had to have the Roman army called out because these claimants had supporters in the thousand and battles with Rome would take place. These were people worth mentioning. Who all mentions them at the time?

One guy. Just one. Josephus. If we did not have Josephus, we would not have a clue about these people. In fact, let’s look at some other people.

How about Hannibal? He nearly conquered the Roman Empire. He was the great Carthaginian general in the Punic Wars. He slaughtered army after army that came to him and was defeated just before he conquered Rome. This was a great man worth writing about!

Our first mention of him comes about 40-60 years later in Polybius.

How about Arminius who defeated about a tenth of the Roman army in a battle. This great Germanic general would have been a massive hero in his time. This is a man worth writing about!

Wait about a century later and you’ll see mention of him.

What about Queen Boudica? This was another great woman who stood up against the Roman Army. Now surely some would want to write about a woman who was this successful!

Again. No. Wait about the same length.

How about Caius Apuleius Diocles? This guy was the great charioteer of his day and the crowds loved chariots. Sports fanaticism is just as much a thing of the past as it is today. Over a quarter of a million people would watch this guy!

We have one contemporary inscription. That’s it.

But this Jew in Palestine who was crucified. Everyone should have written about him.

I know the objections some of you are raising. We’ll get to them. Let’s get back to the article.

A San Francisco-based atheist writer has argued in a series of controversial essays and books that there’s something distinctly fishy about the whole Jesus story.

Fitzgerald, an atheist activist, says, ‘There is a paradox that Jesus did all these amazing things and taught all these amazing things yet no one heard of him outside his immediate cult for nearly 100 years.

‘Or it means he didn’t do all these things at all…’

Ah yes. David Fitzgerald. Well what a shock because this is what the atheist movement is producing, following the lead of polyamorous prominent internet blogger Richard Carrier. Of course, all Fitzgerald has is an argument from silence and one that completely discounts that we have four Greco-Roman biographies written about this guy within a century’s time, in fact I’d say even by liberal standards 70 years time, and historical references in the Pauline epistles.

Did Jesus do all these amazing things? Well he was said to do them and most people who were outside of the area would not bother to send someone to check them out. You had more important things going on to them all over the world. You see, you can believe Jesus historically existed and did not do miracles. Many atheists do this and go on to lead happy and meaningful lives.

Not people like Fitzgerald. It’s all-or-nothing.

San Francisco-based David Fitzgerald claims that there are no mentions of Jesus – at all – in 125 different accounts of the period.

He says it makes no sense, as Jesus is supposed to have been a famous figure who wrought incredible miracles – but no contemporary writers had heard of him.

So the number is at 125 now? Good to know. We’ve moved a lot past Remsberg’s list. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us who these historians are. Well if he’s using the list from Michael Paulkovich, which has 126 figures in it, then there are some problems. Even an atheist writer who is unsure if Jesus existed or not can see the problems with it. (I also recommend you read the interaction at the bottom with atheist Tim O’Neill and the others on the blog post.)

What about the resurrection of Jesus and His ascension?

Fitzgerald writes, ‘Of course, the final icing on the Jesus cake is his resurrection and ascension into Heaven in front of many witnesses. It’s strange enough to realize that such a world-altering supernatural event, if true arguably one of the most significant and influential moments in history, seen by scores of eyewitnesses, would not have been an immediate bombshell on the consciousness of the first-century world. But it comes without a trace in the historical record for nearly a century…’

We also don’t have historical accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius that killed 250,000 people at least that are current with the times except for one off-the-cuff remark in an exchange between Pliny the Younger and Tacitus. In fact, it’s not even until we get to Cassius Dio over a century later that we learn that a second city was destroyed in the volcano. Yet somehow, an event that would only be seen by those on a mountaintop who would be said to be of a dubious nature anyway should have been noticed by everyone? (The resurrection was not noticed and again, most who could write would shrug it off. Ancients were especially skeptical of resurrections.)

What about the census?

Fitzgerald writes, ‘Luke (2:1-4) claims Jesus was born in the year of a universal tax census under Augustus Caesar, while Cyrenius (a.k.a. Quirinius) was governor of Syria, But Roman records show the first such universal census didn’t occur until decades after this, during the reign of the emperor Vespasian in 74 CE.’

Unfortunately, this is not a cut and dry case. There are indeed records of other censuses, but it can also depend on how one translates the language in Luke 2. Ben Witherington joined me for the second hour of my program here. He makes the case that the language could indicate that this was a registration that took place before the great census.

At any rate, let’s suppose Luke got a fact wrong. I’m not saying he did, but for the sake of argument, let’s suppose he did. Does this show Jesus didn’t exist? No. At worst, it just shows Inerrancy is false. That’s not enough to show all of the Gospels are false.

What about the slaughter of the infants?

Fitzgerald says, ‘There is absolutely no way anyone would have missed an outrage as big as the massacre of every infant boy in the area around a town just 6 miles from Jerusalem – and yet there is absolutely no corroboration for it in any account – Jewish, Greek or Roman. It’s not even found in any of the other Gospels – only Matthew’s.

There’s also no way anyone would have missed an explosion that killed a quarter of a million people. Oh wait. They didn’t mention it except for an off-the-cuff remark from the time. There’s also this strange game being played that if something is in the Bible, it must be mentioned elsewhere to be corroborated. Do we do this with any other ancient source? I mean, of course it’s nice to have multiple sources, but sometimes we just don’t. That doesn’t mean we throw it out as unhistorical.

But yes, there is a way this would be missed. Bethlehem was a small little hamlet of a town then. The number of boys killed would likely be about a dozen. For a king like Herod, this is par for the course. Of the many wicked things he did, this would not be as intriguing as the more political events he did. Especially since most people outside Christianity would say “Well that Messiah he was fearful of never came so no need to bother with that.”

Fitzgerald says, ‘Most Christians also accept that Jesus’ birth and death were also accompanied by still more phenomenally news-worthy events; like a 3-hour supernatural darkness over “all the land,”. But like the miraculous Star of Bethlehem, no one recorded any such thing at this time. Astronomical marvels like these could never have been ignored by works like Pliny’s Natural History, Seneca’s Natural Questions, Ptolemy’s Almagest, the works of Tacitus or Suetonius.’

And they could never have been ignored because?

Most would look and say “Well that was interesting” but note that nothing happened if they saw it at all. Second, there’s even great debate as to whether it even was a star. Even we Christians debate amongst ourselves what this body was. Some people think it was the aligning of Jupiter and Saturn. Some think it was a comet. Some think it was an angel. Some think a combination of these are something else entirely.

It’s not like we necessarily have exhaustive lists anyway. Fitzgerald would have to show that this was a star and that no one noticed it. None of this has been demonstrated. It’s only been asserted.

As for the darkness, even some evangelicals interpret that as apocalyptic but all the land does not necessitate the entire Roman Empire but could refer to Judea. Even if it meant the Roman Empire, we again do not have an exhaustive list of eclipses and such from the time. Again, the most that is lost is possibly Inerrancy, but if apocalyptic not even that.

In the end, we can simply thank sources like Metro for publishing this. They’re not doing atheism any favors and instead giving a conspiracy theory for atheists. Remember how recently I wrote about how the internet spreads misinformation as much as truth?

Treat Metro’s article as Exhibit A.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

Book Plunge: Jesus Before The Gospels

What do I think of Bart Ehrman’s latest published by HarperOne? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Bart Ehrman has a few characteristics that seem to show up in every book that he writes. One is that he will very rarely interact with those who are his best critics in the field. In Forged, he spends no serious time on the work of Randy Richards on the usage of secretaries, for instance. In How Jesus Became God he barely interacts with Hurtado and Hengel and does not even once mention Bauckham. So it is that in this book, he doesn’t deal with many of the best critics out there, such as the work of Walton and Sandy in The Lost World of Scripture or with the work of Robert McIver in Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels.

The second consistent aspect you’ll see of Ehrman’s work is at heart, he still has a lot of fundamentalist underpinnings. Oh you’ll see him referring to the gist of a message in oral tradition sometimes, but more often you’ll see him suddenly sneaking in an idea of verbatim agreement or word for word testimony. You’ll see him still using ideas similar to a telephone game going on. These descriptions don’t make sense for oral traditions.

I happen to agree with what Craig Evans has said in that Ehrman is on a flight from fundamentalism. Ehrman still seems to think in categories that are more all-or-nothing and there are times I just do not think he’s really handling the data properly because of this background. Let this be a warning to those of you who want to push a highly Westernized and Americanized form of inerrancy.

To show my first example of the extremes, Ehrman says on loc. 184 in the Kindle version that we have ideas of the ancient world where it is thought they had better memories and that “people always preserved their traditions about their past accurately.” Well that would need some qualifiers. What does it mean to say accurately? Do we mean word for word? Well no. Frankly, that’s nonsense. Do we mean the gist of the story? Yes. Does that mean there could be no variations whatsoever on secondary details? No. Does it mean that this is something that’s foolproof? Well no. Of course any tradition could be in error over time and get changed, but the way to see that is to look at the oral tradition itself and I really don’t think Ehrman does that well.

Ehrman also raises the issue of the ‘telephone game’ when he says starting around location 190 that “This was a mysterious period of oral transmission, when stories were circulating, both among eyewitnesses and, even more, among those who knew someone whose cousin had a neighbor who had once talked with a business associate whose mother had, just fifteen years earlier, spoken with an eyewitness who told her some things about Jesus.” It’s hard to read this without thinking about the movie Spaceballs, (“I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate,”) but I digress. Ehrman lives in a world where it’s like these people in the Biblical times really experienced privacy like we do and stayed isolated from the group. No. These things were talked about in the groups. In an age without IPhones and Skype, people talked face to face and in an age without television and newspapers and internet to spread the news, these people met in groups and talked in groups.

At Loc. 207, Ehrman has said all we have are memories and then immediately says “Memories written by people who were not actually there to observe him.” Perhaps they weren’t, but doesn’t this seem too early to be saying what the supposed conclusion is? It will also in fact be my conclusion that Ehrman just does not back this conclusion well.

At loc. 222 he says “When it comes to knowing about the Gospels, and about the historical Jesus himself, it is all about memory. And about frail memory. and faulty memory. And false memory.” None of this is really glowing about memory. Of course, at times Ehrman will say for the most part our memory is reliable, but here it looks like memory is being seriously called into question. At this point, I wonder if Ehrman does this same methodology for history everywhere. In fact, this will be brought up again later on in my look at this book. A great danger is that we often treat the Bible differently from any other ancient text claiming to be historical and as Tim McGrew warned Ehrman about the practice of changing standards and such in his debate on Unbelievable?, down that path lies mythicism.

One scratches one’s head when they get to loc. 266 where he says “The past is not a fixed entity back there in time. It is always being transformed in our minds, depending on what our minds are occupied with in the here and now.” Now if he wants to mean our perception of the past alters, by all means, but it is quite problematic to say the past is not a fixed entity. Either Jesus rose from the dead or He didn’t, and nothing can change what already happened. We could get new data that changes our view or we could see something different that changes how we experience our view, but the past itself does remain fixed.

At Loc. 326 he asks “What happens when stories are circulated orally, from one person to the next, not just day after day, but year after year, and decade after decade, among such people, before being written down.” Once again, it’s statements like this that make me think Ehrman is still plugging in a false view of oral tradition, like the telephone game. It was not just one person sharing a story but rather multiple persons in groups sharing a story with people there who could vouch for it.

Note also the emphasis on having something written down. We in the West make a big deal about that. In fact, it’s a common question often asked to apologists when speaking about Jesus that “If all this really happened, why did they wait so long before they wrote it down?” It’s a good question, but it’s also one that can be quite simple. Oral tradition was free, quick, reliable, and it reached everyone who understood the language. Writing meanwhile was expensive (Writing Galatians by today’s standards could cost about $500 and let’s not forget the delivery of the manuscript so think about how much a whole Gospel would cost), slow, not seen as being as reliable since the person who wrote the work was not there to teach about it often, and it would only reach those who could read or have it read to them. In this world, which one are you going to go with?

Ehrman also makes odd statements about other works of NT scholars. “The more I read, the more surprised I became that so many scholars of the New Testament—-the vast bulk of them, so far as I can tell—have never explored this research, even though it is so fascinating and most immediately relevant.” In fact, when I read about the historical Jesus, I often find these issues addressed. There is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps this is new research to Ehrman, but not to others.

On p. 15 he tells us that “I approach these questions from fields of study that I have never written about before and that many New Testament scholars have simply never explored, including cognitive psychology, cultural anthropology, and sociology.” Again, I wonder how much he’s paying attention and furthermore, if he’s really approaching the text from these areas. For instance, I do not recall seeing Ehrman ever engages with realities like the Mediterranean culture being an honor-shame society. This is an important area of social science for the New Testament.  Ehrman still sees individualism and still often sees literalism.

On page 7, Ehrman tells us that probably the vast majority of modern scholars today hold the view of a Jesus who was an end-times prophet of an apocalyptic nature who predicted the world would end soon and God was going to wrap everything up. Ehrman says he held that view since he was a graduate student in the early 1980’s (I am puzzled that Ehrman wants us to wonder if memory is really reliable but when his memories come up, that’s never questioned). Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a shock since dispensationalism was such a strong view then and filling many of our theological institutions. I have critiqued Ehrman’s book on Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet with my main criticism being again, Ehrman is a literalist with the text and he does not even interact with orthodox Preterism or mention it. As said before, Ehrman still holds a fundamentalist and literalist view.

As we go through, we find on page 11 Ehrman talking about the Acts of Peter, and I don’t mean the book of Acts. I mean an extra-biblical book of that title. Peter does many great feats in there to deal with Simon Magus and Ehrman says no one today thinks these are historical events and no one thinks Peter did these things. Then he adds “But many ancient Christians thought he did. These are the ways Peter was widely remembered, as a great miracle worker who performed spectacular deeds to prove that he was empowered by the heavenly Jesus, the Lord of all.” I can’t help but think we have a bait and switch going on. It is not shown by Ehrman how many people actually treated the Acts of Peter as if it was a historical document and not just Christian fiction. Ehrman cites no source for this claim of his. Does this mean that Peter was not seen as a miracle worker? Of course not. The book of Acts in our New Testament pictures him as such, so one could easily believe Peter had a reputation as a miracle worker and still think the Acts of Peter is just fiction. (In fact, I would suspect most every Christian today does.)

Ehrman does the same thing when he looks at infancy Gospels and stories about Jesus as a child. He says these are not taken seriously today, “But throughout history people often remembered Jesus this way.” (p. 22) They did? Well I would want to see some evidence of this. Do we have any indication that these books were written in some sort of genre meant to be taken historically and not just as something fictional? (It’s worth noting Ehrman nowhere points out the Gospels are written as Greco-Roman biographies and meant to be seen as history as he nowhere interacts with Burridge either.) That a book was written does not mean it was read widely. Even if it was read widely, that does not necessitate that this was something taken as a true historical account.

On p. 31, Ehrman says that it’s a question worth asking about whether any of us has any true memories of Jesus in a technical sense. How would we know? Indeed. How would we know? And this is something that surprises me. Ehrman thinks that these people who were closest to the times could not be reliable in their memories to tell us about the historical Jesus, but Ehrman, writing from nearly 2,000 years later, can tell us about those authors. Sure memories could be faulty, but I think that is something that needs to be demonstrated more. What needs to be shown is not that a memory can be faulty, but that this memory is faulty. Skepticism is not an argument. It is something that must be argued for. If you are a skeptic of a particular memory, feel free to show why.

On p. 49, Ehrman tells us that it is widely known that the authors of the Gospels were writing 40-65 years after Jesus’s death. They weren’t his personal companions. They weren’t even from his same country. Perhaps they weren’t, but again, I think Ehrman is stacking the deck too quickly in advance. I also wonder who it is widely known to. Does Ehrman mean scholars who agree with his approach? If so, then we have Ehrman just saying “It is widely known by scholars who agree with me that the view I have here is the right one.” Not much of a shock. That would be like me saying “It is widely known among evangelical scholars that Jesus rose from the dead.” Of course it is. If one denied this, he would not be an evangelical scholar.

On p. 53, Ehrman says we also have a problem that Jesus’s followers were not passing along Jesus’s teachings and actions as they were memorized verbatim. He later asks “What is the evidence that Jesus’s teachings were preserved word for word the same?” That is a good question from a Western perspective, but it is a false one. Jesus was an itinerant preacher and like other teachers, he no doubt told the same story more than once. It is not a question of the original account but the original accounts. He could change the story depending on the audience. One example we will look at later is the Sermon on the Mount. It is doubtful that this is a word for word teaching of Jesus but likely more of a summary. After all, the whole sermon could be given in about 15 minutes. An example many of us could give is  to have sermons like Peter’s in Acts 2 that can be read in about 2 minutes and get 3,000 converts.

The problem is Ehrman’s hang-up on word for word and verbatim. This shows he is not really dealing with oral tradition. As someone who has spoken at various churches, I have a number of sermons that I can give. I have given the same talk many times but I have never given the exact same talk before because my words are different. There is new research on my part or there are different audience members I want to reach or maybe one is to just a live group and one is to a live group and an online group. It would be just silly to ask for “The original talk” that I gave.

It is interesting that Ehrman shares how he first realized this as he talks about Gerhardsson’ teacher, Riesenfeld coming to Princeton Theological Seminary. (Gerhardsson was a researcher on the oral transmission of the Gospels and memory in Hebrew culture) Ehrman presented a question about discrepancies in the account of the raising of Jairus’s daughter. Ehrman tells us that Riesenfeld thinks that this is describing two separate occasions. Ehrman concludes that this theory of remembering precisely the words and deeds of Jesus did not make sense.

Before we get to the problem with that last sentence, let’s note something. This was when Ehrman was a graduate student at a seminary so let’s put this in his 80’s since he received an M.Div. in 1981 and a Ph.D. in 1985. Thus, we have a memory that is at least 30 years old. We have no other eyewitnesses to this and we could say Ehrman even has a bias in it. Ehrman could say he clearly remembers, but in the book Ehrman will present arguments that we can have clear memories that are simply wrong even if we’re convinced they’re clear.

Yet somehow, we are to believe that Ehrman accurately remembers an event from 30 years ago in a book where Ehrman is arguing about memory not being as reliable as we think it is. I find it problematic for Ehrman to argue in a book regularly that memory is not reliable and yet use his memory as if it is ipso facto reliable. It could be, but it’s just an odd contrast.

But to get to the last sentence, I find it puzzling. I think it’s simple enough to say that there is some compression going on in one of the accounts and the gist of the story is still the same. Ehrman has this idea that if there are any discrepancies in secondary details, then we have a problem with remembering precisely the words and deeds of Jesus. Not at all. This is expected for oral cultures.

Perhaps Ken Bailey has the idea with what he has spoken of in his own observance. He has seen tradition being spread in the Middle East and how it is told in groups and suggests that this is a parallel to what happened in the time of Jesus. Ehrman disagrees, based on the work of Theodore Weeden looking at Bailey and seeing discrepancies.

Well yes, Weeden did critique Bailey. In turn, James Dunn critiqued Weeden. Dunn is no slouch in the area. He has a Ph.D. and D.D. from Cambridge and wrote the book Jesus Remembered. (A book cited only once in the bibliography) Dunn’s critique is awfully biting showing the numerous flaws in Weeden’s critique even saying on page 60 that “So, when he sets up a KB story in contrast to or even opposition to the ‘uncorrupted original account’ of the event being narrated, TW is operating in cloud cuckoo land at considerable remove from the realities which KB narrates.” It’s a shame Ehrman did not avail himself of this. For this reason, I think Bailey’s model still suffices and is an excellent example.

On page 64, Ehrman makes a claim about literacy in the time of Jesus and how many people were literate. He points to the work of Catherine Hezser on this. He has done this before and he has been called into question about it before. It looks like Ehrman prefers the same resource again and again. There is no interaction with Evans’s Jesus and the Remains of His Day. Of course, we could be fair and consider that Ehrman might have just finished this as Evans’s book came out. Evans points out the tremendous amount of graffiti and inscriptions and such found all over the world which would indicate higher literacy and how difficult it is to explain Jesus being a teacher if he was illiterate.

What about Acts 4 where it says the apostles were uneducated? The word does not necessitate that they were illiterate. It just means they did not have any formal schooling of any sort. However, Ehrman will write later about the apostles would not have been capable of the kind of writing done in the Gospels so I will go the harder route for this. I will assume for the sake of argument the apostles of Jesus were illiterate. How do you explain the Gospels being from them then? (Although a tax collector who had to do writing would be literate)

Simple. Scribes. They were used by everyone. Even people who were literate used scribes. Scribes would take the ideas and put them together and probably do so with more writing skill and artistic flair than the original mind behind the writing could, but the writing would still be considered that of the apostle.

When we get to memory, Ehrman gives an example of what he thinks are false memories, alien abductions. Now I have done an interview with someone on this topic so yes, I share his skepticism, but at the same time I would wish to be open. Ehrman points to a researcher named Clancy who concludes that these memories of abductions are socially constructed. We live in a culture where this is more acceptable and that this didn’t start happening until alien abductions showed up on television. It is worth pointing out the experience of the early church was the exact opposite. Christianity was entirely socially unacceptable, including the same of a crucified criminal being the Messiah, and that’s just one such detail.

Ehrman uses an example of a teacher said to do miracles from more recent times, the Baal Shem Tov. Ehrman says these stories are close to the time and said to be by eyewitnesses and attested to. At this point, we want to ask “Why do you not believe them then?” and if the answer is “Because they have miracles” or something of that sort, then it is clear it is not the evidence that is driving the position but the worldview. I think a great reply to Ehrman on the point of the Baal Shem Tov is to look to the work of David Marshall.

Ehrman also does not seriously interact with Bauckham saying on page 85 about his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that “Outside the ranks of conservative evangelical scholars, very few if any biblical scholars have found Bauckham’s case persuasive.” It’s really stunning to see this said of a Cambridge educated scholar. Ehrman simply points to some people who have critiqued Bauckham’s book. Fair enough, but what Biblical scholar has written a book that has NOT been critiqued? To say it has been critiqued is not to say the critique is valid or that it has not even been responded to, or that it refutes the book as well as is desired. It would also be false to say Bauckham does not say anything about the reliability of eyewitnesses. He has a chapter on it in fact.

Ehrman also asks about the supposed silence of Paul on the earthly life of Jesus. Did Paul not mention it because he found it unimportant? Not at all. He found it unnecessary. How could that be? Paul was writing to Christians who had established churches and who would have already been well familiar with the life of Jesus. It’s a high-context society. Again, Ehrman, who tells us he has done the sociological studies, seems oblivious to this fact and might we add that again, down this path lies mythicism.

For Gospel authorship, Ehrman reminds us that all four Gospels are anonymous. That depends. Does he mean that in the body of the work they never identify themselves? True enough. In fact, aside from my closing in this blog, I never identify myself. Would that mean that since the body of my work has no identification within it that my blog is anonymous? No. You could look to surrounding data, such as if you read this on my blog itself, my picture and information are right there. We could even ask if Ehrman’s book is anonymous.

It’s also important to note if there was a reason for being anonymous. Indeed there is. As E.P. Sanders says

The authors probably wanted to eliminate interest in who wrote the story and to focus the reader on the subject. More important, the claim of an anonymous history was higher than that of a named work. In the ancient world an anonymous book, rather like an encyclopedia article today, implicitly claimed complete knowledge and reliability. It would have reduced the impact of the Gospel of Matthew had the author written ‘this is my version’ instead of ‘this is what Jesus said and did.’  – The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders page 66.

It’s a shame to see this thing trotted out regularly about the Gospels being anonymous as if this is some defeater and a major problem. If you’re wondering about the question, the answer is yes. There is no interaction with Martin Hengel at this point. Meanwhile, from the Fathers we have pretty much universal testimony on who wrote the Gospels. Again, if I am to trust Ehrman or those closest to the facts, I choose those closest.

In fact, Ehrman thinks he has a powerful argument on p. 90 when he says that even the Gospel of Matthew has Matthew in there in the third person with no indication that he is talking about himself. Yes. He is in the third person. At this point, we wonder how much Ehrman read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. As Bauckham says in there in writing about John 21:24:

The narrative has previously spoken of this disciple in the third person and this was a standard practice for authors portraying themselves as a character in their narrative. p. 369

All of these passages refer to him, of course, in third-person language. This is in accordance with the best and regular historiographic practice. When ancient historians referred to themselves within their narratives as participating in or observing the events they recount, they commonly referred to themselves in the third person by name, as Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Julius Caesar, or Josephus. p. 393

So again, this does not count as an argument against Matthew being the author. To be sure, it’s not a clincher for Matthew being the author, but it’s hardly a strong argument against. Moreover, if Matthew is the author, it would be entirely consistent with the best historiographical practices which would show us how seriously Matthew is taking the writing of the account. Of course, too many of Ehrman’s readers will see this as a firm defeater.

Yet Ehrman on the very same page turns and while Matthew cannot be Matthew because he is in the third person, he then looks at Luke and John and says “The way they use the first-person pronoun clearly shows that, whoever they were, they were not eyewitnesses to what they narrate.” Looks like the Gospels can’t win for losing.

Now looking at Luke, to be fair, it is not an eyewitness account, but it claims to get its information from eyewitnesses. Of course, this does change when we get to the “We” passages in Acts. Ehrman asks that if Luke wanted to show his principal sources of information were the actual disciples of Jesus, why not just say so? Again, Ehrman lives in a world where he thinks everything needs to be spelled out to be true. Luke’s intro is in fact one showing that he is doing thorough research and it would be standard practice of the day to talk to eyewitnesses and in many cases, ancient historians did not in fact cite their sources. Ehrman is treating ancient historians like they should be modern ones.

Looking at John 1:14 and 16-18, Ehrman says that with the we language, it might seem that the author is saying that he himself personally saw Jesus’s glory. Ehrman assures us a closer reading shows this is not the case. Not really. While it is true the us is the people who were the followers of Jesus, that is no reason to think John would not have identified himself. It’s not a clincher to show John wrote it, but it’s not the disproof Ehrman would think it is.

In John 21:24, Ehrman says the author cannot be the beloved disciple because he differentiates between himself and the beloved disciple with the “we” and “his testimony.” I find this to is just not really honest on Ehrman’s part. It’s normally thought that this is something put in by perhaps the elders at the church of the beloved disciple making a statement about the reliability of the testimony. It’s like the argument that Moses could not have written Deuteronomy because it describes his death, without thinking that someone, perhaps Joshua, wrapped it up for Moses after he died..

When he gets to the apostolic Fathers, Ehrman says it’s odd that if they cite the gospels, which they surely did with Matthew and Luke, my not name the authors? Perhaps for the same reason that if I quote a well-known quote from Shakespeare I don’t have to say who said it. If a quote is particularly well-known, an author is not needed. Why did Paul often quote Scriptural passages and not say who wrote them? Does he not want to give them authority? It’s like Ehrman is getting into conspiracy theory thinking.

Ehrman also looks at Justin Martyr’s quoting of the Gospels and says that the quotes are so jumbled that some scholars think that Justin isn’t quoting the Gospels but a kind of harmony, a mega-Gospel if you will. Ehrman takes this as evidence the Gospels were not seen as authoritative. Really?

Now to be fair, I’m skeptical that there was a mega-Gospel at that point, like came later with Tatian, but why would one make a mega collection trying to put together these four Gospels? Could it be that it was because these were the Gospels accepted? In fact, I would think this theory gives more evidence that the Gospels were in fact accepted as authoritative. (And no, there is no interaction with someone like Charles Hill and Who Chose The Gospels?) Ehrman’s entire argument relies on “Well surely if X wrote this, someone would have mentioned it.” No. That doesn’t follow.

He argues that Mark would have been called Mark because there was a Gospel of Peter in circulation already. Does Ehrman have a firm date in comparison to Mark? Does he have any indication that the Gospel of Peter was in wide circulation? (There’s also nothing said about the possibility of a 1st century copy of Mark being found.)

Around p. 122 we start getting into memory. He points to some experiments done on people today and says that these people were highly educated under grads at Cambridge (that little school Bauckham studied at) and says surely the ancients had worse memories. After all, the ancients you know, just couldn’t have been as intelligent and well, we all know that having intelligence means having a good memory. How else do we get the joke of the absent-minded professor? (It’s interesting that when Ehrman talks about the memories of the ancients, he never quotes the ancients themselves on memorization.)

In fact, on page 127, Ehrman says we tend to remember the gist of a story even if the details get messed up. Well that’s the way ancient societies were. The gist was remembered. You were allowed variation on the secondary details. It was expected.

On p. 145, Ehrman brings out the idea of how Matthew saw the prophecies and how he gave a weird fulfillment not knowing about Hebrew parallelism and the idea of the king riding on a colt and then the parallel of riding on a donkey. Matthew supposedly took this and thought Jesus rode on both animals at once. I always find this a silly objection. We can say Matthew might be wrong about the triumphant entry, but he is not foolish. He, like everyone else, knows you can’t ride two animals at once like that. What’s going on, when the animals come, the cloaks of the disciples are sat on one of the animals and when it says Jesus sat on them, it means the cloaks. This is a fair and sympathetic reading of the text. It’s a wonder to see Ehrman talk about Matthew being a literalist while his reading is guilty of what he condemns.

Ehrman thinks it’s a distorted memory since Jesus was not arrested on the spot, but why should he have been? Jesus had done nothing at that time and frankly, until someone led a rebellion, the Romans might not have wanted to bother interfering with Passover. (And besides, if one started, they could easily squelch it.)  Had they done that then, that could have been the activity that resulted in a rebellion. We could say the same for the cleaning of the temple. Jesus is just seen in that case as a nuisance by the Romans, though a greater threat by the Jews.

With the account of his arrest, Ehrman has problems since Jesus is said to be a teacher of submissive non-violence. Doesn’t that hurt the idea his followers were armed? Well first, we all know students don’t always follow the message of their teachers. (And in fact, I would question Jesus being a pacifist) Second, all the more for the criterion of embarrassment then!

How about the release of a prisoner in the case of Barrabas? What evidence is there that Pilate ever did that? Well for starters, we could look at the Evans book cited above. Evans points out that if it was so obviously false, it is unlikely that all four Gospels would include it since it could be so readily exposed. He then on page 159 of his book cites several examples of Romans releasing prisoners on special days. (Livy’s History of Rome 5.13.8 or Josephus’s Antiquities 17.204 for instance)

Later in Ehrman’s book on p. 169 he says that in oral performance, there is no such thing as an original version. All performances and accounts are different. The idea of an original is one that comes from written cultures. Ehrman is certainly right here, yet it’s a mystery why he says this here, and then in so many other places speaks of discrepancies in the account or of lack of word for word memorization.

We earlier spoke of the Sermon on the Mount. Ehrman wants to know how everyone could hear him if he really spoke this sermon on the Mount. Well for one thing, many of these places were natural amphitheaters and great places for speaking. Second, we have cases such as when Ezra spoke when the Israelites came back from exile, where there was teaching and then other authorities explained what was being said to the people further passing it on. In fact, this could fit in well with Ken Bailey’s model. Jesus would speak and then others in the crowd would pass it on so that all would get the message.

On p. 187 Ehrman thinks the ending of the parable of the wedding feast is strange since someone is thrown out for not wearing wedding clothes. Well not really. The host would have provided clothing. After all, there are several poor there and all of them apparently somehow have wedding clothes. This man has spurned the offer of the king.

Interestingly, Ehrman thinks this passage and other passages like the parable of the ten virgins makes sense in a post 70-A.D. climate. I find this quite odd. Ehrman would want us to think that Jesus got the time of His return wrong, yet if this was written after 70 A.D. and after a generation had passed, one would think a promise of all being fulfilled before this generation passes would not be in there. Yet there it is, and yet the readers are to think that something Ehrman says did not happen would have already happened by then. Again, the problem is Ehrman takes the Olivet Discourse literally. Ehrman says that Jesus was expected to return right away, but He had been delayed so the people were being exhorted to remain faithful. Well first off, the passage isn’t about the return of Jesus but the coming to His throne, and again, Jesus had been delayed? Why would the Gospel writers have Jesus making a timing prediction and then suddenly saying “But He was delayed.” It’s a false prophecy either way if taken in the sense Ehrman takes it. (We Orthodox Preterists have no problem with it.)

Yet Ehrman insists that the earliest Christians expected the end of the world and so did the disciples of Jesus. What evidence is there? Perhaps he could point to 2 Peter (though of course he doesn’t think that authentic), but how would that even be evidence that all of them thought that? Ehrman’s eschatology is just puzzling. Yet what is also puzzling is what Ehrman says on p. 204.

“My strong conviction is that whether one is a believer or not, if one wants to discuss what probably happened in the past, it is never appropriate or even possible to say that miracles have happened. That is absolutely not because of a secular, antisupernaturalist bias (as some apologists gleefully love to claim). I had the same view even when I was a committed Christian. Instead, it has entirely to do with what it means to establish historical probabilities. Supernatural miracles can never be established as probable occurrences. By definition they are utterly improbable. But again, I will not go into that in this context.”

Wait. Ehrman even as a committed Christian could never say it was appropriate to say a miracle had happened? Then exactly what kind of Christian was he? Did he think the resurrection was a naturalistic event? Of course, his argument is Humean and of course, yes, he does not interact with Keener whatsoever, but this whole section is just puzzling. If he is saying that a miracle can never be established, how is that not an antisupernaturalist bias?

Finally, I want to wrap this up by looking at the end of the book. I agree with Ehrman that the idea is unsettling that if we find errors in the Gospels we should throw them out and move on to other things. This is indeed all-or-nothing thinking. Even if I was convinced of errors in the Gospels, I would not throw out everything as being non-historical. Sadly, Ehrman asks if the historicity really matters.

Does it matter if Jesus really healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead? Does it matter if he himself was raised from the dead? To me as a historian it does. But if these stories are not historically accurate, does that rob them of their literary power? Not in my books. They are terrifically moving accounts. Understanding what they are trying to say means understanding some of the most uplifting and influential literature the world has ever seen. p. 278.

I think it would matter to Ehrman. After all, it mattered according to God’s Problem. On p. 127 there he says

“What if I was right then but wrong now? Will I burn in hell forever? The fear of death gripped me for years, and there are still moments when I wake up at night in a cold sweat.”

Maybe it all just depends on which Ehrman you read….

But yes, it does matter. If I told you a story and you thought it was true of how a kind philanthropist had recently died and left you a billion in your bank account, would you be happy? Sure. Then I tell you it’s just a story and say “But hey, the story is still a good one isn’t it?” Well no. It’s not any more.

As a Christian, the truth of the story matters. A story does not provide salvation. A story does not give eternal life. A story does not solve the problem of evil. A story does not give me hope in the face of suffering. If all we have are stories, then we are just fooling ourselves and trying to deny a bleak reality that the world really is just a pointless meaningless place.

If Christianity is just a story, then as Paul says, pity me. It is a situation in which you should feel sorry for me. However, I am convinced this is not the case. I agree with Peter. We are not following cleverly invented tales. If Jesus’s resurrection is true, it really does change everything. It is the case as Lewis would say of hearing the most wonderful story of all and then realizing that that story is in fact true.

In conclusion, I really think Ehrman’s books are slipping more and more. On the other hand, he is conceding more and more that Christians can agree. I wish Ehrman had availed himself of far better resources and I do still see him on a flight from fundamentalism. Hopefully he will one day realize that the question of it being a story or not does in fact matter.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Did Masada Happen?

Did this event really take place? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I’m reading through Bart Ehrman’s latest book and so yes, expect to see a review of it, and yes, it’s got the same kinds of issues as all his other books. Still, something I read last night caught my attention.  That is what Bart Ehrman says about Masada.

Most of us know about Masada likely today from the Peter O’Toole series. This does not include me. I only know about it since Ehrman mentions it. I know about Masada from reading history books. For those who don’t know, in the Jewish War in which Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. there was a holdout at Masada that was a last-ditch effort and ending up with a mass suicide. Josephus, the great Jewish historian, was one at this event. One would think it was remembered in a great and glorious way. Ehrman disagrees.

“But Masada was not always remembered that way, as modern scholars of collective memory have shown so well. A seminal article written by the aforementioned Barry Schwartz, along with fellow memory experts Zael Zerubavel and Bernice Barnett, has shown that Masada in fact played no role in Jewish collective consciousness from antiquity to modern times.15 It is not mentioned in the Jewish Talmud or in any other sacred text. There is no holiday associated with it. Jews throughout history never said anything about it in writing. It was forgotten for nearly two millennia.” (Jesus Before The Gospels p.222)

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China?

A lot of you know that one of my favorite ideas to go after is mythicism, the idea that Jesus never existed, and mythicism thrives on arguments from silence. Now if we were going by those arguments from silence, then to be consistent, a mythicist would need to say Masada never happened. Why? Because it’s not mentioned by all these other sources and you would think it would be something that is mentioned, but strangely enough, it is not.

Fortunately, the reason it is not mentioned is simple to figure out. For one thing, it’s doubtful Jews would really want to commemorate an event whereby their destruction was finalized and ended in a mass suicide due to the onslaught of pagans. We have a holiday to celebrate the birth of people like Martin Luther King. We don’t have one to celebrate the day he got assassinated.

So it is with Jesus also. Many people think Jesus should have been talked about profusely. Why? As I have said earlier, in his day and time, Jesus was not worth talking about. The problem for the mythicist position is that this, like so many other cases in history with no contemporary mention of great figures whose existence is not doubted, does not receive mention by so many sources that we would expect to mention it.

If someone wants to be an atheist, well I think you’re wrong, but at least don’t jump on the bandwagon of mythicism. Mythicism is a conspiracy theory for atheists and it just ends in the holder not being taken seriously. He’s mainly answered for the sake of those on the outside.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Thoughts on Risen

What do I think about this new movie? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

We’ve lately seen a slew of movies that are based on the Bible. Some of these have been good. Some have not been so good. (Noah and Exodus) The latest one to come out is a movie called Risen. Today, I went to see that one with the in-laws and my wife. All of us agreed that it was a good movie. (For those interested, Mike Licona’s endorsement since he was right next to me was “awesome.”)

My thoughts on it were a mix. I thought the movie was good in that it was good to see the resurrection being treated as a real event of history, which it is, and it’s good that a company like Sony is behind it. I also do think that it was largely respectful to the Biblical worldview. I cannot comment on the acting or matters like that. It’s hard to explain, but unless it’s just outright awful, I don’t really notice that.

Some people I know did not like the fact that Mary Magdalene was depicted as a prostitute. This indeed is an old myth that has been around for well over a thousand years but really has no historical credibility. Still, my other issues were more the fact that I think the film is something a Western audience would appreciate, but I did not find fit too well with the biblical culture.

For those who don’t know, the plot revolves around a Roman tribune who is told to investigate what has happened to Jesus since rumors are flying that he has been resurrected. The tribune approaches it much like the skeptic calling in anyone who says that Jesus is risen and finding out who told them that and trying to track down the disciples. I really do not want to go into it much beyond that because I really do want people to go and see the film.

One aspect that did not fit in was when Mary Magdalene comes in and is asked where Jesus is, she replies that the tribune should open his heart. This could be what we would say in a Western culture, but I can imagine it would be quite meaningless to an Eastern culture. We have a concept of looking within that is so basic to us that we miss the fact that this is really something unique in history and different from the majority world.

The main message was also said to be that we have eternal life. Now I think there is of course truth to that, but I think if we just make it eternal life, we miss a lot. (And it is odd to say that as eternal life is something grand in itself.) This is the problem that we have in our culture. We have a disconnect quite often. Why do we have eternal life because Jesus rose from the dead?

A Jew when asked what a difference it makes that Jesus is risen would likely speak about God having come to His people and the Kingdom being here at last. We miss a lot in our culture because we don’t know what difference it makes to say that Jesus is the Messiah and we don’t know what difference the story of Israel makes in all of this. We could often in our evangelism go straight from Genesis 3 to the resurrection of Jesus. All that stuff in the middle matters a great deal.

Still, the greatest challenge is the practical challenge. We today would say “If I saw that Jesus was risen, my life would never be the same.” The problem is so many of us have immense evidence that Jesus is who He said He was and did rise from the dead, but what change do we have? Everyone in Risen who came to believe spoke about what a great difference it made. Why is it that we in the modern Western church don’t seem to see that great difference?

So in conclusion, are there some matters to be worked on? Yeah. There still are, but this is still a film that we as Christians should be standing behind and supporting. We can want the perfect film, but if we keep shooting down films and not supporting them because they don’t reach such a high standard, it will easily stop filmmakers from even trying. Let’s encourage this one.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Is Jesus A Myth? A Reply to Chris Sosa

Is it really the case that there’s no evidence for the historical Jesus?

Huffington Post last Christmas published a piece arguing that Christmas was stolen from the pagans which I replied to. Their standards haven’t gone up at all and to show that they’re really up for anything that will lampoon Christianity, they’ve gone so far as to publish an article endorsing the Christ myth. This is of course the idea that Jesus never even existed which I have dealt with elsewhere. Overall, it is not a serious idea.

How much of a joke is this idea? Well let’s consider how atheists don’t take creationists seriously who say that evolution is only a theory. There is no real debate in the academy going on then about evolution. Okay. How does that compare to the Christ myth idea? As James McGrath has said

Creationists can find 3,000 academics who will sign a statement against evolution. That’s not 3,000 academics in relevant fields, just 3,000 academics, including retired ones. I’ve yet to see mythicism show any sign of even coming close to that. And yet supposedly we are to believe that creationism’s 3,000 are irrelevant, but the 10 or so mythicist sympathizers show that the historicity of Jesus is “a theory in crisis”?

creationistsmythicists

You won’t find this theory being taught by the leading academics in the field. Ph.D.s at universities and seminaries, even liberal ones, that are accredited and teaching Classical or ancient or NT history don’t even give it a moment’s notice. Usually when someone writes on this, it’s with a sense of exasperation. They can’t believe they actually have to say something about it.

Here are in fact a few scholarly writings from within the past century on the topic:

There is, lastly, a group of writers who endeavour to prove that Jesus never lived—that the story of his life is made up by mingling myths of heathen gods, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, etc. No real scholar regards the work of these men seriously. They lack the most elementary knowledge of historical research. Some of them are eminent scholars in other subjects, such as Assyriology and mathematics, but their writings about the life of Jesus have no more claim to be regarded as historical than Alice in Wonderland or the Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” – George Aaron Barton, Jesus of Nazareth: A Biography, Macmillan, (1922), px

An extreme view along these lines is one which denies even the historical existence of Jesus Christ—a view which, one must admit, has not managed to establish itself among the educated, outside a little circle of amateurs and cranks, or to rise above the dignity of the Baconian theory of Shakespeare.” – Edwyn Robert Bevan, Hellenism And Christianity, 2nded., G. Allen and Unwin, (1930), p256

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.” – Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, Collins, (1958), p13

A hundred and fifty years ago a fairly well respected scholar named Bruno Bauer maintained that the historical person Jesus never existed. Anyone who says that today—in the academic world at least—gets grouped with the skinheads who say there was no Holocaust and the scientific holdouts who want to believe the world is flat.” – Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee, Westminster John Knox, (1998), p168

The data we have are certainly adequate to confute the view that Jesus never lived, a view that no one holds in any case.” – Charles E. Charleston, Prologue from Bruce Chilton & Craig A. Evans, eds.Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, Brill, (1998), p3

Most scholars regard the arguments for Jesus’ non-existence as unworthy of any response—on a par with claims that the Jewish Holocaust never occurred or that the Apollo moon landing took place in a Hollywood studio.” – Michael James McClymond, Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth, Eerdmans, (2004), p8, 23–24

A phone call from the BBC’s flagship Today programme: would I go on air on Good Friday morning to debate with the authors of a new book, The Jesus Mysteries? The book claims (or so they told me) that everything in the Gospels reflects, because it was in fact borrowed from, much older pagan myths; that Jesus never existed; that the early church knew it was propagating a new version of an old myth, and that the developed church covered this up in the interests of its own power and control. The producer was friendly, and took my point when I said that this was like asking a professional astronomer to debate with the authors of a book claiming the moon was made of green cheese.” – N. T. Wright, Jesus’ Self Understanding, from Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins, eds.The Incarnation, Oxford University Press, (2004), p48

In the academic mind, there can be no more doubt whatsoever that Jesus existed than did Augustus and Tiberius, the emperors of his lifetime.” – Carsten Peter Thiede, Jesus, Man or Myth?, Lion, (2005), p23

I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing. I don’t know anyone who is a responsible historian, who is actually trained in the historical method, or anybody who is a biblical scholar who does this for a living, who gives any credence at all to any of this.” – Bart Ehrman, interview with David V. Barrett, The Gospel According to Bart, Fortean Times, (2007)

…only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence. And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by ‘the village atheist,’ bloggers on the Internet, or such organisations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.” – Paul L. Maier, Did Jesus Really Exist?, 4truth.net, 2007, http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbjes…eid=8589952895 (Accessed November 20th 2015)

The very logic that tells us there was no Jesus is the same logic that pleads that there was no Holocaust. On such logic, history is no longer possible. It is no surprise then that there is no New Testament scholar drawing pay from a post who doubts the existence of Jesus. I know not one. His birth, life, and death in first-century Palestine have never been subject to serious question and, in all likelihood, never will be among those who are experts in the field. The existence of Jesus is a given.” – Nicholas Perrin, Lost in Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus, Thomas Nelson, (2007), p32

Frankly, I know of no ancient historian or biblical historian who would have a twinge of doubt about the existence of a Jesus Christ – the documentary evidence is simply overwhelming.” – Graeme Clarke, quoted by John Dickson in Facts and friction of Easter, The Sydney Morning Herald, (2008)

To describe Jesus’ non-existence as ‘not widely supported’ is an understatement. It would be akin to me saying, “It is possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, scientific case that the 1969 lunar landing never happened.” There are fringe conspiracy theorists who believe such things – but no expert does. Likewise with the Jesus question: his non-existence is not regarded even as a possibility in historical scholarship. Dismissing him from the ancient record would amount to a wholesale abandonment of the historical method.” – John Dickson, Jesus: A Short Life, Lion, (2008), p22-23

…the whole idea that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as a historical figure is verifiably false. Moreover, it has not been produced by anyone or anything with any reasonable relationship to critical scholarship. It belongs in the fantasy lives of people who used to be fundamentalist Christians. They did not believe in critical scholarship then, and they do not do so now. I cannot find any evidence that any of them have adequate professional qualifications.” – Maurice Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, T&T Clark, (2014), p243

I should say at the outset that none of this [mythicist] literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubt that Jesus existed.” – Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth, Harper Collis, (2012), p2

 

“No serious historian, of any religious or nonreligious stripe, doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria. — Jesus and the Remains of His Day, Craig Evans – 147

All this still does not stop people like Chris Sosa from endorsing this nonsense idea. What does he say? A bunch of the usual canards that no historian in the field takes seriously.

The first place he goes to is Bible contradictions. Never mind that the first reference we have to Jesus would really be in the Pauline epistles, but oh well. Sosa has this same hang-up with inerrancy that would not work in any other field. There are hopeless contradictions between how Hannibal went to conquer Rome. No one doubts that he did. (Of course, he failed, but he was well on his way.)

Unfortunately, despite there being difficulties sometimes in historical Jesus studies, this does not mean that there are not basic facts on the life of Jesus agreed on. Had Sosa cracked open any book on the historical Jesus, he would have seen this. For instance, there are facts such as that he was a Jewish rabbi born in Nazareth and that he had disciples. He had a reputation as a healer and exorcist. (Before atheists start assuming that I’m saying that all scholars believe Jesus did miracles, no. I am merely saying he had that reputation as a miracle worker. It might be a legitimate reputation or it might not.) They agree that he was crucified and that he was claimed to be seen alive again and this belief was the cause of the rise of the early church. Are there disagreements on his birth and such? Sure. So what?

Of course, Sosa has to say something about the writings of the Gospels being anonymous. This is a favorite one thrown about. Now if understood in the way to mean “Name not included in the body of the work” many books today are anonymous. We know who wrote them because of copyright pages and covers added and such but when they get to their work, many writers do not mention their names. If he means of totally unknown origin, well this doesn’t follow either. Just because we might not have immediate access to who wrote them does not mean the first recipients did not.

Of course, Sosa does no investigation into the authorship of the Gospels. After all, we have many documents from the ancient world that are “anonymous” and we still have a good idea who the authors are. We also have documents that do have names on them and we’re sure those were not the original authors. It’s rather amusing. It doesn’t matter if the work has a name on it or not, someone can always find a reason to cast doubt on the document anyway.

Naturally, Sosa then decides to go with the argument about contemporary references. So what does he do? He goes to Bart Ehrman. (You know, the guy who wrote a whole book arguing that Jesus existed.)

There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp 56-57 of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium)

Okay. Let’s have some fun. Let’s apply this same argument to Hannibal, Queen Boudica, and Arminius and see how well it works. Who were these people? These were people well known in their time for standing up against the Roman Empire. What mention do we have of them by their contemporaries? None. Heck. Hannibal nearly conquered Rome at the height of its power. Surely he would be mentioned. No. He isn’t.

If we look in Judea, only one writer really wrote about figures of notice there. That’s Josephus. Josephus mentions Jesus twice, but he is the only one who tells us about other Messianic claimants and many of these raised up armies and required thousands of Roman troops to come to arms. These guys are not mentioned at all in Roman sources. Yet somehow, a crucified criminal that didn’t even require the Roman army to come and was squelched by a crucifixion and had a ragtag band of a dozen men should have been mentioned.

Of course, Sosa completely discounts the Christian and Jewish sources. Why should we? What if we discounted sources about Socrates that were not his students? After all, Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War and Socrates served as a general in that war, and yet there is no mention of Socrates whatsoever in it.

Sosa from the paragraph of Ehrman goes on to say

Many Christian scholars will scoff at the preceding paragraph. But the outside arguments they offer in favor of Jesus’ existence, from Flavius Josephus to later figures like Tacitus, and Justin Martyr, all disintegrate upon close examination. Dan Barker gives a strong argument against their proposed “evidences” of Jesus’ existence in his excellent book Godless.

Well no. No they won’t. I interview Christian scholars and speak to them. They would not scoff at that. They’d just say that it is not a problem because really, it isn’t. Of course, he refers to Dan Barker and his book Godless. My ministry partner and I respond to that in our book Groundless. A quick visit to the Society of Biblical Literature shows no hits when Dan Barker’s name is put in. There’s a reason for that. He’s not taken seriously. He can say all he wants to that these references are not valid, but the real scholars in the field on all sides are not convinced.

And of course, no cry of mythicism would be convinced without the copycat thesis. Gotta hand it to these guys. They have some of the best scholarship of the 19th century.

Naturally, Zeitgeist is cited as well as Acharya S. and Kersey Graves. Any of these works taken seriously by scholars in the field? Nope. Not a bit. Let’s start with Buddha. Mike Licona contacted professor Chun-Fang Yu at Rutgers about Acharya S.’s claims about Buddhism. Professor Yu specializes in Buddhist studies. At the end, he got this reply.

Dr. Yu ended by writing, “[The woman you speak of] is totally ignorant of Buddhism. It is very dangerous to spread misinformation like this. You should not honor [Ms. Murdock] by engaging in a discussion. Please ask [her] to take a basic course in world religion or Buddhism before uttering another word about things she does not know.”

If Sosa is sure of this, I challenge him to find a primary source that predates the Christian era that says what he thinks it says.

How about Krishna? Well again, we have a flop here. I will state that Sosa needs to have some primary resources that pre-date the Christian era. For this one, Licona had contacted Edwin Bryant who is a professor of Hinduism at Rutgers. This was what was said.

When I informed him that Ms. Murdock wrote an article claiming that Krishna had been crucified, he replied, “That is absolute and complete non-sense. There is absolutely no mention anywhere which alludes to a crucifixion.” He also added that Krishna was killed by an arrow from a hunter who accidentally shot him in the heal. He died and ascended. It was not a resurrection. The sages who came there for him could not really see it.

Next is Odysseus. What do they have in common? Well they both wanted to return home (Which is news to me since I don’t remember Jesus’s longing to return to Nazareth in the Gospels) and they’re surrounded by dim-witted companions who misunderstand them and cause trouble. Of course, this is a rarity in history. Most great teachers have had companions who immediately understood everything that they said….

Seriously. This is your parallel?

Next is Romulus. The source for Romulus is in fact Plutarch, who wrote fairly close to the events of the life of Romulus, if you consider about eight centuries later to be close. (Never underestimate the ability of skeptics to question Gospels written within a century but place full trust in writings eight centuries later.) Again, let Sosa present the primary sources for this claim.

What about Dionysus?

Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25 and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.” He was a sacred king killed and eaten in an eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.” He was considered the “Only Begotten Son,” Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” He was identified with the Ram or Lamb. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.

This would all be fascinating to scholars of Greek mythology. Let him produce the primary sources. Please tell me where I can find an ancient source saying Dionysus was born on December 25th (Which isn’t even a claim of the New Testament about Jesus.) Feel free to show where Dionysus was called all of the titles given to him. Don’t just give me hacks that aren’t accepted by scholars. Give me the scholars themselves.

Next comes Heracles. Now this is quite amusing to me since as a child who enjoyed Greek mythology, Heracles was one of my favorite figures. The article starts by saying

Heracles is the Son of a god (Zeus). It is recorded that Zeus is both the father and great-great- great grandfather of Heracles, just as Jesus is essentially his own grandpa, being both “The root and offspring of David” (Revelation 22:16) as he is part of the triune God which is the father of Adam and eventually of Jesus. Both are doubly related to the Supreme God.

Yes. You read that right. Jesus is essentially his own grandfather. As if Jesus had sexual relations with His parents or something. Riiiiiight.

And again for the rest, we have strained parallels and no primary sources.

Next comes Glycon and we have a problem right at the start.

In the middle of the 100s AD, out along the south coast of the Black Sea, Glycon was the son of the God Apollo, who: came to Earth through a miraculous birth, was the Earthly manifestation of divinity, came to earth in fulfillment of divine prophecy, gave his chief believer the power of prophecy, gave believers the power to speak in tongues, performed miracles, healed the sick, and raised the dead.

This is all that is written and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone that Glycon comes AFTER Jesus, yet somehow Jesus is said to copy Glycon. It’s a wonder how this works. Again, primary sources?

Next is Zoroaster. Of course, going eight centuries with Romulus was enough (And it could border on nine), but with Zoroaster our first sources are ten centuries later. All of these sources come AFTER the time of Jesus. Still, it’s a wonder that no one ever supposedly copies Christianity but Christianity copies everyone. So Sosa, got any primary sources?

Attis was born on December 25 of the Virgin Nana. He was considered the savior who was slain for the salvation of mankind. His body as bread was eaten by his worshippers. He was both the Divine Son and the Father. On “Black Friday,” he was crucified on a tree, from which his holy blood ran down to redeem the earth. He descended into the underworld. After three days, Attis was resurrected.

By now, we know the drill. Primary resources. Does the author have any scholars of Attis to consult? It’s amazing atheists will readily believe anything they find that argues against Christianity, but only when it comes to examining the claims of Christianity do they demand evidence. (And then reject it when given.)

Disappointingly, Mithras is not on the list. Someone was slacking, but the last one is a favorite.

Born of a virgin, Isis. Only begotten son of the God Osiris. Birth heralded by the star Sirius, the morning star. Ancient Egyptians paraded a manger and child representing Horus through the streets at the time of the winter solstice (about DEC-21). In reality, he had no birth date; he was not a human. Death threat during infancy: Herut tried to have Horus murdered. Handling the threat: The God That tells Horus’ mother “Come, thou goddess Isis, hide thyself with thy child.” An angel tells Jesus’ father to: “Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt.” Break in life history: No data between ages of 12 & 30. Age at baptism: 30. Subsequent fate of the baptiser: Beheaded. Walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind. Was crucifed, descended into Hell; resurrected after three days.

That is of course Horus. Well Sosa, if you think this is convincing, I have a challenge for you. Find me one professional Egyptologist teaching today with a ph.D. in the field and at an accredited university who will say not that this is all true, but that this is on the right track. Maybe if you gave some tinkering, it would be accurate. Find me one. Just one.

Good luck.

Sosa thus shows himself to be one who will believe on blind faith anything that argues against Christianity. Believe it or not Sosa, many atheists believe in a historical Jesus and go on to live happy and meaningful lives. In the end, mythicism is just a loony conspiracy theory for atheists.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Can Christians Prove The Resurrection?

What do I think of Chris Sandoval’s book published by Trafford Publishing? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Can Christians Prove The Resurrection is a book by a skeptic of Christianity written to show that while a disproof may not be possible of the resurrection, it is very far from proven. To his credit, this is probably the best book I’ve read attacking the resurrection. I suspect that many not familiar with the ins and outs of the Biblical world could find themselves concerned about what they read. For those of us who do know something about the scholarship in the area, it’s still highly lacking.

Also to be fair, Sandoval is not a typical new atheist type. He does at least have a bibliography, although one that I think is lacking at times. Naturally, any mention of Richard Carrier is enough to make me wonder but a few times Wikipedia is also cited which is problematic. Still, he’s not just someone parroting other new atheists and there isn’t a hint of mythicism in the book.

Much of his argumentation relies on what he calls the principle of Judas’s nose. The Bible never says that Judas has a nose, but it’s fair to think that he did because all people we see for the most part have one and we should take the mundane ordinary explanation over something extraordinary. He gives the example that when you hear hoofbeats, you think horses and not zebras.

This principle can work in many ways, but the problem is that too often Sandoval has assumed the physical similarities but has ignored the cultural dissimilarities. Sandoval writes not paying attention to the social world of the New Testament. Thus, arguments I favor relying on the honor and shame context of the New Testament world to defend the resurrection aren’t even touched and when we get to his attacks on the resurrection instead of his defensive position, it gets worse.

There are also times I think Sandoval presses too heavily on biblical inerrancy, all the while knowing that some apologists like C.S. Lewis rejected it. Sandoval goes after fundamentalists, but in many ways it looks like he has some fundamentalism in him himself. This will become even more apparent when we get to this attack on the resurrection. That having been said, he finds it interesting that evangelicals would want to side with people like Lewis who did not hold to inerrancy. Well why not? Lewis believed in the risen Lord like I did. I know a good number of Christians who don’t hold to inerrancy but they are some of the most devout people I know.

Sandoval also starts with the burden of proof and how history is done. He agrees with McCullagh for the most part with ideas like explanatory scope and avoiding ad hoc items and such. Some of you will recognize this from Mike Licona’s work and to be fair, it looks like this book was written before or as that book came out so you won’t see interaction with Licona’s massive tome in here.

He does argue against miracles without any mention of Earman and of course, we now have Keener’s work on miracles and again, we cannot criticize Sandoval here for not having a reply to something that hadn’t come out yet. It would be interesting to see if he might revise his thesis if he read Keener. Still, Sandoval says that saying God exists and miracles are possible is ad hoc and implausible, though not impossible, yet I wonder what is ad hoc about it? Is this not taking not just skepticism of the resurrection but skepticism of theism as the default position, something I have written on elsewhere?

He also uses the problem of evil in saying that if we were God, we would have intervened in XYZ. Well would we? If we were God, we would also know the end from the beginning. Sandoval implies that being God would mean no new knowledge of the situation that would change one’s data. Well if he thinks that’s the case, I’ll leave it to him to demonstrate that.

When we get to eyewitnesses, on page 48 we are told that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses ignored eyewitness opponents when they started their movements. Christians likewise did the same. Okay. What eyewitnesses? Name them. In fact, if we looked at the earliest opponents of Christianity, we would find that they not only held to basic truths any historian would agree to, such as Jesus being a real person who was crucified, but also that he in fact did miracles.

Now of course, we could say there were people who wrote against Christianity and their writings were lost due to events like the Jewish war in 70 A.D., but that’s not the same as saying that they were there and even if they were there, that they were ignored. If we went by Acts, we could even say Apollos is an example that they weren’t ignored since he engaged the Jews in public debate demonstrating that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 18:27-28. This would also demonstrate that even far away, the facts of the life of Jesus were being discussed.)

Sandoval also argues that the eyewitness argument would prove more than would like to be admitted, such as the miracles of people like Kathryn Kuhlmann and other Pentecostals. What of it? Let’s suppose that we have eyewitness testimony that they did miracles. Let’s investigate the claims and see what we can find. If there were real miracles, well and good. That’s another point in my favor and one against Sandoval.

What about someone like Sabbatai Sevi? The difference is not that stories arose around him, but even in a short time those stories were jettisoned because of Sevi’s apostasy to Islam. The claim is not that legends can grow in a short time, but what does it take to get a legend to come up and totally supplant the truth of what happened in the critical stage of a belief system’s formation? The resurrection was formulated straight out of the gate (And might I add the full deity of Christ) and there wasn’t a competing Christian tradition until around the time of the second century when we have the Gnostics showing up and their denying the bodily resurrection would in fact make Christianity more appealing to Romans and such, but the orthodox would have nothing of it.

Another figure that could come up is the Baal Shem Tov. For that, I can give no better source I think than my friend David Marshall. Marshall also rightfully asks that if we have these accounts that are supposed to be so close to the life of the individual and have eyewitness testimony of miracles, well why not believe it? It looks like the ultimate answer would come down to “Because I don’t believe in miracles.” I often see skeptics saying that they don’t rule out miracles outright, but then when any evidence is presented, it must be denied because a miracle cannot be allowed.

Sandoval writes that miracles proves all these worldviews, or it proves nothing. Well that depends. You see, I have no problem with miracles in other worldviews. I think some of them could be God showing common grace. Some could also be due to dark extramaterial powers. I don’t know without looking but here’s the thing. I won’t say yes or no without looking. Can I be skeptical? Sure, but I should also be open.

What we have to ask is what is being proven in other worldviews? Christianity is the one religion that staked everything on one historical claim. No other world religion has done the same. What does the resurrection mean if true for Sandoval? Is it just “Jesus is Lord and we will go to Heaven when we die if we believe on Him?” If so, then that is lacking. It is really that Jesus made numerous claims about the Kingdom of God that centered around Him and His being the Messiah and the resurrection is God Himself vindicating those claims.

Sandoval also wants to speak about how creative Christians were in handing down their texts and uses Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 and the final chapter of John as his main examples. Well if we were wanting to talk about creative, much of this is mild. The appearances are found elsewhere and after John 20:28, Jesus helping catch fish is not exactly a huge step up. If stories were being created, we would expect the Christians to write something like the Gospel of Peter into the canonical Gospels. They didn’t.

In fact, it’s quite interesting that someone like Matthew while regularly showing throughout his text how prophecy was fulfilled says absolutely nothing when it comes to the resurrection. He never says “This fulfilled the Scriptures.” If you want to know what the resurrection means theologically, you must go to Paul. Had the writers been wanting to historicize prophecy as someone like Crossan would say, the resurrection would be the best place for them to do that, and they never did.

He also argues that the Gospels were not valued equally, such as Luke wanting to drive out his predecessors, though all that is said is that he used sources before him, which was common. Because the writer of 1 Timothy used Luke, it is thought the other Gospels were not valued, but this no more follows than my quoting Matthew in a sermon sometime would mean I didn’t care for the other Gospels. Also, we are told Justin Martyr did not use John, but such a scholar as Michael Kruger has called that into question.

There is often much conjecture, such as saying that the Christians put an end to prophecy due to factions. This is odd since in a letter written to a community with factions, namely 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks highly about the gift of prophecy. Second, he argues that the next step taken was to go with Apostolic succession to stop the rumor mill and then to canonize four Gospels that contained information some Christians probably knew to be false. This is on page 56 and there is no citation given. The scenario is ad hoc indeed.

Sandoval also says many cults and such rely on peer pressure. The reality is that peer pressure would work in the opposite way for the Christians. Christians would experience peer pressure from their society to not be different from everyone else and not to accept new belief systems that conflict with the Roman belief system and have shameful beliefs and practices. Sandoval’s claim then works against him. Were peer pressure to be a strong deterrent in the early church, we would expect it to go the opposite way. Keep in mind Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians considering apostasizing and this without having to have any persecution in a physical sense. They are simply being shamed and that is enough for them to want to return to Judaism.

This is really a major problem for Sandoval. He writes as if he assumes that all cultures are alike and that if individualistic peer pressure is a problem here, then it would have been in the ancient world. This is a radical claim that needs to be established since one of the first rules of understanding a foreign culture is to not presume that it is just like yours. Remove this assumption from Sandoval and much of his case falls flat.

He also tells us that history is written by the winners, but what about Xenophon? What about Thucydides? These were not the winners and yet they wrote the history. This ultimately leads to a subjectivism of history if we follow it to its conclusion.

When he writes about people who were outside of the church and wrote about Christianity, he says that clearly these writers knew only what they heard from the Christians themselves. Well no, that’s not clear. It’s not clear to scholars of Tacitus for instance, especially since Tacitus did not speak favorably of Christ or the Christians and wrote against hearsay and even did not take everything Pliny the Younger said at face value, who was his closest friend. Tacitus would have access to records as a senator and priest we would no longer have access to. Sandoval also says this was Celsus’s only source, aside from Jewish Christians who were limited to Christian sources. It’s amazing what Sandoval thinks he can know about a work that we don’t even have a full copy of today.

When it comes to the dating of the Gospels, Sandoval pretty much plants everything on the Olivet Discourse, but this I find quite odd. If Sandoval is so sure that this is a false prophecy, which he has a chapter on, why would Matthew and Luke write about it after the fact? Why not just not mention it?

He also wants us to call into question tradition from people like Irenaeus on the authors of the Gospels because Irenaeus thought Jesus lived to be 50. What is ignored is that Irenaeus does not get 50 from any tradition, but rather from his own unique doctrine of recapitulation. In fact, when Irenaeus speaks of the Gospels, he speaks as if his audience already knows what he is talking about and that there is no debate over. In fact, there never has been debate over this in the early church aside from if the Gospel of John is from John the apostle or John the elder.  You can listen to my interview with Charles Hill for more.

He also wants to use the usual canards about Mark getting the geography of Palestine wrong in Mark 7, as if only direct travel could be mentioned and not an itinerary. Sandoval also mentions the Gospels being anonymous citing page 66 of Sanders’s book. It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t give the quote from that pages. It goes as follows:

The authors probably wanted to eliminate interest in who wrote the story and to focus the reader on the subject. More important, the claim of an anonymous history was higher than that of a named work. In the ancient world an anonymous book, rather like an encyclopedia article today, implicitly claimed complete knowledge and reliability. It would have reduced the impact of the Gospel of Matthew had the author written ‘this is my version’ instead of ‘this is what Jesus said and did.’  – The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders page 66.

We could go on with more at this point, but for now the work is not convincing. At least Sandoval is trying to interact, but it looks like what he does is just try to find a place where he thinks someone is unreliable and then say “Well based on that, why should we trust them elsewhere?” Follow this standard consistently and you will never trust anyone on anything.

Sandoval also writes that if Jesus had performed miracles like these, most Jews would have followed Him. Why? This from someone who cites Deuteronomy 13 later on about following a false prophet who even does miracles is surprising. Jews did not follow Jesus because miracles were not enough in themselves. It was His teaching and shameful lifestyle. Yet Sandoval wants to say then that these stories must be fictitious because of these reasons. He also says the Gospel stories could have been coherent without the nature miracles, so those must be an afterthought. There is no backing for this radical claim.

When it comes to the claims of Jesus being traced back through oral tradition, Sandoval follows a Carrier strategy and says that Paul was receiving revelation from a heavenly Christ. His main place for this is in 1 Cor. 11, but he ignores Keener’s work on the historical Jesus where Keener points out that Jewish rabbis would say they received material from Sinai. They do not mean they heard Sinai speak but that that was the ultimate source. When it comes to 1 Cor. 11, Jesus is the ultimate source since He spoke those words. This would not apply to 1 Cor. 15 where Jesus did not speak about eyewitnesses seeing him.

He also writes about mass hallucinations, namely Catholic appearances and such. First off, let’s try to investigate and see what happened. Second, these were also a lot of power of suggestion and not so much hallucinations as people could well be seeing something and interpreting it wrongly. A hallucination is a case where someone sees something when really there is no external referent to see. If we consider the dancing sun, I have been told that if people stare at the sun for too long, that it will start affecting their eyes so they see weird things. (I have not tried this and have no intention of doing so. I don’t want permanent retinal damage and excuse me, but I happen to enjoy looking at my wife and don’t want that to change.)

Sandoval also writes of bereavement hallucinations. No doubt, these happen, but how many times do we see these happening and the person afterwards says something like “My spouse is alive! Open up the casket!” No. If anything, bereavement hallucinations in fact lead to the opposite conclusion. They lead to the conclusion that the person is certainly dead.

The next chapter is on the idea of persecution. Of course, this was written before Sean McDowell’s Ph.D. on the topic so we can excuse that, but in all this talk about persecution there is not one mention of shaming. It’s as if the only kind of persecution Sandoval can picture is persecution that puts your life on the line. Christians could run from that kind of persecution, but they could not run from shaming and if he wants to say early Mormons lived virtuous lives, I simply want him to explain the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

In fact, in all of this Sandoval never asks one question. “Why were Christians persecuted?” What great crime were they committing? Answer. They were putting society at risk by failing to acknowledge the gods. They were also going further by saying Caesar is not Lord but Jesus was. There was no separation of church and state. Attacking religion is attacking the state and attacking the state is attacking religion.

Sandoval also says Paul’s conversion is not miraculous. After all, Reagan went from being a liberal to being a conservative. He gives other examples but all of this miss who Paul really was. Sandoval wants to say Paul had to understand the wrestling with sin since he wrote in Romans 7 which he says is not likely autobiographical but surely Paul knew the wrestling. Well no. Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3 gives no hint whatsoever of any wrestling and Sandoval is reading a modern guilt conscience into this, something Krister Stendahl wrote about this long ago in his work on Paul and the introspective conscience of the West.

Paul’s move was in fact suicide on his part. If we want to think about benefits Paul got from being a Christian, we need to look at 2 Cor. 11. Those are not exactly glowing job benefits we would want. Paul was moving up and up in a prestigious position. Why would he switch to a shameful position? Unfortunately, since Sandoval does not know about honor and shame, he does not understand what was really going on in the case of Paul.

When we come to Sandoval’s explanation of what happened, he first goes after the claim that Joseph of Arimathea saying that it’s odd he does not show up in Acts. Well what’s odd about that? For instance, Mary Magdalene will fit into Sandoval’s scheme, but the only place she could be mentioned is Acts is a reference to “The women” in Acts 1. Many people just drop out of the narrative so why expect Joseph to be mentioned?

Sandoval’s explanation for all the data relies on Mary Magdalene having a bereavement hallucination and then Peter exploiting her financially for it. For the tomb being found empty, he goes more with the idea of grave robbers, though grave robbers would not likely steal the whole body but only the parts that were needed for their incantations. Again, I find it all lacking. He does want to compare the appearances also to what happened with the claims of Mormonism, though I think Rob Bowman has given an excellent reply to that in my interview with him.

So now we get more into Sandoval’s scenario. Sandoval sees the idea of Mary having an exorcism as a sign that she was emotionally fragile. Also, she was secretly in love with Jesus and had a nervous breakdown after the crucifixion. She panicked when a young man at the tomb said the body was missing and fled and later thought that it meant an angel had appeared to explain the supernatural disappearance of the body. She told this to her lady friends who had also had exorcisms and they had powerful feelings of Jesus’s invisible presence.

Peter after hearing about this started to experience the same and saw a career opportunity. He could rely on Mary Magdalene and the others in the Christian movement and not have to do any work and become the leader of a Messianic movement. Peter would then speak to crowds and was such a dynamic speaker that others would feel the presence of Jesus and if they didn’t, well they were the doubters who weren’t worthy. This is also why the appearance to the 500 isn’t mentioned because it was known to be subjective.

At this, let me give an aside. Paul relates this 20+ years later to the Corinthians not as new revelation to them, but something that they already know. This was accepted material. Why was it not mentioned in the Gospels? Why should it be? The Gospels were not written to prove the resurrection but to share the life and teachings of Jesus. Had they been written to prove the resurrection, they would have just focused on that and in fact answered objections. They didn’t.

To go back to the story, when we get to James, Sandoval continues his flights of fancy as he says that after Joseph died, Jesus abandoned his mother and brothers and ran away to join John the Baptist embarrassing his family financially. Evidence of this? None whatsoever. When the family approached Jesus in Mark 3, it was because he had shirked his financial responsibilities.

Sandoval also says a lot of this creativeness comes through the oral tradition, but as expected, he cites no scholars whatsoever of oral tradition. It is all just presumed to be unreliable. Maybe it was, but Sandoval needs to make a case instead of just an assumption.

When we get to other objections, Sandoval brings forward the idea that some first century Jews believed that Elijah and John the Baptist would be raised from the dead before the general resurrection. They do? When was this? I especially wonder with John the Baptist. Did Elijah have an important role to play in end times events? Yes, but Jews would not say Elijah had been raised from the dead due to the simple reason that in their tradition, Elijah never died! The common people did think Jesus could be someone come back from the dead, but there is no hint that they thought this meant the final eschatological resurrection.

We are also told that novelty is not impossible and Mormonism is the example of that, but Mormonism arose in a modern individualistic society with a more live and let live attitude and where the Mormons had wide open spaces they could flee to. Their tradition also changed quite rapidly and we do have independent evidence that Joseph Smith was a highly questionable character. If someone wanted to say Islam, one thing differentiates Islam. Islam had a sword. Remove the warring aspect from Islam and see what happens.

Sandoval also writes about how the Christians destroyed the library of Alexandria. Unfortunately, it looks like Sandoval has followed an atheist myth, perhaps in the footsteps of Richard Carrier. An atheist like Tim O’Neill takes it to task here. He also says that Justinian passed a law against pagan teachers which meant shutting down the academy of Plato. Nonsense. There were plenty of neo-Platonic schools.  Justinian did close a school but not because it taught Platonic teachings, but because it was founded by anti-Christians and including anti-Christian teachings.

We will now move to the offensive case of Sandoval starting first with how the New Testament supposedly ripped the Old Testament out of context. If you’re wanting to see if Richard Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period is cited, well you already know the answer. Of course not. In this, Sandoval is being the fundamentalist that he condemns.

My view is of prophecy not so much as fulfillment but as reenactment. Now were there fulfillments? Yes. These were the case where specific timeframes were mentioned such as Daniel 2 and Daniel 9. (In fact, these would not be altered even if the late date for Daniel was accepted) In this case, it is that Jesus redoes as it was what was done back then and a this for that context is applied where the writer sees a parallel. It could even just be one verse in the passage instead of the whole passage. This was an acceptable method of exegesis in the time of Jesus and in fact done by the Dead Sea Scrolls community. We would not use it today, but the Christians were playing by the rules.

One key example of this would be Matthew 15:8 where Jesus says to the Pharisees that Isaiah prophesied of them saying “These people follow me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Of course Isaiah was not speaking about the Pharisees, but Jesus saw a parallel that as the Jews were in the time of Isaiah, so the Pharisees were in the time of Jesus. This was entirely acceptable in the time.  This would apply to many of these events, but let’s look at some places Sandoval brings up anyway.

One is that Matthew cites an unknown prophet in Matthew 2 saying Jesus would grow up in Nazareth. My reply to this is that this is a time where Matthew says prophets instead of prophet. I interpret it as saying Jesus would grow up a shameful figure and what could be more shameful than Nazareth?

We naturally have the idea that Jesus supposedly rode two animals at once when he came in on the triumphant entry. What is noted is that there is the reference also to the garments being sat on the animal and Jesus sat on them. The them is not to the animals but to the garments. Matthew may have been wrong, but he is not an idiot. He does not presume to think Jesus can ride two animals at once.

We next move to contradictions. Much of this I want to leave for Mike Licona’s work likely coming out in the fall looking at contradictions in light of the study of Greco-Roman biographies. Still, Sandoval starts by saying that some Gospels plagiarized the others which would be a violation of American copyright law today. No. Copyright law did not apply naturally in the ancient world and secondly, what was said by one Gospel writer would be the property of the church and the church could do with it what it wanted. There is nothing more in this chapter that cannot be found talked about in good commentaries, so let’s move to my favorite chapter, the last.

I love this one so much because it brings one of my favorite objections to eliminate. Jesus was a failed prophet. Sandoval has already expected that Christians will spiritualize a text rather than take it literally, which of course begs the question that it’s to be taken “literally” to begin with.

Sandoval goes by two tests. The first is that a teacher would show up leading people away from God to follow a contrary system and Jesus did this by abolishing the Law and then of course there are ideas like the Trinity. Sandoval makes no mention of passages in the Old Testament that speak about a new covenant and about God doing something new in the midst of the people. He does in fact rightly show that the word translated as “forever” can refer to an indefinite time, but unconvincingly says that this cannot apply to the Law itself. While the term everlasting is used of God, it is followed with superlatives such as “From everlasting to everlasting.”

Yet let’s go to my favorite. Jesus was wrong about the end of the world. The problem is Jesus is not saying a thing about the end of the world and you’d think that someone who cites N.T. Wright would know about this. Perhaps Sandoval did not really read Wright but just looked up a reference. Jesus is speaking in the manner of an Old Testament prophet and uses cosmic language to describe political events. What he is prophesying is in fact the great war of 70 A.D. and the destruction of the temple. In that case, Jesus’s prophecy was right on the money.

In fact, it’s really sad he does this because he rightfully gets that the whole world in the discourse can just as easily refer to the Roman Empire and that Paul said he preached to every creature under Heaven which would be seen as a fulfillment of that prophecy. Sandoval just has a hang-up on literalism in this passage. Unfortunately, he will see my explanation as an explaining away and spiritualizing instead of realizing that there is a good exegetical basis for this.

I prefer to point to 2 Samuel 22. If we take that literally, we should expect to find a case in the life of David where God hitched up Gabriel and Michael and came out flying Green Arrow style shooting his enemies with arrows. Search high and low and you will not find that. What it is is David is using the kind of terminology that was used in his day. We could point to similar passages like Isaiah 13.

The irony then is that rather than this being a sign that Jesus was a false prophet, it is a great sign that He was a true prophet. Of course, Sandoval could punt to a late date, but if he does that due to it being a prophecy, then he is letting his worldview interpret the data where he says it must be late because prophecy cannot happen. I still find it odd that if this is such a blatant false prophecy that it would be written after the fact. (It’s interesting that if it was also, Matthew nowhere says “This prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled in the destruction of the temple.” Perhaps Matthew didn’t say that because it hadn’t happened yet?)

In conclusion, while Sandoval’s work is the best I’ve read attacking the resurrection, it is still drastically weak. I am reminded of the adage that one of the best ways to increase your confidence in the resurrection is to read those who oppose it. At the same time, we need more work on the social context being brought to light in the church because those who hold to a modern concept of how societies work will struggle with this work.

In Christ,

Nick Peters