A Response to Ben The Amateur Exegete

Is Matthew an eyewitness account? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

A friend of Deeper Waters a few weeks ago shared a video wanting my response to it. I just recently took the time to watch it. I found it interesting, and in some ways more informed than other skeptics, but also lacking. It was a response to J. Warner Wallace on eyewitness testimony and can be found here.

So let’s start with something minor. In the video, he shows Wallace saying he thought before his conversion that the Gospels were second century works. Ben, the person making the video response, says “Really?” and that’s it. I see no reason to think Wallace is lying on this point and if Ben thinks there is, he really needs to demonstrate that.

Ben does make a statement about how good something like Wallace sounds if you believe in inerrancy. I have no idea why inerrancy is made an issue here, other than the usual that it’s treated as an essential to Christianity and if you destroy it, you destroy Christianity. This is not at all the case and yet too many skeptics do have this kind of approach.

However, Ben chooses to look at Matthew. He has three points to what he says ultimately. I find all of them lacking. Let’s look at the first. The first is that the writers do not use a 1st-person in their work. You don’t see Matthew saying “Jesus said to me, follow me.” Jesus instead speaks in third person. Isn’t this unusual?

Sounds good, but really, this is an old objection. It goes all the way back to the time of Augustine even.

Contra Faustum 17.1

 

  1. Faustus said: You ask why we do not receive the law and the prophets, when Christ said that he came not to destroy them, but to fulfill them. Where do we learn that Jesus said this? From Matthew, who declares that he said it on the mount. In whose presence was it said? In the presence of Peter, Andrew, James, and John—only these four; for the rest, including Matthew himself, were not yet chosen. Is it not the case that one of these four—John, namely—wrote a Gospel? It is. Does he mention this saying of Jesus? No. How, then, does it happen that what is not recorded by John, who was on the mount, is recorded by Matthew, who became a follower of Christ long after He came down from the mount? In the first place, then, we must doubt whether Jesus ever said these words, since the proper witness is silent on the matter, and we have only the authority of a less trustworthy witness. But, besides this, we shall find that it is not Matthew that has imposed upon us, but some one else under his name, as is evident from the indirect style of the narrative. Thus we read: “As Jesus passed by, He saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom, and called him; and he immediately rose up, and followed Him.” [Matthew 9:9] No one writing of himself would say, He saw a man, and called him; and he followed Him; but, He saw me, and called me, and I followed Him. Evidently this was written not by Matthew himself, but by some one else under his name. Since, then, the passage already quoted would not be true even if it had been written by Matthew, since he was not present when Jesus spoke on the mount; much more is its falsehood evident from the fact that the writer was not Matthew himself, but some one borrowing the names both of Jesus and of Matthew.

 

Augustine replied: What amazing folly, to disbelieve what Matthew records of Christ, while you believe Manichæus! If Matthew is not to be believed because he was not present when Christ said, “I came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill,” was Manichæus present, was he even born, when Christ appeared among men? According, then, to your rule, you should not believe anything that Manichæus says of Christ. On the other hand, we refuse to believe what Manichæus says of Christ; not because he was not present as a witness of Christ’s words and actions, but because he contradicts Christ’s disciples, and the Gospel which rests on their authority. The apostle, speaking in the Holy Spirit, tells us that such teachers would arise. With reference to such, he says to believers: “If any man preaches to you another gospel than that you have received, let him be accursed.” [Galatians 1:9] If no one can say what is true of Christ unless he has himself seen and heard Him, no one now can be trusted. But if believers can now say what is true of Christ because the truth has been handed down in word or writing by those who saw and heard, why might not Matthew have heard the truth from his fellow disciple John, if John was present and he himself was not, as from the writings of John both we who are born so long after and those who shall be born after us can learn the truth about Christ? In this way, the Gospels of Luke and Mark, who were companions of the disciples, as well as the Gospel of Matthew, have the same authority as that of John. Besides, the Lord Himself might have told Matthew what those called before him had already been witnesses of.

Your idea is, that John should have recorded this saying of the Lord, as he was present on the occasion. As if it might not happen that, since it was impossible to write all that be heard from the Lord, he set himself to write some, omitting this among others. Does he not say at the close of his Gospel: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written”? [John 21:25] This proves that he omitted many things intentionally. But if you choose John as an authority regarding the law and the prophets, I ask you only to believe his testimony to them. It is John who writes that Isaiah saw the glory of Christ. [John 12:41] It is in his Gospel we find the text already treated of: “If you believed Moses, you would also believe me; for he wrote of me.” [John 5:46] Your evasions are met on every side. You ought to say plainly that you do not believe the gospel of Christ. For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.

  1. Faustus thinks himself wonderfully clever in proving that Matthew was not the writer of this Gospel, because, when speaking of his own election, he says not, He saw me, and said to me, Follow me; but, He saw him, and said to him, Follow me. This must have been said either in ignorance or from a design to mislead. Faustus can hardly be so ignorant as not to have read or heard that narrators, when speaking of themselves, often use a construction as if speaking of another. It is more probable that Faustus wished to bewilder those more ignorant than himself, in the hope of getting hold on not a few unacquainted with these things. It is needless to resort to other writings to quote examples of this construction from profane authors for the information of our friends, and for the refutation of Faustus. We find examples in passages quoted above from Moses by Faustus himself, without any denial, or rather with the assertion, that they were written by Moses, only not written of Christ. When Moses, then, writes of himself, does he say, I said this, or I did that, and not rather, Moses said, and Moses did? Or does he say, The Lord called me, The Lord said to me, and not rather, The Lord called Moses, The Lord said to Moses, and so on? So Matthew, too, speaks of himself in the third person.

And John does the same; for towards the end of his book he says: “Peter, turning, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved, who also lay on His breast at supper, and who said to the Lord, Who is it that shall betray You?” Does he say, Peter, turning, saw me? Or will you argue from this that John did not write this Gospel? But he adds a little after: “This is the disciple that testifies of Jesus, and has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.” [John 21:20-24] Does he say, I am the disciple who testify of Jesus, and who have written these things, and we know that my testimony is true? Evidently this style is common in writers of narratives. There are innumerable instances in which the Lord Himself uses it. “When the Son of man,” He says, “comes, shall He find faith on the earth?” [Luke 18:8] Not, When I come, shall I find? Again, “The Son of man came eating and drinking;” [Matthew 11:19] not, I came. Again, “The hour shall come, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live;” [John 5:25] not, My voice. And so in many other places. This may suffice to satisfy inquirers and to refute scoffers.

Xenophon does the same in Book 3, Chap. 1 of Anabasis.

“There was in the army a certain Xenophon, an Athenian, who accompanied the army neither as a general nor as a captain nor as a private soldier; but Proxenos, an old acquaintance, had sent for him.”

See also Anabasis 1.8.15; 2.5.40; 3.1.10, 47, etc.

Ben says that Thucydides refers to himself in the first person. Look at chapter 26 of Book 5.

I certainly remember that all along, when the war began and until it ended,
there were many who prophesied that it must last thrice nine years. I lived
through all of it when I was of an age to comprehend and had my mind
engaged, in order to know with some exactness; it also happened that I was
exiled from my city for twenty years after the command at Amphipolis
and, being present at the activities of both sides, especially the Peloponnesians, unoccupied because of my exile, I understood these all the more.
Accordingly, I will relate the disagreement after the ten years and violation
of the truce and how the war was fought from then on.

That sounds good. However, let’s look earlier in that section.

The same Thucydides, an Athenian, has recorded these events as
well, in the order that they occurred according to summers and winters,
up to the point when the Lacedaemonians and their allies overthrew the
empire of the Athenians and captured the long walls and the Peiraeus.

In the Jewish War account by Josephus in 2.20.4, he does the same thing.

4. They also chose other generals for Idumea; Jesus, the son of Sapphias, one of the high priests; and Eleazar, the son of Ananias, the high priest; they also enjoined Niger, the then governor of Idumea, who was of a family that belonged to Perea, beyond Jordan, and was thence called the Peraite, that he should be obedient to those fore-named commanders. Nor did they neglect the care of other parts of the country; but Joseph the son of Simon was sent as general to Jericho, as was Manasseh to Perea, and John, the Esscue, to the toparchy of Thamna; Lydda was also added to his portion, and Joppa, and Emmaus. But John, the son of Matthias, was made governor of the toparchies of Gophnitica and Acrabattene; as was Josephus, the son of Matthias, of both the Galilees. Gamala also, which was the strongest city in those parts, was put under his command.

And in book 7, chapter 1, of the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, we find the same thing.

When it was reported to Caesar that they were attempting to make their route through our Province he hastens to set out from the city, and, by as great marches as he can, proceeds to Further Gaul, and arrives at Geneva. He orders the whole Province [to furnish] as great a number of soldiers as possible, as there was in all only one legion in Further Gaul: he orders the bridge at Geneva to be broken down. When the Helvetii are apprized of his arrival they send to him, as embassadors, the most illustrious men of their state (in which embassy Numeius and Verudoctius held the chief place), to say “that it was their intention to march through the Province without doing any harm, because they had” [according to their own representations,] “no other route: that they requested, they might be allowed to do so with his consent.” Caesar, inasmuch as he kept in remembrance that Lucius Cassius, the consul, had been slain, and his army routed and made to pass under the yoke by the Helvetii, did not think that [their request] ought to be granted: nor was he of opinion that men of hostile disposition, if an opportunity of marching through the Province were given them, would abstain from outrage and mischief. Yet, in order that a period might intervene, until the soldiers whom he had ordered [to be furnished] should assemble, he replied to the ambassadors, that he would take time to deliberate; if they wanted any thing, they might return on the day before the ides of April [on April 12th].

(All of these are cut and paste and so I have not made any changes to the texts cited.)

E.P. Sanders is not wanting to give a defense of Christianity, but when writing about why a first person is not used in the Gospels 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.

Ben will need to tell why these other writers didn’t follow the same pattern or didn’t always. For now, let’s move on to the second crack supposedly. What about events for which Matthew was not an eyewitness.

Are we at best dealing with knowledge that is secondhand for those accounts? Yes.

And the problem is?

No one is claiming that Matthew was an eyewitness for everything in the Gospels by saying the Gospels are eyewitness accounts any more than Josephus could possibly be an eyewitness for everything in his account of the Jewish War or Thucydides and eyewitness for everything in the Peloponnesian War. This would be all-or-nothing thinking if done this way. Matthew certainly would not have been an eyewitness of the virgin birth, which I do affirm, but some examples Ben gives are odd. How would Matthew know what was said in the Sermon on the Mount?

For one, no one thinks the whole of the sermon is recorded in the account, save perhaps diehard fundamentalists. For another, if you are a speaker, you know you give a talk you know well more than once. Finally, this was a public event. There were numerous people who could corroborate. How did Matthew know about what happened with Judas giving the money to the priests or the account of the Sanhedrin trial? He could very well have relied on Joseph of Arimathea or any of the priests and Pharisees who we hear came to faith in Acts. Again, if you think everything Matthew reported had to be firsthand, then that is your problem. I do not share it.

Also, the evangelists never name themselves, but what of it? Plutarch doesn’t name himself either. Perhaps this was something done in Greco-Roman biography. It would be fascinating to see if any research has been done on that. However, that there is at least an exception in Plutarch should give us pause on making a big deal about this, as well as E.P. Sanders’s quote. Also, just because the author is not named in the body of the work does not mean he would not be named in some other way on a scroll being delivered to be read. (And keep in mind, Paul is named in several letters that skeptics insist he did not write.)

Finally, what about the relationship between the book of Matthew and Mark? The case for Marcan priority in Mark being the first Gospel is that most scholars hold to this. That is certainly a good point, but it is not by any means final. I myself have not really looked at the Synoptic Problem yet, but I do know enough to know that it is not a done deal. There are those who do hold to Matthean priority.  So what about similarities between Matthew and Mark?

What of it? Why should we think none of the Gospels ever used another Gospel. Why would Matthew use Mark if he did? Because Mark includes accounts from Peter that Matthew would not be present for and could use. Furthermore, why reinvent the wheel? If Matthew likes how Mark has phrased a matter, why change it? If the situation is reversed, the same applies. This really isn’t troubling.

Finally, Ben says if the edifice falls, everything falls, but most scholars do not build their case on inerrancy even if they focus on the Gospels and many use the epistles of Paul instead. The accounts are still safe.

I also find it disappointing that Ben nowhere interacts with Richard Bauckham’s work on this topic, a real scholar who has the most in-depth research on this. Another good read would be Keener’s Christobiography. I do appreciate he does give some citations, but I find the case again lacking.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

Further Responding to Jim Hall

How do we deal with common objections? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

So do you remember Jim Hall? You don’t? Yeah. His work is pretty unforgettable, but he’s the guy who wrote a book which is not worth your time to read at all and I reviewed. I shared my review with him publicly on Facebook and he has yet to respond to it at all. Instead, he has told me I am intellectually dishonest. On what grounds? Well, none have been given. Recently on someone’s wall he made a list of claims that are common I figured I’d respond to here just because I can and I know again, he won’t respond.

Objection #1:There are over 60 gospels, only four were arbitrarily added to the Bible.

Yes. Arbitrarily added. Of course, Hall will never ever dare read a book like Charles Hill’s Who Chose The Gospels? Nope. That requires research. He won’t look and say “Hmmm. Who were the ones the earliest church fathers were pointing to?” We find extremely early on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John being put out on display. Why is this? Because these were seen to be the most reliable by the church and connected to apostles.

As for arbitrarily chosen, by who? Perhaps Hall buys into the myth that these books were voted on at the Council of Nicea. Good luck finding evidence for that. It’s a common myth, but there is nothing that has been produced from the Council itself saying it. As Ehrman says:

http://ehrmanblog.org/widespread-misconceptions-council-nicea/

Ehrman on the NT Canon and the Council of Nicea. Widespread Misconceptions about the Council of Nicea (For Members)

One of the reasons I’m excited about doing my new course for the Teaching Company (a.k.a. The Great Courses) is that I’ll be able to devote three lectures to the Arian Controversy, the Conversion of the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea (in 325 CE). It seems to me that a lot more people know about the Council of Nicea today than 20 years ago – i.e., they know that there *was* such a thing – and at the same time they know so little about it. Or rather, what they think they know about it is WRONG.

I suppose we have no one more to blame for this than Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, where, among other things, we are told that Constantine called the Council in order to “decide” on whether Jesus was divine or not, and that they took a vote on whether he was human or “the Son of God.” And, according to Dan Brown’s lead character (his expert on all things Christian), Lee Teabing, “it was a close vote at that.”

That is so wrong.

There are also a lot of people who think (I base this on the number of times I hear this or am asked about it) that it was at the Council of Nicea that the canon of the New Testament was decided. That is, this is when Christian leaders allegedly decided which books would be accepted into the New Testament and which ones would be left out.

That too is wrong.

So here’s the deal. First, the canon of the New Tesatment was not a topic of discussion at the Council of Nicea. It was not talked about. It was not debated. It was not decided. Period. The formation of the canon was a long drawn-out process, with different church leaders having different views about which books should be in and which should be out. I can devote some posts to the question if anyone is interested (I would need to look back to see if I’ve done that already!).

Short story: different church communities and Christian leaders preferred different books because they (the communities and leaders) had different understandings of what the faith was and should be – even within the orthodox community there were disagreements.

The *first* author ever to list *our* 27 books and claim that *these* (and no others) were “the” books of the New Testament was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in the year 367 (45 years *after* the council of Nicea!) in a letter that he wrote to the churches under his control to whom he was giving his annual episcopal advice. And even that did not decide the issue: different orthodox churches continued to think that some books should be in, for example, that didn’t make it in (e.g. 1 and 2 Clement; the Shepherd of Hermas; the Letter of Barnabas).

There never was a church council that decided the issue – until the (anti-Reformation, Roman Catholic) Council of Trent in the 16th century!



We can also point out that when we look at the earliest opponents of Christianity, such as Celsus, what do they respond to? Yep. The four Gospels.

Finally, let’s see what Bart Ehrman says about this:

If historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons–for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons pure and simple. (Ehrman, The New Testament, page 215)

Objection #2: None of the Bible authors ever actually met Jesus face-to-face.

Again, no evidence is given of this. It’s an assertion. Could it be true? Perhaps. Does he respond to someone like, say, Richard Bauckham with his work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses? Nope. Not a bit. No historians are cited.

Atheists like Hall often make these statements of faith. How would they establish that? Again, Hall gives us no reason to believe that.

Objection #3: The gospels were written anonymously, at least 30 years after the crucifixion.

Let’s suppose they were anonymous, although Martin Hengel disagrees. So what? Many works from the ancient world were anonymous. That doesn’t mean we have no idea about who the author is. E.P. Sanders has a reason also why they were anonymous.

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.

Furthermore, the Pastoral epistles are not anonymous and say they are by Paul. Does that mean that skeptics immediately jump on that and say “Hey! Paul wrote those!”? No. Why should I think a name on the Gospels would be any different?

Objection #4: Luke/Acts is widely agreed upon to have been written around 80CE.

Again, no evidence for this whatsoever. Hall gives no information to believe this claim. I also find it hard to believe that the author of Luke/Acts would say absolutely nothing about the death of Paul, Peter, or the destruction of Jerusalem. Now again, I could be mistaken in my belief, sure, but Hall doesn’t give me any evidence to go by.

Objection #5: If Harry Potter was the most-studied book in history, that still wouldn’t make it true.

I don’t know anyone who is saying the Bible is true because it is the most studied book in all of history. I have no idea what Hall is trying to establish with this claim. Let’s move on to the next.

Objection #6: There is no moral teaching in the Bible that cannot also be found in much older religions’ texts.

Reply: So what? The Bible is true because it contains some unique moral teaching? Morality is common knowledge that is meant for all men. You don’t need the Bible to know it.

Objection #7: “Positive impact on the world”? It has been cited for centuries to justify slavery and the subjugation of women.

Reply: Yes. The Bible has been misused. So what? Evil people misuse good things constantly. The Bible has also been used to end slavery repeatedly and to raise up women. That is never mentioned. Hall is free to find a nation untouched by the Bible at all where he would rather live if he thinks things are so awful in places the Bible has reached.

Again, I know Hall will not respond. He can claim I’m intellectually dishonest all he wants, but that will not work as well as just responding to the claims. Show I am wrong on something and I will accept it. We’ll see if that happens, but don’t hold your breath on it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: In Defense of the Gospels

What do I think of John Stewart’s book published by Intelligent Faith Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

John Stewart is a lawyer who works with Ratio Christi and has written a book on defending the Gospels. Stewart goes through several questions very thoroughly and point by point. He also introduces you to many methodologies and explains why he accepts the answers that he accepts.

He starts off with asking when the Gospels were written. He establishes reasons for His dates but points out that often even on the worst case scenario of a date, the date could still be within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. He points out that this is important and compares this to other works of history as well.

Stewart goes on to use similar methodologies on other questions such as if the Gospels are anonymous or if they’ve been changed or if they’re biased. Many of the objections dealt with are the ones that most people will encounter when they engage with internet atheists. If you are often involved or know someone who is involved with those debates and wants an extra resource, this would be a good one.

The work is also short and easy to understand without using technical language. It can be read in a short time and would be ideal for college students on campuses. No doubt, this is because of years that Stewart has spent with Ratio Christi.

There’s also a brief section on Jesus Mythicism in one of the chapters. This will be helpful for those who regularly encounter this crazy idea that seems to keep popping up its head. While the material there is basic, it is enough to help you out with the average mythicist.

I also like the argument dealing with the question of if the Gospels are anonymous. This is a common one that shows up on the internet, but it is one I do not see professional scholars dealing with, mainly because most scholars don’t use “The Gospels are anonymous” as a reason to think that they are automatically untrustworthy. Stewart rightly points out that it does help us if we can have good reasons to name an eyewitness behind a Gospel, but it is not a necessity to know if the Gospel is reliable or not.

If there were some criticisms I would give, the first one is that the book does need an editor. There would occasionally be seen typos that were distracting. One in particular was to hear about how to respond to Bark Ehrman. This is a slip of the keyboard of course, but it can damage one’s reputation.

I also would have liked to have seen a lot more specifics on ideas that have been overturned in the past 100 years about the Gospels due to archaeology. Mythicism was addressed, but that has never been a reigning theory among scholars. There have been very few isolated individuals who have held that position, although the number today could be greater due to the rise of the internet and the fast spread of false information.

Still, there is much to commend in Stewart’s book. It is a good opening defense one can have in the case of the Gospels and the author does make sure to focus there. He does have a short section on the Pauline epistles, but that is not what the book is about so he does rightly stick with the Gospels. I recommend this one for your college student, especially one who wants to better defend the Gospels.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

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