September 28, 2009

Answering “Who Cares” on Biblical Reliability, Authenticity, and Veracity

Posted in Answering "Who Cares", Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 11:40 am by Andrew

In the comments section, “Who Cares” raises a number of issues related to the basic notion of whether we can “trust” the Bible. I think it’s worth unpacking some of those assumptions:

But, just touching on your point a) About the no agreement on any singular form of the bible. I mean, first, many people have many translations of works of Shakespeare, the Odyssey and the Iliad, and any non-english originated text we have, and the translations of those text into english, or some other language. And you assume we cannot agree on any of those text?

Here, “Who Cares” is eliding together three common atheist arguments that are, in fact, logically distinct. The first is the question of reliability; that is, how confident are we that what appears in our Bibles is a reliable transmission of what appeared in the original manuscripts. If the Gospel According to Mark we use today differs materially from the earliest circulating Gospel of Mark, for example, we would have questions about the reliability of our copy of Mark.


The second is the question of authenticity; that is, how confident are we that the works of the Bible authentically record what they claim to record. If “Luke” didn’t write Luke; if “John” didn’t write John, then even if we have a reliable copy of those manuscripts, we don’t have an authentic copy of what Luke and John actually said.

Finally, even if we have reliable and authentic manuscripts, the argument runs aground if the manuscripts themselves are not inherently truthful. For example, we absolutely have a 100% accurate copy of the original of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I think we have a 100% accurate copy of Mary Baker Eddy’s Science And Health, With Key To The Scriptures. We know that Hubbard wrote Dianetics, and we know that the manuscript we have matches Hubbard’s exactly. Our copy of Dianetics is therefore both reliable and accurate – it’s just that the content is complete nonsense. Thus, reliability and authenticity do not guarantee veracity — something I think many Christians fail to understand when witnessing to atheists.

But let’s take a step back and ask whether we have reasons to believe that our copy of the Bible is either reliable or authentic.

1. Reliability. This is a harder question than most Christians realize, because most of the Old Testament began life not as books or letters but as stories carried on through oral tradition, with the official recordation occurring more than a thousand years after those stories first appeared!

But let’s leave aside the thorny question of the Old Testament, and talk only about the reliability of the New Testament. Currently, there are thousands of Greek and Latin manuscripts that contain all or part of the NT (as well as other books that are no longer considered canonical). Most of these date to within the last thousand years, although the Codex Siniaticus dates to the 4th century.

None of these manuscripts are identical; each is different from every other manuscript. For a full explanation of this, I would recommend Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, which you can get for 10 bucks on Amazon. If you want to skip to the end (and save $10), the punchline is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of discrepancies between the extant New Testament manuscripts, many of which do not affect fundamental doctrine, but some of which do (e.g., Mark 16:9-20).

So the bottom line is that the Bible you have in your hands is not comprised of the same works as were circulating in first and second century AD. As Ehrman notes, this is not particularly a big deal for the majority of Christians, but it is particularly devastating for the tiny group of vocal fundamentalists who claim that the Bible is literally true and entirely without error. To the contrary; errors obviously abound in that no two extant manuscripts are the same.

2. Authenticity. Most Christian scholars of the Bible concede that the Bible is not authentic; that is, that Moses did not actually write the Pentateuch, Mark did not write Mark, John did not write John, Paul did not write several of the Pauline epistles attributed to him, and so on. Here’s a neutral article from Wikipedia listing the consensus of scholarly opinion. Some skeptics go considerably further; for example, Robert M. Price has argued that parts of 1 Corinthians were not written by Paul but were in fact a post-Pauline interpolation.

3. Veracity. Here, what I would recommend is to do what Bart Ehrman does in Jesus Interrupted (which, sadly, is $17 – but worth every penny) and read the Gospels horizontally. That is, read a passage in Mark – and then stop, and read the same events in Matthew, in Luke, and in John.

A great place to start with this sort of horizontal reading are the resurrection accounts. As far as I know, there are six versions of the resurrection story in the Bible — Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21, Acts 1:1-12, and finally 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

If you read these (and other Bible stories) horizontally, you’ll notice that the discrepancies among the various accounts tend to suggest storytelling rather than history. Matthew’s account of one angel (Matt. 28:2-7) and Luke’s account of two men (Luke 24:4) are subtly, but distinctly different from John’s account of two angels (John 20:12). Those kinds of details aren’t really significant from a doctrinal perspective, but they do suggest to us that the Gospels aren’t literally inerrant.

Similarly, Ehrman points out that the well-known story of Jesus cleansing the temple and driving out the money-changers occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ preaching if you believe Mark 11, but at the end if you read John 2. This discrepancy is so obvious that you wind up with apologists who suggest that Jesus actually cleansed the temple twice!

Put it all together, and even if the second century Christians were reading the same stories you and I are reading, I conclude that those underlying stories cannot possibly have been intended to be taken literally. They’re just not true.

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46 Comments »

  1. makarios said,

    “As far as I know, there are six versions of the resurrection story”

    And in how many of them is Jesus still in the tomb? I can’t tell if you’re just ignorant of literature in general of purposely obfuscating this information for your audience. To have four different authors highlight different aspects of a single event is not unusual at all. This is especially true when not one of the accounts contradict (It cannot be both true and untrue at the same time) the others.

    • jackd said,

      The differences between the Gospel accounts are rather more significant than “highlight[ing] different aspects of a single event”. The stories have different participants, different sequences, and different events. I do not understand how anyone can hold that all four stories are “inerrant” when they cannot be reconciled into a single narrative.

  2. Andrew said,

    Makarios,

    You want a second-century gospel in which Jesus never resurrects? Okay; how about the Gospel of Truth? Or how about one in which Jesus was never even crucifiedthe Second Treatise of the Great Seth.

    Of course, these and other gospels didn’t make it into our Bible. That’s because Christians themselves selected (and even voted on!) which books to include in the Bible, and one of the criteria they used was “consistency of message” with the other books so selected. So of course we would expect that none of the books Christians themselves selected for including in their own bible would directly contradict each other on something like the resurrection.

    So this really isn’t much of an argument. On the other hand, I don’t think you can dismiss the retelling of the resurrection story, or something like the parable of Jesus cleansing the temple as simply “highlight[ing] different aspects of a single event.”

    Let’s try a simple multiple-choice question: did Jesus drive out the money-changers (a) at the beginning of his preaching, (b) at the end, or (c) twice? Why?

    • alexwilgus said,

      It’s not a sure thing by any means, but there’s good reason to assume that Jesus could have ‘cleansed the temple’ twice. It was consistent with his ministry. He was performing a ritual act which he very well could have done multiple times; like a modern preacher delivering multiple sermons. It’s pretty commonly accepted that Jesus gave The Sermon on the Mount multiple times. It’s important to remember that Jesus was trying to reach an entire nation of people, not just performing acts here and there.

  3. makarios said,

    Well, excuse me but that author of this post is suggesting that the four documents that were included in the New Testament are themselves contradictory regarding the resurrection. I’m saying that while there is an emphasis on different aspects of the resurrection, they are not contradictory. Jesus rose from the dead – period and all four gospels testify to that fact.

    We don’t know why John chose to place his telling of the event in a different place. The authors of these documents state their reason for writing and perhaps placing that event further up in his account of Jesus’ life served a particular purpose for John. Again, that Jesus cleansed the temple is not in dispute.

    This is somewhat like saying, Because there are varying accounts as to the assasination of John F. Kennedy, we can’t be certain that he was ever killed.

    • Andrew said,

      You’re almost exactly correct (without realizing it!)

      If half of our history books recorded that John F. Kennedy was assassinated at the beginning of his political career (say, in 1946 as a Congressman), and half recorded that he was assassinated at the end of it (in 1963, as President), then we would indeed be justified in being as skeptical of those history books as we should be of the Bible.

      Incidentally, while Makarios seems to chalk up the difference between John and Mark as “plac[ing] the telling of the event in a different place,” it’s worth noting that many of his co-religionists reconcile the contradiction by arguing that Jesus cleansed the temple twice. Presumably, they’d believe that JFK was assassinated twice as well. 🙂

  4. makarios said,

    Author One: My wife and three kids went to the lake this weekend. We didn’t have much time to relax we did have fun.

    Author Two: Makarios went fishing with his son this weekend.

    These authors are talking about the same family on the same weekend. Are you seriously telling me that these are contradictory statements?

    • Andrew said,

      Makarios:

      Respectfully, you’re not answering the question. You’re just repeating the standard evangelical buzzword answer that apologists use to get out of contradictions.

      I’m aware that the pat answer is, “The different accounts are highlighting different details of the same story,” or variants thereof.

      What I’m pointing out is that Mark tells us Jesus cleansed the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John, on the other hand, tells us that it happens at the end. Some evangelicals try and reconcile this obvious contradiction by claiming that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, which seems ridiculous to me, to Ehrman, and (I think) to you. You reject that approach. Good for you!

      But it leaves behind a very simple question: given that Jesus cleansed the temple once, did it happen at the beginning of his life as a preacher, or at the end?

  5. DagoodS said,

    makarios,

    There is an urban legend about two students who deliberately blew off a final exam, with an excuse of a flat tire. The legend has it the professor allowed them to re-take the exam; but when they received it, the exam had only one question:

    “Which tire?”

    In both stories there was a flat tire—that commonality does not make the flat tire an actual truth, as the urban legend poignantly points out.

    The authors of all six accounts previously determined Jesus was raised from the dead. The accounts vary as to how they reach that goal. We could point out numerous differences—what you would call “viewing from a different standpoint” and we could call contradictions.

    Mark, Matthew and Luke had Jesus killed on Passover, John wanted Jesus killed at the same time the lambs were being killed for the Passover meal, so the author had Jesus killed the day before Passover.

    Matthew wanted a polemic to support the empty tomb, and created a guard of soldiers, after reading Mark. Luke, realizing how ludicrous the notion was that females would be carrying spices to anoint a body in a sealed, guarded tomb, removes the guards. John takes a completely different route, having Mary Magdalene ask a stranger as to where the body was removed.

    Mark implies Jesus would meet the disciples in Galilee post-resurrection; Matthew (reading Mark) takes it a step further and has them meet Jesus in Galilee. Luke, however, intent on starting the church in Jerusalem, changes the tomb-angels statement from “Meet me in Galilee” to “Remember what Jesus said in Galilee” and tells the disciples to remain in Jerusalem.

    John has them meet in Jerusalem, and either the author, or a subsequent editor, tacks on a tale about Jesus seeing them in Galilee.

    Like our students, the authors had a goal in mind—a common event. By investigating the details, however, we see how each reach that goal by far different means, bringing into question whether the event actually happened at all.

  6. makarios said,

    “What I’m pointing out is that Mark tells us Jesus cleansed the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.”

    What I’m point out is that I don’t care. There is no way for us to understand why John placed his account of that event where he did. That’s the author’s privilege. He was making a point that we cannot discern at this point in history. I understand that this is not acceptable for you but then again, nothing would be – right?

    • jackd said,

      Quoting the original article, just before Our Host mentions the Cleansing the Temple story: “Those kinds of details aren’t really significant from a doctrinal perspective, but they do suggest to us that the Gospels aren’t literally inerrant.”

      You seem to be agreeing with the first of Andrew’s clauses above, but I’m more interested on your position with respect to the second.

  7. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    You write:

    “If you read these (and other Bible stories) horizontally, you’ll notice that the discrepancies among the various accounts tend to suggest storytelling rather than history.”

    Why would you think that? Would you apply this sort of reasoning to multiple accounts of secular historical events? Because if so, a lot of secular history is going to dissolve in the process.

    You can bite that bullet, but I think instead you should go back and ask yourself just what grounds you have for thinking that close-to-life reportage of actual events doesn’t display discrepancies of detail.

    • Andrew said,

      Nathaniel: respectfully, you’re doing the same thing Makarios is going — repeating evangelical buzzwords that sound plausible on the surface, but don’t withstand serious scrutiny. Secular historical events don’t disagree over chronologies; we went through an example of that above. You cannot find history books where half suggest that Kennedy was assassinated at the beginning of his career and half suggest he was assassinated at the end of it. (Or rather, you can; they’re called ‘fiction.’)

      So what’s your answer to Ehrman’s question? Did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry or the end? What’s your evidence for your answer?

  8. Nathaniel said,

    Dagoods,

    Lots of tendentious claims in there. The Synoptics vs. John claim on the date of the crucifixion has been adequately dealt with many times, e.g. by Blomberg. The rest of what you write is creative literary interpretation of a sort that would, if applied to similar phenomena in the documents of secular history, be dismissed out of hand. And rightly so.

  9. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    You say:

    “Secular historical events don’t disagree over chronologies; …”

    With due respect, you are displaying your ignorance of the primary sources of secular history here. Chronological discrepancies, like discrepancies of other sorts, are quite common in the documents of secular history. Josephus (Antiquities 18.8.3, 6) represents the Jews as making an embassy to Claudius before seed time, while Philo (Legat. ad Caium) places it in harvest time. The accounts of the death of Mariamne given in the Antiquities and in The Jewish War appear irreconcileable both in chronology and in detail, even though both accounts were written by the same historian. Nor are such discrepancies restricted to written documents. Special medals struck to celebrate the coronation of Louis XIV give a different date from that given by contemporary written accounts.

    Examples like this could be multiplied for quite some time; Roman history alone affords a very wide field for discovering them. They should give you pause regarding your inferences from discrepancies (real or imagined) in the New Testament narratives. Shallow skepticism also has its buzzwords and catchphrases that will not withstand scrutiny.

    Regarding the cleansing of the temple, you write:

    “What I’m pointing out is that Mark tells us Jesus cleansed the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John, on the other hand, tells us that it happens at the end.

    Actually, you have stated this backward. Mark’s account (Mark 11:15-18) places the report of the cleansing of the temple after the triumphal entry; John’s account (John 2:13-20) places it near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, just after the wedding at Cana.

    Then you ask:

    “So what’s your answer to Ehrman’s question? Did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry or the end? What’s your evidence for your answer?”

    The answer, as so often happens in historical enquiry, is that it isn’t altogether clear. A row of some sort at the temple could have happened twice; if so, it is possible that the details of the two have been blended together in the synoptics. But if it happened just once, then it may well be that John’s placement is correct. We have early external evidence from Papias, who was an adult at the end of the first century, that Mark’s gospel was not written with rigorous chronology in mind:

    Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him.

    It is possible that Mark put the account of the cleansing of the temple late because in arranging his notes from Peter’s preaching he supposed that this dramatic event must have been the catalyst for the arrest of Jesus. If Matthew and Luke are following Mark, which is at present the leading hypothesis, that would explain their chronology as well. John, on the other hand, was himself a disciple, and he obviously wrote with the other gospels in mind, filling in things they had left out. He is also the one disciple who seems to have accompanied Jesus on his various visits to Jerusalem; the information of the other evangelists regarding those visits (barring the last) is apparently at second hand. John’s ordering of the events therefore deserves careful consideration.

    • Andrew said,

      Nathaniel,

      1. When secular accounts disagree over basic facts, the only proper response is to be skeptical of those secular accounts as well. That’s the whole point of the Kennedy assassination example.

      So — and I’m not familiar with the particulars of what you describe — but if the sources are as you represent them, then the response would be considerable skepticism about those particular events. Otherwise, how would you choose which account to believe?

      2. You’re building castles of sand. Yes, we would expect that one of the earliest Christian apologists made excuses for the obvious contradictions between the Gospels; that proves nothing other than Papias was an apologist — and I would have granted you that without argument.

      Similarly, your justification of the textual variants presumes that John wrote John, and virtually all Christian historians reject THAT claim.

  10. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    Again, you are betraying your unfamiliarity with the discipline of history. When secular historical documents disagree about various details but concur regarding the main fact, very often the right response is to take the area where they agree to be established and to suspend judgment on which particulars are right. No one doubts that Herod the Great had Mariamne killed; no one doubts that he set the process in motion in a fit of jealous rage; no one doubts that there was a show trial; no one doubts that the jealousy of Salome and her party contributed to the hastening of her execution; no one doubts that Herod was overwrought with grief and guilt after her execution. These are the common factors in the accounts. If we can figure out how the details went too, and why some sources reasonably close to the events garbled them (as very often they do), well and good; if not, that does not cast doubt on the main facts.

    This is common fare in all historical work — hardly a matter to cause the historian to raise an eyebrow, and certainly not grounds for sweeping historical skepticism. I applaud your desire to apply a single standard to all historical investigation. If you will stick with that idea and look into the actual process of historical investigation of primary sources, you will find that you have to scale back rather severely on the use of discrepancies as an argument against the historicity of the New Testament narratives.

    You write:

    “Yes, we would expect that one of the earliest Christian apologists made excuses for the obvious contradictions between the Gospels; that proves nothing other than Papias was an apologist”

    But you would be wrong. For Papias was not an apologist, and there is nothing in the context of his quotation to suggest that he was making excuses for Mark. It is a purely descriptive paragraph, written by someone whose adult life overlapped the life of the apostle John and who was, in Irenaeus’s words, “a man of old time, a hearer of John and a friend of Polycarp.”

    Regarding the authorship of John: you overstate the case, though I believe a preponderance of New Testament scholars (not the same thing as Christian historians, as I have reminded you before) would take the position that the Gospel of John was not, or not primarily, authored by John the disciple. (You will, however, find no comfort in Ben Witherington’s position; he argues that it was not John … but that it was Lazarus.) But let us get past mere nose counting. I have looked into this issue beyond the level of reading Wikipedia articles and perusing some secondary sources, and I am persuaded of two points: (1) the author of the bulk of the material in the Gospel of John, whoever he was, was an eyewitness of many of the things he reports, a native of Palestine and an intimate associate of Jesus; and (2) there is no good reason to throw over both the internal clues and the strong and consistent external tradition attributing the Gospel to John the apostle.

    If you would like to take up the question in detail and are prepared to do some of your own research on the subject instead of simply accepting whichever set of expert conclusions you antecedently find attractive, I would be happy to discuss the matter.

    • Andrew said,

      Nathaniel,

      I’m always happy to discuss the matter with you, and I try to be candid about the limits of my expertise.

      1. I think we’re far afield from the original argument, which is that the discrepancies amongst the Gospel (and other Biblical) accounts differentiates those accounts from reliable history as I read them. I think Makarios’ own JFK example highlights this rather splendidly. We can agree to disagree on this, I guess.

      2. With respect to your argument for why John the Apostle wrote John’s Gospel, go ahead and write up your case for it, send it to evaluatingchristianity@gmail.com, and I’ll front-page it. I think that would be a terrifically enlightening discussion.

  11. DagoodS said,

    Nathaniel,

    *shrug* My conclusions are reasonable, based upon my study. I am aware what is reasonable to some is “tendentious” to others.

    Was Blomberg’s response to the dating of Jesus’ death to re-translate John 19:14? If so, I would question whether this would be consistent with historian’s treatment of secular works. Is it acceptable, for example, to align contradictory details in accounts by claiming one account has been mis-translated by all other translators, and should be translated exactly as the apologist desires?

    If Blomberg had a different response to the discrepancy, I apologize for besmirching his claim.

    I quite agree we attempt to align varying historical accounts with the eye on the big picture. We agree Hannibal crossed the Alps—if varying accounts give different means we attempt to align as much as possible, while agreeing with the overall premise.

    However, we also keep in mind a person’s agenda. For example, we treat Josephus’ favorable treatment of Pharisees with a skeptical eye, due to his personal bias in that regard. If the Gospels were written by impartial historians, generated to account for the life and times of one traveling Rabbi—such discrepancies would (as you correctly pointed out) be overlooked.

    But they are not.

    These have a polemic nature, intended to portray certain aspects of Jesus to certain communities. The authors are NOT disinterested, impartial parties. They are not merely re-counting events. Historians do keep personal bias in mind when reviewing documents.

    And, on a related note, I would argue Papias is making excuses for the Gospel of Mark. Notice what he says, beyond what you quoted:

    “But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities, but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. “

    The additional statement (not made about Matthew’s Gospel) of how he “did not omit anything” nor “put anything fictitious” looks suspiciously like a person defending why the Gospel was written that way, and why it should be considered reliable. If there was no question as to its reliability, why the additional bolster? Why include the part regarding Peter?

    My personal opinion (feel free to consider it tendentious *grin*), is this: There was a gospel circulating attributed to “Mark.” Papias’ intended audience was concerned about the veracity of Mark, considering the name never creeps up in the stories surrounding Jesus. Who was this Mark, and why should we consider him reliable when it comes to Jesus.

    Papias, to allay their concerns, says, “Don’t worry, Mark got his stuff from the disciple Peter, so even though Mark didn’t travel around with Jesus, you can see he got it from a reliable source. Sure, the order is a bit different than what you are used to—that crazy Mark put it in his own fashion—but don’t worry; he didn’t add anything and he didn’t subtract anything.”

    • Nathaniel said,

      DagoodS,

      My objection is not to your having your own conclusions — goodness, how could I object to that? — but rather to your asserting controversial conclusions as though they were fixed points from which to argue. For example, Makarios and I are not going to accept your mere assertion that “John wanted Jesus killed at the same time the lambs were being killed for the Passover meal, so the author had Jesus killed the day before Passover.” That is not a datum but rather a conjecture both about John’s meaning and about his literary purposes — in my opinion quite a groundless one. We have to get back of such conclusions, which is where we differ, and talk about the evidence, which is where we can hope to find common ground, in order to make progress in a discussion like this.

      You ask:

      “Was Blomberg’s response to the dating of Jesus’ death to re-translate John 19:14? If so, I would question whether this would be consistent with historian’s treatment of secular works. Is it acceptable, for example, to align contradictory details in accounts by claiming one account has been mis-translated by all other translators, and should be translated exactly as the apologist desires?”

      Blomberg renders παρασκευὴ as “(day of) preparation” just like the NIV, NAS, KJV, and pretty much every other translation. However, this word reappears in 19:31, where Blomberg notes that the Jews did not want Jesus’ body on the cross on a “high Sabbath,” (γὰρ μεγάλη ἡ ἡμέρα ἐκείνου τοῦ σαββάτου) that is, a special Sabbath in Passover week. In 19:31, John’s own language forces us to take παρασκευὴ as the day before the Sabbath. This interpretation is reinforced by the explicit statement of Mark 15:42, where παρασκευὴ is again used. The argument is still further reinforced by the fact that, on this interpretation, the haste to take down the body can be explained in the light of Deuteronomy 21:23 (see also Josephus, Jewish War 4.317), whereas there is no evidence that there would be a problem with an execution during Passover per se, public executions during major festivals actually being enjoined in Sanhedrin 11.4.

      In the light of this evidence, the contention that παρασκευὴ in John 19:14 must refer to the day before the beginning of Passover, as opposed to the day before the Sabbath in Passover, is untenable. It not only disconnects the rationale for taking down the body from its Jewish context but also needlessly makes John contradict not only the Synoptics but himself. This is hardly a methodology that commends itself to the dispassionate historian.

      You write:

      Are the gospels polemical documents, as you claim? I think this is an overstatement. Every thoughtful reader will agree that different gospels stress different things. But this is not incompatible with their giving a generally truthful account of the facts. I am not trying to defend inerrancy here; honest and generally reliable sources frequently contain some mistakes. But the fact that the authors of the gospels were trying to convey the significance of certain facts does not entail, or even make it probable, that they were either intentionally or unintentionally falsifying the facts themselves. A good historian learns to separate fact from interpretation and to tell the difference between the sort of purposeful writing that uses facts as the means of supporting a theme, on the one hand, and the sort of bias that alters or fabricates facts, on the other.

      As for your claim that “Papias is making excuses for the Gospel of Mark,” he would have to say a good deal more than he does here if the prima facie chronological discrepancies with John were in view, as all three of the synoptics locate the cleansing of the temple after the triumphal entry. Since the discussion as we have it speaks simply of Mark and not of the others, I do not think this can be pressed into service as an apologetic statement intended, as Andrew wrote, to make “excuses for the obvious contradictions between the Gospels.”

      • Nathaniel said,

        Oops! Left an extraneous “You write:” in there where I had intended to quote from you but decided not to in the end. Sorry.

  12. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    I appreciate your candor and willingness to engage.

    Regarding discrepancies: This is really something where I think you should reconsider. There is a very serious difference between an information-saturated society with printing presses and even newspapers — not to mention the internet — and a culture where books and scrolls have to be hand written and hand copied. Yes, that allows for discrepancies in copies downstream, but with sufficient copies we can correct for that; this is where Ehrman overstates his case. But mere discrepancies themselves, provided that they do not pertain to the main facts, are rarely of great significance. To quote from an historian who certainly has no bias in favor of Christianity,

    Inconsistencies must be expected in all historical evidence. Some witnesses, from inattention, from confusion of different facts, from defective memory, or from inaccurate information, misreport the subordinate circumstances of an event, while they agree with the rest in the substance of their testimony. — G. C. Lewis, A Treatise on the Methods of Observation and Reasoning in Politics, vol. 1, p. 287.

    Surely as a lawyer you have had opportunity to observe the nature of honest testimony in depositions and testimony in court; it is rare for all honest witnesses to report all of the collateral facts of any event with perfect consistency. Any discrepancies in their testimony will, of course, be seized upon by the adverse counsel, but this sort of legal gamesmanship should not and will not deceive any fair-minded judge or juror. (I realize that if you are a defense attorney, I may have just assured myself of being kicked off the jury when you are arguing a case!)

    I will give some thought to writing up a case for the eyewitness (and probably Johannine) authorship of John’s gospel. Part of the difficulty I face is that, as is the case in much historical scholarship, the argument is cumulative; its force consists not so much in this or that detail, at which an opponent might quibble, as in the fact that so many details point in the same direction. It is very difficult to state a cumulative case simply and briefly. Another part of the difficulty is that, though I have studied this issue a fair bit, enough to think myself (rightly or wrongly) qualified to adjudicate at least some disagreements among experts, I am not an expert in the field of New Testament authorship.

    For both of these reasons, writing up a disquisition on the subject is a daunting prospect. But since you have graciously offered, I will give the matter some thought.

    • Andrew said,

      Nathaniel,

      1. I encourage you to write your article. Since the point of this entire site is that there is a cumulative case for atheism, I certainly understand your reservations.

      2. With respect to discrepancies, I can’t help but feel as though we’re talking past each other. My point is that the larger discrepancies in the Biblical stories that I’ve described make the text not read like history.

      I understand this is a subjective point; it’s exactly the same subjective point as the law analogy you make. Honest eyewitnesses can and do disagree over the kinds of details about which you would expect memories to be hazy.

      At some point, however, divergences between two or more accounts tend to strike the average juror as no longer congruent. Of course, this varies for each and every person; that’s part of the philosophical justification for criminal defendants getting a jury of their peers.

      My point — actually, Bart Ehrman’s — is that for a lot of people, reading the Gospels horizontally crosses that line from “acceptable flaws in human memories” to “gosh, this probably isn’t meant to be taken as history.”

      • Nathaniel said,

        Andrew,

        I think the contention that the Gospels “don’t read like history” would be exploded by a simple cross-column reading of the multiple accounts of some secular historical events.

        Shall we have a look at some of those? If we were to discover that, allowing for differences in length, they display a comparable level of discrepancies to what we find in the Gospels, would that make you you reconsider or even withdraw your claim that the discrepancies in the Gospels make them “not read like history”?

  13. DagoodS said,

    Nathaniel,

    Thanks for your response. Either I do not understand Blomberg’s argument, or he is pulling a fast one by picking and choosing only certain verses to the exclusion of others. (Is that what a “dispassionate historian” would do?) While attempting to rehabilitate John, he appears to destroy Mark, Matthew and Luke!

    You already know this material, but permit me to provide some background information, in case a lurker is unaware. Passover begins with seder—the Passover meal—at sundown. It is a feast with certain rituals, sayings, and foods. The main meat being lamb. In order to eat at sundown the lamb was killed, prepared and cooked the day before—the Day of Preparation. (It should also be noted this coincided with a week of unleavened bread, so further preparations were made during this time to remove all the leaven from the house.)

    Remember also that Jewish days ran from sundown to sundown. As the Gospels are consistent Jesus was killed on the day before Sabbath—i.e. Friday before Friday sundown—the question arises as to whether this Friday was Passover (Thursday sundown to Friday sundown) or whether Saturday was Passover (Friday Sundown to Saturday sundown). The bit about Jesus being taken off the cross before Sabbath is really a non sequitur, as we all agree Jesus was killed on the day before Sabbath—the question is whether this day is Passover or the Day of Preparation—the day before Passover.

    Look at Mark. ALL of Mark, not just 15:42, as Blomberg appears to do. Mark 14:12: on the day they kill the Passover Lamb–the day of Preparation–Jesus’ disciples ask about preparing the Passover. In other words, this is the day before Passover, where the disciples naturally are concerned about seder. The disciples prepare the Passover, (14:16) and in the evening (after sundown), Jesus comes and eats with them. (14:17-18)

    Jesus has the Last Supper, goes to the Garden, is betrayed, tried, taken to Pilate and crucified—all from Thursday Sundown through Friday afternoon. Mark says this is the day before Sabbath (15:42) and calls it a “Day of preparation.” Understand every Sabbath also required preparation (to avoid work) and it is reasonable to presume Mark meant 15:42 to be a day of preparation for Sabbath—not Passover. Especially in light of his referring to the day before as being the Day the lamb was killed for Passover.

    This is why, if Blomberg was correct, he would make Mark contradict himself by having two (2) days of preparation, one right after the other.

    The chronology of Mark is clear and internally consistent:

    1) Thursday during day: Disciples prepare for Passover seder. Lambs being killed for Passover meal; day of preparation.
    2) Thursday, sundown: Passover beginning, seder, Last Supper.
    3) Thursday sundown to Friday sun-up: Meal, Garden, betrayal, trial.
    4) Friday sun-up through Friday afternoon (still Passover day): Pilate, crucifixion, death.
    5) Friday early evening (still Passover day, but also day before Sabbath): Joseph prepares body for burial, burial.
    6) Friday Sundown (Passover ends, but feast of unleavened bread continues): Jesus in tomb, everyone else safely tucked in for Sabbath. Sabbath begins.

    Matthew follows Mark’s chronology. Disciples ask where to prepare Passover (seder). Matt. 26:17. They eat Passover as the Last Supper (26:18-21). Garden, betrayal, trial, Pilate, crucifixion, and death all occurring on Passover—Thursday sundown to Friday afternoon. Curiously, Matthew says, after Jesus is buried, “The day following the day of preparation, the Priests met with Pilate about placing a guard” (Matt. 27:62) The day following the day of preparation for Passover would have been…pretty obvious *grin*…Passover. But Matthew already has HAD the day after the day of preparation—i.e. the Thursday sundown to Friday sundown of Passover. The day following the day of preparation for the Sabbath…again obvious…would be Sabbath. Either way, it does not contradict Mark’s chronology, as it could have taken place on Friday OR Saturday and still fit.

    Luke, following Mark, makes it clear the disciples were worried about the Passover meal on the day the lambs were killed. (Luke 22:7-8) Luke emphasizes the Last Supper was seder—the Passover meal. (Luke 22:15). Same garden, betrayal, trial, Pilate [plus Herod], crucifixion and death. Again, Luke calls this a day of preparation before Sabbath. (23:54) and has Jesus buried right before Sabbath starts—i.e. Friday sundown. (23:55-56)

    Reviewing the synoptic Gospels, their timelines coordinate in this regard. What is important is how clear it is the disciples came to Jesus the day the lambs were being killed, concerned about the Passover meal, and that the Last supper was seder. All the events following in the next 24 hours of Thursday sundown to Friday sundown being on Passover. (Which coincided with the day of preparation for Sabbath.)

    Now let’s look at John.

    John places the Last Supper before the Passover feast. John 13:1. We go through the garden, betrayal, trial. But here we must pause. John indicates the Priests would not enter the Praetorium, because they would be defiled and unable to eat the Passover meal. John 18:28. Up to this point, if all we had was John, we would confidently state these events were occurring prior to Passover. John says this meal was before the Passover feast; the priests were worried about a future feast.

    Remember, according to Mark, Matthew and Luke, the Priests would already have had seder, so they wouldn’t worry about being defiled for a previous feast!

    John (as previously pointed out) indicates the trial, crucifixion and death were on the Day of preparation for the Passover. (19:14) John agrees this is the day prior to Sabbath (a day he calls “high day” which would make sense if, as John thought, Passover and Sabbath fell on the same day.) (19:31)

    Nathaniel, I submit a “dispassionate historian”—in reading Mark, Matthew and Luke, would place a chronology of Jesus’ Last Supper being seder, the events of garden, trial, crucifixion, death and burial, all occurring on Passover, being Thursday sundown through Friday sundown.

    I further submit, if all we had was John, the same historian would place a chronology of these events occurring on Thursday sundown to Friday sundown, but on the day before Passover.

    As to my conclusion about John desiring Jesus to be killed at the same time as the lambs, I would draw your attention to Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Notice in the Synoptic Gospels, John the Baptist refers to one coming who is mightier than he. But in the Gospel of John, the author refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world.” (1:29 & 1:36) Further, only John has the phrase, “No greater love has a man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (15:13)

    I do think, by placing Jesus’ death on the day of preparation, emphasizing the point of his being a lamb, and dying for his friends point to John’s use of this day to make a theological point. *shrug* I could be wrong.

  14. Nathaniel said,

    DagoodS,

    You have misunderstood Blomberg’s position, which I haven’t explained very well; possibly also you aren’t paying very close attention. (The former would largely excuse the latter.) But in neither case is the insinuation of dishonesty helpful.

    The standard challenge, stated simply, is this: “In the Synoptics the Last Supper is a Passover meal, whereas in John Passover begins on the day of Jesus’ execution rather than on the day before it. Hence” (the argument continues), “either the first three evangelists have altered the actual timing of events in order to turn the Last Supper into a Passover celebration, or John has altered the actual timing of events in order to link Jesus’ death with the slaughter of sacrificial lambs.”

    This issue has been hashed out many times over the past 17 centuries or so, with theories that have been proposed by learned scholars to resolve the apparent contradiction falling into five broad categories:

    1. The description above is correct, the Synoptics are right, and John is wrong. (DagoodS and many others)

    2. The description above is correct, John is right, and the Synoptics are wrong. (Meyer, Fuller, Taylor, etc.)

    3. Both are right, but they are talking about two different feasts, a two-day celebration of the Passover feast, alternative methods of reckoning the day, and/or a variable day of celebration for one feast. (In various ways, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Chwolson, Billerbeck, Pickl, Jaubert, Ruckstuhl, Hoehner, etc.)

    4. The Synoptics, as described above, are right; but John, properly understood, is actually saying the same thing. (Kendrick, Geldenhuys, Carson, Foster, Blomberg, etc.)

    5. John, as described above, is right; but the Synoptics, properly understood, are really saying the same thing. (France, if I recall)

    You favor a type-1 resolution. Not being wedded to inerrancy, I feel no need to reconcile all details of all accounts any more than I feel compelled to square Josephus’s inconsistencies (all within his own writings) regarding the date of the beginning of the construction of the Second Temple. On any reasonable view, including the most conservative, at least some of these accounts were being written down at a distance of at least several decades after the events; at that distance, blurring together in memory of two consecutive days, if it occurred, need not betoken either dishonest alteration of the facts or general untrustworthiness regarding the principal events. It is easier to get befuddled about the exact chronological relation of a private meal that took place 35 years ago to a dramatic event that followed hard upon it than it is to get befuddled, at the same remove, about the fact of a public execution or the fact of seeing and speaking with a friend.

    This is therefore, in my view, a low-stakes issue; if a type-1 or type-2 resolution is best supported, by the evidence, so be it. I think there is something to be said for a type-3 resolution, since the differential reckoning of the day (sunrise to sunrise vs. sunset to sunset), and hence of the Sabbath day, by Galileans and by Judeans finds support in the Mishnah (Pesahim 4.5). But I do think that you are dismissing Blomberg’s type-4 resolution without bothering first to understand it fully, so I will make one more attempt to explain his view.

    John 13:1 describes Jesus’ state of mind “before the Feast of the Passover.” But verse 2 could be taken either as referring to a meal on the evening before the day when Passover begins or, more naturally on Blomberg’s view, as the meal that commences the Passover. In John 13:49, when Judas leaves (as the disciples think) to obtain provisions for “the feast,” it is not specified to what meal or meals this pertains.

    There is no contradiction here with John 18:28. The Jewish leaders want to avoid defilement, but that concern could not be for the evening meal, since any such defilement would expire with sundown; more likely they are concerned, rather, with being defiled for the chagigah, celebrated at midday after the first evening of Passover. Indeed, the disciples may have thought that Judas had set out to obtain provisions for the chagigah.

    John 19:14 and 19:31 do not contradict any of this, since παρασκευὴ (“preparation”) has always been the standard word for “Friday” in Greek. So John’s language is simply a brief way of saying “the day of preparation for the Sabbath during Passover week” or, more briefly, “Friday in Passover week.” (Cf. the GWT of John 19:14.) Mark 15:42 confirms the appropriateness of this interpretation — and yes, dispassionate historians do compare sources in order to test and adjudicate among interpretations of those sources — by noting explicitly that the day of Jesus’ death was “the day of preparation” and then immediately adding, as an explanatory gloss, “that is, the day before the Sabbath.”

    If this brief summary does not satisfy your curiosity, you can find more detail in Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1950), pp. 649-670.

    Given this analysis, the connection (exceedingly weak in any event) between a description of Jesus as the “lamb” of God, on the one hand, and a date three years later when lambs are sacrificed, on the other, dissolves. John doesn’t place the crucifixion on the day of the slaughter of lambs for Passover.

  15. DagoodS said,

    Nathaniel,

    This will be my last comment. Our discussion has been interesting, but pretty much falling down party lines. Since I started our conversation, it would only be appropriate to allow you to have the last word.

    It would seem I did understand Blomberg’s position, and yes, I do find it either untruthful or sloppily inconsistent. He utilizes the standard inerrancy trick of breaking down each problem, proposing a logical (not necessarily probable) resolution to each problem, and then hopes the reader believes by each problem having a logical resolution, the entire situation is resolved. However, when we look at the big picture, the inerrancy position is forced to claim alternate meanings for the same words.

    John 13:1 says, “Before the Paschal Supper..” (Seder) yet the inerrantist tells me this should actually read, “At the Paschal Supper….” I get it…”before” really means “at.”

    John 18:28 says the priests did not want to defile themselves for the Paschal Supper—i.e. this was taking place “before” the Paschal Supper. Now I am told that “before” means “after.” O.K. In 13:1, “before” means “at,” by 18:28, “before” means “after.” Or, as you proposed, I am told the Paschal supper did NOT mean the Paschal supper, but it means another feast.

    John 19:14 says it was the Day of Preparation of the Passover. The Inerrancy Position appears to want to ignore the word “Passover” and say John was saying, “this is the day of preparation for the Sabbath in the Passover week.” Unfortunately…

    John 19:31 indicates the author understood the difference between Preparation day for the Passover, because he makes special note it is also the day before Sabbath. If, to the author’s mind “Day of Preparation” means the day before Sabbath, there would be no reason to repeat the fact the next day was Sabbath. Like saying, “This was on Monday, AND tomorrow was Tuesday…”

    The inerrantist position takes each verse and proffers a response, but when we look at each one, we see they are inconsistently offering different responses to the same words. Sometimes “before the Paschal Supper” means “at the Paschal Supper” or “after the Paschal supper” or “before another supper that is not the Paschal Supper.” Or the word “Passover” means “before the Passover” or “during the Passover” or “during the Passover week.” The inerrantist fills in the blank with whatever excuse works for the moment.

    You are free to label these attempts as “dispassionate historical method” but I find such labels only persuasive to those already committed to the position. As if it gives it more credence, and looks less suspect to call it “dispassionate.”

    Nathaniel: It is easier to get befuddled about the exact chronological relation of a private meal that took place 35 years ago to a dramatic event that followed hard upon it than it is to get befuddled, at the same remove, about the fact of a public execution or the fact of seeing and speaking with a friend. [emphasis in original]
    .
    Aye…there’s the rub, and the very reason for this blog entry. While you conveniently determine certain events recorded are “facts” (with emphasis)—what method do we use to determine the “facts” within the Gospel accounts, as compared to the myths or even polemic inventions?

    What method do we use to say, “this is fact and this is befuddlement”? John remembers a spear being stabbed in Jesus; Mark, Matthew and Luke appear to be befuddled on this point. John remembers certain statements by Christ, the Synoptics others (and the other Gospels such as the Gospel of Peter even others). Who is the befuddled one here?

    Mark and Matthew have the angels at the tomb say, “Meet Jesus in Galilee” whereas Luke has “Remember what he said in Galilee.” Apparently Luke is befuddled.

    See, the issue becomes, in recounting this situation, once we agree one (or more) of the authors is incorrect, by what method do we determine what parts are correct and what ones aren’t? And what sources do we use? Just the canonical Gospels & epistles? What of the other Gospels and their accounts? What of the Acts of Pilate?

    In the end, the only common connection we have is an empty tomb. (Mark lacking any appearances, albeit implying one may occur.) Something every author already believed in, prior to writing their accounts. Something, as I previously pointed out, the authors deliberately were intending to portray.

    Thank you for the pleasant discussion.

  16. Nathaniel said,

    DagoodS,

    You are quite mistaken to suppose that the defining issue here is inerrancy. In your latest post, you systematically misrepresent Blomberg’s position and in two places actually misquote the verses in question — not a mere looseness in quotation, which would mean nothing, but a misquotation that is critical to your argument. I will go through each of your claims to substantiate this charge.

    DagoodS: John 13:1 says, “Before the Paschal Supper..” (Seder) yet the inerrantist tells me this should actually read, “At the Paschal Supper….” I get it…”before” really means “at.”

    This is a misrepresentation of Blomberg’s position and, tacitly, a distortion of the text. John 13:1 is not saying of some event that it took place before the Passover Seder; rather, the phrase προ δε της εορτης του πασχα is a freestanding chronological marker in the narrative. The NIV translators bring this fact out clearly:

    It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

    The NAS is less graceful but also declines to make any grammatical connection between the chronological marker and verse 2:

    Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.

    This is a very close literal rendering of the Greek. The KJV does the same thing.

    What happens next, in verse 2?

    The evening meal was being served, …

    Which evening meal? The text neither requires nor forbids the reading that this is the Passover Seder. If all that we had were these two verses, we wouldn’t be very sure either way. We have to put together the other pieces of the puzzle to understand what John is saying.

    DagoodS: John 18:28 says the priests did not want to defile themselves for the Paschal Supper—i.e. this was taking place “before” the Paschal Supper. Now I am told that “before” means “after.” O.K. In 13:1, “before” means “at,” by 18:28, “before” means “after.” Or, as you proposed, I am told the Paschal supper did NOT mean the Paschal supper, but it means another feast.

    This is a misquotation. The word “supper” does not appear in the Greek; nor is the verse translated this way in the NAS, NIV, KJV, ASV, DRB, Phillips, or any other version I have at hand. John 18:28 says that the Jews did not want to enter the Praetorium ἵνα μὴ μιανθῶσιν ἀλλὰ φάγωσιν τὸ πάσχα — literally, in order that they might not be defiled, so that they might eat the pascha. Well, what meal is that? The word pascha, by itself, could refer to the Seder. But if that were the case, the whole rationale would make no sense, since entering the Praetorium would not defile them for the Seder; all they would have to do would be to take a ritual bath and wait for sundown. (See Maimonides on the Pesach Offering 6.1.) Taking pascha here as the Seder is therefor severely problematic.

    Having run into this interpretive problem within John’s own text, we need to back up and consider our options. Could τὸ πάσχα refer to something other than the Seder? How does the Old Testament speak of the celebration of Passover? Exodus 12:18-19, Leviticus 23:6, Numbers 28:17, and 2 Chronicles 30:22 all make it plain that the feast was eaten throughout the appointed seven days. That being established, the next question is whether there was there some specific ceremonial meal in Passover for which their entering the Praetorium would disqualify the Jewish leaders. Yes there is: the midday chagigah, enjoined upon all observant Jews in Leviticus 23:6 and Numbers 10:10 and illustrated in 2 Chronicles 30. The interpretive question is therefore reasonably resolved in a manner that makes sense out of the stated rationale and accords with Jewish law and practice.

    DagoodS: John 19:14 says it was the Day of Preparation of the Passover. The Inerrancy Position appears to want to ignore the word “Passover” and say John was saying, “this is the day of preparation for the Sabbath in the Passover week.” Unfortunately…

    John 19:31 indicates the author understood the difference between Preparation day for the Passover, because he makes special note it is also the day before Sabbath. If, to the author’s mind “Day of Preparation” means the day before Sabbath, there would be no reason to repeat the fact the next day was Sabbath. Like saying, “This was on Monday, AND tomorrow was Tuesday…”

    In the first paragraph here, you are misrepresenting Blomberg. Once again, the interpretation of the phrase παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα in John 19:14 is not a function of one’s views on inerrancy: it can be examined quite independently of any such thing, and the conclusion to which Blomberg comes has been endorsed by numerous scholars (by no means just inerrantists) including Wieseler, Tholuck, Olshausen, Lightfoot, and others whom I mentioned above. Blomberg does not “ignore” the word “Passover” but rather offers an interpretation of what “of the Passover” means that does not assume, as you seem to, that it must mean the same thing as “for the Passover.”

    As for 19:31, your rendering here is again a misquotation. I wondered at first if you were being misled by an English version, but I cannot find a single translation that renders the parenthetical clause as saying it was also the day before the Sabbath, and with good reason; there is no word here corresponding to “also.” And the whole force of your charge of redundancy depends upon that.

    Instead, we find in the Greek ἦν γὰρ μεγάλη ἡ ἡμέρα ἐκείνου τοῦ σαββάτου — literally, “for that Sabbath was a high day.” I put the critical term in bold when I quoted this above to stress the fact that there, staring at you in the text, is John’s clear gloss that this day of preparation is the day before the Sabbath, indeed, before a high Sabbath — a day of both hebdomadal and Paschal significance. And this interpretation is borne out by the explicit statement in Mark 15:42.

    Quite aside from this consideration, it is perfectly plain that John 19:14 and 19:31 are referring to the same day. Since 19:31 says, on your own reading, that this is a day before a Sabbath, 19:14 must be read this way as well, on pain of charging the author with a chronological blunder within his own narrative of the same scene a scant 17 verses on. This point alone, which is drawn from your own interpretation, makes nonsense out of your position regarding John’s dating of the crucifixion.

    DagoodS: The inerrantist position takes each verse and proffers a response, but when we look at each one, we see they are inconsistently offering different responses to the same words. Sometimes “before the Paschal Supper” means “at the Paschal Supper” or “after the Paschal supper” or “before another supper that is not the Paschal Supper.” Or the word “Passover” means “before the Passover” or “during the Passover” or “during the Passover week.” The inerrantist fills in the blank with whatever excuse works for the moment.

    Without intending to be severe, I must say that the sloppiness you have displayed in misrepresenting your opponents and misquoting the text at multiple points — adding or changing words and phrases wherever necessary in order to force the author of the fourth gospel to contradict both the Synoptics and himself — is something you would not tolerate in a self-styled Christian apologist. If Lee Strobel had inserted words into the text of John to help him make an argument, you would be trumpeting his dishonesty at the top of your lungs.

    I will not charge you here with dishonesty; I think you have been so long convinced that there must be a contradiction here that you did not bother to look at the text before writing. I understand how this can happen. But as you point out in a recent entry on your own blog, a casual attitude toward verifying facts does not instill confidence. Physician, heal thyself.

    DagoodS: Nathaniel: It is easier to get befuddled about the exact chronological relation of a private meal that took place 35 years ago to a dramatic event that followed hard upon it than it is to get befuddled, at the same remove, about the fact of a public execution or the fact of seeing and speaking with a friend. [emphasis in original]

    Aye…there’s the rub, and the very reason for this blog entry. While you conveniently determine certain events recorded are “facts” (with emphasis)—what method do we use to determine the “facts” within the Gospel accounts, as compared to the myths or even polemic inventions?

    Actually, I was making what I take to be a rather uncontroversial point here regarding the relatively probability of remembering something correctly or incorrectly at a considerable distance in time, depending on the type of thing one is trying to remember.

    DagoodS: What method do we use to say, “this is fact and this is befuddlement”? John remembers a spear being stabbed in Jesus; Mark, Matthew and Luke appear to be befuddled on this point.

    You resort here to the threadbare technique of treating omission as denial. Show me where the synoptic authors affirm that no spear was thrust into Jesus’ side and we will have something to talk about. Otherwise this is just a detail in one account that is not in another — and that is the most common thing in the world in independent historical narratives of the same event.

    DagoodS: John remembers certain statements by Christ, the Synoptics others (and the other Gospels such as the Gospel of Peter even others). Who is the befuddled one here?

    Since the “Gospel of Peter” is acknowledged on all hands to be psudepigraphical, there is no sense lumping it together with the others, the authenticity of which (as eyewitness material if not as coming principally from those whose names they bear) I suppose you will dispute. Setting that aside, you are here again committing a scope fallacy, substituting “M says that it is not the case that X” for “It is not the case that M says that X.” If all four of the gospels recorded all of the same statements by Christ in precisely the same words, I have no doubt what your ready explanation would be for that fact.

    DagoodS: Mark and Matthew have the angels at the tomb say, “Meet Jesus in Galilee” whereas Luke has “Remember what he said in Galilee.” Apparently Luke is befuddled.

    This doesn’t even make good nonsense. Are you assuming that the line in Luke must be a garbled version of the line in Matthew and Mark? Why think a thing like that? Is it just because the word “Galilee” appears in both sentences? Or is there some special limit on the number of sentences that an angel is allowed to utter on a Sunday morning?

    DagoodS: See, the issue becomes, in recounting this situation, once we agree one (or more) of the authors is incorrect, by what method do we determine what parts are correct and what ones aren’t?

    First, you have to fasten fairly on a case where one of them really must be wrong. I am not interested in defending the claim that there are no such cases. But I think that you are greatly exaggerating the number of such cases by the manner in which you take silence for dissent, and you also seem to have a wildly distorted idea of the damage that an actual contradiction in a minor point here or there would do the the credibility and the claim to authenticity of the documents.

    DagoodS: And what sources do we use? Just the canonical Gospels & epistles? What of the other Gospels and their accounts? What of the Acts of Pilate?

    We start with those for which there is a prima facie case that they were written by eyewitnesses or compiled directly from the testimony and teaching of eyewitnesses. For the canonical gospels we have this in the form of the attestation of the Apostolic fathers; for the other “gospels” and the Acts of Pilate, we do not. And surely you know this.

    DagoodS: In the end, the only common connection we have is an empty tomb. (Mark lacking any appearances, albeit implying one may occur.) Something every author already believed in, prior to writing their accounts. Something, as I previously pointed out, the authors deliberately were intending to portray.

    We have a great deal more than that, unless by “common connection” you mean something in common to every account. Here again you seem tacitly to be demanding that all of the same details be repeated in every account. But that is not the way that real history works.

    • Nathaniel said,

      Oops: typo alert. For “relatively probability” put “relative probability.”

      Sorry.

  17. DagoodS said,

    Arg. I know I said my previous comment would be my last, but coincidence rears its ugly head. This morning I was listening to the latest Licona-Ehrman debate about whether historians can verify the resurrection of Jesus, when Dr. Licona pops out with this gem:

    “I believe John changed the date of Jesus’ death for theological reasons.”

    Apparently Dr. Licona is not persuaded Dr. Blomberg “adequately dealt” with this issue, either. Maybe I’m not bound by bias or sloppiness… *grin*

  18. Nathaniel said,

    If Licona also misquoted the gospel of John in defense of that contention, I’ll be happy to call him on it.

    Can you give us a link for the debate?

  19. DagoodS said,

    Sometimes when I post a link, this blog filters me out. Here ya go:

    http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2009/10/michael-licona-vs-bart-ehrman-debate.html

    Dr. Licona doesn’t quote John at all. If that is what you are looking for.

    And since you seem particularly bothered by this, I did not mean to give the impression I was directly translating the verses. You are quite correct, John 18:28 does not use the word “supper,” however Pascha is translated as the Seder meal in numerous locations. See Matt. 26:17-18, Mark 12:14-18, Luke 22:1-15 (See especially vs. 15, “I have desired to eat this Pascha with you..”)

    Excuse my taking the liberty of adding the word “supper” for clarification. (I find it amusing John’s “Day of Preparation” is considered in light of Mark’s use of the term, but if I dare use Matthew, Mark and Luke’s use of the term Pascha as the Seder supper in the same way in John, I am accused of “mistranslating.”! Dearie me!)

    You are, likewise, correct John 19:31 does not use the term “also.” I was merely pointing out, the verse uses the term “Preparation” and…er…how do I say this…in addition…(no the Greek doesn’t have “in addition”)…as well…(no the Greek doesn’t have “as well”)…hmmm…I am looking for a way to say a verse has two items in it, without daring to use the word “also” since the verse doesn’t have the word “also”…gosh, I’m completely stumped here.

    I guess the verse DOESN’T mention “Preparation” and that it was the day before Sabbath, because it doesn’t have the Greek word “also” in it.

    This is why I don’t bother answering after a point. The same round-and-round…

    • Andrew said,

      DagoodS,

      The software will put comments in the holding queue that have “too many” links compared to the balance of the text. I get ~100 spam link farm comments a day (“FREE CIALIS!” and the like), so I have to keep this enabled.

      Rest assured, though, that I check the queue reasonably frequently and approve any comments the software filters out.

      I almost never have problems with the software bouncing a comment that has a reasonable amount of text in it and 1-3 links, although I know you were one of the exceptions fairly recently.

  20. Nathaniel said,

    DagoodS,

    Thanks for the link. Can you remember roughly where in the debate Licona says that about John?

    As I said above, the word pascha can mean the Seder — no argument about that — but pretty clearly it cannot mean this in John 18:28, for the reason given above. Therefore, adding “supper” creates an insuperable problem within the verse itself. Better to leave the verse as it stands.

    There is no special problem in understanding John 19:31 and no reason to pretend that Blomberg’s interpretation renders it inscrutable. It simply says that it was the day of preparation, and the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies on the cross for the Sabbath (which is clearly the next day), because that Sabbath was a high Sabbath. If you keep in mind that the author is a Jew writing for a Gentile audience, his pausing to explain this aspect of the Jewish customs presents no puzzle at all.

    As I said at the outset, this is a low-stakes debate for me. If Blomberg were wrong and John really contradicted the Synoptics at a few points, it wouldn’t matter much for the general reliability of the documents. But it’s been fun to go back over this material a bit.

  21. Nathaniel said,

    One more point about the use of pascha in the gospels; sometimes it clearly means something other than the Seder. Luke himself identifies it with the whole feast of Unleavened Bread in Luke 22:1. So the argument from usage, even from usage within the gospels, cannot by itself settle the question of what it means in John 18:28.

  22. DagoodS said,

    Dr. Licona: “…Like the Day Jesus was crucified. I think that John probably altered the day in order for a theological—to make a theological point there. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t crucified.”

    1:53:00

  23. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    I have been considering your invitation to post a defense of the authenticity and genuineness of the Gospel of John. After looking over the resources at my disposal and reflecting on the complexity of the subject and the nature of the argument, I think it would be best if we settled upon the discussion of some fixed source or sources dealing with the topic. Obviously, it is desirable that those texts should be online and in the public domain. So here is my suggestion: you pick a public domain source in English arguing against the authenticity and genuineness of the fourth gospel, and I will pick one arguing in favor of it. We can then pursue the argument piece by piece.

    What do you say?

  24. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    Excellent!

    It seems that it would be reasonable to break the issue into separate points. The traditional position is that the author of the Fourth Gospel was:

    1. A Jew
    2. A native of Palestine
    3. A contemporary of Jesus
    4. An companion of Jesus and an eyewitness
    5. An apostle
    6. The disciple whom Jesus loved
    7. John the son of Zebedee

    Each of these points is, I maintain, defensible by evidence, internal, external, or both; I should say that the case for 1-6 is overwhelming and the case for 7 very strong. One way to save time would be for us to determine at exactly which points we are in disagreement. They we won’t waste time groping around aimlessly.

    For an outline of the case for the traditional position on the date and authorship of the Fourth Gospel, I’ll nominate the first three pieces in J. B. Lightfoot, Biblical Essays, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1904). I might supplement Lightfoot’s position here and there with more up-to-date material, but this link will give you a good sense of the basic line of the argument that I find persuasive and will spare me the burden of typing out nearly 200 pages of Lightfoot complete with the Greek in the footnotes.

    By the way, months ago you had indicated an interest in grappling with one of the better recent works on the reliability of the New Testament. I suggested Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend, and I still recommend that you pick it up and make the effort to evaluate it here. It will take you light years beyond beginners’ books by popularizers like McDowell and Strobel. It also makes a nice complement to a discussion of the Fourth Gospel, since Eddy and Boyd focus on the Synoptic tradition. Besides, it has a recommendation on the back from Robert M. Price. Doesn’t that pique your interest?

  25. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    A few points on the OP.

    Regarding the manuscript evidence, you write:

    Most of these date to within the last thousand years, although the Codex Siniaticus dates to the 4th century.

    Codex Sinaiticus is a wonderful manuscript (and it looks like it just got even better), but it is hardly the oldest manuscript we possess. From 2nd century papyri alone we can recover about 40% of the text of the New Testament.

    You write:

    So the bottom line is that the Bible you have in your hands is not comprised of the same works as were circulating in first and second century AD.

    But that isn’t the bottom line. Ehrman’s argument regarding textual variants isn’t even relevant to which works were circulating in the first two centuries. Let’s set aside the cheap escape that most people are working with a Bible in translation; that can’t be your point, or it would be trivial. What informed Christians (and indeed, virtually all textual scholars in the main stream of New Testament textual scholarship) claim is that the best modern translations are made from a reconstructed text (a reconstruction made possible by all those copies with all of their minute spelling errors and obvious parablepsis) that is very likely to be, in all but a handful of doubtful places on which no significant doctrine depends, essentially the same as the original document.

    When Bart is talking shop with serious scholars rather than selling soap to the secular masses, he doesn’t try to push so hard on the idea that great doctrinal issues are at stake: he sticks to trivial cases like Mark 1:41 or Matthew 24:36. (See his switch away from the doctrinal claim in his second response in his 2008 debate with Dan Wallace, and note how Wallace pins him down in his own final response.) Perhaps he is kept more honest by the memory of his dissertation director, Bruce Metzger, who expressed the scholarly consensus unequivocally on this point: about 90% of the text is very well established, and in the remaining 10%, the questions are mostly quite trivial. No textual evidence provides us with any data that would lead to a change in any major doctrine or creed.

    You partly acknowledge the triviality of the errors — many of them cannot even be expressed in translation because they are simply variant spellings — but then you try to wring some significance out of one of them:

    [T]he punchline is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of discrepancies between the extant New Testament manuscripts, many of which do not affect fundamental doctrine, but some of which do (e.g., Mark 16:9-20).

    A few snake handlers aside, who thinks that any fundamental doctrine is affected by taking the long ending of Mark to be inauthentic? Seriously, this is a fringe position. And it won’t do to try to rope the somewhat larger set of Pentecostals in with this one, because they largely base their distinctive doctrines (again, hardly fundamental) on passages like Acts 2, about which there are no serious textual questions. It might be a good idea to use the short version of the Apostles’ Creed as a baseline for a term like “fundamental doctrine.”

    You also write:

    As Ehrman notes, this is not particularly a big deal for the majority of Christians, but it is particularly devastating for the tiny group of vocal fundamentalists who claim that the Bible is literally true and entirely without error.

    But then you give a link to the Chicago Statement on inerrancy, and that very statement anticipates and defuses the argument you have tried to make from the myriad microscopic copying errors in the manuscripts. Here, for example, is Article X:

    We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. [Emphases mine]

    So in fairness, whatever its merits or defects, the Chicago Statement doesn’t fall prey to that particular criticism. And it would be surprising if it had. You may dislike the evangelicals (I think the rule of thumb is that this is what you have to call a fundamentalist with an earned Ph. D.) who crafted that statement, but they are not bumbling fools.

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  29. James said,

    Very interesting read, especially between nathaniel and others. I’m an agnostic and I believe that neither side really has a good case. All I can do is lean upon reason, rationale and just common sense in which religion has no solid ground upon. To people of faith I say, come back down to earth.


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