Friday, November 27, 2009

C.S. Lewis, the Trilemma, and Cultural Norms

A common Christian apologetic argument is the Trilemma. First introduced by C.S. Lewis, this argument since Lewis has undergone modification. However, the basic argument has not changed. As the argument goes, Jesus, was either telling the truth when he said that he was God, Jesus was lying, or Jesus was insane. This is generally abbreviated as “Lord, Liar or Lunatic.”

Lewis used this argument primarily as a response to people who thought that Jesus was a good person. but not the Son of God. Lewis argued that this was not a possibility since, if Jesus was not telling the truth, then one of the other two possibilities must hold. In its more modern form, the argument is identical, but evidence is presented as well that the last two possibilities don’t hold.

The argument in either the original form of Lewis or in other variants, suffers from flaws. The most serious flaw is the reliability of the Gospels as record of what Jesus said. It is not at all implausible that Jesus didn’t claim to be the Son of God, but such claims were later asserted by followers. Or Jesus could have in fact said exactly what he is quoted as but have been genuinely mistaken. These are two are two good detailed discussions of these and other flaws. Rather than discuss the flaws, I’d like to examine why this argument is so effective apologetics.

The argument, especially in its post-Lewis form (such as that advanced by Joshua McDowell in his “Evidence that Demands A Verdict”) does not explicitly invoke the presupposition that the audience thinks that Jesus was a great man . However, in an unstated form, this approach is far more effective. We live in a society with few taboos stronger than saying negative statements about Jesus. Indeed, even if one asks most Jews who live in the United States what they think of Jesus, they will feel compelled to say something like “I think he was a great teacher” or something similar. Thus, to most people, the notion that Jesus was either a lunatic or a liar is so repulsive (or politically incorrect) that when faced with those alternatives, they have no choice but to rush to the third possibility. The Trilemma thus rests on implicit cultural norms that Lewis was willing to make explicit. His successors have been less forthcoming.

55 comments:

G*3 said...

Intersting. As a Jew, if someone Jewish tells you they think Jesus was a great man they either know very little about religion or they're being polite. (Or they're talking about Jesus-the-man as opposed to Jesus-the-religious-figure, a pretty recent phenomenon.)

In the community I grew up in, Jesus is at best seen as a nut. At worst, he's a horribly evil man who's responsible for nearly two millenia of anti-Semetic persecution.

Its very interesting for me to read anti-religious literature. Most of it is aimed at convincing Christians that Jesus isn't real. I grew up "knowing" that Jesus isn't real, in a community that had no problem disparaging him and the religion he spawned as idolatrous and evil. While anti-Jesus arguments are interesting in the abstract, the idea that he isn't real is kind of, "Duh."

Joshua said...

Yes, it is true that among the Orthodx, especially the right-wing end of MO and the charedi world the attitude towards Jesus is much more negative.

I think that the evidence supports more likely than not that Jesus was a historical figure.

You also touch on something strange I've noticed in the frum community. There seems to be a certain amount of "Jesus didn't exist. But if he did he was evil and crazy." I've always found it interesting that there are no talmudic sources that say Jesus didn't exist (although to be fair, that's not the sort of response that they would have in their mindset)

Johan said...

"The most serious flaw is the reliability of the Gospels as record of what Jesus said."

If you think Jesus was a good man and teacher do you not have to accept the basic reliability of the Gospels? What are you otherwise basing your claim on, given the lack of other sources for his life? What basis do you have for picking certain which parts to believe? (Yes I know you can give arguments that certain parts are more likely to be true than others but it is awfully subjective. Just note how wide the divergence is between various scholarly reconstructions of the "historical Jesus".)

I am not saying this makes Lewis' argument a proof of the divinity of Jesus but I think it does espouse a problem in the "Jesus was a wise teacher"-view.

I find the comment of G^3 interesting. I am not Jewish but I have the impression that the "Jesus was evil" view is the traditional rabbinic one, in part because the rabbis seem to have accepted without questioning that that Jesus taught the things Christians believed.

Certainly the views I have heard expressed from Jewish religious leaders here in Sweden however is different. "He basically taught rabbinic Judaism" is one view I have heard expressed.

Joshua said...

That's certainly a valid set of points. My primary point in mentioning Jews was that at least in the US (and my impression is in many other locations) even many Jews have this attitude. All the more so people who are essentially lapsed Christians.

You make a very good point about how to decide the reliability of the texts. Presumably anyone who isn't Christian has to think the texts are at least somewhat non-reliable, in that they make claims about Jesus's death and resurrection that wouldn't make much sense otherwise. Deciding exactly what is and is not reliable is difficult. My impression is that much of those decisions are made based on philosophical or ideological considerations of what people want Jesus to have said. Sort of how almost everyone in the United States interprets the US Constitution as calling for precisely the government type that they want based on ideology.

Nathaniel said...

First introduced by C.S. Lewis, ...

The fundamental form of the argument, aut deus aut homo malus, antedates C. S. Lewis by nearly a millennium.

The most serious flaw is the reliability of the Gospels as record of what Jesus said.

Lewis does assume, for the sake of his argument, that at least the non-miraculous accounts in the Gospels are as trustworthy as similar records from secular history would be. He addresses the question of hyper-critical biblical scholarship in his essay "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," which is reprinted in Christian Reflections.

We live in a society with few taboos stronger than saying negative statements about Jesus.

This seems to me to be a vast overstatement. Whence the popularity of books by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris? Is there any western cultural phenomenon of similar magnitude invested in, say, the purveying of comparable dreck regarding Martin Luther King Jr.? Anti-racism, not Christianity, is the dominant religion in America today, taught in all of the state-run schools and many of the private schools as well. The taboos about race are much stronger and much more rigorously enforced than any taboos about Jesus.

[T]o most people, the notion that Jesus was either a lunatic or a liar is so repulsive (or politically incorrect) that when faced with those alternatives, they have no choice but to rush to the third possibility. The Trilemma thus rests on implicit cultural norms that Lewis was willing to make explicit. His successors have been less forthcoming.

Trying to explain in causal terms why people accept the conclusion of an argument is no substitute for grappling with the argument directly -- in fact, it is an excellent example of what Lewis calls "Bulverism."

James Still's analysis may pass muster with the Internet Infidel crowd, but he hardly digs deeply enough to make for a serious critique. He never lays out the deep structure of the argument and therefore glides along the surface. Consider his principal criticism: that the argument leaves out the possibility that Jesus was honestly mistaken. Now, if instead of trying to interpret a popularizer like Josh McDowell, he had made an attempt to lay out Lewis’s argument more rigorously, how would that have looked? Perhaps something like this:

1. Either Jesus was God, or he was not.
2. If he was not, either he knew that he was not, or he did not know that he was not.
3. If he knew that he was not, then -- given the claims he made for himself -- he was a liar.
4. If he did not know that he was not, then -- given the claims he made for himself -- he was nuts.
Therefore,
5. Either Jesus was God, or he was a liar, or he was nuts.

The "honestly mistaken" criticism must be an attack on premise 4. But how does a first century Jew get the "honestly mistaken" idea that he can forgive sins? Which of the prophets from the Old Testament arrogates this right to himself? How does he get the "honestly mistaken" view that "before Abraham was, I AM"?

Still's attempt to contrast wide- and narrow-scope readings of knowledge ascriptions is beside the point: the trilemma does not rest on any such ambiguity. The appearance to the contrary is simply an artifact of Still’s defective interpretation of the argument.

It does not seem to me that you have engaged seriously with the argument as refined in the discussion to which I earlier referred you, here. Note that Valicella acknowledges in the long thread following his OP that his conception of the trilemma was inadequate. "I think," he writes, "it is a clear case of the comments being better than the original post." So your reference to Valicella’s critique backfires; he retracts most of it in the discussion of the very post to which you link.

Apikores said...

"It is not at all implausible that Jesus didn’t claim to be the Son of God, but such claims were later asserted by followers."

That reminded me of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who never explicitly claimed that he was the Messiah, but many of his followers now claim that he is.

Joshua said...

Nathaniel, you raise some very interesting points.

A quick question: I'm aware that there are versions of the argument that predate Lewis. However, all of the ones I know about date from the 19th century. Do you have a citation that it as old as you claim?


Lewis does assume, for the sake of his argument, that at least the non-miraculous accounts in the Gospels are as trustworthy as similar records from secular history would be. He addresses the question of hyper-critical biblical scholarship in his essay "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,"


This is to some extent an argument that again works more against the more modern versions of the argument than Lewis's own. Lewis is wrong to treat the accounts in the New Testament as historically accurate for a variety of reasons but I'd rather not get into that.

This seems to me to be a vast overstatement. Whence the popularity of books by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris? Is there any western cultural phenomenon of similar magnitude invested in, say, the purveying of comparable dreck regarding Martin Luther King Jr.?

This argument fails at many different levels. First, Hitchens and the like don't spend much time actually addressing the morality of Jesus as a person. Indeed, the only claims I've ever seen Hitchens make in this regard is to argue that Jesus a) probably didn't exist and b) almost certainly never existed. If you have a source for him attacking Jesus himself, I'd be interested in seeing it. Harris is a different category where there have been some more direct attacks. But in fact these books are a very recent phenomenon, dating really to the last 5 years or so. If the primary people breaking the taboo are people who care so much about this issue that they are writing books about what they don't like about Christianity...

(I'm unhappy with much of what Hitchens and Harris have both wrote. But "dreck" seems like an extremely strong statement not justified by the evidence).

You also seem to miss a point: I wasn't attempting to grapple with the Trilemma in detail. There's nothing wrong with looking at why people might be inclined to accept an argument. It would be Bulverism if I said "so the argument fails." Looking at why people prefer one line of reasoning over another is a perfectly valid form of inquiry as long as one doesn't conclude from that anything about the validity of the argument. I've attempted to avoid doing so. Maybe I was not explicit enough. It isn't a very good argument but that's independent of why it is so persuasive.

As to your question about honestly mistaken the answer is simple: Not in terms necessary of forgiveness of sins which has to do to some extent with later Christian beliefs which aren't that extensive in Jesus's actual statements, but more in Jesus' claim of messiahood. If the New Testament description of his life has minimal accuracy it isn't unreasonable for him to have said "Hey, I seem to fit some of these prophecies, maybe I'm the target."

As to the more refined argument, I'm not very interested in it. I have zero problem accepting the possibility that Jesus may have been crazy or a megalomaniac. I would note that neither implies that he didn't have some good ideas. Or he may have been genuinely evil. I don't know. Taken together with the problems of the reliability of the text I fail to find this interesting(if the text is reliable then he was born and ressurrected so why bother having this argument at all?)

Lewis's version of the argument is of course more refined and subtle than most others. That shouldn't be surprising given that Lewis was a much brighter individual and much clearer thinker than most modern apologists. But it is still at a fundamental level not a terribly impressive argument.

Joshua said...

Apikores, yes. And moreover, look at how the mesichistim have tried to twist statements by the Rebbe to make them sound more like he was Mesiach. Now imagine what happens when you can do that with statements that are oral or written down rather than videotaped.

Joshua said...

Oh, and just realized that I repeated the Cantor example from one of the commentators in the thread in question. So um, yeah credit to that guy.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

Re: the history of the trilemma: Glad you asked, since both Wikipedia and the internet infidel crowd seems to be behind the curve on this one. The basic idea can be found as far back as the middle of the fourth century. It takes this form in Marius Victorinus Afer:

Haec dicens Deus fuit, si mentitus non est: si autem mentitus est, non opus Dei omnimodis perfectum. (De Gen. I, 1020 C (Migne))

Lewis is wrong to treat the accounts in the New Testament as historically accurate for a variety of reasons but I'd rather not get into that.

I think you're going to need to, since without it, you haven't displayed a valid critique of the argument. Remember that Lewis isn't an inerrantist; he just thinks that the Gospels are reportage pretty close up to the facts, nearly as close as Boswell was to Johnson.

I realize that your point in this post wasn't to assess the trilemma. But to assume without serious argument that it is faulty and then proceed to explain why people find it persuasive is, well, unpersuasive, and unsatisfying as well. (Of course, it's your blog.)

Still's critique is incompetent; Valicella's, which was better, was rapidly revised and in the end largely withdrawn. If you think there is a serious problem with the argument, you will have to do something more than point to those two critiques in order to convince anyone who does not already agree with you.

Re: Hitchens on Jesus: this doesn't sound too good. Neither does this, say, around 1:15 to 1:30. If there's such a strong taboo about making negative statements about Jesus, why is Hitchens's audience laughing? Or how about George Carlin? That's not a phenomenon from the last five years. So you'll just have to color me skeptical on your claim that this taboo is so overwhelming that it explains why people find the trilemma cogent.

Joshua said...

Nathaniel,

Regarding Hitchens, you seem to be correct there. However, the underlying point is still quite strong. That an audience would laugh isn't evidence: Who do you think goes to listens to Hitchens. That the next example is George Carlin if anything undermines the claim. This is after all, the same comedian who did the "Seven Dirty Words" sketch.

As to why I consider why the New Testament accounts to not be reliable: The primary reason I don't want to get into that in detail is that many people have spent years arguing over those sort of issues and simply listing a few points in a comment thread could hardly do the issue justice.

But in brief: Of the four major Gospel accounts, three appear to be commonly sourced in some form. The lack of attribution in those sources themselves doesn't help matters. Even given that there are major contradictions in the basic story. Indeed, the central claims of Christianity focus around the Resurrection. Yet here is where the least consistency occurs. That's not a problem that can be wiped away by saying one isn't an inerrantist. It is a deep problem in general. There's a degree of problems that can simply be handled by saying one isn't an inerrantist. The problems in the texts go far beyond that.

This is in addition to the fact that we know that even eye-witness testimony is incredibly unreliable and we have no guarantee that even a single one of the Gospels is actually a contemporary account.

The Jesus Seminar's work has some relevance here. Although there are some valid criticisms of their work, the basic point that the gospels are not terribly reliable is at this point understood by most serious scholars in the area.

Joshua said...

And again, I have little problem saying that Jesus was insane or way lying or both. So that premise isn't a valid premise as far as I'm concerned. The real curiosity is how many people seem to deeply have problems with that sort of notion. (And no, the fact that Hitchens and Carlin and the like exist really doesn't change much what the overall viewpoint is)

Etienne Vouga said...

That Jesus's miracles were largely fabricated or exaggerated ex post facto to conform to Old Testament prophecy/messiah tropes of the time is accepted by all but the most conservative Christian scholars and clergy; there's not much controversy there. (With the notable exception of the resurrection, which I won't attempt to defend.)

As I see it, Christianity at its core is the belief that the teachings of Jesus (as recorded in the parables of the New Testament) are a good foundation upon which to build your life. Which is why I too am puzzled there's so much ado about whether or not Jesus was divine, came back from the dead, was a liar, was mad, or even existed at all: the message is quite independent of the messenger.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

And no, the fact that Hitchens and Carlin and the like exist really doesn't change much what the overall viewpoint is

It isn't the existence of Hitchens and Carlin but rather the existence of wide audiences for them that I am citing as evidence against your sweeping claim. That the people who go to hear Christopher Hitchens laugh at what Christopher Hitchens says does not seem to me to undermine the point -- that there are such people at all, lots of them, enough of them to subsidize his speaking fee, over and over again. Ditto for George Carlin. (And I could name more.)

It almost seems as though you are saying that if someone who says unpleasant things about Jesus also says other unpleasant things, then his popularity does not count against the claim that the taboo against saying negative things about Jesus is one of our strongest cultural taboos. Surely you can't mean that.

There is a broad consensus that the Synoptics share some common source material. But what that is is less clear. Markan priority? Perhaps, but that doesn't account for wide areas of divergence in ordering of pericopes, such as we find in Matthew 4 - 13. Q? We don't have it. Jerusalem catechesis? Maybe.

The two-source hypothesis, having had about a century of dominance, is now on the wane thanks to the work of scholars like Wenham, Goodacre and Wright.

Joshua said...

Nathaniel, in a society as diverse as ours there will always be a large number of people who don't agree with certain taboos. Moreover, it is noteworthy that the main fans of Hitchens et. al. are young people.

It would be accurate to say that not everyone has this taboo. However, it is a taboo that is quite common, especially among people who grew up in either a Christian home or in a heavily Christian environment. Among those people, this is a particularly effective apologetic. But you are correct that the taboo is by no means universal.

Regarding the sourcing of the Synoptic gospels. I agree that there is a lot of disagreement over exactly what happened. My own reading has left me thoroughly confused on the matter (especially in regards to whether Q existed). However, that doesn't change the overall synoptic nature.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

Regarding the reliability of the gospels, I would be interested to know whether you have made any serious study of the matter. Your citation of the Jesus Seminar is not a good sign; they are widely regarded (e.g. by Luke Timothy Johnson, who is hardly a conservative by any definition) as solid representatives of the lunatic fringe of New Testament Studies.

I think a good cure for the Jesus Seminar syndrome is to do some serious study of some other episodes in comparably ancient secular history. Doing this gives one a wider perspective on questions of Quellenforschung and discrepancies in narratives of the same events.

An evenhanded treatment of the sorts of things commonly called discrepancies in the resurrection narratives would also trim that list down to realistic size. Bart Ehrman, for example, in his 2009 debate with Mike Licona, asks rhetorically, "Well, who went to the tomb on the third day? Did Mary Magdelene go alone, or did Mary go with other women? It depends which gospel you read." (6:20-35) But in John 20:2, Mary makes it plain by her use of the plural pronoun that there were multiple people there for the discovery of the empty tomb. The fact that the story focuses on Mary does not, therefore, entail that there were no others there; in fact, John's narrative expressly indicates the contrary.

Or take Ehrman's very next question: "If with other women, how many of them were there, what were their names, and which ones were they? [It] depends which gospels you read." Yes, different accounts list different names. But why must all -- or any -- of the lists be complete in order for the accounts to be consistent?

For some perspective, look at the varying accounts of the death of Julius Caesar. Who approached Caesar first? Dio gives no name; Seneca names him "Tillius Cimber"; Plutarch calls him "Metillius Cimber" in one place and "Tullius Cimber" in another; and Appian names him "Atilius Cimber." Such discrepancies in matters of detail are the norm in the study of primary sources for ancient history. And these are all attempts to name one and the same person: the first assassin to approach Caesar. Compared to this confusion, the mere listing of, say, Joanna as a member of a group of women in one gospel where another gospel expressly says, and yet another merely indicates indirectly, that there was a group of women, is positively harmonious.

This sort of scrambling search for non-existent or trivial discrepancies as a ground for dismissing multiple detailed narratives would not be tolerated in any other historical field. In fact, most historians and classicists who work in the first century to whom I have spoken -- and my work brings me into contact with a fair number of them across the scholarly spectrum -- find the attitude of skeptical New Testament scholars perverse.

For an entry into the world of New Testament scholarship that takes the canons of ordinary historical inquiry seriously, you might want to have a look at Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006) or Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (2009).

Joshua said...

Nathaniel,

The primary problem with the Jesus Seminar is very simple: They let their own ideology and theology get in the way of telling what was likely original material. I am using them merely as an example of the general consensus that these texts have serious problems.

Your example of Caesar's assassin isn't a particularly good one. Indeed, in the examples given, there's clearly no disagreement beyond minor variations in the name. They are however all the same name. That sort of discrepancy simply doesn't compare to the wide range of discrepancies in the New Testament accounts. For example, the one you picked out, concerning which women went to Jesus's tomb doesn't even take into account that the narrative section there doesn't even just conflict a single Gospel but conflicts with all of them.

The Gospels also suffer from signs of late writing (Seneca died for example lived closer to the time of Caesar than the writer of John did), signs of serious editing, and contradictions with other historical records (such as the timing of the census surrounding Jesus's birth).

Moreover, central claims of the Gospels are miraculous in nature. Some of them are not only miraculous but involve miracles which if they had occurred would have been noted elsewhere (most blatantly the claimed opening of graves and the earthquake which aren't described anywhere else). If your sources have serious problems then they can't be used as evidence for miracles (by a simple Hume's razor approach). Moreover, the presence of claimed miracles not backed up by other records is evidence of the lack of reliability of the sources as a whole.

In any event, claiming that we have "multiple detailed narratives" when it is clear that the Synoptic gospels are deeply interrelated is to use the word you prefer, perverse. Similar remarks apply to John when it is written at least 30 years after the events described. The fact that the sources don't say so but rather claim to be eyewitness accounts further damages their credibility.

No one other than a deeply religious Jew would accept narrative in the Talmud for essentially the same reasons above. Maybe therefore I should ask, would you consider the Talmud a reliable source for historical details? And if not, why the difference?

(I'll take a look at the sources you give when I have time, but as a quick heuristic, the fact that you need to point to two individuals who are both religious Christians as your evidence doesn't seem to be incredibly compelling).

Joshua said...
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Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

You attempt to deflect the Caesar example by saying that “there’s clearly no disagreement beyond minor variations in the name.” This observation is quite correct; yet on even less ground, Ehrman asserts a contradiction among the gospels regarding the party of women who went to the tomb. For in the case of Caesar, every source is attempting to name the same person, whereas in the gospels, the sources are merely indicating some people who were in a group -- plausibly, the individuals from whom the author heard the story. I’ve only just begun on Caesar: there are lots more “discrepancies” in those narratives.

That sort of discrepancy simply doesn't compare to the wide range of discrepancies in the New Testament accounts. For example, the one you picked out, concerning which women went to Jesus's tomb doesn't even take into account that the narrative section there doesn't even just conflict a single Gospel but conflicts with all of them.

Let’s examine the alleged contradiction regarding the group of women at the tomb.

Matthew 28:1 Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.

Two names; no comment on whether this is a complete list.

Mark 16:1-2 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.

Three names; no comment on whether this is a complete list. One of the names is a definite match for one in Matthew; a second one might or might not be. No contradiction so far.

Luke 24:10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.

Three names; two overlapping with Mark; clear declaration that this is not a complete list.

John 20:1-2 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

One name; clear indication by the use of the plural pronoun that this is not a complete list.

Where, in all of this, is the supposed contradiction?

I am not arguing that there are no real errors in the resurrection accounts (or elsewhere). Some errors and confusions would be only normal for real history. But careless or demonstrably uncharitable reading greatly exaggerates the length of the lists of supposed contradictions.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

[Sorry to break this up; you've got a 4096 character limit, so this is Part 2 of 3.]

The Gospels also suffer from signs of late writing (Seneca died for example lived closer to the time of Caesar than the writer of John did), ...

You’ll need to provide argument here. On the traditional view, John was a disciple of Jesus; if so, he was obviously alive when Jesus was. Seneca was born about when Jesus was born, by which time Caesar had been dead for four decades.

... signs of serious editing, ...

Some editing? Sure: long ending of Mark; pericope adulterae; Johanine comma -- the sort of stuff we can discover by textual comparison. Serious editing? I find the arguments for this that I have read unpersuasive.

... and contradictions with other historical records (such as the timing of the census surrounding Jesus's birth).

It seems to me probable that the census question is simply a mistranslation of Luke’s terse Greek in Luke 2:2, where εγενετο can be read (as, e.g., Calvin read it) "set in motion," a meaning it does bear in other classical writings.

But waive that: suppose that Luke really did commit a blunder regarding the date of an event that probably happened before he was born. Shall we throw out all histories of comparable antiquity that make a mistake in dating something? Whoops! There goes Josephus, who can’t seem to keep straight the date at which Herod the Great began to build the second Temple.

Aside from the issue of the census, prima facie contradictions between the gospels and other credible historical records are going to be difficult to find.

Moreover, central claims of the Gospels are miraculous in nature.

No argument here.

Some of them are not only miraculous but involve miracles which if they had occurred would have been noted elsewhere (most blatantly the claimed opening of graves and the earthquake which aren't described anywhere else).

This passage is probably your best hope here. But see below.

If your sources have serious problems then they can't be used as evidence for miracles (by a simple Hume's razor approach).

That depends on the nature of the problems. Historians deal with this issue all the time. Even a document with serious, obvious, identifiable problems may give us valuable and trustworthy information. Let me know if you want an example.

Moreover, the presence of claimed miracles not backed up by other records is evidence of the lack of reliability of the sources as a whole.

In a modern, news-saturated, information-retaining society, this sort of argument from silence has some bite. For antiquity, where we have lost the vast majority of the works that were written at the time, it is pretty much worthless. Besides, in what record from Palestine during the two decades just before the destruction of Jerusalem would you expect to hear about the Christian miracles? Columella’s treatise on planting trees? The Satyricon of Petronius? Who would you expect to preserve such accounts? Jaded Stoic philosophers? Roman diplomats? Devout Jews? Worshippers of Serapis in Alexandria? Or ... Christians?

Your best shot with this sort of argument is Matthew 27:52-53, which isn’t even mentioned by other Christian sources. I don’t have a theory to sell you here. Could be apocalyptic imagery; could be a marginal interpolation. It certainly isn’t required for the narrative flow in Matthew.

But there aren't many examples like that in the gospels. And one, by itself, isn't going to get you very far.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

[Part 3 of 3 here.]

In any event, claiming that we have "multiple detailed narratives" when it is clear that the Synoptic gospels are deeply interrelated is to use the word you prefer, perverse.

Their interrelationships may be used to discount multiple attestation when it is clearly borrowed. But there is also enough independent material in the Synoptics, particularly in the resurrection narratives, to qualify them as separate narratives. Just consider the lists of names of women at the tomb, incomplete as they are. No two name exactly and only the same women. Consider the fact that Mark’s gospel is truncated at 16:8, which was obviously not the original ending. You cannot have it both ways: you cannot fairly say of the resurrection narratives both that they are, tout court, too similar to be independent and that they are so contradictory that they cannot be credible. Take your pick.

Similar remarks apply to John when it is written at least 30 years after the events described. The fact that the sources don't say so but rather claim to be eyewitness accounts further damages their credibility.

Luke follows Mark’s order fairly closely when he is reporting parallel events. (Matthew does in some places but not in others; look at the ordering of pericopes in Matthew 4:12-13:58 and try to line them up with Mark’s order, and you’ll discover something interesting.) Luke is also the one author who tells us up front that he is using sources, and it’s a very reasonable bet that Mark’s gospel was among them. It’s hard to say how that could damage his credibility. John claims to be an eyewitness; and, after reading several thousand pages of argument on both sides of this issue, I rather believe that he was.

No one other than a deeply religious Jew would accept narrative in the Talmud for essentially the same reasons above. Maybe therefore I should ask, would you consider the Talmud a reliable source for historical details? And if not, why the difference?

It is useful for some details, though obviously, since much of the material there was written many generations later than the events in question and without historical intent, it has to be treated quite carefully. R. Travers Herford's book gives a good sense of what can and what cannot be done in this regard. So my answer, in simplest form, would be that this is a very bad parallel indeed.

(I'll take a look at the sources you give when I have time, but as a quick heuristic, the fact that you need to point to two individuals who are both religious Christians as your evidence doesn't seem to be incredibly compelling).

I pointed you towards these sources for their arguments, not for their authority.

Lautreamont said...
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Lautreamont said...

Oh Nathaniel and Josh,

In the end, having read both all your posts and, like Nathaniel, "thousands of pages" on the subject which you two are discussing, in my humble opinion 'Etienne Vouga' had it pretty much dead right in his post above. Honestly, from the standpoint of any person well versed in the wild contradictions, excising, and obvious formation of the New Testament as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, the conversation really could have stopped with Etienne. Or, really, any scholar who can stand back and simply read the literature upon the subject and interpret it without a religious bias would also, in the end, have stopped the conversation with Etienne's post.

I could mention the fact that Nathaniel's hotly defended John insists Jesus wasn't even born in Bethlehem, I could get into a conversation over the Nag Hammadi library or, say, major anthropological and historical studies currently being done on Gnosticism and the life of Jesus, but I will not. Simply read Etienne's eloquent post and this debate can stop.

One final note: in the last sentence you wrote above Nathaniel I must agree with you. You chose these semi-bogus and utterly Christian-slanted writers not for any authority, respect, or clout they may have earned in the intellectual world but, rather, because their arguments agree with your own. I am glad that you at least ended your posts with a bit of truth.

Nathaniel said...

Lautreamont,

I could mention the fact that Nathaniel's hotly defended John insists Jesus wasn't even born in Bethlehem

Really? John says -- no, insists -- that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem? I'd love to see a reference for that one.

Lautreamont said...

John 7:41-42

Obviously this passage can be understood in a few different ways and I do not claim to have the monopoly on them. I am simply interpreting how 9 out of 10 bible scholars currently do.

Lautreamont said...

Indeed, perhaps 'suggests' or 'posits' would have been better word choices.

Nathaniel said...

Lautreamont,

All that is suggested by this passage is that the people who were gossiping about Jesus knew that he had come from Galilee and assumed that he had been born there. There was a common prejudice against Galilee (see verse 52), so plausibly this was the argument being used by those opposed to him. But the narrator is reporting what they were saying -- nothing more. Any commentator who presses this for John's own opinion is simply overreaching.

This is the standard interpretation; I have not checked every commentary I own, but a spot check fails to turn up any contrary opinions. So now you've got me curious; which commentators that you're reading are interpreting this as John's own opinion?

Joshua Zelinsky said...

Nathaniel, sorry about the 4096 limit. That's due to blogger. I'm not aware of any way of changing that setting.

You’ll need to provide argument here. On the traditional view, John was a disciple of Jesus; if so, he was obviously alive when Jesus was. Seneca was born about when Jesus was born, by which time Caesar had been dead for four decades.

I may be slightly confused here. I thought this was Seneca the elder yes not the younger Seneca? The older Seneca is born around 50 BCE or slightly earlier (Caesar was killed in 44 BCE). The younger Seneca is the one who was born around the time of Jesus.

And yes, while Luke does say he is using sources, Matthew does not. Regarding the dating of John, while there are people who consider it to be an eyewitness account, my impression is that the majority of scholars date it to much later, with many dating it as far as 90 CE. Even if one dates it to 60 CE (being generous) one is still writing 30 years after events.

It is useful for some details, though obviously, since much of the material there was written many generations later than the events in question and without historical intent, it has to be treated quite carefully. R. Travers Herford's book gives a good sense of what can and what cannot be done in this regard. So my answer, in simplest form, would be that this is a very bad parallel indeed.

It isn't a perfect analogy but the basic point I would make is that the fundamental critiques of it as a set of historical documents are similar: Internal contradictions, lack of reliable transmission, repeated miraculous claims, contradictions with reliable external sources.

I pointed you towards these sources for their arguments, not for their authority.

Joshua Zelinsky said...

And my response in that context was regarding the claim you made that the views you've advocated are what most mainstream scholars on this matter think.

I'm interested by your focus on the matter of who was at the tomb. Frankly, I'd agree that that is one of the less serious contradictions and it is plausible by itself. But at a certain point, when one sees so many contradictions one has to ask "is this scholarship or is this apologetics?" Any given contradiction may have a minimally plausible explanation, but at a certain point, the total number points to simply lack of reliability.

Some editing? Sure: long ending of Mark; pericope adulterae; Johanine comma -- the sort of stuff we can discover by textual comparison. Serious editing? I find the arguments for this that I have read unpersuasive.

The techniques we have by nature pick up things which are very stylistically distinct. We can't pick up modifications that don't suffer from the same degree of stylistic change. Here's the crux: We have a list (and you've done a good job of listing some of the major examples) of some things we unambiguously know are edited. If we see this much editing, the probability of other editing that we can't see is very high. And it doesn't take much editing to change the flow, narrative and basic claims.

But waive that: suppose that Luke really did commit a blunder regarding the date of an event that probably happened before he was born. Shall we throw out all histories of comparable antiquity that make a mistake in dating something? Whoops! There goes Josephus, who can’t seem to keep straight the date at which Herod the Great began to build the second Temple.

Well, Josephus is making a claim about events where there was a much longer time gap, so that mistake is more understandable. However, that's more or less correct: Josephus is not a very reliable source. He is very much a source that needs to be read quite carefully. And again, in the case of the Gospels, it isn't any single problem that is an issue but the collective.

You cannot have it both ways: you cannot fairly say of the resurrection narratives both that they are, tout court, too similar to be independent and that they are so contradictory that they cannot be credible. Take your pick.

Actually, you can. There are two different issues here: 1) Similarities of the sort that only make sense if there is a shared source 2) contradictions of other types. It is to use an analogy a common principle for understanding eyewitness testimony in courts: The style of testimony changes much more than when witnesses colluded before hand to lie. However, witnesses in some respects are much more likely to contradict each other if they colluded to make claims about something which is either false or they didn't see. The type of contradiction is different from the type of similarity.

If the sources were all decent eyewitnesses one might expect fewer overlapping pericopes and fewer contradictions.

Regarding miracles: I agree with you that the section in Matthew could be a later interpolation. However, here is something where to paraphrase what you said, you really can't have it both ways. You can't say that there wasn't major editing and take any inconvenient part of the text as possibly due to editing.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

No worries on 4096. It even makes sense, in a way -- otherwise someone could come dump his dissertation (or something worse) in your combox.

And my response in that context was regarding the claim you made that the views you've advocated are what most mainstream scholars on this matter think.

Ahh, then you misunderstood me. What I actually was trying to say is that "mainstream" in Biblical Studies is pretty far out of line with established cannons of inquiry in secular history. The two works to which I was referring you are examples of works by scholars who employ the tools of secular history to the New Testament documents. That's all.

I may be slightly confused here. I thought this was Seneca the elder yes not the younger Seneca?

Seneca the Younger, Epistle 83.

And yes, while Luke does say he is using sources, Matthew does not.

I lean toward Zahn's hypothesis that when Matthew's gospel was translated from Aramaic into Greek, the translator had a copy of, or at least knowledge of, Mark's Gospel; this accounts for such similarity of language as we find in common scenes. But note that the common language is largely centered in quotations, whether from Jesus, from the Jewish scriptures, or from others. If you separate out the direct quotations (more likely to have been committed to memory) from the rest of the narrative, the level of verbal similarity drops pretty sharply.

Regarding the dating of John, while there are people who consider it to be an eyewitness account, my impression is that the majority of scholars date it to much later, with many dating it as far as 90 CE.

Both are correct: most of those who consider it to be an eyewitness take it to have been written by John (or perhaps another disciple) in his extreme old age, as multiple attestations from the fathers of the 2nd century concur. So it is both 60 years after the events and eyewitness testimony -- not at all improbable. (Ever talk to a WWII vet?)

Nathaniel said...

Josephus is not a very reliable source. He is very much a source that needs to be read quite carefully.

Josephus is variable, particularly when he's whitewashing Roman behavior or depicting the follies of the Jewish people. (In this latter respect, the gospels are about midway between Josephus and Philo.) But sometimes he is spectacularly accurate with details, right down to the color of the paint on Herod's bedroom wall. (Yup.) In overall reliability, he's somewhere between Livy and Tacitus. (Even Livy is more reliable when he's writing about things within a century of his own lifetime than when writing about legendary figures like Romulus and Remus from seven centuries back.) On the whole, Josephus is a terrifically important source; historians absolutely do take him seriously, even though there are discrepancies and other problems here and there. By the standard of historical sources, Josephus deserves respect.

And again, in the case of the Gospels, it isn't any single problem that is an issue but the collective.

My contention is that if you will look soberly at the evidence, pro and con, you will come away with the impression that the gospels are much better source material than you now believe them to be. The list of discrepancies so frequently bandied about is swollen by the inclusion of things (like the names of the women at the tomb) that aren't discrepancies at all; of what remain, some are probably due to our ignorance, some depend on debatable readings, and the rest (assuming them all to be genuine errors and contradictions) are more or less what we deal with in reasonably reliable historical works all the time.

That doesn't mean that we are forced to accept the accounts of supernatural events at face value. But it does mean that the attempt to avoid engaging with the evidence by hiding behind inflated lists of contradictions is not an option.

Regarding the resurrection narratives, these are the places where there is the least ground for claiming literary dependence. Moreover, there are internal marks of authenticity that become visible when you cross-compare the gospels at the points where they differ.

On the passage regarding the graves in Matthew: actually, I'm not trying to have it both ways. I'm simply pointing out that those two short verses -- 28 words of Greek -- might have been a marginal gloss that was later interpolated. It's the right size for a margin, and it wouldn't amount to serious editing if that turned out to be the true origin of the passage. But since we do not have any serious textual evidence on this point, it can only be a conjecture.

Nathaniel said...

If we see this much editing, the probability of other editing that we can't see is very high. And it doesn't take much editing to change the flow, narrative and basic claims.

Actually, I disagree. These passages stand out like sore thumbs with basic textual comparison; they aren't hard to find, and it's not likely that very many similar interpolations could have happened without leaving a similar textual footprint.

The Mark 16 and John 8 passages are the only ones of that length that appear to have been inserted after the fact. Ehrman's list of the "Top 10 Verses that were Not Originally in the New Testament" actually sets him at odds in several places with most textual scholars, including his mentor at Princeton, Bruce Metzger.

Regarding the analogy between the gospels and the Talmud, you write:

It isn't a perfect analogy but the basic point I would make is that the fundamental critiques of it as a set of historical documents are similar: Internal contradictions, lack of reliable transmission, repeated miraculous claims, contradictions with reliable external sources.

I would respond that, by contrast, the gospels show a high degree of internal coherence, they were written within living memory of the events, the miraculous claims are surprisingly unelaborated (by contrast with what we know about legends), and they exhibit a remarkably high degree -- for Luke/Acts, an extraordinary degree -- of coherence with reliable external sources. The doubtful passage about the census aside (and I've indicated above how I think that one should be understood) what other source do you have in mind that actually contradicts the gospels?

Shalmo said...

about the birth of Jesus

While the historical evidence is meager, it does exist. In his Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, chapter 9, item 1, referring to the execution of James, Josephus refers to him as the brother of “Jesus, who was called the Christ.” It is quite plain that Josephus didn’t see Jesus as the Christ (Christos, the Greek word meaning “anointed”), he merely recorded that James’ brother was the Jesus who had been called or was alleged to be the Christ.

Beyond this scrap, valuable though it is, we can imply the existence of a historical Jesus from the criteria of embarrassment and difficulty. The criterion of embarrassment says that people do not make up embarrassing details about someone they wish to revere. So, if they say such things about the person, they are probably true. Now let’s apply this to what the Roman historian Tacitus had to say about Jesus early in the second century. Concerning rumors that had spread that Nero had deliberately set fire to the city of Rome, Tacitus says (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 1, Chapter 15):

To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats — and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.

That Tacitus is obviously a hostile witness makes it much more likely that he accepted Jesus as a real person. Had he reason to suspect he was nothing more than a fabrication, Tacitus would certainly have said so. That author’s claim that Jesus had been executed by Pontius Pilate could only have come from one of two possible sources: Either Tacitus knew this to be true from extant imperial records or he was repeating what Christians themselves had said of Jesus. Were Jesus a mythical character they had invented, they certainly wouldn’t have gone out of their way to invent his being a criminal who had been executed.

In like manner, people do not go out of their way to invent difficulties for a character they have invented. It is clear from the Nativity narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke that they were faced with having to explain why Jesus grew up in Galilee if he was born in Bethlehem. Both gospels had to invent rather convoluted means to get Jesus born in Bethlehem in accordance with the messianic prophecy in Micah 5:2, then get him moved to Nazareth. Clearly they were stuck with a real person known to have come from Galilee, when he should have come from Bethlehem. Had they been making Jesus up out of whole cloth, they would simply have said he came from Bethlehem: end of story, no complications.

So the evidence for Jesus as a real, historical personage, though meager, is solid."

Joshua said...

Shalmo, I don't think anyone in this thread is arguing for the non-existence of Jesus. Moreover, I don't think anyone even someone who would argue that he didn't exist would argue that the Gospels made him up out of whole cloth. That's a bit of a strawman.

Your point about Tacitus also doesn't work. Tacitus wouldn't say that Jesus didn't exist unless he had a good reason to. Moreover, the idea that someone might be claimed to have existed and yet not have existed requires a very modern sort of thinking.

(Note I think that on balance it is more likely than not that he existed. I just don't think you've made a good case for it)

Shalmo said...

Nathiel speaking on the ressurection you said:

"Moreover, there are internal marks of authenticity that become visible when you cross-compare the gospels at the points where they differ."

I haven't been following the discussion but everyone agrees the last 12 verses of Mark were latter additions. Clearly if the oldest gospel contains forgies on the resurrection then there is no debate to be had

I have no idea how any rational person could come to the conclusion the ressurection has any evidence of authenticity in areas where they different

Its quite obvious what's going on. The resurrection is biult gospel by gospel. Mark has a minimal account, Mathew and Luke make it more spectacular, and finally John is the one that has the angels and the great calling. Basically the resurrection biult up, made more and more spectacular with details added as newer gospels were written.

I might also add the idea of a dieing/resurrecting god are as old as Horus. Horus and Seth being a good influence on Jesus' war with Satan in christian mythology.

Paul was eager to convert gentiles, hence he removed circumcision and dietary laws, to make conversion easier. And what better way to convert the pagans than give them a deity they already were used to; a dieing/resurrecting gods a theme which repeats itself thoughout various roman mythologies. The gospels simply followed suit.

that there are no contemporary sources that even remotely verify the mass earth quakes, resurrections, and the light show that took place during jesus' supposed ressurection is enough to classify it as mythology

Ehrman does a good job in "Jesus Interrupted" showing how after Jesus disappeared, and there was no messianic era, forced christians to reinterpret Jesus from political messiah to suffering messiah. case closed!

Joshua said...

Nathaniel,

Regarding Josephus, the point is that the problems are understood. He's given a lot of respect. But one major reason for that is that stuff he describes close to his time period often fits archaelogical data. But much of what he says we don't take seriously at all. For example, his explanations of where each nation came from and which tribal groups came from which is more or less regarded as utter junk (except by some Orthodox Jews).

Ahh, then you misunderstood me. What I actually was trying to say is that "mainstream" in Biblical Studies is pretty far out of line with established cannons of inquiry in secular history. The two works to which I was referring you are examples of works by scholars who employ the tools of secular history to the New Testament documents. That's all.

I'll take a look but I'm honestly surprised. I mean, is there no historian who normally studies other stuff and has gone on record saying there's something seriously wrong with how everyone is looking at the New Testament? Frankly, that these are again, people with clear theological axes it doesn't sound very convincing. If there was that much of a discrepancy one would expect other historians to say so, quite loudly.

Thanks for clearing up the Seneca matter. Seneca the Younger is in that case, not a great source since he's very late. In fact, he may even be relying on some of the others you mention. The major saving grace is that since Caesar was such a major figure we know that a lot of information about him was transmitted in many documents and (less reliably) as common knowledge.

These passages stand out like sore thumbs with basic textual comparison; they aren't hard to find, and it's not likely that very many similar interpolations could have happened without leaving a similar textual footprint.

Right, but the methodology by nature can only reliably detect such edits. If there were edits that were closer stylistically we simply wouldn't detect them. So the most we can say is that there were many edits and that if there were other major edits then we can't detect them in our current version.

I would respond that, by contrast, the gospels show a high degree of internal coherence, they were written within living memory of the events,

They may have been written in living memory. We have no guarantee they were written by the people who saw the events, and eyewitness testimony isn't very reliable over even short time periods even when people have no ideological or other issue influencing their recall. (A fun excercise contrast videos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe with what some of his more messianically inclined followers claim).


the miraculous claims are surprisingly unelaborated (by contrast with what we know about legends),


Really? If one looks at the Tanachic texts the level of elaboration is about the same.


and they exhibit a remarkably high degree -- for Luke/Acts, an extraordinary degree -- of coherence with reliable external sources. The doubtful passage about the census aside (and I've indicated above how I think that one should be understood) what other source do you have in mind that actually contradicts the gospels?


Sure. The most obvious issue is the details with Caiaphas. The idea that the high priest would have been involved in deciding Jesus's fate the way he is described doing doesn't fit well with what the office was for. It is at best, implausible. (There's also as I understand it, some indication that Caiaphas and the pharisees didn't get along well but I don't remember the details and would need to track them down).

Shalmo said...

Joshua:

You haven't dealt with the Galilee - Bethelhem argument I brought forth.

The Gospel writers could easily have just said he came from Bethelhem if they made him up. That they have to account for his presence in Galilee is evidence that they were practicising historical revisionism towards an audience that already knew where Jesus came from.

The reason the gospels come so many decades after Jesus is because they are apologetic tracts designed to solve any problems people have in the Jesus narrative. The above is just one example.

As for Tacitus. Your argument is as ridiculous as it is laughable. The man who is their enemy could simply have said Jesus never existed, and since he is their enemy if an argument against Jesus existing was feesible he surely would have mentioned it. That he does not do it implies he accepted his existence.

Why bother going to the trouble of calling him a criminal who is executed, if he was fictional? Your enemies do NOT do you such favours.

Tacitus is a non-christian, contemporary witness to Jesus. That alone elminates assumed bias.

People don't apply the hyper-skepticism accorded to Jesus that they do any other figure of history. A contemporary account of anyone is enough to verfy a person in any historical background, yet when it comes to Jesus even the words of a hostile witness are not enough. Why is that?

Joshua said...

Shalmo,

The Bethelehem argument I didn't address because it has some validity. (It isn't great, especially because the vast majority of people who think that Jesus didn't exist think that he's a likely composite figure of multiple people. And Jesus isn't an at all uncommon name at the time (or at least Yeshua and Yehoshua were both common)).

Regarding, Tacitus, I think you need to reread what I wrote. Tacitus may not have even had reason to think Jesus didn't exist, and it is an argument form that is in some respect hypermodern. (One sees how unwilling people are to just say that something doesn't exist in any form by how long Christians tried to claim (and a tiny minority still do) that deities from other religions did exist but were really demons).

Incidentally, claiming that Tacitus is a contemporary witness is just wrong. Tacitus was born around 54 CE, 20 years after Jesus's death.

I'm puzzled by your question moreover since most scholars seem to think it is more likely than not that Jesus existed and those who disagree are far more likely to fall into the "inconclusive" than "no he didn't" category. And again, no one in this thread is trying to argue he didn't exist. I'm a bit puzzled by why you think this is a worthwhile line of discussion.

Nathaniel said...

Shalmo,

Manuscript comparison enables us easily to detect the fact that the oldest copies of Mark that we now possess end at 16:8.

Its quite obvious what's going on. The resurrection is biult gospel by gospel. Mark has a minimal account, ...

The unanimous testimony of antiquity is that Matthew’s gospel was the first one written.

Mathew and Luke make it more spectacular, and finally John is the one that has the angels and the great calling. Basically the resurrection biult up, made more and more spectacular with details added as newer gospels were written.

Matthew has by far the most spectacular events at at the tomb. But waiving that, the problem here is that you are using the level of literary drama to argue for the ordering of the gospels and then using the ordering of the gospels thus derived to argue that the “later” ones are literary embelleshments of the “earlier ones” -- a triumph of circular reasoning.

I might also add the idea of a dieing/resurrecting god are as old as Horus. Horus and Seth being a good influence on Jesus' war with Satan in christian mythology.

This claim has been refuted so many times that it is not even worth discussing. Just go here.

that there are no contemporary sources that even remotely verify the mass earth quakes, resurrections, and the light show that took place during jesus' supposed ressurection is enough to classify it as mythology

Arguments from silence are particularly silly when there are no surviving contemporary sources in which we would expect to see any reference to these things if they did happen -- which is the case here.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

You ask:

I mean, is there no historian who normally studies other stuff and has gone on record saying there's something seriously wrong with how everyone is looking at the New Testament? ... If there was that much of a discrepancy one would expect other historians to say so, quite loudly.

Quite so.

[I]t is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from the no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism that the more advanced exponents of it apparently maintain-so far as an amateur can understand the matter-that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of His mission cannot be written. This seems very curious when one compares the case for the best-known contemporary of Christ, who like Christ is a well-documented figure -- Tiberius Caesar. The story of his reign is known from four sources, the Annals of Tacitus and the biography of Suetonius, written some eighty or ninety years later, the brief contemporary record of Vellius Paterculus, and the third century history of Cassius Dio. These disagree amongst themselves in the wildest possible fashion, both in major matters of political action or motive and in specific details of minor events. Everyone would admit that Tacitus is the best of all the sources, and yet no serious modern historian would accept at face value the majority of the statements of Tacitus about the motives of Tiberius. But this does not prevent the belief that the material of Tacitus can be used to write a history of Tiberius. The divergences between the synoptic gospels, or between them and the Fourth Gospel, are no worse than the contradictions in the Tiberius material.

Another example. The internal synoptic divergences, such as arise in the narratives of the trial of Christ, are very similar to those that Roman historians meet in the study of the tribunate of Gaius Gracchus. We have two or even three contradictory versions, for instance, of the content of the most important of the legislative proposals -- a central point in the story -- and there are three divergent versions of the way in which the riot began in which Gaius lost his life. The four accounts of the trial of Christ are not more troublesome. The two cases are rather similar in terms of analysis. The three versions of the death of Gaius aim at attributing the blame for the great riot to different persons or groups. So, too, the mildly divergent versions of the scene before Pilate and the Sanhedrin may aim, as has often been suggested, at transferring the blame for the condemnation of Christ, in varying degrees, from the Romans to the Jews.

The objection will be raised to this line of argument that the Roman historical writers and the Gospels belong to different kinds of literature. Whatever the defects of our sources, their authors were trying to write history, but the authors of the Gospels had a different aim. Yet however one accepts form-criticism, its principles do not inevitably contradict the notion of the basic historicity of the particular stories of which the Gospel narratives are composed, even if these were not shored up and confirmed by the external guarantee of their fabric and setting. That the degree of confirmation in Graeco-Roman terms is less for the Gospels than for Acts is due, as these lectures have tried to show, to the differences in their regional setting. As soon as Christ enters the Roman orbit at Jerusalem, the confirmation begins. For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Yet Acts is, in simple terms and judged externally, no less of a propaganda narrative than the Gospels, liable to similar distortions. But any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.

A. N Sherwin-White, Roman historian, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1963), 187-89.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

More in that vein:

A classical scholar finds it difficult to be patient with some of the exotic theories of literary criticism which have bedevilled New Testament studies. Classical historians have been a little ironical in recent decades over the calculated scepticism of New Testament scholars who refuse to see what the classicists so naturally see – a record of life in the first century, if no more than that, which must at least be accorded its unique value as historical material. . . . [W]hen critical theory seeks to persuade that liturgical and spiritual needs and aspirations, taking shape from nowhere, and within the lifetime of those who had known the first half of the first century, themselves created a supporting literature, the narratives and sayings which form the gospels, fantasy is propounded which would provoke ridicule in any less confined and introverted sphere of literary criticism.

E. M. Blaiklock, Classicist, 1983

Thus the full range of Christian claims must go back to the very earliest followers of Jesus, and in all probability to Jesus himself. . . . I could no longer delude myself that “real” scholarship told us that we have no evidence that Jesus himself, as well as the earliest generation of his followers, made claims for his divinity. The attempt of the biblical critics to show that such claims grew up (or were fabricated) within the Church seemed to be a tissue of bad argument, unhistorical treatment of the sources and wishful thinking: the wish being to make Christianity acceptable to the conventional “liberal” orthodoxy, with its characteristic bad faith, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The resulting “scholarship” was defective to a degree that would not be acceptable in other philological disciplines.

John Rist, Classicist, 1993

Nathaniel said...

Regarding Josephus, the point is that the problems are understood. He's given a lot of respect. But one major reason for that is that stuff he describes close to his time period often fits archaelogical data.

And similarly for the gospel writers, who stood closer to the events they are reporting than Josephus did to most of what he was reporting.

Thanks for clearing up the Seneca matter. Seneca the Younger is in that case, not a great source since he's very late. In fact, he may even be relying on some of the others you mention. The major saving grace is that since Caesar was such a major figure we know that a lot of information about him was transmitted in many documents and (less reliably) as common knowledge.

And yet all of these sources for the death of Caesar give us accounts that can be put together tolerably well, their various discrepancies notwithstanding. On that basis, we’re confident that we have a pretty good picture of the death of Caesar. And the gospel writers are all closer to the facts than any of these sources about Caesar.

Right, but the methodology by nature can only reliably detect such edits. If there were edits that were closer stylistically we simply wouldn't detect them. So the most we can say is that there were many edits and that if there were other major edits then we can't detect them in our current version.

I’m not sure what your point is here. Textual comparison picks up changes introduced into the text. Sure, it’s a statistical matter; it depends on how many documents we have. But the textual evidence for the New Testament is so extensive that there isn’t much doubt about the main text of the gospels.

They may have been written in living memory. We have no guarantee they were written by the people who saw the events, and eyewitness testimony isn't very reliable over even short time periods even when people have no ideological or other issue influencing their recall.

Actually, both internal and external evidence indicates that two of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) and two by people who were reporting on the basis of evidence from eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke). Eyewitness testimony is most likely to be divergent in points of emphasis, inclusion, and detail; it does not follow that it cannot be trusted for the main facts.

Nathaniel said...

the miraculous claims are surprisingly unelaborated (by contrast with what we know about legends),

Really? If one looks at the Tanachic texts the level of elaboration is about the same.

I was referring here to the relatively spare rendering of the miracles in the gospels by comparison to later texts. For example, read Matthew 14:15-21 and then compare it to this account of the same event in Hayat ul Qulub:

Even the twelve Apostles whom he had chosen to propagate the new doctrine, were not steadfast in the faith, and asked of him one day, that he might cause a table, covered with viands, to descend from heaven!

“A table shall be given you,” said a voice from heaven, “but whosoever shall thereafter continue in unbelief shall suffer severe punishment.”

Thereupon there descended two clouds, with a golden table, on which there stood a covered dish of silver.

Many of the Israelites who were present exclaimed, “Behold the sorcerer! what new delusion has he wrought?” But these scoffers were instantly changed into swine. And on seeing it, Christ prayed: “Oh Lord, let this table lead us to salvation and not to ruin!” Then said he to the Apostles, “Let him who is the greatest among you rise and uncover this dish.” But Simon, the oldest apostle, said, “Lord, thou art the most worthy to behold this heavenly food first.” Christ then washed his hands, removed the cover, and said: “In the name of Allah!” and behold there became visible a large baked fish, with neither bones nor scales, and diffused a fragrance around like the fruits of Paradise. Round the fish there lay five small loaves, and on it salt, pepper, and other spices. “Spirit of Allah,” said Simon, “are these viands from this world or from the other?” But Christ replied, “Are not both worlds, and all that they contain, the work of the Lord? Receive whatever he has given with grateful hearts, and ask not whence it comes! But if the appearance of this fish be not sufficiently miraculous to you, you shall behold a still greater sign.” Then, turning to the fish, he said, “Live! by the will of the Lord.” The fish then began to stir and to move, so that the Apostles fled with fear. But Christ called them back, and said, “Why do you flee from that which you have desired?” He then called to the fish—“Be again what thou wast before!” and immediately it lay there as it had come down from heaven. The disciples then prayed Christ that he might eat of it first; but he replied, “I have not lusted for it: he that has lusted for it, let him eat of it now.” But when the disciples refused to eat of it, because they now saw that their request had been sinful, Christ called many aged men—many deaf, sick, blind, and lame, and invited them to eat of the fish. There now came thirteen hundred, which ate of the fish, and were satisfied. But whenever one piece was cut off from the fish another grew again in its place; so that it still lay there entire as if no one had touched it. The guests were not only satisfied, but even healed of all their diseases. The aged became young, the blind saw, the deaf heard, the dumb spoke, and the lame regained their vigorous limbs. When the Apostles saw this, they regretted that they had not eaten; and whoever beheld the men that had been cured and invigorated thereby, regretted in like manner not to have shared in the repast. When, therefore, at the prayer of Christ, a similar table descended again from heaven, the whole people, rich and poor, young and old, sick and whole, came to be refreshed by these heavenly viands. This lasted during forty days. At the dawn of day the table, borne on the clouds, descended in the face of the sons of Israel; and before sunset it gradually rose up again, until it vanished behind the clouds.


– Gustav Weil, The Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud (1863), pp. 259-61

Nathaniel said...

[Final installment:]

and they exhibit a remarkably high degree -- for Luke/Acts, an extraordinary degree -- of coherence with reliable external sources. The doubtful passage about the census aside (and I've indicated above how I think that one should be understood) what other source do you have in mind that actually contradicts the gospels?

Sure. The most obvious issue is the details with Caiaphas. The idea that the high priest would have been involved in deciding Jesus's fate the way he is described doing doesn't fit well with what the office was for. It is at best, implausible. (There's also as I understand it, some indication that Caiaphas and the pharisees didn't get along well but I don't remember the details and would need to track them down).

This isn’t a primary source; it’s an unsubstantiated assertion regarding the office of the high priest. But from Josephus we know that a high priest was complicit in the death of James, Jesus’ brother -- see the passage in Antiquities 20.9.1. That is why Ananus was deposed. So the actual hard evidence indicates that in the mid first century the high priest did sometimes meddle in such affairs.

Joshua said...

Shalmo,

Regarding the Horus claim, Nathaniel is spot on. The claims about Horus especially are so far off what the actual mythology says it isn't funny.

Nathaniel,

You've made some very good points and I think I'll need to cogitate before responding (the point about Ananus is a particularly good one)

Shalmo said...

Joshua:

not gonna bother with the Jesus existed stuff

"Regarding the Horus claim, Nathaniel is spot on. The claims about Horus especially are so far off what the actual mythology says it isn't funny."

I admit that various skeptic conspiracy theories on pagan origins of christianity have been debunked. I don't need a link to a Zeitgeist refutation for that.

However, the dieing/resurrection god ultimately still remains the one great common theme running through various greco-roman mythologies.

Perhaps Nathaniel can provide a proper rebuttal than a link to a website that does not answer the original question. Which is why does Christ follow suit to the dieing/resurrecting god theme already established in roman mythologies?

Nathaniel:

"Manuscript comparison enables us easily to detect the fact that the oldest copies of Mark that we now possess end at 16:8."

easily? the majority of scholarly work I have read implies they are a late addition.

"The unanimous testimony of antiquity is that Matthew’s gospel was the first one written."

I'm sorry my friend but you are JUST WRONG here. Even the Pope has accepted Mark as the oldest.

The majority hold on to markian priority, though yes a small minority do believe mathew was written first

but your statement that unanimous testimony of antiquity support Mathew being first is just so off the charts, I question how objective you are in your findings.

"Matthew has by far the most spectacular events at at the tomb. But waiving that, the problem here is that you are using the level of literary drama to argue for the ordering of the gospels and then using the ordering of the gospels thus derived to argue that the “later” ones are literary embelleshments of the “earlier ones” -- a triumph of circular reasoning."

A poor straw-man. The majority of scholars agree the order goes as Mark, Mathew, Luke and John

With that order in mind we investiagte the gospels order by order, and indeed we see the resurrection details are biult consecutively getting more detailed as latter gospels are biult. As I said, Mark has only 12 verses, John has the huge light show.

If they were honest records they would not show signs of consecutive mythological biulding, rather you would expect them all to more or less either have the Mark mini-ressurection or the huge spectle that was John's resurrection

"This claim has been refuted so many times that it is not even worth discussing. Just go here."

I am fully aware of the nonsense of Zeitgeist.

But that site does not undo the dieing/resurrecting god myth that Jesus is a part of.

Its true various skeptic conspiracy theories on pagan origins of christianity are easily debunked. But the dieing/resurrecting god motif remains strong nonetheless. Can you answer this or not?

"Arguments from silence are particularly silly when there are no surviving contemporary sources in which we would expect to see any reference to these things if they did happen -- which is the case here."

But there indeed are contemporary sources of Judea in that period.

Almost no where is Jesus mentioned. Philo a contemporary of Jesus does not mention him.

You would assume if Jesus was really so great, especially with the mass resurrections, eclipses, and earthquakes that are mentioned for his case, we would see at least some reference to it in other sources such as roman accounts of the period

It gets even dire because we know the gospel writers outright lied about certain historical details. Jesus' supposed persecution as a baby and the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, is not mentioned in any contemporary records either. Josephus takes great pains to record all of Herod's crimes, yet never mentions a slaughther of children. And we know this was invented to make Jesus a prophet "like unto Moses".

And a proven liar can never serve as a reliable witness for anything. When you lie once everything you say becomes suspect :)

Shalmo said...

Nathaniel:

We all know how clearly the 10 commandments are outlined in Exodus. Yet Mark has Jesus added "do not defraud" to the list of 10 in Mark 10: 17-18. In fact he does not even mention all the 10 in his restatement of the 10 commandments. So if even Jesus cannot get something as basic as the 10 commandments right in the New Testament, how can we trust anything else the New Testament attributes to him?

NO surprise! There are a number of spots where the author of Mark (and all the other Gospels) shows that he's no expert on Jewish matters. E.g., there's the one discussed here, there's the fact that he doesn't know the correct day on which the Passover lambs are slaughtered.They were killed on the preparation day, i.e., the day before Passover. The author of Mark has them being killed on the first day of the festival.

And these are just careless mistakes. I could write notes on things like Zechariah 12, Isaiah 7, Isaiah 11 which are passages intentionally distorted in the New Testament to make Jesus a christian messiah.

These are just a few of the blunders I can think off the top of my head. So why should we believe anything the New Testament says when it contains such careless blunders? Did the Holy Spirit inspire these mistakes?

Does this apply, do you think, to the gospel writers' direct reporting of the exact words spoken by various people?

I have in mind how often our gospels' writers "quote" other people. Besides Jesus' the gospels also record words of the disciples, Herod, angels, demons, Satan, tax collectors, and crowds of people all saying the same words all together. The gospels even record long speeches spoken in dreams, and verbatim accounts of inner thoughts that were never spoken, but that Jesus knew because He could read minds.

Here's our historical accuracy question : How'd they do that? How did the gospel writers know, all those decades later, exactly—word for word—what the angel said in Joseph's dream, or Herod said in his secret meeting, or the Pharisees thought in their private thoughts but never spoke? What possible method could our gospel writers have used to come up with the verbatim quotations they claim to give?

Or did the gospel writers get all those "quotations" by just making them up? Is it more likely that "Matthew" knew the words Herod spoke in a secret meeting, or did "Matthew" probably, like everyone else back then, just make up quotes because that was the standard way to tell a story?

And if the only reasonable non-magical explanation is that the gospel writers got their "quotations" by making them up, then .... our gospel writers made stuff up. Just made it up. And it is not true the gospels are historical, not in the sense that the sayings and events we read about in them actually happened.

Nathaniel said...

Shalmo,

But that site does not undo the dieing/resurrecting god myth that Jesus is a part of.

Its true various skeptic conspiracy theories on pagan origins of christianity are easily debunked. But the dieing/resurrecting god motif remains strong nonetheless. Can you answer this or not?


There aren’t many interesting parallels until after Christianity is well established. That’s why the Religionsgeschichte school and Frazer’s Golden Bough have been left behind by most serious scholars. To see why, go here on the very site to which I directed you in the first place.

"Manuscript comparison enables us easily to detect the fact that the oldest copies of Mark that we now possess end at 16:8."

easily? the majority of scholarly work I have read implies they are a late addition.


You seem to be having difficulty understand what I wrote, which was perfectly plain on this point. Our oldest copies of Mark end at 16:8 -- it looks like it may have been a codex that lost its last leaf. What contemporary scholars largely agree on is that the part after 16:8 in the Textus Receptus is a late addition, probably tacked on because of the obvious incompleteness of the narrative as it stands at 16:8. This is not a new discovery: it was being discussed as far back as the fourth century by people like Eusebius and Jerome.

"The unanimous testimony of antiquity is that Matthew’s gospel was the first one written."

I'm sorry my friend but you are JUST WRONG here. Even the Pope has accepted Mark as the oldest.

The majority hold on to markian priority, though yes a small minority do believe mathew was written first

but your statement that unanimous testimony of antiquity support Mathew being first is just so off the charts, I question how objective you are in your findings.


I am sorry to have to be blunt, but either you do not know what the phrase “the testimony of antiquity” means or you have not done your homework. Regarding the order of composition of the gospels, see the direct statements of Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.1.1; Papias, as quoted in Eusebius’s HE 3.39.16, Clement, Origen (preserved in Eusebius, HE6.15.4), etc. There is not, to my knowledge, a single source from the first five centuries AD that ascribes chronological priority to Mark over Matthew. That hypothesis is a very late invention indeed.

Note in particular that the Pope is not a source from antiquity: he is just a modern guy with a tendentious German education and a funny hat. Appeal to his unargued opinion does no more to make your case compelling than a free use of capital letters.

"Matthew has by far the most spectacular events at at the tomb. But waiving that, the problem here is that you are using the level of literary drama to argue for the ordering of the gospels and then using the ordering of the gospels thus derived to argue that the “later” ones are literary embelleshments of the “earlier ones” -- a triumph of circular reasoning."

A poor straw-man. The majority of scholars agree the order goes as Mark, Mathew, Luke and John


So what? Shalmo, this is an area I know something about. I’m not impressed by nose counting. One of the principal arguments for the ordering is the supposed embellishment. To say this is not to create a straw man: it’s just a description of a bad argument often used.

Nathaniel said...

Shalmo,

[Continuing here with answers to your comments:]

If they were honest records they would not show signs of consecutive mythological biulding, rather you would expect them all to more or less either have the Mark mini-ressurection or the huge spectle that was John's resurrection

This comment shows that you have not done any serious work with the primary sources of secular history. That is not what one would expect. Selection, emphasis, and level of detail almost always differ in real multiple attestation. To describe this as “signs of consecutive myth building” is to go beyond the data, and to be consistent you would have to do this throughout secular history as well. That may work for the legends of the founding of Rome, but it will hardly do for testimony to events that transpired within living memory.

"Arguments from silence are particularly silly when there are no surviving contemporary sources in which we would expect to see any reference to these things if they did happen -- which is the case here."

But there indeed are contemporary sources of Judea in that period.

Almost no where is Jesus mentioned. Philo a contemporary of Jesus does not mention him.


You apparently overlooked the phrase in which we would expect to see any reference to these things if they did happen. Philo was a wealthy aristocrat who lived 500 miles away from Jerusalem, which he visited perhaps once in his entire life. His principal concern was the enmity between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria and the attitude of the Roman government toward the Jews. There is no reason to think that he would have taken any notice of Jesus or even heard of him.

You would assume if Jesus was really so great, especially with the mass resurrections, eclipses, and earthquakes that are mentioned for his case, we would see at least some reference to it in other sources such as roman accounts of the period

Why? Even if the odd remarks in Matthew regarding an earthquake and some graves being opened were original with him, who would be expected to take notice of these things? Show me
detailed, ostensibly comprehensive records of earthquakes throughout the Roman empire circa 30 AD and then we’ll have something worth talking about.

Jesus’ personal greatness has nothing to do with the matter. From the standpoint of an outside observer, he was just another eccentric itinerant Rabbi. Even 19th century skeptics like Ernst Renan understood that to the eye of a contemporary Greek or Roman historian, Christianity was lost upon the dark background of Judaism.

It gets even dire because we know the gospel writers outright lied about certain historical details. Jesus' supposed persecution as a baby and the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, is not mentioned in any contemporary records either. Josephus takes great pains to record all of Herod's crimes, yet never mentions a slaughther of children. And we know this was invented to make Jesus a prophet "like unto Moses".

Josephus describes several of Herod’s murders. Why assume, though, that his portrait of Herod’s crimes is comprehensive? Josephus neither says nor suggests this. Your final statement that it was invented to make Jesus be like Moses is your own opinion but is not substantiated by anything more than the vague parallel that is quickly dropped before it becomes inconvenient. (Does Jesus float in a basket in the river? Is he raised in the household of a king? Does he murder an Egyptian? Does he go into exile and marry a foreign woman? Does he lead a mass exodus? Does he write poetry?)

If this is the best you can do to substantiate your claim that the gospel writers “outright lied about certain historical events,” then the most charitable thing I can find to say is that you do not have a case.

Nathaniel said...

Shalmo,

[More responses]

We all know how clearly the 10 commandments are outlined in Exodus. Yet Mark has Jesus added "do not defraud" to the list of 10 in Mark 10: 17-18. In fact he does not even mention all the 10 in his restatement of the 10 commandments. So if even Jesus cannot get something as basic as the 10 commandments right in the New Testament, how can we trust anything else the New Testament attributes to him?

First, your reference is wrong: the passage in question is Mark 10:19. Second, the briefest glance suffices to show that this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of the commandments; it is illustrative, and it is abbreviated. As for “do not defraud,” I should say it is a pretty obvious gloss being given on the commandments. Your criticism, therefore, is misguided: it presupposes that Jesus was trying hard to remember the ten commandments and just botched it. But this is obviously false.

There are a number of spots where the author of Mark (and all the other Gospels) shows that he's no expert on Jewish matters. E.g., there's the one discussed here, there's the fact that he doesn't know the correct day on which the Passover lambs are slaughtered.They were killed on the preparation day, i.e., the day before Passover. The author of Mark has them being killed on the first day of the festival.

It matters little to me whether every detail can be put together perfectly, though on the whole I am persuaded that the difficulties of chronology in passion week have been greatly exaggerated. Mark (14:12) has the paschal lamb being killed on the first day of unleavened bread, that is, the first day on which no unleavened bread was not permitted in the house, that is, 14 Nisan. In this, Mark’s account is consistent with Matthew 26:17.

As for whether the gospel writers knew what they were talking about when they spoke of Jewish affairs, note the language of the Talmud in Jer. Pes. 27d: “What means ‘On the Pesach?’ On the 14th [Nisan].” Note also Josephus’s description of the feast as lasting eight days (Antiquities 2.15.1 (Loeb 317)). I should say that the gospel writers display rather more knowledge about Judaism and Jerusalem than some of their modern critics.

And these are just careless mistakes. I could write notes on things like Zechariah 12, Isaiah 7, Isaiah 11 which are passages intentionally distorted in the New Testament to make Jesus a christian messiah.

I would probably disagree with you, and in some cases the disagreement will turn on the question of whether the Septuagint is just a botched translation of the Masoretic text or whether it is, as now seems certain, a translation of an older Hebrew text. But why bother? Suppose for the sake of argument that the evangelists were utterly wretched interpreters of Tanakh. That does not detract from their testimony to things evident to their senses.

Nathaniel said...

Shalmo,

[Final set of responses:]

These are just a few of the blunders I can think off the top of my head. So why should we believe anything the New Testament says when it contains such careless blunders? Did the Holy Spirit inspire these mistakes?

The gospel writers never claim to be inspired, by the Holy Spirit or otherwise. My interest with these documents is an historian’s interest.

Does this apply, do you think, to the gospel writers' direct reporting of the exact words spoken by various people?

I have in mind how often our gospels' writers "quote" other people. Besides Jesus' the gospels also record words of the disciples, Herod, angels, demons, Satan, tax collectors, and crowds of people all saying the same words all together. The gospels even record long speeches spoken in dreams, and verbatim accounts of inner thoughts that were never spoken, but that Jesus knew because He could read minds.

Here's our historical accuracy question: How'd they do that? How did the gospel writers know, all those decades later, exactly—word for word—what the angel said in Joseph's dream, or Herod said in his secret meeting, or the Pharisees thought in their private thoughts but never spoke? What possible method could our gospel writers have used to come up with the verbatim quotations they claim to give?


“Word for word” is a red herring; the question is whether the reports are reasonably accurate. As for Joseph’s dream, Luke appears to be working from a document passed on to him by Jesus’ family; it betrays its origin by many Hebraisms in the style. Herod’s meeting was not secret, and the gospels nowhere say that the Pharisees kept their thoughts private and never spoke them. So the difficulties here are your own invention, not matters drawn from the text or from conflicting ancient sources.

Or did the gospel writers get all those "quotations" by just making them up? Is it more likely that "Matthew" knew the words Herod spoke in a secret meeting, or did "Matthew" probably, like everyone else back then, just make up quotes because that was the standard way to tell a story?

A charge of deliberate dishonesty against an author is a serious matter. Making up quotations out of whole cloth was not the standard way to tell a story; that is why Polybius (Histories book 12, 25a, h, and i) castigates Timaeus.

As for how Matthew knew what Herod was saying to his servants, see how the incidental reference in Luke 8:3 makes this plain: Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, was one of the followers of Jesus.

Thus your own example turns against you in an embarrassing way; something you have touted as inexplicable turns out to be explained by a passing reference in the very documents you are trying to brand as unhistorical.

Joshua said...

Two brief remarks.

Nathaniel many of the points you've made to Shalmo seem valid. However, bread is allowed on the 14th of Nissan up until the time of sacrifice (see Pesachim for further descriptor.) It was a late rabbinic injunction that pushed this substantially earlier in the day and even then it is allowed until close to midday. Mark's wording is at best very strange, especially given that he uses in 14:1 essentially identical wording to refer to what is clearly the festival.

(Incidentally, it seems that modern Catholic scholars agree that the simplest reading of Mark is that he means the the Festival in 14:12 given that the Nova Vulgata reads "Et primo die Azymorum, quando Pascha immolabant..."

Also, I tracked down the relevant source I was remembering concerning Caiaphas. The Talmud in Parah seems to strongly imply that Caiaphas did not get along well with the pharisees. See in particular, the 5th Mishnah in the third chapter. (Although there's some complexity here in that whether this is Caiaphas isn't universally accepted it certainly seems to be the case).

Finally, the claim about Joanna isn't great since if she were Matthew's source one would think he would say so explicitly. Moreover, That Polybius, a professional historian writing 200 years before says that making up quotes is bad is not evidence that Mark would not do so.

We do however see occasions in the Bible where the authors could not have known the exact words but nevertheless include direct statements (see for example Esther).

I'm actually puzzled by Shalmo's issue with the secret thoughts and exact quotations for a different reason. If one believes that the authors are claiming miracles occurred, then some minor revelation of wording seems tiny. Thus, the miracle claims already pleasant create a far larger problem. Any issues with exact quotations as opposed to paraphrases (and frankly, I could reasonably see someone writing a direct quote understanding that readers would understand it to be a paraphrase) is such a minor issue in comparison it hardly seems worth bringing up.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

Point taken. On the other hand, Josephus is a first century source, and he has the festival extended over eight days, which pretty clearly means that he is including 14 Nisan. I will think more about the question of Mark’s wording in 14:1. Supposing him to have been mistaken, however, this strikes me as a pretty trivial matter. Mark, according to the apostolic fathers, was not a firsthand witness of any of this; he is writing down what Peter preached in Rome. If somewhere between the actual events and Mark’s recording of Peter’s preaching, an exact date was inadvertently shifted one day to the side, it would not be worth writing home about. In secular history we deal with this sort of thing all the time without batting an eye.

Thanks for the reference regarding Caiaphas. (Do you have a handy link?) It doesn’t seem to me that this creates any contradiction with the gospels, however. Two people who dislike each other can still cooperate on matters thateach perceives to be to his own benefit. Heck, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have cooperated ...

Finally, the claim about Joanna isn't great since if she were Matthew's source one would think he would say so explicitly.

Joanna needn’t have been the proximate source: she may just be the one who had spread the word to the community of Jesus’ followers, which in Galilee (where Herod Antipas ruled) numbered at least in the hundreds and quite plausibly more. But there is no particular reason that Matthew would have indicated all of his sources even if he did hear it from her directly; that is not the norm for a memoir like this, though sometimes such writers did use inclusio to indicate their sources for significant chunks of material. See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006), pp. 124 ff.

Moreover, That Polybius, a professional historian writing 200 years before says that making up quotes is bad is not evidence that Mark would not do so.

It is some evidence against Shalmo’s contention that “everyone else back then” would “just make up quotes because that was the standard way to tell a story.” Some people do -- Josephus is notorious in this respect -- but there was a strongly-represented school of thought that said that one ought at least to get the gist of what was said. What you say regarding paraphrase is pretty much spot on. It is also useful to remember something I mentioned above, that the level of verbal similarity among the Synoptics is greatest where they are reporting someone’s actual words, whether of Jesus or of someone else.

We do however see occasions in the Bible where the authors could not have known the exact words but nevertheless include direct statements (see for example Esther).

I suppose you have in mind some of the things that Haman says to his wife, though it does not seem to require a miracle that these should later have been made public. If a miracle were required, then as you say, that’s small beer by comparison to the main events in the gospels. But in any event, it is not a matter of great interest to me whether Esther is an embellished tale or even altogether fictional.

Joshua said...

Nathaniel,

I'm not aware of any copy of the Mishnah online.

I agree that it isn't an absolute contradiction, but part of the issue is how much strain it places on the text. Again, it isn't any single detail but a collective that seems to create problems.

I was actually not thinking of that section of Esther but rather Esther 6:4-7 where Haman thinks to himself.

I agree that Shalmo's statement is a clear overstatement.

Nathaniel said...

Joshua,

I agree that such matters are cumulative -- we just disagree whether the cumulative weight of minor strains is more significant than the cumulative weight of indications of authenticity.

If I were concerned to maintain the accuracy of the reports of Haman's thoughts in Esther, I would probably point to verse 13, where he tells his wife and friends everything that has happened to him. But as I said before, it is not a matter of great interest to me whether this is detailed history or elaborated storytelling.