Opening Statement by Dr. Paul Marston

This email explores some basic points.

Firstly, I expect to enjoy the debate, without forgetting that ultimately our mutual aim is to arrive at truth , not just to 'win' using debating stratagems.

Secondly I aim to be courteous but frank. My points aim at the arguments, I make no judgement on Steven and don't doubt his integrity. I don't believe him incapable of changing view, indeed, a number of renowned militant atheists have become Christians. Oxford/Birkneck philosopher C E M Joad did so after similar debates, likewise broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, present Oxford theologian Keith Ward, present head of the human genome project Francis Collins etc. Christian theism has puzzles and problems, but militant atheism is fragile and fundamentally inconsistent - and its adherents are thinking seriously about ultimate realities and truths, which puts them 'at risk' of radical paradigm change.

Thirdly, I am a critical realist. There is only one reality, but we describe it in human thought and language and these always introduce an element of subjectivity. Divergent descriptions may be 'true' though the divergence is limited so postmodern relativism is mistaken.

My university teaching includes statistical theory and inference, philosophy of science (which I began studying under Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend), philosophy of history, history of science, and a course 'Christianity, Science and History'. Unlike Stephen Motyer, I bring no great New Testament scholarship to the debate, but can usually spot false premises or a duff argument. I may refer to our own books Reason and Faith ( RAF: 1989 Monarch ), Christianity, Evidence and Truth ( CET: Monarch 1995 - text on www.csis.org.uk) and Reason, Science and Faith ( RSAF: 1999 Monarch - text on www.reason-science-and-faith.co.uk). Also NT=New-Testament, OT=Old-Testament

At this point we may look at some principles, illustrated from Steven's previous debate. This is important because, whilst I would differ from Steven on some points of fact, most of my criticism would be of serious flaws in the logic with which he reaches conclusions or presents things as 'problems'.

  1. Hypothetico-deductive Approach
In assessing plausibility and reliability we may often ask 'what if' Now Steven asks why so few first century historians mention Jesus. But IF the events happened as the NT claims, whom would we expect to mention Jesus? Steven suggests Seneca, but Seneca wrote when his position was fragile (Nero eventually ordered his suicide), and said hardly anything about contemporary affairs. It would have been very surprising if he saw Christianity as other than a primitive superstition, or if he had written anything positive about a religion his unbalanced ruthless emperor was rigorously persecuting. In RAF (section 4) we look at Seneca and all main available contemporary writers (all five of them!), showing none would be expected to mention Jesus. Jesus is mentioned, however, by early 2ndC ones in exactly the terms we might expect IF events happened as Christians believe.

(2) The Nature of Historical Writing

  1. Selection: As Carr, Tosh and others have emphasized, historical writing always involves selection. John's gospel is explicit that Jesus did many other things, and those included have been selected to point people to faith (John 20:30-1). So why does Steven see it a problem that John omits many of the details which the Synoptics have included? On a hypothetico-deductive approach this is what we would expect given John's stated objective.
Steven also suggests that since some NT incidents (eg the healing of Jairus' daughter) resemble OT ones, they must be made up. Well, obviously, IF Jesus (as we believe) did many miracles, which would you select to record in writing a gospel? Since they were seen as 'signs' of Jesus' Messiahship, obviously ones mirroring OT figures! It is unnecessary to suppose that Jesus 'acted out' OT miracles the writers just selected ones which had such resemblances.

(b) Telescoping: Historians sometimes 'telescope' events for dramatic effect. Reading Luke's gospel one might have the impression that between the resurrection and ascension everything happened the same day. But Acts (which had the same author) makes it clear it lasted six weeks. This is not an 'error', it means we should not read more into a telescoped style than intended.

(c) Using Sources: Steven asks why Luke would use Mark if he had access to eye witnesses. But if Mark (or Q) were already circulating and well attested, why should he not? Luke was compiling an accurate account, not trying to satisfy 20thC atheist sceptics. Steven also asks why Luke was not better at Aramaic if he had indeed questioned eyewitnesses in Israel. But even supposing that his witnesses could not speak Greek, there would have been plenty of available interpreters (Paul for a start). Do newspaper reporters all learn the languages of countries they visit? This again highlights assumptions which a few moments reflection show are untenable.

(3) Literary Conventions and Comparisons

The gospels' claims to historicity can be assessed only in terms of how the early church understood this. Eusebius notes Papias' earlier claim that Mark took notes from Peter's preaching accurately but 'not in order'. Most of us take this to mean that the church never imagined Mark was chronological. Some of Jesus' teaching (like that of virtually all great teachers) was also probably repeated more than once so suggestions that one gospel has 'adapted' teaching from another would be suspect even were the accounts imagined to be attempting chronology (see also RAF and to some extent CET ).

(4) Reading Accounts Sensibly

We need to ask what accounts mean , rather than assume some crudely literalistic understanding never used in normal communication. Steven asks, eg, how the disciples knew what Jesus had prayed in Gethsemane if they were asleep, and sarcastically suggests they were 'shut-eye witnesses'. This sounds very clever, but thinking about truth involves more than soundbite quips. If one reads the account as meaning that Jesus prayed just the 18 Greek words in Luke 22.42 it would have taken him approximately 10 seconds. The disciples must have been very very tired to fall asleep by the end of a ten second sentence. Obviously, Luke means these were the kind of prayers Jesus was making over a protracted period, during which they fell asleep a situation familiar to most of us who have attended long prayer meetings! Then they awoke to find him dripping sweat and blood. No reasonable reading of Luke could take it otherwise. So what's the problem? If, moreover, the disputed Luke 22:43-4 is genuine, either this happened earlier whilst they were still half awake, or Jesus could presumably have talked with them about it after his resurrection.

Another example of this kind of unrealistic linguistic literalism is Steven's criticism of a report of James saying (Acts 20:21) that there were 'myriads' of believers in Jerusalem. Interestingly this is in a 'we' section of Acts. Unless, therefore, Luke was a complete simpleton he must have known roughly how big the city was, and surely realised that this was a manner of speaking. Most of us have heard someone say: "Oh, thousands of people were there ' Seldom would we insist that this has to be 'literal' - this is just not how language is used.

A last example is Steven's claim that 'Paul in Romans 8:26 says the Christians do not know how to pray, almost as though Jesus had never taught anybody what to pray for.' But the 'Lord's prayer' was, of course, exemplifying the kind of things we should pray (praise, intercession, etc) Paul describes situations when we want to pray for the best but don't know what the best is. The two are in no conflict. Christians today all know the 'Lord's prayer', but frequently experience exactly what Paul describes the Spirit acting just as he says.

(5) Realism About Human Political Affairs

Steven asks why a commander would send 470 soldiers (Acts 23:23) to accompany Paul. But plots were afoot to assassinate a scholarly Roman citizen in Roman custody. In such circumstances many Governors might well decide on a show of force to make a point (eg imagine it as a British scholar in custody during the Indian Raj). Then Steven asks how Luke knew what was in the Acts 23:26-30 letter or got access to a private Sanhedrin meeting in Acts 5:35-40. Luke actually claims only that the letter was 'after this pattern' and its contents could well have been divulged to Paul either directly or through a centurion. To make a 'problem' of Acts 5:35-40 is even less credible. In modern times press 'leaks' happen all the time like the recent highly sensitive Patten report. It is extremely likely that amongst the 70 members of the Sanhedrin were secret or declared Christians and access to what went on could hardly even be termed a 'leak'.

I have seen similar criticisms of the trial accounts of Jesus on the grounds that some of the procedures depart from the Jewish Mishnah set down many years later! This again is absurd. All authorities bend and break rules. Many modern 'terrorist bombers' convicted in Britain have later been released after recognition of police irregularities and complete lack of evidence. It is actually possible to see many details of Jesus' trials (eg why appeal to Pilate at all) as arising from desire to bend rather than break rules. We need to be realistic about human nature and activity it was no different then from today.

(6) Of Versions and Preachers

The earlier debate contains much on the language and versions used in the NT. The background is this. By the 1stC, Hebrew was studied by Jewish scholars but the common language in Judaea and Galilee was Aramaic. We know of no full written Aramaic version, but in synagogues, the Hebrew Torah was read followed by free Aramaic translation made by a targumist. Greek was the educated cultural language of the Empire, and, amongst the Diaspora or Hellenistic Jews (eg Philo in Alexandria) the Septuagint was regarded virtually as inspired.

Steven raised a number of questions around this. Would a Galilean peasant, he asks, especially one called 'ignorant and unlearned' by the Pharisees, really be able to speak Greek? Well, today, English is in a sense a modern equivalent of Hellenistic Greek in the ancient world and in particular throughout Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor as a medium of common communication. Now I have been to many places in the world where most 'working class' people spoke some English although in terms of knowing about (say) qu'ranic studies or philosophy they might have been called 'ignorant and unlearned' by local scholars. Galilee was a commercial area, lying on main trade routes eg from Egypt to Asia Minor not a backwater. It should be no surprise to find Peter, John and James spoke some Greek, or even that they used the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew studied by Jerusalem scholars. Steven should not be mentally relating them to the 'working classes' in (say) Bowness speaking Arabic, but those in (say) Tangier market speaking English. The scholar Paul certainly would know Hebrew, but as a Diaspora Jew and citizen of Tarsus, would probably have used the Septuagint during his travels.

Would Paul or James have used the Septuagint where its translation was not very good? Steven assumes not but I wonder how many preachers he has heard. Ironically, a major criticism Jerome later made of the great teacher Origen was that although he knew Hebrew he quoted inaccurate translations from the Septuagint. I have heard many modern preachers quote the NIV (which has nothing like the veneration given the Septuagint by Hellenstic Jews) when they must know (or could easily find out) that the translation at that point was untenable.

Another complication was the degree to which Jews believed their Bible inspired. Even where small changes might be made to the text, the result could still be inspired. We might think this 'irrational' but it certainly is how people behave, and the NT accounts cannot be criticised on premises assuming everyone follows our rationality..

(7) Arguments from Absence

If Luke had said that Sergius Paulus was proconsul in Salamis (Acts 13:7), but inscriptions showed that actually the only proconsul there throughout this whole period was called Woody Allen, then Luke would be shown to be wrong. But if Luke asserts that there was an Italian cohort in Caesarea around 41AD, and we have no inscription to 'prove' this until 69AD, then to present this as an 'anachronism' is absurd. So much of archaeological evidence is fragmentary anyway. The first actual inscription to Pilate was found only fairly recently and that in a piece of reused material. Learned articles in the 1930's claimed that crucifixion did not involved nails as there was no evidence for them (cf our books) until in 1968 a 1stC casket was found with nails through wrist and heel bones. Arguments from absence are very insecure as Allan Millard's excellent archaeological books illustrate.

(8) Principles of Equity

Steven's mindset on the previous point is also interesting. Had Luke been a secular writer then Steven would, naturally, take his reference as 'evidence' the Italian cohort was there earlier. Only because Luke is a Christian writer does Steven assume that there is 'no evidence'. Writers (some surprisingly eminent) sometimes assume that Josephus, writing in the 70-90's and with his own axe to grind, was somehow totally reliable and objective, whilst the gospel writers (some if not all of whom wrote earlier than Josephus) must be wrong if they differ in details from him. Even on a human level this is irrational.

(9) 'Inspiration'

Steven compares (say) Luke's gospel to the Qu'ran, the book of Mormon and Josephus. This is misleading. Luke claims to have researched sources ie to have acted like a historian. As Christians, we believe that God 'oversaw' that process, so that Luke's resulting gospel is 'inspired' and authoritative but that is another matter. Mohammed, in contrast, made no claim to have done research using primary sources. The Qu'ran is based on Mohammed's visionary experience, and the claims to divine inspiration of these visions form its only basis to claim historical authenticity. Joseph Smith, like Mohammed, made no claim to scholarship. His book of Mormon claims to be a supernaturally dictated translation of some ancient 'Reformed Egyptian' plates which since disappeared its historical authenticity is again based on purported inspiration alone. Only Josephus bears any real comparison to Luke in terms of the research processes by which it was written and no one believes Josephus was 'inspired' so it's of little relevance.

Now what of the language used? If the book of Mormon really were a translation of a BC document, finding bits of Shakespeare in it would be somewhat surprising. If Luke really were working from contemporary Jewish sources it would be no surprise to find him using forms of speech from the version in common use even if by contemporary Greek standards these were quaint or old fashioned. If he chose to do so, moreover, this would have no bearing on the 'inspiration' of his work because its historical accuracy would be unaffected and Christians believe the NT to have been written in the individual styles of the human writers. So why is comparison made between these two entirely different situations? Why is it a problem?

Steven suggests that most Christians reject the Qu'ran because it contradicts the Bible. Well I reject it fundamentally because it claims Jesus was the Jewish Messiah but was not crucified. This seems to contradict the whole pattern of OT sacrifice and passages of Isaiah and Psalms prophesying a suffering and executed Messiah, and it contradicts all historical sources (Christian, Greek and Jewish) for the first 200 years. It does this, remember, not on a basis of historical research, but of a 'vision' claimed by Mohammed. Our books CET and RSAF explore this. I cannot help it if sometimes other Christians use silly arguments but I would stand on those which appear in my own books.

These, then, are some illustrated principles under which we may look at the evidence. I hope we may approach this methodically, looking at the logic of categories of argument not as a series of individual "but what about's". In my view, the NT accounts are written in the style and language of their human authors and so are 'interpretations' of events. They may, however, be shown to accurately reflect the land and times they claim to describe, and to be first century accounts based on research and original witnesses. I look forward, then, to Steven's first email.


Steven Carr's Opening Statement

Steven Carr's First Response

Dr. Marston's First Response

Steven Carr's Second Response

Dr. Marston's Second Response

Steven Carr's Final Response

Dr. Marston's Final Response


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