Thank you for your first email. Quotes from it are in red . Quotes from other authors are in blue .
Your opening email presented precious little evidence, but largely devoted itself to thinking up defences of Biblical problems that I pointed out in my debate with Dr. Stephen Motyer. It also charged me with double-standards when dealing with secular and Christian writers, something you called 'irrational.'
So in this email, I deal with 'might-well-haves' and 'could-have-beens' as explanations. Naturally though, it is up to our readers to finally judge the worth of these explanations. Then, I shall deal with the charge of double-standards. After this, I shall look at Josephus, the first non-Christian writer who mentions Jesus. Finally, I look at the psychology of the characters in the Gospels.
I hope readers noticed that it is not sceptics who have to explain away Biblical problems with 'might-haves'. Naturally some are plausible, but what is surprising is the sheer number of explanations which believers have to come up with. Every chapter in the Gospels has problems which have to be explained away. The Christian apologist Norman Geisler had to write a book called 'Encyclopaedia of Bible Difficulties' , not 'Leaflet of Bible Difficulties'.
One of my favourite explanations is on page 132 of Craig Blomberg's 'The Historical Reliability of The Gospels'. Mark 8:12 has Jesus say 'no sign shall be given this generation', while Matthew and Luke add 'except the sign of Jonah'. Blomberg explains 'As far as they were concerned 'no sign except the sign of Jonah' meant exactly the same as 'no sign'. Despite a formal contradiction between the parallels the actual meaning of the two versions is identical.' We are assured that giving different versions of what Jesus said and when and why has no effect on reliability.
I cannot think of any religious work which would not be reliable if people are allowed to present 'might-haves' and 'could-have-beens' as unchallenged explanations of problems. Perhaps you can come up with an error in the Qur'an or the Book of Mormon which cannot be fixed by the application of Blomberg's methods.
All authors are reliable if, when they report letters and conversations which took place in secret, we suppose that there must have been a sympathiser who leaked these reports. Is there any more independent evidence that there were Christian sympathisers in the Sanhedrin than that there were Christian sympathisers in any guard on Jesus's tomb?
You wrote ' 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? ' Can we explain the differences between John and the Synoptics by saying that John selected some events and the Synoptics selected others?
John puts the cleansing of the Temple at the start of Jesus's career - the Synoptics at the end. Did Jesus do this twice? Mark 15:25 says it was the third hour when they crucified him. John 19:14 says it was the sixth hour. Mark 14:12-16 says the Last Supper was a Passover meal. John 18:28 makes clear the Passover meal has not happened yet and John 19 says it was the Day of Preparation.
Was Jesus crucified twice with John selecting one crucifixion and the Synoptics another, or has John altered the chronology for theological reasons, so that Jesus was crucified while the Passover lambs were being slaughtered?
In John, there is no agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. In John, Jesus comes out to meet the soldiers, rather than wait for Judas to betray him with a kiss. John wants to portray his Jesus as being totally in control of events. Why should sceptics not be worried that John has such a different view of the scene, when the differences are for theological not historical reasons?
There are other problems with John's account. He says there was a 'cohort' (a 'speira') , led by a Roman officer - a 'chiliarch'. When Jesus says 'I am', these Roman soldiers fall to the ground. Is this plausible? Peter then cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant. Even today, waving a knife in front of a party of policeman making an arrest will get you into trouble. However, the Roman soldiers do not react to Peter mutilating somebody with a sword. Is this true to life? Jesus then heals the ear (according to Luke). I personally would be impressed by seeing somebody heal an ear that had just been cut off, but still the Jews refuse to believe. Is this reasonable? Today, Christians unshakeably believe all these stories on no more evidence than having read them in a book, but 2000 years ago, we are asked to believe that people saw these miracles with their own eyes and remained unbelievers.
All authors are also reliable if their obvious exaggerations are labelled metaphors. Luke says there were 'tens of thousands' of believers in Jerusalem. This is easily corrected by saying that it was just a metaphor. Your words are '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.'
' Indeed, people do exaggerate to make something seem bigger than it really is. Acts continually boasts about how many people were becoming Christians. Luke says 3,000 were converted in Acts 2:41, and it grows to 5,000 by Acts 4. Acts 23 says 470 soldiers were used to escort one prisoner. Exaggeration to make Paul seem more important than he really was? Paul says 500 brethren saw Christ at once. Is this meant to be taken literally? I have often heard people say 'Oh, hundreds of people were there.'
Readers must also judge for themselves your explanation that the disciples stayed half awake just long enough to hear the kind of prayers Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, before they fell asleep. I point out that Mark says this happened three times and that Jesus was far enough away that he had to return before knowing the disciples were asleep, yet they still recorded his words and knew that on the second time he 'prayed the same thing'. You wrote '.... or Jesus could presumably have talked with them about it after his resurrection.' Readers must judge this could-have for themselves.
You wrote '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 .'
All I have to do to show Luke was wrong is show that Luke says somebody occupied a post when another person did? Luke said that Quirinius was governor of Syria but inscriptions showed that Syria had other governors while Herod was alive, and Quirinius was not governor of Syria until 6 AD, 10 years after Herod died. Does this mean Luke was shown to be wrong? Or is there a 'might-have', on the lines that Luke's 'governor' might have meant 'special legate' or Luke might have been referring to a (historical?) census before the census in 6 AD or Quirinius might have been governor of Syria twice?
There is a famous inscription which is trotted out to 'prove' Quirinius was governor twice. Suffice it to say that the inscription never mentions Quirinius and nobody in the history of the Roman Empire is known to have been twice governor of the same province.
Can I show Luke to be wrong by the fact that Gamaliel in Acts 5:36 refers to a revolt by Theudas which happened after Gamaliel's death? Perhaps not, as there might have been two people called Theudas or it could be that secular history is wrong about the date of Theudas.
Irrational sceptical double-standards
You wrote that I apply different rules to Josephus than I do to Luke and give Josephus the benefit of a doubt I would never apply to Luke, something you call ' irrational'.
You wrote 'Had Luke been a secular writer then Steven would, naturally, take his reference as 'evidence' ....... Only because Luke is a Christian writer does Steven assume that there is 'no evidence' .
When did I ever say Josephus was totally reliable and not biased? I wrote in my debate with Dr. Motyer ' While we are discussing the events of Herod's last few years, Josephus's 'Antiquities' records that Herod ordered many people to be killed when he died, so that there would be people who mourned that he was dead. Emil Schuerer's 'The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ', says that this may not be historically reliable, because it resembles a legend about Alexander Jannaeus. It is not only religious works where people examine stories to see if they have a literary source. I am not singling out the New Testament for treatment I would not apply to other works.'
I evaluate Josephus and Luke by the same criteria. Josephus names sources, treats them with care, and gives references. He was also present. Luke never names sources , freely alters the ones he did use, and admits to not being an eyewitness.
The renowned historian Michael Grant writes in 'The Twelve Caesars' about the Roman historian Suetonius '...he is extremely superstitious. As Pliny confirms, he believed determinedly in prophetic dreams. Omens, too, attracted his credulous fascination...' He quotes Hunter on Tacitus 'He is void of candour wants judgement, exceeds nature and violates truth.' Grant continues about Tacitus '...biased interpretations and unjustified innuendoes which distort its veracity.'
Ancient writers were credulous, gullible, unreliable, biased and superstitious. Is it double-standards not to reject the idea that Christian writers may share some of these faults? Are there any stories in the Gospels which, in your opinion, betray some of the credulity, gullibility and bias that we find in secular writers of the period, and in every single Christian writer who wrote non-canonical works?
Do Christians have different standards for Josephus than they do for the Gospels?
Josephus's 'Wars of the Jews' was written with ten years of the events , by a direct participant , and he records eyewitness testimony - 'I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it' . He is referring to a heifer giving birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple. Do you believe a cow gave birth to a lamb, in a work written within ten years of the event? Surely this is just as well attested as the raising of the widow of Nain's son.
The New Testament, Qur'an, Shakespeare and the Book of Mormon
In my debate with Dr. Motyer, I compared the Gospels with the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon.
My Illustrations page ( http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/pics1.htm ) gives word-for-word copying of Luke from the Septuagint.
There are other examples in my miracles page ( http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm )
I pointed out that in Luke's story of Jesus raising the dead son of a widow he met at the gate of a city, Luke copies word-for-word a sentence from the Old Testament (1 Kings 17) of Elijah raising the dead son of a widow he met at the gate of a city. This is similar to the way Joseph Smith recycled Bible stories for the Book of Mormon.
I also pointed out that the New Testament uses Jewish legends (eg Jannes and Jambres, 1 Enoch, the Assumption of Moses) in a similar way to Mohammad using Christian legends.
You responded 'Mohammed, in contrast, made no claim to have done research using primary sources. The Qu'ran is based on Mohammed's visionary experience..... ' This is not quite what I said. Mohammad got the story of Jesus breathing life into birds of clay, not from a vision, but from an apocryphal Christian myth, which Christians must still have been telling in the 7th century. The New Testament uses Jewish myths in the same way.
You said the book of Mormon and Luke's Gospel are 'two entirely different situations' and justified this by saying 'If the book of Mormon really were a translation of a BC document, finding bits of Shakespeare in it would be somewhat surprising'.
I pointed out in my debate that Luke draws upon Euripides Bacchae (line 795) when supposedly giving Jesus's Aramaic words in Acts 26:14. Surely Joseph Smith's translation of Reformed Egyptian into the words of a playwright (Shakespeare) is not a million miles from Luke's translation of Aramaic into the words of a playwright (Euripides).
Let us look at the standard of evidence used to convict Smith of borrowing Shakespeare .
Joseph Smith wrote in 2 Nephi 1:14 'Hear the words of a trembling parent whose limbs you must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveller can return.'
Shakespeare wrote 'That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.' (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)
It seems Christians see nothing wrong with Luke copying word-for-word , while Joseph Smith is convicted on much more vague evidence - namely two words.
In the miracle in John 2, Jesus quotes 'Ti emoi kai soi' when speaking to his mother. These four words come from a miracle in the Old Testament - 1 Kings 17. If it is somewhat surprising that Smith translated Reformed Egyptian into two words of Shakespeare, it is equally surprising that John translated the Aramaic words of Jesus into the Greek words of an Old Testament miracle.
Do Mormons have a 'could-have-been' to explain away 2 Nephi 1:14? In Job 10:20-21 we have 'Let me alone that I may take comfort a little, before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death." or Job 16:22 " When a few years are come, then I shall go the way whence I shall not return."
While it would indeed be surprising for a supposedly BC document like the Book of Mormon to quote Shakespeare, it seems the Book of Mormon could have been using another BC document - the book of Job. To my mind , this could-have is at least as plausible as the idea that Jesus could have spent the time after his resurrection telling the disciples what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Reader must decide for themselves if Christians exempt the Gospels from the standards of evidence they use on other religious works.
You wrote ' Luke claims to have researched sources ie to have acted like a historian...... Mohammed, in contrast, made no claim to have done research using primary sources.'
As an aside, I would have thought Mohammed himself was a primary source for much of the Qur'an. However, if it is an important part of your case that Luke used primary sources, then sceptics will need evidence for this. Luke used the Old Testament, Mark's Gospel and either Matthew or 'Q' (Q is the name given to those verses which Matthew and Luke share, but Mark does not). Mark's Gospel is not a primary source. Neither is Matthew's Gospel or Q. Paul was not a primary source for the Gospel stories, even if we concede Luke knew him.
So which primary sources did Luke use? Luke/Acts never names Jesus, Peter, James, John, Thomas etc as a source. Luke 1:2 claims merely that these things have been handed down to 'us' ie Christians generally, not just to Luke specially. Luke's Gospel uses at least 580 verses of previously written material by anonymous authors. At least the Hadith name the eyewitnesses who say Muhammad split the moon. The Gospels are anonymous.
Why didn't these primary sources write anything themselves? Were they illiterate? Did they not think it worthwhile to record the words of the Son of God for posterity?
These things were not done in a corner
There is no contemporary evidence for any of the amazing things which the Gospels record.
Gibbon wrote about this silence as follows :-
In Acts 26:26, Paul tells King Agrippa that these things were not done in a corner, yet they went unrecorded by all contemporary Jewish and Roman writers, even if Acts says kings knew all about them. Perhaps they were done in a corner after all. Philo of Alexandria has a letter by King Herod Agrippa lambasting Pilate, yet neither Philo nor Agrippa mention Jesus, even though Philo mentions obscure Jewish sects like the Therapeutae.
Even other Christian writers like Paul, the author of Hebrews, of Barnabas, of 1 Clement, James, Jude are virtually silent about the Gospel stories. For example, Paul is adamant that his gospel (NB not Jesus's Gospel) has been revealed , not by the historical Jesus, but through a 'revelation' (apocalypse) or through the prophetic writings ie the Old Testament. Paul's continual refusal to say that Jesus played any part in proclaiming the Gospel so disturbed some early Christians that the earliest manuscript we have of Paul (p46) altered Romans 16:26 to include a reference to Jesus. This century, we have discovered many such early manuscripts, so we can begin to glimpse just how much early Christians were prepared to change for doctrinal purposes. I shall have to leave this topic for now.
Josephus on Jesus
Josephus is the first non-Christian writer to mention Jesus. He does this in Books 18 and 20 of his Antiquities, from about 93 AD. It is worth giving the reference in Book 18 in full.
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ . And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
For two centuries no Christian used this passage, although many of them quoted Josephus. For example, Origen quoted Josephus when writing 250,000 words against the pagan writer Celsus but he never uses this passage even when it would have been most useful. In Chapter 6 of Book 1 of 'Contra Celsum', Origen wrote ' ..."Many shall say to Me in that day, In Thy name we have cast out devils, and done many wonderful works." Whether Celsus omitted this from intentional malignity, or from ignorance, I do not know...' Would not Origen have loved to show Josephus as writing that Jesus performed wonderful works?
In chapter 67 Origen quotes Celsus as follows '...this Jew of Celsus.... continues: "The old mythological fables, which attributed a divine origin to Perseus, and Amphion, and Aeacus, and Minos, were not believed by us. Nevertheless, that they might not appear unworthy of credit, they represented the deeds of these personages as great and wonderful, and truly beyond the power of man; but what hast thou done that is noble or wonderful either in deed or in word?' Wouldn't Origen have loved to answer Celsus's taunt by pointing out that the renowned Jewish historian Josephus said Jesus performed wonderful works.
It is admitted that the passage of Josephus was tampered with by Christians. Strictly speaking, this rules it out altogether as evidence. If a prosecution lawyer in a court case tried to introduce evidence that had been tampered with by prosecution witnesses, that evidence would be rejected. However, let us examine the claim that we can tell in this short paragraph by looking at the style, which phrases are Josephan and which are Christian interpolations. In passing I note that many Christians deny that we can tell by looking at the style that Paul did not write 1 or 2 Timothy, Titus or Ephesians, although there we have whole letters to work with, not just a few phrases.
It is worth pointing out that any Christian scribe who had just copied out 17 books of Josephus would be familiar with his style and easily able to express Christian thoughts in Josephan language.
Josephus only uses the phrase 'a wise man' about Solomon and Daniel. Would a first-century Pharisee bracket a crucified criminal with legendary kings and prophets? It was Christian writers who compared Jesus to Solomon (Matthew 12:42) and praised the wisdom of Jesus (Luke 2:46-52)
Josephus only used the phrase wonderful works about Elisha. As your email pointed out it was Christians who saw parallels between Jesus and Elijah and Elisha.
In Mark 6:2 , Jews praise the wisdom and mighty works of Jesus. Can we be sure that Josephus's 'wise man' and 'wonderful works' must be genuine as no Christian interpolator would have had any motive to portray Josephus the way the Gospels say Jews regarded Jesus? I doubt it.
Josephus's phrase 'the principal men' (ton proton andron) is mirrored in Luke 19:47 - 'the leaders among the people' (hoi protoi)
The passage of Josephus first appears in 'Ecclesiastical History' by Eusebius in about 320 AD. Eusebius also includes clearly fake letters by Jesus himself. Another quote of Josephus by Eusebius is especially interesting , as we can see how Eusebius would doctor quotes to make them support Christian writings .
Josephus wrote in Antiquities Book 19 Section 346 'But as he presently afterwards looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger (Greek 'Angelos') of ill tidings...' Eusebius in his History (2.10) omits the words 'boubona - epi schoiniou tinos' (ie an owl on a certain rope) and retains only the 'angelos' or messenger. As it stands in Eusebius, the 'quote' of Josephus appears to support Acts 12:23 which mentions an 'angelos', but naturally does not say this messenger was an owl.
Eusebius is the first person to say that Josephus referred to 'the tribe of Christians' . Eusebius also said Tertullian referred to the tribe of Christians. He did not. Eusebius also said Trajan referred to the tribe of Christians. He did not.
To sum up, Josephus's mention of Jesus was unknown for two centuries, is admitted even by Christians to be tampered with and first appears in the work of somebody who produced forged letters of Jesus, doctored quotes of Josephus, and lied about one of the very phrases found in the Testimonium when saying that other ancient writers used it. Almost every phrase expresses Christian, not Jewish, beliefs about Jesus.
There is also a 10th century version of Josephus. This is by a Christian Bishop and is a paraphrase in Arabic, not a quote of Josephus. It also contains clear anti-Islam propaganda. Ten centuries is too long a gap for this to be historical.
To avoid charges of double-standards here, I should point out that I would also reject a Muslim work from 1500 AD which purported to be our first authentic text of what a pagan writer wrote about Muhammad in 650 AD, especially if it contained anti-Christian propaganda and was in a different language. If I were by some chance to find such a work, would you insist that sceptics must take it as genuine?
Jesus in Antiquities Book 20
Josephus wrote in Antiquities 20.9.1 about the high priest Ananus who had arrested and killed 'the brother of Jesus called the Christ, by the name of James and some others....'
Did a Christian interpolator explain who this James was or did Josephus refer back to book 18 for the benefit of his readers?
It is most strange that Josephus put the explanation of who James was before the name itself. If somebody writes 'by the name of X and some others', then we can be sure that the name is all the writer has to go on. Readers would rather learn who the some others were than what the name of James brother was. It is also well known that 'Jesus called the Christ' is the wording of Matthew 1:16. Also, a back-reference to 'Christ' is also problematic as the reference to 'Christ' in Antiquities 18 is itself regarded as dubious by many people.
How does Josephus refer back to people he has previously mentioned in those days when books had no indexes? Here he is going back two books, so readers will need more than a casual reference.
Judas of Galilee was first mentioned in 'Wars of the Jews' Book 2 Section 118 'Under his administration, it was that a certain Galilean , whose name was Judas , prevailed with his countrymen to revolt ; and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans , and would, after God , submit to mortal men as their lords.'
Josephus refers to him again in Book 2 Section 433 as follows '"In the meantime one Manahem, the son of Judas , that was called the Galilean (who was a very cunning sophister, and had formerly reproached the Jews under Quirinius , that after God they were subject to the Romans )" - considerable detail is included.
In Wars, Book 7 Section 533 we read about Judas again - "... Eleazar, a potent man, and the commander of these Sicarii, that had seized upon it. He was a descendant from that Judas who had persuaded abundance of the Jews , as we have formerly related , not to submit to the taxation when Quirinius was sent into Judea to make one; ...' . So a change of book causes Josephus to say 'as formerly related'.
Judas was also in Antiquities 18 'Yet was there one Judas , a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt , who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty'.
Josephus referred back to Judas in Antiquities 20 'the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Quirinius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have shown in a foregoing book .'
So Josephus usually put in detail and when he referred back from Ant. 20 to Ant. 18, he reminded the reader that it was in a different book. None of these factors apply to Josephus's reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20. A Christian interpolator would naturally need not need to supply such detailed back-references. His readers would know exactly who Jesus called the Christ was.
There are other non-Christian references to Christ in the first two centuries AD. The conservative Christian Professor R.T.France has a good article about them here . I quote him ' (Rabbinic traditions) ....... polemical nature and their lack of interest in factual data does not create confidence in their potential as historical evidence for Jesus' and 'The brief notice in Tacitus Annals xv.44 mentions only his title, Christus, and his execution in Judea by order of Pontius Pilatus. Nor is there any reason to believe that Tacitus bases this on independent information-it is what Christians would be saying in Rome in the early second century. Suetonius and Pliny, together with Tacitus, testify to the significant presence of Christians in Rome and other parts of the empire from the mid-sixties onwards, but add nothing to our knowledge of their founder.'
France's belief is that Tacitus , Suetonius and Pliny got their information from Christians and not from independent research. They are therefore not confirmation of the historical content of the Gospels. At most they confirm that somebody called Jesus was crucified - something that happened to many people.
In your book Reason, Science and Faith you say ' In our view all the characters in the Gospels (with the evidence of later writers like Josephus) are totally consistent with the application of even elementary psychology'.
This is a matter of opinion. The disciples behave very strangely in Mark's Gospel.
Mark 4:11 says that the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to the disciples. What was this secret, and why do people with this secret seem totally ignorant of who Jesus was (Mark 4:41)?
In Mark 6:7-13 till 29-30 the disciples are sent out to preach and teach.
As the disciples did not know Jesus was the Messiah until Mark 8:30, that must have been interesting. What could the disciples have preached and taught in Mark 6 that had anything to do with the secret of the kingdom of God that they had been given?
They were also given power over evil spirits, but it is not until Mark 9:29 that Jesus explains that they have to pray first before driving out a demon. How did the disciples drive out demons before that, when Jesus had neglected to give them such basic instruction as to pray first?
Mark 7:14 gives some instruction about the Law which a simpleton could grasp, yet Jesus tells the disciples in verse 18 that they are without understanding. These are the preacher-teachers who had been given the secret of the kingdom of God.
Despite not being able to understand, and not knowing, elementary instruction about the Law, they had already by chapter 3 had liberal practices on fasting and the Sabbath, and the whole teaching of chapter 7 (which the disciples did not understand) was caused by a question about the practices of those same disciples!
Don't forget that these preacher-teachers , who had been given the secret of the Kingdom of God in 4:11, had had their hearts hardened in 6:52, so that they did not understand even such a blatant miracle as walking on water.
Why give the disciples the secret of the kingdom of God and then harden their hearts so that they don't understand it?
In Mark 8:31, Jesus predicts that the Son of man must be killed and rise after three days and Peter understands this plain teaching enough to begin to rebuke Jesus. In Mark 9:31, Jesus repeats his teaching in almost identical words and the disciples do not understand. Why are these teachers unable to understand Jesus's teaching?
When Matthew rewrites the scene in Matthew 17:22-23, he realises such bafflement is impossible. There the disciples are greatly distressed, although Mark and Luke maintain they did not understand what Jesus had just said.
Disciples who desert Jesus - Confidants with no confidence in him - Teachers who never grow in understanding. This is not very realistic.
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