Thank you for your first main email, which is online here.
Dr. Marston's first two emails have presented virtually no evidence to support his case. He has no contemporary evidence from independent, objective eyewitnesses or from unbiased sources. It is interesting that he chooses as an example of an undoubted historical fact the recent train crash in London - an event which has precisely the contemporary, independent , corroborated evidence that his Gospels lack.
The question is 'Are sceptics right to think that few stories in the Gospels have much historical worth?' His last email implies that only militant atheists could doubt the historical worth of Gospel stories. I shall start by responding to this claim.
Readers who struggled to the end of my first email will recall that I asked Dr. Marston several direct questions, not all of which were answered. These questions will reappear as I discuss a) "cultural arrogance" and b) "burden of proof" . Finally, there will be a few words about harmonisations which leads on to the psychology of characters in the Gospels.
Before I do so, I must correct a mistaken impression Dr. Marston may have left with readers.
Josephus on Jesus
I said that Josephus's two references to Jesus did not appear in Christian works for two centuries until they appeared in Eusebius, a Christian who also produced forged letters supposedly by Jesus himself.
Dr. Marston says that Origen cited Josephus's Antiquities 20.9.1 in his Book 1 Chapter 47 of 'Against Celsus'.
Origen wrote :- 'For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews , Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless-being, although against his will, not far from the truth-that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ),-the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. "
This is not a reference to Ant. 20.9.1 as Josephus never states that the disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ). Indeed, Dr. Marston's 'refutation' of my claim that nobody quotes Josephus on Jesus for two centuries just underlines that early Christians made Josephus say things that he had never written.
Dr. Marston claims that a translation by the 10th-century Christian Bishop Agapius into Arabic represents a good text of the first century Josephus writing in Greek and is independent evidence.
Agapius claimed , in Arabic, that Josephus wrote 'Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die'. This is clearly Christian anti-Islamic propaganda about claims by Muslims that Jesus did not die on the cross. Emil Schuerer's 'The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ' (vol. 1, page 441' says 'No historical value may safely be attributed to this text....'. Certainly it can hardly be said to be an independent non-Christian witness when this text appears in a Christian book and clearly contains Christian readings.
Dr. Marston also claims that people generally would have heard of Jesus, called the Christ, and cites Pliny to back this up. Pliny, however, says he tortured Christians to find out such basic information as who they worshipped and that their meals were not cannibalistic. Suetonius refers to 'Chrestus' and Christian apologists explain that he does so because neither he nor his readers were familiar with the term 'Christ'. It seems Christian apologists can argue with equal ease that people were familiar with the term 'Christ' and that people were not familiar with the term 'Christ'.
Dr. Marston also says that Jewish writers like Philo, who visited Jerusalem often and wrote about Pilate, could not have been expected to notice that the Messiah and Son of God had entered the world, as Judea was just a corner of the Roman Empire and far from Jews in Alexandria. But the Gospels say Jesus's fame spread throughout all Syria. They say that news of Jesus's birth had been written in the stars and noticed by astrologers from the East, although Dr. Marston pours scorn on the idea that people outside Judea would have noticed any of the Gospel events.
I agree Philo might not have noticed obscure preachers, but the Gospels do not portray Jesus as an obscure preacher. His birth was marked by a Massacre of the Innocents, his death by a three hour darkness, earthquakes and a mass resurrection of people from their tombs who 'went into the Holy City and appeared to many people' (Matthew 27:53) - all went unmentioned by anybody outside the Gospels.
Militant Atheists and History
The late Raymond E. Brown wrote in Appendix 8 of 'The Birth of the Messiah' - 'Furthermore, I pointed out there and throughout the commentary that available evidence inclines against the historicity of large parts of them.' He is talking about the birth stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Raymond Brown was a member of the Society of Jesuits.
The Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne , KBE, FRS, writes in page 99 of 'Serious Talk' about Matthew's tale of a guard on the tomb 'This must be a fabricated tale from a Christian source....'. He says John 21 '...appears to be an appendix added to the Gospel...'
Is it only militant atheists who think Luke was grossly exaggerating when he said 470 men were sent to escort Paul? The New Jerome Bible Commentary, dedicated to two Popes and with a foreword by a Cardinal, calls these numbers 'fantastic' and says about Luke's quoting of a letter in Acts 23:25-26 'The letter's redactional origin is universally admitted.'
Is it only atheistic fantasy that the Gospels were edited after being written?
The Reverend David Parker of the University of Birmingham writes about the last three chapters of Luke on page 172 of 'The Living Text of the Gospels' - 'But the sum total provides incontrovertible evidence that the text of these chapters was not fixed, and indeed continued to grow for centuries after its composition.'
Dr. Marston is highly sceptical of the claim that Acts contains quotes from Greek playwrights. The late Professor F.F.Bruce in 'The New Testament Documents - Are They Reliable?', points out on page 96, a phrase in Acts 14:12 which parallels The Egyptian Mysteries of Iamblichus and points to a similar story in Ovid's Metamorphoses where people think they have met Zeus and Hermes . Bruce was a member of the Plymouth Brethren. As an aside , he counts as 'evidence' for Acts, an inscription showing that Zeus and Hermes were worshipped near Lystra. While this refutes any sceptics who did not believe that Zeus and Hermes were Greek gods, this shows mostly that Bruce would count anything at all as evidence for the New Testament.
It is not just militant atheists who doubt the historical value - mainstream Christian scholars also do.
Even Dr. Marston's chosen explanations reduce the historical worth of the stories.
Four inspired, infallible writers have described the Last Supper. Dr. Marston denies this was a Passover meal. The Gospel writers write 'Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John , saying 'Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.' (Luke 22:7-8). Or Luke 22:11 - 'Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?'. Or Luke 22:15-16 'I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.' Or Matthew 26:18 'I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.' Matthew and Mark even say they sang a hymn , which is what happens after the Passover meal.
Still, Dr. Marston denies this was a Passover meal, simply to harmonise with John's Gospel which states that the Passover meal had not happened yet. I note in passing that Dr. Marston says there was no lamb at the meal because the authors are silent about any lamb, even though Mark and Luke have already said that this was the very day when lambs were sacrificed. He does not think contemporary writers would have written about such astonishing events as the Massacre of the Innocents, or the Resurrection of the Saints, but insists that accounts of Passover meals would include mentions of lamb on the table, when everybody knew already that Passover meals include lamb.
Other Christians say it was a Passover meal. There is an article at Leadership University here which says it was. If Christians cannot agree on such basic historical information such as whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal, why should sceptics think these stories have much historical value?
Although Dr. Marston and the Leadership University writer cannot agree on whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal, they both agree there is no contradiction with John's Gospel. It is clear that the results are pre-programmed and the arguments adjusted to produce the desired result.
Dr. Marston concedes that the Gospellers moved events around in time to fit their theological conceptions. In 'The Historical Reliability of the Gospels' (page 143), Craig Blomberg writes 'In all probability, Jesus originally uttered one connected, coherent eschatological discourse from which the three Synoptics have chosen to reproduce different portions in different places.'.
Altering what Jesus said, when he said it, where he said it, who he said it to, and why he said it, does affect the historical value of the stories, by any reasonable definition of the word 'historical'.
I asked Dr Marston if he thought any stories in the Gospels shared some of the gullibility found in secular writers of the period and in all Christian writers who wrote non-canonical works.
I also asked Dr. Marston if he believed the story in Josephus's 'Wars of the Jews' that a heifer gave birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple. This was written within ten years of the events and is surely as well attested as the raising of the Widow of Nain's son.
Dr. Marston's reply was to accuse me of cultural arrogance when I implied that such people as Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder etc were gullible. He gave Mary's response to the news from the Angel Gabriel as an example of scepticism. He did not believe a cow gave birth to a lamb - it was probably just a mutant, deformed animal.
I note the readiness with which Dr. Marston flatly denies miracle claims in 'Wars of the Jews'. On what grounds does he know it was not a lamb, when he accepts miracles in the New Testament which are just as badly attested? It is also ironic that he accuses me of "cultural arrogance" when his chosen explanation implies first-century Jews could not tell the difference between a lamb and a mutantly deformed calf.
Dr. Marston dismisses Muhammad's direct claim to have met the Archangel Gabriel as mere visions, while he expects sceptics to accept the second, third or fourth-hand claim by the author of Luke's Gospel that Mary met Gabriel. Despite my request, Dr. Marston produced no evidence that Luke even met Mary, Peter, Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea etc, or any of the disciples, so any claim that Mary met Gabriel is far worse attested than Muhammad's claim to have met Gabriel.
Was I right to say ancient writers were credulous?
As an example of a Christian writer who was not very sophisticated, Origen thought the world was younger than 10,000 years. He wrote in 'Contra Celsum' Book 1 Chapter 19 ' ..... Celsus, from a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that.......'
Pliny the Elder writes in Book 7 of 'Natural History' that Cicero knew of a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of paper small enough to fit in a nutshell. Pliny describes a model of a four-horse chariot made out a piece of ivory smaller than a fly's wing. He mentions a boy of eight who ran 75 miles in just a few hours. Pliny reports a man who could see for 135 miles. Book 7 Section 174 has a tale of someone who could leave his body and report things thousands of miles away.
So I shall ask Dr Marston again if he thinks any stories in the Gospels shared some of the gullibility found in secular writers of the period and in all Christian writers who wrote non-canonical works.
2 Peter 2:16 repeats the story of the talking donkey. If the author of 2 Peter could accept claims of a talking donkey simply because he had read them in an old book (Numbers) , are we entitled to say he was gullible?
Let us look at some miracle claims which greatly resemble miracles claims in the New Testament and see on what grounds he rejects the one but accepts the other.
In the 'Histories' by Tacitus, he records that the Emperor Vespasian cured blindness with spittle and cured lameness. Tacitus writes ' Persons actually present attest both facts, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.' Do you believe Tacitus's reports, based on eyewitness testimony, and attributed by him to the god Serapis?
In Mark 8:23-26, Jesus cures blindness, partly by spitting on someone's eyes. Do you believe the author of Mark?
In the Histories, Tacitus also records that a priest of the god Serapis, Basilides, was seen by Vespasian in the Temple, although Vespasian knew , and checked by sending horsemen to verify, that a moment earlier Basilides had been in a town some eighty miles distant. Do you believe Tacitus, reporting the eyewitness testimony of the hard-headed Emperor/Soldier Vespasian?
In Acts 8:39-40, Philip was 'caught up' (same verb as in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul is 'caught up' into the third heaven) on the road to Gaza and reappears at Azotus. Do you believe Philip, like the pagan priest Basilides, transported from place to place rather like a character from Star Trek?
Burden of Proof
The burden of proof is surely on someone who claims that somebody really did walk on water. The burden of proof on someone who claims the NT writers had sources is to show who the sources were , how reliable and how fairly reported. Dr. Marston claims that the burden of proof is on sceptics. Nobody believes this. Even Dr. Marston felt the burden of proof was not on him to show that Josephus's claim was false when he said that a lamb was born to a heifer. He simply dismissed it as a mutant without producing evidence.
By contrast, I have tried to provide evidence. The Christian attitude to evidence is best summed by the eminent Christian apologist William Lane Craig, who wrote in 'Reasonable Faith' (page 36) - "Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa."
I can't prove that Luke used 1 Kings 17 when he wrote his story in Luke 7 of the widow of Nain's son. A whole sentence 'kai edoken auton te metri autou' ('and he gave him back to his mother.') appears in both stories. Dr. Marston is not persuaded by whole sentences in Luke and Kings , yet he wrote off the Book of Mormon as containing bits of Shakespeare because the two words 'traveller' and 'returns' appear in both Hamlet and the Book of Mormon.
To demonstrate my confidence, I will happily write a one thousand pound cheque to Oxfam or Action Aid, if Dr. Marston can send me any existing book which contains the exact phrase - 'and he gave him back to his mother.' Naturally, books which simply quote Luke or 1 Kings don't count.
Similarly, he dismisses the fact that Luke 7 and 1 Kings 17 have the widow meet the miracle-worker ' the gate of a city' as very common, yet this is the only time Jesus is met at the gate of a city. (Actually, the phrase in common is 'the gate of a city and behold' - a significantly larger correspondence than Dr. Marston reported). He likewise dismisses claims that miracles in Mark 5 is based on 2 Kings 4:27-37 , yet just five verses later, in 2 Kings 4:42-44, we have a story of Elisha feeding a crowd of people with a few loaves of barley bread and a little other food, with bread left over at the end of the meal.
Naturally, there are obvious differences between the stories, but no greater than the differences in the stories that Christians claim Joseph Smith stole from the Bible. These stories are closer than 'West Side Story' is to 'Romeo and Juliet'. Would Dr. Marston argue 'West Side Story' is not based on 'Romeo and Juliet' because there are obvious differences (one is in America, one in Italy etc)?
I asked Dr. Marston for an error in a work like the Book of Mormon or the Qur'an which cannot be fixed up by the lax standards and imaginative methods Christians apply to the Gospels. He did not do so.
What methods would I be allowed to use to get rid of problems?
All anachronisms can at once be dismissed as arguments from silence. Acts 5:36 refers to a revolt by Theudas. If this happened after the speaker mentions it, simply suppose there must-have-been a second Theudas who also led a revolt. Naturally, history will be silent about this second Theudas and so complaints that there is no evidence at all for this conjecture can be dismissed as arguments from silence.
To avoid an anachronism in Luke's mention of Quirinius, Dr. Marston uses a very dubious translation. Robin Lane Fox, Reader in History at the University of Oxford, says on page 29 of 'The Unauthorised Version' - 'Since the nineteenth century , there have been attempts to evade the meaning of the third Gospel's Greek: 'This census was the first , while Quirinius was governor of Syria' is twisted into 'this census was held before the one which Quirinius , governor of Syria held'. Nobody has ever entertained this translation for non-doctrinal reasons: it is not true to the Greek, let alone the clear Greek of the third Gospel.' Richard Carrier has pointed out in my Feedback page the problems with Dr. Marston's translation.
So, when Dr. Marston produces an error in the Qur'an, I shall be allowed to use translations which can be described by very eminent scholars as 'twisted', 'not true' and 'attempts to evade' yet expect them to be accepted.
Similarly, I can produce unusual claims. Mark says Jesus was crucified at the third hour, John says at the sixth. Dr. Marston tries to turn three into six by saying '.. to them , day and night were divided into three hour segments....'. Where does this come from? The Romans and Jews divided sunrise to sunset into twelve hours (John 11:9 'Are there not twelve hours of daylight ?). The night was divided into three or four watches. This can be found in any basic reference work , such as the 'New Bible Dictionary'. Where do these three hour segments come from except as a way of turning three into six? Even Dr. Marston's chosen examples do not have three hour segments. Where does he get this idea from?
I would also be allowed to read into the text what is not there. John 18:3 says 'So Judas came to the grove guiding a detachment of soldiers and officials from the chief priest and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.'. John 18:6 says ' .. they drew back and fell to the ground'. Dr. Marston explains that the Roman soldiers did not fall to the ground, just the Jews. This is nowhere stated or implied in the text. John just says 'they' , referring back to the people mentioned in John 18:3 and makes no distinction between Jews and non-Jews.
Craig Blomberg on page 136 gives another interesting example of the way inerrantists can read whatever they like into the text. He is trying to reconcile the contradictory accounts of the cursing of the fig tree in Matthew and Mark. He writes 'Matthew's introduction 'now in the early morning' does not specify which day is in view, and there is no reason to exclude an interval of time between verses 19 and 20.'
Just imagine if sceptics started introducing time intervals between one verse and the next!
Interestingly, Dr. Marston can exclude lamb from the Last Supper as the lamb is not specified (although Mark and Luke do say this was the day when lambs were sacrificed), while Blomberg can include a time gap as the time is not specified.
Blomberg also writes 'Mark does not deny that the fig tree withered immediately , only that the disciples did not see it until the next day.' Dr. Marston insists the disciples recorded Jesus's prayer, even when Mark specifies that they were asleep, or falling asleep with tiredness, yet , if necessary to avoid contradictions, we can eliminate the possibility the disciples saw a fig-tree being withered in broad daylight.
I can also deny very reasonable inferences from the plain wording of the text. Dr. Marston responds to my claim that the parent preceded Elisha and Jesus to the house, by saying 'In neither case is this in my Bible.'
2 Kings 4 says about Elisha 'And he arose, and followed her...'
If Elisha followed the woman, did she not proceed him?
Mark 5:37 says about Jesus 'And he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James.' If the parent did not follow Jesus, is it not plausible to say he preceded him?
Biblical scholars have largely abandoned the harmonisations Dr. Marston resorts to. This is partly because it is always possible to harmonise texts, but mainly because it does not correspond to the intentions of the Gospellers.
It is almost universally conceded that the authors of Matthew and Luke took Mark's Gospel and made deliberate alterations when they wrote their. The obvious conclusion is that they changed Mark's words because they thought Mark's words needed to be changed. Harmonisation tries to make these changes irrelevant or non-existent when Matthew and Luke thought the changes were important.
What sort of differences did Matthew and Luke make?
Mark 11:7 says Jesus rode on just one animal. Matthew 21:7 says Jesus had a donkey and a colt. While it is fun to see inerrantists try to harmonise these texts, what is important is that it is clear that Matthew altered Mark simply to make it correspond more closely to the 'prophecy' in Zechariah 9:9 which says '... gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'
Comparing the crucifixion scenes, we see that Matthew again alters Mark's text just to make it conform more clearly to the 'prophecy' in Psalm 22.
By comparing the Gospels we can see that the Gospellers wrote the life of Jesus using the Old Testament as a book of coded prophecies about Jesus. Hence we find miracle stories in the OT being recycled into the New Testament.
I'm sure Dr. Marston thinks this is fantasy, but then fantasy is just what we expect to find in the New Testament. Just look at the strange prophecies Matthew drags up in the Birth Stories. John 3:14 says that Moses lifting up the snake in the desert was an analogy to the Son of Man being lifted up. Paul said the rock which accompanied the Israelites in the desert was Christ. Acts 1:20 produces two totally irrelevant verses from Psalms as 'prophecies' about Judas. According to the Gospels, Jesus believed that Cain and Abel existed, that there really was a Noah and a Flood, and that Jonah lived for three days in a fish. We are not talking about people on the cutting-edge of reality.
John says a stalk of the hyssop plant was used to give vinegar to Jesus. Now, my encyclopaedia says hyssop was a small, bushy shrub of the mint family - not a good choice for conveying vinegar. Mint and vinegar make mint sauce, but it is most unlikely that John wanted to symbolise Jesus as the Passover Lamb by having mint sauce put on him. The hyssop almost certainly comes from Exodus 12:22 which states that hyssop was dipped in the blood of the Passover Lamb.
The idea that the Old Testament was a book of prophecies about Jesus is still accepted by Christians today. Paul says in Romans 16:26 that the Old Testament was a mystery that revealed the Gospel. Acts 18:28 says Christians debated Jews using the Old Testament, not evidence or eyewitnesses.
Of course, it is difficult to get into the mind of first-century religious fanatics who thought the world was going to end in just a few years. However, if just one-tenth of the above is on the right track, the idea that the Gospels are based on the reporting of events is in big trouble. We can see the sources - and they are not eyewitnesses.
Naturally though, I am willing to print on my web site any evidence you may have that somebody really did walk on water, raise Lazarus from the dead, or did meet Satan in the desert.
Psychology of the Gospels
In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mary and Joseph are visited by Magi bearing gifts, by the Angel Gabriel, have a virgin birth, are warned in dreams by angels , told their son will save his people from their sins. Mary's relative Elizabeth also has a miraculous conception and her son goes on to become a famous prophet. When Mary and Joseph forgot their twelve year old Son of God was not with them when they left Jerusalem , they found that people were amazed by his understanding. As Jesus grew up, his family would have seen for themselves that Jesus never did anything sinful.
Yet in Mark 3:21, after all this divine intervention, his family think Jesus is out of mind when the person they were told by angels was 'God with us', begins his ministry.
This is just incredible. Note that when Matthew and Luke rewrote Mark 3:20-30 they left out the accusation by his family that Jesus was out of his mind, obviously because it crashes so horribly with their Birth stories.
Clearly, Mark did not know these Birth stories. Paul is the earliest primary source Dr. Marston has. Paul wrote about Jesus's birth merely that 'he was born of a woman under the Law.' (Galatians 4:4). 'Born of a woman' no more means a virgin birth in Paul than it does in Job 14:1 'Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.' 'Under the Law' contradicts Matthew's view that Joseph would have been entitled to divorce Mary.
If Paul's heart was bursting with the news that the Son of God had been born to a virgin, he hides it well in Galatians 4:4.
Later in the same chapter of Galatians, Paul strives to find a good example for his fellow Christians of the miraculous birth of a son not 'born in the ordinary way' but 'born by the power of the Spirit' (Galatians 4:29) What example does Paul come up with of a miraculous birth to a 'free woman' - a birth that brought in a new covenant? He tells his fellow Christians about the child born to Sarah.
I make no claim to be a great evangelist like Paul but surely there is a better example for a first century Christian of a child born by the power of the Spirit whose very birth was free from slavery to sin.
If Paul and Mark knew nothing of the Virgin Birth , what does this do the claim that the Gospel stories were widely circulated and accepted?
Steven Carr's Opening Statement
Dr. Marston's Opening Statement
Steven Carr's First Response
Dr. Marston's First Response
Dr. Marston's Second Response
Steven Carr's Final Response
Dr. Marston's Final Response
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