Opening Statement by Steven Carr
First of all, I must thank Dr. Stephen Motyer of the London Bible College for taking part in this debate and for the time and effort that he is investing in it.
I must also thank him for his friendly and courteous dealings with me. Dr. Motyer is a noted New Testament scholar and has written many books such as Remembering Jesus,Men with a Message, The Bible with Pleasure and Understand the Bible. In addition he has the large resources of the London Bible College to call upon.
I only hope that I do not prove too much of an easy opponent for him, and manage to provide him with some interesting discussion.
The purpose of this debate is to discuss whether the New Testament gives a reliable account of the life and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. Neither of us holds out much hope of converting the other to our point of view. Perhaps it will seem to readers that we are far apart on many things. Even in that case the debate will still have been a success , if people can understand why we are far apart and if people can see why we hold the views we do.
This opening statement consists of general remarks about the reliability of the New Testament documents, to set out where I am coming from in this debate. I shall leave details to the follow-up emails.
WHAT IS RELIABILITY?
What does it mean to say that the New Testament is reliable? The New Testament authors would never have dreamed of doing what a modern biographer would. There are no pictures, no footnotes, and only the roughest attempt at giving us even such basic information as the exact year Jesus was born and died.
It would be silly to try to compare the Gospels with modern biographies and dismiss them as unreliable for that reason. The Bible is ancient history and must be treated as such. What should we compare the New Testament documents to?
We can compare them to other religious works such as the Qu'ran and the Book of Mormon.
We can compare them to other works of that time such as The Antiquities and The Wars of the Jews by Josephus.
SHOULD WE TAKE CLAIMS AT FACE-VALUE?
One trap is to dismiss everything in the Bible simply because it is in the Bible. There have been several books recently which say that the Gospels are a very accurate record, but in code, and only people who can break the code can understand what the Gospels are really saying. This is to leave the world of rational debate and enter the world of conspiracy theory. I will not be wasting anybody's time with such views.
The other extreme is to argue that the New Testament is reliable because the New Testament is reliable. The New Testament records that Peter wrote 2 Peter. We can't say that ,because we have a letter by Peter himself, this proves that the New Testament is reliable and therefore, we know that Peter really did write 2 Peter, because the New Testament is reliable.
We must examine the claims that Peter wrote 2 Peter on their merits and not on their face value.
HOW SHOULD WE EVALUATE THE SOURCES?
How can we determine the reliability of the New Testament, especially using the comparisons I have given?
One way we can use the comparisons is to examine the sources for all of these works. Historians consider the question of sources to be very important for determining the reliability of a work.
Primary sources are most important of all. Coins, statues, inscriptions and letters are very valuable. A coin with Domitian on it is excellent evidence that Domitian existed.
We have primary letters by Paul and they are excellent evidence about Paul. However, Paul says little about Jesus.
If primary sources are not available, and we have no coins, statues, portraits or letters of Jesus, we must look at secondary sources.
This is where the first of our comparisons come in.
THE QU'RAN AND THE BOOK OF MORMON
In my experience, most Christians reject the Qu'ran simply because it contradicts the Bible. Those looking for more sophisticated arguments than 'We are right and they are wrong' point out how Muhammad used his sources.
The Christian legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus appears in the Qu'ran in Sura 18:8-26. The Christian legend of Jesus breathing life into clay birds appears in Sura 5:121. The story about Gideon (Judges 7:5-7) appears as a story about Saul in Sura 2:249-250.
Why does the Islamic use of Christian legend disqualify the Qu'ran, but the Christian use of the Jewish legend of Jannes and Jambres does not disqualify the New Testament?
If it is obvious that the Islamic story about Saul is based on Gideon, why is it not equally obvious that the Christian story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is based on Elisha feeding a large crowd with bread left over (2 Kings 4)?
If the Qu'ran is wrong to use apocryphal works such as an infancy Gospel, why is it acceptable for Jude to quote from the Book of Enoch?
THE BOOK OF MORMON
Anyone can see that Joseph Smith used the King James Version when writing the Book of Mormon. The language in the book is that of a religious work of a couple of hundred years earlier.
In the same way, the language in Luke's Gospel is also that of a religious work of a couple of hundred years earlier. Luke uses the Septuagint so much that 'And it came to pass' (kai egeneto) has become a cliche.
What results come out of a comparison of Josephus with the Gospels?
Josephus mentions his sources frequently, among them: Berosus, Jerome, Mnaseas, Nicolaus, Manetho, Moschus, Hesiod, Menander, Dios, Herodotus, Megasthenes, Philostratus, 1 Maccabees, Polybius, Strabo, Livy, etc. Not all these sources are good but at least we can see where Josephus is coming from. Some of these sources are still extant and we can see how Josephus used them. We can see where Josephus changed from one source to the next, as his knowledge gets more or less detailed.
The Gospels never name the sources they used. Although some copying went on, none of the Synoptics tell us about it. But from what we can tell of how Matthew and Luke used Mark, the evangelists used their sources quite freely. The evangelists are always omniscient, even when it comes to knowing what is in Pilate's heart. They even know what Jesus prayed at a time when they tell us all the eyewitnesses were sleeping. As the disciples were getting some 'shut-eye' while Jesus prayed in the Garden, perhaps we should call them shut-eye witnesses.
LUKE'S RELIABILITY AS AN HISTORIAN
As a general rule, Luke is a good historian of the Gentile world.
He does make a few questionable statements.
Acts 10:1, says that there were Roman troops (the Italian Cohort) at Caesarea in about 41 AD. The first mention of the Italian Cohort is in AD 69.
It is possible that an earlier mention of the Italian Cohort than AD 69 will come to light, but until then, this looks like an anachronism.
Acts 23:23-31 has the Roman garrison send more than half its troops (470 soldiers to escort one man) from Jerusalem to Antipatris, a trip of 45 miles which the foot soldiers seem to do in one night! We won't enquire how Luke got the letter in Acts 23:26-30, nor how he got access to a private meeting of the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:35-40.
Acts 21:20 says that 'myriades' of Jews were believers. Were tens of thousands of Jews believers? The entire population of Jerusalem could have been no more than 40,000. Or is this an example of Lucan exaggeration, such as his claim that 3,000 people were converted by one speech by Peter (Acts 2:41)? - a success rate that Jesus, with all his miracles and three years of preaching, never matched. Acts 1:15 says that there were only 120 brethren after Jesus ascended. Evangelical commentaries recognise that there could not possibly have been myriads of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and say that Luke is referring to Jews outside Jerusalem , even though James is telling Paul that this is something he can see for himself while in Jerusalem and that the myriads will all know about something Paul does in Jerusalem.
Some very conservative commentators go to great lengths to excuse what look at first sight like straightforward lapses by Luke.
F.F.Bruce, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, writes in 'The New Testament Documents - Are they reliable', as follows, 'The magistrates of Philippi, which was a Roman colony, are called 'praetors' in Acts... The strict title of these colonial magistrates was 'duumvirs', but they affected the more grandiloquent title of 'praetors' like the magistrates of another Roman colony ,Capua, of whom Cicero says: 'Although they are called duumvirs in the other colonies , these men wished to be called praetors.'.
Translation - Luke calls the magistrates of Phillipi by the wrong title which magistrates in *Capua* liked to affect, and this proves his reliability. After all, 'duumvirs' was only the 'strict' title and we don't want to be sticklers for technicalities. Rest assured that if Bruce had any evidence that the magistrates of Philippi liked to be called praetors, just as the Capuans did, he would have given it.
He also wrote -'Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee in the time of our Lord,seems to have been given the courtesy title of king by his Galilean subjects (Matt. 14:9, Mark 6:14), but... had to be content with the title 'tetrach'. Luke therefore never calls him king, but always tetrarch.'
Translation - Luke , Mark and Matthew call Herod by different titles and all three are correct.
However, Luke did get the title of Gallio right. Gallio was the brother of Seneca, the tutor of Nero and one of the most famous people in the Roman Empire, indeed one of the most famous people in history. Isn't it astonishing that an educated man like Luke knows the title of the brother of Seneca?
It is generally agreed that Luke struggled with the Aramaic language, as your book, 'Men with a Message', points out.
How could Luke have spoken to eyewitnesses of Jesus if he could not cope with Aramaic? If he had spent much time talking with eyewitnesses , how could he not have picked up more Aramaic?
How could Luke have spent much, or any time, talking to Peter when he used Mark's Gospel as a source? Mark is traditionally regarded as stemming from Peter. Why would Luke use a second-hand account if he had first-hand knowledge of Peter?
It is fairly obvious that Mark's Gospel was writing for a western audience, and probably for Romans who had little acquaintance with Jerusalem or Judea. Mark uses many Latinisms and makes some mistakes about Judaism, as we shall see later.
It says a great deal for the reliability of the Gospels that Luke, when doing his best to produce a history, had to content himself with a second-hand source, from a far away country, written 30-40 years after Jesus died.
Imagine if our first biography of President Kennedy appeared this year - in Saudi Arabia, written in Arabic!
Peter quotes the Septuagint version of Ezekiel 4:14 in Acts 10:14. Peter was an Aramaic-speaking Jew, who was supposed to be 'illiterate' and 'unlearned' (Acts 4:13)
Perhaps Peter, when being told to eat something impure, managed to remember exactly what a Greek translation of what Ezekiel said when being told to eat something impure - a Greek translation he would be unfamiliar with. Or possibly Luke puts words in Peter's mouth, taking them from the Old Testament.
In Acts 15:17 , James quotes a notorious mistake in the Septuagint, where 'the remnant of Edom' (Amos 9:12) is translated 'the remnant of men'. While the translator of the Septuagint may have mistaken 'Adam' (man) for 'Edom', James would not have done so, and this is cast-iron proof that Luke is not quoting what was spoken at the conference. He is quoting proof-texts from the Septuagint.
One astonishing source for Luke, according to F.F.Bruce, occurs in Acts 14:12. The phrase 'the chief speaker', echoes 'The Egyptian Mysteries of Iamblichus', where Hermes is described as 'the god who is the leader of the speeches'.
Either the ignorant villagers of Lystra, speaking Lycaonian, remembered their classical Greek education when they thought they saw Zeus and Hermes walking the streets, or the world of the New Testament is a very strange one indeed.
It is this strange world that I shall explore in follow-up emails.
We must also take into account that the text of the Gospels was changed over the course of the first and second century. I hope also to look at some of these changes.
Steven Carr's First Email
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