Steven Carr's First Followup Email
Your opening statement raises 4 main points. I fear that I may have to use my limit of 6,000 words to answer them, but I hope I will not be too verbose.
1 - IS A SUPERNATURAL JESUS AUTOMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE?
When debating whether or not the New Testament gives a reliable account of Jesus, it is clearly begging the question to say that it is not reliable because it includes the supernatural, because the supernatural is automatically impossible.
It is true that certain New Testament scholars seem to exclude the miraculous on the grounds that miracles are involved. For example, Gerd Luedemann (a Christian, by the way), although very knowledgeable and readable , would automatically rule out such things as Acts 8. There, Philip is taken into the air on the desert road and reappears at Azotus. Luedemann would rule it out because people do not, in his experience, travel by being teleported from place to place. From the point of view of this debate however, I must not assume that this is an unreliable account. I must give reasons if I want to reject the miraculous.
It may be appropriate to make a short excursus into Hume's examination of miracles.
EXCURSUS - HUME AND MIRACLES
Hume never rejected miracles as such. He pointed out that miracles , by definition, are not the normal course of events. In the normal course of events, people exaggerate, they believe rumours, they deceive themselves etc.
As the normal course of events happens more often than the abnormal course, Hume pointed out that testimony of a miracle does not establish that a miracle has happened, unless it were even more miraculous that the testimony were false. Unless it was more miraculous that the testimony was false, Hume argued that we should be right to reject it.
When Hume examined the testimony of miracles that he had been presented with, he did not regard it as miraculous at all that it was false. Accordingly, he rejected it.
As it happens, I think Hume's objections can be overcome. If a man claimed to be walking around with no heart, I would reject the claim. I would reject it even if a doctor certified it as true. But if 100 or 200 doctors, independently certified it as true, I would be foolish to reject it.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is true, but extraordinary evidence can consist of a great deal of very ordinary evidence.
It is not true (IMHO), as Hume supposed, that miraculous claims require miraculous evidence.
After this short excursus, let us look at the supernatural in the New Testament.
MIRACLES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.
2000 years ago, people had a different view of the supernatural. It was assumed that certain people had certain powers, which they could harness. The question was - where did these powers come from? For example, some early Christian apologists took for granted that non- Christians and heretics such as Simon Magus could work miracles. They simply ascribed them to demons.
For example, Tacitus says that the Emperor Vespasian cured people just by touching them. Tacitus even says he knows eyewitnesses to this, and that he could not think of any reason why they should lie about it.
People did not know what these powers could be, but they would not have regarded them as supernatural in the way that we would. They were unknown forces of nature. Even today, many New Age followers talk about 'energies' and 'balances' and 'lines of force'. When I went to a New Age meeting last year, I volunteered to be experimented on by the lady giving the talk. All I had to do was lie still (and try to avoid giggling :-) , while she manipulated my arm and prattled on about the balance of energies between my arm and my head. It was all very amusing, but the lady regarded it as natural , not supernatural.
When reading the New Testament, one is struck by how often the miracles are not supernatural at all, just bad science. In Mark 8:23-25, Jesus cures blindness by spitting on someone's eyes and putting his hands on the eyes. In Mark 7:33-35, Jesus puts his fingers in someone's ears and spits, and cures his deafness. In Mark 5:30, Jesus knows that some unknown 'power' has come from him, and healed somebody, even if he never consciously willed it.
All this is readily explainable by a primitive belief that some people had certain powers (see Luke 6:19 'and the people all tried to touch him,because power was coming from him and healing them all')
The belief that Jesus's spittle had healing powers is hardly different from a faith in the power of relics.
In Mark 9:14-26, Jesus cures an epileptic boy by driving out the evil spirit that was causing him to throw himself to the ground, foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth and become rigid. Epilepsy as demon-possession is an appealing explanation for people who have no idea what could possibly cause fits in otherwise normal people, but if rejecting the idea that epilepsy can be cured by exorcism is just blind prejudice against the idea of the supernatural, then I must line up in the blind and prejudiced camp.
Of course, some of the big set-piece miracles involve the supernatural as we would understand them today.
With many of these miracles, it is very easy to see where the story originated, even if it has taken a few twists and turns on its way into the Gospels.
In 2 Kings 4:27-37 a distraught parent of an only child comes to Elisha just as in Mark 5:22-24 (which continues in verses 35-43) a distraught parent of an only child comes to Jesus,pleading for help.
The story in Mark is such an obvious rewrite of the story in Kings that if I remind you that Jairus in Mark 5 falls at Jesus's feet, you can guess what the parent in 2 Kings 4 did.
The name Jairus has 2 meanings. 1 is 'he enlightens'. The other is 'he awakens'. Is not 'he awakens' a remarkably apt name for someone in a resurrection story, where Jesus says that the child is not dead but sleeping?
This is by no means the only example where such parallels can easily be found. Naturally, Jesus may have spent his time acting out scenes from the Old Testament. This would imply that all the others would have to be in on the act too, and know their allotted roles.
I suppose that is possible, but it seems to me rather like the idea that God planted the fossils to test our faith. Possible, but simpler solutions are preferable. In this case, the simpler solution is that early Christians regarded the Old Testament as a book of coded prophecies about Jesus and by reading it, they could work out what Jesus had to have done. In particular they regarded the Old Testament prophets as 'types' of Jesus.
Typology is a strong theme in the New Testament - just look at John the Baptist, who is declared to be , in some way, Elijah returned.
2 - HAVE THE GOSPEL ACCOUNTS BEEN SYSTEMATICALLY ALTERED?
You concede that some Christian scribes did alter the wording in front of them. You write 'However none of these alterations involve more than a sentence, at most.'
I'm not sure why an alteration of only a sentence at most should be seen as of little consequence. The New World Translation, prepared by the Jehovah's Witnesses, translates John 1:1 as 'the word was a god'. I've yet to see a Christian book about the NWT, which explains that this hardly matters, as it is only involves an alteration of two letters.
'Son of God' in Mark 1:1 involves only two words but makes a large difference to Mark's Gospel.
Surely the variation in the early manuscripts involves far more than just one sentence here and there. Mark 16:9-20 is missing until the fourth century. The story of the woman taken in adultery is missing until Codex Bezae.
Marcion made huge alterations to Luke's Gospel.
I'm also curious to know which are the oldest complete surviving manuscripts of the Gospels which date from 200-225 AD. p45,p66 and p75 are hardly complete.
You also write 'Nor is there the slightest evidence for the existence of many other competing 'Gospels' from which the four New Testament Gospels were chosen.'.
I'm sure I can find some. Justin Martyr in 'Dialogue with Trypho', writes 'But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village'. The idea that Jesus was born in a cave comes from an Infancy Gospel and is not to be found in a canonical Gospel. Justin was hardly part of a Gnostic sect, being as orthodox as you can get in those days.
Many non-canonical books were used by the early Christians. Tatian's harmony of the Gospels was so popular that it had to be suppressed by Bishops. The Epistle of Barnabas, the Sibylline Oracles (accepted as genuine by Augustine), the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas etc were all very popular.
It is strange that people felt the need to write other Gospels such as the Gospel of Peter, Thomas and so on, if the canonical Gospels were accepted and used and their authority well established.
While it is difficult to find evidence of competing Gospels from around 50-100 AD which were used, it is equally true that it is quite difficult to find evidence that the canonical Gospel stories were well known before the second century AD.
For example, the Epistle of Barnabas puts an interesting twist on Matthew 22. 'Since then men will say that Christ is the son of David, David himself prophesieth being afraid and understanding the error of sinners. The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on My right hand until I set thine enemies for a footstool under Thy feet. And again thus saith Isaiah - The Lord said unto my Christ the Lord, of whose right hand I will hold, that the nations should give ear before Him, and I will break down the strength of kings. See how David calleth Him Lord, and calleth Him not Son.'
Barnabas regards the idea that Christ is the Son of David as the error of sinners, and adds another quotation from Isaiah, to the one Jesus gave. Perhaps he thought Jesus overlooked that. Barnabas never gives any clue that Jesus has already discussed this issue.
1 Clement from 95 AD shows almost no acquaintance with the traditional Gospel narrative. Clement knows Romans and Hebrews, but hardly quotes the Gospels.
Clement knows some teachings of Jesus, but that is about all. For example, 1 Clement 17 mentions Elijah,Elisha and Ezekiel as those who heralded the coming of the Messiah, but never mentions John the Baptist.
'Let us be imitators also of those who in goat-skins and sheep-skin went about proclaiming the coming of Christ; I mean Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel among the prophets, with those others to whom a like testimony is borne.'
So where is the evidence that the canonical Gospel stories were circulating so widely that they were taken as undisputed and authoritative?
3 - DID THE GOSPEL WRITERS THEMSELVES FICTIONALIZE JESUS?
You write that the differences between John and the other Gospels must not be exaggerated. If I can't exaggerate them, may I at least be permitted to list them?
In the Synoptics, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the son of Mary,a virgin. He is baptised by John, and is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. He then proclaims the coming kingdom of God. His preferred method of teaching is by parable. Jesus performs many exorcisms. He teaches his disciples the Lord's Prayer. In the transfiguration, he meets Moses and Elijah. He does not speak openly of his identity as the Son of God. At the Last Supper, he sets out the basis of the Eucharist. He then undergoes an agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, before being examined by the Sanhedrin, who find him guilty of blasphemy.
None of this is in John.
There are other striking differences between John and the other Gospels. In Matthew 5:46, Jesus points out that people who love one another are doing no more than sinners and pagans do. Jesus in John 13:34 tells the disciples to love one another so that people will know that they are disciples of someone special. How are Christians to be differentiated from other people - by the way they love one another, or by the way that they love their enemies?
In Mark 8:12, Jesus says that no miraculous sign will be given. In John though, Jesus explicitly calls his miracles 'signs', and says that people should at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves (John 14:11)
In Matthew 11:38, Jesus says that he will not tell his opponents by what authority he is doing these things, while in John 8, Jesus is entirely clear that his authority is the Father.
4 - WHAT ABOUT THE TIME BETWEEN THE LIFE OF JESUS AND THE WRITING OF THE GOSPELS?
Were the stories of his life elaborated and changed during this period of mainly 'oral' transmission?
The earliest documents we have are Paul's letters. They contain creeds and hymns which are considered by all to be quotes by him of earlier material about Jesus.
By looking at these early creeds, we can get an idea of what the earliest Christians considered to be the most vital information about Christ, and what they emphasised.
The early creeds, quoted by Paul, are considered to be Romans 1:2-4, Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Colossians 15-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
Now write the Gospels and allow a few years for them to circulate and become accepted and then look at Christian creeds.
Ignatius's Letter to the Trallians 'Be ye deaf, therefore, when any one speaketh unto you apart from Jesus Christ, who is of the race of David, who was born of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died, in the sight of the things that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth.'
Mary and Pontius Pilate appear - figures who are totally missing from the earliest creeds , from Paul's letters, from James, the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1 Peter etc.
1 Tim. 6 mentions Pilate, but this is the exception that proves the rule, as it is widely considered, on other grounds, that it is not Pauline.
Paul's letters are primary and excellent sources for what early Christians taught about Christ.
Ignatius's letters and Justin's writings are primary sources for what Christians of 100-130 AD taught about Jesus.
These primary sources show that once the Gospels were written and accepted , they became part of the teaching about Jesus. Before they were written, the teaching about Jesus was of him as a cosmic deity, and of his crucifixion and resurrection.
Paul writes in 1 Cor. 2:2 - 'I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.'. Frankly, I believe him. Galatians 3:2 is another reminder that what Paul preached was the crucifixion of Jesus.
There are a couple of places where Paul mentions commands of the Lord.
These are all from 1 Corinthians, the only letter which deals with prophecy and talking in tongues. When Christians talk in tongues they , even today, often say that they are getting messages from the Lord. They do not mean that the earthly Jesus of 4BC-33AD.
Paul states clearly (1 Cor. 2:13, 1 Cor. 7:40, 1 Cor. 14:37) that he regards many of his judgements as coming straight from God , and not from any oral tradition , passed on by the disciples from Jesus.
In 1 Cor. 11, Paul states that he has received from the Lord the instructions for the Eucharist. He does not say that he is receiving it from the disciples.
One command of the Lord (1 Corinthians 9) has to do with the rights of the apostles and their wives to be supported by the church. It would seem rather cynical for me to say that one of the few times the apostles insisted that Jesus backed up their views was when it came to getting food and money for themselves.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul does mention a command of the Lord about divorce, but the command is not the same as the ones in Mark 10 and Matthew 5.
If it is objected that people did not receive instructions to write letters based on visions and instructions from Jesus after Jesus ascended to heaven, but restricted themselves to Jesus of Nazareth's earthly teachings as recorded in the Gospels, then may I point you to the Apocalypse?
PAUL PRESUPPOSING JESUS'S TEACHING
Romans 12 has many ethical teachings. Paul tells the Romans 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirst, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.' This is an interesting twist on Jesus's teachings, but Paul never mentions that Jesus may have taught anything similar. He is not quoting Jesus. He is quoting Proverbs 25.
Paul does say that Christians should love one another. He never says that Jesus taught Christians that. He says that God taught Christians that.
1 John 4 also mentions the command for Christians to love, without ever mentioning the little fact that somebody called Jesus, hailing from Nazareth, may have mentioned it.
It is often claimed that Paul mentions so little of what Jesus did because he is interested in who Jesus was , not what Jesus did. One main feature of Paul's letters is his arguments with people preaching another Jesus. (2 Cor. 11:4). Paul can hardly presuppose Jesus's teaching with people who were being taught another Jesus.
So we have two powerful arguments for Paul to use saying of Jesus about who Jesus was , yet where are the great, ringing declarations Jesus made?
'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me'. 'I and the Father are one'. 'I am the Good Shepherd'. 'Before Abraham was, I am.'. 'I am the true vine'. Ideal material for Paul to use when explaining who Jesus was to people who were being led astray, but there is no hint of any such sayings in Paul or Hebrews or James or 1 Peter or 2 Peter.
Sometimes a case is made out that Paul's teachings sometimes echo Jesus's, yet , when examined closely, the parallels are far fewer and far less convincing than the parallels between the sayings in the Synoptic Gospels and the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas.
If Thomas can be rejected as an example of what Christians taught, as it is only a sayings source with no narrative , then where does that leave Paul, Hebrews, and James?
The evidence is good that what was taught about Jesus was a few sayings, but none of those found in John, plus crucifixion and resurrection.
No Virgin Birth, no miracles, no Judas etc. Indeed, Hebrews 12, when trying to find an example of someone who rejected the grace of God for a very little material reward, hits upon Esau, not Judas. Is this really possible for a first-century Christian who believes the Son of God was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver?
JESUS IN FIRST CENTURY IDEAS
You write that first century readers, particularly Jews, would not have had difficulty understanding the claims made in the Gospels and they were not an abstruse world of strange theological ideas.
It is pretty clear that Mark, Luke and John were aimed at Gentiles, as they have to explain aspects of Judaism. Only Matthew could be said to be possibly written for Jewish Christians.
Surely first century Judaism had some quite strange theological ideas, ideas which Christians took over wholesale.
It is most unclear what connection Moses lifting up the snake in the desert has to do with Jesus, yet John 3:14 manages to find one.
Paul wrote in Galatians 3:19 that the Law was delivered by angels, and not by God as commonly supposed today. Josephus's Antiquities says the same.
1 Corinthians 10 states that the rock that Moses struck in Exodus was Christ. Rabbinical exegesis was that, as only one rock is mentioned in Exodus, while two places are named, the same rock must have accompanied the Israelites around. Paul follows this conclusion.
In the early Christian creed in Philippians 2, Christ is described as someone who took on the likeness of human nature, and found himself in appearance as a man. This is very Gnostic indeed. It is almost pure Docetism - the doctrine that Jesus only seemed to be a human being.
Romans 1:1-4 declares that Jesus was appointed Son of God at the Resurrection. Paul seems to have added the words 'in power', which spoil the balanced nature of the verses, but even the words 'in power' do not remove the fact that this is not a belief that Jesus was always the Son of God. It is a belief that Jesus became the Son of God - hardly orthodox Christianity.
There was a Jewish book called 'The Ascension of Isaiah', which was very influential among Christians, and indeed has Christian additions.
Chapter 9 Verse 4 says 'And he said unto me: "He who forbade thee, is he who is over the praise-giving of the sixth heaven.'
Compare Paul's account of his trip to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12 and we can see where the idea of a series of heavens comes from.
Chapter 9 Verse 13-14 say 'Nevertheless they see and know whose will be thrones, and whose the crowns when He has descended and been made in your form, and they will think that He is flesh and is a man.
And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will crucify Him on a tree, and will slay Him not knowing who He is.'
Compare Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:8 'None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.'
Again, we have very early Jewish or Jewish-Christian writers, who think that Jesus only seemed to be flesh.
First century Jews had abstruse theological ideas about such places as Tartarus. This is in 1 Enoch (if I remember rightly), a book which was very influential on Jude and 2 Peter.
To summarise, the world of first century Judaism was a very strange one. In such a world, the very last thing we can expect is straightforward reporting. Indeed, the evidence of the earliest Christian writings is that mythmaking and theologizing was preferred to recounting dry, boring, old facts.
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