Steven Carr's Second Followup Email


Thank you for your email. It is gratifying and flattering to see how much interest this debate has created and how many people are reading our exchanges.

Rather than go through your email point by point, I shall outline my main points in this debate, and see how your arguments affect them.

My main argument is that the state of early Christianity up to AD 200 is not compatible with the idea that the Gospel stories were spread all over the Middle East and regarded as authentic and authoritative.

To support this idea, we have
1) The total lack of almost all the Gospel stories in Paul,James,Hebrews and in early non-canonical works like Barnabas,Clement and the Didache.
2) The way the Gospels use each other.
3) The fact that we can see where many Gospel stories came from.
4) The way that the earliest Christians were interested in a cosmic Christ.
5) The fact that many Christians, including indeed some of the very earliest, did not follow orthodox views set out in the Gospels. This can't be got around just by calling those who were not orthodox Christians 'various sectarian groups' and defining Christians as only those who accepted the four canonical Gospels.

Let's look at each of these.

ARGUMENTS FROM SILENCE

I've already mentioned the way that Paul , James and Hebrews ignore virtually every detail of Jesus's life.

It's rather disconcerting for me to ask you where is the evidence that the Gospel stories were circulating in the early church and to be told that this is an argument from silence. Surely the silence is a problem for you , not for me. Paul's letters, Hebrews and James are supposed to be your evidence,not mine.

I take it we agree that the earliest epistles are silent about the Gospel stories.

THE WAY THE GOSPELS USE EACH OTHER

I agree that the fact that Matthew and Luke used Mark does not, in itself, make them unreliable. Why shouldn't they use sources? After all, Nehemiah's reliability is increased because it quotes what appears to be official letters.

It does though make it impossible for them to have been eyewitness accounts . All four Gospels are anonymous and never use the 'we' terminology that appears in Acts.

It also illustrates the paucity of sources available to Matthew and Luke. If they had already heard all the stories in Mark through a widespread oral tradition, why would Matthew and Luke need to use 90% and 60% of Mark's Gospel respectively?

After all, Mark has almost no context or chronology or place for the stories about Jesus that he strings together. If we look at the words he uses for time , 'At that time', 'At once','A few days later', 'Once again', 'One Sabbath','Another time','In those days', 'Immediately', etc, we see that there is no attempt at putting things in a chronology.

Mark makes equally little attempt to put things in the context of place. Jesus goes into 'a solitary place', 'a house', 'a high mountain', 'a lonely place','the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon'.

A typical episode is in Mark 1:40, where a leper appears from nowhere, is healed and goes out (but from where?).

Mark has a story of Pharisees in a cornfield in the Sabbath. What on earth were Sabbath-obeying Pharisees doing in a cornfield on a Sabbath, checking to see if people were plucking ears of corn? This is hardly an historical story - the Pharisees are just a backdrop for Jesus to make a statement about man and the Sabbath.

It is interesting to see how Matthew and Luke used Mark and how they put Mark's stories into a context.

Matthew 10:5-15 uses Mark 6:8-11 and adds other material, all into the context of sending out the twelve. Luke 9 puts some of the material into the context of sending out the twelve, and puts the rest into the context of sending out the seventy- two (Luke 10)

Matthew 10:17 onwards takes material from Mark which occurs much later and puts in into an entirely new context.

I could give many other examples where the context of Jesus's sayings was changed by each writer.

As well as altering the narrative of Mark, Matthew and Luke revise Mark's theology. Matthew drops Mark's statement that John the Baptist was preaching baptism 'for the forgiveness of sins' and adds those words to his version of Mark 14:24 (Matthew 26:28). Matthew only allows Jesus to forgive sins.

Luke drops Mark's idea that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) and puts the whole discourse into the Last Supper.

Matthew and Luke put the Lord's Prayer in quite different contexts, while, of course, it goes without saying that Paul, in Romans 8:26, says that Christians do not know how to pray, almost as though Jesus had never taught anybody what to pray for.

Matthew also alters Mark because he felt that Mark made mistakes. Mark has Jesus quote 'Do not defraud' as one of the commandments (Mark 10:19) Matthew drops this 'commandment' (Matthew 19:18-19)

I give other examples of Matthew altering Mark in my first Gospels article.

So Matthew and Luke use as their main source a work where they feel the narrative, contexts , theology and saying should be changed. Does this increase our confidence in the reliability of the Gospels?

It is worth remembering that people felt the need to try to harmonize the Gospels, to get around the obvious contradictions between them. Tatian's Harmony was more popular than the individual Gospels for centuries in places like Syria.

As for there not being competing Gospels, Luke says himself that 'many' had already written about Jesus. The canonical Gospels were not the first, as Luke admits.

It is very likely that the many writings about Jesus included works which were just collections of sayings, with no Passion stories or virgin birth narratives. Many scholars posit the existence of 'Q' - a sayings source, and we know from the Gospel of Thomas that people wrote books of sayings.

The canonical Gospels were just one strand of Christianity, which was amazingly diverse. The differences between the earliest Christians were far greater than the differences between orthodox Christians today and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Was the strand of Christianity which survived the most authentic - or the best organized?

THE SOURCES FOR THE GOSPELS

You say that I make a mistake when I argue that , if it is possible to find a literary precedent for a story, its historical credibility is undermined.

If this is a mistake, then I am in quite good company.

There is an article about the Qu'ran from a Christian point of view Here

This contains much of the standard stuff and one of the standard arguments used by Christians about the Qu'ran is the way that Muhammad recycled stories from other sources.

For example, Muhammad reuses the story of Jesus breathing life into birds of clay from an apocryphal Gospel. Incidentally, this refutes the notion that the apocryphal Gospels disappeared after the canonical Gospels were accepted. After all, ideas from them were still being circulated five centuries later for Muhammad to pick up.

A standard argument about the Book of Mormon is that Joseph Smith reworked stories from the King James Version.

Why do these sorts of arguments work for the Qu'ran and the Book of Mormon but become mistakes when applied to the New Testament?

To give one example, Luke 4:18-19 says that Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah, but the text given was not on any scroll of Isaiah. It is a combination. Luke quotes from the Septuagint version of Isaiah and quotes Isaiah 61:1 a,b,d, Isaiah 58:6 line d, and Isaiah 61:2 line a. Luke mixed together two different chapters from a Greek translation of Isaiah.

Why should I not think this undermines the reliability of Luke 4?

Let's look at another example from Luke.

Jesus in Luke 7 raises the son of a widow from the dead. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah raises the son of a widow from the dead. Both stories employ exactly the same words - and he gave him to his mother.The Greek is 'kai edoken auton te metri autou', copied word for word from the Septuagint version of 1 Kings 17.

Luke use 1 Kings 17 as a basis for his story? Jesus met the widow at the gate of a city. Elijah met his widow in 1 Kings 17:10. It should come as no surprise that it was at the gate of a city. Luke 7 also copies other phrases from the Septuagint version of 1 Kings 17.

Curiously, John 4 uses the elements of 1 Kings 17 that Luke does not. In John 4, Jesus, while in a foreign land, meets a woman who no longer has a husband, just as Elijah does. Both Elijah and Jesus are thirsty and have to ask the woman for a drink . In both stories, though, it is the woman and not the prophet who is in true need. Both Elijah and Jesus promise her a never ending source. Both 1 Kings 17:24 and John 4:19 make the women certify the miracle worker as a true prophet and in both stories.

These parallels are just as convincing as those found by Christians in the Qu'ran and the Book of Mormon.

Your argument is that Matthew uses such parallels for other aspects of Jesus's life - such as his birth in chapters 2-4. In there, a wicked king is killing Jewish children and one child has to be hidden and ends up coming out of Egypt. The parallels with Moses are obvious, but it is hardly a knock-down argument to say that these don't make a difference to the historical reliability.

It would be if the historicity of the birth stories could be taken for granted, but their historicity is highly controversial in New Testament scholarship - see Raymond Brown's work 'The Birth of the Messiah'.

The story of Herod killing the children of Bethlehem can not be taken for granted as there is no secular confirmation. This does not mean that it automatically did not happen, but it does mean that you cannot argue that it knocks over the argument that parallels undermine reliability.

Indeed , it rather helps my case. The part of Matthew 2-4 which has the fewest parallels to Moses is the baptism, and this is the most likely to be historical. The part which has the most parallels to Moses is the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt. This is the part which has no support from any other source, even from the other pages of the New Testament.

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.

A COSMIC CHRIST IN THE EARLIEST LETTERS

Do I really read too much into tiny early credal fragments like Colossians 1:15-20, Philippians 2:6-11, Romans 1:1-4?

That is not really for me to judge. I just go on what Christian scholars have identified as early Christian creeds that Paul has incorporated.

Is it really my fault if Paul's letters record only tiny parts of what the very earliest Christians believed about Jesus?

Anybody reading those passages for themselves can see that the early Christians were primarily interested in a cosmic Christ.

There is nothing wrong with that as such. I just want to be shown the evidence that the early Christians also transmitted oral traditions which later wound up in the Gospels.

You give the famous passage from Papias about oral tradition

"If anyone chanced to come who had actually been a follower of the elders, I would enquire as to the discourses of the elders, what Andrew or what Peter said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples; and the things which Aristion and John the elder, the disciples of the Lord, say."

This is Eusebius quoting Papias. Notice exactly what is being said here.

Eusebius quotes Papias as speaking to unnamed people, who followed unnamed elders, and reported what the elders had said that the disciples had said, and what other people, not disciples, were saying.

Notice that the second John is called an 'elder', and is placed after Aristion.

This is quite a chain of hearsay evidence! It is also useless from the point of view of this debate as Papias never states that the oral tradition he got from this long chain was the Gospel stories.

Even Eusebius said that Papias's oral tradition included a lot of 'strange parables and teachings' and 'mythical things'.

For example, Papias held that 'Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.'

According to Eusebius,Papias quoted a story about a woman accused falsely of many sins before the Lord, which the Gospel of the Hebrews contains.

So Papias's oral traditions hardly backs up your claim, as what little we know of it , backs up the Gospel of the Hebrews.

If Papias's oral traditions did not contain much 'mythical matter', and backed up the Gospel stories, why did his 'Exegesis of the Sayings of the Lord' languish in the Chapter Library of Nimes, unquoted and unused by Christians, before being destroyed in the sixteenth century? (My source for this is p99 of D.C.Parker's book 'The Living Text of the Gospels')

It seems even Eusebius could not find any quotes from Papias which backed up the Gospel stories. Papias even said that Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic. I'm sure you agree that 'seems unlikely' , to quote one of your chapters in 'Men with a Message'.

You also write 'Even Irenaeus, writing around 180 CE, reveals how significant oral traditions of Jesus' life still were, although by that time the need for authoritative, reliable written records was strongly felt.'

It is quite true that Irenaeus said that oral tradition of Jesus's life was significant, but significant for whom?

In 'Against Heresy' Vol.3 Chapter 2, Section 1, he wrote 1. When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority , and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For they allege that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but by voice : wherefore also Paul declared, "But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world."

Oral tradition was significant for Gnostic Christians, who maintained that Paul taught Theudas , and that Theudas taught Valentinus.

In 1 Corinthians 2:6-7, Paul does indeed write about speaking a secret wisdom for only the 'initiates' (teleioi) to understand.

So the idea that oral tradition was significant is a double-edged sword.

DIFFERENT CHRISTIANITIES

Even as late as 200 AD, the majority of Christians did not believe in the Trinity, as Tertullian freely conceded ."The simple, indeed, who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world's plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own 'economy' ." ('Against Praxeas' ,Chapter 3 )

Justin Martyr , in his Dialogue with Trypho, records that many Christians did not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin 'For there are some, my friends, I said, of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have the same opinions as myself should say so.'

We know that there were Christians who still kept the Jewish Law.

If the Gospel stories were widespread and accepted, why was Christianity so diverse and why did so many Christians differ on very basic beliefs?

500 WITNESSES

I made the point that I would accept the claim that somebody was walking around without a heart, if 200 doctors testified to that.

You responded that Paul mentions 500 witnesses in 1 Cor. 15

Paul's letter counts as one person , not 500.

There is a big difference between 200 named, independent doctors who each carry out a medical examination and publish their findings, and one person who claims 500 unnamed people, and gives not the slightest attempt at documenting date or place or circumstances.

I cover what Paul claims to have seen in my article on the Resurrection.

I can give many examples of people who have claimed to have seen things.

For example, should we believe the miracles in 'Wars of the Jews' that Josephus, writing within ten years of the events records :- 'Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus.... when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour...... At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night. Now those that kept watch in the temple came hereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it.'

Should we believe the miracles in the historian Tacitus?

Tacitus wrote 'One of the common people of Alexandria, well known for his blindness, threw himself at the Emperor's knees, and implored him with groans to heal his infirmity.... Another with a diseased hand, at the counsel of the same God, prayed that the limb might feel the print of a Caesar's foot. At first Vespasian ridiculed and repulsed them. They persisted... And so Vespasian, supposing that all things were possible to his good fortune, and that nothing was any longer past belief, with a joyful countenance, amid the intense expectation of the multitude of bystanders, accomplished what was required. The hand was instantly restored to its use, and the light of day again shone upon the blind. Persons actually present attest both facts, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.'

Should we believe Josephus when he recalls in his autobiography, how, as a young child, he astonished the scribes and experts by his amazing knowledge, so that they came to ask him questions and seek his advice?

You write that I do not allow the New Testament to be itself and do not allow that it is ancient history.

Surely, I am treating it just as ancient history. Just like Josephus and Tacitus and Suetonius, it can be examined to see where it is unreliable.

By the way, I am still curious to learn which are the complete surviving manuscripts of the Gospels from around 200-225 AD?


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