Opening Statement by Steven Carr 12.Dec.1998


Are the New Testament documents reliable sources of information about the historical Jesus?

This debate came about when the Revd. Campbell Paget wrote a letter to the London Times describing the evangelical Alpha courses as being challenging for sceptics. Being a sceptic means constantly challenging your views , so I was delighted to take up the challenge. I would like to thank the Revd. Campbell Paget for giving me this opportunity to debate why sceptics do not think the New Testament documents are reliable.

A short plea

Before starting, I must make one short plea. Let us allow the evidence to speak for itself.

Your opening statement described your opponents as 'unreasonable', 'highly speculative', 'fanciful theories and mythical reconstructions', 'cultural ignorance', 'academic arrogance' etc. You describe people who support you as 'enlightened', 'renowned historians', 'expert comment', etc. Let our readers decide for themselves who has fanciful theories and who is enlightened. They can evaluate the evidence without needing to be prompted when to boo, and when to cheer.

Presuppositions

Your opening statement devoted more space to attacking the 'anti-supernatural' presuppositions of liberal Christian New Testament scholars, such as the renowned Christian missionary Albert Schweitzer (author of 'The Quest for the Historical Jesus'), than to saying why the New Testament should be regarded as reliable, so I will have to spend some time talking about 'anti-supernatural presuppositions'. I will gradually wend my way towards the New Testament evidence.

It is a little inconsistent to claim that it is possible to evaluate the events of 2,000 years ago through historical research and then claim that sceptics are wrong to reach a negative conclusion, because they are divorced from the writers by 2,000 years and at a great disadvantage in judging accurately. If it is possible to do historical research, then it is possible that research may end up reaching negative conclusions. It is inconsistent to claim that we are at a great disadvantage in almost every respect to judge accurately on ancient writers and then state that you can tell that the writers of the Gospel of Thomas have sayings 'which just do not ring true.'

Anti-supernatural presuppositions

It is interesting to know what is meant by anti-supernatural presuppositions. 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 eye-witness 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 him?

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 like a character from Star Trek?

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?

Sceptical presuppositions

The presuppositions of a sceptic are that if something looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then we need good evidence before accepting that it is a chicken which miraculously looks like a duck. Sceptics apply the same rules to the New Testament as they do to the Book of Mormon and the Qu'ran. In fact, these are the same rules that Christians use.

Ruth Tucker is an evangelical Christian. In her excellent book, 'Another Gospel', (Zondervan,1989), she examines the beliefs of Mormons, Moonies, Jehovah's Witnesses etc. Here is what she says about the Book of Mormon.

"Many of the stories in the Book of Mormon were, as Fawn Brodie and many others have shown, borrowed from the Bible. The daughter of Jared, like Salome, danced before a king and decapitation followed. Aminadi, like Daniel, deciphered handwriting on a wall, and Alma was converted after the exact fashion of St. Paul. The daughters of the Lamanites were abducted like the dancing daughters of Shiloh; and Ammon, the American counterpart of David, for want of a Goliath slew six sheep-rustlers with his sling".

What could be more obvious and clear-cut?

Or take Chapter 2 Verse 249 of the Qu'ran, which is about the first king of Israel, called Talut in the Qu'ran.

So when Talut departed with the forces, he said: Surely Allah will try you with a river; whoever then drinks from it, he is not of me, and whoever does not taste of it, he is surely of me, except he who takes with his hand as much of it as fills the hand; but with the exception of a few of them they drank from it.'

Christians will at once recognise this strange story about how God tested the army of the Israelites by making them drink from a river. It comes from Judges 7:5-7. It is equally clear that the Qu'ran story of Jesus breathing life into clay birds comes from a fanciful early Christian legend, which Christians must still have been telling in the 7th century.

It is very easy to spot when old religious stories have been recycled to produce new religious stories about other people. Even Christians think it is very easy - when they look at other people's religions.

Let us now look at the Gospel stories. Take the feeding of the 5,000.

In 2 Kings 4:42-44, Elisha has a great many people to feed with only a few loaves of bread and a little other food. He delegates the task of feeding. There is a complaint that the quantity is too small. The feeding continues and everyone is fed. There is surplus bread left over. This older story from Kings has exactly the same plot as the feeding of the 5,000 - only the numbers are different.

The feeding of the 5,000 is such an obvious rewrite of the story from Kings that if I remind readers that Jesus used barley bread, they can guess at once what type of bread Elisha used.

In Jonah the sailors and Jonah are in a boat during a dreadful storm just as in Mark 4 the disciples and Jesus are on a boat. The sailors look for Jonah and find him asleep. The disciples look for Jesus and find him asleep. This could be a coincidence except that this story is the one and only time Jesus is ever shown sleeping in the entire New Testament. Sleeping in a tiny boat on the point of sinking, during a storm of such severity that experienced sailors were unable to cope, is quite a feat.

One well known commentary on Matthew in the UK is by J.C.Fenton, who was Principal of Lichfield Theological College. He says about Matthew 8:24 'but he was asleep recalls Jonah 1:5, Jonah ...was fast asleep.'

He says about Matthew 8:25:- 'they went and woke him, saying, Save (soson), Lord (kyrie), we are perishing. (apollymetha) Cf Jonah 1:6, So the captain came and said to him, What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your God (Kyrie)! Perhaps your God will give a thought to us. (Greek 'save us' diasose), that we do not perish (apollometha). He says about Matthew 8:27 'And the men (hoi de anthropoi)... Are they an echo of Jonah 1:16 -Then the men (hoi andres) feared the Lord exceedingly.?' When else does Matthew call the disciples 'the men'?

In both Mark 4 and Jonah the witnesses after the sea-calming miracle are portrayed as afraid and awe-struck. In Mark 4 'feared with great fear (ephobethesan phobon megan)'. In Jonah (LXX) 'feared the men with great fear' (ephobethesan hoi andres phobon megan)'

Similar plots - very similar wordings. You have to be very sceptical indeed to doubt that the miracle stories in the Gospels were taken from Old Testament stories and changed to become the miracles that the early Christians knew that Jesus had to have done. Indeed, some other miracle stories are even closer to the Old Testament. They are far closer than stories in the Qu'ran or the Book of Mormon, which everybody agrees drew heavily upon the Old Testament.

'Your arguments'

1) Eyewitness testimony

Paul never names any individual who ,according to Paul, saw Jesus before his death. Paul's only reference to eyewitnesses is in 1 Cor. 15 where he says Jesus 'appeared' to him and to 500 and to others. Were these visions?

The word for 'appeared' is 'ophthe'. This is used a few times in the New Testament and it is used for other 'appearances' to Paul and Peter. If we look at those other appearances to Paul and Peter, we can see what Paul meant by 'appeared', which he uses so many times in 1 Cor. 15.

Paul states that he did not rely on oral tradition for his Gospel - he got it through 'revelation'. The word he uses is 'apocalypse' - exactly the same word used to describe the visions in Revelation.

We do not have eyewitness testimony. According to Paul, the earliest writer, we have visions which only people 'in the Spirit' could have seen. I can develop this point in later letters.

2) Reliability of Oral Tradition

It is by no means axiomatic that documents produced in the Middle East 2,000 years ago must be reliable because oral tradition was reliable. The Christian Gospels of Thomas, of Peter, of Mary , of Truth, of Philip, etc etc were also produced in this culture of 'reliability of the oral tradition'. You have to show that your Gospels are based on 'oral tradition'.

Does Jesus teach his disciples to memorise his words? Even the Lord's Prayer comes in two different versions, in two different contexts. The Gospels show no signs of reliable oral tradition. The Reverend David Parker writes in 'The Living Text of the Gospels' (1997) (p. 200) 'If we accept that it was possible in that culture to remember more accurately, and that it was possible to transcribe with a very high degree of accuracy, the evidence that early Christians at least sometimes did neither gains in significance.' The early manuscripts show enormous variations , which prove that accurate transcription of Jesus's words was not a priority.

Perhaps the score of different sayings about divorce which are found in the earliest manuscripts are just a figment of 20th century sceptical presuppositions.

The Gospels never name any person as a source (not even John). The only sources we can be sure were used were written sources. One of the assured results of Biblical scholarship, that even conservative scholars accept, is that Matthew and Luke used Mark's written Gospel as a source. They changed quite a bit of it. One obvious reason for changing Mark was that they thought Mark needed changing. Matthew, for example, changes Mark to correct Mark's mistakes about Judaism. A few random examples from many which could be chosen,

It is not just sceptics who think Mark is unreliable. Matthew and Luke changed Mark to correct his mistakes, which makes you wonder why they were unable to find a better source. Was Mark even Jewish?

3) The Ring of Coherence

Do the Gospels have the 'Ring of Coherence'?

Mark 4:11 says that the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to the disciples. What was this secret? When was it given to the disciples, who 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? Do these stories really have the 'ring of coherence'?

4) Dating

I would be interested to see conclusive evidence that the Gospels were written before AD 70.

Summary

Sceptics regard the Gospels as unreliable, not because of fixed presuppositions, but after careful study of the Biblical texts. I've had to give a rather sketchy account in this letter, but I can expand on the points I've raised above in my other letters.


The Reverend R. Campbell Paget's Opening Statement

Mr. Campbell Paget's Reply

Debate Page


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