Saturday, 15 March 2008

Gary Habermas in Manchester

Yesterday three of us headed down to hear the very well known Christian apologist, philosopher and theologian, Gary Habermas, speak in Manchester as part of the Evangelical Alliance's Think Resurrection tour. Professor Habermas' Wikipedia entry can be found here.

It was quite a shock that so few people were there. I don't think the events was very well publicised. It was a shame. Those of us who made it were given a real treat. Prof. Habermas is a great speaker and communicator, and evidently knows what he is talking about.

Below, I've sought to reproduce what I can from the notes I made from Prof. Habermas' sessions.

Session 1: Paul on the resurrection of Jesus

In his first lecture, Prof. Habermas spoke of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus that is provided from Paul’s letters; evidence which has been commonly underplayed by evangelicals who have relied on the later Gospel accounts. He mainly used 1 Corinthians and Galatians to establish the evidence from Paul’s writings, as they are amongst the letters considered ‘indisputably’ written by Paul.

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul speaks of ‘what I received I passed on to you of first importance … that [Christ] was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ Virtually all scholars agree that Paul is presenting an ancient creed concerning Jesus' death and resurrection which is actually much earlier than the composition of 1 Corinthians. In these verses himself, Paul says that he had preached the same message whilst in Corinth (dated at 51-52 AD through the pro-consulship of Gallio, mentioned in Acts 18:12, 14 and 17).

According to Prof. Habermas, that this material is earlier than Paul is evident from many facts, such as the usage of the technical terms ‘delivered’ and ‘received’ (which indicate the giving of oral tradition); the proper names of Peter and James, and the probability of an original creed in Aramaic. Even critical scholars generally agree that the creed has a very early origin.

Many scholars date Paul's receiving of this creed from two to eight years after the crucifixion itself, or from about 32-38 AD. Most of those who comment on the issue hold that Paul most likely received this material during his visit in Jerusalem with Peter and James (see Galatians 1:18-19), who are included in the list of appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). It’s reckoned that this first meeting with Peter and James, recorded in Galatians, happened within six years of Jesus’ crucifixion.

There are several indications that the content (and perhaps words) of this ‘gospel creed’ are apostolic:

  • Paul mentions very early resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples (1 Corinthians 15:4-7). He probably received the list from a couple of them.
  • Paul himself is the eyewitness and source behind the appearance of 1 Corinthians 15:8.
  • Paul asserts that the apostles as a whole were themselves currently teaching the very same message about Jesus’ resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:11, 14-15; see also Galatians 2:6, 9-10).
  • On at least two occasions, Paul specifically checked the nature of the gospel he was preaching (which includes Jesus’ resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4) with the other apostles and found that the content of his teaching was accurate (see Galatians 1:11-2:10). The ‘we’ of 1 Corinthians 15:11 refers to the preaching of all the apostles: Paul and the other apostles were evidently agreed on the message of the resurrection.

Fascinatingly, apparently these facts have been accepted by liberal scholars, including those of the Jesus Seminar. Even Gert Ludemann, an atheist New Testament scholar, agrees that the oral tradition of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 must have been formed within 2-3 years of the crucifixion! Thus even if a person doubts the conclusion concerning the actual date and specific location of the creedal material given to Paul, there is still an excellent foundation for it being early and apostolic in nature. This very early report of Jesus' resurrection appearances clearly link the eyewitness content of the gospel with its later proclamation. All of the evidence shows that the participants actually did see the risen Jesus, both individually and in groups.

Thus Prof. Habermas was keen to show that there is another path through Paul’s writings to the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection, which backs up the Gospel accounts. He recommended Paul Barnett's 'Jesus and the Logic of History' as further reading.

Session 2: The Uniqueness of Christ

In the second of his lectures, Prof. Habermas focused on the uniqueness of Christ. In particular, he made the point that both Jesus’ resurrection and deity were preached right from the very earliest parts of Christian history.

It has long been the received wisdom among New Testament scholars that John’s Gospel presents a portrait of Jesus as divine, coming down from heaven, whereas the Synoptic Gospels do not consider him in such exalted terms, and specifically contain no hints of Jesus being pre-existent. In other words, a common claim is that Jesus’ deity was increasingly established across the 1st Century as Christian thought developed. However, Prof. Habermas claimed that Jesus is clearly portrayed as God even in the Synoptic Gospels. In Mark 14:61, for example, in responding to the questioning of the high priest at his trial, Jesus ties together the titles ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of the Blessed One’ (‘Son of God’). Jesus portrays himself as a figure worthy of worship (drawing upon the language of Daniel 7:13-14 and possibly also 1 Enoch 46:1-4 and 48:2-10). Other references which clearly portray Jesus as God include Matthew 11:27 (and the parallel in Luke 10:22), Mark 13:32 and Mark 14:36. In short, even in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus makes incredible claims about himself. Indeed, if Jesus is not speaking the truth of himself, then he has committed the blasphemy laws of Deuteronomy 13 and 18. He recommended reading ‘The Pre-Existent Son’ by Simon Gathercole as essential further reading on this matter.

Prof. Habermas then listed six things that make Jesus unique amongst other religious teachers and philosophers:

1. No other founder of a world religion claimed to be divine.
2. No other founder of a world religion is believed to have been raised from the dead.
3. No other founder of a world religion has miracles performed by them recorded within a generation.
4. No other founder of a world religion claims himself to be the way to salvation (i.e. Jesus effectively says, “How you respond to me determines whether or not your receive salvation”).
5. No other founder of a world religion says that their death is important – even indispensable – to their mission.
6. No other founder of a world religion claimed that suffering is central to the belief system they inaugurate (contrasting especially with Buddhism, which says that suffering is illusory and not real).

All in all, the sessions were excellent. I believe the recordings will be made available by the EA and are well worth getting your hands on!


Steven Carr said...

I have a debate on the resurrection at Resurrection Debate

Paul, of course, claimed to have gone to Heaven. Should he be believed just because he had said so?

And Christianity is the only religion where we know that early converts scoffed at the very idea that God would choose to raise a corpse.

Early converts had been taught that Jesus was alive, but they still scoffed at the idea of a corpse rising from the grave.

So they had not been converted by stories of corpses rising (nor does Paul ever provide any such stories)

But there is more on my resurrection debate where the Christians are getting wiped out.

Bring on Gary!

peterdray said...

Aha I had wondered whether I might get comments from one of the UK's foremost atheistic bloggers :)

I've read through the arguments on your blog and I'm less than convinced. It seems that you have some agenda for denying the resurrection?

Thanks for popping by...

Steven Carr said...

I didn't think you would be able to refute any of my arguments, even after listening to Habermas to try to get arguments in favour of the resurrection.

Vinny said...

Did Habermas mention Paul's insistence in Galatians 1 that he received the gospel from Christ himself and was not taught by any man? In the articles that I have read by him, he always seems to skip over those verses. I can only speculate that he does so because they undercut his attempts to link that creed to James and Peter.

Given the fact that Paul preached the gospel he had received for three years before even meeting Peter and James, I would think you have to trace his knowledge back to whatever he learned while he was persecuting Christians.

When he did finally meet with them, who do you suppose would have dominated the conversation? Paul was a well educated man who had developed a systematic theological understanding of Christ and had enjoyed great success preaching that understanding throughout the region. Peter and James were humble folk still hanging around in Jerusalem. Given Paul's previous attitude towards people who disagreed with him, I wonder whether James and Peter wouldn't just have gone along with whatever Paul had to say.

Steven Carr said...

Paul clearly preached that Jesus would return before all his readers died.

Does that bit of his Gospel go back to the disciples of Jesus?

peterdray said...

Ok I wasn't envisaging these sorts of questions, and given the record that both of you have in leaving comments across the Internet, I wonder how much point there is in seeking to address them. However...

Vinny: here's my understanding of those verses you mention in Galatians 1.

The context from elsewhere in Galatians 1 suggests that there are those who were challenging Paul’s authority as an apostle and were denying the gospel he preached; they were teaching ‘another gospel’. They were saying something like this: “Paul may claim to be an apostle, but he is not really one; he may claim to preach the true gospel but he only has it second-hand from the true apostles - and his version is seriously flawed.”

In Galatians 1:11-24, Paul proceeds to defend both his gospel and his apostleship by stressing that his gospel was by revelation by God, not something he made up or got from other people (1:11-12). Compare 1:12 with 1:1. For Paul the truth of his apostleship and the truth of his message stand or fall together. If Paul was no apostle then his claim to authority and truth collapses. Likewise, if his gospel proves to be a human concoction, then he forfeits the right to be called an apostle.

As evidence to the authenticity of his gospel, Paul relates his conduct *prior* to his conversion, and explains how by the grace of God alone was he called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (1:13-14). That his gospel was not from man is supported by his supernatural change in conduct. Additionally, he had little opportunity to be around Peter or the other apostles who could have taught him (1:15-20). He really could have only got his message by revelation from Jesus. In the early years after his conversion, most of his time was spent in Syria and Cilicia, with the churches of Judea knowing Paul only by what they heard. And what they heard led them to glorify God (1:21-24), and not to despise Paul.

When Paul does meet with Peter and James, they agree with the message that he was preaching. For this reason, there's nothing to suggest that Paul might not have learned the creed of 1 Corinthians 15 in this meeting (or even earlier).

In 2:1-10, he describes a later meeting in Jerusalem. It was prompted by a revelation, and Barnabas and Titus went with him to meet "those who were of reputation". He doesn’t consider his visit to the Jerusalem apostles a necessity. He knows his gospel has come from God (2:2). But nonetheless he goes to them. We see his relief that his Gentile companions, including Titus, are not compelled to be circumcised (2:3), despite demands from some ‘false brothers’. Paul flatly refuses this, as he viewed it as an effort to bring Gentiles back into bondage that from which Christ set them free. This is an important principle, which Paul will return to later.

The apostles agreed and nothing was added to the Paul's gospel by the Jerusalem apostles (2:4-6). And so the apostles stand together, united by the gospel in fellowship. Once James, Peter and John perceived the grace that had been given to Paul, he was extended the right hand of fellowship. They are commissioned to different mission-fields, but are united around the authentic, God-given gospel (2:7-10).

In other words, all of this section shows the complete unity of the gospel around the core issues (including the nature of grace and how it is received).

Steven: I agree that there seems to be an expectation that Christ would return soon amongst the earliest Christians; however, I see nothing that rules out a later return of Christ.

I might add that the resurrection is just one of many layers of evidence that I believe points to the credibility of the Christian gospel. It seems to me that you need to come up with a very ad hoc set of presuppositions to explain not just the resurrection of Christ, but also:

- the fulfilment of OT prophecy and the whole OT storyline by Jesus;
- the nature of the ethical teaching recorded in the gospel (particularly about truth) if the whole thing is based on a lie;
- the evidence for the resurrection;
- the history of the early Church and its rapid expansion;
- the difference that Christ makes in the lives of many today
- and so on....

Vinny said...

Thank you for your gracious reply Peter.

Here is my point. If Paul preached successfully for three years before he met Peter and James, then he must have formed his understanding of the nature and meaning of Jesus' resurrection prior to meeting them. In Galatians, he insists that what he received, he received by revelation from Christ rather than the teaching of any man.

Christian theologians make a very big deal out of the use of the word "received" in 2 Corinthians 15. They insist that this word indicates that it was formally transmitted to Paul at a very early time. But when they examine Galatians, they ignore Paul's identification of Christ himself as the transmitter and insist that it was really Peter and James that did the transmitting.

I have read essays by Habermas that rely heavily on Galatians 1 to link the creed of 2 Corinthians 15 to the original apostles in order to call it "eyewitness" evidence, but I have never seen him discuss Paul's own assertions about where he "received" things.

It seems to me that there is a reasonable argument for the creed being early, but the argument for it being apostolic seems speculative. Paul clearly says that the original apostles agree with his teachings, but I do not see any place where he makes them the source for his teachings.

Steven Carr said...

' Likewise, if his gospel proves to be a human concoction, then he forfeits the right to be called an apostle.'

Was Jesus not fully human, in the mind of Paul?

And how on earth does Habermas think that a statement that '..., most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.', dates back 2 or 3 years after this alleged appearance.

What creed claims that many people who lived 3 years ago are still alive today? If this 'creed' dated back to such a time, that would be too obvious to point out.

This 'gospel' never included stories of corpses rising from graves, or else Paul would have denounced non-believers in the Gospel as non-Christians.

Instead he denounces them as foolish because their model of a resurrection involves a corpse rising from the grave.

Peter's 'proofs' aren't proofs at all.

After claiming that there was a rise in the number of Christians believing false gospels, he claims that the rise in the number of Christians is proof of the resurrection.

May as well claim the number of Mormons who think Jesus was resurrected proves Christianity is true....

What evidence for the resurrection?

Why can't Paul find one single bit of eyewitness testimony to say what a resurrected body was like?

Why were people scoffing at the very idea of alleged God choosing to raise a corpse?

Why does Paul not refer to any of these alleged OT prophecies?

They only surface when anonymous writers copy sentences from the Greek translation of the Old Testament and claim they apply to Jesus.

A process remarkably similar to the way Muslims looked in the Old Testament and worked out that it prophesied a prophet greater than Moses, and that this must be Muhammad.

Why does alleged god produce evidence for this alleged resurrection that looks just like the evidence for any other religion that was based on fraud and lies?

Christianity couldn't even produce a resurrected body.

Just like the Golden Plates of Mormon, or the Angel Gabriel of Islam, this alleged resurrected body disappeared off to Heaven before anybody got to see it.

The only person who ever wrote about any alleged encounter with such a being was a nutcase who believed he had gone to Heaven himself, and even he couldn't describe what his encounter was like.

peterdray said...

Vinny - I pretty much agree with you. Galatians is all about Paul's apostolic authority. For this reason he makes much of having met Christ, but he also establishes that he was preaching the very same gospel as the other apostles (particularly Peter, James & John). I wouldn't want to go as far as Habermas does on who and when Paul received his creed. However, we know it must have been very early. The main point still stands. Preaching the resurrection was not a late Christian doctrine.

Steven: it's hard to answer your objections if you are just going to keep avalanching them! It's also not a very good way of debating or finding the truth. Perhaps you could ask just one question at a time?

To answer your questions:
- Paul does, of course, think that Jesus was fully human (e.g. Galatians 4:4).
- On the 1 Corinthians 15 creed, I'm not an expert, but it appears to me that the creed could refer to verses 3-5, or some of the phrases (such as 'most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep) may have been added by Paul. We know that he does do this in creeds (e.g. 'even death on a cross', added by Paul in the Philippians 2 creed).
- I don't understand your point about the stories of the corpses rising from the graves; perhaps you could rephrase it?
- Which of Peter's proofs do you refute?
- Paul is not seeking to describe what the resurrection body is like; rather he is speaking of the continuities and discontinuities between our bodies now and those we will have in the new creation. His applications are found in 1 Cor 15v58.
- The idea of God choosing to raise a corpse was a surprise to many because it ran contrary to Greek thought. Even Christians sometimes need to be reminded of the inadequacies of the predominant philosophy of the age.
- Paul refers continually through his writings to the OT prophecies about Christ. Read, for example, Galatians 3&4, which are full of prophetic and Messianic predictions.
- What do you make of 1 Peter 1:3 etc.?

Dave K said...

What a lot of comments!

Whenever these things are debated I am always reminded of the great quote of Lesslie Newbigin, that "the simple truth is that the resurrection cannot be accommodated in any way of understanding the world except one of which it is the starting point"

It is a crazy thing to claim, but I believe in the resurrection not just because when you take it as your starting point it makes sense of what you see and experience, but because it makes sense as an end point of historical investigation (as long as you don't rule it out as impossible before you start).

I think the best concise description of why it makes sense that it is historical is (Bishop of Durham and NT scholar) Tom Wright's double similarity/dissimilarity criterion. To quotes someone else: "By these terms, Wright means that stories like these, with the kind of explanation the early Christians offered, make sense in the context of first-century Judaism (similarity), but nobody within first-century Judaism was expecting anything precisely like this (dissimilarity). At the same time, stories like these do indeed explain the rise of early Christianity (similarity) but they cannot be explained as something projected backward by early Christian faith, theology, and exegesis (dissimilarity)."

If the resurrection is witnessed by several witnesses with a proven record in other areas that we can check them against (which Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul etc do), AND the resurrection meets those 4 criteria that is a heavy burden of proof in my book.

There is a really good talk by Tom Wright entitled "Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?" available here to read, listen to or watch.

On Paul and the other apostles I'd only add a few things to Pete:

1. In Galatians 2:9 Paul acknowledges James, Peter and John as pillars of the church.
2. After Paul was converted he may not have seen these pillars but he was in contact with lots of Christians who received what they taught from the disciples originally.
3. Acts clearly depicts both James and Peter as important leaders in the church, more than 'simple fisher folk', and it is hard to read Acts 15 and come away believing that James gave in to Paul due to his 'successes'.
4. Paul could receive his creed/gospel from both man and God, the apostles and Christ. It is clear from the book of Acts that Paul had experience of the resurrected Jesus (and he was far from the only one Steven) and experience of the church in Antioch. Both were of God, both had an inseparable impact.

Ahh well I don't have much time although I have a lot more to say...

Maybe I'll just add that you both (Steven and Vinny) seem to be lining up one part of the New Testament against another to disprove the resurrection. However the most natural way to read a body of literature of one group of people (a family and nation according to their self-definition) over a narrow time period as in harmony (while displaying individuality), and not in disharmony. You would do the same analysing accounts of the French Revolution and WW1 - you would assume they agree until forced otherwise by the evidence. I don't think you have given the New Testament, and therefore Jesus Christ a fair hearing. Perhaps because it is easy to lord it over the texts, rather than accept the event which humbles us all.

peterdray said...

Thanks Dave. Really clear and very humbling.

Steven Carr said...

Wright did give this talk, and there is a discussion forum, Here where his arguments get demolished.

I can't find anything Dave's comments which is worth responding to.

But if he wants to defend Wright's bizarre arguments, as given in that lecture, he is quite free to do so on the discussion forum set up by the organisers of that lecture...

Dave K said...

Hi Peter,

I'm glad you thought they were clear - I thought I was laying too much on the table with too little development or structure!

I'm glad, although surprised, that you also found them humbling. It is easy to be proud when discussing what you think and I was preaching to myself as much as anything. The resurrection is after all the vindication of Jesus in the face of the judgment that humanity made. In the resurrection God and not humanity is shown to be the true judge of the truth of things, if we make it about how our judgment is right and others wrong we have gone astray.

Its been a pleasure to think on these things.

Hi Steven,

It seems from the dates of your posts on the forum that you had listened to the debate only shortly before I pointed it out to you. Interesting coincidence.

Maybe I'll join you in the forum at some point, but at the moment I have a few other things I have to do first.

I'm sorry that you think my comments are worthless, and Wright's arguments bizarre. Perhaps they are, but you have not presented any evidence here for me to reject the witness of so many reliable people, and most particularly of God who has only ever shown himself to be entirely trustworthy in my life and in history.

I can cope with being wrong in your eyes, as it seems much more attractive than offending the one who laid down his life so that this promise of resurrection life may be mine.

I'm glad you have taken the time to look into these things though.

Dave K said...

Blimey Steven,

I've just looked up your website.

Taking into account all the stuff on there and all your comments scattered about the place, I'm finding it hard to work out where you get the time?

More importantly though... why spend all that time. What is it that you are ultimately serving in all of this?

Ahh well, I must stop procrastinating and go study some Land Law!

Vinny said...

If the resurrection is witnessed by several witnesses with a proven record in other areas that we can check them against (which Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul etc do), AND the resurrection meets those 4 criteria that is a heavy burden of proof in my book.

Unfortunately, we only have one account that can be attributed to an eyewitness. Paul is the only one who writes about what he personally saw and he gives us very little detail. The gospels were all written anonymously and they were all written in the third person. The authors did not claim to have been eyewitnesses to the resurrection nor do they name any eyewitnesses as their sources. It was later Christians who attached the names to these gospels that they bear today.

It is evidence of a kind, but it is not very good evidence.

Dave K said...

Hello Vinny,

Firstly, as regards the Gospels I think you are requiring the kind of referencing that we in our anonymous age require. Richard Bauckham (Prof at St Andrews in Scotland) has written a long book about the subtle ways in which eyewitness testimony is referenced in the Gospels (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony) if you want to read something meaty on it. In addition to the subtle literary signals these documents were not distributed by anonymous publishers and put on sale but hand delivered to communities of people that were closely linked together as members of one family. They knew where they came from. In not including their names they were doing nothing unusual at all.

A few other things....

Luke's Gospel is similar in structure to Mark and Matthew and explicitly states at the beginning that it is based on eyewitness testimony:

"Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4)

John's Gospel is suffused with the importance of witness and states it's purpose in this context:

"Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:30-31)

In addition it is not just the claims of the Gospel writers you need to consider.

The letter 1 John begins:

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete."

Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:1:

"So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:"

... and in 2 Peter 1:16:
"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty."

Jude and James who both wrote NT letters were brothers of Jesus so must have been eye-witnesses too.

In addition witness does not always need to be direct. My parents have been to Prague and told me about it. If I was then to relate what I know about Prague from what they have told me there witness is preserved through my witness too.

Even more in addition, you have to provide an answer to the historical reliability the Gospel writers show in their recording of details of Judea at that time which demands their close relation to the place and time of Jesus' life. And further, you have to deal with what is actually related and consider the sense in saying that what they were writing did not have basis in historical fact (which is what Wright's double dissimilarity/similarity criteria is dealing with).

I could go on, but if you want to come back on any of that I'd be happy to hear what you have to say.

BTW Pete like the picture you have added at the top of your page. small desk but I think the mugs show that is no handicap if you have sufficient coffee/tea.

PS sorry for highjacking your comments.

Dave K said...

I just realised I forgot one further (obvious) point.

Vinny, you say that only Paul records his experience of the resurrected Jesus but in 1 Corinthians 15 he famously states that:

"he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."

Clearly from his writings he saw no substantial difference to his teaching on the resurrected Christ he witnessed first hand and that of hundreds of other people, many of whom he knew personally as well as knowing what they taught. There is no indication that what Paul taught was in conflict with any other part of this close community of the early church. In fact, there is much evidence to the contrary as I hope I've shown.

peterdray said...

Dave - no worries, keep commenting away!

I'd agree with Dave and then add the slight addition which I guess Vinny you need to be aware of.

1. I'll only believe in the resurrection if I find the evidence presented in a certain form.
2. There's no evidence in that form I want it in.
3. Therefore I'm sceptical.

A slight overstatement, perhaps, but just because the evidence isn't in the form you'd like doesn't mean the evidence isn't there.

Vinny said...


I believe there are plenty of examples of ancient writers who understood the significance of identifying their sources as well as identifying themselves as the authors of their works. We actually know this from John 21:24 where some scribe recognized the importance of identifying the author of the gospel as a witness to events. However, the authors never chose to identify themselves that way.

I am actually reading Bauckham’s book now and I find it unimpressive. I have already posted some thoughts on his treatment of Papias on my blog. The idea that the gospel authors were using signals that were so subtle that no one would recognize them for two thousand years strikes me as wishful thinking.

As far as different communities being closely linked as members of one family, that sounds like wishful thinking, too. Travel and communication were far from simple in those days. From Paul’s letters and the letters of the apostolic fathers, we know that there were doctrinal conflicts within and between communities. Despite the travel difficulties, those letters did circulate as copies were made. I cannot see why the gospel writers would not have foreseen that their writings might wind up traveling beyond their control.

It seems obvious (to me at least) that the gospels were written because their authors realized that Jesus was not returning as quickly as they had originally thought and they did not trust oral tradition to accurately preserve the stories. It seems unreasonable to me to think that these men would have trusted oral tradition to preserve their own identities and sources rather than putting them in the documents. It seems more reasonable to believe that they were collecting oral traditions that were known within their community. The reason that they did not claim to have an apostolic source for their stories is because their community would have known that it wasn’t true.

As far as Luke’s introduction goes, I think it supports my hypothesis. If he could have identified particular apostles who had told him these stories, he would have done so because he wanted to convince his readers that his story should be trusted rather than the ones that other people were writing. Many scholars translate “delivered” as “handed down” which would indicate that Luke was acknowledging that he was more than once removed from the eyewitnesses.

I would not claim that the evangelists did not themselves believe that what they wrote was grounded in history. However, they have not left enough evidence for us to reach any conclusions about the extent to which their beliefs were true. They may have been careful with respect to geographic and historical details that could be verified, but that may indicate no more than their desire that their readers understand the context in which the stories were placed. Many modern novelists do meticulous historical research to achieve the same purpose.

Regarding Paul, an eyewitness account is one in which the witness relates what he saw. When Paul tells us what James, Peter, saw or the 500, it is at best a second hand account. He is only an eyewitness to what he saw. Whether he received eyewitness accounts of the other appearances, we don’t know because he doesn’t say. The second thing you need before you can call something an eyewitness account is an account. The epistle writers might refer to themselves as “eyewitnesses,” but they are not giving accounts of what they saw.


I don’t think I want any different form of evidence than I would want for any other historical event. If the only information I had about the 1916 Battle of Verdun were four anonymous accounts written between 1945 and 1975 that did not identify their sources, I wouldn’t feel like I could have any confidence that I knew anything about what really happened. I might be able to make a few educated guesses, but I would not claim any surety. Even where I have decent evidence, I would recognize that any particular detail might be subject to revision upon other evidence being found.

Dave K said...

Hi Vinny,

Sorry that I have limited time to engage properly.

A few random points anyway:

> John 21:24 seems to disprove exactly what you are trying to make it prove. It neither indentifies the author or the sources according to your strict criteria of naming names.

> Doctrinial conflicts did exist but we find but they only existed because there was communication. My argument was not about whether the whole church was in complete agreement about all doctrines, but rather that the Apostles and other NT authors were in agreement on the nature of the resurrection - and because of close links would have known if there were differences and would not have put on a united front in their writings.

> I didn't say that the gospel writers did not expect the documents to travel outside their control. I said that it would be well known to all where they came from. The unanimity of the early church on the authorship of the Gospels shows this (a quite stricking unanimity if you think about it esp when you consider the low profile of the identified authors elsewhere).

> "It seems obvious (to me at least)....It seems unreasonable to me.... It seems more reasonable to believe" interesting paragraph but where is the evidence for your sweeping claims to know what the NT church was thinking about any of those things. All of your points could be disputed.

> "If he could have identified particular apostles who had told him these stories, he would have done so" Would he? He was close friend of Paul who was as connected as anyone to the original twelve as anyone outside Judea. As mentioned before you are wanting Luke to do something he had no obligation to do, nor any reason by the standards of the day. He thought it was enough to 'have certainty', why disagree?

> "I would not claim that the evangelists did not themselves believe that what they wrote was grounded in history....Many modern novelists do meticulous historical research to achieve the same purpose." So we agree they thought they were writing history. We agree they closely investigated the tiny historical details as modern novelists do, but you don't think that they were doing close investigation into the main planks of their history writing?

> I have just read an article on the BBC news website that "Oil shares drag down Wall Street". I have only read it from the one source. The author of the article is not named, and neither are the eyewitness sources. There are vague references to what 'Analysts' said. By your criteria should I believe this report?

Vinny said...

I don't have a "strict criteria of naming names."

I believe that the writers understood the importance of linking the stories they wrote to eyewitnesses to the events. I believe that they understood that readers would value eyewitness accounts more than second hand accounts. I think the introduction to Luke indicates that its writer did and I think the scribal addition of John 21:24 indicates that its writer did.

I think the fact that these men made written accounts is sufficient to establish that they thought it was important to have written accounts. I am sure that the idea that the timing was tied to a recognition that Jesus might not be returning with their lifetimes is not original with me, however, I cannot cite any authority off the top of my head. I honestly did not believe that this would be a particularly controversial claim.

I would rather not argue about whose claims are more sweeping, but I honestly do not believe that mine have been any more sweeping than yours. The problem, of course, is that we do not have much evidence, which is my argument in the first place. We are both just trying to make educated guesses about what actually happened.

The question is why the authors of the Gospels did not attach their names to them and why they did not identify the sources of their information.

I understand your answer to be that they assumed that people would know who the writers and the sources were.

This does not make much sense to me. I think that someone who understood the importance of eyewitnesses sources and the importance of preserving the story of Jesus in writing would want to identify those sources in the writing if he could. I think that he would want to identify himself as the author if that would help establish the connection to the eyewitness.

I think a better hypothesis is that the authors did not identify their sources becauses they were relying on oral traditions within the community that could not be traced to a specific apostolic source. I suspect that they did not identify themselves because they did not have any personal authority that would have enhanced the strength of their work.

Once again, I freely concede that there is not much evidence either way.

I did not agree that they thought they were writing history which I think is quite clear from what I wrote. I think it is also clear that I did not agree that they closely investigated the tiny historical details as modern novelists do.

I have appreciated your cordiality, but I think I will stop here. I feel like the discussion is deteriorating.

Dave K said...

Hi Vinny,

I really am sorry if you think the discussion was deteriorating. And I'm sorry if you are now not reading this as a result! Sometimes cordiality and depth don't seem to go with internet discussions.

Funnily enough I was thinking on the bus home about this discussion and how I too somehow felt unhappy with the whole thing.

After mulling it over for a while I think I know why, and that is because we are not discussing the Gospel, Jesus, or even the resurrection. I love talking about these things, because these are life to me. Discussions about reliability of sources just isn't the same. My dissatisfaction was that Jesus had become marginalised in a discussion supposedly about him.

Thinking some more this I thought that this is a very unbiblical debate as well. I think you would be happier if the bible was more like this discussion, laying out the sources and to some degree you see it in that way anyway - I'm thinking of your comment that the gospel writers were trying to 'accurately preserve the stories'. I don't feel the bible, or the Gospels, are like that. They are a message to us. They are not trying to simply record but to provoke a response in our lives. And as a Christian I believe that it was not just the writers but God through them who was trying to do that.

The discussion we have been having, as you point out, is very similar to a discussion you could have about the Battle of Verdun. We start with X amount of knowledge about Y, and we try to incrementally increase to X+1 etc. The details of the resurrection are just one step in this gradual accumulation of knowledge. This is not the way that bible talks about such things. The bible talks about blindness and sight. Christ did not claim to be true, but to be THE truth.

Jesus is not just another historical fact to discuss, but the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is the start and end point of any discussion about anything.

In short I'm realising the truth of that Lesslie Newbigin quote I started with but forgot the truth of and left behind in a discussion where God and become small, and just one part of my life and thought.

So this is kind of confession. I guess I'll leave the discussion there with the quote with which I began:

"the simple truth is that the resurrection cannot be accommodated in any way of understanding the world except one of which it is the starting point"

Steven Carr said...

Dave gave a link to a talk by Wright on the resurrection, and I linked to a discussion forum.

Guess what?

Unable to defend Wright's arguments, the Christian moderators simply deleted almost all of my posts on Wright discussion forum

I think that says it all about the quality of Christian arguments.

They have to delete questions from sceptics, because they cannot be answered.