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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Are the Gospels Trustworthy? 47 errors at Academic Atheism

I'm writing a book now that, among other things, rebuts bold claims that Bart Ehrman, Richard Carrier, and Matthew Ferguson have made about the historical Jesus.  Ferguson is not nearly as well-known as Ehrman or Carrier, but he seems to be growing in popularity.  As you may know, I've already dedicated several posts here to rebutting some of his arguments, as for instance his notion that the Gospels much resemble an ancient book called The Contest of Hesiod and Homer.  (Follow "Matthew Ferguson" label to link.) 

Today my attention was drawn to an article at "Academic Atheism" that leans almost exclusively on the work of these three skeptics to argue that Jesus was nothing like what the Gospels say, and probably never lived. 

The author does not seem a deep or original thinker.  Such arguments seem to be catching on, though, so perhaps they are worth rebutting.  Certainly they provide an object lesson for how not to think about the Gospels or history in general. 

I'll quote what I find the more interesting parts of the article below, and detail close to four dozen errors which come of uncritically following untrustworthy guides to history. 


Just Forty-Seven Errors

In order to prove Christianity true, two central claims are necessary: the Gospel Jesus is a historical person and the Gospels are historically reliable. These are two related claims and both are verifiable or falsifiable. What follows demonstrates exactly why both claims are false.

(1) Actually, "Jesus is historical" is implied by "the Gospels are reliable," so really this is only one claim. 

Are the Gospels historically reliable? The answer is a resounding no and this much is admitted by the consensus:

"Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings." (Matthew Ferguson)

(2) "Historical analysis" and "confirm Christian faith" is a false dichotomy.  Only a small subset of true writing about the past can be called "historical analysis."  The authors of the gospels were not academic historians, but that need not mean they were freely making stuff up.  Ferguson makes a big deal about differences between the genre of history and the genre of gospel, but this is to confuse real issue, which is not genre but accuracy. 

(3) "Confirming Christian faith" also cannot be reasonably contrasted with "tell the truth."  For instance, "The witnesses' aim in testifying was to confirm that he saw the accused murder the deceased" may be entirely true, without in any way impugning his or her testimony.  People often try to convince others because they themselves have been convinced: that is not inherently irrational or unworthy.

(4) The last sentence is a gross non sequitur.  It assumes a conflict between "written 40 years later" and "from eyewitnesses" that does not exist.  I know people who can testify to events they witnessed, for instance the nuking of Nagasaki, and Paton's march across Germany, from 70 years ago.  Jesus' disciples were young, certainly, and could easily have lived until the date at which the gospels were written.

(5) In addition, many scholars think Mark was written earlier than that. 

(6) Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence (see Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and just wait for my new book!) that the gospels DO present eyewitness accounts.

I’m sure Christians think the consensus says otherwise, since many of them seem to have done nothing but indulge their confirmation bias and read what conservative Christian scholars have had to say about this matter. Like the evangelists and first readers, these scholars want to confirm the Christian faith. They never intended to conduct honest research.
 
(7) Tendentious, sweeping slurs of unnamed scholars have no place in writing that styles itself academic. 
 
For starters, had they actually intended to conduct honest research, in starting from the assumption that the Gospels are historically reliable, they would have quickly come to find out that the Gospels are not historically reliable at all.
 
(8) Begs the question. 
 
To find out why this is the case, we need to discuss authorship, genre, external attestation, and internal consistency. If we want to find out whether we have a historically reliable piece of ancient writing, authorship is important. The Gospels are a curious case already because unlike the writings of ancient historians, the Gospels are, strictly speaking, anonymous.
 
(9) There is nothing "curious" about books belonging to one genre (gospel) not sharing some characteristic of some other genre (Greek history).  Especially since the gospels were written when Christians were persecuted.  Besides, Bauckham argues that they weren't that anonymous. 
 
(10)  Also, this is another non sequitur.  Anonymity is not inconsistent with accuracy.  That's why we believe maps, street signs, and instructions books for new cameras.  Even most facts on the better-traveled pages of Wikipedia are fairly reliable, now, most of the time. 
 
In the same vein, the genre of the Gospels has to be called into question because they’re not written as history. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem they were written as biographies.
 
(11) On the contrary, Richard Burridge showed that they were -- to the satisfaction of many academics, including me.  Heck, even Ferguson grants this one, I think.  And I show that they're better than many ancient biographies. 
 
Even if we allow the assumptions that they were ancient biographies and are historically reliable, we’d still require external attestation–especially for the more fantastical bits found in the Gospels, e.g., Jesus walking on water. Also, if we allow for these assumptions, we’d want to see if the Gospels are internally consistent, i.e., do the Gospels cohere with one another. Once we discuss these points, we’ll arrive at the honest conclusion that the Gospels are historically unreliable.
 
(12) "Internally consistent" means is each Gospel consistent with itself, not with another Gospel. 
 
I. Authorship
 
Matthew Ferguson, a Ph.D. graduate student in Classics at the University of California, Irvine, states:
The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus Christ, to confirm the faith of their communities.
(13) Names given in the gospels almost perfectly match names discovered by archeology from the time.  Bauckham explains this fact, which shows that in fact, the gospels must have been extremely close to 1st Century Palestine in their reporting. 
 
(14) No "substantial gap" in time existed -- not beyond ordinary memory. 
 
(15) We probably do know two or three of the authors of the gospels.  Bauckham's book has been extremely well-received by top scholars. 
 
Even conservative scholars like Craig Blomberg accept this conclusion, so if you’re the type of Christian to bypass that and say the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you might as well continue in your delusions.
 
(16)  What, the author of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and The Historical Reliability of John?  I think Blomberg's true views are being misrepresented here. A direct quote would help. 
 
(17) But the alternative, again, is not that "the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John" per se.  Straw man. 
 
The related delusion is that these accounts were written by eyewitnesses. It is also a matter of consensus that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. B
 
(18) No, it is not.  Majority opinion, perhaps, but not consensus. 
 
That the authors don’t tell us who they are is a glaring issue because the authors of historical accounts identify themselves, e.g., Jospephus, Suetonius. It’s an issue, but it can be overcome. Tacitus, for instance, did not identify himself. Thus, this need not be the deciding factor in concluding that the Gospels are historically unreliable. The question remains, however, how exactly does one identify the author of a historical text. Though we’re not discussing external attestation and internal consistency just yet, these points relate to how we find out who the author of such a text is. It is widely recognized that there’s not one generally accepted method for doing this, but there are reliable ways. Matthew Ferguson outlines one way in which we identify the author of an ancient historical text:
Scholars generally look for both internal and external evidence when determining the author of an ancient text. The internal evidence consists of whatever evidence we have within a given text. This can include the author identifying himself, or mentioning persons and events that he witnessed, or using a particular writing style that we know to be used by a specific person, etc. The external evidence consists of whatever evidence we have outside a given text. This can include another author quoting the work, a later critic proposing a possible authorial attribution, what we know about the biography of the person to whom the work is attributed, etc. 
This is more or less the smoking gun. If we have either of these, but preferably both, we have no reason to doubt the authorship of the text. To go with an example you’re no doubt familiar with, no one can reasonably doubt the authorship of the authentic Pauline Epistles: 1 and 2 Corinthians , Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans, and 1 Thessalonians. This can’t be reasonably doubted because Paul identifies himself within the text. Yet the ones that are doubted– Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus–are doubted for one of the reasons cited above. The non-authentic Pauline Epistles are written in a palpably different style that doesn’t match the style of the authentic ones. That there are only seven authentic Pauline Epistles is a matter of scholarly consensus as well. Ephesians was and still is disputed, but it is likelier that Ephesians is not authentic . . .
 
(19) The author again confuses the difference between "consensus"and "majority opinion."  Personally, I think Ephesians and Colossians especially match Paul's style (and thought) very closely, while Hebrews obviously does not. 
 
Aside from this, since the original manuscripts aren’t available, we don’t know whether these titles were original to the text. Bart Ehrman explains that the titles can’t be traced back to the original manuscripts and that it is highly likely that the titles were added afterward by scribes.
The fact remains that there’s no external attestation. Pliny, for instance, confirms that Tacitus wrote Historae. No one confirms that Mark, for instance, wrote the Gospel of Mark.
 
(20) Papias obviously attests to the authorship of books by the four writers now identified as the authors of the gospels.  He may have had in mind a different Gospel of Matthew.  Justin and others also attest, in the 2nd Century, to the authorship of the gospels. 
 
The problem is the Christian’s starting point. Their claim is fixed and is therefore the “truth claim.” They then try to find only that evidence which seems to agree with they’re presumed conclusion. This is confirmation bias.
 
(21)  This is psychobabble.  No particular person has been named, yet, still less any particular error exposed, still less its psychological origins demonstrated. 
 
This is what I mean when I call someone intellectually dishonest. They do not research first and then conclude. They draw a comforting conclusion and then seek evidence; some don’t even care about evidence or change the meaning of evidence so that it is easier for them to disqualify unfavorable facts. At any rate, the authorship of the Gospels is a settled matter: the Gospels are anonymous works and aside from the pretended expertise of layman and the books of dishonest apologists like Lee Strobel, there’s no way around that.
 
(22) It is not academically credible to identify an opposing position with a layman like Strobel, when serious academics like Bauckham (backed up by the likes of NT Wright) argue in great detail, and quite famously, for the same position. 
 
(23) It is also uncharitable and unwarranted (by anything shown) to accuse Strobel of not caring about the evidence -- still less, the masses of unnamed Christians the author refers to.  Does Strobel ever argue, "I believe in Jesus because Matthew was written by Matthew?"  If so, let this person offer a quote. 
 
II. Genre
 
When concerning the genre of the Gospels, it is not straightforwardly obvious to Christians that they are not historical accounts. Christians with more literalist bents can’t see it any other way. This goes back to starting with a comforting conclusion.
 
(24) More tendentious psychobabble in lieu of reason. 
 
(25) What does the word "historical" mean here?  Belonging to the genre of ancient Greek history?  Or historically truthful in its affirmations about the past?  I think I see Ferguson's practice of gross equivocation on the tarmack, awaiting liftoff. 
 
The conclusion is that Jesus was god and that therefore, the acts attributed to him in the Gospels actually happened. Otherwise, it would be difficult to conclude that he was god incarnate. Take away all of these fantastical acts and all you have is an itinerant first century preacher.
 
(26) No, the reasoning is the other way around, as is quite clear already in the Gospels.  "He even opens the eyes of a man born blind!  Who is this fellow?" 
 
(27)  More begging of the question.  As Jesus himself asked, why shouldn't God raise the dead?
 
This is precisely who the historical Jesus was according to the majority of scholars. They have, in other words, favored a minimal historicist conclusion. They have, for all intents and purposes, stripped Jesus of the divinity he demonstrated in the stories told by the Gospels. In any case, the Gospels aren’t historical accounts. Matthew Ferguson outlines the criteria historical texts meet:
The genre of ancient historical prose has key features that are crucial to understanding which works belong to the category and why they are more trustworthy than sources that do not. It is not enough for a text to simply talk about things that took place in the past, even when the content deals with real people and locations. A historical text must investigate and probe these matters, discussing the research process involved, so that it does not merely provide a story, but a plausible interpretation of what took place.
(28) As I said, gross equivocation.  Ferguson is conflating historical genre with historicity.  But not all truthful writings of the past belong to the genre of history. 
 
Right away, if we call to mind the content of the Gospels, we will quickly notice that the Gospels meet none of these criteria. They don’t accurately represent the past events in question. In fact, the Gospels embellish and mythologize and thus, make it quite difficult to find the historical tidbits contained within them.
 
(29) More begging of the question.  Pure Hume: "My world doesn't allow God to act, so anyone who says they saw God act must be lying."  Sorry for your world, but it's too small for the rest of us to fit.   
They also do not investigate these events or offer plausible interpretations of what happened. More specifically, they don’t explain how or why a given event happened. Ferguson continues:
As someone who studies ancient historical writing in the original Greek and Latin languages, it is clear to me that the Gospels are not historical writing. These texts instead read like ancient prose novels. In all but Luke, we do not hear anything about the written sources that the authors consulted (and even the author of Luke does not name them, explain their contents, or discuss how they are relevant as sources), the authors of the Gospels do not discuss how they learned their stories or what their personal relations are to these events, and even when John claims to have an eyewitness disciple “whom Jesus loved,” the gospel does not even bother to name or identify this mysterious figure (most likely an invention of the author). Instead, the Gospels provide story-like narratives, where the authors omnisciently narrate everything that occurs rather than engage in any form of critical analysis. Accordingly, the Gospels all fall short from the criteria that can be used to categorize a piece of historical prose.
(30) As someone who has read all extant ancient Greek novels (in English), Ferguson is so far wrong, it isn't even funny.  Not a one of them looks remotely like the gospels.   There are dozens of differences that are highly significant and favorable to the gospels historically -- as I begin to show with Ferguson's favorite example, The Contest of Hesiod and Homer
 
(31) The authors of the gospels were much closer to the events than the authors of many ancient histories, which far and away makes up for failure to name sources.  (Out of safety concerns, perhaps.)
 
(32) Obviously it is not that John "did not bother to name" the beloved disciple -- more psychobabble. 
 
(33) "Story-like narratives?"  What other kind are there?
 
(34) Ancient Greek historians often go for long, long stretches without naming sources.  This is, at best, a secondary characteristic. 
 
(35) The author simply overlooks the dozens of traits in the gospels that render them, in fact, highly credible historical accounts, which I will describe in detail in the upcoming book.  (And some of which have been part of the scholarly conversation for decades.) 
 
This is the arguably the primary reason they’re historically unreliable: they don’t even qualify as historical accounts in the first place.
 
(36) Equivocation.
 
If we cannot establish that these are historical accounts, then we can’t even begin to talk about whether they’re historically reliable. It stands to reason that they have to be proven historical texts before we begin to have a conversation about whether the text honors what actually took place and whether it adequately explains and interprets these events. A Christian can claim, for example, that Jesus walking on water is the “truth claim.” Yet this doesn’t read as a historical account, much less a reliable one. We have an isolated event that is told in a story-like manner in where the writer narrates his account from an omniscient point of view. There is no investigation, no explanation of why this happened, and no plausible interpretation for this rare feat.
 
Aside from that, there is absolutely zero outside attestation of this event .  . .
 
(37) Again, "outside attestation" should properly include "from other early sources," other gospels. 
 
(38) And in fact, there is attestation from outside even all the NT for much of Jesus' life -- that he lived, preached, did miracles, died, and was said to have risen from the dead. 
 
For our purposes though, it is useful to note Ferguson’s observations concerning the type of biographies the Gospels attempt to be–namely ones that focus on Jesus’ moral character and personality:
  1. The Gospels are anonymous in the composition, just like the popular biographies of Homer, Aesop, and Alexander.

3. The Gospels do not discuss their sources or methodology, which is a feature of more historical and scholarly biographies. Instead, like the popular biographies of Homer, Aesop, and Alexander the Great, they are less critical, more hagiographical, and include more legends and myth-making.

And that point. 

That last point speaks to the exact genre of the Gospels.

 As they stand, they are mythological hagiographies. As a point of comparison, Ferguson goes on to speak of Alexander the Great, since myths about him became ubiquitous shortly after his death.
As Kris Komarnitsky discusses in “Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels,” fictional biographies emerged about Alexander the Great within half a century of his death, just as the Gospels were written about Jesus roughly 40-60 years after his death. As the comparison with the Alexander Romance shows, a biography is not historically reliable simply because it is written only a few decades after the subject’s death, since many popular ancient biographies were written within that span, even for historical figures like Alexander the Great, and yet they included large amounts of legendary development. This form of biography likewise does not engage in the source analysis and methodology that is necessary to make an ancient text historically reliable.
(39) The Alexandrian Romance is a particularly hilarious comparison to the gospels.  But did anyone say, "This story is early, so it must be true?" 

Ferguson eventually concludes that the Gospels resemble the Septuagint more than Greco-Roman biographies.
It should also be noted that, unlike historical Graeco-Roman biographies, the Septuagint is not as methodologically rigorous, and almost never discusses the sources or the methods of investigation used to construct narratives. This may very likely account for why the Gospels are not similar to ancient Graeco-Roman historiography. Since historical biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, overlapped with this category, the Gospels are not very similar to them as well, though they may share features with popular Graeco-Roman biographies, such as those of the Alexander Romance.

(40) It is not very convincing to cite a grad student with an unestablished thesis against Burridge, whose thesis that the gospels are bioi has convinced many eminent scholars.  Especially without engaging his arguments.

(41) Discussion of sources, again.  Repeating that one very minor point ad infinitum will not buy you a cup of  coffee at Starbucks, nor should it convince any critical thinker.  In fact, ancient novelists often DO discuss their "sources."  But the writer of the Analects does not. 

III. External Attestation

As stated earlier, we cannot have external attestation of Jesus walking on water. According to the myth, it happened during a storm, so there’s no conceivable way an ancient historian would have been out in the storm seeing this all unfold.

(42) Now this is a truly bizarre argument.  Is the writer maintaining that the disciples were all blind?  That would be a dangerous affliction indeed for a group of fishermen.  The reports all say they were nearby in a boat, and that they saw Jesus.  Why is it incredible that fishermen who have spent their lives on the sea, should manage to see a person in a vertical position rising above the plain of the water?  If that were the case, they would have crashed into any number of reefs, logs,and other less prominent objects, and won a Darwin Award, long since. 

One might argue, however, that there is historical attestation for the existence of Jesus. In this section, I simply want to throw the external attestations into disarray. I, in other words, want Christians to question Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and so on. I want them to realize that these external attestations aren’t as reliable as they’ve been led to believe.

(43) Again, "external attestation" must be described in reference to a single document, not a collection of documents by different writers, like the gospels.  They provide independent attestation for one another. 

(44) I feel Richard Carrier coming on.  That in itself is a logical fallacy. 

For starters, Christians who think that the miraculous acts found in the Gospels are historical are confronted by an unfavorable fact: none of the extra-biblical sources confirm any of Jesus’ miracles. My purposes here aren’t so much to show that they fail to mention any of his miraculous acts, but that they might also fail to mention him altogether.

(45)  Actually, they do refer to his resurrection, the most important of them.  And that he was a worker of miracles.  And why would one expect any more than that?  Heck, important Greek historians write 400 books without even so much as mentioning the existence of the Jewish people! 

A. Josephus

We’ll begin by discussing the Testimonium Flavianum. There isn’t much debate about it’s authenticity. Christian apologists will have us believe that, but there have been a few nails in this coffin for quite some time. Richard Carrier put the last nail in the coffin . . .

Surprise, surprise.  Guessed right.  I've exposed enough about that crackpot on this blog over the years, that I think I can rest on my laurels now, and stop at 45. 

(46) Enough to add, most scholars, including atheists, think Josephus DOES report on Jesus.  It is possible that this one time Carrier is right, and the full weight of scholarship he opposes (as usual, he is the Donald Trump of New Testament studies) is wrong.  The problem here is the utter failure of "Academic Atheism" to so much as mention the little fact that almost all scholars disagree with the fringe scholar he or she is citing.  That's academic malpractice, end of story. 

Personally, though, I could hardly care less about Josephus.  I maintain that the evidence for historicity within the gospels is so strong, that distant shout-outs by random Roman historians several decades later, add no more to that total weight than a feather to the top of Mount Tai. 

(47) The author goes on to critique other extra-biblical sources, which matters no more to me, and seems no more likely to succeed against the weight of scholarship.  He then points out that there are numerous conflicts in the various accounts given by the gospels about details in Jesus' life.

He should read more ancient history.  Arrian alone points to far more discrepancies among the historians who act as his sources, when he chronicles the life of Alexander, some of thos errors quite serious.  That's normal.  It moves no modern historian whom I know of to deny either the existence of Alexandria, or the broad outline of his life that Arrian details.  That is simply not how history is done.  One expects the perspective of witnesses to differ.  Indeed, prosecutors become suspicious when witnesses agree too closely. 

What is remarkable about this article is the discrepancy between the author's claim to "academic" quality writing, and its actual amateurish quality.  He or she relies heavily on two scholars, one of whom has yet to earn a terminal degree, the other of whom has no teaching position, has made no impact on the scholarly world, and has a reputation for wild theories, over-heated rhetoric, and an astonishing, often almost comic, degree of self-importance out of proportion to his success.  These two scholars he cites uncritically, without any awareness that doubts have been expressed about their theories, still less of counter-arguments.   His (or her) own writing shows little independent awareness of the issues or the texts.   It is full of tendentious rhetoric, straw men, sweeping but vague slurs, and claims that beg extremely important questions (like what kind of universe we actually live in!).  

This is how bad habits of mind reproduce. 

6 comments:

Stephen Parrish said...

DM: Well done. Have you seen Brant Pitre's new book, "The Case for Jesus"? He argues, among many other things, that the Gospels are not anonymous. Very well done, in my amateur opinion.

David B Marshall said...

No, I haven't. I'm heading out the door now, or I'd take a look - thanks for the recommendation.

David B Marshall said...

Put it in cart.

StephenJBedard said...

Thanks for responding to this. It was a pretty sloppy argument. Keep up the good work.

rcarmona43 said...


Here's my response:

https://academicatheism.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/responding-to-david-marshall/

David B Marshall said...

Are you going to start off with more obscenities? Or will you go straight to the "He was mean to Matt, of course Matt was a total gentleman" schtick? I'll take a look when I have time, but based just on the first sentence of your initial response, am frankly not expecting much.