Did Ancient Non-Christians Write about Jesus? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1, we introduced the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and demonstrated that he mentioned Jesus and his brother James in one section of his work, The Antiquities.

But there is an even more famous passage that talks about Jesus in The Antiquities.  This longer section is referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum.  Historian Edwin Yamauchi explains that this passage is more controversial among historians because there may be later Christian additions to the original text.  Historians refer to these possible additions as interpolations.  Below I will include the entire text and highlight in bold the most disputed phrases.

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.  For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him, did not give up their affection for him.  On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.  And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Yamauchi claims that “today there is a remarkable consensus among both Jewish and Christian scholars that the passage as a whole is authentic.”  But what about the possible interpolations (the bold text above)?  Why do some scholars think Josephus would not have said these things?

The first bold phrase appears to indicate Jesus is more than human, which seems unlikely coming from Josephus.  The second bold phrase flatly says that Jesus is the Messiah, instead of saying Jesus was called the Messiah.  Again, this seems unlikely.  Finally, the third alleged interpolation proclaims the resurrection of Jesus, not something that Josephus would likely report.  We can’t be sure about any of these phrases, and maybe Josephus did write them, but the current scholarly opinion is mixed on the subject.

What is left of the passage, though, is still a powerful corroboration of key facts about Jesus.  Yamauchi summarizes: “He was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and . . . he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.”  Those facts line up exactly with what the New Testament records about Jesus.

Given these two passages from Josephus, how significant are they?  Yamauchi explains: “Highly significant, especially since his accounts of the Jewish War have proved to be very accurate; for example, they’ve been corroborated through archaeological excavations at Masada as well as by historians like Tacitus.  He’s considered to be a pretty reliable historian, and his mentioning of Jesus is considered extremely important.”

So, we do have at least one non-Christian source that talks about Jesus from the first century in Josephus.  But there are additional sources that should be mentioned before we leave this topic.  Find out in the next post….

  • Er…O.K.

    You do know people who hold to a mythical Jesus are aware of Josephus, right? As well as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger? And that they have responses to why these do not support a historical Jesus?

    Can you understand why it is not convincing to a skeptic to point out passages we all know, tacked on by a Christian apologist stating they are legitimate? It is far more interesting to deal with actual claims by skeptics, rather than repeat Strobel.

    For example, why didn’t Origen mention this passage? What about the deviations from Josephus’ style? Why wasn’t this passage mentioned by any early Church fathers? Why isn’t it listed in the Latin table of contents?

    Please understand, I am not saying this to be critical, or to start some fight. I hope Christian apologists want to address the issues head-on; address what the skeptics are claiming. Perhaps you have answers to these questions…

    I like this blog’s name: Tough Questions Answered; I’d like to see some of the tougher questions replied to.

  • Bill Pratt

    DaGoodS,
    I sometimes address the detailed arguments of skeptics with historical evidence, but often I do not. I’ll tell you why in a moment. These particular posts are targeted more toward Christians who are told things like: “There is no mention of Jesus by non-Christians in the first 2 centuries.” This is what I was told by a skeptic a few weeks ago in a conversation. This claim is deeply misleading, if not outright wrong. If he had said, “There is debate about some of the non-Christian sources that mention Jesus,” then I could agree. But that is not what he said.

    Now, why don’t I often bother addressing detailed arguments to historical skeptics? A few reasons. First, this blog is not targeted toward an audience that would be familiar with all of the details of these historical debates. I am trying to reach a broad audience and I keep the posts at a level where most people can understand.

    Second, on the many occasions where I have debated history with skeptics, we rarely get anywhere. The events that occurred in Jesus’ life happened long enough ago that skeptics can find arguments they find convincing, and not have any desire to hear opposing views. History is not an exact science and there are lots of gray areas for people to hide in.

    Third, almost every skeptic I’ve ever talked to about New Testament history does not believe in God. This presents a real problem, because a person who does not think God exists will almost certainly be unable to look at historical evidence which contains miracles (acts of God). Unless a person is truly open to God existing, they generally throw up a wall to the historical data found in the New Testament. I have seen this over and over again. In fact, I wrote a post about it.

    One final point. As a blog author, I can’t cover every topic in the detail it deserves. The view that Jesus never existed is a fringe position with very few advocates. Writing lengthy posts which address this smalll group of people is just not something that most of my readers would be interested in. If you are interested in discussing specific issues having to do with Josephus, I will try and make some time. It’s up to you.

  • Bill Pratt,

    This is your blog, of course you are free to address a certain target audience, and write at whatever depth you choose. I did not mean to imply you must respond, or write in a certain fashion. I see how my comment could be read that way; I apologize for my lack of clarity.

    I was curious as to how…tough…the questions you were answering.

    You need not address anything about Josephus with me. I’m probably more knowledgeable regarding this discussion than your intended readership.

    Thanks.

  • Boz

    “for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.”

    this is also very likely to have been a later addition by christians. (Vermes)

    Note that Josephus was a jew, and the jews are still waiting for the prophesised messiah.

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt said: “Third, almost every skeptic I’ve ever talked to about New Testament history does not believe in God. This presents a real problem, because a person who does not think God exists will almost certainly be unable to look at historical evidence which contains miracles (acts of God). Unless a person is truly open to God existing, they generally throw up a wall to the historical data found in the New Testament.”

    the problem I have with this is that if I were to accept, for example, water-to-wine, on the available evidence, I would also have to accept that:
    Diomedes wounded Ares with a spear through the stomach,
    and that Muhammad split the moon in two and rode to heaven on a winged horse,
    and that Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the Bull of Heaven,
    and the divine nature of the hindu mink miracle,
    and that god told joan of arc to regain her homeland from English domination ,
    and that Joseph of Cupertino can fly,
    and the haunting of port arthur by the ghosts of convicts
    and the miracle of the sun in fatima,
    and thousands of other divine/paranormal/occult claims,
    because the evidence for these is equally strong, or stronger than that of the water-to-wine story.

  • Bill Pratt

    Boz,
    Miracles must be investigated like any other historical event. What is the quality and quantity of eyewitness testimony? The miracles you cite do not have the same amount or kind of testimony – not even close. To lump all alleged miracles into the same bucket betrays a willful ignorance of the historical record. Sweeping all miracles together so that you can more easily dismiss them seems like a cop-out. You just don’t feel like looking at any data, so you wave your “all miracle stories are equally unbelievable” magic wand, and presto, you’re free from any further study or analysis.

    Maybe I have you pegged wrong, but that’s what your comments seem to indicate. Correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve made mistakes before…

  • Boz

    Some purported miraculous/paranormal/occult/supernatural events have greater or lesser evidence than others.

    The question each person should answer is: “what level of evidence will convince me?” A high level, which will produce a few false-negatives? Or a low level, which will produce a lot of false-positives?

    Every realm/subject (ghosts/ufo’s/islam/christianity/hinduism/psychics) has stronger and weaker evidenced paranormal claims.

    Accepting only claims from one subject area, e.g. Islam, shows a person’s bias, because their level of evidence required for their favourite subject is very low, but their level of evidence required for other subjects is high.

  • Boz

    I’m keen to go through some specific paranormal claims in detail, if you are willing. I want to know if any paranormal claims are likely to be true. I haven’t found any so far.

  • Bill Pratt

    My general view of the paranormal is skepticism, but I do not deny that these events can occur. As a Christian, I believe that there are supernatural powers who can manifest themselves in clear and powerful ways, but these occurrences tend to be rare. The miracles recorded in the Bible had specific purposes behind them; they weren’t random events. If you read the Gospel of John, you see that Jesus was performing miracles specifically to demonstrate who he was. As he performed these miracles, he encountered several reactions, a topic which I posted on.

    I am not an expert in the paranormal, so I’m not sure that I can contribute much to a discussion of modern paranormal claims.

  • Bill Pratt,

    Whether a claim is supernatural or not only tangentially affects how a skeptic approaches it. Humans require more evidence (corroborative, independent and/or proximal) on claims farther outside our normal experiences. For example, look at these three claims:

    1) Yesterday I had lunch with my brother.
    2) Yesterday I had lunch with the United States President.
    3) Yesterday I had lunch with JFK.

    (Notice, by the way, these are all natural claims.) For the first, probably my statement is enough. Eating lunch with one’s brother is common enough within our experience to require very little evidence to be convinced. For the second, we would require more evidence, because eating with the President—while possible—is outside most people’s experience. Perhaps I could produce a ticket for a fundraiser, or a picture of us together. For the third, we would require much more due to the unique nature of the claim JFK is still alive. Testimony would not be enough. A picture would be much more closely examined.

    And these are just natural claims. Supernatural claims—contact with a God in some way—are even more outside most people’s normal experiences and thus most people require more evidence than testimony.

    Boz picked a particularly troublesome miracle—water into wine. First, all we have is one (1) statement to this event. Second, that statement is in a context contradictory to other claims regarding Jesus—whether he gave signs. Thirdly, it is in an amalgamation of stories about Jesus that contradict other stories. We have trouble enough aligning the natural claims of John with the Synoptic Gospels like the claimed number of ministry years, trips to Jerusalem, day Jesus died, Messianic statements, etc. Let alone the supernatural claims.

    Normally, contradictory evidence diminishes viability of natural claims—even more so claims outside our normal experience.

    While you may feel aggrieved this miracle would be lumped in the same bucket with other miracles; frankly it is lucky to be included as other miracle claims have fewer problems associated with them!

  • Bill Pratt

    What contradictory evidence is there against the miracle of turning water into wine?

  • Nothing in the miracle itself, per se. It is when we review it in its context we see contradictions; when we review the Gospel of John contradicting the other Gospels.

    If the only source I have is one (1) witness, and that witness contradicts other witnesses on other points, we find such evidence less compelling. Not more. Especially when the motive claimed—signs—is contradictory to other witnesses.

  • Bill Pratt

    Where does the Gospel of John contradict the other Gospels with respect to the motive of performing a miracle?

  • Bill Pratt,

    I’m sure you know, but for the benefit of lurkers, “signs” in First Century Palestine is a euphemism for miracles portending events. Jews were looking for such miracles as signs for things to come. For example, Josephus recounts stars shaped liked swords, comets lasting for a year, and a cow giving birth to a lamb as signs for the destruction of Jerusalem. (The most common modern day example is the Red Heifer)

    Paul, the first writer regarding Jesus, indicates Jews look for a sign, but Paul does not provide any sign, instead he preaches Christ being crucified. (1 Cor. 1:22-23) This reflects Paul never recounting a single miracle of Jesus; Paul specifically says he is not providing signs (miracles) to the Jews.

    Mark, following Pauline tradition, equally says no sign will be given to that generation. (Mark 8:11-12). Matthew, in writing his gospel, modifies Mark to indicate there will be one (1) sign—the sign of Jonah. Matt. 12:38-42; 16:1-4. Luke, in reviewing Mark and Matthew, chooses to replicate Matthew with one (1) sign. Luke 11:29-32.

    But then we get to John–the signs are so numerous, we have to number them! (See John 2:11 [water into wine], 2:18, 2:23, 3:2, 4:54, 6:2, 6:14, 7:31, 11:47, 12:18, 12:37 and 20:30) So we have:

    0 signs: Paul & Mark.
    1 sign: Matthew & Luke
    Many signs: John.

    Again, in addition to the natural events where John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels (names of disciples, resurrection appearances, calling of disciples, baptism of Jesus) this is not surprising. It tends to diminish the persuasiveness of a miracle claim.

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks. I think I understand your position much better now. I am asking these questions not to benefit lurkers primarily, but because I want to really grasp your position before I respond to it. I find that when I guess at what someone is thinking, I often get it wrong. So, bear with me. I want to ask another couple questions before I respond. Who do you believe the authors of the Gospels were, and when do you think each of them was written?

  • Bill Pratt,

    He He he…you sure ask questions not easily answered in a few words. I will try to keep this as short as possible. It is probable it will be too short—not fully explaining why I hold to these positions. Also, I am pretty flexible on the dating; there are various possibilities that could make these dates change by decades. I will give you what I generally work with in my mind.

    Mark – written by a Greek, probably God-fearer, possibly Christian. Likely from Rome; not familiar with Galilee or Judea. Very familiar with the Tanakh, midrash and chiastic styling. Written between 65 – 80 CE.

    (I hold to the Farrer Hypothesis regarding the Synoptic Problem, so my dating will follow those lines.)

    Matthew – written by a Greek. His intended audience interested in connecting Jesus with the Septuagint Tanakh. Probably Galilean community. Author knows Judean/Galilean geography better than Mark. Written between 65 – 110 CE.

    Luke/Acts – Greek, companion to Paul. Writing to a community separating along economic lines. Probably written to Jewish community. Attempting to make a church cohesive that is defragmenting. Describes situation toward end of 1st Century. Written between 85 – 110 CE.

    Signs Gospel – author unknown. Miracle stories regarding Jesus. 50 – 100 CE.

    Gospel of Peter – author unknown. Arguments made its Passion story is earlier than Mark’s. Written prior to John 21. Say 60 – 90 CE

    Thomas – author unknown. Likely the sayings themselves are mid-First Century, although it wasn’t written until later. Say 75 – 125 CE.

    Gospel of Hebrews – Author unknown. Probably Jewish. Familiar with Judea. Papias would make it prior to 135 CE, but any further limitation would be speculation.

    Gospel of the Nazoreans – Author unknown. Possibly written before Mark. 65 – 125 CE

    Gospel of the Egyptians – author unknown. If theology reflects time of Paul, say 80 – 125 CE.

    John – part compilation of other gospels like Signs and Peter and maybe Hebrews. (Note also the two endings.) I suspect some oral impact from Markan stories. Written in a completely different community than Mark, Matthew and Luke (Possibly Galilee?) Author unknown. Written between 65 – 125 CE.

    The other Gospels I would date in the 2nd Century (albeit, possibly late 1st century) and if there is a particular Gospel you would like me to respond, I would be happy to. These are the ones around the time and impacting the canonicals, so I assumed they would be the ones you wanted me to answer.

    Note also the earlier one places John would cause my dating on Signs, Hebrews and Peter to change.

  • Bill Pratt

    I thought it was a simple question….So it seems that you think that Mark came first, then Matthew, then Luke, then John. You also believe the anonymous authors of these Gospels all read the other Gospels that came before them, it seems, because they used each other’s material. You also believe all of these Gospels could have been written in the latter part of the first century, with Matthew, Luke, and John all possibly being written in the early second century. Is that all correct?

    Were the four canonical Gospel writers trying to record actual history (based on the oral and written traditions they received) or were they fabricating these stories about Jesus? What were they trying to accomplish with their writing?

    Honestly, these last questions are just my curiosity, because you have clearly studied this subject a lot, and I am wondering what you think. I promise I will get back to the alleged contradictions surrounding the signs in John.

  • After reading my last comment, I need to make a correction– I would date the Signs Gospel between 50 – 70 CE.

    Yes, the questions are simple; the answers tend to be more complex. Richard Carrier gives a salient example with just the problem of obtaining the possible end date for just Matthew. To clarify my position, I think the possible dates of the Gospels are much broader—I was giving the range I typically use when chit-chatting about the Gospels with friends. There certainly are arguments for earlier and later dating. For example, using normal historical method of dating, we could date Mark anywhere from 26 CE to the latter half of the Second Century. I just use a shorter time frame in my mind.

    I believe Matthew used Mark. Luke used Matthew & Mark. John used the Signs Gospel, Gospel of Peter and possibly the Gospel of Hebrews (depending on Papias.) John was also impacted by oral stories communicated by people familiar with Mark. Again, this can get extremely complex—there are numerous (25!) solutions scholars provide to the Synoptic Problem.

    Depending on what solution you hold will affect both the dating of the Gospels (which came first) and which one used the other. To be clear on my position I do NOT hold:

    Mark –> Matthew –> Luke –> John
    Where each subsequent Gospel used material from all of the previous Gospels.

    Instead, I hold:

    Mark –> Matthew
    Mark & Matthew –> Luke
    Mark (oral) & Signs & Peter (possibly oral) & Hebrews (possibly) –> John

    An excellent article (should be required reading for all Christians. Period) regarding the Synoptic use of other Gospels was written by Dr. Daniel Wallace. (Notably, he holds to “Q”–a different solution than I.)

    Bill Pratt: Were the four canonical Gospel writers trying to record actual history (based on the oral and written traditions they received) or were they fabricating these stories about Jesus?
    .
    Neither. Again, make sure we do NOT apply 21st century historical standards to ancient writers—they viewed historical writing differently than we do. We tend to be a fact-focused society—write exactly what happened, exactly when, exactly where. First Century historians were not under such rigid rules and did not follow them.

    The writers were placing stories of Jesus within a historical context (i.e. Galilee and Judea of the 20-30’s CE). The authors approached this differently.

    For example, Mark used the Tanakh to create situations where his Jesus would respond and act as Mark expected his Jesus to respond and act. Mark used Midrash (accepted practice) and chiasm (style of writing) to do so. Was it written precisely as to what ACTUALLY happened? No. Were they fabricating as we think of it? No, not that either. They were writing what they would expected have happened.

    Another example would be Matthew’s use of progymnasmata in the Nativity Story. A Greek form regarding the birth of great people. Did Matthew intend to write exactly what happened at Jesus’ birth? No. Did Matthew believe Jesus was great, and therefore necessarily there MUST have been signs and great things happening at his birth? Yes. Matthew’s inclusion of them was his way of saying, “These may not have been the exact signs—but the signs would have been something like this.” For the same reason he included prophecy fulfillment. Since Jesus fulfilled prophecy, Matthew was free to point out some examples of what type of prophecies when he wrote.

    Bill Pratt: What were they trying to accomplish with their writing?
    .
    They were attempting to get a certain aspect to what they thought their recipients wanted. Mark was giving “Jesus Ministry”—a year in the life of Jesus. We can only speculate who he was writing to from the writing itself. Presumably to people interested in…a year in the life of Jesus!

    Matthew was writing to an audience that either already knew Mark as the story of Jesus, OR Mark was the only story Matthew knew about Jesus. His audience (presumably…again we must derive it from the writing itself) was looking for a connection to Judasim and the Tanakh.

    Luke, writing to an audience familiar with Markan Jesus, was correcting perceived errors he found in Matthew and Mark. Plus he was attempting to establish the Jerusalem church as the pre-eminent church, and addressing problems within the church.

    John was writing to community focused on Love and commandments. He incorporated stories they had already heard elsewhere, including Mark.

    Again, there is so much more that can be written and has. Entire shelves bulging with books on each gospel. This is barely a highlight.

  • Bill Pratt

    I have really appreciated learning your perspective, and I’m especially looking forward to reading the Daniel Wallace article you linked to. Wallace is a first-rate scholar
    who I greatly respect. Having said all that, I would like to give you some thoughts on why I don’t think signs in the Gospel of John are a contradiction, when compared to the other Gospels.

    I see three issues to address: 1) the fact that John stresses signs more than the other three Gospels represents a contradiction, 2) the claim that the other Gospels downplay signs, and 3) the alleged contradiction between Mark 8:11-12 and Matthew 12:38. I’m not even sure you are explicitly making these three claims, but the implication is there, so I will address them whether you are specifically making these points or not.

    First I’ll take item one because it is the most straightforward to address. The fact that John chooses to emphasize one aspect of the miracles Jesus performed (referring to them as signs) more so than the other Gospel writers is not a contradiction. Each Gospel writer has a particular audience in mind, and a particular purpose in mind (which you acknowledged in one of your comments). Just because John speaks in terms of miracles as signs frequently, and the other Gospel writers do not, is not in any way a contradiction. The fact that each writer stresses signs differently is a difference in their accounts that is worth digging into, but labeling it a contradiction is far too strong and unwarranted. This seems obvious, but nonetheless worth mentioning.

    On the second point, I think you are possibly making too much of the lack of signs in the other Gospels. I want to go through each Gospel and examine the use of “signs.”

    In Matthew, Jesus is asked to provide a sign in Matt 12:38 first. In this instance, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, two groups who are hostile to Jesus, demand a sign. He responds that he will not give them a sign at that time, but in the future he will give them the sign of Jonah (which refers to his death and resurrection). He also scolds them for their unbelief and tells them that the men of Nineveh will stand up in judgment of them.

    In Matt 16:1-4, the Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign, and he again tells them that only the sign of Jonah will be provided. But additionally he tells them that they are able to discern the signs of the weather changing, but they cannot discern the signs of the times. To me, this is a clear indictment of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus has already performed many signs, but they are blind to them. They do not see; they do not want to see.

    In Matt 24:3, the disciples ask Jesus what will be the sign that he is returning. He responds by telling them several signs that will occur to signal his coming, including that he will come on the clouds of heaven.

    So we have at least 3 instances recorded in Matthew where signs are requested or asked about (10 uses of the word in 8 verses).

    Let’s look at Mark. In Mark 8:11-12, Jesus is asked for a sign by the Pharisees and he sighs deeply, and tells them that no sign will be given to them. Now, the interesting thing about this exchange is that it comes right after Jesus has performed the miracle of feeding the four thousand, which is a clear sign! The implication seems to be that the Pharisees knew about this miracle, but because of their stubbornness, they wanted to see more. Perhaps Jesus knows their hearts and refuses to immediately answer their demand, knowing that the demands will never end; they will not believe no matter how many signs he performs. We know that in Luke 23:8 Jesus flat out refuses to perform miracles for Herod.

    In Mark 13:3, Jesus’ disciples ask about the signs of his coming. He, like Matthew, records Jesus’ response where he gives them several signs to look for in the future.

    Finally, in the disputed ending of Mark 16, Jesus tells his followers that those who believe in him will perform signs.

    So, in Mark, there are 3 instances (if you accept the disputed ending) where Jesus is directly asked about signs or he predicts signs (7 uses of the word in 6 verses).

    What about Luke? In Luke 2, the angels tell the shepherds about the sign of Jesus’ birth. Also, Simeon tells Mary that Jesus himself will be a “sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” So early in the Gospel, signs are already being spoken of.

    In Luke 11, the word “sign” is used 4 times in the context of a crowd of people demanding a sign from Jesus. Jesus gives an extended response to these requests in Luke 11:17-32. He says that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah, so Luke follows Matthew in speaking of the sign of Jonah.

    Finally in Luke 21, Jesus is asked about the end times, and he offers several signs for his disciples to look for to signal his return.

    Like Matthew and Mark, we have three instances of Jesus discussing signs (9 uses of the word in 8 verses).

    What about John? There is no doubt he stresses signs more than the others. He uses the word 17 times in 17 verses to refer to miracles.

    Here is the tally by word count: Matthew: 10, Mark: 7, Luke: 9, John: 17. Does John speak of miracles more often as signs than the other Gospels? Yes, but the other Gospels also speak of signs, and they certainly record many miracles that Jesus performed, whether calling them signs or not.

    What about the third issue, that Mark 8:11-12 contradicts Matthew 12:38? Both Mark 8 and Matthew 12 seem to be referring to a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees after he performs the miracle of the feeding of the four thousand. So why, in Mark, does Jesus refuse to give a sign and yet in Matthew, Jesus offers a sign in the future, the sign of Jonah. Is this a contradiction?

    It is certainly possible that there is a contradiction here, but we must stress that it is not necessarily one. We have 2 writers who are recalling the same event but remembering or reinforcing different aspects of that event. It could be that Mark was stressing the fact that Jesus was refusing, at that moment in time, to offer a miracle. Matthew, on the other hand, also implies that no miracle was offered at that time, but that Jesus promised the sign of Jonah at a later time that would vindicate him. We know that Jesus often bemoaned the fact that people demanded miracles of him as proof of who he was. Even John records these feelings of Jesus. So it is perfectly reasonable to stress this part of Jesus’ ministry.

    Here is the bottom line for me. If you are looking for a reason to doubt the Gospels, if you are wanting to find mistakes in them, Mark 8 and Matthew 12 provide some
    potential ammunition. To claim that these two passages definitely contradict each other is false, as we have discussed the fact that there is a time element that avoids the contradiction. I don’t see a contradiction, although I see how others can make the accusation.

    If others have viewpoints on how these passages interact, I would be glad to hear about it. None of these arguments, on either side, are conclusive. You either are inclined to give the Gospel writers the benefit of the doubt or you are inclined to be skeptical of them. After studying numerous alleged “obvious contradictions” in the Bible, I have moved to a position of believing that the writers can be harmonized on most issues quite easily, and a few issues with more difficulty.

  • Bill Pratt,

    Yep. A pleasant conversation. I strongly suspect you and I have different methods for determining contradictions in the Bible—I was purposely replying utilizing the standard I use–otherwise this would have been REALY long!

    Consequently, I am not surprised we would reach different conclusions; a discussion for another time.

    Bill Pratt: You either are inclined to give the Gospel writers the benefit of the doubt or you are inclined to be skeptical of them.
    .
    The point Boz made.. People tend to look at their own beliefs less skeptically, and beliefs different than their own with more skepticism. If we consistently gave other miracles claims the “benefit of the doubt” we would have to accept a great deal more than just water into wine. As Boz pointed out–a person who gives their belief system the benefit of the doubt, while skeptically reviewing other claims’ beliefs demonstrate a recognized bias.

    A bias I personally work hard to avoid by developing and maintaining a method as to all claims—miracle, Christian or otherwise.

    Thanks.

  • Bill Pratt

    I would point out that skeptics have their own belief system which they are clinging to (they are skeptical about everything they don’t want to believe but not skeptical about things they want to believe), and that they are just as biased as religious believers. I applaud you for working hard to avoid bias, but I likewise work hard to avoid bias. I suspect, however, that you have set up impossibly high standards by which to judge the historical truthfulness of the New Testament.

    Boz, by comparing the miracles of the New Testament with Greek mythology and other fanciful legends, clearly has not yet taken the trouble to do a serious investigation of the historical truthfulness of the New Testament. Saying that “all miracle stories are the same” is not the statement of an open-minded skeptic searching for evidence, but the statement of someone who wants to avoid searching at all.

    Some skeptics I’ve corresponded with would not believe a miracle occurred even if God literally showed up and thumped them on the head. I do not accept the claim that believers are somehow blind to their biases while skeptics of the supernatural are paragons of sober reason. That will simply not fly with me, as I have personally witnessed this to be false dozens of times on this blog and in my dealings with skeptics face-to-face.

    Regardless, I would like to ask you some more questions about your other comments, so I hope you’ll stick around longer to continue.

    Thanks,
    Bill

  • Bill Pratt,

    I would be happy to continue a conversation with you. I’m not your intended audience, and I didn’t want to be a boorish guest. Serendipitously your last comment brought us ‘round full circle to Boz’s point, and I thought it a nice place to wrap up.

    Sure, we all have biases—regarding theistic claims, political views, movie preferences, and numerous other areas. What makes us human. So what method do you use to avoid bias?

    Bill Pratt: I suspect, however, that you have set up impossibly high standards by which to judge the historical truthfulness of the New Testament.
    .
    *shrug* Not something I am normally accused of…but perhaps I do. Here, I’ll give you a question I struggle with.

    Everyone agrees there are some stories about Jesus that are made up. No one (that I have ever met) claims in 100% historicity within Mark and Gospel of Peter and the Infancy Gospel and 1st apocalypse of James and The DaVinci Code… At some point we yell, “Stop! There is no history there!” O.K., good. We agree there is myth. You hold there is history as well.

    The question is this—what method do we use (avoiding ad hoc, of course) to determine what stories surrounding Jesus are history and what stories are myth?

    To be honest, I haven’t come up with a method I am satisfied with. What method do you propose? (To keep me from setting an “impossibly high standard”? *grin*)

  • Bill Pratt

    I must admit I do not have a formal method that I have adopted for judging which stories about Jesus are historical and which are mythical. In my studies of this material, I have run across a number of criteria, some that make sense to me and others that don’t.

    One of the most intriguing I ran across several years ago was the approach used by Gary Habermas. He undertook a thorough analysis of scholarship on the historical Jesus over the last few decades and produced 12 historical facts which he claims virtually every historical scholar of Jesus agrees upon. Using these 12 facts, he then built a very strong case for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, which is, of course, the central historical claim of Christianity. In fact, if the resurrection is historical, then the other miraculous claims about Jesus become less important. I found his approach to be extremely rigorous and defensible.

    Setting aside this approach, it seems that we should apply the same methods of historical analysis to the documents about Jesus as we apply to other historical figures of the ancient world. We should ask questions of the documents such as: 1) how close to the events were they written, 2) was the writer an eyewitness or contemporary of eyewitnesses, 3) do we have multiple witnesses, 4) do the witnesses provide embarrassing details, 5) do the witnesses provide divergent details (showing a lack of collusion), 6) do we have corroboration by other sources.

    It seems to me that when we apply these kinds of tests to the New Testament documents, they fare quite well. Some criteria for historicity that I have seen critical scholars apply that I think are illegitimate are when they say things like: 1) “anything miraculous must be ruled out because David Hume proved that we should never believe a miracle occurred,” 2) “Paul didn’t use these particular words in his other letters very often, so he couldn’t have written this letter,” 3) “this text represents too high a Christology, and therefore must have been written much later than Jesus lived,” 4) “this section of the letter doesn’t flow with the previous section, so it could not have been written at the same time.” The list could go on and on, but I find these criteria to either be highly subjective or betraying a presuppositional bias, such as anti-supernaturalism (which I run across frequently among atheist and agnostic skeptics). These skeptics love to point out one difficulty after another with the canonical texts, but fail to let me know that they would never believe any of the miracle stories any way, because miracles don’t happen!!

    Thoughts?

  • Bill Pratt,

    Right. We have biases, and yes—most atheists and agnostics have a naturalistic bias. Including me. (Which, if you think about it, makes sense. We have come to the conclusion there is no God, so any claims of God interacting we look upon with greater scrutiny. The same way people who don’t believe in aliens closely review alien abduction stories. Or those who don’t believe in Big Foot initially question Big Foot stories.) Recognizing humanity’s tendency to grant favor to our biases (even…especially…unknowingly) is the reason I favor utilizing a method.

    However, we must be careful to not create methods that (again, perhaps unwittingly) conform to our bias and therefore simply reinforce our bias. There are three clues, or alarms I look for:

    1) Does the person stay consistent with the method?
    2) Does the person adopt an undesired view utilizing the method?
    3) Is the person willing to use the same method in other fields where appropriate?

    Your six (6) listed criteria on historical documents is a fine method (once some definitions were clarified and determination whether weighing is necessary.) Let me utilize them to explain what I mean by consistency, if you don’t mind. (Please note, I am NOT saying you are inconsistent—I do NOT know your position on many things listed. I am only using your criteria for an example—I am NOT saying you claim these things. I don’t know.)

    Ask most Christians how Paul died, and they will tell you he was beheaded by Nero around 64 C.E. It is how Robinson dates Acts (if you are familiar with his theory.) But how do we know that? Let’s apply your six criteria:

    1) Close to the event: The first record we have of such a beheading is in Acts of Paul which is dated 150 – 200 CE roughly 100 years after the claimed event. No.

    2) Writer an eyewitness or contemporary of eyewitness: No.

    3) Multiple witnesses: No.

    4) Embarrassing Details: On the contrary, Paul dies a glorious martyr’s death, and saves all the Roman Christians, including Luke and Titus. No.

    5) Divergent Details: Possibly. 1 Clement merely lists Paul dying after traveling to Spain. The New Testament Canon does not have Paul traveling to Spain, nor does it list how he died. Not certain whether this is contradictory or divergent. (This would be one criterion needing some definitional clarification as to the difference between “divergent” and “contradictory.”)

    6) Corroboration by other source: No

    Applying this method, it would seem the Paul’s death by beheading is not very likely to be historical. Will a person using this method agree with me it is a myth? Or…if they want Paul to die a martyr, do they start to make rationalizations and justifications as to why their own method should be abandoned in this instance?

    Bill Pratt, you correctly point out we cling to our beliefs. We tend to grant them special consideration. The reason I like methods, if we stringently stick to them, is that we may come to a point of saying, “I want this to be correct, but I must stay true to my method which says it is not. Therefore, I need to review the situation and perhaps change my mind.”

    Continuing to use your six criteria, would Christians be willing to accept the Gospel of Peter as historical? Perhaps more so than Mark?

    1) Close to the event: The earliest dates would place it closer than Mark to the crucifixion. Yes.

    2) Writer an eyewitness or contemporary of eyewitness: Yes—in fact, as compared to the canonical Gospels, the writer self-identifies as Peter.

    3) Multiple witnesses: As much as the canonical Gospels

    4) Embarrassing Details: Yes. Jesus needing help from the Tomb. Jesus calling out to his power on the cross instead of God.

    5) Divergent Details: Yes, Jesus calls to his power, not to God. Pilate absolves himself. Joseph has a Garden named after him.

    6) Corroboration by other source: As much as the canonical Gospels.

    So…do you agree the Gospel of Peter is historical?

    My third alarm is whether the person maintains this method in other fields as appropriate. Here, I will pick on Dr. Habermas. I am familiar with his minimal facts approach. (Although last I knew, he used terms like “vast majority of Biblical scholars” and “75%” when referring to the empty tomb. In his latest works, has he upgraded this to “virtually all’?)

    He lists a number of facts, held by a large majority of experts in the field, and then states the explanation that best fits these facts is the Resurrection—which…not coincidently…is ALSO held by the large majority of experts within the field.

    O.K….we have our method. If a large majority of experts in a field hold to certain facts, we will use them as our base, minimal facts. Whatever the best explanation is for those facts is the one we should hold.

    How about we apply that to evolution? There we have even greater numbers than Dr. Habermas’. More than 75%, somewhere around 99.5% scientists in the life fields (if I recall correctly) hold to a much longer list of facts than 12. And the best explanation for those facts—which not coincidentally is ALSO held by the large majority of experts within the life–is evolution.

    I’ve always wanted someone in a debate with Dr. Habermas to ask him if he–using his same method–believes evolution is the correct theory. If he does not—he is showing his bias in application of the method. He will apply it in the field where it results in findings favorable to his belief, but immediately abandon it in a field where it results in findings he does not want to be true.

    Finally, I would agree with you that some subjectivity will always creep in. Not sure the examples you gave would qualify as “highly” subjective! *smile* Nor was I certain which examples you were referring as being “anti-supernaturalism” other than Hume. Many Christian scholars investigate and compare Christology when dating these works. Many Christian scholars question interloptions. Many Christian scholars question which Pauline works (and Peterine) are genuine. They certainly don’t have an “anti-supernaturalism” bias.

    Even your 6 criteria would need some further clarification to avoid subjectivity. What is “close” to the event? Time, locale, generational telling? What is a “contemporary”—again is it time, locale, cohesiveness? What is “divergent”? What is “embarrassing?” I grant enough charity in these discussions, I believe I understand what you are getting at, but if we had to start applying this method, we would need to define these terms to make sure no misunderstandings occurred.

  • Boz

    I’m not saying that “all miracle stories are the same”. Note earlier that I said:

    Some purported miraculous/paranormal/occult/supernatural events have greater or lesser evidence than others

    Every realm/subject (ghosts/ufo’s/islam/christianity/hinduism/psychics) has stronger and weaker evidenced paranormal claims.

  • Boz

    That’s a very informative comment about consistency of method, dagoods. Maybe you should make that a blog post.

  • Bill Pratt

    True, you did say that, but I was responding to your comment where you said:

    “the problem I have with this is that if I were to accept, for example, water-to-wine, on the available evidence, I would also have to accept that:
    Diomedes wounded Ares with a spear through the stomach,
    and that Muhammad split the moon in two and rode to heaven on a winged horse,
    and that Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the Bull of Heaven,
    and the divine nature of the hindu mink miracle,
    and that god told joan of arc to regain her homeland from English domination ,
    and that Joseph of Cupertino can fly,
    and the haunting of port arthur by the ghosts of convicts
    and the miracle of the sun in fatima,
    and thousands of other divine/paranormal/occult claims,
    because the evidence for these is equally strong, or stronger than that of the water-to-wine story.”

  • Bill, is eyewitness testimony the only criteria you use to judge whether a miracle occurred, or are there any others? if so, what are those others?

    What is your method for determining whether a miracle is the act of the Christian god, or simply a “paranormal activity” done by a “supernatural power” of some kind?

  • Bill Pratt

    I want to clarify several things, but I’ve been busy the last few days and only have a moment right now. The criteria that I mentioned are not exhaustive; there could be many more. In addition, a document that does not meet all of these criteria is not necessarily completely historically inaccurate. It just means the case is weaker for its historicity. With regard to the Gospel of Peter, there seem to be sections of it that are indeed historical in nature. With regards to the beheading of Paul, I think that the historical case is much weaker for this event than Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, for example. There is a continuum of historicity, where some documents are stronger than others. So, I will not say that Paul’s beheading is definitely false ( I will say it has less support than other alleged facts about Jesus and his apostles) and I will not say that all of the Gospel of Peter is true. It’s not that simple. More later….

  • Bill Pratt,

    Oh, the listed criteria within a method were fine. Certainly we could use others. I was only using them as an example—demonstrating how consistent application of our method generates results we may not desire, and what do we do about that.

    Of course, if we start adding criteria because we don’t like the conclusions from just these criteria, we start to show the very bias we were trying to avoid by applying the method in the first place!

    I quite agree it is continuum from lesser probability of historicity to greater probability. Again, on ALL claims in history, from the Gettysburg address to the Battle of Stalingrad or what happened in Palestine in the first half of the First Century.

    What method are you using to determine certain sections in the Gospel of Peter have a greater probability of history, and other sections do not?

  • Bill Pratt

    I haven’t studied the Gospel of Peter enough to draw any sure conclusions. Many of the facts recorded in it correspond well with the other data we have from the first century about Jesus’ death and resurrection. I have read some scholars that claim that the fragment we have may not even be the Gospel of Peter referred to by church fathers. Also, I’ve read that the writer mistakenly places a Jewish high priest sleeping by Jesus’ tomb, something a high priest would never do. The account of the cross coming out of the tomb also seems far more fantastic than the generally sober accounts given in the canonical Gospels.

    If you accept the hypothesis that Christianity started out with a core of historical facts about Jesus, and then over time the religion spread and became more popular, and then groups outside the Christian community started borrowing and adding to the history of Jesus, then you could easily explain writings like the Gospel of Peter as being produced in the second or even third centuries. I doubt you accept that version of history, but it certainly seems plausible to me.

    The really interesting point here is that the Gospel of Peter supports all the key facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection, although with modifications. So, if it is early, than it is strong evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  • Bill Pratt

    I want to discuss Habermas, because I believe you have misunderstood his approach. You said the following:

    “He lists a number of facts, held by a large majority of experts in the field, and then states the explanation that best fits these facts is the Resurrection—which…not coincidently…is ALSO held by the large majority of experts within the field.”

    I don’t believe this is correct. All that I’ve read from Habermas indicates the following. He analyzed the writings of historical scholars who have written about Jesus and early Christianity over the last few decades. He found 12 facts that almost all of them seemed to agree on (you are right to say that he does qualify the empty tomb as having about 75% acceptance). But here is where you get it wrong, I think. Many of these scholars DO NOT believe in the resurrection. In fact, we know that at least 25% of them don’t because it’s pretty hard to believe the resurrection occurred if there is no empty tomb.

    The power of his argument is that if he just grants the facts that almost all critical scholars agree upon, he can make a strong case for the resurrection. If all he was doing was pulling out 12 facts from conservative scholars who already accepted the resurrection, he would be doing practically nothing. It would be a colossal waste of his time and his entire argument would be a joke. I don’t know what percentage of scholars believe in the resurrection, but it must be less than 75%. In fact, my understanding has been that conservative scholars who accept the full historicity of the canonical Gospels are in the minority, not majority.

    Another possible misconception is that Habermas doesn’t use the standard criteria for historical research to judge historical documents. He does and he has a detailed scholarly record to support that. His minimal facts approach is just one way to approach the issue. He is saying, “Let’s take the most skeptical and critical Jesus scholars and see what they agree on. When we do that, is there still a historical basis for the resurrection?” He is not advocating not using other standard historical methodologies.

    Why, you ask, doesn’t he apply his minimal facts approach to evolution? First of all, I have no idea what Habermas thinks of evolution. It is not his area of expertise and so I never hear him speak or write about it.

    Second, the idea that we should use the same methods across all fields of study seems highly questionable to me. Different fields call for different methods. It seems like you’re saying to Habermas: “If you’re going to base your conclusions on what the majority of scholars say about Jesus, then you have to base your conclusions about every other topic on what the majority of experts say on that topic.” Nobody does this, and why should they? If I know a lot about a topic, I might believe that the majority of experts are wrong. We know that majorities of experts have been wrong many times in the past, but we also know that sometimes they are vindicated. It would be intellectually lazy to always agree with or always disagree with experts. It depends on my relative expertise and my ability to interpret and judge what experts are saying about a particular topic.

    Third, assessing the truth of evolution is quite different from assessing the truths of written history. The study of written history must take into account the actions of human agents. Studying evolution has to do with the fields of geology, paleontology, biology, and so forth – the results of natural processes where human agency is a non-factor. The methods for these two fields, therefore, are quite different. That’s why we don’t give history majors paleontology degrees when they graduate.

    I can guarantee that you, nor anyone else, consistently follows this maxim that you would like Habermas to live by. Everyone has certain areas where they defer to experts and certain areas where they don’t.

    Finally, the anti-supernaturalism was not a blanket statement I was making about anyone who would question the historicity of the facts surrounding early Christianity. I was saying that this is one of the biases that some scholars bring to the study of early Christianity, and it is an illegitimate presupposition. The facts need to be studied without a priori assumptions about whether miracles can occur.

  • Bill Pratt

    It depends on the miracle claim. If there is physical evidence left by the miracle, then we could use that as well. If we don’t have physical evidence, we have to go by testimony.

    For me, God comes before miracles. If I am convinced that the Christian God exists, then all true miracles would come from him. As far as paranormal, but non-miraculous, activity, there could be natural or demonic explanations for these. In many cases, we just don’t know.

  • On Consistent Method with Gospel of Peter

    I know you didn’t have time last night—I am still interested what method you use to determine certain sections in the Gospel of Peter have a greater historical probability and what sections do not. Once more, my focus is not to argue the Gospel of Peter is more or less historical than other Gospels—it is to see if we can stay consistent with a methodology.

    Even to the point of having to abandon a previously held belief. To the point of abandoning a bias. Perhaps, dare I say, admitting if our method finds it has low historical probability, one (or more) of the canonical gospels equally has low historical probability? For example you introduce another criterion when you state:

    Bill Pratt: The account of the cross coming out of the tomb also seems far more fantastic than the generally sober accounts given in the canonical Gospels.
    .
    I presume (and if I am wrong, feel free to correct me) we are looking to see how fantastic an account is, as being less historical than a sober account. In other words, on our historical continuum, the more phenomenal an account is, the less historically probable. Applying this method to our gospels, looking solely at Resurrection morning we have:

    1) Paul – silence. No miracles.
    2) Mark – stone to the side by forces unknown, Angel in empty tomb.
    3) Matthew – Dead saints raised to life, earthquake, angel comes down and moves stone (breaking seal), Soldiers paralyzed, empty tomb.
    4) Peter – Loud voice, stone rolls away on its own (breaking seal), two angels go into tomb and bring out Jesus, Voice again, Cross appears and responds.

    Now, if our method is “more phenomenal = less historically probable,” do we say Mark is less historically probable than Paul? And Matthew is less historically probable than Mark and Paul?

    How do we determine what is a “sober” account, and what is more “fantastic?” What is interesting to me is that “more fantastic” appears to entail more miracles, and if you are saying the more miracles in a story, the less likely it is historical…well…isn’t this the same bias you believe naturalists employ? He he he.

    Bill Pratt: If you accept the hypothesis that Christianity started out with a core of historical facts about Jesus, and then over time the religion spread and became more popular, and then groups outside the Christian community started borrowing and adding to the history of Jesus, then you could easily explain writings like the Gospel of Peter as being produced in the second or even third centuries. I doubt you accept that version of history, but it certainly seems plausible to me.
    .
    I apologize for the long quote, but I think this significant. I quite agree stories about Jesus were generated due to popularity—from the 1st to the 2nd to the 3rd Century and beyond. In fact, I stated this earlier when I indicated we ALL believe some stories surrounding Jesus are myth. I don’t know why it had to be “groups outside Christianity”—in fact, I think most historians agree it was groups within Christianity that did so.

    And yes, such writings could include the Gospel of Peter. Problem: such writings could include the canonical Gospels as well! (You might see that in answering your previous questions, I think it more probable that Mark was not a Christian.)

    This is why we are looking for a method to remove biases. This is why we apply that method to ALL the gospels—canonical or otherwise. This is why we look for consistency within our method to see if we engage in confirmation bias to avoid only holding to the canonical gospels. This is why I stated I have not seen a consistent method to determine what is myth and what is historical about Jesus.

    What method do you use to determine which parts in the Gospel of Peter are more probably historical? If you are (and I don’t know that you are) only holding those parts in conformity or not directly contradictory with the canonical gospels—isn’t this engaging in a bias? What we are trying to avoid?

  • On Dr. Habermas’ method

    His method is not a “maxim I would have him live by” and if I gave that impression, I apologize. What I was pointing out (when looking for a method) if a person employs the same method where appropriate in another field, obtain results they don’t like, and they reluctantly agree with the unwanted results–this is a strong showing of a consistency in method. If, however, they then abandon the method in the second field because they don’t like the results—I question their commitment to the method.

    Again, this is not a method I propose—I am just looking at Dr. Habermas’ claims. I am not saying you must defer to experts—Dr. Habermas’ method is. While you point out evolution is a different field than history (just like archeology is a different field than geography which is a different field than biology which is a different field than…) the question remains: why is it such a different field that Dr. Habermas’ method is no longer applicable?

    Let’s compare the method at the base level:

    Dr. Habermas: Review the acknowledged experts in the field…
    Evolution: Review the acknowledged experts in the field…

    Dr. Habermas: See what facts the majority (approx 75% +/-) agree upon…
    Evolution: See what facts the majority (approx 99%) agree upon…

    Dr. Habermas: What theory best explains all those facts?
    Evolution: What theory best explains all those facts?

    Perhaps evolution is a better field to utilize this method because the facts are more concrete and in more universal agreement! Could evolution say Dr. Habermas shouldn’t use the method, simply because history is a different field than biology? Yes, the facts will be different. (Just like the facts in the fields of archeology will be different than geology.) Yes, the results will be different. (Just like the results in archeology will be different than geology.) But the method stays the same!

    Bill Pratt, can you understand why a skeptic, such as myself, would wonder how great this method is, if it is applied in one field (resurrection of Jesus) to obtain the desired results (He arose!) and then abandoned in another field (biology) when it obtains undesired results (evolution)? Can you understand (you don’t have to agree) why a skeptic may be concerned about bias creeping in here?

    Bill Pratt: If all he was doing was pulling out 12 facts from conservative scholars who already accepted the resurrection, he would be doing practically nothing. It would be a colossal waste of his time and his entire argument would be a joke. I don’t know what percentage of scholars believe in the resurrection, but it must be less than 75%.
    .
    I’m sorry, but I laughed out loud when I read this. Not at you; I agree whole-heartedly with this statement. I laughed because Dr. Habermas states that 75% of the scholars believe in the resurrection (although with qualifiers I will deal with in a moment) and I agree stating “75% of the scholars believe in the empty tomb and 75% of the scholars believe in the resurrection” IS practically nothing. I can’t help it if that is what Dr. Habermas appears to do.

    The following information comes from this article by Dr. Habermas. He does not make the connection very clear, so I will spell it out, if you don’t mind.

    He states he reviewed 1400 articles from 1975 – 2005 by “major scholars.” (Unfortunately, Dr. Habermas does not define who qualifies as a “major scholar,” but remarks most are theologians and New Testament scholars. Perhaps Dr. Habermas gives more clarification in his other works.)

    He goes on to state, “…approximately 75% favor one or more of these arguments for the empty tomb, while approximately 25% think that one or more arguments oppose it.” This is where we get the number “75%” who hold to an empty tomb. But what about how many hold to a Resurrection? To determine that number requires a closer reading of Dr. Habermas.

    First he defines a “moderate conservative” as “…those holding that Jesus was actually raised from the dead in some manner, either bodily (and thus extended in space and time), or as some sort of spiritual body (though often undefined).“ Unfortunately, he doesn’t break down the different percentage between bodily or spiritual. Secondly he notes his study demonstrates a “3:1” ratio of moderate conservative works as compared to the more skeptical treatment.

    Did you get that? What is the percentage when 3 persons hold to a resurrection (bodily or spiritual) as compared to 1 who does not? Why…that is 75%, right?

    As you say if 75% of the scholars hold to a resurrection and 75% hold to an empty tomb—the entire argument becomes a joke.

  • Bill Pratt

    I think there is an important distinction here. A spiritual resurrection does not count as a resurrection in my mind; it has to be bodily. So, we really need to know how many of the scholars he surveyed actually believe in a bodily resurrection. I don’t think we know that answer, unfortunately.

    But let’s say that 75% of scholars do hold to a bodily resurrection. His argument certainly loses some force, but it doesn’t altogether evaporate. Why? Because even if you throw out the empty tomb and go with the other 11 facts, he can still find a common denominator among all the scholars. In fact, this is what he does in many of his books. He focuses in on 4 or 5 facts and shows that even with such a low number of agreed upon facts, you can still support the resurrection.

    If Habermas did indeed survey the major scholarly publications in the field of the historical Jesus, and this field is representative of the current consensus, then I think his research is valuable. However, if it turns out that 100% of all scholars who study Jesus believe the bodily resurrection occurred, then his research is a joke. Is it still a joke if 75% believe in a bodily resurrection? Not if he excludes the use of the empty tomb as one of his minimal facts (which he does in other places).

    We still don’t know how many moderates believe in a bodily resurrection, though. This whole discussion turns on that piece of data. Maybe I should just write him and ask…

  • Bill, you wrote:

    It depends on the miracle claim. If there is physical evidence left by the miracle, then we could use that as well. If we don’t have physical evidence, we have to go by testimony.

    If I read you correct, you’re saying that God (i.e., the Christian god) performs true miracles, while seemingly miraculous activity, which you may term “paranormal” activity is the result of natural forces or demons.

    Unfortunately, your response does not answer my question how you determine if a (true) miracle occurred. Stating “if there is physical evidence left by the miracle” is begging the question. “Eyewitness testimony of a miracle” suffers from the same fault.

    Say you pray to God (the Christian god) to heal your child of cancer. Next day, the cancer is gone. You’d probably describe that as a (true) miracle. Even if we grant that something supernatural occurred, you cannot know for sure if it was a miracle, “paranormal activity,” or something else. This is why I ask about method. As far as I’ve been able to tell, Christians don’t have a way to determine if a (true) miracle occurred.

  • Bill Pratt

    My view on verifying whether a true miracle has occurred in our time is that it is difficult to know. I am very comfortable with the miracles that were reported in the Bible as being true miracles, where God overrode the regular operation of the laws of nature. Miracles, as recorded in the Bible, were typically taking place to confirm a messenger from God. If the messenger (prophet) performed miracles, then the people could believe that the person came from God.

    The Bible is clear that Jesus and his apostles were to be the last messengers until the second advent of Christ, so we would not expect to see miracles that confirm new messengers any more.

    Obviously God can still perform miracles for any reason he would like, and there are many scattered reports around the world of miraculous activity, but truly verifying whether something was an act of God would be difficult, and thus I am skeptical of many of these claims. I do not deny that they may occur, but I also think that people jump to the “miracle” claim too quickly. I would be interested to know what Catholic theologians view as evidence for a miracle, because they investigate miraculous claims using some sort of process – I just don’t know what the process is.

    In the end, though, if there is a supernatural God, then miracles are possible at any time. Whether we can always identify them does not mean they don’t occur.

  • Bill Pratt: I am very comfortable with the miracles that were reported in the Bible as being true miracles, where God overrode the regular operation of the laws of nature. …

    Obviously God can still perform miracles for any reason he would like, and there are many scattered reports around the world of miraculous activity, but truly verifying whether something was an act of God would be difficult, and thus I am skeptical of many of these claims. I do not deny that they may occur, but I also think that people jump to the “miracle” claim too quickly.
    .
    Bill Pratt: My general view of the paranormal is skepticism, but I do not deny that these events can occur.
    .
    Bill Pratt: …but I likewise work hard to avoid bias.
    .
    Do those statements align? It seems there is a bias toward miracles reported in the Bible—I think you used the term “benefit of the doubt”—and skepticism toward miracles outside the Bible. I understand you are stating miracles could be happening today…we don’t know…yet on even less testimony, should we consistently say the same about miracles reported in the Bible? That they either could or could not have happened?

    We have hearsay about testimonial claims regarding miracles. “I heard a missionary tell me he saw a person raised from the dead.” Understandably, one is skeptical of such claims. Yet even granting the conservative Christian position, we have Mark saying, “Peter told me he saw 4000 people fed with a few loaves and fishes.”

    Both are hearsay. Both are hearsay of testimonial claims. Neither has any physical evidence for us to investigate. Yet one you accept, the other you state, “we don’t know.”

    How are you working hard to avoid bias?

  • Bill Pratt

    You forgot to quote one of the most important parts of what I said. The biblical miracles happened in a particular context, God confirming his prophets. If I take it as a given that God exists, it follows that miracles are possible, and it follows that he may use miracles to prove his existence. That makes the miracles performed by Jesus eminently more believable to me. After all, he is claiming to be the Son of God. Of course there is also a lot of solid historical testimony that supports the miracles of Jesus, especially the resurrection.

    If I start out with the premise that God does not exist, then I lose the context of God confirming his messengers. I don’t bother to look at the context of miracles and I just lump all miracle accounts together into a big bucket.

    Antony Flew once said, even before he became a deist, that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was stronger than all other religious miracle claims. He was supposedly looking at the evidence in an unbiased way (that’s what he has always said), but yet it didn’t cause him to believe in God or really change his mind about his atheism (the arguments from design won him over).

    So why do skeptics like to talk about the historicity of miracles so much, when it ultimately makes no difference to them one way or another? You seem to know a lot about the early documents of Christianity, but do they convince you of anything that your naturalistic worldview hasn’t already given the stamp of approval? You seem to be chiding me for giving biblical miracles the benefit of the doubt, but you seem to doubt all miracle accounts, even though the evidence for them varies all over the map. Can you give me examples of where you believe that some miracle accounts are more likely to have occurred than others, based on an unbiased analysis?

  • Bill Pratt,

    But other miracles claims could equally cry “context.” And why is one claimed context make a miracle more likely than another? We have been talking about proofs—historical events—about what happened regardless of the reasons behind it. A Muslim could claim a Muslim miracle was demonstration that Allah is good—does that make it “more likely?” A Mormon could claim a Mormon miracle was demonstration that creedal Christianity is false—does that make it more or less likely?

    How does one particular “context” make miracles more or less likely? Other than, again, the bias of the claimant who believes such context is important to their belief. Perhaps it is important to the Mormon to demonstrate creedal Christianity to be false, so they could claim a miracle within such a context is “more likely.”

    I would love to “lump all miracle accounts together in a big bucket.” If we could do so, it would be much easier to both define “miracle” and identify them as well. But…as you pointed out…not even those who claim miracles occur can identify what is and what is not a miracle with accuracy. If even you all can’t agree on what can be “lumped in a bucket”—how could I possibly?

    I talk about other things besides miracles—that just happens to be the focus of this particular part of this particular conversation. As I previously said …it only tangentially has to do with how I approach these claims. I am equally skeptic of alien abductions (which would be natural), Yetis (which would be natural), ghosts (natural), ESP, Tarot Cards, Astrology, Scientology, Black cats, and Friday the 13th. Oh, and good luck charms.

    Bill Pratt: Can you give me examples of where you believe that some miracle accounts are more likely to have occurred than others, based on an unbiased analysis?
    .
    I’ve always thought Fatima (as Boz mentioned) had some pretty good evidence. Better than the miracle claims of the New Testament. MUCH better than the Ten Plagues.

    And I don’t mean to “chide” you for giving the biblical miracle accounts the “benefit of the doubt.” What concerns me, is whether this is the only apparent way the accounts sustain… do we deliberately have to implement bias to believe them? If so, why be surprised that those who choose to NOT be biased are not convinced? Not sure how that makes our lack of belief so surprising.

  • Bill Pratt

    You mentioned Fatima. Do you believe that the miraculous accounts at Fatima are likely to have occurred, based on the historical methods you use?

  • Nope. Although along the historical plausibility spectrum, I would say it is more likely than the resurrection account. Sorry.

  • Bill Pratt

    Could you list a few miracle accounts that you have studied that you would say are likely to have occurred?

  • Bill, I appreciate that if you presuppose (or, as you put it, take for granted) that the Christian god exists, then you’re going to believe that the Bible contains a record of his miraculous activities. However, this is circular logic which defies any method to determine if anything miraculous occurred.

    If you take it for granted that the Muslim god exists, then you’re going to believe that the Qu’ran contains a record of his miraculous activities.

    And so on for Mormons, Hindus, and Mazdaists with their holy writs. I’m quite sure you deny the supernatural events described them as miraculous.

    Can you show how the activities described in the Bible were miraculous without presupposing the Christian god’s hand in them? They might, for example, have been the work of demons, djinns, or some other entity.

  • Bill Pratt,

    I look at historical likelihood (for all accounts—supernatural or natural) along the legal standard of proof. Going from least proof amount necessary to greatest we would have:

    1. No evidence.
    2. Scintilla (any evidence at all, no matter how slight.)
    3. Possible
    4. Preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not)
    5. Clear and convincing
    6. Beyond a reasonable doubt.
    7. Fact judicially noted.

    Rarely, if ever, do we have the absolute positions of 1. or 7. within historical determination, so we are talking about the range from 2. – 6. But even those standards have latitude within. Proofs may barely sustain preponderance, say 50.01%, or the proofs may really preponderate, say 60%, but still not reach “5. clear and convincing.” And the range within “3. Possible” is great as well. It may be barely possible, say 2%, or really, really possible, say 49%, yet still not preponderate.

    Every claimed miracle account I have studied (utilizing my method) does not have sufficient proof to preponderate a God intervened. Therefore when you ask what miracle accounts are “likely to have occurred” I would give a two part answer:

    1) None that are more likely to be a miracle than not;
    2) Many that are possibly a miracle; some more possible than others.

    Hope that makes sense.

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    What I am saying is that miracles, outside of the religious background and context in which they are purported to occur, cannot be investigated properly. If I have no opinion about whether a particular god exists, and I just investigate miraculous claims based on the physical evidence and testimony, all I can determine is that something extremely unusual occurred which defies current natural explanations. That is as far as I can go.

    However, if I first study the major worldviews (e.g., pantheism, atheism, theism) using philosophy and science, I can narrow down to one worldview which is more probably true. I believe it can be demonstrated that the theistic worldview is the only one that is philosophically and scientifically coherent. This would rule out any pantheistic or atheistic systems (I know there is much to explain behind this claim, but I don’t want to get distracted by it right now).

    Once I have narrowed my search to theistic religions, there are a few big ones that would merit attention: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, maybe Mormonism. At this point, you can bring in the principles of historical investigation and determine which of these traditions’ miracle claims hold up the best historically. If you do this investigation, you find that Christianity easily has the most and best quality historical evidence.

    If you have come to the conclusion, based on historical evidence, that the Christian God is most likely to exist, then you can take the theology taught in Christian sources and use this theology to determine whether a miracle is from God or from demonic/angelic sources. So, my approach is not circular at all. It moves in a linear progression.

    You can see why it is impossible for a person who does not believe in God at all to be able to complete the full analysis I outlined. That person has skipped several crucial steps in the process. A skeptic, therefore, can get no further than affirming that something extremely unusual occurred which defies current natural explanations. That’s something, but it’s a long way from seeing that God did it.

    Does that make sense? I think you are raising important questions, and I’m truly trying to explain my approach.

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks. Let me make one clarification and have you address it. I don’t want to know if you think God did something. I want to know if you have ever determined that the bare miraculous event warranted a “4.” It is enough to say, in other words, that Jesus of Nazareth more likely than not rose from the dead, without you saying that God did it. You can stay agnostic on how it happened and still affirm that it likely occurred, as reported.

    So, given that change in the question, are there any miracle claims that you have investigated that you would say reach a “4”?

  • Bill Pratt,

    I define miracles as being supernatural interventions. (Curiously, “miracle” is notoriously hard to define with specificity.) Arguably the only real horse in the race of supernatural would be a God.

    If you have some other definition, I would be happy to look at it.

    If someone was claiming Jesus was dead, and came back from the dead by means other than supernatural—I would certainly look at that claim with the same method. I don’t find the Swoon theory (for example) preponderates either. If someone claimed Jesus came back from the dead by alien abduction—I would look at that claim too. With the evidence I have now, the alien theory doesn’t preponderate either.

    Certainly some claimed miraculous events actually occurred. There truly was an image similar to the traditional depiction of Mary, mother of Jesus toasted into a Grilled Cheese sandwich. The historical fact of that image preponderates, and its occurrence would probably reach “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Whether it was a miracle…well…I don’t think so.

    Just so you know, I do not think it likely Jesus came back from the dead. Either by resuscitation, aliens or God.

  • To be clear, when I say, “claimed miraculous events occurred.”—I mean the event itself. Not that it was miraculous.

  • Bill Pratt

    OK, so leaving aside whether aliens or God were behind them, of all the significant religious miracle claims you’ve researched (let’s leave out grilled cheese sandwiches), how many of them would you say reach your level “4”? I’m talking about events like walking on water, rising from the dead, and so forth.

  • None. If I was persuaded an event was more likely to be caused by a God than not…I would be a theist.

  • Bill Pratt

    So no miraculous account recorded by the major religions, based on your historical methodology, is likely to have occurred? This is a very telling blow against your claim of being unbiased. We have a huge variety of miracle claims: 1) they differ in when they occurred – Fatima is modern while the resurrection is 2,000 years ago; 2) they differ in kind – Muhammad flying to visit heaven, Joseph Smith translating golden plates, Peter healing the sick; 3) they differ greatly in the historical witness that supports them – the resurrection is confirmed my multiple witnesses within a few years of the occurrence, the miracles attributed to Muhammad in the Hadith were recorded more than 100 years after he lived. In other words, there is a great variety of miracle claims with a great variety of historical evidence.

    It is incredible to me that you believe you have an unbiased method which, coincidentally, rules out every miraculous account ever recorded by the major religions. Does this not seem strange to you? A method which rules out an entire class of phenomena is clearly front-loaded with a priori assumptions that are doing most of the work.

    Do you see that your claim of being unbiased would hold a lot more water if you could point to some miracles that you believe were likely to have occurred and others that were not likely to have occurred? You have claimed that I am biased because I give Christian miracles recorded in the Bible the benefit of the doubt, but you are no less biased because you accept no miracles!

    Again, your method is front-loaded to rule out all miraculous claims. I hope you can see this.

  • Bill Pratt,

    Oh, I am biased. If you look through these comments, any reader can see I have repeatedly claimed it. Comes with being human. We all are. The question I focus on is—knowing we are biased—what method do we employ to remove as much bias as possible. Realizing we never can 100%. You may also notice I have asked repeatedly how you remove bias in your method. I don’t mind you being bias (I think you are human! *grin*); but I question when the method itself deliberately inserts bias with things like “give the Gospel Writers the benefit of the doubt.”

    I can assure you, I was far more surprised and concerned over a method that eliminates miracles than you are. It was very traumatic discovering this.

    The American judicial system grapples with a similar question that historians face—trying to determine what happened when presented with alternate positions and limited evidence. What we do is allow each side present their own set of proofs and closely question the opposing position. There are no “gimmes.” Each side gets to present its own position, and allow it to rise and fall on ALL the evidence—regardless who presents it.

    Then…very importantly…it allows a neutral party to make the determination as to what happened after hearing all the sides. “Neutral” in that it has no benefit, detriment, gain or loss in the outcome. It can decide for one side or the other, and it will neither win millions of dollars, nor be ordered to pay. It will not go to jail; it will not go free. Generally, I have found neutral determinators—judges and juries—try to do right thing. Find what really happened.

    I was a Christian for 32 years. I fully believed in every miracle in the Bible—from the talking snake to the flood to the Ten Plagues to the star to the water-to-wine to feeding the 5000…and yes, even the Resurrection. I believed and lived upon that belief. I was thrilled and happy within that belief.

    Then I encountered skeptics on-line. Skeptics who did not hold to my same beliefs, and knew more about biblical events and miracle claims than I did. So I started to study. Long story short—I reached a point I realized I needed a way to remove my own bias and develop a method to best do so.

    I already had such a method in place. It was what I practiced every day in my career. I have a duty to advise clients as to the possible outcome to make the best decisions possible, and this involves looking at all the evidence, looking at both the arguments in favor and against my position, and looking at what a neutral party is likely to determine.

    For the first time, I started using the same method I use day after day at the office, for my private belief at home. I was surprised to realize when I applied this same method to biblical claims; the things I had believed so long did not hold up.

    I was shocked to realize if we put the arguments for/against inerrancy to a neutral party (a person who had no benefit or detriment whether inerrancy was true or not) that inerrancy would fail. I was stunned when I realized historical claims (both natural and miraculous) within the Bible, if subjected to this method, would consistently fail to persuade neutrals. And not by a little, but a lot.

    I was traumatized when I realized Christianity could not sustain this method; when I realized if I represented Christianity in a court battle, I would work feverously to settle prior to trial, because I don’t think it would win.

    I went to theism, but it held the same problems. The only system sustaining within this method is atheism.

    The reason I question whether this method is “front-loaded to rule out all miraculous claims” (and perhaps I am wrong) is that this method is not concerned about whether the claim is miraculous. Sure, if my method said, “All miracles did not occur, but all natural claims do” I could understand what you are saying. But it does not. This method—with the evidence we have now—eliminates miracle stories. True. But it also eliminates alien abductions, holocaust deniers, and Big Foot. It also eliminates false claims about historical events, Columbus thinking the world was flat, and alligators in sewers. In other words, the method is designed for ALL claims—whether supernatural or not.

    I agree miracle claims differ in time, evidence and description. And if I was presented with evidence I don’t have (‘cause it is certainly out there) I would be happy to review it. I just haven’t found one that sustains this method.

    Finally, I am not saying everyone has to use my method. Not at all. I love to look at other methods. The reason I have asked you again and again what method you use. What you propose. If you think my method has a bias problem—fine. Give me an alternative with less bias.

  • Argg… I do not prefer nested comments. I made a comment in response, but it appears above.

  • paul

    Bill Pratt said: “The Bible is clear that Jesus and his apostles were to be the last messengers until the second advent of Christ, so we would not expect to see miracles that confirm new messengers any more.”

    24But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:

    25And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.

    You sound like a dispensationalist? No matter, but I think that what is “clear” to you isn’t so clear to millions of charismatic Christians (for instance). I’m pulling this scripture out as an example (within the context of those who believe the bible is the word of God, etc.) of the general Christian population being instructed to pray to experience the miraculous for the express purpose of demonstrating that “…God is in you of a truth.” It seems to me that here, and other places, the apostle Paul is instructing Christians to expect miracles for the purpose of demonstrating that they are really hooked up with God and not just a belief.

  • Bill Pratt

    Paul,
    I am not saying that miracles don’t occur or that Christians should not pray for miracles. I was saying that God no longer is using miracles to confirm new prophets – prophets in the line of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul. I hope that clarifies things a bit.

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    In another comment, I laid out my thoughts to Robert about how I would go about looking into miracles. If you read that particular comment, you will see that I reject the idea that an objective method can be used to investigate miracles without taking into account a person’s total worldview first. I realize that there may be a few rare exceptions to this rule, people who are able to completely put aside their worldview, and then look at the historical evidence for miracles. I have never met a person like this, online or in person. Bottom line, I think your method is deeply flawed because you rule out miracles (because of your worldview) before ever investigating them. I don’t pretend to know what was going on in your life when you first started reading skeptical attacks on Christianity, but I think there’s probably more to the story.

    When I encountered skeptics before diving into apologetics myself, it drove me to Christian experts in the fields where the skeptics were attacking. I generally found their responses to be not only plausible, but scholarly and well-reasoned. I have had to modify some of my more simplistic views of Christianity over the years, but my core beliefs have changed little.

    Let me ask you something else, though. You act as if any attorney or judge who used the rules of legal evidence to investigate the claims of the New Testament would come to the same conclusion as you, that the NT is basically not historical, at least in its miracle claims. But surely there are countless jurists who have reached the opposite conclusions. You must be familiar with Simon Greenleaf and John Warwick Montgomery. Those are just the first two that I can think of. I have a good friend who is a law partner where I live who has no problem believing in the NT miracles.

    How do you explain jurists who have reached very different conclusions than you?

    In talking to you, it seems that you are extremely well read in the historical sciences. Have you put as much effort into studying philosophy of religion, in particular the many arguments for God’s existence that come from philosophy and science? Maybe these would be fruitful areas for you to spend time, if you haven’t already.

    My personal journey has been to closely analyze the arguments for atheism and theism, in particular, as these are the two worldviews I think have the most going for them. After looking at the philosophical and scientific arguments for atheism, I have been deeply disappointed. Atheism fails to explain a lot of crucial data about the world that theism successfully explains. I have come to the conclusion that atheism cannot be true because of how poorly it deals with so many features of the world.

    For me, the historical case for Christianity is of secondary importance. I don’t say that it’s not important, but the philosophical arguments come first for me. Thus I would suggest you incorporate the philosophical arguments into your method. Worldviews dominate our thinking nowadays (not sure it’s always been that way or not): I have seen this over and over and over in my discussions with skeptics of Christianity and those friendly to Christianity. If we fail to take that into consideration, our methods fail us.

  • Bill Pratt

    One other issue I’m curious about. Why did you bring up inerrancy? I never have, and I’m not sure what it has to do with our discussion about whether the miracle claims of the NT are true or not. Care to elaborate?

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt said: “There are thousands upon thousands of miraculous claims. At least some of them MUST be true.”

  • paul

    Bill Pratt said: “Paul,
    I am not saying that miracles don’t occur or that Christians should not pray for miracles. I was saying that God no longer is using miracles to confirm new prophets – prophets in the line of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul. I hope that clarifies things a bit.”

    Bill,
    My point is that apostle Paul is instructing the common Christian (not prophets or messengers of God) to pursue prophesy for the express purpose of “convinc[ing]” “one that believeth not” that “…God is in you of a truth.” Paul is giving a different reason to expect miracles than that of confirming prophets, the reason he gives is to verify that “God is in you of a truth.”

    When I read through the list of “spiritual gifts” given to “the body of Christ” it leads me to expect that miracles would be more common, not less common. Since God now resides in all believers and doesn’t just rest upon a few chosen messengers/prophets, it stands to reason that there would be much more miraculous evidence of God, not less.

    Bill Pratt said: “My view on verifying whether a true miracle has occurred in our time is that it is difficult to know. I am very comfortable with the miracles that were reported in the Bible as being true miracles, where God overrode the regular operation of the laws of nature.”

    This doesn’t make sense to me. How could it possibly be easier to verify something that may have happened two thousand years ago than it would be to verify something that happened yesterday? More to the point, my read as stated above would make miracles a common part of church life (“spiritual gifts”) and thus put them into the realm of personal experience vs. belief based on something written or otherwise reported.

    It seems to me that you are trying to explain away the importance of miracles today as a means of verifying that “God is in you of a truth,” the “importance” of which is stressed by the book you claim to believe.

    Having an answer does not equal a “tough question answered.”

  • Bill Pratt,

    I will be happy to answer your questions. But first, I have a few questions of my own that may help to enlighten the situation. (Don’t worry, I won’t forget to come back to these! *grin*)

    What are some of the books you’ve read that are both:

    1) Dealing with the topics of biblical studies and/or existence of God AND
    2) Written by non-Christians or Christians of very different doctrines than your own (i.e. Jesus Seminar or liberal Christians.)?

    Thanks.

  • Again, nested comments screwed me over. Again I made a reply and it probably makes no sense to a person following this conversation. ARRGGG! I hope you can follow it, Bill Pratt

  • Bill Pratt

    Just grabbing three off my bookshelf:

    Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman
    Challenging the Verdict by Earl Doherty
    The Miracle of Theism by J. L. Mackie

    I have also read countless articles on the internet, I have interacted with dozens of skeptics on this blog, I have attended several debates where well-respected skeptics participated. I could go on and on….

  • Bill Pratt,

    O.K., good. I haven’t read any of these three, so bear with me. I am most familiar with “Misquoting Jesus”—so I will deal with that one.

    What would you say is Bart Ehreman’s basic argument he is making in this book and what are the three (3) strongest evidences he uses?

  • Bill Pratt

    Without re-reading portions to remind myself, I would say the basic argument is that the process of copying the New Testament manuscripts before the invention of the printing press was fraught with error and in some cases, deceit. The book is basically an introduction to textual criticism, a subject which he thinks most Christians know nothing about and should know something about. The implication throughout the book is that once a person understands textual criticism, their belief that the New Testament is the Word of God will weaken, if not disappear.

    In the book, he shows that copyists were sometimes inaccurate (some 400,000 variants among the manuscripts), and other times purposefully changed texts to fit theological beliefs. If memory serves, he mentions examples of changing texts to make Jesus seem less angry and to de-emphasize the role of women. He cites examples of texts that are in our modern Bibles which he thinks should not be – texts like the end of the Gospel of Mark and the story of the adulterous woman in John 8.

    Again, this is strictly from memory, so I might have a couple details wrong, but I think that’s the general gist of the book.

  • Bill Pratt,

    Only a coupla more questions on “Misquoting Jesus.” (I hope)

    O.K., the premise you indicate Dr. Ehrman is making is:

    “The process of copying the New Testament manuscripts before the invention of the printing press was fraught with error and in some cases, deceit.”

    The evidence given in support of this premise is:

    1. Copyists were inaccurate (some 400,000 variants.)
    2. Texts were changes to fit theological belief.
    3. The ending of Mark is an addition.
    4. The Pericope de Adultera is an addition.

    What would you say are the 3-4 strongest arguments against Dr. Ehrman’s premise?

  • Bill, you wrote,

    At this point, you can bring in the principles of historical investigation and determine which of these traditions’ miracle claims hold up the best historically. If you do this investigation, you find that Christianity easily has the most and best quality historical evidence.

    I see a couple fallacies here. First, you’ve artificially limited your search, to “a few big ones”. This is a form of argumentum ad populum. Second, it’s not a beauty contest. Christianity may have “best quality of historical evidence” among those religions you’ve chosen, but that doesn’t necessarily entail the conclusion that Christianity is correct or that bona-fide miracles actually occurred. This is a hasty conclusion.

    Can you tell me, based on your method, if the following really did occur?

    “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” (Matthew 27:51-53)

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    You’re right. The way I worded my argument left out a major caveat. Just because Christianity has the most and best historical evidence as compared to the other major religions does not mean that it is true. The historical evidence must hold up under standard measures of historicity as applied by historians when studying events in the the ancient Greco-Roman world. The major claims of Christianity do indeed hold up when these standards are applied.

    As to why I have limited the historical investigation to a few major theistic religions, I can only say that you have to start somewhere. It seems reasonable to me to first deal with the religions that over 1/2 the world’s population adhere to. It is certainly possible that there is a theistic religion out there that has stronger historical evidence for its central miracle claims than Christianity, but I am unaware of it. Do you have any candidates in mind?

    As to Matt. 27, I have never launched a historical investigation of these events. Why? Because they are not central claims of Christianity. Once I became satisfied that the central claims of Christianity were probably true, I did not continue investigating every single reported event in the New Testament. It’s just not practical for me.

  • Bill Pratt

    The basic problem with Ehrman’s premise is that he greatly exaggerates the number and meaningfulness of the errors. Out of the 400,000 variants, less than 1% affect the meaning of the text in question. The rest of the variants consist primarily of spelling mistakes, use of synonyms, and word order changes (common in Greek). Of the less than 1% of the variants that are meaningful, none of them affects a cardinal doctrine of Christianity. The core of Christianity stays completely intact.

  • Bill Pratt,

    I am attempting to demonstrate how methodology works. I am not trying to put words in your mouth; I can only demonstrate how this comes across. If I state something incorrectly, please correct it.

    O.K., the premise you indicate Dr. Ehrman is making is:
    “The process of copying the New Testament manuscripts before the invention of the printing press was fraught with error and in some cases, deceit.”

    The evidence you indicate was given in support of this premise is:

    1. Copyists were inaccurate (some 400,000 variants.)
    2. Texts were changed to fit theological belief.
    3. The ending of Mark is an addition.
    4. The Pericope de Adultera is an addition.

    [I should note here for any lurkers, I am not convinced this is Dr. Ehrman’s premise, nor that this is the strongest evidence he was presenting. I am merely repeating what Bill Pratt is stating.]

    Now you have indicated the 3-4 strongest arguments against are:

    1. The number 400,000 is exaggerated in number and meaningfulness.
    2. Less than 1% affects the meaning
    3. The 1% does not affect the core of Christian teaching.
    4. The rest are spelling mistakes, use of synonyms and word order changes.

    So now what we do is look to see how a neutral party (i.e. a person who is neither committed to errors being caused or not, and to whom it doesn’t matter whether there were errors or not) would likely determine.

    Again—the premise is that the copying was fraught with error and in some cases, deceit.

    For the arguments in support, 400,000 variants are noted; while the arguments against first claim this number is exaggerated, then the arguments against indicate there ARE 400,000, just that most of them can be categorized. Here, it would seem the claim “400,000 variants” prevails, as both for and against seem to agree on the number.

    Secondly it should be noted the arguments against indicate the 400,000 are not “meaningful.” However, this argument is irrelevant as to the premise stated—the premise ONLY states the copying was fraught with error—NOT that the error was “meaningful.” Whether the 396,000 variants were meaningful or not is not part of the premise. Therefore this argument fails to address the premise.

    Thirdly, the arguments for indicates changes were made for theological beliefs. The arguments against do not address this, albeit by tacitly agreeing there are 4,000 variants that DO affect meaning, there is at least the acknowledgement meanings were being changed. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, is not indicated. Therefore, the arguments for the premise prevails on this point.

    Fourth and Fifthly, the arguments for indicate the ending of Mark was added and the Pericope de Adultera was added. This is not addressed in any argument against, and therefore is assumed conceded. The arguments for the premise prevails on this point.

    The arguments against the premise also indicate the 1% does not affect the core of Christian teaching. Again, the premise states nothing about “core of Christian teaching” and therefore this argument is irrelevant.

    Finally, the arguments against indicate there were spelling mistakes, synonyms used and word order changed. This actually supports the premise the copying was fraught with errors, as it makes the same claim!

    The harder issue is whether the changes involved deceit. The arguments for the premise do not make any statement about deceit. Nor do the arguments against. Therefore this portion of the premise fails to be “more likely than not” as we have no evidence in support of the contention.

    Our conclusion, based on the arguments, would be that a neutral party would find in support of the premise that the copying was fraught with errors, but not in support of the premise that there was deceit. (One could argue the additions to Mark and John were “deceitful”—but the arguments presented so far would insufficient to do so.)

    Now I can answer your previous questions….

    A. I brought up inerrancy because it was part of my process in developing a method.

    B. While I appreciate you believe my method is “deeply flawed” it would be helpful if you could demonstrate how is it flawed beyond the assertion “your worldview.” Look at it this way, what would you propose I change in my method to remove the “flaw”? If it is that I have to believe miracles occur before you can prove miracles occur…I presume you see the problem in that.

    Alternatively, as I have mentioned numerous times, you are free to propose an alternative method where bias would be less of an impact.

    C. How do I explain jurists who hold to Christianity? I find it difficult to believe they apply the same method they utilize in the courtroom to their individual beliefs. I went through this exercise with you to demonstrate just how difficult that can be.

    First you have to determine the premise. Then you have to list the arguments both for & against the premise. This is not easy for a layperson. (Even non-litigant lawyers have difficulty doing this.) Then you have to compare the arguments to see which would prevail to a neutral party.

    I hope you can see, just through this very small micro-picture of doing so that it is not easy to do, and the exercise of determining what the other side’s arguments actually are removes some of the bias. Rather than telling the other side what their arguments are—learning what the arguments are.

    Simon Greenleaf stopped writing before the Civil War. We have gained so much information then, I would be curious how he would apply his method now. For example, he treats the four Gospels as independent, whereas we now realize that is not true. If the evidence changes, perhaps his conclusions would too.

    I am more familiar with Montgomery. A Christian apologist who happens to be a barrister. Again, he does not apply his courtroom methodology to his Christian beliefs. For example, he claims the Jewish religious leaders of the First Century acted as both “cross-examiner AND tribunal” whereas in actuality, those are two separate entities with two very separate roles. In the legal field, one would never expect the same entity to do both functions.

    D. I have studied extensively the philosophical arguments for God. (There are no scientific arguments for a God—only philosophers who attempt to “piggy-back” scientific findings to make claims.) I find them all extremely wanting.

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    Are there any scholars who have analyzed the philosophical and historical evidence for Christianity, and found it to be essentially true, who used methods which are at least as unbiased as the methods you have used? If so, could you name them?

  • None that I can think of. To be fair, though, determining their method is not always easy. And clearly if I found a method I thought was less biased than what I propose, I would gladly embrace it. I have not seen any other method suggesting determination by a neutral.

  • The historical evidence must hold up under standard measures of historicity as applied by historians when studying events in the the ancient Greco-Roman world. The major claims of Christianity do indeed hold up when these standards are applied.

    One of these major Christian claim is that a divine being named Yahweh resurrected Jesus from the dead. Are you really claiming historians regard this claim as historical as, say, Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon?

    As to Matt. 27, I have never launched a historical investigation of these events. Why? Because they are not central claims of Christianity.

    Ah, but that’s not really relevant to the question whether the event actually occurred. You’ve described your method for ascertaining bona-fide miracles. If we were to apply your method, it would seem that the miracle described in Matt 27 is bona-fide.

  • Bill Pratt

    What do you think really happened to get Christianity started? What are the major events that occurred in the 1st century which got the whole thing underway?

  • Bill Pratt,

    What I think happened to initiate Christianity in the First Century…

    Jesus was a traveling Rabbi, utilizing a combination of John the Baptist, cynic philosophy and Second Temple Judaism. He gained a following, including a disciple Peter, and very likely a disciple James.

    He was crucified for unknown reasons. Some time later Peter believes he saw Jesus in a vision or dream, and reports Jesus would like certain beliefs to continue. Soon, the defining necessary requirement one has to have to make proclamations within this new religion is to “see Jesus.” (For example, 1 Cor. 15 indicates Paul gave his own qualifications a being one that had seen Jesus.) The new religion followed some Judaic principles, modified with a larger sense of community. It grew amongst Hellenistic Jews and God-followers.

    Paul, a devout Jew, initially attempts to suppress this new religion, but instead becomes enamored with it. He turns into its super-missionary. He becomes popular with gentiles, then discarding discard Judaist ethical requirements, and molding to a faith/belief system.

    Mark, a Greek (possibly God-follower), writes a historical novella, utilizing the Midrash as foundation, chiasm as the form, irony as his scalpel, and the Gospelian Jesus is created. Because there were only snippets and short oral stories before, Mark’s Gospel explodes to wild popularity. It influences, either directly or partially, every canonical Gospel.

    Christianity fragments amongst various factions over numerous issues. Eventually what evolved to be termed “orthodox” Christianity’s written works survive, either by attrition or deliberate deletion.

    Because it embraces, and is embraced, by people from different lifestyles, it sustains.

  • Bill Pratt

    That’s interesting. Does your view closely follow any particular scholar’s view more than another’s, or is it kind of an eclectic approach taken from a number of different sources?

  • ‘Tis me own amalgamate.

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