Monday, September 06, 2010

Tim and Lydia McGrew on archaeological support for the New Testament

I have linked to the McGrews' essay from the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

The role of such naturalism as a motivating factor in the work of the form
critics is often explicit, but as an argument against a more traditional
position it suffers from the obvious drawback of circularity. Consequently,
form critics have typically supported their conclusion of late dating of the
gospels and Acts by pointing to ostensible anachronisms and errors of
detail that show the authors to have been, not eyewitnesses, but creative
and tendentious redactors writing at a substantial remove from the events
they are purportedly recording.

Unquestionably, if we examine the gospels with a literary lens of sufficient
resolving power, we find that they contain material belonging to various
literary types: logia, parables,pronouncement stories, speeches, and so
forth. To recognize this fact is not to make any concession on the point of
interest to us here. And anyone who has read much biblical criticism
knows that the form and redaction critics often command much real
scholarship and sometimes display astonishing imagination. But there are
good reasons for dismissing the sweeping negative conclusions of form
criticism regarding the authenticity and reliability of the narratives. There
are no independent textual traditions preserving the allegedly earliest
forms; one must discern them in the existing text, and in many cases
the layers are visible only when the text is viewed with eyes of
form-critical faith. There is a substantial and growing body of
evidence that thegospels were indeed written by eyewitnesses or by
those with access to eyewitnesses. And the conjectures of the form
critics regarding the dating and accuracy of the New Testament writings
have repeatedly been shown by scholars in other fields to be embarrassing

A few examples may help to illustrate the latter point. In the early 20th
century,the French critic Alfred Loisy dismissed the description in the fourth
gospel (John 5:2) of the pool of Bethesda as having five porches. This,
Loisy said, was a literary alteration or addition designed to represent the
five books of the law which Jesus had come to fulfill. On the basis of such
reasoning, and in harmony with the late dating advocated in the previous
century by the Tübingen scholar Ferdinand Christian Baur, Loisy set the
date for the composition of the gospel at some time after A.D. 150.
Excavations of the pool of Bethesda in 1956 revealed that it was located
where John said it was, bounded on the sides with four colonnades and
spanned across the middle by a fifth (Leon-Dufour, 1967, p. 67; Jeremias,
1966, pp. 36-38). As E. M. Blaiklock says, “No further comment is
necessary” (Blaiklock, 1983, p. 65).

Archaeology has not been kind to literary criticism of the gospels and Acts.
The discovery in Caesarea Maritima in 1961 of an inscription bearing
Pilate’s name and title, the discovery of a boundary stone of the emperor
Claudius bearing the name of Sergius Paulus (cf. Acts 13:7), the very
recent discovery of the Pool of Siloam (John 9) from the time of Jesus,
and numerous other discoveries indicate a level of accuracy incompatible
with the picture of the development of the gospels as an accretion of legend
over the course of two or more generations. Our point is not that these
discoveries demonstrate the accuracy of all other portions of the gospels;
rather, it is the commonsense principle that authors who have been shown
to be accurate in matters that we can check against existing independent
evidence deserve, within reasonable bounds, the benefit of the doubt when
they speak of matters of putative public fact that we cannot at present verify
independently. Several such discoveries also indicate that the author of the
gospel of John was familiar with Jerusalem prior to its destruction, a point
that directly addresses the attempt to place a very late date on the text.
 (See Shanks, 2005, p. 23.)


Edwardtbabinski said...

What Blackwell calls "Natural Theology" is basically a work of apologetics consisting of essays by Evangelicals.

Second, finding "archaeological support" is not equivalent to providing evidence that all the alleged sayings and doings of Jesus in the NT are historical. Consider the case from the last century, during the 1920s, of the famed Christian convert, Sadhu Sundar Singh and the stories he told about his own life:

"It is a striking and significant fact that we can thus confirm these principles of the growth of legends in people belonging to our own day, for the Sadhu's stories deal exclusively with experiences of his own and of his contemporaries. So we see that legends do not necessarily arise after the death of a saint, and within the inner circle of his disciples, but during his own lifetime, and perhaps even in his own mind."

A famous Anglican theologian, John A. T. Robinson, once argued in favor of a very early date for the Gospel of John, but he did not assume that the same Gospel necessarily recorded the sayings and doings of Jesus of Nazareth accurately.

Edwardtbabinski said...

See McGrath's third paragraph here, on why the historicity of the fourth Gospel continues to be viewed as questionable:

The "Born Again" Dialogue Between Nicodemus and Jesus In the Gospel of John, and Why Scholars Question Its Authenticity:

Some Reflections on C. S. Lewis’ “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” By Dr. A. J Mattill, Jr.

Edwardtbabinski said...

A Christian seminarian (at a Southern Baptist seminary--a conservative inerrantist institution), named Chris Petersen, has composed an article titled, "The Triumph of the Gospel of John in American Evangelicalism," that discuss questions that arise whenever students and scholars of the Bible compare the three synoptic Gospels with the Gospel of John.

For instance, professor James D. G. Dunn in his most recent monumental theological works on Jesus has acknowledged that the historical Jesus most probably didn't speak a word of what the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as having said.

Tim said...


In a volume on Natural theology edited by two prominent evangelical philosophers, one finds articles defending the arguments of natural theology. Shocking!

No one in this discussion has claimed that archaeological evidence proves every saying and doing of Jesus in the NT to be historical. But it is certainly evidence for the general credibility and historicity of those documents.

The case of Sadhu Sundar Singh, like that of Sabbatai Sevi, is a red herring. The point is not that legends don't arise within a short period of time but that they do not obliterate the record of what actually happened, in a community that cares deeply about what actually happened, unless (a) the eyewitnesses are willing to deceive people, or (b) the eyewitnesses are dead or otherwise unavailable.

McGrath writes:

The narrator, Jesus, and John the Baptist all speak with the same distinctive style and vocabulary.

There is some truth in this statement, but what of it? If the charge is that John did not tape-record Jesus' words and reproduce them verbatim, many evangelical scholars would agree. It does not follow that John's words do not convey the substance of what Jesus said on various occasions.

This, when coupled with the fact that the unique Johannine terminology gives expression to a number of ideas unique to John among the New Testament Gospels, such as that Jesus was aware of having pre-existed in heaven before appearing on earth, ...

I do not see why anyone should think this argument from silence is persuasive.

... it seems that historians are absolutely correct to reject the authenticity of most of what the Johannine Jesus is depicted as saying.

On the contrary: it seems to me that the methodological approach in use here is one that would vitiate much secular history as well. This is not sound historical method.

On the John 3 passage, you write:

Dr. Ehrman then points out that the Jews in that day and age spoke Aramaic, not Greek ...

This is a common overstatement that is now being corrected by the work of people like Kee, Overman, Beck, and Porter on the pervasive use of Greek in Palestine. That Jesus, who would have needed to know Greek to work as a tradesman in Galilee, should have spoken Greek with an educated Hellenized Jew with a Greek name is more than merely plausible.

As for Dunn, "acknowledged" has some of the flavor of a success verb. Dunn has concluded this. But whether he is right is a matter very much open for discussion.

Tim said...

I will just add that Mattill's list (in one of the articles to which Ed links) of 19 "contradictions" between the Synoptics and John is bloated by the usual combination of factors, including the treatment of omission as contradiction (1, 3, 6, 7, 12, 13, 15), misreading of the text (2, 4, 8, 11, 14, 18, 19), and weird or strained reading (5, 10, 17). One of his objections (16, pertaining to John 20:22) picks up on a puzzling verse but does not show a contradiction between John and Luke-Acts. Of the entire list, only 9, about the dating of the cleansing of the temple, is even prima facie a contradiction.

Why this list should be thought to show that John's gospel is not "reportage -- though it may no doubt contain errors -- pretty close up to the facts," as Lewis claims, is just baffling. Even considered by itself, the list doesn't undermine that claim.

And of course Mattill makes no attempt to take into account the extensive evidence, both internal and external, for the genuineness and authenticity of John's Gospel.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Tim, You spoke of "eyewitnesses." What exactly did their eyes witness?

1 Cor. is the earliest and also the most sparse example. All it tells us is that "Jesus appeared."

Neither do we have anything in Paul's first hand letter writing of what he witnessed, except his claim that "Jesus appeared" to him.

As for Jesus "speaking" that story builds as any legend might, from no words related by Paul, to no words related by Mark, to a few sentences in Matthew to hundreds of words and allusions to entire speeches and 49 days of meeting with Jesus in Luke-Acts and John. The legend grew.

Singh and Sevi are NOT beside the point. Have you read some of Singh's stories? His legendary stories arose within his lifetime among his own followers and from himself as well. A Sevi story of walking through town besides long dead Hebrew prophets arose soon after he passed through that town. I saw a video advertised in which a Muslim claims to have seen Mohammed while at an Islamic shrine. Muslims also claim to have seen angels today and seen the bodies of dead Muslims glowing, during the Iraq war.

As for the Gospel of John's description in chapter 3 of meeting with Nicodemus, it's in Greek and contains a pun that confuses Nicodemus which is shouldn't have happened since they were mostly likely speaking Aramaic, not Greek to one another, and there is no such pun in Aramaic over the word, "born again," which in Aramaic ONLY means "born from above," and not "again." So it is doubtful that such a meeting never took place. In other words, Jesus did not teach some secret about being "born again" to one lone fellow "at night," nor teach that he was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and if you don't believe that then you are "condemned already." The previous Gospels have Jesus teaching many plainly Jewish things about "how to inherit eternal life" during the day in front of other people. The Nicodemus story is thus highly questionable, including it's length and use of certain phrases, which reads like the intro to the Gospel itself and like what John the Baptist was saying as well. Interestingly, only in the Gospel of John do you find the continual depiction of Jesus as the Lamb of God, right from Jesus' first meeting with John the Baptist and put on the lips of John the Baptist, to the "secret nighttime meeting" with "Nicodemus," to the end of the Gospel of John which (unlike the other Gospels) has Jesus slaughtered on the same day they are slaughtering the "lambs" for the Passover Feast.

My conclusion is that YES, people were making stuff up about Jesus. And I think any religion that wants me to believe in made up hints of stories that continued to be passed along and flourish as legends via a game of "telephone" (played out from Palestine to the Greek speaking world where the stories took root and became "Gospel") is equivalent to asking me to turn in my questioning brain. If I could think otherwise I would, I cannot, and neither can I imagine even faintly that I am eternally damned for thinking so. So Christianity fails to convince on many levels.

Tim said...


What exactly did their eyes witness?

More or less what they said they did.

1 Cor. is the earliest and also the most sparse example. All it tells us is that "Jesus appeared."

... to Peter, and to the twelve, and to five hundred people at once, and to James -- all of which means just what it sounds like it means. It isn’t the point of a creed to give a lengthy description of all that Jesus did and said after his resurrection. This one circulated in the 30s; one of the purposes, plainly, was to list the people of whom one might inquire.

As for Jesus "speaking" that story builds as any legend might, from no words related by Paul,

... which we would not particularly have expected, given the sort of work Paul is writing and the nature of the creed he is quoting

... to no words related by Mark, ...

Arguments from silence are almost always lousy, but you cannot build one here at all since the ending of Mark’s Gospel is lost.

... to a few sentences in Matthew ...

... whose account becomes so compressed in the final chapter that it is very likely he was running out of scroll, in which case it is not possible to press any inference very hard here ...

... to hundreds of words and allusions to entire speeches and 49 days of meeting with Jesus in Luke-Acts and John.

What else would you expect? With Luke, you have someone who set out to collect reminiscences of Jesus; with John, you have someone who was perhaps the only disciple personally to accompany Jesus on his earlier trips to Judea and who set out to fill in the gaps left by the previous Gospels.

The legend grew.

This conclusion is not well supported by the evidence you have presented. It is antecedently improbable, it is contradicted by numerous other facts about the text, it flies in the face of the testimony we have regarding the origin of these documents, and there is an alternative explanation that covers more of the facts better.

[to be continued]