Tag Archives: Gospels

Finally! Details about Michael Licona’s new Oxford University Press book

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

Here’s a new interview between Sean McDowell and Michael Licona about his new book. The new book is coming out in 2016, and it’s going to be published by Oxford University Press – probably the top academic press on the planet.

I found the interview on Sean McDowell’s blog.

It says:

Michael Licona is one of the world’s leading experts on the historical evidence for resurrection. I use his book The Resurrection of Jesus in my Master’s Level course atBiola. For the past few years, Dr. Licona has been working on some cutting-edge research related to Gospel contradictions. His research is both fascinating and groundbreaking. He answers a few of my questions:

SEAN MCDOWELL: Mike, what got you interested in the question of Gospel contradictions?

MIKE LICONA: Back in 2008 and 2009 I was publicly debating Bart Ehrman on the resurrection. He brought up Gospel contradictions as one of his major objections to the Gospels. I have noticed that this genuinely bothers many Evangelical Christians. As a result, I decided to look into it in more depth. I wasn’t so much concerned about resolving them, because I understood that if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, regardless of any errors that might be present in the Bible. So, even if there are contradictions in the Gospels, it wouldn’t negate the truth of Christianity. But it does bother a lot of Evangelicals, so that’s what got me interested in the topic. And to be honest, it did make me question the historical reliability of the Gospels.

MCDOWELL: What makes your approach to Gospel contradictions unique?

LICONA: Most approaches involve trying to harmonize various passages to see if all the details can fit together. This can be a legitimate practice. But many times it can go way too far. Both Richard Burridge and more recently Craig Keener have shown that the Gospels belong to the genre of “ancient biography.” If this is correct, it would be plausible that we would see the same amount of flexibility in the Gospels as we observe in other ancient biographies. So, I wanted to learn what those flexibilities were. By carefully reading ancient biographies written around the same time as the Gospels and comparing how they tell the same stories differently, I began to recognize that some of the differences resulted from compositional devices. Then when I went to the Gospels, I could see that the authors were probably employing the same compositional devices as other ancient biographers; specifically Plutarch. I began to realize that the differences across the Gospels are not so much contradictions but the result of compositional devices that were the standard practice in historical writing of that day.

So, this analysis of the genre of “ancient biography” might give us some useful tools for resolving passages that seem to be in conflict. For some reason, non-Christians want to ignore the main body of accepted facts about the historical Jesus, and focus on these minor details that seems to be in conflict. So I guess we need a book that explains them, and no one better than Mike Licona to do it.

On the other hand… I was actually talking about this with my best friends from my home town over the Christmas holidays. Before we broke out the Pandemic boardgame and the “Keep Talking and No One Explodes” computer game, Jen and Andrew wanted to know what was the most common thing that I was seeing from non-Christians. The most common thing I am seeing is that non-Christians are woefully out of touch with knowledge related to the worldview of Christian theism that are accepted by the broad spectrum of scholars.

To illustrate, I quoted from atheists who admit to the creation event, to the fine-tuning, to the problem of the origin of life, to the problem of the Cambrian explosion, to early dating of the gospels, early dating of the Pauline letters, minimal facts about the life of Jesus, and even minimal facts for an argument for the resurrection. I told Andrew and Jen the skeptics I encounter are intellectually dishonest. They don’t accept the things that mainstream atheist scholars accept about science and historical Jesus and philosophy of religion. And yet they feel comfortable about being on the fringe, because they justify their fringe view by pointing to nitpicky details like apparent Bible contradictions. I.e. – they point to disagreement about one or two angels at the discovery of the empty tomb, and they turn that minor point into support for their fringe view that the gospels were made up completely in the second and third centuries.

So, I guess we do have to be ready to respond to this nitpicking, and Licona’s book will help with that. But I also think that we need to be ready to haul skeptics back to reality. There is a lot we can know about science, philosophy and the historical Jesus that supports Christian theism, and we should disagreements about details get people away from those main points that scholars across the board accept.

Is the text of the Bible we have today different from the originals?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

First, let’s introduce New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace:

Daniel B. Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

B.A., Biola University, 1975; Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979; Ph.D., 1995.

Dr. Wallace influences students across the country through his textbook on intermediate Greek grammar. It has become the standard textbook in the English-speaking world on that subject. He is a member of the Society of New Testament Studies, the Institute for Biblical Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the Evangelical Theological Society.

[…]He has been a consultant on four different Bible translations.

[…] He works extensively in textual criticism, and has founded The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (csntm.org), an institute with an initial purpose of preserving Scripture by taking digital photographs of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts.

[…]His postdoctoral work includes work on Greek grammar at Tyndale House in Cambridge, textual criticism studies at the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster, and the Universität Tübingen, Germany.

Eric Chabot, who blogs at Think Apologetics, found this interview that addresses the charge you often hear about how you can’t get back to the original New Testament documents.

It talks about:

  • textual criticism
  • number of New Testament manuscripts
  • earliest New Testament manuscripts
  • the number and impact of textual variants
  • responding to the “telephone game” objection
  • responding to the scribes tampered with the text objection

And here is an article by Dr. Wallace that corrects other misconceptions about the transmission and translation of the Testament.

He lists five in particular:

  • Myth 1: The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.
  • Myth 2: Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Myth 3: Heretics have severely corrupted the text.
  • Myth 4: Orthodox scribes have severely corrupted the text.
  • Myth 5: The deity of Christ was invented by emperor Constantine.

Finally, a quote from skeptical historian Bart Ehrman, as reproduced in this post on the Christian Apologetics Alliance blog:

The curious thing about Bart Ehrman is that the views he articulates in his popular-level work are not the same as those he espouses in his professional/scholarly publications. Indeed, readers may find this curious and very telling quotation, taken from the appendix (p. 252) of Misquoting Jesus, of interest:

“Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” [Emphasis added]

Finally, I think that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows us that religious texts don’t change as much as we think they do over time.

Look:

The Dead Sea Scrolls play a crucial role in assessing the accurate preservation of the Old Testament. With its hundreds of manuscripts from every book except Esther, detailed comparisons can be made with more recent texts.

The Old Testament that we use today is translated from what is called the Masoretic Text. The Masoretes were Jewish scholars who between A.D. 500 and 950 gave the Old Testament the form that we use today. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, the oldest Hebrew text of the Old Testament was the Masoretic Aleppo Codex which dates to A.D. 935.{5}

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now had manuscripts that predated the Masoretic Text by about one thousand years. Scholars were anxious to see how the Dead Sea documents would match up with the Masoretic Text. If a significant amount of differences were found, we could conclude that our Old Testament Text had not been well preserved. Critics, along with religious groups such as Muslims and Mormons, often make the claim that the present day Old Testament has been corrupted and is not well preserved. According to these religious groups, this would explain the contradictions between the Old Testament and their religious teachings.

After years of careful study, it has been concluded that the Dead Sea Scrolls give substantial confirmation that our Old Testament has been accurately preserved. The scrolls were found to be almost identical with the Masoretic text. Hebrew Scholar Millar Burrows writes, “It is a matter of wonder that through something like one thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.'”{6}

A significant comparison study was conducted with the Isaiah Scroll written around 100 B.C. that was found among the Dead Sea documents and the book of Isaiah found in the Masoretic text. After much research, scholars found that the two texts were practically identical. Most variants were minor spelling differences, and none affected the meaning of the text.

One of the most respected Old Testament scholars, the late Gleason Archer, examined the two Isaiah scrolls found in Cave 1 and wrote, “Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The five percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”{7}

Despite the thousand year gap, scholars found the Masoretic Text and Dead Sea Scrolls to be nearly identical. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide valuable evidence that the Old Testament had been accurately and carefully preserved.

I hope that this post will help those who think that we can’t get back to the text of the original New Testament documents.

Who wrote the gospels? When were they written? Are they based on eyewitnesses?

Let's take a look at the data
Let’s take a look at the data

Mike Licona is one of my favorite Christian historians, and so I’m going to rely on him to answer the questions in this post.  He explains why the four biographies in the New Testament should be accepted as historically accurate: (55 minutes)

Summary:

  • What a Baltimore Ravens helmet teaches us about the importance of truth
  • What happens to Christians when they go off to university?
  • The 2007 study on attitudes of American professors to evangelical Christians
  • Authors: Who wrote the gospels?
  • Bias: Did the bias of the authors cause them to distort history?
  • Contradictions: What about the different descriptions of events in the gospels?
  • Dating: When were the gospels written?
  • Eyewitnesses: Do the gospel accounts go back to eyewitness testimony?

This is basic training for Christians. They ought to show this lecture whenever new people show up, because pastors should not quote the Bible until everyone listening has this information straight.

I really hope you all have his big, awesome book on “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach“. This book is not for beginners, but it is comprehensive.

New book

Dr. Licona has a new book on the differences between the gospels coming out with Oxford University Press in 2016 (I just found out!), and so I thought it would be a good idea to re-post a lecture featuring the man himself.

He tweeted this about the new book:

The manuscript for my new book pertaining to why there are differences in the Gospels is almost complete and is scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press sometime in 2016. This book will reflect my research in Plutarch during the past 7.5 years.

I’m excited! Will definitely get this! Oxford is the most prestigious academic press, so it must be good.

Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? A response to Bart Ehrman

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Here is the outline page, and the outline points:

  1. Great swaths of agreement
  2. Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
  3. Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
  4. Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
  5. Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?

We’ve talked about 1 and 2 before, so let’s look at #3.

Here’s the problem:

In this section, I want to consider a third major point of divergence between Ehrman and evangelicals: the issue of Jesus’ status as an apocalyptic prophet. Christians throughout history have agreed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in the sense that he preached about God’s coming judgment and urged people to repent, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Where Christians disagree with Ehrman is over the issue of timing: did Jesus believe and in fact predict that the Final Judgment of the world by the Son of Man would occur within the lifetime of his followers? This difference is important because if Jesus did predict that the end of the world would occur within a generation of his death, this would obviously call into question his claim to be divine.

Ehrman thinks that Jesus was making apocalyptic predictions about events that would occur within a generation of his death. He also thinks that Jesus is talking about the end of the world, rather than using apocalyptic language to refer to some other calamity. So, if Jesus is predicting the end of the world sometime soon after his death and that never happened, then he cannot be God stepping into history. He made a big mistake about something important. So how do we explain Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies?

Well, most scholars agree that Jesus’ predictions of destruction in Mark 13 (and echoed in Matt 24 and Luke 21) predate the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and Neil thinks that he was referring to that event, and not the end of the world and final judgment.

Shenvi has 3 arguments for his view, let’s look at just one:

First, notice that Jesus’ use in [Mark 13] v. 29-30 of the phrases “these things… all these things” is a deliberate echo of Peter’s question in v. 4 about when “these things” will happen and when “all these things” will be fulfilled (the underlying Greek phrases are also identical). But in v. 4, Peter was asking about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had just predicted in v. 2. While Peter may have had the end of the world also in mind, the text in Mark makes no mention of that fact. Thus, whatever other material Jesus introduced in the Olivet Discourse, his (or Mark’s) repetition of those two particular Greek phrases in his prophecy about ‘this generation’ (v. 30) seems to indicate that his prediction is to be primarily understood as a response to Peter’s question.

As for the ‘cosmic’ predictions in v. 29-30, connecting an imminent, temporal judgment on a single nation with the final judgment on the entire world was a common device in the Old Testament. For example, the book of Zephaniah alternates between oracles of judgment against Judah and its neighbors, which were predicted for the near-future, with prophesies of God’s final judgment and restoration, which would occur at an unspecified future time. Similar motifs can be found in books like Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. At this point, it is unimportant whether we see the prophesies in these books as genuine predictions (the evangelical view) or as retrospective explanations of events which had already occurred (a common non-evangelical view). What matters is that, by Jesus’ time, it was understood that temporal judgments could foreshadow a future final judgment. So in transitioning immediately from the impending destruction of Jerusalem to the final judgment, Jesus was repeating a theme which had existed in the Old Testament prophets for centuries.

[…]Third, Jesus does not actually predict in this passage that the Son of Man will return within ‘this generation.’ This observation was astonishing to me, but it’s fairly clear in the text. Look again at the two key verses: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:19-30). What Jesus predicts in v. 30 is that “all these things” will take place within “this generation.” Ehrman’s contention is that “all these things” include the coming of the Son of Man as described in v. 26-27. But look again at v. 29. When the disciples see “these things” taking place it will mean that the Son of Man is “near, at the very gates.” In fact, it is nonsensical to say that “these things” include the Son of Man arriving to judge the world. If that were true, then v. 29 would mean “when you see [the Son of man arriving to judge the world], you know that [the Son of Man] is near.” As I’ve argued, it’s far more plausible to see ‘these things’ as referring solely to destruction of Jerusalem. When the disciples see ‘these things’ [the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem], then they will know that the Son of Man is near, even at the door.

He responds to several objections to his argument and concludes so:

The three independent arguments I’ve given here support the idea that Jesus did not intend to predict the end of the world within one generation in the Olivet Discourse. In my opinion, a better reading is that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the next generation and saw this destruction as a foreshadowing of a final judgment which would occur at an unspecified time “after that tribulation” (v 24).

If this is an objection that you’ve heard before, you can do two things. Read the post, and then bookmark it for later. When the question comes up next time, you’ll be ready, because Dr. Shenvi has done the work for you.

UPDATE: Jason Engwer has a post about this that goes into even more detail at Triablogue.

Should the Gospel of Thomas be included in the New Testament?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

I was on a long distance drive Monday night. I finished listening to “God’s Crime Scene”, and started “The Case for the Real Jesus”. Craig Evans’ discussion about the Gospel of Thomas stuck in my mind, so I’m turning it into a post.

Should the Gospel of Thomas be included with the four canonical gospels? Is it early? Is it the same historical genre as the four gospels? Does it give us eyewitness evidence of the life and teachings of Jesus?

Here’s an article about it that references the chapter from “The Case for the Real Jesus” that I was listening to.

First reason, Thomas has literary dependence on TONS of other New Testament books, which favors a date for Thomas AFTER the books it quotes:

The Gospel of Thomas Cites Too Much Of The New Testament. Publishing writings in the first century was nothing like it is today. If you want a copy of something, you take a quill and some papyrus and you just copy it. That is how the books of the New Testament circulated. It was a very slow process. By the early second century, only a few of the books of the New Testament were in full circulation. Christians of that time only had a few of the books of the New Testament to reference. The epistles of Ignatious, written in AD 110, does not even quote half of the New Testament.

But the gospel of Thomas shows familiarity with 15 of the 27 books of the New Testament! Doctor Craig Evans pointed out that he was not aware of any Christian writing which referenced this much of the New Testament prior to AD 150. The Gospel of Thomas simply references far too many books to be dated early. But despite that, the Jesus Seminar attempts to date Thomas between AD 60 and 70.

Further, this gospel not only cites too much New Testament material. It cites the later New Testament material. Mark was not very strong in Greek grammar and etiquette, so when Matthew and Luke quoted Mark, they polished his wording. The gospel of Thomas quotes the polished wording, the later version. In fact, Thomas even has material from the gospel of John – penned in about AD 90. How can a book from AD 60 or 70 quote a book from AD 90? Thomas is not independent of the other gospels, it quotes the later ones and it is not early, it quotes too much of the New Testament to be considered early.

Second reason, Thomas shows signs of being based on a Syriac translation:

The Gospel of Thomas Shows Syrian Development. The gospels are published in the Koine Greek language, which was the most conventiant language of that time if the goal was to spread them far and wide. But when Christianity began to spread eastward, the gospels were translated into Syriac. But this did not happen immediately.

A student of Justin Martyr named Tatian compiled a Syriac translation of the four gospels in AD 175, which was named the Diatessaron (meaning ‘through the four’). He made the four gospels available to those who spoke Syriac. What makes this significant is that the gospel of Thomas shows traces of the Syrian language forms! Indeed, the gospel of Thomas adopts concepts that were only found in the Syrian church. It refers to Thomas as Judas Thomas, which was a concept that began with the Syrian church. The Syrians did not like ascetics, wealth, businessmen, commercialism, and were interested in elitism and mysticism. Precisely everything that the Syrians were not interested in, the gospel of Thomas was not interested in, and that which they were interested in, the gospel of Thomas was interested in.

Further, and critically, if we read the gospel of Thomas in English, it sort of looks like a non-contextual group of proverbs and sayings. It is just randomly assorted. It appears randomly assorted in Koine Greek as well. But if you translate it to Syrian, it is not random at all. There are literally hundreds of catchwords in Syrian that are meant to help people memorize the gospel. There are memory aids written in Syrian. The gospel of Thomas was written in Syrian.

Two other reasons would be:

  • it contains gnostic overtones, and that movement started in the 2nd century
  • none of the early Church Fathers quote it, but they quote the four gospels and the letters of Paul, etc.

Not sure why people get so interested in this Dan Brown hypothetical stuff, but my job is to share with you the things I’m reading that are relevant. By the way, the audio versions of the unabridged “Case For” books are read by Lee Strobel himself – HIGHLY recommended. You will not lose interest.