Tag Archives: Discuss

Mike Licona responds to Bart Ehrman’s new book on gospel authorship

In this post on Bible Gateway, Michael Licona assesses Ehrman’s argument that the letters traditionally ascribed to Paul are not traceable back to Paul. Licona argues that Paul would have had access to other people in the Christian community who would have helped him to craft and write his letters.

Here’s Ehrman’s challenge:

Most, though not all, of the arguments against traditional authorship fall into two categories: style and content. However, if an author employed the use of a secretary to write what he dictated as well as provide varying degrees of editing, this would explain quite well why some of the letters in the New Testament whose authorship is questionable have vocabulary, grammar, some content, and an overall writing style that differs, even significantly, from the undisputed letters. Ehrman recognizes this and writes, “Virtually all of the problems with what I’ve been calling forgeries can be solved if secretaries were heavily involved in the composition of the early Christian writings” (134).Did Paul use a secretary at least occasionally? We may answer with an unequivocal yes. Of Paul’s seven undisputed letters, it is certain that he used a secretary for no less than four.

Ehrman concurs, “There is no doubt that the apostle Paul used a secretary on occasion” (134). But he contends that there’s no evidence that Paul used them for any other services such as editing to correct grammar and improve style, coauthor to contribute to content, or compose the letter with the named author giving his final approval (134-36; cf. 77).

And here’s part of his response:

Writing a letter in antiquity was a costly enterprise. Randolph Richards, who is perhaps today’s leading authority on the use of secretaries in antiquity, discusses the costs involved. Papyri, labor, and courier fees added up quickly. Of course, Cicero, Seneca, and the ultra-wealthy could easily afford the costs. But Paul, the missionary, would not have been so fortunate. Richards estimates that the cost for penning Paul’s letters ranged from $101 in today’s dollars for Philemon to $2,275 for Romans. And these figures do not include the expenses involved with a courier.Now perhaps you’re thinking, “But Paul tells us in his letters he had churches that supported him (Phil. 4:10-18; 2 Cor. 11:9). And we know he had co-workers whom he mentions in his letters (Rom. 16:21; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; 8:23; Phil. 1:1; 2:25; Col. 1:1; 4:11; 1 Th. 1:1; 2 Th. 1:1; Philem. 1:1, 24. cf. Gal. 1:1). They would naturally have been the couriers and could even have served as his secretaries. So, he would have incurred little to no labor costs.” That much is evident.

And what’s to have prevented these co-workers from also providing editorial and compositional services according to their personal abilities? Could the Tertius mentioned in Romans 16:22 have been a professional secretary who had volunteered his services? We will never know. What is clear is the fact that not being a member of the ultra-wealthy does not preclude Paul’s use of a secretary for editing and composition.

[…]The early Christian church faced many situations and theological debates. In their minds, these matters were often more important than life itself. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul is answering a situation where some members of the church in Corinth were denying an afterlife. Paul replies that if we are not raised from the dead to enjoy eternal life, Christ was not raised from the dead either. And if Christ was not raised, our Christian faith is worthless and our loved ones who have already died are forever gone. In fact, Paul adds, if there is no future resurrection of the dead and this life is all there is, let’s party hard now because we will all be dead in a relatively short period of time (1 Cor. 15:12-19, 32)!

The letters in the New Testament weren’t written for the mere enjoyment of the exercise and at leisure as many of the letters of Cicero and Atticus had been. Given the importance the early Christian letters had for their authors and recipients, there was a much greater need for using a secretary in order to craft the letters carefully. We know Paul could write, since he signed many of his greetings at the end of his letters. So, why have a secretary to whom he could dictate a letter without also depending upon him for editing services?

Here’s a third reason for holding that Paul would want his secretary to be more involved than simply taking dictation: He flat out states that others were involved in his letter writing. Paul was apparently not very good at public speaking. This conclusion comes from information provided in his undisputed letters. In 2 Corinthians 11:6, Paul admits that he is “untrained in public speaking” (See also 1 Cor. 2:1, 4). In 2 Corinthians 10:10-11, he writes, “it is said, ‘His [i.e., Paul’s] letters are weighty and powerful, but his physical presence is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.’ Such a person should consider this: What we are in the words of our letters when absent, we will be in actions when present.”

Notice carefully how the subject changes from Paul the poor public speaker in the singular to the “we” who write the letters. More than one person is involved in writing Paul’s letters. So, the involvement of the secretary appears to go beyond taking simple dictation.

In summary, Ehrman’s argument fails since Paul may not have incurred any costs for his extensive use of a secretary, the important occasions for writing the letters would have motivated Paul’s extensive use of a secretary, and Paul clearly states that others were involved in the actual writing of the letters.

Now I want to say a few words about a recent experience I had talking to a Jewish atheist about what the Bible says about Jesus.

Talking about the Bible with non-Christians

To be convincing and appealing when discussing the New Testament with non-Christians, you need to be very aware of the fact that non-Christians do not understand theological language and they do not assume that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God and they do not think that you have done your homework to know who wrote it and whether it was translated correctly from the originals so many years back.

The right way to discuss the Bible is to talk about the New Testament as a book that contains ancient biographies from a variety of authors. You want to list a number of factors that would affect whether individual verses within individual books are reliable. You want to weigh the arguments for and against the conservative view.

Here are some things to consider:

  • when was the passage written?
  • who wrote the passage?
  • is the passage found in multiple sources?
  • does the passage embarrass the author?
  • does the passage praise the author’s enemies?
  • does the passage hinder the evangelistic message of the early church?

I was recently discussing the Harold Camping prophecy with a friend of mine who is an atheist, and I was explaining the passage where Jesus says that no one knows the date of judgment day. I used multiple sources, early sources, and the criterion of embarrassment to show why my friend should not consider Camping to be a disproof of the reliability of the Bible and an embarrassment to Christians.

Here are the passages I used to discredit Camping’s calculations:

Mark 13:32-33:

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.

Matthew 24:36-44:

36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;

39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.

41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.

43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.

44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Mark is early, and Matthew provides multiple attestation. But this passage also passes the criterion of embarrassment, because it ascribes ignorance to Jesus – something that the early church would not have made up if they were hoping to gain converts by falsely portraying Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, it is very likely that this passage is authentic, and would be viewed as authentic even by those who are non-Christians. Any passage that undermines the missionary project of the early church by calling Jesus’ identity as the Messiah into question is guaranteed to be historical. And it goes to show the quality of history you find in the New Testament.

It is sometimes useful to contrast good historically reliable passages with passages that are not viewed as historically reliable. In a related post, William lane Craig is asked by John Ankerberg about a passage that most historians do not view as historically reliable. Even if you are an inerrantist like me, you are not obligated to use and defend every verse when you quote the Bible to make arguments about theology or morality or history. Just analyze the passages that you are using the historical criteria, in order to persuade your non-Christian audience that you are not taking the Bible on faith. If one of your passages fails the tests, then don’t use it – find another passage that passes the tests.

Regarding inerrancy, C. Michael Patton of Parchment & Pen blog doesn’t think that you have to believe in inerrancy to become a Christian. I would argue that mature Christians should believe in inerrancy of the original writings, but new Christians don’t have to.

So, to sum up, don’t talk about the Bible the way that Christian pastors do on Sunday mornings with your non-Christian friends. Talk about the Bible like scholars do with your non-Christian friends. Here is a good example of how Christian and non-Christian scholars talk about the Bible in formal academic debates.

How I talk to my mother about Christianity

I could write a lot about this, so I’ll just try to provide a brief insight. I should probably put up a poll to see what my regular readers are more interested in: 1) news or 2) apologetics and mentoring.

A word of warning

One thing I’ve noticed about women is that they like it when men treat their mothers nicely and what they mean by that is never judging or disagreeing with their mothers, and never trying to change their mothers. This view of love is, of course, false. I want my mother to go to Heaven and to know and love God, so I have to talk to her about these things and disagree if she is wrong about them. So I think that disagreeing with her about spiritual things is being nice to her. But read on and judge for yourself.

The plan

My plan for my mother is not to begin by convincing her that Christianity is true. Instead, I begin by convincing her to approach religious issues just as she would approach any other area of knowledge, such as investing, or nutrition. If she agrees to treat religion as any other area of of knowledge, then I think that she will eventually conclude that Christianity is true. Currently, she is forming her beliefs about God’s existence, character and what he wants from her, using subjective mechanisms, i.e. – intuitions and experience. I want her to try a different method.


My goal for my mother, as with anyone else, is to try to get her to accept Christianity as objectively true, based on arguments and evidence. I don’t think that a person can be an authentic Christian if Christianity is just wish-fulfillment. I don’t think that a person will stick with Christianity when it goes against their own self-interest, unless their belief is anchored on arguments and facts. People act on what they really believe is true, when stressed by reality.

So, what I need to do is to argue for a method of discovery that is not dependent on emotions and intuitions, but is more rigorous. I need to offer my mother tools, such as the laws of logic, historical analysis and the scientific method. These tools can be used to investigate whether God exists, and what he is really like, and what he wants from her. By using these tools instead of intuition and experience, my hope is that I will be able to get her to arrive at a view of God as he really is.


The first question to ask her is “Does a Creator and Designer of the Universe exist independently of whether anyone thinks so or not?”. And then I ask the immediate follow-up question “How do you know that?”.

The second question to ask her is “What is the Creator/Designer’s character like?”. And again, the immediate follow-up question is “How do you know that?”.

The third question to ask her is “How does the Creator/Designer expect you to act?”. Once again, immediately follow up with “How do you know that?”.


And the results of the inquiry were as follows: 1) she thinks that God is exactly like her and approves of everything she does, and more importantly, 2) her method of investigating religion is basically to invent “God” using her own feelings and experiences. Her method of arriving at these conclusions was by using intuition and experience, and she was resistant to the idea of using logic, science and history to find out the truth about God, his existence, his character, and what he wanted.

The next thing I did was to argue that her method of arriving at her religious beliefs was subjective and unreliable, and that she would never use that method of determining truth in any other area of life. I made a list of everything she cares about and started approaching each topic using her subjective method of determining truth, in order to expose the disastrous consequences that would occur if she made decisions in these other areas using intuition and experience.

For example, I explained my theories on how watching TV produces university degrees, how chocolate causes weight loss, how fruits and vegetables cause cancer, etc. All of this to show that subjectivism is not a reliable method of arriving at truth in any area of knowledge, especially in religion. The desire for happiness should not drive the search for religious truth. People need to avoid inventing a self-serving view of God, just because it gives them a feeling of security without any moral demands.

Finally, I introduce a reliable method of arriving at the truth in any area, including religion. I’m sure that you all already know about the concepts of propositional truth, the correspondence theory of truth, and the test for truth (logical consistency, empirical validation, experiential relevance). And you all know about how to use science/history/logic to confirm/disconfirm religious claims, etc. If necessary, I would apply these methods to other areas to show how they produce real knowledge.

A useful thing to do is to show how well-accepted facts like the origin of the universe from nothing and the crucifixion of Jesus falsify various world religions. This helps to make the point that a lot of people believe things that are false. That way, you motivate the question – “am I interested in knowing what is really true or am I interested in engaging in wish-fulfillment and projection in order to make myself feel better about my own selfishness and insecurity?”.

Some things I found out

I found that engaging in these discussions brought out some very interesting data that reminded me of what I see in the church. Each of these is worth a post, so I’ll just throw them out there in point form.

  • She viewed my efforts to get her to employ logic and evidence to determine her views as being critical of her
  • She felt “constrained” by allowing logic and evidence to override her “freedom” to invent a self-serving God
  • She didn’t want to know about the laws of logic, or how religions make conflicting truth claims
  • She didn’t want to know about what science and history could confirm/disprove religious truth claims
  • She thought that it was better to let everyone believe anything they wanted to believe
  • She thought that religion was mostly for making people believe things that made them feel happy and secure
  • She didn’t think that God expected her to act morally if it didn’t make her feel happy to do so
  • She didn’t care to find out the truth about whether God exists, what he was like, and what he wanted from her

Note: we didn’t get into any fights over this, it was just a friendly discussion, although I could sense her resistance.

My biggest concern about this view is that if it were a common view among Christians, it would increase the incidence of several non-Christian ideas, like moral relativism, inclusivism, postmodernism, pluralistic salvation, the non-reality of Hell, etc. And I think that if a lot of Christians believe Christianity is self-serving, then we will be perceived as being hypocritical by non-Christians when we don’t do the difficult things we are supposed to be doing. Non-Christians want to see some consistency between out actions and what the Bible says.

In a poll of my friends I did a while back, I found that people thought that talking to relatives about Christianity was the most difficult thing to do, higher than talking to people at work. So I’d be curious for readers to share their experiences about who is harder to talk to, and what you found in talking to people.


Apologetics advocacy

And here are some lectures that got me interested in apologetics.