Monday, February 4, 2008

Do We have Evidence?

Last time I addressed personal experience and when it was desirable with respect to evidence. Our friend Vinny responded by claiming that we have no evidence. Is that the case?

I want to point out up front that this is of necessity a thumbnail sketch of the existing evidence. Whole books have been written on just parts of this question. I’ve written on this topic before as well. What follows is a summary case.

Different Kinds of Evidence
First we have to consider that there are different kinds of evidence. In a murder trial, the defendant can be found guilty without any eye witnesses based on his weapon being used in the crime, his prints being found at the scene, his DNA on the victim, a lack of an alibi, and plenty of motive. A man can spend the rest of his life in jail – maybe worse – without a single eye witness to the crime.

It is claimed that the Gospels don’t count as eye-witness evidence. If that is true, they can still be evidence. But I don’t think it’s true that they aren't eye-witness evidence.

Anonymous Gospels?
Let’s address the names attached to the Gospels. It is true that the names of the authors do not appear in the documents. The fact that they are anonymous does not mean no one knew who wrote them.

The earliest mention of the Gospel writers that we know of exists only as a quote by Eusebius. He quotes Papias (circa ad130) as attributing Matthew and Mark to the traditional authors. The Muratorian Canon then mentions Luke and John (ca 170) followed by Irenaeus (ca 180) who put all four together (Against Heresies 3.1.1) (the “numerology” is in regard to the rightness of there being four gospels (3.11.8), not in the names of the authors). As Roberts points out, the minimal discussion of authorship implies that the matter was pretty much settled, at least for the author and his audience.

Would it be nice if the authors identified themselves? Sure. But we have the traditional names appearing quickly enough that the community could reasonably be expected to know who wrote these Gospels. Also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, if someone was going to fake the authors’ names, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are unlikely choices. Fake gospels bear names like Peter, Thomas, and Mary. Who would fake a name like Mark? As Roberts said, “…the anonymity of the biblical Gospels bears the stamp of truth whereas the pseudonymity of the noncanonical Gospels suggests their falsehood.”

Eye Witnesses?
History tells us that Mark’s Gospel is really Peter’s. Matthew and John, also, were likely either written by apostles or from their teaching. So three of the canonical Gospels originate with apostles. What about Luke?

Luke was not one of the original disciples; neither was Paul with whom he is associated. So Luke’s Gospel starts out with a statement of the care Luke took in preparing his work. He claims to have “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (1:3) – in other words, he’s examined the facts, spoken to witnesses, checked out stories, and presents an “orderly account” of the ministry and passion of Christ.

Honest Gospels
That Luke and the others wanted to give an honest account of Christ’s life is demonstrated by the things they included that could easily have been excluded that cast Jesus or the apostles in a less than ideal light.

Some examples: Christ’s baptism and rejection by His family; the discovery of the empty tomb by women; the apostles’ repeated inability to understand Jesus and their frequent jockeying for position. Was it really necessary to repeat the story of Peter denying Christ in all four Gospels? The authors of these works were clearly trying to keep everything truthful – meaning we can trust them.

Explaining the Facts
Lastly, the story that has been passed down to us is the only one that explains the facts. Secular history tells us that the followers of Christ began to proclaim His resurrection in the same city in which He was killed. It also tells us that His formerly timid followers were willing to die in defense of this belief.

We know that His Jewish followers departed from many cherished beliefs after they began proclaiming this resurrection – including abandoning the Sabbath and worshipping Jesus as God. (Don’t let the Old Testament give you the wrong idea; the post-exile Jews were very strongly monotheistic and shunned any form of idolatry – as Antichous Epiphanes learned.)

The Gospels explain all of this in a way that nothing else can.

Facts and Doubt
These are the facts. Yet some people still doubt. How can these be facts if people doubt them?

The truth is, facts are not always indisputable – even in science. I work in the medical field; I’ve learned that there is great variety in how diseases are treated, and it can all be backed up with some sort of data. The hard sciences are no better. General relativity is as well-attested as any theory out there, and still there are scientists who don’t believe it and are desperately trying to find another explanation for the data. That’s life.

I’m sure you believe in relativity. Millions of people believe in relativity, evolution, the existence of electrons, and more without examining any data at all – much less performing any experiments themselves. They believe what someone told them – someone who also never performed any experiments themselves.

Christianity is not like that. We don’t have fifth generation word of mouth. We have the records of people who either were eye witnesses or spoke to them. As evidence goes, that’s not bad.

I would love to have rock solid evidence that no one could deny, but that’s not what we’ve been given. However, we also have not been given myths made up around campfires by fishermen strung out on peyote. We’ve been given solid, sober account from trustworthy sources that have demonstrated the ability to transform those who trust them.

The Resurrection: A Story No One Would Make Up
What is Faith?

Brief bibliography:
Bruce, FF. The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament
Roberts, Mark D. Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ


Vinny said...

Papias doesn’t indicate that he ever saw either of the gospels he describes and does not quote from them. He heard about them from church elders. His description of Matthew indicates a document written in Hebrew that contained sayings of Jesus. Most scholars believe that Matthew was written in Greek. His description of Mark indicates that the author had not put Jesus’ teachings in any particular order. There is really nothing definitive to indicate whether the books he was describing are the same ones that now go by those names. As an aside, our only knowledge of what Papias had to say comes from Eusebius who considered Papias to be a man of “very limited understanding.”

Quotes from the Gospels appear in the writings of Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin Martyr among others in the second century. None of these authors attribute these writings to specific authors. We don’t know what specific reasons Irenaeus or the author of the Muratorion Canon had for attributing the gospels to the traditional authors. However, we do know what kinds of reasons Irenaeus found convincing when it came to the authority of these Gospels and these don’t inspire much confidence.

We might conclude that the brevity of discussion indicates that the matter of authorship was well accepted by 170-180 A.D. However, we could just as well conclude that the authorship was unknown from the failure of earlier writers to name the authors when they quoted the gospels. We can speculate all we like, but we can’t claim to have any evidence of authorship for approximately a century after the gospels were written.

The first attempt to define a canon of apostolic writings was undertaken sometime in the middle of the second century by Marcion who was considered a heretic. It is not unreasonable to conclude that names were attached to proto-orthodox writings in response to Marcion in order to bolster their authority. Papias’ writings would have made Mark and Matthes very logical candidates. Peter might have been a desirable name but there was already a gospel attributed to him that was considered heretical. Since there was a gospel being attributed to Judas, I can’t see how any other authors would be considered unworthy candidates.

Secular history tells us very little about the early Christians, their one-time timidity, the beliefs they preached, the beliefs they were willing to die for, or where those beliefs were proclaimed. The writings of the New Testament indicate that many of his followers did in fact cling to many practices of the Jewish law for some time.

With all due respect, what you have is faith, not facts.

ChrisB said...

Vinny, I hate to say it, but I'm not sure you have an argument so much as a conspiracy theory. You offer lots of could haves and such but no good reason to believe that the early church picked these four (especially the first three) names a hundred years after the fact.

The fragment we have of Papias doesn't quote the gospels, but he does not say he never saw them -- only that he prefers to hear about the words the apostles spoke rather than what they wrote.

As for Eusebius, he didn't like Papias' eschatology. That is such a hot topic in evangelical circles today. It's been a hot topic for a long time. And not everyone thinks Eusebius was right about everything. That's life.

The fact that the gnostics were willing to use Judas' name doesn't mean that the Christians would willingly use any name. Nor do I see any reason why they had to pick a name that hadn't been used. If you were going to just pick a name, I don't think you'd pick the tax collector or two guys who never met Christ (one of which abandoned Paul on the mission field).

I'm sorry I got my facts a little mixed regarding "history." Secular history records that the Christians worshipped Jesus as God and that they preached the resurrection starting in Jerusalem. The apostles dying for this belief is restricted to Christian historians. Sorry.

I'm aware of the Matthew-Hebrew thing; various theories have been offered. None are fool-proof. But we have to deal with the fact that an apostle's name was attached to this document long, long before modern people started questioning the authenticity. We often think that we, 1900 years later, know more than those silly peasants back then. We are often proved wrong.

If you haven't already, check out Roberts for a nice discussion on the internal and external evidence for the authorship of the gospels.

Vinny said...

In The Case for the Real Jesus, Craig Evans says “the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke circulated anonymously. Their authority and truth were apparent. Everyone knew this was what Jesus taught, so there wasn't much concern over who wrote it down.” Justin Martyr quotes them simply as the “memoirs of the apostles.”

I think the first question the historian would ask about Irenaeus statement is where he got his information. It either came out of his own head or he had a source. If he had a source, the historian would like to know what that source was in order to determine what the source for the source was. If he cannot trace the information reasonably close to the original event, the historian cannot consider it a historical fact. That does not prove the statement false or fabricated; it just makes it unverified by evidence.

Is it possible that Irenaeus simply invented those authors for the books? I don’t think we can definitively eliminate the possibility. We know that people did that kind of thing. We know that Irenaeus was opposed to Marcion and the books that he claimed as a canon. We know from his numerology argument that he was trying to establish that these four books were the only ones that Christians should look to for information about what Jesus said and did. That gave him a motive to attribute the books to apostolic sources. I agree that the choice of those particular names suggests that there was some tradition behind them, although he could simply have been clever enough to know that choosing less obvious authors would make his claim more believable.

If we proceed on the assumption that there was some tradition behind those names, we have to ask whether that tradition was founded on reliable sources. Unfortunately, we run into a brick wall. I think that it was common practice to attribute the letters of Paul, Ignatius, Clement, Polycarp, and others to their authors. The fact that the gospels were not so attributed prior to Irenaeus would lead me to believe that the tradition was particularly solid. Justin Martyr simply cites them as “memoirs of the apostles,” and most earlier writers don’t specifically identify these books as the source for their quotes. Papias may have seen the books he described, but he did not quote them or give us enough information to identify them as the same books that same books that Irenaeus was discussing. That leaves us very little information about when or how the authorship traditions originated.

One mistake I think evangelical Christians make in these situations is to limit the choices to true or false. For the historian, I think the choices are true, false, and unverified. I think the most likely explanation is that Irenaeus relied on some tradition, but since we cannot source the tradition, we have to consider his statement to be unverified.

BTW, I think Tacitus says that Christian beliefs originated in Judea. I don’t know that any secular source specifically identifies Jerusalem as the point of origination.

ChrisB said...


Your quote there is great for your argument that no one knew who wrote the gospels. It's not so great for the original argument that we have "no evidence." He's saying that the first recipients of the gospels (during the lifetime of witnesses) didn't worry about the names because they knew they were accurate.

Rather than debate the character of a man neither of us has ever met, let's go back to the other points I made. The writers of the Gospels demonstrate a commitment to the truth by what they include. The story they tell is the only good explanation for the facts we have.

The gospels are also not the only evidence in the NT (see link in original post).

Conspiracy theories aside, we have good reason to believe that Jesus died and rose again.

Vinny said...

Oops! That sentence in the fourth paragraph should have read:

The fact that the gospels were not so attributed prior to Irenaeus would lead me to believe that the tradition was not particularly solid.

ChrisB said...

I should have mentioned this in the main post. Mark Roberts' "guest" site is home to a pretty good series on the reliability of the gospels.

Vinny said...

The writers of the Gospels demonstrate a commitment to the truth by what they include. The story they tell is the only good explanation for the facts we have.

The trouble is that most of the "facts" we have come from the story they tell.

I took a look at Roberts' website. It is going to take me awhile to wade through all that material.

Vinny said...

I took a look at the article on Roberts' site about the literary devices Mark used to indicate that Peter was his eyewitness source. I am certainly not qualified to address the merits of Bauckham's arguments, but I have to say that the whole thing strikes me as extremely speculative. After all, Mark could have simply identified himself as the author and cited Peter as his source.

It reminds me of the time that I heard a minister on my car radio citing Roman 13:1-4 as New Testament support for the death penalty. He said "Paul couldn't be any more clear." When, I got home and read the passage for myself, I thought that if in fact it was Paul's intent to endorse the death penalty, he would have had a hard time being less clear.