Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Who Wrote the Bible?"

I’m continuing my review of Bart Erhman’s new book, Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne 2009). In chapter 4 he has a skeptical discussion regarding the authorship of Scripture. Here are the highlights–or lowlights.

“But the reality is that eyewitnesses cannot be trusted to give historically accurate accounts. They never could be trusted and can’t be trusted still” (103).

i) If true, then that would be most unfortunate for Bart Ehrman since he likes to regale his readers with stories about his student days at Moody, Wheaton, and Princeton. But by his own disclaimer, Ehrman can’t be trusted to furnish accurate accounts of his personal experience at those institutions.

ii) Another casualty of this statement is the way it disarms him from attacking the Bible by opposing biblical accounts to extrabiblical accounts. For example, he assures the reader that the census of Quirinius (in Luke) is inaccurate because it (allegedly) contradicts our extrabiblical sources of information. But, of course, he must rely on the testimonial evidence of period historians (e.g. Tacitus, Josephus) to make that comparison. Yet if testimonial evidence is unreliable, then he loses his standard of comparison.

A lot of the time, Ehrman comes across as someone who’s not terribly bright.

“A further reality is that all the Gospels were written anonymously, and none of the writers claims to be an eyewitness” (103).

i) That’s an assertion, not an argument. And it disregards evidence to the contrary. Cf. R. Bauckham, Jesus And the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006).

In case you don’t own it, here are two reviews:

ii) But suppose that every book of the NT was loaded with explicit, eyewitness descriptions of Jesus’ teaching and deeds. How would Ehrman respond to that? Wouldn’t he dismiss all such claims as pseudepigraphical? For somebody like Ehrman, the presence or absence of an eyewitness claim is just a diversionary tactic.

If the author of a NT document doesn’t lay claim to eyewitness testimony, then Ehrman will dismiss its historicity since the author lacks firsthand information–but if the author of a NT document does lay claim to eyewitness testimony, then Ehrman will dismiss its historicity since the author must be a forger. Heads I win, tails you lose!

“Names are attached to the titles of the Gospels (‘the Gospel according to Matthew’), but these titles are later additions to the Gospels, provided by editors and scribes to inform readers who the editors thought were the authorities behind the different versions” (103).

i) That’s an odd statement coming from a textual critic. To my knowledge, there’s no textual evidence that the Gospels ever circulated anonymously.

ii) Actually, I think readers would naturally be curious to know who the author was.

iii) But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the first gospel originally circulated anonymously. And let’s assume Markan priority. Once more than was Gospel was in circulation, it would then be necessary to add titles to distinguish them. Yet even by Ehrman’s liberal dating scheme, all for Gospels were written in the 1C. So even if titles were added to the gospels at a later date, that could well be within the lifetime of the Gospel writers.

Indeed, if Mark was already in circulation when Matthew, Mark, and John published their respective Gospels, then wouldn’t we expect them to entitle their own Gospels, to distinguish one from the other?

iv) Incidentally, Martin Hegel has discussed the originality of the superscriptions in his book The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Trinity 2000), 48-56, 78-106.

As usual, Ehrman disregards any counterevidence that’s inconvenient for his own theory.

“Authors never title their books ‘according to’” (104).

i) Is that a fact? Let’s put this claim to a little test, shall we? I did a quick search of Here’s what I pulled up:

Books › "according to"

Showing 1 - 12 of 12,264 Results

ii) In chapter 6 of his book, Ehrman mentions some apocryphal gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, and Gospel of the Ebionites. But to judge by his statement on p104, he must think that all these apocryphal gospels originally circulated anonymously. Or does that only apply to canonical gospels, and not apocryphal gospels? If so, then why so?

“Moreover, Matthew’s Gospel is written completely in the third person” (104).

i) To my knowledge, there’s nothing unusual about an ancient author using the third-person to narrate events which he himself observed.

ii) If Matthew were written in the first-person, don’t you suppose Ehrman would be quick to dismiss that fact as a pseudonymic pose?

iii) A writer may also employ the same narrative viewpoint, whether first-person or third-person, for stylistic uniformity, rather than oscillating between one and the other.

“With John it is even more clear…Note how the author differentiates between his source of information…and himself [21:24]…”He/we: this author is not the discipline. He claims to have gotten some of his information from the disciple” (104).

Several problems:

i) Even if we deny the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel, it could still be the work of an eyewitness. Ehrman is committing a non sequitur. You don’t need to be the apostle John to be an eyewitness. And the Fourth Gospels contains some explicit eyewitness statements at strategic turning-points in the narrative.

ii) Even if we treat Jn 21 as an editorial postscript, that doesn’t mean someone other than John wrote the first 20 chapters. More likely, this would be a posthumous obituary or eulogy (like Deut 34)–occasioned by the death of John.

iii) However, there’s no particular reason to treat Jn 21 as an editorial postscript. On the basis of period literary usage, Köstenberger shows how the third-person usage in 21:24 is probably a self-referential literary convention, and not an editorial addition. Cf. A. Köstenberger, “I Suppose” (oιμαι): The Conclusion of John’s Gospel in Its Literary and Historical Context,” P. Williams et al eds. The New Testament in its First Century Setting (Eerdmans 2004), 72-88.

As usual, Ehrman ignores counterevidence that’s inconvenient for his position.

“How many could read? Illiteracy was widespread throughout the Roman Empire…Nothing in the Gospels or Acts indicates that Jesus’ followers could read, let alone write. In fact there is an account in Acts in which Peter and John are said to be ‘unlettered’ (Acts 4:13)–the ancient word for illiterate. As Galilean Jews, Jesus’ followers, like Jesus himself, would have been speakers of Aramaic. As rural folk they probably would not have any knowledge of Greek; if they did, it would have been extremely rough, since they spent their time with other illiterate Aramaic-speaking peasants trying to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence,” 105-06.

There’s so much wrong with this depiction that it’s hard to know where to begin:

i) For the sake of argument, let’s grant all of his faulty assumptions. Suppose the disciples were illiterate. So what? You don’t have to be a literate to be an eyewitness. You don’t have to be literate to remember what an eyewitness told you. And you don’t have to be literate to dictate a book.

An illiterate writer might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s not. Even ancient authors who knew how to write often found it more convenient to dictate their material to a scribe.

ii) Ehrman is willfully blurring the distinction between Jesus’ disciples and NT writers. Take the Gospels.

a) There’s no evidence that Matthew was an Aramaic-speaking peasant. Given his occupation as a tax-collector, we’d expect him to be a bilingual urbanite. After all, he had to work with the Roman authorities on a regular basis.

b) Mark was not an Aramaic-speaking peasant. He was an urbanite (Acts 12:12). Probably bilingual. Since his mother hosted a house-church, he wasn’t a slaveboy. He came from a family of some means. As one scholar explains, “The description in Acts 12[:12] suggests a large house with a gateway (πυλον) which acts as a buffer between the inner courtyard and the rooms and the street,” B. Blue, “Acts and the House Church,” D. Gill & C. Gempf, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting (Eerdmans 1994), 135

c) Luke was not an Aramaic-speaking peasant. He was a Gentile, Probably a proselyte. As a physician, he was a well-educated man.

d) What about John? John wasn’t merely an Aramaic-speaking peasant, out in the sticks. He evidently maintained a residence in Jerusalem (Jn 19:27). And the über-liberal Bishop Robinson has made some of the following observations:

“Moreover the Zebedees were evidently not poor. Salome, if she was his wife, was among the women of Galilee who contributed to the support of Jesus (Mk 15:40f.) out of their resources (Lk 8:2f.). They owned their own boats (Lk 5:3), and employed servants (Mk 1:20)…Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was good business…Galilee supplied the whole of Palestine except the coast, as it does today,” J. Robinson, The Priority of John (Meyer-Stone 1987), 116.

Robinson also marshals various lines of evidence to show that John was a kinsman of the high priest. Ibid. 63ff.; 121f. He’s not a country bumpkins.

As usual, Ehrman ignores counterevidence that’s inconvenient for his position.

iii) As another scholar points out, ”The impressive discoveries in Galilee in general and in Sapphoris in particular have forced New Testament interpreters to reevaluate several things. For one, it is no longer tenable to think of Jesus as having grown up in rustic isolation–as was fashionable to think for so long. Jesus grew up in a village within reasonable walking distance from a large urban center…Furthermore, the great number of Greek inscriptions as well as Greek literary finds in the Dead Sea region has led many scholars to conclude that Greek was spoken by many Jews in Galilee,” C. Evans, Fabricating Jesus (IVP 2006), 113-14.

As usual, Ehrman ignores counterevidence that’s inconvenient for his position.

iv) Speaking of which, he also disregards the pioneering research of Alan Millard on Jewish literacy in Herodian Palestine:

Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (NUY 2000).

“Zechariah Wrote (Luke 1:63)” P. Williams et al eds. The New Testament in its First Century Setting (Eerdmans 2004), 47-55.

As usual, Ehrman ignores counterevidence which is inconvenient for his position.

iii) As for Acts 4:13, “It refers to one who is ‘without letters’–unschooled or lacking formal education (BDAG 15). It need not mean ‘unable to read’ but simply that the person lacks a certain level of skills. Kraus (1999) has a careful study of both terms [agrammatoi…idiotai] in this phrase. In this context, it is religious instruction that is primarily meant,” D. Bock, Acts (Baker 2007), 195.

As usual, Ehrman ignores counterevidence that’s inconvenient for his position.

“As I’ve indicated, only about 10 percent of the people in the Roman Empire, at best, could read, even fewer could write out sentences, far fewer still could actually compose narratives on a rudimentary level, and very few indeed could compose extended literary works like the Gospels. To be sure, the Gospels are not the most refined books to appear in the empire–far from it. Still they are coherent narratives written by highly trained authors who knew how to construct a story and carry out their literary aims with finesse” (106).

Several problems:

i) One doesn’t need any formal education whatsoever to tell a good story. Appalachian hillbillies can be spellbinding storytellers. That’s more a matter of natural talent, fostered by an oral culture. Not book larnin’ required!

ii) Moreover, the Gospel writers aren’t “constructing stories” from scratch, like a novelist. Rather, they’re selecting and arranging major events in the life of Christ. Even if they were illiterate, it would be like oral history: dictating your life to a stenographer.

iii) The Gospels also reflect what we’d expect from the varied educational levels of their respective authors. For example, Luke has more literary finesse than Matthew, Mark, or John. And that’s hardly surprising since he was, in all likelihood, better educated than the rest.

John is very subtle and sophisticated, but not the least bit academic in tone. He uses simple diction, simple syntax, simple metaphors. Quite different from Paul, or the author of Hebrews.

iv) Fact is–in times where access to higher education was limited, you had a lot of very smart people around little or no formal education. I had a grandmother who, after a game of bridge, would phone a friend the next day and proceed to recount every card that was played. She was a small-town housewife. Her husband had a friend who, when he had to wait at a RR crossing for the train to pass, would later tell the passenger what was in every boxcar. He had total recall of the code numbers on the side of the boxcars, and what they stood for. I had an aunt with a natural knack for foreign languages. For example, she could master the African click languages–which is the despair of many a linguist. She happened to be a highly educated woman, but had she been born a century earlier, or born into an Indian lower caste, or into a strict Muslim culture, that that ability would never have been cultivated.

Back then you had men and women with extraordinary abilities who, due to limited opportunities, led very ordinary lives.

v) Then there’s a little thing called inspiration. God can empower quite ordinary men to do quite extraordinary things. Martyn Lloyd-Jones mentions one such case:

“One night Humphrey Jones was speaking with exceptional power and David Morgan was profoundly affected. He said later, ‘I went to be that night just David Morgan as usual. I woke up the next morning feeling like a lion, feeling that I was filled with the power of the Holy Ghost.’ At that time had had been a minister for a number of years. He was always a good man, not outstanding–in fact just an ordinary preacher. Nothing much happened as the result of his preaching. But he woke up that next morning feeling like a lion, and began to preach with such power that people were converted in large numbers followed by rejoicing; and additions to the churches followed. This went on for over two years; wherever this man went tremendous results took place…Such was the type of ministry exercised by David Morgan for about two years. What was the end of his story? Years later he said, ‘I went to be one night still feeling like a lion, filled with this strange power that I had enjoyed for the two years. I woke up the next morning and found that I had become David Morgan once more.’ He lived for about fifteen years afterwards during which he exercised a most ordinary ministry,” Preaching & Preachers (Zondervan 1972), 322-23.

God can do remarkable things with unremarkable vessels.

“Whoever these authors were, they were unusually gifted Christians of a later generation. Scholars debate where they lived and worked, but their ignorance of Palestinian geography and Jewish customs suggests they composed their works somewhere else in the empire…” (106).

This is just a bare assertion. Major commentaries on the four gospels by scholars like Blomberg, Bock, France, Keener, Nolland, and Stein refute these facile accusations.

Ehrman denies the Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians because its eschatology allegedly contradicts the eschatology of 1 Thessalonians:

“Paul goes on to reiterate what he had told them when he was among them (1 Thes 5:1-2), that Jesus’ coming would be sudden and unexpected, ‘like a thief in the night’ (1 Thes 5:2). It would bring ‘sudden destruction’ (1 Thes 5:3), and so the Thessalonians had to be constantly prepared so that it would not overtake them unexpected. If Paul mean what he said in 1 Thessalonians, that Jesus’ return would be sudden and unexpected, it is hard to believe that he could have written what is said in 2 Thessalonians–that the end is not coming right away and that there will be clear-cut signs to indicate that the end is near, signs that have not yet appear” (125).

There are several problems with this objection:

i) Even if there were an apparent tension between the eschatology of 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians, that would be a very poor reason to deny common authorship–due to the obvious fact that Paul is simply reproducing a parallel tension which we already find in the Gospels. So that alone would be sufficient to sink his objection, even if we couldn’t resolve the apparent tension–assuming such a tension even exists.

ii) One is also struck by Ehrman’s illiteracy and illogicality. To say that when Jesus comes, he will subdue his enemies in short-order, doesn’t mean that he is coming right away. These are two very different concepts.

For example, one country might decide to attack another country. Yet it might take a long time to come to that decision. Moreover, having come to that decision, it might take a long time to make preparations for the attack. It takes a certain amount of time to mobilize the troops, and a certain amount of time to march them over hundreds of miles of terrain.

However, once it made a decision, and once the troops were in place, it might attack the other country with overwhelming force, resulting in rapid conquest.

Of course, it doesn’t take God any time to actually plan, prepare, or execute his end-time designs, but Biblical eschatology uses ancient military metaphors to illustrate the event.

The wording which Ehrman is quoting has obvious reference, not to the amount of time it will take for Christ to return, but the amount of time it will take Christ to subdue his enemies once he returns. As I say, these are two very different things. It’s hard to confuse them. It may be a long time before he comes, but when finally arrives, he will make short work of his adversaries.

iii) Is there a fundamental tension between the unpredictability of Parousia, and the signs of the Parousia? No.

a) To begin with, signs are only signs for those who expect them. For those who are watching for signs. Unbelievers are caught off guard because they were never looking for signs of the Parousia. And that’s because they don’t believe in the Second Coming of Christ. They don’t see it coming because they don’t think it’s coming. They think that’s just so much mythology.

b) Military planners draw a distinction between tactical surprise and strategic surprise. In ancient warfare, it was difficult to preserve an element of strategic surprise. If you saw vast armies massing on your border, that was a prelude to invasion. It wasn’t possible to conceal huge troop movements. You could see the enemy coming from a distance.

Yet it was possible to preserve an element of tactical surprise. Even though you had to reason to believe an invasion was inevitable, you didn’t know exactly when the invasion force was going to strike. The signs of strategic intent were clear enough even though signs of tactical intent were unclear.

c) Apropos (b), Christians who understand their Bible can’t be taken by strategic surprise. Sooner or later, they know the Lord is coming. That isn’t going to come as a surprise.

But they can be taken by tactical surprise. Even though they know that Christ is coming back, they don’t know when he’s coming back. Although the return of Christ is a general expectation, they don’t expect it to happen on any particular day since–for all we know–it might happen the day before, or the day after. The element of surprise lies not in whether he’s returning, but when.

d) Mind you, Christians with a flawed eschatology can be self-deluded. Because they misinterpret Scripture, they nurse false expectations. We see this happen, on and off, throughout church history.

e) The signs are somewhat ambiguous. And that’s because you can’t tell, from the early stages of the process, whether or not this signals the return of Christ. It’s only towards the end-stage of the process that the outcome is unmistakable and irreversible.

For example, somebody might seem like a good candidate for the Antichrist. But you can’t tell, at that inaugural stage, whether he’s the genuine article.

e) This brings us to the final point. God doesn’t intend to tip his hand. The point is to keep Christians vigilant. Unmistakable signs would be self-defeating.

Ehrman then regurgitates the standard liberal tropes about the pseudonymous authorship of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals. Here I’ll make a few brief points:

i) One doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to defend the Pauline authorship of these epistles. G. B. Caird was a learned liberal who upheld the Pauline authorship of Ephesians. Luke Timothy Johnson is a learned liberal who upholds the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals.

ii) In his massive commentary on Ephesians, Harold Hoehner wrote a well-night exhaustive defense of Pauline authorship (pp2-61). How does Ehrman interact with Hoehner’s material? He doesn’t. And that’s completely typical of Ehrman. In this book, he doesn’t interact with any of the counterarguments, whether it’s a liberal scholar or conservative scholar who’s defending Pauline authorship.

iii) Using one set of Pauline letters to question the authenticity of other Pauline letters is a somewhat self-defeating exercise. For the less material you regard as Pauline, the less material you have to furnish a standard of comparison. How can you compare and contrast the authentic Pauline letters with the spurious Pauline letters when, by that very process, the standard of comparison continues to shrink? It’s like trying to take a measurement with a ruler that keeps shrinking. How can you measure anything when one end of the ruler is constantly shrinking in the very process of measurement?

“The author of 1 John doesn’t’ say anything about himself. The author could be almost any leader of the church near the end of the first century” (134).

i) This is patently false. The author explicitly identifies himself as an eyewitness to the historical Christ (1 Jn 1:1ff.).

ii) Moreover, based on style and content, 1 John clearly shares common authorship with the Gospel of John.

“What is certain is that whoever wrote 2 Peter did not also write 1 Peter: the writing styles are vastly different” (135).

But there’s a basic problem with this stylistic comparison. As one scholar points out, “Of interest here is the fact that preformed material makes up at least one-third of II Peter and that other verses, although less easy to identify as such, may also represent traditional idiom (e.g. II Pet 1:2,5b-7; 3:18). That is, like other New Testament letters II Peter, although a carefully formed unity, is composed to a considerable extent from preformed materials that are somewhat reworked to for the purpose of the author,” E. Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents (Brill 2002), 133.

But in that event, we wouldn’t expect 2 Peter to be written in a Petrine style–whatever that is. Rather, 2 Peter would reflect the style of the secondary source material which Peter incorporated into his letter.

As usual, Ehrman disregards evidence that’s inconvenient for his position.

“But again, how likely is it that a simple fisherman from rural Galilee suddenly developed skills in Greek literary composition?” (135).

Aside from the straw man depiction of Peter’s background, this is one of those vague, impressionistic objections that fails to actually engage in the spadework of a detailed, comparative analysis. By contrast, let’s consider some of what a real scholar has said on the subject:

“At the level of syntax, the Greek of 1 Peter arguably exhibits bilingual interference that is consistent with a Semitic author for whom Greek is a second language (see the excursus at the end of the book). This is perhaps the most telling feature of the Greek of 1 Peter, for a letter’s syntax flows almost subconsciously from an author’s proficiency with the language, unlike the deliberate structure, content, and ornamentation of a discourse…A comparison of 1 Peter with Josephus and Polybius clearly shows that its syntax is not nearly as ‘good’ as the classical writer Polybius, or even as good as the Palestinian Jewish writer Josephus, if ‘good’ is defined as the Greek style and syntax of a native proficient writer. Syntax criticism (see excursus) shows that the author of 1 Peter had not attained the same mastery of Greek that Josephus had in at least four areas…Since Semitic languages were limited to Palestine and adjoining areas in the first century, the author of 1 Peter was probably not a Greek or Latin-speaking Roman or a Christian elder in Asia Minor, as has sometimes been proposed,” K. Jobes, 1 Peter (Baker 2005), 7-8.

Like many men and women with Ivy League degrees, it takes a lot of formal education to be as ignorant as Ehrman.

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