Monday, January 20, 2014

The Tide of Scholarship favors Christ and the New Testament, but challenges historical Roman Catholic views

The charge has been made of me by a writer who goes by the handle “Cletus Van Damme”, that goes something like this (paraphrasing):

When liberal scholars suggest that the Resurrection didn’t happen or that the OT is not historically accurate, you dismiss them and their methodology. But when those same liberal methodologies help your case against Rome, then its jump onto the bandwagon. Hence your claim of “essentially by the same method of historical investigation” is disingenuous.

I have responded to it in this comment, and a slightly edited response appears below.

Certainly not every Biblical scholar is an inerrantist. However, that doesn’t prevent them from providing useful information. It is possible – and it happens – that even atheistic scholarship supports the biblical account. Not in total – but there is a convergence first of all around method (the historical-critical method or the grammatical-historical method), and also a convergence around the body of knowledge that is being accumulated.

I agree, we all begin working with our own presuppositions in place. But how much scrutiny can those presuppositions bear? Below, I provide examples below of how “critical scholarship” is agreeing to certain facts – it is the accumulation of those facts which lends credibility to, rather than undermines, the reliability of the New Testament Scriptures.

Conversely, “Mormonism” is brought up as having an authoritative, Roman-Catholic style of hermeneutic, but to presuppose Mormonism, one must also be prepared to deal with the historical Joseph Smith and all of his stories, which are shown to be concoctions.

I think the same thing is true with respect to Roman Catholicism. Again, a large number of studies is showing that the history of that period of the church in the first three centuries – these factual accounts do tend to undermine, rather than support, the reliability of Roman Catholic claims.

Here is one example of how continuing study is supporting conservative dating of the Gospels. There was a time when some writers placed the date of the Gospel of John around 150 ad. However, whatever the arguments were placing the date of that Gospel at that time, the dating on both sides became focused when portions of manuscripts from that Gospel were found, dating to the early 2nd century. And not only dating to the year 125, but in Alexandria, place that was far away from where the origin of the Gospel was thought to be (Ephesus). That kind of distance brought with it time needed to circulate. So as a result, that late dating was shown to be incorrect, and we see a “confluence of scholarship” confirming the conservative data.

Thus, as both relied on methods of finding and cataloging early manuscripts, there is a convergence of agreement that the Gospel of John was dated near the end of the first century.

I’ve cited Ehrman debating atheists, where Ehrman supports some of the historicity of biblical accounts of the Gospels (even though he denies the supernatural element.

Harvey Cox, who no conservative Christian would consider an ally, recently summarized the work of the Jesus Seminar: while setting out to disprove much about history, in the process they proved he was a first century Palestinian Jew who claimed to be God and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate; his disciples fanned out to the world with the story that he was raised from the dead. Cox said:

“Despite widespread discrepancies among the researchers, some things were not contested. All agreed that Jesus really had existed, and that he was a first-century Palestinian Jew living under the heel of a Roman occupation that – like many such occupations before and since – had split its captive people into feuding sects and warring factions. They also agreed that he was a rabbi who taught the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, and gained a following as a teacher and a healer in Galilee, especially among the landless and destitute, but that he aroused the ire of the nervous ruling religious circles and the tense Roman authorities. When he and some of his followers arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover holidays he caused a stir in the Temple, was arrested, interrogated, and executed by crucifixion, a form of death by torture reserved by the Romans for those suspected of subverting their imperial rule. But after his death, his followers insisted that he had appeared to them alive, and they continued to spread his message even in the face of harsh persecution.” (Harvey Cox, “When Jesus Came to Harvard,” ©2004, pgs 18-19).

That’s quite a movement by liberal scholarship in the direction of the conservative – especially given that some skeptics like Bertrand Russell not long ago were denying that Jesus ever lived.

Further to that, consider the work of Gary Habermas who is said to have “compiled a list of more than 3,400 sources in French, German, and English in which experts have written on the resurrection from 1975 to the present. He has identified minimal facts that are strongly evidenced and which are regarded as historical by a large majority of scholars, including skeptics.” These facts are:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion

2. Jesus’s disciples believed he rose and appeared to them

3. The conversion of Paul (from persecutor of the church to leading Apostle).

4. The conversion of James, the brother of the Lord (originally a severe skeptic)

5. The empty tomb.

Habermas (or someone at his site) said further:

“My bibliography is presently at about 3400 sources and counting, published originally in French, German, or English. Initially I read and catalogued the majority of these publications, charting the representative authors, positions, topics, and so on, concentrating on both well-known and obscure writers alike, across the entire skeptical to liberal to conservative spectrum. As the number of sources grew, I moved more broadly into this research, trying to keep up with the current state of resurrection research. He said this again at William Lane Craig’s “On Guard” conference, “1 Corinthians is one of six to eight books all accredited critical scholars accept. You can count the exception on two hands, probably one hand. I have 3400 sources in a bibliography from 1975 to the present (2012). When I say you can count the guys on one hand who disagree with this it is not very many. They believe Paul is the best source, and 1 Corinthians is one of the most dependable sources. They allow 1 Corinthians and Galatians. Both are on the accepted list. Bart Ehrman says they are the authentic Pauline epistle. So does most everybody else. Whatever you write, these two books are allowed [indicating Paul's genuine belief]. Paul is writing a mere [no more than] 25 years later. That is incredible. We have no other founder of a major world religion who has miracles reported of him within a generation.”

In the case of the Old Testament, there are a lot more positions than what you’ll find in NT Scholarship. But there are more variables to account for. More times and more places. That doesn’t preclude that there are individuals who support inerrancy of the OT, such as John Currid, who is [quoting Steve for the description here] “both an OT scholar and a field archeologist. He brings a different kind of expertise to the text of Genesis or Exodus. He has a doctorate from the world’s premier institution in the field of ANE studies. And that background is still very useful in dealing with the Pentateuchal literature.”

As for those who put up positions that differ from what I would accept, there is no “head-in-the-sand” response from me. It’s enough here to give one example, but the number of examples that I’ve could be seen many-fold.

Virtually all “New Testament scholars” believe 2 Peter to be both late and pseudonymous. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean there aren’t solid responses. Thomas Schreiner, who wrote a 2003 commentary on 1 and 2 Peter and Jude spent some 20 pages discussing the authorship of the letter – first he outlined and examined a number of reasons that most scholars cite when dating 2 Peter as late and pseudepigraphic. He works through these patiently before making his own case for the authentic authorship of Peter.

Habermas said, “At least when referencing the most important historical occurrences, I frequently think in terms of a ninety-something percentile head-count.” Where information is challenged, as in the case of the authorship of 2 Peter, there is serious engagement.

On the other hand, what you DO NOT FIND is a “ninety-something percentile headcount” among this same group who concur with Vatican I, for example, that “[Jesus]set blessed Peter over the rest of the apostles and instituted in him the permanent principle of both unities and their visible foundation”. No doubt Peter was important, but no way he was “set … over the rest”. As well, Rome once believed that Peter was “Bishop of Rome” for 25 years, but they no longer believe that. More likely you have a “ninety-something percentile headcount” that believes there was no one in charge of the network of churches at Rome until the late second century, and that claims of “Petrine succession” didn’t appear until after that time, and didn’t begin to “stick” until the late 4th century. And even then, those in the East never accepted those claims.

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