Monday, August 24, 2015

The Evans/Singer Debate On Jesus' Messiahship

Craig Evans (a New Testament scholar) and Tovia Singer (a rabbi) debated the topic "Is Jesus the Promised Jewish Messiah?" on November 8, 2014. I want to make several comments about Singer's portion of the debate. The time references in parentheses below are hour and minute markers taken from the video on the page linked above.

Neither participant made much of a case for his position. Both spent far too much time addressing irrelevant issues or ones that weren't of much significance to the debate (both men's comments on anti-Semitism, Singer's jokes, etc.). Evans didn't even come close to using all of his time in the second segment of the debate. But Singer's objections to Christianity included a lot of bad arguments, and I want to address some examples here. I don't know much about Singer and his material, though I've occasionally seen some of it in the past. If this debate is representative of his work as a whole, then Christians (and others) looking for the best Jewish responses to Christianity shouldn't spend much time on Singer.

He repeatedly claims that every church father was a "virulent anti-Semite" much worse than David Duke, that they "hated Jews", etc. (0:47) Later, he again uses the terms "all" and "every one" in describing how many of the church fathers he's referring to (1:28). As far as I remember, he never says that his references to anti-Semitism aren't about racism. The term seems to most naturally imply racism, and it seems to normally be used that way, so Singer apparently is implying that racism is involved. Using terms like "virulent anti-Semites" and "hated Jews" and claiming that the fathers were much worse than David Duke make it sound like more than opposition to Judaism was involved. Singer seems to be saying that every church father was anti-Semitic in the sense of being a racist.

The patristic and other scholars I've read on this subject present a picture much different than Singer's. They're much less critical of the fathers, and they refer to a variety of views that the fathers held rather than one view held by all of them (e.g., John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], 193-6). If you haven't read any of the fathers in their entirety, go read some of them. Start with, say, Clement of Rome and Polycarp. Ask yourself what anti-Semitism you see in their writings. There isn't any. For some of the fathers, only one or some other low number of small fragments of their writings is extant (Papias, Quadratus, Dionysius of Corinth, etc.). Are we to believe that every one of them expresses anti-Semitism in those fragments? I'd like to see an argument to that effect. Some of the fathers never address the Jewish race as a whole, much less do they make any racist comments about Jews. Many of them wrote against Judaism, sometimes condemning the religion and its adherents in strong terms, but that's not anti-Semitism. Being opposed to Judaism, even opposed to a high degree or in irrational or misinformed ways, for example, isn't equivalent to anti-Semitism. Many modern Christians are deeply opposed to Islam, and sometimes Christians are irrational or misinformed in their opposition to the religion and/or its adherents. It doesn't follow that those Christians are racists, "hate Muslims", or are some sort of equivalent of being much worse than David Duke. Singer's characterization of the church fathers is extraordinarily misleading.

If he wants to claim that he didn't have racism in mind, then why did he use language that seems to imply racism? What non-racist concept did he have in mind, and what significance does it have? And where's his evidence that every father was an anti-Semite in that non-racist sense? When similar comments about Judaism and its adherents and other religions and their adherents can be found in the Old Testament, other ancient Jewish sources, and modern Jewish ones, does Singer conclude that those individuals are much worse than David Duke?

Singer affirms a traditional, conservative view of the authorship and dating of Isaiah and Daniel, but he raises typical liberal doubts about New Testament documents. He makes references to the alleged anonymity of the gospels, such as by referring to how there's nothing in Matthew like an ending saying "yours truly, Matthew" (1:14). Later, he tells us that we "don't know anything" about the author of Matthew other than that he was a highly literate Christian who knew Greek (1:21). He makes some dismissive comments about the testimony of Papias and Irenaeus concerning gospel authorship, but ignores the large majority of the evidence. For a response to positions like Singer's on gospel authorship, see here.

According to Singer, Paul has "no idea" about the virgin birth (1:19). He also raises the issue of how Jesus could be a descendant of David if a virgin birth occurred. I addressed those subjects in a review of a book by Andrew Lincoln a couple of years ago. On Paul and the virgin birth, see parts 3 and 6 on the page just linked. For a discussion of Davidic descent, see part 2.

Singer acknowledges that Jewish genealogies would sometimes leave out generations (1:21), but he refers to how the small number of generations in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus is an "absolute impossibility" (1:23). Why would it be impossible, if genealogies sometimes weren't intended to be exhaustive? If Singer is suggesting that Matthew's counting of groups of fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17) assumes exhaustiveness, why should we think Singer's suggestion is correct? Matthew and his initial audience (largely Jewish) would have had access to the Old Testament, as we do. It would be absurd to argue that Matthew's audience would have been dependent on Matthew for their knowledge of what the Old Testament said, that they would have uncritically accepted whatever he claimed, or that he would have thought that he could keep his initial audience and later readers convinced that his non-exhaustive genealogy was exhaustive. His genealogy is deliberately and obviously shorter than what's found in the Old Testament. The "all" in Matthew 1:17 is defined by its surrounding context, namely all the people Matthew included in his genealogy based on whatever criterion of inclusion he had in mind. The "all" is relative to the context, not absolute. The evidential value of Matthew's criterion of inclusion can't be determined, since we don't know what the criterion was. Even if the criterion has no evidential value, if it was an arrangement Matthew put together to arrive at groups of fourteen for the purposes of gematria, for instance, so what? His purpose may have been didactic or artistic, for example, rather than evidential. If Singer is assuming that Matthew's intention was to provide evidence for Christianity, then Singer needs to demonstrate that his assumption is correct. Concerning how Matthew arrives at his grouping of fourteen generations, see here.

We're told that Matthew's citation of Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2 together in Matthew 2:6 is "a deliberate attempt to change the Jewish scriptures" (1:25). I would repeat what I said above about Matthew's genealogy. What Singer is suggesting about Matthew's deceptiveness and the gullibility of the early Christians is ridiculous. What Matthew is doing is a common ancient practice of combining sources, and it's not deceptive. As Joel Marcus notes of a similar combining of sources in Mark's gospel, "Such conflation of OT texts is familiar from postbiblical Judaism, especially from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is common in Mark…and elsewhere in the New Testament" (Mark 1-8 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005], 147). If Matthew was being deceptive, what would he have had to gain by engaging in such a deception? Singer suggests that Matthew didn't want his readers to know about what Micah 5 goes on to say. But, if that were the case, Matthew could have quoted nothing more than the first part of the passage or have not quoted any of it. There wasn't any need to add 2 Samuel 5. Why would Matthew prefer an easily-exposed deception, while writing to an audience highly familiar with the Old Testament and highly motivated to read it for themselves, when he instead could so easily have just left out the portion of Micah 5 in question? Singer's explanation doesn't make sense.

At various points in the debate, Singer argues that Isaiah's Suffering Servant prophecy is about the nation of Israel, not an individual. As far as I recall, he never interacted with Evans' citation of evidence to the contrary in Isaiah 53:8. And Singer seems to be assuming that the alignment of Jesus' life with the passage would be evidence for Christianity only if the passage in its original context is about an individual rather than the nation. But even if Jesus' fulfillment of the passage is typological, the naturalistic odds against even a typological fulfillment are high. So, Singer's argument, if true, only diminishes, but doesn't even come close to eliminating, the evidential value of the Suffering Servant prophecy for Christianity. For a discussion of the evidence that Isaiah is referring to an individual, not the nation, as well as a discussion of the passage's evidential force even if Jesus only fulfilled it typologically, see here.

Near the end of the debate, Singer asks why God has preserved non-Christian Jews in an ongoing succession down through history, but hasn't preserved Christian Jews in that manner (1:29). He points out that Jewish converts to Christianity come from families with parents, grandparents, etc. who weren't Christians. But why assume that there would have to be a preservation of believing Jews in the manner Singer describes, with unbroken family lines? Some of the descendants of David in the line of kings were unbelievers, as were many other Jews during the Biblical era. And how would Singer know that every Jew in a family line, such as his own, was a believer? There surely were many unbelieving Jews in post-Biblical generations prior to ours, just as there were in Biblical times and are today. Singer's view of the history of the Jewish people involves different phases in which God accomplished his purposes by different means (patriarchs, judges, the Babylonian exile, the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, Jewish loss of their nation and dispersion among the Gentiles, etc.). Christians maintain that Jewish believers are part of the church with Gentiles and aren't under any obligation to have an unbroken line of believers in their family history. If the church has always included some Jews, regardless of whether they had an unbroken succession of believing ancestors within each of their family lines, why isn't that enough? Singer didn't provide any evidence that more would be needed. He cites verses 7, 9, and 12 of Deuteronomy 7, but none of those passages require the sort of succession he refers to, and an appeal to that type of succession has problems like the ones I've mentioned above.

A lot of the most significant evidence for Jesus' Messiahship didn't even come up in the debate. For example, there was no discussion of the evidence that Jesus was a descendant of David (see here and here), how well his life aligns with Daniel's seventy weeks prophecy, or the evidence for his resurrection and other miracles.


  1. I just watched a video here of Singer addressing Jesus mythicism (the view that Jesus didn't exist). Singer affirms Jesus' existence, but the number of false claims and bad arguments he uses in the process is astonishing. He refers to how there aren't any contemporary references to Jesus in ancient sources (something also true of Gamaliel, John the Baptist, and other highly influential Jewish religious leaders at the time), suggests that "newspapers" should have referred to an event like the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:52-3 (as if something like a database of ancient newspapers is extant), etc. He claims that even non-Christian New Testament scholars have a bias that makes them want to believe that Jesus existed, since, if he didn't exist, their "life has been a waste". He doesn't address the other motives non-Christian scholars would have for wanting to deny Jesus' existence. It's not as though their motives in the one context Singer discusses are the only motives involved. He doesn't explain how Jesus' non-historicity would make these scholars' lives as a whole "a waste". He doesn't address the fact that New Testament research involves John the Baptist, Paul, and other historical figures, even if Jesus didn't exist. And what about scholars of other segments of ancient history (not just New Testament history), scholars of ancient Judaism, and other relevant scholars outside of New Testament scholarship who also affirm Jesus' existence? Singer's dismissal of New Testament scholarship is unreasonable, and he ignores other relevant scholarship.

    He makes a lot of false claims about Jesus' childhood, such as that only Matthew and Luke refer to the Bethlehem birthplace, that Mark doesn't think there was anything unusual about Jesus' birth, and that Luke refers to a requirement that every census participant return to an ancestral home. For a refutation of such claims, see here and here. On the notion that Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives are as different as Singer suggests, go here. For a collection of resources on a broader range of issues related to Jesus' childhood, see here.

  2. Thanks for this review and analysis, Jason! :-)

  3. On a recent radio program, Michael Brown responded to some of Tovia Singer's claims and discussed his experiences with Singer. He explains that though he debated Singer in the 1990s, Singer has refused to debate him since then. Listen to the first several minutes of the program here.