Sunday, May 28, 2006


Jason Engwer has responded to Dagood’s latest exercise in ankle-biting.

Jason’s reply is characterized by his typical care and common sense. I’ll throw in a few comments of my own.

1.Dagood has no positive agenda. He’s on a search and destroy mission. His only objective is to foster as much doubt by any way he can.

This is true of the debunkers generally, as well as the Jesus Seminar and members of the Secular Web.

These people are prepared to destroy historical knowledge in general in order to destroy the historicity of Scripture in particular.

2.This stands in stark contrast to the methods of a historian, who is trying to reconstruct the past by sifting and piecing together the available evidence.

There are multiple lines of evidence for the OT text, the NT text, the OT canon, and the NT canon. To some extent, these lines of evidence also intersect.

3.One line of evidence for the NT canon is patristic. Now, these are some of the considerations that a serious historian would bring to bear:

i) An early witness may be a reliable witness for the simple fact that he’s an early witness. He is closer in time and place to the events.

He doesn’t have to be especially bright or well-educated. He has only to be near enough in time and place to be in a position to know what he’s talking about. He also needs to be a man of good character.

Examples would include Justin, Polycarp, Papias, Ignatius, and Clement of Rome.

ii) Then you have later witnesses. They may seem to be at a disadvantage since they are further removed from the events.

Yet this disadvantage may be offset by compensatory advantages. They may be well-educated and well-connected.

As such, they may enjoy a knowledge of the relevant facts than someone who is closer to the events, but whose experience is geographically confined.

They may also have greater critical discernment than an earlier witness.

Examples would include Origen, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, and Eusebius.

ii) In addition to individuals you also have local and regional churches. Now surprisingly, this results in some early variations between one regional canon and another.

The apostles and their deputies ministered in different regions. Some were better traveled than others. Likewise, different NT writings were originally addressed to different churches or patrons.

Likewise, some regions were better connected than others, depending on their strategic importance in the far-flung Roman Empire.

We’re talking about witnesses from such disparate localities as Rome, Corinth, Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria, Sardis, Smyrna, Hierapolis, Lyons, and so on.

As a result, one individual or regional church may be very expert on one subset of NT writings, but fairly inexpert on another.

What is surprising is not that we have these short-lived local variations. That’s to be expected.

What’s striking is how quickly it took the NT canon to coalesce.

iii) Very few NT books were ever in dispute, and very few apocryphal books were ever in play.

No apocryphal book ever enjoyed a geographically diverse sponsorship. Rather, it might enjoy individual or regional acceptance or apparent acceptance for two or three of reasons:

a) The general philosophy of a church father might color his theory of inspiration. A Platonist like Origen or Clement of Alexander had a looser view of inspiration. Hence, his canon might have a fuzzy circumference although the center was firm and fixed.

b) Some books were accepted by an individual or local church because the unsuspecting witness was naïve enough to take the pseudonymous ascription at face value.

c) The Christian faith was always an apologetic faith, and there’s a measure of audience adaptation as a church father addressed a pagan opponent on his own level.

iv) Finally, there’s one respect in which a modern church historian has an edge over the church fathers.

A modern historian frequently has a much firmer grasp of relative chronology. His historical distance is to his advantage insofar as he knows everything that came before. He is limited to what has survived, but of what has survived he has lines of evidence from every time and place.

v) There are also little quirks and eccentricities that creep into any historical record or historical process.

a) For example, the Muratorian Canon is either a Latin translation of a Greek autographon or at the very least a barely literate copy of a Latin autographon. Moreover, our extant copy is incomplete.

So some of the omissions may be due to scribal indolence or the mutilated state of the extant copy.

b) Likewise, Marcion’s canon is a deliberately idiosyncratic and reactionary canon which clearly takes its point of departure from a preexisting canon in general circulation, and tries to challenge the status quo.

Now, a serious historian would make allowances for all these variables, and thereby make suitable adjustments to evaluate and correlate the comparative data. And that’s because a real historian takes the possibility of historical knowledge seriously.

He’s not attempting to foster an artificial state of doubt, but to properly interrelate and coordinate the surviving evidence in place and time.

4.Another line of evidence comes from lower criticism. What we have are not, for the most part, copes of individual books of the NT. Rather, we have copies of the canon as a whole or subsets of the canon.

The fact that our MSS consist of sets or subsets of books means the copies were copied from a preexisting collection in general circulation.

The same holds true for the OT.

So that’s another witness to the canon of Scripture. I’ve already touched on this line of evidence when I summarized the evidence presented by David Trobisch.

5. (3)-(4) represent external lines of evidence. But there are also internal lines of evidence. The Bible is not a random anthology.

Rather, it’s a compilation of books which subdivides into certain smaller blocks or units of interrelated material, which often overlap in various respects.

The Pauline correspondence goes together as one literary unit.

Should we group Luke with the four gospels, or with the Book of Acts? Either grouping would be logical.

Should we group 1-3 John with the other NT epistles, or with the other Johannine writings? Either grouping would be logical.

Should we group the Psalms of David with the rest of the Psalter, or with the life of David in 1-2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles? Either grouping would be logical.

The books of the Bible parallels each other in various ways, so there are different ways of pairing off one book with another. I’ve discussed this elsewhere:

6.Apostolicity was a criterion of canonicity for the early church. But there are some conspicuous exceptions: Mark, Luke, Hebrews, James, and Jude.

How do we account for these exceptions?

In the case of James and Jude, the answer is obvious. These were members of the dominical family. As half-brothers of Christ they were obviously well-informed witnesses with respect to the historical Jesus.

Mark was a resident of Jerusalem whose home became an early house-church (Acts 12:12). Indeed, it was probably the site of the Last Supper (Mk 14:14; Acts 1:13-14). As such, it was the First Church of Jerusalem.

Mark was also a member of the Pauline circle. What is more, his name pops up in 1 Pet 5:13. It comes as no surprise that such a well-connected individual wrote one of the four gospels.

Luke was also a member of the Pauline circle, which, in turn, brought him into contact with members of the mother church in Jerusalem.

We know less about the author of Hebrews, except that he was a second-generation believer (2:3-4) as well as a friend of Timothy (13:23), who was a member of the Pauline circle.

So all the NT writers were moving within the same inner circle of friends and confidants.

7. Let us finish with a word or two about historical probabilities.

Apostates like Dagood try to unsettle the faithful by posing all sorts of hypotheticals and imponderables.

But one can turn this around. So what if I don’t know enough to answer every conceivable question? Why should I fret over unanswerable questions? Why should I fret over circumstances beyond my control?

If it’s truly beyond my control, then why should I feel responsible for it? And if I’m not responsible for things over which I have no control, then that is not a cause of concern, but a cause of contentment.

I’m not answerable to the unanswerable. Far from being one more thing I need to fret over, this is one less thing I need to fret over.

8. I don’t need to know all the answers as long as God knows all the answer. All I need to know is the one who knows all the answers.

I don’t need to be in control of all the variables as long as God is in control of all the variables, and I’m under control.

9.It’s not as if the unbeliever can offer certainty in place of uncertainty. It’s not as if he has a superior alternative. Quite the contrary.

As long as we’re going to toy with hypotheticals, let’s take the worse case scenario.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a believer could be wrong while an unbeliever could be right.

A believer has everything to gain if he’s right, and nothing to lose if he’s wrong—while an unbeliever has nothing to gain if he’s right, and everything to lose if he’s wrong.

If an unbeliever is right, he will rot in unhallowed ground while an unbeliever, if he’s wrong, will rot in hallowed ground.

If an unbeliever is wrong, he will burn in hell, but if a believer is right, he will reign in heaven.

10.I don’t regard the Christian faith as a defeasible hypothesis. And I don’t regard saving faith as falsifiable.

But an apostate is a very strange animal. He has left the church for a suicide cult, and he is a zealous recruiter for his suicide cult.

He is a tempter who demands everything in exchange for nothing in return. Death in lieu of life. Despair instead of hope. Only an utter fool would fine such a bargain the least bit appealing.

“Come and die with us! Share our misery! You, too, can lead a pointless life! Come, let us join hands and jump from the cliff in mass suicide. Hurry up before this one-time offer expires!”

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