Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Debating the eye-witness testimony behind the gospels

There is a great weekly podcast waiting for you here at Unbelievable! I love this show because it confronts different perspectives on the Christian faith, which encourages honest and personal thinking. When I heard who was on this week's show, I was pretty excited. Actually as you listen through (as I did 4 times!), you can detect some weaknesses I think to both perspectives. Here is my response that I also sent in to the show host.

Dear Justin - thanks for a cracking show.

Read (or rather listened to) Bart's book myself. Absolutely no mention about his previous issues with the state of the "original" text. It's like he abandoned his first baby.

Throughout, both scholars seem to presume that Mark is the first gospel. Is it not a rather large, if not enormous, assumption to assume that the earliest surviving gospel is the first written account? Some scholars like Hurtado have commented on how surprisingly "bookish" early Christianity was.

On Mark, Bart could have made his case stronger than he did: "what we have is a collection of stories" - it is a lot more than a collection of stories! It is a crafted theological and christological piece, therefore not constructed in a way Peter himself would have presented it.

Ehrman's rebuttal to the frequency of Peter references did not seem strong - he pointed to stories of other heroes. But Jesus is the hero, and Peter is certainly not a hero in Mark.

"Historians are very reluctant to interrupt their stories with explanation" - seems to go totally against John's story-telling. Does he not helpfully provide little comments to explain Judaism to his non-Jewish recipients?

Ehrman: "I think it's the best case that can be made but I don't find it at all convincing"! The epitome of a sceptic.

Why should we presume that people thought the sources were directly from apostles: "It's a question of date". Gospel of Thomas was written much later, so different expectations as to historicity. Bart seemed correct here to demand more evidence - Richard really didn't seem to have anything substantial to back up his distinction between living-memory ("oral history") and oral-tradition (vulnerable to Chinese-whispers effect).

On gospel-naming. Early 2nd century writers do not quote the sources for the Jesus sayings they quote. I didn't find Bauckham convincing on the it had to be called something, which seems to pre-suppose that an anonymous document could never truly have been anonymous regardless of its place of use. Could it not be argued that if based on the "first" anonymous gospel, the gospels we know as Luke and Matthew (I place Matthew as late as John), could hardly have claimed less anonymity than their obvious source. 

I wonder if everyone noticed just how many classic Christian assumptions Bauckham is willing to de-bunk on authorship while hanging onto direct apostolic input? Matthew? No. John? No. Revelation? No, not even the same author as John's gospel. 2 Peter? No. I don't know where he stands on the disputed pauline epistles and other books, but it seems like the list is quite long for a conservative scholar. Ehrman doesn't jump on this.

There is a deep disagreement about who can write Greek from Jerusalem - it needs a third opinion.

I have written to Ehrman on this issue of authorship. If authentic-yet-autonomous gospels suddenly needed naming, why Matthew and John? A stronger argument to my mind is that no apocryphal work had arisen - yet - under these names. This could (should?) have been an argument for Bauckham - why would no apocryphal work have arisen under those names during all that time? Perhaps their early authority and apostolic association with those characters meant the names were not for sale.

"Everyone knows that Peter and Paul didn't write gospels". Did they? Bart suddenly ascribes considerable literary knowledge to the Christian community around the Med that seems to go in a totally opposite direction to the story-telling picture he provides. For me, both situations are improbable and we have yet to have a decent narrative to describe:
• Why these four names
• Why the earlier 2nd century authors don't reference the author
• Why there are no references to the mysterious-yet "anonymous" gospels in early church history prior to Irenaeus.

Both authors' reconstructions require them to disagree with some of their favourite early authors.
• Baukham on Papias on Matthew writing in Hebrew
• Ehrman on Justin Martyr (I think on Peter).

We have little from these first two centuries really, and reconstructions assisted by future archaeological finds, still have such a long way to go. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that in the context of debate and the pressure on authors to provide such comprehensive narratives, that this simple and humbling reality is not more clearly staked out.

There you go - a somewhat critical response to both!
Can't wait for part 2!

John B

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