Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Case for the Real Jesus (4): Craig A. Evans

Lee Strobel designates his first challenge "Scholars Are Unconvering a Radically Different Jesus in Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels." To answer this challenge, he claimed that he looked for someone "who would be respected by both conservatives and liberals" and came up with Craig A. Evans. (TCFTRJ p. 28) Of course, your average reader of The Case for the Real Jesus (including me) is not going to know what liberal scholars think of Strobel's experts, but I would think that someone who shows respect to other scholars is much more likely to be respected by them than someone who repeatedly resorts to sarcasm. "For crying out loud;" (TCFTRJ p. 34) "Come on;" ( p. 34) "Oh, that's absurd;"(p.36) and "Oh yeah, what a brilliant argument;" (p.38) are not the kind of comments that normally tend to endear one to one's peers.

Although I am not qualified to comment on many of Evans' assertions, there are a few points that seem obviously false. For example, Evans claims that many liberal scholars' ignorance of "the Semitic background of the New Testament" causes them to misconstrue Jesus' use of the phrase "Son of Man." "They didn't know how it was linked to the Son of Man figure in Daniel 7, where there are divine implications. Instead they pursued a bizarre Greco-Roman understanding, translating 'Son of Man' as 'Son of Adam,' which doesn't clarify anything." (TCFTRJ p. 35)

"For crying out loud," does Evans really mean to assert that it takes a doctorate in biblical languages to spot a connection that is footnoted in almost every Bible printed? I know for a fact that John Dominic Crossan and Geza Vermes understand the link because I have read books in which they discuss it and I know that Bart Ehrman understands it because I have heard him discuss it. Contrary to Evans, the liberal scholars seem to be sophisticated enough to consider the possibility that the phrase might be used differently at different times in different gospels. Geza Vermes notes that John seems to use "Son of Man" almost exclusively as a title referring to a "heavenly being temporarily exiled on earth," but concludes that [i]n contrast, the bulk of the 'son of Man' instances in the Synoptics can best be interpreted in a nontitular sense." (The Changing Faces of Jesus p.188) It is not through ignorance of the issues that he reaches a different conclusion than Evans.

Evans' claim about liberal ignorance concerning Jesus' use of the phrase "the kingdom of God" strikes me as an even bigger shovelful of manure. "It's not complicated if you have the Semetic context: Jesus was basically proclaiming the 'rule of God.'" (TCFTRJ p. 35) Oh really? Isn't the apostles' failure to understand what Jesus really meant by the "kingdom of God" a significant theme in the Gospels? Did the apostles lack the "Semetic context" that Evans' possesses? "Come on."

Another argument that strikes me as more than a little bizarre is Evan' assertion that the anonymity of the canonical gospels helps proves their authenticity. Commenting on the practice of second century writers attribuing their works to Mary Magdalene or Judas, Evans says "by the way, that's what Gnostics would do. In contrast, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke circulated anonymously. Their authority and truth were apparent. Everyone knew this was what Jesus taught, so there wasn't much concern over who wrote it down." (TCFTRJ p. 46) So not knowing the source of a document makes it more trustworthy rather than less? "Oh yeah, what a brilliant argument."

Coming back to whether Evans is respected by liberals, I did find a review by Stephen Patterson of Evans' 2006 book Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels.

My real difference with Evans is that I do not share his evangelical stipulations about the text. This is a divide that we must increasingly deal with in biblical studies. Competently trained scholars now operate on both sides of this great divide. How we handle that difference honestly and respectfully is our unique challenge. On that score this book fails miserably and can best serve as a counterexample of how not to engage one’s colleagues in discussion and debate.

Case for the Real Jesus (3): Is Strobel at It Again?

On the question of whether early Christians borrowed myths from other ancient religions, Lee Strobel has an article on the internet citing a Swedish scholar name T.N.D. Mettinger as concluding that "there were absolutely no parallels between them [i.e., other ancient resurrection myths] and Jesus because these myths dealt with such things as the vegetation cycle." (read, think, pray live) Now I have not read Mettinger and I am not planning on tracking his book down, but I would just like to note that Mettinger's own words as quoted by Strobel don't sound nearly as emphatic. "There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising Gods in the surrounding world." (TCFTRJ p.161) This quote certainly supports Strobel's apologetics, but I don't think it rises to the level of "absolutely no parallels."

I also think that Strobel's latest article makes Mettinger sound stupid. Is it really such an incredible leap to go from a dying and rising god in a vegetation cycle to a dying and rising messiah? Is this something that was completely beyond the imagination of first century Jews? I might just as well argue that there are "absolutely no parallels" between George Lucas' Star Wars movies and Norse mythology (or where ever it was he lifted his stuff) because Thor and Odin did not have spaceships.

Speaking of parallels, Strobel's embellishments provide a nice model of how the stories about Jesus may have grown over time. Mettinger being unaware of any prima facie evidence becomes "absolutely no parallels." Sherwin-White's brief and general reflections become a "meticulous" study. And just as early Christians may have been unconcerned about being contradicted by eyewitnesses, Strobel seems completely unfazed by the possibility that someone might go check the sources he is citing.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Does the Religious Right Root for our Government to Fail?

Sandy Rios frequently rants about liberals who root for the United States military to fail in Iraq, although I don't think recognizing failure is the same thing as rooting for it, nor do I think that continually redefining success lower and lower is the same thing as succeeding. On the other hand, it seems to me that Rios and many evangelical Christians root for the American government to fail at everything else it does in order to preserve their claims that their brand of religion is the only hope for America.

This comes to mind because I finally saw Michael Moore's Sicko last week. I don't recall Jesus ever saying anything about socialized medicine but it seems to be a basic tenet of evangelical Christians that universal health care would be a terrible tragedy. In the last two weeks, I have heard Rios, Pat Robertson, and James Scudder all tell their listeners that the last thing we want is what the rest of the civilized world has. Now I will acknowledge that I am skeptical about Sicko's portrayal of Cuba's healthcare system, but I suspect that the French, Canadians, and British really do prefer what they have.

One of the most striking things in Sicko was the way that different countries create incentives for doctors. In Britain, a doctor can be financially rewarded when his patients quit smoking or lower their blood pressure. In the United States, doctors working for insurance companies are financially rewarded for denying patients treatments that could save their lives. Is it any wonder that America spends more per capita on healthcare with poorer results than countries with socialized medicine?

Apologist N.T. Wright was recently quoted at the American Academy of Religion Conference as saying that "[t]he Church must get on with the works of justice, beauty, and healing that the systems [of the world] know they should do, but can't figure out how to do." Could it be that some of the systems of the world have figured out how to do some of these works? Could it be that evangelical Christians deny these successes rather than allow that good can be accomplished without them? Could it be that the Religous Right delights in the failures of the Bush administration because it confirms their belief in that good belongs exclusively to the(ir) Church?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Case for the Real Jesus (2): Defining Essentials

The main reason I got hold of The Case for the Real Jesus was to see what Strobel's expert on textual criticism, Daniel Wallace, would have to say about Bart Ehrman and his book, Misquoting Jesus, which I had read and enjoyed. Based on conservative reviews of the book, I suspected that Strobel had not accurately presented Ehrman's position, but I was not sure exactly how Wallace had responded. I had a very cordial conversation with an evangelical Christian who blogs as The Dawn Treader who focused primarily on the fact that inerrancy and inspiration are doctrines that apply only to the original autographs of scripture, not to their transmission. From this perspective, Ehrman's concern with errors made by scribes and copyists is a bit of a red herring.

I was rather surprised to find that Wallace did not seem to be at all concerned with the distinction between inerrancy in transmission and in the autographs. Rather, Wallace suggested that biblical inerrancy is not as important to evangelical Christianity as Ehrman had made it out to be.

Personally, I believe in inerrancy. However, I wouldn’t consider inerrancy to be a primary or essential doctrine for saving faith. It’s what I call a “protective shell” doctrine. Picture a concentric circle, with the essential doctrines of Christ and salvation at the core. A little bit further out are some other doctrines, until, finally, outside of everything is inerrancy (TCFTRJ p.76)

So when Ehrman asks "How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we we don't have the words that God inerrantly inspired," (MJ p.7)Wallace's answer seems to be that Christians do not need that much help from inerrancy anyway.

In my earlier discussion, Dawn Treader had argued that corruption in transmission was not a big concern because, as he quoted Wallace, "The fact is that scholars across the theological spectrum say that in all the essentials - not in every particular, but in all essentials - our New Testament manuscripts go back to the originals." (TCFTRJ p.71-72) I thought this smacked of comparing apples and oranges. A liberal scholar who agrees that it is possible to get back to the originals in all essentials might be saying something very different than a conservative scholar simply because a liberal scholar who does not affirm the resurrection, the virgin birth or the divinity of Jesus would not consider very many things to be essential. However, it turns out that Wallace (who I assumed to be a conservative) did not consider very many things to be essential either.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Case for the Real Jesus (1)

My local library finally called to tell me that I had gotten to the top of the waiting list for Lee Strobel's The Case for the Real Jesus. In a sense, the call was rather anti-climatic. I have been debating the merits of Strobel's work for quite a while already and I have read several passages at a nearby Borders. It is probably fair to say that I had some idea what my reaction to the book would be to before I started reading. I guess that can't be helped. As one of Strobel's experts, Daniel B. Wallace says, "You can't interpret the text without certain biases, but we should challenge our biases as much as possible." (TCFTRJ p.71)

In my defense, I would note that I am not pretending that I set out to prove that I was wrong about Strobel and that I was surprised when it turned out that I was right. Moreover, when I first read a book on apologetics, I did so as a professing born-again Christian who really wanted to believe that there was overwhelming powerful evidence for the view of Jesus and the Bible that Strobel argues for now. I was profoundly disappointed when I read Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict in my late teens because so many of his "proofs" of the literal accuracy of the Bible required the assumption that the details of the biblical accounts were literally accurate. I expected the same from Strobel and this time I was not disappointed.

I am not going to attempt a systematic review or refutation of The Case for the Real Jesus as there are many more knowledgeable individuals who have done so. However, I will comment on some of the inconsistencies that particularly struck me.

One of the most interesting inconsistencies is the relationship between the response to Challenge #4, "Christianity's Beliefs were Borrowed from Pagan Religions," and the response to Challenge #5, "Jesus Was an Impostor Who Failed to Fulfil the Messianic Prophecies." The response to #4 is that "[t]here are simply no examples of dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity and which have meaningful parallels to Jesus' resurrection." (TCFTRJ p.267) In short, the stories about Jesus could only have come from what Jesus said and did.

After having Edwin M. Yamauchi explain that the stories about Jesus could not have come from parallels in pagan religions, Strobel moves on to Michael L. Brown who explains that many of the stories about Jesus have parallels in the Old Testament.

For example, Israel in its infancy went into Egypt--Hosea 11:1 says when Israel was a child God loved him and called him out of Egypt. The Messiah as a child goes into Egypt and is called out of Egypt. As it happens to Israel, so it happens to him. David was betrayed by a close friend; the Messiah was betrayed by a close friend. As it happened to Moses, having to flee from his life from pharaoh, it happens to Messiah, having to flee for his life from Herod. (TCFTRJ p.201)

For some reason, the fact that the stories about Jesus cannot be traced to paganism proves that they must be true, but the fact that they can be traced to Judaism casts no doubt on their truth whatsoever.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Through the Looking Glass with Sandy Rios and John Bolton

Running some errands this afternoon, I happened to catch a few minutes of Sandy Rios interviewing former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. When I tuned in they were talking about Iran. I did not hear the whole conversation, but what I heard was plenty scary. I may have to listen to that when it gets posted on Rios' website in a day or two.

I did get to hear them discuss why Bolton doesn't approve of the job Condoleezza Rice is doing as Secretary of State. Bolton explained that the way things work best is when the Secretary of State acts as the President's representative in the State Department rather than acting as the State Department's representative in the White House. Bolton explained that James Baker III had been successful under George Bush's father because he had played this role and he had hoped that Rice would do the same for the younger Bush. Unfortunately, like Colin Powell before her, Rice acted as though she was the State Department's representative rather than the President's, which Rios agreed was most regrettable.

Not surprisingly, this pronouncement caused every synapse in my brain to misfire causing me to drive into a ditch. When I recovered my mental faculties, several things occurred to me.

  1. Bush 41 was incredibly knowledgable when it came to foreign affairs. He prided himself on the personal relationships he maintained with leaders throughout the world. There was much less need for Baker to communicate the State Department's knowledge and expertise to the administration. Bush 43, on the other hand, knew virtually nothing about foreign affairs when he came into office (and still does not if you ask me). Is is any surprise that Powell might think that part of his job was educating the President about what the State Department did?
  2. Does any one in his or her right mind not wish that Bush had listened to Powell about the problems posed by an invasion of Iraq? Does anyone in his or her right mind not wish that Bush had availed himself of the planning and expertise of the State Department regarding the occupation of Iraq rather than giving carte blanche to Paul O'Neill to disband the Iraqi Army and de-Baathify the Iraqi government?
  3. Does anyone not recall that the saddest moment in an otherwise distinguised career was when Powell did serve as Bush's representative by selling faulty intelligence at the United Nations? Is there anything more galling than to hear neocons complaining that an honorable public servant like Powell was not willing to further sully his own reputation by embracing and selling Bush's ignorance of foreign policy?

Is there any chance the United States can survive the last year of the Bush administration?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Insanity of Reason

On the op-ed page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal, there was a piece by Peter Berkowitz titled The Insanity of Bush Hatred. Berkowitz acknowledge that all Presidents are hated by some, but he argued that the hatred of Bush was different in part because the haters thought that their hatred was "a rational response to the president and his administration."

I happen to be one of those people who thinks there is good reason to believe that the Bush presidency has been a catastrophe for the United States. What I find fascinating is that Berkowitz thinks my "insanity" is established by my belief that the facts and evidence support my view. No doubt the more facts and evidence I might pile up to demonstrate how poorly Bush has performed, the more insane I would prove myself to be. It is bad enough to hate Bush irrationally, but hating him rationally is even worse.

I am reminded of the comment of another famous politician with a unique command of the English language, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley: "They have vilified me, they have crucified me; yes, they have even criticized me."

Ask a Silly Question

Last night on my car radio, I heard a preacher talking about John 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him and Peter responds that he does. The preacher noted that Jesus used the Greek work agapeo which means total and complete love while Peter used the Greek word phileo which means fondness or friendship.

"Why didn't Peter use the same Greek word that Jesus used?" queried the preacher.

I wanted to answer "Maybe it was because Peter didn't speak Greek."

Monday, November 12, 2007

William Lane Craig's Unbelievable Quotation Marks

In my first post on this topic, I noted William Lane Craig’s description of A.N. Sherwin-White’ position: “When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable.’ More generations would be needed.” What disturbs me most about this characterization is that Craig puts the word “unbelievable” in quotation marks. The fact is that Sherwin-White never used that word and it suggests a much more authoritative statement than he was making. That probably explains why so many apologists cite Craig’s version rather than the Oxford professor’s original.

In order to appreciate the nature of Craig’s distortion, it is necessary to take a little more detailed look at what Sherwin-White wrote and its context.
What is to an ancient historian the most surprising in the basic assumption of form-criticism of the extremer sort (i.e., those who maintain “that the historical Christ in unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written”(RLRSNT p.187)), is the presumed tempo of the development of the didactic myths—if one may use that term to sum up the matter. We are not unacquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography, as will shortly appear. The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case. Certainly a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the event, whether for national glorification or political spite, or for the didactic or symbolic exposition of ideas. But in the material of ancient history the historical content is not hopelessly lost. (RLRSNT p.189)
Sherwin-White is not saying that the extreme form-critics are demonstrably mistaken, he is saying that he, as a professor of Roman history, does not find their position persuasive.

It is important to remember that an authority in ancient Roman history is commenting on biblical form-criticism, an area of scholarship outside his field of expertise in which he considers himself “an amateur.” (RLRSNT p.187) However, he had just spent 185 pages discussing the extent to which the stories in the New Testament reflect what is known by scholars in his specialty. It is easy to imagine skeptics asserting that he was wasting his time because the Bible was just a bunch of myths. So Sherwin-White explained why he thought the biblical accounts were worthy of an historian’s attention, but he was not attempting a systematic refutation of the skeptics’ position because he was not an authority on biblical form-criticism.

I would liken Sherwin-White’s position to my own experience as a law school graduate who has not practiced law for almost fifteen years. When I hear someone express a bizarre opinion about constitutional law or contract law or criminal law, I might say something like, “Based on what I remember from law school, that doesn’t sound right to me.” However, I am not up to speed on the latest legal developments and I don’t consider myself qualified to make authoritative statements (especially since I no longer carry malpractice insurance). When it comes to the law, I consider myself an educated amateur and I am careful to express my opinion from that perspective. By the same token, Sherwin-White was offering an educated amateur’s take on form-criticism, not a thoroughly researched refutation.

Sherwin-White is certainly an extremely well-educated amateur and his opinion is worthy of great respect. In fact, however, his opinion was that the New Testament merited critical study in order to determine what could be known about the historical Christ. It is an opinion shared by many modern liberal scholars like those found in the Jesus Seminar. It is a position that I find persuasive as well (although my amateur status is beyond dispute).

I am very curious to know how Sherwin-White’s “[t]he agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time” became Craig’s” the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable’.” I would be particularly interested in hearing Craig’s justification for putting “unbelievable” in quotation marks when Sherwin-White never used the word and never purported to be making such a definitive statement. The failure to put quotation marks where they belong is known as plagiarism. The insertion of quotation marks where they don't belong seems equally dishonest.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Further Abuse of the Oxford Professor

There is another passage from A.N. Sherwin-White that is frequently cited by apologists. Arguing that historical information can be gleaned from the gospels despite the fact that the authors were not writing history, the Oxford professor wrote:

For Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Yet Acts is, in simple terms and judged externally, no less of a propaganda narrative than the Gospels, liable to similar distortions. But any attempt to reject its basic historicity, even in matters of detail, must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted. (RLRSNT p. 189)

This is used by the apologists to argue that everything in Acts can be considered historical just as everything in the gospels can be considered historical.

It is perhaps not surprising that the apologists almost universally omit the middle sentence which refers to "propaganda" and "distortion." The only evangelical Christian I found quoting the passage in full, who I cannot help but congratulate for his or her intellectual integrity, was at Among the host of apologists who edited the passage were David Guzik , Judah Etinger, Larry Chapman, Randy Thomas, Joseph P. Gudel, David A. Noebel, Richard Deem, Dale P. Kruse, and Jeffrey Grant. These writers at least deserve some credit for inserting ellipsis to indicate that they were dropping part of the original passage. William Lane Craig and John Ankerberg simply made Sherwin-White's original reservations undetectable by quoting him as writing "For Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity, even in matters of detail, must now appear absurd."

However, the real prize has to go to Josh McDowell who not only omits the ellipsis, but also expands the canon. He quotes Sherwin-White as writing "For the New Testament of Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming." (emphasis added) Now I generally like to think that I am above jumping on typographical errors, but I find it hard to believe that McDowell couldn't catch this one. Surely he might suspect either that the quote was wrong or, if it wasn't, that this Sherwin-White guy might be someone not worth quoting. His consolation must be that many others adopted this misquotation without question.

According to several apologists, the late Professor Sherwin-White was not a Christian. This is no doubt pointed out to boost his credentials as an objective scholar. Of course, this would mean that he is currently suffering eternal damnation. I suspect that his punishment is being forced 24-7 to read the botched and misleading citations of his work by Craig, Strobel, Ankerberg, McDowell, and all the other apologists who could not be bothered reading what he actually wrote.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Apologists' Abuse of A.N. Sherwin-White

Author's Note (June 29, 2013):  This post deals with the manner in which Christian apologists have misrepresented the views of A.N. Sherwin-White.  Kris Komarnitsky has written an excellent substantive critique of the views themselves, Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule.

I recently looked at the argument that the thirty year period between the death of Jesus and the composition of the Gospel of Mark was too short for the accounts of the resurrection and miracles to be legends. My curiosity had been piqued by some Christian bloggers who suggested that historians generally accept the principle that legends don’t grow that quickly. The argument seems to have been developed by William Lane Craig who relies on the work of an Oxford historian named A.N. Sherwin-White. Craig writes, "When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be "unbelievable." More generations would be needed." The Evidence for Jesus. However, the popularity of the argument seems to stem from Lee Strobel who interviewed Craig in The Case for Christ. In an effort to understand this argument better, I obtained the Oxford Professor’s book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford 1963) and read the passages that Craig cites.

The first thing I noticed is that the book has nothing to do with the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts or any of the miracle stories. As the book’s title suggests, Sherwin-White’s interest was Roman law and society. The book addresses the procedural and jurisdictional issues that arise in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and the issues of Paul's Roman citizenship that arise in the book of Acts. "[O]ne may show how the various historical and social and legal problems raised by the Gospels and Acts now look to a Roman historian. That, and only that, is the intention of these lectures." (emphasis added) (RSRLNT p. iv)

Sherwin-White’s analysis did not require him to reach any conclusions about the historical reliability of the New Testament stories. He simply offered his opinion on the extent to which the accounts reflected what historians knew about the legal system of ancient Rome. Much as a doctor might comment on the extent to which an episode of E.R. reflects real medical practice or a lawyer might comment on the courtroom scenes in Law and Order, the Oxford professor offered his opinions about the events reported in the gospels and Acts in light of contemporary scholarship (as of 1963) regarding ancient Rome. This does not mean that Sherwin-White either affirmed or denied that any particular story in the New Testament was factual or fictional. For his purposes, the question was not relevant.

Nevertheless, after discussing legal issues for 185 pages, Sherwin-White took 7 pages to “consider the whole topic of historicity briefly and very generally, and boldly state a case.” (RSRLNT p. 186) He declared himself an amateur in the field of biblical criticism, but he questioned those skeptics who declare that “the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written.” (RSRLNT p. 187) He admitted that "a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the events," (RSRLNT p. 187) but his response was that the gospels were no more obviously distorted than many of the sources that historians of ancient Rome must deal with on a regular basis. He did not assert that the gospels were historically factual. He asserted that they could be used to do history.

Professor Sherwin-White noted that even the “most deplorable” sources can be read critically by historians to yield a “basic layer of historical truth.” While he did not claim that the Bible was a deplorable source, he repeatedly compared it to writings that are replete with problems. Consider the following statements: "material has not been transformed out of all recognition;" "the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail;" and "the historical content is not hopelessly lost." (RSRLNT p. 189,190,191) Sherwin-White did not “suggest the literal accuracy of ancient sources, ecclesiastical or secular;” (RSRLNT p.192-193 n.2) he merely rejected the view “that the historical Christ is unknowable.”

The part of Sherwin-White’s essay that has attracted the most attention from Christian apologists is his comments on the length of time it takes for mythology to displace historical fact. However, contrary to Craig, Strobel, Geisler and a host of others, he did not attempt to calculate a rate of legendary accumulation that is universally applicable. Nor did he lay out a rule that enables an historian to identify a point before which an oral tradition can still be considered historical. Indeed, Sherwin-White acknowledged that various types of bias can be present both in the original source of the oral tradition and in the writer who finally records it. He merely asserted that “historical content is not hopelessly lost” to the critical historian even after a period of two generations. (RSRLNT p. 191)

The apologetic abuse of the Oxford professor starts with William Lane Craig. His claim that Sherwin-White “states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable’" is at least a gross distortion if not an outright falsehood. Sherwin-White never classified the gospels as either legend or fact. Nor did he ever use the word “unbelievable” despite Craig application of quotation marks. Throughout his essay, the Oxford professor acknowledged that all of his ancient sources contain both fact and fiction. What he did argue is that it would usually take more than two generations for the legendary elements to so completely displace the historical facts as to make the gospels useless to the critical historian. But he made no attempt to identify where such displacement occurred in the gospels or which parts could be considered historical.

Not surprisingly, Lee Strobel is even less circumspect in his use of Sherwin-White. In his summary in The Case for Christ, Strobel bloviates
What clinched it for me was the famous study by A. N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford University, which William Lane alluded to in our interview. Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world. His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth.  (The Case for Christ p. 264)
Contrary to Strobel’s imagination, the comments in Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament do not constitute a “study” and they do not reflect “meticulous” examination. No such study was required to support the rest of the book, which is why Sherwin-White described himself as considering the topic of historicity “briefly and very generally.” (RSRLNT p. 186) Most importantly, Strobel ignores the fact that it still takes critical historical methodology to identify that "solid core." Sherwin-White did not admit the possibility of accepting the gospels at face value.

Another interesting misuse of Sherwin-White comes from Gary Habermas who appears to simply alter words to meet his own purposes in Why I Believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable. According to Habermas, "The sort of thoroughgoing propaganda literature that some critics believe the Gospels to be was actually nonexistent in ancient times. Sherwin-White declares, 'We are not acquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography.'" The only problem is that Sherwin-White did not declare that! He declared that "we are not unacquainted with this type of writing."(emphasis added)(RSRLNT p. 189) The point of Sherwin-White’s essay is that historians were familiar with this type of literature and were capable of using critical analysis to get at the historical content despite the difficulties posed by the genre.

Now to be perfectly fair to Dr. Habermas, it appears that he was working with a 1978 reprint of RLRSNT so it is possible that his version contained a typographical error. It is even possible that his edition corrected a typo in the original that I was using. I doubt it though because the alternate wording just does not make any sense. The original reads “We are not unacquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography, as will shortly appear.” In the next paragraph, he discussed a history written by Herodotus and said “The parallel with the authors of the Gospels is by no means as far-fetched as it might seem.” (RSRLNT p. 190) Why would he claim that he was not familiar with that genre and that he was going to demonstrate that unfamiliarity, and then identify a historical work that parallels it? It looks like Habermas was engaged in some sloppy quote mining.

As Sherwin-White’s work gets taken up by the web’s amateur apologists, the distortions get more outrageous. Writing at, Ralph J. Asher attributes an express affirmation of the resurrection: “Prof. A.N. Sherwin-White writes in his book Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament that the appearance reports cannot be mainly legendary.” On, we find that “Sherwin-White, argued that the resurrection news spread too soon and too quickly for it to have been a legend.” This assertion cites an article by Craig in Jesus Under Fire, but I don’t have access to that particular book so I don’t know what Craig actually wrote there. I suspect that Townhall has exaggerated as Craig seems to be more careful than that. The references to Sherwin-White become exaggerated in the retelling just as the skeptics suspect the gospel stories did.

It is interesting the way apologists have seized upon Sherwin-White's work. The essence of his argument was not that the gospels were immune to legendary corruption. Rather, his argument was that the legendary corruption was not sufficient to render the gospels immune to critical historical analysis. It seems that he would applaud the efforts of modern scholars like Bart Ehrman, Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, and John Shelby Spong who seek to identify that core of historical facts that the gospels contain.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Paul's Fact Checking

In an earlier post, I questioned whether Paul ever verified any facts about Jesus with the original apostles. My doubt arose from his insistence in the first chapter of Galatians that he got his revelation directly from Christ and from the fact that he preached successfully for three years before he met with any of them. I found it difficult to reconcile the passage in Galatians with Gary Habermas' description of Paul as an eyewitness and wondered what connection he saw. (I am new to all this stuff so I apologize for going through points that have probably been beaten to death.)

Imagine my surprise when I found a Habermas essay that links Paul to the original apostles using the very same passage that seemed to me to say so explicitly that Paul had not gotten anything from them. The essay titled "Why I Believe the Miracles of Jesus Actually Happened" is found in the book "Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe." According to Habermas, what the NIV translates as Paul "getting acquainted" with Peter in Galatians 1:18 really implied a more thorough factual investigation based on Paul's use of the word Greek word "historeo." According to Habermas, when Paul describes "receiving" his knowledge of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3, he is referring to this meeting. However, didn't he say in Galatians 1:11 that he received it by revelation from Christ? In the entire Habermas article, he does not once refer to Paul's repeated denials that any man had anything to do with his message.

Now I freely admit that I have no qualifications whatsoever to comment on the translation of ancient Greek, but is it really too much to expect Habermas to deal with the apparent contradiction between what he sees as implicit in Galatians 1:18 and what Paul makes explicit in the rest of that chapter and the next? At one point, Habermas says that "[t]he topic in the immediate context both both before (Gal. 1:11-17) and after (2:1-10) Paul's first trip to Jerusalem is the nature of gospel," but Habermas conveniently overlooks the fact that Paul's point was that he did not get anything that he was teaching from any other man. Does that strike anyone other than me as more than a little disingenuous?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Culture Campaign's Idea of Truth

As noted in the last post, Sandy Rios thinks liberals are liars for holding the entirely reasonable opinion that war in Iraq has been a failure. The Culture Campaign appears to believes that anyone who does not believe a murderer who changes his story is indifferent to truth.

The context is once again the Laramie Project, a play based on the brutal 1998 murder of homosexual Matthew Shephard in Laramie, Wyoming. At trial, one of the defendants, Aaron McKinney, offered a "gay panic" defense, i.e., that he could not control his rage when the victim made a sexual advance. Since that time, McKinney has changed his story and claims that the murder resulted from a drug deal that went wrong. The Culture Campaign blog concludes that "truth doesn't seem to matter--even to out educators" because everyone does not prefer the convicted murderer's new story like they do.

Reasonable minds might differ about whether McKinney way lying at trial, whether he is lying now, or whether both stories are lies. What is not in doubt is what is in the play, that he offered the "gay panic" defense at trial. This is the truth regardless of Culture Campaign's attempts to mislead. Maybe he offered that defense because he thought he was justified in killing a gay man who made a sexual advance. That is bad. On the other hand, maybe he offered that defense because he and his lawyer thought that a jury composed of citizens of Laramie would think it was alright to kill a gay man who made a sexual advance. In its own way, that is much worse.

In an earlier diatribe about the Laramie Project, the Campaign claimed that the convicted murderer's new story "conclusively established" the falsehood of his earlier one. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. The changed story proves that he is a liar. It does not prove which time he lied.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Sandy Rios' Idea of Culture

The "Culture Campaign" blog that originally got me started writing this blog is part of an organization headed by Sandy Rios who hosts a talk show on a local Christian radio station. Sandy is regular contributor to Fox News and the former head of Concerned Women for America. Although I been writing about apologetics a lot lately, I would like respond to some comments I heard Sandy make today on her radio show which I found offensively dishonest.

Sandy accused Nancy Pelosi of lying because she described the war in Iraq as a "total failure." Sandy claimed that is was this kind of dishonesty that caused her to get upset with liberals and leftists, not policy differences. She was angry because liberals aren't proud that we are "winning the war" like she is. Along the way, she claimed that liberals delighted when American casualties rise in Iraq because they see it as an opportunity to gain power. As an aside, she also asserted that the Chicago Tribune is one of the most liberal leftists newspapers in the country despite the fact that it has never endorsed a Democrat for the Presidency.

It is Sandy that is lying about Iraq.

The war in Iraq is a failure. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq is not a shining example of democracy. The Middle East is much less stable as a result of the war. Countless innocent Iraqi civilians have lost their lives. The United States is less secure. The United States is less respected. The United States wasted huge sums of money. The U.S. military has been strained to the breaking point and is no position to respond to other threats. The war in Iraq has resulted in the loss of gains that were made in Afghanistan. The war has increased the influence of Iran. Oil is pushing $100 per barrel.

The fact that the military and security situation in Iraq is slightly less horrible than it was before the surge does not make the war a success. It may mean that the situation there will be slightly less disastrous than it otherwise would have been when we leave. The war has been a failure in conception, execution and result.

Did Early Believers Need Evidence?

Did early Christians demand evidence that Jesus rose from the dead before they converted? Many apologists argue that they must have. They argue that there is no way that that early Christians would have believed such outrageous claims unless they saw real solid evidence to back up those claims. Is there anything in the New Testament that supports this argument? Is there any way to figure out just what kind of evidence a first century Jew or pagan needed to see before converting to Christianity?

The first place to look would have to be Paul. He was the most prolific soul-winner and writer of the early church. According to Liberty University Professor Gary Habermas: "On matters concerning the historical Jesus, Paul was an authoritative source, an eyewitness who was close to the data he records." If early Christians required evidence, there is no way that Paul could have been successful if he did not have the goods. He must have talked to all the eyewitnesses and checked out their stories, right?

Amazingly, Paul seems to say quite emphatically that he did not do any sort of investigation before he converted (certainly nothing as impressive as Lee Strobel's two year quest). Paul tells us in Galatians 1:11-18 that he got what he knew directly from Jesus Christ.

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord's brother.

Of course, Paul's vision on the road to Damascus was probably pretty darn impressive, but it is not the kind of evidence that could have been verified by anyone who heard Paul's preaching.

If the only evidence Paul had when he began his preaching was this visionary experience, then the people who heard Paul must have relied upon that vision when they converted. They did not have the testimony of the original apostles who were eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and ministry because Paul did not have the testimony of the original apostles available to him. At least for the first three years, Paul's testimony to his own vision was more than sufficient to convert large numbers of pagans.