Saturday, March 15, 2008

Richard Bauckham and the Basic Techniques of Apologetics

A couple months ago, I criticized the way apologists unquestioningly accept Irenaeous’ identification of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the canonical gospels given the fact that Irenaeous was writing approximately a century after the gospels were written and the fact that he provided no basis for his assertions. Moreover, some of Irenaeous’ other ideas about the gospels were rather goofy. Specifically, Irenaeous thought that the fact that cherubim have four faces was a good reason to believe that there were four and only four legitimate gospels. I wondered whether he had similarly absurd reasons for believing that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote those four gospels.

Apologists also blithely ignore the problems with the earliest source for the traditional authorship of two of the gospels. Writing fifty years earlier than Irenaeous, Papias discussed books written by Matthew and Mark, but he never quoted from them and the descriptions he gave do not line up all that well with the books that appear in the Bible. It is not clear whether he had seen these books or simply been told about them. Moreover, none of Papias’ writings have survived. Most of what we know about him comes from the church historian Eusebius writing early in the fourth century and Eusebius did not think that Papias was a very bright guy.

Like Irenaeous, Papias wrote some goofy things. For example, he did not believe that Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus. Instead, Judas lived and became so fat “that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself.” In addition, Judas’ genitalia spewed out “flowing pus and worms.” He also quotes Jesus as prophesying individual vines “each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes,” eventually producing 6.2 x 1021 gallons of wine. See Was Papias a Reliable Witness?
This comes to mind because I have been taking a look at a book called Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. (I am indebted to Steven Carr whose comments on a book review at Chris Tilling’s blog provided me with some valuable insights.) I had seen Bauckham cited by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy in Lord or Legend? and in a series of posts on Mark Robert’s blog. The issues that stimulated my interest had nothing to do with Papias, but it turns out that Bauckham devotes several chapters to Papias in his efforts to establish the gospels as eyewitness testimony. Personally, I think he fails and his tap dancing with Papias typifies his arguments.

In a technique that I suppose must be taught in Apologetics 101, Bauckman deals with Eusebius' assessment of Papias as “a man of very little intelligence” by summarily dismissing it. “There is no reason why we should adopt this prejudiced attitude towards Papias” writes Bauckman. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses p. 12-13. Of course, there is no reason to reject it either. After all, Eusebius apparently had read Papias’ entire five volume work and was in a much better position to form an opinion than Bauckman. What we really lack is a reason for is adopting Bauckman’s description of Eusebius as “prejudiced” since it seems to be a case of judging rather than prejudging. The only reason for rejecting Eusebius appears to be that Bauckman’s thesis depends on Papias being a credible source of information.

In another standard apologist’s dodge, Bauckman simply ignores the goofy things Papias wrote that might have been the basis for Eusebius’ assessment. For example, in the Gospel according to Matthew 27:5, the evangelist tells us that Judas hung himself shortly after betraying Jesus. If Papias was actually familiar with the same book that currently appears in the Bible, why did he think that Judas had lived on for many years and become disgustingly obese? You might think that anyone who was going to put any weight on Papias would want to answer that question. Bauckman doesn't.

In a technique that may not be covered until Apologetics 102, Bauckman assumes that the absence of evidence about Papias supports his conclusion. The fact of the matter is that Papias' original writings have been lost and we just don't know what he had to say besides those few things quoted by later writers. Or do we? Bauckham is apparently certain that all those lost writings would support his thesis that Papias is a credible source.
Why do writers who knew Papias quote so few of these traditions? Because most of
them paralleled material in the canonical Gospels and they had no interest in
quoting such material. For them, the canonical Gospels were a better source of
this material, so why bother with Papias? What they quoted was interesting,
otherwise unknown or otherwise paralleled only in apocryphal sources, material.
I know no better explanation of why we have so few quotations from Papias’s
book. See Bauckham Responds.
Another explanation is that Eusebius was right about Papias and his books were full of loony drivel similar to the fat Judas story. What Bauckman really means is that he knows of no better explanation that supports his thesis. For the apologist, this is more than sufficient.

If time allows, I hope to further examine the apologetics techniques that Bauckham uses in some of arguments. Unfortunately, I obtained his book through interlibrary loan and I may have to return it before I can devote much more time to it.


  1. Thanks for this analysis. Christian apologists are the ultimate flim-flam artists.

  2. Richard Bauckham on The Christ Files

  3. I don't see any significance in that video David. It is just more of Bauckham asserting as fact those things he needs to support his thesis.

  4. What's missing in the Papias debate between apologists and skeptics is a statement of goal: Is the evidence of Papias being used to help those who are already Christians feel good about the authorship of their gospels, or is it being used to prove that skeptics are irrational to deny traditional gospel authorship? I'm an atheist, and while it doesn't seem irrational to conclude Matthew wrote Matthew, that's a very far cry from saying Matthian authorship is so well established that it cannot be rationally denied. Yes, there is evidence in support of traditional gospel authorship, but the quality of that evidence is very low; it is second-hand and apparently Papias, by collecting "strange" parables of the Lord and non-canonical gospel accounts, was willing to believe things contrary to the canonical gospels, so that his credibility can be attacked. One wonders what apologists would be doing if there was a Papias who spoke about the authorship of gospel of Peter and gospel of Hebrews with the same vagueness that he speaks about Matthew and Mark. They would laugh and kick such testimony to the curb, and they know it. Only because Matthew and Mark are in the bible, do apologists seek to smooth over the problems of Papias. Papias also testified that grapes would one day talk to people. When's the last time you ever saw an apologist defending THAT?