Friday, October 30, 2015

Second Amendment Obsolete?

Full Disclosure: I am about to muse on a subject about which I AM NOT AN EXPERT in any sense of the word.  I am not a constitutional scholar.  I am not a lawyer.  I am not a historian of the Revolutionary era.  Thus, my thoughts bear no special weight in this discussion.

Nevertheless, I am an expert in ancient texts, specifically the texts of the New Testament.  Now, while the U.S. Constitution is by no means nearly as ancient as the texts of the NT, it is now quite old and the world has changed considerably.  Yet, with all texts, as they age, some parts lose the power they once held.  They can become obsolete in many ways.  We see this all the time with biblical texts. Take just the following example.

In Acts 15:19-20, James, the Brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem, makes the following proclamation concerning Gentile believers.  He says,
"Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood."
This is the famous Jerusalem council that was supposed to address the issues that had arisen between Jewish and Gentile Christians regarding how Gentiles might be accepted into the faith.  The big questions were about circumcision and food laws and led to open fights between Paul and Peter (see Galatians 2).  What I find interesting is that three of the four requirements for Gentile Christians, those about things (probably food) polluted by idols, things (food) strangled, and blood (probably food again), are not even afterthoughts among Christians today.  There is no section in my grocery store for food that is blood free, not strangled, and not sacrificed to idols.  Many Christians today eat bloody food and have no idea whether or not it was strangled.  More importantly, they don't care. And the issue of idols, talk about obsolete.  The only bit of Acts 15:19-20 that Christians still bother to pay attention to is the prohibition of fornication (however that may be defined).  Three of the four prohibitions, which were clearly hot button issues of the day, are no longer on our collective radar screens.

And now we get to the second amendment.  Is it possible that this portion of the constitution has become obsolete, meaning that it cannot really speak to our present situation with any real relevance? Here is the full text of the second amendment:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Many people cut off the first half of the amendment which speaks about militias, and skip right to the good part about the government not infringing the rights of the people to bear arms.  They then take this as an absolute right never to be infringed.  If the people want guns, they have the right to have guns.  But the key to this amendment, the context if you will, is found in the first part about militias. The purpose of bearing arms is for the formation of militias to make for a secure state.  Now, the question becomes, how does a militia make the state secure, and secure from whom?  Are the people supposed to use these guns to form militias for protection from foreign powers?  Perhaps, but think about when this amendment was written: right after the revolutionary war in which the colonies were fighting against their own government, the British.  Moreover, who was trying to take their guns and prevent them from revolting? Once again, their own government, the British.  So, what was the purpose of this amendment?  To protect the rights of the people against one's own government.  Fair enough, and a good and necessary amendment in that context.  The people need recourse against any government that grows too oppressive.

But, herein lies the problem. While a militia equipped with muskets might have been sufficient to repel the British in the late 1700s, a thousand militias today equipped with legal guns of all sorts would stand no chance against the United States' military (or any other developed countries' militaries) today.  The guns, which the second amendment seems to guaranty the peoples' right to, are "obsolete" in modern warfare.  Sure, the military still uses guns, and highly advanced ones at that, but they also use attack helicopters, tanks, stealth jets, drones, aircraft carriers, and, God forbid, nuclear weapons.  I see no one seriously arguing that the second amendment protects the right of private citizens to own any of these previously mentioned weapons.  Although, to fulfill the purpose of the second amendment, the right of citizens to protect themselves from either a foreign power or their own oppressive government would require private citizens to own such weapons.   The second amendment cannot function properly in our modern society of highly advanced weaponry.  Think of the destruction possible if some of the recent gun rampages had been performed by people with the right to own tanks, or attack helicopters, or the like.  Perhaps, just perhaps, this portion of the constitution has become obsolete and we need to rethink the original purpose of the second amendment and the best way forward in seeking the "security of a free state"?  I am not sure, given the ongoing gun violence in our country that the second amendment is still the best way to provide for the security of a free state.  What do you think?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Census of Quirinius II: Questions

In my previous post, I discussed the census of Quirinius referred to in Luke 2.  I drew the conclusion that this census occurred in 6 C.E. and really only makes sense at that time and not earlier.

That date, 6 C.E., as well as the way that Luke tells the story, raises some interesting questions. Scholarship always begins with questions. We must be willing to ask questions and follow the data to whatever answers we can find. In this case, the questions may not be easy and the answers may not be either.

Question 1: does Luke's story fit chronologically?  Here is the problem.  In 1:5 we are told that Herod was "King" of Judea when Zechariah was given the announcement of his son's birth.  His son, of course is John the Baptist. In 1:26 we are told that Elizabeth (the mother of John) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when the announcement of Jesus' birth is given to Mary.  In 1:39, Mary visits Elizabeth and John leaps in her womb in response to the presence of Jesus.  This firmly dates Mary's pregancy during or shortly after King Herod's reign.  Now the term King is important here, for only Herod the great could be called "King."  His sons, who also went by Herod, were also rulers, but they were not called "King."  Instead, Herod's sons (Antipas, Phillip, and Archelaus) were called "tetrarchs," rulers of a fourth of Herod's kingdom.  So, the Herod from 1:5 must be Herod the Great and not Antipas as some have argued.  The date of Herod the Great's death is firmly set in 4 B.C.E. So, Mary is pregnant during the reign of Herod the Great, but does not give birth until the census of Quirinius in 6 C.E.  See the problem?  Either Mary carried Jesus in the womb for 10 years before giving birth, or something in Luke's chronology is off.  Either Jesus was born in the waning moments of Herod the Great's reign in about 4 B.C.E.  (as in Luke 1 and also in Matthew 2), or he was born at the time of the census of Quirinius in 6 C.E.  It cannot be both.

Question 2: Does a trip from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea for a census make historical sense?  In Luke the reason Jesus is born in Bethlehem is because of this census.  But, does such a move even make sense?  Here is what I mean.  Last time I mentioned that Roman censuses were primarily for the purposes of taxation.  You would want to know how many people were living in an area from which you hoped to collect taxes.  But, Mary and Joseph don't live in Bethlehem, or even in Judea. They live in Galilee, which which would not even be covered in this census since Galilee at the time was under the rule of Herod Antipas who would be responsible for collecting and submitting taxes to Rome.  So, it makes no sense to send Mary and Joseph to Joseph's ancestral home (Bethlehem, the city of David, the ancestor of Joseph) to be counted for a census, the purpose of which is taxation, since Mary and Joseph will not be living there to be taxed.  And as expected, after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph return to Galilee.  We have no other example of a Roman practice of sending people to ancestral homes to be counted.  It would make no administrative sense.  The closest we have is that temporary dwellers would be sent back to their permanent residences during a census, not the other way around.*

So, in answer to these questions I would say 1), Luke's chronology is off and does not fit. And 2) Luke's story of Mary and Joseph does not make historical sense with regard to Roman practice.

These answers raise two other important questions which I hope to tackle at another time: 1) Was Luke's mistaken chronology a mistake? Or, did he knowingly include irreconcilable dates?  And 2) Was Luke aware of the implausibility of his narrative of moving Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus?  What do you think?

* See Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 549.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Census of Quirinius

The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are fascinating and I have written concerning them previously (here, here, and here).  Today I want to take a look at the census of Quirinius* referred to in Luke 2:1-3 as follows:
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
This census is foundational for Luke's narrative.  The census is the driving force that moves Mary and Joseph from their home in Nazareth of Galilee (in the northern part of Palestine) to Bethlehem in Judea (in the southern part of Palestine).  It is the reason why Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem, in a stable at the time of Jesus' birth.  Without the census, Jesus would have presumably been born at the home of Mary and Joseph in Nazareth.  No stable, no manger, no farm animals or shepherds (much like the birth of Jesus in Matthew 2). 

With the census being so central to the Luke's story, what can we know about it?  Josephus, a first century Jewish historian also mentions the census, and it is important to his narrative as well. In fact, the census of Quirinius sets off a mini-rebellion by Judas the Galilean, and is an important precursor to the Jewish war which is the primary focus of Josephus' Jewish War, and Antiquities. Luke also mentions Judas the Galilean in connection with the "census" in Acts 5, so he is well aware of the connection of the census with Judas. According to Josephus, this census takes place during the governorship of Quirinius, legate of Syria, in 6-7 C.E.

The timing of the Roman census in 6-7 C.E. makes perfect sense, as, before 6 C.E. and dating back well into the first century B.C.E., the region of Judea had been under the administration of Herod the Great and his sons.  Herod, and his sons after him had administrative control of most of Palestine and were responsible for the collection of taxes and general rule.  Before 6 C.E., there would be no reason for Rome to conduct a census.  Censuses existed in Rome primarily for the purposes of taxation.  As long as the Herods were collecting and submitting taxes to Rome, Rome would have no need for a census.  But, something changed in 6 C.E.  In 4 B.C.E., Herod the Ethnarch (King, Ruler of a people), who had ruled most of Palestine since 37 B.C.E. died.  He left his kingdom to his son Archelaeus.  Archelaus and Herod's other sons all traveled to Rome to argue for their father's kingdom before Emperor Augustus. In the end, Rome divided Herod's kingdom among his three sons.  Judea and Samaria went to Archelaus; Galilee and Perea went to Herod Antipas, and Batanea went to Phillip.

Archelaus the Tetrarch (ruler of a fourth), ruler over Judea and Samaria, was a vicious ruler hated by his people.  He slaughtered many of his own citizens on multiple occasions. When he went to Rome to have his kingdom ratified by the Roman Emperor, his own citizens sent a delegation after him to oppose his rule.  In the end, his administration was a disaster and Rome removed him from power in 6 C.E. and replaced his rule by bringing Judea and Samaria under their own governor in Syria.  At the time, 6 C.E., that governor was Quirinius.  And now that Judea was under Roman rule, they needed to know how many people lived there, thus, the census of Quirinius of 6 C.E.  A Roman census prior to this time makes no sense.

This is the basic historical background for the census of Quirinius.  Stay tuned for future posts on the census.

*For more info on the census, see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 547-556.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Argument for Traditional Gospel Authorship

In one of the comments to my Gospel Authorship series (Part I, II, III, IV, VVI, VII), in which laid out why scholars usually claim that the gospels are anonymous and that the titles were added later, a reader asked what the arguments for traditional authorship are.  So, I want to post one more time on gospel authorship and give what I see as the main argument for traditional authorship.

In short, the argument for traditional authorship are quite simple: 1) Our earliest traditions (i.e., Papias, Irenaeus) claim that the gospels were written by Matthew (a disciple of Jesus), Mark (an interpreter of Peter), Luke (a companion of Paul), and John (the beloved disciple of Jesus). 2) There is no evidence that definitively and conclusively contradicts this early tradition. 3) Therefore, the tradition is mostly likely correct.

Consider the following quotes from Donald Guthrie's New Testament Introduction.
"To sum up, it may be said that there is no conclusive reason for rejecting the strong external testimony regarding the authorship of Matthew, although some difficulties arise from source hypotheses."*
"So strong is the early Christian testimony that Mark was the author of this gospel that we need do little more than mention this attestation."** 
 "The Apostle John. This, as has been seen, is the traditional view, which has much support for it in the internal evidence.  Indeed, it may be said that there is no evidence which conclusively disproves it, in spite of much opposition to it."***
These three statements nicely illustrate the late Dr. Guthrie's argument for traditional authorship.  His position is that, without definitive and conclusive proof that early Christian testimony (read Papias, Irenaeus, et. al.) is incorrect, the traditional authors should hold.

A clarification is needed here.  Dr. Guthrie introduces the concepts of internal and external evidence.  Internal evidence refers to what we can determine from the text of the gospels themselves, and external evidence refers to what others (early Christians) have said about the text.  For Guthrie, external evidence is the trump card that squashes all opposition.  For Guthrie, external evidence is primary, and internal evidence is secondary.  Consider this quote from his discussion of the authorship of Luke:
"It is against the background of the strong external evidence that the witness of the books themselves [i.e. internal evidence] must be considered."****
This line of reasoning in my mind is faulty.  Now, if Papias and Irenaeus were first century authors and their statements about the gospels were clear and unambiguous, that would be another matter.  As it stands, Papias was writing 50-75 years after the gospels were written (not to mention the fact that the Papias quote is only preserved from Eusebius in the fourth century) and Irenaeus nearly 100 years after the writing of the gospels, I would actually reverse Guthrie's argument and claim that the internal evidence is primary, and the external evidence is only secondary. 

Now, I want to be fair to the late Dr. Guthrie.  He does deal at length with all of the evidence, and does so in a nuanced and fair manner.  But, at the end of the day for Guthrie, no internal evidence could trump the external witness of second century Christians unless it were absolutely conclusive. So there it is. Guthrie provides one of the best scholarly attempts to argue for traditional gospel authorship.  What do you think?


*Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, (Downer's Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990), 53.
**Ibid, 81.
*** Ibid, 275.
**** Ibid, 115.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Do Not Defraud: Mark 10:19

In Mark 10:19, Jesus gives a list of commandments to the man who has approached him seeking eternal life:

"You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 
It is a list that is probably very familiar, and comes from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy five, the famous "10 Commandments."  Now, as is often the case with lists, especially lists that we have heard often, we tend not to listen to the details because we think that we know the contents.  But, Mark has done something interesting here that I had never noticed until we discussed the passage at depth in a Sunday School class this past week.  Mark lists six commands.  From the 10 commandments, he has omitted numbers 1-4 (No other gods, no idols, name of the Lord in vain, and Sabbath), and number 10 (do not covet).  So, he has omitted five, but he has given six.  So, which one of those do not appear in the famous "10"?  That would be "You shall not defraud." So, why is it here in this list?  A quick perusal of the commentaries on my shelf yielded no "aha" moments.

Matthew and Luke have parallel stories, but neither include the command not to defraud.

The word for defraud is a rare word in the New Testament, only being used five other times in the new testament.  In three of those five usages it refers to financial transactions.  In James it is used to refer to an employer who withholds his workers wages (James 5:4).  In I Corinthians 6, the word is used in conjunction with lawsuits that believers are bringing against one another and defrauding one another (I Cor. 6:7-8).

One quick thought I had was that Mark has put this command there on purpose because it deals directly with the specific problem of this man.  Perhaps he is particularly prone to defraud others as a means of accumulating his wealth.  Perhaps he is using his wealth to defraud others.  Therefore Mark has placed this command not to defraud right alongside the more famous commands from the "10." Just a thought.  What do you think?  I would love any other thoughts about Mark's inclusion of this command.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Gospel Authorship VII: A Narrative Reconstruction

I could probably write on this topic for quite some time because I find it endlessly fascinating, but my wife has informed me that I have gone a bit off the rails at this point, so let me bring this series on gospel authorship (Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI) to a close with one final post in which I set forth a more or less mainstream scholarly narrative reconstruction of gospel authorship as I see it.

Jesus was crucified by the Romans around the year 30 C.E.  If any narrative of Jesus' life was written in the 30 or so years after his death, those writings have not survived.  Yet, the message about Jesus was passed orally from person to person, from group to group for many years.  Our earliest Christian writings are Paul's undisputed letters which were written mostly in the 50s C.E.  Yet these writings tell us little about Jesus' life.  Only with the writing of what we know as the Gospel of Mark do we have our first surviving writing of a narrative of the life of Jesus.  Most scholars will date Mark to the late 60s or early 70s C.E.  As noted before, the gospel attributed to Mark is formally anonymous. There is no place in the text of the gospel where the author provides a self-identification.  Presumably the first audience of the gospel knew who the author was and accepted his authority.

Skip several years into the future and our second gospel was written, the gospel attributed to Matthew, usually dated to the mid to late 70s C.E.  There is strong evidence that the gospel known as Matthew was copied in large part from the gospel attributed to Mark.  This gospel too is also formally anonymous with no author identification within the gospel itself.  Once again, the authority of the author was probably known by the original audience of the gospel.

Yet a few more years later comes a third gospel, that attributed to Luke and usually dated in the late 70s to the 80s CE.  Once again, Luke's gospel copied large portions of Mark, and also either copied other portions of Matthew, or Matthew and Luke had a common source that has not survived (called Q, or Quelle for "source").  Interestingly, there is some author self-identification in Luke, though no name is given.  In the gospel preface, the author claims to know of other accounts (gospels?), to have relied on eyewitnesses (though he himself is not one), and to have carefully investigated the matter. Though this gospel does not claim to be written by a disciple, it is claiming authority based upon the author's careful research. This might be seen as the first step toward needing to argue for the authority of a gospel, presumably because the amount of time that has transpired between the events described and the time of the writing.

Finally, the fourth gospel, that attributed to John, is written, probably in the 90s CE, and stands apart from the other three in its style and narrative.  John also has some self identification of the author in chapter 21, where the authors are a "we" who are dependent upon the testimony of one of Jesus' disciples, the "beloved disciple." Interestingly, the "beloved disciple" from this gospel is never identified by name.  Here again, we see a further step in claiming authority for a gospel, this time tracing the contents to the gospel to a disciple, but an unnamed one at that.

As we get into the second century, a couple of things happen.  First, new gospels are written, but these mostly come with claims of apostolic authorship like the Gospel of Thomas or the Protoevangelium of James (see post here).  In these gospels, the author self identifies as one of the apostles.  Yet, their second century date clearly precludes the possibility of apostolic authorship.  You could say that as time passes and we get into the second century, 100 years or more after Jesus' death, the claims for authority need to be stronger and stronger.  Coincidentally (or perhaps not) it is at this time that we have our first mention of gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Many scholars conclude at this point that, amidst competition among gospels for authority, it was necessary to attach authoritative names to the four gospels that would later be included in the canon.  Thus, the titles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were attempts by Christians in the second century to preserve the authority of those four gospels but do not represent the original authors.  This then explains scholars claims that 1) the gospel titles were added later than the composition of the gospels, and 2) the four canonical gospels are anonymous.

These four gospel titles were settled sometime in the second century, and by the third century our manuscripts demonstrate a consistent naming of the four canonical gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Now, there is one serious objection to the above reasoning, and I think it is a valid one.  If second century Christians needed to attach authoritative names to the four anonymous gospels that would later be canonized, why did they choose the names they did?  Now, this objection does not confront the gospels of Matthew and John, since those men were disciples and eyewitnesses.  Yet, why choose Mark and Luke?  Neither of them were disciples nor eyewitnesses.  The best connection that can be made is that Mark was connected with Peter and Luke was connected with Paul.  Yet, if one were free to choose names, wouldn't one of the disciples be a better option?  For this reason, I think that there may be some validity to the traditions of the titles Mark and Luke, that is, that these gospels may have indeed been composed by men named "Mark" and "Luke.".  Yet, even saying that, there is no firm evidence that Mark = John Mark of Acts, or that Luke = Luke the Physician from Paul's letters.  Those identifications appear to me to be attempts to connect the common names Mark and Luke with anyone in the New Testament by those names who might preserve some "apostolic authority" for these gospels.

Here ends my discussion of gospel authorship for now.  We can continue in the comments section.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Gospel Authorship Part VI: Questioning the Traditional Titles

In Parts I, II, III, IV, and V of this series on gospel authorship, I have been addressing the claims of scholars that 1) the traditional titles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were added later than the writing of the canonical gospels, and 2) the canonical gospels are all anonymous.

In this post, I would like to look more at the traditional authors of these texts and some questions those traditional authors pose for scholars.

First, lets look at the four traditional authors:

Matthew was a tax collector (called Matthew only in Matthew's gospel, elsewhere in the call of the tax collector story, he is called Levi, although a Matthew makes the list of 12 disciples in all three synoptics).

Mark, was neither a disciple nor an eyewitness according to Papias' statement, but was an interpreter of Peter and his gospel is supposedly a record of the preaching of Peter.  This Mark is often equated with John Mark from the book of Acts whose mother owned a home in Jerusalem where the early church stayed.

Luke was neither a disciple nor an eyewitness according to Irenaeus' statement, but instead was a companion of Paul (who himself was not an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry).  This Luke is often equated with Luke the doctor (physician, healer) whom Paul mentions in three of his letters (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 1:24, 2 Tim 4:11).  Yet, Irenaeus does not make this explicit connection.

John was a disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee and brother of James.  Irenaeus makes the connection between John the son of Zebedee and the beloved disciple of the fourth gospel, though he does not spell out his reasoning for doing so.  John the son of Zebedee was a fisherman.

So those are the four traditional authors of the gospels.  We have two disciples (Matthew and John), two non-eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke).  We have a physician (Luke), a fisherman (John), a tax collector (Matthew), and a man of unknown profession (Mark).

Now, these traditional authors raise some interesting questions.  We know from the gospels that are written that the four authors of the canonical gospels were all competent Greek writers of varying levels of proficiency.  Now, this raises important questions for at least two of our traditional authors. Literacy rates in the first century were abysmal compared to today.  Estimates of literacy in the Roman Empire top out at about 10%-15% in urban cities (with probably much lower rates in rural areas).  In short, literacy was a luxury reserved for the rich, those who had leisure time.  Two of our traditional authors do not meet that standard.  John, a fisherman from rural Galilee would not typically be able to write in Greek (which would not be his native language at that).  Matthew, a tax collector would probably have limited literacy, but probably very limited and only enough to complete financial transactions. Neither the first nor fourth gospels in their evidence of fluid Greek prose seem to fit the pictures of the traditional authors.  For the second gospel (Mark), which has the least accomplished Greek composition skills, we do not know the profession of the attributed author John Mark, so we cannot make claims as to his literacy.  Finally, for the third gospel (Luke), which has the most complex and accomplished Greek prose of the four gospels, we know little for sure regarding its traditional author.  A physician may or may not be literate to a high level, but it certainly was not requisite for physicians to be literate at all.  So, the literacy of the traditional authors are all in some level of doubt.

A second question arises and that has to do with the scholarly consensus (see post on scholarly consensus here) regarding the synoptic problem.  In short, there is a consensus among scholars that the second gospel (Mark) was written first and was then copied by the first gospel author (Matthew), and the third gospel author (Luke).  If that scholarly consensus is correct (and I count myself among the scholarly majority in this matter), then we have a very strange situation.  If John Mark, a non-eyewitness of Jesus wrote his gospel first, why then did Matthew, an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus, copy large portions of his gospel, including the overall narrative structure, from John Mark, a non-eyewitness and non-disciple of Jesus?  Would not Matthew, an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus consider himself a greater authority on the life of Jesus and not bother to copy a large portion of his gospel from a non-eyewitness?

I will let these questions linger for a while.  Come back next time when I will hopefully wrap up this series with some tentative conclusions.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Scholarly Consensus

I want to take a quick break from my gospel authorship series (Parts I, II, III, IV, V) to follow a "short" rabbit trail that appeared in the comments section in part V.  An astute reader named Jeremy Ledger left the following comment:
Really enjoying reading this series - thanks for putting this together! I do however have a couple of queries about the points above that you label as "concrete evidence":

1) Can we firmly date all four gospels to the first century? What is the evidence for this? The consensus dates are something like 70 AD for Mark, 75 for Matthew, 85 for Luke and 95 for John. But as with the attribution of names that you highlight here, this consensus is based on quite flimsy evidence, and there is actually a high margin for error in all of these dates. This cuts both ways - the actual dates could be either earlier or later - but my understanding is that for John at least (and more controversially also for Luke and possibly even Matthew and Mark) the date could be some time in the second century. And in the case of John, we may have some parts from the first century, and some from the second.
Jeremy noticed that I had done something sneaky.  Well, perhaps not so sneaky, he noticed it.  And then again, I think sneaky implies the intent to deceive, and that was not my intent.  In fact, I think it was just laziness in my writing (and thinking), which is one reason I am trying to pick up my blogging again.  But, Jeremy questioned my use of the term "concrete evidence" to refer to the dating of the four canonical gospels to the first century, and he was correct to do so.  That would only be "concrete evidence" or "hard data" if we had, say, a dated manuscript, or a datable inscription, or perhaps a datable reference to the gospels that was in the first century.  We have none of those.  Instead, what we have is a scholarly consensus that the four canonical gospels should be dated in the first century (or, early second century at the latest) and I agree with the substance of the dates that Jeremy gave above.

So, I was mistaken in using this scholarly consensus as "concrete evidence."  So, what is a scholarly consensus and how should one be used in argumentation?

Well, in short, a scholarly consensus is when the vast majority of scholars in a given field, with the necessary training in that field, have determined, based upon the concrete evidence, that certain conclusions follow the evidence. It is important to note that scholarly consensuses are conclusions based on evidence and are not themselves evidence. This is true in all fields. One could list many examples: the safety of vaccinations, human caused climate change, evolution through natural selection, etc.

Now, some important things to point out.  First, scholarly consensuses are not easy to come by.  In general, scholars love to argue and debate.  They love to one up their colleagues. Moreover, there is probably no quicker way to gain scholarly respect and notoriety than to successfully overturn a scholarly consensus.  For example, if I could convince everyone, or nearly everyone in my field, that Q did not exist, then I would overturn a long held scholarly consensus in my field and would gain tremendous respect and notoriety (Oh, wait, someone may be doing this already, but unfortunately it was not me, but Mark Goodacre).  So, when scholars nearly all agree the the evidence leads to certain conclusions, those conclusions ought to be taken very seriously. It is not that they cannot be questioned, or even overturned, but that is a hard fought battle.

Now, I do think scholarly consensuses are useful for pursuing an argument, and next to "hard data" they are often the best that scholars can do given the scarcity of evidence in certain cases (like ancient history).  In that sense, I would stand by what I wrote in Part V, that the four canonical gospels can be firmly dated to the first century.  But, as Jeremy pointed out, this is a scholarly consensus, a conclusion reached by scholars based on the evidence, and is not itself evidence, and I was mistaken in my language in so calling it "concrete evidence."

In fact, the whole gospel authorship series began by questioning an assumption I had made that a scholarly consensus (that the gospel titles were added later and that the gospels are anonymous), a conclusion reached based on the evidence, was in fact evidence in the form of gospel manuscripts without titles.  Once again, there are no gospel manuscripts without titles.

So, bully to Jeremy for holding my feet to the fire and forcing me to be more precise in my language.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Gospel Authorship V: A Preliminary Observation

In parts I, II, III, and IV of this series ((and partially in the post on Higher Criticism) I have been dealing with two common scholarly claims about gospel titles: 1) the titles were added later than the composition of the canonical gospels, and 2) the four canonical gospels are anonymous.

In this post, I would like to sum up the evidence discovered so far, and see where we might press further to seek answers to the questions surrounding gospel authorship and titles.

Here is the concrete evidence we have.

1) There are four gospels that are firmly dated to the first century, all written by competent Greek writers.
2) All four of these gospels are formally anonymous (see here).
3) In the second century we have our first mention of gospels written by Mark (Papias, ca. 125, Irenaeus, ca. 180), Matthew (Papias, ca. 125, Irenaeus, ca. 180), Luke, (Irenaeus, ca. 180), and John (Irenaeus, ca. 180).
4) Also in the second century we have the composition of other gospels written in the names of apostles.  These are not formally anonymous but the claims to authorship come in the gospels themselves, and, given their late date, these claims to authorship are clearly spurious and are attempts to bolster the authority of these second century gospels.
5) In the third century the earliest manuscripts of the gospels that we have that are complete enough to have room for a title all bear the traditional titles of the gospels.

Here is one observation that seems to jump out when looking at this evidence: there is a clear shift in convention in gospel writing between the first and second century.  The first century gospels were formally anonymous and did not require the name of an apostle to gain credibility (presumably the first audiences of these gospels knew who the authors were and accepted their authority in these matters).  In the second century, association with an apostle had to be made explicit within the text itself to lend credibility to a writing.  I find it an odd coincidence that at the same time gospels were being forged in the name of apostles to bolster credibility, we find our first mention of the four formally anonymous gospels from the first century being attached to apostles (or their close companions).  This begs the question: are not these second century attributions of authorship to our four anonymous gospels just an attempt to shore up support for these gospels in the face of new gospels claiming apostolic authorship? Now, this is not concrete evidence against traditional authorship.  Instead, it is more like circumstantial evidence, but in the face of the scarcity of the data, circumstantial evidence might have to do.

Next time we will deal with further evidence that might help to answer these questions. Come back next time.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Higher Criticism, Science, and Why I do it.

Many religious Students often come to college religion classes unprepared for the way that their religion professors deal with the Bible.  To the religious student, often of very conservative religious backgrounds, their professors seem to be treating the Bible with utter disdain and disrespect.  Now, we can talk about whose fault this is at another time, for today I want to take a quick break from our discussion of gospel authorship (parts I, II, III, and IV), though today's topic is very relevant to that series, to discuss higher criticism, its relation to science, and why I, as a religious believer, engage in higher criticism.

Let's start with my last question first: Why do I engage in higher criticism of the Bible?  Well, I think the answer goes back to my childhood and is as deeply a part of me as is my personality.  From the very beginning, I have had an insatiable curiosity and drive to know the truth.  As a kid, I loved to take things apart to see how they worked. If something broke, I would take it apart to see if I could fix it. In high school I bought a Jeep that needed an engine swap.  With a little help from friends, I swapped the engine.  I just need to know how things work and why they are the way they are.  Now, this insatiable curiosity could have served me in many different careers, but I was also a devout Christian with a call to ministry, so I channeled my pursuit of truth to the one thing that was most important to me: my faith. I wanted to know the truth about my faith, about theology, about the Bible. So, many years, and three degrees later, I am still channeling this desire to understand into my profession as a scholar and teacher of the Bible.

Following this drive to understand no matter what has a couple of consequences. One of the first is that no question is off limits in the pursuit of truth.  There are no "truths" which are unassailable. There is no human doctrine that is "off limits" with regard to questioning it.  And this comes from the scientific revolution of the 1500s-1700s and the Enlightenment that followed.  Higher criticism in biblical studies was a logical outflow of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.  Question everything, seek the truth.

Recently a colleague of mine who teaches in the Biology department made an off the cuff comment that I found somewhat offensive.  No offense was meant, and I did not make an issue, but the professor said something like the following: "I always tell my [Biology] students that the difference between Biology and what is taught in the Religion department is that in Biology we deal with facts." Like I said, I do not think that this professor, who is a good friend and a believer, meant any offense, but the comment implied that what biblical scholars do is just make things up, while scientists seek the facts.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Biblical scholars seek the facts as well.  So, I want engage in a brief comparison between what I do as a biblical scholar engaging in higher criticism and what scientists do.

First lets do a quick refresher on the scientific method taught in elementary school.  Here is an image.  I consider higher criticism in biblical studies as a modified scientific method which, in its modern form, was solidified in the scientific revolution and Enlightenment by Francis Bacon and Renee Descartes.  Like Scientists, biblical scholars begin with (1) observation.  So for example, a biblical scholar will observe the gospels and notice the titles. They might make a second observation that nowhere within the gospels do the authors self identify (formal anonymity, discussed here) (2) Biblical scholars will ask a question: do these titles represent the names of the gospel authors or is something else going on?  (3) Form a hypothesis. For example: I hypothesize that the gospel titles represent the names of the authors.  (4) Conduct an experiment.  Oops, at this point biblical criticism must diverge from the scientific method.  We cannot conduct an experiment on the gospel authors. They are all dead.  We cannot recreate the first century in a lab.  So, biblical scholars must come up with another way to test their hypothesis (which is what an experiment is designed to do).  So, what substitutes for an experiment for biblical scholars is the rigorous collection of data. Biblical scholars will attempt to gather all of the relevant data in an effort to get the fullest possible picture of the situation.  Unfortunately, this is a poor replacement for an experiment.  Would that we could run an experiment and create a full data set, then run the experiment again to recreate the data set.  But alas, it is not so. Therefore, we must to the best we can with the data we have.  We cannot create new data. But we can always search for more.  Biblical scholars draw on all sorts of historical data and facts. We draw facts from ancient writings, archaeology, inscriptions, physical forms of manuscripts, etc.  So, contrary to my colleagues comments, we are in fact dealing with and constrained by the facts. The main difference is that we are limited by the recoverable data, which often times is very incomplete (as with the data regarding gospel titles, see here). (5) Draw conclusions.  At this point, biblical scholars must interpret the data to draw the best possible conclusions to determine what probably happened in the past.  I say probably because the data set is never complete.  Therefore these conclusions are always somewhat tentative, not nearly as secure as conclusions based upon repeated scientific experiment.  This is why there is such vigorous debate on many issues in biblical studies.  Often the data set is just too incomplete to draw firm conclusions.  But, other times the data set is sufficient to produce scholarly consensus (as is the case with Markan Priority in the synoptic problem).  (6) Report your results.  Biblical scholars do this through publishing books and articles, arguing for their conclusions and seeking academic discussion and debate.

To these I would add (7): Repeat.  Biblical scholars must constantly repeat this process, never rest easy, never cease to ask questions, must search for new data, and re-evaluate their conclusions in the never ending quest for the truth.

So, while biblical criticism is certainly not a "hard" science, our method is derived from the scientific method and attempts to be just as rigorous with regard to "facts" as any scientist would be.  The difference comes from the fact that science can create data through experiments, historical research has to work with the data we can recover from the past.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Gospel Authorship IV: Second Century Identifications

In Parts I, II, and III of this series, I have been exploring two common scholarly claims about gospel authorship: 1) The titles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were added later than the composition of the canonical gospels and 2) the canonical gospels are all anonymous.

Today, I want to discuss where these titles might have come from.  First of all, it is important for scholars to admit when they don't know something, and in this case, it is impossible to scholars to know if or when these titles were attached to the four canonical gospels.  It is possible that the titles were there from the very beginning.  But, discovering what is possible is not the task of scholarship. Scholarship, especially of the historical variety, is not about discovering what is possible, but rather, what is probable.  Given the evidence we have, what is the most probable state of affairs. Discovering what is most probable involves collecting all the available evidence and arguing for the most probable situation which gave rise to that evidence.

The first positive evidence we have of the names of our four canonical authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) comes from two second century authors: Papias* and Irenaeus.**  Let's first look at what Papias has to say concerning Mark:

 "And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements." (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. iii. 39).
According to Papias, Mark was Peter's interpreter.  Mark was not an eyewitness or disciple of Jesus, but rather was passing on second hand information.

And Papias on Matthew:
"Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could."  (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. iii. 39).
A couple of things to note here.  First, Matthew is not explicitly identified as the disciple.  Second, and more curious is the phrase "Hebrew language." The gospel that we know as Matthew was written in Greek and shows no signs of ever having a Hebrew original.

Also of note for Papias on both Matthew and Mark is that he does not explicitly use the word gospel. But, for the sake of argument at this point, lets say that Papias is referring to the gospels we now know as Matthew and Mark.

On to the testimony of Irenaeus.  Irenaeus mentions all four canonical gospels.
"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church." (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).
Irenaeus says substantively what Papias had said, including the Hebrew dialect, while adding the word "gospel" and the information about Peter and Paul.
"After their departure [of Peter and Paul from earth], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.“ (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).
Irenaeus adds nothing of import to the Papias writing regarding Mark.
"Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him." (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).
Here we get our first mention of a Gospel by Luke.  Luke is identified as a companion of Paul, and therefore not an eyewitness of Jesus.
“Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).
Here is our first mention of John's gospel.  Interestingly, this is the most concrete reference to any of our gospels. The mention of the one  "who also had leaned upon His breast," is a clear reference to the beloved disciple from John's gospel, but is the first time that anyone has equated the beloved disciple with John (son of Zebedee?).

So there you have it.  This is the second century evidence for gospel authorship.  With regard to Matthew and Mark, the evidence is early second century, with Luke and John it is late second century. Also, with regard to the evidence itself, only with John does what is said about his gospel clearly identify it as the gospel we know as John.  But, even though the evidence is not as strong as scholars might like, nevertheless, let us grant for the moment, that by the time of Irenaeus (circa 180 C.E.), the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were firmly attached to the gospels that bear those names today. What does this tell us?  Only that by the end of the second century, the titles were attached to the gospels.  And this predates our manuscript evidence, so it is not surprising that our manuscripts of the New Testament from the third century and beyond, all consistently bear the traditional gospel titles.  But, the second century evidence does not positively tell us when these titles came to be attached to the four canonical gospels.  To answer that question, the scholar will have to engage in much more rigorous research and interpretation.  And, the scholar will have to admit that with this paucity of positive evidence, there is no way to know for sure when these titles became associated with the four canonical gospels.

But that is a question for another post.  Come back next time.

* Papias was a second century Bishop of city of Hierapolis located in modern-day Turkey.  His writings are usually dated circa 125 C.E., but his writings are only preserved in the fourth century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea.

** Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyons, France, and his writings are usually dated circa 180 C.E.