Thursday, July 30, 2015

Follow up to Part II of Ehrman-McGrew radio debate

Having now listened to Part II of the McGrew-Ehrman radio debate on the British show Unbelievable, I have some follow-up thoughts. The majority of this post will be focused on debunking Ehrman's claim in the debate to have shown a trajectory through the gospels of increasing blame on the Jews for Jesus' death and exoneration of Pilate and Ehrman's attempt to explain a pair of undesigned coincidences connected with the trial before Pilate by this means. Such trajectory claims are notably poorly supported and easy to counterexample, but when stated in a confident tone and supported by selective data, they can sound plausible to the unwary. I debunked one of them (the claim that Jesus is first more human, then more noble and godlike in the passion) here. Ehrman's claim of increasing blame upon the Jews fares no better.

I want to encourage readers to listen to Part II. There is lots of good information there from Tim McGrew. This post of mine is merely supplementary.

To begin with, some miscellaneous points:

Tim gives an undesigned coincidence at approximately minute 36 in which Jesus turns to Philip at the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6) and asks where to buy bread for the crowd. John says in completely disconnected passages that Philip is from Bethsaida, and Luke says that this event took place in the region near Bethsaida. These three points come together to support the hypothesis that Jesus asked Philip this question (of course, not seriously proposing that they should buy bread for the crowd) because Philip was from the region. Ehrman suggests that this is explained by the fact that either John had access to Luke (he himself doubts this but thinks it is possible) or had "heard stories" which formed the basis of the gospel of Luke and included the statement that the event took place near Bethsaida.

This is an extremely weak explanation. Tim points out in the interview one reason for its weakness: If the author of John were doing this deliberately, based on access to Luke or to such stories, to make his gospel look good, he would not have left out the information that this took place near Bethsaida. I would add that, for similar reasons, it is also weak if one hypothesizes some vague "influence" without the deliberate intent to put in the Philip detail to strengthen the appearance of verisimilitude. To begin with, such an hypothesis is very cloudy. (It's hard to tell if Ehrman is hypothesizing that the author of John did this deliberately or not.) But more, if what was doing the influencing was that the author of John had read Luke or "heard stories" mentioning that the event took place near Bethsaida, the probable outcome would be his mentioning Bethsaida, not his mentioning Philip! Otherwise, we have the strange idea that the author of John vaguely remembered something about Bethsaida  in connection with this event (from stories he'd heard or from Luke), vaguely remembered that he himself had (fictionally?) written elsewhere that Philip was from Bethsaida, and then up out of his subconscious popped the name "Philip" (but not the name "Bethsaida") in writing fictionally about the feeding of the five thousand, and that was what got put in! This is a poor explanation.

In contrast, exactly this sort of situation where one person mentions a particular detail while another person mentions a different detail is common in normal witness testimony. (Cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace discusses this point in Cold Case Christianity.) People who remember events mention details as they happen to strike them from their memories. If the stories are based on the same underlying reality, it often happens that these somewhat randomly remembered details fit together. Hypotheses of dependence among the gospels do not have the same explanatory force for this type of fitting together.

Next miscellaneous point: Late in the interview (after minute 44), Ehrman literally laughs to scorn the idea that the disciples promulgated their stories of Jesus' miracles and resurrection under initial conditions of great hostility and opposition. When Tim points out that this is clearly recorded in Acts, Ehrman says that, even if one takes Acts at face value, this isn't really important as confirmation of their stories, because approximately 8,000 Christians are converted but, in the earliest chapters, only two people (Peter and John) are put in prison.

This response to the data in Acts is extremely shallow. Imagine a mega-church with 8,000 members and a pastoral staff of twelve. Imagine that two of the most prominent pastors get put in prison, repeatedly, for their preaching. Is this no biggie? Does this have no potential "chilling effect" upon the rest of the pastoral staff?  Now suppose that the pastoral staff have been lying or telling stories that are very poorly supported. Is it not likely that they will think twice about continuing to do so given the arrest of two of the chief pastors?

But more: There was not time in the interview to go on describing the persecutions in Acts, but Ehrman must surely know that Acts records even more persecutions of the earliest church--the stoning of Stephen, the persecution from Saul of Tarsus, the killing of James the son of Zebedee by Herod, and the additional imprisonment of Peter by Herod. The persecution from Saul involved many people (Acts 8), arose first in Jerusalem, and scattered the believers.

To dismiss all of this as though it has no relevance to whether the disciples would have lied or would have told fantastical, unsupported stories about Jesus at this time, claiming to be witnesses thereof, shows a complete lack of understanding of human psychology.

Next miscellaneous point: Ehrman outright contradicted himself in the debate on a point that he was (in his later statements) vigorously contesting.

One of the undesigned coincidences Tim explained involved Jesus' statement, "You say it" to Pilate in Luke 23:3 when Pilates asks, "Are you the king of the Jews." It was in response to this coincidence that Ehrman spun out his theory of a trajectory of Christian anti-semitism. Initially, when propounding this theory (just after minute 18), Ehrman says this, "The reason that in the gospel of John and the gospel of Luke that Pilate at first doesn't seem to do anything about it once Jesus admits he's the king of the Jews has a different reason." (emphasis added) This "different reason" is supposed to be the attempt to exonerate Pilate, which I will discuss. But notice that here Ehrman explicitly says, summarizing the passages, that Jesus admits he's the king of the Jews. But later, after minute 30, for some reason he starts contesting this very point! When Tim argues that Pilate would have been abrogating his responsibility as Roman governor by finding no fault in Jesus if Jesus admitted the charge without further explanation, Ehrman begins aggressively challenging this interpretation of "You say it" in Luke 23:3. Tim asks him if he is denying that this is what Jesus' response amounts to (an admission), and Ehrman says, "I absolutely don't think he's saying that."

This is a flat contradiction. I could guess at the reason. Tim has a rather clever way of showing the oddity of what we have in Luke, taken alone. It is as though Pilate is saying, "Oh, you're the king of the Jews. No problem." My psychological guess (which could be wrong) is that this catchy way of making the oddity of Luke vivid caught Ehrman's attention and he decided to challenge it, not remembering that he had earlier said himself that "Jesus admit he's the king of the Jews."

As Tim points out, even if Jesus' phrase "you say it" is not an outright admission, it is at a minimum a refusal to deny the charge--cheeky and suspicious under the circumstances (without further explanation), and something a Roman governor should not be satisfied with when he's concerned about a putative case of sedition. There are a couple of possible translations of Jesus' response, but neither explains Pilate's dismissal of all guilt, taken alone. (Hence the need for supplementary information, which we find in John.)

I would add that there is some independent reason to translate, "You say it" as an affirmative. Jesus gives a similar answer in Matthew 26:64 (and Luke 22:70) before the Sanhedrin. The high priest charges Jesus by the living God (vs. 63) to tell them whether he is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus answers, "You have said it; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." In response, the high priest tears his robes (vs. 65) saying, "He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy." Even more significantly, in Mark 15:62, this very same response by Jesus to the high priest is given by the more explicit, "Ego eimi"--"I am," which is precisely the wording Ehrman says (contradicting himself) that Luke 23 would have if Jesus is admitting to Pilate that he is the king of the Jews. This is fairly strong independent evidence that Jesus' words "you have said it" or "you say it" mean "yes." In John 18:37, when Jesus answers Pilate's question, "Are you a king?" with the words "You say," he expands upon the affirmative nature of the answer: "For this I have been born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth." (In John, Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world, which explains Pilate's finding no fault in him.)

Final miscellaneous point: Ehrman says (just after minute 19) that as time went on the Christians were "in heightened situations of antagonism with Jews, and Christians began portraying Jews as the ones responsible for Jesus' death. And so that's why in the later sources Pilate has to have his arm twisted. Because that shows that in fact it's the Jews who were at fault." He is claiming an external, historical trajectory of "heightened situations of antagonism with the Jews" as a causal explanation for what he sees as a trajectory of increasing anti-Jewish expressions in Christian writings.

Historically, this is completely backwards, all the more so since Ehrman wants to carry this pattern on into the second century. The antagonism with Jewish opponents was an earlier phenomenon in Christianity and with the Romans was a later phenomenon. Acts makes very plain the fact that the persecution of the new church came first from the Sanhedrin and from Saul of Tarsus, that Herod executed James to please the Jews, and that Paul after his conversion was constantly persecuted by Jewish opponents. The Romans in Acts scarcely even seem to know who the Christians are and are inclined to view much of this as some weird, internecine religious strife (as in the case of Gallio in Acts 18). There is literally no time in Acts at the beginning of Christianity when the new Christians are not in a "situation of antagonism" with Jewish persecutors.

In contrast, historically, Nero's first persecution of Christians was in A.D. 64. The destruction of Jerusalem took place in A.D. 70, after which point the Jews were scattered and had no independent governmental and social structures permitting them to persecute Christians as they did in the early days of the church. The ruthless Roman suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt and its aftermath in the early second century made things even worse for Jews. But Pliny the Younger in the earlier 2nd century under the Emperor Trajan was torturing Christian deaconesses for the "superstition" of Christianity. In other words, the Romans came to be the persecutors of Christianity while the Jews were at first the chief persecutors but later were in far less of a position to give the Christians a hard time. This is exactly the opposite of Ehrman's claim that Christians gradually came to be in a situation of "heightened antagonism" with Jews.

Which brings me to...

The claimed trajectory of anti-semitism in the gospels as an explanation of undesigned coincidences

Before debunking this claim of trajectory, let me emphasize (as Tim does in the interview) that it doesn't even begin to explain the undesigned coincidences Tim was pointing out. Tim points out the oddity of the fact that Pilate questions Jesus in Luke 23:2-4 about whether he is the king of the Jews, after the Jewish leaders accuse him, Jesus either admits or at least cheekily refuses to deny the charge, and Pilate apparently turns around immediately and says that he finds no fault in him. Ehrman claims that there is nothing to explain because this is part of an increasing pattern of blaming the Jews and showing that Jesus is innocent under Roman law. But this makes no sense. If that were Luke's purpose, he could easily have left out Pilate's questioning and Jesus' answer. He could have merely said that Pilate declared Jesus innocent after questioning him. Then the possibility would be left open that Pilate learned something that exonerated Jesus under Roman law in his questioning. Leaving in Pilate's question and Jesus' answer in Luke doesn't make Jesus look innocent under Roman law. It makes him look highly suspicious under Roman law!

Similarly, Tim points out that there is a coincidence in the opposite direction, because John records that Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (John 18:33) but doesn't record any accusation to that effect against Jesus. The accusation of sedition, explaining Pilate's question, is actually found in Luke. Ehrman's response (minute 17 and following) was that this is well explained by the fact that, by the time John was written, everyone knew the "historical datum" that Jesus was condemned to death for claiming to be the king of the Jews. But wouldn't this be likely to lead to John's including the accusation as well as Pilate's question in his gospel, not leaving out the accusation and including only the question? Or at least, including something that explained the question--some prior claim to kingship made by Jesus, for example, and known to Pilate? As the passage stands, Pilate's question appears abrupt, since the Jews have thus far brought no concrete accusation against Jesus as recorded in John, and Pilate appears to know nothing about Jesus. The choppy nature of the scene in John is well explained by the casual nature of witness testimony but not explained at all by the mere historical information that Jesus was eventually condemned to death for claiming to be a king. Moreover, as I will point out again below, since Ehrman is treating John as continuing a progression of greater and greater Jew-blaming, John's failure to include their slanderous, specific accusations against Jesus is strange indeed and actually one of many counterexamples to the claimed trajectory in the gospels.

On to those counterexamples:

Like the failed trajectory claim concerning the "more human" to "more noble" or "more godlike" Jesus, the claim that the gospels gradually make the Jews more responsible for Jesus' death and Pilate less responsible is easily counterexampled when one simply opens one's Bible. Ehrman's argument for this claim is an excellent example of how cherry-picking data can create phantom trajectories out of thin air. Here is Ehrman's trajectory claim (minute 19):

If you arrange our traditions chronologically, so suppose you start with the gospel of Mark, and then you move to Matthew, then to Luke, then to John, and then to the Gospel of Peter in the second century, and then to what Justin Martyr says...the most striking feature of the traditions about Jesus being condemned to death is that Pilate becomes increasingly innocent with the passing of time and the Jewish people become increasingly guilty. That's because as Christians were telling and retelling their stories, they were in heightened situations of antagonism with Jews, and Christians began portraying Jews as the ones responsible for Jesus' death. And so that's why in the later sources Pilate has to have his arm twisted. Because that shows that in fact it's the Jews who were at fault.
Let's start with Mark. Ehrman claims in the interview (minute 21) that in Mark, Pilate and the Jews are both guilty (he implies, equally guilty) of Jesus' death, but that in later gospels Pilate needs to have his arm twisted. Of Mark, Ehrman says, "It's basically Pilate and the Jewish leaders pretty much agreeing that this needs to be done."

This is extremely misleading as a description of Mark. Mark, like all the other gospels, attributes to the chief priests and other Jewish leaders the plot to kill Jesus, stating that they were restrained earlier only by fear of the multitude, who were supportive of Jesus. (Mark 11:18) Mark records, like the other synoptics, the plot between Judas and the chief priests to have Jesus betrayed and captured, and how they promised Judas money. (Mark 14:10-11) Mark, like the other gospels, records that those who arrested Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane were from the chief priests (Mark 14:43), that the Jewish leaders first tried him before the high priest, and that it was they who first delivered him to Pilate (Mark 15:1).

In Mark 15:3-15, Pilate attempts in vs. 9 and 14 to get the crowd to agree to his releasing Jesus! In fact, vs. 10 says explicitly that he suggested that he release Jesus to them because "he was aware that the chief priests had delivered Him up because of envy." This isn't fitting very well with the idea that, in Mark, it's "basically Pilate and the Jewish leaders pretty much agreeing that this needs to be done," is it?

Mark 15:11 states that the chief priests stirred up the multitude to demand Barabbas. In vs. 14, Pilate protests, "Why, what evil has he done?" but they shout all the more, "Crucify Him!" This isn't fitting the pattern very well, is it?

In other words, in Mark, the Jewish leaders are the primary, driving force behind Jesus' crucifixion, and Pilate does need to have his arm twisted. All that one can say is that Mark's account of Jesus' interactions with Pilate is more compressed than later accounts--for example, it does not include the statement found in Luke that Jesus is sent to Herod or the various interviews between Jesus and Pilate found in John. But compression in itself does not mean that Pilate is more guilty or the Jews less guilty in Mark than anywhere else.

And here's another little tidbit. If we widen our focus (always a good thing to avoid cherry picking), we find in Mark 15:39 the Roman centurion saying, "Surely this was the son of God," which is a pretty positive portrayal of a Roman in the situation. (Remember, the claimed trajectory is of increasingly negative portrayals of the Jews and positive portrayals of Pilate, on the grounds that Jesus was innocent under Roman law.)

How about Matthew? Here, Ehrman makes much (minute 22 and following) of the dramatic scene in Matthew 27:24-25 where Pilate washes his hands and declares himself innocent of "this man's blood" and where the people cry out, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Arguably, this is the single most chilling scene in all of the New Testament as regards alleged Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death. (I myself think it's also pretty damning as a portrait of Pilate. But Ehrman wants to say that it portrays Pilate as innocent.) It is certainly a scene that is often said to be anti-Semitic in Scripture.

Ehrman tries to get full value of this scene as part of his developmental hypothesis: See how Matthew assigns the blame to the Jews? See how much more Matthew assigns the blame to the Jews than Mark does? See how this chronological trajectory is developing?

Well, no. Because what Ehrman doesn't say is that there is nothing like this in Luke and John, which are later than Matthew. This scene of hand-washing and of the Jewish crowd crying out "his blood be upon us and on our children" occurs in Matthew but not in the later Luke and John. This is an important counterexample to the developmental thesis.

What Ehrman moves on to highlight in Luke is that Pilate three times declares Jesus to be not guilty, that Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, and that Pilate says that Herod found nothing deserving of death in Jesus. Says Ehrman, "The innocence of Pilate is being heightened."

This is maximal cherry-picking. Taking attention away from the absence in Luke of Matthew's dramatic hand-washing and "his blood be upon us" scene, Ehrman states that Pilate's innocence is being "heightened" in Luke by the mere repetition of Pilate's statement that he finds no guilt in Jesus. (One of these, Luke 23:22, is actually just a fleshing out of, "Why, what evil has he done" in Mark.) To try to make Luke sound more anti-Semitic and pro-Pilate than Matthew simply because of the repeated statement by Pilate that he finds no guilt in Jesus is completely untenable. We can be quite sure that if the scene in Matthew were instead found in John, it would be used triumphantly as evidence of the enormously increased anti-Semitism in the gospels by the time one reaches the last of them. But in fact, by Ehrman's own chronological ordering, Matthew is only the second gospel, and that scene is unique to him. If the account of Jesus' trial before Pilate in Luke 23 is compared with Mark 15, it appears to be merely a more fleshed-out account, not one which blames Pilate particularly less or the Jews particularly more.

Bonus (ht to Esteemed Husband for noticing this): In Luke 23:27-31, a great crowd of (obviously Jewish) people, especially women, mourn and lament over Jesus' sentence as he is led away to die. So much for Luke's increasing anti-Jewish bias.

What about John? There are several points Ehrman conveniently leaves out about John. I have already mentioned the absence in John of anything remotely like the dramatic "his blood be upon us" scene in Matthew. John also does not have the sympathetic and awed Roman centurion, found in all the synoptics, at the foot of the cross. Here are some more:

Luke contains the explicit and slanderous accusation by the Jewish leaders to Pilate (Luke 23:2) that Jesus has forbidden paying taxes to Caesar. This would be especially likely to get the attention of the Roman governor. But, darn it! That's not found in John. The Jewish leaders also say in Luke 23:5 that Jesus "stirs up the people" all over Judea and as far as Galilee--an implication that Jesus is a dangerous rabble-rouser who should be of concern to Rome. Go ahead and check: That detail is not found in John, either. Ehrman wants to say, in his analysis of Luke, that Jesus' trial before Herod and the statement that Herod found him innocent in Luke are evidence of heightened blame towards the Jews and the heightened innocence of Pilate in Luke. I don't actually agree that that is the effect in Luke, but as it happens, oops! The trial before Herod isn't in John, either. If one cherry-picked these points instead of the ones Ehrman chooses, one could argue that there is less sympathy for the Romans and less blame on the Jews in John, the latest-written gospel, than in the synoptics, which are earlier.

Jesus' greater interactions with Pilate in John arguably make Pilate appear more to blame, not less, than in the earlier gospels. Since John shows that Pilate knows that Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, since Pilate says three times that Jesus is not guilty, Pilate's eventually giving in is more blameworthy from both a Roman and a moral perspective. He has agreed to the crucifixion of a man he knows (after careful examination) to be innocent. How Pilate's awareness of Jesus' innocence heightens Pilate's innocence is, when you stop to think about it, quite a mystery!

Back on the other side, one can point out in John that Jesus says that Pilate's power comes from God and therefore that those who delivered him to Pilate have the greater sin (John 19:11). John alone has the Jewish leaders' declaration, "We have no king but Caesar" and their statement that Pilate is not "Caesar's friend" if he releases Jesus (John 19:12-15) I'm rather surprised that Ehrman didn't happen to mention those, since they would have seemed convenient for his position.

But on the other side again, in (according to Ehrman) the earliest gospel, in Mark 15:31-32, the chief priests and scribes mock Jesus on the cross and taunt him to come down from the cross to prove his Messiahship. "Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe." These insults are also found in Matthew and Luke. But John, the latest gospel, has no such specifically Jewish insults flung at Jesus on the cross.

I am not arguing for a reverse pattern, according to which Pilate is actually seen as more to blame and the Jews less to blame in John. I am arguing that, as so often when these claims are made, there is no pattern of development in either direction. The gospels are remarkably unanimous in their description of the basic outline of Jesus' trials and crucifixion, and the details are varied, not patterned. If one looks at the whole of the evidence, one sees that John simply has a lot of different material from the synoptics in these scenes, not material that falls into a neat pattern of ideological or literary development.

And last, I come to the one detail Ehrman really emphasizes for John. This is a particularly egregious abuse of the text by Ehrman. He says (from about minute 23) that the Jewish priests are "the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John."

When you get to the Gospel of John it's even more striking. This is something you wouldn't get reading it in most English translations. Three times, once more, Pilate declares Jesus innocent. And finally, when the Jewish priests insist that Pilate crucify him, the Greek text says 'So Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.' The antecedent there are the Jewish priests. They're the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John.

Here's Ehrman's argument: The end of John 19:15 says that the Jewish priests say, "We have no king but Caesar." John 19:16 says that Pilate "delivered him up to them to be crucified," where the most plausible antecedent of "them" in vs. 16 is "the chief priests" from vs. 15. Ehrman's implication that this meaning of "them" wouldn't be seen in most English translations is a rather absurd attempt to make it look like he has some esoteric, specialist knowledge. The probable antecedent of "them" is visible on the surface of any good English translation, not particularly "in the Greek text."

But to conclude from this that "They're the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John" is a piece of serious exegetical malpractice.

Historically, crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not one used directly by Jews themselves. Perhaps Ehrman is insinuating that the author of John didn't know this. The author of the Gospel of Peter, which Ehrman mentions next, may indeed have been writing later and hence lacking this historical information; that fragment is at least ambiguous as to whether the Jewish crowds or the Roman soldiers crucify Jesus. Perhaps Ehrman is reading the apocryphal Gospel of Peter back into the Gospel of John!

As for the Gospel of John, John states four times that the crucifixion of Jesus as well as that of two other prisoners was carried out by the Roman soldiers.

--John 19:23: "The soldiers therefore, when they had crucified Jesus, took his outer garments and made four parts..."

--John 19:25: "Therefore the soldiers did these things."

--John 19:32: "The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him."

--John 19:43: "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water."

--Bonus: The Jews in John 19:31 are not carrying out the crucifixion, because they have to ask Pilate to order the men's legs to be broken so that they will die before the Sabbath. The Romans are unambiguously the ones conducting the death process.

Ehrman's statement that the Jewish priests crucify Jesus in the Gospel of John verges on deception.

Finding developmental patterns in the gospels is rather like "finding" numerological patterns in the Bible or "finding" paths in a trackless forest. One can always pick data that make it appear that there is a path, but when one takes another look, one is forced to admit that it was all a product of one's imagination.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I suggest that the tools of literary criticism and literary development are woefully inadequate for interpreting the gospels. The hypothesis that these documents are accounts at few or no removes from eyewitnesses, with its expectation of variation in detail and mutual explanation among details, works much better. Let's take a fresh look and start using the better explanatory tool.

Monday, July 27, 2015

On Bart Ehrman and the authorship of the gospels

A few weeks ago my husband, Tim McGrew, a specialist in epistemology and the history and philosophy of science, recorded two one-hour, back-to-back sessions of an informal radio debate with New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman on the British show Unbelievable. They aired a week apart. Part I is here. Part II is here. Full disclosure: I haven't yet listened to Part II. I decided to write this post first, since it is related to Part I, and then listen to Part II.

Justin Brierley, the show's host, decided to take the early part of the discussion in the direction of the authorship of the gospels. Eventually he decided (understandably) that enough time had been spent on that subject and moved along to other topics. After listening to the podcast, I decided that it would be useful to come back to the subject in writing, re-emphasize and say more about some points Tim made, and make some additional points. In preparation I have also read some additional material by Ehrman as background. (I have, for now, obtained a paid membership at Ehrman's blog, so some of the exact quotes here will be fair use of portions of articles that, in their entirety, are behind a paywall.) When I refer to the interview my indications of minutes will be approximate.

"The gospels were circulated anonymously at first."

This claim, in various wordings, is made by Ehrman times without number in his writings on the subject of who wrote the gospels, and the claim that the gospels were originally anonymous also comes up in the podcast with Tim.

Tim points out in the radio debate (around minute 29) that the sense in which Ehrman is using the word "anonymous" is compatible with everyone's having always known who wrote the gospels! Tim points out that all that is meant by their being formally anonymous, and all that can be shown, is that in the body of the text the book's author does not identify himself. This point deserves emphasis. It is an absolutely standard part of Ehrman's approach to this issue that he defines "anonymous" in a very narrow sense which is impossible to dispute but then slides in his usage to a much broader meaning without defending the slide. In the debate, around minute 33, Ehrman tries to say that this is "not a technicality." "That's what anonymous writings are," he says. "Anonymous writings are books where the authors do not tell us their names."

But let's think about that for a moment. If that is literally all that is meant by "anonymous," then the gospels are still anonymous today! For the bodies of their texts have not changed, and the authors did not name themselves in the body of the text. More: A great many modern books on your shelves and mine are "anonymous" in this fairly pointless, and, yes, technical sense. If you glance through the body of the text of many, many books, articles, and even blog posts, you will find that the author almost never pauses and names himself in the body of his text. Why would he? That's what a title page, superscription, or subscription at the end of the article or post is for! When I write a professional article in philosophy, I never put my name into the body of the text. I would never pause in the middle of discussing probability theory and say, "I, Lydia McGrew, say unto you that this is a consequence of Bayes' Theorem." When the article is accepted, my name is printed at the beginning and sometimes at the end of the article by the publishing journal, to whom I have separately given my name as the author. This does not mean that my article is ever anonymous in any sense in which any ordinary person would use that term, or in any sense that is of the slightest use in discussing the history of my work. In fact, the article has my name associated and even printed with it from its first appearance. Just not in the body of the text.

Historian Martin Hengel points out (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 44) that ancient books usually were disseminated with titles and with the author's name and would always have had titles and author designations when collected in a library. In other words, we should not assume that ancient conventions were all that much different from our own in this respect. As in our own time, even if the body of the text did not include a title and author designation, one was normally included in a superscription or subscription, even in scrolls. (See this rather humorous New York Times article about the ancient poet Martial's complaints about not getting royalties for his work, which confirms the common practice of superscripting and/or subscripting ancient works with the equivalent of a title page.)

In fact, Ehrman himself admits (here, behind paywall) that the ancient manuscripts of the gospels (presumably he means those that are complete enough that they do not have the beginning or ending discernibly damaged) do have the author ascriptions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He simply states that these manuscripts are available only from about 200 A.D. onward and that we don't know what still earlier manuscripts looked like! Well, yes, by definition one might say that we don't have any complete manuscripts that are earlier than the earliest complete manuscripts we have. Nonetheless, the evidence of the complete manuscripts is, as far as it goes, against the anonymity of the gospels.

What all of this means is that all of our manuscript evidence, together with the evidence concerning the ancient practice of superscripting books with author names, is fully compatible with the hypothesis that the gospels never circulated without their present titles. (Hengel presents an additional argument for this conclusion from the remarkable uniformity of the form of the gospel titles as we have them in manuscripts and the fact that this form was unusual in the ancient world, pp. 44-55.)

Naturally, we don't have an ancient videotape of the gospels circulating around, say A.D. 100 or earlier, so we cannot prove by that sort of evidence that they always had author names affixed, but the point that I am making is that the term "anonymous" is being abused to imply that there definitely was a period during which their authorship was unknown or unattributed, and there is in fact no positive evidence of any such period at all and actually evidence to the contrary.

It would be tedious to document the many places in which Ehrman is clearly using the term "anonymous" in the more common sense. Here is just one:
But the Gospels that were widely accepted as authoritative in Irenaeus's circles were originally anonymous. The solution to the problem of validating these texts was obvious: they needed to be attributed to real, established authorities.
Jesus, Interrupted, p. 111
Here, Ehrman cannot mean by "anonymous" merely "not having the name of the author given in the body of the text." For that extremely limited meaning of "anonymous" would not by itself create any problem which needed to be solved by later attribution to "established authorities." That narrow sense of "anonymous" is compatible with the gospels' always having circulated with author ascriptions and/or with continuous, widespread knowledge within the Christian community of who their authors were. The wider meaning of "anonymous," which is what Ehrman needs for his argument, is that their authors were unknown. But from the extremely narrow meaning there simply is no inferential road to the broader meaning.

What is the significance of apostolic fathers' quotations without explicit names?

At about minute 32 and following, Ehrman states that he did not mean to argue from the fact that early apostolic fathers quote the gospels without naming their authors that they did not know who the authors were. He states that Tim has misunderstood his argument and that he was merely arguing that their quotations without giving specific author names should not be taken as evidence for the traditional ascriptions of authorship.

As I shall argue later, Ehrman definitely does argue from silence in precisely that way--i.e., from the absence of explicit attribution of named authorship in the course of the apostolic fathers' quotations to the conclusion that the documents did not have the traditional attributions of authorship at that time. His usage of the absence of explicit author names even in the interview gives that impression in any event, but he makes the argument even more clearly in his other written work. It is, in fact, a very poor argument.

In this section, my point is a little different. Ehrman is also wrong that, when the apostolic fathers quote from the gospels, these quotations do not constitute evidence of authorship unless they contain explicit attributions of specific authors.

Here's why: When the apostolic fathers quote the gospels, they do it in a particular way, and their treating these documents in that way needs to be explained. For example, Polycarp of Smyrna, whose life appears to have overlapped that of the Apostle John, says,

[B]eing mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: "Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again; and once more, "Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God." (Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2)
In these citations of Matthew 7, Polycarp clearly takes what he is quoting to be a reliable source of the words of Christ and one which his hearers should know and be mindful of.

Similarly, Clement of Rome, earlier still, says,
[B]eing especially mindful of the words of the Lord Jesus which He spoke teaching us meekness and long-suffering. For thus He spoke: Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as you do, so shall it be done unto you; as you judge, so shall you be judged; as you are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you.
Justin Martyr, about whom I shall have much more to say below, writing circa 150 A.D., refers countless times (search on the page here and here) to the "memoirs of the apostles," quotes repeatedly from all of our gospels (much more from the synoptics than from John), and says that these "memoirs of the apostles" were read in the churches along with the prophets. Hence, Justin shows that the works he is talking about were regarded as having Scriptural authority.

It is true that none of these authors (Clement of Rome, Polycarp, or Justin Martyr) names the authors of the writings from which they are quoting. But it remains a datum, requiring explanation, that clearly our own four gospels were known at an extremely early period and were regarded as authoritative sources of the words of Jesus and as worthy of treatment akin to that of the Old Testament.

One can, and from what I have seen it appears that Ehrman does, treat this simply as an unexplained surd--for some reason or other, we know not what, it could have been completely irrational and historically unfounded, the early church believed that these gospels were reliable sources of the words and deeds of Jesus, whom they worshiped, and the early church treated them with great respect accordingly. But that is a profoundly unsatisfying hypothesis, if indeed it deserves to be called an hypothesis at all. It is more like the absence of an hypothesis.

An actual hypothesis with some explanatory force is that they treated and quoted these texts in this way because they already had reason to believe that they came from the apostles or companions of the apostles. In other words, they didn't just inexplicably glom onto a randomly selected set of four documents and decide arbitrarily to treat them as holy books but rather treated them in this way because they already had reason to believe that they came from authoritative and knowledgeable sources.

Hence, even the quotation of the gospels without specific, explicit attribution to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John is external evidence and attestation relevant to the question of their authorship. And it is evidence which tells in favor of their authorship by the followers of Jesus and their companions.

I want to note here that in the debate, at about minute 23:35, Ehrman says that he has been interested in the question, "When it is you start getting the tradition that these books were written by followers of Jesus?" At that point, perhaps rather unfortunately, the host, Justin, breaks in and says, "I.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John," and Ehrman agrees. For much of the remainder of the discussion Ehrman beats the drum about the absence of explicit attribution (before we, in fact, do have documents which do contain explicit attribution!) to those particular authors. But what he said originally was that he is interested in the question of when we "start getting the tradition that these books were written by followers of Jesus." The quotations and usage by the early apostolic fathers, far earlier than Irenaeus (on whom Ehrman wants to concentrate) argue that we "started getting the tradition" to that effect from the earliest post-apostolic period. In other words, the evidence we have is all well explained by the hypothesis that this "tradition" didn't "start" at some later point but rather was known all along.

Ehrman does argue from silence concerning the apostolic fathers' quotations

As I mentioned above, in the debate Ehrman says that he is not claiming that the lack of explicit naming in the extant early church fathers' citations of our gospels constitutes an argument that they did not know the authors but that he is merely saying that their quoting without explicitly naming the authors is no evidence for apostolic authorship.

I have just argued that this would not be a good argument in any event. But was Ehrman really making only the argument he claims he was making? Even in the debate this seems an odd claim about what he was doing. At about minute 24, after saying that the it is a "striking thing" that gospels were "anonymous" at first, he says, "Another interesting thing is that when they get quoted early on, they're never named." Prima facie, both of these certainly sound like they are intended as arguments that their authors were not known at this early date. Concerning Justin Martyr, he says, "The striking thing of Justin Martyr, of course, is that he quotes Matthew, Mark and Luke extensively but never says that they were written by Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and never mentions John, either." Again, the statement that this is a "striking thing" hardly sounds like a mere statement that Justin Martyr's citations don't count as evidence for traditional authorship.

In this post (and this portion of the post is outside of the paywall), Ehrman says,

In the previous post we saw that the Gospels almost certainly circulated anonymously at first, just as they were composed anonymously. It is an interesting question why the authors all chose to remain anonymous instead of indicating who they were. I have a theory about that, and I may post on it eventually when I get through a bit more of this thread on why the Gospels ended up with the names they did. At this stage, what we can say with certainty is that the Gospels are quoted in the early and mid-second centuries by proto-orthodox Christian authors, who never identify them as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
That is especially significant when we come to Justin around 150-60 CE, who explicitly quotes these books as “Memoirs of the Apostles,” but does not tell us which apostles they are to be associated with.
Here Ehrman cannot claim, as in the debate, that he is merely responding to someone else's argument that there is extensive external evidence for the gospels' provenance and is merely denying that the early fathers' quotations count as such evidence. Here he is making his own argument. This post is even titled, "The Gospels Are Finally Named! Irenaeus of Lyons." And the above quotation continues, "Some thirty years after Justin, another proto-orthodox church father, Irenaeus, does identify the Gospels by name. He is the first to do so." (Emphasis added.) It is extremely difficult not to conclude in this context that Ehrman is implying that the fact that the earlier church fathers, including Justin, "do not tell us" or "never identify" the gospels by specific authors (in their extant writings) is an argument (from silence) that they did not know the authors.

But all question about the form of his argument is laid to rest when he lays it out at greater length here, in "When Did the Gospels Get Their Names?" (Most of the article is behind the paywall.)

The Gospels of the New Testament appear to be quoted in early second century authors such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. But they are not called by their names in any of these writings (in fact, in any of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers – ten proto-orthodox writers, most of them from the first half of the second century). Of greater significance – quite real significance – is evidence from the middle of the second century. Justin Martyr wrote several extensive works that still survive: two apologies (reasoned defenses of the Christian faith) and a book called the “Dialogue with Trypho” (an extended controversy with a Jewish thinker about the superiority of the Christian faith to Judaism).
In his writings Justin quotes the Gospels that later were to be considered part of the New Testament on numerous occasions. It is quite clear that he knows (intimately) Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is debated whether he knows John – he does have two explicit quotations from John 3 (from the passage about “being born again”) but some scholars think that’s not enough to show that he knows John, just that he is familiar with a tradition that had earlier also found its way into John. My own view is that he probably knew John.
But the striking thing is that he does not call the Gospels by name. He instead, regularly, calls them “Memoirs of the Apostles.” And so he does associate these books with apostles, but he never indicates which apostles. And he does not say that he thinks that the apostles themselves wrote the books, only that these books preserve their “memoirs” (meaning, their reminiscences of the life and teachings of Jesus).
This is significant because among other things Justin was one of the earliest heresiologists – that is, a Christian thinker who classified and attacked “heresies,” false forms of teaching. We know for a fact that various “heretical” groups that advocated one view or another claimed to have Scriptural authority for their views, in Gospels that proto-orthodox Christians like Justin rejected as not being apostolic or authoritative. Given that context, why doesn’t Justin specify just *which* Gospels are authoritative, because of their apostolic origins? One plausible explanation, the one that strikes me as the least problematic, is simply that in Justin’s time and place – 150-60 CE in Rome — the Gospels were not yet given names that associated them with the specific apostles. Then when did that happen? (Emphasis added.)
Here, as in the debate, Ehrman calls this a "striking thing" about Justin, and here he spells out an absolutely explicit argument from silence concerning the fact that Justin does not name the authors of the gospels "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John."

So, yes, Ehrman is arguing from silence in this fashion; that is not a misunderstanding of his argument.

It should go without saying that this is an extremely weak argument. There could be many reasons why the writings of Justin that we currently have do not name Matthew et. al. as authors--the most obvious of which is that those author attributions were well-known among the audience to which Justin was writing and that he found his most common phrase, "memoirs of the apostles," to be a convenient shorthand for the purposes of the points he was making.

Ehrman's mistakes about Justin Martyr

Ehrman makes a number of mistakes and/or misleading statements about Justin Martyr that are important enough to deserve mention.

His statement about Justin Martyr in the debate shortly after minute 24 continues: "You mention Justin Martyr, but the striking thing of Justin Martyr, of course, is that he quotes Matthew, Mark and Luke extensively but never says that they were written by Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and never mentions John, either. The only gospel he names by name is the gospel of Peter."

To say that Justin Martyr names by name the apocryphal gospel of Peter is sufficiently tendentious and misleading that I consider myself justified in calling it an outright falsehood.

Here is the quotation from Justin Martyr to which Ehrman is apparently referring. Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho 106, is making a somewhat typological application of the end of Psalm 22 to Jesus' life:

The remainder of the Psalm makes it manifest that He knew His Father would grant to Him all things which He asked, and would raise Him from the dead; and that He urged all who fear God to praise Him because He had compassion on all races of believing men, through the mystery of Him who was crucified; and that He stood in the midst of His brethren the apostles (who repented of their flight from Him when He was crucified, after He rose from the dead, and after they were persuaded by Himself that, before His passion He had mentioned to them that He must suffer these things, and that they were announced beforehand by the prophets), and when living with them sang praises to God, as is made evident in the memoirs of the apostles. The words are the following: 'I will declare Your name to my brethren; in the midst of the church will I praise You. You that fear the Lord, praise Him; all you, the seed of Jacob, glorify Him. Let all the seed of Israel fear Him.' And when it is said that He changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder; this was an announcement of the fact that it was He by whom Jacob was called Israel, and Oshea called Jesus (Joshua), under whose name the people who survived of those that came from Egypt were conducted into the land promised to the patriarchs.
I have bolded the part of the passage that is crucial for the present argument. Much debate has centered on the question of what is meant by "memoirs of him" in the bolded sentences. A useful summary of the scholarly discussion is available here and here. Ehrman contends that "memoirs of him" means "memoirs of Peter." Linguistically, as far as I know, there is no problem with that--that is, that the "him" in "memoirs of him" is Peter. Others have contended that it means "memoirs of Jesus"--i.e., memoirs about Jesus. That could be the accurate translation as well, but I know of no reason to argue that "him" in that phrase definitely refers to Jesus rather than to Peter.

But to say that "memoirs of him" not only means "memoirs of Peter" but further is naming by name the apocryphal Gospel of Peter is, frankly, absurd and highly misleading. Even if Ehrman's further conjecture that this is a reference to the Gospel of Peter were correct, which it almost certainly is not (see next paragraph), this is not naming by name the Gospel of Peter.

In fact, Justin says that in these "memoirs of him" it is written that Jesus changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter and also changed the name of the sons of Zebedee to Boanerges, meaning sons of thunder. As Tim Henderson points out, neither of these is found in the extant portion we have of the so-called Gospel of Peter, but both of them are included in the Gospel of Mark! The statement about calling the sons of Zebedee Boanerges is found only in Mark. This should really settle the matter as to whether this is even a reference to the Gospel of Peter in Justin Martyr. In the face of these facts, to call this "naming by name" the apocryphal Gospel of Peter is almost breathtakingly wrong. If anything, what this is doing is "naming by name" Peter as the source of what we know as the Gospel of Mark, a point that fits notably well with what Papias says earlier in the second century about the relationship between Peter and Mark--namely, that Mark wrote down what he heard from Peter about Jesus Christ.

An egregious mistake Ehrman makes about Justin Martyr is in his generalization about the apostolic fathers. At about minute 24, Ehrman says,
In none of the apostolic fathers...are these books ever named by apostolic names or even said to be writings by apostles.
As I already noted, Justin says times without number that the gospels he is quoting are "memoirs of the apostles." It is his signature phrase. He indicates, moreover, that these are written down, that Jesus' words are recorded in them, and that they are read in the churches along with the prophets. How much clearer does it need to be that Justin most certainly is saying that these are writings by apostles?

It may be that Ehrman realized that he had made an error here, because it was immediately at this point that he doubled back, named Justin Martyr, and began once more beating the drum about Justin's not naming specific apostles as the authors of specific gospels. But the flatly erroneous statement was already out of the bag and too late to recall: Ehrman had just said that never in the apostolic fathers are these books even said to be writings by apostles, a claim counterexampled by Justin Martyr repeatedly.

Based on Ehrman's argument about Justin Martyr quoted above from his blog, it is possible that he would try one more dodge to salvage the claim that these were "never even said to be writings by apostles." There he says, of Justin Martyr,
And he does not say that he thinks that the apostles themselves wrote the books, only that these books preserve their “memoirs” (meaning, their reminiscences of the life and teachings of Jesus).
In point of fact Justin Martyr makes no such distinction between "preserving" the apostles' memoirs and memoirs written by the apostles, nor are his claims limited in the way that Ehrman implies. On the contrary, he simply calls what he is citing the "memoirs of the apostles," a point that Ehrman's statement here radically obscures. No claim that these documents merely "preserve" the memoirs is made by Justin Martyr.

But there is more, if more were needed: In actual fact, Justin Martyr does explicitly say that he thinks the apostles themselves, and their followers, wrote these books! He says it in two places. In the Dialogue with Trypho 103, Justin says,
For in the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them, [it is recorded] that His sweat fell down like drops of blood while He was praying, and saying, 'If it be possible, let this cup pass:'
This is, of course, a citation of Luke's gospel. Here Justin explicitly states that the memoirs he is talking about were "drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them." Readers will note how perfectly this fits with both Papias's claims about Mark and with the designations we have for our four gospels.

Similarly, in the Apology 66, on the Eucharist, Justin says,
For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.  
The words concerning the bread are a clear citation of Luke 22;19. The words concerning the cup appear to be a citation of the account either in Matthew 26:38 or Mark 14:24; the two passages are very similar. Again, Justin expressly states that the memoirs were "composed by the apostles," and (bonus!) that they "are called Gospels."

So Ehrman's statement that never in the apostolic fathers are these works said to be writings by the apostles is wrong from every possible angle. Justin's repeated references to the memoirs of the apostles clearly counterexample it. If Ehrman attempts to say that "memoirs of the apostles" (which Justin makes clear were in the form of written documents) does not mean "writings by the apostles" (which is silly), this is just another error: Justin twice explicitly says that these were indeed composed and drawn up by both apostles and their followers.

Poisoning the well against Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon

As the debate continued, Tim stressed that the external evidence we possess is, by the norms of secular history, extremely good for the authorship of the gospels. Ehrman contested this, and as a final point attempted to dismiss the entirety of the external evidence we possess like this, at about minute 40:
The other thing I'll point out is this.The people who assigned certain books to Thucydides or to Herodotus had no ideological reasons to do that. The people who assigned the gospel of John to John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple of Jesus, had very clear theological reasons for wanting to say that. So there is a very strong difference between what we're talking about when we're talking about the gospels and what we're talking about when referring to the writings of ancient Greek and Roman histories.
Thus Ehrman attempts to treat the external evidence for the authorship of the gospels as not being real, normal external evidence but rather as being unreliable and suspect en toto (at about minute 39 he dismissively calls it "the Christian tradition") on the grounds that, he alleges, those who made these ascriptions had "ideological reasons to do so" whereas this is not the case in secular history.

What Ehrman does not say is that, in fact, there is not the slightest positive evidence for his claim. It is made as a mere assertion and bolstered only by tendentious story-telling verging on question-begging. I repeat: The claim that the ascriptions of authorship of the gospels were made for "ideological reasons" rather than historical reasons is made without evidence. There is, for example, no evidence whatsoever of controversy at the time of Irenaeus (which is when Ehrman thinks they were "first named") about the authorship of our four gospels. There is no statement whatsoever that they must be accepted for ideological reasons or that they are assigned these authors because of their theology. There is nothing of the sort whatsoever. This is a bare assertion, a blatant piece of unsupported well-poisoning.

Here, from Jesus, Interrupted, is an example of how Ehrman proceeds to "argue" for this claim:

The first certain reference to the four Gospels is in the writings of the church father Irenaeus. In a five-volume attack on Christian heresies he names as the four Gosepls of the church Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. By the time of Irenaeus (180 CE), it is not surprising that church fathers would want to know who wrote these anonymous books. As we will see in a later chapter, there were lots of other Gospels floating around in the early church--most of them actually claiming to have been written by disciples of Jesus, for example, Peter, Thomas, and Philip. How was one to decide which Gospels were to be trusted as apostolic? This was a thorny problem, since most of these "other" Gospels represented theological perspectives branded heretical by the likes of Irenaeus. How can one know the true teachings of Jesus? Only by accepting Gospels that actually were written by his followers, or close companions of his followers.
            But the Gospels that were widely accepted as authoritative in Irenaeus's circles were originally anonymous. The solution to the problem of validating these texts was obvious: they needed to be attributed to real, established authorities. Traditions had been floating around for decades that Matthew had written a Gospel, and so what is now our first Gospel came to be accepted as that book. Mark was thought to be a companion of Peter: our second Gospel came to be associated with him, giving Peter's view of Jesus' life. The author of our third Gospel wrote two volumes, the second of which, Acts, portrayed Paul as a hero. Church leaders insisted that it must have been written by a companion of Paul, and so assigned it to Luke. And to round it all out, the fourth Gospel, which explicitly claims not to be written by an eyewitness, was nonetheless attributed to one, John, one of Jesus' closest disciples...
Jesus, Interrupted, p. 111.

But these are just claims, bolstered only by the tendentious and misleading use of the word "anonymous" I have already discussed. There is nothing else here. Ehrman simply asserts that the authors of these gospels were previously unknown, that they were accepted as authoritative (why? who knows?) in Irenaeus's "circles," and that they were then fictitiously attributed to authoritative sources to solve a "problem" in an ideological war. This is not historical argument at all.

The picture Ehrman gives here is anachronistic, but unwary readers and hearers may miss its anachronism. Most of us Christians have known people in the 20th and 21st centuries who accept, say, the Protestant canon of sixty-six books in the Bible simply because that is what they have been taught to revere as "the Bible" and because their ideological and denominational self-definition depends upon accepting and venerating these books and rejecting others--say, the additional books included in the canon by Catholics.

Ehrman takes this type of current historical situation and projects it, or something like it, upon Irenaeus's time, assuming that Irenaeus and company (and in particular, the hypothetical editor whom he conjures up in his various posts on why the gospels were attributed to specific authors) were like a dogmatic, fundamentalist preacher of 2015 who accepts the Protestant canon as a given document to which he is committed for no other reason at all than that it is the B-I-B-L-E. But he has no evidence that things were like that at all.

This is what Irenaeus himself actually says about the origins of the 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. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. 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. (Against Heresies 3.1.1)
I invite readers to read the context of these remarks in Irenaeus here and here. To be sure, Irenaeus is making these claims in the context of an argument against heretics, but he does not imply that the heretics are alleging that the documents in question were not written by apostles and their followers, that their origin is a subject of doubt or controversy, or that he is ascribing them to apostles to bolster his case. On the contrary, he argues as one who takes it as a given that these gospels are known and acknowledged historically to be from the apostles. On that basis, he argues that the heretics are going against apostolic teaching. For example, here is what he says in the next chapter:
1. When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: ... And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent...

2. But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.
The Muratorian canon, from about the same time as Irenaeus, names the author of the third gospel as Luke and the fourth gospel as John. (What we have is a document fragment.) It also, interestingly, gives a glimpse of a theological context in which the acceptedness of particular writings is clearly a conclusion drawn from information known about their origins, not an arbitrary ideological given which then motivates people to attribute apostolic origins to particular writings:

The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, the well-known physician Luke wrote in his own name in order after the ascension of Christ, and when Paul had associated him with himself as one studious of right. Nor did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and he, according as he was able to accomplish it, began his narrative with the nativity of John. The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and bishops entreated him, he said, "Fast ye now with me for the space of three days, and let us recount to each other whatever may be revealed to each of us." On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should narrate all things in his own name as they called them to mind. And hence, although different points are taught us in the several books of the Gospels, there is no difference as regards the faith of believers, inasmuch as in all of them all things are related under one imperial Spirit, which concern the Lord's nativity, His passion, His resurrection, His conversation with His disciples, and His twofold advent,--the first in the humiliation of rejection, which is now past, and the second in the glory of royal power, which is yet in the future. What marvel is it, then, that John brings forward these several things so constantly in his epistles also, saying in his own person, "What we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, that have we written." For thus he professes himself to be not only the eye-witness, but also the hearer; and besides that, the historian of all the wondrous facts concerning the Lord in their order.
2. Moreover, the Acts of all the Apostles are comprised by Luke in one book, and addressed to the most excellent Theophilus, because these different events took place when he was present himself; and he shows this clearly-i.e., that the principle on which he wrote was, to give only what fell under his own notice-by the omission of the passion of Peter, and also of the journey of Paul, when he went from the city--Rome--to Spain.
4....We receive also the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter, though some amongst us will not have this latter read in the Church. The Pastor, moreover, did Hermas write very recently in our times in the city of Rome, while his brother bishop Plus sat in the chair of the Church of Rome. And therefore it also ought to be read; but it cannot be made public in the Church to the people, nor placed among the prophets, as their number is complete, nor among the apostles to the end of time.

Notice that the Shepherd of Hermas is rejected as Scripture on the grounds of its known post-apostolic origins.

This judicious evaluation is as far as possible from Ehrman's picture of biased editors or writers, committed a priori to gospels about which no historical information is independently known, inventing after the fact an historical pedigree for the four gospels to which they are irrationally, ideologically committed. There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence for that picture.

Ehrman has the cart before the horse. He has it precisely backwards. The gospels did not get attributed, late, to their particular authors because the writers of the time wished to oppose, say, Marcionism and gnosticism. Rather, the writers of the time opposed Marcionism and gnosticism because they already had traditions they considered reliable about the origin of various documents, and these gnostic teachings were heretical when compared with the teachings in those documents.

I have now read all four of Ehrman's posts on why the gospels were attributed to their particular authors. If readers wish to read them in their entirety, they will have to purchase a subscription to Ehrman's blog, which is only $3.95 for a one-month trial. (The blog tells us, speaking of Ehrman in the third person, that he receives no profit for this and that all the profits go to charity.) Readers can either take my word for it or check for themselves, but in not a single one of these posts does Ehrman bring independent evidence of controversy around the time of Irenaeus concerning the origins of these gospels nor any independent evidence that the church fathers at this time were committed non-historically to these documents and assigned their authors to them for non-historical, ideological reasons. On the contrary, he assumes in these posts (on the basis of his earlier "arguments," some of which I have discussed here) that the authorship of the gospels could not have been the traditional one, that it was unknown until after Justin Martyr (see the argument from silence quoted above), and therefore that the attribution arose somewhere between Justin and Irenaeus. He conjures up an entirely hypothetical editor, working between Justin and Irenaeus, who (he imagines) produced the first edition of the gospels that attributed them to these authors. 
[T]here is no reason to think that people widely associated them with their familiar names before that. The reason this became a widespread tradition is that it was started by a single editor – possibly based, of course, on things being said in his church or the wider Christian community (on that we have no evidence); once this edition took root, its views proved completely amenable to Christians in Rome, and the tradition spread from there.
(This is from his post on Matthew, just before the break for the paywall.) 

His posts on why the gospels were attributed to particular authors in this hypothetical edition consist of elaborate hypothesizing of a sort that pretty much defines "ad hoc" about the motivations and thoughts of this hypothetical editor. 

At no point does he come up with a plausible theological reason for these particular assignments. (He even admits that he doesn't have any particular reason for the assignment by this "editor" of Matthew to Matthew, except that perhaps the editor was loosely relying on Papias' mention of some account written by Matthew.) The nearest he gets to a specific theological reason is with respect to Mark: He conjectures that the hypothetical editor did not assign the gospel of Mark directly to Peter as its author because a document known as the Gospel of Peter was already floating around, so Mark was chosen as a second-best author designation based on the reference to him in I Peter 5:13. This ignores, of course, the remarkable unanimity of all the evidence from Papias to Justin Martyr to Irenaeus concerning Mark (see the discussions of Mark above). But more than that, it is senseless. If the ideological motivation for assigning authors is to bolster the gospel we know as Mark (among others) and to lead Christians to reject alternatives like what is known as the Gospel of Peter, the obvious thing to do would be to go ahead and attribute this gospel to Peter and to insist that this is the real gospel of Peter and that the other one claiming to be by Peter is phony! Why would a deeply ideologically motivated editor, willing to make stuff up to push an agenda, submit to the popular designation of a document he was rejecting as written by Peter while not trying to claim that accolade for the document he wished to promote?

When it comes to Luke, Ehrman's story is so ad hoc as almost to boggle the mind: Acts and Luke, he says, were written by the same person but not really by Luke. However, the author of those documents wished to pretend that he was Luke, and he left behind clues (tied into Colossians, which was thought to be written by Paul but which, Ehrman says, wasn't really written by Paul) that he was pretending to be Luke. The hypothetical 2nd century editor evidently followed up these clues, sleuth-like, and decided to attribute this gospel to Luke on the basis of the clues left by the deceptive author. Ehrman doesn't say whether the editor actually believed that Luke was written by Luke or whether he was just playing along, for his own ideological purposes, with the game initiated by the original, deceptive author. In any event, to call this hypothesis about how this gospel came to be attributed to Luke "complex" is too mild. It is byzantine.

In contrast, the hypothetical editor is supposed to have engaged in a simple act of attribution to an authoritative apostle when it comes to John. Desiring a high-prestige source because of his ideological prejudices, and conjecturing that the "beloved disciple" might be John, the editor attributes the document to John. End of story. Why such a hypothetical editor could not or would not have made an equally direct, simple attribution to an apostle in the case of Luke, thereby linking it to a prima facie higher-prestige source than Luke, Ehrman cannot explain. For John, too, Ehrman has to walk a fine line. He gives at some length the actual evidence that John really was the beloved disciple. He then says that there is a tradition that goes "a long way back" that John was the beloved disciple. But he wishes to deny that the book of John was actually widely attributed to John any earlier than his fictional editor in the latter half of the 2nd century! So he moves rather swiftly from his rather decent argument that John was the beloved disciple to an elaborate, layered argument from silence, which I do not have time to describe, that Papias and Polycarp didn't know or believe that John was the author of John! So evidently the hypothetical editor is supposed to have been the first influential person to put together the argument that the beloved disciple wrote this gospel, John is the beloved disciple, therefore John wrote this gospel.

It should be obvious at this point that, when it comes to Ehrman's claim that the external evidence for the gospels is tainted because we know that those making the attributions had "ideological reasons," there is no there there. In the absence of positive historical evidence, Bart Ehrman has given his own assumptions dressed up as elaborate, ad hoc hypothesizing. But that does not amount to argument.

The simple fact is that our external evidence about the authorship of the gospels all points one way and only one way and that there is a cumulative body of such evidence. Ehrman attempts to obscure this by chopping the evidence up into pieces and trying to explain away each piece separately by a combination of tendentious phrases, question-begging, story-telling, and sometimes outright misrepresentation. It is the job of anyone who wants to know the truth to step back instead and look at the external case as a whole.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A bit of good news for once

See here for a happy update to my last post on Vincent Lambert. Kudos to the Committee to Support Vincent Lambert and their on-going work to monitor the situation. Hopefully he will now be transferred to a better facility, but that has yet to be set up.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Je suis Vincent. Je soutiens Vincent.

I have been rather disappointed with the pro-life blogosphere regarding its failure to cover the Vincent Lambert case with any consistency. At this point one has to read a hard-to-find French-language site (for which I rely on Google Translate) to get regular updates. I have great admiration for Wesley J. Smith but gave him some pushback on the lack of coverage of this case in my comments here here, and here.

If nothing else, the Vincent Lambert case appears to represent a sea change in France, legally, and someone with better connections than mine could do a better report than I can on exactly what the legal situation has previously been and what the precedent of saying that Vincent is killable will mean in the future for vulnerable patients in France. Will this vary by geographical region? Will there be many doctors who will resist? Where are most of the French people on the issue of dehydrating people to death? What ability will families have to protect their family members? What is the precise nature of the new legislation that was passed in France recently on this issue? And so forth.

In any event, let's be clear: Vincent Lambert is not dead yet. This is why the fact that his case has been dropped bothers me. It's as though he's being treated as dead already, because it's allegedly a hopeless case, and the outcome is inevitable.

As with Terri Schiavo, Vincent is alive today because his parents have not taken that attitude and have gone on fighting legally for his life for years.

Yes, I know we're all weary, and yes, I know, there is little we can do. But let's face it: To some degree this is a failure of pro-life solidarity across cultural and geographical boundaries. If this were happening in America, various sites would be re-publishing and re-tweeting updates on Vincent's legal situation and on the next moves against him and for him, in English, all over the world. As it is, just try googling to get the latest and see what luck you have. Yeah, not much, right?

For some reason, the main site that is the clearing house for updates from Vincent's supporters isn't coming up in my google searches.

So, if you're interested (and you should be), HERE IT IS.

And HERE is a link to the updates page.

Be sure to sign the petition for Vincent Lambert's life. That will also sign you up for updates via e-mail (though they'll be in French).

As near as I can understand, a couple of relevant points are these:

--Vincent can apparently eat by mouth. This should be a really big deal, but his doctors aren't paying attention to it.

--Vincent's fate appears to lie in the hands of his doctors. Unlike in the Schiavo case, there is not a direct court order telling the doctors to kill him. So if they were to relent (a big if), and especially if they were to allow him to be transferred to a facility in a different country with a different agenda, he could be saved.

So what can we do? Continue to publicize the case. Sign the petition. And pray. Those come to mind immediately.

The latest appears to be that a meeting has been called by the doctor in charge (if I'm understanding correctly) for July 23. Vincent's supporters fear that this will mean that the doctor will order his food and water to be stopped at that time.

Speaking for myself, I would love to do an interview with someone knowledgeable in the pro-life camp in France on the future of such cases. It is doubtful that I will get the opportunity, but that would be a great opportunity for independent journalism. I suggest that some pro-life organizations look into that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A CHI decides celibacy isn't necessary after all

Since I've posted about the Christian Homosexual Identifiers (who allegedly advocate celibacy for those who are same-sex attracted but think homosexuality is a positive identity) on this blog before, here is a link to my latest post at What's Wrong With the World on Julie Rodgers. She was Wheaton's resident CHI and has just made it clear that she no longer advocates celibacy for homosexuals. The only good part of the story is that she isn't at Wheaton anymore. The fate of Refuge (silly name), Wheaton's LGBTQR@XLT, etc., student club, which she was guiding, remains unstated.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Denver Seminary's slightly odd review of John Walton

Readers who follow my writing at What's Wrong With the World know that I wrote a looong, detailed, multi-part, and strongly negative review of two books by Old Testament scholar John H. Walton. Those posts are here, here, here, and here.

Someone sent me the link to this much shorter review of Walton's The Lost World of Adam and Eve by Sara Evans, writing on-line for Denver Seminary. The review is a rather surprising mix of positive and negative, and what concerns me most is the way that the negative intersects with the positive.

First of all, I have to say in passing that I really, really wish that people would not feel that they have to say things like this:

There are many commendable elements to Walton’s work. He offers a well thought out view of how the Ancient Near Eastern mind would have received and understood the story of creation. It is a helpful reminder that the ancient Israelites did not think of the world on our terms, and so the text should not be forced to support views with which it is not concerned. His comparison with other ancient creation narratives (Babylon, Egyptian, Ugaritic, and Assyrian) offers good insight in the similarities and distinctives of the Genesis account.
Actually, not. Walton does not offer a well-thought-out view of how the ANE mind would have received and understood the story of creation. He offers a tendentious, exaggerated, and poorly argued view, supported mostly by the Bellman's rule of repetition--If I say over and over again that the ancients wouldn't have understood a creation narrative to have any material meaning, it must be true.

Therefore, this is not a "helpful reminder" of anything, because it's just going to confuse people. For example, in the long, long comments thread on my reviews, various commentators tried to press a view similar to Walton's by arguing that the ancients did not have our concepts of "natural laws." As I pointed out there, however, this does not support Walton's bizarre suggestion that they had no concept of a miracle. Walton's alleged insights into the ANE mind repeatedly take the form of defining some view incredibly narrowly and then arguing that, since the ancients didn't have that highly specific view, they had no concept at all in the vicinity. If they did not know modern chemistry or have a concept of molecules, it does not follow from this that they would never have thought that man was actually made from some other substance, such as earth or the blood of the gods. It isn't necessary to have a modern chemical concept to think that one type of physical thing is made from another type of physical thing. Yet Walton will make that non sequitur. From the fact that the ancient Israelites didn't think that the sun is a giant ball of flaming gas or that they thought of it as a "light," it doesn't follow that they didn't think that it is a physical entity. Yet Walton will make that non sequitur. And so forth. So he is just creating confusion, not giving helpful reminders or offering good insights.

Be that as it may, it may be inevitable that many people who don't feel they can criticize Walton's unusual views (and I stress that his views don't even represent the mainstream of OT criticism, if you care about that kind of thing) because they lack credentials might say such things in a review.

Moving on, the review actually says some very negative things (and rightly so) about Walton's theology:

Perhaps the most obvious of these [problematic areas] is the idea that Adam and Eve were not a “first pair” biologically. Though Walton offers various arguments why this is an unnecessary belief, many will find his views unconvincing especially as they relate to the inheritance of a sin nature. Similarly, Walton fails to adequately examine the doctrine of the imago Dei. When and how humanity came to image God is an essential underpinning for arguments related to human dignity: euthanasia, abortion, or the H+ movement, to name a few. (emphasis added)

Along this same fault line is the entrance of sin and its results. Walton’s treatment of theodicy is lacking, at best, and at times is grossly negligent. Yes, the world is broken due to sin and subsequent disorder. However, even Walton’s distinction between good and perfect does not seem to allow for hurricanes, violence among humans, and other dramatically destructive forces before the fall. Even the Eastern Orthodox, who believed Adam and Eve were created as immature, childlike-beings with the purpose of growing and maturing, would still affirm immortality and lack of death in the original created order. (emphasis added)
To say that Walton's notion of the imago dei is inadequate and that his treatment of theodicy is grossly negligent is a pretty strong indictment, and well-deserved, in my opinion. Evans is to be commended for bringing out these points.

But there is something strangely diffident in her criticisms in the light of these theological problems with Walton's work. For example, the lead-in to the paragraph about the sin nature and the imago dei is,
There are, of course, problematic areas and many things that will make conservative Evangelicals uncomfortable.
That wording is ambiguous precisely as to whether the fault in such a case lies with Walton's theology or with the "conservative evangelicals" who would be "made uncomfortable" by his views. Later in the paragraph we get the statement that many will find his views unconvincing. That seems to imply that his views are unconvincing but again is a rather passive and roundabout way of stating this. The paragraph as it goes on eventually seems to criticize Walton in Evans's own voice ("fails to adequately examine"), but there is surprisingly little of such criticism in the review overall. One really has to look hard to find the couple of sentences of criticism that don't have some distancing phrase or concept such as a statement that this will make conservative evangelicals uncomfortable or that this isn't even in line with the somewhat looser Eastern Orthodox views or that many will find this unconvincing.

But the review ceases to be merely diffident in criticizing Walton and gets really strange at the end.
A final and primary point of contention within Walton’s book surrounds the subtitle: the human origins debate. Walton does not make explicit arguments in favor of an evolutionary understanding of human development. However, he in no place takes pains to deny that this not only fits his position but is better suited to it than six-day-creationism. He dances around the issue rather carefully by arguing that the Bible is not a scientific book and so makes no claims related to science. However, his leanings are obvious, despite his attempt to stand on neutral ground by reading “only” the text. Many will find the open attitude to evolution cause for alarm (if they even give the book a chance!). Others, however, will find it a welcome comfort. I think of today’s (Christian) youth especially, such as college students who feel they must choose between a fossil record and their faith. Walton’s book does them a great service by offering another way of believing: one that affirms God’s control, his creative intent, and his consistent working in creation before, during, and after the Fall. Even with its pitfalls, that is commendable. (emphasis added)
I find this paragraph extremely difficult to figure out. On the one hand, Evans is completely right that Walton "dances around the issue" of the human origins debate and is less than forthright about his own leanings. No doubt Walton himself (who seems rather good at getting his feelings hurt) will have his feelings hurt by that implication if he reads the review. Good for Evans for saying it. But in the very same paragraph she moves on to implying that 1) those who are more theologically conservative than Walton are too biased to "give the book a chance," 2) Walton's book is "commendable" (she commends it unequivocally here) because it "does a great service" to today's Christian young people. It does this "service" by giving them "welcome comfort," and it offers that comfort by telling them that they can believe what Walton believes about human origins while remaining true to the Christian faith.

Now, I find this last implication strange in the extreme. Scholars should not be in the business of offering comfort, for goodness' sake! Nor should scholars be commended for "offering comfort" if their views are tendentious, theologically wrong-headed, and poorly argued. Scholars should offer good scholarship and a guide to the truth about their subject. Truth, remember? It's what we used to be concerned about before sociological categories like "offering welcome comfort" became a motivation for scholarship and for commending scholarship.

So here we have a scholar who, by Evans's own statement, has a flawed anthropology (view of the imago dei), which is a very serious matter (hopefully she realizes that) and a grossly negligent theodicy, but he's to be commended because his book offers "welcome comfort" to Christians who feel unhappy about the clash between Christian doctrines and the consensus of contemporary evolutionary scientists? That is a gravely irresponsible evaluation. Nobody should be evaluated on that basis.

By the way, it might also be a "welcome comfort" to point out to these poor, tense, young Christians that the science is not as settled as they are being told. I recommend the work of Casey Luskin, Ann Gauger, and others not, however, because it offers "welcome comfort," but because I think they are right that the claim of "settled science" concerning human origins owes more to propaganda than to decisive scientific argument. I also point it out because Walton's treatment of intelligent design and of the alleged scientific evidence is woefully inadequate. But the point is that we should pursue the truth about both science and theology.

It is troubling to see anyone commending a book with the problems that Walton's book has on the grounds that it is going to make people feel good. What if it's wrong? As in, incorrect? Then it's making people feel good based on falsehoods. Worse, if it's incorrect and also promulgates bad theology, then the theology of Walton's audience will have been confused on the basis of inaccurate conclusions about human history, but they will now feel more comfortable, so they will be less likely to change their minds or to look at the evidence objectively. This is not the direction that evangelical scholarship or evaluation of scholarship should be going.