Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A stunningly good lecture on the Gospels and Eyewitnesses by Dr Peter Williams

(HT: Near Emmaus)


At 12/21/2011 9:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

However I see two methodological problems with trying to prove the gospels are right in the details.

Firstly, what happens in situations where the gospels appear to 'get it wrong'. eg Luke's account of the census is generally regarded as historically implausible. Does this disprove Luke as trustworthy? Christian preachers have a tendency to preach about 'how accurate' the gospels are in all their details while ignoring any bits that don't look to be very accurate according to our current state of archaeological knowledge.

Secondly, our level of archaeological 'knowledge' changes over time as we discover more sources, or reassess the reliability of previous ones, or re-examine the assumptions previous studies have made. The conclusion that the gospels are 'accurate' or 'not-accurate' based on our current state of knowledge seems to be a conclusion that is potentially subject to overturning should the state of our knowledge shift too much.

At 12/21/2011 11:51 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Yea, I hear you on point one. On the second, when historical evidence is used foundationally, I am with you again. To be honest, I am wondering whether Kähler had it right all along. In some key respects, I think he did.

At 12/22/2011 12:05 AM, Blogger Jonathan Robinson said...

thanks for that Chris, pretty helpful although his blazer was truly hideous.

surely the thesis was not that the details proved the gospels accounts were true but that the details proved they were not accounts that had been received by a process of "chinese whispers". the sort of data that had been collected on names and tree distribution is not likely to be overturned by further discoveries, although further nuancing is possible.

and if we are dissallowed from suggesting that the accounts had suffered greatly in transmission then you have to ask why other historical details seem to be so glaringly incorrect - perhaps we just haven't yet dug up the appropriate bit of confirmatory evidence yet?

At 12/22/2011 12:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is worth bearing in mind that until the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a massive religious observance for Jews. Jews throughout the empire went to huge effort to undergo a pilgrimage to the Temple as often as possible. I believe the practice was to travel there 3 times a year for any Jews in Israel, and at least once a lifetime for any Jews outside Israel.

Since they couldn't just get in their car or an airplane and fly straight in, they had to physically travel through all the small towns and villages on their way to Jerusalem. This means that the Jewish communities throughout the Roman empire were choc full of Jews who had personally made a long slow journey across Israel and had a hundred friends who had personally done likewise. As long as the gospel writers wrote while these people were still alive (ie any time before ~100AD) then in every Jewish community in the Roman Empire they would have had easy access to a wealth of first-hand knowledge about the geography, towns, and names in Israel.

At 12/22/2011 5:30 AM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Before the fall of Rome -- and before Constantine -- the early church referred several times to then-existing Roman tax records as witnesses to corroborate what they were saying about Jesus. Justin Martyr did so once, Tertullian twice. Though Tertullian, interestingly, puts the name attached to the tax records not as Quirinius but as Sentius Saturninus, which would have been more what we'd expect if the census was during Herod's lifetime.

The nature of the appeal made by Justin Martyr makes it sound like his readers could verify specifically that the birth was in Bethlehem by those records. So as odd as the "hometown" requirement in Luke seems to us, take it or leave it since we don't have the old census handy anymore, J.M. said that the Bethlehem part was borne out by then-existing records in the Roman archives.

So I tend to believe that there was a census, and that Jesus was recorded in it. The mystery to me is why Luke and Justin Martyr mention Quirinius in connection with it; that's the part that, to me, doesn't add up.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 1/04/2012 12:08 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

Hi Weekend Fisher. Bringing up a census just raises more questions. Which census? And how do you know the church fathers aren't simply parroting Luke's Gospel, generalizing that among Rome's enormous numbers of records you could find a "Jesus" and a "Bethlehem?" Josephus mentions 10 people named Jesus(=Heb.Joshua) in his works alone. And there was even more than one Bethlehem back then, a second Bethlehem is know about from archaeology that existed near Nazareth that was NOT the same Bethlehem near Jerusalem, and this second Bethlehem was even larger than the one near Jerusalem. I read about it in a Biblical archeology journal, either BAR, or Bible Review.

At 1/04/2012 12:15 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

The lecture is pablum. A comparison of the Gospels leads one to think that they were composed based on the Markan skeleton, via literary dependence, along with the addition of "Chinese Whisper" stories over time. Matthew preserved the most of Mark, though he doubled the number involved in one exorcism and one healing story. Matthew also added a prequel and sequel to Mark, nativity tales (Chinese whispers, hagiography), and at the end added two earthquakes, resurrected saints, an angel descending from heaven to sit on the stone outside the tomb, guards, bribery, 30-40 words of the resurrected Jesus, and some stories of meeting him after he arose. So Matthew added a prequel and sequel to Mark. Luke did the same thing.

At 1/11/2012 5:28 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

What kind of sampling is the "argument based on names" based upon? We certainly don't possess enormous numbers of samples. And across how broad a time period and geographical region are those few names scattered? Bauckham got things quite wrong concerning the frequency of Mary and Martha's names per a post at NT Gateway.

At 1/11/2012 6:31 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

The Gospel of John's story of the feeding is not an argument. The information in John follows from what appeared in the earlier Gospels. In fact a recent book has been composed that contains the most comprehensive argument yet that John's story of the feeding is based on stories found in the earlier Gospels:

Steve A. Hunt, Rewriting the Feeding of Five Thousand (Studies in Biblical Literature), 2010 or 2011, very new. I read it recently. He argues that the Fourth Gospel author rewrote/rescripted the feeding stories in the earlier Gospels and adding his theological imagination to the mix -- his recent book constitutes a sustained challenge to those who think the fourth Gospel was composed by an independent eye witness. His study is quite thorough:

Also see Roger David Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand: Studies in the
Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. and John 6:1-15 (Studies in
Judaism). He raises questions concerning the historicity of the feeding stories, and lists Hebrew and Hellenistic influences that probably gave birth to such a miracle story:

And Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz Leuven, in "The Fragrance of Her Perfume: The Significance of Sense Imagery in John’s Account of the Anointing in Bethany," points out that the tale of the anointing of Jesus in John is most likely not based on eyewitness testimony
but was rewritten from stories in earlier Gospels. She cites other scholars who agree with her.

At 1/11/2012 6:44 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

THE FEEDING MIRACLE? There is no argument for authenticity from undesigned coinicidences, which is what Williams is scavenging from McGrew.

1) WHERE DID IT TAKE PLACE? In the earlest Gospels, Mark and Matthew the location is unknown, it's only an "isolated remote" location that Jesus disembarks from by boat. In Luke the location receives a name, Bethsaida, and Jesus apparently got there by foot not boat. John builds on the story from there.

2) WHO ASKED THE QUESTION? In the earliest three Gospels it was the apostles who asked the question of Jesus as to "where to buy food," not Jesus asking one of the apostles. Has Williams not compared the stories for himself and read that? (I suspect John wanted Jesus to be more in control in his Gospel, being the one to ask the question, also in John only Jesus hands out the food.)

3) WHO HANDED OUT THE FOOD? In the previous three versions it is the apostles handing out the food to the multitude. Only in John does Jesus hand out the food, to all 5000. A bit of a difference. Perhaps that's because John lacks a last supper scene in which Jesus prays and hands out bread to his disciples, so John has Jesus handing out the bread during his feeding miracles and only John adds an explanation a bit later that Jesus hands out "the bread of life." So John probably changed the story making Jesus hand out the bread because John lacked a final passover meal with Jesus -- because John has Jesus dying the same a day before Passover--with the lambs.

Interestingly, as Aus points out Mark says it was 5000 men, Matthew says it was about 5000 men "with women and children" besides, so maybe 15,000 people or more. So how can you prove their math agreed?

MacDonald points out that Homer has two feeding stories the same number as in Mark and Matthew (but not like Luke and John, the later Gospels, which have only one), preceded by a boat journey and a crowd was feed in each case, and it involved seating parties as in an "all male" symposium (compare Mark, the earliest version in which only "5000 men" participate in Jesus' feeding of the multitude, and which Matthew changes to "about 5000 men along with women and children"). Besides MacDonald, Aus also does a good job explaining the function of imaginary "seating parties" in his book.

At 1/11/2012 6:55 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

4) HOW MANY WERE THERE? Interestingly, as Aus points out Mark says it was 5000 men, Matthew says it was about 5000 men "with women and children" besides, so maybe 15,000 people or more. So how can you prove their math agreed?

MacDonald points out that Homer has two feeding stories the same number as in Mark and Matthew (but not like Luke and John, the later Gospels, which have only one), preceded by a boat journey and a crowd was feed in each case, and it involved seating parties as in an "all male" symposium (compare Mark, the earliest version in which only "5000 men" participate in Jesus' feeding of the multitude, and which Matthew changes to "about 5000 men along with women and children"). Besides MacDonald, Aus also does a good job explaining the function of imaginary "seating parties" in his book.

5) HOW THOUGHTLESS WERE THESE PEOPLE? The question arises, didn't any of these folks "coming and going" in this place per Mark have the forethought to bring their own food or drink along with them? Not even on a long and arduous "Passover" journey (John's version). What thoughtless folks! They packed nothing?

6) WHO PERCEIVED THAT A MIRACLE HAD OCCURED? In the earliest version of the story is there no record of anyone in the crowd perceiving it to have been a "miracle." It's only the apostles who perceive it to have been a miracle, and only after they had collected all the baskets of uneaten food. Jesus tells them in the boat later to remember all the food they had collected. Apparently no one actually saw any food being multiplied, they just assumed it from the "leftovers." And apparently only the apostles assumed it in the earliest version in Mark, rather than the crowd.

7) HOW MANY APOSTLES WERE FROM BETHSAIDA? On the matter of Bethsaida, the author of John could have been familiar with Luke's prior placing of the feeding story in Bethsaida and deliberately used that info, making it Philip's home town, which only John does. Neither does the "undesigned coincidences" argument take into account the story in Matthew that Peter and Andrew were fishermen living in Capernaum. (Matthew 4:13). Instead John says Peter and Andrew were, like Philip, from Bethsaida. (John 1:44) "Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter." Which means that even according to John there were at least three fishermen disciples whom John says were from Bethsaida, and Jesus could have asked any of those three. If Jesus' disciples were mostly fishermen and Jesus moved from Nazareth to live in the fishing village of Capernum then his disciples they most probably were from either Capernaum or Bethsaida which were on opposite sides of where the Jordan river ran into the sea, where a lot of fish also lived. So probably even more than just three of Jesus' apostles were from one or other of those two villages since Jesus himself is depicted in the earliest Gospels as sticking mainly to those three towns during his preaching career in Galilee, Capernum, Bethsaida and Chorazin, the "Evangelical Triangle" it is called, of small villages where Jesus did most of his preaching per the earliest Gospels.

At 1/11/2012 6:56 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

Lastly, The authenticity of such tremendous miracles are in the eyes of the writers and readers of such tales. But the tales themselves prove nothing. Jesus' main ministry in Galilee consisted of walking from Bethsaida that only had a couple thousand residents to Chorazin and Capernum, even smaller towns than Bethsaida, the "Evangelical triangle." No one was impressed much there either. In some places Jesus "oould not do ANY miracles" (Mark, though Matthew upgrades that statement to "could do only SOME miracles"). And it says I think in Matthew that Jesus spoke woes upon Bethsaida, Chorazin and Capernum, shaking his dust from their feet since they weren't impressed enough by his preaching and miracles. What a complainer! Did the miracles wear him out? Maybe not enough people in those cities even believed he WAS a miracle worker?

Any if Jesus wanted to perform miracles why not go to truly big cities like Seporis, only a few miles away? Or Ceasaria? Or just start performing lots of miracles as soon as he got to Jerusalem in front of enormous crowds, or show himself raised from the dead to every one in Jerusalem and ascend into heaven in their sight? Instead when we read about other fabulous miracles of Jesus, who saw them? Who saw the stilling of the storm, the walking on water, the transfiguration on top of a mountain? Only a handful or less of apostles. And in Mark Jesus told the three who saw the transfiguration not to tell anybody.

And do wereally want to talk about the resurrection? In Mark, the earliest version we see an apotheosis legend of the kind found in many places in the Hellenistic world. It's a story of an empty tomb. See "Mark's Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity" by Richard C. Miller, JBL 129, no.4 9 (2010) If Licona can point out all the genre similarities of miracles accompanying someone's death and question Matthew's "raising of the many" tale, then let's go back a bit further to Mark, upon which Matthew was based, and look at the wealthy off genre similarities between the empty tomb story in Mark and other apotheosis legends in classical antiquity.

At 2/13/2012 2:24 AM, Blogger Emerson Fast said...


I hope you do not feel like all of that work you put out in this set of blog responses went to waste. It didn't for me. The questions and comparisons and suggestions you have made are intriguing. Thanks. I'll be re-reading your comments for some time.

At 5/08/2012 4:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading all of these comments the main things I see missing are the concepts of faith and the trust that these gospels are in fact devinely inspired.

We have to first remember that the gospels are the merest of synopses of Christs three year ministry. John said it best: John 21: 25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen. Therefore we can't expect every account to be exactly the same especcialy since human nature tends toward innaccuracy and inperfection. The mere fact that that the gospels are even close is a miracle in itself. The gospels are not like Chronicles where the writer could look back and take from the historical writings of others. It was of course partly hearsay. That is probably why Luke is the only writer to include the fact that twelve baskets of food was left over after the feeding of the 5000. He was not an witness to the fact but likely thought it to be a very important detail to include. Probably just as miraculous as the feeding itself.

As to the accuracy of the names, I thought Dr. Williams did a good job of explaining his research on that. As to the accuracy of research? I am no expert, so others will have to make up their own minds. I will just hold fast to my child like faith. God bless you all. Trust in Christ and we will see each other soon.

At 10/27/2019 4:45 AM, Blogger Brad Cooper said...

At first blush, this seems like a keen observation. But the reality is that very few Jews from Roman Provinces outside Galilee would ever travel through any of the towns in Galilee. Nor would most Jews even in Galilee know details about many of the other towns in Galilee--especially the smaller towns or those north or east of their own hometown.

At 10/27/2019 4:46 AM, Blogger Brad Cooper said...

The Roman road system was very efficient, and since most pilgrims would be coming from either north of the Mediterranean or south of it (especially Egypt), they would be taking the road along the coast (or a ship to a sea port such as Caesarea and then the road along the coast). So they would barely see any of Galilee coming from the north and none coming from the south. They certainly would have no reason to visit the towns around the Sea of Galilee (where most of the synoptic accounts take place).

At 10/27/2019 4:53 AM, Blogger Brad Cooper said...

Umm...So the 5000 men PLUS women and children (say 20-30k+) is too small a crowd for your likes. If only Jesus had met your requirements, then you would have to devise different objections....

At 10/27/2019 5:01 AM, Blogger Brad Cooper said...

Oh...And it was only the apostles who saw SOME of the miracles. It was only those who gave up their careers to take on the difficulties of First Century travel, persecution, threats of martyrdom and finally martyrdom (for most) in order to witness to these miracles--and especially Jesus' resurrection.

At 10/27/2019 1:27 PM, Blogger Brad Cooper said...

To visualize how obviously wrong this is, take a look at the map of the Roman road system in the graphic on this article. In the bottom right hand corner, you will see Aelia Capitolina--the name given to the site of Jerusalem by Hadrian in 129AD, when he decided to rebuild it.

At 10/28/2019 3:18 AM, Blogger Brad Cooper said...

Pranav Bethala Compare the detail specific to geographical places given in the synoptics with that given in the "Gnostic" "gospels" (which are neither Gnostic nor gospels). There really is no comparison, because they give ZERO details that are specific to places in Galilee (or anywhere for that matter). And we have many such writings, but they are ALL completely devoid of the detail we find in the NT Gospels. They wanted very much to convince their audience of the validity of their teaching, but they show no effort to do it by giving verifiable details.

At 10/30/2019 3:48 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

Hi Brad Cooper,

How did you happen to run across this old thread from 8 years ago?

Also, have you read James D. G. Dunn or Dale Allison?

They ask a lot of questions.

NT scholar James D. G. Dunn's account of the resurrection notes all of the weaknesses of the tradition: The link of Jesus's resurrection to a falsely imminent general resurrection, confusion as to what sort of Jesus the witnesses were seeing, a persistent theme of failure of the witnesses to recognize Jesus (in Matthew 28:17 the disciples are seeing him in Galilee yet "some doubted," not just Thomas, see also stories in Luke and John), confusion as to where they were seeing Jesus (“He has gone on before you to Galilee, there you [his disciples] will see him”—repeated five times in Mark and Matthew. Or, in Jerusalem? per latter Gospels, Luke and John. On earth or in heaven?).

Dunn also asks, “Where did the author of Luke-Acts think the risen Jesus was when he was not visible to the disciples? The phrase in Acts 1:4, ‘while he was staying/eating with them,’ could be taken to indicate lengthy periods, though the implication of the parallel episodes in Luke 24:32,51 is that ‘appearances’ were of relatively short duration… Was the resurrected Jesus during his alleged ‘forty days’ on earth dematerialized at times, or somehow ‘in hiding?’... Such questions may seem to be crude or even crass, but it is the author’s own account, with his insistence on ‘convincing proofs’ (Acts 1:3) which prompts them!”

Nor is it clear why Jesus had to leave the earth if he could dematerialize and rematerialize, hide and reveal himself, and probably travel instantly to heaven and back. Equally unclear is why Jesus has remained absent for so long (or at least had another forty day picnic with his followers since then). See, “The Lowdown on God’s Showdown."

Which is not to say that Dunn does not affirm the resurrection -- he does, but since he admits so many weaknesses and doubts concerning the written accounts he seems to prefer a visionary explanation.


James D. G. Dunn has this to say about his intensive study of the historical Jesus in his enormous tome, Jesus Remembered. He argues that The Gospel of John's narrative is not reliable, nor the claims it makes for Jesus's quasi-divine status. (In his earlier work, Evidence for Jesus, Dunn didn't imagine that Jesus spoke even one word reported in John.) Dunn admits there is little to support the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and little evidence that Jesus supported a mission to the gentiles, and no evidence that Jesus saw himself as any kind of messiah (the term does not even appear in Q), nor is there much left of the "Son of Man," except for a few uncertain eschatological allusions. Dunn argues that Jesus did not claim any title for himself. Jesus may have believed that he was going to die, but he did not believe he was dying to redeem the sins of the world. "If Jesus hoped for resurrection it was presumably to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead." There is astonishingly little support for what Jesus' last words were. There is a certain squirming as Dunn admits that Jesus believed in an imminent eschatological climax that, of course, did not happen. "Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events." Then he goes on for four pages trying to argue that we shouldn't be too concerned about this.

At 10/30/2019 3:58 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

Brad Cooper,

Speaking of miracle claims, Keener’s two volume work titled Miracles has captured attention recently but see The Case Against Miracles that has a chapter critiquing Keener’s claims, “Tidal Wave or Trickle?”

Also see

Nothing in such debates is clear and straightforward, not ancient history, nor modern miracle claims either.

Ex-Christian gay atheist entertainer healed a paralyzed limb during his stage show:

Derren Brown produced a stage show and a Netflix special, "Miracle," in which he copied the confidence and mood settings employed by Christian faith healers. He used the word "Lord" (not Jesus). Many people claimed to be healed from pain during his performance, but Brown noted to the audience even that it was a performance and that he was exposing the methods of faith healers, how they influence the body and brain, often temporarily relieving pain, but sometimes permanent changes can also occur. What is particularly interesting is that Derren Brown is a gay ex-Christian and an atheist. "Of course Derren Brown cured someone who was paralyzed. The magician/illusionist talks us through the most amazing miracles he performed filming his latest Netflix special"

Derren Brown mentions additional cases of miraculous healings that took place in relation to stage performances of his "Miracle" show.

B. B. Warfield, famed Protestant theologian, wrote a book, Counterfeit Miracles, that in one section recounts stories by doctors who saw some patients healed from ailments that they they did not normally expect to see healed. See the section on mind cure in his book:

Doctors at John's Hopkins noted some patients being healed due to their "faith in medicine."

"The illnesses caused by a disconnect between brain and mind." (Stories of amazingly unexpected healings)

"The Body Can Beat Terminal Cancer — Sometimes. They should be dead. But a tiny number of people conquer lethal diseases."

"A Miracle or a Mystery?" Even among God-believing physicians there is no general agreement as to what constitutes a miracle, let alone whether they occur.  If we take, for example, the issue of spontaneous regression of cancer (a well documented phenomenon, which I wrote about in June of 2002, ‘Medicine’s Mysteries’), we can say that it has been proven to occur.  It is a fact.  Is it a ‘miracle.’ It depends on whom you ask, for some would say yes and others, no.  Cases of spontaneous regression of cancer occur among people of differing religious and philosophical beliefs, with and without prayer. (I have seen one such case myself.)”

“Tidal wave or trickle?” a chapter in The Case Against Miracles. Author notes that the misses far outnumber the alleged hits. Nor are claims of miraculous healing limited to Christianity.

Misses of miracles


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