Monday, April 26, 2010

Essay: The Gospels Tell Me So by Vocab Malone & Paul D. Adams

The Gospels Tell Me So by Vocab Malone & Paul D. Adams
Why believe Christianity is true? Because the Gospels tell me so. Although this may sound trite or dismissive, it is a reasonable response if the biblical content preserves the events as they really happened. And if Christianity is based in certain empirically verifiable events, then Christianity is true. This essay will speak to the general reliability of the New Testament Gospels.

Preliminary questions regarding ancient literature purporting to record accurate historical events include: “What is the author’s intent?” “Did the Gospel authors intend to capture a genuine portrayal of the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth?”  If not, then at least it is psychologically naïve and at most historically irresponsible to rely upon the Gospel accounts as accurate sources. If it can be demonstrated the Gospel authors intended to write biographies and accurately record the words and works of Jesus, then it becomes a small distance to travel in believing Christianity is true.  (MP3 Audio | RSS | iTunes)

Should we give the benefit of the doubt to the Gospels or should we just assume they’re inaccurate? Dr. Greg Boyd cautions against taking the latter stance:
Historians generally assume that an author’s intent is to write history if it appears he or she is trying to write history. … [W]e in general trust the account unless we have reasons not to do so. The burden of proof, in short, is always assumed to rest on historians to demonstrate that a work is untrustworthy; it does not rest on documents to in every instance prove the opposite. …  Unless such a commonsensical assumption were made, it is difficult to see how the discipline of writing ancient history could ever get far off the ground.1
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson highlights the desperate result of applying skeptical methodology to historical documentation:
Each writer follows the predictable path of rationalist reduction. Historical difficulties in the texts as we have them are construed as hopeless obstacles, which must lead inevitably to skepticism. The void of skepticism is then filled with inventive speculation. The speculation is not a reasonable alternative reading based on the available evidence, but a complete reshuffling of the pieces, yielding a picture more satisfying to the aesthetic or religious sensibilities of the authors.2
If we wish to avoid the agnostic pitfalls of skepticism, we should grant the courtesy Boyd notes above and apply it to the New Testament Gospels. 

While modern biographers typically cover the entire life span of their subjects, ancient biographers were more selective and focused on the end of the person’s life. The Trial of Socrates by Plato is a good example. This selectivity may explain why there is little of Jesus’s life before he began his public ministry.

Eyewitness testimony was considered essential for a reliable Greco-Roman biography. Luke’s prologue is clear that he interviewed eyewitnesses before assembling an accurate account of Jesus’s life (Luke 1:1-4). Moreover, it is possible that Mark’s Gospel has an inclusio* in which he begins and ends with Peter, traditionally understood to be Mark’s main source. Martin Hengel has noted that Mark 1:17 and 16:7 work to show that Peter was a legitimate eyewitness per the qualifications in Luke 1:2, John 15:27 and Acts 1:22.3

Paul D. Adams (the co-author of this essay) makes some important points about first century oral culture. He writes:
Though the author's right to summarize rather than cite every word was recognized, there was an intense concern for accuracy in what counted as history, both in the Greco-Roman tradition and the Jewish tradition. … The primary issue is between summary versus citation. But, as [Darrell] Bock reminds us, "it is possible to have historical truth without always resorting to explicit citation.4
If the Gospels are historically accurate, then the events in them must be aligned with real people and places. Archaeology can be immensely helpful to confirm historical record. Consider the discovery of the Caiaphas Ossuary (bone box) outside of Jerusalem in 1990; this artifact holds the bones of “Yehosef bar Kayafa," translated as "Joseph, son of Caiaphas"5

Excavations verify the pools of Bethesda (John 5:1-15) and Siloam (John 9:1-11).6  Bethesda is especially relevant since critics long doubted John’s accuracy, only later to find his description matches down to the detail. Similarly, in 1961, a team of Italian archaeologists working on a theater in Caesarea Maritima found what is now known as the “Pilate Stone”. It mentions Tiberius and includes an inscription describing Pilate as the Prefect of Judea.7  At last count, there are nearly twenty different people mentioned in the Gospels, either confirmed by archaeology or cited by non-Christian writers.8  Craig Blomberg estimates nearly sixty confirmed historical details in John’s Gospel.9 Obviously, these findings speak to the veracity of the Gospels.

In summary, the authors of the Gospels intended to record an accurate account of Jesus’ earthly ministry and we can verify they are accurate. Archaeology and non-Christian historians give confirmation to the Gospels, offering evidence that when we read about the actions and message of Jesus in the Gospels, we are reading what really happened. In short, Christianity is true because “the Bible tells me so.”

*An inclusio is a literary device that brackets or frames a section by purposefully repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning and the end of the section. Also called an “envelope”.

1 Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies (Wheaton, Ill: BridgePoint, 1995), 220-221.
2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels  (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 32.
3 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s ), 124-126.
4 See and references there.

5 see, cf. Matthew 26:3; 57; Luke 3:2.
6 Hershel Shanks “Where Jesus Cured the Blind Man” Biblical Archaeology Review vol 31 no 5 Sep/Oct 2005, 16-23
7 see
8 See Table 10.1 in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 270. 
9 Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 2001), 70-280.


John Sfifer said...

Could someone please help me with this:

How can we know about who wrote the gospels? There are discussions about them being written in Greek and hence not the actual authors. Does that affect anything (eyewitness mainly)? Thanks for your help!

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

John -

Good question; I hope I can help a bit. Sometime between 110 and 130, Papias of Hierapolis reported the following in regards to the composition of the Gospels:

"Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could."

In his 'Against Heresies' (V 33.4), Irenaeus said Papias "a hearer of John, and companion of Polycarp, a man of old time." Irenaeus wrote this later in the 2nd Century.

While we shouldn't base the whole case on Papias' report, there is something to be said about such early testimony which comports to the traditional authorial designations.

phx, az

Ken Pulliam said...

Vocab and Paul,

Thanks for your essay. I think if the gospels are treated as every other document from ancient history then the miracles will be doubted. There are extravagant claims made in many ancient biographies, especially those that are written of "heroes." Dale C. Allison, in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, writes concerning the general reliability of sacred biographies: Hagiographical traditions and sacred biographies written by the devotees of a founder or religious savior are notoriously unreliable. Tradents gather what they can and concoct what they cannot gather, often reaping what their founder did not sow. The result is that everywhere history coalesces with myth....Once we doubt, as all modern scholars do, that the Jesus tradition gives us invariably accurate information, unvarnished by exaggeration and legend, it is incumbent upon us to find some way of sorting through the diverse traditions to divine what really goes back to Jesus. (p.1-2)

The most prolific Roman biographer, Plutarch, is said to have often improved upon the truth (Tracy Deline, Ancient Biography).

The writers of the canonical gospels had an agenda--it was to "prove" that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. John clearly says this is his purpose (John 20:31). They have to be read in this light.

inchristus said...

Why, pray tell, would the Gospel authors knowingly spread false information and suffer death for their beliefs if they had an agenda to prove what they knew was historically unreliable?

Simply because the claims were "extravagant," or "exaggerated" is no argument against (or for) the historical reliability of the Gospels.

I suppose this is the same Dale Allison who dismisses a priori the likelihood of the Gospels as historical genre, since "ordinary human experience" is the means whereby all history is to be measured. Not a little ad hoc going on here, my friend. Allison says elsewhere:

"a tendency to mythomania seems to be part of human nature...How can anyone with a good education wholeheartedly believe that Jesus walked on water, that he fed five thousand with a few food scraps, or that he restored the dead to the land of the living? Such incredible things seem opposed to ordinary human experience. Similar things do, however, often appear in archaic tales that everybody knows to be fictional." (Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History pp.68-69)

Seems to me that Allison is sawing off the very limb that he himself sits and does a bit of his own constructing.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Thank you, Ken.

To me, the fact that you are quoting Allison speaks well of you (not that you need my approval, I'm just trying to say Allison is a serious and respectable scholar, even though he's overly skeptical at key points).

This, from a Habermas review of Allison's work in "Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters" (Part 6):

Allison thinks that there "is every reason" to think that Luke properly reports Paul's resurrection appearance (236). We "can be fairly certain" of the tradition behind Luke's three Acts accounts and that his ultimate source is Paul himself. Accordingly, several details may be gleaned from these reports, including the "supernatural light" that caused Paul to fall to the ground, to which Allison sees a parallel in 2 Corinthians 4:6. [1]

I think this interesting, to say the least. So, I guess a question would be this: how do we account for an enemy of The Way - namely, Saul - becoming a follower of Jesus unless the Gospels are true?

I'm not saying Paul had access to a written version of the Gospel of Matthew and came to faith by reading them but unless Paul found out that the account of Jesus' life was true by personal revelation first and historical confirmation second (Gal. 1:11-24), then why did he 'convert' as it were?

Is it not most likely that Paul's turnaround is due to the fact that the canonical Jesus and the historical Jesus are one and the same?

Even though Allison would never argue this himself, it seems that some of Allison's points would at least allow for this to be the case.

phx, az


Ken Pulliam said...


I don't think that the gospel writers "knowingly spread false information." I think that the early Christians sincerely believed. However, stories that are told and retold tend to get embellished. The writers of the gospels were working off this oral tradition as well as a few written docs (Mark being primary). Nevertheless, they are not writing as disinterested historians. They are preaching their faith. The gospels are like an extended tract.

When a Mormon historian, for example, writes about the history of his church, one must realize that he has probably selected what to report and how to report it with a slant toward making Mormonism appear in a favorable light.

Dale Allison is a respected NT scholar and no less than William Craigsaid he had presented the most challenging case against the resurrection that he had ever come across.

Ken Pulliam said...


The fact that Allison doesn't come to your conclusion indicates that there may be another way to interpet the evidence.

I think Paul probably experienced an hallucination, perhaps caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. This would explain why he was so convinced. Of course, people who have mystical experiences typically are very convinced of the reality of their experience.

As for Paul knowing the accounts as they were eventually written down in the Gospel of Luke, I am dubious. First, even based on a conservative dating of Luke, it would have been written after Paul was imprisoned and whether he ever saw it or not is debatable. Second, Paul makes no distinction between the nature of Jesus' appearance to him and the appearances to Peter, James, the Twelve and the 500. He uses the same Greek word ὤφθη (ophthe) to refer to each. His grammatical construction is parallel in the passage. There is every reason to think that Paul thought that the experience that the others had was like his. We know what his was like from Acts and he didn't see a human figure. He saw a bright light and heard a voice. Perhaps this was the case with Peter and the others as well. Peter may very well have hallucinated (he was a prime candidate for it) and as the story got told and retold and finally written down it had been greatly embellished--Jesus was passing through walls and eating fish, etc.

My point is there is definitely an alternative way to understand what happened in the 1st century without believing that a dead corpse got up and walked out of the tomb.

Paul D. Adams said...

Hi Ken:
Let me (InChristus) respond to one comment you make and the seeming implication. You state "stories that are told and retold tend to get embellished." Unless I misunderstand, your implication is that, therefore, the Gospels cannot be trusted to convey accurate historical information. Though the Gospel authors intended to write down their beliefs as they understood, their beliefs should be questioned.

My questions for you are:
Why assume the Gospel writers' beliefs inspired the Gospel record rather than the actual events they record?
Moreover, cannot my beliefs and my subsequent recording of such comport with actual historical events?

I would suggest that the Gospel writers did not create sayings of Jesus and put words in his mouth. Although there is a certain fluidity in a pre-literate, oral tradition culture, this culture had well-established standards in the recording of authentic history (as shown by many 1st - 2nd century extant non-biblical documents). As I previously said, though the author's right to summarize rather than cite every word was recognized, there was an intense concern for accuracy in what counted as history, both in the Greco-Roman tradition and the Jewish tradition, especially since it was an oral culture! An accurate memory is requisite for preserving ipsissima verba (actual words) or ipsissima vox (actual voice).

If the Gospel writers intended to present word-for-word accounts of Jesus' teachings, but instead summarized, then there is a problem with the integrity of the Gospel record. But, if Gospel writers merely intended to summarize Jesus sayings and did so, then their accounts should be judged on the basis of their intention, and nothing more. It is logically possible (and theologically necessary given that the Gospels are "God's" Word) that God inspired the writers to give their account of Jesus' teachings and for them to do so accurately, suspending as it were their tendency to record error while writing. Feinberg says "if the sense of the words attributed to Jesus by the writers was not uttered by Jesus, or if the exact words of Jesus are so construed that they have a sense never intended by Jesus," then Christians have reasons to doubt the Gospels' historicity. But, given the available manuscripts and their dating, we've no reason to doubt the accuracy of the Gospel record.

Again, Darrell Bock nicely states:

"One can present history accurately whether one quotes or summarizes teaching or even mixes the two together. To have accurate summaries of Jesus' teaching is just as historical as to have his actual words; they are just two different perspectives to give us the same thing. All that is required is that the summaries be trustworthy-a factor made likely not only by the character of the writers and the nature of their religious convictions, but also by the presence of opponents and eyewitnesses who one way or the other could challenge a fabricated report."

I find little substantive support for claiming the Gospels are an unreliable record of Jesus' thought and life. Assuming something to be so does not make it so. For example, to suppose that the disciples' beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth were significantly altered due to a time-gap between the events as they occurred and when they were written down does not entail there being a noteworthy shift in memory, nor a loose oral approach. There were plenty of eyewitnesses to dismiss any record that did not jive with history as it was. In addition, looking at the events and sayings of Jesus' life through the eyes of a resurrected Christ may involve some human interpretation, but this is a far cry from proving that what was recorded is unreliable history.

Therefore, an appeal to the likelihood that the Gospel writers' beliefs inspired the Gospel records rather than the actual events being the records' inspiration seems groundless and does nothing to disprove the historical validity of the Gospel witness.

Anonymous said...

William Lane Craig's lecture on William Lane Craig here.

Ken Pulliam said...


You ask: Why assume the Gospel writers' beliefs inspired the Gospel record rather than the actual events they record?

I think their interpretation of the events that had been passed down to them inspired their writings. You, I think, are wrong to make it an either-or question. Either the events happened as reported in the Gospels or the writers invented details about the stories.

You also ask: Moreover, cannot my beliefs and my subsequent recording of such comport with actual historical events?

The answer is yes but is the question is if that is what happened in the case of the gospels.

The rest of you comments seem to relate to the gospel writers summarizing the words of Jesus. I don't have any question that they did this. Even conservatives such as Bock now admit that the gospels do not contain the ipissima verba but the ipissima vox of Jesus.

The argument that plenty of eyewitnesses would have exerted significant control over what was written in the gospels is I think overstated. First, its not at clear how many eyewitnesses would have been around by the time the gospels were finally penned. Second, what eyewitnesses there were, were probably centered mostly in Judea and the gospels were most likely written outside of Judea. Third, the memories of eyewitnesses can change and even be modifiedby the reports of others. A significant rebuttal of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses was published in the latest issue of JBL by Judy Redman entitled: " How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research."

John Sfifer said...


Thanks for your answer (above).

I'm sorry but a little confused. I see a debate about the 'historic reliability' of Gospels. I was hoping to hear WHO WROTE the Gospels. If Mat/Mark/Luke/John did, I don't see what the problem would be (from my amateur eye). If on the other hand it was men who spoke Greek, then that's a different issue. This is what Ehrman purports.

Thanks for all the comments, and the video by Lane Craig, hope to watch that as well.

Paul D. Adams said...

I don't believe I did make it an either/or. My "moreover, cannot my ..." question clearly shows this.

As for ipissima vox, but of course. But I would argue that without ipissima verba there is no ipissima vox. The latter presupposes the former.

Your 2nd point about where the Gospels were written has no bearing on whether or not they are historically reliable. That I fly to New York City and jot down memoirs of my grade school days (a few decades ago!) based upon my memory and own interpretive experiences, and then send my records to my fellow grade school mates to read is no argument for their inaccuracy.

In addition, simply because experiences are interpretive, does not necessarily require that all interpreted experiences are incredulous or false.

I'm unfamiliar with Judy Redman's response to Bauckham but will look into. Thanks for the pointer.

Paul D. Adams said...

What is the significance of the language spoken by the Gospel authors?

Paul D. Adams said...

On anonymous vs. pseudonymous authorship of the Gospels and a detailed response to Ehrman, see especially Witherington's post here.

Quoting Witherington:
"Bart and I furthermore disagree on the issue of pseudonymity in the canon. It is one thing to say there are anonymous documents in the NT, which there are. Hebrews would be a good example. It is another thing to say that there are pseudonymous documents in the NT, forgeries. I and many other critical scholars think this is not so, but Bart is right that many scholars think otherwise. My point is simply this--- there is a healthy debate about that issue amongst scholars. It is not a “well assured result of the historical critical method” on analyzing the NT. I have pointed out at length in my Letters and Homilies of the NT, series the problems that pseudonymity raised in the first century A.D. for both Greek and Latin writers, never mind writers of documents supposed to convey God’s truth. The Gospels as we have them are formally anonymous in terms of their internal evidence, though the Fourth Gospel tells is that the Beloved Disciple (not specifically identified) is the source of the material in that Gospel. We can discuss the merits of the attributes later appended to these Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), but in my view the testimony of Papias is important, and makes evident these attributions already existed in the first century, and in some cases during the time when there were still eyewitnesses. They cannot be dismissed with a wave of a hand, but at the same time one needs to ask--- what were the conventions when it came to appending names to composite documents? This deserves more discussion. In the second part of this post, we will pick up the discussion with Chapter Three. Stay tuned."

Ken Pulliam said...


Thanks for the reply. You say that one cannot have the ipissima vox without the ipissima verba but that seems to undercut everything you have been saying about how the gospel writers summarized the teachings of Jesus. If they had the actual words of Jesus, then why on earth would they paraphrase what he was saying. I think its more likely that people remembered the "gist" of what Jesus said and then passed along orally what they remembered. In some cases, they probably did remember the actual words but in most cases probably not.

The significance of where the gospels were penned has to do with what kind of controlling influence eyewitnesses would have had. If the eyewitneses were mostly in Judea and the gospels were written outside of Judea, then their controlling influence would have been impossible. In addition, the gospels were all written in Greek which militates against Jesus' actual disciples writing them and how many of the eyewitnesses centered in Judea would have been able to read the Gospels in Greek and offer criticisms or rebuttals?

I agree that interpreted experiences are not necessarily false but many times apologists act as if the presence of eyewitnesses guarantees the accuracy of the reports.

Ken Pulliam said...

On Witherington's comments, he is right that there is a huge difference between an anonymous writing (gospels) and a pseudonymous writing. While Ehrman overstates the case for pseudonymous books in the NT, he is correct that the consensus of academic biblical scholarship points to some pseudonymous books, most likely 2 Peter, James, Jude and perhaps the Pastoral letters. We know that many pseudonymous writings circulated in the early church. Tertullian gives the account of a presbyter in his day that was tried and convicted for forging a document (The Acts of Paul)as if from Paul. Now with regard to the Gospels, Papias may be correct but I think its hard to believe that if two of the gospels had actually been written by Matthew and John, those apostles would have attached their names to them and they would have recorded events in the first person not the third. If Mark relied on Peter, I think he would have clearly said so, given the authority that Peter was thought to have in the early Church.

John Sfifer said...

Thanks for the info, Paul.

I am going to read the blog, but it is quite long, and I am a slowwww reader. But I will enjoy it over the next few days...

Btw, you asked:
What is the significance of the language spoken by the Gospel authors?

My point was what Ehrman said that the followers of Jesus didn't speak Greek, hence it was some guys away from the area who nobody knew. Does this make sense? Thanks for the help.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Ken, you said the Gospel writers “are not writing as disinterested historians. They are preaching their faith. The gospels are like an extended tract.”

Of course, the Gospel writers are very upfront about their faith. They do not try to hide it. There is no hidden agenda. I think this is a good sign for their honesty. My question would be this, though: if the accounts of Jesus are not true, then why do they have faith in the first place? It seems ad hoc to suggest they are helping to forge a new religion out of whole cloth, doesn’t it?

Ken, I greatly respect your background and education. I also respect your friendliness. But unfortunately you made a very inept comparison when you said, “When a Mormon historian, for example, writes about the history of his church, one must realize that he has probably selected what to report and how to report it with a slant toward making Mormonism appear in a favorable light.”

This truly is a peaches and plumbs scenario. A Mormon historian writing now is far removed from most of the events he is purporting to talk about. Further, he is being commissioned by an already established organization with a lot to lose. Neither of these are true for first century Christians.

In regards to Paul’s account of the resurrection and Allison’s work, you said, “My point is there is definitely an alternative way to understand what happened in the 1st century without believing that a dead corpse got up and walked out of the tomb.”

Yes, there is always an alternative way to interpret any historical event but does that make it a valid deduction? The way you described the resurrection leads me to believe you are at a stage where you a priori reject any historical account of the miraculous. It doesn’t seem prudent to let our philosophical assumptions dominate the way we reckon history, does it?

Lastly, I would say that the strength of the data we have for the miracle accounts within the Gospels is strong enough to overturn any misguided notions of philosophical naturalism, which ultimately seems to be the philosophical bedrock of most of Allison’s work on the historical Jesus.

Ken you said that, “We know that many pseudonymous writings circulated in the early church. Tertullian gives the account of a presbyter in his day that was tried and convicted for forging a document (The Acts of Paul)as if from Paul.” It does not follow that MANY such writings circulated. We do have accounts of some (I remember a few in Eusebius as well) but the point is they were rooted out. As you know, books in which the authorship was less certain had a very difficult time making it into the canon. The early church wasn’t naïve in their acceptance of these works, rather they were very cautious.

Ken I have a question about this paragraph: “Now with regard to the Gospels, Papias may be correct but I think its hard to believe that if two of the gospels had actually been written by Matthew and John, those apostles would have attached their names to them and they would have recorded events in the first person not the third. If Mark relied on Peter, I think he would have clearly said so, given the authority that Peter was thought to have in the early Church. “

I don’t understand why you think these things … why would it have to be the way you described? What criteria are you using to say such things as “it’s hard to believe” and “I think he would have clearly said so?” I’m sure you’ve thought through this, I am just wondering what your reasons are.

Ken, I tried to get a hold of the Redman article but it was 15 bucks to download … I’ll have to wait on that one. I have to admit I’m a bit skeptical about the whole project of utilizing 21st century psychological studies to discount the accuracy of 1st century eye witnesses. Is it even possible or responsible to use those tentative findings to minimize (I understand she doesn’t necessarily throw them all out) away their testimonies, especially in light of Bauckham’s work?

phx, az

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Wow, I go off to school and work for one day and look what happens - look at all these comments! I think it's really good, but I'm way behind now, ha ...


You said, “My point was what Ehrman said that the followers of Jesus didn't speak Greek, hence it was some guys away from the area who nobody knew.”

John, I’m not sure how it follows that if the followers of Jesus didn’t speak Greek that it was instead “some guys away from the area who nobody knew.” How does Ehrman (if he said that) go from point A to B on that one?

Another thing is I’m not so certain we can say we know that the followers of Jesus didn’t speak Greek. In fact, John 12:20-23 says, “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them….”

How did Philip and Andrew (which incidentally are both Greek names!) communicate with these folks if they didn’t know any Greek?

Enjoying the interaction, guys, keep it up!

phx, az

John Sfifer said...

Thank you very much vocab. I was actually looking for something about the reliability of the Gospels the day you guys wrote this article. So this was a real blessing for me!

Anyways, I really appreciate your replies. I am anxious to read the blog post from Paul that he kindly shared with me (as well as watch the videos from Lane Craig).

Enjoy your discussion with Ken! He is a tough debater!

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Thank you, John ...

Just as an aside ... when we speak of the reliability of the Gospels and what we can 'know' from history, please be aware that many otherwise wise people in our day have given up on the notion of objective truth and believe we can’t know anything about the past. You'll probably notice that it seems ironic for a historian to make such a claim, for if true, it would leave them jobless!

Nonetheless, a radical skepticism has risen to the surface in regards to historical inquiry and has exploded into the field of the historical Jesus. The perception of the historian is sometimes that of the completely objective observer, one who is merely reporting the facts. Yet, we must remember that historians – like all humans – come pre-packaged with built-in biases and sometimes even hidden agendas.

I really do think that if the standard rules of historiography are applied to the Gospels, it becomes irrefutably clear that they are accounts of actual historical events based on accurate and reliable eyewitness reports. If one takes the Holy Spirit's guidance into account - which I do - then the case for not only the reliability of Scripture but the authority of the Gospels is quite solid.

phx, az

Ken Pulliam said...


thanks for the reply and your kind words. I want to thank Brian and all of the contributors here for allowing honest and frank discussion of these issues. I have noticed on some other boards that the moderators seem to be afraid to let the other side be heard. I think that Christians and especially those who desire to be apologists should be willing to listen to the other side if they expect to be able to truly defend their beliefs. I commend Brian for allowing that kind of friendly dialogue here.
Now to your response. Yes, the gospel writers are "up front" about their faith, but that is the point. They are not claiming to give an objective, unbiased report (or fair and balanced as a certain News station likes to claim), they admit (and there is nothing wrong with that) that their purpose to convince people to become followers of Jesus. All I am saying is that we must recognize their agenda and be cautious in just accepting uncritically what they write.
You ask:if the accounts of Jesus are not true, then why do they have faith in the first place?. Well this could be asked about any religious document. Did the writer(s) of the Qu'ran believe that what they were writing was true? Did the writer of the Book of Mormon? Did Mary Baker Eddy not believe that what she was writing was true? Most founders of religions do sincerely believe that what they are writing is true. Of course, there are some who are not sincere and are merely con-artists, like L. Ron Hubbard.
Regarding Mormon history, let me change my analogy by referring to one written in the 19th century of which there were several. Would you not read them realizing they may be slanting things a particular direction?
I don't reject miracles a priori . This is a common allegation by apologists but in my case its not true. I am open to the possibility of the supernatural. I am agnostic, however, I do require very strong evidence to believe it is truly supernatural. Frankly, to prove something one way or the other from ancient history is extremely difficult. That is why I don't have a problem with someone who says: "I accept the resurrection by faith." What I have a problem with is someone who insists that the ONLY legitimate conclusion to draw from the limited evidence that we have is that a miracle took place. I think that is a gross exaggeration of the evidence.
Regarding pseudonymous writings, yes the early church tried to "root them out" but the question is: "were they 100% successful"? Many modern scholars do not think so (and Luther was dubious about James). The point is that we know that these forgeries took place and we can understand why they did. Its not at all clear that books we see as forgeries today were understood by all Christians as forgeries in the past. For example, Jude and 2 Peter quote from the book of Enoch and Jude also from the Assumption of Moses.
Regarding the gospels, it seems logical to me that if they were written by Matthew and John, the authors would have said so BECAUSE it would have lent enormous credibility to them. Paul always identifies himself when he writes. The reason we have some forged documents is because the forgers realized that their writing would be received as credible and authoritative if it came from an apostle. If Matthew and John, who really were apostles, wrote the gospels that bear their name, wouldn't they want people to know? Why wouldn't they use the 1st person to describe what they actually saw or heard? Luke does in Acts in the so-called "we" passages.
Regarding the Redman article, I did a blog poston it summarizing its arguments. she also addressed on her blog the very point you raise (you can Google her name and find the blog)about comparing 21st century people to 1st century. The psychology of memory is the same regardless of the time, she argues.

John Sfifer said...


Here are a few points of my own, on your last comments.

First, Quran and Mormon as far as I know written by 1 man, the founder. These writers have no reason to lie unless they really believed. But why did they believe? (rhetorical)

Second, if the writers were gonna lie about who wrote the book, why not lie and put 'I/we' in the writing? Besides, if they really believed, I would have a hard time they would in either case, since they would've been quite convicted.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Ken –

I agree with your opening comments. Props to my man Brian A.

I might try to come back to some of your last comments later but for now I only can address one thing you said.

When I asked why did the Gospel writers have faith in the first place if the accounts of Jesus were false, you responded by bringing up the authors of other “religious documents.” Our friend John brought up a valid point: those works were all composed by one person! Hence, we have a big difference when we come to the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole.

In the case of the Gospels, we have four different pieces of attestation to the same core of historical material. Further, as you know, within the Gospels themselves, there are older layers of codified oral traditions, such as the Pre-Markan burial tradition which is in the Book of Mark. The point is the Gospels are not one singular document, as you know, and neither is the NT. So it seems out of line to make a direct comparison to works such as Mary Baker Eddy’s or the Book of Mormon, both of which have one author.

Further, I am not so sure Joseph Smith was sincere (as you alluded to) in his beliefs. The man had a documented history of treasure-seeking, glass-looking, and general tall-tale telling. Mormonism got him money, power and sex (the same goes for Mohammad) – within his own lifetime. Whatever did the Gospel writers get in return for their trouble?

Well, if there is any merit in tradition, all the records of early church history indicate that Peter was crucified. Eusebius (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:1, 30) cites Clement’s testimony, who says that before Peter was crucified he was forced to watch the crucifixion of his own wife. When it was Peter’s turn, he pleaded to be crucified upside down and so was nailed to a cross head-downward. I used the Peter account because he was the primary witness for Mark’s gospel (as I mentioned in the essay) and he was a key leader in the early church. Also, Peter’s martyrdom is much more certain than Matthew’s, who probably was burned at the stake but we can’t be absolutely sure because the tradition behind that one is less reliable.

So when I asked why did they have faith in the first place, what I am asking if you think they essentially invented Christianity simply by circulating a document around 1st century Asia Minor. Did Mark invent Christianity when he wrote his Gospel and the other three Gospel writers were just so persuaded they believed and then added on their own fabrications as well? It sure would be ironic if they made up a bunch of lies about a man whom they say commanded his followers to be honest and condemned religious leaders for leading others astray!

But see, this scenario isn’t plausible because we already have Paul establishing Christian fellowships all over the Mediterranean 10-15 years prior to the Gospels final written form that we have now. So I guess Paul would have to be the inventor of Christianity but how did he come to faith himself?

The reason why I throw these scenarios out there is because it can help demonstrate that the best explanation that fits the most historical facts is that Jesus really did say and do the things the Gospel writers recorded, and then he really did establish his church as he said he would in Matthew 18. He really did rise from the dead, which sparked off a vibrant Jerusalem-based movement whose earliest message was centered on the ministry of Jesus, primarily his resurrection.

This is exactly what we see happening in the Book of Acts, where we also see the answer to how Peter and Paul fit together and all the rest. What I am saying is that the echoes of Jesus’ ministry echo so loudly in the first century that the original sound had to be a historical boom not a legendary whisper.

Phx, az

Ken Pulliam said...


I don't think the gospel writers invented the stories that they wrote. I think there was a historical kernel which grew like a snowball rolling downhill. It grew as the stories were told and retold. I do believe that Peter and Paul experienced something that they interpreted as being the risen Jesus. Whether it was an hallucination or something else, I can't be certain. There is a case to be made that Paul's experience and his life sounds a lot like someone with temporal lobe epilepsy.

These experiences would have led these men and others who believed their testimony to be willing to die for their beliefs.

The reason I brought up the other authors of religious books is because we do know from history that this kind of thing (people believe that God has spoken to them) happens. Whether they were all sincere or not, I don't know. I think that at least some of them were.

We also know that some Christians wrote forgeries in the second and third centuries CE claiming that they were Paul or Peter or one of the other apostles. So Christians were not exempt from "lying".

All of these points together make me skeptical about taking the gospels at face value.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Ken -

I read many of your posts that were germane to the topic of the Gospel's reliability. Very interesting.

I also discovered you did your dissertation on Bernard Ramm! Of course, I already knew you were a 'former fundy' but I have an interesting connection for you: my sister-in-law attends IBC, where you used to teach. You may have noticed I rep Phoenix and actually stay in Tempe. If you're ever in town again, it'd be cool to get your former fundy opinion LOL on where I attend - - in the downtown area.

Also, I read the 'Paul was a crazy guy article' (which was rather silly) you linked to and the Ancient Biography article, too. Not to be picayune but you incorrectly said Deline said Plutarch improved on the truth but the article cites C.B.R. Pelling.

Lastly, would you be interested in a written moderated debate or a cross-blogging dialogue or a webcam video moderated debate sometime?


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