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Monday, May 9, 2016

A Word to Christian Apologists

I have been interested in apologetics for quite a few years, dating back to my college years at Portland State University and Dr. John Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religion course. I look back with special fondness to Dr. Whitehead’s non-falsifiability argument and his “invisible unicorn” illustration. It spurred the beginning of my intellectual quest for truth and faith, though I'm sure that wasn't his intention. 

The intervening forty-eight years or so have been challenging. I have myself entertained serious doubt as I have read the ideas of atheists and anti-theists. I have purposefully sought out the challenges to Theism and Christianity. I have interacted with scientists on the subject of evolution and cosmology. And I have done personal research in both fields, trying to catch up in areas of study that my college studies in literature had not prepared me to understand.

During that time I also engaged in serious study of the Bible and history. I earned a graduate degree from a theological seminary where the grammatical-historical method of hermeneutics and exegesis was the centerpiece of biblical study and a knowledge of the original languages was expected. 

In the last few years I’ve read the books and the blogs of the new atheists and have watched as the New Atheism put on muscle as the New Anti-theistism. A current faculty member of my old alma mater Dr. Peter Boghossian, who seems poised to take up the mantle (pardon my biblical allusion) of my old professor of the 1960s, is a case in point. (I trust he will be as much as spur to faith to a new generation as Dr. Whitehead was for me.)  But there are many others.   

Recently, after playing on the fields and with the rules of the adversaries of Theism and Christianity for many years, it has occurred to me that, though Theism and Christianity have held their own, Christian apologists have too often misrepresented Christianity in the minds of their readers. 

The fact, and the point I repeatedly made to my students in Apologetics, is that no apologetic argument based on science or philosophy ever resulted in faith. Only a personal encounter with God convinces a non-believer of God or of his need for God. 

Yes, I know there are well known apologists who were formerly atheists and who speak of the reasoning that brought them to faith. Among them are people like C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell.  And I have no doubt that reason and evidence brought down the barriers to personal faith, but no genuine Christian becomes such without the experience of being born again. 
That requires explanation. Being “born again” does not mean what it has recently become, a matter of a change of mind or the adoption of a new life changing conviction. (See Merriam-Webster) “Born again” is a supernatural God encounter initiated by the Holy Spirit and is irrefutable to anyone who has experienced it. It is a change on the level of spirit not merely on the level of the intellect or emotion, though there will also be intellectual and emotional change that follows.   

For anyone familiar with the Bible and with the testimony of men and women from the beginning of human history, that is not a surprise. Everyone who has become a genuine follower of God, in other words a “believer,”  from Abraham in Genesis, to Paul in the New Testament, to the Muslim in Pakistan who had a vision of Jesus, and to me has  become a believer in God because they met him. 

That is the playing field on which we need to play the championship game. 

I know that our adversaries will complain. They will say evidence that is not independently verifiable is not admissible. (I recently had a serious young man who described himself as an agnostic say this very thing.) Only sound objective scientific evidence is valid. But that is true only when the debate is confined to the realm of science. However, Christianity is not proven true or false by science. We might expect that science and the scientific method will have something to say about claims that can be verified or disproven by science. But God is not one of those things. Christianity is not one of those things. 

So debating whether Jesus actually walked on water, as one anti-theist  blogger wished to do, is meaningless. It will never be accepted as a possibility by anyone who is not a believer in God. But for anyone who has actually met God it is a very viable possibility. It is something that could well have happened because God wrote the story that we live, including the “natural laws, and he can write it anyway he chooses. The laws of nature are subject to him, not he to the laws. 

That God could do this is not a debate point. It is our settled confidence based on our personal knowledge of God, and it cannot be explained to the skeptic any more than red can be explained to a blind man. 

So we can continue playing on the field chosen by the anti-theists. It is important that we do. It is good for us to know that the best efforts of our adversaries aren't decisive. But the final game must be played on our field, the field where a God encounter is the deciding play.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The People You Think Wrote the Gospels Aren't

Most Internet pieces that argue against the historical position of the church on issues of faith are not well thought out. Most demonstrate a poor understanding of the claims they attempt to refute. Most demonstrate a superficial knowledge of the Bible. Most are not written by well qualified scholars. 

One exception is the blog written by Matthew Ferguson, a graduate student at the University of California. He does have the academic skills required of scholars. So when I came upon his blog Κέλσος, I was interested in his argument for non-traditional authorship. The article is “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Author of the Gospels"  See Ferguson's article here 

But. . .

Here are my reactions and responses to several of his arguments. 

Ferguson begins with his thesis: 

The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions, in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure — Jesus Christ — to confirm the faith of their communities.
Maybe it is just a way to get the reader’s attention. But playing the “mainstream scholar” card is not a great way to win a debate. Ferguson would do well to speak from his own expertise rather than use the logical fallacy of appeal to authority.

However, when he does present his own insights, he fails to be persuasive. On the issue of attribution - that is, how the author is identified - he writes:

Here, we already have a problem with the traditional authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscripts of the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαίον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship.
To be fair, Ferguson admits this is much ado about nothing. The titles were appended to the gospels many years after the gospels were written and not by the authors themselves, but his last sentence is insightful. Those who added the titles were, in fact, distancing the author from a claim to authorship. The gospels were not the product of the authors, be they Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  Jesus is the author of the gospel, and he is clearly identified in the texts. 

Accordingly, the preposition κατὰ is a better representation of the fact that the writers were only the mediate authors. The conventional way of attributing a piece of writing to an author using the genitive case (or more specifically the ablative case which expresses derivation or source) implies source. That is how, for example, it is used in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus when he wishes to express the relationship of a son to a father: Joseph tou (son of) Heli  in Luke 3:26. That was the convention, but the gospels are not conventional. The gospel writers were not the source of the gospel. 

A second problem with the traditional authors according to Ferguson is that they were incapable of writing in Greek or writing a piece as complex as the gospels. 

As we will see for the Gospels’ authors, we have little reason to suspect, at least in the case of Matthew and John, that their traditional authors would have even been able to write a complex narrative in Greek prose. . . .Only a few could read and write well, and even a smaller fraction could author complex prose works like the Gospels
The reality is that the quality of writing we encounter in the gospels varies. Mark is straightforward and unpolished. Luke demonstrates a good command of the language, a well developed literary style, and the perspective of an educated man. (But Luke is not really referred to in Ferguson’s argument.) The author of the Gospel of John, if the Apostle John was the author rather than an editor compiling John’s memories, demonstrates an ability in Greek that we would not expect of a simple Galilean fisherman. But the possibility that there was a compiler/scribe working with John remains. We are well acquainted today with memoirs  written by a ghost writer for the person whose name actually appears on the cover as author.  

Matthew, however, is different. Ferguson goes to lengths to characterize Matthew as an illiterate and social/religious outcast who we would expect incapable of the complex narrative of the Gospel or of the knowledge of the Hebrew Scripture evident throughout the the Gospel of Matthew. I would respectfully but strongly differ. 

 Matthew was a Levite. That is the strong implication of his name Levi, the name the other gospel writers give him and the name Clement of Alexandria uses of him. As a Levite he would have been well educated and capable of speaking and writing Hebrew and Aramaic. It would also have prepared him with both a good knowledge of the Hebrew Scripture and a knowledge of the rabbinical hermeneutic that is obvious in the gospel.  

Being a tax collector in the polylinguistic region of Galilee would have required knowledge of Greek. It was probably the predominate language of the region. Matthew would have at least known street Greek. But Matthew’s education would have included  more than street Greek; it was the language of the Septuagint which was the Bible used by many Jews, not all of whom spoke Hebrew. 

Ferguson was right, however, about the rhetoric of the Gospel of Matthew. It is complex and carefully organized. The argument that Jesus was the Messiah presented by Matthew is very well argued and supported by the evidence Matthew includes. It is uniquely targeted to the Jewish reader who lived in a very Jewish culture.  It is an extraordinary piece. But there is no reason Matthew/Levi the disciple would not have been capable of that level of writing. In fact, of all the people close to Jesus he is the only one with that capability.
Dr. Hector Avalos in his blog ( ) critiquing the qualifications of anyone claiming to be a scholar states that "in general, a scholar is one who, at minimum has the equipment needed to verify independently the claims made in the relevant field."  Though Ferguson may have the academic qualifications, he is “indolent.” He accepts the “mainstream scholarly view [s]” without independently verifying them.
An example in point is this statement:
Once more, for the Gospel of Matthew, the internal evidence contradicts the traditional authorial attribution. The disciple Matthew was allegedly an eyewitness of Jesus. John Mark, on the other hand, who is the traditional author of the Gospel of Mark, was neither an eyewitness of Jesus nor a disciple, but merely a later attendant of Peter. And yet the author of Matthew copies from 80% of the verses in Mark
Ferguson is simply repeating what amounts to an urban myth in the academic world. It is true that Matthew and Mark share many pericopae in common. But it is an uncertain and debated idea that Matthew copied from Mark. A better solution to the shared material is that both drew upon an earlier source, which scholars have come to call Q.
I argue here that Q was likely the collection of the Apostles’ teaching and since Matthew was one of those Apostles, Q represents his own recollections of the sayings and works of Jesus. But that thesis is not unique to me. Why does Ferguson neglect to go deeply enough into his sources to uncover this possibility?
I end with this reaction to Ferguson’s statement that "the author of Matthew does not 'rely' on Mark rather than redact Mark to change important details from the earlier gospel." (What Ferguson means is that Matthew edited Mark.)
Matthew and Mark had different rhetorical purposes. They had different intended audiences. It would be reasonable for there to be differences in use of the source material. Clearly Matthew is writing for a Jewish reader. He did not have to explain Jewish customs or idioms as Mark who is writing for a Roman audience does. Matthew had a better knowledge of the Hebrew Scripture (and the Septuagint) than Mark, or even Peter, so he is able to be more precise than Mark in his use of the Scripture.
The evidence points, then, not to a rude copy or a redaction of Mark but to knowledgeable use of the source for the purpose of arguing that Jesus was the Messiah to a largely Jewish audience. Again Ferguson relies on urban myth. He does not engage the biblical material in a scholarly way.  And he cherry-picks his secondary sources to prove his thesis. He does not engage counter arguments from qualified scholars, but chooses to reference people who are not scholars but Christian apologists for whom he has personal disdain.  That is not acceptable scholarship.
So the bottom line is that Ferguson’s opinions are interesting but are far from persuasive.