Contemporary Reports

This weekend I got a tweet from a PyroManiacs reader who was worried about some “historical Jesus” polemics going on via Twitter under the hashtag "#atheist". Which, in my book, is like saying there was some basketball being played in the Boston (TD Banknorth) Garden – I mean: what did we expect? They’re atheists.

Anyway, I allowed myself to get roped into the “discussion”, and of course it got into the dating of the New Testament. One fellow has even found a “Christian-friendly” source that dates the Gospels to 120-170 AD. However “friendly” that source might be, I directed him to Wikipedia on the topic:
The earliest works which came to be part of the New Testament are the letters of the Apostle Paul. Most scholars generally agree on the dating of many books in the New Testament, except for those some believe to be pseudepigraphical (i.e., those thought not to be written by their traditional authors). The Gospel of Mark is dated from as early as the 50s, although most scholars date between the range of 65 and 72.[21] Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke were written after the composition of Mark as they make use of Mark's content. Therefore they are generally dated later than Mark although the extent is debated. Matthew is dated between 70 and 85. Luke is usually placed within 80 to 95. However a select few scholars disagree with this as Luke indicates in the book of Acts that he has already written the Gospel of Luke prior to writing the introduction to Acts. The earliest of the books of the New Testament was First Thessalonians, an epistle of Paul, written probably in A.D. 51, or possibly Galatians in 49 according to one of two theories of its writing. Of the pseudepigraphical epistles, scholars tend to place them somewhere between 70 and 150, with Second Peter usually being the latest.

In the 1830s German scholars of the Tübingen school dated the books as late as the third century, but the discovery of some New Testament manuscripts and fragments from the second and third centuries, one of which dates as early as A.D. 125 (Papyrus 52), disproves a third century date of composition for any book now in the New Testament. Additionally, a letter to the church at Corinth in the name of Clement of Rome in 95 quotes from 10 of the 27 books of the New Testament, and a letter to the church at Philippi in the name of Polycarp in 120 quotes from 16 books. Therefore, some of the books of the New Testament were at least in a first-draft stage, though there is negligible evidence in these quotes or among biblical manuscripts for the existence of different early drafts. Other books were probably not completed until later, if we assume they must have been quoted by Clement or Polycarp. There are, however, many discrepancies between manuscripts, though the majority of the errors are clearly errors of transcription or minor in scope.

On the other extreme is the dating proposed by John A. T. Robinson. He claimed that, since he believed none of the writings in the New Testament showed clear evidence of a knowledge of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (in A.D. 70), which Robinson thought should certainly have appeared considering the importance of that event for Jews and Christians of that time, that every book which would come to form the New Testament was therefore written before A.D. 70.[22] Given Robinson's appeal to the absence of evidence, his view is widely rejected by New Testament scholars.
Now, notice 3 thinks about this publicly-edited summary of the dating of the NT:

[1] It lists three distinct theories about the dating of the books of the NT, and discredits the one most favorable to the Christian case. This speaks to the degree to which there has been some amendments to the article over time as it diminishes the overzealous statements of the advocating side regarding the validity of Robinson’s theory. I like Robinson’s theory, but it’s right to say that it’s an argument from silence.

[2] It also discredits the worst case for the NT as attempted by 19th century German scholarship. What’s interesting about this section is that the Germans are discredited by the use of the NT by Polycarp (who lived 65AD – 155 AD), and Clement of Rome (died 99 AD), and by the archeological evidence in manuscript form. The case against the late-date of the NT has what the atheist is allegedly looking for: hard archeological evidence.

[3] The “majority” opinion, then, phrased by Wikipedia, is that the Gospels were written no later than 72 AD – a completely-conservative (in terms of “conservative estimate” not “conservative theology”) estimate.

After having pointed this out to the Twe-atheists, I was called a liar (which, of course, thanks for that – of course I wrote the Wikipedia entry), and then told, “we agree then: there are no contemporary reports of Jesus.” (or words to that effect)

Well, if one is looking for newspaper clipping, of course not. But let’s consider something:

This is a chart which shows when stuff happened historically, and when someone thought it was about time someone wrote something down about it. It speaks to a short list of concerns:

[A] It speaks to the preservation of the manuscripts we are talking about. The amount of skepticism we should have toward the Gospels regarding their reliability based on how well they are preserved has to be minimal – unless we want to start elevating our skepticism toward Plutarch and Pliny as well.

[B] It speaks to the proximity of the Gospels to the events they report. That is, the Gospels were – even in the most conservative estimate – written down only 30 years after the events. That’s entirely consistent with the practices of other historians in the ancient world.

[C] It speaks to the perception of Jesus at the time of the composition. Let’s face it: the ancient world was not like our world in about a million different ways, but the two most striking differences for this examination are that they did not have mass media, and they didn’t spend a lot of time doing things which didn’t directly relate to staying alive – they didn’t have a lot of free time due to the lack of, well, stuff. So for not one but four stories about the life of Jesus to be circulated and then copied and propagated with a high degree of concern for accuracy speaks to the perception that the earliest writers about Jesus had toward the telling of his story.

Does this prove the tales of the miraculous? Of course not. Does this demand that atheism is utterly false? Not hardly. But what it does do is speak directly to the claim that these tweeting atheists have made that Jesus was not even a person. It speaks to the kind of evidence they are and are not willing to accept to even begin to frame their own arguments – and whether they are consistent in their demand for the “scientific” and the “rational”. The dating of the books speak to their origin and autheticity -- which is to say, their overall reliability.

If you want to disbelieve God, I leave it to you to do so. But you ought to first be sure you’re not disbelieving God a priori and then demanding the evidence fit your own requirements – because that is, in fact, dishonest.


Rob Bailey said...

The atheist is a presuppositionalist, just like you and I. The part of scenario that gets me, and raises the red flag of guilt, is the choice to go after the Gospel and not Abe Lincoln. It just screams, "I love my sin and want to be able to continue to enjoy it."

Jim Crigler said...

Interestingly, this week's White Horse Inn is on a closely related subject.

Mike Riccardi said...

Extremely helpful, Frank. Thanks.