Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Nouveau Atheists on the Historical Jesus

A paper given at the May Conference by Dr JOHN DICKSON, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, www.publichristianity.org


The last three years have witnessed a host of robust, intelligent and highly successful books critiquing religion in general and historic Christianity in particular. Collectively, the authors of these books have been dubbed ‘the Nouveau Atheists’. They are learned, rhetorically exciting and media savvy. Three of the more prominent new atheists are Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford and author of The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens, Visiting Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School University in New York and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and, finally, Michel Onfray, a professor of philosophy at the Free University of Caen in France and author of the Atheist Manifesto. Each of these writers seek to dismantle what they all see as the superstition and anachronism of religion.

I have no intention of engaging with the broader argument of the Nouveau Atheists concerning the non-existence of God. I think most of us would agree that careful study of early Christianity should be able to proceed whether or not one is an atheist—and whether or not there is a God. What does interest me, however, is the new atheists’ foray into matters historical and, in particular, into the historical Jesus. Dawkins, Hitchens and Onfray all deemed it necessary to devote significant space to critiquing Jesus as an historical figure and the biblical text as an historical source. They are quite open about their motivation. By demonstrating the confused and feeble nature of the data we have about Jesus, they remove one of the perceived foundations of Christianity itself. Hence, Hitchens concludes his chapter on the topic:

‘The case for biblical consistency or authenticity or ‘inspiration’ has been in tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research, and thus no ‘revelation’ can be derived from that quarter’ (Hitchens, God is Not Great, 122).

None of the above authors claim to be professional historians, yet they make very confident historical claims that need to be investigated.

Minor Historical Errors

The first thing that strikes me as I delve into this literature is the abundance of minor historical errors—the sort of thing you might expect from first year History students but not from authors with research degrees and professorships. I will offer just four examples.

1.1. The Gospel of Thomas. On page 96 of The God Delusion Dawkins mistakenly attributes to the Gospel of Thomas stories actually found in another document. In his discussion of why the four New Testament Gospels made it into the canon and the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Philip and Mary Magdalene didn’t, he suggests it is because these other Gospels contained stories that were ‘even more embarrassingly implausible’ than the canonical ones. He writes,

‘The Gospel of Thomas, for example, has numerous anecdotes about the child Jesus abusing his magical powers’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 96).

The Gospel of Thomas, of course, has no such stories—it is a sayings source only. Dawkins has confused the Gospel of Thomas with the very different, non-Gospel document known as the Infancy Story of Thomas.
1.2. Matthew’s Magi. A similar faux pas is found on page 94 where Dawkins puts the story of the magi worshipping the infant Jesus in the wrong Gospel. It seems to be more than a typographical error because his argument at this point is that Matthew invented stories that would appeal to Jews (descent from king David and birth in Bethlehem), whereas

‘Luke’s desire [was] to adapt Christianity for the Gentiles, and hence to press the familiar hot buttons of pagan Hellenistic religions (virgin birth, worship by kings, etc.)’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 94).

However, the Magi story is found in Matthew chapter 2.

1.3. The Q document. Christopher Hitchens likewise stumbles over a basic feature of Gospel studies. He gets confused about the Gospel source Q. He writes,

‘The book on which all four (Gospels) may possibly have been based, known speculatively to scholars as ‘Q’, has been lost forever’ (Hitchens, God is Not Great, 112).

He goes on to point out how careless that was of the deity who allegedly inspired the Gospels. That theological question aside, I hardly need to point out in this forum that Q cannot be a source for all four Gospels. By definition, Q refers to the material which is to Matthew and Luke but which is not found in Mark (or John, for that matter).

1.4. Barren Galilee. On par with these small errors is Michel Onfray’s argument in the Atheist Manifesto that the hope for an afterlife in the three monotheistic faiths was born of the barrenness of the desert:

‘I thought of the lands of Israel, Judaea and Samaria, of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Places where the sun bakes men’s heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. ….. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counterworld invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat’ (Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, xi).

I will leave it to philosophers of religion to discuss the logic of Onfray’s broader argument. What strikes me here is his obvious ecological blunder. The area around Lake Galilee, including Nazareth, is—and has been for three millennia—renowned for its rich and productive soil, not to mention its thriving fishing industry. Josephus, who spent a lot of time in Galilee in the middle of the first century, writes of the region: ‘For the land is everywhere so rich in soil and pasturage and produces such a variety of trees, that even the most indolent are tempted by these facilities to devote themselves to agriculture’ (Josephus, Jewish War 3.42-43).

The first followers of Jesus, all of them Galileans like their leader, did not need to fantasize about a place where ‘water flows cool, clear and free … where food and drink are abundant.’ They lived there already.

Significant Historical Misrepresentations

So much for the trivial. More serious are the significant misrepresentations of historical fact and of the discipline of history we find in the new atheist literature.

2.1. The existence of Jesus
Several times in The God Delusion Professor Dawkins suggests that Jesus’ very existence is still a matter of dispute among the experts. He writes:

‘It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 97).

Having sown this seed of doubt in the reader’s mind, he later remarks:

‘Indeed Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn’t) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 250).

Christopher Hitchens and Michel Onfray follow suit. Hitchens speaks of

‘the highly questionable existence of Jesus’ (Hitchens, God is Not Great, 114)

and Onfray goes a little further:

‘Jesus’s existence has not been historically established. No contemporary documentation of the event, no archaeological proof, nothing certain exists …… We must leave it to lovers of impossible debates to decide on the question of Jesus’s existence’ (Onfray, The Atheist Manifesto, 115-116).

In the final paragraph of his chapter on Jesus Onfray appears to have resolved this impossible debate for us:

‘Jesus was thus a concept. …. Certainly he existed, but not as a historical figure ..’ (Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, 129).

These statements l seem incredible . In fact, I doubt that any of us could name a professional biblical or ancient historian who thinks Jesus’ existence is still debatable. Much more representative of the state of the question is the comment of Professor Ed Sanders of Duke University, one of the leading historical Jesus scholars of the last twenty years and no friend of Christian apologetics: ‘There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity.’ I think this sentiment would be endorsed by virtually everyone writing in the field today.

But this highlights something about the strategy of the new atheists, at least in respect to historical matters (I could not judge whether they do the same thing with their science or statistics or philosophy). They employ the arguments of marginal writers on the topic and present them to readers as part of the mainstream scholarly conversation.

Richard Dawkins inadvertently proves the point. His one example of a ‘serious’ historical case that Jesus never lived is that of ‘Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 97). What Dawkins does not mention—but which is well known to many of us in this room—is that George Wells is Professor of German Language at London University. Imagine the response from the new atheists if someone were to argue that a serious scientific case can be made that evolution by natural selection has never occurred and then offered as the sole authority a language professor.

2.2 Gospels as Fiction

Once Jesus’ existence is thrown into question, the new atheists are at liberty to try their hand at all sorts of confident historical commentary. Consider Dawkins’ comparison between Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and the New Testament Gospels:

‘It is indeed fabricated from start to finish: invented, made-up fiction. In that respect, it is exactly like the gospels. The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 97).

Similar statements are found in Onfray (Atheist Manifesto, 125-126) and Hitchens (God is not Great, 112-115). But I doubt there would be any scholar in the field today who believes the Gospels are works of fiction.

A consensus has emerged in the last few decades—from Graham Stanton’s work in the 1970s through to Richard Burridge’s acclaimed book in the 90s—that the Gospels are, in fact, best read as a peculiar Jewish-Christian form of the Graeco-Roman Bios or biography. But leaving that aside, even scholars like Michael Goulder with his Midrash theory of the Gospels or John Dominic Crossan who believes the Gospels contain much that is ‘prophecy historicized’, still accept the basic Gospel narrative that Jesus was a celebrated Galilean teacher and healer who heralded the ‘kingdom of God’ and died by crucifixion in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. This is the bedrock of historical discussion about Jesus today. The new atheists are either ignoring it or deliberately misrepresenting it.

2.3. Jesus’ out-group hostility

Another example of Richard Dawkins’ misrepresentation of historical discussions is his quite strange claim that Jesus advocated ‘out-group hostility’ toward non-members. In a section titled ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ Dawkins tries to show that Jesus was nowhere near as kind and loving as Christians make out. He assures us that ‘Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews, in which respect he was following the Old Testament tradition, which was all he knew.’ Moreover, ‘Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group morality – coupled with out-group hostility – that was taken for granted in the Old Testament’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 257).

This will come as a real surprise to those of us who have followed Jesus scholarship over the last decade or more. Not only does it seem likely that Jesus, like many Jews in his day, looked forward to the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations, one of the more secure conclusions of Jesus scholarship today, from Sanders to Borg to Theissen to Dunn, is that Jesus explicitly overturned what Dawkins calls ‘out-group hostility.’ The ‘friend of sinners’ tag recorded in Q (Luke 7:34 / Matthew 11:19) and embodied in numerous stories across the Gospel sources is regarded as rock solid by scholars today. Dawkins is led astray at this point by an eager dependence on an article in the Skeptic magazine by a certain John Hartung, whom Dawkins enthusiastically describes as an ‘American physician and evolutionary anthropologist’ (The God Delusion, 253). How an evolutionary anthropologist is qualified to comment on what the historical Jesus thought and taught is not clear to me, especially when his conclusions run counter to the sizable consensus of historians working on the topic.

We see here again the strategy of the new atheists to employ marginal writers—in this case, in a marginal magazine—and present them to the public as part of mainstream scholarship. I mean, on this particular question Dawkins could easily have consulted his Oxford colleague, Professor Geza Vermes, who has written on this theme as a Jew and concluded that Jesus’ social practice and love ethic were radical so that now love was to be shown beyond just your neighbour—to sinners, to enemies, to outcasts.

2.4 The Improbable Crucifixion

My final example of a misrepresentation of history in the new atheist literature comes from Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto. He lists what he calls the ‘incalculable number of contradictions and improbabilities in the body of the text of the synoptic Gospels’ (Atheist Manifesto, 127). He arrives at this one:

The comment about the crucified never receiving a proper burial is obviously an exaggeration of a partial truth. Many crucifixion victims were, of course, thrown into shallow graves or left to the wild animals. But Philo, writing about the time of Jesus, tells us that sometimes the Romans handed the bodies of crucifixion victims over to family members for proper burial. Josephus even remarks: ‘the Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset’ (Josephus, Jewish War 4.317).

But more striking than Onfray’s exaggeration is his assertion that the crucifixion of Jesus is improbable because, as he says, ‘at that time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death.’ This amounts to a clear historical blunder. Josephus alone provides plentiful evidence of Jewish crucifixions (even leaving aside his reference to Jesus’ execution). Varus, governor of Syria, crucified 2000 Jews involved in the rebellion of 4 BC (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.295). In the late 40s AD the sons of Judas the Galilean, named James and Simon, were crucified by order of Tiberius Alexander (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.102). In the final weeks of the siege of Jerusalem, according to Josephus, the Romans were crucifying 500 Jews a day, stationing the crosses in full view of the city walls: ‘The soldiers out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; and so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies’ (Josephus, The Jewish War 5.451).

We even have evidence of Jews crucifying Jews. A century and half earlier Alexander Jannaeus, the ruler and high priest in Jerusalem, crucified 800 rebel Pharisees in full view of their wives and children. As the men hung there dying their families were then slaughtered in front of them. Jannaeus’ actions are utterly condemned in Josephus Jewish War 1.97 but a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls seems to justify this harsh treatment. A passage in the Temple Scroll also justifies crucifixion on grounds very similar to the charges laid by Jannaeus against the Pharisees.

But perhaps the clearest evidence of Onfray’s mistake is the discovery in 1968 of archaeological remains of a crucifixion victim in a Jewish tomb. The tomb, just north of Jerusalem, contained numerous ossuaries (burial boxes), one of which bore the inscription ‘Jehohanan and Jehohanan ben Jehohanan,’ meaning that the box contained the bones of a father and his son of the same name, ‘John’. Analysis of the bones revealed the remains of a male heel bone which had been pierced through by an iron nail. The nail, which was 11.5cm long, was badly bent and so had never been removed from the foot. A plaque of wood from an olive tree was still attached. It was a remarkable find and has taught us quite a bit about crucifixion, not the least of which is that Jews were certainly crucified in the first century and some of them were properly buried.

Conclusion: Too Many Hostages to Fortune

There are numerous other historical exaggerations and misrepresentations in the Nouveau Atheist literature. There is Dawkins’ contention that the four New Testament Gospels ‘were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 95); or his claim that Paul mentions ‘almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 93) and was the perverse originator of the theme of Jesus’ death for sins (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 252); or Christopher Hitchens’ assertion that ‘many a life was horribly lost’ in the debates over which Gospels were canonical (Hitchens, God is Not Great, 113); or Michel Onfray’s statement that the charges against Jesus were improbable because ‘Rome could [not] have cared less about this business of messiahs and prophecy’ (Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, 128).

But let me conclude with a final reflection. One of the best pieces of advice I received during the writing of my doctoral thesis came from Professor Judith Lieu, my supervisor here at Macquarie at the time (now Lady Margaret Professor at Cambridge). After reading an early draft of my work Judith said: ‘Beware of taking too many hostages to fortune.’ That is, be careful you don’t diminish your main argument by trying to win a host of minor and tangential arguments that leave you open to criticism. The advice was appreciated and resulted in my pressing the Delete button on quite a number of vulnerable paragraphs and footnotes.

My main thought about the new atheists is that in their effort to debunk God and Christianity in particular, they have overreached; they have attempted to take too many hostages to fortune. And some of these ‘hostages’—whether the arguments involving minor historical errors or the ones containing significant misrepresentations—leave the Nouveau Atheist project looking strained and idiosyncratic. Perhaps there could have been a bit more pressing of the Delete button.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

CSNTM: P46 the Earliest Extant Witness to the 'Corpus Paulinum'

...this is the earliest Pauline manuscript and along with the prestige has come much scholarly debate concerning the date of the papyrus. F. G. Kenyon first suggested a third century CE date. Subsequently, Ulrich Wilcken dated the document to ca. 200 CE. More recently, Young Kyu Kim suggested a provocatively early date to the reign of Domitian in 81–96 CE. His argument was predicated upon six premises: (1) comparative literary papyri of such an early date, (2) comparative documentary papyri of an early date, (3) several unique features of the handwriting, (4) and (5) other morphologically early components, and (6) a corrector’s hand which was thought to be in several documents of the early period cumulatively convinced Kim.

However, most have not found Kim’s case compelling. Comfort and Barrett are more sober in their judgment, yet still rather early dating the papyrus to the middle of the second century. Bruce Griffin, in a detailed response to Kim’s dating, has offered what seems the most probable suggestion of ca. 175–225 CE. Metzger concurs offering “about 200.”

Read more: Centre for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts | Blog

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Quote of the Day - Hitchens on Pipes

From the Wikipedia article on Daniel Pipes we find a very interesting quote by Christopher Hitchens:

Christopher Hitchens, a fellow supporter of the Iraq War and critic of political Islam, has also criticized Pipes, arguing that Pipes pursues an intolerant agenda, "confuses scholarship with propaganda", and "pursues petty vendettas with scant regard for objectivity."

Dr James R White on Christopher Hitchens:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Canon, Textual Criticism and More with Bruce Metzger

Although I have seen the film, I read Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ the first time last night. After having long discussions in regard to New Testament canon and textual critical issues where I based my opinion on the scholarly works of the late Bruce Metzger. However, repeating Metzger's work in an easy to understand format online is a difficult task - and what he has to say is something all Christians who have contact with atheists and Muslims should know.

Lee Strobel's interview with Bruce Metzger is probably the easiest way to communicate these ideas. So, at the risk of copyright infringement, I will provide an extract of the discussion.

I found eighty-four-year-old Bruce Metzger on a Saturday afternoon at his usual hangout, the library at Princeton Theological Seminary, where, he says with a smile, "I like to dust off the books." Actually, he has written some of the best of them, especially when the topic is the text of the New Testament. In all, he has authored or edited fifty books, including The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content; The Text of the New Testament; The Canon of the New Testament, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible; Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament;Introduction to the Apocrypha; and The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Several have been translated into German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malagasy, and other languages. He also is coeditor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha and general editor of more than twenty-five volumes in the series New Testament Tools and Studies.

Metzger's education includes a master's degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and both a master's degree and a doctorate from Princeton University. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by five colleges and universities, including St. Andrews University in Scotland, the University of Munster in Germany, and Potchefstroom University in South Africa. In 1969 he served as resident scholar at Tyndale House, Cambridge, England. He was a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, in 1974 and at Wolfson College, Oxford, in 1979. He is currently professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary after a forty-six-year career teaching the New Testament.

Metzger is chairman of the New Revised Standard Version Bible Committee, a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, and serves on the Kuratorium of the Vetus Latina Institute at the Monastery of Beuron, Germany. He is past president of the Society of Biblical Literature, the International Society for New Testament Studies, and the North American Patristic Society. If you scan the footnotes of any authoritative book on the text of the New Testament, the odds are you're going to see Metzger cited time after time. His books are mandatory reading in universities and seminaries around the world. He is held in the highest regard by scholars from across a wide range of theological beliefs.

In many ways Metzger, born in 1914, is a throwback to an earlier generation. Alighting from a gray Buick he calls "my gas buggy," he is wearing a dark gray suit and blue paisley tie, which is about as casual as he gets during his visits to the library, even on a weekend. His white hair is neatly combed; his eyes, bright and alert, are framed by rimless glasses. He walks slower than he used to, but he has no difficulty methodically climbing the stairway to the second floor, where he conducts his research in an obscure and austere office.

And he hasn't lost his sense of humor. He showed me a tin canister he inherited as chairman of the Revised Standard Version Bible Committee. He opened the lid to reveal the ashes of an RSV Bible that had been torched in a 1952 bonfire during a protest by a fundamentalist preacher.
"It seems he didn't like it when the committee changed 'fellows' of the King James Version to 'comrades' in Hebrews 1:9," Metzger explained with a chuckle. "He accused them of being communists!"

Though Metzger's speech is hesitant at times and he's prone toreplying in quaint phrases like "Quite so," he continues to remain on the cutting edge of New Testament scholarship. When I asked for some statistics, he didn't rely on the numbers in his 1992 book on the New Testament; he had conducted fresh research to get up-to-date figures. His quick mind has no problem recalling details of people and places, and he's fully conversant with all the current debates among New Testament experts. In fact, they continue to look to him for insight and wisdom.

His office, about the size of a jail cell, is windowless and painted institutional gray. It has two wooden chairs; he insisted I take the more comfortable one. That was part of his charm. He was thoroughly kind, surprisingly modest and self-effacing, with a gentle spirit that made me want to someday grow old with the same mellow kind of grace. We got acquainted with each other for a while, and then I turned to the first issue I wanted to address: how can we be sure the biographies of Jesus were handed down to us in a reliable way?

Copies of Copies of Copies

"I'll be honest with you," I said to Metzger. "When I first found out that there are no surviving originals of the New Testament, I was really skeptical. I thought, If all we have are copies of copies of copies, how can I have any confidence that the New Testament we have today bears any resemblance whatsoever to what was originally written? How do you respond to that?"

"This isn't an issue that's unique to the Bible; it's a question we can ask of other documents that have come down to us from antiquity," he replied. "But what the New Testament has in its favor, especially when compared with other ancient writings, is the unprecedented multiplicity of copies that have survived."

"Why is that important?" I asked.

"Well, the more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original
document was like. The only way they'd agree would be where they went back genealogically in a family tree that represents the descent of the manuscripts."

"OK," I said, "I can see that having a lot of copies from various places can help. But what about the age of the documents? Certainly that's important as well, isn't it?"

"Quite so," he replied. "And this is something else that favors the New Testament. We have copies commencing within a couple of generations from the writing of the originals, whereas in the case of other ancient texts, maybe five, eight, or ten centuries elapsed between the original and the earliest surviving copy. In addition to Greek manuscripts, we also have translations of
the gospels into other languages at a relatively early time-into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. And beyond that, we have what may be called secondary translations made a little later, like Armenian and Gothic. And a lot of others-Georgian, Ethiopic, a great variety."

"How does that help?"

"Because even if we had no Greek manuscripts today, by piecing together the information from these translations from a relatively early date, we could actually reproduce the contents
of the New Testament. In addition to that, even if we lost all the Greek manuscripts and the early translations, we could still reproduce the contents of the New Testament from the multiplicity of quotations in commentaries, sermons, letters, and so forth of the early church fathers."

While that seemed impressive, it was difficult to judge this evidence in isolation. I needed some context to better appreciate the uniqueness of the New Testament. How, I wondered, did it compare with other well-known works of antiquity?

A Mountain of Manuscripts

"When you talk about a great multiplicity of manuscripts," I said, "how does that contrast with other ancient books that are routinely accepted by scholars as being reliable? For instance,
tell me about the writing of authors from about the time of Jesus."

Having anticipated the question, Metzger referred to some handwritten notes he had brought along.

"Consider Tacitus, the Roman historian who wrote his Annals of Imperial Rome in about A.D. 116," he began. "His first six books exist today in only one manuscript, and it was copied about A.D. 850. Books eleven through sixteen are in another manuscript dating from the eleventh century. Books seven through ten are lost. So there is a long gap between the time that Tacitus sought his information and wrote it down and the only existing copies.
"With regard to the first-century historian Josephus, we have nine Greek manuscripts of his work The Jewish War, and these copies were written in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth
centuries. There is a Latin translation from the fourth century and medieval Russian materials from the eleventh or twelfth century."

Those numbers were surprising. There is but the thinnest thread of manuscripts connecting these ancient works to the modern world. "By comparison," I asked, "how many New Testament Greek manuscripts are in existence today?"

Metzger's eyes got wide. "More than five thousand have been cataloged, he said with enthusiasm, his voice going up an octave.

That was a mountain of manuscripts compared to the anthills of Tacitus and Josephus! "Is that unusual in the ancient world? What would the runner-up be?" I asked.

"The quantity of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity," he said. "Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer's Iliad, which was the bible of the ancient Greeks. There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today. Some are quite fragmentary. They come down to us from the second and third century A.D. and following. When you consider that Homer composed his
epic about 800 B.C., you can see there's a very lengthy gap."

"Very lengthy" was an understatement; it was a thousand years!
There was in fact no comparison: the manuscript evidence for the New Testament was overwhelming when juxtaposed against other revered writings of antiquity-works that modern scholars have absolutely no reluctance treating as authentic. My curiosity about the New Testament manuscripts having been piqued, I asked Metzger to describe some of them for me.

"The earliest are fragments of papyrus, which was a writingvmaterial made from the papyrus plant that grew in the marshes of the Nile Delta in Eypt," he said. "There are now ninety-nine
fragmentary pieces of papyrus that contain one or more passages or books of the New Testament. The most significant to come to light are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, discovered about 1930. Of these, Beatty Biblical Papyrus number one contains portions of the four gospels and the book of Acts, and it dates from the third century.
Papyrus number two contains large portions of eight letters of Paul, plus portions of Hebrews, dating to about the year 200. Papyrus number three has a sizable section of the book of
Revelation, dating from the third century. "Another group of important papyrus manuscripts was purchased by a Swiss bibliophile, M. Martin Bodmer. The earliest of these, dating from about 200, contains about two-thirds of the gospel of John. Another papyrus, containing portions of the gospels of Luke and John, dates from the third century."

At this point the gap between the writing of the biographies of Jesus and the earliest manuscripts was extremely small. But what is the oldest manuscript we possess? How close in time, I wondered, can we get to the original writings, which experts call "autographs"?

The Scrap that Changed History

"Of the entire New Testament," I said, "what is the earliest portion that we possess today?"

Metzger didn't have to ponder the answer. "That would be a fragment of the gospel of John, containing material from chapter eighteen. It has five verses-three on one side, two on the
other-and it measures about two and a half by three and a half inches," he said.

"How was it discovered?"

"It was purchased in Egypt as early as 1920, but it sat unnoticed for years among similar fragments of papyri. Then in 1934 C. H. Roberts of Saint John's College, Oxford, was sorting through the papyri at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. He immediately recognized this as preserving a portion of John's gospel. He was able to date it from the style of the script."

"And what was his conclusion?" I asked. "How far back does it go?"

"He concluded it originated between A.D. 100 to 150. Lots of other prominent paleographers, like Sir Frederic Kenyon, Sir Harold Bell, Adolf Deissmann, W, H. P. Hatch, Ulrich Wilcken, and others, have agreed with his assessment. Deissmann was convinced that it goes back at least to the reign of Emperor Hadrian, which was A.D. 117-138, or even Emperor Trajan, which was A.D. 98-117."

That was a stunning discovery. The reason: skeptical German theologians in the last century argued strenuously that the fourth gospel was not even composed until at least the year 160- too distant from the events of Jesus' life to be of much historical use. They were able to influence generations of scholars, who scoffed at this gospel's reliability.

"This certainly blows that opinion out of the water," I commented.

"Yes, it does," he said. "Here we have, at a very early date, a fragment of a copy of John all the way over in a community along the Nile River in Egypt, far from Ephesus in Asia Minor, where the gospel was probably originally composed."

This finding has literally rewritten popular views of history, pushing the composition of John's gospel much closer to the days when Jesus walked the earth. I made a mental note to check with an archaeologist about whether any other findings have bolstered the confidence we can have in the fourth gospel.

A Wealth of Evidence

While papyrus manuscripts represent the earliest copies of the New Testament, there are also ancient copies written on parchment, which was made from the skins of cattle, sheep, goats,
and antelope.

"We have what are called uncial manuscripts, which are written in all-capital Greek letters," Metzger explained. "Today we have 306 of these, several dating back as early as the third century. The most important are Codex Sinaiticus, which is the only complete New Testament in uncial letters, and Codex Vaticanus, which is not quite complete. Both date to about A.D. 350.
"A new style of writing, more cursive in nature, emerged in roughly A.D. 800. It's called minuscule, and we have 2,856 of these manuscripts. Then there are also lectionaries, which
contain New Testament Scripture in the sequence it was to be read in the early churches at appropriate times during the year. A total of 2,403 of these have been cataloged. That puts the grand total of Greek manuscripts at 5,664."

In addition to the Greek documents, he said, there are thousands of other ancient New Testament manuscripts in other languages. There are 8,000 to 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, plus a total of 8,000 in Ethiopic, Slavic, and Armenian. In all, there are
about 24,000 manuscripts in existence.

"What's your opinion, then?" I asked, wanting to confirm clearly what I thought I was hearing him say. "In terms of the multiplicity of manuscripts and the time gap between the originals and our first copies, how does the New Testament stack up against other well known works of antiquity?"

"Extremely well," he replied. "We can have great confidence in the fidelity with which this material has come down to us, especially compared with any other ancient literary work."
That conclusion is shared by distinguished scholars throughout the world. Said the late F. F. Bruce, eminent professor at the University of Manchester, England, and author of The New
Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?: "There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament."

Metzger had already mentioned the name of Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum and author of The Palaeography of Greek Papyri. Kenyon has said that "in no other
case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament."

His conclusion: "The last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed."

However, what about discrepancies among the various manuscripts?
In the days before lightning-fast photocopying machines, manuscripts were laboriously hand-copied by scribes, letter by letter, word by word, line by line, in a process that was ripe
for errors. Now I wanted to zero in on whether these copying mistakes have rendered our modern Bibles hopelessly riddled with inaccuracies.

Examining the Errors

"With the similarities in the way Greek letters are written and with the primitive conditions under which the scribes worked, it would seem inevitable that copying errors would creep into the text," I said.

"Quite so," Metzger conceded.

"And in fact, aren't there literally tens of thousands of variations among the ancient manuscripts that we have?"

"Quite so."

"Doesn't that therefore mean we can't trust them?" I asked, sounding more accusatory than inquisitive.

"No sir, it does not," Metzger replied firmly. "First let me say this: Eyeglasses weren't invented until 1373 in Venice, and I'm sure that astigmatism existed among the ancient scribes. That was
compounded by the fact that it was difficult under any circumstances to read faded manuscripts on which some of the ink had flaked away. And there were other hazards-inattentiveness on the part of scribes, for example. So yes, although for the most part scribes were scrupulously careful, errors did creep in.
"But," he was quick to add, "there are factors counteracting that. For example, sometimes the scribe's memory would play tricks on him. Between the time it took for him to look at the
text and then to write down the words, the order of words might get shifted. He may write down the right words but in the wrong sequence. This is nothing to be alarmed at, because Greek, unlike English, is an inflected language."

"Meaning . . . " I prompted him.

"Meaning it makes a whale of a difference in English if you say, 'Dog bites man' or 'Man bites dog'-sequence matters in English. But in Greek it doesn't. One word functions as the subject of the sentence regardless of where it stands in the sequence; consequently, the meaning of the sentence isn't distorted if the words are out of what we consider to be the right order. So yes,
some variations among manuscripts exist, but generally they're inconsequential variations like that. Differences in spelling would be another example."

Still, the high number of "variants," or differences among manuscripts, was troubling. I had seen estimates as high as two hundred thousand of them.' However, Metzger downplayed the
significance of that figure.

"The number sounds big, but it's a bit misleading because of the way variants are counted," he said. He explained that if a single word is misspelled in two thousand manuscripts, that's counted as two thousand variants.

I keyed in on the most important issue. "How many doctrines of the church are in jeopardy because of variants?"

"I don't know of any doctrine that is in jeopardy," he responded confidently.


"None," he repeated. "Now, the Jehovah's Witnesses come to our door and say, 'Your Bible is wrong in the King James Version of 1 John 5:7-8, where it talks about 'the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.' They'll say, 'That's not in the earliest manuscripts.'
"And that's true enough. I think that these words are found in only about seven or eight copies, all from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. I acknowledge that is not part of what the author of I John was inspired to write.
"But that does not dislodge the firmly witnessed testimony of the Bible to the doctrine of the Trinity. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father speaks, his beloved Son is baptized, and the Holy
Spirit descends on him. At the ending of 2 Corinthians Paul says, 'May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.' There are
many places where the Trinity is represented."

"So the variations, when they occur, tend to be minor rather than substantive?"

"Yes, yes, that's correct, and scholars work very carefully to try to resolve them by getting back to the original meaning. The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the
church. Any good Bible will have notes that will alert the reader to variant readings of any consequence. But again, these are rare."

So rare that scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix conclude, "The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has
survived in a purer form than any other great book-aform that is 99.5 percent pure." However, even if it's true that the transmission of the New Testament through history has been unprecedented in its reliability, how do we know that we have the whole picture?

What about allegations that church councils squelched equally legitimate documents because they didn't like the picture of Jesus they portrayed? How do we know that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament represent the best and most reliable information? Why is it that our Bibles contain Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but many other ancient gospels-the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Nativity of Mary-were excluded? It was time to turn to the question of the "canon," a term that comes from a Greek word meaning "rule," "norm," or "standard" and that describes the books that have become accepted as official in the church and included in the New Testament.' Metzger is considered a leading authority in that field.

"A High Degree of Unanimity"

"How did the early church leaders determine which books would be considered authoritative and which would be discarded?" I asked.

"What criteria did they use in determining which documents would be included in the New Testament?"

"Basically, the early church had three criteria," he said. "First, the books must have apostolic authority-that is, they must have been written either by apostles themselves, who were
eyewitnesses to what they wrote about, or by followers of apostles. So in the case of Mark and Luke, while they weren't among the twelve disciples, early tradition has it that Mark was
a helper of Peter, and Luke was an associate of Paul."

"Second, there was the criterion of conformity to what was called the rule of faith. That is, was the document congruent with the basic Christian tradition that the church recognized as
normative? And third, there was the criterion of whether a document had had continuous acceptance and usage by the church at large."

"They merely applied those criteria and let the chips fall where they may?" I asked.

"Well, it wouldn't be accurate to say that these criteria were simply applied in a mechanical fashion," he replied. "There were certainly different opinions about which criterion should be
given the most weight. But what's remarkable is that even though the fringes of the
canon remained unsettled for a while, there was actually a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament within the first two centuries. And this was true
among very diverse congregations scattered over a wide area."

"So," I said, "the four gospels we have in the New Testament today met those criteria, while others didn't?"

"Yes," he said. "It was, if I may put it this way, an example of survival of the fittest! In talking about the canon, Arthur Darby Nock used to tell his students at Harvard, 'The most traveled
roads in Europe are the best roads; that's why they're so heavily traveled.' That's a good analogy. British commentator William Barclay said it this way: 'It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them doing so.'
We can be confident that no other ancient books can compare with the New Testament in terms of importance for Christian history or doctrine. When one studies the early history of the canon, one walks away convinced that the New Testament contains the best sources for the history of Jesus. Those who discerned the limits of the canon had a clear and balanced perspective of the gospel of Christ. Just read these other documents for yourself. They're written later than the four gospels, in the second, third, fourth, fifth, even sixth century, long after Jesus, and they're
generally quite banal. They carry names-like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary-that are unrelated to their real authorship. On the other hand, the four gospels in the New
Testament were readily accepted with remarkable unanimity as being authentic in the story they told."

Yet I knew that some liberal scholars, most notably members of the well-publicized Jesus Seminar, believe the Gospel of Thomas ought to be elevated to equal status with the four traditional gospels. Did this mysterious gospel fall victim to political wars within the church, eventually being excluded because of its unpopular doctrines? I decided I'd better probe Metzger on this point.

The "Secret Words" of Jesus

"Dr. Metzger, the Gospel of Thomas, which was among the Nag Hamrnadi documents found in Egypt in 1945, claims it contains 'the secret words which the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down., Why was it excluded by the church?"

Metzger was thoroughly acquainted with the work. 'The Gospel of Thomas came to light in a fifth-century copy in Coptic, which I've translated into English," he said. "It contains 114 sayings
attributed to Jesus but no narrative of what he did, and seems to have been written in Greek in Syria about A.D. 140. In some cases I think this gospel correctly reports what Jesus said, with
slight modifications."

This was certainly an intriguing statement. "Please elaborate," I said.

"For instance, in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, 'A city built on a high hill cannot be hidden.' Here the adjective high is added, but the rest reads like Matthew's gospel. Or Jesus says,
'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, render to God the things that are God's, render to me the things that are mine.' In this case the later phrase has been added.
"However, there are some things in Thomas that are totally alien to the canonical gospels. Jesus says, 'Split wood; I am there.
Lift up a stone, and you will find me there.'

That's pantheism, the idea that Jesus is coterminous with the substance of this world. That's contrary to anything in the canonical gospels.

"The Gospel of Thomas ends with a note saying, 'Let Mary go away from us, because women are not worthy of life.'Jesus is quoted as saying, 'Lo, I shall lead her in order to make her a male, so
that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.'"
Metzger's eyebrows shot up as if he were surprised at what he had just uttered. "Now, this is not the Jesus we know from the four canonical gospels!" he said emphatically.

I asked, "What about the charge that Thomas was purposefully excluded by church councils in some sort of conspiracy to silence it?"

"That's just not historically accurate," came Metzger's response. "What the synods and councils did in the fifth century and following was to ratify what already had been accepted by high and low Christians alike. It is not right to say that the Gospel of Thomas was excluded by some fiat on the part of a council; the right way to put it is, the Gospel of Thomas excluded itself! It did not harmonize with other testimony about Jesus that early Christians accepted as trustworthy."

"So you would disagree with anyone who would try to elevate Thomas to the same status as that of the four gospels?" I asked. "Yes, I would very much disagree. I think the early church exercised a judicious act in discarding it. To take it up now, it seems to me, would be to accept something that's less valid than the other gospels," he replied. "Now, don't get me wrong. I think the Gospel of Thomas is an interesting document, but it's mixed up with pantheistic and antifeminist statements that certainly deserve to be given the left foot of fellowship, if you know what I mean.

"You have to understand that the canon was not the result of a series of contests involving church politics. The canon is rather the separation that came about because of the intuitive insight of Christian believers. They could hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the gospel of John; they could hear it only in a muffled and distorted way in the Gospel of Thomas, mixed in with a lot of other things. "When the pronouncement was made about the canon, it merely ratified what the general sensitivity of the church had already determined. You see, the canon is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books. These documents didn't derive their authority from being selected; each one was authoritative before anyone gathered them together. The early church merely listened and sensed that these were authoritative accounts.

"For somebody now to say that the canon emerged only after councils and synods made these pronouncements would be like saying, 'Let's get several academies of musicians to make a
pronouncement that the music of Bach and Beethoven is wonderful.' I would say, 'Thank you for nothing! We knew that before the pronouncement was made.' We know it because of
sensitivity to what is good music and what is not. The same with the canon."

Even so, I pointed out that some New Testament books, notably James, Hebrews, and Revelation, were more slowly accepted into the canon than others. "Should we therefore be suspicious of them?" I asked.

"To my mind, that just shows how careful the early church was," he replied. "They weren't 'gung ho,' sweeping in every last document that happened to have anything about Jesus in it. This
shows deliberation and careful analysis.

"Of course, even today parts of the Syrian church refuse to accept the book of Revelation, yet the people belonging to that church are Christian believers. From my point of view, I accept
the book of Revelation as a wonderful part of the Scriptures." He shook his head. "I think they impoverish themselves by not accepting it."

The "Unrivaled" New Testament

Metzger had been persuasive. No serious doubts lingered concerning whether the New Testament's text had been reliably preserved for us through the centuries. One of Metzger's distinguished predecessors at Princeton Theological Seminary, Benjamin Warfield, who held four doctorates and taught systematic theology until his death in 1921, put it this way:

"If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must ... declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied-a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words.... The New Testament [is] unrivaled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use."

In terms of which documents were accepted into the New Testament, generally there has never been any serious dispute about the authoritative nature of twenty of the New Testament's twentyseven books-from Matthew through Philemon, plus I Peter and I John. This of course includes the four gospels that represent Jesus' biographies. The remaining seven books, though questioned for a time by some early church leaders, "were finally and fully recognized by the church generally," according to Geisler and Nix. As for the "pseudepigraphia," the proliferation of gospels, epistles, and apocalypses in the first few centuries after Jesus-including the Gospels of Nicodemus, Barnabas, Bartholomew, Andrew, the Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans, the Apocalypse of Stephen, and others-they are "fanciful and heretical ... neither genuine nor valuable as a whole," and "virtually no orthodox Father, canon or council" considered them to be authoritative or deserving of inclusion in the New Testament."

In fact, I accepted Metzger's challenge by reading many of them myself. Compared with the careful, sober, precise, eyewitness quality of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, these works truly deserve the description they received from Eusebius, the early church historian: "Totally absurd and impious." They were too far removed from Jesus' ministry to contribute anything meaningful to my investigation, having been written as late as the fifth and sixth centuries, and their often mythical qualities disqualify them from being historically credible. With all that established, the time had arrived for my investigation to advance to its next phase. I was curious: how much evidence is there for this miracle-working first-century carpenter outside the gospels? Do ancient historians confirm or contradict the New Testament's claims about his life, teachings, and miracles? I knew this required a trip to Ohio to visit one of the country's leading scholars in that field.

As we stood, I thanked Dr. Metzger for his time and expertise. He smiled warmly and offered to walk me downstairs. I didn't want to consume any more of his Saturday afternoon, but my curiosity wouldn't let me leave Princeton without satisfying myself about one remaining issue.

"All these decades of scholarship, of study, of writing textbooks, of delving into the minutiae of the New Testament text-what has all this done to your personal faith?" I asked.

"Oh," he said, sounding happy to discuss the topic, "it has increased the basis of my personal faith to see the firmness with which these materials have come down to us, with a multiplicity of copies, some of which are very, very ancient."

"So," I started to say, "scholarship has not diluted your faith-"

He jumped in before I could finish my sentence. "On the contrary," he stressed, "it has built it. I've asked questions all my life, I've dug into the text, I've studied this thoroughly, and today I know with confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed."

He paused while his eyes surveyed my face. Then he added, for emphasis, "Very well placed."

I hope this exert was useful to you. If you found it interesting and plan on using it - I would exhort you to purchase a copy of the book instead of copying from here.


Answering Christianity has to be one of the lowest quality anti-Christian propaganda sites on the net. But don't take my opinion on it - what does my firewall have to say on the topic?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Variant Readings - are they all the same?

I have found in my dialogue with Muslims is that they absolutely detest the idea of textual variants in Quranic manuscript. I am yet to find a Muslim who is actually prepared for this kind of discussion and I believe this is due to the openess of Muslim apologists and faux academics making the claim that all Quranic manuscripts are exactly the same. (I have previously challenged this claim here.)

When the Muslim cannot respond to such a claim they tend to employ the Red Herring Fallacy.

A red herring is an argument, given in reply, that does not address the original issue. Critically, a red herring is a deliberate attempt to change the subject or divert the argument. [1]

Their usual Red Herring, if they choose to stick on topic of the Quran instead of digressing to an attack on the Bible, is in regard to the variant readings of the Quran. These variant occur with the addition of vowelisations etc for professionalised recitations to the original Uthmanic text. Now, these variant readings do not usually change the meaning of the Quran and the Muslim will give you the blanket statement that there are no differences in the Quran as a result of these variants. But is this statement true?

In regard to the variant recitations, Professor James A. Bellamy states:

These variants, however - I have counted more than two-hundred that make a difference in the meaning - are important in that they tell us there was no solid oral tradition stemming directly from the prophet to prove which variant was correct. [2]
So, we can see that there are many variants among the readings and Bellamy has recorded over 200 which render a different meaning withing the text. Professor Bellamy then goes on to provide an example:
in Surah 6:63, of the seven readers, the two from Kufah recite 'njyn' (anjana) "he saves us." and the other five 'njytn' (anjay- tana) "you (sg.) save us." These two words sound so dif- ferent that no one, unless he were deaf, could mistake one for the other, and the words on both sides of the word in question are unambiguous. One cannot argue that the prophet used one variant one day and the other the next. Nor can one maintain that there is a firm oral tradition that guarantees the reading of the unambiguous words but breaks down when more than one reading is possible. [3]

In short - beware of taking Muslim claims in regard to the integrity of the Quran at face value. As has been demonstrated above, there are a number of changes in meaning that result from the variant readings of the Quran. I do recommend the article for further reference purposes and it is available on the JSTOR database. If you do not have access to it leave a comment with your email address and I will send a copy your way.


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_herring_(logical_fallacy)#Red_herring
2. Bellamy, p. 1
3. Bellamy, p.2


James A. Bellamy (2001), 'Textual Criticism of the Koran'. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Vol. 121 No. 1 (Jan-Mar. 2001), pp. 1-6.

Monday, February 2, 2009

'It’s OK to Hit and Rape your Wife’, Australian Muslim Cleric Samir Abu Hamza

An Australian Muslim cleric is at the centre of controversy over a lecture where he directed his followers to hit their wives. In an earlier lecture circulated on the internet last year, Hamza was also recorded instructing his followers that under Islamic law, a man can demand sex from his wives. This runs contrary to Australian law where both partners mutual unvitiated consent is required, even within marriage.

In response Hamza claimed his words where metaphoric - but is this so?

The fact that the Quran and Sunnah allow for a man to beat his wife for disobediance including refusing sexual interourse leads me to the fact that Hamza was merely being honest in the potrayal of his beliefs. However, it is cowardly of him to step back for the sake of PR.

The contentious aya (verse) of the Quran which justifies such abhorrent actions is Surah 4 aya 34:

Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those (women) you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against
them; God is All-high, All-great.
Surah 4:34 (Arberry English Translation)

The ignorant Muslim apologist will respond in such a manner, ‘well, it says nothing about forced sex’. In this case we examine the context in which the aya was revealed. As many of you may know - the Quran contains no context and it is quite useless when removed from it so we must turn to the ahadith (traditions) and the tafsir.

This single aya sufficeintly justifies Hamza’s words in the Islamic context as explained by Ibn Kathir:

(As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct,) meaning, the woman from whom you see ill conduct with her husband, such as when she acts as if she is above her husband, disobeys him, ignores him, dislikes him, and so forth. When these signs appear in a woman, her husband should advise her and remind her of Allah’s torment if she disobeys him. Indeed, Allah ordered the wife to obey her husband and prohibited her from disobeying him, because of the enormity of his rights and all that he does for her. The Messenger of Allah said,

If I were to command anyone to prostrate before anyone, I would have commanded the wife to prostrate before her husband, because of the enormity of his right upon her.)

Al-Bukhari recorded that Abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allah said,

If the man asks his wife to come to his bed and she declines, the angels will keep cursing her until the morning.)

Muslim recorded it with the wording:
If the wife goes to sleep while ignoring her husband’s bed, the angels will keep cursing her until the morning.
This is why Allah said:

As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct, admonish them (first), abandon them in their beds, (then) beat them.
(This is surah 4 aya 34)

Source: Tafsir Ibn Kathir