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How the four gospels came to be written?

May 15th, 2014

Last Supper

Vale Maurice Casey

New Testament historian, Maurice Casey, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature in the University of Nottingham, died late last week after a long period of illness. Casey was the author of several books and a recognised expert in Aramaic and the Aramaic sources in the gospels.

I have found his book Jesus of Nazareth to be an extremely helpful insight into the life of Jesus and the culture of his time, even though I disagreed with some of his assumptions and emphases, and used some of his insights in the preparation of this post. Read comments by fellow scholar Larry Hurtado.

Scholars investigate and speculate about how the four gospels came to be written, who wrote them, and what sources they used. There are some generally accepted conclusions.

However books by the late Maurice Casey (see box) and Richard Bauckham seem to me to offer plausible insights that modify and develop the generally accepted conclusions a little.

So here is a personal reconstruction of how it all happened, based on good (though not always consensus) scholarship, with notes at the end outlining some of the reasons for these conclusions.

Jesus and those who heard him

Jesus drew large crowds as he went around teaching and healing, so it is obvious that many people had their own individual memories of what he said and did. Other teachers of his day expected their disciples to memorise their sayings, and used rhyme, repetition and other devices to aid memorisation, so it is likely Jesus did the same.

As the christian community grew, stories and sayings were repeated, especially those that were found most relevant. Before long it is likely that large numbers of christians knew the main narratives and sayings, in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke.

Matthew and the sayings of Jesus

Only a small number were literate at this time, but there was at least one literate disciple of Jesus – the tax collector Matthew. It is quite possible that Matthew wrote down sayings of Jesus, in Aramaic, on wax tablets immediately after he heard them.

And there is an ancient reference to exactly this happening. Papias, writing early in the second century, said: “Matthew put the sayings in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, and people translated them as well as they could”. There were almost certainly other written records, also in Aramaic.

When the gospels we know came to be written or compiled. the authors used the stories, both oral and written, that had been passed down. It appears that they had good information about things Jesus said and did, though often in the form of individual stories (sometimes called pericopes), but they didn’t always have a complete chronological narrative and they didn’t include much background material on life and culture at that time. Thus the gospels are like biographies, but with gaps in places where we moderns would like more information.

Mark’s gospel

Mark’s gospel is generally believed to be the first of the four gospels to be written. It was probably composed to give Gentile christians a more compete account of the life of Jesus than they had from the various incomplete stories that were available to them. Dates from about 40-80 CE have been suggested, and there seem to be good reasons to suppose it to be earlier rather than later.

Mark was not one of Jesus’ disciples (no-one knows for sure who he was), but he probably obtained material from the apostle Peter and from other sources available to him. The gospel was written in Greek, and thus the writer had to translate much of his source material out of Aramaic. Some of his translation appears to be rough or incomplete, and there is no ‘proper’ ending to the gospel, so it is quite possible that Mark didn’t complete his work.

Matthew’s gospel

It appears most likely that Matthew’s gospel was compiled from sources including Mark’s gospel and Matthew’s written collection of sayings, and written for a Jewish Christian audience sometime about a decade either side of 70 CE (I prefer the earlier date, as did Casey). We don’t know for sure who compiled and wrote the gospel, but the name of Matthew probably stuck because of its inclusion of the sayings written by Matthew the tax collector.

Matthew’s gospel has a structure that may reflect these sources. Sandwiched between the stories of Jesus’ birth and death/resurrection, Matthew has narrative material interspersed with five sections of sayings – the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’ being the first of these. It seems possible that these sections include the original collection of sayings written down by the disciple Matthew, and incorporated into the gospel in large segments.

Luke’s gospel

It is generally agreed that this gospel was written by Luke, a doctor and associate of Paul, sometime after the cataclysmic events of 70 CE when Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman armies and the temple destroyed (though there are good arguments for it being written just before then). Luke is the most cultured of the gospel writers, and in a prologue which follows some of the conventions of ancient Greek historical writing, he sets out how he has compiled his gospel from reports handed down from the original eyewitnesses, almost certainly including Mark’s gospel and Matthew’s sayings.

Luke also wrote the history of the early christian movement, in the Biblical book of Acts, and Maurice Casey describes him as “an outstanding historian by ancient standards”.

John’s gospel

John is certainly the most difficult gospel to assess. It is less of a narrative than the other gospels, containing much more interpretation of the events and their significance. Much of it has been put into John’s own words (it is sometimes difficult to tell where Jesus finishes speaking and John begins to comment), and it is permeated with theological interpretation. For these reasons, most scholars believe little “pure history” can be taken from John.

On the other hand, there is significant evidence that parts of John have a strong historical basis – he knows features of the geography of Jerusalem that had long since been destroyed when the gospel was written, and his gospel has a good sense of the chronology of Jesus’ public ministry, especially in Jerusalem.

John was probably written in its present form in the last decade of the first century, and it appears that the original author may have been an eyewitness to parts of Jesus’ ministry – mainly in Jerusalem, which Jesus seems to have visited several times in his last three years, whereas the other gospels are based more in Galilee until Jesus’ last week. But the original historical material appears to have been been modified and taken its present form over years of theological reflection, so that the gospel contains understandings of Jesus that were probably not in anyone’s mind during Jesus’ lifetime, but developed over the decades since.

John has traditionally been associated with the disciple John, but the author doesn’t name himself. He is probably to be identified with the anonymous character in the gospel called “the beloved disciple”. Perhaps the best guess is that he was a man named John who grew up in Jerusalem and lived to an advanced age – and if this wasn’t John the apostle, there is a historical character named John the Elder who may have been the author.

And then, and then … ?

The four gospels were used by different communities around the Roman Empire for several centuries, and gradually (by about the end of the second century) came to be accepted as the authoritative accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Formal ratification of this came later (late seventh century).

Other so-called gospels were written in the second and third centuries, one of which (Thomas) seems to be based on a few genuine sayings of Jesus, but included among many sayings that don’t seem to be genuine. But few scholars believe the others have anything much to tell us about the historical Jesus, although they do show something of the generally Gnostic teachings that were around at the time.

Reading the gospels

My reading of the gospels is based on both history and faith.

Becoming more aware of the history has brought the gospels alive for me. Questions that I had as a young christian have been answered. (Unfortunately most churches don’t teach much of Jesus in his historical context.) And I have become more and more interested in and fascinated by the person Jesus was and what he was doing.

This has meant that my faith in him and my commitment to him have become broader and deeper. I feel more convinced than ever that he is worth following, and that his kingdom is indeed being established on earth, albeit in ways we don’t always recognise. Following him is challenging, sometimes hard work, but also deeply satisfying. What more could I ask of life?

Notes on sources and conclusions

The outline above is based on fairly accepted conclusions about the four gospels (which can be found in most books about the gospels), modified by the conclusions of two books: Jesus of Nazareth by the late Maurice Casey and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham.

Oral sources

EP Sanders and others discuss how many individual memories may have been included in the gospels without a full chronology. Bauckham’s study of how eyewitness testimony was handed down orally is detailed and convincing (to me). He presents a good case that this process was done accurately (variation was allowed in the peripheral details) and under the control of apostles and elders. Craig Keener, in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels takes a similar line. My acceptance of Papias’ statement about Matthew writing down sayings of Jesus in Aramaic follows Casey, who argued that Matthew the tax collector, as possibly the only fully literate disciple, was quite capable or even likely to have written down some of Jesus’ teaching. Bauckham accepts Papias’ testimony but applies it to the whole gospel, a suggestion I believe Casey showed to be less likely.

Mark

Most scholars date Mark about 70 CE, whereas Casey suggested 40 CE. While few have followed this early date, Casey’s arguments that Mark was translated from predominantly Aramaic sources, and is incomplete, seem plausible, and thus suggest a slightly earlier date than is commonly used. Bauckham argues for Peter being a major source of Mark’s account (following Papias) while Casey and others see Peter as only a minor source.

Matthew

Both Bauckham and Casey accept that Matthew’s gospel has an association with the disciple Matthew, though they understand this slightly differently – Casey finds the connection in the saying Papias reported Matthew wrote, whereas Bauckham applies Papias’ statement to the whole gospel. (Many other scholars are doubtful of Papias’ testimony, but there seems to be growing acceptance of it.) Casey suggested a slightly earlier date for the gospel than is commonly used, and this seems reasonable. Casey also suggested that it is quite possible that the gospel was compiled by another Matthew (it was a common name at the time), but said this was only conjecture.

Luke

Most of the material on Luke reflects the consensus. I think there is force in the argument that Luke was written before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, otherwise he would surely have mentioned this event in Acts, but I have stuck with the conventional date. Casey and others speak highly of Luke’s accuracy and writing style (though of course there are some places where they believe he got things wrong).

John

John is generally dated late in the first century. I have long thought that John is more historical than most critical scholars say. John gives a more plausible and complete outline of Jesus’ ministry, including several visits to Jerusalem and other time in Judea, and his accurate knowledge of many locations in Judea is confirmed by archaeology. Bauckham argues for John as an eyewitness, and I have followed Bauckham on authorship. (Casey saw little value in John as a source for Jesus’ life.)

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP via Compfight cc

38 Comments

  1. I thought this would at least be a more scholarly approach but the alarm bells should have rung with the caveat in the third paragraph

    That you have included your own belief that the disciple Matthew was the likely gospel writer once again betrays your true motives.

    Mathew’s gospel contains 600 verses gleaned from Mark’s gospel.
    If he were indeed an eyewitness to any of these events then it flies in the face of all common sense ( never mind history etc) that he would plagiarize Mark to the extent he did.
    That Matthew includes such blatant nonsense as the nativity and the rising of the dead at the Crucifixion further establishes the spurious nature of this collection and makes the Papias connection even more tenuous and suggestive of an agenda.
    You are always at pains to stress scholarly consensus and refer to experts yet I see not a single mention of Ehrman and in fact you only seem to reference two scholars, Bauckham and Casey ( who appeared to have had a ‘love affair’ with the idea of an Aramaic core and was the only scholar I am aware of who openly subscribed to this)
    I sometime get the feeling that your posts are solely a ‘wind-up’ as the English sometimes say, but I fear you actually believe what you post and this is disconcerting.
    Although I disagree with a lot of what you write, I generally find your posts interesting enough to read and there is always something to be learned from the links. But this post is a travesty and comes across as amateurish and nothing more than an attempt at polemic.

  2. Thanks for reading, and your comment. I specifically stated this post was “a personal reconstruction of how it all happened, based on good (though not always consensus) scholarship”.

  3. Yes, and this I noted in my opening sentence, and the line … how it all happened would have been more honest if you had at least included: ”…that no respected scholar actually believes”.
    This still does not detract from the fact you champion unbiased scholarly opinion yet omit the opinion of Ehrman, who is regarded as one of if not the best scholar of the gospels.

    In fact, with due respect , this post is more an echo chamber of your own point of view that further highlights where your true sentiments lie and further diminishes your claim to only try to present a wholly unbiased point of view by referencing the most respected scholars in these matters.
    Disappointing.

  4. Well, the thing about myth is you can make of it what you will, including denying that it is myth or at least grossly overstating its probable representation of actual history. The thing is nobody can say you’re definitely wrong. I can’t see any harm in it if it makes you feel good.

    If it were me I’d keep it to myself, not wanting people to question my judgement on more important matters.

  5. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list in the comment section below, the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

  6. Hi Gary, welcome. It is gratifying that you are continuing to read my blog and to comment. I don’t know if anyone will be reading this old post, but I am happy to discuss these matters with you.

    To that end, I wonder if you would mind clarifying a few points please.

    1. Are you saying that the gospels were NOT based on eyewitness reports? If so, can you please offer a few references to scholars who say this. If not, can you clarify what you ARE saying?

    2. How many eyewitnesses to Jesus life, death or resurrection can you name who DIDN’T live to about 70 CE?

    3. Do you claim to be sure that the events you refer to (death, resurrection, etc) DIDN’T occur? How would you “be sure” they didn’t?

    Thanks. If you can clarify these matters, I would be happy to respond to your “challenge”.

  7. 1. It is certainly possible that some of the details in the gospels are based on eyewitness testimony. However, if the majority of scholars are correct, the gospels themselves were not written by eyewitnesses. If no eyewitnesses were alive when the first gospel was written, no eyewitness was available to “proof read” the text for errors or embellishments.

    So is it possible that every detail in the gospels is historical fact? Yes. Can we be sure? No.

    2. Just as I cannot name eyewitnesses who were not alive in 70 AD, Christians cannot name any eyewitnesses who were alive. No one living to day knows if any eyewitness to the death of Jesus was alive when the first gospel was written in circa 70 AD to “proof read” it.

    3. In no way am I claiming that the Resurrection did NOT happen. What I am claiming is that we have no CONFIRMED eyewitness testimony for this very extra-ordinary, supernatural claim.

  8. Hi Gary, thanks for those clarifications. I think I agree with a fair bit of what you say, so that level of agreement is good. So here is my response to your original challenge.

    1. Most scholars agree that each gospel was compiled from several sources, and these sources were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life. The books I reference in the post provide good evidence that the apostle Matthew wrote down the sayings of Jesus that form a substantial part of the Gospel of Matthew, that Mark had good early sources and that John contains accurate geographical information that couldn’t have been known by anyone not familiar with the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. So we have the eyewitness component right there. Very few scholars would doubt the original reports were from eyewitnesses.

    2. The question, of course, is how well the stories were passed down. There is no doubt that memories can be faulty, but there are good reasons to suppose that the gospels get lots right. Casey says some stories and sayings were written down. Memory studies (including Bauckham, but there is some more recent work too) indicate that oral transmission is accurate about the main details but fuzzy about minor details. So, again, the majority of scholars agree that the basic outline of the gospels is historical, and the majority agree that Jesus’ tomb was empty and the disciples had some sort of visions of Jesus.

    3. The question of who was alive around 70 CE to check was an interesting one. While we simply don’t know what happened to many people who saw Jesus, or even their names, I think we know a little more than your #2 suggests. We know John the Baptist, James son of Zebedee, James brother of Jesus, Pilate and Caiaphas were all dead. But we know Paul was alive at the time of Jesus and likely in Jerusalem around that time as he studied under Gamaliel, and he probably died in the late 60s. Likewise the stories we have about the 12 apostles suggest about half of them were still alive into the middle 60s at least. Likewise John Mark. So it seems certain that there WERE many people still alive, some of whose names we know, but most we don’t.

    4. So we are left with something less than christians would prefer, but something more than you would prefer – good evidence that the gospels told the basic story correctly but some facts and details were remembered differently. This includes the basic facts of the resurrection.

    So I think things are pretty much what I’d expect. There are enough facts to draw historical conclusions, but not enough to offer absolute certainty. If the resurrection were not a supernatural event, there’d be quite enough evidence to support it. The problem is that it’s supernatural, and that is a sticking point for many, and, I presume, for you.

    So I think the challenge for you, and for this discussion, isn’t the historical evidence, which is good by ancient standards, but the reasons for accepting or rejecting the supernatural, and for accepting or rejecting Jesus as divine. What do you say?

  9. The purpose of my comment was to point out two common assumptions made by many Christians:

    1. That the four gospels were written by eyewitnesses.

    2. That eyewitnesses were alive at the time the first gospel was written and distributed.

    In your response, you have appealed to a minority scholarly position in your claim that eyewitnesses may have written at least some of the gospels. Although it is true that some evangelical and fundamentalist NT scholars do hold this view, the majority of NT scholars do not. I’m sure you feel very convinced in your conviction that the majority is wrong, but I am not interested in debating that issue with you. I am not a NT scholar and neither are you. We are both novices. I choose to believe the majority of scholars in fields in which I am not an expert. Most educated people in the world follow this practice in most every other area of their lives. I choose to ride in elevators because most engineers believe that they are safe. There may be a couple of fringe engineers who disagree, but like most of the educated world, I choose to listen to the majority.

    Your entire post is based on minority, even fringe, scholarly positions, mixed with your own personal opinion. For instance:

    “Most scholars agree that each gospel was compiled from several sources, and these sources were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life.”

    The first part of this sentence is certainly true, but the last part is blatantly false. Please provide a statement by a respected mainstream NT scholar who states that the majority of NT scholars believe that the Gospels are based on the statements and stories of eyewitness sources.

    “the apostle Matthew wrote down the sayings of Jesus that form a substantial part of the Gospel of Matthew”

    This is a fringe position.

    “Mark had good early sources and that John contains accurate geographical information that couldn’t have been known by anyone not familiar with the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. So we have the eyewitness component right there. Very few scholars would doubt the original reports were from eyewitnesses.”

    Blatantly false statement. Please give a statement by a mainstream NT scholar who states that the overwhelming majority of NT scholars believe that the gospels are based on “original reports from eyewitnesses”. I am shocked you would say such a blatantly fundamentalist statement. I had assumed you put more stock in scholarship. Only fundamentalist and conservative evangelical scholars would ever make such a preposterous claim.

  10. “So, again, the majority of scholars agree that the basic outline of the gospels is historical, and the majority agree that Jesus’ tomb was empty and the disciples had some sort of visions of Jesus.”

    Let’s define “basic”. If you are saying that most scholars agree that Jesus was a real person, who lived in the early first century, was an apostolic preacher, who got on the wrong side of the Jewish authorities, was crucified by the Romans, and whose followers soon came to believe that they had seen him in a resurrected form, in some manner, after his death….I agree. If you want to include his water walking, feeding five thousand, turning water into wine, raising the dead, entering Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday” to a great throng of cheering Jews who called him the Messiah, that he was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s family tomb, and the details of his post-death appearances, then, no, I am very comfortable in saying that the majority of scholars would NOT include these details as historical “facts” about Jesus.

    By the way, please provide a mainstream source (not the evangelical Gary Habermas) who states that the majority of NT scholars believe that Joseph of Arimathea’s rock tomb is historical fact.

    Bottom line: Most experts do NOT believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or that the stories in the Gospels are historical facts based on eyewitness sources.

    In addition, we have no proof that any witness to Jesus’ death was alive when the first gospel was written and distributed. Therefore it is very possible that the non-eyewitness author of “Mark” embellished many stories into the “basic” story of Jesus and the other three gospel authors simply adapted “Mark’s” embellishments into their gospels.

    The gospels, therefore, are NOT reliable sources of historical fact.

  11. To provide a good overview of the majority opinion about the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (a compilation of multiple scholars summarizing dominant scholarly trends for the last 150 years) states (pg. 1744):

    “Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.”

    The Roman Catholic position on the authorship of the Gospels:

    —“They (the Gospels) were anonymously written. In fact most scholars today do not believe that the evangelists were eyewitnesses for the simple reason that their chronology of events and theological interpretations are different. The titles of the gospels were added in the second century and very well could designate the authority behind the finished gospel or the one who wrote one of the main sources of the gospel. The Church takes no official stance on their authorship. It is important to understand that the Church by its authority and the guidance of the Holy Spirit canonized these four gospels over many others that were circulated and read in the early centuries.”

    Source: http://www.aboutcatholics.com/beliefs/what-are-the-gospels/

  12. …If the author of the Gospel of John were an eyewitness, presumably the author would have known that Jesus and his compatriots were permitted to enter the synagogues. But at one several points it is stated that those who acknowledged Jesus as the Christ during the life of Jesus were put out of the synagogue. This anachronism is inconceivable as the product of an eyewitness.

    Kysar states that most scholars today see the historical setting of the Gospel of John in the expulsion of the community from the synagogue (op. cit., p. 918). The word aposynagogos is found three times in the gospel (9:22, 12:42, 16:2). The high claims made for Jesus and the response to them (5:18), the polemic against “the Jews” (9:18, 10:31, 18:12, 19:12), and the assertion of a superiority of Christian revelation to the Hebrew (1:18, 6:49-50, 8:58) show that “the Johannine community stood in opposition to the synagogue from which it had been expelled.” (p. 918)”

    Source: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/john.html

    —“There are extant writings accredited to the Apostolic Fathers, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp; written, for the most part, early in the second century. These writings contain no mention of the Four Gospels. This also is admitted by Christian scholars. Dr. Dodwell says: “We have at this day certain most authentic ecclesiastical writers of the times, as Clemens Romanus, Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp, who wrote in the order wherein I have named them, and after all the writers of the New Testament. But in Hermas you will not find one passage or any mention of the New Testament, nor in all the rest is any one of the Evangelists named” (Dissertations upon Irenaeus).

    The Four Gospels were unknown to the early Christian Fathers. Justin Martyr, the most eminent of the early Fathers, wrote about the middle of the second century. His writings in proof of the divinity of Christ demanded the use of these Gospels had they existed in his time. He makes more than three hundred quotations from the books of the Old Testament, and nearly one hundred from the Apocryphal books of the New Testament; but none from the Four Gospels. The Rev. Dr. Giles says: “The very names of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are never mentioned by him [Justin] — do not occur once in all his writings” (Christian Records, p. 71).

  13. HI Gary, thanks for further comments. before I respond to them, I want to confirm some things we appear to agree on. (it is good to wrap things up before we move on.)

    1. You originally implied that there were few if any eyewitnesses to Jesus still alive around 70 CE, and offered a challenge to name any. I responded with 6 names who had died before that date and 6 more who apparently were still alive, and the observation that we didn’t have more names because for most people we just don’t know. You appeared to agree with that, and my conclusion that “it seems certain that there WERE many people still alive, some of whose names we know, but most we don’t.”

    So can we put aside that question as resolved and the challenge answered?

    2. I made the statement that “the gospels told the basic story correctly but some facts and details were remembered differently. This includes the basic facts of the resurrection.” You appear to agree with this, except you are still questioning the basic facts of the resurrection (which I’ll address shortly).

    You responded: “If you are saying that most scholars agree that Jesus was a real person, who lived in the early first century, was an apostolic preacher, who got on the wrong side of the Jewish authorities, was crucified by the Romans, and whose followers soon came to believe that they had seen him in a resurrected form, in some manner, after his death….I agree.”

    Just to clarify and see if you still agree, I meant the following facts:

    born c 4 BCE near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
    lived in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
    baptised by John the Baptist;
    called 12 disciples;
    taught in Galilee;
    preached ‘the kingdom of God’ and believed he was an agent of that kingdom;
    was believed to be a healer and exorcist;
    about 30 CE he went to Jerusalem for Passover, created a disturbance in the Temple & had a final meal with the disciples;
    was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities;
    executed on the orders of Pilate;
    believed by his disciples from very early on to have been resurrected.

    As you say, I am not suggesting that things like the miraculous are accepted by the majority of scholars. So are we agreed on that list (taken mostly from EP Sanders)?

    If you can confirm those two areas of agreement, please, we can move on to the next matters you have raised.

  14. “You originally implied that there were few if any eyewitnesses to Jesus still alive around 70 CE, and offered a challenge to name any.”

    False. I never said anything such thing. I simply asked Christians to provide the names of eyewitnesses who were still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed. I suggested that it was possible that no eyewitnesses were still alive at the time, but I never stated that there “WERE”, as a statement of fact, “few if any eyewitnesses alive circa 70 AD”. As for the six persons you claim were still alive in circa 70 AD, this is a minority scholarly view. For instance, there is no good evidence that John the apostle was still alive at this time. Polycarp never states that he was a disciple of the apostle John and Papias only talks about a “presbyter John”. Only fundamentalist and evangelical scholars assert that this John is the Apostle John.

  15. “You appeared to agree with that, and my conclusion that “it seems certain that there WERE many people still alive, some of whose names we know, but most we don’t.”

    Absolutely false.

    We have no solid evidence that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus was alive when the first gospel was written and distributed circa 70 AD. You may appeal to a minority/fringe position of fundamentalist and evangelical scholars if you wish, but the majority of scholars do not claim that John the apostle or any other eyewitness was alive at this time. There is not enough evidence to make a statement either way.

    Therefore, it is POSSIBLE that eyewitnesses were still alive in circa 70 AD and it is POSSIBLE that no eyewitness was alive at that time. That is the best that can be said. Neither side can declare anything definitive.

  16. “Just to clarify and see if you still agree, I meant the following facts:”

    born c 4 BCE near the time of the death of Herod the Great—agree
    lived in Nazareth, a Galilean village—probably
    baptised by John the Baptist—maybe
    called 12 disciples—probably
    taught in Galilee—agree
    preached ‘the kingdom of God’ and believed he was an agent of that kingdom—agree
    was believed to be a healer and exorcist—a healer, yes.
    about 30 CE he went to Jerusalem for Passover, created a disturbance in the Temple & had a final meal with the disciples—I doubt the majority of scholars would be this specific, but I will say, “maybe”.
    was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities—maybe. He may have been arrested by the Romans at the request of the Jewish authorities. I am not sure if the majority of scholars would be as specific as you are.
    executed on the orders of Pilate—executed during the reign of Pilate, yes.
    believed by his disciples from very early on to have been resurrected—yes

  17. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for your clarifications and confirmations. Firstly, I’m sorry I misunderstood your position. I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth, I was just trying to summarise what I thought you were saying. Your words in your first comment seemed to me to infer that there was little likelihood of people living that long, so I am glad you have clarified your view, namely that “Therefore, it is POSSIBLE that eyewitnesses were still alive in circa 70 AD and it is POSSIBLE that no eyewitness was alive at that time. That is the best that can be said. Neither side can declare anything definitive.”

    Well I agree with you that we cannot be absolutely certain about these things, but there is historical evidence to support the fact that some eyewitnesses would have lived that long.

    1. Paul of Tarsus was born about 5 CE or a little earlier. He studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel (probably sometime in the period 20-30 CE) and was in Jerusalem persecuting christians a few years after Jesus’ death. He died in about 67 CE. So there is one person who we can know was around the right places at the right time to meet your challenge.

    2. I didn’t mention John son of Zebedee, I just mentioned the 11 disciples as a group plus John Mark (sometimes just called Mark, mentioned several times in Acts and perhaps the author of Mark, perhaps not, there are differing views). We have some historical references to many of these guys dying around 70 CE, and while the sources are not always the best, the probability must be that some of them are accurate. At any rate, they are evidence that hasn’t been refuted.

    3. I think your challenge may be based on the common, but apparently mistaken, view that people didn’t live that long in those days. But experts say that healthy people who survived childhood lived almost as long as today (i.e. often around 60-70 years), the problem was that child mortality was so much higher. If a third of people live only a few years, and the rest live to (say) 30-70, the average life expectancy is about 35 years. So if Jesus’ disciples ranged in age from 20 to 40, we could easily expect many of them to still be alive in 70 CE, unless they were martyred, as some appear to have been.

    So we do indeed have evidence that supports the view that there were many people who saw or heard Jesus and were still alive in 65-75 CE, most of whom we don’t know but some we do, just as there were many who didn’t make it that long.

    Secondly, thanks for your general agreement with the statements I made about Jesus. They are not my statements, actually, they are abbreviated quotes from EP Sanders’ list of things that are “almost beyond dispute”. As Sanders is one of the most respected of all NT scholars, he made this list as the starting point of his book (he went on to add more thing things as historical), and he is slightly on the sceptical side of centre, I think we can say that most scholars would agree with the list – and my reading shows this is the case.

    So thanks for the opportunity to clarify those points, that will be useful as I address the remaining issues we need to discuss.

  18. Hi Gary, I think we still have the following disagreements which I’d like to address now:

    1. Whether scholars accept that the empty tomb and the disciples’ visions of Jesus were historical.
    2. Whether the sources of the gospels were eyewitnesses.
    3. Whether the authors of the gospels were eyewitnesses.

    1. Resurrection evidence.

    You ask for evidence apart from “the evangelical Gary Habermas”. Why this restriction? Habermas has published his research in a reputable journal, the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. This not an evangelical or apologetic publication but a serious academic journal. The current editors (Crossley & Le Donne) are not evangelical christians – as far as I know Crossley is an atheist.

    If you are going to restrict the evidence you’ll accept, you need to have a very strong case. So do you have a strong case? Why won’t you accept Habermas’ research? Is it just that you don’t like the result? Are you accusing him and the journal of dishonest or inaccurate work? Have you any evidence for any of this, or any evidence of a similar study that refutes Habermas?

    These are important questions, for it is easy to dismiss evidence you don’t like, but hard to justify such dismissal.

    I will proceed based on Habermas’ paper because it stands unless you can justify my not using it. He writes in 2005 that over the past 30 years he had reviewed over 1400 academic papers by “critical scholars” (I presume he means not apologists), and found that 75% conclude that the tomb was empty. He also says that “The vast majority of scholars agree that these persons certainly thought that they had visual experiences of the risen Jesus.”

    These results are true of my own reading. Both empty tomb and visions would be accepted by most christian historians, so I will just mention scholars who are not (as far as I know) christians: Empty tomb: Michael Grant, Robin Lane Fox; Appearances: Maurice Casey, Jesus Seminar/Robert Funk, EP Sanders, Helmut Koester.

    So unless you have strong evidence against this, we can reasonably say that the majority (about 75%) of NT scholars believe that Jesus’ tomb was empty and the disciples had visions of Jesus alive.

    2. Eyewitness sources

    My comment was based on logic. We have agreed that the majority of scholars accept that list of facts. Now those facts can only be known if someone experienced or observed the events and reported them, there is no other way. So behind those accepted facts are eyewitness reports.

    This is so obvious that most scholars don’t say much about it. I cannot recall any scholar I have read denying this, and there are many who affirm it or assume it as obvious. Obviously christian historians like Wright, Dunn, Bauckham, etc, all conclude this way. But so do non-christian historians such as Maurice Casey, EP Sanders, James Crossley, Robin Lane Fox and (from memory) Michael Grant. The whole field of memory studies of Jesus (by Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, Raphael Rodriguez, Helen Bond, etc), is all about memories of what was originally observed or heard.

    Even Bart Ehrman, who is sceptical that much eyewitness reports made it into the New Testament because of the fallibility of memory, says “Including the followers of Jesus. Including the ones who told the stories about him. …. Each person in that link of memory from Jesus to the writers of the Gospels was remembering what he or she had heard.” indicating that the stories originated with eyewitnesses but were distorted along the way (he believes).

    I could go on referencing scholars who take this view. Can you reference any who think otherwise?

    As I said before, the question isn’t whether anybody saw and heard Jesus and then wrote it down or passed the story on, that is obviouusly true, the issue is how much of that memory or those reports made it into the written gospels.

    There are widely differing views about this of course, from strong christian scholars like Ben Witherington (who I don’t reference) to sceptics like Bart Ehrman (who I do reference). But the middle ground, of scholars like Casey, Wright, Dunn, Bauckham, Allison, Evans, Vermes, Keith, Sanders, Meier, etc generally see significant eyewitnesses reports in the gospels, however modified they may think they are. I referenced two of them, Casey and Bauckham, as examples. It is incorrect for you to call them “fringe” – some of those views are minority views, but these are all eminent scholars, not fringe historians. Even JJ Lowder, the internet infidel, accepts we can get useful historical information from the gospels.

    So I conclude that most scholars see modified eyewitnesses reports as the basis of parts of the gospels, but they disagree about the detail of that. I am willing to discuss this further with detailed references if you wish.

    3. Gospel writers as eyewitnesses

    I have not suggested that the final authors of the gospels were eyewitnesses. Some of them could have been, some of them weren’t, but we simply don’t know. We don’t even know if there was a single author, for it seems certain that all of them were compiled from earlier sources, some written, some oral. It really isn’t all that important.

    You say “The gospels, therefore, are NOT reliable sources of historical fact.” as if that were a factual statement, but it is just your opinion, and it disagrees with many of the experts. People like Wright, Evans, Bauckham, Grant, Casey, Sanders, etc, all conclude we can get useful and definitive historical information from the gospels (I can give you quotes to demonstrate this). To be sure they believe there is later theology and distortion in there as well, but that doesn’t negate the information they find there. Again, even Bart Ehrman (unless he has changed his mind) believes we can know more about Jesus than about most people of his time.

    So I suggest your views expressed here are not typical of the best historians, but of the most sceptical critics, often not bone fide scholars at all.

  19. “So we do indeed have evidence that supports the view that there were many people who saw or heard Jesus and were still alive in 65-75 CE, most of whom we don’t know but some we do, just as there were many who didn’t make it that long.”

    No. Not true.

    My challenge was to name an eyewitness to the death and alleged events shortly after his death (the Resurrection) of Jesus who was still alive in circa 70 AD. No scholar I know of asserts that Paul was an eyewitness to the death of Jesus and to the events shortly after this death.

    Please provide the evidence that any of the Eleven were alive in 70 AD.

    I never once stated or inferred that people in the first century did not have a life span of circa 70 years. It is quite probable that people who were alive in 30 AD were still alive in 70 AD. The question is whether or not any of these people were eyewitnesses to the events mentioned above.

  20. Here is my original statement:

    “The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books (the gospels) to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.”

    So I am not arguing that there were no eyewitnesses alive in 70 AD or even that there probably were no eyewitnesses alive in 70 AD, only that we cannot be certain that there were any eyewitnesses alive in circa 70 AD who would have been able to “proof read” the first gospel, Mark, for any errors or embellishments.

    Therefore, it is possible that the Empty Tomb and the detailed post-death appearances of Jesus are embellishments (fictional). It is also possible that the authors of the subsequent three gospels simply included “Mark’s” embellishments in their gospels. We will never know for sure, however, because we have no solid evidence that any eyewitness was or was not alive at the time the first gospel was written and distributed to proof read this text.

    I do not question that the belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus developed very soon after Jesus’ death. The creed in First Corinthians certainly indicates this. The question is: Why did this belief develop? Was it due to an empty tomb and post-death appearances or only post-death appearances? The total absence in Paul’s writings of Arimathea’s rock tomb suggests that the Empty Tomb story is an embellishment that developed after Paul’s time. It is entirely possible that the Resurrection belief developed from a few of the disciples of Jesus having vivid dreams or visions of the dead Jesus coming back from the dead to comfort them, as has happened to the relatives of tens of thousands of other recently departed persons.

  21. Let me address your last comment in reverse order.

    3. Gospel writers as eyewitnesses

    “I have not suggested that the final authors of the gospels were eyewitnesses. Some of them could have been, some of them weren’t, but we simply don’t know. We don’t even know if there was a single author, for it seems certain that all of them were compiled from earlier sources, some written, some oral. It really isn’t all that important.”

    The majority of scholars do not believe that the authors of the four gospels were eyewitnesses. Can we agree on that?

    “You say “The gospels, therefore, are NOT reliable sources of historical fact.” as if that were a factual statement, but it is just your opinion, and it disagrees with many of the experts. People like Wright, Evans, Bauckham, Grant, Casey, Sanders, etc, all conclude we can get useful and definitive historical information from the gospels (I can give you quotes to demonstrate this).”

    Maybe my statement needs to be clarified. I am NOT stating that there are NO historical truths in the gospels. That would be ridiculous. We know from other sources that Palestine was under Roman occupation. We know that Herod the Great was a real person. We know that Pilate was prefect of Judea during the time of Jesus. What I am saying is that the Gospels cannot be treated as history books. Some of the claims in these books are historically accurate and some are possibly/probably not. Would any mainstream NT scholar claim that the Ascension of Jesus is an historical fact? I highly doubt it.

    So that is what I meant by that statement. The Bible is not all correct or all false. Just like any other book from Antiquity, we must parse out truth from fiction. We should not write the Gospels off as complete fiction, but neither should we accept every statement within the Gospels as unquestioned historical fact. Can we agree on that?

  22. 2. Eyewitness sources

    “My comment was based on logic. We have agreed that the majority of scholars accept that list of facts. Now those facts can only be known if someone experienced or observed the events and reported them, there is no other way. So behind those accepted facts are eyewitness reports.”

    I certainly agree that the “basic facts” upon which we agree, such that Jesus preached in Galilee, must have originated with eyewitness testimony. However, you seemed to infer that ALL the statements in the Gospels were based on eyewitness testimony even if the authors themselves were not eyewitnesses. This is the claim I disagreed with. As I stated above, as with any document from Antiquity, we must parse out fact (based on eyewitness testimony) from fiction. I am more than happy to agree with you that some of the claims in the Bible are based on eyewitness testimony. It is figuring out which claims are true and which are not that is the difficult task of scholars and historians. And the pinnacle claim of the gospels is that a dead man was reanimated/resurrected after three days of being brain dead, spent forty days with his friends, and then flew off into the clouds to never be seen again.

    I do not pretend to know as fact that this claim is fiction, I simply assert that there is not enough evidence to believe that this very extraordinary event probably did happen.

  23. 1. Resurrection evidence.

    “You ask for evidence apart from “the evangelical Gary Habermas”. Why this restriction? Habermas has published his research in a reputable journal, the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. This not an evangelical or apologetic publication but a serious academic journal. The current editors (Crossley & Le Donne) are not evangelical christians – as far as I know Crossley is an atheist.”

    I was not aware that Habermas had published his data for review. Do you have a link to this journal article? If Habermas has published his data and it has been reviewed by other scholars and after this review the majority of scholars state that his methodology was proper and that his conclusion appears to be correct, then I will consider changing my position on the historicity of the Empty Tomb.

    My hesitation regarding evangelical scholars is this: Many evangelical scholars are employed by Christian universities and colleges. Many of these Christian institutions require their scholars to sign a statement of faith in which they promise to promote and uphold the beliefs and doctrines of the Christian denomination which sponsors the university or college. I would not accept as trustworthy the opinion of any NT scholar regarding the historicity of the Empty Tomb who has signed one of these documents as he or she has essentially promised to never contradict the denomination. I would do the same for any scholar employed by an atheist organization which has forced him or her to sign their statement of belief document. In such a situation, the scholar cannot give an unbiased opinion without risking his or her job.

  24. Here is one criticism of Habermas’ study. Since I haven’t reviewed his study yet, I don’t know if this is accurate. Any opinion on it?

    “Habermas reports that in his survey of the literature, 75% of scholars who write about the empty tomb accept its historicity while 25% reject it. However, there’s a problem with using this to claim that 75% of Biblical scholars accept the empty tomb: if scholars who reject the empty tomb are less inclined to write about it, they’ll be under-counted in a literature review like Habermas’.”

    If this is true, the author’s complaint is valid. If we want to survey the position of ALL New Testament scholars on an issue, there is a very easy way to do that: Send each of them a questionnaire along with a stamped envelope. If Habermas only did a review of the literature on the topic of the Empty Tomb, then all he can claim is that 75% of authors of articles on the Empty Tomb believe in its historicity. That is NOT the same as saying that 75% of all New Testament scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb.

    Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2012/08/why-craigs-case-for-the-resurrection-is-dishonest/

    By the way, this article is a very good analysis of William Lane Craig’s questionable techniques for arguing for the historicity of the Resurrection. Readers might be interested in checking it out.

  25. Hi Gary, thanks for your replies. There’s a lot of information now in this discussion, so I think it best if I clarify where we are up to before I respond. So can you please confirm that my understanding of your views is correct in these following statements? Thanks.

    Regarding eyewitnesses of Jesus still being alive around 70 CE when the first gospel was probably written ….

    1. You think there is insufficient evidence to answer the question. (“I am not arguing that there were no eyewitnesses alive in 70 AD or even that there probably were no eyewitnesses alive in 70 AD, only that we cannot be certain that there were any eyewitnesses alive in circa 70 AD who would have been able to “proof read” the first gospel, Mark, for any errors or embellishments. …. it is POSSIBLE that eyewitnesses were still alive in circa 70 AD and it is POSSIBLE that no eyewitness was alive at that time.”)

    2. You agree that there would have been people alive in Jerusalem and Galilee at the time of Jesus and shortly after, and still alive around 70 CE, and that Paul of Tarsus was one of these.

    3. Your challenge is therefore not that people may have spanned these events but to name someone. (“My challenge was to name an eyewitness to the death and alleged events shortly after his death (the Resurrection) of Jesus who was still alive in circa 70 AD.”)

    4. You believe, re Mark’s gospel, that ” it is possible that the Empty Tomb and the detailed post-death appearances of Jesus are embellishments (fictional).”

    5. You want to see evidence that any apostles were alive circa 70 CE.

    Then relative to the broader evidence of historical content in the gospels ….

    6. You accept 8 of Sanders’ basic facts as probably factual/historical, 3 of them as maybe factual, and none of them as not factual.

    7. You accept that parts of the gospels, including those “facts”, are based on eyewitness reports. (“Some of the claims in these books are historically accurate and some are possibly/probably not. …. I certainly agree that the “basic facts” upon which we agree, such that Jesus preached in Galilee, must have originated with eyewitness testimony. “)

    8. You question the story of the empty tomb may have been “an embellishment that developed after Paul’s time”

    9. Your initial unwillingness to accept Habermas’ research was despite never having read his paper or being aware that it had been published.

    10. You question Habermas because you think the published papers he reports may not be representative of the opinions of scholars.

    I am not trying to put words in your mouth, just wanting to make sure I don’t do that by clarifying what I think you have said. If you could give brief responses (I’m hoping a simple yes will be sufficient in most cases because I have your comments already) I can be sure I am responding to what you definitely think. Thanks.

  26. Thanks for tipping me off that Habermas’ study had been published. I read it and here is my summary:

    1. This is not a peer-reviewed article. That is a BIG problem. Unless Habermas opens up his records; shares his data with other scholars; and allows other scholars to critique his data and methodology, all we have in this article is one man’s hearsay.

    2. Habermas did NOT take a survey of scholars to arrive at his claim that 75% of scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb. This could have very easily been done. Why didn’t Habermas do this and why has he still not done this? No, instead of surveying scholars on this question, Habermas reviewed all articles written on this subject since the mid 70’s (a little dated, isn’t that?) on the subject of the Empty Tomb and recorded how many articles supported the historicity of this claim and how many did not support the historicity of this claim. There are several problems with this methodology. First, it only includes scholars who have written published articles on the Empty Tomb. What percentage of NT scholars have done so? He doesn’t tell us. However, it is safe to say that fundamentalist and evangelical NT scholars, whose faith and world view depend on the existence of an empty tomb, will have written many more articles on this subject than NT scholars for whom an empty tomb is unimportant (say, a Jewish scholar or a liberal Christian scholar).

    Secondly, Habermas does not tell us whether or not he counted only authors of Empty Tomb articles or the total number of Empty Tomb articles. The problem here is that if he is basing his percentage on articles, not on scholars, his number will be biased towards the fundamentalist/evangelical position of an empty tomb and a bodily resurrection, as these scholars are much more motivated to write on this subject. For instance, if Mike Licona has written ten articles on the Empty Tomb, and someone like Levine has never or rarely ever written on this subject, Habermas’ statistics will be biased towards the conservative Christian position. We need to know this information before asserting just how accurate Habermas’ study really is.

    3. Habermas states that the participants in his survey are primarily (Christian) theologians and NT scholars, with a smaller group of historians and philosophers. Why? This is an historical question, not a theological question. We are not asking scholars to tell us the meaning of Jesus’ death, for instance. That is a theological question. Why not ask the experts in the relative field: HISTORIANS! But I doubt that Habermas will ever want to do this because he knows that the results of this survey would most likely be very different from the results of his survey of mostly theologians and NT scholars.

    If you and/or your readers would like to read my detailed review of Habermas’ research, you can read the entire Habermas’ article interspersed with my analysis, here:

    http://www.lutherwasnotbornagain.com/2016/07/a-review-of-gary-habermas-claim-that-75.html

  27. HI Gary, thanks for your agreement about the summary. I think we are close to agreement on many historical matters. But before I try to sum up that agreement, I’d like to address the two matters outstanding from my 10 points which you assented to.

    1. Evidence that some apostles were alive circa 70 CE

    As I said before, the evidence isn’t strong, but it is there. Most of the discussion from christians and sceptics alike is about whether they were martyred, but that isn’t what we are interested in. The circumstances of their deaths are mentioned by a few ancient writers – Eusebius, Origen, Polycrates and Clement of Alexandria (both referenced by Eusebius), Ephrem and Hippolytus – these lived in the 2nd to 4th centuries. The accounts of heroic martyrdom are variously assessed as likely historical to likely legendary, but there is less reason to doubt the dates. So there is evidence, some of which we probably shouldn’t accept on the dates, but some we may regard as likely even if we doubt the heroic stories. I wouldn’t put too much store on it all, but it is still evidence.

    2. Gary Habermas’ resurrection paper

    I am glad you have now, I presume, read the paper. But I’m a little surprised and confused by a couple of your statements.

    “This is not a peer-reviewed article.”

    I mentioned it was published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Is that the article you have read? Can you tell me the evidence you have for it not being peer-reviewed please?

    “Habermas did NOT take a survey of scholars to arrive at his claim that 75% of scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb. “

    Habermas didn’t actually make that claim. The paper makes quite clear he has surveyed the literature to find out the directions in research on the resurrection. he says this at the start, and at the end, and several times in the text.

    I made that claim, on the following basis:

    (a) That is how academic research is done. Surveys of researchers are notoriously under-returned, and are much mo0re subject to bias according to who bothers to return and who doesn’t. Academics cite papers when they want to gauge trends, and that is what Habermas has done.

    (b) Citing papers shows the conclusions of those actively researching and publishing on the subject. That is surely the best indication of trends.

    (c) 1400 papers is a large sample of the conclusions of scholars generally – a much larger sample than in political or social polling.

    So on those bases, I concluded that not only did 75% of papers draw certain conclusions, but so did 75% of scholars. But I’m happy to leave it at 75% of papers if you prefer.

    “Habermas states that the participants in his survey are primarily (Christian) theologians and NT scholars, with a smaller group of historians and philosophers.”

    He says they are “critical scholars”. That means scholars who are making judgments on the historicity of the text, not ones who are affirming christian teaching. If you check out the references you’ll see scholars across the spectrum.

    I actually don’t think either of these matters is crucial to the way I think we can finish up this discussion, but I think it best to deal with them before I try to sum up. Thanks.

  28. You are correct. I should not have said, “This is not a peer-reviewed article”. What I should have said was this: “I would like to see evidence that the data for this article was peer-reviewed.”

    For instance: What are the names of the articles? We should be able to look at a complete list of the articles Habermas includes in his study. We also should be able to look at his methodology in deciding which author is a “yes” and which author is a “no” on the historicity of the Empty Tomb. Did the author have to explicitly state, “I believe that the Empty Tomb is historical fact” to be included in the “yes” column or did Habermas include authors who said “it is possible” that the Empty Tomb is historical?

    Most peer-reviewed articles have an abstract that discusses the purpose, methodology, and conclusion of the research. Is there an abstract in the article? (I ask this because the article I found is Habermas’ original, full article, not the edited version placed in the journal. I was not able to find this article, only the original. Your assistance in directing me to the journal article would be appreciated.)

    I am happy that you are willing to agree that Habermas’ article can only claim that the majority of articles written about the Resurrection since 1975 which mention a scholar’s opinion on the Empty Tomb favor the historicity of the Empty Tomb.

    I hope you can see how this result is not the same as saying that the majority of “experts” or critical scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb as many Christian apologists claim.

    Habermas’ selection of “critical scholars” is heavily biased:

    1. He only includes scholars who have written articles on the Empty Tomb who have given an opinion on the historicity of the Empty Tomb. This leaves out any scholar who has not expressed an opinion on this subject.

    2. His criteria also heavily slants his results toward the conservative Christian perspective. The historicity of the Empty Tomb is the lynchpin of the conservative Christian’s belief system. Without an Empty Tomb, the conservative Christian is left with alleged appearances to argue for a literal, bodily resurrection. Tens of thousands of grieving family and friends have “seen” their recently departed loved one appear to them. Appearance stories are very weak evidence for the alleged resurrection of a dead corpse. Conservative Christians know that. Therefore, conservative Christians desperately need an Empty Tomb to maintain the credibility of their belief system.

    So who is going to write more articles on the Empty Tomb?

    If Habermas’ statistics are based simply on the number of articles which advocate for the historicity of an Empty Tomb, common sense says this methodology is going to favor the conservative Christian view of an empty tomb.

    In conclusion on Habermas: All we can say is that Habermas’ research indicates that the majority of articles written since 1975 on the topic of the Resurrection in which the author has expressed an opinion on the historicity of the Empty Tomb, the majority have favored its historicity.

  29. You said,

    “1. Evidence that some apostles were alive circa 70 CE

    As I said before, the evidence isn’t strong, but it is there. Most of the discussion from christians and sceptics alike is about whether they were martyred, but that isn’t what we are interested in. The circumstances of their deaths are mentioned by a few ancient writers – Eusebius, Origen, Polycrates and Clement of Alexandria (both referenced by Eusebius), Ephrem and Hippolytus – these lived in the 2nd to 4th centuries. The accounts of heroic martyrdom are variously assessed as likely historical to likely legendary, but there is less reason to doubt the dates. So there is evidence, some of which we probably shouldn’t accept on the dates, but some we may regard as likely even if we doubt the heroic stories. I wouldn’t put too much store on it all, but it is still evidence.”

    Maybe I should have been more clear in my statement: We have no contemporaneous evidence from anyone living in the first century or the early second century that anyone who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus and the subsequent events after his death was still alive in 70 AD.

    In addition, the majority of scholars believe that the assertions of persons living in the late second through the fourth century regarding this issue are dubious at best if not outright fraudulent.

    Bottom line: Christians must abandon the commonly used assumption that eyewitnesses were alive at the time of the writing and distribution of the first gospel who would have proof read this text and pointed out any errors or embellishments.

    There may have been eyewitnesses alive, but it is possible that there were not. The Gospel of Mark may be chock full of fictional stories. We will never know for sure if any eyewitness was ever able to read this text and point out these false, fictional, tall tales

  30. Hi Gary. Thanks for your latest responses. I think we have covered enough now, so I am going to try to sum up what I have learnt from this discussion.

    1. Based on this discussion, there is much we agree on. When dealing with historical questions, I think it is useful to distinguish between historical “facts” (things that the experts pretty much agree on) and our opinions which are things that the experts are not convinced about.

    We agree on a number of “facts” about Jesus. We agree that the gospels contain a basic outline of Jesus’ life (at least Sanders’ 11 statements) based on eyewitness reports and memories. We agree that “belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus developed very soon after Jesus’ death.” And we agree that the more supernatural elements in the gospels are matters of opinion based on the facts, and are not generally taken to be historical facts.

    That is a good start to any discussion.

    2. Your original comment asked: “how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred?” You chose to illustrate this point by challenging any christian to give: “the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD”.

    These are of course two quite different points. Regarding names, you agreed that there certainly were people around in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus who were still alive when Mark’s gospel was written – Paul of Tarsus is at least one. And you could offer no evidence that there was no-one who fulfilled your conditions. I could at least offer the names of several of the apostles who apparently met your requirements, but we both agreed that the evidence for this was not strong – but since you could offer no evidence, it was at least a little better than nothing!

    But really, we know the names of very few of the people around at the time of Jesus’ death, and we know the fate of very few of them, so this challenge was bound to finish inconclusively, and thus have little importance. But fortunately we can answer your first question without actually naming names.

    Paul was around in Jerusalem before and after Jesus’ death, and he was interested enough in the question to persecute christians. And you have agreed that the christians were proclaiming the resurrection very early, so Paul would know this. So he knew what the claims were, after his conversion he taught them (as we know from his letters) and he obviously saw no conflict. So we can be fairly confident that the basic message of the resurrection was the same around 65-75 CE as it was around 30-40 CE.

    To be sure, some additional elements may have been added, some stories embellished (though you haven’t offered any reasons to believe that), but the basic stories, especially the appearances, must have been essentially the same. Even if it was true that the empty tomb and the detailed appearances were doubtful as you suggest, it wouldn’t alter the fact that the resurrection was proclaimed in the decade after Jesus’ death, and continued to be proclaimed.

    3. The empty tomb is an interesting case history. When I mentioned the Habermas paper, you immediately commented critically about it, even though it turned out you hadn’t read it and didn’t even know it had been published. You then went on to make a number of accusations against it, many of which were mistaken or lacking evidence.

    * You said it hadn’t been peer reviewed, but offered no evidence to support this. In fact, unless Brill has changed its editorial policy, “JSHJ uses a double-blind peer review system”.

    * You said a survey of scholars would have been better than a survey of the literature, when peer-reviewed published papers is the way academic opinions are tested and formed.

    * You said his paper “only includes scholars who have written published articles on the Empty Tomb”. But that too is not the case. The available online paper says quite clearly it is addressing “1400 scholarly publications on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus”.

    * You argued that these 1400 papers were not representative because “it is safe to say that fundamentalist and evangelical NT scholars … will have written many more articles on this subject than NT scholars for whom an empty tomb is unimportant” yet you offer no evidence at all for this.

    * You say authors were “primarily (Christian) theologians and NT scholars, with a smaller group of historians and philosophers”, misrepresenting his statement by the inclusion of “christian” without offering any evidence, when Habermas described his survey as covering “critical” scholars.

    * You suggest that Habermas should make available the full list of the 1400 papers. Obviously this would be impossible in the published paper (it would take about 90 pages!), and I don’t recall seeing any scientific or medical paper that publishes all the data – they always summarise. And you offer no evidence that anyone has asked for the list and been refused, although that may have happened.

    This sequence of comments is most unfortunate, I think. (1) It shows that you have several times made comments without actually knowing the facts, (2) that you had formed your opinion before you had read the paper, and (3) it would look to many people as if you were looking for any reasons to support the opinion you had formed before you had read it.

    So in the end, Habermas’ peer-reviewed work stands without any substantial evidence against it, and you said: “If Habermas has published his data and it has been reviewed by other scholars and after this review the majority of scholars state that his methodology was proper and that his conclusion appears to be correct, then I will consider changing my position on the historicity of the Empty Tomb.”

    So we can add those facts to the list of generally accepted historical facts.

    4. Finally, we have discussed the general reliability of the gospels and the possibility of eyewitness input. We agree that the final authors were almost certainly not eyewitnesses, but the contents include significant eyewitness input. We agree that they provide a set of useful historical facts about Jesus, though we disagree how we should interpret them. All this regardless of whether the final authors/compilers were eyewitnesses themselves and whether we can name someone who was an eyewitness and was still alive c 70 CE.

    I suggest we have little more to discuss about the historical facts. The differences between us are simply your making statements without evidence, which I hope we have addressed and can now put aside, and the different ways we interpret the historical evidence. And interpretations are not the slam dunk for either side that some people may think – that’s why they are still being discussed 2000 years later.

    I think we have covered some most interesting areas, and I have learned a few things. I’m not sure I have much more to add. Thanks for your input and your courtesy, it is much appreciated. Best wishes.

  31. “So we can be fairly confident that the basic message of the resurrection was the same around 65-75 CE as it was around 30-40 CE.”

    What was the “basic” message” that the Eleven and Paul preached?

    Was the basic message that on Sunday morning, three days after the execution of Jesus, a group of women came to Joseph of Arimethea’s rock hewn family tomb expecting to anoint the dead body of Jesus which had been placed inside, but…found it empty and encountered a young man/one angel/two angels who told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead? Did the basic message include an appearance in the Upper Room to the Eleven? Did it include an appearance to Doubting Thomas one week later? Did it include appearances on the Sea of Tiberius where Jesus cooks a fish breakfast for the disciples? Did it include an Ascension from a mountain near Bethany?

    Answer: We don’t know. We don’t know because Paul never once mentions these details in his epistles. For all we know the basic message at that time was this: The male leadership of the Early Church all received appearances from Jesus, sometimes individually, sometimes in groups, and once to an unidentified group of five hundred believers.

    We don’t know.

    We don’t know because we cannot be sure if any eyewitness to these alleged events was alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in 70 AD, and, was available to review this document for errors and embellishments.

    I never once claimed that I had evidence that there were no eyewitnesses alive in 70 AD. The question I asked was if Christians could name ONE eyewitness to the above events who was alive in 70 AD. I never claimed that ZERO evidence existed from the second, third, and fourth century which claimed that eyewitness were alive. I fully expected that Christians would attempt to provide evidence that at least John the Apostles was still alive. And you did just that. I asked for the evidence, you provided it, and I pointed out just how dubious, if not fraudulent it is. You are declaring victory over a claim I did not make.

    Regarding Habermas, you said:

    “I will proceed based on Habermas’ paper because it stands unless you can justify my not using it. He writes in 2005 that over the past 30 years he had reviewed over 1400 academic papers by “critical scholars” (I presume he means not apologists), and found that 75% conclude that the tomb was empty. He also says that “The vast majority of scholars agree that these persons certainly thought that they had visual experiences of the risen Jesus.”

    If this research was peer-reviewed, I retract my claim that it was not. However, this does not change my opinion regarding the biased nature in which the results of this research have been used by Christian apologists. The most that can be said of the research is this:

    “In a review of scholarly publications on the topic of the Resurrection of Jesus, published between 1975 and 2005, 75% believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb.”

    That’s it.

    This research in no way confirms that 75% of all historians and NT scholars believe in the Empty Tomb, a claim that many Christian apologists make regarding Habermas’ research. To claim that Habermas’ research is evidence that most “critical scholars” believe in the historicity of the empty tomb is FALSE.

  32. If Habermas or other Christian apologists want to claim that most “critical scholars” believe in the Empty Tomb, they need to conduct a survey of all Near East scholars, Roman Empire scholars, and NT scholars and not just the ones who write a paper on the topic.

    That is my issue with Habermas. His research has been used to prop up the supernatural claim of the reanimation of a dead first century corpse by claiming that 75% of “scholars” believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb. Even if his research was peer-reviewed, his findings cannot be argued to provide this conclusion, no matter how desperately Christian apologists may want it to.

  33. Imagine if Mormons made this claim: Mormon scholar “John Doe” has done a literature search on the topic of the historicity of the Golden Plates given to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni and found that the majority of critical scholars writing on this subject believe it is an historical fact.

    Can I prove that most of the scholars writing articles on this subject are Mormon believers in this Mormon tall tale? No. But common sense tells you, yes.

    Dear readers: Sometimes all you need to determine the truthfulness of a claim is good ol’ common sense. I would say that common sense tells you that Habermas’ research is set up to find the results that Habermas’ and other conservative Christians want, just as the Mormons in my hypothetical Mormon study.

    Don’t buy conservative Christian spin on this topic. Just use your brain.

  34. Hi Gary, thanks again for your comments. I think I have addressed all the major areas of discussion, and I feel I have supported what I have claimed with evidence. Further, I don’t see any evidence for the places where you disagree – after all, we agree on lots, and many of your comments address views I don’t actually hold. So I will just respond to a couple of new points.

    “What was the “basic” message” that the Eleven and Paul preached?”

    We know that from 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (which is an old creed passed on to Paul) and v42:

    “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. …… So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable”

    We see here that Paul repeats the belief that Jesus was buried and then he was no longer buried but raised up bodily.

    “I would say that common sense tells you that Habermas’ research is set up to find the results that Habermas’ and other conservative Christians want”

    Habermas published in a peer reviewed journal, whereas you made up your mind before you had even read his paper. I don’t see value in arguing further, – I think readers can make their own judgments.

    Thanks again.

  35. I agree that the Early Creed indicates that early Christians believed that Jesus had been buried. However, this in no way confirms “Mark’s” later story that Jesus was buried in a rock tomb. It is completely possible that early Christians believed that Jesus had been resurrected from an unmarked, mass criminal grave into which his remains had been tossed by Roman soldiers, after hanging on the cross for many days, as was the Roman custom. They didn’t need to see an empty tomb to believe in a Resurrection. They had seen the resurrected Jesus with their own two eyes…in vivid dreams and visions.

    Again, we can’t be sure in what manner early Christians believed that Jesus had been buried because we cannot be sure that any eyewitness was alive in 70 AD to proof read the first gospel.

  36. When it comes to Habermas’ research, I would suggest that your readers consider just who exactly were the “peers” who reviewed this article. If the group consists of an overwhelming majority of Christians, with a couple of Jews and agnostics thrown in, I would hardly call that a fair sampling of the relevant scholars on this subject.

    Again, the Empty Tomb is an historical question, not a theological question, and not a philosophical question. Therefore the relevant peers are all historians with expertise in the ancient Near East and the Roman Empire (this would also include NT scholars). I believe that such a survey would produce VERY different results, but I agree with you, your readers must decide this issue for themselves, as no such survey has been conducted.

    Bottom line: Christian apologists must stop using Habermas’ research to claim that the majority of scholars believe that the Empty Tomb is an historical fact. That was NOT the conclusion of his research. To claim otherwise is dishonest.

    Thank you for the polite discussion.

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