Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God” — does it get any “better”?

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by Neil Godfrey

A colleague and friend, concerned over my being an atheist, invited me to read Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God so I started to do so. I had not known who Timothy Keller was so I googled and found this wikipedia entry re this particular book:

Keller’s book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism was named Book of the Year for 2008 by World Magazine, a conservative evangelical news magazine. It rose as high as #7 on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best-Seller list in March of 2008.

That looked promising, so I looked at its table of contents and then flipped to his chapter titled “The Reality of the Resurrection”. I began reading on page 203:

The first accounts of the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses are not found in the gospels, but in the letters of Paul, which every historian agrees were written just fifteen to twenty years after the death of Jesus. One of the most interesting texts is 1 Corinthians 15:3-6:

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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have died.

Here Paul not only speaks of the empty tomb and resurrection on the “third day” (showing he is talking of a historical event, not a symbol of metaphor) but he also lists the eyewitnesses.

Yep, that’s what Timothy Keller wrote in his award winning best seller. That the letters of Paul not only contain “accounts”, plural, of “the empty tomb”, but a passage that he quotes and that all can see contains not a thread of a whisker of a mention of an empty tomb is boldly claimed to speak of the empty tomb!

I guess this is called argument by bluff. Just hold up a piece of paper which contains the word “was buried” and declare confidently enough that what the audience sees is something else and you just might get away with it, especially if your audience wants to believe. (Anyone who is bamboozled still needs to check the meaning of burial.)

But Keller is just warming up here. On page 205 he gives readers a double whammy,

Firstly he explains that the women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. He runs through the usual commentary on this point:

  • low social status of women meant they could not testify in court
  • no advantage to the church to publicize women being the first eyewitnesses
  • to admit women were the first eyewitnesses, Christians would know would undermine their credibility

And then the usual coup de grace (or fallacy of the false dilemma): “The only possible explanation for why women were depicted as meeting Jesus first is if they really had.”

Nothing new there, but what caught my attention was the next bit:

N.T. Wright argues that there must have been enormous pressure on the early proclaimers of the Christian message to remove the women from the accounts.

Why of course! THAT’s why Paul did not mention the women in the passage Keller had just cited! Paul succumbed to the pressure to avoid reference of the women being the first witnesses because it would undermine his credibility!

Keller continues:

They felt they could not do so — the records were too well known.

Woops. So Paul was found out? The Corinthian audience laughed when they read his pretence that it was men only who first witnessed Jesus?

But wait. There’s more. And it’s all on the same page.

Keller cites Wright again with the assertion that what really convinced people about the resurrection was not simply the eyewitnesses, nor simply the empty tomb.

If there had been only an empty tomb and no sightings, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection. They would have assumed that the body had been stolen. Yet if there had been only eyewitness sightings of Jesus and no empty tomb, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection, because people’s accounts of seeing departed loved ones happen all the time. Only if the two factors were both true would anyone have concluded that Jesus was raised from the dead.

If only Paul had the hindsight of Wright and Keller! Earlier Keller had remarked on Paul’s reference to the 500 witnesses of the resurrected Jesus.

Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. It was a bold challenge and one that could easily be taken up . . . . Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses didn’t exist.

What chance did he have of persuading the Corinthians of the resurrection if that’s the best he could do? He should also have told them that Jesus was resurrected from an empty tomb and to not only consult the eyewitnesses but also to take a pilgrimage to see the empty cave for themselves. After all, any of the 500 could have been just imagining a vision of their beloved messiah. Even though other accounts say there were no more than 120 loyal followers remaining. Maybe 380 of them had died by the time Luke wrote Acts so that he could not in good conscience include them in his narrative by that stage. 😉

Those were the first three pages I read of this 2008 book of the year. How to break this gently to my friend . . . . 🙁


How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)

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by Neil Godfrey

From Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 144-145 (number formatting is mine):

  1. Even though it is very hard to date the Gospels with precision, most scholars agree on the basic range of dates, for a variety of reasons . . . .
  2. I can say with relative certainty — from his own letters and from Acts — that Paul was writing during the fifties of the common era . . . .
  3. [H]e gives in his own writings absolutely no evidence of knowing about or ever having heard of the existence of any Gospels. From this it can be inferred that the Gospels probably were written after Paul’s day.
  4. It also appears that the Gospel writers know about certain later historical events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 ce . . . That implies that these Gospels were probably written after 70.
  5. There are reasons for thinking Mark was written first, so maybe he wrote around the time of the war with Rome, 70 ce.
  6. If Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source, they must have been composed after Mark’s Gospel circulated for a time outside its own originating community — say, ten or fifteen years later, in 80 to 85 ce.
  7. John seems to be the most theologically developed Gospel, and so it was probably written later still, nearer the end of the first century, around 90 to 95 ce.
  8. These are rough guesses, but most scholars agree on them.

Here we have in a convenient nutshell the basic reasons behind the widely accepted dates for the Gospels. Bart Ehrman explains he is not going into details here, and one can find in the literature more nuanced arguments for relative and other dates assigned to the gospels. But with these dot points we can say we are looking at the trunk of the tree.

Dating Paul

The grounds stated for dating Paul to the 50’s seems reasonable enough. The only problem is that there is no external attestation for Paul’s letters till the second century. Ditto for the book of Acts. It is unknown until Irenaeus cites it in the latter half of the second century. That leaves only the letters of Paul themselves. How certain can we be about a date that relies solely on the self-witness of the documents themselves? Especially when we know that at the time Paul’s letters do appear they are simultaneously embroiled in controversies over forgeries and interpolations. (Marcionites accused “orthodoxy” of interpolating Paul’s letters; the letters themselves warn of forgeries, and many scholars believe the Pastoral letters are forgeries.)

But the point here is that Ehrman does supply the reasons, the evidence, for dating Paul the way most do.

Dating Mark Continue reading “How the Gospels are most commonly dated (and why?)”

The “oral tradition” myth of gospel origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman (BE) in Jesus, Interrupted, summarizes the standard view of how a long period of “oral tradition” preceded the writing of the first gospels. The Gospels of the New Testament, he writes,

were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. (p.144)

So how can they be considered reliable evidence of what Jesus did and said? BE answers:

The first step is to get a better handle on how the Gospel writers got their stories. . . . The short answer is that most Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down.

BE then explains that one thing the historian needs to understand is how the oral traditions about Jesus worked. Here is his take:

How did Christians convert people away from their (mainly) pagan religions to believe in only one God, the God of the Jews, and in Jesus, his son, who died to take away the sins of the world? The only way to convert people was to tell them stories about Jesus: what he said and did, and how he died and was raised from the dead. Once someone converted to the religion and became a member of a Christian church, they, too, would tell the stories. And the people they converted would then tell the stories, as would those whom those people converted. And so it went, a religion spread entirely by word of mouth, in a world of no mass media. . . . This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories.

From Jesus, Interrupted (Bart Ehrman), p.146

There is nothing controversial in this outline. The scenario is outlined in many biblical studies texts. But the scenario does not offer readers who are wishing to inform themselves the background to their gospel sources a truly fair or just account. Indeed, as a synopsis of the pre-gospel era it is as ideological as the Acts of the Apostles or the Apostles Creed. First, we have a description of people converting to a single religion with the God of the Jews at its centre, by means of the spread of stories said to be about that God’s son who died to take away the sins of the world.

Problems: Continue reading “The “oral tradition” myth of gospel origins”


Why so long before the first gospel narrative?

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by Neil Godfrey

The answer I have most commonly heard to this question is that the earliest Christians were too much on edge expecting the return of Jesus any day to be bothered or to see any need to write down the things they supposedly heard Jesus did and said.

But the odd thing about this explanation is that so many scholars like to date the Gospel of Mark as early as 70 c.e., in the midst of the Jewish-Roman war, during the siege of Jerusalem. That is, precisely at the time when the return of Jesus would have been the MOST expected any day or hour.

Some even like to date this first gospel earlier, to the 40’s c.e. when Caligula attempted to have his statue placed in the Jewish temple. Again, one would have expected even more apocalyptic fervour that much sooner after the supposed events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s not as if there were no literates among the converts all those decades. If we take the letters of Paul at face value then we see evidence of a number of individuals with scribal skills.

Given the astonishing deeds and sayings earlier believers attributed to Jesus, it beggars belief that no-one would not have been interested all those decades to be among the first to commit them to writing.


dead links resurrected (in another body of course)

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by Neil Godfrey

my dodo site with all my vridar links is dead (i knew i should have taken more notice of that ‘dodo’ name)

have begun work on restoring these, one by one, to a new domain, http://vridar.info/


dead links

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by Neil Godfrey

Darnit, I just discovered that the website for my links to my old dodo web site (Justin Martyr, Gospel of Peter and comparisons with canonical gospels, archaeology of Israel, Mark and Homer) has died. What to do, what to do . . . . .

Fundamentalist error bedevils the liberals too

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman is certainly one of the most popular of “liberal” biblical scholars, but not even he can escape a logical fallacy that bedevils both the fundamentalist extremities (e.g. see my earlier post on Evans’ criteria) and mainstream of early Christian studies.

In Jesus, Interrupted, he has a section headed Criteria for Establishing the Veracity of Historical Material.

Point 3 in this section is: It is better to cut against the grain.

Here he asks a question without, apparently, grasping the circularity underlying it:

How might we account for traditions of Jesus that clearly do not fit with a “Christian” agenda, that is, that do not promote the views and perspectives of the people telling the stories? Traditions like that would not have been made up by the Christian storytellers, and so they are quite likely to be historically accurate. (p. 154)

This is flawed on multiple grounds. It is the same “logic” or argument that one sees at the root of much fundamentalist rhetoric.

To take just the most obvious level of error in this post, the argument in essence is saying nothing more than, “Since we can’t think of why a Christian author would have said X, he must have written it because it really happened and he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, come what may.”

In other words, there is the presumption of historicity. The argument for historicity is circular.

It’s the same fallacy as N.T. Wright et al use for the resurrection. “The disciples would not have made such and such up, therefore it had to be true.” Or even, “No Christian would make up the story of a man of God being persecuted and betrayed by those closest to him and dying a shameful death (forget Joseph and other biblical characters, the Psalms of David, and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs), and who was so venerated he had to be followed and honoured by all, so it had to be true.”

The specific example Bart Ehrman uses to illustrate his point in fact is probably the best one to demonstrate its logical flaw.

You can see why Christians might want to say that Jesus came from Bethlehem: that was where the son of David was to come from (Micah 5:2). But who would make up a story that the Savior came from Nazareth, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of? This tradition does not advance any Christian agenda. Somewhat ironically, then, it is probably historically accurate. (p.154)

René Salm, and others, have shown that there is a very plausible reason why the town of Nazareth was eventually linked to Jesus. See my previous post on The Nazareth Myth, and of course www.nazarethmyth.info. It was more than likely in order to deflect credibility from Jewish Christian sect(s) with a similar sounding sectarian name that had no geographical association at all. See an old Crosstalk exchange.

All written composition has an agenda of some sort. People write with a purpose, an intention. That is, with an agenda. One cannot write otherwise. The historians’ task is to investigate the agendas of what is written. And if one finds that the agenda is to record certain types of historical facts about Jesus, then we can add those to the history of Jesus and Christianity.

But we expose our lack of imagination, and unscholarly bias, if we presume to know an agenda has to be X simply because it does not fit in with the explanation we have designed and called Y.

(See also the book details for The Nazareth Myth)

cuckoo postscript — a more plausible Josephan “reconstruction”

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by Neil Godfrey

I do not at all think, for reasons given in my previous posts, that Josephus wrote anything about Jesus. But if he had done so, I have fabricated the sort of thing one might expect him to have written, given the themes and interests that he uses to thread his episodes together. My point is to illustrate just how wide of the mark the various “reconstructions” of the TF are, given the context of the TF discussed in my previous two posts.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a mad man, who pretended to perform wonderful works, to persuade the base sort of men who follow their own lusts to despise the customs of their fathers, and teach against Moses and the Temple. For he taught men to disregard the sabbath, and even ransacked a quarter of the Temple to prevent the daily sacrifice. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, resisting the principal men amongst us, refused at first to condemn him to the cross, released, out of spite, a murderer to cause further suffering among the Jews. Though Pilate was eventually persuaded to crucify him, those who thought him to be something at the first did not forsake him, but pretended he had been raised from the dead, and even blasphemously declared this wicked man to be a God and one to be worshipped. And this was the most blasphemous of the mad distempers that arose in our midst, and added to our miseries. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, for they also called him the Christ, infest the earth to this day.

The sections underlined highlight key points that make this fabrication more reliably “Josephan” in theme and purpose, while the underlined section also in italics is a necessary addition given what the real-world experience of Christians would have been towards the end of the first century.

Lest anyone go mad with base distemper over this, and take it as in any way expressing something like a Josephan original, one would need to explain why the contextual passages were so completely excised.

See Posts 1, 2, 3 for details.

Or, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, if you don’t like that “reconstruction” because you prefer a Jesus who observed and taught the law meticulously, I have another:

Continue reading “cuckoo postscript — a more plausible Josephan “reconstruction””


Cuckoo in the nest, 3 — why ALL proposed TFs are unJosephan

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by Neil Godfrey

Back into Josephus and the TF.

I think my original draft really began at the heading Continuing the context of TF in Book 18 below — that is probably the best place to start for continuity with my previous post.

I can scarcely recall where I left off now, and the first part of this post might be repeating some of what I wrote earlier, be disjointed, etc. And feel guilty enough taking the time to even do this post.

Skip down to Continuing the context of TF in Book 18 for my original planned start and better continuity with previous post.

Before resuming the TF’s conflict with the ideological and literary context of the TF in Antiquities, I’ll hit on one point that I have not seen addressed in any of the discussions of this passage.

Continue reading “Cuckoo in the nest, 3 — why ALL proposed TFs are unJosephan”