Questions for James McGrath: Seeking Understanding

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor James McGrath of Butler University recently posted on his blog a tantalising article, The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels). I describe it as tantalising because it seemed to promise so much but left readers without answers to the questions it raised.

The post began:

One of the things that mythicists regularly mention is the (in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest copies of texts that mention them.

Yes, that is true. But it is also true that the very same question is raised by many more mainstream biblical scholars. And they suggest different hypotheses to explain that “(in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest . . . texts that mention them.” (I don’t know of any mythicist — and I am sure McGrath knows of none — who argues a case that Jesus did not exist because we have a large gap between purported events and the earliest manuscript copies describing those events. It’s a big world and there are probably some who do argue that but I don’t think they are any more widely accepted than someone who argues for the non-existence of Priam, Agamemnon, Achilles etc on the bases that our earliest manuscripts of Homer are many centuries subsequent to their time.)

But back to the point. Mythicists like Earl Doherty and Thomas Brodie and others do indeed “regularly mention” the gap between events described in the gospels and the apparent fact that the gospels were not written until a generation or two after those events — but they do so by addressing the problem as raised by mainstream biblical scholars. McGrath has read Doherty’s book so only needs to consult its index and bibliography to refresh his memory.

But McGrath’s point is bigger. All of the above is only pointing out the tendentious nature of McGrath’s approach to the question.

The next question is most interesting and one I hoped to see answered:

They clearly have no sense of what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally.

Now that reminds me of a time some years back when I grappled with “How do we know certain persons/events existed/happened” in ancient times? I had studied ancient history for three years as an undergraduate and knew how we knew what we did about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, for example. Books and lectures would usually begin by setting out and explaining the sources our studies were to rely upon. With the presentation of those sources there was no question, “Did Julius Caesar exist?” We could all see the evidence and the question never arose.

So what is different about the gospels as sources for Jesus?

When McGrath raised the question of “what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally” I was looking forward to at least a summary to explain what that typical thing is. But it never appeared. I suspect the reader is meant to assume that all ancient sources are written long after the events they describe and, well, if we believe them, then we should believe the gospels, too.

But if that was what the reader was meant to assume then the message is a misinformed one.

So here are questions I would like someone to present to Professor McGrath to offer him a chance to encourage serious dialogue. Perhaps his responses could be copied here in the comments.

  • Question 1: What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which our known sources are entirely very late (by a full generation of forty years or more)? By sources, I include here the sources mentioned by the later authors: thus, for example, we have, say, a very late history of Alexander the Great but the author of that source explains how he acquired his information and that it comes from such and such a biographer who lived at the time of Alexander. (The gospels have nothing comparable: Luke’s prologue is as vague and ambiguous as ancient historian prologues are specific and clear.)
  • Question 2: And this is a slightly extended form of the above question. What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which we have no independent evidence to help verify our written sources? By independent supporting evidence, I include here not only archaeological evidence but also other writings that are independent yet testifying to the same event/person.

There are many other questions I could ask but those are the key ones. I have discussed the above points — and many other related questions — about historical methods, in particular the methods of ancient historians and about the writings of ancient historians themselves in many posts. I have also raised the above questions before, but years ago, directly with McGrath. (Just click on the tags related to this post for scores of such posts.)

Maybe add one more question here:

  • Question 3: What are the different explanations biblical scholars have advanced in scholarly works for the gap of 40 to 80 years between the canonical gospels and the time setting of the events they narrate — and in what area of ancient history are there comparable gaps (bearing in mind the relevance of Q’s 1 and 2 above) for which classicists and historians of ancient times propose similar explanatory hypotheses? Or are the canonical gospels in some ways unique and not comparable to the methods normally accepted in the field of ancient history?

Now I certainly admit that some answers may be new to me and I may be forced to revise or at least modify my past conclusions. But I need clear examples to demonstrate the comparability between the generally accepted methods of historians of ancient times and those of biblical scholars. Looking forward to new knowledge and understanding.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Questions for James McGrath: Seeking Understanding”

  1. I think a better question to ask is, “why would a literate group (Greek writers) write many years later about an obscure Jewish guy, who was a rather strange loner, that hung around with a bunch of misfits, and eventually was crucified?”
    The religious aspects, I think, are a bunch of bunk! That is, I very much doubt that they cared about an obscure guy like Jesus because he talked about “love one another, care about the poor, etc, etc”. I doubt if that was really part of the historic Jesus. Considering the violence of the time, and the typical apocalyptic crazy people wandering around the wilderness (guys like John the Baptist), there wasn’t much love and brotherhood floating around.

    I think the only reason writers picked up on the Jesus story was because of the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, along with the destruction of Jerusalem. If that had not happened, Jesus would have faded into history as a nobody. The writers just used his prediction of the temple destruction as a good excuse to justify a very small group of left-over religious extremists from 40 years earlier.

    Ok, just an opinion. But I’d like to see how others think about it. Basis: the only real historical event in the gospels, I think, is a temple destruction scenario, present in multiple gospels.

  2. I don’t think that any of the Bible was addressed to us today…. It had to do with events in the the early centuries regarding polemics between fighting Jewish sects over who was and what he did (if he existed…but the story says he did…hard to know exactly what he said.but the texts are about the death and restoration/resurrection of Israel..

    In order for one to think that the contexts and content of the Bible have anything to do with us today one has to adopt as authoritative every single text in the OT and NT and try to shoe-horn it into modern contexts where so called scholars and pastors have made a mess of it,Jespeciall the apologists! eg. Frank Turek…can’t call him Dr. // He should go back to being a marine..and leave the Bible alone or he should get educated in history, bible and a whole lot more.. I am appalled at the way texts are interpreted as saying they are about us…stupid futuristic hermeneutics in particular…

    All of these texts are time bound and time sensitive (except perhaps for some of the perenial wisdom found in them from time to time… and these texts are also context and content sensitive as well….

    It is no easy task to try to bring the bible over into the modern world today..I would recommend readers to start reading a lot of James Barr’s works re this matter…I am glad I took homiletics from a now dead NT scholar (Dr. Grant Osborne) and saved my congregations and both undergraduate and graduate students from making a mess out of the Bible,,, history etc.

    I am free from fear and a whole lot more since I came to the conclusion that the Bible was written to me… But still as an independent student and scholar of these texts for close to five decades now I still “love” the Bible. It is just damn interesting and enlightening for lots of reasons I will not mention here….

    When I get my utube channel or website going called A.S.I.S (Ancient Scriptures Investigation Services.. I am going to deal with the Bankruptcy of Biblical Apologetics and Apologists! For eg. when I deal with Turek and his book Stealing from God… a piece of textual, philosophical , theological , literary,, apologetic garbage posing as scholarship I am going to show many that Romans 1 which he claims applies to us today and every human on earth is so stupid and contextually wrong… the ones who knew God are the early Israelites and he showed them his glory and they “knew’ God, not us.

    Moreover, Jesus said “no one knows God except the son and no one knows the son except the father… But idiotic apologists like Turek, et al think the passage doesnt apply to them!!!
    Bunch of biblical hermeneutic hypocrites…!

    And McGrath is more sophisticated than Turek but still serves up a lot of scriptural, historical, and theological slop!

    The texts not having us moderns in mind has incredible implications at many levels. It will shake you to the core when you realize that it was not written to you or me…only and mainly to Jews in the OT and NT… pretty clear to me without having to get into a lot of hermeneutical, exegetical , historical, theological, etc gymnastics!

    I haven’t posted for a while but this might sum up some of sentiments these days as I turn 65 soon and still living hard in the realm of free-thought virtues and attitudes towards all these things.

    btw Gary , some of your comments have more than an ounce of truth in them! Thanks!

    Yes, everyone has a right to their own opinion but not everyone has the right to their own facts! That’s the fact Jack! No attack on you Gary , just piggy backing a bit in order to rant since I find much of these issues so frustrating. “God” is such a lousy communicator and he simply creates more confusion as the years go on and we all get more sophisticated about all these things…

  3. Just a correction I need to make since that word not can easily be left out…

    “I am free from fear and a whole lot more since I came to the conclusion that the Bible was written to me”… What I intended to say “the Bible was not written to me”

    And it was no Freudian slip… My response to these ancient texts is very different from both Christians and non-Christians who want to redo what those texts are saying and no holy spirit or otherwise can change the functions, meanings, and uses of those texts in their original context…

    But you have to adopt the Bible as authoritative to preserve your own in the modern world. I no longer adopt it as such…why,. because no one can prove it was written to me or you today or even after it was codified and canonized in the 4th century.

    1. Martin, glad you posted about leaving out the “not.” After I read that I thought I need to reread his comments. 🙂 And thanks for the “Yes, everyone has a right to their own opinion but not everyone has the right to their own facts!” I’ll definitely be useing that while arguing with my Christian friends.

  4. I think the key question is “Why were the gospels (and Acts) written?” We now know with some certainty that “the gospel of Mark” was first and that the next two copies extensively from it. We know that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are fictional, so why were those written? Why was much of Mark copied. Were they riding the coat tales of Mark? Was Mark so respected that having a good chunk of it inside the others lent credibility to the others?

    What is the purpose of the writing of the gospels (and Acts)? Were they trying to reshape the religion being formed? Were they trying to create a religion? Would there have been a religion without the Gospels? Or would it have died out as an otherwise obscure Jewish sect (like so many others)?

    I want to thank Vridar and wish all of those involved a happy and prosperous new year! Much of what I read is thought provokingly good!

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