Refuting “The Reliability of the New Testament (Authorship and Dating)” by Inspiring Philosophy

Motivation

Inspiring Philosophy is a very productive Christian apologist. He has produced a massive amount of videos defending different aspects of the Christian faith. His mission, he claims, is “to build the Apologetic Video Library, which will eventually have a video for every apologetic question out there.”

A little over two years ago he released a video defending the traditional authorship of the Gospels and dating them way earlier than most contemporary scholars do. This blog entry will be a refutation of some of the things in spiring philosophy says and claims in this video.


Historians and God

Inspiring Philosophy likes to demonstrate that Mark must be dated earlier and that the date normally given to Mark by most contemporary scholars (around 70 CE) is way to late. Mark is usually dated around 70 C.E. because it speaks about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

“So since the author of Mark speaks so clearly about this event he must have had prior knowledge of it to be so accurate. I believe this argument is based on a presupposition that Jesus could not have been who he claimed to be.”Inspiring Philosophy

In other words, IP is saying that if Jesus really was the Son of God or even God himself, he could have made an accurate prediction about the destruction of the temple. I, myself, think that Jesus can be best understood as an apocalyptic prophet who was predicting the end of times within his own life time, but this isn’t the most important argument against IP’s claim here. The real problem is that even if Jesus actually was the Son of God or God himself, historians have no way of demonstrating he was. Historians have no access to the super natural realm. If a historian claims that Jesus is God or that he was the Son of God, he or she isn’t making that claim on any historical grounds, he or she is making that claim on theological grounds. Theologians talk about what God does, historians try to figure out what most probably happened or didn’t happen in the past and have no access divine realm, only to our natural world. So whether or not historians think Jesus actually was God or the Son of God is irrelevant because historians have no access to the spiritual world, theologians think they do.


The Dating of the Gospel of Mark

So why is Mark dated around 70 C.E.? Is it only because of the mention of the destruction of the temple? No, not really. There are other pieces of evidence for this dating of Mark. It’s agreed upon that Paul is our earliest Christian writer. His first letter, 1 Thessalonians, is dated around 49/50 C.E. and his last, Romans, is dated around 60 C.E. Paul makes no mention of one of our four Gospels. Bart Ehrman says:

“He (Paul) was widely traveled and knew a lot of Christian communities – certainly all the major ones in major urban areas of his day. And Paul gives no indication that he had ever heard that there were Gospels about Jesus. Maybe he knew of them and just chose to ignore them in his letters, but for a variety of reasons, that seems unlikely. And so it appears that the Gospels were not in circulation yet in the 50s CE.”Bart Ehrman – Ehrmanblog: How Do We Know When the Gospels Were Written?

This means Mark probably wasn’t written anywhere before 60 C.E. Matthew and Luke are usually dated around 80/85 C.E. The reason for thinking they were is that they both appear to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (see for example Matthew 22:7, “burned their city”!; and Luke 21:24) and heavily rely on Mark’s Gospel. So Mark probably was written somewhere between 60 and 80 C.E. and because of it’s mention of the destruction of the temple, scholars date it around 70. C.E. There is debate on whether or not Mark was written before or after the Jewish War, but the vast majority (outside of fundamentalists and very very conservative evangelicals) think the answer is “afterward,” in part because they see the comments of Mark 13 about the Temple (that it will be destroyed) as indicating that Mark was living after the fact.


Markan Priority

Most scholars think Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, but why is that? Sometimes it is argued that Matthew could be the earliest Gospel written and IP likes to be open to the possibility. However, there is clear evidence that Mark was most probably our earliest Gospel.

1. The Sequence of the Narrative:
Matthew and Luke often present the stories of their Gospels in the same sequence. What is odd is that when they do preserve the same sequence, it is almost always with stories that are also found in Mark. The best explanation is that Matthew and Luke each used Mark as one of their sources and also had a different source that the plugged into the narrative framework of Mark at different places. This curiosity of sequence can scarcely be explained if Mark were not one of the sources for Matthew and Luke. For example. If Mark contains the stories A-B-C-D, Matthew for instance inserted his other stories somewhere in between so that his Gospel might look something like: X-A-B-Y-C-D. Luke does the same thing so that it might look like: Q-R-A-B-S-T-C-D. You’ll never find stories A through D from Mark in a different sequence in Matthew and Luke. So the most plausible explanation is that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a template and inserted stories from their other sources.

2. The Length of the Gospel of Mark:
Mark is the shortest Gospel and therefor most probably is the earliest since stories get more and more embellished over time. It would seem very odd if Mark used Matthew as a source and that he would leave out so many good stories. Also, in almost every instance that Mark and Matthew tell the same story, Mark’s version is longer. So this doesn’t seem to be the work of a condenser.

3. Awkward Grammar and Strange Wording:
Sometimes Mark uses a Greek style of writing that is somewhat awkward or not aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes he uses unusual words or phrases and sometimes he presents difficult ideas. In many instances, however, these problems are not found when Matthew or Luke narrates the same stories.This difference suggests that Mark was the earliest of the three synoptic Gospels. It would be difficult to understand why Mark would introduce awkward grammar or a strange words into a passage that originally posed n problem at all.

4. Patterns of Agreement:
Sometimes Matthew and Mark share the same wording of a story when Luke differs, and sometimes Mark and Luke share the same wording when Matthew differs. But rarely do Matthew and Luke share the wording of a story also found in Mark when Mark differs, and when they do agree with each other against mark, it is almost always in very small details.


The External and Internal Evidence That Suggests the Gospels Were Written by the Men Who They Are Credited to

IP goes on to say that:

“There is actually a lot of external and internal evidence that suggests the Gospels were written by the men who they are credited to.”Inspiring Philosophy

He then goes on to set out his argument by showing what the early church fathers said. He quotes Irenaeus, Papias, Tertullian and Clement. But the problem with the early church fathers is the following:

“The striking thing about is that of course none of the Gospels themselves claims to be written by any of those people, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are all anonymous. They authors never mention what their names are. Another interesting thing is that when they get quoted early on, they’re never named. In none of the apostolic fathers, 1st Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, are these books ever named by apostolic names or were even said to be writings of apostles.”Bart Ehrman in debate with Tim McGrew

Also:

“1st Clement quotes Gospels, Ignatius quotes Gospels, Polycarp quotes Gospels, Justin quotes Gospels. They will quote sayings but they’ll never say that it’s from the Gospel of Mark or Matthew etc. Papias doesn’t do that either. It’s not until you get to Irenaeus in the year 180 or 185, that you have any author saying that the Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is the first time that we know that our Gospels go by this name.”Bart Ehrman in debate with Richard Bauckham


IP claims that there is wide attestation of the authors of the Gospels from all over the ancient world, but the problem here is, is that there is no early attestation. Church fathers quote Gospels all the time without saying which Gospel they’re quoting from. It’s not until you get to Irenaeus in 180/185 that we have our first author naming a Gospel he’s quoting from. So we can’t know if the Gospels were called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John early on.


The Problem of Papias

Papias seems to give information about the authorship of Matthew and Luke, but it’s problematic.

“This, too, the elder used to say: Mark who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of his followers, but later as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teaching to the occasion without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard , and to make no misstatement about it.”

“Therefore Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, but each person interpreted them as best he could.”Ecclesiastical History 3.39.14-17

So at first glance it does look like Papias is referring to Mark and Matthew as the authors of their Gospels, but here’s the problem. When it comes to Papias’ reference to Mark there is nothing that suggests we are reading Peter’s version of the story. In fact, there is nothing that would make you think that Mark was based on the teachings of any one person at all. Instead, it derives from oral traditions about Jesus that “Mark” heard after they had been in circulation for some decades. Mark’s Gospel take about two hours to read out loud, should one really think Peter, who was around Jesus day and night, had only two hours worth of material to tell to Mark? It doesn’t seem very plausible.

When it comes to Matthew, there is nothing that suggests Papias is referring to our Matthew. Our Matthew wasn’t written in Hebrew but in Greek. Matthew’s Gospel was based on Mark’s Gospel and the latter definitely was written in Greek, so it’s not very probable to think Matthew was written in Hebrew. Matthew doesn’t solely contain the “logia” (sayings) of Jesus but it also contains information about Jesus’ deeds and experiences. So Papias was probably referring to another Gospel than the Gospel we know today as the Gospel of Matthew.


An Argument From Silence

IP uses an argument from silence when he says:

“We have no other tradition or testimony, which attributes authorship to anyone else. There is no competing tradition”Inspiring Philosophy

As if the mere fact that there is no alternative tradition validates the truthfulness of this one. We can guess why the Gospels were named the way they were, but it’s highly unlikely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually wrote their Gospels. But why is that actually?


The Authors of the Gospels

There are several reasons why we don’t know who wrote the Gospels.

1. It was quite common in those days to write an anonymous narrative:

As E.P. Sanders says (who’s book IP quotes himself in his video):

“We do not know who wrote the Gospels. They presently have headings: “according to Matthew”, “according to Mark”, “according to Luke” and “according to John”. These men – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – really lived, but we do not know that they wrote Gospels. Present evidence indicates that the Gospels remained untitled until the second half of the second century.”E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 63/64)

Also:

“Another option is that the authors did not name themselves because they thought their narratives assumed greater authority if told anonymously. If the Gospel stories about Jesus are claimed by a particular author, then in some sense they seem to lose their universal appeal and applicability; they are seen as one person’s version of the story, rather than “the” version of the story.”Bart Ehrman – Jesus Interrupted (p. 223)

English classicist and historian Robin Lane Fox agrees:

“For many hundreds for years eastern narratives were issued anonymously, whereas books of prophecy, wisdom or poetry were not. Anonymity raised its credit. A nameless narrative seemed like “the” story and could not be attacked from personal bias or ignorance; anonymous authors escape their own errors or lies. ”Robin Lane Fox – The Unauthorised Version: truth and fiction in the Bible. (p. 96)

2. The Literacy Rate In Ancient Roman Palestine Was Very Low:

Another reason why Matthew, Mark, Luke and John probably didn’t write their Gospels is because of the literacy rate in Roman Palestine. Jesus’ earliest followers were all Aramaic speaking lower class Jews from rural Galilee who had no education whatsoever, so it’s highly improbable the could read and write. Let alone compose a book in highly literate Greek. When it comes to John, for instance, the New Testament even acknowledges the fact that John was unschooled:

“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”Acts 4:13

There are several important studies on ancient literacy in Roman Palestine, the most authoritative being “Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine” by Catherine Hezser. In this book she tells us that:

“It is no exaggeration to say that the total literacy rate in the land of Israel at that time (of Jews only of course), was probably less then 3 percent.”  – Catherine Hezser – Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (p. 35)

The people who were literate were mostly upper crust Jewish aristocrats who could afford an education, not lower class Jewish peasants from rural Galilee. Sometimes slaves would learn to read and write so they could function as a scribe for their master but there is no reason to think Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were educated slaves.

The important question one should ask himself is how many writers do we know of in first century Palestine who could write in Greek? There are very little. One of them was Josephus and he was an upper crust aristocratic Jew.

So couldn’t Jesus his earliest followers have spoken Greek and dictated their stories to a scribe who put their names above the narratives? Most likely, no. Although the next segment is about Jesus speaking Greek, it most probably also applies to his earliest followers since they also were lower class uneducated Jews from rural Galilee:

“It is true that Greek was spoken in the major cities of Galilee (all two of them) among the cultured elite. But Jesus was not from a major city and was not a member of the cultured elite. There is no evidence to indicate he ever (EVER!) went to one of the large cities of Galilee (Sepphoris or Tiberius), let alone that he was educated or cultured there, or took language classes at the local high school. Sepphoris is never, ever mentioned in the New Testament. It is not helpful to say that Jesus could / would have walked there from Nazareth. Most lower class rural people then (and now, for that matter, although things are much better since they invented bicycles, motorcycles, trains, and cars) did not travel *at all*. If someone was a common laborer, he worked six days a week. And he had no money for travel. And the one day a week that he could travel, if he was a Jew, because he did not have to work, he could not travel, because it was the Sabbath.

In Nazareth Jesus would have had zero reason to learn Greek, and probably no way to learn Greek. Rural Galilee was completely Jewish (culturally) and thoroughly Aramaic (linguistically). Even when Jesus was an adult, there is no reference to him visiting a major city (until he goes to Jerusalem at the end of his life), or speaking Greek, or knowing Greek. He was a rural Jew in the Jewish hinterlands of Galilee. He almost certainly could not speak Greek.” Bart Ehrman – Ehrmanblog: Did Jesus Speak Greek (www.ehrmanblog.com)

So couldn’t they have learned Greek after Jesus had died? It is a possibility, but not very probable given what I have written earlier. Also, there is no historical evidence that supports this claim. Again I would like to refer to Josephus. He mentioned something of importance when it comes to speaking Greek in first century Roman Palestine:

“My compatriots admit that in our Jewish learning (par” hëmin paideian) I far excel them. But I labored hard to steep myself in Greek prose [and poetic learn- ing], after having gained a knowledge of Greek grammar; but the constant use of my native tongue (patrios . . . synëtheia) hindered my achieving precision in pronunciation. For our people do not welcome those who have mastered the speech of many nations or adorn their style with smoothness of diction, because they consider that such skill is not only common to ordinary freemen but that even slaves acquire it, if they so choose. Rather, they give credit for wisdom to those who acquire an exact knowledge of the Law and can interpret the Holy Scriptures. Consequently, though many have laboriously undertaken this study, scarcely two or three have succeeded (in it) and reaped the fruit of their labors”Josephus – Antiquities of the Jews 20 (p. 263)

Not only does Josephus, a Jewish upper crust aristocrat nonetheless, admit that he had trouble writing in Greek, he also tells us that knowing the Jewish Law was far more important to the Jews than learning the Greek language. So couldn’t Matthew, Mark, Luke and John really haven’t written their Gospels? No, and I’ll explain why as a final point.


Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: Not the Authors

1. The Gospel of Matthew:

Matthew is traditionally seen as a tax collector and sometimes it is said that because of his occupation he was able to read and write Greek. However, we don’t know how far up the tax organisation Matthew was. He most probably was the kind of guy who came banging on your door telling you to pay up. So very little writing skills were required for this job and the skills that might have been necessary weren’t sufficient to be able to write a book in highly literate Greek with Greek rhetorical flourishes. Like I’ve said before, the vast majority, some 97% , was illiterate and there is no reason to think Matthew was one of the elite in Roman Palestine who could read and write.

That Matthew as a tax collector must have been literate in order to do his job is simply an assertion. There is no evidence presuming tax collectors were highly literate in those days. Presumably they could recognize currency, count, and add. But these skills are not indicative of the ability to read, let alone the ability to compose a very large narrative in a foreign language. There are plenty of illiterate people in America who can recognize a twenty-dollar bill when they see it or give change for a fiver.

Bart Ehrman tells us the following about the tax collecting business in Roman Palestine in those days:

“In ancient Roman society there were tax collectors and there were tax collectors. Taxes were raised in the provinces by tax corporations who bid for the job. They agreed to provide X amount of money to Rome, and anything they raised above that amount was their profit. The higher ups in this corporate business may well have been literate. But they hired people below them as managers, and people below them actually were the ones who banged on doors to get the funds. Nothing in the account in Matthew 9 indicates that Matthew was one of the higher ups. My guess is that he was the one who banged on doors. And so what evidence does Matthew 9 give us that Matthew was literate? No evidence, either way. It doesn’t indicate that Matthew was educated, or literate, or a cultural elite, or an urban sophisticate. It simply says that he was a tax collector.” Ehrmanblog: Was the author of Matthew Matthew? (www.ehrmanblog.com)

So why was the Gospel of Matthew attributed to Matthew? Well, there is no real particular reason that Matthew’s Gospel was assigned to the tax collector. There is absolutely nothing in the text of Matthew’s Gospel itself that associates it with this particular disciple. Read the account of his “call” in Matthew 9 for yourself. The author does not indicate that he is telling a story about himself. The most probable reason that the Gospels got attributed to Matthew is because he was one of Jesus’ earliest followers and it therefore held some kind of authority.

2. The Gospel of Mark:

Mark was somewhat of an household name in early Christianity. He gets mentioned in Acts 12 & 15, Philemon 24, Collosians 4:10, 2 Timothy 4:11 & 1 Peter 5:13 for instance. So ascribing a book to his name wasn’t that strange.

The tradition is that Mark was Peter’s personal secretary. But there is nothing in the text of Mark that would make you think it is Peter’s version of the story. And again, should we really believe Mark only wrote down this little information? Remember, it takes only about two hours to read the Gospel of Mark out loud. That’s very little information for someone who was supposed to be Peter’s personal secretary.

Mark was a companion of one of the two apostles thought to be co-founders of the church in Rome, namely Peter and Paul. So it’s not that strange that it this Gospels was attributed to him. Especially when a Gospel of Peter had been going round at the same time.

3. The Gospel of Luke:

The author of Luke and Acts are most probably one and the same person. Traditionally Luke is seen as the gentile physician and the traveling companion of Paul, but this is a dubious claim. The claim is derived from the mention of Luke in the book of Colossians, but Paul almost certainly did not write Colossians. Paul does mention a companion named Luke in the book of Philemon, but he does not say anything at all about him.

Most of the evidence that Luke wasn’t the author of Luke and Acts comes from the book of Acts. The most important evidence is that there are to many theological discrepancies between “Luke’s” presentation of Paul’s theology and Paul’s actual theology from his authentic letters. Bart Ehrman says:

“Paul’s theology and preaching differ between Acts and the letters. Other differences are in Paul’s attitude towards pagans, his relationship to the Jewish law, his missionary strategy, and this itinerary. At just about every point where is is possible to check what Acts says about Paul with what Paul says about himself in his authentic letters, there are discrepancies. The conclusion is hard to escape that Acts was probably not written by one of Paul’s travelling companions”Bart Ehrman – Forged (p. 208)

So whoever wrote Luke and Acts, he sure wasn’t Paul travel companion.

4. The Gospel of John:

So that brings us to the final Gospel, the Gospel of John. A lot of the same objections to Matthew having written his Gospel apply for John. Acts 4:13 clearly states John was unschooled. John was a fisherman from rural Galilee and they were almost certainly illiterate. There were no schools were he lived so he never would have learned to read. Let alone learned to write (since reading and writing were separate skills in the Ancient World). Let alone learned to write in Greek. Let alone learned to write sophisticated, philosophically informed prose narratives in Greek. Is it probable John learned to read and write in Greek after Jesus died? It is a possibility but not a very probable. And as I’ve said before, there is no evidence to suggest John did learn to read and write after Jesus died.

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