Mea Culpa! I committed an error in my Review of “Making the Case for Christianity”

Dear Readers, it is painful to admit when you are wrong, but it is the honest thing to do.  In my recent review of the LCMS Lutheran publication, “Making the Case for Christianity” by authors Korey Maas, Adam Francisco, John Bombaro, and others, I stated that author Mark Pierson, in chapter two of this book, claims that “the consensus of NT scholarship is that eyewitnesses [or their close associates] wrote the Gospels”.

This is in fact false.  This error was pointed out to me by Dr. Korey Maas, one of the principle authors of this book.  Below is a copy of my response to Dr. Maas:

 

Primary sources: the raw material of historical research – they are the documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation. Often they are created during the time period which is being studied (correspondence, diaries, newspapers, government documents, art) but they can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories).

December 20, 2016

 Dear Dr. Maas,

Thank you very much for responding to my review of your book, “Making the Case for Christianity”. In regards to the first chapter, I do understand that Mr. Pagan was not attempting to go into detail in providing evidence for the existence of the Hebrew deity, Yahweh. His goal was only to provide evidence for the existence of a Creator God. But that is the problem. If the title of your book were, “Making the Case for Theism” then Mr. Pagan’s arguments would be adequate. However, if one wants to “Make the Case for Christianity” one must prove the existence of the Christian god, Yahweh. The case for the existence of Yahweh is weak to non-existent in your book.

I want to express a “mea culpa”: I am guilty of mischaracterizing the position of your co-author, Mark Pierson. Mr. Pierson did not state in his chapter that the consensus of scholars favors the position that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. In fact, as you point out, on page thirty-six Mr. Pierson states the exact opposite: the scholarly consensus does not favor the historicity of the traditional Christian claims about Jesus. I apologize for this mischaracterization of Mr. Pierson’s position and I intend to send him a personal letter of apology.

That said, I still believe that your book misleads the lay reader regarding the historical reliability of the four Gospels. Upon re-reading the second and third chapters of your book, it is Mr. Parton, in chapter three, and not Mr. Pierson in chapter two, who I believe bears the primary responsibility for this misrepresentation of the strength of the evidence for traditional Christian claims, specifically, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Let me explain:

In chapter three, Mr. Parton presents a hypothetical legal case which he believes proves that “the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is as solid as any fact in the ancient world”, p. 89.   Wow. The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is just as solid as the evidence for Alexander the Great’s destruction of Tyre?   Just as solid as the evidence for the destruction of Carthage by the Romans? Just as solid as the evidence for General Titus’ destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem? If so, it is very odd that these three events are listed as historical facts in every university world history textbook. Yet, how many university world history textbooks mention the Resurrection as an historical event? Any?? Yet, Mr. Parton tells lay Christian readers that the evidence for the Resurrection is as “solid” as the evidence for any event in the ancient world. This is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Why not mention in this chapter that the majority of experts (historians) do not share this view? Mr. Parton is speaking as an authority (a legal authority). He makes a claim of fact, when it is really, at best the opinion of a small minority of experts, at worst, it is simply his personal opinion.

Mr. Parton gives us on pages 70-71 the “basic pillars” of a trial: 1.) Trials are built on evidence. 2.) A trial requires that the lawyers assume the least and prove the most. 3.) The primary interests of a trial, facts and evidence, are necessarily probabilistic in nature. …absolute certainty is not possible in the realm of empirical fact.

On page 74, Mr. Parton gives his “opening statement”: “We will establish that the case for the central claim of Christianity is established “beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty.”

Then Mr. Parton presents his case (and his evidence) on page 78: “The assertion of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is, of course, presented in the New Testament materials. Elsewhere in this volume the case for the total reliability of those primary source documents has been made so need not be repeated here. Trial lawyers have also made the case for the reliability of the canonical gospels as primary source documents, and the solidity of those materials (i.e., what we have is what the writers wrote and that they had every means, motive, and opportunity to get the facts right) is simply beyond serious dispute.”

Objection, Your Honor! Before the court accepts, as fact, Mr. Parton’s claim that the scholarship presented by Mr. Pierson in chapter two of “Making the Case for Christianity” is sufficient evidence for “the total reliability of the Gospels” as primary source documents, I believe that it is only proper that the jury hear the evidence against this claim.

I call to the witness stand, NT Wright, world renowned conservative Christian New Testament scholar, who will state for the record, “I have no idea who wrote the Gospels, nor does anyone else.” NT Wright’s position is the consensus position of New Testament scholars, your Honor. I can provide numerous respected sources (including Mr. Pierson!) who state that the majority of experts on this subject do not view the four Gospels as primary source documents. Mr. Parton’s case is therefore based on a (small) minority expert opinion.

How in the world can Mr. Parton hope to win his case when the majority of experts do not believe that the documents from which the details of this alleged event (the Resurrection) are derived are primary source documents?

Mr. Parton will probably respond that he is under no obligation as an attorney in a trial to provide evidence against his position. But is the overall purpose of “Making the Case for Christianity” to win a court case or to provide the truth to lay Christians? Maybe it is a brilliant legal strategy to over-state the strength of the evidence for your position, but in a book used for Christian apologetics, written for lay Christian readers, I assert that it is misleading and dishonest.

And what about Mr. Parton’s use of John Warwick Montgomery’s statement:   “To express skepticism concerning the resultant text of the New Testament books…is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as is the New Testament.” Yes it is true that down in the footnotes, Mr. Parton explains that by “bibliographical” he is not inferring the attestation of authorship, only that the copies of the Gospels most probably accurately reflect the original documents. I am therefore guilty of not correctly understanding the statement in the footnote (or maybe I didn’t read it). But why not explain this in the text itself instead of in a footnote? Why not explain in clear language to the lay readers of this book that, yes, we have excellent copies of the Gospels, and we have thousands of them, which infers that the scribes copying the originals did a very good job and because of this, we can be reasonably certain that the copies are accurate representations of the originals. But…this in NO WAY ensures that the originals were accurate in every statement of fact! Just because we have thousands of copies of the original “Peter Pan” does not mean that the fact claims in the original fairy tale are true. This point should have been made very clearly in the body of the text, not buried down in the footnotes. This book was not written for scholars, it was written for lay readers.

Isn’t it entirely possible that there are claims of fact in the Gospels that not even the authors intended to be understood as historical facts? Even conservative, evangelical scholar, Mike Licona, believes that this is a possibility. He has suggested that “Matthew’s” story about dead saints being jolted out of their graves and brought back to life on the Day of the Crucifixion is not historical but a theological embellishment. There are many scholars who believe that “Matthew’s” story of the Massacre of the Innocents of Bethlehem is a theological embellishment. And the same is true of “Matthew’s” story of guards at the tomb. So isn’t it possible that other statements of fact in the Gospels were never meant to be taken literally as historical events, but were included for theological purposes? So maybe even the Empty Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea Story is a theological embellishment.

“But there were eyewitnesses alive at the time of the writing of the Gospel of Mark who would have rejected this story as fiction if it were not historical!” you will reply.

First, you have no good evidence other than Church Tradition and vague statements by the mystic Papias that any eyewitness to the death and alleged resurrection of Jesus was alive in circa 70 AD when most scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written. Secondly, if there were eyewitness, how do you know that they were available to “proof-read” these texts? And third, if eyewitnesses were alive and did have the opportunity to read these texts, maybe a few theological embellishments to the story would not have been a problem for them; it was the message, the Good News of salvation by faith in Jesus the Christ, that mattered, not the historical accuracy of every pericope.

The “case” for the claims of traditional Christianity are poor, my friends. I believe your book vastly overstates the strength of your minority position and misleads lay readers. Mr. Pierson, in chapter two, suggests that there is good evidence that the Book of Acts was written prior to Paul’s death in circa 65 CE, and therefore the Gospel of Luke was written even earlier and therefore the Gospel of Mark even earlier than that! Only the very fringe of (mostly fundamentalist evangelical) scholars holds these views regarding the dating of the Gospels!

Mr. Pierson goes on to state that “around AD 80, while eyewitnesses of Jesus were still living and teaching, Papias, after making careful inquiries and relying on oral testimony, noted that Peter’s oral preaching was recorded by Mark, and that Matthew himself also composed a work about Jesus. This is not mere rumor, nor is it likely that Papias gullibly accepted a tradition that “had been made up”, as [Bart] Ehrman suggests” “ p. 55-56. Most historians believe that Papias was born in circa 70 CE. Mr. Pierson either wants us to believe that the majority of historians are wrong on the date of birth of Papias, or, he is asking us to believe that the recollections and scribblings of a TEN year old should be regarded as “careful inquiries” and reliable enough evidence to be used as the bulk of the evidence for the conservative Christian claim for the traditional authorship of the Gospels.

This is the problem with the evidence for the claims of traditional Christianity: There are so many individual assumptions, conjecture, and stretching of the historical facts, all pasted together to keep this house of cards intact.

So why did I read your book? I read your book because my former pastor, John Bombaro, one of your co-authors, published an article in the church newsletter earlier this year which stated the following: “Prima facie a strong case could be made for the fact that much of the New Testament, including the Gospels and the sources behind them, was written by eyewitnesses.” When I criticized this statement on my blog, Dr. Bombaro contacted me and told me that I had not read enough scholarship to challenge his statement. He gave me a list of books to read. “Making the Case for Christianity” was at the top of his list. So I read it. I read it but was disappointed that it regurgitates much of the same fringe fundamentalist claims regarding scholarship that I could read in a book published by fundamentalist Baptists.

I may have been incorrect to suggest that your book is based on “out-of-date” scholarship, but it is based on fringe scholarship. Your lay readers deserve better, Dr. Maas.

Respectfully,

Gary Matson, Jr., Author, Escaping Christian Fundamentalism

Web address: www.LutherWasNotBornAgain.com

 

Cc: John Bombaro

Adam Francisco

Angus Menuge

Joshua Pagan

Craig Parton

Mark Pierson

 

 

 

 

 

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