Last month, Michael Horton interviewed me concerning the reliability of the text of the New Testament. The radio show aired today, 12 May 2013. Here’s the link: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2013/05/12/whi-1153-has-jesus-been-misquoted/
Katherine Weber of the Christian Post asked me some questions this week about the recent revelation that the Gospel of Judas had been authenticated by a number of means. See http://science.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/08/17656331-scholars-reveal-how-they-scrambled-to-authenticate-gospel-of-judas for the news report, and http://www.christianpost.com/news/gospel-of-judas-free-of-forgeries-but-still-fake-heretical-says-new-testament-scholar-93781/ for Katherine’s article (published 11 April 2013).
Below are her questions and my responses. This will also be published in the Christian Post later this week.
1) What are your thoughts on the authenticity of the Gospel of Judas? Is ink testing and comparison, in your opinion, an adequate method of determining the validity of an ancient text?
Paleography—the discipline of analyzing, deciphering, and dating ancient manuscripts—is little known outside of specialized circles. Traditionally, scholars especially use handwriting analysis to date manuscripts. Handwriting changes over time, and ancient Greek papyri, of which there are hundreds of thousands still in existence, give us plenty of illustrations of these changes. Actual dated papyri give us concrete evidence for when a particular style of writing was used. Of course, the manuscripts do not use our modern dating system. Instead, they are indexed to the reigns of the Caesars, mention a known person in an official capacity whose dates are known, or speak of astronomical events. For example, a petition to a government official written in “the 25th year of Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Caesar” was penned in AD 216. By such fixed dates on some of the papyri, scholars can fix the patterns of handwriting of other papyri to a range of dates. On such undated papyri, the range can be as short as fifty years.
But Coptic manuscripts are notoriously difficult to date because the handwriting was more stable than Greek manuscripts. Pinpointing the date to within one hundred years is difficult, if not impossible, in most cases. Ink analysis is important because of the shifts in ancient technology and methods that can be located in time. Radiocarbon dating is not usually used on ancient manuscripts because, until recently, it necessarily destroyed part of the document being analyzed. Apparently, radiocarbon dating was used on the Gospel of Judas, however. (There is a relatively new method for dating manuscripts that is non-destructive. I did not see any discussion of this in the report. Developed by Dr. Marvin Rowe of Texas A & M University and his doctoral assistant, Professor Karen Steelman, the method uses a plasma chamber that does not damage the artifact. See Marvin W. Rowe and Karen L. Steelman, “Non-destructive 14C Dating: Plasma-Chemistry and Supercritical Fluid Extraction,” March 2010, ACS National Meeting 2010. So it would indeed have been possible to get a relatively firm date on this fragment without destroying any text.) One problem with all kinds of radiocarbon dating, however, is that this too cannot give a precise date. Depending on the age of the artifact, the range can vary widely.
The recent revelations by Joseph Barabe indicate a date of “approximately A.D. 280,” but this seems to be more precise than the technology would suggest. Most likely, the confluence of ink analysis and radiocarbon dating have both legitimately authenticated this codex and fixed the date to the late third to early fourth century.
2) What criticisms do you have of the Gospel of Judas’ authenticity?
It is important to distinguish two concepts regarding its authenticity. First, there is the issue of whether this document is a modern forgery or a bona fide ancient text. The evidence seems to be quite strong that this is the latter. Second, when we hear the word ‘authentic’ regarding an early sub-Christian writing it is natural to conclude that authentic = true as regards the historicity of the Christian faith. This is not the case in this instance. All that is being claimed is that the manuscript really was produced in the late third century.
3) If it became a fact that the Gospel of Judas were real, how would this change the study of the New Testament?
Most likely, the original Gospel of Judas was written in the second half of the second century. Irenaeus, writing in about AD 180, condemned a gospel by this name as a fake, and described its contents as revealing that Judas “alone, who knew the truth as no one else did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal” of Jesus. This fits well with the contents of the codex, in which Jesus praises Judas as the one who will set his spirit free from the bonds of his physical body. This is vintage Gnosticism, which made a hard distinction between the spiritual and material world, branding the one good and the other bad. But does this mean that there is any historical truth to the Gospel of Judas, that it actually tells us the real story about the relation of Jesus to Judas? Hardly. Not a single scholar thinks that this conversation has any historical credibility. Irenaeus was right: this is a fake gospel which promotes a heretical idea about Jesus of Nazareth. The discovery and authentication of the Judas codex does nothing to disturb that assessment.
News on the Christian Renaissance Apologia Conference coming up on April 12–13:
I’ve mentioned this apologetics conference a couple of times on this site, but I thought I’d give a lot more information on it this go-around.
First, a word about Christian Renaissance. This is a new concept in apologetics. In fact, it’s much more than apologetics. In odd-numbered years, the Christian Renaissance will be hosting an apologetics conference (called Apologia); in even-numbered years CR will be hosting a right-brain creativity conference/session/get-away/whatever. That’s called Poiema.
What makes Christian Renaissance new are two things.
First, it’s apologetics geared toward the postmodern world. Without sacrificing the important content that modernist apologetics has contributed, CR wants to build on thats but also go in a slightly different direction. CR recognizes that we are firmly entrenched (as much as can be) in a postmodern world. This means that the worldviews of people in Europe and America especially focus on authenticity more than truth, a holistic view of humanity as opposed to a view that elevates the mind above all else, a strong desire for community including community service, social justice more than proclamation of truth, a relativistic view of truth, ambiguity and uncertainty over neatly packaged and dogmatic claims. There is much in postmodernism that should resonate with Christians; there are some things that should not. Postmoderns seek community but tend to have little clue how to accomplish it. Postmoderns tend to view all truth as relative. And although evangelicals cannot hold to this, we should recognize that even absolute truth is not always accessible absolutely. This means that a measure of humility (rather than triumphalism) will be a key characteristic of these conferences. Christian Renaissance: Apologia is intended to showcase top-notch scholars, front-line thinkers in their fields, who also know how to communicate well. They are not the sorts of people who shy away from the tough questions, but recognize that evangelical Christianity has some answers, but by no means has all the answers. They are not dogmatic where dogma is not warranted. And they recognize that the question people are asking about the Christian faith today is not so much, Is it true? as much as Does it work?
Second, Christian Renaissance has a non-apologetics component known as Poiema. Poiema is the Greek word for poem or creation (with the accent on the truly imaginative aspects of creation). Christian Renaissance: Poiema, the even-yeared conference/symposium/??, focuses on the right-brain thinkers, the artisans, artists, actors, writers, littérateurs, creative problem-solvers, musicians, and the like. Those who will launch the inaugural event in 2014 have been given a tabula rasa: they can do anything that they see as that which helps to bring prominence back to those who are right-brainers, those who have been slowly disenfranchised in the American evangelical church. These two branches of Christian Renaissance unite the left-brain and right-brain thinkers in a way that has not been done in a long, long time. Stay tuned!
Now, back to the inaugural Christian Renaissance: Apologia Conference. The speakers are well-respected scholars (not just apologists) who are doing cutting-edge work in their respective disciplines. All of them have published extensively in academic spheres. Their work is peer-reviewed by the best scholars in their guild. And they all are excellent speakers who know how to communicate with people who have little to no theological training.
The theme of this inaugural conference is “Skeptics and the Savior: Did the Word Really Become Flesh?” The evidence for the person of Jesus Christ, accenting his divine nature, will be examined from Qumran to Constantine. The lectures and lecturers are as follows:
Darrell Bock: The Gospels: Recording before There Was Recording
Craig Evans: The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christology
Gary Habermas: A Resurrection Time-Line: Linking our Earliest Sources to the Earliest Witnesses
Daniel B. Wallace: Did Constantine Invent the Deity of Christ?
The conference kicks off at 7 PM on Friday, April 12, at the Hope Center (2001 West Plano Parkway) in Plano, Texas. Wallace will give the opening lecture, with time for Q&A afterwards. Snacks will be provided that evening. There will be TWO book-signings. Saturday morning a continental breakfast will be served, and the conference will begin at 9 AM. A delicious catered lunch will be provided, too. The conference on Saturday will include the other three speakers, with Q&A for each of them. Michael Patton of Credo House will be the emcee. Throughout the conference, attendees will be able to send in their questions (probably by cell phone text), and a panel discussion in which these questions are aired will conclude the conference. It gets over at 4 PM on Saturday.
But that’s not all! There will be a special and spectacular dinner with the scholars Saturday evening for those who wish to rub shoulders with them in a more intimate setting. We will be meeting at Chamberlain’s Steak House in Dallas–one of the finest steak houses in the Metroplex. I can’t tell you all that will be involved in this, but I can tell you that it will be well worth it. The meal is partially subsidized.
What does all this cost? And when do you need to sign up? For the conference proper, the tickets are $55 for an adult and $40 for students. The dinner on Saturday night is separate. That’s $100, and worth it! Room for only 60 people. Visit http://www.renaissanceconference.com for more info and to buy tickets. Tickets will be on sale through Wednesday, April 10. Because the caterers need to know how many meals to prepare, it’s best to sign up early. Seating is limited (especially at the Scholars Dinner), so reserve your place now and be a part of this historic event!
Do not miss this conference! It is going to be an amazing time, and tickets are going fast. Reserve your seat while you can. Also, if you are interested there will be a special Scholars’ Dinner at Chamberlain’s Steak and Chop House, for an evening of wonderful conversation and amazing food. If you are interested in the dinner, please contact Dana Cooper to reserve your dinner tickets.
Just released from the giant publishing firm, Houghton Miflin Harcourt: A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts, edited by Hal Taussig.
The advertisement from HMH distributed widely via email last week was not shy in its claims for the 600-page volume. The subject line read, “It is time for a new New Testament.” In the email blast are strong endorsements by Marcus Borg, Karen King, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Borg and King, like Taussig, were members of the Jesus Seminar (a group headed up by the late Robert W. Funk, which determined which words and deeds of Jesus recorded in the Gospels were authentic). King and Taylor are on the Council for A New New Testament. All of them share a viewpoint which seems to be decidedly outside that of the historic Christian faith, regardless of whether it is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant.
The New Books
The title of the book sounds provocative; the reality is just as much so. “A council of scholars and spiritual leaders” was convened to determine which books besides the traditional 27 should be added to the New Testament. Significantly, it’s not called a “council of scholars and church leaders” for a reason. Although, to be sure, there were bona fide scholars on the council, not all were church leaders; arguably, in fact, almost none were. The council of 19—including two rabbis—examined several ancient writings which the jacket blurb euphemistically calls ‘scriptures’ and determined which of these worthies deserved a place at the table with original New Testament books. Ten books were selected for this honor, along with two prayers and one song. The song (if that’s the right term) is called “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” and is one of the Nag Hammadi codices. There are no references to it in the ancient world; it never mentions Jesus and may, in fact, have been written three centuries before he was born. Some of the council members wanted it to be listed first in the New New Testament, in spite of (or because of?) its apparent non-Christian perspective. How it is possible for the jacket blurb to say this book was ancient ‘scripture’ when our only knowledge of it comes from Nag Hammadi staggers the mind.
Here is the list of new books added to the New Testament by this council:
- The Prayer of Thanksgiving
- The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
- The Thunder: Perfect Mind
- The Gospel of Thomas
- The Gospel of Mary
- The Gospel of Truth
- The Acts of Paul and Thecla
- The Letter of Peter to Philip
- The Secret Revelation of John
- The First, Second, Third, and Fourth Books of the Odes of Solomon
What strikes one immediately is that most of these additions seem to be of two types: Gnostic or proto-Gnostic essays and writings that exalt women. Further, what is also striking are books that did not make the cut. Among them are the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, First Clement, and other books in the collection known as the Apostolic Fathers. In other words, the books selected by the council were selected with an agenda in mind; they were not chosen because they ever made a serious claim to canonicity. Indeed, as was mentioned above, at least one of them is not even mentioned in any extant ancient writing.
Consider again the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. These are writings that were considered orthodox in that they offer a similar viewpoint on doctrinal and practical matters as is found in the New Testament. They are purportedly written by first-generation disciples of the original apostles, though in some cases they are another generation removed. The Shepherd of Hermas was so highly regarded in the ancient church that we have more copies of it from before AD 300 than we do the Gospel of Mark. The Muratorian Canon speaks highly of it but stops short of treating it as bearing the same authority as the New Testament books because of its known recent vintage (mid-second century). But certainly the Shepherd has far better credentials than any of the 13 newly discovered writings for canonization. That the ancient church rejected even this document is implicitly damning evidence that none of the new discoveries really belong within the pages of Holy Writ. We will revisit this issue of the ancient church’s view of authoritative writings at the end of this short review.
The Council of Nineteen and the Ancient Church Councils
The council of nineteen that is attempting to do nothing less than reshape Christianity into an image more compatible with their worldview requires some scrutiny. Who are these people and on what basis does this council have any binding authority on anyone? Most of them are professors, pastors, authors, or rabbis. I cannot say for sure, but I do not believe that any one of them would consider themselves to be orthodox in the sense of holding to the seven universal creeds of the ancient church. John Dominic Crossan and Karen King are perhaps the best known scholars in the group. All we are told about their purported authority to add thirteen writings to the New Testament (bringing the total to 40, a number which often speaks of trials and judgment in the Bible!) is that this group was “modeled on early church councils of the first six centuries CE that made important decisions for larger groups of Christians” (A New New Testament, 555). But the similarities with the ancient councils stop there. Perhaps this is why nothing more is said.
The ancient church sent representatives to the great councils who would make decisions that the churches agreed were to be binding on all. These ancient councils especially hammered out doctrinal issues. And today, all branches of Christendom embrace the decisions and viewpoints of these universal councils as at least good guidelines on what constitutes orthodoxy, if not fully authoritative. There is one key exception to this: the liberal Protestant branch of the church rejects these councils because it rejects the divinity and bodily resurrection of Christ. And the council of nineteen? I cannot speak for all of them, but a good portion of them at least are adamantly against Christ’s deity, his bodily resurrection, his atoning death, the Trinity, and that the Bible has any kind of authority in doctrinal matters.
And they certainly did not conduct their meetings in the spirit of the ancient councils. Those councils were populated by persecuted Christians, representing the major churches and sees, who came to theological decisions based on the final deposit of revelation in the New Testament. Many of them were exiled or lost their lives after the state was swept along by every wind of doctrine while the persecuted saints remained steadfast in their beliefs. The council of nineteen may claim some semblance to these ancient councils, but there is more dissemblance than semblance in the their attempted coup.
Ancient Canon Decisions
As for thinking through what belonged in the New Testament, there was no universal church council that ever made an official list. Here is another point of incongruity between this postmodern council and the ancient ones: the council of nineteen has, by its own self-asserted authority, pronounced a verdict on what goes into the New Testament. At least they did not throw out the Gospel of John, something that more than one member of the Jesus Seminar was wont to do!
Even though there was no ancient universal council regarding the New Testament canon (suggesting, in the words of Bruce Metzger, that the canon is a list of authoritative books [the Reformed view] rather than an authoritative list of books [the Catholic view]), the ancient church did follow three basic guidelines: apostolicity, orthodoxy, catholicity. These will be briefly explained below.
Apostolicity meant that a book had to be written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle if it was to be included in the New Testament. Practically speaking, this meant that any document written after the end of the first century was automatically disqualified. This is why the Muratorian Canon—the first orthodox canon list, composed in the late second century—rejected the Shepherd of Hermas as authoritative, even though it considered it to be very beneficial to Christians. Further, any book that was known to be a forgery was rejected by the ancient church. Not one of the thirteen books proposed by the council of nineteen was written by the person it is ascribed to. The ancient church would—and often did—immediately reject such books because of their spurious nature. The test of apostolicity alone thus disqualifies all thirteen newly discovered books. Relatively speaking, almost all of these newly discovered books should also be called new books.
Orthodoxy meant that those books considered for canonical status needed to conform to what was already known to be orthodox. Orthodoxy was known even before any writings were accepted as scripture. It was known through hymns, the kerygma, and the traditions passed down by the apostles. If there never had been a New Testament, we would still have enough to go on to guide us as to what essential Christianity looked like. And it looked nothing like most of the thirteen books proposed by this new council. The Gnostic and proto-Gnostic books were soundly rejected by the ancient church. And even those that were closer to orthodoxy (like The Acts of Paul and Thecla) were rejected because they failed the test of apostolicity. To put The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, and The Gospel of Truth into the New Testament, side by side with writings that embraced a diametrically-opposed view of the Christian faith, is unspeakably brash. And although Professor Taussig and his friends think they are doing Christendom a favor by including known heretical writings in their expanded New Testament, they are doing so at both the cost of historical integrity and pedagogical method. This can only confuse laypeople, yet even Barbara Brown Taylor—considered one of the ten best preachers in America, and thus someone who knows better than to create Chicken Littles out of the chaos that this tome will almost surely incite—has endorsed the plan and layout of this volume. Orthodoxy seemed to be the furthest thing from the minds of the New New Testament council.
Finally, catholicity was a criterion used in deciding what earned a place at the table of the New Testament canon. By ‘catholicity’ I do not mean Roman Catholicism. No, I mean that for a book to make the cut it generally needed to be accepted by all the churches. To be sure, some New Testament books struggled in this department, but not all did. In fact, within a century of the completion of the New Testament, the ancient church throughout the Mediterranean world achieved a remarkable unanimity concerning at least twenty of the twenty-seven books. This included all thirteen letters ascribed to Paul and the four Gospels. The rest would find acceptance by the fourth century, in both the eastern and western branches of the church. Most of the new additions to the New Testament fail this test miserably, too. Again, catholicity is not something that the council of nineteen considered when deciding on what books to put in. Rather, catholicity is something that this book aims to achieve. And yet it does so principally through a Gnostic-like route: by urging Christians to accept these books on the basis of their largely politically correct viewpoint, the council is seeking to reshape Christianity into something more palatable to the postmodern world, where presumably knowledge replaces faith.
(For more on these criteria, see Reinventing Jesus, by Ed Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace.)
In short, the New New Testament is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The council that put these books forth is a farce. It has nothing to do with the councils of old, yet implicitly seeks to claim authority on the basis of concocted semblance. The books were selected by those who, though certainly having a right to scholarly examination of the Christian faith, are not at all qualified to make any pronouncements on canon. That belongs to the church, the true church. Outsiders may address, critique, and comment on the New Testament. They have that right—a right given them by the very nature of the Bible: this book is the only sacred document of any major religion which consistently subjects itself to historical inquiry. Unlike the Bhagavad Gita, the Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, the Qur’an, or the Gospel of Thomas, the Bible is not just talking heads, devoid of historical facts, places, and people. It is a book that presents itself as historical, and speaks about God’s great acts in history, intersecting with humanity in verifiable ways. This is where orthodoxy and heterodoxy should meet, dialoging and debating over whether the Bible is in any sense true. But to suspend the discussion by a sleight of hand is both cowardly and bombastic.
Epilogue: The Value of the New New Testament
After reading the critique above, one might be tempted to ask, “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?” There actually is value in this book—even, I think, for laypeople. These are important ancient books that show both continuity with the early church and discontinuity. Some are essentially orthodox; most are subchristian. But they represent how ancients perceived the Christ event and remind us that even in the early period not all ‘Christian’ groups truly embraced Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Heresy is found in the earliest period of the Christian faith, too: it dogged the apostle Paul and even found a home in some of his churches after he left for other mission fields. At bottom, the question that we must all grapple with, and what many of these ancient writings grappled with, is this: What will you do with Jesus of Nazareth? That question is still the most important one that anyone can ever ask.
Here is a big event coming up in April. It is a new kind of apologetics conference in the Dallas Fort-Worth metroplex. If you’re in the area, you owe it to yourself to go!
Visit the website to find out more information.
On February 22 and 23, I will be conducting a “Snoopy Seminar” at the Hope Center in Plano, Texas (2001 W. Plano Parkway). This seminar is a fun, interactive, and challenging exercise about textual criticism. Enrollment is limited to 60 people. Intended audience: motivated laypeople, though we are not limiting it to them (seminary students may also come, for example).
Here’s the basic idea: On Friday night I will teach some of the basics of New Testament textual criticism. Then, I ask for 22 people to volunteer to be scribes. They go into a separate room and copy out a short text (in English), each with specific instructions designed to increase errors in the copying process and corrupt the text. The text goes through six generations of copying. Meanwhile, the rest of the people (the “textual critics”) are trying to reconstruct the genealogy of the transmission of the text (namely, which scribe copied from whom) and think through what kinds of skills and biases the scribes would have brought to their tasks.
On Saturday morning, we will all get together and the textual critics get busy working on the remaining manuscripts that the scribes produced. Unfortunately, most of the earliest manuscripts have strangely disappeared overnight (including all first-generation copies). The textual critics do the best they can with the manuscripts they’ve got to work with.
They record all the variants and there are always more variants than words in the original text. But unlike New Testament textual criticism, the variants are usually meaningful (the vast bulk of New Testament textual variants are not). The textual critics work in small groups for about three hours. They debate, wrestle with a variety of possibilities about corruption (and which manuscripts are more corrupt than others; all of them are corrupt to some degree), and try to determine the wording of the original “Gospel According to Snoopy.”
Then, all the groups get together and I function as secretary. I write down the major variants on a white board and list what the whole group thinks is the original wording in each place. When I get done posting the variants, the white board is a mess! No one is confident that they have reconstructed the text of Snoopy exactly. Then, a miracle happens: The original text of Snoopy is discovered and they can compare how they did. How close do they get? Well, I’ll leave that for the seminar. I’ve done this 70 times since 1979—in churches, seminaries, colleges, etc. It takes concentrated brain power, a desire to engage verbally with others, and a Sherlock Holmes mindset.
Once we’re finished with the exercise, I show the relevance to New Testament textual criticism. The Snoopy manuscripts and groups of manuscripts actually correspond to known New Testament manuscripts and groups. And this year, we are adding a packet of materials that has notes on some of the most important textual problems in the New Testament.
If you’re interested in joining us, please visit the website for more information or contact Dana Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org —and soon! It’s a great confidence-builder about scripture, suitable for high school students on up. We hope to do this a couple of times a year at the Hope Center, so if you miss out on this one there’s always another one coming down the pike.