Saturday, December 22, 2007

A 300 Year Gap

Consider some conclusions that have been arrived at by New Testament scholars:

Among the people who believe that Jesus existed, the consensus is that he was executed around 35 CE.

Mark, the Gospel that is now identified as the earliest, is thought to have been written about 30 years later in 65 CE, by Mark the Evangelist (not the apostle, not an eyewitness), based upon reports that he heard from others. We do not know how many people and how many retellings of the story separated Mark from any eyewitnesses there might have been to the events.

The oldest existing copies of Mark that we possess today are from 320 CE and 370 CE.

So between the time of the alleged events surrounding Jesus’ death and the actual copies of reports of those events that we possess, 300 years passed.

We do not know how many people, or how many tellings and retellings, writings or rewritings of the story occurred between the events in the 30s and the copies from 320 CE and 370 CE. There could have been hundreds of people and hundreds of iterations of the story that transpired in that period.

Now consider some important questions that rarely get asked:

Were the people surrounding Jesus impartial, objective observers?

Were they well-equipped with the tools and cognitive abilities to detect fraud or identify self-deception?

Did they understand the value of having careful investigations into paranormal claims?

Did they understand how frequently people giving eyewitness testimony, particularly about matters that they are passionately and personally involved in, unconsciously distort evidence, sift for confirmation, and ignore counter-evidence?

Would they have been prepared to admit it if they had come to think that they were mistaken? (Would you?)

Suppose that the Jesus stories were known to be false by someone who had figured out what was really going on. Would that evidence of their falsity have survived centuries of active culling, adjusting, and protecting of the Jesus stories by faithful adherents?

Do we have reasons to think that every single person involved in the telling and retelling of the story on its path from the events in 35 CE to their eventual recording in the manuscripts from 320 and 370 CE had the goal of preserving all the important details about those events, even the ones that, had they been present, would have suggested that the miracles were not authentic?

Would the dedicated Christians who transmitted the stories about Jesus down through the centuries have the goal of preserving all of the information about him, including evidence that would have undermined the authenticity of Christianity?

Pretty clearly the answer to all of these questions is no. And if that is right, then these questions show that it is unreasonable to believe that Jesus was a supernatural, divine being because our evidence concerning him is too weak or corrupted.


JP said...

Great post with wonderful thoughts and questions. Questions I have not seen asked before. I am not a christian nor a theist so answering this question for me is a bit biased. However, I am sure the overwhelming answer to this question will simply be one little word.


t.k.foster said...

Perhaps you may have already been told, but several theologians have admitted to me that the Gospel of Thomas was the earlier gospel, even before Mark. If that's true, why isn't this gospel included in the Bible? (I mean, when reading it, the reasons are clear). I think the gospel selection themselves are very clear as to what's going on.

Great post.

JP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the feedback. Namesarehardtopick: Good points. I don't know anything about the Gospel of Thomas. What you say wouldn't surprise me. It turns out that a great deal of winnowing, adjusting, excluding, trimming, and collating got done for centuries to produce what we have now as the New Testament. In many cases, documents that contained even wilder and more far fetched stories about Jesus were left out so that they had a core group of gospels that cohere with each other, at least nominally. Then, ironically, Christians in the 21st century point to what appears to be coherence in the canonical Gospels and brag that that shows that they are true. MM

t.k.foster said...

Matt - Yeah, I haven't read too many of the other books that were written in Biblical times (The Book of Jasher - referenced in the Bible, The Gospel of Peter, The Book of Enoch), but it's one of those things that is on my "to do" list and I imagine the reasons they weren't included were because of what the leaders at the councel of Nicea thought.

Still, excellent questions to be asking.

Jon said...

That gospel of Judas they recently found adds some extra drama to the mix as well, from what I saw in the documentary.

JP said...

I linked to your post attempting to get some of my readers (many are theists) to answer some of your questions. I asked them to come over here but the conversation has started on my blog. Please, if you will, add your 2 cents to the attempted answers many have provided.

Anonymous said...

The real question is "What does a 300 year gap mean?" The answer is "it depends" and then you have to do a lot of legwork to figure it out.

Fortunately it has nothing whatsoever to do with the existence of God and therefore doesn't stand as a reason to be an atheist.

You need to realize that in the Christian view the Bible exists because of God. Not vice versa. Invalidate the Bible (or a book or a verse) and you still haven't answered the question of if there is a God.

I look forward to your 99 other reasons. Often I find I agree with the point but not the "and so that means there is no God" part.

Jon said...

Note that there are large sections of Luke and John contained in Papyrus that dates to around the year 200. This includes P75 and P66. Luke of course is widely regarded as having been based on Mark, with sections copied verbatim. So we do have some of Mark prior to 320. But I think you are correct to say that we don't have any full copies of Mark prior to 300.

Max said...

This has nothing to do with God. Why are you putting it up as a reason not to believe in God? It is merely a problem with Christian writings which claim to be the word of God. If you and I write a book and claim that it came from God and include in the book obvious flaws would that be evidence against God? Of course not. It would be merely evidence that you and I don't speak for God. Please change your format to make a distinction between evidence not to believe in Christianity, and evidence to not believe in God. Thanks.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the comment, Max. Of course problems with the historical evidence for Jesus are not a direct argument for not believing in God. Nowhere do I say or imply otherwise. Problems for the historical case for Jesus are just that, nothing more. But clearly it's relevant, right? If it turns out that many or most, or all of the classical sources we have culturally for believing in God, like these foundations of Christianity, all turn out to be built on mistakes, then those failures remove a number of the pillars supporting theism. If Christian theism is undermined by this argument, which it is, then that's a hugely important issue. It turns out then that several hundred million people believe in Jesus mistakenly and irrationally. You will notice that among the 200+ posts on my blog, there are many others that are devoted to critiques of the arguments for many gods, other religions, and a wide range of arguments in favor of wide and narrow atheism. Make sure before you attack someone's position that they are making the mistake that you think they are.


Keko said...

Sir, may I hug you?

His Joy said...

Thank you, I read your post and it made me think. How indeed did a poor, nobody of a man's story last sooo long. Why wasn't it forgotten years ago? Why did people feel compel to tell and retell this story? I have heard some great stories, Shakespare for one I could understand someone telling and retelling and making sure these stories live on but why this one? How did it make it? Why did it make it? He wasn't rich, he wasn't popular, only a hand full of followers who by the way scatter like flies at the first sign of real trouble. Humm You really make me think... how how and the world did this little story survive for so long!? and why!?

Unknown said...

The story survived only because a god was created to rule people every civilization has had a god religion has always been there and for those who believe have been ruled I myself have lots of family who believe and have turned out to be great people in life but you do not need a god to have morals we all know that it's wrong to kill another human being, or to steal these do called commandments were created to keep some order in this world not by a god but for those who do believe obviously don't mind being led by someone else I have asked myself many times why does someone need a god in order to do god things in life take the common criminal who is locked up for years and finds religion in prison is it because this person has always had the common sense to know the difference between good and bad or is it because he's weak and needs this in his life

Unknown said...

i thought i was alone in not believing there is a god so thank GOD for this site,

Unknown said...

Matt McCormick, I encourage you to contact Mr. Eliseo Soriano. He's a Filipino televangelist who knows the bible by heart. He has tv program that answers questions from people all over the world who doubts the bible and its contents and GOD. He travels from one country to another to explain everything about the bible and GOD. I strongly believe that he will be able change your views about the bible and god. here's the website of the TV company he is working with

You could even dare him to have a debate against you. Im sure he will agree with it because he really loves to have a debate with people who doubts the bible and GOD.