Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

Skeptical Argument #1

There was no traditional-gospel foundation for Christianity, pre-70 CE. There may have been a Jewish sage named Jesus, but that's all he was -- a Jewish sage. There were no miracles, no empty tombs, no angels, no resurrection appearances. Christology started with Paul, and the gospels followed in his footsteps, reinventing and reshaping Jesus from the scraps of Paul's theology into the resurrected Jewish Savior deity he had become as portrayed in the gospels. »

The oft repeated argument that Christianity started with Paul, with no prior foundation to build on never made much sense to me. What it seems to be is just an offshoot theory of the 19th century Jesus-myth theory, only revamped in a way to fit into a modern mold, an era where the denial of Jesus' historicity simply doesn't cut the mustard among current scholarship. So the theory has been revised, so instead of an entire invalidated Jesus-myth, the Christology that was eventually bestowed unto Jesus by Paul formulated into a myth, and thus reshaped, elevating Jesus to a height he himself as a Jewish sage never intended. Then the communities of pagans followed Paul, reshaping Jesus even more into this legendary and theological historical figure, which then found its way into written narratives. Essentially Jesus was reinvented. In other words, the argument here would presume the absurd notion that the real Jesus of history faded and was replaced by Jesus of theology, which then ended up with a re-invented Jesus history that was built around that theology.

The skeptic will amply the argument from silence, or the fact that Paul details next to nothing in his letters about specific accounts found in the gospels -- particularly details found in the resurrection (no angels, no women, no empty tomb, etc.). Of course this argument cannot entirely deny the fact that Paul knew Jesus as "a man," who:

Paul portrayed a Christ just as human, albeit not as illustrative, as the gospels had portrayed. But with this strange idea of a Jesus "re-invention" aside, the real question that often remains lingering is -- why did they pick Jesus of Nazareth? Fact is, Jesus failed as the first century Jewish expectation of political Messiah ben David who would wage a holy war, conqueror Rome, and reestablish Israel's preeminence, or at least die trying, and this was an expectation we see resoundingly in Old Testament scripture, apocryphal Jewish scripture, Qumran scrolls, some rabbinic writings (see Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come, pp.89-91, 92-96; 2007. Craig A. Evans, Messianic Hopes and Messianic Figures in Late Antiquity (pdf), pp.25-28. James H. Charlesworth, The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, pp.213-220), and something Jesus' followers and those who interacted with him were anticipating that we see clearly illustrated throughput the gospels themselves pre-crucifixion (discussed in more detail here). Nor was Jesus' world view offered in a political vacuum aftermath. Judeo-Christianity that we see recorded in the New Testament heralded Jesus as the Christ, the expected Messiah of the Jews, and was spawned among Jews in an atmosphere where the world view was still very much political insurrection and holy war, with very little else expected in this messianic context.

When dealing with the history of Judeo-Christianity and Jews, one must contend with the fact that a very drastic and irrational psychological, theological, and ideological shift occurred from anticipated Messiah ben David warrior to crucified Messiah-Savior who stood for nothing political, within a half to three decades. Mind you, once again, the environment this occurred in -- not the result of an aftermath, but occurred within an atmosphere that was oozing political tension, discontent, and where talks of dissension, insurrection, and apocalyptic utopias were swirling in the air, building up to the subsequent final meltdown that occurred in the Jewish-Roman war of 70 CE. Yet this lowly Jew from Galilee, who was executed between 30-36 CE, in the most unexpected and worse way possible, and who offered nothing in the way of political liberation or anything at all political for Israel, was still proclaimed by his adherents as the fulfillment of the Son of David warrior king they were expecting prior (examples: Matthew 2:5-6, 12:18-20, 19:28; Luke 1:46-55, 1:68-79, 22:26-30; John 1:49-50; 1 Corinthians 15:23-25; Hebrews 1:8; Revelation 19:11-16).

Some argue that Jews just liked Jesus' unique world view, thus their opinions about him and their ideological and theological outlooks drastically changed, while their political expectations drastically diminished. But putting aside the fact that this still doesn't explain WHY they continued touting him as this promised Son of David, "king of the Jews," and putting aside the fact that unless one is willing to accept that Jesus made unheralded preternatural claims about himself, his ethical world view wasn't any different than any of his other influential contemporaries of his time who honored Yahweh, supported the Torah, and advocated moral living just the same.  Why would a devout Pharisee like Paul even believe this about a crucified man, let alone his other Jewish followers, particularly a Pharisee who was initially a violent opponent of the movement? What made him rapidly revamp his views not only about Jesus, but the norm of ideological messianism? Why didn't Paul bestow this type of unusual adoration and honor unto his predecessor Hillel or Gamaliel, his contemporary, or his other Jewish contemporaries like John the Baptist? John indeed had a similar moral message, as well as a large following, and certainly didn't die a dishonorable and humiliating death as Jesus, but died honorably, beheaded for opposing a king, a typical way a martyr would die. James, undoubtedly the leader of the Jerusalem church around the time Paul converted, had a similar following, was hailed just as righteous, and died just as honorably. Yet Jesus reigned supreme. Why? If there was nothing miraculous about Jesus, what was it that kept the focus, adoration, worship, and theology built on him?

So there are two major problems here at the start:

  • Why they believed Jesus was the political Messiah they were expecting, and continued to tout as a fulfillment of this Messiah in spite of his fate.
  • Why they picked him as a spiritual Messiah, a Messiah they were not expecting, a Messiah they built the theology of salvation around, over a vast pool of other equally worthy candidates who didn't die in the same humiliating fashion.

Yet, if that wasn't enough for us to stop and pause, Paul's Christology is the next hurdle, a Christology that is exceptionally developed and profound and is the centerpiece of Paul's beliefs about this man he believed was his contemporary. A few try and force an influence of Paul's Christology from the Jewish Hellenized writer Philo, yet (assuming Paul even knew of his work) a philosopher won't due here, because, whether Philo's Hellenized ideas influenced Paul's theology or not, not only does it not begin to explain Paul's choice of Christ-Savior candidates, but such Christ-Savior Christology is certainly not found in any other pre-Christian Jewish literature, whether it be the Qumran scrolls, the canon and apocryphal Jewish texts, the Septuagint, rabbinic writings, etc. -- most of which expressed messianic views that were completely opposite of a crucified Christ-Savior as we previously pointed out.

If we assume the gospels merely contain legend about Jesus, there had to have been a traditional foundation Paul was building on, or some sort of historical pre-Judeo-Christian roots in Judaism that had formed prior that complimented his Christology. Paul was writing letters to established churches, particularly Rome which was already established even before Paul, and these letters weren't addressing Jesus-traditions but addressing current church issues, therefore this foundation was already established decades prior. But what was the foundation of which these churches were based on if not the same traditions of the gospels? Where is Paul's prior extensive works and thesis' about his exotic philosophy pre-epistles where he laid out the semantics of this new creed? The problem is that this foundation is found nowhere in pre-Christian Judaic history or any of Paul's works other than the gospels. There is an inexplicable void between Jesus and Paul's letters that can't be reconciled unless we use the traditions laid out in the gospels to fill in that void. Since this is already tittering on an improbable premise with some of the other points previously brought up, without some sort of underlying Jesus-foundation which was used to build these churches on prior as well as Paul's deep and unusual Christology (unusual for a devout Pharisee), it's all basically left as an empty historical shell.

Yet if those hurdles weren't enough for skeptics to stop and pause, they proceed to propose one of the most bizarre ideas ever argued for the formulation of a historical Judeo-Christian creed. The idea is that Paul, out the blue (within a couple of decades), preached a "spiritual" Savior messianism. This bizarre idea then supposedly reshaped into more of a historical formulated narrative which appeared in the gospel of Mark about a decade later (totally presupposing that Mark came late and first in the order) who had no knowledge of the historical Jesus except what he heard from hearsay, and who obviously fabricated a great deal of material himself to fill in the gaps that was built around Paul's Christology. Then the other three gospels followed in Mark's footsteps, and from this, Christianity was born, and all this occurred in less than about six decades.

Aside from the fact that the gospels don't at all reflect Paul's teachings or any of the issues in the church that Paul had addressed (discussed in more detail here), we are once again left void between Paul and some sort of Jesus-tradition that he was supposedly building off of prior to the gospels that the gospels totally diverted away from as they "re-invented" Christ. And yes, Paul's Christology is profound, but at the same time, there are clear traces of the human Jesus found scattered in his letters as well, as we noted, and this obviously causes a slew of unsolved issues -- where did this brand of Jewish messianism come from since it does not exist anywhere else; why did Paul bestow this theology unto the least likely Jewish candidate from within the pool of other better contemporaries he could have chosen from; why did he and the other early Judeo-Christians believe Jesus was the expected political Messiah they had hoped for when his fate and the state of Israel that never changed which contradicted this belief; and what was the foundation used to build the churches Paul wrote to that were already established decades prior to his epistles in the New Testament?

In spite of these issues, this is the evolution from Paul to the gospels we are forced to believe in light of this bizarre skeptical premise. »

Skeptical Argument #2

Paul taught an immaterial spiritual resurrection of Christ, therefore did not need to teach a tomb since Jesus' corpse was still left rotting in it. And since Paul's teachings in his letters were earlier than the gospel texts, proves that an immaterial spiritual resurrection was at the heart of the early Christian movement which evolved into a material bodily resurrection legend found in the gospels later on. »

As far as the first part of this argument, if it can be demonstrated that Paul in fact acknowledged a material soma (Greek word for "body") resurrection, the skeptic's whole theory in the second part of this argument crumbles into dust. Yet the second part of this theory is also at the sole mercy of a few presuppositional hurdles:

  1. We must answer the question as to why Jews would bestow unheralded honor and adoration onto a man who died in the most dishonorable and humiliating way, as opposed to other great Jewish leaders and teachers of the Torah, ethics, and morality of their day who died much more honorably.
  2. There can be no doubt that the gospels were post-70 written texts (the texts must have proceeded Paul for this to be remotely plausible).
  3. We must assume that the gospel authors were wild fiction artists, redacting, embellishing, and inventing legends and traditions with a vengeance as they went along (you don't get much more wild than Jesus' post-resurrection bodily appearances in the gospels if they initially preached an immaterial resurrection).
  4. We must assume that the empty tomb was a legend that did not exist prior to the first gospel (which they argue is Mark), or at least was not a widespread tradition prior.
  5. We must assume that an "immaterial spiritual" resurrection can evolve into a "physical material" resurrection in a Semitic and Roman-Greco culture without contention well within just six decades, within a generation.
  6. We must assume that the eyewitnesses Paul listed in his Corinthian letter (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) who saw Jesus alive, post-resurrection, were really hallucinations, spiritual visions, or the passage itself was a later interpolation.
  7. We must be sure that Paul actually taught an immaterial spirit resurrection of Christ as opposed to a material bodily resurrection.

That's quite a few hurdles we must try and get over. As far as #1-3 -- we addressed #1 here, #2 here, and #3 here, showing that these presuppositions are untenable, thus we will have to put these hurdles aside and move on.

As far as #4, this is assuming Mark's gospel even came first (being that the argument implies Mark invented the empty tomb legend himself). Markan priority (Mark came first and Matthew and Luke used him as a reference) is a popular hypothesis (though we challenged it here), but it's still an unproven hypothesis nonetheless. In other words, it's a hypothesis one wouldn't want to carelessly stake a premise on if one was prudent. Another problem is what was stated by the church father Papias (quoted by Eusebius, History, 3.39.15), around the early to mid-second century. Eusebius indicates that Papias either had direct contact with some of the apostles or those who associated with the apostles, hence, at the very least, was a secondhand witness, thus had access to the earliest tradition. Papias stated that Mark transcribed Peter's oral teachings at Rome to written a text and was careful not to deviate what Peter had taught. Thus if Mark transcribed all of Peter's teachings to text, obviously the empty tomb was an oral tradition taught by Peter prior to Mark's text, regardless of the date Mark actually authored this text. So not only must we base this on an unproven hypothesis (that Mark came first and was written after Paul), but dismiss Papias' statement outrightly.

In regards to #5, and though the post/pre-70 gospel date rages on, the gospels were at the very least post-100 CE works, most likely around 65-90. This supposed immaterial spiritual resurrection (Paul) to material bodily resurrection (the gospels) theory is actually an anachronism and in historical reverse -- from Greek thought to Jewish thought -- because there was clearly a dividing line on this issue between Jewish and Greek theology. The Greeks generally did not hold high regards to the material body overall, particularly its persistence after death (see Origen, Celsus, book 5.14. Plutarch, Romulus, 28:8. Seneca, cited by Edwin M. Yamauchi, C. Ancient Concepts of the Afterlife). Scholar Pheme Perkins argued that Christianity's earliest pagan critics considered bodily resurrection as a ridiculous notion, which they attributed to, at best, Christian's misunderstanding of the philosophical process of metempsychosis (Pheme Perkins, Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection, p.61). Richard A. Gabriel and Mordechai Gichon, argues that Hellenism offered no notion of a divine and personal immortal soul that could have been adopted by early Christians" (Gods of Our Fathers, p.157). John W. Cooper states: "Furthermore, Hellenistic dualism emphasized the antipathy between soul and body. It exalted the idea of a disembodied soul as a superior form of human existence. In direct contrast, most Jews continued to think of the soul as retaining bodily form after death and included the notion of bodily resurrection in their eschatologies" (Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting, p.86; 2000). Therefore #5 is deeply problematic and is typically overlooked, which would have made such a change of theology from "immaterial spirit resurrection" supposedly taught by Paul, to "material body resurrection" illustrated in the gospels no smooth or quiet transition in this culture with both Jews and Gentiles. Hence the confusion, the clash of ideas and beliefs, the schisms, the in-fighting about this issue that would have inevitably arose from such a radical theological switch, worthy of addressing at some point by Paul, the other epistle writers, or the early church fathers like Clement I, Ignatius, and Polycarp, not to mention the later church historians like Eusebius or Tertullian.

I should note, however, that an immaterial belief did in fact eventually infiltrate Christianity from forms of Gnosticism and Docetism, the more "spiritual" sects that denied the physicality of Jesus, though hardly becoming the norm (it was always considered an "outside" belief), yet wasn't notable until later and only impacted theology and written doctrine well after the tomb burial story was presented at least in Mark, and most current scholars have abandoned the early 20th century idea that there was an early "proto-Gnosticism" forming in Judeo-Christianity, as this is simply antiethical to what the gospels and Paul proclaim (John M. G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, p.65-67. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p.163. Philip Francis Esler, The early Christian world, Volume 2, p.188. Gerard van Groningen, First century gnosticism: Its origin and motifs, p.103-104). We see the first signs of this "non-flesh" controversy, as we would expect to see of such a controversy, in John's epistles (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7) which are late first century works, as well as Ignatius (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans, 3-4), both of which sternly warn against such doctrine. We then see this evolution continue on a predictable course with further evidence more distinctly from the second and third century in the explosion of apocryphal works and the warnings of church fathers. So the actual historical development of this non-material theology, which developed later on, is in complete reverse of the theory.      

Moving on to #6, it really doesn't take someone with a high degree in psychology, just someone with a bit of sense to know that two people, let alone dozens, typically do not experience the exact same vision, in addition to the fact they were not expecting such a "mystical" visionary revelation in the first place, due to not only preconditioned beliefs (they thought Jesus was crucified and gone), but the fact they had no a priori Jewish theological and ideological expectation of a crucified Messiah rising from the dead. So we won't dwell on this, as the skeptic will have to stretch facts and figures about psychology and Jewish messianic expectations in order to make such an argument work in this case. As far as later interpolation, that was covered in another argument (here).

In regards to #7, this is where the theory ultimately crumbles to dust. Paul simply did not teach an immaterial resurrection. Paul was clearly arguing a transformation from mortal or natural material body to immortal supernatural material body, which he indeed called a "spiritual body," not mortal material body to immaterial disembody. Therefore, since the former mortal soma (body) was a natural soma, the problem becomes apparent with its distinction in the Greek language, which was limited to the word pneumatikos (spiritual). There was no word to clarify the material mortal from the material heavenly, so the Greek word pneumatikos (spiritual) had to do. From this, the meaning of this word is usually twisted, thus argued that Paul was referring to an out-of-body immaterial "spiritual" body as opposed to a resurrected heavenly material body. One of the two Pauline passages we'll focus on is…

1 Corinthians 15:44  "It is sown a natural body (soma), it is raised a spiritual (pneumatikos) body (soma). If there is a natural body (soma), there is also a spiritual (pneumatikos) body (soma)."

The skeptical argument is that Paul meant the material body (soma) dies, wherefore the person then resurrects as an immaterial spirit. The problem with this is two-fold. Not only could Paul have saved himself a great deal of trouble trying to explain these two bodies (and indeed here is an example of Paul going to great pains explaining this to his Greek audience 1 Corinthians 15:36-42) by simply distinguishing them with the Greek words  psychikos soma (natural body) and epouranios pneuma (celestial spirit), but it is an obvious forced interpretation, being that the criterion is flawed relative to other places Paul uses the word pneumatikos (spiritual). Examples…

1 Corinthians 10:1-4 "For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual (pneumatikos) food and all drank the same spiritual (pneumatikos) drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual (pneumatikos) rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ"

Paul was referring to the children of Israel in the Exodus story who were led through the wilderness under the direction of Moses. The rock was the rock Moses struck which miraculously produced the water for them to drink, and the food was the manna that fell from heaven. Does this mean that the food they ate and the water they drank was immaterial? Was the rock an immaterial rock? Obviously not. He was referring to the water and manna as material substances that were derived from heavenly or supernatural causes. And Paul classified this analogy as the resurrected Christ.

Galatians 6:1 "Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual (pneumatikos), restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted."

Obviously the "brethren" Paul was referring to were still living, they hadn't died and become immaterial spirits. Thus Paul was clearly using the word pneumatikos (spiritual) rather loosely to distinguish something natural from supernatural, not always something material from immaterial. Probably the most popular skeptical verse that is always used and abused is…

1 Corinthians 15:50 "Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable."

See?! They often sound the bells and whistles to support their theory that material bodies cannot be resurrected! And you will probably see this verse quoted in almost every skeptical debate against a bodily resurrection. Yet you will also notice that they will never ever quote the following verses that are attached to this one selectively cherry-picked verse. Why? Let's see…

 

1 Corinthians 15:51-53 "Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality."

 

Paul is stating that on an appointed day, when Christ returns, a profound transformation from mortal body to immortal body (a body that will never decay or perish) will occur both to those who died (who will resurrect) and those still alive. Otherwise, in order to accept some sort non-material resurrection would mean Paul's theology in this case is stating that at the trumpet sound, God will kill all the Christians who haven't yet "fallen asleep" (died) and raise them as immaterial beings instead of transforming their mortal material bodies into immortal material bodies. How will those who are still alive transform into a non-material being, and why would the dead also need to resurrect and transform if they are already disembodied immaterial spirits when they died? The deduction is obvious here. Paul was expressing a physical event, and a transformation of not only a physical body, but the same body from mortal to immortal, and this is why Paul previously included Christ's resurrection creed, in addition to those who witnessed him alive (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) in the same context of this heavy discussion to prove to the Corinthians that it was not only a visible body, thus material, but that the same resurrection and metamorphosis from mortal to immortal that happened to Jesus would happen to the believer.

Though the essence or the actual material make-up of these immortal bodies remains a "mystery" (taken from Paul's own word about it), since he does not specify what indestructible substance they are made of, the logic behind what Paul believed is pretty clear, and the skeptical "immaterial resurrection" theory is exposed as not only a blatant disregard of a slew of external factors and issues against this theory, but hocus-pocus fudging of theology, words, and phrases, as well as selectively cherry-picked Pauline verses in order to isolate them from the rest of Paul's teachings. »

Skeptical Argument #3

Eyewitnesses would have been a non-factor, and nothing could have impeded or affected the legends that had formed in Christianity. By the time the four Gospels were being written, there was virtually a clean historical slate for the Jesus story. Palestine was geographically a world away; Jerusalem had been destroyed during the Roman siege of 70 CE, the apostles and eyewitnesses had either passed away, or were gone, and the Jerusalem Church would be no more. About 1.1 million Jews had been killed and others were enslaved or exiled. No one would have worried about some new developing pagan religion that had scattered far off into the land of the heathens, and these prime condition set the stage for the Jesus-creed to be radically redacted and reshaped in the hands of Gentile non-eyewitnesses, and virtually reborn with a whole new theology, ideology, and Gentile purpose. »

Not only is the argument that no eyewitness of Jesus was around after 70 CE a bold and grossly unsubstantiated assumption, but the latter part of this argument is solely at the mercy of how valid the post-70 CE date for the gospel texts really is. Though most seem to be carefree with this assumption and take it as a belief de facto, this is not nearly the consensus as some suppose, and there have been scholars who argue that a pre-70 date is just as viable of a date of composition of the gospels, which doesn't make it any more or less unproven. In other words, the date of the gospels cannot be taken for granted in either case because this is solely a belief that remains unproven, thus inconclusive. However, the date is actually irrelevant anyway, and much more damning to this theory than the argument against the theory, because the traditions themselves that are contained in the gospels are undoubtedly from pre-70 CE sources.

But before we get to that, we need to point out probably the primary barrier against this argument. As we mentioned, to maintain that the Jesus-traditions were radically redacted, reshaped, and virtually re-invented takes us back to the issue that we previously raised in regards to Paul (discussed here). Though Paul does not specifically cite any accounts directly from the gospels, he was obviously basing his worship of Jesus, whom he considered both an authentic historical figure and his contemporary, as well as his deep Christology he used to define Jesus as a deity on some sort of traditional foundation. It is not possible to assume that this Jesus-foundation was completely alienated from the gospels, especially considering the gospels are separated by no more than a decade (even post-70 proponents date Mark at around 70-75 CE). Paul's traditional Jesus-foundation didn't just vanish in less than a decade, thus he was obviously building his teachings about this man from Nazareth on the same traditions that are found in the gospels, and took these traditions for granted because he was writing letters to churches already familiar with these traditions, letters that were written to address current issues he couldn't address in person.

The next problem is in spite of the fact that the gospels are written in Greek, that's about the only thing one could associate to anything Greco-Roman about them, no to mention the fact there were obviously plenty of Greek speaking Jews in and around Judea in the first century. Nothing about the content within the gospels is influenced by Greco-Roman theology or culture.

To start, there is a clear Aramaic substratum underlying the gospels, which indicates, at the very least, the original traditions were derived from Aramaic sources. Martin Hengel states: "I do not know of any work in Greek which has as many Aramaic or Hebrew words and formulae in so narrow a space as does the second Gospel" (Studies in the Gospel of Mark, p.46). Maurice Casey states: "Substantial parts, at least, of his (Mark) gospel were translated from Aramaic" (Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel, p.102). James Hastings states of the gospel Matthew: "...and even if we cannot follow Weiss in every application of his conclusions, there remains proof enough to render the theory of an original Aramaic Gospel, as underlining the Synoptics, probable to a high degree. The supposition is even more plausible in the case of the portions of St. Matthew's Gospel which are peculiar to the Evangelist" (A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels: Volume I, pp.670-671). And there has been a no fewer list of scholars who also readily point out the Aramaism in Matthew:

  • B. C. Butler, The Originality of St Matthew, pp.147-156.
  • Brunett H. Streeter, The Four Gospels, p.297.  
  • W. D. Davies, and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 2, p.43.  
  • Pierson Parker, The posteriority of Mark, in New Synoptic Studies of W. R. Farmer, pp. 68-70.

The gospel of John is certainly not excluded from this equation as well. Saeed Hamid-Khani (Revelation and Concealment of Christ, pp.140-143) lists 20th century scholars such as A. Schlatter, C. J. Ball, C. F. Burney. J. A. Montgomery, Torrey, O.T. Allis who debated about the fourth gospel John, and never disagreed that this Aramaism archetype existed in his gospel, but a back and fourth scholarly war between them on whether John's gospel was translated directly from Aramaic or an Aramaic writer drawing upon Hebrew and Aramaic sources and traditions. This Aramaic substratum shouldn't be at all evident if we are to suppose the gospels were written and influenced "in the land of the heathens," since Gentiles didn't typically speak Aramaic. 

Rabbis often spoke in puns, similes, parables, hermeneutics, and riddles, just as Jesus frequently did in his teachings, leading James Charlesworth to conclude: "Hillel (c. 60 B.C.E. to 20 C.E.) was a Jewish genius and theologian who lived before and during Jesus' life (7/6 B.C.E. to 30 C.E.). His thought is so similar to Jesus' words that some scholars conclude, incorrectly, that Jesus was a disciple of Hillel" (The Historical Jesus; p. 18; 2008). Craig A. Evans also states: "The parallels between his (Jesus) teachings and activities and contemporary Judaism are so numerous that they fill more than 1500 pages in Paul Billerbeck’s commentary on the Gospels, a commentary based on comparisons with Talmudic and midrashic literature" (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewishness of the Gospels, p.2; html, pdf). And Evans also declares of the gospels overall that they "are Jewish to the core" (ibid., p.2).

The concepts of Christian theology are all rooted in Semitism at every aspect of the faith, thus the argument that Judeo-Christianity was influenced by any aspect of Greco-Roman paganism becomes almost laughable and quite absurd. The concept of resurrection was far removed from Greek thought than Judaic thought. The Greeks repudiated resurrection of the mortal body (discussed here). However, bodily resurrection was nothing new to Judaic theology, in fact, purely a product of Judaism and there are about as many resurrection miracles and theology based on resurrection found in Old Testament scripture as the New Testament (see Daniel 12:2; Ezekiel 37:1-12; Isaiah 26:19; 53:9-10; Psalm 16:10-11; 1 Kings 17:21-22; 2 Kings 4:32-37; 2 Kings 13:20-21), not to mention Jewish apocryphal scriptures (like 1 Enoch 51:1 and 4 Ezra 7:32). So even though Jesus' followers initially were not expecting a messianic resurrection, bodily resurrection was not at all a foreign concept to them. The New Testament writers equated Jesus' death and resurrection not to any pagan seasonal ideology, but as fulfilling the sacrificial lamb of Yom Kippur (see John 1:29, 1:36; Acts 8:32-35; Revelation 5:6) The Eucharist or Last Supper that took place in the gospels, eaten during the Passover feast itself (Matthew 26:19-21; Mark 14:16-18; John 13:1), is based on the Jewish Passover meal from the Exodus story (Exodus 12:1-13), a concept carried into the New Testament whereas Jesus is symbolized as the sacrificial lamb slain and eaten during that meal, as well as his blood spilled which represents the lamb’s blood spilled and smeared on the door post in the Exodus scene in order to escape death -- or in other words, his blood represented the "blood of the new covenant" (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:20). In John (6:31-35), Jesus referred to himself as the "the Bread of Life," symbolic of the manna in the Torah (Exodus 16:14-21) that was sent from heaven to feed the Israelites in the wilderness. In fact, all the Jewish festivals and practices that occurred throughout the Old Testament are argued as reflections of Christ's coming (see Matthew 5:17, 26:56; Luke 18:31, 24:25-27, 24:44; John 5:39, 5:46). Even the virgin birth in both Matthew and Luke's gospel is saturated with influences of Judaism, not paganism (examples: Matthew 1:22-23, 2:5-6, 2:15, 2:17-18, 2:23; Luke 1:32-35, 1:46-55, 1:57-59, 1:68-79, 2:21-24, 2:29-32 ). Hence the theology of Jesus’ virgin birth, life, death and resurrection portrayed in the gospels had no pagan association, but was thoroughly connected to Jewish themes and concepts.

Putting those issues aside, there are also unsolved questions that don't add up with this "heathen re-invention" theory. Why did they point out Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament ad nauseam -- particularly since many of these prophecies, which were politically conditional, contradicted the aftermath of the war of 70 CE, and directly correlated with the idea of a conquering hero enacting justice to the world, gathering the Jewish tribes, restoring Israel's preeminence, and ruling as a political king in Israel (here are examples of these prophecies from the Jewish scriptures they associated as fulfillments in Christ: Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 61:1-7; Psalm 110:-14; Zechariah 12:8-10; etc.)?

Why did Jesus address himself as "Son of Man" about 80 times in total in the four gospels, a term that was strictly rooted in Semitism (A. J. B. Higgins, Jesus and the Son of Man, pp.15-17; 2002. Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, pp.298-303; 2005.)?

Why did Jesus promise the disciples that they would sit on thrones at the end of the age and specifically judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30)?

Why did Jesus say in the gospel of John (4:22): "for salvation is from the Jews;" or instruct his disciples in the gospel of Matthew (10:5-7),"Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans, but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel;" or portray Gentiles metaphorically as "dogs" in the gospel of Mark (7:25-30)?

Much of Jesus' focus related in some way or another to his teachings about the Mosaic law, and just about every one of Jesus' debates or contentions with the religious authorities had something to do with this subject. Jesus stated things like, "if you want to enter into life keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23), "it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than a single dot of the law to pass away" (Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:16), or that his followers must keep the law even better than the scribes and Pharisees if they want to enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-20).

Why was the theme still focused on Judaism in the gospels if they are post-70 works when it had become insignificant to a non-Judaic Christian, or for that matter, anyone in the latter half of the first century who had witnessed the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, and Diaspora that ensued?

Aramaic traces, Jewish reflections, symbols, prophecies, concepts, and themes confirm the fact that the post-70/pre-70 CE gospel date debate is not only an obvious red herring that is inconclusive and open to refutation, but essentially irrelevant. The date of the gospel texts is a non-issue because, for the most part, the traditions found within the written gospels, or a good portion of these traditions, regardless of the date of the gospels themselves, stayed relatively intact as they had been passed onto the writers from the eyewitnesses who were around pre-70 CE
(Luke 1:1-2; 1 Corinthians 15:3-7), with nothing to suggest against the fact that they were still around even after. »

Skeptical Argument #4

Also, one should keep in mind that for decades the stories in the Gospels were handed down orally until someone decided to write them down. One only need to play the "telephone game" to understand how much different from the original the final copy would become. »

The perception also seems to be based on the assumption that the vast majority of the stories of Jesus, which contain very accurate historical detail, were legends or fictional epics mixed with historical fact instead of actual eyewitness accounts, which is just gross question begging unless this can be demonstrated. How many of us remember the events of 911 that happened so long ago in accurate detail? Now imagine how easy it would be to recall this detail if you compacted it into an outline you followed over and over each time you recalled it. There is no doubt that after ten years, post-911, the event is still vividly ingrained within the consciousness of every American eyewitness, and undoubtedly will be for the rest of their lives. And if you were to pick twenty people, having them retell the event, very little accuracy would be lost in their recollection.

In the first century, before the destruction of the Temple, typical Jewish boys were taught basic proficiency in rote learning of oral teaching. Whether this had any bearing on the disciples themselves, Jesus clearly, who wasn't just called "rabbi" repeatedly in the gospels for nothing, followed this rabbinic methodology of teaching, frequently using mnemonic devices such as parables, puns, exaggerated metaphors, similes, and poetic beatitudes, saturating his teachings with rich illustrations for easy remembrance and to aid his disciples and audience in retaining his teachings.

Just take a look at the extent of the Torah, or the Mosaic law, which Jews had to strictly adhere to on a daily basis, and was far more extensive than just the Ten Commandments, expanding across five Old Testament books -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy -- with such detailed information that were in most cases vital to everyday living and functionality, and you'll get an idea why this was especially essential to their expertise.

Now someone not familiar with the history of an oral culture might inevitably be disturbed by the traditional stories about Jesus passed down orally for years before they were actually recorded to written texts, much like the telephone game where information starts with one individual, then passes to another, getting twisted and convoluted once it reaches the last person. And indeed, this flawed analogy is very often argued verbatim for its effect. However, the telephone game is not applicable to this process, and is usually an argument from those who are indelibly attached to a modern and technological environment, bound by a completely different literary methodology, and with very little knowledge of the oral culture of the Near East. A more accurate comparison would be groups of people, instead of just one, relaying the message from one group to another, then having a monitor (Jewish apostles or elders -- Matthew 15:2; Luke 9:22; Acts 11:30; 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:17 -- in the case of the Christian church) able to compare and validate their versions, which is a far cry from just one individual misinterpreting what was said by another.

The idea that ancient communities were incapable of memorizing and recalling extended epics of even legendary narratives and sayings in such accurate detail has also since been debunked by scholars and anthropologists such as Albert B. Lord and Jan Vansina who noted fieldwork studies that found a wide variety of cultures that could preserve epics up to 25 hours sometimes performed over a number of days (J. P. Holding, On the Reliability of Oral Tradition, citing Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend, p.253). Muslim children even today are known to memorize all 6,200 verses of the Koran (Michael Luo, Memorizing the Way to Heaven, Verse by Verse; NY Times). There are about 678 verses in Mark.

Current scholars such as Kenneth Bailey, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn have also since debunked Rudolf Bultmann's theoretical argument about the development of the traditions of the gospels he called form criticism, proposed around the early 20th century, which suggests that the traditions vastly evolved over time or "in layers," whether oral or writ (though the theory specifically supports the latter). Current scholars, with a clearer understanding of Judean culture, frown on his analysis and have supplemented his ideas with a more accurate ancient oral methodology they often cite as formal controlled oral tradition. Bailey, who spent years studying Middle Eastern cultures, also shattered the false association with oral tradition to the "telephone game." He argues that oral tradition in theses cultures was and still is a highly efficient process which is performed by the elders in each community (note the passages we pointed out earlier about the prevalence of the elders in the Judeo-Christian church), only in Bailey's experience this was a community system, not just a system performed by religious authority. According to Bailey, since the community was involved, this was a very strict and controlled environment by which this process was carried out, and no one could recite the traditions other than whom the elders deemed qualified. There was some flexibility in how the traditions were told, but there was no inventing or adding "layers," and the sayings, parables, allegories were kept much more rigidly. Unless the traditions were recited accurately, the one reciting it was embarrassed and shamed by those in the community who corrected his error (Kenneth E. Bailey, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition).

It's remarkable how the assessment of how the gospel traditions developed still clings to arguments primarily rooted in 19-20th century theories of form and redaction criticism and postmodern perspectives of how we convey information, which falls outside the scope of Near Eastern culture and history, ignores vital evidence to the contrary, and is not current with the recent fieldwork research and opinions of the current professionals who argue different ways the traditions undoubtedly were preserved. »

Skeptical Argument #5

Oral mythology can form within days, or even hours, of the event: we saw this vividly with the events of 9/11, but that was in a community that had mass-media available: non-mass-media examples would include the "Cargo Cults" of World War Two, and the various legends that developed around George Washington during his life that were published one short year after his death. The Gospels themselves were collections and selective redactions of this oral material. The authors of the Gospels, as collections and redactions of written and oral sources, had not only the opportunity to selectively pick and choose which particular threads to publish, and which to ignore--they also had the "doctrinal needs" of the emerging Christian churches. »

Yes, oral tradition did circulate perhaps many years (though just how many years is based on pure supposition and speculation) before the gospel texts were conceived, and the oral process has often been a watershed for skeptics to use against any reliability of the traditions that eventually found there way into written texts. We could certainly expect telescoping of certain accounts over others, condensing of accounts, omission of accounts, even conflation. We could also assume that there was a certain amount of paraphrasing or rearranging at the discretion of each gospel either out of convenience, clarification of an account and its theological significance, or to emphasize particular viewpoints, and we also know that the latter is significant in most major historical material, even more so in religious material (though we would have to ignore the oldest tradition given by Papias, stating that Mark strictly kept to the oral teachings of Peter without such deviation). With that said, however, there is a line between bias and fiction, omission and invention, paraphrasing and fabricating, rearranging and embellishing, theological expression and falsification. We covered just how proficient this culture was in conveying and preserving oral tradition in the previous argument, so I won't elaborate, but oral transmission of tradition does not work in favor of a skeptical premise. It actually bolsters the apologetic and makes it more startling why these traditions were not corrected, enhanced, or exaggerated...

Why didn't they strike out the many things that made Jesus inferior to what a god should have been -- i.e. he didn't know a lot of things (he wasn't omniscient); he gave the impression that he wasn't good (he was a sinner); his inability to heal at times (he wasn't omnipotent); his refusal to show off his powers when provoked to do so by either supernatural adversaries or his opponents; his rejection by his family, his predecessor John the Baptist, his townsmen, some of his followers, and whole cities and towns, etc?

Why didn't they use Jesus to address pertinent issues that had arisen in the early church which we see illustrated at least once in either Acts or addressed in the epistles such as -- the Glossolalia (speaking in tongues); communion; church administration, policies, functions, and leadership; charity; divorce of non-Christian spouses; marriage of Christian evangelists; the Antichrist/man of wickedness; the political prospects of Israel; women in the ministry; resurrection of Christian believers; eating meats specifically offered to idols; circumcision; Jewish-Gentile unity, etc? In fact, the gospels seem counterproductive to some of these issues, particularly the latter issue, reflecting a disparaging view towards Gentles only when they are addressed. Why were the traditions told and preserved this way? 

Why weren't there more visuals of Jesus' actual resurrection? Why didn't we see him actually come out the tomb, glowing like an angelic being with fiery eyes? Why were the resurrection accounts in each gospel different, smothering any argument of collusion, yet quite lack luster in the events that occurred? Why was the account so mild and restrained compared to the later apocryphal works which were notorious for such fictional embellishments as Jesus descending into hell, the disciples floating up to heaven with Jesus, or Jesus carried out of the tomb by angels with walking crosses that we see saturating these later works? Why weren't the contradictions in the earlier works much more fictionally orientated? Why didn't Jesus ascend into heaven on a horse in one gospel, carried up by angels in another, and a flaming chariot in another?

We also covered this in another argument (here), yet these are things that we would expect of typical evolving and developing fiction, whether consciously or subconsciously, as the traditions are passed around orally in a haphazard environment as is sold to us by some. Yet this didn't happen. It didn't happen until the second century when the first century apostolic movement faded away long after the gospels were written, where we see a sudden explosion of apocryphal literature reflecting accounts that legends are typically made of.

As you can see, the oral tradition argument actually works against the skeptical view, because it doesn't follow a natural and logical course we would expect. Modifications and redactions as they passed from one person to another, or one community to another would have been impossible to avoid with individuals or whole communities unless there was quite a bit of oral proficiency in keeping these traditions restrained and controlled (also discussed here). What we've demonstrated shows that these traditions were in fact reliable and consistent when they were transmitted from word of mouth, and that the early Judeo-Christians who orally conveyed, preserved, and eventually transcribed these traditions to texts either resisted human nature to improve, embellish, and change the traditions, or didn't dare do so because of unfavorable repercussions because of this control. »

Skeptical Argument #6

Okay, maybe they were honest enough not to change the old traditions, but this doesn't mean they didn't just add to the old traditions with new theology about Christ's divinity when it became useful to do so, or when these ideas began to evolve and take shape in the church. »

This theory is similar to the previous issue we addressed and simply doesn't work, because the supposed embellishments (basically anything supernatural) saturates each gospel from cover to cover, in fact, 80% of the gospels traditions have something supernaturally related -- miracles, divine claims and proclamations, supernatural or divine intervention, etc. This is inconsistent with the patterns that show they resisted such natural urges to enhance or embellish the traditions which we pointed out previously. We cannot argue that invention and redactive processes occurred, the likes of which produced such embellishments as the virgin birth, conventional miracles, divine miracles, supernatural intervention, Jesus' divine claims within his lengthy dialogues, the resurrection, and the ascension that encompass 80% of these traditions on one hand, then contend with the conservative patterns they displayed against invention and embellishment throughout the traditions on the other.

Perhaps the authors themselves or the later scribes that copied their works went through these editorial redactions and additions, embellishments and inventions from copy to copy. Yet arguing that they were "adding to" the written texts doesn't logically explain why they left obvious problems they could have changed or omitted, or why they didn't exploit a lot of situations that could have enhanced the traditions, a natural and inevitable course we would expect of unrestrained creative redactors and embellishers. Thus the inconsistency here is still an issue and applies to written editors as it does to supposed oral editors. Those who argue this also might need to reconsider exactly how the copying process occurred in the ancient world. They didn't have copy and paste computer editing software or delete buttons. They didn't have IBM printing machines. Supposing someone had an inkling to tinker with the traditions and make changes, redactions, additions, omissions, a written copy had to be made from scratch, on a fresh piece of papyrus where the changes and redactions would have taken place. Thus the old copy would had to have been destroyed in order to hide the redactions in the new copy, something that we would not expect to have been a possibility (being that the church that preserved the source copy would have undoubtedly done so guardedly).

Textual criticism

With this in mind, Textual Criticism is the methodology of spotting any such changes that would have occurred with each manuscript copy by comparing the oldest copies we have. Textual criticism indeed shows that there are literally hundreds of thousands of variants between the oldest manuscripts, yet most of which are just errors or scribal mistakes. There are no traces of gospels in any sort of covert editing processes or stages that could explain the 80% we described previously, other than a couple of questionable passages like the ending of Mark or the adulteress in John's gospel (two of the biggest), and yet these types of variants, which are rare, are apparent to us thanks to textual criticism methodology. 

Most of us familiar with apologetics have heard that there are more than 5,000 copied Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and copies also written in Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages, totaling about 24,000 hand written manuscript copied portions of both fragments and full manuscripts of the New Testament in existence, all dating from about the late second century up to the advent of the printing press. The fear is that not only do we not have the originals, and though we have few scattered fragments from the second century, the earliest significant copies we do posses start at about 200 CE and later -- a gap of unknowns of about 130-200 years. Yet the key factor in all this is that a large portion of the manuscript fragments are derived from different sources. We know that copies of the New Testament, particularly the gospels, were circulating en masse in the second century, which I discussed in detail in one of my other articles (here). This is evident by the many references of the gospels by different sources of the second century in different locations from Egypt, to Turkey, to Rome, so even though we don't have these early physical copies in our possession (some fragments we have from the second century, but most date to about 200 CE and later), we have their descendant copies. The Greek manuscripts alone are basically broken up into three distinct categories: Alexandrian (200-900 CE), Western (300-900 CE), and Byzantine (500-1200 CE) texts, which are based on distinct and independent lines of text, meaning that they not only vary in style and form, but in key textual areas, indicating they were copied from three different source trees.

Imagine the original works like seeds that were planted in a forest -- first century -- then once these seeds sprouted into trees, seedlings are gathered from the trees and scattered around a second forest, but of course since the owners of the original trees consider the trees sacred they are guardians of those first trees and certainly won't allow those trees to be destroyed. Then more seedlings are gathered not just from the first trees but the second trees and taken to a third forest and scattered around. Seedlings are then taken from the first, second, and third trees and scattered around a fourth forest, and on and on. As we pointed out, the second century was like a forest of a variety of these trees that sprouted from the original trees of the first forest, and though the original trees have not survived or even the earliest descendant trees from the second forest, we have some fragmented leaves from the various branches of these early ancestors, and a variety of descendant trees from the third and fourth forest. Textual criticism is the science of studying and comparing these leaves and trees in order to see where they vary and determine what the originals may have looked like. Though there's an open window of uncertainty between the originals and about the beginning of the third century, thanks to textual criticism, it would have been impossible to make redactions and then keep those redactions covert, because it would have been impossible to manage those redactions with the sheer circulation of copies that would have occurred in between that gap of unknowns.

Thus we would have to theoretically assume 80% redaction and embellishment somehow went totally unnoticed or was a result of some covert conspiracy very early on which isn't remotely tenable. »

Skeptical Argument #7

Additionally, we can see that the early church did not benefit from a "controlled and formal" oral transmission of the Gospel--too many of the letters of Paul and the early church fathers are written to correct error, to argue against texts considered spurious or false, or to counteract heresy. »

The church fathers were addressing issues that were occurring in the second century and beyond, long before the traditions were already transcribed to texts. Most of what Paul was addressing were issues of formality and conduct (sometimes theology), not the specific Jesus-traditions that were laid out in the gospels. Paul did not address much of anything that is directly related to the gospels, therefore there were obviously no problems or contentions with the traditions he needed to address. Conversely, the gospels don't address any of the issues Paul addressed, which we discussed previously (here). The only apologetic he seemed to make was in his Corinthian letter about the resurrection, but on careful examination, the Corinthians were clearly not doubting Jesus' resurrection. Instead they (or more specifically "some among them") were questioning resurrections of Christian believers in general, a theology the gospels don't address specifically, but an eschatological theology that Paul taught quite extensively in other areas of his letters (discussed here).

Skeptical Argument #8

Mark doesn't even include a resurrection appearance because most scholars agree that his gospel ends at 16:8 with the women fleeing in fear, and the rest being added by a later interpolator. This shows that the resurrection legend developed as time went on, a gradual evolution if you will, where Matthew and Luke copying Mark added their own embellishments to the story. And finally John which is the latest gospel, and is more detailed about the resurrection than the others. »

Since two of the oldest copied manuscripts we have of the gospel of Mark, the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dated around the fourth century don't include anything after chapter 16:8, in the scope of textual criticism, it is believed by scholars that the original gospel of Mark actually ended there, and all other subsequent verses (16:9-20) were added in the second century. Yet another factor that makes this so damning to the skeptic is that Mark's gospel actually ends with the tomb discovery of the women and nothing more, with no resolve to make up for such an unfavorable scenario. In other words, there is no male interaction or vindication in Mark to make up for this social disparity of women both showing-up the men, and men viewed as faithless cowards, which becomes even more of a glaring problem for those who believe Mark was actually the first gospel written.

In any event, Mark indicates that the women ran from the tomb in fear and did not say "anything to any man," and this is supposedly where it is believed his gospel ends and the interpolation begins. Yet the other three gospels obviously contradict the fact that the women told others, thus we have a few options here: 

  1. This is a contradiction.
  2. It was a specific point Mark was making.
  3. Mark perhaps meant that they told "no man" outside of Jesus' following.
  4. Mark's gospel did not end here, but he either ran out of space, couldn't finish it, or the rest of it was lost.

#1-2 are moot points because we have no way to confirm if this was all there was to his gospel, and just because one story may have ended where the others continued certainly doesn't equate to a contradiction by omission anyway. As I will point out in detail later on in other arguments, there are obvious gaps of time and missing information in all the accounts of the resurrection. If #3 is true, perhaps Mark's gospel did not really end here. Let's face it, for the women not to tell the disciples would not only have been blatant disobedience against specific instructions from the angel of the Lord -- a rather bad example of religious obedience -- but to assume their total silence ever after doesn’t make much sense.

This is often why skeptics ritualistically cling to Markan priority. Assuming that Mark is the earliest, they can then suppose that there really wasn't much of a resurrection story prior to Mark or it was just beginning to evolve, and the other subsequent gospels simply came along, copied it from Mark and added embellishments along the way. But this is a rather silly and pointless argument to make. In addition to the angel's declaration of Jesus' resurrection, Mark wanted his readers to know that something obviously occurred at the tomb which left the women terrified, inevitable reports of Jesus' missing body which obviously ensued, and the eventual declaration that he was alive -- the resurrection -- which was at the traditional core of the Christian movement long before Mark was supposedly even written, and goes as far back as the "Resurrection Creed" in Paul's letter (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), which was a creed that scholars believe goes back even earlier than Paul's letter (see Francis Beckwith, William L. Craig and James P. Moreland, To Everyone an Answer: a Case for the Christian worldview, pp.182-183. R. E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p.81. Thomas Sheehan, First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, pp. 110, 118. Renald Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, p.10. Craig A. Evans, Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus (pdf) (html), p.12. Phil Fernandes, No Other Gods, p.241; 2002). If Mark's account was all there was to the tradition that started the whole Christian movement, or particularly if Mark was making this tradition up to sell the story, he would have certainly expounded on the resurrection, not left it dangling at the worst possible point. So arguing that this was all there was to the tradition starting at Mark because it was a legend and then it took off and evolved from that point on in the subsequent gospels is a logical absurdity, even if Mark did come first (which is still a speculation in itself, not a proven fact).

Obviously Mark indicates to us that the appearances occurred in Galilee with the angel's declaration that such appearances would ensue. Based on common sense, the resurrection tradition was obviously known in full prior to Mark (perhaps this is just more evidence that he was not the first gospel after all?) and Mark was merely summarizing and felt no need to fill in the rest (maybe he had limited time or papyrus space?). Of course, we’re still under the assumption here that Mark intended on ending his gospel this way, as opposed to him either not being able to finish it or perhaps the ending being lost (a missing codex?), or damage to the manuscript itself, options that certainly can't be ruled out as explanations. Nonetheless, it is more than obvious that Mark was building off resurrection tradition appearances that were already known in full prior.

While some early manuscript copies of Mark don't have anything after 16:8, other manuscript copies actually have different endings at 16:8 than the one that is standard in all bibles today. So we can only assume with uncertainty that everything after 16:8 was in fact a later interpolation, then proceed to speculate whether Mark planned on abruptly ending it at 16:8, and then proceed to further speculate either why he did end it at that point, or if it was instead a result of precipitating circumstances either with Mark himself (martyrdom before he could finish?), damage to the actual manuscript, or some other reason for its abrupt end. »

Skeptical Argument #9

Mark says that Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb. Matthew says it was the two Mary's. John says it was just Magdalene. Did these guys just leave women out? Seems like sloppy history to me. Doubting Thomas is found no where but in John. Either these guys have a short memory or they are fabricating data. In short, to much legend is found in the empty tomb story. If the story were true, the accounts would have been harmonized. »

Contradictions are always a skeptic's delight, and rest assured, you will most likely hear this brought up in every argument and in every debate about the resurrection. Yet one might want to think twice about using this as skepticism against the story, because contrary to what they seem to believe, this actually does not work in their favor. There have been no short of attempts to reconcile the accounts, but that isn't my purpose here. My main focus is the accusation that the contradictions actually indicate fabrication and legend was involved.

Nothing could be further from the facts. Other than the angel sightings, which Mark and Luke just call "men" (Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4), the accounts are strangely mild and lackluster compared to some of the apocryphal works that embellished the accounts later. Though there are no doubt discrepancies here and there, there were no debates about the essentials: who discovered the empty tomb first (Mary Magdalene was in each description of the women involved, and Mary the mother of James was in the three synoptics as well), when it was discovered (after the weekly Sabbath), the fact that the tomb was empty and the body was gone before the women arrived, that no one saw the actual resurrection take place or how it happened, that the angelic visitations preceded Jesus' appearances, that the angels were used to give them hope and to reassure their bewilderment before his appearances, what form Jesus was in as illustrated by Matthew, Luke, and John (which was in some sort of physical state, thus could be examined and handled, and in his typical recognizable state as before), and how he left (the gospels either recorded his ascension or left it out all together, yet there were no conflicts on how he left). 

The mistake most people make, in addition to many Christians, is assuming the gospel authors are all telling the same chronological story from beginning to end. The resurrection is obviously not told from one narrative point of view or a story that was fabricated as a legend by one person or an organized group of individuals. The resurrection reflects scattered pieces of eyewitness accounts about those who experienced the same event, but experienced things at different times, in different ways, and in different places. If four people were interviewed about 911, and their plane stories conflicted, they would obviously have enough information that could be pieced together to form a reasonable scenario. There are some discrepancies, but there are stark similarities, which reflect huge gaps of time and missing information as would be expected from an eyewitness event (Matthew mentions two women arrive at the tomb, while Mark mentions the same two women with an extra woman, is a perfect example). Also, some things about the resurrection story may have been omitted, condensed, or conflated for oral preservation, and/or they were focusing only on the essentials (possibly John focusing on Magdalene only, as an example), or the authors were giving eyewitness perspectives perhaps that the particular community hadn't heard before.

It's funny how the duplications in each gospel are always used in favor of textual-dependency (that Mark was copied by Matthew and Luke) on one hand, yet differences are then used to prove their unreliability on the other. This inconsistency itself shows the flaw in textual-dependency.

  • If Matthew was copying Mark, why did Matthew only list two initial witnesses, the two women, when Mark listed three? If the argument that Matthew emphasizing the Jewish law about the adequacy of "two female witnesses," this is a silly contrivance in spite of the Jewish law, as three women were just as adequate as two, or he could have just included a man to affirm the witness? Why did Luke exclude the names of the women all together?
  • Why did Matthew seemingly resort to unnecessary spiritual dramatics by recording the angel descending from heaven to roll the stone away in sight of the women, when he actually had Jesus appear to the women themselves shortly after without any spiritual dramatics?
  • Why did Mark and Luke simply call the angels "men" instead of angels? If Luke was copying Mark, why did he record two men instead of one? And if Luke had this gumption to embellish an extra man from Mark, why didn't he call them "angels" to clear up any ambiguity or misconceptions of grave robbery or just add extra religious spice?
  • Why did Luke imply a separate appearance occurred to Peter, but left this appearance out? Mark also implies special attention to Peter with what the angel says -- "tell the disciples and Peter."

Point is, if they were copying each other, why did they stick to the outline at times, sometimes verbatim, yet diverge in areas that weren't necessary, in some cases ever slightly, which would have only caused unneeded conflict? And if they were embellishing the account without the worry of being consistent, why didn't they spice it up in areas they easily could have? The inconsistency here is very strange and inexplicable in light of a textual-dependency criterion and especially in light of a supposed argument that embellishments were occurring to explain these discrepancies.

Yet while the divergences between the four accounts frustrate collusion and textual-dependency, both the stark similarities and mild nature of the stories discourage total fabrication. If the four resurrection traditions were fabricated or even embellished by different individuals, or different communities, there would have been even gross contradictions and conflicts than there is. Women in both the Judean and Greco-Roman culture were second class citizens when it came to eyewitness testimony. Yet not only is Magdalene connected to all four accounts, but each gospel describes the women as the first to discover the empty tomb, and essentially the first evangelical ministers of the resurrection story. On top of that, the men, the ones who would become the heroes and saints of the Christian church, are not only shown-up by the women, but recorded as faithless cowards to boot. If embellishment and fabrication was occurring, you'd expect a different outcome with such fabricated and embellished stories, much less with just one author who was supposedly editorializing his own version of the story -- why an appearance to Peter was not recorded when there are clear insinuations of this from Mark (16:7), Luke (24:33-34), and Paul (1 Corinthians 15:4-5) is unfathomable in this case.

Why was there even a tomb in each story since it was not the catalyst that convinced anyone he had risen? Not only did no one believe he had risen as a result, but the tomb may have opened up a Pandora's Box and invited other unwanted theories about why the body was missing, particularly since none of them illustrated any visuals of Jesus actually rising from the dead to counter this misconception and put emphasis on the miraculous. Indeed Magdalene's first assumption was that someone simply removed the body from the tomb (John 20:15), and Mark, who supposedly came first, didn't even include anything to resolve this problem.

Why weren't there many more scattered sightings by different individuals, like the Emmaus men only recorded in Luke, especially since the earliest tradition was that there were dozens if not hundreds of eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)?

Why weren't there encounters by Jesus to his opponents, or the authorities like Pilate, Herod, the Roman troops, the Sanhedrin, or even Caesar himself (vengeance, poetic justice, and haughty displays of power and authority over one's enemies is a natural tendency with embellished and fabricated legends)?

Why weren't there any visuals of Jesus actually rising from the dead?

Why weren't there more discrepancies of lavish fiction -- why didn't one gospel state he left to heaven on a white horse, one gospel state he was carried off by angels, and another state he left in a fiery chariot (a la Elijah)?

Other than the angels, why weren't the scenes more fantastic, ladened with theology, miracles, and spiritual or religious elements than they were -- elements that were clearly enhanced and exaggerated in some of the later apocryphal gospels in the second and later centuries (i.e. Questions of Bartholomew, Gospel of Peter, etc.)?

These issues clearly show that the accounts were connected to a core event, just a bit scattered like any eyewitness account would be, yet the accounts were strangely restrained from exaggeration or things we would expect of a story being embellished and fabricated in an ancient world where these illustrations were typical. In other words, the discrepancies discourage textual-dependency and indicate that there was no conspiracy of collusion, while the stark similarities conversely indicate an actual eyewitness account, only told from various eyewitness perspectives. The stark similarities in key areas and the mild lackluster nature of the stories (compared to later apocryphal literature) works against outright embellishment and fabrication, while the discrepancies work against outright collusion. »

Skeptical Argument #10

The gospel accounts of the resurrection may be connected to a common core, but the inescapable fact is that they badly contradict each other, particularly the locations, with conflicting appearances of Jesus which occur in Galilee and Jerusalem. »

First of all, as was mentioned in the previous argument, it becomes clear on examination that we have scattered bits and pieces of an event that is not in any particular chronological order, at least after the empty tomb discovery. Most importantly, there are gaps of time and information in each gospel account. Though Luke's first male witnesses were the two men from Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), this does not mean they were actually the first male witnesses to Jesus' appearances, in fact, according to what they communicate to others, at some point, Jesus had already appeared to Peter (Simon) prior to their encounter (an appearance that is not recorded in any gospel, yet may be the appearance that Paul mentioned in his Corinthian letter 15:5).

Matthew seems to imply that the meeting in Galilee was not Jesus' first appearance, since he indicates Jesus had already "appointed them" to meet him, and though it's highly possible that Matthew was referring to the command the angel and Jesus gave to the women prior, it's also possible that there was an appearance not recorded by Matthew, and Jesus had appointed them directly himself (Matthew 28:16).

In any event, most likely there was an appearance at Jerusalem before Galilee as indicated in both Luke and John. In John (20:19), the appearance behind locked doors was his first, yet John does not specify where this occurred. John then records another nondescript appearance behind closed doors "eight days later" (another indication of a time gap), where Thomas confirms the resurrection proclamation for himself (John 20:26-29). We can certainly assume this was the same appearance behind locked doors that Luke also records (Luke 24:36-40), just not specifically mentioning Thomas, which was at Jerusalem. John (21:1-14) then goes on to record the appearance in Galilee (also discussed here). It seems more than apparent the first appearances occurred at Jerusalem, which Matthew omits, most likely because the disciples doubted the reports of the resurrection at first, thus ignored the command given by the angel to the women to meet him in Galilee (could this be why Mark left this out as to omit the unfaithful actions of the disciples?).    

Scenario:

The disciples were racked with so much unbelief that they disobeyed the order to meet Jesus at Galilee, so Jesus appeared to them at Jerusalem first, recorded by Luke and John (first two encounters in John), then "appointed them" himself to meet him in Galilee, where Matthew and John 21 picks up. Once again, the discrepancies, the missing gaps and pieces, with enough similarities to connect them to a core event gives a feel of independent and scattered eyewitness accounts, not embellishments, or a unified fabricated legend. »

Skeptical Argument #11

Nice try with rationalization of the resurrection contradictions. But Luke has Jesus ascend from Bethany, while Mark, Matthew, and John have him ascend from Galilee. »

This is demonstrably false. Though we don't deny discrepancies and errors here and there, Matthew and John do not record Jesus' ascension. Therefore, nothing suggests that the meeting at the end of Matthew (28:16-20) and John (21:1-23) in Galilee was his "last" meeting before he ascended. Luke describes the ascension, and in each case they are on the Mount of Olive in Bethany (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-12).

Contrary to what some might assume or try and infer, Jesus did not ascend the very same day he had reportedly resurrected. The resurrection gives the distinct appearance of a compilation of scattered eyewitness accounts, instead of one chronological legendary story (also discussed here). How do we know there are time and information gaps between the four?

Luke records in his second work -- Acts -- that Jesus was with them for over a period of a month, post-resurrection (Acts 1:3). However, in his first work -- Luke -- he gives the impression that it is one continuous day. Obviously he would not have contradicted himself in his own two works.

John indicates an eight day gap between his first appearance and his second with Thomas involved (John 20:24-29).

Paul seems to record appearances that are absent from the gospels (1 Corinthians 15:5-7), yet records an appearance to Peter that may coincide with Luke (24:33-34).

Also, consider that there were far more disciples than just the original eleven and the women who were not only his disciples (Luke 10:1), but who were eyewitnesses to his resurrection, in fact, Luke indicates there were 120 disciples who had been with Jesus from start to finish, during and after his ministry (Acts 1:12-22). And notice that this meeting was an exclusive meeting made up of followers who undoubtedly met certain criteria since it was held to fill the vacancy left by Judas Iscariot as the twelfth disciple -- which may indicate that there were more witnesses who did not meet this criteria (i.e., Paul records that there were 500 witnesses to resurrection -- 1 Corinthians 15:6). 

So not only do the authors record different appearances at different times, but there are appearances not fully accounted for and obvious omissions, particularly in Luke, so indeed there are gaps of time and missing information, and the appearances are scattered throughout the gospels in places such as Jerusalem, Emmaus, mountains in Galilee, the sea of Tiberius, Bethany, etc. The incident in John (21:1-3) where Peter and the other disciples decide to go fishing also logically implies a time lapse, since it would be unreasonable to assume that the disciples would have had the urge to fish on the SAME day Jesus appeared to them in the locked room.

And since we know he was with them for over a month, this suggests scattered eyewitness accounts like any other genuine eyewitness account involving multitudes witnesses, accounts from different perspectives, some discrepancies here and there, gaps of missing information because they met in multiple places over a span of a considerable amount of time. On top of that, we also need to consider the methodology of oral tradition, where the accounts may have been conflated, condensed, things omitted, certain situations highlighted above other situations, etc. Therefore the so-called problem of meticulous chronology that some try and impose might be a problem for precise inerrantists, but in reality, it is a non-issue. »

Skeptical Argument #12

The first century Jews in Judea were influenced by Hellenization, making them less devoted to Judaism and more susceptible to esoteric cult influences like Christianity. »

The idea is that either Judeo-Christianity was extremely isolated from its Judaic roots, thus more susceptible to these influences, or Greek culture so overrode first century Judaism, even in areas of religion and theology, that it set the stage for a Judaic sect, particularly driven by Paul, to adapt an idea of a deified Christ-Savior, which was an amalgamation of Jewish and Eastern mystic ideas and concepts reflecting off other mythological Greek-type saviors.

The infiltration of Hellenism in Judea has never really been in dispute as far as linguistics, something that is more than obvious. How it affected Judaism on a religious and theological level has been the area of dispute. Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann were among the pioneers at the forefront of the amalgamation of Hellenistic mysticism and Judaic culture in regards to its influences on Christianity, and needless to say, has been greatly exaggerated mostly by the skeptical fringe that take their views and run wild with it, expounding and even exaggerating these influences even more in order to explain this mysterious and improbable Christ-deity formulation out of Judaism. Hellenization of Christianity is more apropos with 19th and 20th century scholars before the advent of archeological discoveries of the latter twenties. Current skeptics notorious for perpetuating this outdated idea, like Freke and Gandy, are only able to produce one obscure Hellenized Jewish philosopher -- Philo, who arguably mixed his brand of theology with Hellenization and ancient mysticism as a type of bridge between these philosophies and fundamental Judaism, and they will bring his name up consistently in their arguments for this reason.

The main problem with this is not only that it must lift arguments that were predominantly endorsed from the 19th to the early 20th century, and that it is unknown how popular and influential Philo's ideas actually were since we don't find these beliefs expressed prominently in any other works such as Josephus (though Josephus mentions Philo, he says close to nothing about how influential his works were other than his skill in philosophy), but that they are unable to pinpoint such Hellenized traces of messianism so easily in more conventional Judean sources during the pre-Christian era and the first century, such as the Qumran scrolls, Jewish scripture, and Hebrew canon and apocryphal scripture (Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Book of Judith, Book of Tobit, Book of Baruch, etc.), parallels that are found between these sources and the New Testament -- particularly linguistic and theological terminology -- which shows that the New Testament writers, though distinct, were rooted in first century Judaism in a similar manner as any other type of literature of that era. This has been especially noted with the Qumran (Dead Sea) scrolls (see James H. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus, p.18, 49-50. Craig A. Evans, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewishness of the Gospels, html, pdf. James C. VanderKam, Peter W. Flint, The meaning of the Dead Sea scrolls, pp.321, 330-341. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea scrolls and Christian origins), which even led some to errponeously assume direct connections between early Christianty and this Qumran community, which has since been debunked (Fitzmyer, ibid., pp.26-27. VanderKam, Flint, ibid., pp.326-330, 330). In other words, the New Testament writers shared a common Jewish heritage and culture as the Qumran Jews, their contemporary counterparts who unquestionably represent a form of first century Judaism.

There is also no shortage of scholars who have pinpointed a distinct Aramaic substratum deeply rooted underneath the Greek language in all four gospels, including scholars like Martin Hengel himself (Studies in the Gospel of Mark, p.46), who became one of the leading scholars on Hellenization of ancient Judea, not to mention the fact that Judaism is at the core of the gospel tradition and theology in almost every respect (discussed in detail here). Though Hengel probably had more of an affinity towards the infiltration of Hellenism in Judea than some of his other current scholarly peers, he has been extremely critical of even his most esteemed predecessors such as Bultmann and his claims that Judeo-Christianity was a sectarian cult isolated from the rest of Judaism, views that Hengel calls "anti-Jewish sentiment of German Idealism" (Conflicts and Challenges in early Christianity, p.5. Paul between Damascus and Antioch, p.283). Hengel states…

 

"Bultmann’s basic remarks on the syncretistic form of the early Christology of the 'Hellenistic' community can in no way be verified from the historical religious sources for the first half of the first century in Syria… Among other things, he refers to the 'idea of son deities, upon whom cultic worship was bestowed and who were regarded as saviours'… The 'Redeemer figure is akin' to these 'divine figures whose origin lies in ancient vegetation gods… to the extent that in that figure the paradox that a divine being should become man and suffer a human fate is most emphatically expressed'… But nothing of the kind is the case. No pagan alienation of the new faith took place immediately after Easter – where and when is not asked about in this kind of 'historical-critical' work – nor did Paul, the former Pharisee who observed the law strictly, throw himself unrestrainedly into its arms." (Paul, p.282).   

 

The apostle Paul, whose devout Phariseeism is typically disregarded, is oft exclusively targeted as the chief conveyor of this Hellenistic amalgamation, based on his obvious Greek upbringing and choice evangelism exclusively "to the Gentiles," yet not only is the rift between Paul and the other apostles greatly exaggerated in this case, but Hengel doesn’t see much significance in this either…

 

"By contrast, it must be asserted emphatically that all the elements of Pauline theology, in so far as they have not been shaped by the apostle himself – and their proportion should not be over-estimated – come from the abundantly rich Jewish tradition of his time." (Paul, p.282-283).

 

As noted earlier, though very few scholars dismiss the obvious influences of koinē Greek and even stark aspects of Hellenistic culture throughout Judea, which is more than evident in archeology, that just may the extent of it, to which Hengel confers...

 

"From this thesis I would conclude first of all the following: It could be that whatever pagan influences have been suspected in the origins of Christianity were mediated without exception by Judaism. For one can nowhere prove the direct influence of pagan cults or non-Jewish thought on early Christianity. What is described in the New testament as Hellenistic could very well stem from Jewish sources that remained embedded in the religious koinē, the common religious language of the Hellenistic period" (Conflicts and Challenges, p.2-3). 

 

And even though Hengel's views of Hellenistic influences on the early Christian movement were less radical than his predecessors and those who exaggerated their views, there have been current scholars who have challenged even Hengel's more mild views, such as W. D. Davies and Larry Hurtado. Hurtado argues…

 

"In the continuing experience of devout Jews in the religious environment of the ancient Near East in the Persian period and thereafter, an exclusivist monotheism became so fully identified with Jewish piety that by the Roman period failure to maintain such a stance was perhaps the greatest sin possible for a Jew. It is likely that the religious crisis generated in the second century BCE by the attempt of Antiochus IV to impose a programmatic religious and cultural assimilation of the Jews made devoutly traditionalist Jews thereafter even more sensitive to any challenge to the exclusivity of the God of Israel." (Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, p.30).

 

Davies argues that there was no inconsistency between the rabbinic sources regarding the leaders of the Pharisees from the time of the Maccabean revolt and the non-rabbinic sources, such as the New Testament and Josephus, and states that not only were the Jews even at Alexandria especially devout, where Hellenism thrived prominently, but that the Pharisees had a dominating role in first century Judean culture, with powerful influences both in the community and politics (Louis W.D. Davies, Louis Finkelstein, The Cambridge history of Judaism: Volume 2, p.245-277), and indeed we not only see the predominant influences of the Pharisees throughout the gospels and Acts, but their careful monitoring of Jesus and his activities in regards to Judaism.

I have to say, the best way to determine the religious devotion in first century Judea is from the ancients who had a front row seat, such as the works of Josephus, Acts, and yes, the gospels. And the clear illustration we see of second Temple Jews from these works, both of the Hellenistic and Hebrew classes, both at Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean regions, was that of radical fundamentalism, and that they were no more swayed from their conservative views of a "pristine" Judaism and their heritage than a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim living today in Afghanistan could be swayed from his devotion to Islam. Even the Judeo-Christians themselves were obviously not easily swayed from these conservative views, as we see this amplified not only in the book of Acts, but in Paul's letters where he is continuously on the defensive about the churches falling away from Grace and faith and back into Judaic practice, as well as the pressures from other external Jewish Christian influences, even at Antioch (Acts 15:1-2; Galatians 2:1-2). Ironically, often times the very same people who argue Christianity began with Paul, use this very Judaic fundamentalism in the early Christian church to try and interpolate a rift between the Judeo-Christian's beliefs and Paul's beliefs, and I couldn’t agree more. Only the rift was about formality, strictly adhering to Judaism (specifically circumcision), with no indication at all that there were any disputes about theology or Jesus-tradition per se (discussed in more detail here).

Bottom line, not only is the verdict still out on the influences and locality of Hellenism, but current scholarship has shifted away from any sectarian religious and theological influences on Judeo-Christians to more of a general linguistic and cultural influence on Judaism as a whole of which early Christianity was apart of, aside from what I pointed out about the new discoveries in archeology and their understanding of the New Testament text in relation to other Jewish extrabiblical works of that era. Moreover, probably the biggest problems Hellenization theorists face is that:

  • It does not answer how and why Christianity spread among those who were still devoted to Judaism in the first few decades of the movement.
  • It does not answer why they chose to worship a man as the Jewish Messiah they were expecting, and a Savior who was killed in the most degrading and humiliating fashion an ancient could be killed.
  • It does not answer why they picked this particular Jew from Nazareth out of the pool of literally thousands of better Jewish candidates to propel into stardom and use as the divine delegate of this new Judean creed.

Arguing radical Hellenistic influences only attempts (and obviously very poorly) to provide the paint that had supposedly formed out of Judaism used on the canvas of Jesus to explain his messianic and theological relevance to the early Judeo-Christian church, yet it still miserably fails to explain their choice of canvas in the first place.

Even in face of a distorted view of this theory, it still does not explain why Jews picked Jesus to herald as a resurrected Savior-Messiah when he had said nothing or had nothing to offer that was either exceptionally unique to Judaism, than say -- Hillel, Shammai, John the Baptist, or Gamaliel -- but offered nothing in the way of political liberation, which was a messianic hope and expectation on the mind of just about every Jewish pre-Christian writer, as well as every Jew before, during, and after his era (detailed discussion here). Nothing exceptional, that is, apart from a claimed miracle that occurred after his death given to us in the New Testament. In fact, Jesus offered nothing politically for Israel at all, in contrast to so many other patriotic and passionate Jewish rebels who came before, during, and after, many of whom were also heralded messiahs by their followers, such as movements lead by Judas the Galilean which came before Jesus and that Josephus classified as a "philosophical sect" on par with even the Pharisees and Sadducees (Josephus, War, 2.8.1 and Ant. 18.1.1). It does not explain why they would paint such broad theology on a man who died one of the most disgraceful and humiliating ancient deaths above and beyond better choices of great Jewish teachers and influential men of his era who either did not die this way, or at least attempted to achieve the political goals they were expecting, most of whom also had rather sizable followings, expressed utmost allegiance and honor to Israel and the Jewish people, and who all advocated devotion to God and moral living just the same.

Hence is why far fringe skeptics like Robert Price, Acharya, Freke, and Gandy defy mainstream scholarship and history and continue to propagate the complete mythology of Jesus, because this is much more compatible with the distorted Hellenization theory, and a much easier hurdle to cross. »

Skeptical Argument #13

It’s simple. Here’s the scenario: Jesus was an apocalyptic figure who thought he would usher in God’s kingdom like so many other ambitious Jews of his time, only he was a bit less radical and violent. He obviously failed, only to meet his miserable demise. Some of his followers, perhaps feeling remorseful, carried on his teachings, others even claimed sightings here and there, resurrection rumors swirled and grew, and as time went on, the teachings gradually evolved away from apocalyptic teachings and more towards a spiritual movement with teachings of “love thy neighbor.” Eventually the movement shifted away from Jews towards Hellenized Gentiles - we see this conflict played out in the New Testament - the theology also evolved which then took shape into written gospels. As more time went on, this movement flourished not only because it was based on a verifiable historical figure, but because the communities were sharing their wealth and possessions like hippie communes which was an attractive hedge against circumstances like famine, poverty, or those who just didn’t have a capacity to earn a decent living, in addition to its ethics and rich spiritual mysticisms of Christ-Saviors, which gelled nicely with the surrounding environment of pantheon gods and demigods, in addition to heavenly promises of rewards (eternal life) and unavoidable punishment. »

This is truly one of the most thoughtful scenarios offered from most skeptical arguments I’ve heard to explain the formation of Christianity. Unfortunately this is probably the best skeptical scenario I’ve heard and yet it still has major problems. I’ve already touched on most of the problems in detail which are scattered throughout the other arguments in this section, so I’ll just briefly expound on a few.

The main problem is that it is not specific enough, thus it glosses over issues with just generalities which is why it sounds convincing, but when we probe into the details, deeper and more complicated problems are weeded out, such as the issue of how the resurrection belief started in the first place. To gloss over historical detail, such as the second Temple Jewish community this supposed scenario spawned in is a generality that grossly misconstrues this culture. Also, to dismiss the tomb burial described in the gospels as outright fiction is just begging the question that runs against historical fact, but this sort of becomes necessary to avoid other issues. Even without the gospel story, we know just based on common sense that Jesus’ corpse had to be disposed somewhere, thus it was most likely buried in a tomb since a tomb burial was integral to second Temple Judean burial rites and practices (discussed here), much like casket burials in the west have become the standard burial norm. We also know that Paul and others believed Jesus was buried and then bodily resurrected afterward (discussed here), and was then seen alive by multiple eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). In that Corinthian passage, Paul was reciting a traditional creed that a vast number of scholars date much earlier than Paul’s actual letter, well within a decade of the event (Francis Beckwith, William L. Craig and James P. Moreland, To Everyone an Answer: a Case for the Christian worldview, pp.182-183. R. E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p.81. Thomas Sheehan, First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, pp. 110, 118. Renald Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, p.10. Craig A. Evans, Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus - pdf html, p.12. Phil Fernandes, No Other Gods, p.241; 2002). In other words, a creed was a type of standard doctrine often proclaimed as an oath or sung as hymns by other Christians, either individually or collectively. Such details are obviously left out in the argument above. Who removed Jesus’ corpse from the tomb, what happened to it, what led to the belief he had resurrected, and how did this lead to actual appearances that he was alive? The first set of issues faces some rather difficult obstacles, being that the traditional Jewish burial rite was a major issue in this culture (Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, chap VI. Bruce Chilton, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, p. 442-444. Rachel Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period, p.302. McCane, Roll Back the Stone, p.29-40. Craig A. Evans,  The Historical Jesus: Jesus' mission, death, and Resurrection, p.259-261), thus we must solve what happened to the body, and why his family and friends weren’t concerned of its whereabouts? A missing corpse was nothing casual to them. Not only did a Jew and a corpse equal defilement, but the body of a crucified individual had to remain buried, otherwise Jews believed the entire land was cursed as per their law (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), something that even Josephus confirmed was done in the first century by the Jews under Roman rule (Josephus, War 4.5.2). Thus a corpse that was removed from a tomb and had gone missing would have been a major issue to the whole community of Jews whether among friends, relatives, and even foes. Had the body still been inside the tomb, then it would have been dismissed as a delusion from the very start. Do we dismiss the burial of Jesus and the empty tomb as a legend? Well, to just dismiss any story in the gospels because it presents barriers to other theories is just begging the question, especially since it runs against factual burial protocol that was a cultural norm with first century Jews. Once we cross that hurdle, we then need to solve the actual claims of sightings, which present a separate issue all together and cannot be skirted over with conjecture or disregarded. 

The next problem is that the teachings did not evolve. The "spiritual" aspect of Christ as Savior and Lord and Son of God as well as the encapsulated Christology is an aspect we see from the very beginning. They didn’t just promote teachings of Christ, they promoted Christ himself as the centerpiece of this spirituality and theology and this never changed. It was always about Christ’s death and resurrection that affirmed he was the Son of God and the salvation that resulted which was the catalyst of the movement from day one (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, pp.14-16). This systemic Christology was connected to the core faith in the earliest Christian doctrine, found in parallels with not only individual New Testament first century works between the four gospels, Acts, Romans, 1 Peter, 1 John, Hebrews, Timothy, and Titus (the latter three doubted as being authored by Paul), as well as the theological hymns and creeds within those works that date earlier than even the works themselves (Kelly, ibid., p.8-22. Richard N. Longenecker, Contours of Christology in the New Testament, pp.68-74), such as we pointed out earlier, in addition to other early extrabiblical Christian sources like Didache, Barnabas, Clement I, Polycarp, Ignatius. So since this Christology consistently reflected the earliest doctrine from the earliest sources, and many different sources, it was the source of evangelism in the earliest stages of the movement.

Moreover, the teachings also did not evolve away from apocalyptic teaching. The early Judeo-Christians continued to promote Jesus as the promised King of the Jews that they had anticipated before his coming that saturates the New Testament works, including the gospels (examples: Matthew 2:5-6, 12:18-20, 19:28; Luke 1:32-35, 1:46-55, 1:68-79, 22:26-30; John 1:49-50), works that the theory above argues came later in this supposed evolution. The expectation that Christ would return and establish his political kingdom which they had expected before his crucifixion also continued within the doctrine of the Christian movement in both the epistles and the gospels (see Matthew 24:42-44; Mark 13:26; Luke 12:36-37; John 14:2-3; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 4:15-16, 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8; 1 Timothy 6:13-14; Hebrews 10:37; 1 Peter 1:13; James 5:8; Jude 1:14-15), in fact, continued towards the end of the first century, evident in works like Revelation (16:15, 19:11-16, 22:20) and Didache, both heavy in apocalyptism, and into the second century reflecting the beliefs of Papias (cited by Eusebius, History, 3.39.12), Justin Martyr (Dialogue, 80-81), Irenaeus (Heresies, 5.35), Tertullian (Against Marcion, 3.25), which remained the predominant belief up to Eusebius (History, 3.39.13). There is no evolution here in either the theology or the apocalyptism.  

But not only is the apocalyptic to spiritual evolution not at all supported, but the evolution of Judeo-Christianity to Gentile-Christianity does not work either, as the gospels which supposedly came later are themselves Jewish to the core, more so than is even evident in Paul’s teachings, because not only are the gospels strangely anti-Gentile only when they pay any attention to Gentiles, but are pro-Judaism (discussed here). The Hellenized influences of Christ-Savior mysticism that supposedly permeated the movement has also been debunked not only by the fact that the gospels are saturated with primitive Semitism, but debunked by current scholarship (discussed in the previous argument here).

Whether there were instances of "commune-style" wealth distribution is debatable. We see more like instances of contributions from churches given to other churches that were struggling with poverty. In fact, even though Christianity as an organization somewhat thrived at Jerusalem before persecution scattered most of the Christians residing in Jerusalem into other parts of Judea (Acts 8:1), the main Christian headquarters located in Jerusalem suffered poverty as a result (Romans 15:25-26), so there was no "attractive hedge" against the circumstances of the ancient world. In fact, there were dire costs of such faith confession (see: Acts 4:1-3, 5:17-18, 6:8-14, 8:1, 9:22-24, 12:1-4, 13:50, 14:4-6, 17:2-9, 21:26-31; 2 Corinthians 4:8-10; Galatians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 2 Timothy 3:11-12), and whether one wants to completely discount martyrdom, one cannot discount the historical reality of the pressure and danger that existed in ancient Judea against such a movement. We indeed know for a fact from historians like Philo, Josephus, Tacitus that Judaic fundamentalism 2,000 years ago resembled the fundamentalism of radical Islam today, both of whom guarded their religion with fanaticism. Scholars like Hurtado concur with this because they know what Tacitus describes of the second Temple Jews, as they know what Philo and Josephus describes of second Temple Jews, as well as how they are described within the New Testament works themselves (Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, pp.29-42). Thus we would expect the first adherents of the Christian movement, who were Jews active in this historical environment that is illustrated in detail in the extrabiblical historical sources of this era, to be under constant hostility and antagonism by their countrymen. And indeed this is exactly what we do find of second Temple Jews recorded in the New Testament from the gospels, in Acts, and Paul within his letters as we have noted. Thus any supposed consistent wealth distribution (which is doubtful in itself, as I have pointed out) would still have to be weighed against the danger and hostility of the environment, and at least potential persecution, and whether or not that was an enticing trade-off.

You see, once we lift away the generalities and dissect the details of this theory it becomes untenable, shown to be supported by pure conjecture, not the facts. But with those issues aside, the essential details still haven’t been filled in:

  • It does not answer why they chose to worship a man as the Jewish Messiah they were expecting prior when he not only did not fulfill the political role they were expecting, but a Savior who was killed in the most repugnant and humiliating fashion an ancient could have been killed and something they were not expecting a prior to the Christian movement.
  • It does not answer why they picked this particular Jew from Nazareth out of the pool of literally thousands of better Jewish candidates to propel into stardom and use as the divine delegate of this unusual Judean creed (more detailed discussion here).

Jesus wasn't the only teacher and spiritual Jewish leader of that era who expressed devotion to the God of Israel, supported the Torah, advocated an ethical lifestyle, and had a rather large following of adherents, so he certainly wasn't any different from others who came before, during, and after him such as Hillel, John the Baptist, the Teacher of Righteous, Shammai, Gamaliel, etc., none of whom died an repugnant and dishonorable death Jesus died. Moreover, there were also militant and radical leaders that were declared messiahs whose campaigns ended the same, but were never honored as resurrected messiahs in the aftermath, yet who, unlike Jesus, actually did express political liberation for the Jews and attempted to fulfill the common political hope they had anticipated which Jesus did not attempt to achieve -- to deliver Israel politically and cease Roman oppression. So the reason Jesus was the typecast for things he did not actually fulfill stretches beyond the realm of plausibility without something exceptionally extraordinary about him that left no doubt who he was and what he came for. The skeptical theory above only attempts (and obviously very poorly) to provide the paint, in a very general way, that had supposedly formed out of Judaism that was used on the canvas of Jesus, but fails to provide answers for their choice of canvas in the first place. »

Skeptical Argument #14

According to the Ebionites, who are associated with the Jerusalem Church of Jesus’ brother James and Peter and the earliest Jewish Christians, Jesus was not divine, not pre-existent, not virgin-born, not bodily resurrected - he was a man like everyone else. What made him special and set him apart was that he was the Jewish Messiah, and that he perfectly followed God's Law. »

The Ebionites, a pious Jewish sect that had adhered steadfastly to the Mosaic law and who honored Jesus as the Messiah yet denounced his virgin birth, his divinity, and considered Paul a false teacher for his Christology has been theorized by some as the earliest from of Judeo-Christianity before it developed or evolved into the Judeo-Christianity we find in Paul’s letters and the gospels, so they obviously argue there was a connection with this group to those at Jerusalem who had a contention with Paul about the Mosaic law that we see described in his letters, particularly his Galatian letter (Galatians 2). Of course, the assumption is that the gospels are post-70 works, which isn’t a fact but a belief that can neither be proved nor disproved. But presupposing this belief to be true, the next problem is that this cannot be demonstrated from any of the ancient sources about the Ebionites because there is no evidence of their existence in the first century other than speculation. The word was simply derived from the Hebrew word ebyonim, which meant "the poor ones," and it is unclear when it specifically turned from a general word to an actual distinct sect with a specific ideology. Scholars believe that they had a Gospel of the Ebionites and a Gospel According to the Hebrews, the latter being very similar to the gospel of Matthew, if not the gospel of Matthew itself that was in a Semitic tongue (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #1), which date to about the second century (Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament, pp.12-13). Obviously, neither of these uncertain works gives us any leeway into any specific sect or origin of this sect.

The only information we get is from the church fathers descriptions of this sect. Justin Martyr, in his debate with a Jewish man named Trypho, mentions a group that was faithful to the Mosaic law, yet does not mention them by name and does not describe any theology they accepted or rejected, nor does he associate them to the early church (Trypho 47). In fact, Trypho asked Justin conditions regarding devout Jews that might revoke their salvation, and Justin replied that the only condition concerning the Christians who still adhered to the law is if they attempted to make others adhere to the law, yet he did not point out anything these particular Christians believed that was contrary to orthodox belief, something he would have done if this were the case, as this would been clear conditions against their salvation. The earliest theological and direct reference to this sect is Irenaeus in the late second century. He identifies them as Ebionites, but indicates a connection to Cerinthus, a notorious Gnostic, and a doctrine that is similar to Gnosticism (Heresies 1.26). Origen merely confirms Irenaeus’ description (Contra 5.61), as does Jerome but who oddly states that their adherence to the law “was their only error” (Augustine 112.4.13). Eusebius seems to be citing these earlier sources, but indicates there were diverse groups that even accepted the virgin birth (History 3.27), and he also goes into great detail with a description of James, the brother of the Lord, in another area (2.23), yet does not mention any connection to the Ebionites or claims Eusebius could have dismissed of the Ebionites of connections to James. According to Epiphanius, the Ebionites believed Jesus "was created as one of the archangels, yet greater, and that he is Lord of the angels and of all things made by the Almighty” (Panarion 30.16.4-5). I’ve found no connection to James or Peter or even Jerusalem in any of their descriptions, and have found a diversity of theological doctrine of this sect.

As we mentioned, Paul had feuds with certain Judeo-Christians, but this was based only on the law, specifically circumcision. He never brought up any issues about theology. This would have served Paul’s case against them particularly to the Galatians if such feuds were occurring. And we would have seen Paul mention this contention somewhere in his other letters because it would become vital he warn his churches against such theological differences. Luke also documented such contentions throughout Acts, yet he indicated no apologetic for certain true theology over false theology, and since he is one of only two New Testament authors that includes the virgin birth story in his gospel, his first work, it is almost certain he would have addressed any contentions with the virgin birth in his second work had this group been around in his day which would have been the perfect opportunity to dismiss such a heretical group.

The facts don't support the case that the Ebionites had connections to the apostles and the early church, or that the evolution occurred from primitive Ebionism to orthodox Christianity, but the complete reverse. As the association between Jew and Christian began to starkly separate at the turn of the century, evident during the Council of Jamnia, it looks more to me like the next generations of Jews that accepted Christ gave into this increasing pressure and began to drift further away from their Gentile brothers and sisters as that divide widened and back into the theology of Judaism with hints of Gnosticism that had begun to infiltrate Christianity during the second century. »

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