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The “independent sources” of the New Testament

[Here's an excerpt from this week's Evangelical Realism post on Chapter 9 of William Lane Craig's book, On Guard.]

Ted and Shelly are driving down the road one day when they see an minor accident up ahead, with a policeman and a wrecker already on the scene. Being bloggers, they stop and ask the policeman what happened.

“Oh,” says the policeman, “some bimbo piled into the back end of the car in front of her. She says he passed her, cut her off, and slammed on his brakes, but she had her cell phone out and was probably just texting to her friends and not paying attention to the road. She’s just using road rage as an excuse.”

That afternoon, they both go home and each reports the story on his/her blog. Ted reports that a woman was texting while driving, and caused an accident, and goes off on a rant about texting. Shelly reports that a man deliberately caused a woman to have an accident and that there was little hope of the woman receiving justice due to the sexism of the reporting officer.

Do Ted and Shelly’s blogs constitute independent accounts? Yes and no. They are independent accounts of how the accident was being reported, but they are not independent accounts of the accident itself, because neither Ted nor Shelly saw it happen. The common elements in Ted’s and Shelly’s accounts are due to the fact that they’re sharing a common source for the story, not due to the fact that they’re independently verifying the original incident.

This is exactly what we have in the Gospel accounts. The four Gospels (and other accounts) are not independent verification of the events they report, they’re merely independent witnesses to the fact that a common story was being told. Craig consistently confuses the distinction between the two, and tries to make it sound like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are somehow independently verifying that Jesus really did appear. But that’s a distortion of the facts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are only offering independent verification of the fact that stories about appearances were being told. John might have enjoyed the distinction of providing an independent verification, were it not for the fact that his accounts typically don’t match the stories told by the other three!

[Read the whole post at Evangelical Realism...]

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    Being bloggers, they stop and ask the policeman what happened.

    Hilarious.

    Matthew, Mark, and Luke are only offering independent verification of the fact that stories about appearances were being told.

    Sometimes verbatim.

  2. says

    I’ve only read thus far, and though I know what you’re saying here, I beg to quibble.

    It is this fact, more than any other, that justifies interpreting the New Testament in a skeptical light.

    I don’t think so. We’d still be sceptical about the events related even if they were completely non-supernatural, given the poor reliability of the sources in question. To me, that’s even more compelling than doubting the supernatural claims on their own merits. If we wouldn’t trust this type of evidence (inconsistent written documents transmitting oral accounts decades after events related, sans corroboration in either non-partisan sources or the archaeological record) for mundane, sublunary history, ought that not to be more than sufficient justification to be incredulous without adding people walking on water or rising from the dead?

  3. says

    Heaven is not a physical place (otherwise it would get in the way when the satellites flew over Jerusalem taking pictures for Google Maps), so it makes sense that Jesus would not have a physical body while in heaven before his incarnation.

    What? Um…neither Paul, nor any other Christian for millennia had any idea that Heaven wasn’t up there in or above the sky. Read the account of Jesus’s ascension. He *floated* up into the sky. Jesus’s resurrected body was considered physical. That’s why Thomas could stick his hand in the wound. The claim that he could walk through walls post-death is neither here nor there when they claim pre-death he could walk on water. However, it’s true that the mythology is not consistent at all, since many of the parables and other sayings have Jesus asserting that the Kingdom of Heaven is *not* a place, but a state of mind.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Yeah, it gets a little tricky trying to discuss ancient Scriptures in a way that’s both consistent with early usage and relevant to the modern understanding, especially when people don’t realize/believe there’s a difference.

  4. Ken Schroeter says

    Well, there’s the whole issue that they are not even the author’s of their gospels, aside… None of the author’s are likely to have witnessed the events that occurred an estimated 70 years minimum to the earliest dates assigned tomthose gospels…. when the average age of death was in the forties.

    • had3 says

      In all fairness, if you live to 100 and 2 others die at birth, the average life expectancy is 33.3. In earlier times, if people survived through their teens, the odds of living past 45 were substantially increased. This isn’t to say that an octogenarian witness is unlikely, only that an average age argument doesn’t address the frequent early deaths that skewer the average.

  5. says

    And finally, I wouldn’t characterise the gospel accounts as “independent” even at second-hand, as in your analogy. I think something like this is a more apt scenario:

    Ted and Shelly are driving down the road one day when they see an minor accident up ahead, with a policeman and a wrecker already on the scene. They stop and ask the policeman what happened.

    “Oh,” says the policeman, “some bimbo piled into the back end of the car in front of her. She says he passed her, cut her off, and slammed on his breaks, but she had her cell phone out and was probably just texting to her friends and not paying attention to the road. She’s just using road rage as an excuse.”

    That afternoon, Shelly tells a couple of her friends about the accident and what the cop said and how sexist it was. Ted mentions it to no one at first. Later, one of Shelly’s friends hears about an accident on the news and erroneously thinks that the report is about the same event and when she blogs about it three months later, incorporates details from the second accident. One of Shelly’s other friends tells his friend about the Shelly’s experience, but that friend mistakenly understands that it was Shelly in the accident. He brings up the anecdote during a hearing on sexism in a neighbouring police force and a high school journalist sets up a Facebook page and petition condemning the incident, using both info from the hearing and from Shelly’s friend’s blog post. Another person, who’s never met Shelly or her friends, reads the blog post and tells their cousin that he was in an accident similar to that in the blog post and the cousin makes a video re-enactment based on that account. A year after the accident, Tom relates what happened that afternoon to someone else, but, because he doesn’t remember it that well, gets some of the facts wrong, and embellishes others to make whatever point he’s trying to make. The result ends up in a joke e-mail sent around to Tom’s co-workers. Then, one day, the great grandchild of a passenger in the woman’s car decides to collect every account she can find about the accident and manages to track down Shelly’s friend’s blog, the Facebook petition, screen shots from the video, and the joke e-mail and binds them all together. But the passenger’s great grandchild’s insurance agent can only speak Inuktitut, so passenger’s descendent hires a translator to translate all the documents into that language (being careful to make the accounts look as favourable as they can for her case). Two hundred years go by. Tom, Shelly, and the cop are all dead. The originals of the blog post, video, joke e-mail, and Facebook page no longer exist. No one even knows the name of the people in the original accident. Only Inuktitut scholars can read a photocopy of a photocopy of the collection that the great grandchild put together.

    And this is what people want to base their lives on? It’s preposterous.

  6. sailor1031 says

    “Matthew, Mark, and Luke are only offering independent verification of the fact that stories about appearances were being told.”

    Well it’s worse than that! Matthew and Luke are in large part only offering independant verification that Mark had written down some stories. Any other sources, such as M, L and Q are hypothetical.

  7. says

    Luke is an eyewitness to the events?

    That’s not what LUKE says. Luke 1:1.

    He claims only to be an historian. Not an eyewitness.

    One “gospel” down. Three to go.

  8. busterggi says

    I wonder if Craig also believes in Apollonius of Tyana and his miracles?

    The historical evidence is pretty near identical.

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