“We do not need a scholar to help us know whether the New Testament is a reliable narrative that we can trust. I believe that we can know this ourselves if we simply read the text and study it as it is, without commentary from anyone else.”
– Robert Clifton Robinson
Readers of my blog know that I’ve written a number of posts combating pop-apologetics. As someone whose interests include biblical scholarship and exegesis, this was perhaps inevitable since such interests eventually intersect with the claims of pop-apologists. Often their claims are made with good intentions, reflecting their understanding of biblical texts and related issues. Sometimes their claims are little more than regurgitations of Christian apologists they have been reading. And sometimes their claims are little more than strawmen of this or that scholar, whether Christian or otherwise.
Enter Robert Clifton Robinson, the self-styled “Biblical Scholar” who has written prolifically both on his blog and in various books including The Star of Christmas: Finding the True Meaning of Christmas, Sodom and Gomorrah: The Gay Marriage and Same-Sex Controversy, and Brutal Cross, Glorious Resurrection: The Suffering and Triumph of Jesus. He also posts regularly on Twitter under the handle @FairMindedFaith, occasionally sparring with a skeptic or two.
It is unclear what kind of academic pedigree Robinson has. Normally, when one calls oneself a “scholar” they possess a graduate degree or doctoral degree in the relevant fields. For example, a scholar of ancient Egypt would likely hold degrees related to Egyptology and a scholar of the American Revolution would hold degrees related to the early history of the American republic. It would be with great reservation that someone with a PhD in astrophysics who writes about the Civil War could be called a “scholar” of that period, despite their advanced degrees and even if they were competent in their understanding of the era. Why? Because their expertise is in a field unrelated to that about which they are writing. That isn’t to say that what they write is wrong; rather, it is to say they aren’t a scholar in that particular area. The rightness or wrongness of their writing must be evaluated on the basis of their arguments and the evidence mustered for them.
Robinson v. Scholarship
The same is true of Robinson who has written scores of blog posts covering a range of topics. For this post, I want to briefly consider one he wrote in May of 2019 entitled “Why I Don’t Rely On Other Scholars For My New Testament Conclusions.” In it Robinson laments the state of New Testament scholarship, claiming that “[t]he comments and conclusions of modern critical scholars are completely based upon their own opinions that originate by speculation and conjecture.” Therefore, rather than consult these scholars, many of whom have a liberal agenda, Robinson claims to study only the biblical texts themselves to arrive at his conclusions concerning their meaning and import. He writes,
“All we must do is read the New Testament for ourselves to see whether the narratives about Jesus make sense, are credible, and are trustworthy. After nearly 45 years of just studying the text of the New Testament apart from the opinions and conclusions of other scholars, I am convinced that this is all that is necessary.”
Forty-five years of study is commendable, especially when roughly twenty-five percent of Americans don’t read a single book in a year’s time. But is it truly possible to fully understand the text of the New Testament without consulting scholarship? I don’t think so.
For example, consider the words of Jesus in Luke 13. The Pharisees, one of Jesus’ frequent foes in the Synoptic Gospels, approach Jesus and tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (vs. 31). Jesus retorts in vs. 32, “Go and tell that fox [tē alōpeki tautē] for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” The word alōpēx (“fox”) evokes imagery of a sly, sneaky creature and this is often how Jesus’ words are understood. Such a description is appropriate for Herod, the man who imprisoned and executed John the Baptist. But this imagery makes sense the most for a Hellenistic audience for whom foxes were associated with craftiness. It also makes sense for English-speaking audiences for whom the moniker “fox” refers to someone with cunning and craftiness. Luke’s intended audience was, of course, Hellenistic and they would have understood the reference in those terms. However, if such a saying is attributable to the historical Jesus, it would have been uttered in Aramaic, not Greek. So, what would calling Herod “that fox” mean in that context?
The Herod to which Jesus and the Pharisees were referring was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Under his watchful eye, Galilee remained relatively quiet with no interruptions by the Romans. Nevertheless, Antipas was never truly a king and when his wife Herodias pressed him to request Rome change his title from tetrarch to king, Antipas went to the emperor but was soon sent packing into exile with his wife. Antipas just never measured up; he was no king. And in the worldview of Jesus and the Pharisees, kings were supposed to be lions (i.e. Genesis 49:9-10), powerful and virile. Foxes, by contrast, were seen as non-entities. Thus, when Jesus says, “Go and tell that fox,” he shows that he considers Antipas to be “one who lacks status or is impotent to carry out his threat.” Or, as one scholar writes, “When people tell [Jesus] Herod seeks to kill him he responds, ‘Go tell that nonentity, that man of straw: Behold I cast out demons….’” Rather than speaking to Herod Antipas’ craftiness – the sense that one gets when reading it from the perspective of an English speaker in the twenty-first century or a Greek speaker in the first – in the language of the historical Jesus this reference reveals how little Jesus thought of Herod and his threats.
Perhaps Robinson knew all of this based on his extensive study of the New Testament, conducted without the aid of scholarship. But I had no idea until very recently. Keep in mind, I’ve read Luke 13:32 well over thirty times, in English and Greek. But I had no idea that referring to Herod as a “fox” could mean something other than that he was crafty. With this added nuance, Jesus’ words take on a whole new meaning. And I would not have known it without the benefit of biblical scholars and their work. This isn’t the only example; many more could fill up this blog post.
Discarding “Liberal” Scholars
But Robinson has no need for scholars to arrive at his conclusions. “[L]iberal scholars,” he writes, “who do not believe God exists, while obtaining Ph.D’s for the purpose of impugning Jesus, write books that state that the Jesus of the Bible is a fabrication.” One scholar that Robinson sets his sites on is Bart Ehrman:
“In all of the books by New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, very rarely does he present any evidence to support his assertions. Ehrman expects us to take his word for it concerning the statements and conclusions he makes
regarding New Testament reliability.”
I have no interest in defending Ehrman as his writing speaks for itself. But there is considerable irony in what Robinson writes. What he is saying is that we shouldn’t trust Ehrman’s conclusions regarding the reliability of the New Testament, but we should trust his own. As Robinson writes, “It is my opinion that we do not need the opinions of these men and women to arrive at our own conclusions regarding the reliability and authenticity of the New Testament.” (Later, Robinson tells readers to discard even his own opinions, but not before setting himself up as an authority on the subject of the New Testament’s reliability.) But as we will soon see, this pop-apologist and self-proclaimed biblical scholar fails to live up to his own expectations.
Robinson’s Case for the New Testament
Robinson lists twelve “truths” about the New Testament that lend themselves toward belief in its reliability. Remember, Robinson claims he does not need scholarship but instead depends only on his own reading of the biblical texts. Let’s consider each briefly.
#1 – “The New Testament exists today because of 24,593 surviving manuscript copies.”
How does Robinson know this? Has he personally collected and counted these manuscripts?
#2 – “These Manuscripts are dated closer to the time of the events than any other ancient manuscripts in history.”
Upon what basis can he make this claim? Has he examined copies of manuscripts of other ancient works? Has he done carbon dating analysis or paleographic research on them?
#3 – “Although the manuscripts came from locations all over the world and in multiple languages, they tell the same fundamental story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.”
How can Robinson be so certain of this? Does he read Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Coptic, Syriac, etc.?
#4 – “The writers themselves state they saw the events they are recording. There is no impeaching evidence anywhere in the historical record that these writers did not tell the truth.”
One could possibly claim this of the author of John’s Gospel but where do the authors of the Synoptic Gospels claim that “they saw the events they are recording”?
#5 – “We have complete copies of the New Testament that have survived time and decay, from 240 A.D.”
How does Robinson know this? Has he done the testing to confirm their age? Has he read them in Greek to confirm their contents?
#6 – “We have manuscript fragments of the New Testament as early as 60 A.D.”
Setting aside the fact that this isn’t true, how does Robinson know this? Did he locate the fragments and conduct the dating?
#7 – “Since we have manuscript copies from the second century, the original autographs were certainly written early in the first century?”
Setting aside the obvious non sequitur, how does Robinson know these manuscripts date to the second century?
#8 – “History confirms that the New Testament, except Revelation, was written before 70 A.D. Not one of the books mentions the siege of Titus on Jerusalem and the obliteration of the Temple that took place in 70 A.D. If the New Testament was written after 70 A.D. this event would have been described in the letters of the New Testament.”
It would? The epistle of James fails to mention Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Does that mean it was written before those events? Also, how does Robinson know when the temple was destroyed?
#9 – “Scholars from the first century have already validated these texts as authentic and reliable. We do not need experts today who have no ability to impeach the conclusions of those who originally wrote the text, 2,000 years ago.”
Which scholars? And how is Robinson able to read them? Surely they didn’t write in English.
#10 – “The writers of the New Testament intended that the texts were historically accurate and true.”
They did? How does Robinson know this?
#11 – “The 27 books of the New Testament are actually personal letters, not stories. Personal letters are the epitome of ancient reliable documents. Personal letters have long been known as the most reliable of all ancient evidence.”
Setting aside that Robinson knows precious little with regards to ancient literary genres, by whom has this “long been known”? Surely not scholars!
#12 – “Everything that Jesus said and did, was predicted by over 400 Messianic Prophecies. Jesus fulfilled every Messianic prophecy with great precision. Jesus’ story did not begin in the New Testament. It was foretold by 1,500 years of history that took place before Jesus arrived.”
Prophecies? Where are these prophecies located? Were they originally composed in English or in Hebrew?
Please forgive the sarcasm but I think you can see my point. Robinson necessarily relies upon scholarship. He is just unwilling to admit it. Despite his claim that he “examined the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament” for himself, Robinson necessarily relies upon scholars for just about everything he does in his studies. The English translations he uses were created by scholars with training in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. And the Greek texts upon which those translations are based were put together by careful examination of a variety of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Every conclusion he makes in some way, directly or indirectly, is the product of some scholar somewhere. So I hope he’ll excuse me when I express skepticism about his claim that he doesn’t use “other scholars” when reaching conclusions about the New Testament. He does, I do, and all scholars of the Bible do as well. It’s the natural consequent of two-thousand years of study and research of the biblical texts.
And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that.
See the “Counter Apologetics” page at my website amateurexegete.com. There you’ll find rebuttals to pop-apologists like SJ Thomason, Heather Schuldt, the Christian Defenders, Ray Comfort, and more.
Robert Clifton Robinson, “Why I Don’t Rely On Other Scholars For My New Testament Conclusions” (5.5.19), robertcliftonrobinson.com.
Andrew Perrin, “Who doesn’t read books in America?” (3.23.18), pewresearch.org. Interestingly, the likelihood that one hasn’t read a book in a year increases along economic and educational lines. Thirty-seven percent of Americans whose education is at a high school level or less didn’t read a book at all in 2017 whereas the same was true only of seven percent of those with a college education or more.
John Nolland writes, “’Fox’ is best taken as an image of craftiness or slyness….” See John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, WBC vol. 35b (Thomas Nelson, 1993), 740.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina vol. 3 (The Liturgical Press, 1991), 218; cf. BDAG, s.v. “ἀλώπηξ.”
For example, the late journalist Burke Davis titled his book on the Confederate general Robert E. Lee Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War (Wings Books, 1956). Davis notes that when historian Richard Current asked him why he chose the title Gray Fox, he replied that Lee “was perhaps the most daring soldier of American history” and that “he handled his inferior force as if he could literally smell out the intent of the enemy, and he was seldom wrong” (pp. 1-2).
E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1993), 20-22.
Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 536.
For an interesting discussion on how translating this text from Greek to other languages including various African languages, see Eric Hermanson, “Kings are Lions, But Herod is a Fox: Translating the Metaphor in Luke 13.32,” The Bible Translator, vol. 50 no. 2 (April, 1999), 235-240.
Robinson is probably referring to 7Q5, a manuscript found among the Dead Sea Scrolls that some scholars connected to the Gospel of Mark. This view is rejected by virtually all textual critics. See Daniel B. Wallace, “7Q5: The Earliest NT Papyrus?” bible.org.
BDAG – Danker, Frederic W., Bauer, Walter., Arndt, William F., and Gingrich, Wilbur F., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.