Lost in the Weeds: SJ Thomason Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 2

To see all posts in this series, please refer to its index.

Thomason’s “rebuttal” of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus1 continues, this time focusing on the end of chapter one as well as on chapter two. The post entitled “Does Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ Give Reasons to Doubt the New Testament?”2 is more pop-apologetic tripe from the Queen of the Quotemine herself. I’ve had a couple of shots of whisky so I’m ready to dive in.

But First…

Thomason begins her post with a quotation from an edition of Misquoting Jesus that I do not possess. However, she was apparently able to “dig it up” and provides it for her readers. Yet something is amiss with what she provides. In the quotation she places in bold the following words from Ehrman.

If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement—maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.

The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.3

But I found another apologetics website that also reproduces this quote from Ehrman and found that it too had placed all the words Thomason had placed in bold minus the words “maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.”It appears yet again5 that Thomason is using other people’s material without providing proper attribution. This is par for the course.

The last paragraph of the quote (per Thomason) reads as follows:

From my point of view, the stakes are rather high: Does Luke’s Gospel teach a doctrine of atonement (that Christ’s death atones for sins)? Does John’s Gospel teach that Christ is the “unique God” himself? Is the doctrine of the Trinity ever explicitly stated in the New Testament? These and other key theological issues are at stake, depending on which textual variants you think are original and which you think are creations of early scribes who were modifying the text.

Thomason responds by writing that

the New Testament teaches the doctrine of atonement in a variety of passages (e.g., 1 John 2:2; John 3:16, 10:11; Hebrews 7:27; Romans 5:10, Galatians 3:13). John’s Gospel highlights Jesus’ divinity more than any of the Synoptics by emphasizing His miracles and the “I AM” statements. The Old and New Testaments offer support for the Trinity in a variety of passages. Click here for information concerning the Old Testament: https://christian-apologist.com/2018/09/26/is-the-holy-trinity-found-in-the-old-testament/

She has, of course, missed Ehrman’s point. He is referring to specific texts with specific textual variants. They are:

  • Luke 22:19-20. Some ancient texts lack the words of 19:b-20 which read “which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper saying, ‘This is the cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
    • As Ehrman points out later in Misquoting Jesus, the key issue is that the Lukan Gospel does not see Jesus’ death as that which makes atonement. In fact, in Luke’s redaction of Markan texts which do depict Jesus’ death as salvific (i.e. Mark 10:45; 15:39), he makes very specific changes that either downplay it or eliminate it. It is possible (in Ehrman’s view) that the manuscripts which do feature the words that the bread represents Jesus’ body “which is given for you” and the cup represents his blood which is “poured out for you” are later insertions meant to combat Docetism.6
  • John 1:18. Both the UBS5 and NA28 (and previous editions) have the words monogenēs theos which are rendered variously in modern translations based upon those editions of the Greek text. For example, the NRSV renders it “God the only Son” while the ESV has “the only God.” But older translations like the KJV read “only begotten Son” since this is the reading in the Textus Receptus and the manuscripts upon which it is based.
    • Ehrman points out that the Johannine author frequently uses the term “unique Son” (i.e. “only begotten Son”, KJV) throughout his Gospel but never “unique God” except here. Ehrman posits “that some scribes – probably located in Alexandria – were not content with this exalted view of Christ [i.e. “unique Son”], and so they made it even more exalted, by transforming the text. Now Christ is not merely God’s unique Son, but he is the unique God himself!”7
  • 1 John 5:7. The KJV, based upon the Textus Receptus, reads as follows: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” But our most ancient Greek manuscripts simply do not have this reading at all.
    • Ehrman discusses that the so-called Johannine Comma is not original and that its presence in the Textus Receptus can be attributed to pressure put on Erasmus to include it.8 Yet without it, there is no explicit statement about the Trinity in the entirety of the New Testament.

Whether or not it is the case that other New Testament texts teach these doctrines is beside the point. The question is, Why do these variants exist? Their addition or deletion likely came with motive given their importance. So why?

Before we move on, it should be noted that Thomason’s claim that the Old Testament offers support for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is entirely without merit.9 As Chris Hansen so aptly put it, “Ask any Rabbi on the planet, you know the people who have studied the OT longer than Christianity has ever existed.”10 I doubt she will.

Let’s continue.

On Literacy

Ehrman discusses the issue of literacy in the Greco-Roman world, stating that “under the best of conditions, 85-90 percent of the population could not read or write.”11 Well, that isn’t exactly what Ehrman said but that is certainly how Thomason presents him. Ehrman was referring specifically to Athens, relying on the work of William Harris.12 In the Roman Empire of the first century, Ehrman notes, “the literacy rates may well have been lower.”13 In Roman Palestine literacy rates could have been anywhere from a high of ten percent to a low of three percent.14 And there were specific occupations that required the ability to read and write like scribes, tax collectors, etc. It is doubtful fishermen would have learned to read and write Greek, a language that was not their native one.

In the book of Acts, Peter and John are described as “uneducated and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). The term the Lukan author uses for “uneducated” is agrammatoi, a combination of the negative particle and the noun grammatos which is itself related to the verb graphō (“I write”).  In the New Testament agrammatoi is a hapax legomena but it is used in other Greek literature to refer to someone “without learning” or to one who is “unlettered” (i.e. illiterate).15 Yet Thomason suggests that agrammatoi might mean something other than, well, what it means.

Luke uses the Greek word “agrammatoi,” which can be translated as ignorant, commoner, layman, or ordinary person. The term does not necessarily suggest illiteracy, as Ehrman suggests. It could also mean that he was not well-educated in the finer points of the rabbinical interpretation of the Jewish Torah (Helyer, 2012, p. 19).

Heyler had written that

[t]he disparaging view of the Jerusalem religious leaders that Jesus’ disciples were “uneducated and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13) probably “means no more than that they were ignorant of the finer points of the rabbinical interpretation of the Jewish Torah.”16

But this is all wrong. The “disparaging view” is not one of the religious leaders but of the Lukan author himself. So it is the author describing them as “uneducated and ordinary,” not anyone in the narrative. Furthermore, the contrast between expectation and reality is set up by their realizing that Peter and John are illiterate nobodies but are able to speak quite eloquently. But how are they able to do so? The audience knows: “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” (Acts 4:8).

It should be noted also that the Lukan author shows a great deal of familiarity with both Greek and Septuagintal literature. Can Thomason pin point anywhere in either Greek literature or the LXX where her suggested meanings are attested? The Lukan author refers to Peter and John as agrammatoi as well as idiōtai, an adjective from which we get the English word “idiot” (though the English word conveys a different meaning than the Greek). Idiōtēs is used in Greek literature to refer to someone who is a plebian or who is a layman as opposed to a professional.17 The apostle Paul employs it when discussing those who do not have the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 14:16, 23, 24), i.e. they are ordinary people since most do not have such a gift. Paul also uses it in describing his lack of rhetorical skill (2 Corinthians 11:6). The fact that the Lukan author couples agrammatoi with idiōtai says that he is trying to communicate just how much of an underdog Peter and John were. And yet the Spirit made them so much more.

Thomason concludes this section with the following:

Of these assertions, one must note that (1) education levels of Christians were not claimed to be significantly less than those of their Roman or Greek pagan counterparts; (2) unlike the pagan tradition, the Christian and Jewish traditions were book-based; and (3) the prescience of the Judeo-Christian tradition in backing their belief systems in written Scriptures should be highlighted. Despite the fact that only ten to fifteen percent of early Christians could read, they understood the importance of retaining written evidence.

On (1) this is true but wholly irrelevant. On (2), this is an oversimplification. The “pagan tradition” (whatever that means) included many works of great literature. It is true that as far as religious views are concerned both the Jewish and Christian traditions were book-based but I fail to see the importance of noting this. On (3), I have no idea what Thomason is talking about. What does “the prescience of the Judeo-Christian tradition” even mean? Furthermore, the fact that there is “written evidence” doesn’t mean that what those texts record are true.18

A Mountain of Manuscripts

Thomason moves on to the subject the number of New Testament manuscripts we possess as well as the number of textual variants about which we know. There is very little actual interaction with Ehrman at this point and Thomason instead relies heavily on pop-apologists Josh and Sean McDowell. She writes,

Ehrman claims we have around 400,000 textual variants in our copies of biblical manuscripts, but despite what seems like a large number, they (1) do not substantively modify the meaning of the text (which I will detail below), and (2) are not significant relative to the extraordinary number of historical manuscripts we have retained from ancient times.

Ehrman notes in Misquoting Jesus that there is some debate on the number of textual variants in the extant manuscripts ranging from 200,000 all the way to 400,000.

We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.19

This is impressive but Thomason is correct in noting that these variants “do not substantively modify the meaning of the text.” A lot of these variants are things like whether the Greek conjunction kai belongs or whether there is an extra letter in a noun and the like. But Thomason is not correct that these variants are insignificant “relative to the extraordinary number of historical manuscripts we have retained from ancient times.”

In what follows, Thomason lays out a case for the reliability of the New Testament based upon the available Greek manuscripts. As is often noted by apologists, we have well over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, a large amount when compared to other ancient literature. But the problem with this argument is that the number really isn’t all that impressive for a couple of reasons.20

First, the overwhelming majority of New Testament manuscripts do not date to the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or even eighth centuries CE. They mostly date to the ninth century or later! So yes, we have thousands of manuscripts but most of them aren’t all that early.

Second, the large-scale representation of Christian texts relative to non-Christian is the result of the intentional focus medieval Christian scribes had upon biblical texts. The consequence of this is that texts like Homer’s Iliad or Herodotus’ Histories were neglected and copied less frequently. Do the math.

We should also note that the presence of many manuscripts does not equate to their validity in recording actual events. As Matthew Ferguson writes,

Put simply: accurate textual transmission can preserve the historical accuracy of a work that was originally historically reliable, but it can do nothing to improve or save the historical accuracy of a work that was originally based on ahistorical legends.21

This cannot be stressed enough, especially since it is a common apologetic trope.

“Dubious” Passages

On pages 63-68 of Misquoting Jesus Ehrman discusses textual variants involving the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:12) and the long ending of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). Thomason in her discussion includes 1 John 5:7 but I cannot find where Ehrman addresses that text in that section of Misquoting Jesus. Thankfully she acknowledges that Ehrman’s view on these texts are “accurate,” a breath of fresh air as far as I’m concerned. But she misses the point on why these texts exist at all. Why did someone feel the need to include a longer ending to Mark’s Gospel? Were they uncomfortable with the way 16:8 ended with no resurrection appearances? Why did a later scribe create the Trinitarian formulation of 1 John 5:7? Was he cued in by references in context to other threes? These are the kinds of questions textual critics seek to answer. But not Thomason. She writes,

If these passages do not directly impact your belief that Jesus was crucified, died and buried – and on the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures, it is unlikely their inclusion in the New Testament based on later additions will make any difference to you. They do not impact Christianity’s core tenets concerning Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation we are offered for accepting Him as our Lord and Savior.

She’s right. There are other places where particular texts teach particular doctrines such that we do not need these variants. But again, the issue is why they exist in the first place.

Her Conclusion

Thomason finishes her piece with the following.

Given market demands for accurate information and the availability of a multitude of ancient evidence that has been used to reconstruct our original New Testament books, it seems exceedingly unlikely that any substantive errors are present today. Thank you for your time.

The gaping hole in Thomason’s logic is that we do not have an “original” New Testament with which to see if there are any substantive errors or not. We do know that there are many variants but we simply do not know with certainty what the New Testament originally said. That isn’t to say that what we have represents the complete opposite of what was written. I think it is safe to say that we have most the puzzle pieces. But Thomason is using this as evidence for the New Testament’s historical accuracy and in so doing she goes beyond what the evidence allows.

Summary

In truth, her interaction with Ehrman’s work was minimal and her claims are standard pop-apologetic nonsense that has been repeated so often by people like Frank Turek, J. Warner Wallace, and the rest that they’ve become boring. Devoid of context, their arguments are impressive. Add some context and you’ve effectively dismantled their positions.

Context is apologist Kryptonite.

NOTES

1 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why(HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

2 S.J. Thomason, “Does Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ give Christians Reasons to Doubt the New Testament?” (2.11.19), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 11 February 2019.

3  See the screenshot of Thomason’s website below (taken 2.11.19).

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 5.46.24 PM

4 The Elusive Ehrman Quote” (2.12.18), christianapologetics.org. Accessed 11 February 2019. Screenshot reproduced below (taken 2.11.19).

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 5.51.24 PM

5 See also my posts “SJ Thomason Gets It Wrong (As Usual)” (7.19.18) and “Preaching to the Choir: On Pop-Apologists and Their Craft” (10.28.18), amateurexegete.com.

6 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 165-167. See also Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (German Bible Society, 1994), 148-150.

7 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 161-162. See also Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 169-170.

Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 81-83. See also Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 647-649.

9 See my post “Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason, the Tabernacle, and the Trinity in the Old Testament” (9.30.18), amateurexegete.com. See also D.M. Spence’s post “The Trinity Is NOT Found in the Old Testament” (10.8.18), dmspence.com. Accessed 12 February 2019.

10 Chris Hansen, “SJ Thomason: And How Apologists Are Generally Wrong” (2.11.19), cmepshansen.wixsite.com. Accessed 12 February 2019. Hansen also points out Thomason’s heavy reliance upon the work of pop-apologist J. Warner Wallace, a sign that Thomason is unwilling (and perhaps unable) to engage with serious biblical scholarship.

11 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 37-38.

12 William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Harvard University Press, 1989).

13 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 38.

14 L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 95.

15 H. G. Liddell, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon Founded Upon the Seventh Edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (OUP, 1889), 8.

16 Larry R. Helyer, The Life and Witness of Peter (Intervarsity Press, 2012), 19. Helyer cites an entry by Ralph Martin that I have not had opportunity to track down but which does not require commentary for my point. Martin’s (and Helyer’s) view is also that of John R. W. Stott in his commentary on Acts entitled The Message of Acts (Intervarsity Press, 1990), 98, as well as F. F. Bruce in The Book of Acts, NICNT (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 102.

17 Liddell, 375.

18 It is doubtful that given literacy rates that these texts were intended for evangelistic purposes either. By and large, the Gospels spread through word of mouth where neighbors spoke to neighbors and people travelled the Empire speaking of Jesus to those they encountered. William Harris writes, “The illusion that Christianity was spread mainly by means of the written word is possible only for those who exaggerate the literacy of the high Empire” (Ancient Literacy, 299).

19 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 89-90.

20 See Matthew W. Ferguson, “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context” (10.26.12), celsus.blog. Accessed 12 February 2019.

21 Ibid.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Lost in the Weeds: SJ Thomason Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1

To see all posts in this series, please refer to its index.

Last year I wrote a five-part series on Heather Schuldt’s terrible attempt at taking on biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.1 Now pop-apologist SJ Thomason wants to have her moment in the sun as she responds to Bart Ehrman’s fifteen year old book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.2 Her first post entitled “Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ Misleads Readers from its Inception”3 is standard pop-apologetic rubbish. Let’s briefly explore why.

Paul, 1 Thessalonians, and the Dating of the Gospels

Thomason begins by addressing Ehrman’s claim that the first epistle to the Thessalonians can be “dated to about 49 C.E., some twenty years after Jesus’s death and some twenty years before any of the Gospel accounts of his life.”4 The pop-apologist claims Ehrman is “intentionally stretching the dating.” But is he?

Despite Thomason’s confidence in dating Jesus’ death to April 3, 33 CE, historians and New Testament scholars aren’t entirely sure exactly when he died.5 Helen Bond notes that

[t]he commonly held assumption that Jesus died in either April 30 or 33 is based on astronomical calculations relating to years in which Nisan 14 fell on a Friday….All we can say with any confidence is that Jesus died some time between around 29 and 33 CE (any later and Pauline chronology becomes problematic).6

Elsewhere Ehrman has shown a preference for 30 CE7 and other scholars tend to lean that way as well.8 If Paul wrote the first epistle to the Thessalonians around 49 CE then this would indeed be “some twenty years after Jesus’ death.”

Thomason next makes two arguments for an early dating of the Gospels. First, she asserts that Paul knew of the Gospel of Luke because in 1 Timothy 5:18 we find the words of Jesus from Luke 10:7 quoted. I have dealt with this issue elsewhere and will not revisit it here.9 Second, Thomason believes that since the Gospel authors fail to mention explicitly the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and that the author of Acts doesn’t discuss the deaths of either Paul or Peter then they must have been written before these events. But she has elsewhere indicated that she believes the Gospel of John was written sometime around 90 CE.10 Yet the Johannine author never mentions the fall of Jerusalem. So why does Thomason accept the standard scholarly date of 90 CE for the writing of the Gospel of John but not the standard dating for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? I have already written a post on the dating of the Gospels and so I invite the reader to take a look at that post.11 Needless to say, Thomason’s scheme is off and Ehrman’s view stands.

Other Gospels

Thomason next takes issue with Ehrman’s discussion of other Gospels that were written besides those found in the canonical New Testament. She says,

On page 24, Ehrman makes the claim that “many others” were written, citing Luke 1:1 and his reference to “many” “predecessors.” His examples of many others on page 24 are three Gnostic gospels: Philip, Judas Thomas, and Mary Magdalene.

It is important to note the dating of the three Gnostic gospels that are cited by Ehrman, a point he curiously excluded: Philip was written in the third century, Judas Thomas was written in the middle to late second century, and Mary Magdalene was written in the late second century.

Ehrman does fail to mention the dating of these later Gospels but the context makes it plain he considers them to be written after the canonical Gospels: “Other Gospels, including some of the very earliest, have been lost.”12 Ehrman’s main point is to note that Christians wrote additional Gospels because they “were concerned to know more about the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of their Lord” and therefore “recorded the traditions associated with the life of Jesus.”13 Their canonicity is a non-issue for Ehrman’s point and so Thomason’s subsequent discussion is a red herring.

Setting aside Thomason’s simplistic view of how the canon developed, it is interesting to note what she says about the Lukan author’s claim that “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1).

The fact Luke stated that “many have undertaken to draw up an account” does not mean many were successful in completing their undertakings. It may mean that many started and only a few – or two – finished.

But notice what the author says in Luke 1:3 – “I too decided…to write an orderly account.” Since Luke evidently completed his account, it stands to reason that there were other completed accounts as well.

I won’t touch on her discussion of Q since she evidently doesn’t know what Q is or how it functions with regards to the Synoptic Problem. Heather Schuldt revealed similar ignorance regarding Q and here is what I said about it.

[T]he purpose of Q was to account for passages not found in Mark but found in Matthew and Luke and this leads to a huge problem for Schuldt. The existence of Q is tied to the notion of Markan priority. Markan priority entails that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources in composing their narratives. But why would Matthew – an actual disciple of Jesus – need to use any source, especially Mark’s who wasn’t even a disciple? If Matthew was an eyewitness then there would have been no need to utilize Mark (let alone Q) as his source! Schuldt then has undermined the very position she was trying to promote!14

Ditto for Thomason.

Extra Epistles

Finally, Thomason discusses Ehrman’s mentioning of “lost letters” that were written between Paul and the churches to whom he ministered. But as Ehrman explains, his “point is that letters were important to the lives of early Christian communities.”15 In fact, the entire point of the first chapter of Misquoting Jesus is to explain the “bookishness” of Christianity as seen in the New Testament documents.16 So why in the world does Thomason say the following?

The fact we do not have those or other early letters does not discount the validity of the letters we do have. We have no evidence that any substantive letters are missing – or that early church fathers lamented particular missing letters. One can reasonably conclude no substantive information is missing.

This is nothing more than a strawman set up by Thomason. Nowhere does Ehrman suggest that these missing letters means that what is not missing is somehow invalid. As Ehrman himself explains, the section titled “Christianity as a Religion of the Book” (pages 20-29) was his attempt at “summarizing the different kinds of writings that were important to the lives of the early Christian churches.”17 Imputing to Ehrman a subversive motive that simply isn’t there speaks volumes about Thomason’s inability to read fairly or engage with what she has read in good faith.

Summary

So far, the pop-apologist is not off to a very good start. I do not have high hopes that her future posts will get any better.

NOTES

Amateur Exegete, “Index to Series ‘Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman” (11.9.18), amateurexegete.com. 

2 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

3 S.J. Thomason, “Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ Misleads Readers from its Inception” (2.9.19), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 9 February 2019.

4 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 22.

5 For an overview of the issues pertaining to the chronology of Jesus’ life and ministry, see John P. Maier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1 (Doubleday, 1991), 372-433. See also E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1993), 282-290.

6 Helen K. Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (T & T Clark, 2012), 150.

7 Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012), 56.

8 See John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperCollins, 1992), 218; Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 290; Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books, 1999), 149; Maier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 1, 407.

9 See “On SJ Thomason’s Argument for Dating the Gospels Early” (12.28.18), amateurexegete.com.

10

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11 Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1” (11.2.18),  amateurexegete.com.

12 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 24. Emphasis added.

13 Ibid.

14 Amateur Exegete, “Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1” (11.2.18),  amateurexegete.com. Accessed 9 February 2019.

15 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 23.

16 Ibid., 17.

17 Ibid., 29.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

On SJ Thomason’s Argument for Dating the Gospels Early

By and large the New Testament was written in the decades following the death of Jesus of Nazareth in 30 CE. The earliest writings came from a man by the name of Paul, a Pharisee turned Christian who traveled the Mediterranean spreading his message concerning Jesus Christ, the one who “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3). Paul was a contemporary of Jesus but there is no evidence that the two ever met. If they had, surely Paul would have been the first to let his readers know. Rather, Paul is adamant that the source of his knowledge of the true gospel came via revelation:

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, NRSV).

Such rhetoric is part of Paul’s apostolic persona. Whereas others like Peter and James knew Jesus and spent time with him prior to the crucifixion, Paul was not afforded that opportunity. Instead, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him “[l]ast of all, as to one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8; cf. 9:1). But there is no doubt in Paul’s mind that he was chosen by the risen Jesus to preach the gospel: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17a).

Canonical Listings of Pauline Epistles 

Everything we know about Paul is derived from two sources: his letters and the Acts of the Apostles. The former are primary sources, that is to say that they are from Paul himself. The latter is secondary, that is to say that it is not from Paul himself. In the canonical New Testament there are thirteen letters that are attributed to Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Their order in the New Testament reflects not the order in which they were composed but their category and length. The first nine letters are letters to communities of believers (i.e. Christians in Rome, Christians in Corinth, etc.) while the final four are letters to specific individuals (i.e. Timothy, Titus, and Philemon). Within each category the letters are arranged according to length, from longest to shortest.

Pauline Epistles in the  Modern New Testament

To Communities

To Individuals

Romans (longest) 1 Timothy (longest)
1 Corinthians 2 Timothy
2 Corinthians Titus
Galatians Philemon (shortest)
Ephesians *longer than Galatians
Philippians
Colossians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians (shortest)

The ordering that we have today was, of course, not the only ordering known from Christian history. In some iterations, Galatians appears first while in others it is 1 Corinthians.

The Order of the Pauline Epistles in Canonical Lists1

Marcion

(2nd century)

Muratorian Fragment (2nd century)

Papyrus 46

(2nd century)

Galatians 1 Corinthians Romans
1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians Hebrews
2 Corinthians Ephesians 1 Corinthians
Romans Philippians 2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians Colossians Ephesians
2 Thessalonians Galatians Galatians
Ephesians 1 Thessalonians Philippians
Colossians 2 Thessalonians Colossians
Philippians Romans 1 Thessalonians
Philemon Philemon
Titus
1 Timothy
2 Timothy

Noticeably absent from Marcion’s listing are the Pastoral Epistles, i.e. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. The same is true of the Pauline codex P46 where seven missing folios at the end likely contained 2 Thessalonians and perhaps Philemon but not the Pastoral Epistles.2  This has led to some speculation that certain communities did not utilize the Pastoral Epistles or consider them canonical. Yet even supposing that to be the case, it is clear that many communities did utilize the Pastoral Epistles and they are included in one of our most significant early witnesses to the New Testament: Codex Sinaiticus (א). The order of the Pauline epistles in א is what we find in our modern New Testaments.3

Pauline Authorship 

Canonical lists are useful for telling us what books were frequently in use by Christian communities and were therefore considered sacred to some degree. But this doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of the epistles themselves. What was believed about them is not indicative of the truth about them.

Without exception, each of the so-called Pauline epistles in the New Testament are attributed to the work of the apostle Paul. But we cannot take it for granted that because Paul’s name is attached to those letters that he must have written them. After all, the practice of pseudepigraphy was not uncommon even among Jewish and Christian authors. For example, the book of Daniel was almost certainly not written by a sixth century Jewish exile by that name and likely originated in the second century BCE.4 The same is true of works like the Epistle of Barnabas, a second century CE letter purportedly written by Paul’s missionary companion Barnabas. The Pauline epistles are no exception to this and scholars have divided the thirteen letters into two general categories: undisputed epistles and disputed epistles. The disputed epistles can be further divided into the Deutero-Pauline epistles and Pastoral Epistles.

The Pauline Epistles

Undisputed Epistles

Deutero-Pauline Epistles

Pastoral Epistles

Romans Ephesians 1 Timothy
1 Corinthians Colossians 2 Timothy
2 Corinthians 2 Thessalonians Titus
Galatians
Philippians
1 Thessalonians
Philemon

The undisputed epistles are generally regarded as authentic by New Testament scholars. Paul almost certainly wrote them. There is less certainty about the Deutero-Pauline Epistles since internal evidence suggests they were likely written after the death of Paul.5 The Pastoral Epistles were almost certainly not composed by Paul.6 

But if the Pastoral Epistles were not written by Paul, then who wrote them and when?

The Origin of the Pastoral Epistles

That the Pastoral Epistles depended on some kind of Pauline corpus seems certain. The author(s) of the Pastoral Epistles seems to have some level of acquaintance with the epistles of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians.7 The author(s) wanted to sound like Paul but internal evidence makes it relatively clear that they weren’t Paul.8

  • Roughly thirty percent of the vocabulary in the Pastoral Epistles does not appear anywhere else in Paul’s undisputed letters.9 For example, the only place in the entire Pauline corpus where we find the word eusebeia (i.e. “godliness”) is in the Pastoral Epistles.10
  • Vocabulary that is featured in the undisputed letters is either omitted or appears with less frequency or with a different theological meaning in the Pastoral Epistles. For example, nowhere in the Pastoral Epistles do we find any usage of euangelizō  (“to proclaim the gospel”), a verb Paul uses nineteen times in the undisputed letters.
  • In the undisputed letters, Paul seems to look favorably upon women in ministerial roles (Romans 16:1, 3, 6, 7) and affirms that in Christ “there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28). However, in the Pastoral Epistles the structure of the church is almost exclusively male and women are instructed to “learn in silence” and are not permitted to teach men (1 Timothy 2:11).

But if not Paul, then who? The answer to that question may forever be out of our reach as we have virtually no clue as to who the author could have been. Undoubtedly, the author was part of a community that was favorable toward Paul and his ministry or else they would not have tried to imitate him in their writings. Beyond that we cannot be certain.

Determining when the Pastoral Epistles were written fairs a little better. When we read Paul’s undisputed letters we see virtually nothing about how churches were to be structured. It seems that those communities were far more egalitarian and that there was no set authority structure. But this is not the situation we find in the Pastoral Epistles. In fact, it is assumed that authority structures exist and “Paul” writes to address the qualifications for those who are seated in positions of power. What does this tell us? It tells us that while the undisputed letters derive from an early era of Christianity, the Pastoral Epistles are probably from a time closer to the second century.11 And since Paul died sometime in the 60s CE, he could not possibly have been their author.

Enter Pop-Apologetics

Such views are not in line with many of the standard takes in evangelical circles. This is especially true among pop-apologists for whom early dating is essential to their views on inerrancy and inspiration. For example, I was recently alerted to a tweet put out by pop-apologist SJ Thomason concerning Paul and the dating of the Gospels. She wrote,

The consensus in dating the Pauline NT books is they pre-dated his beheading in 64. Paul referenced Luke’s books in Tim. & Cor. (& Luke omitted the martyrdoms of Peter, James & Paul & the fall of the temple), so Luke pre-dated Paul. Luke referenced Mark’s book, so Mark is earlier.12

It should go without saying that people who have been beheaded cannot compose literature of any kind and so the “consensus” is simply common sense. But there is a hidden assumption in what Thomason has written, namely that all of the canonical Pauline epistles were written by Paul. As I briefly discussed above, this is not the consensus view and of the two Pauline epistles Thomason mentions only 1 Corinthians is deemed authentic by virtually all New Testament scholars.

So to what is Thomason referring when she claims that “Paul referenced Luke’s books in Tim. & Cor.”? Paul refers to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, a passage that shares many similarities with the Lukan version of the event (Luke 22:14-23). It is possible that Paul was using Luke’s Gospel as his source for his words but he asserts that he received the instructions “from the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:23) and not from a written source. Furthermore, it appears that Paul had already handed these instructions down to the Corinthians and was simply reiterating them in his epistle. It is more likely that the Lukan text was influenced by Paul rather than vice versa.

But what about her reference to Timothy? Well, in 1 Timothy 5:18 we read of two sayings. The first is from the Torah: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (cf. Deuteronomy 25:4). The second is found nowhere else but the Gospel of Luke: “The laborer deserves his to be paid” (cf. Luke 10:7). This tells us that whoever wrote 1 Timothy had the Gospel of Luke in his mind. And since Thomason’s assumption is that 1 Timothy was written by Paul then it must be the case that Luke’s Gospel was written before Paul wrote 1 Timothy. And since Luke’s Gospel was dependent upon Mark’s Gospel then Mark’s Gospel was written before that. And since Thomason believes in Matthean priority,13 then Matthew’s Gospel would have come before Mark’s Gospel. Therefore, these writings are all attested to be very early.

However, there are a couple of things to bear in mind. First, the saying of Deuteronomy 25:4 that we find in 1 Timothy 5:18 is not the only place where Paul cites that specific saying. In 1 Corinthians 9:9 we find it as well: “For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” In context, Paul is explaining that he and his fellow laborers like Barnabas have the right to expect compensation for their work for the gospel. Paul wrote,

Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?

Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law of Moses say the same. For it is written in the law of Moses, You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more? (1 Corinthians 9:7-12a)

Of course, Paul refuses such compensation on the grounds that he does not want to “put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12b). Regardless, it is odd that Paul, having employed the passage of Deuteronomy both here and in 1 Timothy 5:18, fails to employ the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. The rhetorical effect of adding the Lukan Jesus’ saying here in the context of 1 Corinthians would have served to emphasize all the more Paul’s desire to keep obstacles out of the way of the gospel. For if even Jesus himself stated that those who labor deserve to be paid then Paul would be demonstrating how much he cares for his integrity of his gospel ministry that he would be willing to not enjoy such compensation.

Second, Thomason speaks of the “consensus” view of the dating of the Pauline epistles but flatly ignores the consensus view concerning the origin of the Gospels themselves. Far-and-away the consensus position is that of Markan priority: Mark composed his Gospel first and both Matthew and Luke relied on Mark’s Gospel when composing their own.

Slide1

And the consensus view of New Testament scholars concerning when the Gospel of Mark was written is sometime during the Jewish War (66-73 CE), likely after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This means that both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written after 70 CE, perhaps in the 80s or as late the early second century.14

But what about the lack of any mention of the death of Peter or Paul or of the destruction of the Temple? Aren’t these indicative of a date before 70 CE? In reality, this is a red herring as we would not expect an author, writing about a specific period, to write explicitly about events not in his purview. Thomason has indicated in another tweet that she accepts a date of 90 CE for the writing of the Gospel of John yet it never mentions Peter’s or Paul’s death or the destruction of the temple in explicit terms.15 If the lack of such elements is a sign of pre-70 authorship, then surely the Gospel of John was written before 70 CE. Yet few New Testament scholars – evangelical or otherwise – accept such reasoning. Apparently, neither does Thomason.

Conclusion

It seems Thomason’s attempt at dating the Gospels early based upon Pauline literature fails. The epistle of 1 Timothy was likely composed after Paul had already been killed and thus cannot be used as evidence that Paul knew of the Gospel of Luke. Nor is the reference to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 evidence of dependence upon Luke as it is more likely that the Lukan text knew of the Pauline rather than vice versa. The consensus view among New Testament scholars is that of Markan priority and the consensus view of the date of the Markan Gospel is that it was likely composed sometime just before or just after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Acknowledgment: Twitter user @towerofbabull first alerted me to Thomason’s tweet and requested I write an article in response. That they would ask me to do so is very humbling and I appreciate the confidence that they place in my work.

NOTES

1 Adapted from Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, second edition (IVP Academic, 2011), 251.

2 Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Greek Palaeography (OUP, 1981), 64.

3 With the exception of the epistle to the Hebrews which in א appears after Romans and before 1 Corinthians. This was due to an early belief that Hebrews was written by the apostle Paul, despite its anonymous nature. In modern New Testaments it appears at the end of the Pauline collection as the first of the Catholic Epistles.

4 See Amateur Exegete, “Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel, part 1” (12.2.18),  amateurexegete.com.

5 See Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 438-448.

6 See Ehrman, 449-452.

7 Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 96-97.

8 Calvin J. Roetzel, The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, fifth edition (WJK, 2009), 159-162.

9 Roetzel, 160.

10 See Amateur Exegete, “The Mystery τῆς εὐσεβείας” (4.8.18), amateurexegete.com

11 Ehrman writes, “The clerical structure of [the Pastoral Epistles] appears far removed from what we find in the letters of Paul, but it is closely aligned with what we find in proto-orthodox authors [i.e. Ignatius, Irenaeus, etc.] of the second century.” Ehrman, 456.

12

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14 SJ Thomason, “Was Mark or Matthew the First to Write the Gospel?” (3.3.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 28 December 2018.

15 See Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written (HarperOne, 2012), 424-426.

16

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It should be noted that it is not the case that “[m]ost Bible experts agree apostle John” wrote the Gospel that bears his name. Scholars aren’t sure who wrote it but it seems very unlikely that it was a disciple of Jesus.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel, part 2

In this series we are exploring the claim made by pop-apologist SJ Thomason in her post “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?”1 that the prophetic utterance of Daniel 9:24-27 predicted Jesus’ death in 33 CE. There has been one previous post in this series:

This post will focus on the text of Daniel 9:24-27, attempting to understand it in its context.

DANIEL 9:24-27: AN OVERVIEW

It has been said that a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.2 Context includes not only the immediate literary context but also the historical circumstances in which a text was composed. Therefore, when analyzing biblical texts we must consider not only what it says and how it says it but also when and even why the texts were written.

As I discussed in the first post of this series, the book of Daniel can be divided into a cycle of stories (chapters 1-6) and a cycle of visions (chapters 7-12). The former contains legendary material that was likely composed long after the period it describes; the latter contains material that was likely composed in the second century BCE. Daniel 9 is firmly situated in the cycle of visions and therefore any exegesis of the text must take this into account. Consequently, we can be skeptical of any exegesis which doesn’t.

Daniel 9 and Its Context

The first vision in the cycle of visions begins with the words, “In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon” (7:1). Similarly, the vision of chapter eight begins with the words, “In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar” (8:1). Similarly, 9:1 begins with the words, “In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus” (9:1). Why does the Danielic author preface these visions in this way? The answer is quite simple: to suggest that these visions are prophetic in nature. The irony of it is that the historical errors betray the notion that these are pure prophecies written in an age long before the events they describe. As we’ve already discussed, Babylon had no king named Belshazzar. Rather, Belshazzar was the name of the last Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus. The likely explanation for this error is that the author was writing long enough after the time period they describe to get so many of the pertinent details wrong.

The same can be said of what we find in 9:1 where we read of “Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans.” Recall that in 5:30 we are told that once Belshazzar “the Chaldean king” is killed, it is “Darius the Mede” who takes over. But there never was a “Darius the Mede” and when Babylon was conquered by the Persians it was Nabonidus on the throne and Cyrus the Great who came and removed him. Here in 9:1 we read of Darius again who, in addition to being “born a Mede” was also “son of Ahasuerus.”  Of whom is the author speaking?

The Identity of Ahasuerus 

Let’s begin with the name “Ahasuerus.” The name Ahasuerus is one that features predominately in the story we find in the book of Esther. There it is likely a reference to Xerxes I who reigned over the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 BCE. Xerxes was the product of the union between Darius I and Atossa, the granddaughter of Cyrus the Great. To Xerxes was born four sons by his wife Amestris: Darius, Hystaspes, Artaxerxes I, and Achaemenes. Xerxes and his son Darius fell victim to a conspiracy hatched by Artabanus, an official who had served in Xerxes’ administration. Both Xerxes and Darius were murdered in 465 BCE. Artaxerxes I would then assume the throne.3

Assuming that the Ahasuerus of Esther is a reference to Xerxes I, how then does he relate to the Ahasuerus of Daniel 9:1? Is that Ahasuerus actually Xerxes I? If it is, then the author of Daniel has gotten Persian history completely wrong. Xerxes was never the father of a king named Darius. If anything, the Danielic author has the historical order reversed: Xerxes, the biblical Ahasuerus, was the son of Darius.

Darius the Mede

So the Danielic author has gotten the lineage of Persian kings wrong. So what do we make of Darius which 9:1 asserts was “by birth a Mede” and “who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans”? To whom is this referring?

It seems clear that the author intends for us to link the Darius of 9:1 with the Darius of 5:30. But as we already noted, the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was caused by Cyrus the Great, a Persian, and not anyone named Darius and certainly not a Darius “the Mede.” There were three men named Darius who ruled over the Persian Empire: Darius I (522-486 BCE), Darius II (423-404 BCE) and Darius III (336-330 BCE) but they all appear after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and are unrelated to the cause of that epic event. Furthermore, they are all Persians and not Medes. So what is going on?

One possibility is that Darius is intended to be a composite character.4 In an oracle against Babylon we find in the book of Isaiah the prophet we read that Yahweh was “stirring up the Medes against”  Babylon (Isaiah 13:17; cf. 21:2) causing its downfall. Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah we are told Yahweh “has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes” (Jeremiah 51:11; cf. 51:28) to destroy the city of Babylon. It seems that one of the expectations of the prophets was that Babylon’s demise would be caused by the Medes. Perhaps the Danielic author has combined the name of one of Persia’s most famous rulers, Darius, with the prophetic expectation of Isaiah and Jeremiah to create “Darius the Mede.” If this is the case, this is a literary creation that is disconnected from history.

Another possibility is simply that the Danielic author was just plain wrong and this, to me, seems the most likely explanation for what is going on. The author is writing long enough after the events about which he is writing that he simply gets some of the details completely wrong.

The Narrative Context

While the historical details surrounding 9:1 are quite problematic, this need not hinder our investigation into the narrative context of 9:24-27. As far as the narrative is concerned, the discussion of the seventy weeks takes place in the first year of the reign of Darius the Mede over Babylon. Let’s briefly consider the lead up to 9:24-27 that is found in 9:2-23.

9:2 

Daniel, the main character in the story, tells the reader that he “perceived in the book the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely seventy years.” The reference here to Jeremiah reflects the prophet’s words in Jeremiah 25:8-14 and 29:10-14. In the former we are told that the punishment on Judah would be destruction of the region and exile of its inhabitants at the hands of Nebuchadrezzar and the armies of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (25:8-9). This punishment would last seventy years and then Yahweh would punish the king of Babylon and end the Neo-Babylonian Empire (25:10-14). In the latter, Yahweh declares that at the end of the seventy year exile the deity would make good on his promise to his people that he would restore them to the land (29:10, 14).

Daniel believes he understands what the “seventy years” in Jeremiah actually means based upon the explanation given to him by Gabriel in 9:20-27.

9:3-14

Daniel begins to pray to the “great and awesome God” that he serves (9:4). He admits that the people have sinned (9:5), failing to heed the warnings of God’s prophets (9:6). The consequence of this failing – “the treachery that they have committed against” God – was that the deity drove them away into other lands, a reference to the period of the Exile (9:7).  Daniel emphasizes that this should not have been a surprise to the generation that experienced the fall of Judah for the consequence of failing to obey God was already “written in the law of Moses” (9:13). Thus, Yahweh was right to do as he did with his people (9:14).

9:15-19

Having spent a great deal of time admitting the guilt of God’s people, Daniel implores God to turn his anger and wrath from Jerusalem (9:16) and to cause his “face to shine upon [his] desolated sanctuary (i.e. the temple; 9:17). Daniel appeals not to the people’s righteousness since they have none but upon God’s “great mercies” (9:18). He also begs God to act for the sake of his name which Jerusalem and Israel both bear (9:19).

9:20-23

As Daniel is praying, Gabriel, the one who interprets Daniel’s vision of the ram and the goat (8:1-27), comes to give him “wisdom and understanding” (9:22). It is he who explains to what Jeremiah’s “seventy years” refers (9:23).

An Exegesis of 9:24-27

In 9:24-27 we read the words of Gabriel to Daniel interpreting Jeremiah’s “seventy years.” As we will see, this section does refer to a very specific period of time but it is not what SJ Thomason in her post thinks that it is.

9:24

  • “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city….”

Jeremiah’s seventy years (9:2) are interpreted as seventy weeks. But it cannot be literal weeks since seventy weeks is less than a year and a half. Rather, the Hebrew word for “weeks” is “sevens” (šābuʿîm), making the interpretation of Jeremiah’s seventy years into seventy sevens of years, or four-hundred and ninety years.

  • “…to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.”

The purpose of the seventy weeks is laid out for Daniel. In essence, the vision is eschatological: when the seventy weeks are completed, a “most holy place” will be anointed wherein atonement for sin can be made that will end the people’s exile and restore the holy city of Jerusalem to its former glory. No longer would foreign powers rule over God’s people.

9:25 

  • “Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks….”

Gabriel begins to offer historical specifics to root the first seven weeks into history. The period begins at “the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.” The “word” is a decree and decrees are typically issued by sovereigns. So to which sovereign is the Danielic author through the mouth of Gabriel referring?

Since we already know that Gabriel is offering a novel interpretation of Jeremiah’s words, it makes sense to look for a candidate during a period after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire since the cause of the end of the exile is rooted in the fall of Babylon (see Jeremiah 25:12-14). So which sovereign, after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, sent out a decree concerning Jerusalem? Well, the primary candidate is that of Cyrus the Great who declares in 539 BCE that Yahweh has ordered him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4). And interestingly enough, the Chronicler asserts that the time from fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile to the decree of Cyrus is the seventy year period about which Jeremiah wrote (2 Chronicles 36:20-21).

So the seven weeks of 9:25 begins with the decree of Cyrus and ends with “the time of an anointed prince.” To whom is this referring? Before we try to answer that question there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

First, the Hebrew word translated as “prince” in the NRSV need not refer to a “prince” in the sense to which we are most accustomed, i.e. the son of a king. Rather, the word nāgîd can refer to a leader or ruler generally.  Second, whereas translations like the KJV and NASB render māšîaḥ nāgîd as “the Messiah the Prince” or “Messiah the Prince,” neither māšîaḥ (“anointed”) nor nāgîd have the Hebrew definite article attached. Therefore rendering them indefinitely as the NRSV has is the best way of handling them.

There are a couple of candidates that immediately come to mind in the period following Cyrus’ decree: Joshua (or Jeshua) the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor of Judah. Both men were part of the first group of exiles to return to Jerusalem when Cyrus made his decree (Ezra 2:1-2). They were also led the effort to rebuild the temple (Ezra 5:2) and are featured in the prophetic literature of Haggai and Zechariah (see Haggai 1:12-14, 2:2-4, 2:20-23, Zechariah 4:6-9). As high priest, Joshua would have had to been anointed and thus fulfills the notion of “an anointed leader.” Zerubbabel would also as he was apparently chosen by Cyrus to serve as governor of Judah (Haggai 1:1).

But now we run into a potential problem. The text says that the time from the decree to rebuild the city to the time of an anointed leader is “one week” or forty-nine years. If we begin with 539 with the decree from Cyrus and end with either Joshua or Zerubbabel, we have only a period of about twenty years at most. What do we make of this?

There are two possibilities. The simplest is to acknowledge that the Danielic author has already gotten his history wrong and this incongruity is no exception. Furthermore, we’ve already seen that the Chronicler believed that the roughly fifty year period between the exile to Babylon in 586 and the decree from Cyrus is 539 was seventy years. Given that authors writing long after the period about which they are writing will sometimes get details completely wrong, this may be what is going on here.

Another possibility is one proposed by George Athas who arranges Daniel 9:25 into three parts:

  • 9:25a – “Know and understand from the issuing of the word to return and rebuild Jerusalem:”
  • 9:25b – “Until an anointed leader there will be seven ‘weeks’.”
  • 9:25c – “In sixty-two ‘weeks’ you will have returned with street and conduit rebuilt, but with the anguish of the times.”

In essence, the seven weeks of 9:25b becomes included in the sixty-two weeks of 9:25c. The result is that there are still seventy weeks but some (i.e. the seven weeks of 9:25b) are subsumed by the sixty-two of 9:25c.5

  • “…and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.”

The devastation wrought by Babylon in 586 BCE cannot be underestimated. The city’s walls were broken down, its temple to Yahweh decimated, and its population nearly wiped out by battle and exile. In the period between 593 and 450 BCE it has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem was no greater than five hundred people, only growing closer to two-thousand by 332.6 It took time for the city to return to its former glory. And all around Judea the world was changing. The Persian Empire gave way to Alexander the Great’s. Alexander’s empire ended upon his death and was divided into four with Jerusalem falling under the authority of Ptolemy I. But even that wasn’t to last as Antiochus III won Jerusalem after doing battle with Ptolemy V in 198 BCE.

These “sixty-two weeks” were indeed a trouble time in which Jerusalem was being restored. But the worst was yet to come.

9:26

  • “After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and have nothing….” 

Like we saw in 9:25 with the reference to “an anointed prince” (māšîaḥ nāgîd), here we read of “an anointed one” (māšîaḥ). Again, because māšîaḥ lacks the Hebrew definite article it makes sense to translate it indefinitely.

Who is this “anointed one” that is “cut off” and is left with “nothing”? The previous reference to one who was anointed in 9:25 was to either Joshua the high priest or Zerubbabel the governor of Judah. So it makes sense that this anointed one may be a religious authority. And since the phrase “cut off” probably refers to his death, we should probably look for a religious authority who met his demise. One candidate in particular stands out: Onias III.

Keep in mind that the vision of cycles can be dated to the second century CE and Onias’ death has already been alluded to in the vision of Daniel 11:22 where he is referred to as “the prince of the covenant.” Onias was murdered in 171 BCE by Andronicus, an official in the administration of Antiochus IV. The author of 2 Maccabees relates that following Onias’ death there was significant backlash such that Antiochus had Andronicus executed because of “the unreasonable murder of Onias” (2 Maccabees 4:35-38).

  • “…and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.

This portion of 9:26 belongs with what follows in 9:27.

9:27

  • “He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week…”

In 1 Maccabees we read of “certain renegades” among the Jews who were sympathetic to the Greeks. They told the people, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us” (1 Maccabees 1:11). So around 170 BCE, an agreement was reached between those Jews and Antiochus that resulted in a gymnasium being built in Jerusalem where Greek ideologies were discussed, much to the chagrin of more traditional Jews.

  • …”and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease…” 

In 167 BCE, about three and a half years after the death of Onias and the “covenant” between Hellenized Jews and Antiochus, the king sends his military to Jerusalem and ends sacrifices in the temple. But why?

First, in 169 Antiochus arrived in Jerusalem following his campaign in the Ptolemaic regions. He proceeded to take treasure from the temple treasury in the city which raised the ire of the faithful. When in 168 he was again in Egypt, a rumor spread that he had been killed. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem saw this as an opportunity to rid the city of their enemies, both Greek and Jewish, and to reassert control of the city. However, Antiochus was alive and well and in 167 sent his military to Jerusalem to put an end to the rebellion. They destroyed the defensive walls of the city and they also forbade the observance of Jewish customs.7

All Torah scrolls were to be seized and burned. All sacrifices and offerings to God at the Jerusalem Temple were abolished. Anyone who persisted in carrying out these or other Jewish rites was subject to the death penalty.8

And then they did the unspeakable.

  • “…and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.”

In the temple of Yahweh in the city of Jerusalem Antiochus’ forces erected an altar to Zeus, a Greek deity and upon it they sacrificed a pig. The author of 1 Maccabees wrote that

the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances (1 Maccabees 1:44-49).

This altar to Zeus was called “a desolating sacrilege” (1 Maccabees 1:54). This event is mentioned by the Danielic author in Daniel 11:31 and it is reiterated here.

Gabriel’s explanation of the seventy weeks to Daniel ends with the demise of “the desolator.” In Daniel 11, that demise was to come between the Mediterranean Sea and Zion (11:45) but that did not happen. 9:27 is less specific in how it predicted Antiochus’ end but it is no doubt meant to be read in tandem with 11:45. In any event, this ambiguity as well as the erroneous prediction of 11:45 tells us that cycle of visions was written in 167 after the invasion of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Maccabean revolt but before the death of Antiochus IV.

Summary

This very brief and very poor look at Daniel 9:24-27 points to a “fulfillment” in a period long before Jesus’ day and the details found within fit specific historical markers in the period following the decree of Cyrus down to the events of 167 BCE. This is an example of vaticinium ex eventua frequent tool of the Danielic author. This demonstrates that the author was very interested in these specific events and how they fit into the grander scheme of God’s promise to restore Israel to her rightful place as Yahweh’s people. The traumatic events of Antiochus’ oppression of the Jews played an important part.

NOTES

1 SJ Thomason, “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” (11.18.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 27 November 2018.

2 DA Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second edition (Baker Academic, 1996), 115.

3 Joshua J. Mark, “Xerxes I” (3.14.18), ancienteu.com. Accessed 5 December 2018.

4 J.M. Cook, “Darius,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 153.

5 George Athas, “In Search of the Seventy ‘Weeks’ of Daniel 9,” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (9.2), 14-15. Accessed 6 December 2018.

6 Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Israel Among the Nations: The Persian Period,” in Michael D. Coogan, editor, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (OUP, 1998), 289.

Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Between Alexandria and Antioch: Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period,” in Coogan, 329.

8 Ibid.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Weekly Roundup – 12.7.18

“The death of the messiah [in Mark’s Gospel], at the hour of the cross, is the advent of the υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, who has come with great power and glory (13:26).”
– Danny Yencich


  • On 11.25.18 Twitter users @Shann_Q0 and @paulogia0 had a discussion with pop-apologist SJ Thomason covering a wide-range of topics including Gospel authorship, the historicity of the Resurrection, the growth of Christianity, and more. I think both Shannon and Paul did a pretty good job of sticking to the facts and resting their laurels on a lot of New Testament scholarship. Thomason, on the other hand, offers the same pat answers that the pop-apologists she reads give. Also, Thomason seems to be easily distracted and I’ve noticed this in other YouTube conversations, her Twitter posts, and even in her blog posts. In any event, I really appreciate the work that Shannon and Paul put into the conversation with Thomason. They both come across as very genuine, humble, and knowledgeable people. Not bad for a couple of heathens!
  • Twitter user and blogger @apetivist wrote a blog post entitled “The Problem of Evil or Suffering by Apetivist.” It isn’t intended to be a thorough discussion of the problem of evil but it does raise some interesting points. For example, often Christians employ a free will defense in a bid to rescue God’s omnibenevolence. But as Apetevist points out, many of those same Christians believe that in the future eschaton all sin and evil will be purged from the world. If that’s the case, why couldn’t God keep and maintain such a world now? Therefore, God’s omnibenevolence is questionable.
  • Over on his YouTube channel @StudyofChrist is working through the genealogy of Luke’s Gospel, addressing specific errors within the text. I was able to work through three: “All the alleged Errors in Luke’s Genealogy,” “Why is there an extra Cainan in Luke’s Genealogy? part 1,” and “Why is there an extra Cainan in Luke’s Genealogy? part 2. As he is wont to do, @StudyofChrist goes deep into both biblical texts, ancient manuscripts, and extrabiblical sources. His is fascinating work. Like and subscribe to his work if you haven’t already!
  • Self-professed Bible “nerd” Daniel Kirk did an interview with Pete Enns and Jared Byas on their The Bible For Normal People podcast discussing my favorite book of the Bible: the Gospel of Mark. There’s plenty of neat tidbits about the social circumstances in which the Gospel was written and how the narrative structure works within it.
  • Danny Yencich, a PhD student in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Denver, wrote a piece last year in the Stone-Cambell Journal entitled “Sowing the Passion at Olivet: Mark 13-15 in a Narrative Frame.” The gist of the piece is that Mark 13, traditionally seen as an entirely apocalyptic passage, may in fact be foreshadowing the events that take place in the Passion narrative. This view isn’t unique to Yencich but he does succinctly put together the evidence for such a view and it is one that I find intriguing. While undoubtedly the Olive Discourse is apocalyptic in nature, a fact that Yencich essentially concedes, there are particular words and phrases that evoke the Passion narrative that follows. These include the use of the verb paradidōmi (13:9), the idea of “eschatological darkness” (13:24), and more.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel, part 1

“Fulfilled prophecies are what distinguish the Bible from other holy texts and are evidence of direct revelations by God.” – SJ Thomason.1


In a bid to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity and the significance of Jesus of Nazareth, pop-apologists often appeal to so-called prophecies found in the Hebrew scriptures that are “fulfilled” in the events described in the New Testament. Theirs is a hermeneutic born of the New Testament authors themselves as those first and second century writers frequently appealed to passages in the Tanakh as proof of Jesus’ divine authority.2 More often than not those appeals are eisegetical; they read into the text what they want to get out of it. This tendency has plagued Christianity for the entirety of its history as it sought to place itself into the Jewish stream in which the historical Jesus and his teachings first arose.

Not that long ago pop-apologist SJ Thomason wrote a piece wherein she claimed that the Triune God of Christian orthodoxy could be found in the items located in the Jewish tabernacle.I wrote a response demonstrating that Thomason’s claims were unfounded for a variety of reasons4 as did DM Spence, a blogger and YouTuber who is currently writing a book responding to Christian claims concerning Jesus’ resurrection and whether the Nazarene fits the description of a messiah.5 Thomason’s woefully inadequate exegetical skills were on full display in her piece and she has not (to my knowledge) responded to either Spence or to me.6 Consequently, she continues unabashed in her ignorance of the biblical texts and writes blog posts to that end. Recently she produced another example of evangelical eisegesis in a post entitled “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” In it Thomason claims that the text of Daniel 9:24-27 predicted that the death of the messiah would occur in 33 CE.

This response to Thomason will be broken down into two posts: a general introduction to the book of Daniel and a brief examination of Daniel 9:24-27. I would ask readers to please excuse the length of these posts as I tend to be verbose in the interest of explaining things some of my readers may know little about and to make sure I am thorough in my response to Thomason.

DANIEL IN CONTEXT

The book of Daniel can be divided into two main sections: a cycle of stories (chapters 1-6) and a cycle of visions (chapters 7-12). The first cycle opens with the historical events of the fall of Jerusalem (1:1-2), though the Danielic version differs in some ways with the Deuteronomic version as well as that of the Chronicler. Regardless, the author wants us to envision the events of the first cycle as taking place during the Babylonian exile, mostly during the reign of Nebuchadrezzar.7 Daniel and a few others – children of nobility – were taken from their homes and sent to live in Babylon where they were to be “taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (1:4) and would be placed in prominent positions in the court of the king (1:5-6). It is clear from the get-go that Daniel is a legendary figure, the quintessential Jew living under the domination of pagans. He is described as one who is exceptional in every way: appearance, wisdom, knowledge, and insight (1:4, 1:20). Because of his exceptional abilities, Daniel serves from the time of Nebuchadrezzar all the way to Cyrus the Great (1:21).

Historical Errors

But within the cycle of stories we see a number of historical errors such that it has led many scholars to believe that the book of Daniel was not composed during the time period it describes. Let’s enumerate a few.

Jehoiakim and the Siege of Jerusalem

The Danielic story opens in the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign on the throne of Jerusalem around 606 BCE at which time Nebuchadrezzar brings the Babylonian army to the city and lays siege to it (1:1). Consequently, “[t]he Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into [Nebuchadrezzar’s] power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God” which he took back to Babylon (1:2). But there are a few problems with this sequence of events.

For starters, there was no siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar during Jehoiakim’s reign, let alone the third year of it. According to the Deuteronomistic Historian, it was during the reign of Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin that Nebuchadrezzar came and besieged the city (2 Kings 24:10-11). Jehoiachin, his family, and many others in Jerusalem were hauled off to Babylon as were both temple and palace treasures (24:13-16). Nebuchadrezzar places Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne in Jerusalem and renames him “Zedekiah” (24:17). This all took place in the spring of 597 BCE.

In general terms, the report of the Deuteronomistic Historian is corroborated by Babylonian sources.

Year 7. The month Kislev. The king of Akkad [i.e. Nebuchadrezzar] mobilized his troops and marched to Hatti. He encamped against the city of Judah and in the month Adar, day 2, he captured the city; he seized the king. He appointed a king of his choice; he took its rich spoil and brought it into Babylon.8

Other Babylonian sources confirm that Jehoiachin and his children were provided for in their captivity.9

With regards to the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar, the author of Daniel is spectacularly wrong.

Belshazzar and Nebudchadrezzar

In Daniel 5:1 we read of another Neo-Babylonian king named Belshazzar who is described as the son of Nebuchadrezzar (cf. 5:11, 5:18, 5:22). Daniel suggests that because of his own pride, Nebuchadrezzar was “deposed from his kingly throne” and went insane (5:20-21), leaving Belshazzar to rule in his place. But this is problematic for a couple of reasons.

For starters, the Uruk King List makes it clear that Nebuchadrezzar’s successor was not Belshazzar but Amel-marduk, his son.10 And according to that list, there never was any king named Belshazzar. Nor was Belshazzar Nebuchadrezzar’s son; he wasn’t even related to him! Rather, Belshazzar appears to have been the son of Nabonidus, the final king of the Neo-Babylonian empire. While Nabonidus was away in the Arabian city of Tema, Belshazzar took control in his stead.11 But Belshazzar was not referred to as a “king” but as “the crown prince.”12 When Persian forces began to encroach upon Babylonian territory, Nabonidus returned to Babylon and relieved Belshazzar of his duties.

Darius the Mede

Also in Daniel 5 we read where at a feast Daniel tells Belshazzar that the kingdom would be taken from him and given to “the Medes and Persians” (5:28). That night Belshazzar is killed (5:30) and we are told that Darius the Mede takes over at the age of sixty-two (5:31). However, this simply doesn’t fall in line with the historical record.

The Chronicler notes that what Jeremiah had prophesied concerning the Babylonian exile (see Jeremiah 25:11-2; 29:10) was fulfilled in that the exile lasted for seventy years (2 Chronicles 36:20-21). That exile ended when the Persian empire took control of Babylon and its territories such that in the first year of Cyrus the people were authorized to return to Judah (36:22-23; cf. Ezra 1:1-4). So the portrait painted by the Chronicler and others is that Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great. This is in line with Babylonian sources which state that in the seventeenth year of Nabonidus’ reign over Babylon Cyrus attacked Babylonian forces at Opis, forcing them to retreat to the city of Babylon itself. Shortly thereafter, Cyrus enters Babylon, arrests Nabonidus, and appoints Gubaru as governor of the city.13 There is no mention of a “Darius the Mede” anywhere nor is there any indication that Cyrus was known as “Darius.” What is more is that we do know about Persian kings named Darius: Darius I also known as Darius the Great (522-486 BCE) and Darius II (423-404 BCE). And while Daniel 6:28 implies that Cyrus came after Darius’ reign, other biblical texts are aware of the correct chronological order of Persian kings (i.e. Ezra 4:5).

Dating Daniel 

Despite the attempts by various inerrantists to remedy these problem texts,14 these errors reveal that the cycle of stories probably does not date to the time of Daniel but is instead the product of a later era.15 But the cycle of stories is not the only thing to be found in the book of Daniel. As mentioned before, there is also a cycle of visions that makes up chapters seven through twelve. Can we date those?

In fact, we can. The eleventh chapter of Daniel contains a series of “prophecies” that make it very apparent that it was written during the second century BCE. They are an example of vaticinium ex eventu, a phenomenon whereby an author, writing after specific events, recounts them as if they are yet to happen.16 Daniel 11 is a textbook example of it.17

  • 11:2-4 describe the end of the Persian empire,18 the rise of Alexander the Great, and the aftermath of Alexander’s death (323 BCE) which caused his vast empire to become divided into four regions.
  • 11:5-6 describe the rise of Ptolemy I, “the king of the south,” as well as that of Seleucus I who rules in Syria. The “daughter of the king of the south” is Berenice whose father was Ptolemy II. She marries Antiochus II, the Seleucid king, in 252 BCE. However, she and the “offspring” she produces with Antiochus are killed in 246 BCE.
  • 11:7-9 describe how Ptolemy III, the brother of Berenice and the “branch from her roots” attacks the Seleucid kingdom (“the fortress of the king of the north”) and wins in 241 BCE. It also describes how Seleucus II (“the king of the north”) attempts to invade the Ptolemaic kingdom with mixed results.
  • 11:10-13 describe how Seleucus’ sons, Seleucus III and Antiochus III, continue to wage war which causes Ptolemy IV (“king of the south”) to respond in force. Ptolemy defeats Antiochus in 217 BCE but due to his pride his son, Ptolemy V, would face ultimate defeat at the hands of Antiochus in 198 BCE.
  • 11:14-19 describe how Jewish supporters (“[t]he lawless among your own people”) join forces with Antiochus to defeat the Ptolemaic forces. At the city of Paneas in 200 BCE Antiochus defeats Ptolemaic forces causing some of Ptolemy’s forces to flee to nearby cities, including Sidon, Jerusalem, and others. Antiochus then turns his attention on to other regions to conquer but is effectively cut down by Lucius Cornelius Scipio, a Roman general (“a commander”) in 187 BCE.
  • 11:20-28 describe how after the short-lived reign of Seleucus IV (“within a few days he shall be broken”) Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) takes the throne of the Seleucid kingdom by usurption (“obtain the kingdom through intrigue”). He kills the high priest Onias III (“prince of the covenant”) in 171 BCE. In 170 he invades Egypt successfully and on his way back to Syria he attacks Jerusalem (“his heart shall be set against the holy covenant”).
  • 11:29-35 describe how Antiochus attempts to invade the Seleucid kingdom again but is prevented by Roman emissaries (“ships of Kittim”). Following this Antiochus attacks Jerusalem in 168 BCE and his forces enter the temple, prohibit sacrifices to Yahweh, and “set up the abomination that makes desolate,” a reference to a foreign altar to a false deity (cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54). This results in the Maccabean revolt (“the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action”).
  • 11:36-39 describe Antiochus’ terrible personality, in that he shows no respect for the true God or even his own ancestral gods.

In 11:40-12:13 we read material that is strictly prophetic in nature. That is to say, what follows is not something experienced by the author or in historical memory. This means that the writing of this and other visions in the cycle can be dated to around 168 BCE after Antiochus IV attacks Jerusalem in that year. This also means that the legendary material of the cycle of stories was probably combined with the cycle of visions sometime after 168.

Summary

Many of the so-called prophetic utterances in the book of Daniel are rooted in the historical circumstances around which the work was written and compiled. Various historical errors reveal that the cycle of stories was not written in the time period about which they describe and the very specific details of the vision of Daniel 11 gives us reason to believe that these texts originated in the second century BCE. This is important because it means that the prophecy of 9:24-27 is rooted in a specific historical circumstance and its interpretation depends on it. As we will see next time, 9:25-27 is another example of an ex eventu text.

NOTES

1 SJ Thomason, “Did Daniel the Prophet Accurately Predict the Timing of Jesus’ Death?” (11.18.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

2 For example, the author of Matthew’s Gospel explicitly quotes from the Hebrew Bible fourteen times (i.e. 1:22-23, 2:5-6, etc.) and makes numerous allusions to it.

3 SJ Thomason, “Is the Holy Trinity Found in the Old Testament?” (9.26.18), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

4 Amateur Exegete, “Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason, the Tabernacle, and the Trinity in the Old Testament” (9.30.18), amateurexegete.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

5 DM Spence, “The Trinity IS NOT Found in the Old Testament” (10.8.18), dmspence.com. Accessed 21 November 2018.

6 She has, however, referred to me as a “drain on humanity.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 1.48.46 PM

7 The common spelling for the king of the Neo-Babylonian empire in the Hebrew scriptures is “Nebuchadnezzar.” However, unless quoting from the biblical texts themselves, I will use the more accurate rendering of Nebuchadrezzar.

8 “Chronicle of Nebuchadrezzar II, King of Babylon,” in Michael D. Coogan, A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts (OUP, 2013), 83.

9 “Administrative Text of Nebuchadrezzar II,” in Coogan (2013), 83.

10 Uruk King List,” livius.org. Accessed 26 November 2018.

11 Amanda H. Poday, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2014), 121.

12 See “Chronicles of Nabonidus, King of Babylon,” in Coogan (2013), 83. See also Donald J. Wiseman, “Belshazzar,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 77-78.

13 “Chronicles of Nabonidus, King of Babylon,” in Coogan (2013), 83-84.

14 For example, pop-apologists Josh and Sean McDowell devote an entire chapter in their recent edition of Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Thomas Nelson, 2017) dealing with some of the historical issues within the book of Daniel. Yet even they cannot escape the fact that their solutions are speculative:

Our survey of the critical claims about the historicity of the book of Daniel offers a brief series of possible solutions to the major objections made by critical scholars. In some cases, the best possible solutions are not concrete proofs that guarantee the validity of conservative, evangelical thought. (585)

15 Douglas A. Knight and Amy Jill-Levine note that the cycle of stories dates either to the Persian era (539-331 BCE) or the Hellenistic era (331-168 BCE). They write,

Chapters 2:4b-7:28 are written in Aramaic, the common language of Southwestern Asia from the Babylonian exile until the incursion of Hellenism; chapters 1, 8-12 are in Hebrew, which was experiencing a renaissance in the late second century. (Knight and Jill-Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us [HarperOne, 2011], 384.)

16 This phenomenon is found in various places throughout the Old and New Testaments. For example, in the Gospel of Luke we read of a siege against Jerusalem that results in the destruction of the city (Luke 19:43-44). This passage and others make sense if they were written after the events of 70 CE when Luke is writing to his community.

17 See Lawrence M. Wills, “The Lead Up to Chanukah in the Book of Daniel” (12.6.15), thetorah.com. Accessed 27 November 2018. See also Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Between Alexandria and Antioch: Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period,” in Michael D. Coogan, editor, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (OUP, 1998), 317-351.

18 Though the claim that “three more kings shall arise in Persia” and a fourth would stir up trouble with Greece is problematic. Considering Daniel purportedly served under Cyrus (Daniel 6:29), there were far more than four kings who reigned over the Persian empire after him. It is possible that the author was not up to speed on his Persian history.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 5

This is the fifth and final post in a series examining pop-apologist Heather Schuldt’s attempt to take down New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. The four previous posts can be viewed here:

In this post we will be looking at Schuldt’s attempt to reconcile the seemingly divergent times recorded in the Gospel accounts surrounding Jesus’ death. At the end we will summarize the series, observing briefly the way Schuldt as a pop-apologist engages with the biblical texts and with biblical scholarship.

WHAT TIME WAS IT?

In the Gospel of Mark we are told that Jesus, having been arrested and tried before the religious authorities, is brought before Pilate on the morning which followed (Mark 15:1). Not long after we are told that Pilate has Jesus crucified. The specific time listed is hōra tritē, literally “the third hour” which the NRSV renders as “nine o’clock” (15:25). A few hours later darkness covers the land for three hours (Mark 15:33). The specific times listed are hōras hektēs, literally “the sixth hour” (NRSV, “noon”), and hōras enatēs, literally “the ninth hour” (NRSV, “three in the afternoon”). At enatē hōra, literally “the ninth hour” (NRSV, “three o’clock”) Jesus finally begins to die (15:34).

In the Gospel of John we are told that Jesus, having been arrested and tried before the religious authorities, is brought before Pilate on the morning which followed (John 18:28). Not long after we are told that Pilate has Jesus crucified (19:14). The specific time listed given is hōra…hōs hektē, literally “about the sixth hour” (NRSV, “about noon”). Sometime after this Jesus finally dies (19:30).

It is clear that by reading these accounts that they do not sync up at all. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been crucified around 9am. But in John’s Gospel the crucifixion takes place around noon, well after what Mark reports. Interestingly, in some manuscripts of Mark 15:25 the word tritē is replaced with hektē in a bid to harmonize the Markan with the Johannine account while in some manuscripts of John 19:14 hektē is replaced with tritē in a bid to harmonize the Johannine account with the Markan account.1 Clearly later copyists noticed the discrepancy and tried to fix it.

Schuldt’s Response

How does Schuldt resolve this difficulty? She offers four points by which she means to rescue inerrancy. Let’s consider each in turn.

First of all, it is important to understand how they told time back then. Ehrman completely overlooks this historical time telling system. The first hour was at sunrise. The third hour was mid-morning. The sixth hour was mid-day. The ninth hour was mid-afternoon. The twelfth hour was twilight/sunset.2

Someone of Ehrman’s caliber hasn’t overlooked anything, and if he has then we can also blame evangelical scholars like Craig Evans for doing the same.3 Since the hours of the day were from sunrise to sunset and roughly twelve hours, Schuldt’s reckoning is correct. So the third hour was midmorning, commonly seen as 9am, the sixth hour was midday, roughly noon, and the ninth hour was midafternoon, roughly 3pm.

Next she writes,

Second, try not using a modern clock for just one month and see if you can figure out when it is 10:30 AM and when it is 11 AM. The point is that it is difficult to distinguish between the end of the third hour and the beginning of the sixth hour.

This is almost comical. Rather than read the text as we have it, Schuldt has to shift goals and avoid the obvious. Furthermore, she is missing the very reason John has changed Mark’s “third hour” (9am) to “about the sixth hour” (noon). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). By changing Mark’s 9am to noon, John aligns the crucifixion of the “Lamb of God” with the time when the sacrificial lambs were slaughtered in the temple! Pilate’s words coupled with the sending off of Jesus to be crucified shows that “Jesus is the true paschal lamb, about to suffer death at the appropriate hour of the appropriate day for the life of his people.”4 John, therefore, is portraying Jesus in a particular way, a way different from how Mark is portraying him.

Next, Schuldt says,

Third, the third hour might have included anything from 9 AM-11 AM, which is the accepted time frame of when Jesus was crucified. John was not wrong when he said it was “about” the sixth hour. He was estimating.

The assumption here is that the author of John’s Gospel was an eyewitness to the event. He wasn’t. And if she accepts inerrancy she would need to believe that none of the disciples were present at the crucifixion as Mark makes abundantly clear (Mark 14:26-31, 50-52). Her claim that John was “estimating” is just apologetic posturing with no exegetical warrant.

Finally, she says,

Fourth, the two accounts actually give us more information that the time must have been closer to the beginning of the sixth hour, closer at the end of the third hour, and not during the beginning of the third hour. 

This is absolutely bewildering. The Markan text makes it clear that “as soon as it was morning” the religious authorities discuss taking Jesus to Pilate which they then do (Mark 15:1). The next time marker tells us that it was 9am when he was crucified, not about 9am (15:25). Then we are told that at noon darkness comes over the land until 3pm at which time Jesus begins to die (Mark 15:33-34). If all you had was Mark’s Gospel then you wouldn’t think, “Well, maybe it was around 11am when he was actually crucified.” No, you would think that he was crucified at 9am. Schuldt has to resort to hermeneutical gymnastics to avoid the obvious.

Summary 

Schuldt resorts again to very contrived explanations to rescue inerrancy. She has forced an explanation that just doesn’t work. And it is one that ruins what John was trying to do in his version of events.

In the final analysis, then, we need not be concerned with whether the Johannine version is more correct at the level of “history” [than the Synoptic version]. It is not a claim about history at all, but about the theological significance of the death of Jesus as understood within the Johannine community. Nor is it necessary – or even possible – to force the Johannine chronology to fit that of the Synoptics. To do so would destroy the entire effect of the Johannine story. In other words, unless the audience allows the Johannine author to change the story in these significant ways, the all-important Johannine message regarding Jesus’ death – and the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God – cannot come through.5

Schuldt, with her eisegetical tendencies, has disrespected not only the texts themselves but the communities for which they were written. They were telling their story about Jesus, not the one of later harmonies. For them, it was less about the historical sequence and more about the meaning of the events of Jesus’ death. She’s missed it.

SERIES SUMMARY

As was the case with SJ Thomason, Heather Schuldt shows all the signs of the quintessential pop-apologist: ignorance of basic scholarship, the inability to pay attention to the way texts are written, and the assumption that their knowledge on a little translates to knowledge about a lot. Whatever one may think about Ehrman, there is no doubt that he is an expert in his field and to claim otherwise is (as I’ve said before) the height of hubris. What books has Schuldt written? Where has she been published? How long has she trained in biblical languages? Where does she teach?

But you will observe that in my response to Schuldt I didn’t resort to this kind of argument from authority. Instead, I presented the relevant data and I tried to do so while engaging with actual scholarship as well as the biblical texts directly. Meanwhile, Schuldt has provided 1) no evidence for the early dating of the Gospels, 2) no evidence for traditional authorship of the Gospels, 3) no reason to think the oral tradition behind the Gospels wasn’t malleable, 4) no exegetical reason to think that John and Mark agree on the Seder meal and the Passover, and 5) no appreciation for the way John’s Gospel was written with regards to the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion.

One of the utter failings of Schuldt’s approach is that she does not appreciate the Gospels for what they are. They were never intended to be read as snapshots of Jesus. The Synoptic Problem reveals this clearly. Instead, the Gospels were intended to be portraits of Jesus. The late New Testament scholar Robert Guelich wrote that

the presence of four distinctive gospels demands that each be taken seriously with its own divinely inspired message. Harmonization that obliterates the distinctiveness of the four gospels in the interest of reconstructing the life and teachings of Jesus can actually distort the plain meaning of the text. To read the four gospels as an unscrambled Diatessaron misses the genius of having four distinct gospels.6

I do not share in Guelich’s view on inspiration but I do share in his view that the Gospel authors were writing distinct accounts of Jesus’ life and that any subsequent attempts to harmonize them “obliterates the distinctiveness of the four gospels.” Yet obliterate Schuldt does when she tries to force the texts to align. Her high view of the doctrine of inerrancy results in a very low view of the biblical texts and serves as a parable for those seeking to understand the Gospel accounts: she is like one stumbling in the dark, putting together four different puzzles that portray four different images. Such attempts at harmonization result in fifth kind of Gospel, one derived from all four Gospels, but also one that has so distorted these portraits of Jesus that he is not even recognizable. Instead of a portrait of Jesus, Schuldt’s technique results in something far more abstract and far less interesting.

Schuldt reminds me of myself when I was younger and had received a lot of information about topics that I was interested in but lacked the conceptual framework with which to harness it. As a result, I was running with arguments rather than learning to walk or to even crawl with them. Schuldt is a student as Southern Evangelical Seminary in their graduate program of apologetics. No doubt in her classes she has been receiving a lot of information. But the way apologetics works is to confirm biases, not question them. And so she is being trained not to think critically. Therefore all the information they give her is filtered through particular views of the Bible that simply do not align with the biblical texts themselves. With what she’s learned she ends up being like a bull in a china shop and ends up absolutely wrecking the biblical texts. She certainly thinks she is defending the Bible but in reality she has done it a disservice. And frankly, SES has done a disservice to her and all their students.

One thing that cannot be overemphasized is that apologists like Schuldt simply do not spend very much time in the biblical texts. Rather, they spend a considerable amount of time in texts other than the biblical texts. But if you want to understand the Bible then spending large amounts of time in the Bible is indispensable. This may seem obvious but so often it isn’t to those who claim to actually believe the Bible in all it says. I saw this when I was an evangelical and I continue to see it as an atheist: the people of the Book have no appreciation of the Book because they don’t read the Book.

Maybe Schuldt will learn her lesson. But I have a feeling she won’t.

NOTES

1 See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, second edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 99, 216.

2 Heather M. Schuldt, “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert” (10.17.18), Ladyapologist.com. Accessed 8 Nov 2018.

3 See Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC vol. 34b (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 503.

4 FF Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Eerdmans 1983), 365.

5 L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 16.

6 Robert A. Guelich, “The Gospels: Portraits of Jesus and His Ministry,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June, 1981), 121. Accessed 9 November 2018.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.