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Mouthing off about the early Gospels

by | Mar 10, 2023 | Christianity | 2 comments

Jacob Dreizin is what you might call a “Marmite blogger” – either you like him, or you do not. He does not exactly endear himself to his detractors, because he has more than a few Gamma strains with respect to his constant chest-thumping about how he was right all along about pretty much everything. But, there is no denying the fact that, when it comes to the Banderastan War, he is one of the few commentators with the intellectual heft, the linguistic ability, and the analytical skill to put the pieces together and make highly accurate predictions about the course of the war.

When it comes to the Special Military Operation, economics, global food crises, geopolitics, and a range of other related subjects, Mr. Dreizin’s blog is something of a must-read (though decidedly less so, these days).

In other areas, though… he tends to shove his oar in, and he gets things very badly wrong.

That is precisely what happened in his last few newsletters, in which he tackled the historicity of the New Testament and the Gospels, and made a number of assertions that are questionable at best, and outright false at worst.

Errors of Commission and Omission

If you read through to the bottom of Mr. Dreizin’s newsletter, you will find a long list of points made by him about the dubious historicity of the Gospels and the New Testament. Given Mr. Dreizin’s rather annoying writing style – he writes in sentence fragments, punctuated by ellipses to connect them together – I will summarise his allegations as follows. You are most welcome to follow the link to the original post to see if I accurately represent his views – if I do not, that is my fault, and mine alone.

Here is what Mr. Dreizin asserts about the New Testament, the historicity of the Gospels, and the veracity of the accounts contained therein:

  1. Most Christians have no idea that their current New Testament was not compiled in its present form until the late 4th Century;
  2. There is no firm evidence that the current NT Gospels, as we see them in virtually any Bible, were “canonical” and widespread in use before that point;
  3. The Gospels included in the NT were the ones that agreed most closely with each other;
  4. Anything else which disagreed with the canonical Gospels was tossed out and even burned;
  5. Arguments about the Trinity and the nature of the godhead were not resolved until the same period, the late 4th Century, and heresies abounded about it long into the second millennium AD, such as the Cathar heresy;
  6. The dumbest “argument” made by Christians is that three of the canonical Gospels all give very similar accounts of Jesus’s miracles, and therefore they must be true;
  7. Most importantly, you cannot convince a Christian, or an atheist, about the veracity, or lack thereof, of the Gospels, because each starts with his own set of convictions and works backwards from there to find reason and logic to support his own view;

It will not take long for any reasonably well informed Christian to see the problems with each of these lines of argument. As I said above, these assertions are at best inaccurate – and at worst simply flat-out wrong.

Let us deal with each in turn.

1. “The Gospels Did Not Exist in Present Form Until the Late 4th Century”

This argument would have drawn raised eyebrows, to say the least, from the early church fathers, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch (a student of St. John the Apostle), Polycarp of Smyrna, Iranaeus of Lyons, Origen, and many, many others. We know that Irenaeus asserted the primacy of four Gospels as early as 180 AD, and that he quoted extensively from all four of the canonical Gospels in his letters. We also know that Origen used the four canonical Gospels, at minimum, and discarded all of the other Gospels in existence as heretical or deuterocanonical, by the early 3rd Century.

That, alone, would be enough to torpedo this argument. But we are most fortunate to have far more than just the letters of the early fathers.

We can start simply by looking at our codices. The Codex Vaticanus dates back to between 300 AD and 325 AD, and contains a nearly complete set of the Gospels – in the form they are today, with the Epistles. This compilation, alone, destroys the argument of a late 4th Century compilation of the Gospels.

Then, the Codex Siniaticus, dating to 330 – 360 AD, came along, and again, we see the Gospels and the Epistles in the order that we would expect, given our current Bible.

These codices were not compiled in arbitrary fashion. They represented exactly what the church fathers believed to be the canonical Gospels, and the Epistles, dating back to within just a few years of the Lord’s death and resurrection. The codices simply compiled and, well, codified what already existed in disparate collections across the Christian world.

In other words, we Christians can safely assert that the Gospels we have today, along with the rest of the New Testament, are what the early church fathers used in their time, within three centuries of Christ’s death and resurrection – NOT the late Fourth Century, but the early THIRD Century.

2. “No Firm Evidence of Canonicity of the Four Gospels”

2.1 Letters from the Fathers

Christianity, unlike most other faiths, has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to material to examine from the early history of the church. We have a great many copies of preserved letters from the early church fathers, many fragments and manuscript records of the Gospels in circulation by the 1st and 2nd Centuries, and many translations of the same Gospels and Epistles as well.

So, if we need to look at a record of the history of the Gospels, all we have to do is to look at the immense wealth of manuscript evidence. And we will immediately find Mr. Dreizin’s accusation to be utter nonsense.

Again, we can start with the letters of the early church fathers. These were men of immense learning and erudition, and they were hardly economical with their words. They wrote and quoted extensively from the texts in circulation at the time, and there was lively debate between them as to which texts were, and were not, authentic. Textual criticism will show very clearly that, if you simply take the quotes of the early church fathers, you could reconstruct almost the ENTIRE New Testament, in its current form, just from those letters – without resorting to any other manuscript evidence.

2.2 Dating the Synoptic Gospels

Mr. Dreizin also asserts, quite baldly and with no evidence whatsoever, that the four canonical Gospels are believed to have been written decades, and perhaps more than a century, after the events described.

This is, again, nonsense.

If you take the liberal dates for Gospel scholarship, then the Gospel of Mark probably came into being by 68-70 AD, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke around 80-90 AD, and the Gospel of John between 90 and 110 AD. So, on the surface, sure, the canonical Synoptic and Johannine Gospels took decades to compile after Christ’s death.

However, these dates ignore key facts about the texts themselves, and about the manuscript evidence we have available.

In reality, when taking a closer examination of the texts using both internal evidence and external testimony, as well as historical facts of that period, we arrive at a much tighter grouping of dates:

  • Matthew authored his Gospel around 41 AD – 8 years after Christ’s death;
  • Mark authored his Gospel around 45 AD – 12 years after Christ’s death;
  • Luke authored both his Gospel and Acts probably around 60 AD, about 25-30 years after Christ’s death;

2.3 The “Problem” of the Gospel of John

What about the Gospel of John? This one used to present believers with serious problems, because we just did not have the manuscript evidence available to assert an early date for the Gospel – and this was a serious issue, because this Gospel presents by far the highest Christology available, and argues extremely forcefully for Jesus as not merely a great prophet or an amazing man, but as the Son of God Himself, as part of the Trinity, and as co-eternal with God the Father.

Put simply, if we cannot accept John’s Gospel, the entire authority and historicity of the New Testament largely collapses.

That was the situation for a long while, thanks to the scholarship of the Tubingen School in Germany, which successfully attacked the Bible on largely philosophical grounds for over a century. That German school did such a great job of textual and historical criticism, in fact, that it caused a severe crisis in the European church in the early 1900s, with millions of believers abandoning the faith because they could not defend it – and European Christendom has NEVER recovered from it, to this very day.

Then along came the P.52 text, the famous “John Rylands Papyrus” – a little credit-card-sized piece of paper that contains a few verses of the Gospel of John.

The best available dating, from three different scholars, puts that little fragment at no later than 150 AD.

Since that fragment was a copy of other copies, it follows immediately that the original text must be even older, dating to perhaps 60-70 AD. And, if you look at the Gospel itself, at John 5 specifically, you will see a reference to Bethsaida, in present tense – which tells me, as a layman, that John wrote his Gospel BEFORE the sack and destruction of Jerusalem in 73 AD by the Romans.

Which means we had the entire set of canonical Gospels, in widespread circulation throughout the Christian world, by no later than 75 AD – decades, yes, but NOT a century, after Christ’s death and resurrection. And we have very good reason to believe that the three Synoptic Gospels were compiled in their current, authoritative form, by no later than 60 AD.

There is NO OTHER RELIGION ON EARTH dating to before the 1st Millennium that can claim such textual integrity. Go on, take your time – go look. You will NOT find any such evidence. And please, don’t waste my time trying to look at Islam – the textual integrity of Izzlam is an utter joke, and it is not hard to prove that.

3. “The Bible Only Includes the Gospels that Agree with Each Other”

This “argument” again reflects a profound ignorance of the origins – more specifically, the dating – of the non-Synoptic and non-Johannine Gospels. Worse, it ignores the criteria used to assemble the New Testament in the first place.

It is quite true that a large number of additional gospels of various kinds existed by the 2nd Century. The Gospel of Thomas – not to be confused with The Infancy Gospel of Thomas – the Gospel of Pseudo-Peter, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Judas, and quite a few others, circulated all over the Christian world in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. The problem is that every single one of these non-canonical “gospels” depicts a Jesus that has absolutely ZERO resemblance to anything realistic – and, every single one of them, except possibly the Gospel of Thomas, was written far too late to permit an eyewitness account of the historical Jesus.

Furthermore, as Dr. Wallace points out in that video above, the non-canonical gospels violate the rules used by the early churches, to decide which books would be in the canon, and which ones would not be.

4. “The Early Church Tossed and Banned Anything that Didn’t Agree with Canon”

Did anyone stop to ask WHY the early church tossed out what did not agree with canon? Again, the answer is in that video above from Dr. Wallace. The early church in fact had very stringent criteria for that which was, and was not, canonical. Those who published works subsequently shown to be forgeries, were outright excommunicated from the church – no matter how much their forgeries agreed with orthodoxy.

So, not only did the early church throw out that which disagreed with canon – it threw out that which agreed completely with canon, but did not come from a clear Apostolic or historical tradition.

Has Mr. Dreizin actually read any of the extra-canonical gospels? Has he read about how Jesus supposedly killed people in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas? Or about how Jesus came out of the tomb after His resurrection, standing hundreds of feet high?

Furthermore, if the early church was so effective at banning and blocking dissent and disagreement, why then did Gnostic sects proliferate throughout the entire Middle East, right through to the 7th Century?

In fact, Gnostic heresies and schismatic sects of the mainline Christian faith continued and proliferated throughout the world from the very earliest days of the church. In many cases, they thrived, and built themselves around texts and interpretations often invented entirely out of whole cloth – such as many of those very same gospels which the early church fathers rejected outright.

5. “Arguments About the Trinity Were Not Resolved Until the 4th Century”

5.1 Where the Trinity Comes From

Has Mr. Dreizin read the Apostle’s Creed? Has he read the Gospel of Luke? Specifically, has he read Luke 3:21-22? The reality is that the doctrine of the Trinity has existed as a core Christian belief from the very earliest days of the faith.

Furthermore, the issue of Jesus’s consubstantial nature with God the Father had been a matter of debate for centuries – but mainline Christian theology agreed entirely that Jesus was (and is) the Son of God. It was the schismatics, and the heretics, that insisted He was not fully Divine.

5.2 The Great Heresies

Mr. Dreizin is right that the Council of Nicaea did not fully resolve the issue of Jesus’s Divinity. However, the reality is that this debate persists down to THIS VERY DAY.

Not far away from where I live, you can find a Unitarian church. Now, as far as I am concerned, the Unitarians are not Christian, at all. And it is not hard to figure out why. If you go to that “church”, you will see they believe in gay “marriage”, in “progressive” Christianity, and in God as a single Divine being with no “components”, as it were.

These beliefs do not merely violate the New Testament canon. They violate the ENTIRETY of the Old Testament as well.

The reality is that heresies like Gnosticism, which deny Christ’s Divinity, always – without fail – lead to extremely bad places. For a better investigation of this, I recommend you read Hillaire Belloc‘s superb book, The Great Heresies. It unpacks the five greatest heresies that have rocked and damaged the Christian church, starting with the great heresy of Arius, and going on through Islam – an actual heresy of Christianity – as well as the Albigensian (Cathar) heresy, all the way up through to the modern day.

Go lookup the Cathars someday to understand just how messed up they really were. They denied marriage and childbirth as good things, and instead embraced vegetarianism, free sex, and a very weird form of Communism as normal and good. They became such a serious threat to good order in Europe that the Catholic Church had to order the Albigensian Crusade to exterminate them.

This was not, however, the first ever example of a religious war of extermination, as Mr. Dreizin asserts. That “accolade” sits with the Muslims of Moorish Spain.

That’s right – the entire concept of an Inquisition, came from Islam, as did the notion of a pogrom. See for example Andrew G. Bostom‘s anthology, The Legacy of Jihad, or Dario Fernandez-Morera‘s superb revisionist history of the so-called “conviviencia”, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.

6. “The Argument from Agreement is Stupid”

To this, I can only answer: do you have the first clue how eyewitness testimony works?

Det. J. Warner Wallace did, and does. He came to the Gospels as a committed atheist, and he walked away a convinced Christian.

Why?

Because he could see, from his detective’s training, that the four Gospels provided different points of view about Jesus, but they all agreed substantially on who He was and what He did. Beyond that, though, he saw that something fundamentally changed the men who wrote those books.

The “best” argument Christians have, is not that the Gospels all agree with each other. As I pointed out above, there are non-canonical texts which agree completely with the canonical ones, yet we Christians consider them to be flat-out forgeries and heresies, and we refuse to accept them.

No, the best argument we have, is in what happened to the early Christians.

Of the twelve original disciples of Jesus, eleven survived His betrayal, Passion, and Resurrection. Of those Eleven, EVERY SINGLE ONE met with a horrible death. Most of the Apostles who followed, died in equally nasty ways.

And every one of them went to their deaths, smiling and singing praises to a man named Yeshua.

How is that even POSSIBLE?

The answer lies in the fact that those early Apostles witnessed something that shattered their fear of death.

Instead of fearing beheading, devouring by animals, death in gladiatorial combat, piercing, crucifixion, or any other form of death, these men went to their ends blessing those who persecuted them and giving thanks to God. This is completely contrary to normal human behaviour.

Were they all batcrap crazy?

Given what they wrote, and the lucidity and power with which they wrote it, one can hardly conclude this. Much more likely, they saw something which changed them completely – turning them from fearful sheep into FEARLESS LIONS for the Lord our God.

And what was it they saw?

The resurrected Lord God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, in all His glory, after He died before their eyes, bleeding in pure agony upon the Cross.

When you see a man that you KNOW is dead, rise up and walk in front of you – who somehow walks through walls and doors, yet tells you to put your finger into His wounds and see for yourself that He is truly real – well, that rather changes you.

7. “You Can’t Lead an Unbeliever into Belief”

Oh, really?

The aforementioned J. Werner Wallace looked at the evidence, starting out as a committed atheist. So did Lee Strobel. So did atheist politician Bill Hayden. And C. S. Lewis. And uncounted THOUSANDS of others.

So did Ye Owne Didacte.

I was a militant atheist from the age of 13 to about 27. I turned from atheism because I realised, eventually, that it really didn’t offer any solutions, and in fact required more faith to believe in, than Deism did. Eventually, I realised that Christianity provided literally the ONLY workable solution to the single most insurmountable problem of all – the Problem of Evil.

No other faith offers anything similar. Either they ignore the problem, or they say you can work your way through it (which you cannot, by definition).

The fallacy behind Mr. Dreizin’s assertion is that the body of evidence is immense, and it is there for public perusal. You can start from a position of complete scepticism, and you can examine that evidence for yourself, as deeply as you like. No one will stop you.

But there is ONE final step, which requires faith. And it is terrifying.

That step requires you to believe a dead man can rise again.

When you get to that point of no return… I can tell you, from very personal experience, it is truly the scariest thing imaginable. You have to take a leap out into the void, with absolutely nothing below you.

That is why it is called the Leap of Faith. Without it, you cannot call yourself a Christian.

You can lead yourself to the very edge of that abyss with reason and evidence. But only you can make that jump.

Conclusion – Faith Through Knowledge

It took me days to write up this post, because there is so much nonsense to unpack here, and I have limited time. It is, however, a useful exercise to remember why scepticism about Christianity exists.

So much of it is so badly informed, so ignorant of the immense bodies of evidence. We must, as Christians, always be prepared to confront such arguments – with reason, logic, evidence, and no small amount of patience. It is entirely false to argue that knowledge challenges or denies faith – the exact opposite is true. In fact, knowledge deepens and sharpens faith.

The Christians who are most susceptible to being led astray, are the ones who have never questioned their faith. These are the ones who lack the analytical tools and the intellectual rigour to examine themselves and their beliefs. Yet, is it not the Lord God Himself who says, in the Bible, repeatedly, words to the effect of: “ask of Me, and I will show you who I Am”.

God is not mocked. Nor is He denied. His power and glory manifest in everything we see and touch around us. Wisdom comes from asking of the Lord for answers – and surely, He does provide them.

We should not be afraid of scepticism. Nor, however, should we let shoddy, misinformed, and poorly formulated “arguments” slip by us or obfuscate the truth.

Dedicate yourselves, therefore, to all that is Good, Beautiful, and True – and let the good Lord Almighty guide you to the answers.

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2 Comments

  1. dave faloni

    I spent the better part of today reading firsthand accounts of the Arian controversy because from what I remembered of it reading about it in my 20s (in my 40s now) I suspect Arius was only a different type of Trinitarian.

    Hence I disagree with the statement “Mr. Dreizin is right that the Council of Nicaea did not fully resolve the issue of Jesus’s Divinity.” Arius claimed to believe that Jesus is God but nonetheless somehow created (before time) by the Father and has a beginning. So nobody was arguing Jesus is not God; the argument was on whether Jesus always existed or was a creation (before time) of the Father who was nonetheless still God despite having a beginning.

    When modern Christians libel Arius as denying the deity of Christ they actually help atheist make the boneheaded argument that Nicea voted Jesus to divine honors. That is not what happened. They voted that Jesus was God who always existed juat like the Father rather than God that was created by the Father (before time) and yet still somehow God. That distinction is important because saying it wrong helps them create a narrative.

    Reply
  2. furor kek tonicus ( your mom's favorite kind of Asian )

    while i agree that the Cathars were heretical, this is yet another example of historical religious genocide carried out by the Catholic Church … well after their own apostasy from the Biblical requirements for the elders and bishops of the church, which dates from the Donatism controversy.
    .
    further, the history of pogrom against the Cathars indicates such outrageous lying, hypocrisy and malfeasance on the part of the RCC that this incident, alone, would be enough to indicate to me that the Catholics are not the actual manifestation of Christ’s material church. if you research this you will find that the genocide was initiated because of the death of Pierre de Castelnau … with which the Cathars were not in any way responsible, but which was ( possibly ) committed by men owing allegiance to the Catholic Raymond of Toulouse.
    .
    what was the response of the RCC to the murder of Pierre? the genocide of the Cathars for a crime of which they were completely innocent. what happened to Raymond? ah, well you see he was excommunicated. for a time. but the Catholics allowed Raymond to BUY his repentance and he died in the good graces of the RCC. after six marriages.
    .
    after an example like the above, you can see why Henry the VIII was so aggravated that the RCC wouldn’t validate his divorces.

    Reply

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