Christians face a constant barrage of argumentation from atheists looking to dismantle their faith. I’ve noticed that those who argue against Christians in this manner are often not actually interested in hearing answers, because once you prove them wrong on one point, they immediately jump to something else! You can prove them wrong ten times, and then if you do not know the answer to their next question, they immediately believe they have beaten you! I find this to be very strange logic… However, there are those with genuine questions about the reliability of the Biblical text (probably including some Christians).
On the 20th June 2009, I went to a conference called ‘Bible and Church’, held at Westminster Chapel in London. The conference aimed to “To provide Christians with world-class scholarly evidence in support of the historical basis of the faith” (from www.bibleandchurch.com), and was split into three segments: ‘Have we got the history right?’ by Dr Peter J. Williams; ‘Have we got the text right?’ by Dr Dirk Jongkind; and ‘Have we got Jesus right?’ by Dr Simon J. Gathercole. If you would like biographies of the speakers, or other information, have a look at the website mentioned above.
My aim in writing this is merely to pass on some of the things that were said at the conference, as I feel they could be of use to many Christians who face the same barrage of attacks and/or legitimate questions that I have had in the past! (Now, when faced with what I have called ‘attacks’, where people are not interested in my answers, and only in catching me out, I have realised that the proper response should be to ‘shake the dust from off of our feet’).
Unfortunately, I came to the conference ill-prepared! I forgot my notebook, so could not take notes for the first section; ‘Have we got the history right?’. I was pretty gutted about this, because it was really interesting! Anyway, during the break after the first period, I went out and bought a notebook so that I could take notes during the remaining two talks. I have written these up, and presented them here, for anyone who is interested. If something I have written is my own personal view, I have said so. Apart from that, all of this is written up from my notes that I took at the conference.
Have we got the text right?
The second talk (the first one for which I had a notepad!) was by Dr Dirk Jongkind, and focussed on the Biblical text. You know the things that atheists say: “The text has been copied and recopied many times over thousands of years – so how can you be sure that what you have is the original text, and hasn’t be added to or modified by power-hungry Christians?”
My personal response is that early Christians had no worldly power at all! They were intensely persecuted, and murdered in barbaric ways. ‘Churches’ as we know them today did not exist, and Christians met in one another’s homes, often in secret. There must have been far better ways to gain ‘power’ than by fiddling with the text of what was considered by many as a Jewish sect!
Anyway, back to the conference: The question is, how do Christians know that we have the unadulterated word of God? What reasons do we have to trust our Bibles?
The first thing is that the Christian message spread very quickly, and over a large area. Thus, the gospels were also copied very quickly, and also spread over a large area. We know this because an early fragment of John’s gospel was found in Egypt, and dated to around 120AD – about ninety years after Christ’s crucifixion. This had to be copied from John’s original text, and travel all the way to Egypt, so copies of John’s gospel were likely widely available much earlier. The fact that the Christian message spread so quickly, and over so great an area made it very hard for potential wrongdoers to make changes to the text, for their own ends. This is obvious, because if, say, Corinth had a different gospel to the church at Jerusalem, the Apostles would have known.
There is also a very large quantity of texts. By the Middle Ages, about 800 years after Christ, there were thousands of manuscripts – and they are only the ones that we know about!
Many critics say that there are thousands of differences within the Bible. However, many of these can be explained by variances in spelling, in things like names, where there is an absence of normative spelling. ‘David’ is an example of this, where there are four common spellings:
To summarise: There was widespread copying of manuscripts, in a short time, over a large area, making changes to the text very difficult. We have many very old manuscripts, and there are almost certainly others waiting to be discovered, or which have been lost. We have a large quantity of manuscripts. The history is traceable. We have high quality manuscripts. We have complete copies of all gospels. Compare this to an ancient text such as Dio’s Roman history, where we only currently have about 60% of the text.
‘Have we got Jesus right?’
So why do we trust our Bibles instead of conspiracy theorists who say that Thomas, Judas, Mary Magdalene, and others wrote gospels, which were later discarded? These gospels paint a very different portrait of Jesus, compared to the canonical gospels.
The ‘gospel of Thomas’ contains a collection statements attributed to Jesus Christ – there is no narrative of his life. The statements are gravely at variance with what Christ taught, according to the four gospels. One statement attributed to Christ is: “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death”. So the ‘gospel of Thomas’ sets some kind of mystical exercise for us to attain salvation instead of Christ’s sacrifice being the only way for man to be redeemed for his sins.
Another curious statement is: “Blessed is he who came into being before coming into being”. This implies that our souls have always existed, or at least existed before we were born physically into the world. Of course, we find nothing like this in scripture.
When these two statements are analysed, it is evident that they share more in common with Eastern mysticism than with conventional Christianity.
There is also a strange saying, which says that women are not worthy of life, and need to become as men to be saved. On the other hand, scripture tells us that men and women have different, distinct roles (women should be women, and men should be men!), and that all are one in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
We have almost the entire text of the ‘gospel of Thomas’, but it is in a Coptic translation. Importantly, Gathercole stated that no Biblical scholar actually believes that the Apostle Thomas wrote it. Another interesting fact is that chunks of ‘Thomas’ overlap with the canonical gospels, which indicates that they may have been used as a base, with the writer removing parts he didn’t like, and adding his own parts.
An interesting thing about Thomas’ gospel is that is appears to show knowledge of the Jews being excluded from Jerusalem. This happened in 135AD, so this ‘gospel’ was likely written after this. This part of the conference made me think of Matthew 24, where Christ foretells the destruction of the Temple, which happened in 70AD. Matthew does not mention the prophecy fulfilment like other parts of scripture do, so Matthew was likely written prior to 70AD.
The ‘gospel of Mary’, like Thomas, contains sayings, attributed to Christ, which simply do not fit with the canonical Old and New Testaments:
"The Saviour said, All natures, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved into their own roots. For the nature of the matter is resolved into the roots of its nature alone. He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
According to the ‘gospel of Mary’, Christ also says that there is no sin.
Another strange idea found in ‘Mary’ is that demons inhabit the space between Earth and Heaven, and interrogate souls who are on their way to Heaven. This, idea is very much like ideas in the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’, with riddles and passwords needed to get to the next world.
We have roughly half of the text of the ‘gospel of Mary’.
The ‘gospel of Judas Iscariot’ (AD 150-160) was the final non-canonical text that was talked about at the conference. It is hostile to the main-stream church, and describes Jesus laughing and mocking his disciples giving thanks over bread. This heretical gospel suggests that Judas was the only disciple who truly knew Jesus: “Truly I say to you, Judas…you will be greater than them all for you will sacrifice the man who carries me about”. This false gospel, like the others, contains Gnostic ideas that have more in common with Ancient Greek and Egyptian paganism than with Christianity.
This false gospel also mentions Gnostic ideas such as Barbelo, and Saklos, an evil god who created this world, as a substandard copy of another heavenly world.
The book is written in quite a bitter, critical tone, and appears devoid of love. It is also greatly at variance with the Old Testament, and instead uses pagan ideas.
An interesting thing to note is that these false gospels contain little to no references of Christ rooted in time and space. There are little or no references to geographical places or times. In the very few parts where places are mentioned, they are ‘Judea’ or ‘the world’ – not specific! Compare this to the canonical gospels, where Jesus is rooted in time and space, going to many different places, with times (such as the Passover) mentioned.
The false gospels were also written a generation or two after the canonical ones. This means that the false ones were written after all eyewitnesses to Christ’s ministry on Earth were dead.
It is interesting that people trust the eyewitness testimony of those that lived through World War Two, 70 years ago, yet disregard the testimonies of the writers of the canonical gospels, who wrote them between 20 and 60 years after Christ’s crucifixion (estimates). Gathercole noted that he could not give a reliable testimony of World War Two, because he did not live through it.
After the three talks, questions from the audience were put to the speakers.
The first question was about the Council of Nicea, which took place in 325AD, after Rome had become changed the official religion to Christianity. Atheists often say that the Biblical canon was decided here, and that other gospels (such as the ones mentioned above) were simply discarded.
However, things didn’t become authoritative at Nicea, with plenty of evidence suggesting that the four gospels were ‘canon’ before this date. For example, Papyrus 45, a manuscript from Dublin, is dated to around 225AD and contains the four gospels, along with Acts. I believe it was Dr Peter Williams who stated that no Biblical scholar to his knowledge believes that the canon was even debated at Nicea. Instead, a list of the Biblical canon was merely created.
Another interesting question was: “How do we know that the New Testament Canonical Gospels were written between 50-90AD?”
The answers are that the Gospel of John was found in Egypt, and dated to 120AD. This means 120AD is the absolute latest date for this gospel, which is generally thought to be the last to be written. The gospel had to also get to Egypt, so was certainly written well before 120AD, and was probably in wide circulation by then.
Scholars are almost certain that Luke was a companion of the Apostle Paul. Paul died in the 60’s AD. Luke’s gospel was likely written before Acts, which he is also believed to have written, and so both must have been written within the middle of the 1st century.
Matthew’s gospel is mentioned by Ignatius, circa 110AD, so must have been well-spread by that time. Luke and Matthew are also mentioned in the ‘gospel of Thomas’, so must have been well circulated by the time Thomas was written.
For one interested in Biblical history, and apologetics, this was a very worthwhile day out! It was good to listen to speakers who are at the top of their field, and I learnt many things that I did not know, and gained some further information about things that I already knew about.
(For anyone who shares these interests with me, and is in a position to visit London, I suggest you check out the British Museum. It is full of ancient artefacts from places and times mentioned in the Bible, and enables you to imagine what places would have looked like when you are reading scripture – it brings it all to life!).
For further reading (better quality than my notes!), you may want to take a look at: www.4gospels.com
© June 2009
Published on www.christiandoctrine.com
Bible Theology Ministries - PO Box 415, Swansea, SA5 8YH
Please 'Make a Donation' to support the work of Bible Theology Ministries