Why the gospels were probably works of fiction

First posted October 2010
Edited September 2011

Most people, whether Christian or not, regard the canonical gospels as attempts on their authors’ part to write some kind of history. (We may regard biography as a kind of history.) Nearly everyone except inerrantists believes that they were not entirely successful, but the consensus is that they tried to present what they believed to be a factual account of Jesus’ ministry, his trial and execution by Pilate, and certain events that happened a few days later. One of them, according to the consensus, also attempted to present a factual narrative of the early years of the religion that Jesus’ disciples inaugurated shortly after his death.

Most of those who doubt Jesus’ historical existence need an alternative account of the authors’ intentions. Although it is possible to hypothesize that the gospels were written by people who thought they were telling true stories even though their main character never actually existed, it is more parsimonious to suppose that they were aware that Jesus was not a real person or at least had no good reason to think he was. The question then arises whether they intended to deceive their readers into thinking the stories were true, or had some other reason for producing the gospels. In the first case, they were engaged in fraud, pure and simple. In the second case, they were producing a kind of literature known nowadays as fiction. A writer of fiction does not expect or intend his readers to think he is telling them a true story. If for some reason they nonetheless come to think it is true, that is not usually the author’s fault.

Reasonable skeptics—at least, the ones I consider reasonable—do not believe that the gospel authors tried to perpetrate any fraud. If there was no real Jesus, and if they knew that, then they were not trying to make anyone think there was. Any ahistoricist theory of Christian origins, then, will likely assert that that the gospels were some kind of fiction, perhaps the kind known in some circles as midrash. But the question arises, do we need to suppose a nonexistent Jesus to reach that conclusion about the gospels? I think not necessarily. The assumption of Jesus’ existence does not entail that the gospels were intended to be factual accounts of his ministry and execution or his post-mortem appearances to the disciples. As I argue in the following, there is reason to suspect the gospels were intended as works of fiction even if the authors were convinced that their religion was founded by some followers of an itinerant Jewish preacher who executed by Pilate.

This is a slightly rewritten version of my side of a debate that took place in an apologetics forum called the Theology Web. I am omitting the presentation of my opponent, who goes by the screenname Metacrock, out of copyright considerations. The entire original exchange can be seen at http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/showthread.php?p=3068367#post3068367.

First opening argument

By “gospels” I refer particularly to the four canonical writings called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In general my arguments will apply as well to most if not all similar non-canonical writings, such as the gospels attributed to Thomas and Peter, but I’m going to treat them as irrelevant unless they come up in counterarguments. (It will be incidentally relevant, though, that anything I say pertinent to Luke’s gospel will usually apply as well to the canonical Acts of the Apostles.)

By “fiction” I mean a nonfactual narrative composed by someone knowing it to be nonfactual and without intending his readers to think otherwise. I thus exclude any kind of fraud or lies. I neither assume nor imply any deceitful intent on the part of any author.

Any attempt to assess the gospel authors’ intentions is inseparable from an investigative analysis of the origins of Christianity. The gospels were written during Christianity’s formative years and were declared authoritative by certain of the religion’s early leaders. What we need to explain is why those leaders considered them authoritative. One possible explanation is that the leaders had good reason to think these documents presented reliable historical information about Christianity’s founding. I propose to demonstrate that such an opinion, if they held it, is unsupported by any good evidence and so was probably in error.

The conventional thinking in our own time about Christianity’s origins, even among secular historians, is what some scholars have called the “big bang” theory. In this scenario, one Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic Jewish preacher, was executed by Judea’s Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, around 30 CE. Soon afterward certain of his disciples, known as apostles, having become convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead, formed a religious sect based on his teachings and claiming that he was the son of God and the fulfillment of Jewish messianic prophecies. The sect’s original membership was predominantly Jewish. Shortly after the sect’s founding, a Pharisee called Saul of Tarsus was converted and commenced a missionary campaign among gentiles under the new name of Paul. He was successful while the original apostles had little success in converting other Jews. After the First Jewish War, Christianity in effect severed its connection with Judaism while maintaining that it was the legitimate heir to its parent religion. As the sect’s founders died off, numerous competing versions of Christianity arose and had to be resisted by adherents of the original apostolic teachings. The dissident sects were eventually suppressed and the apostolic teachings survived as the historic orthodoxy.

One problem is that this account is itself just the historic orthodoxy. We are getting our history from the winners, and the winners, for nearly a thousand years, were the sole custodians of the documentary record. With almost no exceptions, we have no writings from ancient times except those that the church regarded as worth preserving. (The accusations of some skeptics that the church actively sought out and destroyed heterodox writings is both unsupported and unmotivated. The church never needed to destroy those documents as long as no one took the trouble to copy them; time alone would have ensured their eventual disappearance.)

In any case, for any historical investigation we can use no evidence except existing evidence. Hypothetical facts can never prove anything. The only facts we have are that certain manuscripts exist containing writings of a certain nature. They appear to be copies, several times removed, of certain original documents, concerning which the authors of certain other documents claim certain things about their provenance. It is not a fact, but only an inference based on presuppositions about the reliability of those claims, that the gospels’ authors intended their works to be biographical sketches about the founder of their religion. It is a dogma originally propounded by some leaders of one particular sect of Christianity, a sect that happened by historical accident to become victorious over all other sects.

Precious few facts about Christianity’s origins are truly uncontested by all competent authorities. However, a substantial fraction of the competent authorities are adherents of Christianity, and we are not committing the genetic fallacy if we take that into consideration when assessing their judgments. The handful of facts that actually are uncontested—the data disputed by nobody—are best explained by supposing the gospels to be fiction—perhaps historical fiction, but fiction nonetheless. There could have been a real Jesus in the same sense that there was a real king of Scotland named Macbeth, successor of Duncan and succeeded by Duncan’s son, Malcolm. Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is still a work of pure fiction insofar as the real Macbeth never did or said anything that he is portrayed as doing or saying in the play. (That includes the assassination; the real Duncan died in battle, not in bed.)

For no ancient document is a presumption of historical reliability the correct default position. Evidence of the author’s intention to write history must be adduced from other pertinent facts. Testimony may suffice, if we know the basis on which the witness gives such testimony. In the case of the gospels, not even their existence is clearly and unambiguously attested before Irenaeus, ca. 180 CE. He tells us nothing about his sources of information about two of the authors, and for the other two he simply construes a vague offhand comment by Papias as proof that Matthew and Mark wrote them. No other patristic writer adds a single fact that provides any additional support to the historical orthodoxy about the gospels’ provenance. On that basis alone, a great deal of skepticism about their historical reliability would be justified. That does not yet rule out the possibility that the authors intended to write history, and I don’t claim that anything rules it out altogether. All things considered, though, I think there is sufficient evidence to establish reasonable doubt.

We can begin by looking at the earliest Christian document that all modern scholars agree was meant by its author to be read as history: Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, which he finished writing apparently around the year 320. Opinion about his reliability is divided, but as far as we know, nobody before him even tried to get the facts of Christianity’s story straight. And we can see why just by reading him. More on that point in a moment.

It seems to be from Eusebius himself that we get the big bang version of Christianity’s origin. The basic story is all there in the first two chapters, obviously based primarily on the canonical gospels and Acts but supplemented with material from other sources. Some of those other sources are documents that he has read, but he often is clearly relying solely on stories he has heard from people whom he sees no need to identify. He introduces several factoids with no more attribution than “they say,” “it is said,” “tradition says,” or some equivalent.

The Ecclesiastical History was written mostly if not entirely after the conversion of Emperor Constantine. The Roman version of Christianity, with which Eusebius was aligned, was calling the shots now: from this time forward, orthodoxy was whatever the church in Rome said it was. And according to the church in Rome, its authority was derived from the apostles’ authority. More than once in his history, Eusebius identifies orthodox belief with apostolic belief—not “Jesus said X” but “the apostles taught X.” Christians are supposed to believe whatever the apostles believed, but if you then want to know what the apostles believed, you have to ask the church in Rome.

I’m not suggesting that Eusebius or any other Christian of the time was indifferent to Jesus’ actual words, but he was clearly of the opinion that those words had to be understood as the authorities of the orthodox church said they were to be understood, because the authorities claimed that they, and they alone, understood Jesus’ words the same way the apostles understood them. Orthodox Christianity, then, was all about the preservation of apostolic teaching (or rather, what the orthodox church believed the apostolic teaching to have been).

Heresy, according to Eusebius, was no big thing as long as the apostles were still around to keep everyone in line. Simon Magus was one apparent exception, but by and large everyone was singing from the same hymnal up until the last of the apostles died off, and then it all started to come apart. Heresies sprang up right and left and the defenders of orthodoxy were obliged to battle them constantly. But, in due course,

. . . the splendor of the catholic and only true Church, which is always the same, grew in magnitude and power, and reflected its piety and simplicity and freedom, and the modesty and purity of its inspired life and philosophy to every nation both of Greeks and of Barbarians. At the same time the slanderous accusations which had been brought against the whole Church also vanished, and there remained our teaching alone, which has prevailed over all, and which is acknowledged to be superior to all in dignity and temperance, and in divine and philosophical doctrines. (Ecclesiastical History, 4.7.13-14.)

And so the doctrinal wars did end. Eusebius got that part right. But the story doesn’t seem to have begun the way he said it began. Paul himself complained about how many people were preaching gospels other than his own, and several modern scholars say he had good reason to complain. According to Bart Ehrman, there was a multitude of sects calling themselves Christian “as far back in fact as our earliest sources go” (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 11), and we have no clear evidence that any one of them had a better claim than the others to be the real thing. A list of scholars whose research provides data supporting Ehrman’s position would include F.C. Baur, Walter Bauer, Walter Schmithals, James M. Robinson, Helmut Koester, J.D.G. Dunn, Robert K. Price, and Burton Mack.

Most conveniently for the sect that eventually triumphed, its founders seem to have had an aversion to writing. Here is how Eusebius himself tells it:

Those great and truly divine men, I mean the apostles of Christ, were purified in their life, and were adorned with every virtue of the soul, but were uncultivated in speech. They were confident indeed in their trust in the divine and wonder-working power which was granted unto them by the Saviour, but they did not know how, nor did they attempt to proclaim the doctrines of their teacher in studied and artistic language . . . paying little attention to the composition of written works. . . .

And the rest of the followers of our Saviour, the twelve apostles, the seventy disciples, and countless others besides, were not ignorant of these things. Nevertheless, of all the disciples of the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity. (Ecclesiastical History, III.24.3, 5.)

As for how he came to know any of this, Eusebius offers not a clue. So far as we can tell, it was just the only explanation he could conjure up that seemed plausible to him. It is interesting, too, that in this passage, he says that only two of the "twelve apostles . . . and countless others" who knew Jesus ever wrote anything about him, although elsewhere in his history he endorses the authority of I Peter. Maybe he noticed that whoever wrote it didn’t give any indication of having known Jesus. Whatever . . . .

Of course, as everyone in this forum knows, by Eusebius’s time there were lots of gospels and other writings floating around that lots of people believed had been written by one or another apostle besides Matthew or John. But, by his time, the church’s consensus was against the authenticity of those documents. Now, Eusebius reports the consensus, but he doesn’t explain how it was reached or, more to our point, on what factual evidence it was based. What did the church authorities actually know for a fact about any of those documents? In particular, what did they know about the provenance of the canonical documents?

They knew nothing that Eusebius didn’t know, and Eusebius didn’t know anything, so far as we can tell, beyond what he had read in Irenaeus. All we get in turn from Irenaeus is the four names that have come down to us. For Luke and John he cites no source at all and for Matthew and Mark we get the Papias story. And what do we know about Papias’s sources? Essentially nothing. What he tells us is that he knew some men who told him that they had known some of the apostles.

Well, isn’t that enough? Sure it is, if you presuppose that the orthodox church leadership was more or less infallible throughout the first few centuries of its existence, which seems to be about what Eusebius thought. Only heretics can be wrong, and Irenaeus hated heretics, so whatever he said had to be the truth. If he said he believed Papias, then by golly we’d better believe Papias, too. And if he said the Acts of the Apostles was written by a good buddy of Paul’s, then a good buddy of Paul’s had to be the guy who really wrote it.

We ourselves know practically nothing about Papias besides his name. He is not mentioned by anyone who could have been a contemporary of his, and we get very little from later writers who had heard anything about him. He was apparently a bishop of Hierapolis, wrote a five-volume work called something like Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord, and died sometime around 130 CE. Irenaeus believed, for reasons he does not state, that Papias was “a hearer of John, and companion of Polycarp” (Adversus Haereses, V.33.4). Nothing from his work survives except a handful of quotations in Irenaeus and Eusebius. So far as we can tell from those quotations, he never actually saw either of those two books that he was told Matthew and Mark had written. We may infer from those quotations that although he claimed to have met someone known as Presbyter John, this was not likely to have been the apostle called John. His only unambiguous testimony is that he had some occasions to talk with some men who claimed to have known some apostles.

Speaking of Polycarp, though . . . . We’re told we have to believe that he knew the apostle John because Irenaeus said so. Funny thing is, though, we don’t have Polycarp’s own word for that. Some of his writings survive, but he doesn’t say anything in them about having met John. Of course, we wouldn’t expect him to mention that in everything he wrote, and we know he wrote some other stuff that did not survive. Now, it is surely reasonable to think that he if he had met one of the original 12 apostles, he would have said so in at least one of his writings. But if he did, how come that document was not preserved? It surely would have been widely circulated and copied many times. And even if all those copies had somehow perished, surely somebody would have mentioned having read the document. The extant literature is filled with references to documents that we no longer have, but there is not a single comment about anything Polycarp wrote about his acquaintance with John. That is highly improbable on the assumption that there ever was such a meeting.

Irenaeus makes his claim about Polycarp’s acquaintance with John in Adversus Haereses (III.3.4), which he wrote at around the age of 50. He tells of meeting Polycarp during his “early youth,” presumably meaning late adolescence, certainly not after his early 20s. It’s a pretty impressionable time of anyone’s life, and Polycarp would have been, as Irenaeus says he was, very old by that time. So here is Irenaeus, himself approaching old age, recalling a conversation he had during his early youth with an old man reminiscing about his own younger years. That is a mighty tenuous basis on which to pin a fact that we should expect to be, but is not, otherwise corroborated.

That leaves us with no direct contact between the writer of any extant Christian document and any of Jesus’ apostles—no actual witness either to Jesus himself or to the existence of a single person who is supposed to have known Jesus in person. Someone will ask: But what about Paul? He testifies to having met three of Jesus’ disciples: Cephas (Peter), James, and John. Yes, he says he knew three men who had those names—but he does not corroborate their discipleship. Paul never says that any man he ever met was ever personally acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth during Jesus’ lifetime. We have to go to the gospels to make that connection.

And so we have no reason except 1800 years of church dogma to think the gospels record any thing factual about Jesus of Nazareth. There is not a single uncontested fact contradicting the supposition that they are works of pure fiction. There is no undisputed evidence that the authors, whoever they were, had access to any primary source about Jesus, nor even any good evidence that they were likely to have used any secondary sources. For the uncontested evidence that we have in hand, the most parsimonious explanation is that, no matter when they might have been written, the gospels’ existence was practically unknown to the Christian community at large before the middle of the second century, by which time nobody had any idea who the authors actually were. They came to be regarded as authoritative within one of the numerous Christian sects that existed at that time for one reason alone: They supported that sect’s teachings. How the authors’ names were chosen is anybody’s guess, but then whoever picked them was just guessing, too. All it took to make the names stick was for someone in authority to endorse them, and that someone happened to be Irenaeus.

This is not an argument against Jesus’ historicity, because under this scenario his historicity is irrelevant. Even assuming that the man existed, we have no good reason to suppose the gospel authors intended to write a true story about him, any more than Shakespeare was trying to write a true story about Macbeth—or, perhaps more analogously, a true story about Caesar’s assassination. Caesar actually was assassinated, sure, but it didn’t happen like Shakespeare said it happened. And so it was, most likely, with Jesus’ execution by Pilate.

Second opening argument

As I noted in my initial post, the facts about the gospels’ provenance and their authors’ intentions cannot be ascertained independently of any theory about Christianity’s origins. But of course there can be no theory about Christianity’s origins that does not incorporate some hypothesis about who wrote the gospels and why they wrote them. Necessarily, then, there will be feedback between the two issues. Our story about how Christianity came into existence has got to be based in an examination of the totality of surviving evidence and without privileging any subset of that evidence simply because it supports the historic orthodoxy.

I should here clarify some terminology. By “historic orthodoxy” I mean those teachings that are characteristic of Christianity, and have been characteristic for must of its history—emphasis on most. In particular I mean its post-Nicene history. I do not and will not stipulate that any Christians in the middle of the first century held any significant beliefs in common with Christians of the mid-fourth century. They might have used some of the same words to express their beliefs, but the words did not necessarily mean the same things.

To elaborate on evidence. Only facts can be evidence, and only uncontested facts at that. If one of us says “It is a fact that X” and the other says, “No, X is not a fact,” then we need to resolve that dispute somehow before anything useful can come of our debate. Between us, at that point, the issue is simply irresolvable. But I’ll try to clarify the distinction I’m trying to insist upon. It is the distinction between a fact and any inference from that fact or its conjunction with other facts.

For instance . . . . There exists a piece of papyrus called Rylands Library Papyrus P52. That is a fact; the fragment exists. It has some writing on it that matches a few phrases found in the extant Gospel According to John. That too is a fact. Paleographers have judged its probable date of composition to be the early second century. It is a fact that those paleographers hold that opinion. From all those facts, we might reasonably infer that the original version of John’s gospel was written either very early in the second century or sometime in the first century. But reasonable or not, it is still only an inference, not a fact, unless and only unless a later date of composition for the original would contradict one of the uncontested facts.

The paleographical judgment is not unanimous, and it is neither exact nor infallible, so there is no contradiction there. Even if we assume its accuracy, it is hardly outlandish to think the author of the canonical John, if he were writing late in the second century, might have copied a portion of his material from an earlier document of which P52 is a remnant. Furthermore, the midpoint of a paleographic range is just a statistical marker. A result of 125 CE plus or minus 25 years means probably not before 100 and probably not later than 150, nothing more precise than that. It also depends crucially on there being an adequate sample of documents dated with high certainty. Furthermore, there is work in the peer-reviewed literature adducing paleographical evidence consistent with an early third-century composition date for P52. And so it is not an uncontested fact that John’s gospel was written sometime around 100 CE, and therefore it may or may not count as evidence of a first-centuiry provenance for John.

Some inferences are just as good as facts. Julius Caesar died by assassination. We can treat that as an uncontested fact because we infer it from numerous other uncontested facts that are not credibly explicable under any other hypothesis about the manner in which he died. To doubt his assassination would be almost as intellectually perverse as doubting heliocentrism. Not all historical inferences are that solid, though. Sometimes there can be reasonable disagreement about how much we can reliably infer from some set of facts. One man’s intellectual perversity could be another man’s healthy skepticism. What looks reasonable to one might look gullible to another. So be it. We do the best we can with the brains we’ve got.

Of course any proposed explanation is just one of an unlimited number of possibilities. Most can be easily eliminated by standard criteria such as parsimony, but sometimes we’re left with two or three candidates, each of which at least a few scholars think is worth considering. I think the fictional gospel hypothesis is a good explanation grounded in parsimony. It leaves no facts unexplained and it assumes nothing that most people don’t already assume. It does reject a pile of assumptions that orthodoxy makes, but that is not an intellectual sin.

As for challenging the scholarly consensus, I’ll get to specifics in my rebuttal, but offer some general remarks now. Of course it is not sufficient to say merely, “Authorities can be wrong.” In order to defend my claim I need to show that they are wrong in fact, which means I need to show what mistake I think they have made and why I’m justified in thinking that it actually is a mistake. To that end, though, depending on context, it may suffice if I simply note that the authorities are themselves divided and that my conclusion is supported by the work that some of them have done.

Of course nobody will benefit if Metacrock and I can’t do more them just add up how many authorities each of us can count for our respective positions, and if it comes to that I’ll admit right now I’m going to lose. Given the space and time constraints I must work under in this thread, I can only note that I have read plenty of the relevant academic material and so am familiar with must of the arguments both for and against against the historically orthodox view of the gospels. I know, as well as most well-informed laymen, what are the uncontested facts in evidence. I know what has usually been inferred from those facts, and I know the arguments by which those inferences have been drawn from those facts. More specifically, I know the assumptions on which those arguments rest. Most of them are rarely if ever stated, because in a culture where Christianity is the dominant religion, they seem too obvious to need stating—too obvious for even the average secular historian to question or try second-guessing. We’re all assuming things all the time, and we could not question all those assumptions even if we tried, and it probably wouldn’t be a good idea even to try. It’s not that anything should be off limits to questioning, just that life is short and we can’t spend all our time trying to perfect our epistemology.

Ever since the Enlightenment, among even non-religious and even atheist historians, it has seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that, regardless of one’s biases about religion in general or Christianity in particular, the church must in some general way have gotten its own history right, especially considering the witnesses of Josephus and Tacitus. I’m not arguing that the assumption is unreasonable, just that it really is only an assumption, and a dispensible one at that. There is nothing prima facie improbable about its being incorrect. Its denial does not oblige as to accept any conspiracy theories or other improbable alternatives. It presupposes nothing extraordinary. It presupposes nothing at all but ordinary human fallibility.

But it is also a paradigm shift, the kind Kuhn talked about. The old paradigm is in trouble. There are lots of anomalies—a bunch of data that don’t fit the paradigm without piling on a lot of ad hoc suppositions. Most of the conventional paradigm’s defenders are still in denial, and the few who are not think it needs just a little more tweaking, that the anomalies will go away if we can just work a little harder on our textual criticism.

But the harder they work, the less they have to show for their efforts. Conservative scholars are forced into some consensus by their shared dogma. Liberals who are convinced that there is some history to be found in the gospels cannot agree on what it is. They agree that Jesus was crucified by Pilate, and they agree on almost nothing else—not why he was crucified, not who was responsible, not what he taught his disciples, not what they were thinking when they said “He is risen,” not what made them think it. None of these scholars doubts that there was a man known as Jesus of Nazareth, that he was crucified by Pilate, and that some of his followers had something to do with starting the religious movement that came to be called Christianity. But that is all they agree on.

It is not a fact that any of these scholars is right. Some of them could be. That is possible. But it is not possible that they all are right. What is a fact, though, is their total failure to agree on what the gospels tell us about Jesus other than that he lived and was executed. And that fact by itself strongly suggests that the authors were not even attempting to record any other facts about him. It is reasonable to suppose that if they had so intended, they would have used sources they thought they could trust and would have so indicated. Their failing to even suggest such a thing implies that, whatever they thought they were doing, writing factual history wasn’t it.

Ah, but what about Luke?

All things considered, the idea that his preface was just a literary gimmick is hardly outrageous. I’ve read some fiction with more realistic prefaces. Besides, granted that he claims there were witnesses and that others before him had written about the events he was about to describe, he does not claim to have actually talked with any of those witnesses or to have consulted any of those earlier accounts.

There is also nothing else in any of the gospels to suggest any authorial intention other than polemic and edification. Any effort to vindicate the supernatural elements of these stories is pure apologetic question-begging, and once those elements are disregarded, nothing is left but an ancient version of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a bunch of sermons and parables that could have been told by any of dozens of other itinerant philosophers wandering around the Middle East in those days. A real Jesus who was really executed by Pilate could have said some of those things, but there is no telling which of the sayings are more likely than not to be his. The point here is that we have no way to sort the fact from the fiction even if we assume there is some fact. Unless we find independent corroboration for some of it, we might just as well suppose it’s all fiction.

What little corroboration we do have is almost worthless. Only the crucifixion is attested to by any non-Christian source, and even that corroboration is not contemporary. We also have no reason to think that either Josephus or Tacitus knew the first thing about Jesus aside from whatever they’d heard from whatever Christians they happen to have been acquainted with. They certainly do not claim to have had any other source of information.

In short, the fiction hypothesis contradicts no facts, and the history hypothesis is at least somewhat inconsistent with some of the facts. And in this context by the way, appealing to genre by insisting on calling them bioi is trying to draw a distinction without a difference. A history is a story about several people, a biography is about one person. Either way it’s reasonable to ask “Why should we believe any of it?” The answer in the gospels’ case is that there is no reason, except that Christians have said so ever since Irenaeus. Even just assuming Jesus’ historicity, are we justified in thinking that the gospels contain any facts about his life or his teachings? We are not. Justification would require at least that we know something about the authors, but we do not know anything at all about them. Trust in strangers is not a default position for historiographers.

“But,” we’re told, “scholars have declared them to be bioi.” That judgment needs context. NT scholarship is not historiography. A closer academic kin would be literature. Burridge said we need to know the gospels’ genre to know how to interpret them. The historian reading in John’s gospel “Jesus said you must be born again” is not trying to figure out what message John was trying to convey to his readers. The historian just wants to know whether Jesus actually said that or said something like it.

We need not get distracted here over precise terminology. Then as now, the author of a narrative either did or did not expect his readers to suppose that the narrated events had actually occurred. If he did not, then he was writing fiction. If he did, then he was writing nonfiction, either some kind of history or some kind of biography. And there were various kinds of the latter. If we assume the gospel authors were writing nonfiction, then we obviously conclude they were doing some kind of biography, or perhaps some blend of biography and historiography. The issue we are debating is whether that assumption is warranted, not which literary pigeonhole the gospels should go into if it is.

Obviously we cannot know for a fact what was on the authors’ minds. We could not be certain even if we knew who they were, but we don’t even know that. But so it is with all history. That doesn’t means we can’t be justified in guessing quite a bit about what happened in past times. We have plenty of facts, or sets of facts, for which there can be only one credible explanation. It is possible that we are mistaken about Alexander’s existence, but it is not a possibility to which we need to give any serious consideration—at this time. Some later time, whenever evidence that is inconsistent with his existence should be discovered, then we can reconsider. Our current theories do not need to explain any evidence that we do not currently have. But our theories do need to explain our not having evidence that those theories lead us to reasonably expect to have.

What facts, if we have them, should lead us to infer an author’s historiographical intent? Mainly two. One is the author’s explicitly declaring such intent. The other is that he identifies his sources. Only one gospel author does the first and none does the second. We might fall back on testimony from a third party who knew the author or had reliable information about the author, but we have nothing of that sort. We have no testimony of anybody who even claims firsthand knowledge about the who, when, or where, of the writing of any gospel. The patristic writers say, “The men who wrote these books knew what they were writing about,” but what they don’t say is why we should take their word for that.

On the other hand, a common though not invariable indication of fictional intent is the absence of any claim of reliance on sources. We might call this the pretense of omniscience. The writer simply says, “These things happened,” and the narrative includes information that nobody whom the author is likely to have conversed with could have known about. The author tells us what certain people were thinking. He gives the reader verbatim accounts of private conversations. The gospels are full of such incidents without any hint of how the authors found out about them.

It’s still possible, of course. Participants could have told people later, “This is what I was thinking when . . . .” Private conversations don’t have to stay private. Pilate’s wife could have told some people what she told Pilate about her dream. There are ways the authors could have found out about everything they put into their narratives. But we must ask what it is most reasonable to believe, taking into consideration that they don’t tell us how they found any of it out, and that three of them don’t mention even making any effort to find out.

So, we have reason to believe the gospels are fiction. The usual reasons to believe otherwise are not nearly sufficient to constitute a good counterargument. The uncontested facts all say so. That is where the evidence leads, and so that is where we should go in our thinking.

First rebuttal

I begin with an apology. In response to my statement “‘But,’ we’re told, ‘scholars have declared them to be bioi,’” Metacrock replied, “That is a straw man argument. I did not argue that.” I did not mean to suggest that he had made the argument himself; however, I can see how a reasonable person might think I had intended that suggestion. I am sorry for not making myself clearer.

To his arguments, now.

Near the end of his second opening argument, he says, “We don’t have to know the authors minds.” Well, maybe not in the larger scheme of things, but that is the subject of our debate. The difference between fiction and nonfiction is nowhere but in the mind of the author. I made that perfectly clear in my opening argument when I defined my terms.

I am defending the proposition that the gospels are fiction, and I defined the key terms of that proposition in my opening argument. Do I claim that the evidence proves it beyond any possible doubt? Certainly not. My argument is just that it fits the evidence better than the contrary, the contrary being that the gospel authors intended to write true narratives, or at least mostly true narratives, about the ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth and certain events occurring after his death. In this context, any judgment about how successfully they achieved their intentions is beside the point. Insofar as Metacrock can prove they had any such intentions, he wins the debate.

In this rebuttal, I propose to demonstrate that Metacrock has failed to prove that. In my opening arguments I tried to show that, of all the undisputed facts in evidence, none prove that the gospel authors intended to write factual narratives and some indicate that they did not. Metacrock has tried to argue the contrary. Let’s see how well he did.

Metacrock: He [Doug] seems to be assuming either that the Gospels were considered authoritative when they first appeared, he seems to assume single person authorship, or that the church authority structure was already in place and the Gospels accepted immediately upon their publication.

I assume none of that, and my argument clearly indicates that I believe none of it. I note that the first known unambiguous reference to them was by Irenaeus, and I note that he obviously considered them authoritative, but I question whether his opinion was representative of anybody’s thinking except his own. I say nothing about any “church authority structure” being in place prior to Nicaea. Obviously there must have been some structure before then, but whether it existed as early as the second century I said nothing. There could have been, but even if there was, it was not alone among the structures claiming some authority over Christians, because there was not only one kind of Christianity at that time. There were many Christian sects still in existence, and the group that emerged to become the historic orthodoxy was only one sect among many that were proliferating during the first and second centuries.

Metacrock has criticized my reference to “orthodoxy,” but I made it clear that I was not referring to any doctrinal issues. My argument has nothing to do with what the gospels may or may not say about the Trinity, the virgin birth, or any kind of soteriology. I refer only to the historically conventional belief about the bare facts of Christianity’s origins without any regard to which modern Christian sect has the best claim to be teaching the same things that the first Christians were teaching.

I wrote:

We are getting our history from the winners, and the winners, for nearly a thousand years, were the sole custodians of the documentary record. With almost no exceptions, we have no writings from ancient times except those that the church regarded as worth preserving.

Metacrock responded:

This view is ideological. It’s really the ideology of an iconoclastic Jesus myth movement. The fact of its’ being ideological is important because it is no less the result of a party line than the Orthodoxy they wish to counter.

Where is the ideology? Is it or is it not a fact that Christianity’s history was written by Christians who accepted the historic orthodoxy? It is a fact, and it would be a fact regardless of whether that orthodoxy was correct. Maybe historic post-Nicene Christianity really is identical with the original Christianity preached by Jesus’ actual disciples. It would still be a fact that people who agreed with those original Christians were the ones who wrote Christianity’s history.

It is also a fact, so far as I am aware, that throughout Europe between the fall of Rome and the invention of printing, no ancient document got copied unless some church official believed that it needed to be copied. Maybe that was not the case, but whether it was or not is a matter of fact, not of anybody’s ideology, and Metacrock has made no effort to show that it was not the case.

Metacrock reminds us that, according to the latest scholarly consensus, the conventional dating of the gospels (Mark ca. 70 CE, John 90-100 CE) applies only “to the finished product of redaction, the point at which they began to circulate outside their communities.” I am aware that some scholars think so. I have not heard that it is the new consensus, but it does not matter. I am challenging that consensus in any case, and I have presented my reasons for thinking the consensus is in error. Metacrock needs a better counterargument than to keep saying what the consensus is. He needs to summarize the evidence on which the consensus is based and present the arguments by which the consensus is inferred from that evidence.

I fully accept the consensus view that the gospels in their extant form are revisions of earlier works and contain a lot of material that was not in the originals. My argument is that those who produced the documents as we now have them were not under the impression that they were producing works of history or biography. In that sense, the intentions of the authors’ predecessors is irrelevant.

He says, “Earlier readings in latter Ms show that a strata of documents exist prior to Mark circulating mid first century and included the passion story and the empty tomb. This is based upon the science of textual criticism.” Yes, the earlier documents must have been circulating in the mid-first century if we assume Mark was written around 70. But the evidence does not support that assumption. The conventional supposition that Mark’s gospel, whether in its original form or its final form, was written around the end of the First Jewish War is supported by no undisputed facts. It is supported solely by an assumption that it was written as early as it could have been written. Since most scholars suppose that it could not have been written before the First Jewish War, then that is when they say it was written. There is no other evidence for such an early date.

Metacrock said, “All texts are artifacts and they all tell us something about what people believed.” Of course they tell us something, but not necessarily what the text says on its face. We cannot infer that Shakespeare believed Macbeth assassinated Duncan just because he depicts Macbeth assassinating Duncan in the play he wrote.

Then he claims that “we know” of the gospels’ early existence from Clement of Rome. We do not know anything of the sort. What we know from a few things Clement wrote was that IF the gospels existed during the first century, THEN he apparently was aware of them. But we cannot infer the antecedent by assuming the consequent. I am stipulating that much of the material in the gospels was circulating within the Christian community before the extant versions were produced. What Clement’s writings reveal was that some of the sayings attributed to Jesus were making the rounds within his community. It does not follow that the documents themselves had been written, and Clement himself makes no mention of there being any such documents.

Metacrock claims that P52 is not the only known early fragment of John’s gospel. It is, however, the only fragment that has been authoritatively dated any earlier than 200 CE. The last I checked, every other extant fragment of any canonical writing is not known to have been written before the third century. And as I have mentioned, at least one authority thinks P52 could be that late as well. He also picks up on my suggestion that P52 could be a remnant of some document other than the canonical gospel of John. That document’s existence, he says, “is not a fact.” No, and I never said it was. I only said it was a possibility, and it is. The only fact is that we don’t know whether such a document ever existed. If it did, then P52 could be a piece of it. It is pure question-begging to say that it’s not even possible.

Metacrock claims there is a quotation in the Talmud proving Matthew was written around 70 CE, and he provides a link to support this claim. As I have said, I will not respond to off-site material, but there is no way the authors of the Talmud could have had any factual knowledge relevant to a determination of when Matthew wrote his gospel, and this not be common knowledge within the academic community. This is clearly somebody’s idiosyncratic interpretation of something he found in the Talmud. If Metacrock wants to prove otherwise, he can present the evidence right here, not just link to it.

He then gives us John A. T. Robinson’s opinion that a “proto Mark” existed in the 30s of the first century. If Robinson has a cogent argument supporting that opinion, Metacrock should have summarized it here. All he is saying at this point is that at least one authority agrees with him. I can cite authorities as well as he can, but that isn’t what he and I are supposed to be doing in this debate. We’re supposed to be presenting evidence, not just dropping names of authorities who say that some evidence exists.

Then we get: “the material in Paul demonstrates his use of a saying source that is heavily synoptic and his allusions to narrative demonstrate the story was intact in the form we know it by AD 50 or so.” This was in response to my claim that “In the case of the gospels, not even their existence is clearly and unambiguously attested before Irenaeus, ca 180 CE.” Well, now who is going against the scholarly consensus? Paul’ s apparent ignorance of virtually everything in the gospels has baffled practically every NT scholar for as long as there has been NT scholarship. It is therefore certainly not the case that Paul provides “clear and unambiguous attestation to their existence.” What Metacrock is saying, at most, is that IF the gospels had existed in Paul’s time, THEN he could have gotten some of his material from them. I have no problem with that argument, but again, you cannot the prove the antecedent by affirming the consequent.

Metacrock makes several references to “34 lost gospels.” Their existence is irrelevant until he demonstrates two things. One is their contents. He cannot prove anything with them without telling us what is in them. Second and more specifically, he needs to demonstrate that whatever was in them, it would not have been in them unless the canonical authors had intended their work to be nonfiction. I am not claiming that no gospels existed before the canonical gospels, and so there is no counterargument in the mere fact that some did exist.

Then we hear about a big difference between fiction or mythology, on the one hand, and nonfiction on the other. Nonfictional accounts, he assures us, are consistent—there is always essentially only one version—while fiction always generates multiple versions of great diversity. And, he insists, “There is only one version of the Jesus story. There are minaor detail changes but the basic story is always the same.”

To begin with, whatever is true of mythology is irrelevant to my argument. I am not claiming that the gospels are myth. I am claiming that they are fiction. There is a difference, and it matters a great deal to the present discussion. And it is not a fact that there are always multiple versions of any fictional story. In most cases, as a matter of fact, there is only one. And so if there were only one story in all four gospels, then that would be no evidence against what I’m saying.

But I do not agree that there is only one story. The unity of the gospel stories is not a fact. It is a dogma. The only people who think there is only one version of the story are those who are convinced it is a true story. The differences are not just in trivial details. The differences are significant, and a substantial number of NT scholars agree with this, and so Metacrock cannot counter this claim with an argument from consensus of authorities. I do not know how to quantify similarity or sameness. Perceptions on this seem to be driven by presuppositions. I can note that I see no more sameness in the gospels than I have seen in all the King Arthur movies (at least four) that I have watched. But as I said, even I’m wrong about this, it does not help his case, because their essential sameness would not be evidence against their being fiction.

Metacrock reminds us, as if I had failed to mention it, that Papias attests to Mark’s and Matthew’s writing two of the gospels. This is essentially begging the question. Papias talks about Mark and Matthew writing something about Jesus. Orthodoxy has assumed that the documents to which he refers must have been the canonical gospels attributed to Mark and Matthew, and for no better reason than that Irenaeus assumed as much. All Metacrock is doing here is saying, "Orthodox history must be right because orthodox tradition says so."

Then he says we have no reason to doubt the claim Luke makes in his preface. Maybe not, if his claim were the only relevant datum. Our conclusion on this matter has to explain all of the evidence, all at once. We cannot just take one statement out of one document and build our whole theory of Christian origins around it. When all the evidence is taken into consideration, we have good reason to think that Luke’s preface was nothing but a literary device.

Then we get the assurance that “We can construct the whole of NT theology from extra canonical sources outside and way before Eusebius, from early second century and late first century sources." Maybe we could, but this debate is not about the theology of early Christianity. It’s about (a) what Christians of the first and second centuries believed about how their religion got started and (b) how we know they believed that.

Metacrock says the authors’ intention to protect orthodoxy makes no difference as long as it can be shown that whatever they said happened is “basically what happened.” But the very issue here is whether their saying it happened is sufficient reason by itself for us to believe it happened. Shakespeare wrote about the assassination of Julius Caesar. We do believe that Caesar was assassinated—but not because Shakespeare said he was. We believe he was assassinated because we have other evidence that he was. Shakespeare’s play is not history. It is fiction, even though some of the events in it really did happen. The problem for orthodox Christian history is not that the gospel authors had some polemical purposes in writing their books. The problem is the complete absence of evidence for their having had any other purposes.

“The consensus of historians is what constitutes historical presumption,” he tells us. That presumption is what you have to go on before you get a look at the evidence for yourself, and before you have learned how that consensus was formed. We can defer to the experts, pending our own investigation, without treating them like they were infallible. If they tell us what evidence they are working from and how they argue from that evidence to their conclusions, we can evaluate those arguments and decide for ourselves whether their evidence is good enough to support their conclusions. I have seen the relevant evidence. I have a defensible opinion as to what it proves and what it does not prove.

In due course we come to a lecture on Kuhnian paradigm shifts. Such a shift, he tells us, “doesn’t start until the present Paradigm can’t absorb many more anomalies.” But Kuhn was writing about science. The paradigms in science are built on firmer foundations than they are in the history of Christianity. There is a very good reason why it is, and should be, a lot harder to overthrow a scientific paradigm than a paradigm in Christian history.

He says we have “Multiple reasons to assume heavy eye witness input.” Maybe we do and maybe we don’t. If we had some evidence for it, we could infer eyewitness input, but then we would not have to assume it.

Metacrock claims there is evidence that Josephus borrowed material from Luke or from some source that Luke also used. There does seem to be some evidence, yes, that one of them took material from the other, but that evidence is equally consistent with Luke’s using Josephus as a source. Of course, in that case, Luke would have to have been writing during the second century—but then, that is part of what I’m arguing.

At this point I would like to suggest that in evaluating any argument in any debate, regardless of subject, it may be relevant if one side consistently misrepresents what the other side says, because we often can reasonably infer that this would not be necessary if both sides had equally good arguments. I therefore call the readers’ attention to the following.

• According to Metacrock, I implied “that all Biblical scholarship comes from evangelicals.” No, I did not. My only reference to possible bias in the scholarship was in noting that “a substantial fraction of the competent authorities are adherents of Christianity.” I do not assume that Christian equals evangelical. I do assume that, if even most atheists presuppose certain historical data that are consistent with the historical orthodoxy, then Christians will presuppose the same.

• He followed this with the observation that “It is not true that the majority of Textual critics are Evangelicals.” But I never said they were.

• He says I make “a huge mistake in thinking that we have no attestestation before Eusebius.” But I don’t think it and I never said it.

• In response to this statement of mine:

Heresy, according to Eusebius, was no big thing as long as the apostles were still around to keep everyone in line. Simon Magus was one apparent exception, but by and large everyone was singing from the same hymnal up until the last of the apostles died off, and then it all started to come apart. Heresies sprang up right and left and the defenders of orthodoxy were obliged to battle them constantly.

Metacrock replied: “that cannot be used as an excuse to push non-historicity. Eusebius never said anything about lying for the cause or any of that stuff.” I did not say, and never have said, the first word about anything Eusebius might have said about “lying for the cause.” I am aware of the accusation as made by some skeptics, but I have never made that accusation myself.

• He then goes on: “Moreover we are not dependent upon Eusebius for the Gospel story.” I never said we were.

• A bit later we get: “To pretend that the Gospels weren’t written until Eusebius fly in the face of all scholarship.” I suppose it would, but I am pretending nothing of the sort. I have not so much as hinted that “the Gospels weren’t written until Eusebius.”

• Further on in a couple of places, he accuses me of denying that the Peter whom Paul mentions is the same Peter who appears in the gospels. I do not. I simply note that Paul does not attest to Peter’s having been personally acquainted with Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime. And that is a fact. Paul does not attest to that or to anything like that.

• Metacrock claims that I quote Polycarp’s claim to have known the apostle John. In fact, my point was explicitly to the contrary. Nobody can quote such a claim because Polycarp himself apparently never made such a claim. All we have is Irenaeus’ claim, loaded with reasonable doubt, that Polycarp told him about knowing John.

• According to Metacrock, “He asserts he was just a kid he remembered it wrong.” Again, I was talking about Irenaeus, not Polycarp, and I did not say he remembered it wrong. I suggested that we are not justified in assuming that his memory of their conversation was reliable.

• Finally, he refers to my “assertion that if he [Josephus] learned it from Christians it must be wrong.” I made no such assertion. All I asserted was that if we assume, as it is entirely reasonable to assume, that Christians were the source of his information, then his testimony does not constitute any sort of corroboration of what Christians were saying at that time. All we’re entitled to suppose is that he took their word for it, unless we have clear evidence that he conducted an independent investigation of their reports.

And so here is where we stand at this point. Metacrock has presented no facts that support his position and no facts inconsistent with my position. He has identified no fallacies in my argument but has committed several fallacies in his own arguments. And, he has misrepresented my position on several occasions. The facts and the logic, I suggest, are on my side.

Second rebuttal

As I stated in my opening argument, the issue of this debate is whether the authors of the canonical gospels believed, and intended their readers to think, that their narratives constituted a factual history about one Jesus of Nazareth, a man whom the authors and their readers would have presumed to be the founder of their religion. Whether, or to what extent, the narratives actually contained some factual information about such a founder is beside the point of our debate. I have argued that the extant evidence—the uncontested facts—pertinent to an inquiry about the origins of the gospels give us some reason to think that they were written as fiction and no reason at all to suppose anything to the contrary.

I presented two analogies to clarify my position: the two Shakespearean plays Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Both are works of fiction although they are about real people. In both, the main characters are assassinated. In one case the assassination actually happened, in the other it did not, but even in the case where it did happen, Shakespeare’s narrative of the event is fictional. It did not happen the way he described it happening, and he neither intended nor expected his audiences to think otherwise. So it was, I argue, in the case of the gospels.

Metacrock claims that the gospels were produced not by individuals but by communities, and he suggests that it is implausible to suggest that a community would produce a work of fiction. But he also concedes that they had a polemical purpose. It was not their only purpose, according to Metacrock, but polemics was among their purposes. Of course I agree that the authors were engaged in polemics. They had some ideas they wanted to propagate. My argument is that they chose the medium of fiction as their means of propagation, just as Shakespeare used fiction to propagate certain ideas he had about ambition, power, political succession, and the like. And where did the gospel authors get the ideas they wanted to propagate? From their communities, of course. So in that sense, the communities did produce the works. But the communities did not write them. The words are those of the actual authors, working one at a time by themselves. The thoughts expressed by those words may have been, and undoubtedly were, shared by a large number of people known to the authors, just as many people probably agreed with whatever points Shakespeare was trying to make with his plays, but there is no evidence for the kind of collaborative authorship that Metacrock seems to be trying to claim was the case when the gospels were produced.

According to Metacrock, “When he [Paul] started persecuting Christians you would think they would say ‘it’s only fiction.’” Perhaps I would think so, if I believed that at the time Paul was persecuting them, Christians were getting their beliefs by reading the gospels as we now have them. But very nearly nobody imagines that the gospel authors, whoever they were, had even begun to think about writing anything at the time Paul was doing his persecution thing. We have no contemporary documents telling us what the victims of Paul’s persecution were teaching or why they believed any of it. Even Paul himself provides no direct information about this. We reasonably infer they believed whatever he believed when he wrote the letter in which he claimed to have persecuted the churches, since he was claiming now to be a member of that church. But all we know about Paul’s own beliefs is what we read in his letters, or those parts of them that he himself actually wrote. All he says about Jesus is that he was crucified and resurrected and that he appeared to a few people, himself among them.

Metacrock says, “Obvioulsy a religious faith spread long before the Gospels existed.” Yes, that is obvious. It is also irrelevant to my argument. There are a few skeptics who think the evangelists wrote the gospels in order to invent a new religion. I claim nothing of that sort. I claim that Christianity, or rather a number distinct religious sects that we may refer to collectively as early Christianity, existed for at least a century before the canonical gospels as we now know them were written. I made that perfectly clear in my earlier arguments.

Metacrock: The evidence I lay out proves the same material that gets’ used in the Gospels, not original writing by Mark or Mat but the words of the communities were spreading, the same people building the religion were spreading those very same words, word for word, decades before AD 70.

It proves nothing the sort. It proves that the canonical gospels were not the first documents of their kind to have been produced. That contradicts nothing I have said.

He says, “The notion of the empty tomb was circulating in writing by mid century." He obviously means "mid-first century." No evidence supports that claim, except on the assumption of the conventional dating. The evidence does show that the empty tomb story was being told before the writing of the first canonical gospel, which was probably Mark’s but could have been John’s. Whatever, it does not force the story back to the middle of the first century.

Metacrock says, “Clement writes about Peter and Paul being killed.” Not in so many words, actually. Here is everything he says about how they ended their lives:

But, to pass from the examples of ancient days, let us come to those champions who lived nearest to our time. Let us set before us the noble examples which belong to our generation.

By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles.

There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory.

By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance.

What Clement says here is that Peter and Paul endured much hardship and much persecution right up to the very ends of their lives—but he does not say how their lives ended. They suffered. Then they died. That is all we get from him.

And speaking of Clement,

Metacrock: Any quote of Q or of Gospel material especially pre dating mark is a demonstration of a religious tradition that represents a community and it’s beliefs and we have to assume indicates a huge old line of passage going way back.

Well, Clement attributes various sayings to Jesus, and the gospel authors attribute similar sayings to Jesus, and a lot of those sayings were in Q. This is not evidence that Clement had read the gospels or even knew of their existence. Or if it is, it could just as easily be evidence that the gospel authors had read Clement’s work.

Metacrock: I show that writers like Polycarp and Papias and Clement knew the Apostles and other eye witnesses and passed on the knowledge to their students. They validate the historical nature of the Gospels.

Saying it is not showing it. The evidence Metacrock offers does not demonstrate what he says it demonstrates, and I have explained why it does not. Not a thing that Clement wrote is even slightly inconsistent with what I claim about the gospels’ origin. The same goes for the known writings of Polycarp—what we have from him in his own words. The same goes for what Eusebius tells us about the writings of Papias.

He also keeps carrying on about how all the heretical writings were in such agreement with the canonical writings. “There’s one story and they all agree to it,” he insists. One has to start wondering how in the world anybody ever got called a heretic if they were all in such agreement. He also says that their agreement “proves it’s historical.” It proves nothing of the sort. I have seen several movies telling the King Arthur story. They are all in agreement about what happened, with differences only in trivial details. There is basically only one story. And it is a fictional story.

He objects to my claim that we’re getting our history from the winners. Orthodoxy, he claims, “was shaped by the gospels not vice versa.” Well, so says orthodoxy. This is a circular argument, pure and simple. According to Metacrock, “The Orthodox power structure did protect their doctrines but in so doing also protected history.” But what it protected was its own version of history, because many of its doctrines included, or depended for their validity on, certain of the church’s assertions about its historic origins.

I observed:

throughout Europe between the fall of Rome and the invention of printing, no ancient document got copied unless some church official believed that it needed to be copied.

And he replied:

Ludicrous! No way could they prevent writing and copying of every single copy and fragment.

I never said they could prevent anything. They didn’t have to. The hand-copying of any document of significant length requires a serious investment of time and other resources. Serious investment requires serious motivation, but motivation is irrelevant without means. For any document you can think of, if nobody wanted to copy it, or if anyone who wanted to copy it lacked the means to copy it—and the means had to include possession of or physical access to a then-existing copy—then that document did not get copied.

Then we get some arguments about the gospels’ dating. He says, “We also see Luke used a different Mark than Mat did so there were at least two floating around (that’s unanswered from first speech).” It was unanswered because it was irrelevant. He also says, “His assertion just rests upon not knowing the traditional reasons for the dating, which are scientific and textual.” The reasons I know about are the reasons stated by those who defend the conventional dates. Those reasons are not scientific and do not adequately support the consensus. He goes on: “There are a lot of complex reasons why they date them as they do, they are not arbitrary not because ‘they say so’ it’s science and it’s proved.” Actually, it is neither science nor proved. It is dogma.

He claims, “The only argument he can make is that 70 is arbitrary and chosen just to be early.” I did not say it was arbitrary. I argued that the date was chosen based on an assumption that it was written as soon as it could have been written, which was around 70. There is nothing arbitrary about that.

He says he “proved pre Mark redaction circulated mid century.” He did prove that a pre-Markan redaction existed. He did not prove when it existed, just that it had to be before the redacted Mark was written.

“Kirby says it consensus,” he reminds us. I don’t dispute that is the consensus, and so Kirby’s claim to that effect is irrelevant. Metacrock is supposed to be defending the consensus. You can’t defend a consensus just by saying over and over that everybody agrees to it. You a defend a consensus by summarizing the facts from which it is inferred and demonstrating the inference. Demonstrating the inference means taking those facts and presenting a cogent argument showing exactly why there is something inconsistent about denying the consensus while affirming those facts.

Metacrock says, in reference to Matthew, that “the material in it goes way back, thus is is historical.” This seems to presuppose that all old stories must be true stories. I doubt that Metacrock really means to try holding on to that ground, but I’m not sure what else he thinks the age of the material really proves. Perhaps he assumes that the gospel authors would have assumed that old stories about Jesus had to be true stories. I appeal again to my analogy. We can pretty sure that Shakespeare had no doubt that Julius Caesar really had been assassinated, but that is no evidence against the fictional nature of the play he wrote about the assassination.

He said it makes no difference “when the version of Matthew we know now was complied and began to circulate,” but it does matter when it happened. What does not matter so much is whether we call the person doing it an author or a compiler, redactor, editor, or whatever. This debate is about whether that person intended the product of his labor to be a work of fiction or a narrative of fact. Of course we cannot determine his mental state with anything like perfect certainty, but we can have a defensible opinion as to what he was most likely to have been thinking. And that depends among other things on when he was doing it. The later it was, the less likely it was that he believed that he was producing a factual narrative, taking into consideration the absence, from the finished product, of any references to source material. Any writer of ostensible historical fact who wants to be believed tells his readers why they should believe him.

We get another reminder that “Many scholars date Egerton in middle of the first century.” I’ve already addressed the issue of other and earlier gospels, but let’s go over it again. My argument challenges the consensus as to both the dating of the canonical gospels and the intentions of their authors. That being so, these continual reminders as to what the consensus says is just a waste of time. As for Egerton in particular, it would seem that at least a few scholars think it more likely contemporaneous with the early-third-century Bodmer Papyrus. What the current majority opinion is, I have no idea, but it is a fact that scholarly disagreement exists, and therefore the opinion of one side or the another cannot be treated as if it were a fact.

Metacrock says the Didache “clearly quotes Mat.” There is nothing clear about it. All we have are two documents attributing similarly-worded teachings to Jesus. Either one could have been quoting the other, or they both could have been quoting a third source. Considering the consensus that Matthew was quoting Q, it is reasonable to at least suspect that the author of the Didache was also quoting Q.

He says I am using “biased obsolete sources.” Since I have not identified any of my sources, I don’t see how he could know that, except perhaps on the assumption that any source must be biased or obsolete if it disagrees with him.

Rylands P52, he says, is “all we need.” For what? In the context of this debate, it is absurd to suggest that P52, all by itself, is the only evidence we need for reaching any conclusion about the intentions of the men who wrote the canonical gospels. Whatever conclusion we reach on that issue has got to explain everything we know about every scrap of relevant evidence, and that includes every fragment of every document from that period written either by Christians or about Christians.

Then we get: “New trend in Europe is to put John in the 60s. he also forgets about the source that shows 60 scholars showing it early.”

Oh, so now trends in academic opinion become evidence, at least if the trends happen in Europe? You wanna know what this argument is evidence of? It’s evidence of desperation. When you have to resort to telling people how popular your opinion is becoming, you are in serious intellectual trouble. As for those 60 scholars, yes, I’m forgetting about them. And I’ll keep on forgetting about them until I see their evidence and the arguments they use to get from their evidence to their conclusions.

Ignatius’ epistles, he says, “clearly show allusion to Johannine passages and ideas.” Maybe Ignatius said some things that John also said. That doesn’t mean he had to have read anything that John wrote. I know that some Christians nowadays think they must never believe anything unless they can find it in their Bibles, but I don’t know any reason to assume that that was Ignatius’ way of thinking. I think it entirely possible that he could have acquired his beliefs about Jesus from some source other than those documents that eventually were compiled into what we now call the New Testament. More to the immediate point: Ignatius does not attest to the existence of any document from which he learned anything about Jesus. He credits no writings and no individuals for anything he thinks he knows about Jesus.

I wrote:

Metacrock claims there is a quotation in the Talmud proving Matthew was written around 70 CE . . . . there is no way the authors of the Talmud could have had any factual knowledge relevant to a determination of when Matthew wrote his gospel

Metacrock replied:

They have a record of the Rabbi quoting Matthew

This is such a vague argument I almost ignored it, but it nicely exemplifies the lengths to which defenders of orthodoxy are driven. This is supposed to be proof that Matthew’s gospel had to have been in existence no later than 70 CE. In order for this passage of the Talmud to be that kind of evidence, the following must be established beyond reasonable doubt:

1. The rabbi being referred to was alive around 70 CE, or just a few years later.

2. The relevant portion of the Talmud was written by someone who knew that (1) to be a fact and also knew for a fact that the rabbi said what he quotes him as having said.

3. The Talmudic statement as it now exists is inexplicable except on the supposition that both (1) and (2) are true.

Nothing in any extant copy of the Talmud meets these conditions.

I wrote: “In the case of the gospels, not even their existence is clearly and unambiguously attested before Irenaeus, ca. 180 CE.” Metacrock replied: “Again, that is an argument for fundies about namesakes. I don’t care about the name sakes. We DO NOT NEED THE NAMESAKES TO ESTABLISH HISTORICITY!”

This has nothing to do with namesakes. It makes no difference to my argument what anyone before Irenaeus might have called the canonical gospels, if they had read them. My point is that there is no evidence for their having read any document about Jesus, no matter what they might have thought the document’s title was or who its author was. Justin is a possible exception, but it is only a possibility that he makes some reference to the canonical gospels. It is not in any sense a clear and unambiguous attestation. The absence of clear and unambiguous pre-Irenaean attestation is a fact. It is not a matter of anybody’s interpretation of anything anybody is known to have said. There is no such attestation.

Metacrock says, “I established the existence of the material of the Gospels going all the way back. That’s all we need.” It may be all he needs to justify his dogma, but it does not suffice to refute my argument. What he needs for refutation are some facts indicating that the gospel authors, by taking that material “going all the way back” and working it into their stories, thereby indicated to their readers that they believed it to be historically factual material.

I think that will suffice for now. To summarize:

The gospels’ existence is not clearly attested before Irenaeus. There is no evidence for their existence at any time during the first century, no uncontested fact inconsistent with their not having been written before the second century.

Three of the gospel authors do not so much as hint that they might have consulted some sources in compiling their narratives. Nowadays, almost 20 centuries later, we know they did use other sources, but to the readers of their own day they said nothing about those other sources. One of them, and only one, says that there were witnesses and there were earlier accounts, but he makes no claim to have used any of those witnesses or earlier accounts.

This is not what we reasonably expect when the writer of a narrative intends for his readers to believe that the narrative is factual history. A writer who does so intend does what Eusebius did. Eusebius did not simply say, “I’ve got good sources for what I’m telling you.” He identified his sources, by name. We expect that from writers of nonfiction. From writers of fiction, on the other hand, we expect just what we find in the gospels. We expect them to say simply, “This is what happened,” without a word of explanation as to how they know it happened.

Once more, this is not an argument against Jesus’ historicity. It is no way presupposes Jesus’ nonexistence, any more than the fictional nature of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Macbeth, King of Scotland, presupposes the nonexistence of either of those men.

Indeed, it presupposes nothing contrary to any orthodox Christian dogma, except only the historical dogma about the gospel authors’ intentions. It is entirely consistent with my argument that Jesus actually was the only begotten son of God, was born of a virgin, was crucified to atone for the sins of the world, rose again on the third day, and ascended into heaven. That could all be exactly true, even if the gospel authors were intending to write fiction. Obviously, I don’t think any of it is true, and I would not think it was true even if I were convinced that the canonical gospels were intended by their authors to be purely factual. But I believe I have demonstrated how reasonable it is to think they were not so intended.

(This page was last revised on January 5, 2015.)

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