Special Guest D.M. Johnson

“When someone places faith in the Bible, they place it in the direction of evidence, not against the evidence”

[Karen] Welcome once again to I Believe Podcast: Expressions of Faith. We are continuing our series of casts about the authenticity of the Bible. We would like, again, to welcome D.M. Johnson [who’s] with us today. Welcome, Dave!

[D.M.] Good to be back with you.

[Karen] In today’s society, there are so many attacks against the person of Jesus Christ, as well as the Bible. Today, we are going to look at various methods that are used by biblical scholars and critical historians to authenticate things as historical.

So one thing that those with faith in the Bible are confronted with often, Dave, is the insinuation that the entire text of the Bible is some made-up legend developed over time. To our listeners, we’re really going to give you some tools and examples of things that show and illustrate that the events described in the Bible actually took place.

Multiple Attestation

I know that there are a number of different criteria that are used to consider something as viable–even historically. We touched a little bit on this in the overview cast, but we’ll go into more detail here. Dave, let’s start off the need for multiple attestation.

[D.M.] This is something that helps solidify a historical account. It’s true that for a lot of things, there are no witnesses. Maybe you have one witness to a given thing. But historians obviously want to have multiple sources for an event. The more sources we have, the more certain we can become that that event was historical.

We also want different kinds of sources. It’s important that we have multiple sources that even give us independent detail from those sources.

For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. 2 Corinthians 3:18

Early Attestation

[Karen] Perfect. We touched on the concept of having early testimony for Christian beliefs in the context of the core Biblical discussion. I think with the attacks that we sometimes see in the popular culture, as well as the media, it would probably be good to address that head-on.

It seems logical to me that if we could establish that Christian beliefs [were held] early on and were not due to this kind of legendary development over time, that that would be key. Could we walk through the example you referred to in a previous cast about Paul?

[D.M.] We have letters from Paul which predate the Gospels. Scholars have identified also several places in there where we have creedal material that’s very, very early. Even atheist and agnostic scholars of the New Testament date the material in there within 2-3 years after the Resurrection. I’m not talking about the letters of Paul, I’m talking about this early creedal material that Paul quotes in his letters. It’s been one of the huge stumbling blocks for a lot of people who think the Resurrection might have been a legendary development. It’s way too early for any kind of legendary development to have developed [1].

[Karen] I think many people would find it amazing that we have information– that scholars, even atheist and agnostic ones– date that early and close to the time of the crucifixion. I would like it if you’d walk our listeners though, just step by step, the reasons we know that it can go back so early. Let’s go through this passage in detail that you are referring to, and give our listeners the details on why scholarship is so certain about this being one of the earliest teachings that went so far back in the early church.

Before we walk through that, though, can I just ask you to clear up one thing? You mentioned that even atheist and agnostic scholars agree this material is early. I think lots of people would assume that if somebody is an atheist they don’t believe a word of the Bible or anything contained in it at all. Would you agree that is a misperception that is out there?

[D.M.] Absolutely. There are obviously theological things in the Bible, miracles and things like that, which an atheist or a sceptic may not accept. But there are, certainly, places in the Bible and the New Testament that are not disputed in terms of their authorship.

For instance, we have seven letters from Paul. We have Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. So if we take just those seven, a lot of people are surprised that an atheist scholar will look at those and he will count different things in there as historical.

Early Creedal Material: 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

So, our first example, I’d like some of us to go through some of this material. It’s in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 if you want to go ahead and read that, then we can walk through it.

[Karen]  Sure. I have that, Dave.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me” [2].

[D.M.] A couple things in there that people can tell— of course it’s very, very early: Number one, we see the term Cephas which is the Aramaic name for Peter. We also notice how Paul says, “what I received.” This is a key phrase for scholars, because the underlying Greek is a technical term that shows that he is referring to Kerygma—basically an early oral formulation or creed that he learned, that he gave to them.

And so, back in antiquity, what they would do–they had a lot of people that were illiterate–they would often memorize sayings as an oral formulation. This was often done so that people would memorize those teachings and they wouldn’t be lost. You can think of this, if you’re at home: You turn on the radio and you hear a song that you haven’t heard in ten years, and you know what those next words are going to be because that is a good way for the mind to learn. That was the way they memorized this tradition. He also says, “I passed on to you.” This is, again, another one of those key terms in the underlying Greek that they can tell he’s reciting this oral formulation. He’s referring to him teaching them at Corinth with the creed he had learned from the apostles [3].

[Karen] And what’s so powerful about this, when you think about that passage in particular, is that you have the core of the Gospel right there in that formulation: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.

Then he [Paul] gives a list of appearances including both groups and individuals, right Dave?

[D.M.] Right, and what I like is when he talks about there being 500 people who have seen Jesus – he says, “Most of whom are still living.” What he is really saying is, “You can go talk to them.”  He was basically kinda throwing down the gauntlet, saying, “Go ask them yourself. They’re still alive.”

[Karen] Perfect. So let’s walk through the timeline which illuminates for us the sequence of the apostle’s words and then validates Paul’s reality, really.

[D.M.] Most scholars think that Paul wrote this letter in around 55 AD. If you think about the passage, [you’ll notice that] he said that he had “passed on” this material. So he’s talking about when he was there with them he told them these teachings, right? That means we have him writing the letter in 55, then there was a trip beforehand where he relayed this information to them. And then he talks about “what I received.” That means we can go back two steps: So we have the letter in 55 AD. He was there; he gave it to them (that was earlier than that), and then he learned it, or he received it. And a lot of people think that this goes way back to when the apostle Paul met with Peter for fifteen days: and in the first couple of chapters in Galatians it talks about that. This puts us from 2-5 years after the crucifixion.

So, just to recap for everybody: He’s writing the letter in 55 AD, talking about when he was there and he told them this. That means he told them something before then. And then before that, he learned this oral formulation, and so this means it goes back 2-5 years [after the crucifixion] when he learned it and they had it in circulation before that. And then you have the beliefs that drove that formulation, going pretty much right back to the cross itself. So it’s really hard for scholars [to overlook], and they will see at that point–the ones who are versed and trained in the New Testament–that this belief of the risen Christ was not an invention. In fact, it was in the very outset of the Church.

[Karen] It makes it very difficult to dismiss Paul, like you said. And it’s pretty amazing to think about, because we have a person who is realized [or accepted] to be a historical person even by atheist scholars, which we mentioned, and in one of his letters we can trace back with confidence where he actually gets this early material.

It just shows that the beliefs of Christianity, again, go right back from the start and were not thought up decades or centuries later, alluding to what we said at the beginning of the cast.

[D.M.] That’s right. This is one of those examples of creedal material that are sometimes embedded in the New Testament, and scholars can recognize this. This shows we have early attestation that is contemporary with Jesus. It also is an interesting point that Paul never would have written something to a church, which he knew would be disproven. The fact that he refers to those other people still being alive is big in a historian’s eyes. So this, again, is that principle of early witness which shows it was not legendary and was not an invention or an extrapolation from that.

Disinterested Testimony

[Karen] Clear, thank you. I know that often, historians will talk about disinterested testimony. Can you summarize that?

[D.M.] This is when somebody says something that’s maybe off the cuff or just in passing. We all have bias, and so historians look at accounts from the vantage [point] of, “Hey, who wrote this?” and if you’re someone who’s a huge supporter of Christianity, like say, Justin Martyr or some[one] like that, they know he’s trying to defend the faith. If they look at someone like Celsus or the Talmud, they know these people did not like Jesus, and so those are people on both sides. What they really like is testimony as well that’s totally disinterested—that’s just off the cuff. Sometimes you’re reading the scriptures, [you come across] something you would never think twice about, and you read right over it, but to a historian, it’s a huge clue.

One of these that’s very interesting is in Galatians, Bart Ehrman wrote a book, Did Jesus exist?, and basically showed evidence that He clearly did exist. One of the huge things that he talks about is in Galatians where it says that Paul met Jesus’ brother, James. Most people might read right by that and not think it was a big deal, but some of those subtle things, just off-the-cuff comments, are very big to historians.

[Karen] Very revelatory, those details. When I think back to our cast two, on extra-biblical evidence for Jesus,  it seems like it falls in this category. When we talked about Tacitus, for example, he was just reporting matter-of-fact things about Jesus, right?

[D.M.] That’s right. And some of the passages like Suetonius, they’re even more powerful because they are subtle. It would feel totally different if there was a devout Christian that was bending over backwards to try to convince you of something. Or on the other side trying to discredit something. Disinterested testimony, it kind of removes that fog of bias that we see. That’s why historians like that, in addition to the other witnesses.

Criterion of Dissimilarity

[Karen] That makes perfect sense. I know in the earlier cast, too, we had mentioned the criterion of dissimilarity. So, for our audience, this is basically the notion that something is thought to be authentic if it goes, or tends to go, against the grain or cultural tapestry of the time.

Now, there are lots of things in this category that ring true about Jesus. He clearly presented himself as a challenge to the status quo, to say the least, right? That’s pretty well known. So things that are thought to be dissimilar from traditional Judaism of the time are thought to be authentic, even by secular scholars when these criterion that Dave’s talking about–that we’re talking about–are applied, would you say, Dave?

[D.M.] That’s right. I mean, Jesus, if you think about how He presented Himself . . . A lot of people debate different things, but everybody realizes that He clearly showed He was not like the other Rabbis of the time. The other Rabbis always were taught to teach in the name of so-and-so: “In the name of so-and-so, I give you this teaching.” And He would come along, not in the name of so-and-so, but [He would say, instead]. “I tell you.” He would challenge the law and clarify the law, even overrule, in some ways, the law.

One of the that things we see where He was dissimilar to the time was with regard to some of the discussions around the Sabbath and some of the traditions that the Pharisees had put into place. If you think about it for a minute–and, again, we bring up Bart Ehrman a lot, because he’s kind of a lightning rod for controversy–he points out [that] you would never invent a Messiah figure in that culture that would be hung up on a tree and crucified. The Jews thought the Messiah was going to be a conquering Messiah, not a sacrificial one. You couldn’t get more dissimilar than that. It totally went against the understanding that most of the Jews had at that time. And again, it speaks to authenticity of what was going on.

Principle of Embarrassment

[Karen] Those are great examples. Let’s talk for a minute about the Principle of Embarrassment. This really is something that again might be unknown to some of our listeners as a historical point of evaluation. Usually as people of faith we are not used to looking at the scriptures this way. It’s almost funny sometimes when you learn to approach the text this way, using some of those tools the critical historians use, because you see there is just no way in the world you would make up some of the things, like you just pointed out, that are in the New Testament, because they don’t always paint Jesus, or the apostles in fact, in the best light. And they really are, in that sense of the word, embarrassing.

[D.M.] You think about it, I mean, remember the question I asked in the opening cast there? It’s human nature to lie; probably everybody has lied at some point in their life, a little white lie or whatever— to make [themselves] look better. But you would never tell a lie to make yourself look worse. And so you look at some of these embarrassing things [and need to consider them]: the apostles, [for example], they don’t come off that bright in the New Testament sometimes. Over and over again, they don’t understand what Jesus is telling them [4]. It’s His great hour of need, you know, He really needs them, and they fall asleep on Him not once, but twice [5]! It is not Jesus’ family or His apostles who go to give Him a proper burial, it’s Joseph of Arimathaea, a member of the Sanhedrin [6]. This is the council that sentenced Jesus to die. The fact of Joseph of Arimathaea is attested by all four Gospels. You would never make up something involving a prominent member of society from the opposing viewpoint that they could have just said, “No, we didn’t,” and totally refute that. Remember, witnesses were alive at the time. Even [using] a liberal dating of the Gospels, we know that there were witnesses that were alive. You would never create something embarrassing like that to your cause.

You look at things like Jesus referring to Peter as Satan [7]. “Get behind me, Satan,” or things like that; you would never make up something with those kinds of details if you were creating this [story about Jesus] to try to get followers. You just wouldn’t make those kinds of things up. They’re too embarrassing.

[Karen] Exactly. I hope this is really helping our listeners. These are such compelling examples. And we also have Paul rebuking Peter–another example of what you’re speaking about–for being wrong about a theological issue [8]. I mean, that’s not very comfortable either to have that in print for posterity.

It’s also true when you sit back and think about it that most of the epistles are about problems being resolved. If you were actually thinking about it, and thinking that you’re trying to create a new religion and trying to get people to follow this religion, you wouldn’t want problems, necessarily, to be aired in the open like that. You just wouldn’t. It’s just not comfortable.

It’s also “embarrassing” that Peter denies Jesus three times [9]. Again, you would never invent a scenario where your main apostle did something like that. I also have to say, Dave, that when you look at the scriptures, the male disciples run away, and the women are the brave ones.

[D.M.] That’s right. I don’t know of any guy out there, any dude, that would write a gospel and have the men be total, quivering, cowards and run away, and the women are the ones that stand by Jesus. And you also wouldn’t have the women, if you were to create something like this, you would never have them be the witnesses of the Resurrection in that culture, because you wouldn’t have gotten any mileage out of it. Surely, if you were creating something like this, you would have male witnesses be the first witnesses.

It’s even more incredible that if you think about this principle of embarrassment, that the disciples are doubters when they hear about Him, not only hearing about Him rise, but they are doubtful when they see Him [10]! Jesus is considered out of His mind by His own family who come to seize Him and take Him [11]. You don’t hear a lot about these kinds of verses in church, but it’s that principle of embarrassment; you wouldn’t make that up. He’s deserted by His own followers [12]. If you were making up a Messiah figure, you would never put this in there. He was not believed in by His own brothers [13]. People who are listening to this, it’s just important to think that these are techniques historians use when they approach a text critically to see if it looks like it’s something that’s made up. It’s just not human nature. You don’t make things up that are embarrassing like that. And the reason that they have these things in there is because it was sacred tradition to get it right.

[Karen] That’s great. Thank you for highlighting those examples. It’s also “embarrassing” if you think that Jesus is thought by some to be a deceiver [14]. He even gets Jewish believers so upset to the point where they want to stone Him, as we know [15]. You mentioned that He is called a madman, but he is also called a drunkard and demon-possessed. Again, these aren’t very favorable attributes of some to describe Him.

I just want to reiterate what you said and underscore for our listeners, that the The New Testament can hold up to literary scrutiny like this, to show that human nature just wouldn’t allow people who were trying to invent a religion or create a following to put these kinds of things in the Gospels. With all the attacks on the Bible, it’s important for us, for people, to arm themselves with this kind of knowledge and understanding in order to defend their faith.

[D.M.] I think if you’re out there, thinking these kinds of things, some people can get intimidated, or they get concerned or feel cornered and feel like they have to be able to answer every question that some doubter comes to them with. If you read mythological accounts (and we’ll go through some other accounts where it is clearly legend and mythology so you can see the contrast) you don’t have your heroes  portrayed like this, where you could maybe see them in a bad light. This is what leads scholars to think that these accounts are genuine. We’ll look at some of that difference in future casts so you can see when we do the Gospels what the difference is between reporting of history versus something that’s been embellished.

Enemy Attestation

[Karen] Perfect. I know we’ve talked a lot about the Apostle Paul in these casts. This leads us again, to the concept of enemy attestation. [Paul] previously started out as an enemy to Christianity, and then became this great missionary. Do you want to touch on this concept of enemy attestation conceptually, Dave?

[D.M.] Basically, conceptually, it’s when somebody has zero reason to say something in your favor, [in fact], they have all the reason in the world to say things against you. Enemies don’t just dish out compliments like that when you’re clear on the other side of the fence. If you’re at home, I want you to think of this example. We’re not going to get into politics here, but I just want you to think of somebody on the extreme [political] right or the extreme [political]  left. Just think of a person in your mind. Doesn’t matter which side. Totally committed to their position. Very well-known, very prominent, and just overnight does a 180º. Totally comes to the other side. That’s really hard to imagine.

And with Paul… here you had a guy who was consenting to Christians’ deaths. He had zero reason to do a 180º and to say that. As a matter of fact, he had every reason not to say it. The only thing he had to gain by saying this was his own torture and death. And so enemy attestation is a real big deal for historians. Somebody saying something when they don’t have any motivation to do it; that demands an explanation. That’s why the scholars are always so intrigued by Paul.

[Karen] I think it’s important that each of us learns to approach the scriptures this way  and become conversant in things that support scripture in this way. The types of things we’ve talked about: early testimony, eyewitness testimony, disinterested testimony, embarrassing testimony—all of that. I hope it’s been helpful for our audience to have been with us today and we’ve discussed these kinds of things. Dave, would you like to say anything else about these concepts as we wind up the cast in closing?

[D.M.] Yeah, as we’ve gone through this cast, we’ve used some of these literary techniques that people use when historians look at a document critically like this. They can come at the New Testament without the presupposition that it’s the inspired word of God and look at it critically like this. Even if we look at it in that way, with Jesus, we have multiple witnesses, early witnesses, eyewitness witnesses, we have disinterested testimony, embarrassing testimony, enemy testimony.

The Gospels and the New Testament show us that we have very good reasons to put our faith there. They pass these tests of critical analysis that we can put on the text. I would just like to ask people, as I have said before, if you are on the fence or trying to believe, to just be open-minded and consistent. If you treat the New Testament fairly and just give it a fair shake as you’re seeking, I think it comes out very well.

[Karen] Thank you so much again, Dave, for joining us on the I Believe Podcast. Listeners, let us know if you have any comments or questions for Dave or myself. You know where to find us, at ibelievepodcast.com, Facebook, Google+or YouTube pages. God bless you! Look forward to hearing from you.

Additional Episodes:

{Manuscript Evidence} 8 Points to Consider: The Authenticity of the Bible

Christianity: What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

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1. Marxsen, Willi, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Trans. by Margaret Kohl (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 80.

Craig, William Lane, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1989), 17.

2. I Corinthians 15:3-8 [NIV]

3. Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence, 17.

4. Mark 9:32, Luke 18:34, John 12:16.

5. Matthew 26:40; Mark 14:37.

6. Matthew 27:57-61; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42.

7. Mark 8:33.

8.Galatians 2:11-21.

9. John 18:15-27.

10. Matthew 28:17.

11.Mark 3:21, 31.

12. John 6:66.

13. John 7:5-6.

14. John 7:12

15. John 8:30-59.

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