Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Mike Licona explains the As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es of New Testament reliability

Mike Licona is one of my favorite Christian apologists, and here is an excellent lecture to show you why.

In the lecture, he explains why the four biographies in the New Testament should be accepted as historically accurate: (55 minutes)


  • What a Baltimore Ravens helmet teaches us about the importance of truth
  • What happens to Christians when they go off to university?
  • The 2007 study on attitudes of American professors to evangelical Christians
  • Authors: Who wrote the gospels?
  • Bias: Did the bias of the authors cause them to distort history?
  • Contradictions: What about the different descriptions of events in the gospels?
  • Dating: When were the gospels written?
  • Eyewitnesses: Do the gospel accounts go back to eyewitness testimony?

This is basic training for Christians. It would be nice if every Christian was equipped in church to be able to make a case like this.

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Are post-mortem visions of Jesus enough to infer the resurrection?

Lydia McGrew has written an interesting post where she argues that the minimal facts approach of Craig and Habermas is not as good as proving that the gospels are generally reliable. In particular, she says that because skeptical scholars only grant that the disciples had “experiences” of Jesus after his death, then this is not enough to infer a real bodily resurrection.

Lydia says that the only minimal fact that skeptical scholars will accept is that a variety of people had “experiences” of Jesus. Experiences of Jesus are compatible with some sort of hallucination hypothesis, except that it doesn’t explain the empty tomb. But in order to get away from the hallucination hypothesis, you have to get to a variety of experiences, from individuals to groups, friends to enemies, believers to skeptics. And that means you are going to have to use the rest of the gospels.

Here’s Lydia from the original post:

I think it is necessary to be blunt: If all that we are going to assert and seek to explain is the claim that Jesus’ disciples had some kind of visual experiences soon after his death that they took to be appearances of the risen Jesus, and if we are allowing that these experiences could, for all we know, have been fleeting, unclear, intersubjectively inaccessible (that is, invisible to anyone other than the disciples), and involving no senses other than sight, then the case for the resurrection is gravely weakened.

If one hangs onto the idea that these experiences (whatever their precise nature) came “both to individuals and groups,” and if one includes James, Jesus’ brother, among those who had an individual experience (Habermas discusses the question of whether an appearance experience on the part of James should be included as a “minimal fact”), then this will provide an interesting coincidence, and naturalistic explanations will be somewhat strained. I admit that. Why should these various people, including a former skeptic of Jesus’ ministry (his brother) have had these experiences shortly after his death, even if they may (for all we know) have been somewhat vague and visionary in nature?

But let’s be clear: The conclusion we thought we could support was that Jesus was risen from the dead. Vague, fleeting, or visionary experiences provide a weak case for that conclusion. In fact, if the minimal fact of the appearance experiences is compatible with minimal experiences, then paranormal explanations become an interesting option, which I gather is what New Testament scholar Dale Allison is exploring. Maybe there’s just “something weird” in this world that we don’t know much about that isn’t a miracle, and isn’t a resurrection, but that causes people to have brief experiences “of” a person after his death.

Eric Chabot says in the comments that when the skeptical scholars say “visions”, they don’t necessarily mean hallucinations.

He writes:

Hi Lydia,

Good post. I agree the Gospels matter. But any time I have tried to use the few points of the minimal facts material, I really have stuck with Paul. I think we can show all the scholars (both conservative and non conservative) that think the disciples had experiences. But then we need to be very detailed about what accounts for the experiences. Obviously, as you say above the visions hypothesis is the big one they punt to. But then that leads to ask what do they mean by visions. As we know, Ehrman says:

It is undisputable that some of the followers of Jesus came to think that he had been raised from the dead, and that something had to have happened to make them think so. Our earliest records are consistent on this point, and I think they provide us with the historically reliable information in one key aspect: the disciples’ belief in the resurrection was based on visionary experiences. I should stress it was visions, and nothing else, that led to the first disciples to believe in the resurrection. -Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: Harper One, 2014), 183-184.

So here Ehrman sides with the visionary language that Crossan, Borg and Lüdemann use. The good news is that Ehrman goes onto to define what he means by “visions” of Jesus. He describes visions as something that are either “veridical” or “nonveridical.” Veridical visions means people tend to see things that are really there while nonveridical visions the opposite-what a person sees is not based any kind of external reality. It is the latter that leads to what is called the hallucination hypothesis. In other words, skeptics assert that nonveridical visions can be attributed to some sort of psychological explanation. Ehrman then punts to his agnosticism again and says he doesn’t care if the appearances can be attributed to either “veridical” or “nonveridical” visionary experiences or anything else. This is rather confusing in that Ehrman first says it is visions that can explain the resurrection appearances.

So what we see here is that when they discuss visions, they really mean ‘subjective visions’ as if they are hallucinations. I haven’t seen any exegetical arguments that visions is what they meant when the talk about the resurrection appearances. They knew the difference between the two. My experience is that no matter how much exegetical work you do to show they didn’t mean visions, they don’t care because of their metaphysical starting points.

But I discuss this in full detail here. Note the large exchange with the atheist afterwards.

Now when I was reading this, I was thinking, well, I can get away from the nonveridical visions to the veridical visions by bringing in the fourth fact that Craig uses, namely, the early proclamation of the resurrection. If the visions that people were having were not of a resurrected body, than they would not have called it “resurrection”, they would have called it exaltation, or something else. And Craig does have arguments for why he thinks that the early proclamation of the resurrection is one of his minimal facts. For one thing, no Jews thought that the Messiah was supposed to die, much less be resurrected. And the concept of resurrection was not supposed to be for an individual, but for all the righteous dead at the end of the age. So something has to be posited to explain why the earliest Christians called what happened to Jesus after he died “resurrection”. This not to even mention the work that’s been done on the word soma which clearly means body.

I think if you factor in this fourth minimal fact, along with the empty tomb, then you can get from “visions” to veridical visions – a bodily resurrection. The empty tomb requires another explanation on the hallucination hypothesis – so you have two explanations – and it doesn’t explain the early proclamation of the resurrection. The resurrection hypothesis explains the appearances, the empty tomb, and the early proclamation of the resurrection.

Filed under: Commentary, , , ,

Tim McGrew explains how undesigned coincidences affect textual reliability

Tim McGrew

Tim McGrew

Dr. McGrew teaches at Western Michigan University.

The MP3 file is here.

Tim’s wife Lydia explains the concept of undesigned coincidences on her blog:

Undesigned coincidences in the Gospels … is an argument that was well-known in the nineteenth century but has, for no really clear reason, simply been forgotten as time has gone on. It is a cumulative case argument that the Gospels reflect, to an important extent, independent knowledge of actual events. Please note that this argument is quite independent of one’s preferred answer to the synoptic question. That is to say, even if, e.g., Mark was the first Gospel and others had access to Mark and show signs of literary dependence on Mark, the argument from undesigned coincidences provides evidence for independent knowledge of real events among the Gospel writers. There are many more of such coincidences beyond those given in the talk.

Basically, this argument finds cases where the same story is in two sources, but where some important detail is left out of one account so that something about the story seems out of place. But the other source has the missing detail that unlocks the mystery. This makes the sources appear to be independent, especially as more of these coincidences pile up. If this happens a lot, it argues for independent sources, which means that the story is multiply attested, which it is it less likely to have been made up.

My favorite example was the Philip example from John 6.

Lydia explains that example here:

As I was listening to Tim’s examples, I was struck by all the reasons there might be for a real eyewitness not to fill out the explanation for a detail. Think for example how tedious it is to listen to someone who goes back to explain every little detail he mentions in a story.

[…]Similarly, as John is telling the story about the feeding of the five thousand, it would be quite natural for him to say that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread if he were really an eyewitness–that is, because he remembered that Jesus did ask Philip. (Tim talks about why it was Philip in the interview.) But John himself might have had to stop and think for a moment if someone had asked him, “Why did Jesus ask Philip rather than any of the other disciples?” Presumably when John told the story, he wasn’t particularly thinking about some special reason for Jesus to select Philip for the question. But if someone were forging the story as fiction, he would have a reason for choosing to use a given disciple as a character at that point in his fictional narrative, and therefore he would be unlikely to choose that character without making the reason clearer to his readers.

All sorts of such things can happen when one is telling a true story, especially a story one has witnessed. One gets caught up in what one actually remembers and drops in incidental references to small facts, which facts are to some extent selected randomly by the memory as one brings the scene back to memory. This is typical of real memoirs but not of elaborate forgeries.

Lydia is also a philosopher, and her Ph.D is from Vanderbilt University. She’s put together a nice list of resources on historical apologetics.

More: Jonathan McLatchie has written a post about undesigned coincidences on Frank Turek’s Cross Examined web site.

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When were the gospels written?

A post from Jonathan McLatchie, writing on the Christian Apologetics Alliance blog.


When were the gospel biographical accounts of Jesus written? One popular claim by skeptics is that the gospels were written so long after the events which they narrate that their historical and biographical value is suspect. While virtually all scholars maintain that all of the gospels were written in the first century, within liberal scholarship it is conventionally thought that all four gospels were written post-70AD. It is my own view, however, that this proposition is largely arbitrary, and based largely on a false presumption that a prediction, on the part of Jesus regarding the destruction of the temple in AD70, must have been composed after-the-fact. If, however, one takes seriously the proposition that prophecy by a divine figure is possible, then the justification for the post-70AD dating largely disappears.

I am going to propose something radical — namely, that all of the synoptic gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke) pre-date AD60 and perhaps even AD50, thus being removed from the passion events (33AD) by possibly less than 20 years, with the underlying source material behind the gospels dating back even further still. Further, I contend that John’s gospel likely pre-dates AD70. Moreover, I am going to argue that we possess at least two sources from the 30s AD, being removed from the passion events by only two or three years!

[…]So, what about the dating of the gospels? It is generally agreed among scholars that Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke subsequently utilised Mark’s gospel as source material, and then John was written last (and independently). Luke is likely to have been the latest of the synoptics. But Luke is quoted elsewhere in the New Testament, by Paul. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:18, “For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” This latter citation is from Luke 10:7. Clearly, then, Luke (or, at the very least, the source material upon which Luke is based) must pre-date the writing of 1 Timothy (we’ll come to the dating of 1 Timothy shortly). The appeal to the quoted text as coming from “Scripture” would also seem to militate against a possible objection that the quoted phrase was a popular cliche which was independently quoted by Luke and Paul.

Paul also quotes from Luke’s gospel, in connection with the Lord’s supper, in 1 Corinthians 11:

“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

In addition, 1 Timothy 6 also makes reference to Pontius Pilate, suggesting that its author (in my view, Paul) was aware of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ trial. Paul is also evidently aware of the 12 disciples (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15).

So, what then can we conclude? If – as I maintain – the pastoral epistles are genuinely Pauline, then Luke’s gospel (or, at the very least, Luke’s source material) must predate AD60 by far enough to be regarded as Scripture at the time of the writing of 1 Timothy (probably the early 60s). Furthermore, I would argue, it is likely to also predate the writing of 1 Corinthians in the early 50’s.

This is also consistent with evidence from other areas. For example, the Acts of the Apostles (which post-dates Luke’s gospel) does not mention the destruction of the temple in AD 70, nor the death of Peter or Paul, nor for that matter the persecution of Christian martyrs under Nero in the 60s or the Great Fire of Rome from which it resulted. If such events had already taken place by the time Luke wrote Acts, one would expect to find a pertaining description. But, instead, Acts leaves us hanging, by ending after Paul has been placed under house-arrest.

So the three points to note here about dating the gospels are as follows. If one book Y cites another book X, then X is earlier than Y. Second point, a person who dies in the year X must have written before the year X. And third point, if a source doesn’t mention some cataclysmic historical event, then it predates that event. For example, a history of the United States that does not mention the 9/11 /01 attack was written before that date.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , ,

Peter J. Williams lectures on the historical reliability of the gospel narratives

Peter J. Williams

Peter J. Williams

Here’s the main lecture: (54 minutes)

And here’s the Q&A: (9 minutes)

About Peter Williams:

Peter J. Williams is the Warden (CEO) of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He received his MA, MPhil and PhD, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible from Cambridge University. After his PhD, he was on staff in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University (1997–1998), and thereafter taught Hebrew and Old Testament there as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998–2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. In July 2007 he became the youngest Warden in the history of Tyndale House. He also retains his position as an honorary Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Summary of the lecture:

  • What if the stories about Jesus are legendary?
  • were the gospels transmitted accurately?
  • were the gospels written in the same place as where the events happened?
  • do the gospel authors know the customs and locations where the events happened?
  • do the gospels use the right names for the time and place where the events took place?
  • do the gospels disambiguate people’s names depending on how common those names were?
  • how do the New Testament gospels compare to the later gnostic gospels?
  • how do the gospels refer to the main character? How non-Biblical sources refer to Jesus?
  • how does Jesus refer to himself in the gospels? do the later Christians refer to him that way?
  • how does Jesus teach? do later Christians teach the same way?
  • why didn’t Jesus say anything about early conflicts in the church (the Gentiles, church services)?
  • did the writers of the gospels know the places where the events took place?
  • how many places are named in the gospels? how about in the later gnostic gospels?
  • are the botanical details mentioned in the gospels accurate? how about the later gnostic gospels?

And here are the questions from the audience:

  • how what about the discrepancies in the resurrection narratives that Bart Ehrman is obsessed with?
  • what do you think of the new 2011 NIV translation (Peter is on the ESV translation committee)?
  • how did untrained, ordinary men produce complex, sophisticated documents like the gospels?
  • is oral tradition a strong enough bridge between the events and the writers who interviewed the eyewitnesses?
  • what does the name John mean?
  • why did the gospel writers wait so long before writing their gospels?
  • do you think that Matthew and Luke used a hypothetical source which historians call “Q”?
  • which gospel do critical historians trust the least and why?

I really enjoyed watching this lecture. He’s getting some of this material from Richard Bauckham’s awesome book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you can get an idea of what’s in it. Peter Williams is a lot of fun to listen to – an excellent speaker.

You can read an interview with Peter Williams here on Between Two Worlds.

And you can listen to the Peter Williams vs Bart Ehrman debate. That link contains a link to the audio of the debate as well as my snarky summary. It’s very snarky.

And Apologetics 315 also posted Peter Williams’ assessment of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”.

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