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Old 07-17-2001, 04:43 PM   #1
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Post Review of F. F. Bruce

This is a review of F. F. Bruce's book _The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?_.

There is one good thing that I can say about this book; it is short and
inexpensive. I got my copy from for $6.29.

This book is something of a classic in Christian apologetics. It has gone
through six editions since 1943, and the Inter-Varsity Fellowship has
reprinted its last edition eleven times. I am guessing that, due to its
light weight price, copies of this book are sometimes handed out by
Christian evangelists.

Although there is much in the book that is useful material, particularly the
chapters on archaeology, overall the book suffers from outdated scholarship
and an insufficiency of logical reasoning, as I will endeavor to show.

The book is prefaced by the commonplace observation that "Christianity
claims to be a historical revelation" (p. 5) and thus that an evaluation of
Christianity should not hesitate from the use of historical criticism. And
while Bruce grants that a general historical accuracy of the New Testament
would not ensure its supernatural accuracy in matters of faith and morals,
Bruce states that those who have come to view the New Testament as
historically reliable are more likely to "countenance such a claim" as that
the New Testament is a divine revelation. I suggest, however, that the
reverse process is the actual progression: those who are inclined to see the
New Testament as a divine revelation are being assured that these documents
are historically reliable. It is not without reason that the book is
dedicated to Christian college students, those who, while perhaps not
prepared to bring an end to Christian spiritual life, nevertheless have been
influenced by a Marcus Borg or a J. D. Crossan to contemplate a less
optimistic appraisal of the historicity of the Gospels. This book is
intended to reassure the Christian reader of the firm basis of the faith in
historical fact.

That this is the intention of the book is seen from the first chapter, in
which Bruce answers the question, "Does it matter?" Here we find a summary
dismissal of one liberal Christian viewpoint according to which the
importance of Christianity lies in the Sermon on the Mount, regardless of
whether Christ even lived or not. Bruce is quick to retort, "the Christian
gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system; it is
first and foremost good news..." And as evidence for this, Bruce states
that the Gospels and the creeds tell us that Christianity has a
"once-for-all-ness" (p. 8). Now while I as an atheist may make a lousy
theologian, could it not be replied that Bruce begs the question at hand of
whether or not the Gospels and the creeds are to be taken literally? His
reply amounts to saying that the liberal Christian viewpoint is incorrect
because it is not his own viewpoint. Moreover, Bruce ignores entirely
another form of liberal Christianity in which the good news and not ethics
take center stage yet are still allegorical, a form of Christianity that has
been styled "neo-orthodox" (see William Hordern's _A Layman's Guide to
Protestant Theology_, pp. 111-129). I doubt that the non-conservative
Christian will be persuaded by Bruce's one-page refutation of his or her

I doubt even more that the non-Christian will be persuaded by Bruce's
argument that the question of the historicity of the New Testament is
important to those who "on other grounds deny the truth of Christianity" (p.
8). To prove that it is important, Bruce merely quotes the statement of a
nineteenth century rationalist historian extolling the virtue of the
character of Jesus. However, according to Bertrand Russell in "Why I am Not
a Christian" and according to George Smith in _Atheism: The Case Against
God_, the biblical Jesus is not the paragon of virtue that Victorian society
assumed that He must be and that Bruce in 1943 could rely upon his readers
to accept. Furthermore, I fail to see why the question of the historicity
of the New Testament becomes more important if we are of the opinion that
the biblical Jesus is virtuous. Bruce himself on the previous page has
admitted that Confucius and Socrates are virtuous characters regardless of
the question of how accurately their biographies have been handed down. So,
although I don't think that Bruce has satisfactorily established that the
question of the historical reliability is an objectively important issue, I
will nevertheless proceed to examine his arguments that this is so. This is
because, unlike those woh deny the truth of Christianity on other grounds, I
disbelieve in conservative Christian theology partly on historical grounds,
and so it is on the merit of the historical evidence that I engage Dr.

In the second chapter, Bruce takes up the important issues of the textual
integrity of the New Testament and the dating of the New Testament
documents. Here we encounter an oft-quoted statement by Dr. Bruce: "The
evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the
evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which
no-one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of
secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond
all doubt." (p. 15)

Bruce proceeds to compare the dates of the extant mss. of the New Testament
with the dates of the manuscripts of Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, Thucydides, and
Herodotus. It is true that the attestation of the New Testament is better
than that of the pagan writers, as our manuscripts have been preserved for
us by Christian custodians. For the pagan writers, we have to make do with
what we have, which is mostly ninth century mss. and later, while we are
fortunate enough to have third century mss. for much the New Testament.

However, there is an important difference between the text of the New
Testament and the text of the classics, and this difference cannot be
overlooked. What is crucial to understand here is that the New Testament
manuscripts were a sribal battleground where theological and apologetic
motives come into play. While there just wasn't that much motivation to
tamper with Juvenal's satires or Livy's histories, there was a significant
motivation to alter the words of the New Testament to better support

D.C. Parker and the Alands allow that the text of the New Testament was
fluid in its early transmission. In the _The Living Text of the Gospels_,
D.C. Parkeron in Chapter 11 draws attention to the Masoretic Text and the
Qu'ran and says: "We learn from the analogy of the Masoretic Text that is is
not impossible for a manuscript tradition to be fixed, preserving itself
with almost perfect accuracy. But the early transmission of the Gospels
shows not only no such accuracy, but no attempt to achieve it." In _The
Text of the New Testament_, Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland state: "Until the
beginning of the fourth century the text of the New Testament developed
freely. It was the "living text" in the Greek literary tradition, unlike the
text of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was subject to strict controls
because (in the oriental tradition) the consonantal text was holy. And the
New Testament text continued to be a "living text" as long as it remained a
manuscript tradition, even when the Byzantine church molded it to the
procrustean bed of the standard and officially prescribed text. Even for
later scribes, for example, the parallel passages of the Gospels were so
familiar that they would adapt the text of one Gospel to that of another.
They also felt themselves free to make corrections in the text, improving it
by their own standard of correctness, whether grammatically, stylistically,
or more substantively. This was all the more true of the early period, when
the text had not been attained canonical status, especially in the earliest
period when Christians considered themselves to be filled with the Spirit.
As a consequence the text of the early period was many-faceted, and each
manuscript had its own peculiar character." (p. 69)

Also in the second chapter, we find another famous statement from F. F.
Bruce: "The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual
critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or
of Christian faith and practice." (pp. 19-20)

It is the burden of Bart Ehrman to disprove this contention in his book _The
Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological
Controversies on the Text of the New Testament_. Ehrman provides numerous
examples of several different kinds of scribal alterations that affect
questions of the faith: anti-adoptionistic corruptions of scripture on pp.
47-118, anti-separationist corruptions of scripture on pp. 119-180,
anti-docetic corruptions of scripture on pp. 181-261, and
anti-patripassianist corruptions of scripture on pp. 262-273. Although
Ehrman provides several examples, I will select one of these to stand as a
refutation of Bruce's claim.

In a presentation to the Society of Biblical Literature available online
(, "The Neglect of
the Firstborn in New Testament Studies," Bart Ehrman selects a single
example of a text-critical difficulty in the Gospel of Luke. This example
concerns the words stated by Christ during the Last Supper. The actual
words of the text are of paramount importance for the interpretation of
Luke. For if the longer form of the passage is genuine, this would be the
only location in which the author of Luke-Acts presents the death of Jesus
as being an atonement. But if the shorter form of the passage is genuine,
as Ehrman argues, then the reader of Luke-Acts must realize that the author
doesn't believe the death of Jesus to be an atoning sacrifice but rather the
unjust execution of an innocent. The difference is one of obvious
theological signficance.

In the same chapter, Bruce also touches upon the matter of the dating of the
New Testament documents. Bruce declares that the New Testament was
"complete, or substantially complete, about AD 100." However, a first
century dating is unproven for several NT documents, including the
following: the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel of John,
1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and
Jude. Would it be correct to say that the New Testament was "substantially
complete" if nearly half of its books may not have yet been written?

For the dating of the four Gospels, F. F. Bruce merely cites the opinion of
"a majority of modern scholars" (as Mark c. 65, Matthew c. 85-90, Luke c.
80-85, John c. 90-100), even though he proceeds to state that he disagrees
with that majority judgment. If Bruce is allowed to date the gospels
earlier than the consensus, then the present writer should be forgiven for
thinking that the majority dates may be wrong by as much twenty years or
more. For example, Burton Mack dates the Gospel of Mark c. 80-85, the
Gospel of Matthew c. 90, the Gospel of John c. 95, and Luke-Acts c. 120 in
_Who Wrote the New Testament?_ (p. 311).

In order to maintain that Luke depended on Mark for his Gospel yet wrote the
Acts c. 62 CE, Bruce relies on the antiquated notion of a 'Proto-Luke' (p.
13). Bruce also holds to the outmoded opinion that would grant authenticity
to the pastoral epistles as well as Ephesians and II Thessalonians (p. 13),
although he says he will not be relying on that opinion in his discussion of
the evidence of Paul.

In order to establish that the four Gospels were written in the first
century, Bruce cites the evidence of the so-called "Unknown Gospel" (p. 17),
known to us today as the Egerton Gospel. However, since that document is
given a terminus ad quem of c. 150 CE, it cannot push the dates of the
Gospels back any further than the early second century. Some such as
Gronewald and Turner would place the fragment as late as c. 200 CE. More
importantly, according to contemporary scholars such as Jon B. Daniels and
Helmut Koester (in _Ancient Christian Gospels_, p. 207), the Egerton Gospel
represents a document that is independent of the canonical gospels but
instead dependent on earlier forms of the synoptic and Johannine traditions.

On the same page, Bruce mentions the p52 fragment from the Gospel of John,
which is "dated on paleeographical grounds around AD 130" (p. 17). However,
once again, this can bring us back no further than the early part of the
second century. Hardly better is the attestation provided by Papyrus Bodmer
II, dated AD 200 (p. 18).

Bruce says that we find "fairly certain quotations from the common tradition
of the Synoptic Gospels, from Acts," etc. in the writings known as the
Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the First Epistle of Clement dated
approximately 100 CE. What Bruce does not explain is that a quotation from
the "common tradition" emphatically does not imply a knowledge of the
canonical, written Gospel. The author of 1 Clement, for example, makes it
apparent that he is dependent upon oral tradition for his dominical sayings.
The letter itself, when quoting the sayings of Jesus, refers to
"remembering" (1Clem 13:1, 1Clem 46:7). The author also states in 2:1,
"paying attention to his words you stored them up carefully in your hearts."
This strongly suggests that the author was dependent on oral tradition. The
same can be argued for Barnabas and the Didache; they were merely dependent
on the common fund of oral tradition. For his conclusions, F. F. Bruce is
dependent on the work of the 1905 committee of the Oxford Society of
Historical Theology. Bruce does not address the groundbreaking and
influential 1957 work of Helmut Koester _Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den
apostolischen Vatern_ (summarized in _Ancient Christian Gospels_, pp.
14-20), which argues that the apostolic fathers in no case quoted directly
from the canonical gospels. (The only case that I would consider as having
any weight is the evidence for the use of Matthew by Ignatius of Antioch,
but this does nothing to fix the dating of Luke and John, and Bruce is wrong
to say on p. 23 that Ignatius explicitly refers to 'the Gospel' as a written
document.) A more sober judgment is made by Bruce Metzger on the references
in the apostolic fathers: "Furthermore, there was as yet no conception of
the duty of exact quotation from books that were not yet in the full sense
canonical. Consequently, it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to ascertain
which New Testament books were known to early Christian writers; our
evidence does not become clear until the end of second century." (_The Canon
of the New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development_, pp. 72-73)

In the third chapter, we find a good deal of fair comment on the formation
of the New Testament canon. Bruce is correct to note that 2 Peter, 2 John,
3 John, James, Jude, and Revelations were not accepted as canonical by many
ecclesiastical writers (p. 21). Bruce is also correct to note that the
Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Clement were
accepted as having canonical status by some (p. 22). What we find missing
in this chapter is any reason why we should consider such a motley state of
affairs as evidence for the divine inspiration of the church and her canon!

But we also find in this chapter a few unjustified statements, such as this:
"It is wrong, however, to talk or write as if the Church first began to draw
up a canon after Marcion had published his." (p. 26) And why is this wrong?
We are not told. Likewise, Bruce says that by the time of Irenaeus, "the
idea of the fourfold Gospel had become so axiomatic in the Church at large
that he can refer to it as an established and recognized fact as obvious as
the four cardinal points or the four winds" (p. 24). It is just as likely
that the explanation of Gerd Ludemann is correct: Irenaeus needs to justify
the fourfold canon by way of such specious analogies because it is a
relatively recent idea. Some scholars see the establishment of the fourfold
canon as occuring in the late second century in opposition to those who hold
to a single gospel and to those who use a harmony.

Bruce states, in his only argument that the canon was formed correctly of
all and only those books that were inspired, "for a practical demonstration
that the Church made the right choice one need only compare the books of our
New Testament with the various eraly documents collected by M. R. James in
his _Apocryphal New Testament_ (1924), or even with the writings of the
Apostolic Fathers, to realize the superiority of our New Testament books to
these others." (p. 27) One wonders whether this judgment would be equally
obvious to Bruce if a book like the Apocalypse of Peter had made it into the
canon or if a book like the Second Epistle of Peter had remained without its

In the fourth chapter, we find Bruce's summary of form criticism and source
criticism. I have no quarrel with his viewpoint that Mark was the source
behind Matthew and Luke (p. 35). I do have a problem with his idea that
there were was no time and place in which followers of Jesus did not view
Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of God" (p. 33). Contemporary critics tend
to think that the Q document had no reference either to "the Messiah" or to
"the Son of God." And despite the fact that it may not be an absolutely
necessary conclusion, I am compelled to think that two similar parables are
likely to be "variant versions of one and the same parable" (p. 33).

Bruce believes that the author of Mark was a disciple of Peter (pp. 36-37).
However, there is not much evidence for this besides the church tradition of
Papias. Some think that the critical view that the author of Mark takes to
Peter does not accord with the idea that the author was his interpreter. As
for the provenance of Mark, many contemporary commentators prefer a location
in Syria rather than Rome (p. 37).

On p. 39, Bruce gives credit to the hypothesis according to which Q was
originally written in Aramaic, although contemporary scholars have roundly
rejected this thesis (see John S. Kloppenborg Verbin, _Excavating Q_, pp.

On p. 45, Bruce states that some written sources "have even been traced back
to notes taken of our Lord's teaching while His words were actually being
uttered" even though I found no such tracing in the present volume!

On p. 46, Bruce takes up the old argument that false statements could not
have been placed in the Gospels because they would soon be exposed as false
by witnesses. This depends on an early date for the Gospels, which we have
seen is not justified by Bruce. I might suggest that it would be relatively
easy to avoid being exposed by witnesses if the Gospels were written outside
of Palestine in the period after the devastation of the First Jewish Revolt.

On p. 47, Bruce states of John, "The claim of the Gospel itself is that it
was written by an eyewitness." But this claim is found in the 21st chapter,
which is agreed to have been a later addition to the Gospel. It cannot,
therefore, be taken as the "claim of the Gospel itself" but rather as the
claim of the editors of the Gospel. The same editors probably added
19:34-35 and other portions of the canonical Gospel that support the
viewpoint of the church at large on the sacraments. However, this editorial
comment hardly gives confidence that the Gospel itself was written by an

On p. 49, Bruce quotes the opinion of A. T. Olmstead that the twentieth
chapter reads like an eyewitness account. On the other hand, Reginald H.
Fuller seems to regard it as pretty secure that this is not the reminiscence
of an eyewitness: "The resurrection narratives in John 20 are the product of
a long process of transmission, not an eye-witness testimony." (_The
Formation of the Resurrection Narratives_, p. 131).

On the same page, Bruce refers without examples to the accuracy of John's
geographical details in support of the idea that the author was familiar
with the city of Jerusalem prior to its destruction in the First Jewish
Revolt. Although no examples are cited here, Bruce does provide an example
later: the pool of Bethesda (p. 94). However, I suppose that this
geographical accuracy is transmitted in John only by way of its source, the
so-called Signs Gospel. This does not give confidence in the reliability of
the canonical Gospel of John.

On pp. 49-50, Bruce argues that the author was a Jew, but just because the
author was Jewish certainly does not mean that he was John.

As evidence for the Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel, Bruce quotes
the statement of the anti-Marcionite prologue to the fourth gospel (p. 52),
even though it is rather late (fourth century) and is admitted to have been
confused in its statement that John repudiated Marcion. There is a
statement contained therein that Papias reported to have taken dictation for
the apostle John. But how likely is it that Irenaeus, who had read Papias,
ignored this statement in imputing sole authorship to John, and that
Eusebius, who was eager to relate traditions concerning the authorship of
the canonical gospels, could have also overlooked such a statement?

Bruce confidently asserts, "There is, in fact, no material difference in
Christology between John and the three Synoptists." (p. 58) On the
contrary, we find no such statement as Mark 10:18 anywhere in the Gospel of
John, and we find no such statement as John 8:58 anywhere in the Gospel of
Mark. The person who cannot see the difference in character between these
two gospels has got blinders on.

In chapter five, titled "The Gospel Miracles," F. F. Bruce does not so much
argue that the gospel miracles happened as much as argue that it can't be
assumed that they did not happen just because of their miraculous character.
Whether or not this contention is true, this does nothing to advance the
historical character of the gospels. Bruce does make some points in an
apologetic for the resurrection, but most of these points are addressed in
my essay on the historicity of the empty tomb

Chapter 6 is devoted to "The Importance of Paul's Evidence." Contrary to
the implication of Bruce on p. 77, it is possible to understand the
conversion of Paul without supposing that Christianity is true. Such an
understanding is presented by A. N. Wilson in _Paul: The Mind of the

The chapter on Paul is short, as there is not really that much that is said
by Paul. It can be said with a probability that Paul regarded Jesus as a
human being, given the references in Rom 1:3, Rom 9:5, 1 Cor 11:23, 1 Cor
15:4, Gal 1:19, and Gal 4:4. But not much more can be said. Nowhere does
Paul imply that Jesus ever worked a miracle, and that is a silence that
should perhaps make us hesitant about accepting the miracle traditions of
the gospels.

Indeed, the most surprising part of what Paul seems to "know" about Jesus
concerns how much of it is probably false. Concerning the lineage of Jesus,
I maintain that John 7:42 and Mark 12:35-37 are best explained if some knew
that Jesus was not of davidic descent. I am persuaded by Burton Mack in _A
Myth of Innocence_ that the last supper scene was a foundation myth for the
congregations of the Christ. Neither do I believe in the resurrection of
Jesus. It seems that the only things that Paul got right about Jesus were
that he was born of a woman, that he died on a cross, and that he had a
brother named James. There is hardly enough authentic material here to
inspire a modern person to confess Jesus as Lord.

In the seventh chapter, we find Bruce extolling the virtues of Luke as a
historian. Yet I wonder how much of the accuracy of Luke's narrative is due
to his (apparent) excellent education and wide reading. Steve Mason in
_Josephus and the New Testament_ argues that the author of Luke-Acts had
read Josephus, and this would adequately explain where the author derives
much of his information. More evidence that the author of Luke-Acts read
widely can perhaps be found in this online compilation of material
concerning the book of Acts as elucidated in Hellenistic writings

On pp. 86-87, F. F. Bruce attempts to salvage the account in which Luke
places the birth of Jesus at the census of Quirinius in 6 CE. As to why
this is ill-advised, I refer the reader to the extensive study of Richard

On some of the other errors in Luke-Acts, I refer the reader to this page by
Steven Carr ( To those that Carr
has noted, I will add one of my own.

Acts 5:36 has Gamaliel I speaking about the uprising of Theudas, within
about a year of the crucifixion. But the revolt of Theudas took place in
44-46 CE, more than a decade after the Rabban "remembers" it. See A.N.
Wilson, _Paul: The Mind of the Apostle_, p. 50.

In the eighth chapter, Bruce discusses some ways in which archaeology has
shed light on the New Testament. On p. 94, Bruce mentions the pool of
Bethesda, but I have already stated my opinion that this accuracy derives
from the Signs Gospel.

Usefully, on p. 95, Bruce refutes the claim that inscriptions on ossuaries
found in Jerusalem by Sukenik were written by early first century

Interestingly, on the same page, there has been uncovered in Corinth a
pavement referring to "Erastus, curator of public buildings" -- just as we
find written in Paul's letter written from Corinth to Rome, "Erastus the
city treasurer greets you" (Rom 16:23). Of course, this adds nothing to the
reliability of the gospel narratives. The rest of this chapter, while
interesting, also adds nothing to the reliability of the gospel narratives.

On p. 98, Bruce reflects the old consensus viewpoint according to which the
Gospel of Thomas is 'Gnostic', late, and dependent upon the New Testament.
Contemporary scholars such as Stevan Davies, Stephen J. Patterson, Helmut
Koester, John D. Crossan, and Mahlon Smith would disagree with this

In the ninth chapter, F. F. Bruce discusses the Jewish reference to Jesus.
However, the Talmud is too late to be of importance, and the references to
Jesus are most likely the polemical inversions of Christian claims.
Concerning Josephus, on p. 109, Bruce gives credit to the now discredited
hypothesis that Josephus could have written the Testimonium in entirety,
"tongue in cheek" as it were. As to the total inauthenticity of the
Testimonium, I have provided an argument for this elsewhere

In the tenth chapter, Bruce mentions the evidence of ancient Gentile
writers. On p. 113, Bruce mentions the so-called evidence of Thallus, which
has been ably addressed by Richard Carrier

Mara Bar Serapion is said to have written "some time later than AD 73, but
how much later we cannot be sure" (p. 114). From the reference to Jesus as
being a "wise king," it seems that this author is most likely dependent on
the testimony of Christians for his information.

On pp. 115-116, Bruce is correct to refute the notion that Justin Martyr or
Tertullian actually possessed a so-called "Acts of Pilate."

On p. 117, Bruce states that Tacitus in Annals 15.44 "does not strike one as
having been derived from Christian sources" without an explanation for why
this is so.

On p. 118, with reference to Suetonius, Bruce is correct to state, "It is
not certain who this Chrestus was." It is then to my astonishment that
Bruce continues to state that the reference derives from disputation between
Jews and Christians, when we know that Chrestus is a perfectly fine Greek

On p. 119, Bruce states confidently, "The historicity of Christ is as
axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar."
One wonders whether Bruce's own biases has led him to overstate the case.

In closing, Bruce returns to the theme brought up at the beginning, that of
reassuring those who are already Christian that the New Testament is
historically reliable: "they themselves, like Theophilus, will thus know
more accurately how secure is the basis of the faith which they have been
taught." However, those who have not been instructed in the faith already,
or those who have perhaps fallen away from the church, will most likely not
come away from reading this volume with any greater confidence in the
reliability of the New Testament.

Peter Kirby
Peter Kirby is online now   Edit/Delete Message
Old 07-17-2001, 04:57 PM   #2
Join Date: Jan 2001
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Great bloodstained merciless gods! "Welcome" doesn't even begin to describe a post like this, not only full of arguments, but also useful references, and dozens of take-off points for debate.

Peter, saying you're a great addition to the SecWeb, would be like saying Lancelot du Lac is handy in a fight....

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Old 07-17-2001, 05:04 PM   #3
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Mara Bar Serapion is said to have written "some time later than AD 73, but how much later we cannot be sure" (p. 114). From the reference to Jesus as being a "wise king," it seems that this author is most likely dependent on the testimony of Christians for his information.

There is no reference to Jesus in Mara bar Serapion (which is a sad and deeply moving letter). The text of it is available at:

is Bruce claiming there is?

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Old 07-17-2001, 05:27 PM   #4
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Originally posted by turtonm:
<STRONG>Mara Bar Serapion is said to have written "some time later than AD 73, but how much later we cannot be sure" (p. 114). From the reference to Jesus as being a "wise king," it seems that this author is most likely dependent on the testimony of Christians for his information.

There is no reference to Jesus in Mara bar Serapion (which is a sad and deeply moving letter). The text of it is available at:

is Bruce claiming there is?

Bruce states of Mara, "He instances the deaths of Socrates, Pythagoras and Christ."

It is true that neither the name of Jesus nor the name/title of Christ can be found in this letter. The argument for an identification of the "wise King" with Jesus depends mostly on the fact that we don't know of another person whose teachings lived on and whose death was considered to have caused the desolation of the Jewish kingdom. This doesn't make an identification with Jesus certain, but it is plausible enough.
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Old 07-17-2001, 05:49 PM   #5
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peterkirby is full of dogma. Just like Earl Doherty. They keep on quoting theist dogma. Sure, the last chapter of John is a later edition but where is the source? The original Christians were Jewish and their church was taken over by the Catholics and it is these Catholics who are responsible for the late dating of the gospels. Think about it, if Jesus survived the crucifixion and everybody knew it then the superstition would never have grown into our Christianity today. The problem is, he did survive the crucifixion. Obviously Pontius Pilate never read the gospels because, if he did, he would have made them a laughing stock. The extra hours of darkness was an intercalation at the Spring Equinox. Ever hear of Daylight Savings time? The earthquake was a priest. Ever read about Moses upon Mt. Sinai? Thunder and lightning and figtrees are people as were the animals on the ark. How the hell are we ever going to solve biblical mysteries with fundies like peterkirby, richard carrier, and turtonm? This is turning into a fundie board!

thanks, offa
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Old 07-17-2001, 10:34 PM   #6
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Hello Peter, and welcome to the Boards

Your post covers a lot of territory, and a point by point response would appear to be prohibitively long. Therefore, I would like to focus on a few of your points, and on a broader overview of your methodology, then see where it takes us.

First, a relatively minor point, but I wouldn’t mind finding out why you focused on such an old book as opposed to something more current. Bruce’s work is definitely a classic in Christian apologetics, but surely you could have answered some of your own concerns by looking at someone like Craig Blomberg, Gary Habermas, N.T. Wright or many other contemporary authors. In any event, this is a minor quibble, and offered only for my personal interests sake.

Second, I notice that you take issue with several of Bruce’s conclusions, yet offer little more than the opinion that you or others disagree with him. Since this is, by itself, hardly earth shattering or interesting, I was curious to know if you had specific reasons for accepting, for example, the existence of the Signs Gospel, even as you reject that GJohn was written by an eyewitness. Again, telling us that some scholar thinks that John was not an eye witness account is hardly news. Perhaps you could offer a more detailed response here.

Third, I notice that you favour a much later date for the Gospels than even many liberals have come to accept. You place Mark, for example, as being 85AD+, yet your reasoning for such a belief seems highly suspect to me. I would appreciate it if you could offer some evidence and supports for your beliefs. I understand that your post would have become quite unwieldy had you quoted at length from Mack or Crossan for example, but to merely state that such individuals disagree with Bruce’s early dates is hardly very satisfying.

Forth, I agree that we do not have hard textual evidence for the Gospels from the 1st Century as of yet. Yet, you are willing to subscribe (apparently) to the view of Koester and others that GThomas is a first century document. Surely you must agree that the internal and external evidence for such early dating of this gospel is hardly compelling. Why accept the early date for Thomas, yet reject it for Luke/Acts, for example.

Fifth, you make a point that there is a christological disparity between Mark 10 and John 8. Here are the quotes:

Mark 10:18 "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good--except God alone.

John 8:58 "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!"

I am unsure why you selected these two passages for comparison. I assume that you understand the quotation from Mark is a question/answer method of instruction common in the ancient rabbinic tradition. The latter, on the other hand, is a simple statement of self identification. A better comparison from Mark with John 8:58 would be:

Mark 2:28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

Perhaps you could explain why you failed to note this similarity in claims. After all, what Jew would claim to be Lord of the Sabbath unless he had a very high opinion of his own status and relationship to God? Further, perhaps you could give us your take on Mark’s presentation of Christ in the Transfiguration found in Mark 9:1-7, or of Jesus’ open forgiveness of sins, an act that is unprecedented in Jewish tradition, either ancient or even to this day. After all, what prophet ever claimed to forgive sins without invoking God’s name or power?

Mark 2:5-10 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, `Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, `Get up, take your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...."

Sixth is one of your most incredible and unsupported claims:

In a presentation to the Society of Biblical Literature available online (, "The Neglect of the Firstborn in New Testament Studies," Bart Ehrman selects a single example of a text-critical difficulty in the Gospel of Luke. This example
concerns the words stated by Christ during the Last Supper. The actual words of the text are of paramount importance for the interpretation of Luke. For if the longer form of the passage is genuine, this would be the only location in which the author of Luke-Acts presents the death of Jesus as being an atonement. But if the shorter form of the passage is genuine, as Ehrman argues, then the reader of Luke-Acts must realize that the author doesn't believe the death of Jesus to be an atoning sacrifice but rather the unjust execution of an innocent. The difference is one of obvious theological signficance.
I found this statement to simply be astonishing. From Acts:

Acts 13:37-39But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay. "Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.

See also Peter’s speech at Pentecost found in Acts 2:14-40.

Worse yet, however, while you note that there is a shorter version of the Last Supper found in some Western texts, there is a shorter form in which Jesus does not mention the atoning nature of his sacrifice, yet you failed to mention that this omission is found ONLY in much later traditions, and the earliest known MS. P75 does contain this longer version. If you want to try and make a mountain out of this molehill, you will be struggling against the great majority consensus view. (See R. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday: New York, 1996, pg. 274). I think an elaboration of your point is warranted. On what basis would you claim that Luke did not accept the atoning nature of Christ’s sacrifice?

Finally, as I noted earlier, you tell us that Bruce believes something, but other scholars disagree. Without giving us a clear reason to accept their beliefs, for example, that Q was not an Aramaic document is simply appealing to authority. From my own point of view, I am not convinced that Q existed at all, although this is possible. Speculating as to its composition, or even that it was a written document strikes me as going too far, given the paucity of evidence either way.

Overall, I found your presentation to contain a great many assertions. I understand the difficulty in trying to tackle something as long as an entire book in a single post, but in your brevity, a great many holes were left open in your argument. I have touched on some that I consider to be more serious, although there are other issues and points that I would very much like to explore in greater depth. But quite simply, in your brevity, you leave many of the most important questions simply begging. For example, why should we accept that the Signs Gospel existed at all? Why think that late dating of the Gospels is more probable? Why think that minor discrepancies in MSS should be treated as a serious problem for the over all reliability of the texts? Why treat Q as a written document? Why give such little credence to the testimony of the early Fathers themselves? The questions raised in your post tend to dwarf your conclusions, and leave the reading wanting a great deal more. I will leave it to you to decide which area you would like to focus on first, Peter, but I would appreciate it if you elaborated on your views on these issues.

Thank you again. Welcome aboard. And peace.

Brian (Nomad)

[ July 17, 2001: Message edited by: Brian Trafford ]
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Old 07-18-2001, 05:06 PM   #7
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I find that this forum makes it difficult to reply to a message by quoting it in pieces, so I have presented my response like so.

I'll be honest: I picked on Bruce because his book was cheaper. To my chagrin, I found out that the book is available online for free... I'm a starving college student, you see. (

Yes, there are limitations to the amount of depth that can be offered in a review that I just sat down and wrote in one sitting. However, in only a few cases did I answer one of Bruce's opinion with a merely contrary opinion. In many cases, the justification for the contrary opinion is presented in the work that is mentioned. The diligent reader should follow up on those references. (For example, Kloppenborg Verbin presents an eight page argument against the idea that Q was originally in Aramaic, and it is one that a Q skeptic such as Mark Goodacre finds compelling, on the assumption that Q existed.)

For an example of where I cited merely a contrary opinion that does not present a justification, I would mention the matter of the dating of the gospels. The truth is, there is a dearth of hard data on which we are able to date the gospels. Trying to give them as finely delimited a range as five years or less is rather arbitrary. I am pointing out the arbitrary nature of Bruce's claims by point out the contrary claims of other scholars. Since it is Bruce who depends upon his claims to reach further conclusions (e.g. that the gospels were written early enough for eyewitness contradiction to be a major factor), it was up to Bruce to establish his opinion. As I point out, he does not, and contrary opinions are equally viable. On the matter of dating, I did not attempt to show that a different dating was true but only equally justifiable (or unjustifiable) based on the evidence that is available.

For a few things, I do not have to reinvent the wheel. On the question of a Signs Gospel, I direct you to these works:

Robert Fortna. The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor: From Narrative Source to Present Gospel.

Urban C. von Wahlde. The Earliest Version of John's Gospel: Recovering the Gospel of Signs.

W. Nicol. The Semeia in the Fourth Gospel.

"Yet, you are willing to subscribe (apparently) to the view of Koester and others that GThomas is a first century document." Actually, I never said that Thomas was a first century document. I do know that Bruce's book is out of date with respect to the issues that are hotly debated in contemporary scholarship, such as the matter of whether Thomas or a proto-Thomas is independent of the canonicals.

As to Mark and John, I do not doubt that Mark believes Jesus to be a very special person of some type: the Messiah, the Son of God, and so on. I do doubt that Mark believes Jesus to be God Himself. That's all.

Concerning one of my "most incredible and unsupported claims," you will find that it is supported by Ehrman if you follow the link (

Although most readers probably haven't noticed, never in his two volumes does Luke say that Jesus died "for your sins" or "for you." Significantly when he summarizes the features of the "Christ event" in the speeches of Acts, with remarkable consistency he portrays the death of Jesus not as an atoning sacrifice, but as a miscarriage of justice that God reversed by vindicating Jesus at the resurrection (e.g., Acts 2, 3, and 4). In none of these speeches is Jesus said to die "for" anyone. Instead, the scandal of his death as God's righteous one drives people to their knees in repentance, and it's this repentance that brings forgiveness of sins. In one passage in particular one might expect some reference, however distant, to Jesus' atoning death. In Acts 8 the apostle Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch reading the text of Scripture used most widely by early Christians to explain Jesus' death as a vicarious atonement: Isaiah 53. But somewhat remarkably, when Luke cites the passage as read by the Ethiopian, he includes not a word about the Servant of the Lord being "wounded for our transgressions" (Isa. 53:5), being "bruised for our iniquities" (53:5), or making himself "an offering for sin" (53:10). Luke has instead crafted his quotation to affirm his own view of Jesus' passion: he died as an innocent victim who was then vindicated (Acts 8:32-33).

It is particularly important to stress that Luke has not simply overlooked or avoided making references to Jesus' death as an atonement; he has in fact gone out of his way to eliminate notions of atonement from the one source we are virtually certain he had before him, the Gospel of Mark. Mark makes two poignant references to the salvific significance of Jesus' death and Luke changed them both. The first and most obvious comes in the famous words of Jesus in Mark 10:45: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." If Luke found this theology acceptable, it is hard to explain what he did with the verse. He omitted it altogether.

The other reference is more subtle, but nonetheless forms a kind of linchpin for Mark's theology of the cross. In Mark's account, Jesus' death is immediately followed by two signs that suggest its meaning: the temple curtain is ripped in half and the Roman centurion confesses him to be "the Son of God" (15:38-39). Mark evidently uses the ripping of the curtain of the Holy of Holies to indicate that in the death of Jesus God has made himself available to human beings, destroying the barrier of access to him. And the confession of the centurion represents the first (and only) instance of a person in Mark's Gospel who fully recognizes who Jesus is: he is the Son of God who had to die, whose death was not inimical to his divine sonship but was instead constitutive of it. In short, the ripping of the curtain and the confession of the centurion reveal Mark's understanding of Jesus' death as an atoning sacrifice that effects salvation.

Luke's account of Jesus' death, which is dependent on Mark's, also records a tearing of the temple curtain and a confession of the centurion. But the events are modified so that their significance is transformed. The tearing of the curtain in the Temple no longer results from Jesus' death, because in Luke it occurs before Jesus dies (23:45). What the event might mean to Luke has been debated, but since it is now combined with the eerie darkness that has come over the land, it appears to represent a cosmic sign that accompanies the hour of darkness, symbolizing God's judgment upon his own people who have rejected his gift of "light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death" (1:79), a judgment that falls in particular on the religious institution which his people have perverted to their own ends (Luke 19:45-46).

So too Luke has changed the confession of the centurion. No longer does it indicate a profession of faith in the Son of God who has died ("Truly this man was the Son of God," Mark 15:39); now it coincides with Luke's own understanding of Jesus' death, for here the centurion proclaims, "Truly this man was innocent" (Luke 23:47). The death of Jesus in Luke-Acts is not a death that effects an atoning sacrifice. It is the death of a righteous martyr who has suffered from miscarried justice, whose death is vindicated by God at the resurrection. Let me emphasize: Luke was able to shift the focus away from the atoning significance of Jesus' death only by modifying the one account of that death which we are certain he had received.

I have Brown's _An Introduction to the New Testament_, and Brown says: "The recent trend, however, is to accept them as genuine, in part because p75, the earliest ms. of Luke known to us, published in 1961, contains them." Brown says nothing about 'the great majority consensus view'; it doesn't even rise to the level of a majority, let alone a consensus, but rather a "recent trend." If anything, this suggests that the person who accepts the Western Noninterpolations is struggling against the majority view; even if, in the view of Brown, that struggle is valiant. (Of course, it is ambiguous; this recent trend could in actuality represent a majority, but I doubt that Brown has done any statistics to prove it.) Brown's one-liner does not stand up against the ten pages of anaylsis that are provided by Bart Ehrman in _The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture_, pp. 197-209 (which I also have).

"Why think that minor discrepancies in MSS should be treated as a serious problem for the over all reliability of the texts?" I never said this.

Peter Kirby
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Old 07-18-2001, 10:52 PM   #8
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Hello again Peter

And thank you for your response. It helped to clarify for me, some of the points you were intending to make. At the same time, I hope that you can appreciate my request for some clarification of your views.

As for how Luke viewed Jesus' death, and especially whether or not he presented it as an atoning sacrifice, I would like to explore this question when I have a bit more time. It is late right now, and since I recently returned from a 2 week vacation, I am still playing catch up on a number of things both online, and at work. Please be patient with me. Suffice to say, I do not think that the views presented by Ehrman are defensible, and that accepting the Western MSS over the older and more well attested Greek texts is a real stretch. Further, the curious readings of the speeches in Acts needs greater discussion, as I think you and Ehrman are relying upon a rather forced interpretation of the text in order to make your case.

With luck I should be able to get to this over the weekend.

Until then, thank you for your post. I have enjoyed reading your thoughts and ideas in the past (even if I have not agreed with them), and hope that you will not mind bearing with me as I explore the questions and issues that you have raised.

Peace, and be well.

Brian (Nomad)

[ July 18, 2001: Message edited by: Brian Trafford ]
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