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James Still Reliability

Reliability and Belief (1999)

James Still


Introductory Remarks

Christianity is a religion built upon faith. Faith is central to the Apostle Paul’s vocabulary and intertwined within his theology as a whole. For Paul, to become a Christian is to believe in one’s heart that God has acted through the risen Christ to bring about the salvation of sinners.1 The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Indeed, Paul’s cross theology emphasizes repeatedly that faith must be in Christ (pisteuo epi) as object of salvific significance. Paul never saw a written gospel and eschewed “man’s gospel” of the world: “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12).

Paul’s teaching is also a “mystery” (mysterion appearing 21 times in Paul’s letters). The crucified Christ is a part of God’s redeeming plan for the world. To those who are saved by grace it cannot be fully understood. Paul writes that he imparts “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages” (1 Cor. 2:7). Thus, Paul’s faith is based on his revelation from the risen Christ in accordance with God’s plan for humanity. Further, this faith is folly to the wisdom of the world2–a pagan world that seeks the knowledge of rational proof rather than simple childlike trust in the wisdom of God.

Josh McDowell’s theology is in tension with this familiar view of Christianity. While Paul’s faith is a mystery in Christ, in McDowell’s fundamentalism faith becomes an inerrant collection of historical facts. McDowell warns us not to trust our feelings and uses an analogy in which fact is a train engine pulling the cars of faith and feeling.3 “Christianity appeals to history, the facts of history,” which are indisputable facts, McDowell writes.4 He argues that it is the factual basis of the gospels as historical truth that supports the Christian faith.5 McDowell’s purpose in analyzing the New Testament (NT) texts is to support their empirical and historical reliability.6 In doing so, he insists that the biblical texts stand “unique” and represent the “reliable” or factually transmitted Word of God. Because the Word of God is factual, “one can hold the Scriptures in his hand and say, `The Bible is trustworthy and historically reliable’.”7 I shall call this position the “reliability doctrine” and contrast it to Pauline faith. This paper has three main sections, each of which attacks the reliability doctrine’s soundness. In the first section, I illustrate how the gospels came to be transmitted to us from the historical Jesus to demonstrate that the gospels are not literal historical records. In the second section, I challenge the findings of so-called “Biblical Archaeology” to conclude that archaeological discoveries from the Near East do not support the view of the Bible as literal historical records. Finally in the last section, I engage in a philosophical analysis of the reliability doctrine in order to expose its underlying attempt to substitute foundationalism for faith.

The Pre-Canonical Synoptic Transmission

When we speak of the NT, and the gospels in particular, as being “reliable” what exactly are we talking about? One obvious point to keep in mind is that the Bible is not a historically cohesive unit in the sense that it was exhumed in situ from the desert sand. The various texts that make up the Bible are an evolving testament to the hopes and dreams of a people who forged their religious and ethnic identity over centuries of time. The many traditions and strands that make up the Bible

express an understanding of God, of the world, and of humanity, which did not yet make distinctions between knowledge and belief, between science, philosophy, history and religion. This explains in part the parallels to the themes of the creation story in many other cultures. These parallels were not necessarily due to literary derivation; rather, questions about origins were asked everywhere in early human history. Therefore, primeval events cannot be understood or described as the beginning of history; it is misguided to inquire about their `historicity.’ The appropriate question to ask of this material is not, `Did it really happen that way?’8

The Bible is a collection of stories carefully crafted over many generations by peoples deeply concerned about the world and their place in it. Thus, an appropriate question to ask is, “What did these texts mean to the ancients who wrote them?” The Hebrew canon (Christianity’s Old Testament) is beyond the scope of this paper so I will confine my remarks to the activity of Christian kerygma (preaching) and the situation that produced the written NT gospels. I hope to show that we should not understand the gospels as literal history, but rather as edited codifications of the dynamic kerygma that promulgated the “good news” of the risen Christ.

Before the nineteenth century, scholars and church figures who studied the Bible usually did so for exposition rather than to discern critically the historical sources behind the written gospels. It was not until our century that form critics began to realize the enormous influence that the early Church had in shaping the gospel material. This should not surprise us, however. Almost all of the NT material comes from ecclesiastical collections rather than from copies of the original authors themselves. Since there was no closed canon until late in the second century, these texts were in a stage of development for many decades after they were first written. We must also remind ourselves that the Christians of the late first century did not consider the gospels to be “Holy Scripture” but rather looked to the Old Testament as the scriptures (Mk. 12:24). To the Christians of the first two centuries, the stories circulating about Jesus by word-of-mouth were just as, if not more, authoritative than those that came to be written down. Not until very late in the second century were the gospels considered normative and instructive in the faith. Before orthodox control, theological questions that could not be answered by the Old Testament, were answered by direct appeal to the “sayings of the Lord,” either as remembered in the oral tradition or revealed by the risen Christ.9

The early Church Father Papias (c. 100 CE) composed a now-lost work, which exists only insofar as Eusebius quoted from it in his Ecclesiastical History (3.39.3-4, 15-16). Papias never uses the term “gospel” but refers to his own work as an “interpretation” of the stories circulating in the oral tradition. He also refers to Mark as an interpreter whose recollection of “single points” were not written down in order. Elsewhere, Papias refers to “the sayings of the Lord written by Matthew,” leading some scholars to suggest that Matthew might have been a sayings gospel before it took the narrative form we are familiar with today. Indeed, the Church Father Clement’s first epistle (96 CE) quotes sayings of Jesus derived from the oral tradition, not a written gospel, using the aorist verb tense eipen (“he said”). We also find in Paul’s letters eschatological instructions being given on the authority of “the word of the Lord,” a reference not to a written gospel but to his revelatory experience of the risen Christ.10 Thus, those elders who, like Paul, enjoyed a direct connection to the Lord, had great authority in determining which teachings were authentic and reliable. These elders did not base their authority upon a written gospel, but upon the traditions and teachings that were taught to them by the previous generation.

The Historical Jesus

In addition to posthumous revelations from the risen Christ, the historical Jesus left teachings with the disciples during his ministry. Unfortunately, we know very little about Jesus the Jew who taught in Galilee, a small agricultural region north of Jerusalem. Jesus lived in a peasant society during a time of great social turmoil, marked by Rome’s military conquest of Palestine in 63 BCE and its eventual devastation during the First Jewish Revolt in 66-70 CE. Violent revolts, banditry, uprisings, and Roman colonial oppression were frequent and many popular politico-religious movements sprang up during this time in response to these social crises.11 Jesus was one such religious figure. He gained a reputation during his life as both a miracle-worker and a wisdom teacher. By being declared a king (or perhaps declaring himself a king) Jesus was found guilty of treason against the Emperor. The fifth Roman procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, crucified Jesus sometime during his ten-year appointment that began in 26 CE and lasted until his forced removal from office in 36 CE.

The Codification of the Kerygma

Since few people could read and write in ancient Palestine, Jesus’ words and teachings were remembered by his disciples to be later told and retold in the markets, at synagogues, and in each others’ homes. It is helpful to think of each of these stories about Jesus as solitary pearls.12 The disciples kept the stories about Jesus in the same way one might keep pearls in a bag. Just as a musician memorizes a repertoire of songs to use as the situation demands, a disciple could draw a pearl out of his bag for the immediate teaching purpose at hand. After his crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples continued to teach in and around Jerusalem. They proclaimed the belief that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead and at the right hand of God. This proclamation forms the kerygma, which is the central theological message of the new movement. The disciples told stories about Jesus and repeated his parables, similitudes, and wisdom sayings in the marketplaces and synagogues. Since the disciples and presbyters used these stories in response to different teaching situations, they did not preserve the chronological order of the stories in relation to each other. This is why many of these short stories like Clement’s first epistle mentioned above, are prefaced only by atemporal stock phrases such as “Jesus says,” “and immediately,” “one sabbath,” or “and he said.” By the time the gospel writers received these stories, no one knew when or where they took place, only that Jesus was believed to have done or said it at some point during his life. Despite this difficulty, these stories were treasured because they were all that later generations of converts to the new movement had. Many of these stories–for example a tradition that Jesus was born in a cave–did not survive once the written gospels started to become authoritative beginning in the second century. This collection of individual stories about Jesus is called the oral tradition. Moule (1977) describes the genesis of the oral tradition when he writes:

The Christian Church began its existence simply as a handful of people bearing witness to something that they were convinced had happened . . . It was easy enough to expand [the gospel], because there were many anecdotes and sayings of Jesus circulating among his friends. These would be told as occasion arose, to meet difficulties, or to answer critics, or simply because they were interesting.13

In writing down those stories, Mark strung the pearls together on a single narrative string. Thus, Mark’s collection of stories about Jesus shaped within a loose narrative, created an ordered structure out of the dynamic oral tradition. The Gospel of Thomas is one such extant work that illustrates perfectly what the anthology of Jesus-stories that Papias collected might have looked like. The author of Thomas does not attempt to present the Jesus-stories as a narrative, but rather he is satisfied merely with listing the stories one after another, introducing most stories with the stock phrase “Jesus said.” The first century gospel called Q (from the German Quelle or “source”) which the authors of Matthew and Luke are believed to have used when composing their own gospels, was another such stringing together of Jesus’ sayings and probably looked quite similar to Thomas. Thomas and Q are representative of the earliest codifications of the orally-transmitted stories that circulated within the primitive Jesus movement. Like Thomas, the Q gospel does not share the narrative structure of the four canonical gospels nor does it in its earliest stages have a sophisticated christological layer–it simply lists the individual wisdom sayings of the historical Jesus one after another in no particular order. The evangelists that come one or two generations after Q will edit these stories and intentionally place them into a sequential narrative to look like a biography. By doing so, the evangelists are able to tell a coherent story about Jesus and his teaching within a geographical and temporal structure. Unfortunately, the Q gospel preserves no biographical details of Jesus’ life. The burden of fleshing out Jesus’ life falls to the authors of Matthew and Luke at the latter half of the first century. By then, neither evangelist had access to reliable sources of Jesus’ birth and, as evidenced by the disparate genealogy and birth stories between them, they had to resort to inventing these details.

Before I proceed, I should mention a few things about the process of harmonization. Harmonization is the attempt to create a unified story from the different narrative accounts within the written gospels in order to make the stories agree with each other and with Church teaching. When an apologist–one who defends a particular dogma against critical scrutiny–harmonizes the gospel stories he smoothes out differences that might exist between them, combining their narratives to form a single coherent picture. It must be emphasized that no critical bible scholar tolerates harmonization and it is considered a technique with little to offer biblical scholarship. The only way to learn about the theological emphasis, concerns, and point-of-view of a gospel writer is to study critically those places where he agrees and contrasts with the other writers. By noting where the gospel writers agree as well as conflict, we are in a better position to discern the original core wording of a particular saying of Jesus. With that in mind, I will now look at differences in the gospel narratives, not to emphasize so-called “contradictions” but rather to get at the theological motives of the gospel writers.

As we have seen, the oral tradition preserved many individual stories about Jesus as well as the wisdom sayings that he taught to his disciples. It was up to the gospel writers to select from among these stories, which to use in their own gospels. This dynamic, sometimes highly creative gospel-assembling process, as each evangelist struggles with his material, often causes divergences in the version of a single story. There are also places where, motivated by his own theological point-of-view, a gospel writer disagrees with the others. I have already mentioned the incompatible genealogies and birth narrative between Matthew and Luke. Other examples of outright contradiction include Matthew’s version of the Centurion’s Servant (Mt. 8:5-13). In Matthew’s version, the centurion approaches Jesus personally, while in Luke’s version (Lk. 7:1-10) the centurion instead sends Jewish elders on his behalf. In Matthew, Judas hangs himself but in Luke-Acts Judas falls from a great height and dies on impact (Mt. 27:5; Acts 1:18).

Such inconsistencies suggest to us that no reliable tradition existed for the evangelist to use in putting together that part of his gospel and so he had to make do the best he could with what material he had. What about those occasions when a single story is not contradicted but modified by each evangelist? For example, in the story of the Empty Tomb, Mark tells us that Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome discover a single white-robed man at the empty tomb (16:1-5). In Matthew’s account, Salome is not there, but the other two women arrive in time to witness a messenger (angel) roll away the stone (28:1-10). Luke substitutes a woman named Joanna for Salome, includes additional unnamed women companions, and now there are two men at the empty tomb (24:1-10). These divurgences provide valuable clues to the theological underpinnings at work in each evangelist’s community. To see how theology is crafted, I shall now look in greater depth at the story of Jesus’ baptism. I will put the synopticists’ versions side-by-side so that they can be compared:

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus comes from Galilee

to John at the Jordan to get

baptized by him. And John tried

to stop him with these words:

“I’m the one who needs to get

baptized by you, yet you come

to me?” In response, Jesus said

to him, “Let it go for now. After

all, in this way we are doing

what is fitting and right.” Then

John deferred to him.

After Jesus had been baptized,

he got right up out of the water,

and– amazingly–the skies

opened up, he saw God’s spirit

coming down on him like a

dove, perching on him,

and–listen!–there was a voice

from the skies, which said, “This

is my favored son. I fully

approve of him!”

Mark 1:9-11

During that same period Jesus

came from Nazareth, Galilee,

and was baptized in the Jordan

by John. And just as he got up

out of the water, he saw the

skies torn open and the spirit

coming down toward him like a

dove. There was also a voice

from the skies: “You are my

favored son–I fully approve of


Luke 3:21-22

And it so happened, when all the

people were baptized,

And after Jesus had been

baptized and while he was

praying, that the sky opened up,

and the holy spirit came down on

him in bodily form like a dove,

and a voice came from the sky,

“You are my son; today I have

become your father.”

Notice that Mark’s version takes us right into the baptism event itself. Jesus goes to Galilee and is immediately baptized by John. Matthew’s author spots a problem in Mark’s version of the story and feels that he must make changes to it. How could Jesus have required baptism to repent for the forgiveness of sins? Was he not the son of Adam? Matthew solves this theological dilemma by inserting dialog into his gospel that resolves (or at least addresses) the problem. Matthew tells us that John tried to prevent Jesus from accepting baptism but that Jesus insisted he do so anyway.

Luke also notices the theological dilemma created by Mark but, unlike Matthew, he hesitates to put words into Jesus’ mouth. Taking a different approach, Luke attempts to solve the problem by de-emphasizing John’s role as baptizer. Instead of Mark’s blatant statement that Jesus “was baptized by John,” we find in Luke an uncharacteristic passive voice telling us only that “Jesus had been baptized.” In this way, Luke preserves the baptism of Jesus in conformity with Mark’s version, while simultaneously de-emphasizing John’s principle role as baptizer.

Other noncanonical gospels create their own solutions to the dilemma. The Church Father Jerome knew about and read the now-lost Gospel according to the Hebrews, which invents dialog, not just for Jesus, but also for his mother and his brothers as well.14 The Gospel of the Ebionites agrees with Mark in stating that Jesus was baptized by John but changes the heavenly voice in Mark 1:11 to agree with Psalms 2:7: “Today I have begotten you.”15 The Psalms variant is quite popular, appearing also in many of Luke’s less-reliable manuscripts. Because of space constraints, we can only look at this single example. However, scholars study all of the individual stories in the gospels in the same way that I approached the story of Jesus’ baptism. The cumulative differences between the gospel stories reveal the theology, concerns, and editorial emphasis of the evangelists. Thus, it can be seen how theological considerations mold and shape the gospels.

Luke as Historian?

Scholars have long puzzled over Luke’s central section in 9:51-19:44. Although Luke pays the most attention to historical detail, the central section does not follow a chronological or historical order, but rather is shaped to conform to the actions of Ezekiel, Elisha, and Elijah in the Old Testament. In the central section, Luke stops following Mark’s outline (and will not return to it until 18:15) to tell us that Jesus “hardened his face to go” to Jerusalem (9:51). However, Jesus proceeds on a series of disconnected events that clearly do not take him to Jerusalem in a concise or logical manner. For example, just after Jesus states that he is determined to go to Jerusalem, he appoints the Seventy in 10:1 and sends them out to “every town and place where he himself was about to come.” Only after some indeterminate period when the Seventy have returned do we suspect that Jesus has finally left Galilee. He travels to an unnamed village in 10:38, prays “in a certain place” (11:1), teaches in an unknown synagogue (13:10), and travels “on his way through towns and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem” (13:22). Yet, in 13:31-33, after the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is out to kill him, we learn that Jesus has yet to leave Galilee. The leisurely pace of the middle section forces us to wonder if Jesus really intends to go to Jerusalem after all. We are missing a sense of place in Jesus’ activities. Only after Herod threatens him does Jesus leave the tiny region of Galilee.

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that Jesus was reticent to go to Jerusalem and so delayed his journey as long as possible. Clearly the confusing atemporal series of events in the travel narrative is really nothing more than a literary device on Luke’s part, allowing him to insert vast amounts of Q material into his gospel. Luke’s travel motif is not historical but drawn directly from the prophetic model in the Old Testament where Ezekiel (another “son of man”) is likewise told to set his face toward Jerusalem (Ezek. 21:1-8). Additionally, the imagery for the “taken up” metaphor in 9:51 relies heavily upon the Elijah-Elisha cycle of 1 and 2 Kings. In his work Die Mitte der Zeit (The Middle of Time), Hans Conzelmann argued that Jesus’ ministry was the “middle of time” between the law and the prophets and the new Church. Conzelmann bases this argument primarily on Luke 16:16 where Jesus is made to say, “The law and the prophets were until John [the Baptist]; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone enters it violently.” Thus, Luke moves beyond Jesus’ death as a small incident at the edge of the Roman Empire and reinterprets the passion as a necessary completion of events unfolding in an eschatological world order. Generally speaking, there are four broad theories that try to explain what Luke is doing in his large interpolation to Mark in 9:51-19:44:

1. Theological. Since Luke believes that Jesus’ passion is essential for salvation, he desires to present Jesus as fulfilling a preordained pattern of history-making and orders his material accordingly, perhaps even creating material where necessary.

2. Ecclesiastical. The journey motif is considered by Luke to be a metaphor for the “journey” that Jesus’ disciples must make in his absence. Thus, the journey motif did not literally occur but is a framework for instruction in the early Church.

3. Literary. Luke as writer shapes the Q and other materials in this section into a literary unit. Using templates (such as the journey in Deuteronomy), Luke writes out of consideration for tension and struggle, a component of all great literature.

4. Traditional. Luke is only aware that, after his Galilean phase, Jesus eventually journeys to Jerusalem. Luke takes advantage of this point in his narrative to insert vast amounts of church material. The journey motif represents a convenient place for Luke to pass along the teachings from his own community that he considers important.

The liberal German School under Conzelmann (1961) has argued for the first explanation while more conservative scholars like L. T. Johnson (1991) tend to favor the last theory. I prefer the third theory and see the journey motif as a literary device, providing Luke with the opportunity to include pastoral material that may or may not be original to Jesus but is nonetheless important to Luke’s community. Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap between these theories but the important point here is that no one suggests that everything Luke presents in the middle section happened exactly in the order that he reports. Luke had a great deal of freedom to shape his narrative and so he crafted a journey motif in which he could emphasize traditions and materials that were important to him and his community. This is not history, but theology at work.

The Gospel Genre

We do not pick up a novel without bringing to it some expectation of how to read it. We are not shocked by H. G. Wells’ description of an otherwise impossible time machine because we understand the genre to be fictional within a framework of realism. Similarly, we realize that it is a mistake to confuse one of Paul’s epistles with Hesiod’s Theogony since the two were not written for the same purpose. It is also a mistake to assume that the gospels were written in the genre of historical biography in any modern sense of the word. Consider the story in Mark where Jesus is driven into the wilderness for forty days after his baptism (Mk. 1:12-13). Through this symbolism, Mark makes a deep theological connection to the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness for forty years (Exod. 16:35), Moses’ forty-day communion with God (Exod. 34:28), and David’s rule of Israel that lasted for forty years (1 Kings 2:11). These mythologizing tendencies provide allegorical clues to Mark’s theology and he uses such symbolism to proclaim Jesus as the Christ. Mark’s use of symbols runs through his entire gospel. Robinson writes, “it has become clear from the study of Mark’s form of presentation that he is not an objective, disinterested historian, but an inward participant in the history he narrates” (1957, p. 54). Mythologizing tendencies must not be mistaken for historical events, but seen as proclamations of a theology emerging from the resurrection event.16

Conservative scholarship, best represented by Richard Burridge (1992), considers the gospels to be works in the genre of Greco-Roman biography. Dihle (1983) largely agrees, though he warns that due to the primitive nature of the gospels there can be no clear parallels to extant Greco-Roman biographies. We should remember that the ancient genre of biography (Bios) is not at all similar to what we moderns consider a biography to be today. Ancient biographers were not as interested in facts as they were in entertaining their readers and promoting the virtue and philosophy of the subject of their work. Thus, Burridge acknowledges that the Bios genre “nestles” comfortably between history, moral philosophy, fiction, encomium, politics, and polemic (pp. 66, 245). Today, scholars agree that the gospels are semi-biographical groupings of kerygmatic material that had circulated in the thriving oral tradition for many decades before coming to be collected together, organized, shaped, and finally written down.

Fredriksen (1988) likens Mark, the first gospel-writer, to “a sort of creative editor” who desires to redact his material into the form of a historical biographical narrative (pp. 3-4). F.F. Bruce (1954) asks the interesting question, “Does it matter whether the New Testament documents are reliable or not? Is it so very important that we should be able to accept them as truly historical records?” (p. 11). Bruce argues that it is necessary to determine their historicity. He implicitly disagrees that the NT texts should be understood as kerygma and argues that such a suggestion

can be applied to the New Testament only if we ignore the real essence of Christianity. For the Christian Gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system; it is first and foremost Good News [euangelion] and as such it was proclaimed by its earliest preachers . . . And this Good News is intimately bound up with the historical order.17

Bruce understands the genre of euangelion–which existed in very early Christianity, nurtured in the diaspora by the Apostle Paul–to be objective history in a modern sense. However, this assumption is mistaken. Euangelion proclamations of the early Roman period were common propaganda tools in the cult of the emperor. The Priene inscription (9 BCE) in Asia Minor is one such example. The inscription announces the “good news” of Caesar Augustus’ birth as a god:

And since the Caesar through his appearance (epiphanein) has exceeded the hopes of all former good messages (euangelia), surpassing not only the benefactors who came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future would surpass him, and since for the world the birthday of the god was the beginning of his good messages . . . [may it therefore be decided that . . .]18

The use of the imperial propagandistic term “good news,” as well as Jewish traditions such as Second Isaiah’s heralding of good tidings (40:9), provide the vehicle for the gospel-writers to announce the good news of their own savior. It would be just as premature for us to agree with Bruce and accept the gospels as objective, historical documents as it would be for us to accept Caesar Augustus as an epiphany of a god. We cannot assume that the proclamation of Christ is based on objective history since, as we have discovered, theological motives are at work.

Apollonius and Jesus

Scholars have long recognized that a close parallel exists between the biography of Apollonius (2-95 CE) written by Philostratus in 220 CE and the New Testament gospels.19 Exploring and comparing Jesus to Apollonius, therefore, may help to determine how we should read the gospels and understand their genre.20 Ancient biography engaged in embellishment in order to enlarge the reputation of the king or emperor who is the subject of the work. In Greek civic cult and the Roman cult of the emperor, this embellishment began at birth since one god or another chose every great man.21 Thus, Apollonius experienced a supernatural birth:

Just at the moment of the birth, a thunderbolt seemed about to fall to earth and then rose up into the air and disappeared aloft; and the gods thereby indicated, I think, the great distinction to which the sage was to attain, and hinted in advance how he should transcend all things upon earth and approach the gods (I, 5).

The thunderbolt that announces the birth is an epiphany of Zeus, demonstrating the god’s favor upon Apollonius. At his baptism, an epiphany of God visits Jesus in the form of a dove, representing Sophia, the Jewish female personification of wisdom. Although Mark did not provide Jesus with a supernatural birth, Matthew and Luke decide to do so in their narratives. The community that produced the Gospel of John went one step further to insist that Jesus was not a human being at all but rather the divine Logos. The absence of a birth narrative in John’s gospel reflects this unique theological trajectory.

Josephus reports that exorcisms were common among the “descendants of Solomon” and relates an eyewitness story of how Eleazar ordered a demon out of a possessed man. To prove that the demon had indeed left the person, Josephus relates that Eleazar ordered the demon to knock over a cup full of water on its way out.22 In like manner, Jesus casts out a legion of demons and permits them to enter a herd of swine, serving as proof that they had left the demoniac (Mk. 5:1-14). For his part, Apollonius casts out a demon with great authority in a similar situation to the exorcisms performed by Jesus and Eleazar:

Now when Apollonius gazed on him, the ghost in him began to utter cries of fear and rage . . . and the ghost swore that he would leave the young man alone . . . But Apollonius addressed him with anger . . . and he ordered him to quit the young man and show by a visible sign that he had done so (IV, 20).

The demon knocks down a statue in the temple as proof that it has left the demoniac. Just as with Jesus’ disciples, the young man whom Apollonius exorcises gives up all of his worldly possessions and adopts an austere life to follow the penniless Apollonius. Stories such as these served to bolster the propagandistic value of the teacher’s philosophy and were very common in the mystery religions of the Hellenistic period. Greek healers attracted followers to their philosophy with successful demonstrations of their healing prowess. Part of the propaganda of the mystery religions involved credible stories about resurrecting the dead. Primitive Christian iconography portrays Jesus as a magician with a magic wand that he uses to raise the dead.23 Apollonius can also raise the dead, which Philostratus describes as a “miracle” witnessed by many bystanders (IV, 45).

Apollonius and Jesus both endure dangerous brushes with authority. The Sanhedrin turns Jesus over to Pilate for questioning on charges of sedition (Mk. 15:1-5 and parallels). The authorities imprison Apollonius for uttering impieties against the Emperor Nero. Tigellinus, Nero’s minister, calls for Apollonius to question him but is cautious since he has been warned that the gods favor Apollonius. When the scroll upon which the charges against Apollonius were written is opened to be read aloud, Tigellinus discovers that the words have been magically erased (IV, 44). Tigellinus takes Apollonius aside and asks who he is and whether it is true that he can exorcise demons. Apollonius answers Tigellinus’ charges cryptically but with great wisdom. In response:

Tigellinus was astonished [at Apollonius’ answers] and said: `You may go, but you must give sureties for your person.’ And Apollonius answered: `And who can go surety for a body that no one can bind?’ This answer struck Tigellinus as inspired and above the wit of man; and as he was careful not to fight with a god, he said: `You may go wherever you choose, for you are too powerful to be controlled by me’ (IV, 44).

Apollonius’ successful confrontation with those in authority serves as propaganda for his movement and such stories help to attract followers to him. Thousands of fragments from excavations at Asclepiums (such as at Epidaurus) also describe the exploits and healing powers of Asclepius. Dozens of such cults and movements sprung up in the few centuries before the emergent Christian mystery of Christ. This mythologizing tendency in Greco-Roman biography informs the New Testament gospels. The evangelists use the kerygma of the resurrection as their central message to proclaim to the world that Jesus is superior to Apollonius, Asclepius, and other healing man-gods of the time.

We have reached a preliminary, but important conclusion. The gospels are the theological product of human beings who correctly realized that the tragic life and wisdom of their Messiah was a story worth telling. Although the gospels are not historical texts, but instead represent the theology of their writers, this takes nothing away from their importance to the Christian faith. The gospel message has always reflected the eschatological hopes, dreams, faith, and essence of Christianity. What McDowell misses is that this faith need not be based on history to be meaningful to the believer. Many Christians find meaning in their faith precisely because they believe it to transcend the natural order of worldly events. Believer and nonbeliever alike can draw enormous meaning from the gospel narratives without finding it necessary to hold them as literal, historical documents. We are all captivated by the witty repartee of the Syrophoenician woman who succeeds in holding her own against a short-tempered Jesus. Who can read Mark 15 without feeling a deep sympathy for Jesus whom, abandoned, cries out to God in despair from the cross? When Jesus wearily complains that the foxes have dens, the birds their nests, but he has nowhere to lay down and rest, we are reminded that homelessness is still a problem today. Likewise, the story of Jesus’ starving disciples who pluck heads of grain in violation of the sabbath, forces us to reexamine how we provide for those who hunger. Jesus asks us to give even our shirts to those who would take our coat and to refrain from retaliating against anyone who would be our enemy. There is a deep wisdom in this teaching. Jesus’ gospel message is to love your enemies, help the poor, practice nonviolence, and give freely. A more humanistic message could not be crafted.

Biblical Archaeology

McDowell also attempts to build his reliability doctrine on an empirical foundation by citing heavily biased findings of biblical archaeology. Quite frankly, we do not need to take this attempt very seriously. One of McDowell’s sources for the theory that the NT is an inerrant work suggests, among other incredible things, that the Greek language was invented by God for the purpose of revealing the NT.24 Evangelical writer Joseph Free, McDowell’s main source, recommends that his book be used by Sunday School teachers.25 Clearly, McDowell has no intention of advancing our understanding of Near East archaeology in his discussion; rather, he desires to reassure his constituency that the events in the Bible are fully supported by archaeological findings.

However, we have to be careful about using archaeological data from the Near East to substantiate biblical narrative. When the Palestine Exploration Society announced its founding in 1870, they declared that their society’s main goal was the

illustration and defense of the Bible. Modern skepticism assails the Bible at the point of reality, the question of fact. Hence whatever goes to verify the Bible history as real, in time, place and circumstances is a refutation of unbelief.26

Archaeology was in its infancy then and raw apologetics became the guiding force behind biblical archaeology. During the high point of biblical archaeology–the “American School” under William F. Albright and his students in 1920-70–“numerous simplistic and uncritical interpretations of archaeological observations were proposed . . . as answers to complex Biblical questions.”27 Proponents of today’s “New Archaeology” have criticized the Albrightians for presupposing that the Bible is a completely reliable historical source and who shaped data to fit a procrustean bed based upon that presupposition. Indeed, an excellent example of this is with John Garstung’s excavation of Tell es-Sultan (the biblical Jericho) in which he found that the walls had been flattened exactly as the biblical account described. Later, Kathleen Kenyon’s work revealed that Garstung had made many embarrassing mistakes in his enthusiasm to prove Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan. Yet McDowell relies almost solely on the speculative findings of Garstung, Albright, Wright and other Albrightians in establishing the reliability and historicity of the Bible. McDowell’s scholarship is so poor that one could think that he outright misrepresents the data; he willfully ignores critical evidence and uncritically embraces the Albrightians in order to create the illusion of biblical historicity.

Tell es-Sultan (Jericho)

The German excavators Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger excavated Tell es-Sultan from 1907-09 and concluded that Late Bronze Age Jericho–about 1500 BCE when Joshua was said to have led the Conquest of Canaan (Joshua 1-11)–was destroyed much earlier, in 1600 BCE, and therefore the pan-Israelite invasion hypothesis was historically questionable. This was disturbing to some and so a well-funded John Garstung returned to the site in 1930 with the goal of reconciling these two dates in order to support the truth of the Conquest. Working under the presupposition that the biblical account was true, Garstung excavated Jericho from 1930-36 and allegedly uncovered the remains of a wall that was burned and had appeared to be blown outward from the inside. Garstung dated this destruction to the Late Bronze Age period of 1500 BCE in perfect agreement with Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan. Garstung’s amazing confirmation of the biblical account that the walls did indeed collapse at the sound of trumpets was quickly published in the popular press and seen by many as a triumph in “proving” the Biblical account.28 However, William Albright contested Garstung’s findings quietly and knew that the evidence did not support his conclusions.29

The controversy raged on until Kathleen Kenyon returned yet again to the site in 1955 to apply a more exacting type of systematic archaeology (called the “Wheeler-Kenyon method”) that is now used regularly throughout the field. Kenyon argued that Garstung had excavated the wrong wall and mistakenly thought that the Early Bronze Age foundations were instead the Late Bronze Age walls of the time of Joshua’s Conquest. Jericho was destroyed, not in the Late Bronze Age, but rather nine hundred years earlier in the Early Bronze Age sometime around 2400 BCE. The site was a small village during the Late Bronze Age when Joshua was said to have crossed the Jordan River, making Tell es-Sultan’s conquest unnecessary.30 French archaeologist Judith Marquet-Krause excavated at nearby et-Tell (the biblical Ai in Joshua 7-8) and found, similarly, that it too was destroyed around 2400 BCE. By the time of Joshua’s conquest, the city had been completely abandoned.31 J. A. Callaway, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, attempted to “circumvent the negative evidence” of Marquet-Krause during his revisit of the site in 1966 but ultimately his findings were rejected by other scholars as “shoddy” and purely apologetic in purpose.32 Given that Kenyon’s work at Tell es-Sultan and that the Wheeler-Kenyon method has become the standard for excavations, it seems incredible that McDowell would advance only Garstung’s flawed excavation as the “truth” while ignoring Kenyon’s pioneering work entirely.

Albright’s brightest pupil, George Wright, specifically understood that Biblical archaeology was to be used for apologetical purposes:

The Biblical archaeologist may or may not be an excavator himself, but he studies the discoveries of the excavations in order to glean from them every fact that throws a direct, indirect or even diffused light upon the Bible. He must be intelligently concerned with stratigraphy and typology, upon which the methodology of modern archaeology rests . . . . Yet his chief concern is not with methods or pots or weapons in themselves alone. His central and absorbing interest is the understanding and exposition of the Scriptures.33

According to Shlomo Bunimovitz of Tel Aviv University, the Albrightian James Kelso, excavated Bethel and “misinterpreted archaeological remains from various periods, mixing facts and fancy.”34 Kelso took a few unrelated artifacts from many different stratigraphic layers in time and interpreted them together to imagine “an open air sacrificial shrine to the Canaanite god El,” and “Abraham’s altar.”35 Needless to say, Kelso’s uncritical interpretive methodology is not taken seriously by Syro-Palestinian archaeologists today. In another case, the Albrightian rabbi Nelson Glueck misinterpreted a decline in settlement patterns of the third millennium BCE Transjordan as “the result of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Gen. 13-19).36 Glueck seemed to strain the archaeological data through the presupposition of Biblical narrative even when it obviously did not fit. When it was later determined that other fluctuations in settlement patterns had occurred in the same region, Glueck without hesitation attributed them to the Biblical Exodus and Conquest of Canaan accounts.37 The task fell to later archaeologists to follow behind Glueck and correct his misinterpretations.38 Bunimovitz sums up the collective effort of the American School:

Today, it is clear that Albright’s lifelong effort to demonstrate the historicity of the Patriarchal and Israelite Conquest narratives, as well as his effort to demonstrate the uniqueness of Israel’s cult, was doomed to failure, resulting from the same deficient interpretive preconceptions that used both archaeology and Biblical studies as `proof-texts’ for historical and theological propositions. Although archaeology has documented a Genesis-like pastoral nomadic life all over the ancient Near East, archaeology has been unable to uncover any direct evidence to authenticate a `Patriarchal era.’39

William Dever, a student of George Wright, thinks that Biblical archaeology failed because it was too closely tied to its Protestant apologetical roots to be objective in its research.40 By the early 1970s, the handwriting was on the wall. Biblical archaeology was discredited and dead. Even Wright retracted many of his former claims and began to align himself with the new archaeologists just emerging on the scene.41 Today, archaeologists have accepted the fact that many of the American School’s findings had “forced the data into a predetermined theological framework.”42 Menaham Mansoor gloomily admits that Biblical archaeology’s greatest failure was in not deterring “people who seek to validate religious concepts by archaeological finds.”43

Despite these unfortunate setbacks to Near Eastern archaeology, new and reasonably unbiased research is paving the way toward a better understanding of Palestine’s past. Understandably, some still keep a weather eye on the Biblical narrative as it pertains to their work, but it is no longer true that the theology drives the interpretation of the archaeological data. Almost without exception, McDowell cites only the rejected findings of the American School in his argument to substantiate the Bible as historically reliable. Perhaps the most amusing example of this uncritical approach to biblical archaeology is with Henry Morris’ speculations, whom McDowell quotes as saying:

It must be extremely significant that, in view of the great mass of corroborative evidence regarding the Biblical history of these periods, there exists today not one unquestionable find of archaeology that proves the Bible to be in error at any point.44

If Morris (a civil engineer from Virginia Polytechnic Institute) expects anyone to take such a stunning announcement seriously, he should provide good research to substantiate his claim. Sadly, Morris’s methodology is another procrustean bed in which he stretches any and all data to fit his preconceived notion of “Bible history.” In their introduction to The Genesis Flood, Morris and co-author John Whitcomb of Grace Theological Seminary write:

The second purpose [in looking at the Genesis deluge] is to examine the anthropological, geological, hydrological and other scientific implications of the Biblical record of the Flood, seeking if possible to orient the data of these sciences within this Biblical framework. If this means substantial modification of the principles of uniformity and evolution which currently control the interpretation of these data, then so be it. . . . Our conclusions must unavoidably be colored by our Biblical presuppositions, and this we plainly acknowledge.45

As you might guess, Morris and Whitcomb conclude that the Biblical flood wiped out nearly all life on earth in the year 2459 BCE.46 Given Morris’s inerrancy doctrine, it is no surprise that he believes the Bible to be without error on any point.

Ebla Tablets

Despite his suggestion that while it “will be quite a while before there can be any significant research done to determine the relationship of Ebla to the biblical world,” McDowell is not able to contain his speculation regarding the Ebla tablets found at Tell Mardikh.47 It is McDowell’s understanding that the tablets correctly refer to all five Cities of the Plain (Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar; Genesis 12) in the biblical order.48 Further, McDowell suggests that the Ebla tablets confirm that the historicity of Genesis 14 is reliable and Abraham is now known to have conquered Chedolaomer of Gomorrah.49 However, McDowell does not tell us whom he consulted or how he arrived at the conclusion that “the Ebla archives refer to all five Cities of the Plain . . . [and] reflect the culture of the patriarchal period.”50

Presumably, McDowell is referring to the work of Giovanni Pettinato, the Italian Sumerologist who deciphered some of the cuneiform tablets at Ebla. In a series of lectures promoted by David Freedman in 1976, Pettinato announced that the names of the five cities of the plain were found on a single tablet in the exact Genesis order and that the character “Ya” indicates a personal pronoun of Yahweh. As with Garstung’s findings at Tell es-Sultan, the popular press eagerly published Pettinato’s startling discoveries. However, Paolo Matthiae, who excavated Ebla, mentions no such findings in his published excavation report.51 Additionally, as other cuneiform scholars looked at Pettinato’s findings, they realized that he failed to consider the names in context so that the symbol for “Ya” could also mean “ia” or “il” or something else entirely.52

What the Ebla tablets do seem to contain are devotions to Semitic gods in the Sumerian pantheon that predate the Yahweh cult. The tablets mention common Semitic deities like Haddad, a storm god, and Ishtar, goddess of love and war who later becomes transformed into Yahweh’s consort Astarte. So far there has been no evidence that the tablets contain references to early Yahweh cult. Pettinato’s “ia” or “il” was initially confused as the personal name of Yahweh, but Vigano is quick to correct this initial misinterpretation and states that “-il (El, god) in some personal names is not . . . to be identified with Yhwh, the God of Israel.”53 The Ebla tablets, dated to about 2500 BCE, show us that the early Semitic peoples of the Early Bronze Age had not yet begun to worship Yahweh. This is very much in keeping with what we know of the region at that time from other sources. Eventually it was realized that “Pettinato’s premature readings of some tablets that were naively accepted by some scholars were really responsible for all the controversy.”54 Today, we are no closer to understanding the Ebla tablets than at their first discovery because of the infighting and disputes surrounding rival points of view concerning them. In any case, the Ebla tablets do not provide any confirmation (nor denial) of the biblical narratives and the initial wild speculations concerning the tablets are now known to be extremely premature. That McDowell so easily accepts these speculations tells us more about his own hope of finding support in an inerrant Bible than in his interest for solid archaeological research.

We now know that the initial zeal to prove the Bible correct was misguided and led to such absurd misinterpretations of the archaeological data that biblical archaeology’s reputation has yet to recover fully from those abuses. Archaeology must be allowed to thrive on its own and for its own sake in order to provide us with substantive finds of the Patriarchs or any events in the Bible. Perhaps in due time archaeology can enhance our understanding of Biblical narratives, but it will certainly not do so by taking short cuts for apologetical purposes. With respect to archaeological evidence for the historical reliability of the Bible, we can safely conclude that archaeology has not “proven” nor “disproven” the Bible. Of course, this should not surprise us in the least, since it is not the purpose of archaeology to establish theological belief. The American School’s questionable research, filling almost the entire section of McDowell’s “Confirmation by Archaeology,” is now known to have been so preoccupied in its theological presuppositions that its findings were routinely shaped by them.

The Grammar of Belief

If we examine the grammar of the word “belief” as it is used within Christian discourse, we find that the truth of religious utterances are accepted on faith, not reason. Contrary to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” McDowell’s reliability doctrine insists that the NT texts form an objective criterion from which the believer is justified in making the rational choice for belief in Christian doctrine. The problem with the reliability doctrine, and indeed fundamentalism as a whole, is its assumption that Christian faith is something that must rest upon and derive its reliability from historical facts. By making Christianity a set of empirical propositions, fundamentalism essentially renders faith less important, if not altogether irrelevant. Unless the gospels are completely reliable as historical texts, the transcendent cannot be believed and faith is futile. Thus, by viewing the texts as literal truth, it no longer becomes possible to view them accurately for what they are: theologically-driven expressions of faith in the risen Christ.

Saint Augustine believed that faith is the acceptance of things not clearly seen. In Eighty-three Different Questions, Augustine distinguishes between three kinds of objects of belief: the propositions of history; mathematical truths of reason; and matters that are believed first and understood later. Anyone can understand the truths of history and reason. However, the third kind of belief Augustine finds most profound and reserves for Christian belief. Only those who are “clean of heart” and obey the Law can hope to understand the truths of faith. Augustine reminds us that Christianity never communicates its most sacred truths through historical propositions, but rather speaks of the gnosis of Jesus in one’s life. One is told to “just believe” or “have faith” and ask God to reveal himself to you–believe now and all will be explained later. From the very beginning, Christianity has been a religion based on faith in the risen Christ. This confession is not a matter of fact in any ordinary sense of the word, but rather it is believed “in one’s heart.” The grammar of this religious utterance reveals that confessions are not treated like ordinary propositions. According to Alvin Plantinga, belief is “transrational” and properly basic to the Christian worldview. I would go even farther to point out the obvious: the believer could still have faith in the risen Christ even in the complete absence of a New Testament. McDowell has forgotten that this was the situation for the Apostle Paul and his fledgling communities in the dispersion. The gospel message was no more verifiable for Paul’s converts than it is today for the modern believer. It is not necessary to prove that the gospel texts are inerrant to hold beliefs that are essential to Christianity. Today, as in Paul’s day, the believer is told to “just believe!” and all else will follow. Ludwig Wittgenstein reminds us that:

Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a life.55

In practice, Christian faith has no evidential foundation at all. It is self-authenticating from within the framework that its utterances derive their meaning. The believer who “just believes” accepts a whole host of propositions all at once without testing them for their historical veracity. The convert leaps into the abyss trusting God and need never pick up the NT to practice his or her faith.

If Christianity did depend upon a foundation of empirical propositions, then all one would need to do to acquire the truth is to become acquainted with the truth of those facts. After a catechism, in which someone learned the facts that established the inerrancy of the gospels, he or she would be intellectually obliged to believe. But what a sterile formula for religion this is! It is like providing to those seeking God the precise directions to the post office, and then expecting them to rejoice upon their arrival there. It is sometimes said that Christianity is not a religion or a church but instead a personal relationship with God. If this is the case, then why is it so important to establish the mundane details of God’s incarnation as a human being in ancient Palestine?

The fundamentalist who feels it necessary to justify even one proposition within Christian faith betrays his self-doubt about the veracity of them all. Saint Anselm sought to understand a concept of God, which he already found deeply meaningful in his life. He did not fashion his ontological argument so that he might be able to believe.56 A theology that draws its truths from the facts of the world is indistinguishable from naturalism. This can be seen in looking at how believers speak of the existence of God. To avoid begging the question for God’s existence, the fundamentalist must awkwardly begin from unbelief in order to reason toward belief. However, if God does not exist, then it is impossible to demonstrate that this is so. Yet, if God exists one is most certainly at a loss to demonstrate toward his existence. Kierkegaard points out that in our world of sense experience, it is nonsense to reason in conclusion to existence since we can only reason in conclusion from existence. For example, we do not build arguments that lead to the existence of a stone, we simply point to something and say that it is a stone. This is why proofs for the existence of God quickly degenerate into a surreal comedy; the demonstration of existence generally succeeds only in clarifying the concept of God within our grammar. Yet, a clarification of the concept of God was already presupposed in the language of faith from which it derived. Thus, arriving back at the beginning with nothing to show for it, we feel strangely cheated by the whole endeavor.

How much more honest the Athenian Stranger is in Plato’s Laws! Before advancing his argument for the existence of the gods to Cleinias, the Stranger says, “if ever we are to call upon the gods, let us call upon them now in all seriousness to come to the demonstration of their own existence” (893b). The Stranger presupposes the existence of the gods right from the beginning. Those who insist on rational proof do so out of a craving for certainty in a situation where faith is insufficient for their lives. This can be seen from the fact that if God were certain, faith would have no purpose. Yet, faith is central to Christianity. Faith does not follow from God’s existence but rather God’s existence is embedded a priori in the discourse of faith. “But I don’t care whether God is a meaningful concept,” the fundamentalist counters, “I want to know whether God exists or not. For if God does not exist, then my faith is false.” What can this mean? This is a person whose faith is insufficient since he or she desires that the concept of God be as certain as the sun or the moon. Unlike Saint Anselm, however, the fundamentalist tries to demonstrate God’s existence with proofs so that it might then be known whether faith is true. Thus, the paradox is that the fundamentalist seeks to verify faith with factual certainty; yet, if this attempt succeeds and God is a rational truth, faith is then exposed as an unnecessary illusion.

Christian belief in its propositions of faith is nothing like what we would call ordinary belief in the historical propositions of the world. What might it mean for someone to believe in her heart that Napoleon invaded Russia? Can one be moved by the spirit while adding a series of numbers? If I look outside and see dark clouds in the sky, I do not say, “I have faith that it will rain” but instead say “it looks like it will rain.” In our language, we treat the mundane propositions of the world very differently from those propositions made within religious utterances. The believer does not speak of Christ’s resurrection in the same manner as he or she would speak about historical propositions. One need not confess to the truth of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. One need only believe it in an ordinary sense in the way that one believes the moon is overhead. Confessional belief and ordinary belief are two very different things. To illustrate this point, Wittgenstein asks us to consider a case in which a man says that he believes in the Last Judgement.57 If a woman replies that she does not believe in a Last Judgement, we would conclude that the two were very far apart on the matter. It would appear as if a gulf separated them and the way they use language might even hinder them from understanding one another. If, however, the man were to say that he believed that an airplane was overhead and the woman replied that she very much doubted this to be the case, we would no longer characterize their disagreement as something profound. Since they share the same criterion of reliability for empirical propositions, it would simply be a matter of looking up in the sky to see if the man’s utterance is a correct report. A criterion of reliability is something that we readily agree answers the question, “how do you know that proposition p is true?” The criterion of reliability for belief in religious utterances is a very different thing from the criterion of reliability for belief in an ordinary proposition.

When investigating natural phenomena in the sciences, the criterion used to establish the truth or falsity of propositions–the scientific method–is understood and accepted by everyone who participates in the enterprise. However, in matters of theology, there can be no empirical investigation and it is wrong to demand or to impose one. For example, suppose someone were to ask, “how do you know that Goldbach’s Theorem is sound?” The criterion of reliability that we use to answer this person is radically different from that which we use to answer the question, “how do you know that Christ rose from the grave?” The belief in Christ’s resurrection is a matter of faith and is spoken about differently. If you can understand why this is so, you will also see why the gospels are not compendia of historically true propositions. If we were to think of them that way then Christianity would indeed be very lifeless.

The fact that faith is necessary to bridge the gap between God and human beings suggests that the teachings of Christianity are not at all treated like the teachings of physics or history. If Christianity were to rest upon empirical propositions, rather than faith, we would not be mystified as to how to proceed to understand or to agree with its utterances. People do not profoundly misunderstand one another’s grammar in the ordinary sense of the word “belief.” Two people do not simply look up in the sky to determine God’s presence nor can they simply verify a belief in the Last Judgement. In the case of religious utterances such as these, the grammar of the verb “to believe” is sublimed in the logic of Christian discourse.58 Mistakes arise when the fundamentalist plucks religious utterances out of the context in which they derive their meaning in the attempt to prove them as empirical facts. But as I have argued, an object of worship and an object of history are treated very differently and spoken about in different ways within language. Confusion results from the failure to distinguish how an utterance is being used in language and then making such utterances conform to an alien usage. Thus, sometimes the atheist foolishly asks, “Where?” when someone utters “God.” There are as many meanings of a word as there are uses for it within language.

“Yes, but even nonbelievers have belief! Every time they sit in a chair they believe that it will support their weight.” The grammar of the word “belief” is again sublimed in the logic of language. This utterance confuses two uses of “belief”–one use appears in ordinary language and another only within a religious context. To believe in God requires something different from the believer than to believe in the sturdiness of a chair. The confusion results from the failure to distinguish between these two uses and subsequently being misled by the surface grammar of the verb itself. The theist surely does not want religious belief to be understood in the vulgar sense. To believe in God as one might believe in rain is superstitious because it considers God to be an object of perception within the world. Both of these cases (belief in and the existence of God) illustrate that when the believer speaks of God he or she uses language of religious meaning rather than the language of empirical knowledge.

The fundamentalist had initially sought to ignore the language of meaning in his ill-fated quest for absolute certainty, but he cannot seem to avoid treating God differently from other objects of certainty. God is not like a chair and no one points to God and says, “There, that’s God.” Kant taught us that elucidation can never lead to existence; moreover, no one speaks about the existence of God in the way that they speak of the existence of ordinary objects. Since all religious utterances presuppose God’s existence, they are vehicles to clarify and to elucidate the concept of God and so necessarily speak of God in a manner quite different from our ordinary utterances of objects in the world. It cannot be known that God exists in the way that we know that ordinary objects of perception exist. “If God’s existence cannot be known,” the fundamentalist asks, “then how can Christian faith be reliable and what if we’re wrong?” I have no antidote for this craving for certainty except to remind the fundamentalist that at its core Christianity is a mystery. Faith might be folly to the world, but the world’s wisdom is death to Christianity. If the gospel message is to be believed at all, it must be solely based on faith–things that are certain are not matters of belief.

Belief in Christ is not a matter of believing in a historical proposition, rather, something additional is demanded. To embrace the propositions of Christian faith is to desire to change one’s whole life. This is why the drama within the gospels continues to have profound theological meaning without regard to literal history. McDowell’s reliability doctrine fails to take into account the utter simplicity of Christian faith. Jesus swore, “whoever doesn’t accept the kingdom of God the way a child would, certainly won’t ever set foot in God’s domain!” All of the knowledge in the world cannot provide a foundation for faith. One must accept the gospel message with the innocence of a child.


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Phillips, D. Z. Wittgenstein and Religion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Philostratus, Flavius. Life of Apollonius of Tyana. The Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. F.C. Conybeare, trans. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” Nous 15 no. 1 (1981).

Roberts, Harold. Jesus and the Kingdom of God. London: The Epworth Press, 1955.

Robinson, James M. “Jesus From Easter to Valentinus,” Journal of Biblical Literature 101 no. 1 (1982): 5-37.

Robinson, James M. A New Quest of the Historical Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Robinson, James M. and Helmut Koester. Trajectories Through Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Robinson, James M. The Problem of History in Mark. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1957.

Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Unger, Merrill F. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Cyril Barrett, ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Vermischte Bemerkungen (Culture and Value). G. H. Von Wright, ed. Peter Wich, trans. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980.


1 Rom. 5:9-10; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:10;3:15.

2 1 Cor. 1:18-25; 2:1-5.

3 McDowell, p. 386.

4 McDowell, p. 2.

5 McDowell, pp. 2-10.

6 McDowell, p. 39.

7 McDowell, pp. 19, 53, 74.

8 Oxford Companion (1993), p. 246.

9 For example, the “sayings of the Lord” are already being used by Luke to relate Paul’s sermon in Acts 20:35; moreoever, the earliest codifications of the oral tradition (Thomas and Q) were based on “sayings” of the Lord. Koester (1983) writes that “in controversial questions, one would rely primarily on `what the Lord had said,’ or one would ask a Christian prophet what the `Lord’ had revealed to him” (pp. 5-6).

10 1 Thess. 4:15; cf. 1 Cor. 9:9, 13, 14.

11 Horsley and Hanson (1985) present an excellent and detailed study of the socio-political situation of first-century Palestine.

12 Karl L. Schmidt first used this analogy in Der Rahmen der Geschicte Jesu (1919) when he wrote that Mark’s gospel was “a virtual collection of traditional pearls arrayed sequentially on a very fine authorial string.”

13 Moule, p. 2.

14 Jerome, Against Pelagius, III.2

15 Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 30.13.7-8.

16 Robinson refers to the entire NT as “a hermeneutic for the kerygma” (1971, p. 25) and Koester presents an excellent review of literature on the evolution of the kerygma (1990, pp. 1-23). For an in-depth study of kerygma and Q with respect to the gospels, see the definitive essay by John S. Kloppenborg, “Tradition and Redaction in the Synoptic Sayings Source,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46(1984): 34-62.

17 Bruce, pp. 11-12.

18 Qtd. in Koester, 1990, pp. 3-4.

19 Apollonius’ biographer, Philostratus, was born in 172 CE and studied rhetoric in Athens at a very young age. While at the court of the Empress Domna in Rome, Philostratus acquired the “memoirs of Apollonius” composed by Damis, one of Apollonius’ disciples. Together with a history written by another admirer named Maximus, and other pieces of material still in circulation, Philostratus revised and polished Damis’ rough manuscript to produce his own biography of Apollonius. In this sense, the biography of Apollonius is very similar to Luke’s biography of Jesus. Luke tells us in his prologue that others before him attempted to write about Jesus but Luke seems to find their attempts insufficient. The difference between the two, of course, is while Luke drew upon the dynamic oral tradition and a narrative structure imposed on him from Mark’s gospel, Philostratus had the good fortune of working from a manuscript that was direct from the pen of a disciple.

20 I should point out that the canonical gospels possess a different genre from other sources about Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas and the Q belong to the so-called Logoi Sophon gattung or “wisdom-sayings genre” because Jesus is portrayed in them as a wisdom teacher. The theologies that inform different portraits of Jesus–from the Markan Secret Messiah, Johannine Jesus, Thomas’ Wisdom Teacher, Paul’s Christ, the law-follower of the judaizers and James, to the Gnostic transcendent immortal–are called “trajectories” which radiate out from the historical Jesus. The current debate over the historical Jesus concerns these various trajectories as scholars try to discern which (if any) trajectory may be closer to Jesus and which are mythologizing tendencies on the part of the early Church.

21 See Luther H. Martin, Hellenistic Religions, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, for an excellent introduction to the myths of man-gods, Hellenistic piety, and the many pagan mystery religions that inform primitive Christianity.

22 Josephus, Antiquities, 8.2.5.

23 See Frederick Perez Bargebuhr, The Paintings of the `New’ Catacomb of the Via Latina, Loachim Utz, ed., Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 1991 and Robin M. Jensen, “The Raising of Lazarus,” Bible Review April 1995: 21-28, 45. The catacombs represent an excellent example of a transitional period in primitive Christianity; Samson is depicted reenacting Herakles’s first labor, the Madonna and baby Jesus iconography are indistinguishable from the Isis and baby Horus mystery cult, the pagan goddess Demeter is shown alongside Jesus who uses a magic wand to resurrect Lazarus from the tomb. For Egyptian Hellenistic influence on transitional Christianity see Camden M. Cobern, The New Archaeological Discoveries, 6th ed., New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1922, pp. 404-411ff, where excavations revealed that Christians made liberal use of the Ankh and mummified their dead in accordance with Egyptian ritual. Also, Egyptian Christians confused Jesus with the savior-god Osiris who died and rose again on the third day to grant immortality to his followers suggesting a great deal of overlap in early Christianity with Hellenistic mystery cults.

24 Unger 324.

25 Free xii.

26 Qtd. In Charlesworth and Weaver, p. 3.

27 Bunimovitz, p. 62.

28 Kathleen Kenyon, pp. 72-3.

29 Dever, p. 47.

30 Kathleen Kenyon, p. 74.

31 Dever, p. 47.

32 Dever, p. 48.

33 Qtd. In Dever, p. 18.

34 Bunimovitz, p. 62.

35 Qtd. In Bunimovitz, p. 62.

36 Bunimovitz, p. 62.

37 Bunimovitz, p. 62.

38 See especially Gary Pratico, “Nelson Glueck’s 1938-1940 Excavations at Tell el-Kheleifeh: A Reappraisal,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 259 (1985): 1-32.

39 Bunimovitz, pp. 62-3.

40 Dever, p. 22.

41 Dever, p. 22.

42 Charlesworth, p. 85.

43 Mansoor, p. 29.

44 Qtd. In McDowell, p. 70.

45 Morris and Whitcomb, pp. xx-xxi.

46 Morris and Whitcomb, p. 478.

47 McDowell, p. 68.

48 McDowell, p. 68.

49 McDowell, p. 68.

50 McDowell, p. 68.

51 See Paolo Matthiae in Biblical Archaeologist March (1984): 6-16.

52 Leslie J. Hoppe, What Are They Saying About Biblical Archaeology? (New York: Paulist Press, 1984) p. 37.

53 Matthiae, p. 11.

54 Hoppe, p. 40.

55 Wittgenstein (1980), p. 32.

56 Phillips, p. 10.

57 Wittgenstein (1966), p. 53.

58 Wittgenstein argued in his Philosophical Investigations that there was a strange confusion in language over the relation of a thing to its name. We have a tendency “to sublime the logic of our language” by using proper names in an ostensive fashion even though there are no connections between the proper name and the object to which it allegedly points. Thus, philosophical problems are caused needlessly when one treats the proper name “God” as if it pointed ostensively to an object when in fact it does not.

Related Resources

“Biblical Errancy” Subject Index in the Secular Web’s Modern Library [ Index ]

Links to various essays which address Biblical errancy and reliability.

A Verdict on Josh McDowell” (2000) by Gordon B. Hazen (Off Site)

A detailed rebuttal to some of McDowell’s specific claims in chapter 4 in ETDAV.

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