One reason I get so frustrated with conservative evangelical Christian apologists is that they often aren’t honest and straightforward, but insist instead on making completely bogus claims that surely they actually know are bogus. I can’t think they’re actually dumb enough to believe them. But they hope to pull the wool over the eyes of the members of their audience – most of whom don’t realize that rhetorical tricks being pulled on them. Why not just look at the evidence, give a fair evaluation of it, and then draw a conclusion? Do you really want to defend your views with subterfuge? Why not be above board?
Here is an example, from a question and link someone recently sent me about the so-called first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark. I call it “so-called” because no one has produced this fragment, shown it to scholars, or to anyone else so far as I know, let alone published it to let everyone in the world see it for themselves. I think the whole thing is a hoax, but if the thing does exist, and is what these people are saying it is, why not produce it? Instead it’s all cloak, daggers, and bogus claims.
Anyway, here’s the question and link, to start with:
Professor Ehrman, did you hear anything about this new discovery of first-century Gospel of Mark.
what is your comment on it? thanks
As many people on the blog will know, this alleged fragment was first announced to the public in a debate I had with Daniel Wallace, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, held in front of a live audience here on my own stomping grounds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was trying to refute my point (which remains an actual fact) that we have no copy of the Gospel of Mark – not even a fragment – prior to around 200 CE, well over a century after the Gospel was first produced. Dan replied, in a rebuttal, by asking me what I would think if there was in fact a first-century fragment of Mark.
When pressed, Dan would not tell me (or the audience) anything about this fragment, other than that it had allegedly been discovered and that it had been dated by a real expert in the field. He wouldn’t reveal, though, where it was discovered, when, or how; he wouldn’t tell us how large a fragment it was (a couple of verses? Half the Gospel? Virtually the whole thing?); he wouldn’t tell us who had established the dating for it, what his expertise was, what criteria he used, or whether his guess on the date was verified by anyone else.
Dan did say that the fragment would be published later that year. This was February 2012. You may have noticed it was never published. People ask me when it *will* be. My guess is, never.
I really hope I’m wrong. I hope we *do* have a first century Gospel of Mark. But until we do… well….
The link above is to a recent talk given by Christian apologist Gary Habermas, who wants to make a big deal out of this fragment that we don’t have access to. Here is what is said at the beginning of the article. After citing it, I’ll point out some of the glaring problems (maybe not so glaring to people who are already inclined to be convinced).
By Brian Nixon, SALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS — March 4, 2018) — At a recent Engage Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, keynote speaker and Liberty University professor, Dr. Gary Habermas, stated that a specialist in paleology (expert in antiques) dated a fragment of the Gospel of Mark between 80-110 AD. Dr. Habermas said a friend of his — a Ph.D. in semiotics (the study of language) — confirmed that the test was completed and the date as presented by the paleographer was affirmed.
If this date holds (and caution was given by Dr. Habermas not to jump to firm conclusions before more research was conducted), it would be the oldest extent Gospel of Mark fragment by over a hundred years. As noted manuscript and Greek scholar Dr. Daniel Wallace states, “Before the discovery of this fragment, the oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century (c. AD 200–250). This new fragment would predate that by 100 to 150 years” .
Why is this announcement important? If the date stands, it would demonstrate that the Gospel of Mark was circulated in the 1st century, bridging the gap between Jesus and written evidence. In short, it would be historical evidence providing early — and possible eyewitness — testimony on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And though many Christians affirm that the Gospels are directly linked to eyewitness accounts, many scholars have yet to arrive at the same conclusion because some thought the time gap too large between the earliest manuscript evidence and Jesus’ life. But with the recent announcement history may need to be re-written.
Here I am chiefly interested in the final paragraph which seeks to assure the hearers/readers that here is yet more proof of the accuracy of the Gospels. There are three claims made here, and all of them are bogus, though for different reasons. (I’m overlooking the fact, that also needs to be pointed out, once again, that rather than being up front and direct, the apologetic claims here are all made with cloak and dagger: We’re told that there is an unnamed “specialist” involved who has “confirmed” something. We’re not told who this mystery person is, other than that he is someone that Habermass knows who has a PhD in Semiotics. The unwary won’t know, of course, that the field of semiotics, has NOTHING to do with how one dates manuscripts. Still, this alleged expert has used some “test” for the manuscript. We’re not told what the test was, whether it was repeated, whether it was verified by anyone else, where one can go to see the analysis to evaluate the results, or why none of this is public but is all shrouded in mystery and darkness. Do we really want to sanction this kind of proceeding by calling it “scholarship”? It smacks of chicanery)
Anyway, here are the three problematic claims. The first is a true claim that proves nothing. The second two are simply wrong.
- The fragment would “demonstrate that the Gospel of Mark was circulated in the 1st” This claim is pronounced almost breathlessly: NOW we have PROOF!! HA!!! But, uh, well, what exactly is this proof proving? Is it that Mark, dated by virtually every scholar and non-scholar on the planet to the first century was actually copied in the years after it was produced? I’ve never heard of a single person (of the thousands I’ve heard talk about Mark over the years) who ever thought anything different. No one. Nearly everyone dates Mark to 70 CE (or earlier; if anyone dates it later it’s not *much* later). And everyone thinks that it was copied after it was first written. So what would a copy of Mark from the time that everyone thinks it was copied prove that we didn’t know already about the copies of Mark? Nothing.
- That now we have written evidence that show that we have early and “possibly eyewitness” testimony to the life of Jesus. Really??? If, as scholars think, Mark was written around 70 CE, and now we have a fragment of it from, say, 80 CE, why would that be evidence that Mark (written 40 years after Jesus’ death) was based on eyewitness testimony? The fact that you now have a copy of Mark from, say, ten years after it was produced (we actually don’t have the copy, as I keep saying, but if, for the sake of the argument, we did), how would that tell you what sources Mark used for his account (whether eyewitnesses or not)? Obviously it would tell you no such thing. If you have a copy of Dickens’ novel David Copperfield which was made just ten years after the original was published, would that finally give you “evidence” that David Copperfield was a real person and that Dickens based his account on an eyewitness report?
- Those scholars (liberals!) would be shown to be wrong when they say that there is too large a time gap between the earliest manuscript evidence of Jesus and his life to allow for this evidence (Mark’s Gospel) to be based on eyewitness testimony. I have to say that I find this kind of completely bogus argument offensive, an attempt to win an argument by subterfuge. The argument is a complete straw man: you build the straw man, pummel it in the face, it falls down, and you think you’ve won a boxing match. But it’s not match because your opponent is a straw man, not a real person. I don’t know a single scholar on God’s green earth who argues (or thinks) that the Gospels are not based on eyewitness testimony BECAUSE we don’t have earlier manuscripts of the Gospels. The dates of the manuscripts have literally NOTHING to do with whether Mark, or any of the other Gospels, is based on eyewitness testimony. The manuscripts can tell us what Mark may have originally written, but they tell us nothing about his sources of information, and no one has ever claimed they do. To claim then that an early fragmentary copy of Mark would prove scholars are wrong about the reliability of Mark is both deceptive and infuriating.
Let me repeat – all of us, even the craziest liberals in our midst – would be absolutely delighted if first century manuscripts of the Gospels started showing up. That would be absolutely fantastic. But if there is such a manuscript, let’s have it produced and examined by experts who publish their findings (and the procedures they’ve used to establish them) — not talked about in mysterious and secretive terms in an attempt to assure readers/hearers that they can rest assured that their personal religious views are now “proved.”
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