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Bogus Christian Apologetics and a First-Century Fragment of Mark

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:

QUESTION:

Professor Ehrman, did you hear anything about this new discovery of first-century Gospel of Mark.
what is your comment on it? thanks

http://www.assistnews.net/index.php/component/k2/item/3744-dr-gary-habermas-confirms-recent-tests-on-a-gospel-of-mark-fragment-possibly-provides-the-oldest-new-testament-manuscript-evidence-available

 

RESPONSE:

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” [1].

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.”

If you belonged to the blog, you could get meaty posts at least five times a week.  It’s incredible value for the money, and every penny goes to charity.  So why not join??


Why Would It Matter If There Were a First-Century Copy of Mark?
Did Constantine Outlaw the Pagan Religions?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    nbraith1975  May 8, 2018

    “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.”

    Sorry, in the midst of my reading your serious response, I had to chuckle at your use of the idiom “God’s green earth.”

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  2. Avatar
    jbskq5  May 8, 2018

    Maybe your testier days aren’t over after all!

    In all seriousness, this is something that comes up at least once a week on some apologetics forum or another. Thanks for making this post free to provide an easy link to a response from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

    3
    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      Yes, I have regrets only about testiness in self-defense (being thin-skinned….)

      3
  3. Robert
    Robert  May 8, 2018

    “… conservative evangelical Christian apologists … 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.”

    Have you met Habermas? Is he really dishonest?

    I don’t know Gary Habermas or any conservative evangelical Christian apologists, other than a few I’ve encountered on the Internet, but in my very limited experience they are indeed exactly that dumb or at least intellectually lazy when it comes to matters of their faith. Such intellectual laziness allows them to believe, not only in the truth of their unexamined beliefs, but also in the evil nature and intent of scholars who oppose their fundamentalist faith.

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      I wasn’t saying the Habermas was dishonest; I was referring to the article written by the person referring to Habermas’s speech. I didn’t hear the speech itself.

      1
    • Avatar
      ardeare  May 9, 2018

      Robert, Dr. Habermas isn’t dumb or lazy. He has written fine works on the resurrection and near death experiences. Bart often refers to Professor Mike Licona as a fine scholar and Professor Habermas has corroborated with or co-written very important and impressive books with him. The author of the article is someone I have never heard of but apparently has a degree in Christian education. Not a New Testament scholar. (Not that he necessarily needs to be).

      • Robert
        Robert  May 10, 2018

        Thanks, ardeare.

        I was speaking specifically of ‘a few conservative evangelical Christian apologists I’ve encountered on the Internet’. It seems to me the problem oftentimes is not laziness, but what I somewhat casually but specifically referred to as intellectual laziness. What I mean by that (and I’m sure there must be a better term) is a tendency to not submit faith claims to genuine or rigorous historico-critical reflection. This is sometimes enforced by confessional ‘statements of faith’ imposed on faculty by private colleges or seminaries. If memory serves me, I believe Licona was fired from a position for a rather modest questioning of the historicity of Mattew’s account of the sightings of resurrected dead people in Jerusalem following Jesus’ crucifixion. Scholars who submit to such constraints on academic freedom, even when only self-imposed, are … What’s a better term than ‘intellectually lazy’? Perhaps we should merely distinguish between genuine scholarship and apologetics?

        3
    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 24, 2018

      I think it’s unwise and inaccurate to state that “conservative evangelical Christian apologists” often aren’t honest and to dismiss them as a group. It’s neither provable nor productive to make such a claim. And it adds nothing to the debate over the “Mark fragment,” whether or not it even exists

  4. Avatar
    Antonio40  May 8, 2018

    I am very curious about Mark. Considering the early date (after all, 40 years it´s not so much in terms of ancient history I supposse, on average), if we buy (for the sake of dicussion) that he made it all up, crucifixion, Pilate and all (mythicist claim) as an allegory based in Old Testament tales as an instruction manual for proselytising (or perhaps as a method for converting people who could not understand the subtleties of the “cult” (a cult there is no evidence whatsoever before Jesus was executed) then why the christian community ended believing it was a real history? Would not any early christian from Palestine or someone who knew early christians from Palestine, have pointed to Mark (whoever he was) that he was making all up?

    Christian apologetics may be sometimes dishonest, but mythicist authors are sometimes in my view so contrived as to think the apologetic picture it´s more probable. More probable than a guy making all up without nobody saying he was making all up, and without evidence of a previous cult not based on anyone who lived on earth.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      My sense is that a lot of people believe false reports about the past as being true, even when they are demonstrably false. (Think, e.g., about modern political discourse)

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  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 8, 2018

    Wow! Well, through the decades, I have attended Bible classes in lots of different kinds of churches and have observed what you have described in this blog over and over and over again. And this is, indeed, very ,very frustrating just like you describe. It reminds me of today’s “Trump apologists” who look you straight in the eye and say the darnest things with absolute conviction and certainty. I think this is primarily “confirmation bias.” Such “confirmation bias” is one of the strongest forces in the world, even stronger than gravity. And such “confirmation bias” makes it really difficult to have meaningful discussions in politics or religion and that is very frustrating. Making matters even more difficult, I guess the other side can accuse us of having the same “confirmation bias.” I guess some of this stuff could be intentional lying and manipulation, but I think “confirmation bias” is the most likely explanation.

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  6. Avatar
    jmmarine1  May 8, 2018

    Gary made a similar claim in February 2018 at Purdue University.

    http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2018/02/gary-habermas-on-first-century-mark.html

  7. Avatar
    Stylites  May 8, 2018

    An article such is this is why anyone who takes Biblical scholarship seriously needs to be a subscriber to the blog. Thank you very much.

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  8. Avatar
    Pattylt  May 8, 2018

    Ahhh, more lying for Jesus. Or deceiving, or hoodwinking, whatever! What do they really think they are accomplishing? If believers later discover the deception, how are they going to feel? Are Christians OK with this as long as it increases their numbers? Is this what the faith is to them? These are the examples that just scream out to me of the lies of religion, not any truth! Call me baffled and they should be ashamed. Ironic that ex-pastors often state that, after leaving the faith, they are ashamed but were they when they were pastors?

    3
    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  May 10, 2018

      Like the priests of the Inquisition who tortured heretics into true faith (sic), these folk seem to think if they can trick a few souls into heaven, it makes up for the disillusionment of.the ones who live long enough to realize they’ve been had. They were going to hell anyway. What a world!

      2
  9. Avatar
    fishician  May 8, 2018

    Even if a portion of Mark was found that could be reliably dated to the 40s, what would it prove? Obviously the stories in the Gospels started somewhere at some time. And if there were some very early documents claiming to be written by or dictated by eyewitnesses, wouldn’t the early Christians have preserved them and circulated them? I suspect what was there was incorporated into the known Gospels (which fail to mention any specific eyewitnesses as sources), so I won’t hold my breath waiting for any new earth-shattering discoveries.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      Ah, see today’s post! (Of course if it could be dated to the 40s it would at least show that hte Gospels were much earlier than we thought! But manuscripts cannot be dated to within a decade.)

      1
      • Avatar
        DavidNeale  May 9, 2018

        I suppose that would be vindication for the Casey-Crossley dating of Mark. (Which I find very convincing, but I’m no expert.)

      • dschmidt01
        dschmidt01  May 11, 2018

        It’s too bad the authors didn’t put dates on their pages. Haha. What calendar would a literate Greek author have used in the first century? Julian?

        1
        • Bart
          Bart  May 13, 2018

          They would date events in relation to the founding of the city of Rome in what we now think of as 753 BCE.

          1
    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 9, 2018

      A lot of people also seem to forget that contemporaneous “eyewitness” accounts can also be false. Just take for example the Lady of Fatima Miracle. Are we supposed to just accept that on October 13, 1917, that the sun actually “danced” in the sky before a crowd of fanatical Spaniards? Just because they claimed to have seen it doesn’t mean it literally happened.

      The veracity of an account is not only proportional to its proximity to the event. It is also proportional to the likelihood of its occurrence and the strength of the evidence. In fact, I would say that the likelihood and the evidence are more important than the proximity for determining an account’s veracity, to the point where a record 100 years after the fact could be much more accurate than a contemporaneous record, simply based on likelihood and evidence alone.

      1
  10. Avatar
    forthfading  May 8, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think these credible conservative scholars (i.e. Dan Wallace, Gary Habermas, Scott Carrol) are a part of a possible hoax or are they just so ready to accept an early fragment of Mark as a fact that they don’t use their training and expertise to make a logical conclusion? I know Dr. Wallace is one of the few evangelicals whose name can be appropriately paced alongside experts like you and Dr. Parker when it comes to textual criticism.

    To me, the difference is huge. If you are a part of the hoax….then that is shameful and unethical, but if you are too blind to the facts due to your religious hopes…..then that is unfortunate and hurts your credibility as a scholar.

    While we are on the topic…would you be willing to do a thread on the possible hoax of Morton Smith?

    Blessings

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      I don’t think either Wallace or Habermas are intentionally perpetrating a hoax. I don’t know Scott Carrol and so can’t say anything about him.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 8, 2018

    It would only be of more than scholarly import if it included some startling detail (a hitherto unknown episode or saying of Jesus) that might force a rethinking of all Christians believe. And it certainly doesn’t include anything like that (if it exists at all), or they’d hint at it!

  12. Avatar
    JoeRoark  May 8, 2018

    Some people need to have their mind, not their computer, defragged.

  13. Avatar
    jan.kriso  May 8, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman how many years would it take between a major discovery (say finding something like Qumran scrolls) and making it´s way into public eyes?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      These days it can happen very quickly — weeks? — because images can be posted almost immediately on the internet. It used ot take several years.

  14. Avatar
    mikezamjara  May 9, 2018

    Hi Dr Ehrman. Excelent post. Has Dr Wallace given any response to all this?, any correction? or does he still believe the dating of the manuscript is correct? Another question I would like to ask you is more personal and is: How do you do it? I am sorrounded by fundamentalists (mainly family) who believe such fallacies and search to convert with such false information and when I refute them they get offended althought I talk with respect to them . It drives me crazy but that must be rutine to you.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      Whenever I’ve asked Dan about it he says that he can’t say anything more because he signed a non-disclosure agreement. I’m not sure why he disclosed something about it in the first place, if he wasn’t supposed to, but there it is!

      7
      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 9, 2018

        Non-disclosure agreements seem to be very popular these days, I’ve noticed.

        3
      • Robert
        Robert  May 25, 2018

        “I’m not sure why he disclosed something about it in the first place, if he wasn’t supposed to, but there it is!”

        Wallace actually says he was “authorized” to mention the fragment in his debate with you. He was not under an NDA until later.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 27, 2018

          Right! It took me a while to get the dates straight. I thought he had said during the debate itself that he was not allowed to say anything more, but I must have gotten that wrong.

  15. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 9, 2018

    I pretty much expect an Apologetic to come up with an article like this one. It’s so preposterous I have to laugh. I’m not laughing at the people they’re fooling though. That’s not laughable at all. The sad part is, Moss and Baden have done the exact same thing with their book, Bible Nation. I knew it when I read it but kind of ignored it. After reading Larson’s review though, No. I don’t respect that. It’s very unbecoming of two professionals who should demonstrate integrity in their work.

  16. Avatar
    Saemund  May 9, 2018

    What a coincidence! I just found out about this alleged “discovery,” and here you are making a post about it.

    Anyway, I have two questions to you, one that has to do with the gospel of Mark, and the second, well, not so much:

    Firstly, what are your thoughts on 7q5 (a fragment dated to 50 BCE – 50 CE)? It is my understanding that it is not in fact a fragment of the gospel of Mark, but recently I heard someone claim that it is. I know that even Dan Wallace himself rejects the idea that it’s Mark. Do you know what the consensus is on this?

    Secondly, the very same person also claimed that recently the majority view on the dating of the gospels has shifted, and that it is no longer the majority view that the gospels were written in 70-90+ CE. Do you know anything about this? Insofar as you personally know, is late dating still the majority view?

    Thanks for your time!

  17. Avatar
    John Murphy  May 9, 2018

    Bart.

    Just a couple of short questions about scholars…

    1. Would you say there are more NT scholars than OT ones? I assume there are, but I have nothing to base that on!

    2. Are there, in general, differences between the people who go into those respective disciplines? For example, I assume people from Jewish backgrounds are more likely to study the OT. Are NT scholars usually more ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ etc? Are OT scholars generally more interested in history and archaeology rather than the content and meaning and religious significance of the texts?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2018

      1. Yup. 2. Yes, more Jewish OT scholars than NT; evangelicals are in both fields; OT scholars have a huge range of interests and commitments — same with NT scholars: texts, manuscripts, interpretations, theology, social history, archaeology, etc etc.

      2
  18. Avatar
    godspell  May 9, 2018

    I hate to see this kind of showboating style in serious scholarship. Obviously it’s nothing new–sensationalism goes with the territory if you’re talking Egyptology, for example–but it gets in the way of understanding. You get people’s attention, and then abuse it. The point is supposed to be education, not titillation.

    And the worst people in the theist and atheist camps encourage each other. Who’s this guy supposedly rebutting by finding this supposed fragment? Not you. People who argue for the non-historicity of Jesus, which most scholars have never supported, regardless of their personal beliefs. In my experience, most religious people have never even heard of Richard Carrier or Robert Price. Fundamentalists tend to view anybody who doesn’t believe the same way as them as atheist, or worse. (Harry Potter fans are Satanists).

    It just comes across as a grandstand play for attention, and it seems to have backfired.

  19. Avatar
    kjme410  May 9, 2018

    I don’t agree with their dishonesty, but I think I understand why they want to believe it so badly. Their belief system gives them comfort in this difficult life. From personal hardships to watching people you love die, a personal God who wipes away all tears and rights all wrongs makes this life bearable.

    I’ve heard of seeking meaningful work, meaningful relationships, hobbies, good food, good drink, but it’s not as comforting as believing in a supernatural being who grants eternal life.

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    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  May 10, 2018

      I wonder which approach, statistically speaking, is more likely to blow up in one’s face? Blind faith did for me.

  20. Avatar
    Hormiga  May 9, 2018

    I’ve long noticed and been repelled by the dishonesty and blatant manipulativeness that characterizes religious apologetics and prosyletization.

    However, let me flip the matter and ask: In your decades of experience, what examples of apologetics have you found to be most respectable? Not necessarily persuasive, but at least well argued and respectful of the audience.

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