David Wood on the Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Bassam Zawadi

This is a response to some of the comments that David Wood made over here.

David Wood said:

Like or not, we know who wrote the Gospels. But let's assume that we didn't. We know, for a fact, that the early Christian community, in association with Jesus' apostles, held the Gospels we have to be reliable records. That's evidence we have to deal with.

David's Hypothesis: The early Christian community treated the Gospels as reliable because they knew they were reliable.

Bassam's Hypothesis: Even though the early Christian community treated the Gospels as reliable, they didn't really know if they were reliable.

My Response:

We need to define what we mean by "early Christian community." Which precise time period is being spoken about? 

If Wood had the first century in mind, then we would not have known much about Christian awareness of the gospels in this period. It is, however, unlikely that all Christians everywhere in this period were aware, let alone familiar, of the canonical gospels. A more realistic scenario would be as follows: initially, some would have known one or some gospels (this would include non-canonical material as well), and as time went by, people in different places became aware of the presence of more gospels, some of which began to cherish and frequently use. Thus, one may have known, say, the gospel of Mark but know nothing about the rest. Others may have known one or more of the canonical gospels and non-canonical gospel narratives, but not the rest. As time went by, however, people in different places increasingly became aware of the presence of additional gospel narratives. 

But from the first century itself, we cannot say much about which Christians probably knew some, one, or all of the gospels. Clement of Rome, for example, writing in 96 A.D., is widely believed not to betray the use of any of the canonical gospels. A little earlier, Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, are believed to have used and adapted the gospel of Mark in various ways to compose their own gospel narratives. If Marcan priority is accepted, then that would suggest that while Mark was deemed important enough to be heavily utilised, Matthew and Luke did not regard it to be so authoritative or reliable so as to be borrowed without changes. On the contrary, they made all sorts of changes to Mark. Luke, from his opening words, reveals his dissatisfaction with earlier gospel narratives. We read:  

Luke 1:1-4 

1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. 

Thus, here we may well have a criticism levelled at the gospel of Mark (and other gospel narratives).  

Conservative Evangelical New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie writes:

Luke's preface is illuminating in regard to his own approach to his task. He claims to have made a comprehensive and accurate survey over a considerable period, which throws a good deal of light on his seriousness of purpose. Moreover, Luke admits that others had previously attempted the same task, but his words imply that he found them unsatisfactory . . . (Donald Guthrie, B.D., M. Th., New Testament Introduction. The Gospels and Acts, 1966, Inter-Varsity Press, p. 87)  

Christian scholar David Laird Dungan agrees and writes: 

<9> "... in order that you might know the truth..." ends the preface with an implied criticism of the rival narratives - another characteristic of Hellenistic prefaces. The author must explain, in view of the existence of other possibly well-known narratives, why his should be bothered with. "Mine is more accurate" and "mine is both complete and entertaining" were typical justifications. (David Laird Dungan, A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels (The Anchor Bible Reference Library), 1999, Doubleday, p. 15) 


The general argument consists of two parallels, with the author at the receiving end of each one:

(a) "Many" have tried to create narratives so I will do the same. This is especially appropriate since they weren't as qualified, while I ...

(b) like the authoritative cadre of eyewitnesses who personally saw everything from the beginning and who maintained the accuracy of the tradition they handed on "to us," so also I, who have for a long time accurately studied all these things, in contrast to "many," will write a narrative having the correct order, which you, Theophilus, can be certain is the truth.
[Ibid., p. 14]

If the "early Christian" community treated the gospels as reliable, then Wood needs to present evidence showing this. And, likewise, if the "early" Christian community "knew" the gospels were reliable, then Wood needs to name some and cite some from the first century (assuming if by "early" he means the first century). 

Secondly, to treat something as reliable does not follow that it is reliable. Likewise, treating it as unreliable does not mean it is unreliable. We can mistakenly accept something as reliable or unreliable. The contents of the writings need to be examined by ourselves in order to determine the worth of any given document.  

Third, Wood constructs a straw man: I never said that the earliest Christians deemed the gospels reliable.   

First, it is not a fact that we know who wrote the Gospels. The majority of modern Biblical scholarship today rejects the traditional authorship view. Many also accept the traditional claims partially. For example, they may accept the claim that the apostle John in some capacity was responsible for the gospel of John, but would doubt the traditional authorship claim for the gospel of Matthew and Mark. They may be open to Lucan authorship of the gospel of Luke and Acts, but be sceptical regarding the traditional authorship claims for the remaining canonical gospels. Many conservative scholars partially accept the traditional authorship claims for the gospels, however they are sceptical about some of the claims and accept as "probably accurate" some other authorship claims. 

Thus, to say that "we know" who wrote the gospels is nothing more than a distortion of the scholarly stance on the subject. 

When Wood says that "we know" who wrote the gospels, he means inerranists - such as himself - "know" who wrote the gospels - even though Wood does not say it in so many words.  

We now present a number of citations to back up the above discussion. 

John Barton [Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford] states:  

The author of John's gospel is, as we have noted already, unlikely to have been an immediate disciple of Jesus, if only because so much of the material in the synoptic gospels is missing from John. The likelihood is therefore that all the historical books of the New Testament are not eyewitness accounts of the events described. They are all written by people some time after the events, a fact that must affect one's assessment of the books concerned. The authorship of the letters is also disputed. Several are written in the name of the apostle Paul. However, it seems clear that not all the letters attributed to Paul are by Paul himself. Significant differences of style, language and at times important ideas make this extremely likely. ... The authorship of other letters in the New Testament is also disputed. The letter to the Hebrews (traditionally ascribed to Paul) is anonymous. ... The letters ascribed to Peter may also be pseudonymous. ... All in all, large parts of the New Testament are not written by people directly connected with Jesus or the very earliest period of the Christian Church. (This could apply even to Paul: Paul was 'converted' after the death of Jesus). Rather, many New Testament books stem from second- or third-generation Christians, writing a little time after the foundational events of the Christian church and reflecting on them. Some of the authors would clearly like to be seen as earlier authoritative figures in that they write in the name of such figures. But the fact remains that large parts of the New Testament were written by Christians after the initial period (John Barton, "The Biblical World" (Routledge 2002) pp. 30-31).     

Bart Ehrman, summing up the stance of critical scholars, writes:  

Proto-orthodox Christians of the second century, some decades after most of the New Testament books had been written, claimed that their favorite Gospels had been penned by two of Jesus' disciples - Matthew, the tax collector, and John, the beloved disciple - and by two friends of the apostles - Mark, the secretary of Peter, and Luke, the travelling companion of Paul. Scholars today, however, find it difficult to accept this tradition for several reasons. ... none of these Gospels makes any such claim about itself. All four authors chose to keep their identities anonymous (Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2000, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, p. 52). 

Lee Martin McDonald and Stanley Porter accept traditional Lucan authorship but not wholeheartedly. They write (p. 295):  

"We are inclined to accept Lucan authorship, but not without some reservation" (Lee Martin McDonald, Stanley E. Porter, Early Christianity And Its Sacred Literature, 2000, Hendrickson Publishers).

For a more critical assessment, see Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, who dismiss the traditional authorship claims about the gospels in their The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, 1998, SCM Press Ltd.  

We also highly recommend that one reads pages 5 to 24 from EP Sanders and his wife Margaret Davies's book Studying the Synoptic Gospels, which could be found here. These pages easily put David's assertions and claims to rest.  

To know the details of the arguments against the traditional authorship view we recommend our readers to refer to these set of articles. 

David Wood speaks falsehood when he says: 

We know, for a fact, that the early Christian community, in association with Jesus' apostles, held the Gospels we have to be reliable records. 

This is a "fact" that not many are willing to gobble, including many conservative scholars.  

Who are these "apostles" with whose "association" the early Christians held the gospels as allegedly reliable records? Understandably, Wood is silent. 

Briefly, there is no trace of the canonical gospels from the era of the apostles. We know of no apostle - someone who witnessed the earthly Jesus' ministry - who knew about our canonical (and non-canonical) gospels. Hence the question of their view on the worth of written gospels does not arise. They may well have not known about the canonical gospels. We are not suggesting as a matter of fact that they did not know about canonical and/or non-canonical gospel narratives; it is just that we do not know due to a lack of evidence.  

In the writings of the apostolic fathers, most scholars believe that mostly the gospel of Matthew was probably known to many of the fathers such as Ignatius, the Didachist, Polycarp and others. Most do not find a trace of the gospel of Mark and Luke in the apostolic fathers and the awareness of the gospel of John remains disputed. The nature of the evidence is such that we cannot say that these fathers held the "gospels" as "reliable records." In fact, often we do not know how many documents they used or if they were even knew a single canonical gospel document (Clement of Rome, for example)! 

Secondly, from the evidence furnished by Papias, it appears that the gospel documents were not being treated as inerrant sources, let alone as the sole reliable sources.  Papias said:

If anyone ever came who had followed the presbyters, I inquired about the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord's disciples, had said, and what Ariston and the presbyter John, the Lord's disciples, were saying. For I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and surviving voice. (Papias (H.E. 3.39.4) cited in Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon. Its Making and Meaning, 1985, Wipf and Stock Publishers, p. 26)

Clearly, Papias did not consider the written gospels inviolable, inerrant, the final authority, full or complete. The purpose of the writings was to record the message. Papias preferred firsthand information. At this stage, Christians did not consider themselves limited or obliged to follow specific written texts. This is also clear from the writings of Clement, Barnabas, Ignatius, Hermas etc. Any tradition could be written down; there was no obligation to follow a particular writing in a mechanical fashion since it was merely a written echo of the preaching, inadequate by its very nature. This is simply the attitude of most Christian writers of the 2nd century. So while Papias considered the written records useful, he felt no obligation to limit himself to them but gave preference to oral traditions. No canonical gospel writing was "final authority" for the earliest Christians.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the apostles held the Gospels as we have them today to be authoritative documents. We challenge David to provide evidence for this. David is only assuming that the traditional authorship view is correct, but cannot actually prove it. 

Thirdly, when David says "the early Christian community" he is only speaking about those Christians that actually held the Gospels to be reliable. If there happened to be a group of people who rejected the Gospels, he wouldn't consider them to be part of the "Christian community." It is like me saying "We challenge David to show us a Muslim who rejects the five pillars of Islam" while he obviously cannot do so since one cannot be a Muslim unless he accepts the five pillars.

David cannot actually prove that there was a consensus amongst all Christians in the first century regarding the reliability of the Gospels. To say that there was a consensus requires evidence and David has provided none. Regarding the first century specifically, we learn nothing about the status and use of the canonical gospels from this period. We know of no writer who refers to them, quotes them, or talks about their reliability and authorship. There is silence. Period. However, if we accept Marcan priority, then we may say that the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark and made various changes to it to suit their needs and agenda. While they deemed Mark important enough to be heavily utilized, they appear not to have deemed it authoritative enough to respect its text.  

Furthermore, if there truly were a consensus, then why did Christians in the second century dispute the authorship of the Gospels?:  

Furthermore there is no evidence of any tradition attributing the authorship of the gospel to John the apostle before Ireneaus' assertion. Even some of Ireneaus' contemporaries do not share his opinion. The Roman presbyter, Cauis, writing a few years after Ireneaus, attributed the book to the Gnostic Cerinthus. We have evidence that this gospel was not universally accepted in Rome during the end of the second or beginning of the third century because the presbyter Hippolytus (c170-c236) had to defend the Johanine authorship. (Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism, p. 268)   

Furthermore, even if we were to grant that the early Christians did hold the gospels to be reliable, David erroneously assumes that just because the early Christians claimed that the Gospels were reliable then that means that they actually are.  

EP Sanders and Margaret Davies said on page 13 of their book Studying the Synoptic Gospels: 

The early Christians seem genuinely not to have cared who wrote the gospels, and it is difficult to combine a theory of carefully maintained tradition with the fact of literary silence.   

How interesting! Are we supposed to trust the judgment of the early Christians who did not care about who wrote the Gospels? For all we know, a bunch of lying hypocrites could have written the gospels without us having any idea. How can we trust the testimony of witnesses IF WE DON'T EVEN KNOW WHO THE WITNESSES ARE?!  

David Wood said: 

Once again, your hypothesis immediately gives rise to all sorts of problems. First, you have absolutely no evidence to support it.  

My Response: 

The burden of proof is not on me but on David. I am not here to prove a negative.  

David Wood said: 

Second, how in the name of common sense can you say that people in the first century wouldn't have been able to determine which records were true, when they could easily contact the apostles or the disciples of the apostles, who often travelled from city to city, making sure people knew the truth about Jesus?  

My Response: 

David presumes too much here. He presumes that Christians in the first century could distinguish true and false gospel narratives and they could easily contact apostles and disciples. You cannot go far with the "could have" approach. Let's consider the data. We do not know if Jesus' very disciples were even aware of the canonical gospels. Nor do we know of early Christians approaching them to ascertain the worth of written canonical gospel narratives. This may have happened, but we do not know if it did as there is no evidence to say whether it did or not.  

Secondly, while the early Christians could have approached the very disciples of Jesus and while they could have attempted to determine the truth of written gospel narratives, we can be reasonably sure that their efforts did not render the canonical gospels fully trustworthy, let alone to the level of inerrancy.  That is because when we compare the same stories in the canonical gospels, we notice many differences between them, both minor and major. Therefore, while the earliest Christians could have approached Jesus' disciples and could have determined which written narratives were true, it remains that, somehow, the canonical gospels contain both reliable and unreliable details, and we can be very sure by comparing their contents, that stories were changed and adapted in various ways.  That is why New Testament scholars have had to construct criteria to make sense of its data and determine, as best they can, the reliable and historically unreliable details therein. To cite Prof. Christopher M. Tuckett:  

Nevertheless the nature of the Gospel tradition means that we cannot simply take everything recorded in all the Gospels as unquestionably genuine reports about what Jesus said or did in a pre-Easter situation. (Christopher M. Tuckett, Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, 2001, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 203.)  

We cannot rest any argument on what we think the people in the first century would have done. Rather, we must examine the evidence for what they actually did. And we have no evidence that any Christian in the first hundred years did any serious kind of investigation regarding the authorship of the Gospels and checked the facts and still accepted the traditional authorship claims. It could very well be that the people who did do any serious investigation actually ended up rejecting the Gospels.  

Secondly, as EP Sanders noted, there is no evidence of any attribution of the Gospels to any respective authors in the first century. Thus, why would people want to confirm whether the Gospels were written by the disciples if the claim that the disciples wrote them wasn't even there? 

Richard Carrier comments on the difficulty of conducting any serious kind of investigation back in the first century: 

How would potential converts "check" Christianity's claims, even if they adopted a skeptical research paradigm available at the time?


·       First, travel was too expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous for most people. No one would bother with it who was not already convinced the trip was worth it. Yet skeptics wouldn't have the motive to engage such risk and expense (and we have no evidence any did), while believers would have little reason to "check" what they no longer doubted (and, again, we have no evidence of anyone in the first century making such a trip in order to "check" evidence, even after converting, much less before).

·         Second, as there was no post office, mail was very impractical--nearly impossible, in fact, unless you knew someone who both knew the person you wanted to correspond with and was traveling there and thus could carry your letter. And even then, few were in the habit of writing back to strangers, and even when they might have, the whole exchange could take several months, given the inordinate length of time required to make the journey and to await the convenience of someone making the trip. Officials would be much easier to reach, but even less likely to respond to someone outside their jurisdiction or on a matter not relevant to their very busy jobs, and the great length of time remained. Accordingly, we have no evidence of any investigative letters being sent by anyone, before or after converting to Christianity, in its first hundred years--much less thousands of such letters, as Holding's argument requires, since numerous converts are supposed to have done this.

·       Third, access to libraries was greatly limited, and not very useful to a potential Christian anyway. Libraries were rare, hardly comprehensive, and useful only to the highly literate. Government archives would have been off limits to all but permitted officials (see Note 4 again), and would be unlikely to contain any information that would confirm any evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. And libraries open to the public would in turn contain even less along those lines, since Christian books would not appear in them for at least another century, and we have no evidence any other literature mentioned any facts suggesting Jesus really rose from the dead.


That leaves only one other option: asking neighbors and visitors. Which probably meant asking those who had already converted to Christianity, since few others would know any relevant information, much less believe it. Thus, all a doubter probably had to go on was his or her perception of another convert's sincerity. Such sincerity could be feigned, but even more importantly, testimony could be sincere but based on insufficient evidence, a problem difficult for a doubter to evaluate. The best a skilled doubter could do was engage in a carefully crafted interrogation to explore the actual details known to the reporter, which would not be very welcome (it usually indicated a despised scale of hostility--just as modern-day New Agers respond to such questioning with near-violent indignation) and somewhat limited in what it could accomplish. And even then, such skills of interrogation were not widely learned, nor is there any evidence of any Christian convert in the first century employing such skills before converting, or after. (Richard Carrier, Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006), Chapter 7: Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?, Source)  

Richard Carrier goes on further to demonstrate that the early Christians were not the type of people who practiced or encouraged critical inquiry: 

Read the Epistles and see. Paul and his audience do not seem very impressed by rational, historical, scientific, or dialectical evidence (check out 1 Corinthians 2), so these get no significant mention in his letters. Instead, Paul always 'proves' the truth by appealing to the efficacy of apostolic miracle-working, to subjective revelation, to scripture, and to his upstanding behavior or 'suffering' as proof of his sincerity.[2] That's pretty much it. After all, Paul and his flock believed 'truth' had to be grasped spiritually, on faith (1 Corinthians 2:15-16), not through skeptical investigation. Consider the argument of Galatians:

I am amazed that you are so quickly abandoning the one who called you in the grace of Christ, for a different gospel, which isn't really another gospel, except there are some people who trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any gospel other than what we preached to you, let him be anathema! As we have said before, so say I now again, if any man preaches to you any gospel other than that which you received, let him be anathema. (Galatians 1:7-17, emphasis mine)

Here we have a serious situation: Christians are abandoning the faith for some alien gospel. Surely here, of all places, Paul would pull out all the stops in emphasizing the proper empirical methods for checking the truth of what Jesus really said and did, and hence what the true gospel really was. Yet what do we get? A question-begging criterion of blind dogmatism: anything you hear that contradicts what we told you is false. Period. No fact-checking required. Even a vision from heaven won't cut it! Paul is so adamant about this criterion that he repeats it twice. This is clearly the criterion of truth he and his congregation should and do employ. Yet it is exactly the opposite of the empirical standards Holding wants to pretend Paul advocated.

Paul continues (emphasis mine):

For I make known to you, brethren, regarding the gospel which was preached by me, that it is not according to a man, neither did I receive it from a man, nor was I taught it. Rather, it came to me through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my manner of life in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and made havoc of it: and I advanced in the Jews' religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me, even from my mother's womb, and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son inside me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, right away I did not consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go over to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me.

Think about this argument for a minute. Paul is surely using the best argument he knows will persuade his audience, and get them back into the fold--so we can say his audience must have found this line of reasoning more persuasive than anything else he could think to say. But his line of reasoning is the exact flip-side of empirical standards: whereas a good critical thinker would only trust a man who immediately went and checked all the facts before believing, Paul not only explicitly declares he did not do that at all, but the fact that he didn't is actually his very argument! In other words, he expects his audience to be impressed by the fact that he didn't fact-check! So important is this point that he actually goes out of his way to insist, "I'm not lying!" (Galatians 2:20).

Thus, Galatians 2 expresses values exactly the opposite of what Holding wants. Paul and his audience are thoroughly uninterested in Holding's idea of "fact-checking." To the contrary, the testimony of men, indeed even of angels, is inherently suspect--so suspect, in fact, that they can dogmatically reject it a priori. What is persuasive is simply and only this: that God spoke to Paul in a private revelation. That is the only kind of evidence his audience will accept--indeed, even so much as a hint that Paul checked the facts before believing the vision would destroy Paul's credibility entirely. For if he showed any doubt at all that the vision was true, if the vision was so insufficient that he had to seek reinforcement or additional instruction from mortal men, then this would cast doubt on the vision being an authentic communication from God. After all, his audience were the sort of people who thought God punished Zacharias (by striking him mute) for merely asking for evidence (Luke 1:18-20). That's how hostile the Christian mind was to Holding's dream of "fact-checking." The Christian moral was that Zacharias, and hence all of us, should simply trust a vision--no questions asked, and no facts checked. The same twisted logic also makes sense of Paul's tactic of pointing out how he did a total 180 from enemy to friend, as proof that his vision must really have been from God. The fallacious logic here would impress many people back then. But we have no good reason to buy it today. 

Anchor17.3. Survey of Passages Relating to Method

Paul's bizarre anti-empirical assumptions reflect the fact that Christian epistemology was fundamentally centered on faith over evidence. For "the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17, quoting Habakkuk 2:4) and so "we walk by faith and not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is an attitude that offers little encouragement to "checking the facts first." To the contrary, when questions arise, far from being encouraged to fact-check, the Christian is told to "ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind," and "such a man cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways" (James 1:6-8). Ask in faith. Ask without doubting. The man who doubts is aimless, unstable, and worthy of no help from God. This is exactly the opposite of encouraging critical inquiry. It quite clearly discourages it.

Far from being told to check things out, the Christian is told "you have no need for anyone to teach you" because Christ "teaches you about all things and is true and is not a lie, and just as this has taught you, you abide in him" (1 John 2:27). In fact, don't even pay attention to what anyone else says, just what we tell you, for "we are of God, and he who knows God understands us, while he who is not of God doesn't understand." That is our criterion of truth; "by this we know the spirit of truth" and can distinguish it from "the spirit of error" (1 John 4:6). This is dogmatism, not empiricism. Fact-checking is portrayed here as all but ungodly. Instead, believe what we say. End of story. That's indeed the only criterion implied in 1 Corinthians 15:11: after reciting the claims grounding the faith, Paul does not mention any facts having been checked or needing to be checked; all he says is "so we preach, and so you believed." That's considered enough.

At the same time, the principles of philosophy, science, logic, and forensics are lambasted as foolish. People who rely on them "become futile in their speculations," and though "professing to be wise," they are really just "fools" (Romans 1:21-22). Christians are openly discouraged from learning, developing, and employing skills of interrogation, investigation, and examination. Anyone who attempts to do that merely "deceives himself," for all those things are "foolishness before God." In fact, "it is written" that "the reasoning of the wise" is "useless," that God "will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and [that God will] bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing"--making fools of "the wise man," "the scribe," and "the skilled questioner" (1 Corinthians 1:18-20 & 3:18-20). This isn't exactly an encouragement to follow in the footsteps of philosophers, scholars, and skilled inquirers.

Indeed, Christians are specifically told to reject logical analysis, since "wrangling over words" is "useless" and brings only ruin (2 Timothy 2:14), and it's all "fruitless discussion" anyway. Whoever entangle themselves in it "neither understand what they are saying nor grasp the matters about which they make confident assertions" (1 Timothy 1:6-7). Examining alternative accounts and claims is discouraged, too:

If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing, having a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-4)

Thus, the very sort of person who asks questions, seeks precision in description and terminology, or even suggests the truth is other than what the Christian leaders say it is, is just plain evil. How can you check any facts, when any fact contrary to dogma is automatically a lie, born only of evil, arrogance, ignorance, and greed?

So fact-checking is practically ruled out a priori. Anything contrary to the "knowledge of God" and "obedience to Christ" must be destroyed (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). Not checked. Not looked into. Just destroyed. All mundane knowledge is suspect: "if anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know" (1 Corinthians 8:2). And the cure is not employing some critical method to gain reliable knowledge, but to simply reject everything contrary to dogma. The Christian is simply told to "make sure no one makes a captive of you through philosophy and senseless deception according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the natural world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).

In fact, the earliest Christians conveniently constructed an epistemology whereby any evidence or testimony that contradicts their dogmatic beliefs could be rejected out of hand. Anyone who says anything contrary to the claims of the apostles is surely deluded, "for God has sent upon them a deluding influence so they would believe what is false" (2 Thessalonians 2:11), and they are all hypocrites, liars, victims of deluding spirits, and the puppets of demons (1 Timothy 4:1). Christians are even told, point blank: don't debate (Galatians 5:20-26), even though debate is the lifeblood of critical inquiry. Likewise, instead of checking out the facts and developing well-researched refutations, "false teachers" are simply to be "shunned" (2 Timothy 3:5), and so anything contrary to dogma won't even be heard--much less looked into. As Timothy is instructed, "guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith" (1 Timothy 6:20-21). In other words, trust what you were told. Don't even listen to anyone else. Rather than being told to investigate them, Christians are instructed to simply reject what stories they may hear (1 Timothy 4:7).

One can certainly try to sugarcoat all this, spin it to one's liking, make excuses, and ultimately argue that these declarations only apply to certain contexts, or whatever. It still won't change the fact that these are the only encouragements regarding method to be found in the Epistles. And not a one encourages anyone to "check the facts." Instead, when we catch glimpses of the actual methods that Christians respected, we find mysticism trumping empiricism every time. Consider Paul's moving appeal:

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom when I proclaimed to you the testimony of God.... My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in a demonstration of the spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Thus, Paul openly disavows the established rhetorical principles of evidence and argument, and says instead that the miracles of the Holy Spirit are all he came with, and all that God wants Christians to trust as evidence. Miracles and revelations and the apostle's word were always sufficient. No research was necessary, for "the Lord will give you understanding in everything" (2 Timothy 2:7; e.g. Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11-12, 21:13-15). Like modern New Agers (see Chapter 13), Christians are exhorted to ignore the evidence of their senses, and trust instead in the invisible certainties of their heart (2 Corinthians 4:18), since that is where God speaks to you. Indeed, Paul gives away the game when he says "what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?" (1 Corinthians 14:6) Funny how "evidence" and "logic" don't make the list. Paul is saying outright that if a claim doesn't come by revelation, prophecy, inspiration (gnôsis), or tradition, it is profitless and not even worth mentioning. So much for fact-checking.

Apart from Scripture, the Holy Spirit is their only sourcebook:

For to one God grants the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge (gnôsis) according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another workings of power, and to another prophecy, and to another interpretations of spirits, to another different kinds of utterances, and to another the interpretation of these utterances. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10)

Wisdom. Knowledge. Faith. All come from the Holy Spirit. Not from research. Not from making inquiries. Not from questioning witnesses accurately and weighing different kinds of testimony. Indeed, when Paul declares the hierarchy of reverence, the list goes: "first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, then the ability to help, then to administer, then varieties of speaking in tongues" (1 Corinthians 12:28). Again, fact-checkers don't even make the list.

Christianity's earliest critic certainly noticed the problem, and it is well worth looking at what he said on this matter, and what the Christian apologist Origin had to say in reply, even though this comes two hundred years late. When Celsus attempted to investigate the claims and doctrines of Christians, he kept running into this same wall: Christians would simply exclaim "do not question, just believe!" They expected converts to simply trust in Jesus--without evidence or demonstration. And Origen does not deny it. To the contrary, he defends it! He says, point blank: "we admit that we teach those men to believe without reasons." So much for the supposed encouragement to "check the facts" first.

Origen does claim that Christians believe in inquiry into the meaning of their prophetical writings, the parables of the Gospels, and "other things narrated or enacted with a symbolical signification," but mentions nothing about checking witnesses, documents, physical evidence, histories, or anything empirical at all. And what's worse, not only is "study of scripture" the only inquiry Christians engage in, Origen declares that most people don't even have the time for that (since people worked long hours in antiquity just to get by), and "therefore" the Christian exhortation to "simply believe" is actually a good policy! So rather than refute or even challenge Celsus on this point, Origin defends the very anti-empirical policy we have found throughout the Epistles, on the dismal argument that faith is good for people.

By wasting no time on "fact-checking" before committing to the faith (or even afterward!), people can gain salvation and moral improvement. "Isn't it better for them," Origen insists, "to believe without a reason, and then become reformed and improved," rather than "not to have allowed themselves to be converted on the strength of mere faith, but to have waited until they could give themselves to a thorough examination of the reasons?" Origen says it is indeed better to "just believe," because most people could never complete such an examination, and therefore would remain wicked and die unsaved. So it is better they simply have faith, and not waste time checking the facts.[3] So much for Holding's argument. (Richard Carrier, Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006), Chapter 7: Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?, Source) 

Thus, we see that the earliest Christians were not the type of people who bothered to do their homework and critically examine the sources of the texts that they deemed to be holy. Contrast this with the early Muslims who did their utmost to ensure where everything came from.  

Thus, David's appeal to the early Christians (whoever they are) cannot be taken seriously. We have no reason to trust the early Christians for utilizing any sort of scientifically reliable methodology of examining the sources of the information that they have obtained.    

David Wood said: 

Third, why do we know of absolutely no one in the first century who questioned the reliability of the Gospels? Here you would have to come up with some conspiracy theories. 

My Response: 

Well, neither do we know anyone from the first century who did not question the reliability of the canonical gospels! In fact, we do not know of anyone from the first century (probable exceptions, Matthew and Luke, who knew Mark) who knew about the canonical gospels, let alone was intimately familiar with their contents. The best guess we can make is that some knew one or some gospel narratives initially, becoming aware of additional narratives over time. It was not that from the start, all canonical gospels were instantly accepted everywhere. Instead, the early period is a fluid one. There were probably traditions around which ultimately did not survive, and more written gospel writings which have not survived. Much was being said and written about Jesus and his activities, with differences between the accounts as these circulated and moved along to more people. All sorts of changes were made to the stories and sayings attributed to Jesus, minor and small, and some were also invented. 

Also, is David seriously trying to argue that NO ONE in the first century questioned the reliability of the Gospels? What about all the skeptics and Jews who rejected the Gospels? Is David trying to say that even though they rejected the Gospels, they still believed in its reliability? Is David trying to say that everyone in the first century who read the Gospel of Matthew, which spoke about the resurrection of dead saints during Jesus' crucifixion, actually believed in that story and trusted the reliability of the Gospel, yet still rejected it and refused to become a Christian? 


In conclusion, David Wood has failed miserably to convince us of the Gospels' reliability.



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