Note: This is a very long question. The answer is several paragraphs
down the page.
I am presently taking a Comparative Religion course on the New Testament
and have been struggling with some of the themes that have surfaced so
far. Our course text is “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to
Early Christian Writings” by Bart Ehrman. What follows is an excerpt from
one of Erhman’s chapters on Paul of Tarsus:
“The Book of Acts states that when Paul went to Athens he left Timothy
and Silas behind in Berea (Acts 17:10-15) and did not meet up with them
again until after he left Athens and arrived in Corinth (18:5). In 1
Thessalonians Paul himself narrates the same sequence of events and
indicates just as clearly that he was not in Athens alone but that Timothy
was with him. It was from Athens that he sent Timothy back to
Ehrman goes on to argue that the Book of Acts presents varying accounts
of the conversion of Paul. In chapter 9, Paul’s companions heard a voice
but saw no one while in chapter 22, he claims that they saw the light but
did not hear the voice. Also, In chapter 9 Paul’s companions are left
standing while he is knocked to the ground by the vision, while in chapter
36 they all fall to the ground. Lastly, in the first account Paul is
instructed to go into Damascus and receive instruction from a disciple
named Ananias while in the last account in the book of Acts he is
instructed by Jesus himself and not sent into Damascus.
Another objection raised by Ehrman is in regards to Paul’s claim that he
did not meet with the Apostles as recorded in Galatians chapter 1.
However, Ehrman is quick to point out that the book of Acts chronicles a
trip to Jerusalem by Paul immediately after his conversion.
These are not the only accusations that Ehrman makes but most of them are
easily refutable. He relies heavily on quoting out of context and in
citing ‘scholarly opinion’ which he doesn’t bother to delineate.
Unfortunately, my professor relies on similar tactics. Contrary to popular
belief, the ‘scholarly community’, such as it is, is not in the business
of providing un-biased opinions. It’s all a matter of relative degrees and
in the field of theology opinions are always charged and are always biased
to some degree. Be that as it may, some of these points have raised
questions that I have been unable to adequately answer.
A couple of them are questions dealing strictly with the evidence
surrounding certain writings. For example, my professor referred to the
Pastoral Epistles of 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus as pseudonymous letters
which may very well not have been written by Paul. Ehrman also questions
the veracity of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2nd Thessalonians. Neither is
willing to deal with the evidence regarding these assertions and both
would rather discuss the potential ramifications. I believe that much of
the debate centers on content and writing style; scholars assume that a
variance in writing style or that the treatment of a particular subject in
an epistle indicates non-Pauline authorship. This claim seems dubious
because we have only a limited sample of Paul’s writings and it seems
dangerous to assume that certain peculiarities in certain epistles
wouldn’t potentially be general trends in his writings that would become
apparent if we had a larger sample with which to work. Am I correct in
assuming that this is the debate? How can we be certain that these
epistles are in fact of Pauline origin.
This train of thought, however, lead me to an entire different set of
difficulties revolving around the issue of New Testament canon.
Essentially, even if we can establish the historical accuracy and the
genuine authorship of all of the books in the New Testament, what basis do
we have for canonizing them as Holy Scripture? What I mean by this is, why
should we treat them any differently than we would treat C. S. Lewis or
St. Augustine. Certainly the Gospels stand in a league of their own along
with the book of Revelations because they all contain within them words
which were uttered by God Himself. Whether or not the narratives are
scriptural or not, the words which Jesus spoke are more than Scripture.
But what about the accounts of Jesus’ birth which the writers saw fit to
include? Should we consider these parts of the Gospels to be infallible
scripture? And if so, why? Or what about the letters to the churches? They
can’t all claim apostolic authorship and even if they could, what basis do
we have to assume that apostolic authorship confers the title of “God
breath scripture”? I have heard arguments which rely on certain apostles
referencing other apostles’ writings as scriptures. This seems like a weak
argument because it presupposes the right of apostles to make that
I know that there is a lot in there but I would really appreciate your
help. I want to be as devoted to Jesus as I can be and I don’t think I can
do that without having a separation between what I believe because of the
evidence and what I believe because of faith that I am comfortable with.
It sounds that you have a good handle on the specifics. (Paul
went to Jerusalem, but did not meet with all the apostles; Acts 17 does
not specifically say that they never visited there, it simply does not
mention a visit; the conversion accounts in Acts do not contradict, but
give complementary information and so forth…) These supposed proofs that
the Bible is full of mistakes fall on their face as soon as one gives the
benefit of the doubt to the Bible writers. Every single one of the
examples Ehrman and others give as you describe are perfectly easily
understood. Now, I want to listen carefully to each criticism of the
Bible, as I do not want to be a hypocrite when I complain about the other
side, but these are easily understood and have been dealt with in the past
by conservative commentators.
Really, it is the big picture which is most important, and
that is what you bring up in your interesting question. How do we really
know every single word of the New (or for that matter the Old) Testament
is inspired? The answer is that it is extremely obvious that we will
never be able to prove, sufficient for a court of law, that every single
word in the Bible is inspired by God. I can provide general evidence, for
example from prophecy fulfillment and from type/antitype fulfillment, that
the Old Testament is inspired by God (have you gotten a hold of my new
book, “From Shadow to Reality from www.ipibooks.com ?). I can make the
logical argument that Jesus proved who he is by his miracles and
resurrection, which lends general credence to the inspiration of the
gospels, and by implication to those who he clearly chose as his
spokesman, giving miraculous inspiration to their teaching and so forth.
However, when it comes down to the details, it is very obvious that I will
not be able to prove, first of all that Paul even wrote Philemon, and
second of all that verse seventeen of Philemon is inspired. How could one
ever prove that Psalms 94 verse eight is inspired? Anyone who expects
such proof is making a logically completely unreasonable request.
Therefore, what we need for faith in God?s word,
evidentially, is general proof that the documents as a whole are inspired,
or at least that the greater part of the documents show evidence of
inspiration. We need specific evidence that specific passages and aspects
of the Bible show specific marks of inspiration. We certainly have that,
as you yourself well know, and as evidenced by many specific items
outlined in some of my books.
Once we have that, one can either consider moving into the
realm of reasonable faith, or one can put oneself into an insoluble
position of demanding proof that there is not one mistake?proof that every
word, specifically is inspired. This is and always will be beyond
possibility, and it is very foolish for anyone to move in that direction
(although that is exactly what the skeptics do). In science, we would
call the claim that the Bible is full of mistakes an unfalsifiable claim.
One can never prove this claim false. All the Bible critic has to do is
keep moving around. Every time you show another supposed consistency or
myth or historical error to be not a problem, they simply move along to
the next one. Unfalsifiable claims are not useful for making reasonable
arguments. What the critics need is something like the resurrection
except in reverse?a clear example supporting their claim, and the simple
fact is that they do not have one. What any reasonable person must do is
decide at what point it becomes reasonable to move into the category of
beginning to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. I have gotten to
that place a long time ago. I am guessing you have as well. Once one
gets to this place, it is no longer necessary to answer every question
raised by these people, at least not for the sake of your own faith.
So, at some point, I or anyone else can conclude that the
basic case is made. I now assume that God?s hand was behind the writing
and the putting together of the Bible. It simply does not matter to me
who wrote Hebrews. So what? Whether Paul or an apostle, or whether
Timothy or someone else wrote it, it is in the Bible because God, by his
will, influenced what ended up in the New Testament. How do I know that?
For literally thousands of reasons. This is not blind faith at all. I
know from sufficient experience that purple grapes are sweet and green
grapes are sour. I have done sufficient experiments that, although I
cannot absolutely state as fact that all green grapes are sour, I can say
with confidence, even without eating that one green grape on the table
over there that it is sour. Does this mean that I am no longer thinking?
Does this mean that I am closed minded? No, it means that I am doing what
is reasonable. I have sufficient experience to no longer need to do the
experiment. It is the same with the Bible for me. I have sufficient
evidence that I have earned the intellectual right to assume that Psalm 94
is inspired by the weight of the general evidence.
There are three kinds of people (to commit a gross
generalization). One type of person simply does not ask the question.
This kind of person is fine by themselves, but they are not prepared to
give an answer (to quote 1 Peter 3:15). The second kind of person is
always asking the question. They never make the logical step to faith,
even if it is fully justified (using the grape analogy). This is the
skeptic or the Christian who becomes crippled to some extent out of fear
to simply accept faith in God. The third kind of person is the one who
asks reasonable questions and continues to ask these questions, but who is
also willing to proceed into faith to the extent that is reasonably
suggested by the evidence. You can probably tell that I would suggest
this is the wise path.
Now, the specifics. Are 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus
pseudepigraphic? I have looked at the evidence and would admit that the
case that Paul actually wrote these books is not sufficient to call this a
slam dunk. OK. So what? I believe they are by Paul because of the
context of the writings themselves. It is not inconceivable that someone
took the genuine ideas of Paul and created this book to reflect those
ideas. I doubt it very much, but I cannot prove this claim wrong. The
question is whether they are inspired or not. I say they are. I have
read actual pseudepigraphic books (The Epistle of Barnabus, The Gospel of
Thomas) and the nature and quality of these writings compared to the
Timothys is striking. I also agree with your line of reasoning about the
difference in style not proving anything.
Your next question is how do we know Romans is qualitatively
different from Mere Christianity (C. S. Lewis)? The answer is the same.
God has already proven to me that he has the ability to inspire writings
and to get them into his canon. You seem to answer your own question by
your phrase “stand in a league of their own.” In my opinion, Romans
stands in that same league, as does Hebrews and James for that matter. I
suppose I cannot say Philemon or Jude has enough material for me to say
with a clear conscience that they “stand alone,” but by the same standard,
God has already made his case as far as I am concerned, with the other
books. The evidence is sufficient for me to move on to faith. I suggest
you be willing to do the same?not blindly, but with your eyes open.
Please give God some room to work.
John Oakes, PhD