Sunday, May 20, 2012

Is Dr. H a fish? Is Thomas a Gospel?

A biologist checked the species
and sex of fish brought on board the
Russian trawler on which I worked
in the 1980s.  If he'd found an anarchist
philosopher in the nets, how
would he know it wasn't a fish? 
In The Truth About Jesus and the "Lost Gospels," I argue that no new "Gospels" have ever been found.  In particular, the documents frequently described as "Gospels" by people like Bart Erhman, Elaine Pagels, the Jesus Seminar, and various and sundry "New Atheists," are in fact not Gospels at all.  The word "Gospel" here is used as a shell game, to fool the eye of the reader into conflating books that have almost nothing to do with one another, aside from the fact that they use the word "Jesus," and that in vastly different ways.

I concentrate most of my fire on the so-called "Gospel of Thomas," because it is given greater pretensions by secular humanist scholars.  (For instance, the Jesus Seminar's most famous book, The Five Gospels, is predicated on the conceit that Thomas should be treated as at least as good a source for Jesus' life, and as intrinsically valuable, as the"other Gospels.")

This is a charade, I argue, for six or so reasons:

(1) Most dictionaries define Gospel, in its literary sense, in relation to the four canonical stories of Jesus. 

(2) They do so because that is the earliest and most common use of the term, in its literary sense. 

(3) Some dictionaries allow one to extend the term to other texts, provided that those texts resemble the original four Gospels. 

(4) As I show in detail, even more in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, but also in The Truth About Jesus and the "Lost Gospels," Thomas does not resemble the real Gospels in the slightest.  In fact, many ancient books totally unrelated to the Gospels, like Confucius' Analects, Tacitus' Agricola, Homer's Iliad, or even the kung fu epic, Journey to the West, resemble the Gospels in more ways than even this, the "best" Gnostic text.  There is, therefore, no sensible reason to call Thomas a Gospel.  Doing so is more likely to obscure than to enlighten the issues. 

(5) One can also define "Gospel" etymologically, by the root meaning of the word, or at least tie its meaning to that root.  Euangelion is the Greek word, and it means "good news."  This makes sense in relation to the canonical Gospels, because they all offer purportedly and apparently historical tidings about hopeful events that had recently happened in this world.  It makes perfect sense to call them "good news." 

(6) This same logic does not make a lick of sense with any Gnostic text, including Thomas.  Thomas does not contain "news" at all, still less "good news."  It is a grab-bag collection of 114 supposedly wise sayings, some clever, some tedious, and none sounding at all like Jesus, except for those that were borrowed (as most scholars seem to agree) from the real Gospels. 

My friend and long-time sparing partner, Dr. H, begs to differ.  He thinks my definition of "gospel" is circular, and that the four in the Bible should be given no special consideration.   

Hiawatha, or "Dr. H," is a man of many gifts. He has studied or worked in marine biology, philosophy, and social science (don't know which the "Dr." comes from). He's a musician, has read a lot of political theory, has a good sense of humor, and can talk amusingly on dozens of topics. But like many people with extraordinary talents, Dr. H is also capable of making extraordinarily bad arguments.

But (with some minor editing) I'll let the reader judge for himself or herself. 

Dr. H: Your grand circular argument that defines "gospel" exclusively by the characteristics of the four canonical Gospels, and then uses that definition to "prove" that only those four Gospels fit the definition.

DM: There's nothing "circular" about it. The standard dictionary definition of "gospel" does, in fact, begin with the canonical four . . . I also explain etymological reasons why that standard is sensible, and offer analogies from zoology, where the same practice that I use for defining "gospel" -- begin with characteristics shared by admitted members of a class, then see if disputed members share those characteristics -- is followed. All three procedures -- dictionary, etymology, characteristics -- ensure that I am not "arguing in a circle" -- in fact, any one would. It is not arguing in a circle just to say, "The dictionary defines gospels this way, so Thomas is not a gospel" . . .  If you begin with an accepted class of objects, and want to know whether a newly discovered or disputed object belongs to that class, (this method) is the method you ought to follow.

Dr. H: LOL. If you make the circle big enough, I suppose that makes it harder to notice. The canonical gospels are an /example/ of the definition, not the definition itself:

"gospel : (n) 1) the message concerning Christ, the kindom of God, and salvation; 2) an interpretation of the Christian message; 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ a similar apocryphal book; 4) the message or teachings of a religious leader; 5)something accepted as infallible truth or as a guiding principle; 6) gospel music. 

-- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (emphasis in the original)

If there are 100 items in a class, the class is defined by the characteristics which the /most/ items have in common. To define the entire class by a minor subset is like saying "only trout are -real fish".

DM: You seem to have an incredible mental block on this subject. Your own quote affirms my position:

"gospel : (n) 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ a similar apocryphal book; -- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (emphasis in the original)

A gospel, in the sense we are using the word, means a book.  Containing what? The life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus.  The first three of which, most of the Gnostic "gospels" do not do!

That enough, by itself, is sufficient to demonstrate (that) the Gnostics are not "gospels" at all, the word "gospel" is just attached to them, to make them sell better. And yet for some reason, this is the authority you want us to go by! Fine! Let's go on:

"As one of the first 4 NT books OR a similiar apocryphal book."

That is precisely the methodology I use in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels," and . . . describe above! Begin with those four books, whose character define the genre, as wolves, foxes, coyotes, and dingos define "dog." Then see if some other book is "similiar," shares the same family of traits . . .

There is no "news" in Thomas at all. That's the etymological definition, I mentioned above, which combined with the other two ways of defining "gospel," all exclude Thomas and the other gospels.  (Calling Thomas a gospel is a) kind of shell game . . . It's like saying, "Dr. H, like other fish, is poor at logic."

Dr. H: Wrong, David. Begin with /all/ the books collected under the label and define the genre. /Then/ examine whether some of them may be outliers, or refine the definition.

What you suggest is akin to taking _only_ Finnegan's Wake, Joyce's Ulysses, and Trout Fishing in America, and using them to define "the novel". Then of course you're free to claim that "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," and "Anna Karenina" aren't "real" novels.

It's like saying, "Dr H, Martin Luther King, Charles Manson, and Dizzy Gillespie define the extremes of humanity; since David Marshall isn't like any of these, therefore David Marshall isn't human . . . "

I gave you a dictionary definition -- since you interduced the dictionary in your argument. That dictionary definition clearly shows that "gospel" is much broader in scope that "the four canonical gospels." It uses the canonicals as /one example/, NOT as the defintion. It uses the apocryphal books (which includes Thomas) as another /example/ of the definition.

DM: (That definition) clearly says the term MAY be extended from the canonical gospels to other books inasmuch as they resemble the canonical gospels:

"gospel : (n) 3) a book telling of the life, death, resurrection, and sayings of Jesus Christ /as/ one of the first four New Testament books /or/ A SIMILIAR apocryphal book." (emphasis added)

Crystal clear. The four canonical gospels are the standard for what the word means, and that can be extended if an apocryphal book is found to be  . . .  similiar to them.  If it is not similiar to the canonical gospels, by this definition, it is NOT a Gospel.

Come on, Dr. H. I know you hate to admit error. But nothing could be plainer.

And that is as far as the conversation has taken us, thus far. 

Am I missing something?  Or is the word "gospel" applied to books like Thomas for the same reason that one nation at war with another may counterfeit the currency of its enemy, in an attempt to devalue that currency?  No serious scholar really claims that any Gnostic book tells us much of anything new about the historical Jesus, though some skeptical scholars try to make it sound that way, as I also show in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.'  So it seems to me calling Thomas and later Gnostic writings "gospels" is quite a poker bluff . . . One that Christians have generally played along with a lot of the time, for the sake of courtesy, perhaps.


Matt said...

Hello David,

(Longtime reader first time...)

Is the definition of gospel that important? I think the real sting of the Jesus Seminar's claims is that Thomas (whatever it can be called) is a more reliable source of the sayings of Jesus than the canonical gospels.

David B Marshall said...

Matt: Yes, and of course that's the main focus of my rebuttal. But this word "gospel" is very important to these folks, which is why they often give their books titles like "The Gnostic Gospels," "The Five Gospels," "Four Gnostic Gospels," and so forth. This is not by accident. The way they use the word "gospel" is to trick the reader into thinking they really have somehow demonstrated that Thomas (or the others) is as good as, or even better than, the real gospels. But read carefully, you find that even in The Five Gospels, the Jesus Seminar can only point to two sayings (98 and 99, I think) that are not paralleled in the gospels, and that they can claim with a straight face really came from Jesus. I don't think those two sayings did come from Jesus, nor would it much matter if they did -- they're highly obscure. And these folks don't even pretend that, say, the Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Judas tells us anything new and true about Jesus.

So sure, the historical validity (actually invalidity) of Thomas & Co is the central issue. But the word "gospel" is used strategically, and repeatedly, to win that greater point by means of an optical illusion.

Charles said...


Not sure if you'll get this, but here goes...

A couple of things. You mentioned you might not be the best person to answer my question - can you get me in touch with someone who can? I've tried to post, call, etc to get in touch with William Lane Craig (who uses personal experience as an evidence of God), but to no avail. I'm currently hoping to get in touch with Jim Dennison, but we'll see how that goes. Do you have someone better suited to answer?

As for your answer - I can't help, but feel as though it is unsatisfactory. You first mention that you do feel God's presence. I would argue that is exactly the problem -YOU (meaning other people who ask for it and search for it don't) and Feel (is it really god you feel? Can you be sure? etc....) So you feel (or give God credit) for something you feel. I have always had trouble talking to God as though he were in the room. Would anyone take me seriously if I talked to my dead biological father, an imaginary friend, or even someone I knew was living, but wasn't "there"? I can't imagine they would (or at best one wouldn't believe they could hear me and respond).

Why would you suggest this tension is good for us? In what way? I don't think it is good for me. It has stopped me from going to church. (Although there are other reasons for that other than this one.)

You say that a few times you seen "objective" reasons to believe God hears you and cares about you. I'd be interested to know what they things were (and the possibility that it wasn't God at all), and would also ask is this a special privilege he gives to some and not all?

You mentioned that you think God does speak to us all the ways that I mention, but I think my whole argument was that he doesn't. As for your friend, did he really hear God and have to leave his homeland? Was it God that he heard? Did he have to leave? And if that is true, then why is it that God would only choose to talk to us and then make that the punishment? Is he punishing us for having to make himself heard? Seems a bit sadistic or unreasonable to me (assuming that is the case).

Finally, you mentioned that we do "walk by faith." What does that mean? At this point, I'm willing to say that most modern American Christianity is wrong and that it doesn't mean a "personal" relationship with God. So then, what does it mean? Does it mean simply trying to learn more about God by reading the bible, and also trying to follow the best you can while always just kinda waiting for heaven?

One last thought - I hope you don't read me as hostile or antagonistic. This is a serious problem for me. i recognize it isn't for everyone (or even most people), but at this point I am trying to find answers and trying to make sense of it all.

David B Marshall said...

Charles: Thanks for your heart-felt questions. I'm afraid Dr. H may respond in this forum -- would you mind if I posed your question in a dedicated post, gave it some thought, then tried to answer it? I could also run it by a few other people.

Charles said...

Sure, just let me know what post.

Mark said...

Your attempted rebuttal was fun to read. Dr. H poked holes in every one of your arguments. He demonstrated that your arguments are just circular and youre clearly ignoring other definitions of the word gospel. Your definition is a very narrow one that excludes other discoveries. I dont think i can add much to his rebuttal. H covered everything pretty well.

David B Marshall said...

Mark: "I dont think i can add much . . . "

This, I can believe.

Mark said...

I see you've responded by taking me WAY out of context. How Christian Apologist of you. ;-)

David B Marshall said...

Since you offered absolutely nothing but rank assertion, and since the context is visible above and readers can see how I am tweaking you, who cares?

I have shown that, far from making a "circular argument," my definition of "gospel" agrees with the dictionary definition. Dr. H's attempt to argue to the contrary failed miserably, when even his own chosen source proved to support that point.

I also point out that Thomas does not, in fact, speak of Jesus' life, death, or resurrection, thus failing to rank as a "Gospel" by Dr. H's own chosen standard. To this, of course you have no response. There is no response, this is the plain truth.

I also show that going by etymology, Thomas can hardly be a "gospel,"

Finally, I show that not just these four qualities that Dr. H's dictionary focus on, but looking at 50 defining qualities of the gospel, demonstrate that Thomas is not a "similiar" text, as Dr. H's definition demands.

So not only is my definition not circular, not only does it clearly derive from several converging lines of evidence, but it is also strongly supported by Dr. H's own chosen textual authority.

I can well believe you have nothing to add to Dr. H's creative and always energetic, but rather fumbling attempts to deny these clear and undeniable facts.

David B Marshall said...

Charles: I've just posted a couple attempted answers to your questions in the new blog post. If you e-mail me, or give me your e-mail address, I'll forward Gary Habermas' chapters.