In the second chapter of his, Matthew McCormick summarizes New Testament scholarship in a particular fashion. He is not pretending to have done any original research. But he wants to make the Gospel account of the resurrection seem as incredible as possible, without the bother of looking too much stuff up himself, or refuting such formidable Christian scholars as Craig Blomberg, Craig Evans, Larry Hurtado, N. T. Wright, or Ben Witherington
McCormick's goal in this second chapter is thus
to pretend to knowledge he does not possess, that is, the state of the Jesus question.
He wants us to think that the evidence for the Christian account of Jesus’ life is late,
scattered, insignificant, and tenuous, and that that is the consensus of Historical Jesus studies.
But he doesn’t know that, because he seems to have only read a few, and those who agree with him anyway.
McCormick clearly has not, for instance, read Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Who that has, would dare to assert this, without qualification or defense?
“But the view now, on the basis of modern work in history and Bible scholarship, is that none of the
Gospels was written by the apostle to whom it is attributed. Their authors are unknown.” (38)
A careful philosopher, anyway, ought to learn and acknowledge that not all the gospels are ascribed to
apostles in the first place. Luke probably was written by Dr. Luke, but no one ever calls him an apostle. Mark probably was a disciple of Peter, but also not an apostle. And while we know there was an apostle
John, he was not the only follower of Jesus by that name, and some scholars think that Gospel was written
by a non-apostolic disciple. So McCormick doesn’t even get his background assumption right, here.
But his big gun in downgrading the gospels is Bart Erhman:
“Nor do we have copies made directly from the originals, copies made from the copies of the originals, or
copies made from the copies of the first copies. Our earliest manuscripts of Paul’s letters come from
around 200 CE . . . “ (39)
Does Ehrman suppose the second sentence here is some kind of evidence or proof of the first? If not, how
do these two men claim to know we don’t even have “copies made from copies of the first copies?” No
explanation is given.
And here’s another question that seems not to have occurred to Dr. McCormick. Is the book we are now
holding in our hands, his own book, in so much better a position? Suppose McCormick did write it. Do we have a written manuscript in his hand? No, a copy of
that, sent to an editor? No, a group of unknown, and in some cases anonymous editors? (Not named in the
preface, which gives thanks to numerous other people.) And what did they do with the book? Who produced
it? Who handled the manuscript between the time McCormick’s editors passed it off to the squirrels in
the dungeon of Prometheus Books who actually set ink on paper, and bind the papers together?
And yet we read books, old and new, without constant existential angst over whether they have been totally corrupted in the chain of production.
Is that reasonable? Yes, it is, in both cases, as I show in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test. But here my purpose is not to demonstrate that positive claim, but only to deconstruct McCormick’s negative claims. We continue with this noble calling.
“What we have that is closest to the source is a tiny handful of fragments- they would all fit in a shoebox that are copies of copies of documents from one hundred to three hundred years after their sources were
originally written.” (40)
This is false and irrelevant to the extent it is true. The earliest “fragment” was written maybe 30 years after the original, according to McCormicks own account of the Gospel of John. So McCormick’s beginning date here is wrong.
Nor is the shoe box argument relevant. One could echo the exact same phrase for ALL bodies of ancient
evidence- what is “closest to the source” is bound to be a small amount of evidence, by definition. (Since “closest” is a superlative.) But compared to most ancient texts, the gospels are astoundingly early, and their manuscript evidence rich both in number and in quality. Anyway, one can fit a lot of powerful
evidence in a shoe box. Couldn’t OJ Simpson’s gloves fit in a shoe box? How about a pistol with
fingerprints? How about Archeoptyryx? The Magna Carta?
Evidence is classified as "useful" or "unhelpful," not as "large" or "small," if you're a detective,
not just the guy who has to cart the stuff from place to place.
Beyond all of which, McCormick ignores the fact that most of the New Testament is cited by early
Christian writers early on. How could later writers have meddled with the texts, if we have copies
of those texts already cited early in the 2nd Century? McCormick shows how out of the loop he is, by failing to even mention this important body of evidence.
McCormick further claims that it was only in the 3rd and 4th Centuries that “many believers” began to
settle on a “rough canonical collection of works,” and that on “ideological grounds.” (41)
This is simply untrue, or grossly misleading at best. In fact, the four gospels were recognized by
Christians already in the 2nd Century. And they were so recognized not “on ideological grounds,” but as I
show in The Truth About Jesus and the ‘Lost Gospels,’ because there apparently were (and certainly are not now) any rivals whatsoever to the real gospels on the market.
Even the so-called "Gospel of Thomas" already cites not only the four real gospels, but different layers in the four real gospels, showing that they had become accepted in the early 2nd Century. (As do early Christian writers.)
“From Jesus’ alleged death and resurrection until the Gospels were written, the stories appear to have been transmitted verbally from person to person until they were written down by the
Gospel authors thirty to one hundred years later.” (42)
This is a Village Atheist cartoon version version of history. In fact, no gospel was written so
late as 100 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus: John MAY have been written sixty years later. And of course even that would not require “transmission from person to person:” even in the ancient world, people were known to live more than 60 years, or for the young John, 75 years or so. My father-in-law does not require “transmission from person to person” to recall the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, though that will be (this summer) a full 70 years ago. He was there. Can’t skeptics count?
“If believing in Christian doctrine requires grounding in more or different Bible scholarship
than I have given, then many, perhaps even most, self-identifying Christians have
ungrounded belief.” (45)
Here’s yet another Jedi mind-trick. McCormick has read Bart Erhman.
He thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas. But ordinary Christians (my grandmother is the example I give in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could) read the Bible for themselves, and come to
believe in the Jesus they find their. The gospels are the primary and earliest documents about Jesus. So where is the “grounding” for reasonable faith supposed to lie? In the philosophically-fomented doubts of a 21st Century professor, or in the primary documents themselves? I argue the latter.
Also, McCormick is admitting, here, that he really doesn’t know much of what he is talking about, and is relying unhealthily on a scholar of like mind, rather than reading both sides of the debate. It is reasonable to read the documents for yourself, and decide if they exude truthfulness. It is reasononable to read both sides of the debate over those documents. But it is not reasonable to reject the gospels on the basis of one or two skeptical scholars' arguments, without reading able and important scholars who defend those works.
On pages 45-6, McCormick repeats the old canard about how conflicted accounts
of the resurrection are, and therefore they are unreliable. Strangely enough, he also argues that all the resurrection accounts probably came from a thin “bottleneck” at an early date, and that everyone else must rely on those few surviving scraps of evidence. (Ignoring the fact that Jesus’ first disciples could
easily have lived until the dates on which the gospels were first composed, and it is a mathematical
certainty that some would have.)
But these two arguments are in conflict. If the sources are so diverse, that suggests they are almost
certainly independent. People who collude tend to agree on the main facts, as prosecutor Vincent
Bergliossi points out in Helter Skelter. And if the gospel writers were simply copying from Mark, or Luke, or someone else, one would not expect the very disagreements McCormick points to.
Do those disagreements undermine the truth of the resurrection? No, they do not. As Michael Licona points out, for decades it was uncertain whether the Titanic broke into two as it sank, or not, relying on first-hand accounts. Some people were too busy trying to save their lives to quite notice, it seems. (As no
doubt was true on Good Friday.) Does that mean the sinking of the Titanic was in doubt? On that main
issue, witnesses seem to have agreed, and so does sensible history.
McCormick then turns to what he calls the “Texas-Sharpshooter Fallacy.” The idea is that the
only reason there is congruity in the Bible, is that Christians selected which documents to include in it, out of hundreds or thousands of random choices. (We hit the bullseye because we drew the bullseye after
“In short, the copyists and creators of the canon took a very large set of diverse writings and carved out of them the version of the New Testament we now have. That’s why we don’t usually read the Gospel of
Thomas, the Gospel of the Twelve, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Basilides, the Gospel of Mathias, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of John, and the Epistle to the Laodiceans.” (48)
In fact, as again I showed in The Truth About Jesus and the ‘Lost Gospels,’ to call any extant work outside the New Testament a “gospel” is just an advertising ploy. There are no other gospels.
It was clear to ancient Christians why the late, un-Jewish, obviously unhistorical, and downright silly and secondrate works Pagels and her fellows work themselves into such raptures over, didn’t belong in
the New Testament. No clear-minded editor would have included them, anymore than they would include
Hagar the Horrible in an anthology of Medieval Scandinavian historical writing.
The gospels really are extraordinary, but I am no longer surprised when a smart man like Matthew McCormick fails to see the obvious. As Jesus himself said, “I have come to make the blind see.” But there are those who claim to see, who render themselves blind by the very vision they embrace.
But McCormick’s signature vision is yet to come: how the Salem Witch Trials allegedly disprove the gospels.