01 November 2011

Nugent's Nonsense: Spilt Ink in the Irish Times, Part 5

I'm glad to say that Michael Nugent's abysmal series in the Irish Times has finally ground to a halt. A classic example of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, the series as a whole has been a wanton waste of ink, paper, and bandwidth, being ill-informed and ill-considered throughout, such that it should embarrass any knowledgeable and thoughtful atheists.

Today's may just be the worst piece yet, not least because it seems to contradict itself in a spectacular way; I'm not quite sure that it does, as I'm getting a headache trying to decipher what Mr Nugent's talking about, but there seems to be a blatant contradiction squatting at the heart of his confusion. Nugent confidently states that the Pauline letters are the earliest books of the New Testament and that these testify to a Christian belief in the Resurrection, but also states that at the time Mark's Gospel was written Jesus was merely regarded as an apocalyptic preacher, with Resurrection stories not appearing until the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Now I could be reading it wrong, but that certainly seems to be what Mr Nugent says. I can't help wondering whether the editorial team of the Irish Times even bothered to throw their eyes across this. It really looks as though they didn't.

Not a bad idea, but some caveats...
Nugent's thesis is that it makes sense to read the New Testament books in the order they were written, rather than in their conventional order; I think there's a huge amount be said for this idea as long as we bear a few things in mind, none of which come across in Mr Nugent's article.
  • Nobody is certain of the exact order in which the books were written, though the generally accepted order is more-or-less as follows: Pauline letters, Synoptic Gospels, Acts, other letters and Revelation, and John.
  • While many Pauline letters can be dated with a high degree of confidence, the dating of other books is a matter of serious dispute, and there's a strong case that all three Synoptic Gospels were in circulation by 65 AD.
  • Although modern scholars typically argue that Mark was the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels, it has been believed since at least early in the second century that Matthew was written first, albeit perhaps in an earlier Aramaic incarnation.
  • It cannot be stressed enough that the books of the New Testament arose within the Church, and that it was not the case that the Church was founded upon the New Testamant books.
  • The evidence provided by Acts for the experiences, beliefs, and practices of the Church in its first three decades should not be ignored.
  • The Church was born in the era of Cicero, Lucretius, Augustus, Virgil, Ovid,  Seneca, and Tacitus. The ancients had brains every bit as good as ours.
Now, bearing these points in mind, let's see if Mr Nugent's thesis holds up. Nugent says that a study of the New Testament books ensures that:
'You will see how a human Jewish preacher evolved into part of a newly invented Christian god. You will also see how his relationship with the main Christian god gradually started earlier and earlier as time went on: from his resurrection in the letters of Paul, to his baptism in the Gospel called Mark, to his conception in the Gospels called Matthew and Luke, to the start of time in the Gospel called John.'
Let's try to avoid getting too hung up on the whole 'god (small "g")' thing this week, shall we? It's obvious Michael doesn't understand what he's saying on that front. And yes, for the sake of convenience let's gloss over how he seems to think the Bible presents God the Father and God the Son as separate -- if connected -- gods. He really doesn't seem to understand the principle that if you're going to attack an argument or a belief you have to engage with it on its own terms, as otherwise you prove nothing.

Falling at the First Hurdle, Michael...
Instead let's just look at this point: Nugent claims that the Pauline letters show that the Christian community at first only saw Jesus as related to the Father through his Resurrection, and that it was only decades later, when John came to be written, that the relationship between Jesus and the Father was understood as dating to the beginning of time.

Now, Paul's letters include certain stylistically distinctive passages such as this one from Paul's Letter to the Philippians 2:5-11:
'Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.'
Widely regarded as a Christian hymn that predates Paul's inclusion of it in this letter, it is at the very least evidence of a high Christology in Christian thought by 62 AD, which is when Philippians is generally thought to have been written, though some date the letter to several years earlier. Look at what Paul says here: that Jesus had the form of God and that he deliberately emptied himself to become born as a man and die on a cross, being exalted afterwards. This utterly refutes the idea that in Pauline thought Jesus' relationship with the Father was seen only to have begun with the Resurrection; it's clear from this that Paul believed it predated his conception.

There are those who dispute whether the Letter to the Colossians was written by Paul, arguing instead that it dates from the 80s, but even if we accept that, we'd surely have to concede that the 80s precedes the 90s, which is when Mr Nugent claims John was written, putting forward for the first time -- he says -- the idea that the relationship between Jesus and the Father existed at the beginning of time. Well, Colossians 1:15-20 features a Christological hymn too:
'He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross'
Look at that. Before John put pen to papyrus, there's Paul or someone writing in his name testifying to the Christian belief that all creation was created in, through, and for Jesus.

And for what it's worth, Michael could do a lot worse than taking a look at the Letter to the Hebrews too. It's not Pauline, but it's more than likely that it dates to the 60s, to judge by what it says and what it fails to say, given its subject matter. It certainly predates John by some distance, and yet look at how it begins:
'In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.'
Again there we see the idea of the world having been created through Jesus, who upholds the Universe. There's a lot more of this sort of stuff in Hebrews, and though I'm not saying I don't expect Michael Nugent to find this crazy, I do think it inappropriate that he should gloss over this stuff as though it's irrelevant to his thesis. Such cherry-picking of evidence to create false impressions raises questions about whether he's actually read the Bible, as he so exhorts others to do, but perhaps it's churlish to suggest that he's either lying or incredibly unobservant.

Let's take a look at Acts...
It would, of course, be foolhardy to dismiss Nugent's thesis as being wholly without merit. Indeed, a study of Acts indicates a real development in Christian thought in its earliest years. The sermons therein tend to follow a predictable pattern, or at least to centre on particular themes, notably that Jesus' relationship with the Father -- and indeed with us -- is defined by the Resurrection. On the face of it, this might seem to give some support to Mr Nugent's broad argument, in that the Christological understanding of the early Church developed over time -- something I think all informed Christians would accept -- but in fact it undermines his argument further.

Luke was a disciple of Paul, and seems to have written Acts by 64 AD -- others would dispute this point, claiming that it's a later work, but it's incredibly difficult otherwise to explain why Acts excludes such crucial events in early Christian history as the Great Fire of Rome, the Neronian Persecution including the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, and the Jewish War with particular reference to the destruction of the Temple. What's striking about the sermons in Acts is that they reveal a deeply un-Pauline Christology, a Christology that knows nothing of our having been saved by Jesus' death, seeing Jesus' death merely as a necessary evil, something that had to happen so that the Resurrection could take place.

It was common practice among ancient historians to compose speeches and place them in the mouths of historical figures. It seems unlikely, however, that a Pauline Christian such as Luke would have attributed such un-Pauline sentiments to Peter, Stephen, and indeed Paul unless he either knew that such things had been said by them, or, at the very least, unless he knew that that sort of thing had been said by them. In other words, Luke seems to have had reason to believe that the Christology of the Church of the 30s was not so developed as that of the Church in his own day.

Do you see where this is going? The Church of the 30s and 40s was clearly a real thing, a real historical phenomenon, and one which Luke described in what seems to have been a historically honest way, not glossing over how rudimentary its Christology must have seemed to him. Had he simply been writing propaganda he could have polished and updated the sermons, but he didn't do so. As such they stand as simple testimonies to a Church that had witnessed the risen Christ and that was still trying to come to terms with what it had experienced.

Any discussion of the historicity of Jesus and the Church's understanding of him that doesn't even attempt to grapple with the picture of the early Church as revealed in Acts should be regarded as lazy, inept, ignorant, or dishonest, if not all four. One can disagree with what Acts tells us, but it takes some nerve to pretend that it tells us nothing.

What of Evidence for the Resurrection?
'The physical resurrection of Jesus is the central tenet of Christianity,' says Mr Nugent, 'but the evidence for this extraordinary claim is nonexistent outside the Bible, and contradictory within it.'

I'm not sure the evidence for the Resurrection outside the Bible is really non-existent, though I suppose it depends on what you'd consider to be evidence. Certainly, there are later non-canonical Gospels, and there's a passage of Josephus' Jewish Antiquities that many think was doctored by later Christian scribes, and there are Christian writings from the late first and early second centuries which speak of the Resurrection. More importantly, though, there's the existence of the Church itself, which from the 30s onwards was a missionary movement that was willing to brave persecution and death in order to spread the Good News of -- what?

Because that's the key question that needs to be answered in dealing with this subject. As N.T. Wright puts it in The Resurrection of the Son of God, 'at the end of the day, the historian can and must ask why Christianity began, and why it took the shape it did. Since the universal early Christian answer to that question had to do with Jesus and the resurrection, the historian is forced to ask further questions...'

The Earliest Evidence?
In the earliest written Biblical reference to the Resurrection, says Mr Nugent, 'Paul says the risen Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time,' except this isn't true. The detail of the 500 witnesses is to be found in 1 Corinthians 15.6, as part of the following passage:
'For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.'
It is an enormously important passage, but written though it was in the mid-50s and evidently based at least in part on rather earlier creedal statements, it's clearly not the earliest written Biblical reference to the Resurrection, that surely being  1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, which says:
'For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.'
Universally dated to between 48 and 50 AD, 1 Thessalonians is regarded as the earliest book of the New Testament to have been written, and it's a book which speaks not merely of the Resurrection but also addresses the reality that Christians had died and that more would die before Jesus should come again. This is important, as it shows that even in Paul's early writings he didn't really see Jesus as having been somebody who believed the world would end within the lifetimes of his immediate audience.

Of course, that shouldn't surprise us, as the first Petrine sermon in Acts implicitly makes a similar point, with Peter saying 'For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.' That Peter said Jesus' promise was made not merely to his audience but to their children, not to mention those in far off lands, rather challenges the view that Jesus message was for the Jews of his own generation, and that the world would end within their lifetimes.

Is it problematic that 1 Corinthians mentions the risen Jesus having appeared to five hundred people but that the extant original text of Mark seems not to have described Jesus appearing to anyone at all? Surely not: leaving aside the probability that the current ending for Mark replaces a lost ending, even in truncated form Mark features an indication that Jesus would meet Peter and the disciples in Galilee.

Indeed, it's quite easy to reconcile into one straightforward narrative all encounters with the risen Christ reported in the Bible. We hear of an encounter with Mary Magdalene and other women, an encounter with Peter which is twice referred to but never described, an encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, at least five -- probably rather more -- encounters with the Apostles as a group, an appearance to five hundred of Jesus' followers at the same time, an appearance to his kinsman James, a final appearance to the Apostles, and then an encounter with Paul on the road to Damascus. Given how the New Testament texts were written for different audiences and in different contexts, it's hardly surprising that they don't habitually reel off the same comprehensive list of encounters.

As I've said, it's easy to pull these together into one narrative; I'm not going to say there aren't bumps in it, but they're tiny ones by the standards of ancient history. For example, was Bocchus I of Mauretania the son-in-law of the Numidian king Jugurtha, as per Plutarch's Marius 10, or was he his father-in-law, as per Plutarch's Sulla 3? Did Caesar meet up with Pompey and Crassus at Luca in 56 as Plutarch says? Cicero,  who notes that Caesar had already met with Crassus at Ravenna, seems to be aware only of a meeting with Pompey, while Cassius Dio gives no obvious indication that any conference took place. I could go on, but that example from the decade of ancient history for which we have the best evidence surely makes my point sufficiently well: evaluating this stuff is always tricky. If it was easy, anybody could do it.

Not a Nice Guy?
One of the things Nugent wants to do in this piece is to argue that the Biblical Jesus is hardly a moral exemplar, but clearly under pressure for space he barely manages a couple of jabs on this, so slight as to appear to have come out of the blue.
'Nor is the biblical Jesus exclusively peaceful, or even just. In the Gospel called Luke, before the Garden of Gethsemane incident, he instructs his disciples to buy swords. In the Book of Revelation, he threatens to kill the children of Jezebel for the sins of their mother.'
I like the idea of 'The Gethsamane Incident'. It sounds like a Ludlum novel. That aside, though, I almost agree with Nugent on this, in that if we start ripping lines and episodes from the Bible out of context, as he does in this instance, then we're bound to reach some troubling conclusions very quickly. As I said weeks ago, the Bible needs to be read in its entirety and it needs to be read within the Church.

And with that, Michael wraps up, cluelessly referring to 'more primitive times', and summing up by repeating things he's said in earlier articles. What he doesn't do, however, is say what kind of evidence he'd deem sufficient for him to be convinced of God's existence. Remember that? His first piece, back in the day, was headed 'We atheists will change our minds if evidence shows we are wrong'. Five articles he's written, squandering a lot of valuable ink along the way, and he still never said what kind of evidence it would take to change his mind.

Do you think he's ever seriously considered that question?

Ah well.


Lynda said...

Brilliant. You ought to be charging for this! One query - what are the authorities that dates the first book in time at 48 to 50? The Douay-Rheims version of the NT concludes that Matthew and Mark were written about 6 and 10 years respectively after "our Lord's Ascension". (Most Church historians that I've heard have stated that they were thought to have been written rather later, though.)

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

It's so much based upon an authority as upon working through internal textual evidence with some external correction. This gives us dates between 48 and 52, though few scholars go as late as 52, and I'm not really convinced by those who go as early as 48.

Late 50 AD looks like the most probable date.

1 Thessalonians 3:1-6 describes how Paul, when at Athens, had sent Timothy back to the Thessalonians, and how Timothy had freshly returned to Paul from Thessalonica. Indeed, 1 Thessalonians should be understood as a response to Timothy's report.

This can be related back to the account we have at Acts 17:1-18:5, which describes Paul's time in Thessalonica, and how he had moved to Corinth, where he stayed with the Jews Aquila and Priscilla, who had recently moved from Italy following Claudius' expulsion of the Jews from Rome. This event is referred to in Suetonius' Life of Claudius where he says: 'Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.'

The name 'Chrestus' may be a Latinised corruption of 'Christos', which may indicate that early Christian elements among Rome's huge Jewish community might have been disruptive. That aside, it suggests that Aquila and Priscilla moved to Rome around 49-50 AD, as this tallies with the generally accepted date of the expulsion.

Acts 18:7-11 describes how Paul went to the house of Titius Justus, and spent a year and a half there. Acts 18:12 then says Paul was brought before Gallio, the Roman Proconsul. Junius Annaeus Gallio, brother of the Seneca I've mentioned early in the post itself, was proconsul of Achaea towards the end of the reign of the emperor Claudius. He wasn't there long, and is thought to have left by 53 -- he was certainly there in 52, not least because of an inscription from the era which can be tallied with other inscriptions.

So that gives us stuff to work with:
1. Paul moves in with Aquila and Priscilla, recently arrived from Rome, c. 49/50.
2. Timothy returns from Thessalonica and Paul writes 1 Thessalonians.
3. Paul moves in with Titius Justus, and spends 18 months with him.
4. Paul is brought before Gallio, who leaves office at some point between 52 and 54.

It looks, then, as if Paul almost certainly wrote 1 Thessalonians in 50 AD, probably towards the close of the year.

Lynda said...

Thank you for the lesson on dating Paul's letter to the Thessalonians. And what of the dates (6 and 10 years post Ascension) ascribed to Matthew and Mark by Douay-Rheims?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Oh. This is trickier. I guess what I should say is that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest New Testament book that we can confidently date.

On Matthew and Mark, I tend to think that claims of when they were written need to be treated very cautiously. I'd be very sceptical of such early dates as seem to be in your Bible. I wonder when it dates from, and who annotated it. People have been rather cockier about dating these things in the past. I think we should be rather more circumspect.

The earliest data we have on the first two Evangelists is from Papias of Hierapolis, a contemporary there of Philip's daughters, and a disciple of the first Christians himself, including one John the Presbyter, who some in the early Church regarded as the author of Revelation. Irenaeus, writing later in the second century, said that Papias had been a heare of John, and so many believe that John the Presbyter and the apostle John were one and the same. Papias is quoted by Eusebius as having said:
'This also the presbyter said: "Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely."'
He also said,
'So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.'
Traditionally people have understood Matthew as being the first of the Evangelists, with Mark being a precis of Matthew. Over the last couple of centuries it's been far more common to believe Mark came first, and that Matthew built upon Mark. A third possibility is that there was a kind of Aramaic proto-Matthew, and that after Mark was written, members of Matthew's community -- in Syria, it would seem -- reworked Matthew's original Aramaic Gospel into a new Greek Gospel which placed Matthew's flesh on Mark's bones, such as it is.


The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

How do we date them? There are a small number of people nowadays who've read a huge amount into a few papyrus fragments, dating the texts into the 50s based on them, but I think that's special pleading.

It seems to me that there are two approaches that have value.

The first approach all revolves, when you get down to, about one thing, which is that Mark, which we can take as being the first Gospel, prominently features Jesus talking about the destruction of the Temple at Mark 13:1-4. If we assume that miracles and prophecy are impossible, as most scholars do, or even if we disregard the possibility of Jesus having made this up and been flukily correct, then we have to take the view that Mark was written after the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, so this gives Mark an approximate composition date of 75 AD, with Matthew and Luke following in, say, 80 AD and 85 AD.

The problem with this should be obvious: it's not dependent on a historical argument, and wholly rests on the philosophical view that miracles can not ever happen. Approaching the Gospels with such a view in mind, of course, is akin to approaching Thucydides with the assumption that there was no such place as Sparta. It's prejudging the subject matter in a profoundly ahistorical way. An agnostic view makes more sense.

The second approach is to look at Luke, who claims to have done some actual research in putting together his account, and who wrote both Luke and Acts. Luke ends Acts with Paul under house arrest, and without any indication of what happened next. What happened next, within a couple of years anyway, is that Rome experienced the Great Fire and the Neronian Persecution, with Peter and Paul both being martyred, and the Jerusalem Temple being destroyed in the subsequent Jewish War. These were momentous events in early Christianity, and I can see no realistic explanation for why Luke would have omitted them from his story had he been aware of them; he would, at the very least, have hinted at them. This leads naturally to the conclusion that Luke must have stopped writing his bipartite history before these events took place. That places Luke at the latest about 65 AD, with Matthew being around 60 AD and Mark being around 55 AD.

Does any of this help?

Lynda said...

Thank you very much for a most fulsome and as ever, instructive, reply to my query. I did not mean to put you to such trouble - but am delighted at the analysis you've provided. Yes, those later dates - seventies and eighties tend to be given by current teachers of the subject. The NT of the Douay-Rheims was written by exiled English priest-scholars, Masters of Oxford Uni, (Fr Gregory Martin and others) while the English College was at Rheims, published 1582. (It was a literal translation of St Jerome's-seeded Latin Vulgate). From my ed. By Baronius Press, 2003, it appears that the extensive revisision by Bishop Richard Challoner, 1749 to 1752, included the annotations, prefaces, etc. As with many great works, original and translations, one of the motivations was to debunk the many protestant heresies of Elizabethan England, which looked to the then-new erroneous "protestant" translations in England.