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Questions on the Virgin Birth, Bart Ehrman, and Dating the Gospels

June 24, 2019     Time: 17:34
Questions on the Virgin Birth, Bart Ehrman, and Dating the Gospels


Dr. Craig fields questions from around the world including a listener in Spain.

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, questions from all over the world are pouring in. Let's go to them.

Dear Dr. Craig, if the virgin birth of Jesus, as you told Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, is logically confirmed by its unique departure from pagan and Judeo theology, how can the personhood and mission of Jesus be taught (typology) as a culmination of Judaic tropes, rather than a radical departure from a Christian perspective, a multidimensional and multi-balanced transformation of prior precedent? Would this not in-and-of itself be a counterproof, not to Christianity but to Messianic Jewish evangelism which proclaims the Christian savior not as de novo but as a logical extension of Judaism?

DR. CRAIG: I think that the Messianic Jewish evangelism does exaggerate the continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the Old Testament concepts of the Messiah. I think it's important to affirm what a radical departure Jesus of Nazareth does represent from typical Jewish messianic expectations. When you read the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, it's no wonder that the Jewish leadership of Jesus' day disputed his authenticity and thought him to be an imposter. When he was crucified, they mocked him saying, If you really are the Messiah, the King of the Jews, then come down from the cross and destroy your enemies. This is the kind of messianic warrior and ruler that they were expecting. And for them, the crucifixion of Jesus was just a mockery of his claim to be the fulfillment of these messianic prophecies. So I don't think that we should exaggerate the continuity here. There is a radical newness in Jesus of Nazareth that is vindicated by the resurrection. It is the God of Israel's raising Jesus from the dead that vindicates this radical reinterpretation of the Jewish Messiah. Now, that doesn't mean that we can't present Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish tropes. In my work on the atonement what struck me was the way in which the Levitical sacrificial system of blood sacrifices to God prefigure Jesus’ own self-sacrificial death. When he celebrated the Last Supper, he broke the elements of the Passover bread and the wine and said to the disciples, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” He saw his impending death as a Passover sacrifice, as the inauguration of a new covenant, and as a blood sacrifice that would expiate the sins, not only of Israel, but of the Gentiles as well. So I think we can definitely see Jesus as a fulfillment of these Jewish hopes, especially these Levitical sacrifices, but I have to hasten to add as well of Isaiah 53 and the suffering Servant of Yahweh which Jesus saw himself to be as we see in his words at the Last Supper.

KEVIN HARRIS: Next question:

Dear Dr. Craig: I have a question pertaining to the argument from contingency that has bothered me for quite some time. It's a simple one, so I'm certain that I must be over-thinking it. If one of the many reasons we think that the universe doesn't exist necessarily is because there could have been a different universe then why shouldn't we say that God can't exist necessarily because there could have been a different God? Maybe God could have been a different person that had the same divine attributes but the only difference being that he was a different agent. This would be just one difference but a huge difference. Surely a God who is a different person is definitely a different God – someone else could fit all the criteria for being God since being omnipotent, omniscient, etc. doesn't really depend on who is omnipotent, omniscient as long as they are God. Surely we can't say both that God is necessary because there couldn't have been a different God and that there couldn't have been a different God because God is necessary. This is circular. So I must be missing something. In short, why can't we have this objection about the universe but not about God? Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. God bless.

DR. CRAIG: The short answer is that if there could have been a different God then God is a contingent being and therefore cannot be the sufficient reason why anything exists rather than nothing. You have to get back to a metaphysically necessary being which cannot not exist.


Dear Dr. Craig: I've watched your debate with Dr. Ehrman on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and I found something in Ehrman's interventions to be quite puzzling. As far as I recall, he in no moment gives any alternative explanation of the four established facts in discussion. I mean, of course he sort of invents two ad hoc explanations (the brothers stole the body and got killed in the process, or maybe Jesus had an unknown twin brother). But he himself explicitly states he does not believe in them for a second. He is just using them for a purpose of comparison, so to speak, to say as unlikely and fantastic they seem these are still more probable and convincing explanations than the resurrection hypothesis because they involve no miracle which in his opinion is the least likely thing to happen. But never in the debate does he say, Here's what I think actually happened. I was wondering if, to your knowledge, Dr. Ehrman has such an explanatory alternative, and what is your response to it? And, if not, how reasonable can it be given the evidence of the four facts to withhold our judgment on this matter and simply say, “I don't know what happened.”

DR. CRAIG: He's correct that Ehrman doesn't say what he thinks actually happened with the body of Jesus. At the time I debated him, he had affirmed all four of those key facts concerning the fate of Jesus of Nazareth. This is in his Teaching Company lectures. Later, I think seeing where this was leading and the implications of them, he then pulled back and I think would probably deny that we know that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb or that the tomb was found empty. In other words, I think he would probably be forced to deny some of those four facts because he certainly has no counter-explanation of them. I think key to Ehrman's case is his claim that a miracle is the least probable thing to have happened, and that was the burden of my explanation of his misuse of Bayes’ Theorem. You can show that even if miracles are intrinsically improbable – which I don't for a minute believe, but even if they are – that can be easily over-balanced by the superior explanatory power of the miracle claim so that on balance the miracle might be quite probable. The miracle might be the best explanation, and certainly a better explanation than such ad hoc explanations as Ehrman throws out. Now, is it justifiable to withhold judgment? Well, I think that the historian could reasonably say that qua historian he is bound by a kind of methodological constraint to only posit natural causes to explain natural effects. That, as a historian, he's not in a position to posit supernatural explanations. And so, in that sense, he could withhold judgment as a historian. But my argument is that, as a human being, it's perfectly acceptable to say that the best explanation for these four facts is the one the disciples gave – that God raised Jesus from the dead. Certainly as a philosopher I am not bound by any methodological constraint to posit only natural causes. So I would say, as a philosopher (and, indeed, simply as a human being), it is perfectly justifiable to infer that the best explanation is that God raised Jesus from the dead. And I think that it would not be reasonable to simply withhold such a judgment based on a methodological constraint in historo-graphical studies.

KEVIN HARRIS: He has a second question:

Dear Dr. Craig: Recently I have been discussing with a non-Christian friend your historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus. One of the obstacles I’m finding in our discussion is that about the historical reliability of the Gospels to infer the famous four facts to which the resurrection hypothesis would be the best explanation. I read your article “Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Evidence for Jesus” and found it very helpful. But there's a point I’d like you to develop further. It is that about the dating of the Gospel sources. I guess my question would be: What are the evidences for saying that the Gospels use sources that go back even closer to the events of Jesus’ life? In your article you talk about how Rudolf Pesch dates Mark’s passion source back to just seven years after Jesus’ death. I'd like to ask you to explain Pesch’s reasoning to do so because not many of us can access his German work. I think this is quite an important point to develop in detail because if we can really identify earlier sources for the Gospels, that would strongly undermine the case of those wanting to dismiss their historical reliability altogether.

DR. CRAIG: I certainly agree with that last statement that the discovery of the sources behind the New Testament take us so close to these original events themselves that it greatly compromises the objection that these are just legendary fabulous tales about Jesus that accrued over the decades. There just wasn't time for that. Now, with respect to Paul’s quotation in 1 Corinthians 15 of this pre-Pauline tradition, Paul uses the technical rabbinical terms for the transmission of tradition. He says, “What I received I also delivered to you.” Those are the technical terms for passing on tradition. And then he begins to quote this formula, which is a highly stylized four-line formula ordered by the words “and that,” “and that,” “and that.” These lines are parallel with each other. The first and the third lines have the phrase “according to the scriptures.” The second and fourth lines are very short except for the additional witness that Paul piles on. So you have a parallel structure which is typical of Hebrew literature and facilitates easy memorization. Moreover, the formula is filled with non-Pauline characteristics which suggests that this is not a free creation of Paul's own hand. To give just one example, it uses the phrase “according to the Scriptures” (kata tas graphas in Greek) twice in the formula. Paul never uses this expression when he quotes the Old Testament Scriptures. He always uses the phrase “as it is written” and then quotes the Old Testament. So this has convinced everybody that Paul is not writing freehand here, rather he is quoting from a very ancient source of prior tradition that probably goes back to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion. This has been probably one of the pivotal discoveries that has turned New Testament studies with respect to Jesus’ resurrection in a much more positive direction.

The other key source that one might want to talk about would be the pre-Markan passion story, that is to say, the story of the final week of Jesus’ life that is related in Mark, the earliest of our Gospels. Critics have noticed that Mark is like a series of anecdotes about the life of Jesus – little stories that are somewhat independent of each other and not always chronologically arranged. They're rather like beads on a string that could be arranged in different order. But when you get to the final week of Jesus’ life (his so-called passion), the story of his suffering and death, there you do have one continuously running chronological narrative. So most scholars think that Mark is using here a prior source – a pre-Markan passion source – which he then uses in his Gospel. Now, Mark is already the earliest of our Gospels. How early was Mark itself written? Well, I'm persuaded on the basis of multiple lines of evidence that the book of Acts was written prior to Paul's execution in Rome. In the book of Acts, there is no mention of Paul's execution. The book ends with him under house arrest in Rome. He's still alive and awaiting trial. Moreover, there's no mention of very significant events for the early church that took place after AD 70 such as the destruction of Jerusalem (which isn't mentioned in the book of Acts) or the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus and the head of the New Testament church (who was stoned to death in the mid-AD 60s as we read about in Josephus). There's also no mention at all of Nero's persecution of Christians, a bloody persecution that was perpetrated by the Roman Emperor. So there are a good number of reasons, these and others, for thinking that Acts was written some time prior to the death of Paul in the late AD 50s or early 60s. Now, since Acts is the second half of the double work Luke-Acts, that means the Gospel of Luke was written even earlier, perhaps around AD 55 which puts it as early as Paul's letter to the Corinthians that has 1 Corinthians 15 in it. And given Luke's reliance upon prior tradition just as Paul's, his information should be accorded the same historical credibility as the information that Paul hands on. One of the sources that Luke used was Mark, and if we allow a lag of time for Mark's Gospel to be written and then known by Luke and used by him that would mean that Mark could have been written somewhere in the AD 40s, which is just a few years after the death of Jesus. And if Mark then used an earlier prior source (the pre-Markan passion story), you're going right back to the years after the events themselves occurred. One of the arguments that Pesch uses is that the pre-Markan passion story never refers to the high priest by name. It just says the high priest says this or that, as though I were to say “The president is holding a dinner at the White House” and everybody would know whom I meant, namely the man currently in power. And since Caiaphas, I think, held the high priesthood until around AD 38 or so, Pesch thinks that this pre-Markan passion story must be an incredibly early source for the final week of Jesus’ suffering and death including his burial, the discovery of his empty tomb, and the prediction of the postmortem appearances.[1]


[1]           Total Running Time: 17:34 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)