Response to William Lane Craig – Part 6
In Part 4 of this series, we saw that in a table (presented by Johnson in The Real Jesus) listing seventeen different claims about Jesus that are based on the Gospel accounts (and allegedly supported by various other “outsider” and “insider” writings), that about half of those claims were trivial, vacuous, or very vague, so that the evidence from “outsider” and “insider” writings supporting these claims is worthless or insignificant in relation to confirming the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts or the “historical framework” of the Gospels.
Then we began to focus in on two of the most significant claims in Johnson’s list:
13. Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate (Paul)*
15. Jesus was crucified (Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter)*
In Part 5 of this series, we saw that Johnson’s view that claim (15) is supported by converging lines of evidence from FIVE different writers (consisting of three “insiders” and two “outsiders”) in addition to the Gospels, does not hold up when we look into the details behind this claim. It turns out that two of the “insider” writings and both of the “outsider” writings fail to provide any significant support for the historical reliability of the Gospels or for claim (15), leaving us with only ONE “insider” writer (Paul) to provide support for the Gospel claim (15).
Now we need to look into the details about the alleged converging lines of evidence for claim (13).
In this case there is only ONE “insider” source, namely the letters of Paul. But there are, as with claim (15), two “outsider” writers that supposedly back up claim (13).
One of the “outsider” (non-Christian) sources in the famous Testimonium passage from Josephus in his work Antiquities. But as previously discussed, this passage was tampered with by Christian copyists, so what we actually have here is evidence showing it to be somewhat probable that Josephus wrote that “Pilate condemned him [Jesus] to the cross.” Furthermore, even if we assume that Josephus wrote this sentence just as it reads now, this passage still fails to provide any significant support for (13), because Antiquities was composed about 93 CE, more than two decades after the Gospel of Mark was written. Thus, there is at most one good “outsider” source that supports (13).
The second “outsider” source that Johnson points to is the Annals by the historian Tacitus:
Christus…suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate...
(from Annals 15.44, quoted in The Real Jesus, p.115)
The problem is that Annals was written even later than Antiquities:
…the account [in Annals] of Nero’s persecution of Christians after the fire in Rome given by the historian Tacitus (early second century) contains valuable evidence concerning Jesus… (The Real Jesus, p.115)
So this information about Jesus in Annals is probably dependent on the Gospel of Mark or on some other Gospel, as Bart Ehrman has pointed out:
…the information [in Annals] is not particularly helpful in establishing that there really lived a man named Jesus. How would Tacitus know what he knew? It is pretty obvious that he had heard of Jesus, but he was writing some eighty-five years after Jesus would have died, and by that time Christians were certainly telling stories of Jesus (the Gospels had been written already, for example)… (Did Jesus Exist? p.55-56)
Ehrman gives the date of composition of Annals as 115 CE (Did Jesus Exist?, p.54). If Annals is worthless as evidence that Jesus existed, then it is also worthless as evidence that Jesus appeared before Pilate. Thus references to Jesus in Annals do NOT provide any significant support for the historical reliablity of the Gospels or for the “historical framework” of the Gospels, or for claim (13). We are thus left with ZERO good “outsider” sources that support claim (13), and only ONE “insider” source: the letters of Paul.
When we look for references to “Pilate” in the New Testament outside of the Gospels and Acts (a companion volume to the Gospel of Luke), we find only ONE such reference:
1 Timothy 6:13-14 (New Revised Standard Version)
13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you
14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
The problem is that most scholars do NOT believe that 1 Timothy was written by Paul, and most scholars date this letter to near the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century:
In varying ways the factors just listed have contributed to a situation where about 80 to 90 percent of modern scholars would agree that the Pastorals [which includes 1 Timothy] were written after Paul’s lifetime, and of those the majority would accept the period between 80 and 100 as the most plausible context for their composition. (An Introduction to the New Testament, by Raymond Brown, p.668)
While a small and declining number of scholars still argue for Pauline authorship [of the Pastoral letters], most prefer to see the author’s modesty and his admiration for Paul behind his pseudonymity; he was passing on Pauline tradition and the credit was due to Paul rather than to him. (The Oxford Bible Commentary, p.1220)
Thus the Pastoral Epistles provide important evidence for the ongoing life of churches at the turn of the first century A.D. (Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, p.1430)
The world of the Pastoral Epistles is more readily explicable in the light of 1 Clement, the Acts of Paul, and the Letter of Polycarp than from Paul’s career. A probable date is ca. 100-125. (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p.1015)
Most scholars now conclude that these letters [1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus] were not written by Paul, but by someone writing after Paul’s death who, following a custom of his time, borrowed Paul’s name and adapted Paul’s theology to bring an authoritative word to bear on a crisis emerging in the second-century church. (HarperCollins Bible Commentary, revised edition, p.1137)
Since most scholars believe that 1 Timothy was composed near the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century, references to Jesus and Pilate in 1 Timothy are worthless for providing any significant support for the historical reliability of the Gospels, or for the “historical framework” of the Gospels, or for supporting claim (13).
Once again, we find the devil lurking in the details. The ONE “insider” writing that Johnson points to in support of claim (13) is no good, and both of the “outsider” sources that Johnson pointed to in support of claim (13) are also no good. So, on closer examination there are not THREE additional sources that back up claim (13) but ZERO.
At this point, it is becoming fairly obvious that Johnson’s case for it being highly probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross is CRAP.
His case began with an anology about agreements and disagreements between ten eyewitness accounts, but this analogy is both misleading and dubious, because there are NO EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS either of the life of Jesus, or of the death of Jesus, or of the burial of Jesus, or of the Easter Sunday appearances of Jesus.
Next Johnson provides a list of seventeen key claims from the Gospels that he thinks can be supported by various “outsider” and “insider” sources to confirm the “historical framework” of the Gospels. But at least half of those seventeen claims were trivial, vacuous, or very vague, making them worthless for use in confirming the “historical framework” of the Gospels.
When we focus in on two of the most specific and significant of the seventeen claims, we find that claim (15) which supposedly was supported by FIVE good sources outside of the Gospels is supported by ONLY ONE “insider” source (the letters of Paul), and we find that claim (13) which was supposedly supported by THREE good sources outside of the Gospels is supported by ZERO good sources. Johnson just cannot seem to get anything right.
Yes, Johnson is clearly a learned and accomplished biblical scholar, but it appears to me that his religious prejudices are fully operational in his reasoning on this issue, because his argument is CRAP from start to finish. If we apply Johnson’s method of convergence with intelligence and with accurate factual assumptions, the result is NOT that the crucifixion of Jesus and his death by crucifixion are shown to be highly probable, but that these events are shown to be somewhat probable or moderately probable. For some reason, Luke Johnson finds such a weak conclusion too difficult to swallow, so he exaggerates and distorts the evidence to try to make the outcome more congenial to his beliefs and desires.
Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.