Monday on Irrelevant Radio they reported on a piece of actual religious news that was making the rounds of mainstream media, the discovery of a scrap of a gospel possibly dated inside the first century. If true (and we will get to that in a moment) a date of 90 CE (which is the one being put out there) would have a moderate impact, if it was dated earlier than say, 70 CE it might have some actual significance. Let’s look at why this is so.
While Christians are always saying that things just have to be taken on faith, at the same time they also want empirical validation for their beliefs. You can hardly blame them really. It would be nice to have it both ways. The things that could be empirically validated could in some sense be used to then validate the parts that need faith. It goes something like this: “Jesus was a real person, who really preached, really appeared before Pontius Pilate and there really was an empty tomb. Since all that is true, the resurrection must true and all his teachings, heaven and all the rest, must be true.”
Unfortunately they don’t seem to see that the second part does not logically follow from the first. Just because Jesus was real and killed by the Romans doesn’t make him the son of god. There are many other reasons for an empty tomb and so on. But even more unfortunately, they have a bigger problem and they know it.
Scholarship has known for many years now (in fact I was taught this in Catholic school) that the epistles of Paul were apparently written well before the gospels. And unfortunately for the church, Paul does not talk about a historical Jesus much, if at all. Paul saw a vision of Jesus and he says in many places that is where he got all of his information. Directly from god, not from man. Unfortunately again for the church, he is writing while the apostles are still alive and even hangs out with them in Acts. But Paul never tells any of the gospel stories, he never says, “Peter said Jesus did this, that or the other.”
Some years later (apparently) the gospels were written down. The dating of the writing of the gospels varies, with earlier dates being argued for by church types (and to be fair, others as well) but most evidence seems to point at the later end of the scale. Those dates seem to range from 50 CE to 90 CE and sometimes later, especially for the gospel of John which is often dated in the second century CE. Currently the oldest scrap of a gospel dates to 125 CE, which actually corresponds to about the time that other writers begin to refer to the gospels.
Why does this matter?
Well, it wouldn’t matter at all if Jesus is to be accepted on faith. But many people want the gospels to be a real history of a real person that has been verified non faith-based sources. It is widely held that the gospels are not written by the guys whose names are in the bold print. But the general apologist line goes something like, “these are eyewitness accounts that were collected and written down and so therefore are reliable.”
Obviously such a claim strains credulity if the gospels were written down after 70 CE. First of all, this is some 40 years after the death of Jesus. Stories floating around for 40 years are still accurate? Eyewitness accounts? How would you like to have to try a 40 year old court case? Rounding up the witnesses could be fun. Especially since the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE.
But this does not deter Dr. John Bergsma who appeared on Irrelevant Radio on Monday. He said that he was hoping that the scrap would be dated 50 CE or earlier, because that would make it extremely significant. And he is right about that. But he also covered his bases saying that even if it is not. people could still be confident that the gospels are eyewitness histories of Jesus’ life. One reason he gave for this confidence was absolutely laughable.
He said that since the gospels were written while eyewitnesses were alive, if they were not true we would be, essentially, awash with refutations of them. Absolutely hilarious.
Even if the gospels were written in say, 40 CE (which as far as I know no one actually argues they were that early) it is not exactly like they were peer reviewed before being “published.” Josephus did not put his stamp of approval on the gospels. Nor did any other historian of the time. And then, it was not exactly like they were published on Amazon so that people could review them. At that time they would not have been “books” like we think of them, they were manuscripts (even if copies) and as such were probably only seen by insiders to the movement. People who would have disagreed with the gospel accounts most likely (almost certainly) could not have seen them in the first century CE. So, of course there is no record of anyone writing, “Jesus never did that!”
And even if there was such a writing, the Christians did a pretty good job of destroying “heretical” writings in the second through fourth centuries. So even accounts of Jesus that said he was a pretty good guy, but not exactly what the church thought he was have vanished. Dr. Bergsma knows that full well.
But the gospels were not written just a few years after Jesus’ death, there were no remaining “eyewitnesses” to contradict them by the time they began to be circulated. Besides there is little or no chance that this discovery is any kind of game changer in this area. The people involved are all sworn to secrecy, the publication of the actual data has been pushed back several times and is now not expected to be published until 2017. According to this article, the people involved are not the top experts in this kind of thing and this is how they dismiss it: “Essentially, this papyrus is the scholarly equivalent of ‘my girlfriend who lives in Canada.'”
So, sorry, Christians you are just going to have to still take it on faith. No writings of actual eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life are going to surface. Second, third, fifth or twelfth hand stories from 40 or more years later are the best you can do.