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Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, part 2

Former Christian turned atheist DaGoodS (DGS) has compiled a list of eleven questions that he doesn’t think Christians can answer. I’ve decided to take him on, since I’m a sucker for questions that Christians supposedly can’t answer. Hopefully, DGS and I can learn something from each other.

Question #2:

What’s your source?

DGS links to this article, and the conversation that ensued when DGS asked the blog author what his source was for Papias.

First, a little background. There is some serious contention about the authorship of the Gospels from critics of Christianity (and only critics of Christianity; neutral scholars never raise questions of this sort). They say we can’t trust the Gospels since they were authored anonymously. Leaving aside the issue of the trustworthiness of anonymous sources (it does not follow that a source is untrustworthy solely because it is authored anonymously; that is grossly untrue and totally ludicrous to even raise as an objection–a work should be judged on its own merits and not dismissed because we don’t know the authorship), are the Gospels really anonymous?

The autographs of the Gospels don’t contain the names of the authors, or so our critics say. Since we don’t have the autographs (another criticism of Christianity, since we claim inspiration and inerrancy for autographs only), this is a silly claim to make. But let’s pretend that’s true. What happens when something is authored anonymously?

You see speculation about its authorship, and questions about its authority. None of that is seen with the Gospels. All early Christian sources unanimously attribute authorship to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The authority of the Gospels (stemming from the authorship because Matthew and John were apostles while Mark and Luke were close companions of apostles) was recognized immediately. There was little question that the early church circulated versions of each Gospel widely, reading from them in weekly services (when they could have those).

Papias is one of the first Christian writers to set down the authorship of the four Gospels. He wrote in the first two decades of the second century, probably between 105 and 120. We have only fragments of his writing preserved in other sources, but the sources agree that he listed the traditional authorship of the Gospels. Ireneus also does that in the middle of the second century, and forcefully establishes the authority of the Gospels on all Christians.

The source contention comes with the following conversation. At issue is this statement regarding Papias:

For instance, Papias confirms that John wrote his gospel and wrote about 105 A.D., roughly 15 years after when John was written. He also confirms that Mark writes the testimony of Peter.

DGS, in the comment section, asks:

What source do you use that indicates Papias confirms John wrote the Gospel of John?

Jesse Richards, who is not the author of the post, replies:

The information we have about Papias and his work was given by Eusebius of Caesarea and Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus stated that Papias had heard the apostle John preach and also knew Polycarp (one of the Apostle John’s Disciples). Eusebius mentioned Papias’ Explanation of the Sayings of the Lord. In the preface to this work Papias maintains that his primary purpose is to bring forth a truthful record of a collection of the words and deeds of the Apostles that were told to him by a presbyter. This presbyter was John, even Irenaeus understood Papias here to be alluding to the apostle John.

To which DGS replies:

Thanks, Jesse Richards,

I’m quite familiar with Papias. And Eusebius’ dislike of his millennialism, as well as attempting to demonstrate Papias was not referring to the Disciple John (most likely to distance the disciple from authorship of Revelation.)

And I am aware of Papias’ quote of the clause in John 14:2. What I am NOT aware is where Papias ever refers to a written Gospel of John. Let alone who the author was. That is the source I am looking for.

He received no reply. Which he likely takes to mean that Christians don’t have an answer for him. More than likely, as often happens here, in my rush to produce fresh material, I often overlook comments on my existing body of work and therefore don’t defend my statements as ardently as I should. That’s what happens when apologetics isn’t your full-time job (as I’m hoping it will be mine one day).

I’m hoping that’s the case here. Because, as we will discuss below, a more sinister case could be made.

First, Papias (see Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings for all of the Papias quotes below) establishes that the presyter John is the apostle John in the preface to The Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord:

If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings,–what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.

That part of Jesse Richards’s comment is correct. However, the second part (that Papias establishes John’s authorship in his Exposition, isn’t correct.

The only specific mention of the gospels is this quote:

And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. . . .

Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.

This establishes the authorship of Mark and Matthew, but doesn’t establish authorship for either Luke or John. So, DGS is correct that Papias doesn’t establish John as the author of the Gospel bearing his name.

Hopefully, as is often the case with me, Jesse busy with too many hands in the proverbial Internet cookie jar is why DGS didn’t receive a reply. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt; hopefully he just didn’t realize that DGS cornered him and he didn’t respond due to not having an answer. If it were me, I would have checked Papais out, and apologized for the mistake. Then never used it again in apologetic defense of the faith. I’m hoping that’s the path Jesse took, even if he didn’t apologize.

Eusebius’s dislike of Papias’s doctrine is non-starter for an argument, so I’m not going to consider it here. The goal of discussions like these are to get to the truth of the matter, and the main argument isn’t eschatology but authorship of the Gospels. Millennial reign can be left aside for another day.

J.P. Holding establishes the authorship of John in this essay, which is available updated for his book Trusting the New Testament.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on January 12, 2011, in Apologetics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I apologize, Cory Tucholski. I have had a very long day, and I do not normally follow your blog, so I didn’t know you were responding to my questions. I will get back to you later…but before I stumble off to bed, I am compelled to respond to this statement:

    Cory Tucholski If it were me, I would have checked Papais out, and apologized for the mistake. Then never used it again in apologetic defense of the faith.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. It is refreshingly rare (and extremely so) to meet a person who would do this. Recognize the argument as not being good, genuinely recognize being incorrect and then not utilizing it in the future.

    We are all human. We all make errors. I don’t have a problem with that in the slightest. Acknowledge it, if you do, and move on. So very, VERY few internet Christian apologists seem to be able to do this.

    Just your saying this warmed my heart.

    • I placed a comment on your blog about this series, but I see you found me first. I meant to place the comment earlier, but these are scheduled posts and I’m getting my dates backwards again (I’m lucky I remembered that tomorrow is my wife’s birthday!). So, I apologize to you for the lack of warning. It should have come yesterday.

      I’m not typical of Christian apologists, I don’t think. I’ve actually answered “I don’t know” quite a few times. When PZ Myers did his whole communion desecration, I went ballistic. Later, I realized (with some help) that was exactly the reaction he expected and I should have just shut up. So I apologized. The inimitable Rational Response Squad has awarded me the honor of “Honest Christian of the Day” for admitting an error.

      Admittedly, with the Papias issue, I read all the fragments of Papias’s writings we have in the quotations of others looking to prove you wrong, but I found out that you were actually right! That’s embarrassing. Church history isn’t my usual area of expertise (philosophy, mostly metaphysics, some ethics, and a little epistemology; some theology, mostly New Testament; and rudimentary text criticism are more my specialties), so I sometimes get it wrong. I’m still learning, even in the philosophical areas I just mentioned, and (moreover) I’m only human. I remain open to correction.

      It really didn’t seem like the site you left that comment on was open to the same correction. But, Josh McDowell (a pretty good apologist, I think) is (admittedly) derivative and unoriginal. He mostly collects the work of “real” scholars. I’m told he uses them dishonestly at times–difficult to verify (for a layman like me) because scholarly papers aren’t freely available online. You have to subscribe to the journals in question, which is out of the financial question for me right now. Sean McDowell I’ve never read, so no comment.

      Anyway, I look forward to your comments!

  2. “If it were me, I would have checked Papais out, and apologized for the mistake. Then never used it again in apologetic defense of the faith.”

    Good on ya, mate. Rah!

    “They say we can’t trust the Gospels since they were authored anonymously.”

    Who says this? What’s your source? 😉

    • Actually, you have a point, and as DGS also asks, I did a quick check that is no way exhaustive, it appears as though the “The Gospels were Authored Anonymously” canard is one of several planks in larger arguments about not being able to trust them. So it appears as though I engaged in a bit of hyperbole there. Oops!

  3. Understand I was only citing one (1) example here. I could list additional incidents like recently looking for a source regarding ”Skeptics claim Hittites never existed or asking an apologist Asst. Professorhis source for Peter’s death.

    The one difference you did is that you actually read the source! (Again, Bravo.) Most would assume Papias mentioned the Gospel of John, assume I am incorrect, and never look.

    Although The Barefoot Bum asked in jest, I am a bit curious. Does anyone say we shouldn’t trust the Gospels solely because they are anonymous, or do they utilize their anonymity as part of the argument regarding credibility in that we don’t know the source of their information, as we don’t even know who wrote it?

    • I know you only provided one example there, and I examined the one that you did provide. Conventional blogging wisdom, recorded in almost every book on building blog readership I’ve read, is that one should stick to 300-500 words per entry. A casual look at my blog reveals that I don’t follow that bit of advice. As this entry weighed in at 1235 words just examining one citation, I decided to limit it to only the one example you provided.

      I think it’s sad, actually, that you can’t get answers on sources. For example, I really like to stick within my areas of expertise, and history isn’t one of them. Neither is science, so I stay out of the creation/evolution debate. At least for now; I might read up on the issues at some point and then weigh in. I used to weigh in on history, until Rook Hawkins killed me in a exchange. I also used to write about creation/evolution, until Brian from the blog Laelaps killed me in several exchanges.

      I’m not unbeatable in philosophy, but it’s what I know the best so that’s where I stick. I have a general grasp in the other areas I just mentioned, but I’m still weak in those for lack of understanding the central issues.

  4. Long Comments are fine by me.

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