1. Loftus: We shouldn’t trust “2nd 3rd 4th handed testimony.”
Well, where may I begin since there is so much one could say in response? I don’t claim to be a historian but I can’t help but take note of Loftus’ unfamiliarity with history. Firstly, he says that we shouldn’t trust “2nd 3rd 4th handed testimony.” Well, why exactly? The reliability of the testimony must be determined on other grounds such as by applying the several criterion of authenticity, cross checking with other data and so forth. If 2nd hand testimony can be cross checked with other independent second hand and/or primary testimony, and the data matches then we can have confidence in that 2nd hand testimony. Of course we all wish that we had 1st hand eyewitness testimony across the board, but that hardly devalues 2nd hand testimony that we ought to take seriously. Instead, one has to investigate the nature of the sources, and shouldn’t just paint a broad brushstroke of skepticism like Loftus does here. If Loftus’ claim that no reasonable person can trust 2nd, 3rd, 4th testimony then that means most historians are unreasonable. Should we agree with Loftus? I don’t think he is in any position to make such a radical claim. Scholar John Dickson helps us make sense of this claim:
“… to suggest that the Gospels are somehow dodgy because they are not contemporaneous accounts [in other words they are 2nd hand testimony] of Jesus indicates a basic unfamiliarity with the discipline of history. Anyone may express an opinion, of course, but opinion should not be offered under the guise of expertise” (1).
That would sum up Loftus’ position, yet I must also agree with Professor Evans’ view that people like Loftus “are not open-minded at all. You really don’t want to hear what the evidence has to say” (2). Scholar France argues that we ought to judge our gospel sources by the way most historians judge historical accuracy, by their early date and the tradition behind them (3). When we apply the criterion of authenticity our confidence in our primary sources on Jesus is increased. The bottom line is that reliability of our primary sources simply needs to be determined on other grounds.
Another point is that Loftus doesn’t actually seem to note the sources and traditions that lie behind our gospels, and that go back even closer to the life of Jesus. These would include sources such as hypothetical Q, the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative, M & L unique materials, the hypothetical Sign Gospel, creeds (notably the Pre-Pauline creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8), hymns (Phil. 2) and so forth. This data, as the agnostic historian James Crossley says, is “golden.” (4) It’s what historians dream of finding, and for the historical Jesus we have it.
2. Loftus: The testimony of the resurrection comes “from a lone part of the ancient world as we find in 4th century manuscripts….”
Firstly, where the testimony originates does nothing to undermine it. It could have come from China, but that wouldn’t give us a reason to dismiss it.
Secondly, Loftus undermines the historical data of the New Testament because we have our first full extant copy, Codex Sinaiticus, coming it at around 300 AD, some 200 + years after Jesus lived. However, that says nothing about the vast amount of copies we have at our disposal such as over 5000 copies in the original language of Greek with some 19 000 other copies in Syriac, Latin, and Coptic. It is true that such a number, the 5000 Greek manuscripts, outstrips what we have for our other ancient Jewish, Roman and Greek literature. This should only help us to appreciate the manuscript attestation we have for our New Testament. For example, for Caesar’s Gallic War (written somewhere between 50 & 58 BC) we have only 10 decent manuscripts, and the earliest of which comes some 800 years after he lived. The History of Thucydides (5th century BC) only comes down to us in some eight manuscripts. The earliest copy of these comes in around 900 AD (although a few small fragments date to the Christian era), some 1300 years later. Arguably the next best preserved work besides the Bible is that of the Iliad, a work by Homer, that boasts some 650 copies with the earliest of them coming some 1000 years after the original.
However, some extant fragments of manuscripts goes back earlier than the Codex Sinaiticus, such as fragments for Matthew’s gospel (general consensus puts Matthew at 80 AD) that date between 150 & 250 AD, a large fragment from Mark (consensus: 70 AD) is dated to around 250 AD, and several large fragments from Luke (consensus: 80 AD) date to between 175 & 250 AD. Our earliest fragment of John’s gospel (consensus: 95 AD) is P52. P52 is dated to 125 AD and is our earliest fragment of any New Testament text. Several other fragments of John’s gospel date from after P52 to no later than 250 AD. Beyond our gospels several fragments of the book of Acts (consensus: 80 AD) is dated to the early 200s AD. The fragments for the rest of our New Testament documents range from 150 to 350 AD. Further, our first complete books of the New Testament date to around 200 AD, while the first complete copy of the entire New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, dates to the 300s AD. Bearing in mind that our entire New Testament was completed no later than 95 AD this leaves a gap of over 200 years before our entire first copy. Many fragments date earlier than that. With this understood we are dealing with a negligible time gap in comparison to other major texts of ancient history. Scholar Gary Habermas explains:
“What is usually meant is that the New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing. Classical sources almost always have less than 20 copies each and usually date from 700-1400 years after the composition of the work. In this regard, the classics are not as well attested. While this doesn’t guarantee truthfulness, it means that it is much easier to reconstruct the New Testament text. Regarding genre, the Gospels are usually taken today to be examples of Roman biographies” (5).
So, we can either go with Loftus and in the process burn down most of history, or we can go with the New Testament manuscripts and conclude that it is perhaps the most well preserved body of literature of ancient history.
3. Loftus: Our historical data is “written by pre-scientific superstitious people who doctored up and forged many of these texts.”
Well, this is a case of something called chronological snobbery, which I shall touch on in a bit. However, yes, we must take into account that our New Testament was written by 1st century Jewish scribes and thus copied carefully over subsequent centuries. Of course any historian must try and discern who is writing a text, what their background is, and what their cultural context is. However, these Jews belong to a certain cultural framework and it is within that we must understand them. They weren’t Canaanites who believed in sacrificing babies to idols or pagans who believed in dying & rising gods based off crop cycles, instead they believed in a single God that could perform miracles should he so wish. This is an important consideration since the characters in our 1st century New Testament narrative don’t exist in some vacuum. This also negates the claim that these people were so superstitious that they couldn’t tell their left from their right.
Further, no historian throws his hands up in the air because the authors are, as Loftus calls them, “pre-scientific superstitious people.” Of course this is just another broad stroke of skepticism to undermine our texts that needn’t be taken seriously since it doesn’t even attempt to take the historical data into account. This is also why historians used tools to uncover historical facts in a text; they don’t throw them away like Loftus urges us to do.
So, relevant data that passes the necessary criterion of authenticity are things like the historical fact of the empty tomb, the radical transformation of the disciples, the early enemy Paul, Jesus’ skeptical brother James after witnessing the risen Jesus, the un-Jewishness of this early proclamation of a risen Messiah, the fact that so many people saw a risen Jesus on various occasions and so forth, the fact of Jesus’ radical self-claims and popularity by being known as a miracle worker. This data is well attested to historically via multiple, early, independent attestation and via arguments, and that is why historians agree to it. So, when we have multiple lines of testimony in several traditions (such as in our pre-Gospel materials: Q, L, M, creeds, Pre-Mark, Signs Gospel) that all attest to the fact that Jesus was a miracle worker, that he attracted crowds and so forth, then the best explanation is that he was in fact a miracle worker. The same applies to the resurrection. So, we needn’t take Loftus’ claim seriously because by using the standard and necessary criterion of authenticity his claim is rendered irrelevant.
Furthermore, Loftus’ second claim is that these texts are “doctored up and forged.” Again this is a statement that is just too broad to be taken seriously. This is exactly why scholars have criterion upon which they judge and investigate historical data. Yes, there are events in our gospels that are singularly attested and thus do not enjoy a high historical probability. However, other gospel data is multiply attested and thus has a high degree of historical probability. That is what needs to be explained, yet Loftus just dismisses it with a wave of his hand because the authors are “pre-scientific.” Furthermore, since Loftus makes this claim he must shoulder the burden of proof, and not merely assume that the texts are forged.
Now, on to the notion of chronological snobbery. This argument is fallacious since it argues that people living in an earlier time, such as within the 1st century, are somehow inferior to us in the present age since they lived long ago. C.S. Lewis explains this well: “[It is] the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (6).
So, Loftus uncritically assumes that 1st century Jews were like this, that they were some superstitious ignoramuses that lived in some fantasy universe. Well, I find that tough to believe since it fails to explain phenomena when we actually analyse the historical data. For example, when Jesus was crucified and then buried in a tomb the Jewish people (whether they be a Pharisee, Sadducee, priest, a follower, disciple, or just any common man) would have known exactly what that meant. It meant that Jesus was executed like a common criminal and then buried in a tomb, and therefore he was dead. Any 1st century Jew would have well known that. However, a few days later the tomb was found empty, and Jesus’ enemies having noted this tried to explain it away by accusing the disciples of stealing the body (7). Well, what does this indicate? It tells us that 1st century Jews, like us today, knew that if a tomb with a dead man inside becomes vacant something must have happened because dead men don’t rise from the dead. So, this is something Loftus’ broad, inarticulate argument does not explain, and this is but one example. So, perhaps a 1st century Jew would not have known the details of the general theory of relativity like a modern scientist would today, but what any 1st century Jew would have known, like anyone would today, is that dead men don’t rise, and then subsequently appear in a physical body to followers, skeptics (James), persecutors (Paul), and crowds (the 500) alike. At least not apart from supernatural intervention. Thus, this needs explanation and I look forward to reading what Loftus has to say.
This could be expounded further. We could look at Jesus’ well attested miracles, for example Jesus’ nature miracle of the feeding of the 5000 enjoys multiple & independent attestation, as well as passes the criterion of undesigned coincidences. So, by applying Loftus’ argument we must assume that when this happened the Jewish crowd couldn’t tell that something unusual, such as a supernatural multiplication of bread & fish, had taken place before their eyes. Were they just too stupid to have known this? Would it be something a 1st century Jew would just accept as an everyday reality? Surely not, in fact, they would have been astonished that a man, before their very eyes, just had taken a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish and used it to feed 5000 people. In fact, such a reaction is recorded in our gospel traditions (Mark 2:12, Mat. 9:8, 33, 22:33, 15:31; Luke 13:17, 23:48; John 6:12 etc.), and we can know why they were amazed. It was because Jesus performed miraculous feats that were supernatural in nature and thus not the expected everyday norm.
4. Loftus: “What did the early disciples actually claim to have seen? Did they all tell the same stories? Did any of them recant?”
The disciples claimed to have seen a physically resurrected Jesus. This Jesus they saw ate fish with them (Luke 24:42), this Jesus offered the disciples an opportunity to touch his resurrection body (Luke 24:39, John 20:27), he had some grab hold of his feet in worship (Matt. 28:9), and the disciple Thomas allegedly put his finger and hand into the place where the nails had been in Jesus’ body (John 20:27). Jesus also allegedly invited others to touch him: “touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).
The gospels, with the exception of Mark (since Mark doesn’t mention it), are in agreement that Jesus’ post-mortem body was physical, as exegete William Craig explains: “if none of the appearances was originally a physical, bodily appearance, then it is very strange that we have a completely unanimous testimony in the Gospels that all of them were physical, with no trace of the supposed of non-physical appearances” (8).
Loftus’ next line shows a basic unfamiliarity with history as a discipline, he writes “Did they all tell the same stories?” Any historian, and especially a homicide detective, will tell you that eyewitnesses mostly never agree fully with fellow eyewitness details. However, contrary to what Loftus insinuates, that is not a bad thing for it shows that the eyewitnesses have not colluded or invented a story. This is exactly what we find in our gospels, we find eyewitnesses details that explain the same event from varying perspectives. In fact, when I investigate the gospels this is what I look for: differences in details. This is exactly why the criterion of undesigned coincidences is powerful, or that I hold it in high regard.
His next line asks if any of them recanted their testimony. This is another favourable apologetic for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection since the answer is no. For example, Paul never recanted is claim to have seen the risen Jesus even though as a result he endured beatings (2 Cor. 11:24-27), attempted murder (Acts 9:29), persecution (Acts 13:50, 1 Corinthians 4:12, 2 Corinthians 4:9, 2 Timothy 3:11 & Phil 1:12-30), stoning (Acts 14:9), beatings (Acts 16:22), trials (Acts 18:12), verbal abused (Acts 21:36 & 22:22), and incarceration (2 Timothy 2:9). Jesus’ disciple Peter, who initially denies Jesus (Luke 22:54-57, Mark 14:69-70; Matthew 26:73-75; John 18:13-27), alongside the other disciples suffers persecution for the sake of the risen Jesus. Jesus’ disciples following the crucifixion and before Jesus’ post-mortem appearances to them, hid behind locked doors (John 20:19), were afraid to publicly talk about Jesus (John 7:13), and even fled when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50; Matthew 26:56). Jesus’ unbelieving brother James rejected him during his ministry (Mark 3:21; 6:2-4, 6) and John (7:5; 19:25-27). However, James converts (Acts 1:14) after Jesus appears to him in his resurrected body (1 Cor. 15: 3-7), he then becomes a leader in the early church (Galatians 1, Acts 15), and then is martyred for this (Antiquities, 20.9.1.). What this shows is that Paul, James, Peter, or the disciples never recanted their belief in the risen Jesus even though they underwent suffering, and, for a few of them (Paul, James, Peter, Stephen) death. This at least attests to their sincerity in their belief.
Further, that the disciples willingly suffered and risked death for the resurrection is attested to in 11 early sources: Luke, Paul, Josephus, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, Origen, and Hegesippus. This makes it indisputable on historical grounds that they were willing to suffer for what they had claimed to have seen, namely the risen Jesus.
5. Loftus: “All we have is Paul’s first person testimony, and if we’re to believe Acts 26:19, he said his Damascus road conversion was based on nothing more than a vision.”
Indeed we have first person eyewitness testimony for Paul, but we do not have that for our disciples. That is true, but again Loftus is simply undermining 2nd hand testimony that abundantly attests to the resurrection appearances to the disciples. In fact, Paul, a first-hand eyewitness, himself attests to Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples, James, Peter, and the 500 (1 Cor. 15:3-8).
Further, within our 2nd hand testimony the resurrection appearances are multiply and independent attested. For example, the resurrection was the central message proclaimed by the early church in Acts (1:21-22; 2:22, 24, 32; 10:39-41, 43a; 13:30-31, 34a, 37; 17:2-3, 30-31; 24:21; 26:22-23), in Paul’s epistles (especially his early creed mentioned above), and independently in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. A little while later the early church fathers Clement of Rome and Polycarp also confirm the resurrection appearances to the disciples. Within our gospels the appearance to Peter is independently attested by Luke, and the appearance to the Twelve by Luke and John. We also have independent witness to Galilean appearances in Mark, Matthew, and John, as well as to the women in Matthew and John (9).
In other words, we have at least six independent early sources attesting to the resurrection appearances. Five of the six come from corroborative 2nd hand testimony, and since they all agree on Jesus’ post-mortem appearances it can be taken as historically certain that Jesus had appeared to them. As the atheist historian Gerd Ludemann says that “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (10).
Also, the criterion of multiple & independent attestation is but one of the several criterion historians use, it is also arguably the most significant. However, in response to Loftus we haven’t considered the other criterion that only strengthens the historical reliability of the data.
So, contrary to Loftus’ claim we don’t only have Paul’s testimony, we have more. But Loftus goes on to write “if we’re to believe Acts 26:19, he said his Damascus road conversion was based on nothing more than a vision.”
Firstly, we have no reason to doubt Acts as containing some reliable historical information, nor does Loftus give us a reason to doubt it. Evidence suggests that Luke was a capable historian and paid careful eye to detail especially when he fails to make a blunder in his references to 32 countries, 54 cities, and nine islands (11). Luke also shows accuracy in his mentioning of the titles of officials, administrative divisions, town assemblies, and rules of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (12). Of course this accuracy does not prove that Luke is telling the truth, but what it does do is give him a sense of credibility when we analyse his other details. If Luke can pay such careful attention to geographical detail then I feel we can at least give him the benefit of the doubt in his recording of Paul’s vision in Acts 22:6–11 as well as the movements of the very early church.
Further, we have good reason to trust Luke since the dramatic encounter Paul had on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:19) explains our other data sufficiently, namely Paul’s radical conversion (1 Cor. 15:8), and that Paul was actually going to Damascus to persecute Christians which is consistent with what he tells us about himself elsewhere (1Cor. 15:9-10; Gal. 1:12-16, 22-23; Phil. 3:6-7). It is thus historical unless it can be proven otherwise.
Secondly, that Loftus claims Paul’s “Damascus road conversion was based on nothing more than a vision” is not entirely true. Rather, visions as projections of one’s own mind do not involve external phenomena such as a bright light (Acts 22:6), or those with Paul hearing a voice (Acts 9:7) which they did not understand (Acts 22:9). This would suggest that what Paul experienced there was more than just a vision, but an objective experience placed in reality. This very vision asks Paul a question (Acts 9:4) that those with him heard but did not understand, and after this experience he was blinded for three days (Acts 9:9). That is hardly the aftereffects of a subjective vision. So, clearly Loftus gets this one wrong that it was “nothing more than a vision.”
6. Loftus: “If anything, the religious context would help to discredit it, since miracle claims within religious contexts are a dime a dozen.”
In fact, oddly enough I used to hold to this position when I was investigating the gospels. However, based off what I soon discovered about the ancient Jews and how they revered their sacred scripture, as well as how they meticulously preserved it (hence we have over 5800 copies of the New Testament in the original Greek), I adjusted my skepticism. In fact, it is precisely because of, as Loftus says, the “religious context” that I came to trust the authors more than I did previously. The authors intended to be accurate about their portrayal of their resurrected Messiah, Jesus. They intended to tell others about what really happened (see Luke 1:1) and why this was so significant for all to know. These Jewish authors also believed in the reality of hell and thus they risked their eternal salvation in order to follow Jesus. Jesus ultimately fulfils God’s redemptive plan for his people, however this was not immediately apparent to the Jews when Jesus ministered for his message was radical (see. John 14:6, and his self-designation as the Son of Man) and unique. In fact, Jesus’ message, coupled with the fact that he was crucified, was a shock to the system of 1st century Judaism and this explains why Paul persecuted early Christians before his radical conversion (see Gal 3:13, 1 Cor.1:21-22, Deu. 21:22-23). In other words, we have good reason to trust that the authors and early Christians wished to convey historical events that unfolded. However, admittedly I am still refining my position, and I make no claim to speak on authority.
However, Loftus again is disingenuous or his is ignorant about most of history when he writes that “miracle claims within religious contexts are a dime a dozen.” This is yet another broad stroke of skepticism and doesn’t take historical data into account. I am near completion on my thesis concerning the historicity of the miracle status of Jesus, and what I have concluded is that Jesus’ miracles are entirely unique in the quality of the evidence (the multiple primitiveness, unapologetic eyewitness testimony), the earliness of the evidence (its attestation in all the gospels, and especially within the pre-Gospel materials), the amount of miracle testimony (in all of our gospels and pre-Gospel materials), and the multiple and independent attestation of the evidence. We shall put this into perspective. Often skeptics will compare Jesus to the historical figure of Apollonius in order to undermine Jesus’ miracle status. This is because Apollonius is one of the few contenders. However, we find that Apollonius’ miracles are attested to in a single source authored by Philostratus over some 100 years later. Compare that to Jesus whose miracles are attested to in five independent early pre-Gospel materials (Q, M, L, Pre-Mark, Signs Gospel) mostly less than 30 years after his death, as well as within all of our gospel traditions. Compare that archaeological confirmation attests to the reliability of our gospels whereas Philostratus mentions cities that haven’t existed for hundreds of years as still standing. Also, compare the amount of miracles that Jesus is alleged to have performed, an aspect unparalleled when it comes to ancient history, as scholar Eric Eve writes:
“This leaves Jesus as unique in the surviving Jewish literature of his time in being portrayed as performing a large number of healings and exorcisms” (13).
Or as scholar Theissen says: “Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus…. The uniqueness of the miracles of the historical Jesus lies in the fact that healings and exorcisms which take place in the present are accorded an eschatological significance… Nowhere else do we find a charismatic miracle worker whose miraculous deeds are meant to be the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one” (14).
Or what about the skeptical non-Christian scholar Marcus Borg of the radical Jesus Seminar:
“Hence, my conclusion: Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Indeed, more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history” (15).
Professor Craig Keener likewise writes that “Ancients recounted stories of ancient or even mythical heroes who raised the dead, but these are normally told centuries after the alleged event. I do not know of ancient stories of particular persons, outside the persons under discussion (Jesus and his first followers), raising the dead, based on eyewitnesses and written within a generation. It is possible that I may have missed some, but one can at least affirm with confidence that they are not very many” (16).
So, there is no point in Loftus merely asserting that “miracle claims within religious contexts are a dime a dozen.” He has to grapple with historical data, and that historical data supports the antithesis of what he claims.
7. Loftus: “No reasonable person should believe that a virgin gave birth to God incarnate in today’s world without sufficient objective evidence.”
Knowing the entire story of Jesus’ ministry bears on the issue of the virgin birth, for instance, Jesus’ radical self-claims, his miracles that attracted crowds of people, the reason behind his crucifixion (of which he himself predicts, and gives his reasons for), the empty tomb, the diverse physical post-mortem appearances to the 500, Paul, James, Peter and the disciples, the radical conversions of both James and Paul, the radical change of mind of these early Jewish men who ended up proclaiming an entirely un-Jewish message: an isolated resurrection of an individual in the middle of history and so forth, all coheres and makes a strong case for supernatural intervention of God in history via Jesus’ virgin birth. Sure, if it is some obscure virgin birth found in a random ancient text then we would be reasonable not to believe in it, but for Jesus it is the overarching historical narrative that sheds light on the virgin birth’s credibility.
So, I agree with Loftus’ claim that “no reasonable person should believe that a virgin gave birth to God incarnate in today’s world without sufficient objective evidence.” However, there is sufficient historical evidence to make the case by looking at the overall picture of Jesus’ life.
To be continued…
1. Dickson, J. 2014. It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas … Mythicism’s in the Air. Available.
2. Evans, C. Interview: Is the Bible Reliable? Available.
3. France, R. 1986. The Evidence for Jesus. p. 124-25.
4. Crossley, J. 2015. Unbelievable? New Testament listener Q&A – Gary Habermas & James Crossley
5. Habermas, G. Dr. Hanermas Answers Important Questions. Available.
6. Lewis C. 1955. Surprised by Joy. p. 207–208.
7. Matt 28:11-15; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30.
8. Craig, W. 2010. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. p. 239.
9. Craig, W. The Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
10. Ludemann, G. 1995. What Really Happened? p. 80.
11. Howe, T. 1992. When Critics Ask. p. 385.
12. Talbert, C. 2003. Reading Luke-Acts in its Mediterranean Milieu. p. 198–200.
13. Eve, E. 2002. The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Miracles. p. 378.
14. Theissen, G. & Merz, A. quoted by Craig Keener in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011). p. 169.
15. Borg, M. The Mighty Deeds of Jesus. Available.
16. Keener, C. 2011. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. p. 701.