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Witherington on Ehrman: IV

I thought part III was the last installment… If Witherington keeps up this pace, he might be well served just to publish his rebuttal in book form.

On the other hand, if he had stopped with part III, he might have left a whole that was substantially stronger. Part IV is decidedly apologetic in tenor… rather than finding and exposing Ehrman’s bias and errors, he seems intent on finding probability in some traditional ideas about New Testament authorship where there is little reason to hold them likely.

Allow me to skip ahead to the summary:

In short, the NT can be traced back to about 8 people, either eyewitness apostles, or co-workers of such eyewitnesses and apostles. Early Christianity’s leaders were largely literate, and some of them, like Paul and the author of Hebrews, were first rate rhetoricians as well…

At best, this statement is unsupportable. It is remotely possible that there are 8 people, all eyewitnesses or closely allied with them, who are responsible for the entire New Testament. It is very unlikely.

I could make similar arguments that would lead to a less speculative and nearly diametrically opposite conclusion:

Matthew almost certainly is not attested to by Papias, as linguistic evidence shows it was written in Greek, not Aramaic. Whatever Papias might have had in mind when he wrote of Matthew’s oracles in the Hebrew language, it is very unlikely that it was this Greek document. Matthew bears no internal identification of the author. It was likely composed by some time after 70 AD, at which time nearly every every apostle would have been very old or dead. Matthew bears indications of having been sourced to Mark, as well as some anonymous collection of sayings, and of having original material of Matthew’s own.

1) Matthew – likely non-apostle and likely not closely allied to an apostolic eye-witness
2) Sayings source – anonymous – possibly, but not necessarily of apostolic origin

Mark carries no internal indicators of authorship. It was also likely written around 70 AD (but before Matthew), and was attributed to an associate of Peter by Papias some fifty years later. While it is possible that this attribution is correct, it is unlikely that Papias could confirm how closely Mark followed Peter in his writings, relying on a figure known only as “John the Presbyter” (whose credentials are uncertain) for any information at all about this. Let it be noted also that Papias carried a reputation for embellishment himself – which might have extended to his relationship with both John the Apostle (whom he could only have known in the Apostle’s old age) and with John the Presbyter, whoever he might have been.

3) Mark – possibly using Peter as a source

Luke – an associate of Paul (not an eyewitness apostle), who relied in part on Mark and in part on a sayings source that Matthew also used. Apostolic connection is uncertain.

4) Luke – only as apostolic as Mark and the sayings source earlier mentioned might have been – non-apostolic in his own right.

5) Paul – Not an eyewitness apostle, incorporated some earlier tradition from unknown sources but mainly acted as primary source himself, preaching the Gospel as he claims it was imparted to him in his vision of a Resurrected Christ. Is reputed to have extremely limited contact with apostles, and claims independence from eyewitness apostles.

6) Author of Hebrews – while this could have been written by an apostle or close associate, there is no reason to think it was.

7) “First” Peter – Possibly Peter or a close associate, again writing in a time when Peter would have been relatively old.

8.) “Second” Peter – Likely pseudepigraphic without close connection to an apostolic authority, though likely written by a devotee of Peter or Peter’s church.

… (That was eight!)

9) James – possibly an apostle, close associate thereof, or even blood relation of Jesus. Unclear which if any.

10) Jude – likely a blood relation of Jesus, and likely apostolic

11, 12, 13) Various Johns – between the Gospel, the epistles, and Revelation – likely three individuals, possibly more. None are convincingly apostles themselves (especially having written at such late dates), though the Evangelist and author of First John (likely the same person) may have been closely associated with one. 2,3 John were likely associates of the Evangelist – therefore further removed from contact with the apostle who may have been a source to the Evangelist. Revelation was written by some other John, not likely connected to any apostle, and writing on the authority of his own vision.

14) The Pastoral Author – First Timothy and Titus are likely the work of a later follower of Paul, who would have written well after the death of the last eye-witness apostle. This is possibly also true of Second Timothy (otherwise it is Paul’s). (This all despite Witherington’s declamation that he “sees no reason” to view these as pseudepigraphical. There are plenty of lines of evidence that militate against Pauline).

Another possible actor or group of actors may have included a “signs” source employed by John, which cannot be assumed to be apostolic in origin.

Well, there – I’ve gone and done it. I set out with every intention of being as dismissive of traditional viewpoint as Witherington is of much modern scholarship, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In fact, I may have been a little more conservative than much of modern scholarship would suggest. I didn’t even bring up the possibility of pseudepigraphia among the non-Pastoral Pauline corpus. But let’s just take it as a given that I did follow my original plan, and I will summarize in a way appropriate to that outlook:

We see that we have some fifteen or more New Testament contributors, few of whom have any tenable claim to eye-witness authority.

Truthfully, we can’t be certain how much eye-witness material made its way into the various accounts of the New Testament. A couple of epistles have reasonable claims on eye-witness authority, but oddly have little historical information about the facts of Jesus’ life and sayings – and even for those, little can be known about how much time the authors or sources may have spent with Jesus. Of the Gospels, only Mark (and Mark’s dependents through him) can make a case for eye-witness apostolic authority (through Peter), but then we still have only second century tradition to recommend that view, and we don’t know to what extent Mark might have truly relied on Peter in any case.

Now it is true that the Gospel originals may not have been anonymous. They may have had “toe tags” as Witherington called them. However, it was not a “toe tag” to which Papias and other 2nd century sources appeal for authorship claims. So, if they did have them, we have no knowledge of it. The Gospels themselves are unsigned and therefore anonymous except for what might be gleaned from traditions attested to half a century after their composition.

I don’t know if Ehrman overplays this anonymity or not. I do know that Witherington has indulged in too much apologetic zeal in trying to find surety of authorship and apostolic authority where no such surety can reasonably be found.

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