Saturday, May 20, 2006

Doug Groothuis "Rocky Mountain News" Editorial on "Da Vinci" and other Errors

Speakout: Unlike the Gospels, these latest tales don't have deep roots

By Douglas Groothuis
May 20, 2006

Jesus is back in the headlines. The fantastically popular novel and movie, "The Da Vinci Code," asserts that the Gospel accounts of his life are untrustworthy, that Jesus was not divine, and so on.

A spate of other books claim that Jesus' disciple Judas was not really a traitor, but the most illuminated disciple ("The Gospel of Judas"), or that Jesus did not die on the cross, but survived ("The Jesus Papers"). One movie sensationally claims that Jesus never existed (“The God Who Wasn't There”). No end to the revisionism is in sight.

Jesus has been controversial ever since he uttered a word in public. As the late Yale scholar Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in "Jesus Through the Centuries," "Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?"

Nevertheless, many strive to pull Jesus out of history and into fantasy. Despite their popular appeal, these strange new tales about Jesus ring historically hollow.

Rather than taking blind leaps of faith or making audacious contrarian assertions concerning Jesus, it is wiser to consider which theory about Jesus makes the most sense, all things considered.

The primary documents about Jesus of Nazareth are the four Gospels. Some claim that these documents have been translated from one language to another until we have no idea what the originals said. This is false. The Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament) are better attested to by manuscripts than any other piece of classical literature.

There are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts of these books in existence. Scholars draw their translations from these sources. A fragment of the Gospel of John dates to the early second century, probably only a few decades after it was originally written. By comparison, the recently published Gospel of Judas (like all Gnostic documents) has no such manuscript pedigree; it dates from the third century, has no history of manuscript transmission after that, and is difficult to reconstruct given its spotty quality.

But who wrote the Gospel accounts and when did they write them?

The Gospels are quoted so extensively by second century Christians it is clear that the Gospels and 25 of the 27 books of the New Testament were in circulation by A.D. 100. There is good evidence that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (and the book of Acts) date before A.D. 70. The Gospel of John was written perhaps 20 years after that.

Given the importance of memorizing the teachings of religious authorities in that ancient oral culture, we have reason to trust that Jesus' words and actions were accurately preserved.

The most ancient traditions claim that Matthew and John were written by Jesus' disciples, that Mark was a colleague of the apostle Peter, and that Luke was the companion of the apostle Paul (many of whose New Testament letters probably predate the Gospels). In the New Testament we have the testimony of eyewitnesses or those who carefully consulted eyewitnesses. Besides this, numerous facts from extra-biblical writers (Josephus, Tacitus, Thallus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger) and from archaeology confirm many aspects of the Gospel record.

These are some of the historical credentials of the Gospels.

The Da Vinci Code to the contrary, the Council of Nicea did not rig the selection of New Testament books. Rather, they were selected on the basis of their perceived historical veracity.

Strange tales about Jesus notwithstanding, this Gospel story hangs together; and for Christians it continues to ring true.

Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of "Jesus in an Age of Controversy" and "On Jesus."


Scott said...

I think you did a great job of giving a concise run-down of the manuscriptu evidence, which is (I think) such a useful argument when you are dealing with those who do not have faith.

In fact, the argument for manuscript evidence and for irreducible complexity are my favorite apologetic conversations (I work on a college campus) - because it puts the ball back in their court.

They have to wrestle with the fact that these things (whether it be the Scripture or the cytoplasmic reticulum) are not always what the text-books make them out to be. They are amazing truths that must be confronted with honesty and reason.

So...good job. The argument was clear and I think understandable for the average reader.

Jeremy said...

As bad as the book is, there is a sense in which we should all thank Dan Brown. It seems as though the church is not going to do what it takes to educate it's people in Church history, theology, philosophy, and apologetics unless it is forced to do so. Apparantly, Evangelicals have taken the Da Vinci Code as something forcing them to do so.

There are worse things that could have happened to wake us up. However, I'm sure that when the dust settles, we'll probably all go back to sleep.

Peter M. Head said...

You said: 'The Gospels are quoted so extensively by second century Christians it is clear that the Gospels and 25 of the 27 books of the New Testament were in circulation by A.D. 100.'

Where would I find the evidence behind this assertion?

nancy said...

Peter - For a popular work with a nice summary see Paul Barnett's "Is the New Testament Reliable?" For more scholarly works see FF Bruce and Bruce Metzger

Tim said...


Doug can speak for himself on this, but I would assume that he has in mind writers like Irenaeus, Clement, Papias, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Polycarp, to say nothing of Celsus.

While it's true that in a number of cases the works of these writers are preserved in Eusebius, they're none the worse for that.

Tertullian, in his Apology, writes:

If you be willing to exercise your curiosity profitably in the business of your salvation, visit the apostolical churches, in which the very chairs of the apostles still preside; in which their very authentic letters are recited, sounding forth the voice, and representing the countenance, of each one of them. Is Achaia near you? You have Corinth. If you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi, you have Thessalonica, &c.

It is difficult to read this passage except as a claim that, as late as the end of the second century, the autographa of Paul's epistles were available for inspection at these places.

For an old but tremendously useful study of these things, see Lardner's Credibility of the Gospel History, which is available here.

John Stockwell said...

It's only a movie.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Mr. Stockwell misses the point entirely. In "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Brown claims the claims related to documents he refers to are "accurate." He has said this elsewhere also. Hence, the controversy. Brown is trying to combine history and fiction. It ends up that the fiction is bad and the purported history is fiction.

The specific claims I made in the editorial are documented in "Jesus in an Age of Controversy," chapter three. A shorter case is made in "On Jesus," chapter two.

Bill said...

The movie does not make the same claims as the book or Dan Brown regarding the accuracy of historical documents.

Tim said...


Surely you're not seriously claiming that the fact that Ron Howard's production is "only a movie" makes criticism of the sort Doug has given here irrelevant or needless. Would you say that about a movie that portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr. as, say, a pedophile? A movie explicitly based on a novel in which the author strenuously made the preposterous claim that his researches into King's life were "accurate"?

Douglas Groothuis said...



Douglas Groothuis said...


I have not yet seen the movie, but my essay related to a whole cluster of claims about Jesus. I probably will not see the movie, since I have a very low tolerance to violence.

Bill said...


I was mildly surprised by how much the movie differed from the book. I don't know if it was because it would have made the movie 7 hours long, if the screenwriter objected to Dan Brown's claims, pressure from the movie studio, or some other reason, but regardless, the movie does not reflect many of the "absolute" claims the novel did.

Bill said...


By the way, I wasn't criticizing your essay, I was just noting the substantial differences between the novel and the movie adaptation. Sorry if it came across the wrong way.

Peter M. Head said...

Thanks to Nancy and Tim for trying, but I'm sorry to say that I haven't found the evidence in Barnett, Bruce or Metzger. Not will Irenaeus, Tertullian and others help us much with the question of what was in circulation in AD 100. Perhaps 100 was a typo for 200. I agree that a case could then be made.

Tim said...


I think the question here is not one of evidence but of the inference to be drawn from it.

Tertullian quotes some 3,000 different passages in his works; Clement almost 200; Irenaeus over 750; Polycarp several dozen in a single epistle.

The existence of these extensive citations from authors before the year 200 entails that many of the New Testament documents were in wide circulation toward the end of the second century. But it also makes it probable that they were widely available somewhat earlier. Is it probable that they popped up around, say, 150 without known antecedents? Whence, then, Tertullian's reference to the "very authentic letters" residing at Corinth, Philippi, etc.?

If the letters had appeared late and without antecedents, why doesn't Celsus, writing before 180, make mention of this fact in his attack on Christianity? It's certainly the sort of move that critics of Christianity have historically tried to make. See, for example, Porphyry's arguments regarding the dating of Daniel. It is interesting and suggestive that Porphyry (writing in the late 200s) never tries to cast doubt on the dating of the gospels but rather focuses his arguments against their content; he doubts, not their authenticity, but their credibility.

I grant that what we have of Porphyry comes through Eusebius, but it is inconceivable that Eusebius would not have addressed this challenge had Porphyry raised it. My inference from this is that there was no evidence available to him to suggest that they hadn't been written when the Christians claimed they had.

This sort of explanatory argument has the greatest force closest to the time when the documents are quoted. The further back one goes, the less force it has. But it does not seem unreasonable to suggest on such grounds that the majority of the books of the New Testament were available pretty widely, for those who were interested in them, at least as far back as the early second century. To deny this creates explanatory problems with respect to the copious quotations by authors in the latter half of the second century.

John Stockwell said...

We are talking about a novel and a film made from a novel---fiction. Now, for sensationalistic purposes, Dan Brown is playing it up big. Do you really think that anybody will remember or care about this stuff in 10 years? It is not a scholarly work, nor is it being portrayed as such. (It is in the fiction section, it has the usual disclaimer.)

If you want books to be concerned about, I would suggest that you concentrate on those "Left Behind" books. It seems that there are a lot of folks out there who think that the Left Behind series is some sort of New New Testament.

As far as any hypothetical films with disparaging content regarding Martin Luther King, no doubt there would be people ticked off, but we would remember such a film with the same fondness that we remember Oliver Stone movies, which is to say, not at all.

John Stockwell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter M. Head said...

Thanks Tim for the attempt. I'm not that concerned about allowable inferences since they don't really provide a strong apologetic foothold.

The direct evidence is crucial and I'm afraid it all comes back to this. For example you say: Clement quotes from 200 passages. I say this is wrong. Clement quotes the OT around 70 times, the Gospels never, and alludes to (rather than quoting from) a number of Pauline epistles. Evidence from Tertullian is c 220 and Irenaeus is c 180, so tells us something about the situation around AD 200.

The simplest solution remains a Curmudgeonly typo: 'it is clear that the Gospels and 25 of the 27 books of the New Testament were in circulation by A.D. 200'. The alternative is apologetic over-claim.

Tim said...


I concede your point about the distinction between quotation and citation in Clement, but I think you're making too much of it. Citations, if they provide a certain amount of detail, do indicate that the author is familiar with the content of the work. For example, I Clement 47:1-3 says:

Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the apostle. What did he write first to you in the beginning of the Gospel? Of a truth he charged you in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had formed parties.

In my opinion, this passage puts it beyond doubt that around A.D. 95, in Rome, the content of I Corinthians was known -- regardless of the fact that it is not a direct quotation. More than this, Clement plainly expects his recipients to be familiar with this text themselves.

According to Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, p. 131, Clement cites all of the books of the New Testament except for Philemon, James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John.

You write:

I'm not that concerned about allowable inferences since they don't really provide a strong apologetic foothold.

We're talking not about merely "allowable" inferences here but about reasonable inferences. While you may be technically correct that Clement never quotes the gospels, he cites them all -- and most of the Pauline corpus to boot.

Examples like this can be multiplied -- and stronger ones than Clement. Since I know you'll want concrete examples, here are half a dozen from Ignatius around the turn of the century. He quotes (yes, quotes) Matthew 12:33 in Letter to the Ephesians 14:2 and quotes Luke 24:39 in Letter to the Smyrnaens 3:1-2. In his Letter to the Ephesians 10:1-2 he also quote phrases from I Thess. 5:17 and Col. 1:23. In his Letter to Polycarp he quotes from Matt. 10:26 (Poly. 2:2), Eph. 4:1 (Poly. 1:2), and Eph. 5:25 (Poly. 5:1).

Speaking of Polycarp, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians is a cornucopia of direct quotations from the New Testament. You can read it online or look it up in a good scholarly text like Richardson's Early Christian Fathers. Polycarp quotes -- directly, indisputably quotes -- all of the gospels save John, the book of Acts, all of the Pauline epistles save Romans, Colossians, Titus, and Philemon. He also quotes Hebrews and -- extensively -- I Peter.

And yes, I'm familiar with the attempt of the Tubingen school to discredit the Polycarp's Epistle. In my opinion Lightfoot conclusively refuted that nonsense.

I could go on at more length here if you feel it would be of any value. In particular, contemplate the fact that in July of A.D. 144 the heretic Marcion, son of the Bishop of Sinope, gave an exceptionally full account of his beliefs regarding the text of the New Testament to the congregation of the presbyters in Rome. This is simply not a discussion that could have taken place if these texts were not widely available.

Part of good apologetic methodology is not making overstatements, and I agree with you that this is a problem because it exposes the church to ridicule and creates dangerous fault lines in the foundations of the faith of believers who are not themselves scholars. But another part of good methodology is not being irrationally queasy about the kind of evidence that would stand on its own feet in the investigation of secular texts. In the case of the text of the New Testament, we have a remarkable embarrassment of riches. There is no need to retreat to the end of the second century.

Tim said...

Hey! Did I mess up that hyperlink but good! Here it is for real:

Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians

Douglas Groothuis said...

The 25 out of 27 is no typo. The documentation is in Jesus in an Age of Controversy, chapter three.

Tim said...


Sorry to seem cantankerous here. But you write:

For example you say: Clement quotes from 200 passages. I say this is wrong. Clement quotes the OT around 70 times, the Gospels never, and alludes to (rather than quoting from) a number of Pauline epistles.

I'm up late tonight reading Clement's first epistle to the Corinthians, and it simply contradicts what you have said here. Look at chapter 46:

... Let us cleave, therefore, to the innocent and righteous, since these are the elect of God. Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of Grace poured out upon us? And hav we not one calling in Christ? Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and riase up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that "we are members one of another"? Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, "Woe to that man [by whom the offenses come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones."

I'm off now to a conference for the rest of the week. Happy blogging everyone!

Peter M. Head said...

Thanks again to Tim for the helpful attempt to cite some relevant material. I fully agree with your judgement on I Clement 47:1-3. That is not in dispute - I don't know that anyone would disagree with that (the date of 1 Clement is probably less certain than the consensus suggests but I've no concern to worry about that here). But your citation from Metzger is obviously wrong. I don't know how it is wrong because I don't have Metzger's book with me at the moment. Most likely he is talking about Clement of Alexandria and the situation at the end of the second century. There is, I'm afraid, no such confirmation of the canon of the NT in 1 Clement (Metzger must know this therefore I assume he is not wrong).
Of course 1 Clement also knows Jesus traditions (as in 1 Clem 46 cited by Tim), the problem is determining which gospel this comes from!

I also fully accept that Ignatius knows Matthew as a written gospel which he cites (and he possibly knows Luke too, but the evidence is much less clear).

The point being that the evidence which is supposed to show that '25 of the 27 books of the New Testament were in circulation by A.D. 100' has so far not been forthcoming. Score so far (at c AD 100): Matthew (yes), Luke (maybe), some letters of Paul (yes). I fully accept that there is a load more evidence from the middle and late 2nd century.

Let us remember for a moment: "Being a curmudgeon has nothing to do with rudeness or incivility, but means the willingness to sniff out the truth and expose lies and spin as best one can in humility."

Peter M. Head said...

Doug, the proposed typo was that 100 was an error for 200 (the date).

I'm sorry, I don't have the book you referred to.

Tim said...


Whoops! I'm away from my library at home (on the road this week) and can't check the Metzger reference. But your suggestion that he's referring to Clement of Alexandria is surely right. Sorry for my confusion there.

For the rest, I'm having a hard time following your counting. From Ignatius, and Polycarp alone we have quotations from:

I Corinthians
II Corinthians
I Thessalonians
II Thessalonians
I Timothy
II Timothy
I Peter
I John
III John

The Polycarp quotation from Luke (Polycarp 2:3) is from the Beatitudes, Luke 6:20:

Blessed are the poor and those persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.

Ignatius certainly seems to be quoting Luke 24:39 in Smyr. 3:1-2, as well as supplementing it, though whether from oral tradition or from vivid imagination it's hard to tell:

For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. Indeed, when he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, "Take hold of me, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless ghost." And they at once touched him and were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason they despised death itself, and proved its victors. Moreover, after the resurrection he ate and drank with them as a real human being, although in spirit he was united with the Father.

I think that should erase the question mark next to Ignatius regarding familiarity with Luke.

If we're willing to move up into the mid 100s, we can add several more to this list. Marcion adds Philemon (which he takes to be authentic) and a reference to John (which he does not). Justin Martyr both quotes and alludes to John's Gospel and alludes to Revelation in enough detail to show that he had definite knowledge of its contents. (Justin is a particularly interesting case because he speaks of the "Memoirs of the Apostles," mentions that they were called "Gospels," and says that they were read in Sunday services of worship.) Iraneus quotes from Titus four times and alludes (probably) to James and quotes from II John in Adversus Haereses.

By my count, that's 25 books, everything from the canonical NT except II Peter and Jude, by A.D. 180 -- 22 of them quoted or clearly identified by A.D. 140 or so and 19 of those by A.D. 110 at the outside.

I have no idea how my list of sources compares with Doug's except that his is probably more comprehensive. But if what I've just cited were the whole of the evidence, and if I were trying to pick nits, I'd be driven back upon saying that the Gospel of John, the Revelation, and a few of the minor epistles didn't actually get quoted by Ignatius and Polycarp. (But it would give me grief to have to admit that Marcion is conversant with John's Gospel by A.D. 144. There's not much in the way of counter-apologetic to be made of the fact that he dislikes it. Besides, Justin Martyr quotes John 3:3 and uses the logos terminology several times.)

Even if one dug in one's heels here and refused to admit any evidence past A.D. 150 about what was circulated in 100, all it would do is lower the number by omission of a few documents that, though precious, are in some sense minor by comparison with those that were indisputably in circulation. The bulk of the New Testament, including all of the Gospels and all of the major Pauline epistles, was clearly known to and referenced by writers by A.D. 150.

There's my version of a cautious statement about what was known. It's a bit more cautious than Doug's simply because I'm doing this on the fly and not digging in and researching it in any detail. It would please me if you didn't find it objectionable.

Yours in constructive curmudgeonhood,


Peter M. Head said...

Good job here: "By my count, that's 25 books, everything from the canonical NT except II Peter and Jude, by A.D. 180". Excellent. I believe this is pretty much the position I have been coming from since we started this: that the available evidence allows us to say 25/27 by the end of the second century (and not by the end of the first century). You started wanting to defend Doug, investigated the evidence for yourself, and now end up on my side. And the main bulk of the NT is attested at least by the middle of the second century. These are both cautious and responsible positions to take on the subject.

Do you want to keep arguing about the details? [Does Polycarp really know Mark? Does he "quote" from Luke or know a parallel (historical) tradition or harmonised version of Jesus' sayings?]

Tim said...


I'm glad you're not unhappy with what I came up with, but I think you're perhaps describing it a little too strongly.

Doug's initial post said that the quotations from the Gospels (presumably also the NT) in the second century were so extensive that it is clear that 25 of the 27 books of the NT were in circulation by A.D. 100. Your first post asked for evidence of tihs; in reply to me you said that 100 was perhaps a misprint for 200, in which event "a case could then be made."

Now what little looking into this I've done isn't enough to come down firmly on Doug's position, though I'm reserving judgment on that because I know that Doug has researched this more thoroughly than I have. But I'm confident that the evidence supports a position at least somewhat bolder than you expressed in that note.

First point: when we're dealing with a disagreement of 100 years from 100 to 200, it's misleading to blend 180 and 200 together. They're not both "the end of the second century."

Second point: you've never acknowledged that it is implausible that any book could have been cited or quoted authoritatively unless its authenticity was already recognized elsewhere. This requires that it have been known at least for some time. I am not saying that a citation proves the authenticity of the letter or gospel, much less that it proves its credibility; that is clearly not true. (Look at early references to various non-canonical books.) I am simply saying that it is not plausible that a Christian in the second century would cite a book as authentic which had just popped up in the past few decades.

So when I say we have 25 of the 27 canonical NT books by A.D. 180, I'm not saying that this is all we can reasonably say: I believe it would be quite unreasonable to maintain that any of those 25 works cited or quoted as scripture had not been known for at least a generation. That puts us back to A.D. 150 even for the last few epistles. For 22 of those, the "generation" rule of thumb would put us back to at least A.D. 110. (Incidentally, the generation rule works fine for the Shepherd of Hermas even if you take the view that the description in the Muratorian fragment is correct.)

This is what I think probable on the basis of my limited look at the data. It's intermediate between the position you've stated and the one Doug states, but in many ways it's rather closer to Doug's than to yours.