The Unreasonable Standards of Secular Scholars

Something I’ve always been surprised about is how differently secular scholars treat the study of Biblical texts than they do any other historical text. Without fail it seems like the Bible is held to a much higher standard than any other text when determining its reliability. Consider the old chestnut that the gospels are “anonymous”, used by secularists for decades to claim that they are unreliable accounts.

What does “anonymous” mean? It means that the authors of the gospels didn’t identify themselves within the body of the text itself (with the exception of John). Paul opens his letters by identifying himself and offering a salutation, the gospel writers did not do this hence the gospels are “anonymous”. However how many authors actually identify themselves in the text itself? If you’re writing a letter, like Paul was, then sure you’d name yourself to let the reader know who the letter is from but the gospels aren’t letters, they’re the teachings of Christ written down for the early Christian churches.

The secular assertion is that we don’t know who actually wrote the gospels because of this and hence they are anonymous, written by unknown first century Christians. Does this actually hold up to the facts though?

First we have the testamony of Papias through Eusebius who says:

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. [This is what is related by Papias regarding Mark; but with regard to Matthew he has made the following statements]: Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.

Well, there we have it. An early Christian source who states that Mark and Matthew are indeed the authors of their respective gospels. Not so fast, the secularist says, Papias cannot be trusted! Papias says that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew, however modern scholars say that cannot be true, thus Papias is unreliable and his testimony is worthless.

So lets look at the scenario the secularists are trying to say is most likely here. They say that the gospels were written near the end of the 1st Century, they spent around 50-100 years being copied and spread around from Rome to Egypt and beyond. At some point a scribe gets an idea to add an attribution to add additional authenticity to the gospel. This catches on and soon everyone takes it for granted that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were the authors of their gospels.

How many problems exist with this idea? Many. Firstly it relies on the idea that a scribe came up with the idea to add “According to Matthew” to the top of the gospel and nobody else attempted the same thing. We’ve never found a misattributed gospel, not one. Surely if the authors of the gospels were a fabrication of a rogue scribe it would be unreasonable to suggest because some random scribe in Asia Minor added a title that it was uncritically accepted by all of Christendom? Where are the disputes about authorship if there was any doubt about the issue?

Secularists love the law of parsimony, also known as Occams Razor, that states that if you have multiple explanations the simplest one is usually the best. So which explanation is more parsimonious? That the early Christians knew the authors of the gospels because the oral tradition spread along with the texts themselves, or that a random scribe in some part of the Roman Empire added the names, that this event occured exactly once per gospel, that these pseudographia were accepted by all of Christendom without dispute, that nobody had the same idea and fabricated their own attributions leaving behind some evidence of misattributed gospels?

It’s completely and utterly absurd. Yet it is the secular consensus. Why? Because the birth of secular textual criticism came from people who were desperate to try and undermine scripture and Christianity and that still runs through the discipline today.

Here’s the Christian explanation. Papias said Mark and Matthew wrote their gospels because they really did. There are no misattributed gospels because early Christians knew exactly who wrote the gospels and that tradition spread along with them. There is no historical record of any dispute within Christendom of dispute over the authorship of the gospels (unlike a truly anonymous text such as Hebrews for example, which does show the telltale historical signs of uncertainty over its authorship) because there was never any uncertainty over the issue. Finally given the amount of evidence we have to support the idea of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John being the authors of their respective gospels, and absolutely zero positive evidence for any other individuals shouldn’t we default to the position that it was them who wrote the gospels?

I’ve never heard of a scenario where given a large amount of positive evidence for authorship of a historical text that we should deny it because it’s not enough. Imagine if we took this attitude towards other historical texts. Homer didn’t write the Illiad. Who did? Well, we don’t know, but we know it wasn’t Homer because there’s not enough evidence for it. But the only evidence we have says that Homer was the author so shouldn’t we accept that Homer wrote it given that? Actually, yes, and we do!

The point is that Christians shouldn’t mindlessly accept secular scholarship just to show that they’re “one of the good ones” who aren’t evolution denialists or some such. Secular scholarship has it’s own baggage and presuppositions and it’s very silly to think that they hold a monopoly on good textual criticism. I saw this pic recently and I think it explains well the problems with some of secular assertions about the nature and authorship of the Biblical texts:

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