James Still's "Critique of New Testament Reliability and 'Bias' in NT Development"--my initial response.

Section One: His Introduction (my comments 1-8)

James Still wrote a thoughtful and substantial response to my article on the Bias of NT authors. Although a more structured and in-depth response will be forthcoming, I did want to make some preliminary remarks about the content and method of his article. I very much appreciate his 'tone' in his article (the 'slur index' is relatively low), and especially appreciate the fact that he takes these issues seriously and thoughtfully!

The OVERALL criticisms I might make of Jim's' work is that his information is a bit dated, that he has accepted HIS sources perhaps too uncritically, that some of his statements tend to exaggerate/overstate implications of data, that he is not as familiar with the socio-political environment of 1st century Palestine as is needed for this type of discussion, and general lack of attention to detail.

Also, some of the methodological objections I will make to Jim's work WILL ALSO APPLY TO ME at some level, especially in the areas of Textual Criticism (which I will try to sort through at the end of this response, in a preliminary fashion).

As with many of the other projects in the ThinkTank, I will have to post the results of analysis AS I GENERATE THEM...(I have outined approximately 50 comments to make in THIS response, keyed to Jim's text.)

Date: 9/9/95
Number of Comments Posted so far: 8

Let's look at his argument...


The frustrated skeptic will sometimes make a sweeping assertion that the New Testament (NT) should be ignored in its entirety due to a "biased agenda"; on the part of the early Church. Glenn Miller of the Wittgenstein Net: A Christian ThinkTank recently critiqued the "bias fallacy"; and found it wanting. I must agree with him on this point. The skeptic who wishes to dismiss the entire NT as a "pious fraud"; misunderstands the purpose and historical origins of the NT texts. Miller also makes an excellent point that if NT contradictions exist "it would still not discredit the historical basis of the NT record of the event."; We know from narrative criticism that many NT events were probably invented to tell a story about Jesus. [1]

[Note: I have moved the footnote from the end-note position, to here--to facilitate interaction with the material.]

Comment 01

Before I get into this footnote, it is important to note that narrative criticism (also known as literary criticism or rhetorical criticism) can NEVER tell us that something was 'probably invented'. Narrative criticism as a discipline deals with ENTIRE, FINISHED TEXTS--style, genre, lexicon--NEVER with the relationship between the text and the 'historicity' of the events of the narrative, and NEVER with the sources and history of the text itself. An analysis of style can sometimes tip us off to the 'time' of writing, and certain stylistic elements can indicate specific genres that deal with the a-historical (e.g. myth, fantasy), but in the case of data that 'looks historical', it cannot pronounce upon the historicity of the text. It CAN show how a passage supports another passage (and perhaps its INTENDED usage), but it is BY DEFINITION a study 'confined to' the narrative. As powerful a method as it is (in my opinion), it is NOT 'history' or 'archeology'! (For a survey of the various approaches and uses of this, see "Literary Criticism" by A.B. Spencer, in NCI; and the major work by Phyllis Trible, "Rhetorical Criticism", Fortress: 1994)

Now let's check the footnote itself for accuracy...

Endnote 1: An example of narrative that seems to conflict with history and context is the story of Jesus' arrest and trial. Pilate is introduced as a confused, yet sympathetic peace-maker in the focal crowd-scene prior to the demand for the release of Jesus Barabbas. (Mk. 15; Lk. 23; Jn. 18)

Minor point: Matthew 27 also covers the event, and the John reference needs to include chapter 19.

The narrative seems entirely made up for several reasons: "Barabbas"; is Aramaic for "Son of God,"; a title thought to be Jesus Christ's.

Jim doesn't tell us WHO thinks 'Barabbas' means 'son of God', but I cannot find any reference to it in any of my reference materials. "Barabbas" means "son of the father" (or "son of Abba"--a term NOT used of God by Jewry of the day!--it was part of the 'scandal' of Jesus that He used the term--and Paul teaches us in Romans 8 that believers can call God 'Abba'), NOT "son of God". It was common in Jewish surnames (esp. rabbinical families ) of the day, and 'father' for them was often a title for a leading teacher (cf. Matthew 23: "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.") [If he was from a rabbinical family, this would certainly make sense of the crowd's request for his release and for his 'notoriety' (Matthew 27:16)]

There is a interesting, but controversial, alternate reading noted by Origen. Hiebert discusses it in "Barabbas" in ZPEB:

Origen ("Commentary on Matthew") noted a reading "Jesus Barabbas" in Matthew 27:16,17 and called it an ancient reading. It appears in the 9th cent. Codex Theta and in some Syrian sources. This would make it a patronymic name (cf. Simon Barjonah). If his personal name was "Jesus", in itself not improbable, it made Pilate's offer more pungent--"Jesus Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth." This reading has been accepted by some scholars, but its authenticity must remain dubious.
[Rengstorf disagrees and sees it as the preferred reading in g (s.v. "Jesus" II:331), and Bruce also favors the reading "Jesus Barabbas" (BNTT, 203).]

Thus, there is nothing unusual about this individual's name (leading us to be believe he or the narrative was a fabrication.)

Also, there was never a custom of releasing prisoners on Passover or any Jewish holiday.

Jim has overstepped the data here. It would be accurate to say "we HAVE NO RECORD of a custom of releasing prisoners DUE to a Palestinian holiday...".

However, it is not out of line with what we know about the political climate of the day. We know, for example, that political prisoners (like Barabbas) WERE released for various reasons...and that Roman officials seem to have granted mass amnesty at some other regular feasts (outside of Palestine) and to have occasionally acquitted prisoners in responses to crowds (REF:BBC, p. 309). For example,

2. (4) Upon this the multitude were pleased, and presently made a trial of what he intended, by asking great things of him; for some made a clamor that he would ease them in their taxes; others that he would take off the duties upon commodities; and some, that he would loose those that were in prison; in all which cases he answered readily to their satisfaction, in order to get the good will of the multitude; after which he offered [the proper] sacrifices, and feasted with his friends." [Jos. Wars 1.2, #4 ]

5. (215) But when Albinus heard that Gessius Florus was coming to succeed him, he was desirous to appear to do somewhat that might be grateful to the people of Jerusalem; so he brought out all those prisoners who seemed to him to be the most plainly worthy of death, and ordered them to be put to death accordingly. But as to those who had been put into prison on some trifling occasion, he took money of them, and dismissed them; by which means the prisons were indeed emptied, but the country was filled with robbers." [Jos. Antiq. XX, ix.5, #215]

Deismann, (Light from the Ancient East, p 269) notes a similar case, described in a Florentine papyrus of the year 85AD. This document contains a report of judicial proceedings by the governor of Egypt (G. Septimus Vegetus), in which the verdict is stated as "Thous hadst been worthy of scouraging... but I will give thee to the people". In the footnote there, he also another Roman case (from a later period) in which Phlegethius (AD 441) reminds the people of Smyrna that they deserve punishment but "by reason of the outcries of this illustrious metropolis of the Ephesians, and because their prayers ought not to be at all set aside, we release you..."

Raymond Browh (Death of the Messiah, p.816) documents that amnesty was sometimes associated with festivals. His first example was from Livy (History 5.13.7-8) that  prisoners were unbound (and not reincarcerated) at the first celebration of the Roman Lectisternia in 399BC. He goes on to document the many uses of pardons by local officials, and others have noted that rulers often made 'ad hoc' processes up to 'work' there constituent populations. [Maintains, however, that there is no strong evidence for such a custom in Judea at the time--but the analogies are fairly widespread, IMO]

Hagner makes the same point: "Although the custom of the Romans’ releasing a prisoner “at the time of the feast” (i.e. here Passover; cf. John 18:39), later called the privilegium paschale, is not known outside the Gospels, there is no need to doubt its historicity (pace R. E. Brown, Death of the Messiah, 814–20, who, however, accepts the historicity of the release of Barabbas for reasons left unexplained). Pertinent Jewish evidence is perhaps to be seen indirectly in m Pesah. 8:6. Husband argues that the practice was Pilate’s own invention. There is no obvious reason why the evangelists would invent such an idea, and it fits with a pragmatic opportunism directed toward gaining a few points with the people (note: “whom they wanted”), which the Roman governor of Judea might well engage in and which indeed Pilate seems happy to do in the present passage." (WBC, 33b, Matthew 27:15)

We should also note that there is some abiguity associated with how 'passover-specific' this custom is. Luz/Ulrich note (Hermeneia, in loc): "without the article leaves open whether Matthew is thinking of every feast, of every Passover feast or only of a custom that is practiced occasionally in connection with a feast."

Plus, this 'custom' (and its exercise on Barabbas) is one of the few gospel events referred to in an independent manner by Luke, Mark-Matthew, and John (judging by the presence/absence of details/structures in the narrative), as well as the early reference in Acts 3:14 as part of the sermon of Peter. Their individual accounts argue for independent streams of information, suggesting a stronger basis in history (since they all WITNESS TO the 'basics' of the event).

There is, in light of the data, no reason to make such an absolute statement as 'there was never...'. Jim has simply overstepped the data (or not paid attention to the wider data on Roman praxis).

Pilate's persona seems absurdly out of place from the bloodthirsty monster that Philo wrote emperor Augustus about.

I frankly am surprised at this statement. The description of Pilate's behavior accords PERFECTLY with what we know about him from history--from Philo, Josephus, and the NT.

Philo, in the strongest passage describing Pilate's cruelty, also displays the EXACT characteristics of Pilate that would have generated his Trial-behavior. Earlier in his career as procurator of Judea, Pilate had set up some votive shields in Herod's palace, highly offending the Jewish people. After numerous appeals to him failed, the Jews sent a message to his 'boss' (two levels up!)--Tiberius--who responded with an extreme rebuke to Pilate and orders to capitulate. Philo's account illuminates the political force Herod and the Jews were able to generate against him in this matter of the shields ( cited in Kee, "The Origins of Christianity", 1973, p.50f):

But when the Jews at large learnt of his action [putting up the shields], which was indeed already widely known, they chose as their spokesman the king's four sons , who enjoyed rank and prestige equal to that of kings, his other descendants, and their own officials, and besought Pilate to undo his innovation in the shape of the shields, and not to violate their native customs, which had hitherto been invariably preserved inviolate by kings and emperors alike. When Pilate, who was a man of inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition, obstinately refused, they shouted, "Do not cause a revolt! Do not cause a war! Do not break the peace! Disrespect done to our ancient laws brings no honor to the emperor. Do not make Tiberius an excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal to our master by means of an embassy." This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity...When the Jewish officials...realized that Pilate was regretting what he had done, although he did not wish to show it, they wrote a letter to Tiberius, pleading their cause as forcibly as they could. What words, what threats Tiberius uttered against Pilate when he read it! It would be superfluous to describe his anger, since his reaction speaks for itself. For immediately, without even waiting for the next day, he wrote to Pilate, reproaching and rebuking him a thousand times for his new-fangled audacity and telling him to remove the shields at once and have them taken from the capital..."
Notice a couple of things about this story:

1. The Jews 'tell on' Pilate to his boss;
2. The group that did this was headed up by Antipas (and his three brothers);
3. Pilate got seriously chewed out(!) by the emperor, IN SPITE OF his 'patron' Sejanus in Rome (BNTH: 201; REF:BBC:311)

Now there is a good chance Pilate (as a shrewd politician) probably learned something from this experience! Maybe like, 'pacify these folk if you think they are gonna tell on you!'!

So, in the gospel accounts of the Trial, we see Pilate playing politics versus justice. He finds nothing wrong with Jesus and tries to let him go (maybe even to irritate the Jews), but as soon as the not-so-veiled threat of 'telling on him' is raised (cf. John 19.12: the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar."). So Tenney:

The phrase "friend of Caesar" was more than a casual allusion to Roman patriotism. It usually denoted a supporter or associate of the emperor, a member of the important inner circle. The cry was a veiled threat: if Pilate exonerated Jesus, the high priest would report to Rome that Pilate had refused to bring a rival pretender to justice and was perhaps plotting to establish a new political alliance of his own. Tiberius, the reigning emperor, was notoriously bitter and suspicious of rivals. If such a report were sent to him, he would instantly end Pilate's political career and probably his life also. Pilate also had the problem of a much larger than normal crowd--Jerusalem would have been swollen with people for the Feast. A riot or uprising (on the heels of the recent one--cf. Luke 23.19) would have also been a major concern of Pilate.
[Tenney's analysis of the political dynamics of the situation is excellent. See EBC, "John".]

Pilate does NOT appear 'sympathetic' at all--he DOES appear 'confused' as to what is the most politically expedient path. If he appears conciliatory to the crowd (in the crucifixion) or to Antipas (in sending Jesus to him first), it is perfectly in keeping with his character/experiences for us to see political motives rather than noble ones.

So, nothing 'odd' about this, to suggest a 'narrative invention'.

Crucifixion was a Roman punishment reserved for sedition but Jesus seems to have been accused of blasphemy in the Synoptics (a purely Jewish religious offense).

Let's check the passages in the Synoptics and see the accuracy of Jim's remark here.

The detail data doesn't support Jim's statement.

There are reasonable explanations for this narrative appearing as it does,

Notice we shift to speculations here.

primarily that many early Christians were afraid to portray Rome as an antagonist to their movement for fear of persecution. By shifting the blame for Jesus' death to the Jews (an already defeated people from the Jewish Revolt of 70 CE) Christian apologists could convince their pagan neighbors that they held no grudge against them.

This section contains several erros and anachronisms.

1. For the earliest Christians, Rome was NOT a specific antagonist. Rome was the antagonist of ALL the Jews--Christians included, esp. in Palestine. The Christian 'sect' in Judaism wasn't isolated from Judaism until the temple prayers were changed at the end of the 1st century (the 12th of the 18 benedictions, cursing "Nazarenes").
2. Christians were not singled out for persecution in Rome until the Neronian times (64 AD.), LONG AFTER the oral traditions of the Synoptics would have included the Pilate-passages.
3. The accounts of Pilate's wavering, capitulating to the crowd, and ultimately releasing a known insurgent (i.e. Barabbas) could hardly be construed as a favorable account for Rome!
4. The next generation of early Christians, who experienced many of the persecutions, had NO QUALMS about pointing the finger at Rome. For example, Clement of Rome and Ignatius were VERY EXPLICIT in the details of the Roman persecution of believers.
5. All the later data we have about Roman officials and actions in the Book of Acts certainly doesn't support this whitewashing argument. Felix and Festus are certainly not presented in the best of light, and the treatment of Paul at the hands of Roman officials (Act 16:22,37) is hardly complimentary!

And, in all candor, the average 'pagan neighbor' of the day did NOT identify that much with Roman authorities ANYWAY. They generally could have cared less about 'who killed Jesus'...the issue for all of them was their personal situation and need. There is simply no evidence to support Jim's claim, and plenty of historical evidence against it.

This narrative however began a long tradition of anti-Semitism that flourishes in the Gospel of John.

The subject of the anti-Semitism of the early church is a very complicated one, but let me at least point out that the EARLIEST data we have demonstrates a pro-Semitism stance of the early church:

1. I have analyzed elsewhere this myth of Anti-Semitism in John!

2. There are NUMEROUS passages in Paul's epistles that demonstrate a balanced perspective on the issue--that the Jewish leadership was a 'practical enemy' but that they were still 'loved by the covenant God'.

Cf. Romans 11.28-29:

As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Or I Cor 9.19f:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.
And I Cor 10:31ff:
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God -- 33 even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
Gal 2.7f:
On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. 8 For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles.
And ESPECIALLY Gal 2:15--a pro-Jewish and anti-Gentilic passage if there ever was one!:
15 "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
The point of the quotes above is simply to show that the EARLIEST lit we have (Paul's epistles) were certainly not "anti-Semitic", even though Paul was point-blank about Jewish failings (as he was about Gentile failings).

3. The incident in the last half of the 2nd century surrounding the Church's response to Marcion's 'canon'--a list of NT writings carefully edited to remove ALL traces of Jewish influence and dependence--demonstrates a balanced (at least cognitively) perspective on the part of early Church leadership. The 'rebuttals' of Marcion's anti-Jewish polemic DEFENDED (although often in a vituperative style, esp. Tertullian!) the NT dependence on the Jewish scriptures and people. Although the early church was not able to formulate a defensible relationship between the two (perhaps, neither has subsequent theology!), that it ATTEMPTED to do so indicates that charges of 'wholesale anti-Semitic' are simply mistaken.

There are MANY MANY more arguments and data points that could be advanced here, and I am NOT arguing that the early Church did NOT have its anti-Semitic moments and programs, but rather that a characterization such as that made by Jim is not only unwarranted, but is also not inclusive of all the data.

As the church gains secular power after Constantine's conversion (312 CE) Augustine writes that Jews are allowed to live in the Empire, but only in ghettos and with reduced rights as citizens. (City of God 18.46)

I am not sure why Jim has this sentence in here, but at least the reference is wrong. In the passage from Augustine, the reference to the Jews is as follows:

But the Jews, who killed Him and would not believe in him, because he must needs die and rise again, were ravaged still more miserably by the Romans, and were utterly uprooted from their kingdom, where they had already been ruled by foreign-born rulers; and they were scattered throughout the lands,--for there is no place where they are not found...(Loeb)
No reference to living in the Empire, to ghettos, to reduced rights--where did Jim get this from this passage, or did he simply cite a reference without checking it?

After Jesus was declared God by the Chalcedonian Definition (451 CE) Jews were accused of deicide (God-killers) and persecuted until many resettled in Spain and Moorish lands in North Africa.

This passage has nothing to do with the passage in the gospels, of course, but nonetheless prompts two remarks.

1. It is a gross oversimplification to say a council 'declared' something like that--it may give the false notion that it wasn't ALREADY the majority position. The deity of Jesus Christ had LONG been accepted by the church (the early Fathers are explicit in THEIR statements of faith on the deity of Christ: Ireneaus (180 AD); Tertullian (200 AD); Novation of Rome (250 AD), Origen (230); Gregory the Great (270); Lucian of Antioch(300); Eusebius of Caesarea (325)). [See Schaff, "Creeds of The Churches", vol. II.] The First Universal Council at Nicea in 325A.D. had the express purpose of DOCUMENTING what the majority of the church had found in their experience of Christ and of the Bible. It explicitly called Christ "God".

2. The dei-cide accusations (although I am unfamiliar with the specific historical data Jim is referring to here) are not at all surprising. The Church has been notorious in doing 'stupid' and 'evil' things. But, it must be pointed out, that what groups within the Church did after the 5th century hardly has any bearing on whether the Pilate-narratives are fabrications or not!

This is less a factual error on Jim's part than perhaps an irrelevancy and/or misleading choice of words.

Well, that's the end of the first Endnote. My analysis of it raises substantial concern over the work's handling of data, and especially the necessary in-depth familiarity with the historical, literary, and cultural setting in which the events under discussion take place. Although some of Jim's later arguments will be less dependent on historical data than perhaps this endnote was, we are certainly going to have to be very careful in accepting any of his unsupported statements, as well as have to check his use of references.

But when we are able to do so we should give the benefit of the doubt to those passages that seem historically or contextually probable.

The problem seems to lie with an irrational all or nothing approach to the NT texts. When the debate is framed politically--representing only the extreme views of both sides of the ideological spectrum--the result is often little more than a glimpse at the insecurity of the believer or the stubborn pride of the skeptic. What we need in modern criticism is less dogmatism from both extremes and more understanding of current mainstream biblical scholarship. McDowell [1976] feels that any biblical interpretation which deviates from Fundamentalist orthodoxy will result in a slippery-slope ending in agnosticism. At the other extreme are a handful of dogmatic skeptics who, in their enthusiastic fantasy to bring the whole Bible crashing down around us, proceed to engage in poor exegesis and confused interpretation. Many of these "enlightened" skeptics would themselves benefit from the "trip to the library" that they advise their opponents to take!

Despite this charged atmosphere, we can still look critically at the NT and analyze those parts of it which are based in historical fact, and contrast them to those passages which seem contextually or historically improbable.

Comment 02

This will be one of the MAIN issues I have with certain schools of biblical criticism--their criteria of what constitutes contextual or historical 'improbability'.

For example, the Endnote I just went through of Jim's was a case of someone 'judging the text' on basis of 'historical probability'. Jim looked at the historical data and decided the Pilate narratives were 'historically improbable'. But when we looked at the historical detail a bit closer, the narrative fit VERY well. The early German school (e.g. Semler, Strauss, Baur) was notorious for discarding a NT passage simply because it contained the miraculous (or contradicted a provincial Hegelianism!)--more recent German scholarship has moved to accept the vast majority of the 'miracle' passages as authentic. (see the citations in Bias?).

Let's look at these two separately.

Historical improbability. For a critical scholar to decide that a passage in an ancient text is inauthentic because it does NOT accord with their understanding of the historical setting, involves making a few non-trivial assumptions:

  1. That the scholar has truly understood the author's intended meaning of the text in question
  2. That the scholar has an adequate knowledge of the historical setting (from other "more probable" sources!).
  3. That the 'historical setting' is uniform enough to preclude the event in the narrative from happening.
  4. That we have some assurance that this method 'works'.

Consider the first one: That the scholar has truly understood the author's intended meaning of the text in question.

Knowledge of the 'meaning' of a text often REQUIRES a thorough knowledge of the historical setting already. If we don't know the 'setting' that would authenticate the passage, we might not know the 'setting' that would illumine the exegesis!

Consider for example, the Prologue to John's Gospel--with its emphasis on Christ as the Word (i.e. Logos) of God. For the longest time, biblical scholars (e.g. Bultmann) argued that this was a reference to some type of Gnostic teaching, therefore dating John much, much later that originally thought. But more contemporary scholarship has demonstrated the radically JEWISH background of this passage.

Keener summarizes the current understanding in REF:BBC: 264:

The Old Testament had personified Wisdom (Prov 8), and ancient Judaism eventually identified personified Wisdom, The Word, and the Law (the Torah).
By calling Jesus "the Word", John calls him the embodiment of all God's revelation in the Scriptures and thus declares that only those who accept Jesus honor the law fully (1:17). Jewish people considered Wisdom/Word divine yet distinct from God the Father, so it was the closest available term John had to describe Jesus.
[Gundry chronicles the shift in scholarly emphasis from Hellenistic to Jewish influences in GNTT:323; Howard summarized the Torah research in "Christianity according to St. Paul".]

NT:CMM:159 points out that a major influence in this shift was the archeological discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (esp. "The War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness"), and the links to various Palestinian (as opposed to Hellenistic) movements:

...the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and their subsequent publication has shown that the closest religious movement to the fourth gospel, in terms of vocabulary at least, was an extremely conservative hermitic JEWISH community. This is not to say that John springs from the Essenes, thought to be represented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, but that the appeal to strongly Hellenistic sources is now much less convincing than it was half a century ago. Thus another stream of scholarship has attempted to plot the connections between John and various Palestinian movements, including rabbinic thought, Samaritan religion, the Essenes, and various apocalyptic movements. Whatever parallels can be drawn, it is now virtually undisputed that both John and these movements drew their primary inspiration from what we today call the Old Testament Scriptures.
[For a contrary view, see Klappert in DNTT s.v. "Word"]

Perhaps I have gone into too much detail here, but I think it is important to see how the understanding of (and assessment of 'historical improbability') of a passage RADICALLY changed with new archeological data. Just as the tendency in modern scholarship is moving in the conservative direction (German scholarship included!), so also should our exegetical and textual practices.

Consider now the Second one: That the scholar has an adequate knowledge of the historical setting (from other 'more probable' sources!).

The above discussion on John 1:1-18 should have demonstrated that we should curb our historiographical arrogance, when dealing with the New Testament documents! For example, the point is often made about the writings of Luke, that his accuracy on testable items is impeccable to the point that we should give him the benefit of the doubt on contested items. [citations are given in "BIAS?" ]

Our knowledge of the historical setting gets better every year, but we must always keep in mind that history is RE-CONSTRUCTIVE, INTERPOLATIVE, and EXTRAPOLATIVE--we 'fill in the gaps' created by disparate literary and archeological data points. As such, it contains an irreducibly 'speculative' element (not enough to engender skepticism, but enough to encourage humility and corrigibility of our historical understandings!). The best example close-hand for this is simply Jim's Endnote. Our examination of this indicated its incomplete view of the historical setting, with the consequence that his judgment of 'historical improbability' was incorrect. So it is with other cases. Too narrow a view of history or religious thought becomes a Procrustean bed upon which the 'real world' of robust experience gets 'cut down' to fit our historical hypotheses.

[In some cases, there is a special version of this assumption that pits the 20th-century historian against the ancient writer. In this case, we are asked to decide who has more credibility: a 20th century scholar, with all the tools of the trade, but still 19 centuries removed from the events under discussion, or a 2nd century writer (with a different set of requirements as to precision, rhetoric, etc) who is MUCH, MUCH closer to the actual events? I personally tend to trust historical documents ABOVE historical reconstructions--as a point of departure, for the benefit of the doubt. I DO try to think critically, but I rarely 'sit in judgment' in areas where the witnesses are sparse.]

And then there is the HUGE problem of finding 'other sources' that are "more probable" than the gospels. Think about this a second. What are the primary sources of information about 1st century Palestine? Archeology and Literature. Archeology consistently supports the veracity of the NT texts (e.g. see the Yamauchi article refd above, and the influential works of Ramsey and A.N. Sherwin-White), so that won't 'disqualify' much.

Concerning the main literary sources from the period, there is a WIDE range of 'credibility' ratings on these, from the sober Josephus to the polemical Philo of Judea. Consider this 'comparative' comment by LaSor (of Dead Sea Scrolls fame):

The ability of Josephus as a historian, in my opinion, does not compare favorably with Luke's ability as a historian, wherever we can check their works...(Preface to "The Complete Works of Josephus", Kregel)
And IF, as is generally maintained, Josephus is the BEST extra-biblical source we have about the gospel setting, and IF Luke is 'better than' Josephus, THEN where do we find sources that have 'more probability' than the gospel accounts?

It should be clear that this criterion of 'more probable' is (in BOTH practice AND theory) VERY ARBITRARY at best.

Now consider Number Three: That the 'historical setting' is uniform enough to preclude the event in the narrative from happening.

This is closely related to number two, of course, but makes the notion of 'historical surprise' more explicit. That novelty occurs in history (contra Troeltsch) is obvious; it happens in the present. We CAN trace 'historical themes' and strands and forces, but history is FAR FROM being 'predictable'! To say that someone raised within one tradition cannot espouse a doctrine from a DIFFERENT tradition is to ignore both the eclecticism of the average human, to ignore the reality of personal change and 'conversions', to dismiss the element of truth in all 'Great Man' theories of history, and to underestimate the transcendental-dialectical character of self-society interactions.

Quite frankly, we just DON'T KNOW ENOUGH about our historical and cultural existence to argue that "X couldn't have happened in culture Y". We are forced again to humility, esp. when we have numerous witnesses that independently affirm that it DID happen!

Now consider Number Four: That we have some assurance that this method 'works'.

What we would need, in order to validate this 'method' of discounting texts, is to have proven that it works. In other words, we would need to have cases where;

1. We predicted, on the basis of 'historical improbability', that a given NT event (not just a textual variant) was spurious;
2. And where we found 'outside evidence' that demonstrated adequately that said event DID NOT happen.

Think about this for a second. Think about how difficult it is to prove something DID NOT happen. We normally have two 'standard' ways of doing this: 1) produce an iron-clad witness that DENIES EXPLICITLY ("non-mentions" don't count) that THE SPECIFIC EVENT NARRATED BY ANOTHER occurred or 2) demonstrate that an iron-clad sequence of OTHER iron-clad events precludes it occurring (this assumes we have sequential markers of adequate precision and trustworthiness).

The Net of this should be obvious--it is almost impossible to PROVE it, with the implication that demonstration of this 'method' will not often be forthcoming.

Indeed, what we find in NT studies is the VERY OPPOSITE--we say 'no' ; then archeology says 'yes!'. Examples abound in both NT and OT literature where the world said the bible was mistaken, only to find 'hard evidence' in the 'digs'. (For an excellent survey of some of this data, see Yamauchi, "Archeology and the New Testament" in EBC:I.)

It has been the scandal of 'liberal' scholarship that their 'soft studies' in literary and historical criticism has NOT been informed by the control element of the 'hard studies' of archeology (even when such data was available!--see especially AOOT on the OT; RKH:1-61 on the OT, D.E. Garland, "Background Studies and New Testament Interpretation" in NTCI, esp. the section on Qumran, 353ff.; and the first several chapters of Stephen Neill's "The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961", Oxford: 1964).

Now let me be careful to not overstate this position. I am NOT saying that we do not use 'probability assessments' in studying the NT. Indeed, we use them in textual criticism (which we will look at shortly), we use them in exegetical/rhetorical tasks, we use them in biblical theology studies. But...we use these to WEIGHT options--not throw them out! And we must be VERY cautious in being presumptive of our knowledge in this process.

[The other issue here for me is: "how far can you take this?". I certainly use some of these 'improbability' arguments when I look at Sumerian king life-spans or miracle stories of Greek gods. So am I being inconsistent when I accept the long life-spans in Genesis and the miracles of Jesus in the NT? Can I adequately defend the 'differences' between these TO THE EXTENT THAT I am clear of my own methodological critique? This is the point of my comment earlier about ME being 'guilty' of some of the same methodological flaws I am faulting Jim for. But I want to take you through my self-analysis at the end of these comments, and to draw the similarities and differences out between MY position and that of Mr. Still when I can summarize the list.]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Well, so much for the 'historical improbability' issue. The net is that we simply don't know enough to use it beyond simple textual variant analysis. But what about the contextual improbability clause in Jim's statement?

Context (and I assume Jim here is referring to literary context) can be either NEAR or FAR. Near context would refer to the literary units SURROUNDING the 'questionable' passage; Far context comprises other works by the same author (or in some cases, closely-related works by different authors, such as the Synoptics).

Let's look at NEAR context first. To judge a passage or pericope as not 'fitting' a near context, is tantamount to saying that we know what the authorial intent of the overall section is--to the point of saying something 'cannot' be a part of that purpose. This obviously requires a level of certainty about the author's style, assumptions, intent--and about the intended audience as well--beyond what we normally have in MODERN texts. In other words, this notion of 'fitness' suffers from the same imprecision and intangibility as that of 'historical knowledge' (above, Consideration Two).

And even if we decide that a passage doesn't make sense, are we justified in discarding it? Generally not on the grounds of this 'internal' criterion. In reality, it is the opposite! Consider one of the most established of principles of Textual Criticism--"lectio difficilior lectio potior" ("the more difficult reading is the more probable reading"). [See Aland and Aland, "The Text of the New Testament", p. 281; and Metzger, "The Text of the New Testament", 3rd ed, p. 209--"particularly when the sense appears on the surface to be erroneous"!] What this amounts to is that 'that which makes the LEAST sense in the context, is probably CORRECT'!--the very opposite to both Jim's position and to our general intuition.

So, if we can't dismiss passages easily due to NEAR context, what about FAR context?

Judgments about FAR context are very close to the historical issues we raised above. To say that one evangelist CANNOT narrate an event BECAUSE the other evangelists develop DIFFERENT themes and emphases is entirely arbitrary and Procrustean. Similarly, to say that an author cannot develop new thoughts later than those expressed in earlier epistles, is ludicrous--even modern day scholars learn things! ;>)

For example, consider this turn-of-the-century quote from a famous NT scholar (F.C. Burkitt):

It is quite inconceivable that the historical Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels [webwriter's note: read 'far context'] could have quibbled with opponents as he is represented to have done in the Fourth Gospel. The only possibility is that the work is not history, but something else in historical form...It is a deliberate sacrifice of historical truth, and as the evangelist is a serious person in deadly earnest, we must conclude that he cared less for truth than for something else. (cited in EBC, "John", p20)

Here we have a scholar making a 'dismissal' judgment about events in the Gospel of John BASED on 'contextual improbability'. The style of Jesus' arguments differ considerably from the argument forms in the Synoptics, so Burkitt concludes they are fabrications! Think about this for a moment. Burkitt has ALREADY DECIDED that Jesus CANNOT have enough versatility to do BOTH! Upon what kind of evidence could one base such a decision?! It cannot have come from the NT itself, since the detail in the gospels shows that the stylistic difference between the Johannine Jesus and the Synoptic Jesus can be explained easily by the different settings in which the arguments/discourses occurred.

For example

Indeed, what has emerged from the various tendencies in Form Criticism of late is that of a REVERSAL of CRITERIA. In other words, whereas earlier critics would dismiss a passage because it "didn't fit", the tendency now is to accord such a passage the highest probability of being original!

For example, consider the first two primary criteria given by John P. Meier in his prodigious work "A Marginal Jew--Rethinking the Historical Jesus" (pp. 168-177):

One: The Criterion of Embarrassment: "The criterion of 'embarrassment' (so Schillebeeckx) or 'contradiction' (so Meyer) focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church."
Two: The Criterion of Discontinuity: "Closely allied to the criterion of embarrassment, the criterion of discontinuity (also labeled dissimilarity, originality, or dual irreducibility) focuses on words and deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived either from Judaism at the time of Jesus or from the early Church after him."

My point should be quite clear: the CURRENT view of critical scholarship takes a different view than the work under discussion.

Again, these types of 'dismissal decisions' are highly arbitrary and obviously, highly uncertain. To affirm that contemporary scholars have a 'privileged epistemological Olympus' from which to make Procrustean 'cuts' in the biblical material is simply mistaken presumption.

Biblical scholars have many tools at their disposal to analyze the NT texts and to arrive at working hypotheses and conclusions. What is required to use these tools is an open mind and attention to detail; preconceived conclusions will only get in the way.

Historical Note: The issue of 'preconceived conclusions' is the MAIN bone of contention evangelicals have had with the foundations of 'liberal ' scholarship; they have had a veritable plethora of preconceptions. These pre-assumptions varied from rationalism, anti-supernaturalism, Troeltschian views of history, Hegelianism, Progressive history of religions, etc. These ASSUMPTIONS provided the 'criteria' to assign 'probability' to individual themes, passages, documents. They were flawless in their application of the criteria--but the criteria was indefensible. [see any history of biblical criticism covering pre-WWII periods; Neill's "The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961", RKH:1-62.]

If Jesus is portrayed differently in a passage from that of known context or history, then that passage must be treated with greater suspicion.

Comment 03



I personally would say it must be treated with 'greater openness' or 'greater critical humility' instead of 'greater suspicion'--in light of the difficulties I have examined above.

For example, some passages portray Jesus in ideological conflict with Pharisaic bystanders. (Mt. 23:23-25) But many of Jesus' own actions and teachings are uniquely Pharisaic in origin (e.g., "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath"; (Mk. 2:27;cf. Mt. 6:15; 7:12; Jn. 7:22) Many scholars believe that Jesus was a Pharisee himself. [3]

[Endnote 3: Hyam Maccoby in his Revolution in Judaea, (New York: Taplinger, 1973) analyzes the close links between the Pharisee parable tradition and the early Jesus movement. In particular he studies four Jesus-parables that were Pharisaic in origin. (Mk. 2:27; Mt. 6:15; 7:12; Jn. 7:22) He argues that it is probable that Jesus was himself a Pharisee.]

Comment 04



This last passage of Jim's shows an 'exaggeration factor' in the piece that grossly overstates the situation, and betrays a lack of familiarity with the general consensus on the subject matter.

He is correct in pointing out that Jesus is often portrayed in conflict with the Pharisees, and that Jesus uses Pharisaic material when appropriate. Of course, even in his use of pharisaic material, Jesus sometimes manifests a different stance.

For example, in the lead reference Jim advances (Mark 2.27)--on the 'the Sabbath created for mankind'--Jesus asserts agreement with the principle but CONSISTENTLY uses it AGAINST the Pharisaic application of the principle (known as Halakah). His rejection of Pharisaic regulations about the Sabbath are paralleled by his rejection of their Halakah on purity (e.g. washing of hands, Mark 7:1ff). [For a discussion on Jesus' attitudes toward the cult and the Halakah, see Jeremias, "New Testament Theology", p.208ff; Jeremias also gives the complete list of parallels between Jesus and rabbinical sources on p.19. Note: Jeremias points out that in at least one case--Mt 7:3-5--the rabbinical writer (R. Tarphon in b. Arak. 16b Bar.) MIGHT HAVE BEEN dependent on Jesus. Remember ALL OF THE RABBINICAL material is written down WELL AFTER the life of Jesus. The two possible citations to the 'Sabbath' quote above are dated between 140 and 180 AD.]

Jesus, of course, used rabbinical teaching styles, and even used Pharisaic exegetical methods in his arguments with the Pharisees [my favorite is John 10:34ff, where he uses the first interpretive rule (i.e. "qal wahomer") of Hillel's rules ("middoth") to confound his opponents in an ad hominem argument! For background on this, see BEAP: 32-35 (rules) and BEAP:68-70 (exegetical clashes with authorities using their own rules).]

It is the last sentence of Jim's passage that is so problematical.

Maccoby (a librarian and talmudic scholar) is rarely cited by ANY MAJOR WORK on the subject, and the major recent literature on the subject of the historical Jesus ALWAYS represents Jesus as a layman and as a member of NONE of the dominanat Jewish sects of the day. (cf. E.P. Sanders "The Historical Figure of Jesus" and John P. Meier's "A Marginal Jew--Rethinking the Historical Jesus" 2 vols; cf. I.345: "It is the simple fact that Jesus was born a Jewish layman, conducted his ministry as a Jewish layman, and died a Jewish layman. There is no reliable historical tradition that he was of levitical or priestly descent.") And although Jesus' conflict with the non-priestly Pharisees is dominant in the gospels, there are several passages which speak favorably of the group (Luke 7:36; 14:1; 13.31; John 3). Indeed, Graham Stanton can say ("The Gospels and Jesus", Oxford, p.241):

So it is by no means implausible to conclude that in many ways Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than to the Qumran Essenes, groups of resistance fighters, or the Sadducees.
But 'closer' is far cry from 'member'.

[Maccoby's argument is very simple: Jesus education probably was Pharisaic, since this was the only education available to the poor (Revolution in Judea, 105). But there are major problems with this simplistic a view: (1) Jesus education at best was the lower grades--cf John 7:15, in which theological issues as the 'party-level' would generally be lacking; and (2) the town of Nazareth probably HAD a basic school--the beth hasefer, or "school of the book"--attached to the local synagogue and supported by the town [Most towns in Palestine at this time HAD such schools available]; and (3) these types of schools were mildly anti-pharisaic in character. Compare Meier (MJ:I, 277):]

Of course, we are not to imagine Jesus' family or the Nazareth synagogue devoted to a Judaism of Pharisaic niceties, developed by way of oral tradition. The Judaism of Galilean peasants, while fiercely loyal to basics like the Mosaic Torah, circumcision, and the Jerusalem temple, had a strong conservative streak that would not be attracted to what they considered the novelties of the Pharisees, especially in the latter were viewed by the former as refined townspeople.

I should also point out that the great rabbinic scholar Neusner has also been quite 'honest' about Maccoby's lack of scholarly acceptance:

"Maccoby's inaccurate reading of both sources and scholarship is legendary, and he has yet to persuade a scholar in the area of his own concentration, which is the study of Jesus and Paul, that he has mastered either the sources or the secondary literature. His ignorance of the former and distortion of the latter as a matter of fact have denied him all hearing in reputable scholarship. That is why a protracted response to his "criticism" has not been found productive by any of the many scholars with whom he has tried to pick his fights...While Sanders is a scholar (though in writing about the law of Judaism, he pretends to an expert knowledge that as we shall see he simply does not have), Maccoby persistently exhibits the deplorable tendency to make things up as he goes along. The widespread realization that his writings on Jesus and Paul are simply bigoted joins with the broad recognition that he is scarcely a master of the sources. Whenever I have had occasion to test an allegation on which Maccoby displays his marvelous certainty, I have found no evidence in support of that allegation, but rather, evidence of Maccoby's incomprehension of the sources and also of the considerations that have led scholars to the conclusions that they have reached. So if I ignore his treatment of the Mishnah, as much as Sanders's, it is because I find it ignorant, and as a matter of fact riddled with inaccuracy. Accordingly, there seems to me no reason to pay much attention to Maccoby any further, and, as I said, I have the impression that colleagues in New Testament scholarship have reached that conclusion as well." [X03:JLFJM2:244ff,note 1]

Jim's reliance on Maccoby's work is a case of misplaced trust in his sources, and his exaggeration of 'many scholars' I find disturbing.

Therefore those passages which attempt to portray Pharisees fervently disagreeing with Jesus are suspicious due to this problem of context and must be analyzed further.

Comment 05



This 'therefore' is unwarranted as shown above. But again, Jim has missed an important element of the historical context-- disagreements between the parties and groups within 1st century Palestine were FREQUENT, EXPECTED, and WELCOMED! Not only does the Acts 23 passage show the disagreements between the Sadducees and the Pharisees ( Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.) 9 There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. "We find nothing wrong with this man," they said. "What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks. ), but E.P. Sanders has carefully analyzed the forms, extent, and pervasiveness of 'arguments' in Israel in his "The Historical Figure of Jesus" (see esp. pp. 39-47; 205-237).

Thus, 'disagreements with the Pharisees' gives us no clue as to Jesus' background.

The answer to this problem of context may be a simple one. Perhaps the writer couldn't remember who it was that argued with Jesus and so inserted the Pharisees into that portion of the text out of convenience. Or the answer may be more involved in that the entire event never really occurred at all. It is in this gray area that biblical scholars must operate. Never is there a time when a scholar decides to "throw out"; the entire NT because of contextual problems. Also, there is never a time when a scholar takes the entire NT prima facie.

Comment 06



Notice that this 'false dilemma' is PURELY a consequence of Jim's misunderstanding of the historical setting.

And the sweeping generalization at the end is a bit unwarranted as well. In "BIAS?" I set forth the various issues of historical method, but let me add a summary one here. Blomberg (BLOM: 246), after noting that the vast majority of HARD data we have about the NT AFFIRMS its reliability, closes with what SHOULD BE OBVIOUS:

The proper procedure for evaluating the historicity of any portion of the gospels is thus to assume from the outset that its testimony is reliable and then to consider the force of various objections which might cause a person to change his or her mind. Much critical scholarship, however, inverts this process altogether by assuming the gospels to be unreliable unless powerful evidence can be brought forward in defense of specific passages or themes.
It is only AFTER one has examined large amounts/sections of the TESTABLE passages--and found them to be accurate and reliable--can one start from Blomberg's beginning. And one CANNOT 'do the testing' if one's presuppositions decide the matter beforehand!

It is incorrect to argue that the entire NT is "divinely-inspired"; or historically valid in every detail. Yet it is just this position that Miller seems to infer. In his zeal to refute the bias fallacy, Miller seems to have compounded the problem further by arguing just as radically that the NT is completely reliable and unbiased in its entirety. As I have just pointed out, when the NT is seen in the proper context this pendulum swing is unwarranted and just as awkward as the radical skeptic's bias charge. In his essay Christian 'bias' in the NT Writers-Does it render the NT unreliable or inadmissible as evidence? Miller asserts that the NT is "realistic,"; and "authentic."; The main point of his work seems to be that "the modern view of the NT is that of high reliability in its portrayal of the life and times of Jesus Christ." A discussion of realism and a "look and feel"; of authenticity is of little value. A cubic zirconium is realistic and looks like a real diamond, but this impression does not necessarily mean that it is authentic. Likewise, Homer's The Odysseyconvinces us that the Argo could have realistically been sea-worthy and a fine ship, but that does not mean there was a real Argo or a Jason who sailed her. I don't wish to confuse genre or argue semantics, but only to point out that a discussion of what looks and feels authentic is of little value once we roll up our sleeves and begin to analyze the texts in earnest.

Comment 07



I just want to make a couple of minor points about this section:

  1. First of all, in "BIAS?" I in NO WAY argued about the 'inspiration' of the NT; not even its 'reliability' per se; but merely its 'freedom from distortion due to bias'. There is a HUGE difference between these three!
  2. Second, it was less MY assertion of NT reliability which I demonstrated, than it was the general consensus of CONTEMPORARY critical scholarship--both conservative AND liberal. I pointed out that the trend in scholarship today (esp. among the German schools--e.g. Pannenberg, Stuhlmacher, Roloff, Hengel, Schurmann, Goppelt) is to accord more and more historical accuracy to both the events and the words of the gospels.
  3. Third, Jim has NOT interacted with THEIR assessments of 'reliability'--a considerable task.
  4. Finally, his dismissal of 'realism' and 'look and feel of authenticity' is strangely out of place for someone who earlier dismissed the Pilate-trial narratives because they didn't 'look and feel' authentic!!

When we do critique the NT texts further we find that there were many "layers"; of tradition and story piled atop the historical Jesus. This dynamic process obscures the historical Jesus from the later Christology that Miller advocates. Today we disagree as to who this obscured historical Jesus really was, but we do agree that the post-Easter Christ which is taught today is far different from the real wandering rabbi and Jewish peasant of first-century Palestine. That this accretion took place is the subject of this work. I shall attempt to show that both the NT texts and the resultant portrayal of Jesus have changed radically since the early first century when Jesus lived.

Comment 08



This section is not an argument, but simply a statement of what Jim intends to prove below. As such, it is best to save my in-depth analysis of this position (and its supports) until later. But let me make two 'statements' myself here.

First, it should already be apparent from the discussions above that I am going to have a methodological problem with the procedure of 'separating the layers'. The way this is practiced today is that someone looks at a text (X+Y), decides that phrase (X) was a 'later creation', and then calls that a 'layer' added onto (Y). One can easily see the problem I am going to have: how in the world can we be sure that (X) was a 'later creation' if there is NO EXTERNAL/HARD data to support that. (And an appeal to generations of scholarship consensus, most of which was based on arbitrary assumptions of what the message of Jesus COULD NOT HAVE INCLUDED will do little to curb my skeptical tendencies!).

Secondly, I am skeptical, given the historical sources we have about 1st century Palestine, that there even EXISTS an Archimedian reference point for Jim to stand on, from which to triangulate some 'historical core' of the NT.

Remember, we have NO ARCHEOLOGICAL or TEXTUAL DATA WHATSOEVER that supports the BELIEF of 'layers'. When the NT manuscripts appear in the digs, they are FULLY FORMED as they are today (read: "NO TRANSITIONAL FORMS"!). This MUST be understood. The one "HARD" discipline we have in this arena is Textual Criticism, which deals with archeological 'facts'--real, existing, manuscripts. All speculation about forms, and sources, and dislocations in the text, and layers are OUTSIDE this 'hard discipline'. The Alands, working in the field for 50+ years, point out this 'control element' quite forcefully:

...the competence of New Testament textual criticism is restricted to the state of the New Testament text from the moment it began its literary history through transcription for distribution. All events prior to this are beyond its scope. To illustrate this from the gospel of John: for purposes of textual criticism the gospel comprises twenty-one chapters in their present sequence of 1 through 21. It is only in this form, with the final chapter appended and in the present order of chapters, that the book is found throughout the manuscript tradition. Any editing, rearrangement, revision, and so forth it may have undergone must have occurred earlier, if at all (with the exception of the Pericope Adulterae, which is lacking in a considerable part of the tradition.) Similarly, any imagined recomposition of the Pauline correspondence to form the present corpus of Pauline letters must have occurred before it began to circulate as a unit, if at all. The question of such a possibility cannot be discussed here, yet it should be observed that the way in which chapter 21 has been attached to the Gospel of John argues against any such complex theories as Rudolf Bultmann's, for example. A redactor needed only to delete 20:30-31, and the sequence would have been quite smooth--but this is precisely what was NOT done.
In other words, there is NO HARD EVIDENCE in the manuscript record for 'layers' and 'traditions' and 'redactions' etc. This forms my background of skepticism about the task Jim is about to undertake--what possible HARD (not speculative, not presumptive, not totally subjective) data can be adduced that shows "that both the NT texts and the resultant portrayal of Jesus have changed radically since the first century when Jesus lived."

[This comprises Comments 1-8, out of apprx. 50]

[Note: Although my criticisms of Jim's work here are substantial, I am very pleased that he has both taken the time to address the question and has done so with a good tone. Jim is obviously bright and has a good deal of background in the material--more than I encounter on a regular basis, I might add--and as such, it is a delight to interact with his piece. I would love to see how he would defend the 'opposite position' (mine), for the true mark of knowledge is knowing where the strengths are in the position of your 'opponents'. I think Jim might do well in this endeavor.]
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