Dawkins makes another innocent mistake: The Gospels

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says “The four Gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, our of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Phillip, Bathelomew and Mary Magdelen.” He’s completely wrong, as usual.

The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were not chosen out of a larger sample. Christians in the early first century used those four gospels because they were the only gospels in existence. The fake gospels that Dawkins lists and others were not written until several centuries after Christ’s time. At no point was any choice made between the two groups. The four canonical gospels have been the only canonical gospels for nineteen centuries straight, with no variation.

Amazingly enough, it actually gets worse for Dawkins. He later says “The gospels that didn’t make it were omitted by those ecclesiastics perhaps because they included stories that were even more implausible than those in the four canonical ones. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, has numerous anecdotes about the child Jesus abusing his magical powers”. People who care about the truth more than Dawkins does are welcome to read the text of the Gospel of Thomas and verify that Dawkins is completely wrong about it. In a typical display of utter ignorance, he’s conflated the Gosepl of Thomas with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It’s worth noting that Dawkins complains of the gospels being written “long after the death of Jesus”, while it was actually 30-40 years at most between Jesus’s death and Mark’s gospel. At the same time, he sees no need to inform his readers that we have no text of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas from before the fifth century. Why is 40 years such a long time while 400 years is too short to be mentioned? Only Dawkins knows, and he isn’t telling.

Lastly, concerning the canonical gospels, he says “All were then copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese whisper generations’ by fallible scribes who had their own religious agendas.” As usual, he presents no sources to back up his claims. The truth is that despite tremendous effort, secular scholars have found absolutely no reason to believe that any translator ever altered the text of the gospels in a significant way, either on purpose or by accident. We have far more copies of the gospels than of any other books from the ancient world, and we have compared copies from many different places, times, and languages and verified their remarkably close agreement on all substantial issues. (For those who want a book on the topic by a real scholar, I recommend The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, by Dr. Bruce Metzger.)

Dawkins also says:

I think we can safely put Dawkins in that category.

Yeah, Dawkins really needs to stick to biology and let go of crafting catechism for the ‘bright’ religion.

Heck, it’s Christians’ fault for not keeping better records. If they had the discipline of scientists, there wouldn’t be any ambiguity because we’d have better records.
But it’s all just juggling various bits of nonsense, so what difference does it make?

According to wikipedia, the latest possible date of authorship for the infancy gospel of Thomas is 185AD and the earliest is 80AD.

Err…the first century AD? That doesn’t make sense, Jesus was still alive for the first part of the first century, so presumably there couldn’t have been any gospels then, and the earliest dates for the Canonical Gospels aren’t till the second half of the first century. Were you trying to say something else?

But in any case, I think its pretty clear that there were multiple Gospels floating around by mid 2nd century (including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) that didn’t make the final cut. How “arbitrary” the cut was probably is at least partly a matter of faith. If you were a gnostic, you presumably think they got it all wrong.

That’s “agnostic” to you, fella.

It’s definitely not all sunshine and lollipops for the godless these days. I hear that P.Z. Myers has a zit.

Heh, nope. Just regular gnostic. Many of the early, now non-canonical, gospels were assosciated with gnosticism, hence presumably they felt the eventually decided upon New Testament canon was all wrong.

Hmmmmmm I suppose it depends on someone’s definition of what a substantial issue is. According to Bart Ehrman who wrote Misquoting Jesus about this very subject, and qualifies as an expert in the field, there are a lot of significant changes and differences in the many copies of the gospels we have. Sometimes just a one word change in a significant passage can make an important difference on the possibilities of meaning and doctrine. Some of the differences clearly indicate the scribes may have been influenced by their own opinion or the social structure at the time. So, I’d say you’ve made a false statement about what what secular scholars have not found.

One example that comes to mind is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. That story first appears in the margins of an early copy of John not as part of the main text. In later copies it does make it into the main body and is accepted as part of the original. The evidence indicates it was probably added long after the original which leads to other questions.

btw, although you dismiss the other gospels as centuries later, what we have are copies of the original gospels, copied centuries after the original was written. For Mark the earliest copy we have is from about 200ce. The fact that the original was likely written around 40ce must be weighed against that reality and we really can’t be sure what *exactly * was contained in the original. So, how superior to the other gospels does that make them?

Here is a lengthy lecture by Ehrman for anyone that has time.

I studied the New Testament at a Catholic university in a course taught by a priest and I was presented pretty much the same story that ITR is attacking Dawkins for.

Yes, I meant to say "late 1st or early 2nd century. Archaeologists put the earliest fragments of manuscripts for the real gospels around 70-90 AD. There are substantial arguments for them being written earlier than that, we can’t be certain of the dating barring further archaeological finds.

We have no evidence for any of the fake gospels being in existence before early 180’s AD, when various Christian authors start denouncing them. That’s a gap of about one century, and there’s nothing arbitrary about including the real gospels while rejecting the fakes. Treating the fake gospels as authentic would be as ridiculous as accepting a “firsthand” account of the life of Abraham Lincoln as authentic while the ink was still wet today.

A typical example of Wikipedia being wrong. Early Christian writers including Irenaeus and Origen referred to a “gospel of Thomas”, but we don’t know whether they were referring to the Gosepl of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or something else entirely. Such issues cloud the dating of almost all the gnostic gospels. The Gospels of Mary, Judas, and Peter are also referenced in the second or third centuries, but whether there’s any relationship between the texts that existed in those centuries and the ones you can buy in your local bookstore is anybody’s guess.

Not to mention the fact that there have been a few translation steps in between. From Greek to Roman to English there is bound to be some losage.
Also, with the exception of Luke, none of the authors were native Greek.

Having said that, unlike the contents of the Old Testament, there has been no formal canonization of the New Testament. That does however not mean that the books that made it in the final canon did so by divine intervention. We can safely assume that various contradictions in the four gospels are not the work of an infallable deity.

Do you have a cite for fragments existing from the first century. From googling, the earliest I could find is from around 200AD? Indeed, as far as physical evidence (fragments or manuscripts) the date ranges of both sets of gospels (canonical and non) seem pretty identical. Both start showing up in finds dating from the early 3rd century. So far as I can tell, before that, dating is based on analysis of the text and references by other authors.

And using those dates (again, just googling and wikipedia), the early dates for the non-canonical gospels overlap with those for the canonical ones. I’m sure scholars disagree about these dates, but the idea that they both come from more or less the same time seems at least as defensable as your claim. I’d say Dawkins on fairly decent ground.

Will respond to the rest of your post later.

I know this is Great Debates, but do you have a cite for this? The 4 Gospels of the Bible are actually known to have been written before all the others? I have never heard this before. On the shows I have seen, and the things I have read, I gather that they think they were all writen in the same time frame.

Straingely enough, whether the four canonical Gospels are accurate is one of the few things that Gnostics and agnostics agree on! :wink:

There were two “Gospels of Thomas” – the infancy gospel and the “sayings” gospel. The latter is dated quite early, about on a par with the Synoptics. However, it’s not a narrative like the four canonical Gospels, but a collection of sayings such as Papias describes Matthew as having compiled and such as the hypothetical Q collection is supposed to have been.

In addition, the Johannine literature presupposes at least one Gnostic book having been in circulation when it was put in final form, since some of it is evidentially written to combat Gnostic heresies.

Gnostic Christians, at least… :smiley:

There are several methods of dating these ancient texts. The style of writing, how the letters are formed, the material written on and ink used to name a few. There’s also a margin of error that can span 50 years pretty easily. Was the scribe a 20 year old using new materials or was he a 60 year old using the materials he had used for 40 years?

I was just looking through my copy of Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures Ehrman is a scholar who has developed a talent for sharing some technical knowledge with layman. I recommend his books. He’s also an agnostic rather than a Christian apologist so I find , for the most part, he presents the information and let’s the reader decide what it might mean.

Some of these lost books make references to the four canonical gospels which indicates they were written later. Some of them are incomplete. I always thought The Gospel of Thomas was interesting. It contains sayings attributed to Jesus rather than a narrative about him and was claimed to have been written by his brother. The gospel of Peter was considered scripture by some Christians in the 2nd century. There are three books that were claimed to have been written by Simon Peter a disciple of Jesus. but dated many decades after Peter would have died.
Personally, I don’t see much reason to value a book written at the end of the first century, 70 to 100 years after Christ, significantly more than one written 50 to 100 years later. I don’t expect either to be historically accurate. IMO the relevant facts are that we don’t have any accounts of Jesus life and sayings that we can be relatively sure are accurate. That has to have some affect on how we separate truth from tradition if we value one over the other.

Here’s an interesting observation from the lecture I linked to.

In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. Nicodemus is confused and asks "how can I enter my mothers womb and be born again? Jesus explains that he must be born of the water and the spirit.

In Greek the word used has two meanings. Either “from above”, or a 2nd time. Given the double meaning of the Greek word we can understand the confusion of Nicodemus. He thought Jesus meant born a 2nd time and Jesus explained he actually meant “from above”

It becomes a bit of a problem when you realize Jesus probably wasn’t speaking Greek to Nicodemus. There is no Aramaic word that has that double meaning. Then the question is did this conversation take place at all, or did some author elaborate on some existing story to use the Greek word with double meaning?

Again, it leaves us with good reasons to doubt the accuracy of the gospels.

The possible dates for the four gospels are (roughly) as such:

Gospel of Matthew 70-100 CE
Gospel of Mark 70-150 CE
Gospel of Luke 70-150 CE
Gospel of John 70-100 CE

The possible dates for the items Dawkins mentions:

Gospel of Thomas 50-150 CE

Gospel of Peter 70-150 CE
Going by these two sources 1 2, it seems perfectly reasonable to ascribe a 1st century origin. The text seems to be based on an oral tradition (rather than a textual one) and doesn’t rely on the other gospels for its information.

Gospel of Nicodemus 3rd-4th century
Going by these three sources 1 2 3, while it’s fairly certain that the Acts of Pilate were probably completed in the 3rd or 4th century, though parts of it could possibly date back to the 2nd century. The main question would be whether any parts of it are echoes of something earlier, actually created by Pilate or Nicodemus. While possible, that seems quite a stretch.

Gospel of Philip 2nd-3rd century (though very likely containing fragments from older works that are unrelated to known literature)


Gospel of Bartholomew Unclear

Gospel of Mary 60 CE-180 CE
Going by the Wikipedia and Early Christian Writings, I don’t see anything which necessitates a 2nd century branding. ECW gives their dating a one (out of five) star rating, after all. Women are shown as having equal or at least decent power in the church, what Gnostic teachings there are, are quite minimal, and the attribution for the text is from someone alive during Jesus’ life. All of these point to a credible very early writing.

So essentially, outside of the Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate), it’s likely that either the items in questions existed at the same time as the four principal gospels or are likely including text from lost sources that would have been available at that time. That seems a very decent argument that those who compiled the Bible did indeed selectively rule out perfectly viable sources–or possibly simply weren’t aware of them until later and then presumed them to be not-original and called for their destruction.

I’ve also pointed out several other works that could easily have been the products of the same time period.

No, they absolutely don’t, the earliest manuscript fragment dates from well into the 2nd Century (and the characterizations of “real” and “fake” don’t have any meaning with regard to the Gospels. There are Canonical and non-Canonical, but they’re all “real Gospels,” in that they all fit the criteria for the genre. How are you defining “real” and “fake?”

No there aren’t. The most conservative dating mainstream consensus of New Testament scholarship (including Christian scholars) is that the Gospels were written between 65-90 CE.

What is a “fake Gospel?” Define your terms. If you mean non-canoical gospels, you’re flat wrong.

For someone who’s so sure of yourself, you sure don’t know the facts very well. As a matter of fact, Irenaeus does NOT explicitly make reference to a “Gospel of Thomas,” (though Origen and Hippolytus do), but he DOES reference a story from it. The book is dated sometime around 150, but this is kind of a petty nitpick on your part. It doesn’t really address the multiplicity of other 2nd century gospels which we know existed and were popular.

How would you know? You don’t even know how the Canonicals are dated.

Any guesses on whether this will be like a recent thread by ITRC that he basically abandoned after being seriously challenged with evidence?