Sunday, October 09, 2005

The White/Crossan Debate

I recently received and watched the DVD version of James White's debate with John Crossan. (Order it here.) As you would expect, I think that White won the debate. In his opening remarks, White described some of the problems with Crossan's philosophical beliefs, and Crossan never overcame that initial assessment. Both men were amiable, and I think it was one of White's best performances, but Crossan was often incoherent.

For example, he argued that the authors of the gospels probably would say that the gospels were intended to be viewed as neither metaphorical nor literal, but rather "real". But if "literal" is being equated with historical, and "real" is something else, then the use of the term "real" seems to be an attempt to argue for a metaphorical reading without having to defend such an approach.

We know what the authors intended. They intended to write history. They were writing Greco-Roman biographies. The earliest Christian interpreters understood the documents in a highly literal manner, and so did the earliest non-Christian interpreters. In a debate several years ago with William Craig, Crossan compared the gospels to Aesop’s fables, to which Craig responded:

"What is the literary genre that we're dealing with? What type of literature are the Gospels? Now Dr. Crossan knows that the Gospels are not of the genre of myth or allegory or folk story or fairy tale. They're of the genre of historical writing. This has been excellently demonstrated by Colin Hemer in his recent volume The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Combing through the Book of Acts, Hemer finds a wealth of historical detail that has been verified by archeological and papyrological findings. These findings show that Luke is a consummate historian in the Book of Acts (and I believe also in the Gospel of Luke). The judgment of Sir William Ramsay still stands: 'Luke is a historian of the first rank...this author deserves to be placed among the very greatest of historians.'" (in Paul Copan, editor, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998], p. 41)

See the extensive documentation of the gospels' genre in Craig Keener's 1999 commentary on Matthew and his 2003 commentary on John, for example. Ignatius, just after the death of the apostle John, wrote concerning Jesus:

"He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed to the cross for us in His flesh….And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be Christians." (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 1-2)

Craig Blomberg comments:

"A careful reading of the patristic evidence suggests that indeed the vast majority of early Christians did believe that the type of information the Gospel writers communicated was historical fact, even as they recognized the more superficial parallels with the mythology of other worldviews" (cited in Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], p. 327, n. 27)

If the New Testament authors had been writing in some highly unhistorical genre, we wouldn't expect the early Jewish opponents of Christianity to be acknowledging the empty tomb and Jesus' performance of apparent miracles, for example. Matthew (Matthew 28:11-15), Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho, 108), and Tertullian (On Spectacles, 30) tell us that the leaders of Judaism acknowledged that Jesus' tomb was empty. Josephus and other early non-Christian sources refer to Jesus as a sorcerer or magician (see here). Julius Africanus refers to multiple non-Christian sources corroborating the darkness that occurred at the time of the crucifixion (see here, here, and here). I doubt that these early enemies of Christianity were joining the Christians in telling parables.

At one point in the debate, Crossan tried to explain the evidence in Luke's prologue (Luke 1:1-4) for the historical genre of the gospels by arguing that the witnesses Luke refers to are martyrs or people who testify for Jesus without regard to whether their information is of a historical nature. White corrected him on his misunderstanding of the text, and Crossan had to retract his argument. I think Crossan realizes that there are major implications to acknowledging the historical nature of the gospels, so he doesn't want to acknowledge it. Crossan commented that he doesn't know how to determine whether the gospels are intended to convey historical accounts, and he suggested that nobody can know how to do it. He even went as far as to say that it's a "waste of time" to try.

And this brings up one of Crossan's most irrational arguments in the debate. He repeatedly said or implied that whether the gospels are interpreted as he interprets them or as White interprets them isn't of much significance. He would acknowledge at some points that there is some significance involved, but he said that it isn't much. He kept discussing helping the poor and other issues of social justice that wouldn't be affected by how we interpret the gospels, but what about having hope beyond the grave? What about having assurance of God's love and protection, for example? What about the clarity that a verifiable Divine revelation would add to moral issues? These things are highly significant. There are major implications that follow from whether we interpret the New Testament as Crossan does or as White does.

Crossan said, in his opening remarks, that not only can the gospels be harmonized, but that it's even obvious that they can be. But he chooses not to harmonize them. He even said at one point that the differences among the gospels, which he would sometimes call contradictions if the gospels are interpreted as historical accounts, are "precious". White responded to some of Crossan's examples of alleged inconsistencies, and Crossan, as far as I recall, never answered back. The large amount of evidence we have for the historical genre of the gospels and for their Divine inspiration far outweighs the evidence we have for alleged contradictions. Harmonizing the gospels involves some difficulty, but not as much difficulty as Crossan's approach.

At one point, on the subject of what Jesus is reported to have said while on the cross, Crossan made a comment about how he doubted that crucified people spoke much. However, not only does such a comment fail to explain the testimony of the gospel authors, but:

"Contemporary testimony indicates that crucified men at the place of execution were often surrounded by relatives, friends, and enemies, and that they spoke a good deal during the long and painful hours of waiting for death. It is therefore by no means impossible that Jesus spoke all of the sayings which the four accounts of the crucifixion attribute to him. In fact, he probably said a great deal more....J Git. 48 c; Tos. Git. 7, 1, and elsewhere" (Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960], p. 136, n. on p. 229)

White and Crossan discussed prophecy for a while. I was glad that prophecy came up in this debate, because it so often doesn't come up. Crossan acknowledged at one point that it's historically credible to suggest that events would occur during Jesus' crucifixion such as the parting of His garments, yet Crossan argued that the early Christians made up the stories of such events in order to portray Jesus as fulfilling prophecy. But if the details of Psalm 22, for example, are accurate descriptions of what would plausibly occur during a crucifixion, why should we think that the early Christians were making up the gospel accounts of what happened when Jesus was crucified? I think this was another area where Crossan was incoherent. (For some examples of the historical probability of Jesus' fulfillment of prophecy, see my articles here and here.) They didn't go into much detail on prophecy, but as far as he did comment on the subject, Crossan's assessment was far from adequate. There are some elements of prophecy fulfillment that the early Christians couldn't possibly have fabricated, such as the timing of Jesus' life (Daniel 9:24-27) and His influence on the Gentile world (Isaiah 49:6-7, 52:15), and some of the ones that could have been fabricated are highly unlikely to have been.

Throughout the debate, Crossan repeatedly made comments about how allegedly superstitious "pre-Enlightenment" people were. He compared belief in a supernatural Jesus to belief in Asclepius. For an extensive refutation of this concept of ancient gullibility, including discussion of Asclepius, see Glenn Miller's article here. See also Christopher Price's article here and the large amount of relevant material at J.P. Holding's web site.

Much more could be said, but I'll close here. Basically, I think that White outlined, in his opening remarks, some major problems with Crossan's belief system, and Crossan never recovered. I would recommend this debate to anybody who's considering getting it, especially if you know somebody who is being influenced by Crossan in particular or the Jesus Seminar or liberal scholarship in general. I was glad to see a debate like this that included a discussion of prophecy, and I hope that will happen more often in the future. It's a subject that's far too neglected even among Evangelical scholars, and people like Crossan are rarely expected to address it.

By the way, for those of you who already have the DVD or will be getting it, my copy froze up during the first cross examination segment. I tried playing it probably three or four times, and it happened each time. If you run into the same problem, it's not something wrong with your copy.