Sunday, October 28, 2012

Answering Jeff Lowder's attack on historical Jeus Sources part 1


Jeff Lowder is an long time contributor to the secular web. He wrote a piece years ago (last updated in 2000) about the historical sources McDowell uses for historical Jesus, This is not exactly a burning issue becuase it's such an old piece. It's still instructive to see how the Sec Web crowd rationalizes away good historical evidence. They have set the pattern for all current new atheism. They were fundamental in the formation of the new atheism.

In this installment I will deal with Lourder's handling of Polycarp and Irenaeus a major link to the time of Jesus. In part 2 I'll deal with a figure he doesn't mention and in part 3 I'll deal with his use of Josephus and the Talmud.

Lowder accepts the basic historicity of Jesus himself so he doesn't bother to attack the NT. He does reject the chruch fathers as having any independent standing or authority. Lowder assumes immediately that Christians sources are all untrustwothy and can't be used. so he makes the issue of using them the dividing line between what he assumes up front is garbage and what might be valid.

The Church Fathers do not provide any independent confirmation of Jesus. Under the heading "Christian Sources for the Historicity of Jesus,...McDowell only cited one example of church fathers relying on non-Christian tradition--Justin Martyr's reference to an alleged 'Acts of Pilate'--so I will have to restrict my comments to that.

 He goes into a lot of detail on the Acts of Pilate as though it is an independent source (although the only one). In reality the Act of Pilate is not independent of Christianity but it is a Christian source. In it Pilate became a Christian (that's enough in itself to cast doubt). It's also suspect becuase it's readings of the NT are derived from the Gospels. The Gospel of Peter, on the other hand, is a much better historical source becuase it's sources are clearly indepndent. Here we to make clear the distinction of the shallow way Lowder uses the term "independent" and the right way to use it. He means "not Christian" that's arbitrary, cynical and cuts out most of the good evidence. There's no reason why knowing what early Chrsitians said is a liability in the historicity of a text. We need independence form the canonical Gospels not becuase they are untrustworthy, but becuase dependence upon them creates the possibility that source just read the gospels and has no knowledge from any other source. So a source can be Christian and be independent if it's knowledge based seems to be a source aside from the canonical Gospels, even if it is a figure in the Gospels. Even if it is a Christian source. The Bias of a Christian source has to be weighed on its own merits. The Gospel of Pilate doesn't' pass that test. Gospel of Peter does. It's accounts of the Gospel are derived from ancinet early source independent of the canonical gospels becuase its quotations of gospels are derived from the psalms not from the canonical gospels.

The Apostolic fathers he dogmatically dismisses, such as Polycarp, are good sources and should be taken seroiusly. These sources don't prove by themselves that Jesus existed but as part of an overall case they are pretty strong. Lowder's evidence on the historical unreliability of Justin is pretty laughable. For example he assumes he's a bad authority because he refers to documents we don't have. As though he expects a second century apologist to write with the understanding of the 20th century reader in mind.

when it comes to the more important Apostolic fathers such as Ignatius, Polycarp, he faults them for basing their accounts upon the NT as though that means they don't have independent knowledge. He sets out two criteria (1) sources other than New Testament. (2) they have to be in a position to know if Jesus existed. At first glance criterion no. 1 may seem like he's just ignoring the NT becuase it's the Bible. That's actually a reasonable criterion but it could be taken in the wrong way. He's not just saying we can't believe the bible but if they read the things they speak of in the NT then they don't know them first hand. We have to be careful becuase atheists tend to refuse anything connected to the Bible just becuase it's the Bible. So if their first hand source is the Apostle John then it is a first hand source even though it's  a person from the Bible. The second criterion doesn't mean they had to known Jesus themselves but they had to at least know someone who knew Jesus. That's reasonable because a witness to Jesus life is a first hand witness. Jesus mythers set up their own false criteria that historians don't use demanding total first hand reporting, but Lowder is not a Jesus myther. Think about it logically, if a reporter interviewed an eyewitness to the D-day landing her interview would not be discounted on the grounds that she herself wasn't there. The person she interviewed was there. So if Polycarp was a student of John's he's like the reporter interviewing the eye witness.

Lowder dismisses Origen and Irenaeus  as having lived too late. While it's true they lived too late to know Jesus they are in a position to know he existed. Their evidence doesn't derive just from reading the NT. Ireneaus knew Polycarp who knew John. Of course that makes Polycarp the true source and Irenaeus is just a link in the chain to provides us with that fact. Of course Lowder merely dismisses Polycarp's knowledge of John with the gloss "our knowledge of his sources is uncertain." Our knowledge is not that uncertain. There are two ways it could be uncertain: (1) because there's a question as to weather he knew John the Apostle or the "elder John" of whom Papias writes. Either way it doesn't matter becuase the elder John knew Jesus too. The second way is that we know most of Polycarp's works through other people. That still doesn't mean anything becuase we know several major historical works with a less certainty. We didn't know Tacitus existed until the middle ages.
According to Iranaeus Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (Martyred in AD 155?) knew the Apostle John. This doesn't seem likely and has been denounced by the great Church historian B.H. Streeter (The Primitive Church ,1923) and others. The date of Ploycarp's Martyrdom is fixed by W.A. Waddington (see Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, , ).[1] The tradition recorded in the Martyrdom of Polycarp says that he was 86 years old when he went to his glory as a martyr. This would place his birth in the year 69 AD. Assuming he was a teenager (and he was supposed to be very young) when he knew John, this would place their friendship around the late 80s. Is it possible that John lived this long? Clearly legend has it that John lived to be over 100, returned from Patois and worked in the church of Ephesus. But those legends are probably driven by the statements in the Gospel which imply that John would not die or would be very old when he did die. If Johannie authorship holds up, and John was in Ephesus in 90 to write his Gospel, than it is possible that he knew Polycarp. The information that these two men did know each other comes through Iraneaeus who did know Polycarp.[2]

We have two major Sources Polycarp. The "Epistle to the Philippians" has been handed down. It's one of best attested patristic works and it's authority, while questioned in the past, has basically ceased to be questions. The attestation is good because it's backed by and in turn mutually backs up the writings of Ignatius. The Philippians traded letters with the Church of Antioch, Antioch's letter was by Polycarp and Philipi's letter by Ignatius. There is enough harmony between the two that they are accepted as authentic:

This is one of the many respects in which there is such complete harmony between the situations revealed in the Epistles of St. Ignatius and the Epistle of St. Polycarp, that it is hardly possible to impugn the genuineness of the former without in some way trying to destroy the credit of the latter, which happens to be one of the best attested documents of antiquity. In consequence some extremists, anti-episcopalians in the seventeenth century, and members of the Tübingen School in the nineteenth, boldly rejected the Epistle of Polycarp. Others tried to make out that the passages which told most in favour of the Ignatian epistles were interpolations. (New Advent). [3]
see also Peter Kirby's site for more sources on Polycarp. Polycarp himself doesn't talk about knowing John in that epistle. We are told about his knowledge of John by someone who knew him, Irenaeus of Lyon.  In Agaisnt Herieis book III. 3,4 

we are told:
"But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom,7 departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true."[4]
 There is a third source on Polycarp, this one also reportedly by Irenaeus. Fragments of lost writings of Irenaeus. In one fragment He tells more about things Polycarp said to him about knowing the Apostel John.

I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse-his going out, too, and his coming in-his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures.[5]
This is written to his friend Florinas who was latter accused of the Gnostic Heresy. He's reminding him of how they both knew John. Philip Schaff 19th century Church historian quoted by History of the Early Church, a website

The Epistle to Florinus, of which Eusebius has preserved an interesting and important fragment, treated On the Unity of God, and the Origin of Evil. It was written probably after the work against heresies, and as late as 190. Florinus was an older friend and fellow-student of lrenaeus and for some time presbyter in the church of Rome, but was deposed on account of his apostasy to the Gnostic heresy. Irenaeus reminded him very touchingly of their common studies at the feet of the patriarchal Polycarp, when he held some position at the royal court (probably during Hadrian's sojourn at Smyrna), and tried to bring him back to the faith of his youth, but we do not know with what effect...[6]
Atheists will be sure to attack this source because the fragment is preserved by Eusebius. He has been stuck by athesits with the reputation of having said that it's ok to lie in the cause of the faith. In fact he never said this. He was a fine historian and used good conscience and was honest about his sources. It was in fact the atheist Gibbon who said that it's ok to lie in service of the faith and tried to lie and say that Eusebius said it. There's a good webpage defending this position. [7] There is also now independent confirmation of the veracity of the connection between polycarp and John. This is"Harris Fragments," four fragments  in the Harris collection of Coptic literature in British library. The text has been known since the mid nineteenth century. Coptic copy of a Greek Composition written in third century. This is a record of Polycarp's last hours but it is not a copy of the  Martyrdom of Polycarp. This is not a writing of Polycarp. It's about him.[8]

Widemann tells us, "Harris fragments" may reflect early traditions: "the raw material for a narrative about John and Polycarp may have been in place before Irenaeus; the codification of the significance of a direct line of succession from the apostle John through Polycarp may arguably be linked directly to Irenaeus."[9] Yet this is both good and bad, from  a Christian apologetic stand point. What it means is that these fragments supply good evidence that Irenaeus was working from a tradition that was arleady there. Yet he improved upon it and that might imply manipulatino for political reasons, as some have already suggested: "Frederick Weidmann, their editor, interprets the "Harris fragments" as Smyrnan hagiography addressing Smyrna-Ephesus church rivalries, which "develops the association of Polycarp and John to a degree unwitnessed, so far as we know, either before or since." The fragments echo the Martyrology, and diverge from it." [10]

This is not the Florinus fragment. The poll of political manipulation is cast upon the unknown writter of the Harris fragments not Irenaeus himself.This is the Harris fragment that is not even attributed to Polycarp. So this is furnishing support for the fragment related to us by Eusebius in two ways, (1) It implies that there were sources prior to Irenaeus that link John with Polycarp. (2) It attests to the association brought out in the other fragment thus backing up its claim. The assertion the claim was made to further political interests of some faction is speculative and unproved. There's reason to doubt Irenaeus' actual words which are reflected his major work. If we find reason to doubt the authorship of the Florinus fragment we have no such reason to doubt Against Heresies.

Therefore, Polycarp meets both criteria, (1)  Its form an independent source. (2) Polycarp was in a position to know and Irenaus was in a position to know Polycarp. Even though it may not have been the Apostle John that Polycarp knew, it was nevertheless an eye witness disciple. Lowder doesn't go into anywhere near this kind of detail. In part 2 I will deal with a church father who is extremely important as a living link between the Apostles and the chruch of the second century, yet one Lowder doesn't even mention in passing.

Before moving on to part 2, which will be next time, I just want to touch on the rest of Lowder's material. I'm not going to deal with it in detail becuase I have already done so on Doxa He talks about Jewish Pagan sources. He's done with Christian sources. The Jewish sources he deals with are Josephus and the  Talmud. He says nothing original or amazing about either. My essays on either one fo these are Doxa are adequate to answer him.



It wouldn't hurt to to look at all my historical Jesus pages.

Next time part 2: the figure Lowder didn't mention
Friday, part 3: Josephus and the Talmud

[1] The original edition was published in 1976, the on line copy of that edition is here, but the page numbers are different. In the hard copy of the original edition the quote  is on page 144.

[2] Introduction  to "the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians," Christian Classics Ethereal library.

[3] "ST. Polycarp," New Advent Catholic Encyclopidea, editor, Kevin Knight. On line resource: URL:

[4] Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.3-4

[5] Fragements of Lost Writings of Irenaeus.

Note that this same quote in it's larger context can be found in several places on line:
*on new advent under lost writings of Iranaeus:
*On Peter Kirby's Site: Early Christian Writings.

Original hard copy version can always be found:
Source. Translated by Alexander Roberts. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .

[6] Philip Schaff quoted on website "History of the Early Church." URL

[7] Eusebius the liar? URL:

[8] Frederick W. Widemann, The Harris Fragments and their challenge to the literary tradition by  Christinty and Judism in Anqiquity 12 Notre Dame Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1999

 Untitled Book Review, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol 120, no 1, Spring, Society of Biblical Literature, 2001, 185.

[9] Widemann, ibid 132

[10] "Polycarp"  Untiiltled on line website:URL:
 quoting Weidemann 133.

1 comment:

JBsptfn said...

Good article, Meta. Looking forward to the other parts.

What is funny is the slogan for the Secular Web: A drop of reason in a pool of confusion (lol).