Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Doubting the Gospel of Thomas: A Response

Doubting the Gospel of Thomas: A Response

ollowing a recent debate in which I defended the Q Document hypothesis (abbreviated, Q) by citing the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (abbreviated, GTh)[1] as possible evidence which strengthens, if not confirms, the Q hypothesis[2] I seemingly ruffled a few Evangelical Christian feathers, although I don’t see why it would.
During my argumentation regarding both Q and GTh with a Christian apologist, who in orthodox fashion denies both the veracity of the Q hypothesis and the relevancy of the Gospel of Thomas, he wrote a rebuttal to the information I provided. This is my response to his article “Doubting the Gospel of Thomas.”
In this article, I will be offering commentary to his comments, taking issue with the points he raises, as well as with the poorly sourced arguments he attempts. Then I will offer a proper defense for the integrity of the GTh as being on par with the Synoptic Gospel tradition as an early first century source, and as an independent source for additional insights into early Christianity and the teachings of Jesus.
—Advocatus Atheist
[Author’s Note: Advocatus Atheist commentary in red.]

While involved in internet argumentation in another forum over the weekend, the subject of the so-called "Gospel of Thomas" came up. Usually such canards as this are propagated by skeptics and unbelievers in a vain attempt to discredit Holy Scripture in sort of an "Ah-hah, Gotcha!" moment by suggesting that other written gospels exist that are in some way comparable to the widely accepted Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

[Advocatus Atheist: Perhaps I should fill the reader in on the main discussion we were having; it was primarily on the canonization of scripture. I merely suggested that due to the fact that The Gospel of Thomas is at least as old as the Synoptic tradition, perhaps earlier (as we’ll discuss below), then Christians need to account for the similarity in over half of the 114 of the sayings of Jesus which Thomas shares with the Gospels and Johannine sayings.

Originally, when I first mentioned the GTh it was in support of Q, since Q addresses the ‘synoptic problem’ and also seems to hint at GTh as a possible independent source which may add support for a historical Jesus tradition. I don’t quite see how using GTh (if truly an independent source pre-dating the Gospels) to establish that Jesus was a real historical figure, is in anyway a canard. In fact one would have to question the agenda of any Christian who’d deny the GTh as evidence which supports the claim that Jesus of the Bible may have actually been a real historical person—even as such a claim is on shaky ground.[3] Although the authenticity of the Jesus sayings of GTh may be in dispute, it should not go overlooked that so are the Jesus attributed sayings in all of the Gospels.[4] So the debate cannot simply be about the authenticity of the sayings, as any decent historian would remind us.

Meanwhile, the statement that GTh is used as a means to discredit the Gospel, to me, is simply a nonsensical statement. What would it discredit exactly? Would it discredit the inherent truth found within or simply disprove the material as historically reliable? The only thing referring to the GTh could discredit about the Gospels is the fact that the Gospels were not divinely inspired (a difficult fact for the true believer) because of the incontestable sharing between them, or that the Gospels themselves may have borrowed heavily from other sources and traditions (which seems to be the case). Today’s Christians find such a notion heretical and are the first to dismiss it, yet this is what the evidence depicts, so to dismiss it off hand seems to be impetuous, not to mention such a display of blind faith suffers from a distinct lack of clear, thoughtful, objectivity.

Either way, to show that the Gospels simply cannot be relied upon to paint a historically accurate picture of past events doesn’t require referral to any extrabiblical text since they do a good job of discrediting themselves.[5] The irrefutable disagreement and conflict between pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is enough to send up red flags for anyone with a critical eye. Christians often deny Biblical errancy outright, but this devotional conviction flies in the face of good scholarly research and, at the same time, shows a confirmation bias which would not get them very far in the field of Biblical studies. In order to be as objective as possible the historian must put his prejudice aside when scrutinizing a text in order to avoid any confirmation bias which may impede his impartiality.

If one cannot do this, then their opinion is always going to match the institutions conventional opinion—even if it should be wholly inaccurate or altogether wrong. Devotional proclamations, such as the one above, should remain in Sunday school as they have no place in the field of historical biblical studies.]

The story usually goes that such writings were on the same par as the synoptic Gospels along with that of John, however due to some sort of "embarrassing information" contained in them, they were later suppressed in order to maintain the uniformity of the other gospel accounts.

[Advocatus Atheist: Clarification of what is intended by the colloquialism “on par” is needed. Support for what the author means by “embarrassing information” is needed.]

When Wayne Jackson of the Christian Courier was presented with the idea that the Gospel of Thomas was somehow "authentic" he had
this to say about it...

"Authentic”? In what sense? Certainly not “authentic” in the sense that the “Gospel of Thomas” carries the same credibility as the canonical Gospel records Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is considerable evidence that the document that is called the “Gospel of Thomas” was not authored by the apostle who bore that name.

[Advocatus Atheist: First of all, an online journalist for a Christian publication is not an unbiased or scholarly source and should not be cited for support. Secondly, Wayne Jackson points out the obvious by making the statement that the GTh was not authored by the apostle who bore the name. What Jackson seems to forget, however, is that none of the Gospels were either! Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not authored by the apostles either. If Jackson is trying to discredit the GTh as an unreliable historical source for early Christian tradition, then he has set up an unfair double standard. It seems his criteria for historical trustworthiness is anything which conforms to Christian orthodoxy—anything else is deemed heretical—and so untrustworthy. It appears that Jackson’s opinion is anything found to be heretical cannot be considered historically reliable. This blunder alone rules out his opinion on what is and is not historically reliable. Instead, we must rely on the qualified historians to gain our insights into matters.]

What are the facts relative to this ancient text that has caused such a sensation in recent years?"

Compiled in the Second Century
"In 1945, an archaeological excavation at Nag Hammadi in Central Egypt yielded a collection of 13 papyrus codices (books) totaling over 1,100 pages. One of these contained the “Gospel of Thomas” in the Coptic language. In this form it dates from about A.D. 350.

However, the original work apparently is older since three Greek papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection (c. A.D. 150) contain fragments of the narrative. It is thus believed that the original “Gospel of Thomas” was compiled about A.D. 140, probably in Edessa, Syria. Some scholars push the date a little later (A.D. 150-200).

There is no evidence that this work existed in the first century, even though those associated with the bogus “Jesus Seminar” so allege."

[Advocatus Atheist: Jackson’s qualifications notwithstanding, most official historians agree that the GTh is at least a first century work, which later got added to, thus the Gospel of Thomas does contain later work shared with all four Gospels. Even so, Thomas is markedly a first century work. For starters, Stevan Davies, Stephen Patterson, John H. Morison, among others, all agree that Thomas is a legitimate first century work. How do we know this?

Mainly, the reason we can know this is because of the Oxyrhynchus find in Egypt (1897; 1903), in which three ancient Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas were unearthed. Although the textual source for the sayings was originally unclear, due to the deteriorated status of the 5,000 some fragments, the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945—which discovered a complete version of Thomas in Coptic—made it possible to identify the three surviving papyri of the Oxyrhynchus fragments as an earlier Greek edition of the Gospel of Thomas.

Professor John Morison, of New Testament Studies at Harvard Divinity School, states, “So we cannot with certainty reconstruct what did the Gospel of Thomas look like around the year 100 or earlier. But it is very likely that it existed at that time, and that a good deal of the material that’s now in that manuscript was already in a Greek manuscript that dates back to the first century.”[6]

True enough, the Oxyrhynchus fragments of Thomas date to around 130 C.E., and is further qualified by the reconstruction work, and interlinear translations of the Greek, by Andrew Bernhard. I would like to remind the reader that 130 C.E. is the date of a completed Greek manuscript, whereas the Gospel of John, by comparison, is dated at around 170 C.E.]

Yes indeed Mr Jackson. And in support of this information, Dr. Craig Evans (PhD) of Acadia University, had this to say about the later dating of Thomas. When told that "John Dominic Crossan says that the current text emerged about 60 or 70 [A.D.], but that an earlier edition goes back as far as the 50's. If they're right, that means that Thomas has really early material. Are they wrong?" Dr. Evans replied...

"They're wrong for several reasons," he said.... Thomas has too much New Testament in it. Not only that, Thomas doesn't have any early pre-Synoptic material. Thomas has forms that reflect the later developments in Luke and Matthew... Matthew and Luke sometimes improve upon Mark's grammar and word choice. Mark is not real polished in Greek grammar and style, while Matthew and Luke are much more so. And in the Gospel of Thomas we find these more polished Matthew and Luke forms of the sayings of Jesus. So Thomas isn’t referring to earlier Mark, but to the later Matthew and Luke. We also find references to the special material that's found only in Matthew and only in Luke, both of which scholars think is later, not earlier.

And Thomas has material from the Gospel of John. How can Thomas be written in the 50's and 60's but still have Johannine material that doesn't get written down till the 90's?"

[Advocatus Atheist: The consensus in American scholarship, I think you’ll find, is that the GTh is a text independent of the synoptics and that it was compiled in the mid to late first century. Supporting this view are the biblical historians J.H. Sieber, C. Hedrick, R. Cameron, Bradley McLean, Lance Owens, Stevan L. Davies, and most notably Stephen Patterson. I can’t help but have the sneaking suspicion that Craig Evans’ easy dismissal of Thomas as a first century work, something the community of biblical scholars seem to agree upon, is perhaps somehow influenced by his devotional convictions and not dependent on any reliable support. Since the consensus is, in point of fact, in support of the early origins of GTh and holds that it was written in around, or even before, 70 C.E., it might behoove Evans to take a second look and re-examine the work of his colleagues and peers. Oddly enough, the fact that Thomas is independent, not relying on synoptic or pre-synoptic sources, actually supports the early dating of the material.[7] Evans has inadvertently contradicted himself!

Stephen Patterson argues persuasively that there are no good reasons to believe that any of the synoptic gospels served as a source for Thomas. Patterson observes:
While the cumulative nature of sayings collection understandably makes the Gospel of Thomas difficult to date with precision, several factors weigh in favor of a date well before the end of the first century: the way which Thomas appeals to the authority of particular prominent figures (Thomas, James) against the competing claims of others (Peter, Matthew); its genre, the sayings collections, which seems to have declined in importance after the emergence of the more biographical and dialogical forms near the end of the first century; and its primitive Christology, which seems to presuppose a theological climate more primitive even than the later sayings of the synoptic sayings gospel, Q. Together these factors suggest a date for Thomas in the vicinity of 70-80 C.E.[8]
Meanwhile, Dr. Lance Owens chimes in with further support, adding:
Reference to James as an authoritative figure in saying 12 of the Gospel of Thomas has caused difficulty for scholars attempting to date the Gospel’s composition to a period after the first century. The community of James, historical associated with Jerusalem, ceased to exist after the roman destruction of Palestine around 70 C.E. If the text of the Gospel of Thomas was produced subsequent to that date, or if the version we now possess underwent later redactions with intent of conforming the text to theological and sociological views of a period foreign to the earliest formative years of Christianity, then why was this authoritative reference to James retained in the twelfth logion? And if the saying indeed dates to the earliest decades of Christian tradition, what significance does reference to James hold for the interpretive readings of the Gospel?[9]
Indeed, there is no evidence of redaction in the GTh, and with certain key passages we have clues which strongly hint at Thomas being composed before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. as Morison, Patterson, and Owens have all observed. So Evans and Jackson are both clearly mistaken.

What about the Johannine sayings connection? This too has been explained, and Evans would know this if he actually looked into any of the historical research done on the Thomas tradition.[10] Dr. Alexander Mirkovic has focused on research establishing the sharing between Thomas and the later Johannine works, and has clarified the issue by stating, “The Gospel of Thomas was written about the same time as the canonical gospels, since it does not presuppose the developed Gnostic cosmogony we know from the Gnostic writings of the second century. It is a collection of saying like the Proverbs, Ben Sira, or the Wisdom of Solomon.”[11] ]

And this is just the beginning of the problems for Thomas. Mr. Jackson next brings up...

[Advocatus Atheist: Actually, we’ve come across no real problems thus far. Only apologists are stuck with a heap of irreconcilable problems on this issue of Thomas’s influence on the Gospels and of the authenticity of the Gospels themselves.]

Beware of “secret sayings”
“Thomas” consists of a collection of 114 “sayings of Jesus,” that are supposed to be a “secret” revelation the Lord gave to the apostle Thomas. That “secret” business itself ought to be a red flag!

Some of these sayings repeat the words of Christ from the canonical Gospel accounts. About 40 of them are entirely new. Most scholars believe that the “Gospel of Thomas” is significantly contaminated with the ancient heretical philosophy known as Gnosticism (Cameron, p. 539)."

[Advocatus Atheist: According to Jackson, the Gnostic Gospel According to Thomas is a Gnostic text. I don’t know if he’s trying to be funny or what, but I’m not amused. It is sort of like saying that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are Gospels. And how can a Gnostic text be “contaminated” with Gnosticism? Is that like a Gospel source being “contaminated” with Gospelism? He might as well state that he read the Gospels but found too much Christianity in it. Jackson is a funny guy—but he shouldn’t quit his day job (as a journalist for the Christian Courier) anytime soon—because as a historian he just doesn’t cut it.]

Dr. Evans describes the concept of salvation in Thomas thusly...
"Salvation is not perhaps exactly the way it is in the other Gnostic texts, but it's pretty close... It comes from self-knowledge, from understanding oneself authentically, and recognizing where one fits into the cosmos, as well as repudiating and not getting caught up with this world. So it's slightly Christian, slightly Old Testament, slightly Gnostic."

Anybody with even a passing familiarity with the New Testament knows that this is not the process of salvation described there.

[Advocatus Atheist: Both Evans and our Christian apologist are, surprisingly, correct. Gnosticism is clearly not mainstream Orthodox Christianity. This is the third time they’ve pointed out the banally obvious. Gnosticism stems from the root gnosis (Greek for knowledge). In theological writings gnosis is the higher knowledge of spiritual things, often with reference to claims to such knowledge made by Gnosticism. What Evans and other Christian apologists seem to overlook is the fact that the book of John is heavily influenced by Gnosticism too. Even Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century) remarked that John had composed a ‘spiritual gospel’. This observation coincides with when the Gospel of John was written (c.170 C.E.) at the same time as the rise in popularity of Gnosticism. And we already discussed the sharing between Thomas and Johannine sayings, so there is no surprise that many scholars classify John as a possible candidate for a Gnostic work. In fact the early Church fathers believed the fourth Gospel of John to be a piece of Gnostic blasphemy penned by Cerinthus. So instead of helping support their agenda, they have just shot themselves in the foot, but have put on a brave face so you wouldn’t know it.]

Next, Jackson moves on to...

"Occasionally, some very absurd language is put into the Lord’s mouth by means of this document. Here is an example:

Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary (Magdalene) go out from among us, because women are not worthy of the Life.”

Jesus said: “See I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Saying 114, Funk, p. 532; see also Yamauchi, p. 186).

Does that even remotely resemble the dignified status that women are afforded in the New Testament?"

Could a skeptic cite a reference in any of the four Gospels that resembles this? Of course not! The whole thing is a sham.

[Advocatus Atheist: Understandably, it helps to have actually read Thomas before jumping to conclusions about the so-called “absurdity” of it. Jackson too has failed to comprehend the content of GTh, although I highly doubt he has read it in full, since he would have understood the meaning of the verse he quotes if he had. Since both our apologist friend and Jackson seem to be unfamiliar with Thomas, or Gnostic tradition for that matter, I’ll briefly clarify.

In GTh saying 22, in a response to a question Mary Magdalene has asked Jesus, he responds:
Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the (Father’s) domain.]
This clears up the meaning behind the subsequent saying 114, and if Jackson had read Thomas in full he would have known this. In saying 22 Jesus is instructing the disciples to be like him, and when he instructs males and females to become one, he is giving his women followers the same authority as the males, by making them equal. Peter becomes irate at such a suggestion, and in the first line of saying 114 Peter says, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.”

Peters confrontation with Mary to attain authority in the early Christian movement is a recurrent theme found in the Gnostic texts, often times Peter objects to any women membership at all. For example, in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene, chapter nine, verses 3-10, Peter is irate at the fact that Mary has recently had a vision of the deceased Jesus, who had spoken to her in a waking dream (just like Paul), supposedly giving her secret revelations along with entrusting Mary with the obligation to take over and lead his movement. Since Peter wants the power and authority to lead the movement, he chastises Mary, as he finds her an unfit (or rather undeserving) candidate for the life of a disciple; let alone the chosen disciple who will lead the movement.
3) Peter answered and spoke concerning these matters. 4) He questioned them about the Savior: Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?
5) Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?”
6) Levi answered and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been hot tempered. 7) Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. 8) But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. 9) That is why He loved her more than us. Rather, let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.” 10) And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.[12]
It is clear to me that in saying 114 of Thomas, Jesus is instructing his disciples, including the women, to put on the perfect Man, and be like him. Not exactly difficult exegesis to follow if you have any familiarity with the Gnostic texts, which we can assume our Christian apologists here do not, which makes it rather difficult for their criticism to be taken seriously. Even so, to answer the above question, yes the Gnostics and the sayings of Thomas in particular, do depict a dignified status of women. In fact, most scholars agree that the Gnostic tradition elevates women more than the NT does—after all, it gives women the same status and importance of the other disciples, as to Jesus himself, and what is more Jesus appoints Mary Magdalene as the new leader of the Christian movement![13] This we do not find in the Gospel accounts.]

Jackson goes on to state…
The “Gospel of Thomas”—An Apparent Fraud

R.K. Harrison has well noted that this apocryphal work “cannot in any sense be called a ‘fifth gospel’” (Blaiklock & Harrison, p. 450). It is readily apparent that the so-called Gospel of Thomas has no place in the inspired canon, and history has been correct in rejecting it – some modern “scholars” to the contrary notwithstanding.

There are, however, two important points to be made in this connection.

1. The dependence of the “Thomas” upon the canonical Gospel records clearly indicates that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were recognized as the authoritative sources of information regarding Jesus of Nazareth.

2. The fact that the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were available to a writer in Syria, in the mid-second century A.D., is dramatic evidence of the widespread distribution of the sacred documents in the early years of Christian history.

[Advocatus Atheist: Granted Jackson is a journalist and not a historian of any sort, it appears he is not familiar with the history of the construction of the canon. I have discussed this topic in detail, and you may wish to view my essay “An Unassuming History: On the History of Alterations, Emendation, and Man-made Origins of the Canon,” HERE. And since the debate isn’t about including new material into the established canon I will leave this ineffectual reference alone for the time being.]

Let's back up for a minute. Dr. Evans gives us some background information concerning the "Syria" reference.

"If you read Thomas in Greek or Coptic, it looks like the sayings aren’t in any particular order. It appears to be just a random collection of of what Jesus supposedly said. But if you translate it into Syriac, something extremely interesting emerges. Suddenly, you discover more than 500 Syrian catchwords that link virtually all the 114 sayings in order to help people memorize the gospel. In other words, Saying 2 is followed by Saying 3 because Saying 2 refers to a certain word that's then contained in Saying 3. And Saying 3 contains a certain word that leads you into Saying 4. It was a memorization aid."

[Advocatus Atheist: The Syriac reference stems from the Coptic translation. Evans makes another big mistake in claiming that Thomas has no particular order in Greek or Coptic and then states the Syriac translation of the Coptic becomes ordered. Since this doesn’t apply to the Greek, like he claims, his point is moot. Such an understanding would simply be gained by studying the interlinear translations of Thomas by either Michael Grondin or Andrew Bernhard, both of whom include with it a critical analysis of the Greek text. It is no surprise that later versions would include memorization aids like this in the text—as it is true of most ancient texts also; e.g. the Iliad and Odyssey.]

Why is this significant? Dr. Evans explains...

"There was a guy named Tatian, a student of Justin Martyr, who created a written harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the year 175. It's called the Diatessaron which means, "through the four." What he did was blend all four Gospels together and present it in Syriac. So the first time Syrian-speaking Christians had access to the Gospels was not as separate Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but as the blended, harmonized form. In blending together the sayings of the four Gospels, Tatian created some new forms, because it was part Matthew, part Luke and so forth. Here's the clincher, those distinctive Syrian forms show up in the Gospel of Thomas."
Note: all occurrences of emphasis above appear in the text that is cited.

[Advocatus Atheist: As already pointed out—this is true of the Coptic version of Thomas, not the original Greek. So Evans has simply used the later version to try and discredit the early date of Thomas, but this is blatant subterfuge. We’ve already established that The Gospel of Thomas is a first century, independent, text. Although there is room for debate as to the exact date, it is clear that Evans is taking the minority opinion simply because it aligns with his Christian convictions. This confirmation bias detracts from his scholarship and makes his statements regarding Thomas unimportant.]

Ding-ding-ding-ding! And on it goes. The next time someone brings up this little hodgepodge of Gnosticism and absurdities and tries to present it as anything other than the complete theological disaster that it is, just hit them up with the FACTS. Anyone who would argue from positions advanced by the Jesus Seminar purposefully begins from a starting point that accepts their agenda which is driven by personal biases, not real evidence.

[Advocatus Atheist: Our apologist is right, on and on it goes, the merry-go-round of the apologist—avoiding having to look into the actual facts and instead siding with ‘Team-Groupthink’! And the closing comments about the Jesus Seminar was just out of place and incoherent—I don’t mean to be mean—but saying the Jesus Seminar is driven by personal biases and not real evidence is just stupid. The whole purpose of the Jesus Seminar is to establish the historicity of Jesus by detecting the real historical evidence which would aid in the search for the historical Jesus! Furthermore, the Jesus Seminar has nothing to do with the topic of this discussion, unless our apologist means to imply that some of the members are too liberal or do not believe in the divine Christ enough. But that’s a different topic, and many of the historians I quote are not part of the Jesus Seminar, so again, I fail to see the relevance behind bringing up the Jesus Seminar here.]

Work Cited: The interview with Dr. Evans is from The Case For The Real Jesus by Lee Strobel, (2007), Zondervan.

[Advocatus Atheist: Here we find the only scholar referenced is cited in a secondary source, written by an Evangelical Christian Apologist, known for his distortion of history to force it to fit with his Evangelical Christian convictions[14]—to which our Christian apologist seems to agree. Go-Team-Groupthink!

Not to sound too pedantic, but I think that it’s clear we have a problem with our apologist’s sources. First, neither source is scholarly. Of the two sources, however, there are select quotations from a single biblical scholar, Craig A. Evans, of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, as cited in Lee Strobel’s book The Case for the Real Jesus. Second, Strobel’s book, a work of Christian apologetics, simply doesn’t count as a scholarly resource.

I normally wouldn’t be so harsh, but when it comes to being called out and told I’m wrong in a public forum, in an area I knowing a thing or two about, I don’t mind offering a hard hitting, well deserved, criticism. Of course, I know I’m probably not convincing any dyed-in-the-wool Christians, least of all any apologist who thinks Strobel is a suitable source when it comes to historical matters concerning Biblical history. Such a person has presumably already hopped on the Evangelical bandwagon, and will in all likelihood dismiss any of the real scholarship concerning the Gospel of Thomas or other Gnostic works which I may present, refusing to correct their misconceptions. For this reason, I have tried to cite only from primary resources, such as academic journals, scholarly articles, and related books which are written by professional scholars. Hopefully, in relaying this authoritative information, so as to be that much more credible, I will have corrected any false impressions there might have been about the historical information regarding the Gospel of Thomas. I guess it’s true what they say—the devil is in the details.]

Advocatus Atheist’s Notes and References

[1] Three authoritative versions of the Gospel of Thomas can be read online at The Gnostic Society Library:

And also a fourth translation available at PBS:

[2] For a concise summary of the parallels between Q and GTh, please read:

[3] Most historians agree that Jesus must have been a real historical figure, but the fact of the matter is, there is just so little evidence to establish a link which would tie him to the fabric of history, all of which is polluted with mythological material, detectible redaction, and evangelical alteration that it is nigh impossible to uncover any genuine historical facts about Jesus. This doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t exist; simply that Jesus is more legend than historical fact. Meanwhile, any “authentic” evidence for a historical existence is strenuous at best. The simple fact is that Jesus’ life is so shrouded in mystery as to never have been adequately pieced together in over two thousand years, and we still don’t know anything about the life of the real historical Jesus, and not for a lack of trying I might add. For decades NT Biblical scholars such as Ferdinand Christian Baur, David Friedrich Strauss, and Rudolf Bultmann have convincingly argued that the NT is more diverse than Christians give it credit for and that any genuine historical information is nearly impossible to extract from it.

[4] Robert M. Price, Ph.D. “Messiah as Mishnah: The Problem of Jesus-Attributed Saying,” Approaches to Ancient Judaism New Series. Vol. 13 (Scholars Press, 1998) Made available online courtesy of Robert M. Price at:

[5] See: Bart D. Ehrman’s informative works: Jesus Interrupted, Misquoting Jesus, and Lost Christianities.

[6] Read biblical historian John Morison’s quote online at:

[7] See: Steven L. Davies, Ph.D. “The Christology and Protology of the Gospel of Thomas,” Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 111, Number 4, 1992. Available online courtesy of Steven Davies at:

[8] Stephen Patterson, Ph.D. qtd. in The Journal of the New Testament Society of South Africa, Neotestamentical vol. 30, 2 (1996), pp. 307-334.

[9] Lance Owens, Ph.D. “The Gospel of Thomas and the Hermeneutics of Vision,” available online:

[10] See: Alexander Mirkovic, Ph.D. “The Sayings Traditions in their Environment of First Century Syria,” available online:

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Gnostic Gospel of Mary, available online:

[13] See: The Nag Hammadi Scriptures ed. by Marvin Meyer and Elaine Pagels; The Gnostic Gospel of Jesus by Marvin Meyer; The Gnostic Discoveries also by Meyer; Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by Stephan A. Hoeller; The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King; The Gnostic Bible ed. by Willis Barnstone with Marvin Meyer; Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King; The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels; Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels; The Fifth Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age by Stephen J. Patterson and James M. Robinson; The Gnostic Scriptures by Bentley Layton.

[14] Read Robert M. Prices book The Case Against the Case for Christ: A New Testament Scholar Refutes the Reverend Lee Strobel.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Intellectual Honesty

I love the above picture simply because it represent the most common misconception of atheism--namely that atheism is a philosophy in and of itself, such a misrepresentation amounts to little more than religious polemic against atheism and a thinly veiled straw-man. Which begs the question--who is more honest--atheists or believers?

In a conversation over at another blog, I had mentioned that Christian apologists bend the truth in their favor every chance they get. We can guess the reason for this is because they want to validate their "truth" claim about God's existence. Although, this only amounts to theological arguments designed to 'sound' convincing because their is no readily available evidence which could easily prove, in a second, what apologists try so desperately hard to. This is why it is call "Apologestics" after all.

Following my statements that apologists bend the truth, I offered that, in the religious discourse involving all forms of rhetoric, it would be an unfair double standard not to allow atheists to do the same. Granted, bending the truth here is in reference to making one's rhetoric persuasive, making the "truth claim" all the more believable, but ultimately has no impact on the truth of the matter.

A Christian friend offered that I was simply being unfair by implying Christians were dishonest, and reversed my questioning, offering:

"Atheist apologists bend the truth in their favor every chance they get. To expect Christians not to be allowed to do the same is a double standard."

Oh, I agree. I wasn't saying that atheists never lie. But I was making a distinction... atheists aren't the one's claiming God exists. We're not saying there is all this evidence which, to our dismay, nobody rightly sees... but ignore this small set back... God is real--just take it from us. That's exactly the opposite of what atheists are saying. So atheists aren't at fault--since it's not up to us to qualify the theist statement about God's existence.  

In fact, I think we could agree that Christians, being theists, make the truth claim "God exists" their core defense for faith. Because if God wasn't real, then faith would be unjustified. So a lot hinges on the claim. The question "Does God exist?" arises, however, due to a lack of convincing support. 

So the question remains unanswered. Nobody knows either way, for 100% certainty, if God exists. I mean, if somebody did know for sure that "God exists" then they would win the Nobel Prize for Theology for proving God's existence beyond a reason of a doubt. This has not occurred.

Basically my point amounted to this: when it comes to the truth claim that "God exists" atheists are being truthful in stating that such isn't so. It simply hasn't been proved.

Because the claim to know God exists is not yet proved, we know that, yes, it is an insincere statement whenever a Christian espouses God is real.

Atheists who say a deity is 100% non-existent may be jumping the gun too, since we can't know if some nebulous deity, some form of a god, exists or not... but we can cite how improbable and far-fetched it is. We would still be justified in not believing in it.

But let's not fall back onto citing that vague perception of a deity and then force it into the framework of our faith--if the deist concept of god turns out to be real then this is distinctly NOT the Christian God. 

What I think most atheists are saying is that your *specific God (e.g. the Christian God of the Bible) does not exist. I think this claim, that the Christian God is erroneous, has an abundance of support. And more importantly, is in no danger of being refuted.

So I see no problem with atheist integrity on this point. Whereas I find most Christians are putting all their faith in the hope that it's true--and then claiming ad hoc that because they feel it's true, it is. This is simply circular reasoning--and doesn't suffice when making blatant truth claims.

Either God exists or he doesn't. Since there is no tangible evidence, and anything which Christians tout as evidence is spurious at best, I think we can safely assume atheists aren't the ones who have to worry about the "truth" of the matter. Furthermore, you can't assume to be proved correct when you have absolutely no trustworthy evidence, no proof to speak of, and say it is the truth. This simply amounts to a falsehood and wishful thinking. A noted delusion.

When it comes to the question of God, the atheist has *nothing to lose.

I predict the Christian rebuttal might be, "Unless God turns out to be real... then atheists are in heaps of trouble!" But then that's assuming, A) that God is real (more useless conjecture at this point), and B) it presumes too much since you're claiming to know God's mind is made up about concerning all atheists--and that's dishonest to the core.

And I've already mentioned how the Bible can't be trusted... so to say the "Bible told me so..." is just begging the question.

Yet when the atheist points out that the Bible is faulty, that the Christians concept of God is flawed, and that Christians presume to know to much, and by sheer observation is doesn't seem like God exists... this is being honest with what reality depicts.

I'm not saying atheists never lie. Nor am I saying that Christians don't have an honest bone in their body. These are simply unfounded stereotypes. Besides this, I was once a Christian and my integrity, my desire to know the truth, lead me to atheism simply for the sheer fact that it was the only position which didn't leave me with any cognitive dissonance. Whereas Christian apologetics depends on one's ability to constantly suspend their disbelief. 

Honesty is vital if we're ever going to discover the unadulterated truth, and that's all I'm saying.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Questions Atheists Can't Answer: ANSWERED!

Ray Comfort’s
Questions Atheists Can’t  Definitively  Answer
Now With Commentary!

Ray "the Banana Guy" Comfort is at it again. Watch this rhetorical nonsense by his lackey Kirk "The Teleprompter" Cameron:

And then this preview sample for the Atheist Bible including the "atheist" bits:

1. “What was in the beginning?”
Atheists have a dilemma when they say that there was nothing in the beginning. This is because nothing cannot create something. If they say that there were gases (or something) in the beginning, then it’s not the “beginning,” because the gases or the “something” already existed. Who or what made them? This is why reasonable atheists admit that they just don’t know, humbling though it may be.

Advocatus Atheist: Actually, it’s not just atheists who have a “dilemma” when it comes to understanding how the universe came to be. Everyone is in the same boat, since there is not yet a definitive answer, but this doesn’t mean that scientists don’t have working models based off of real evidence.

World renowned physicist Stephen Hawking demonstrated mathematically over 30 years ago how the universe could have arisen from a quantum filed of virtual particles (the closest thing to nothing there is). To posit intent behind creation takes us outside of what the evidence allows for and changes the argument from a scientifically observable phenomenon to a philosophical consideration about the nature of the first cause.

See the transcript of Hawking’s lecture on how the universe instantaneously “popped” into existence at:

Distinguished Physicist Lawrence Krauss, Associate Director of the Beyond Center, co-director of the Cosmology Initiative, and the director New Origins Initiative at Arizona State University, talks about the origins of the universe, and how the evidence suggests that it may have sprung from nothing, in this insightful video:

So Ray is incorrect, although there may not be a definitive answer for the origins of life or the existence of the universe, atheists can answer the question—with honesty—we simply don’t know. But we can make an educated guess. That’s more than most Christians can claim.

2. “Do human beings have more intrinsic value than animals?”
If your pet dog and your neighbor are drowning, and you can only save one of them, who would you save? If it’s your neighbor, why? To an atheist, both the dog and the human being are mere species of animal, so their value is completely subjective. Most, if pressed, would say that they would save the human being, but they have no real explanation as to why he has more worth, other than to say that there is moral pressure from the social order to value a person more than a dog.

Advocatus Atheist: As far as modern ethics goes, I’m pretty sure all living things are imputed with (or imbued with) the same intrinsic value. All honey bees are intrinsically valuable to all other honey bees. Flowers are intrinsically valuable to all other flowers. Sunshine and H2O are valuable in their own right. These things can be valuable to each other; i.e. sunshine, water, flower, honey bee all enhance each others intrinsic value by depending on one another for survival. Humans are valuable also. I fail to see Ray’s point.

Ray needs to rethink this question, and while he’s doing that he may want to check out the “Trolley problem” thought experiment.

3. “What happens after death?”
The only way any of us can speak with any authority about the subject of death is to have reliable information from someone who has been there. God has been there. He transcends death. He is both on this side and on “the other side.” When we remove God from the equation, we are left with mere conjecture.

Advocatus Atheist: What happens after death, Ray asks? In the famous words of Richard Dawkins, “You get buried. Or in some people’s case, cremated.”

4. “What is the purpose of life?”
Without reference to a Creator who made us with the purpose of eternal fellowship with Him, life has no real rhyme or reason. We are just tiny specs on a big ball of dirt, flying through space, striving to be happy, but with no purpose for existence.

Advocatus Atheist: Let’s not jump the gun just yet. Although a naturalistic worldview may paint a bleak future, a fact of living in the sort of universe we do, because let’s face the facts, everything is ultimately doomed to die out in heat entropy, aka a “big freeze,” billions upon billions of years from now—even so, this doesn’t mean we can’t find meaning in our lives. As the ex-Evangelical minister Dan Barker has reassured, “Truth is truth. It shouldn’t matter what any of us wants to believe. The fact that life is ultimately meaningless does not mean it is not immediately meaningful.

Our pal Ray doesn’t seem to have thought it all through, and in typical fly by night fashion, dismisses anything resembling a satisfactory answer and preemptively declares a Creator created the purpose we see all around us and without this patent assumption declares life meaningless. Let Ray puzzle over this next question: If humans weren’t here, would there still be purpose to the universe? If so what? I predict Ray will say that it has whatever purpose God intended for it, well, that’s dodging the bullet now isn’t it? Resorting to the “God said it, I believed it, and that’s good enough for me” trump card doesn’t help solve the theist’s problem.

5. “Why is there order throughout creation?”
If we believe that creation came into being through a big bang, it is important to understand that all explosions cause chaos. Order can come only through an in intelligent designer. Why then is there order from the tiny atom to the massive universe? Why do the four seasons occur each year, at different times of the year, in different parts of the world—always in the same order? Why can we predict the sun’s rising to the second 100 years into the future? Why is there order in the makeup of the brain, the eye, the ear, the blood, the heart, liver, kidneys, hands and feet? Every part of creation screams (to a thinking mind) that there is a Creator.

Advocatus Atheist: The Manderblot Set describes mathematically how order can come out of random systems quite nicely. Here Ray mistakes order for design—two different things actually. “Order” happens as the natural consequences of the fixed laws of nature. What Ray means is, how come we see function which appears like it has been specially designed for a specific purpose? But he’s wrong to confuse this with the “mind” of a Designer.

Human brains are hard-wired to detect design.

Here’s an easy way to grasp the concept. Picture an old fashioned popcorn maker, all the corn kernels swirling around in a vortex within the machine. All is chaos as kernels spiral frantically about. Gradually heat is applied and some kernels begin to pop! With all the chaos, could you stare down into the whirling vortex and pick out three distinct kernels and triangulate them? Probably not.  Is there any order to be found? Not at all.

Slowly but surely most of the kernels will explode into large fluffy popped corns! They will come out of the machine and land in a nice bowl waiting for them. As they come to settle it becomes much easier to pick out three popcorns and triangulate them. In fact, we might even detect patterns. Just like when we see “animal” shapes in the clouds. The popcorn may take on patterns of their own. They will seem to be ordered, but only because our minds have placed them in the order for us.

Whenever we slow things down enough so our senses can detect them, then our minds take over and will connect the dots accordingly. Design is something the human mind generates, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is intent behind the order of the design.

6. “Why is there a sense of morality in every civilization?”
How do we instinctively know that it’s wrong to kill, to lie, to steal, etc. Where did this universal morality come from? The only reasonable explanation is the one given by the Bible—that “the work of the Law is written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15), and that God Himself has given light to every man (see Romans 1:18–20). If we didn’t accept that the conscience is inherent within every human being, we could never rightly administer civil justice. Morality is shaped by, but does not originate from society.

Advocatus Atheist: Moral sense, as David Hume called it, exists in us because we are aware of other’s suffering, or capacity to suffer. Sociopaths and psychopaths are immoral precisely because their brains are damaged in such a way as to hinder their ‘moral sense’ so that they cannot distinguish between right and wrong, or in some cases, find all the wrong things pleasurable. Much has been documented in the field of psychology in this area.

As for Ray’s comment about a “universal morality” this is strictly conjecture. There is no such thing as an absolute universal morality. There are golden axioms, such as not eating each other like cannibals, but not all societies in all times have obeyed such common sense ethics. And that’s what it comes down to, moral relativism and the formulations of systems of ethics. Ray seems to think his system is the only one in town… but he’s grossly mistaken. Buddhists, for example, have been living moral lives for hundreds of years before Christianity came onto the scene, and to top it off they don’t believe in God either. 

What does this say? Mainly that “to do good” is a choice, “compassion” is a human trait which stems from our ability to perceive suffering (even mental anguish), and empathy comes from our understanding that when something bad happens we have the capacity to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes and realize that we would not want to undergo the burden they endure. Checkmate Ray!

7. “Why does every civilization acknowledge God?”
While atheists may argue that some religions within certain cultures (such as some Buddhist sects) are atheistic, mankind has never found any civilization (no matter how primitive) that didn’t worship some sort of Creator, whether it be the sun or some other idol.

Advocatus Atheist: It seems Ray is making a blanket statement , and a bandwagon appeal, when he claims that “all” civilizations have believed in some form of god or supernatural entity. What Ray neglects to see is that this is an anthropological question. Properly stated, the question becomes: “Why does almost every civilization have a predominant superstition, religion, or belief in a deity of some kind?”

Many anthropologists have taken up the challenge of addressing just this question. Most notably David Eller in his book Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate and Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained.

8. “Which came first—the chicken or the egg?”
Evolutionists believe simple life forms, with ability to reproduce, became increasingly complex, until a bird developed a slightly different feature and became the new species “chicken.” Like its predecessor, it had the ability to reproduce. However, there is no such thing as a “simple” life form. If any form of life were simple, science could easily create it from nothing in a laboratory.

Yet, the most progressive of greatest geniuses in the scientific world haven’t got the slightest clue how to make a grain of sand from nothing, let alone a living form with the ability to reproduce. Without the book of beginnings (Genesis) to tell us that God made the chicken first (see Genesis 1:20), we are merely guessing as to the bird’s origin. If an atheist believes it was a chicken that evolved first (over time) from a simple life form, where did it come from, and how was it given life when there was no initial Genesis cause? If it evolved without the involvement of an egg, why did evolution change its mind and begin introduce eggs, if the chicken was doing okay without them? Also, why and when did a rooster become necessary to fertilize the egg so that a chicken would form within it, and which came first, that rooster or its egg? If the atheist maintains that the egg came first, who then made it, (and again) who fertilized it, and who sat on it so that it would hatch?

And that’s just the beginning of the beginnings dilemma. Which came first—the eagle or its egg? How about the duck? The owl, the emu, the ostridge [sic],[i] the tiny humming bird, and the big old albatross? There is no end to it, if you reject “In the Beginning God created . . .”

Advocatus Atheist: Ray shows us, once again, the heights and depths of his stunning intellect. Evolution explains the egg perfectly. Simply put, so as daft as Daffy Duck could comprehend, fish are egg laying animals. When a specieis makes the transition onto land, the species will still lay eggs in or near the water. The eggs must grow a tougher membrane to endure the harsher environments, and fend off attack from predators, and so enzymes build up to create a thicker membrane wall—eventually this evolves and hardens forming a shell. (I’m staying basic on purpose). If Ray extended the question, "Which came first, the fish or the egg" then I'd have to discuss cell division and reproduction in more detail, but I'm afraid that would only confound him considering the nature of the next question he asks.

However, there is no controversy to the Chicken/Egg debate--they came together and always have. Ray can bide his time by reading up on evolution. I suggest he start with these sources:
Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin

9. “Why do females exist?”
All animals, fish, and reptiles have the ability to reproduce of their own kind because they have females within the species. No male can reproduce and keep its kind alive without a female of the same species. Dogs, cats, horses, cows, elephants, humans, giraffes, lions, tigers, etc., all came into being having both male and female. If any species came into existence without a mature female present (with complementary female parts), that one male would have remained alone and in time died.

The species could not have survived without a female. Why did hundreds of thousands of animals, fish, reptiles, and birds (over millions of years) evolve a female partner (that coincidentally matured at just the right time) within each species?

Advocatus Atheist: I can’t presume to guess what Ray’s point here might even be. But females exist because all unfertilized eggs (ovum) begin as “female.” It’s only when the Y chromosome is supplied by the male sperm that a diploid cell resulting from the fusion of two haploids gametes, a fertilized ovum in other words, does a zygote become male.

Testosterone provides the necessary ingredients for males to create sperm and a steady supply of semen to carry the XY Chromosome. Females on the other hand only supply an XX Chromosome.

Therefore, parthenogenesis, or a female giving birth without insemination (as a virgin) can only produce female offspring. This makes the claims that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a baby male completely erroneous—not to mention impossible. To date no known case of parthenogenesis has occurred in the human species. Female Great White Sharks, on the other hand, have been documented to have undergone parthenogenesis.  

10. “Why does entropy exist?”
If everything evolved without a Creator, and from the beginning evolved from the primitive to the modern, from simple to complex, why is everything deteriorating? Our bodies, trees, flowers, birds, fish, animals, the earth, and the sun are winding down. If evolution is true, everything should be continuing to evolve and improve. Why has evolution stopped? Instead, we see the exact opposite of the evolving process. Everything is dying and deteriorating, something the Bible addresses from Genesis to Revelation.

Advocatus Atheist: Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Rayyyyyy… seriously now. I was hoping for something brilliant coming from Ray “the banana guy” Comfort! This is lack luster, coming from a man of such stunning intellect.

Entropy does not “exist.” Entropy deals with the relations between heat and other forms of energy. It’s not that things are deteriorating—this is a false assumption. Entropy, in actuality, has to do with the interconvertibility of all forms of energy.

Okay, I used a big word here, so let me explain more plainly. Energy changes. If a system’s thermal energy changes randomly, then entropy is the measure of the disorder in the system. Got that? Good. The Universe is Expanding at exponential rates, thus the energy which exists is getting “stretched” thin. In other words, the more of the universe there is the less energy which can convert into matter there is. Eventually there won’t be enough to form matter, as it will be spread far too thin to gain any mass for gravity to condense into clusters perchance to form stellar furnaces—stars. Therefore, if there is not enough energy to form a star then there won’t be enough energy to form matter since stars generate matter.

What does this mean? Since the second law of thermodynamics states that entropy always increases, this means that given enough time, the matter will be stretched so thin it reverts back into energy, and as the universe continues to expand, eventually all energy gets stretched out so thin that it will dissipate like a soap bubble which is popped… and nothing will be left. And this is the heat death of the universe—the big freeze!

So to make a long answer short: Why does entropy exist? Because the universe we live in is expanding.

Q: So what happens when an Atheist answers all of Ray Comfort’s Questions that Atheists can’t definitively answer? He regains some dignity for the human race.  Even so, we can never really erase the embarrassing stain of Ray’s truly blinkered intellect. I’m not throwing out ad hominems, I’m not trying to sound like an intellectual snob (especially since an uneducated toddler starts to sound like an intellectual snob when put next to Ray “the banana guy” Comfort). Believe me when I tell you, I’m  gravely serious, what comes out of Ray’s mind is truly mind-boggling, to say the least.

What reeks of condescending superciliousness is the fact that Ray thinks that this grand display of intellectual prowess somehow “definitively” stumps the atheist dead in her tracks—when clearly it does not. Of course, having met our match, and with no other recourse but to accept Ray’s brilliant answers, all atheists would have to convert to Evangelical Christianity and be saved. Hallelujah! We’ll all be meeting up at Ray’s place afterwards for free pizza and soda!

[i] Ray Comfort forgot to run spell check apparently, since it is spelled ostrich not “ostridge.”

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist