Kenton Sparks, Biblical Criticism, and the Narrative

Over on the other thread, the basic position was put forward that the critical biblical scholars, represented for instance by Professor Kenton Sparks, are objective and honest examiners, interested in following the biblical data where it leads. But when I examine a topic on which I am conversant, i see exactly the opposite.

My particular conviction is that Sparks, and many others like him, have blindly absorbed and uncritically parroted the standard “critical” narrative in biblical scholarship regarding the Pastoral epistles, continuing to propagate downright falsehoods. I’m posting my discussion on this new thread so as to not too wildly derail the previous topic.

Then you’ll have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. i have neither the time nor interest at this point to offer such a positive argument.

my point is to humbly yet firmly disabuse readers of the idea that Sparks, and by extension others of his perspective, is simply “honest with the data,” at least on this one particular topic of which I am pretty conversant. I genuinely appreciate @Randy’s charity and goodwill toward Professor Sparks, but for anyone familiar with the actual data, or willing to fact check Dr. Sparks’ arguments with actual Bible text, it begins to look very different.

This what I am interested in - critiquing the supposed objectivity, efficacy, or reliability of the critical scholarship on this topic… and when I do so with a critical mind, i am left with the impression that the scholars are anything but “honest with the data.” And if this is how he treats something of which I am conversant, it makes me all the more suspect of his claims on topics where I do not have the same level of familiarity.

Very well, let me lay out the very specific and detailed basis for my claim that he has blindly and uncritically parroted the claims of critical scholarship with reference to the pastoral epistles…

Professor Sparks outlines various lines of evidence against the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral epistles. After reviewing his treatment, I submit that he has in many cases simply parroted standard critical narratives and arguments, rather than actually critically examining the data himself, else I don’t think he would perpetuate such problematic arguments and outright falsehoods:

“Whereas “faith” in Paul’s undisputed letters refers to one’s trust in God, in the Pastorals this term is shorthand for the body of traditional Christian doctrine that we must protect and to which we must adhere.”

This is demonstrably false.

From the undisputed epistles, Paul indeed used the term “faith” as shorthand for the body of Christian doctrine (e.g. “stand firm in the faith”; “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy”; “striving side by side for the faith.”)…

And “faith” is indeed used in the pastorals as referring to individual trust in God. (“love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”; “I am reminded of your sincere faith”; “…wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ”).

“Another historical problem is that most scholars see in the Pastorals a fairly complex hierarchy of church leadership that includes bishops, elders, and deacons. These formal offices are prominent in second-generation Christian sources like the Didache and the Ignatian letters, but not so much in Paul’s Letters. The development of these authoritative structures probably fits a period later in the first or even early in the second century.”

This is entirely fallacious. Undisputed Paul addressed bishops and deacons, hence bishops and deacons were common enough during Paul’s lifetime that he could address them in his (undipsuted) epistle.

Either Sparks is entirely ignorant of this fact, and he is parroting this same argument I heard (and saw right through) some 25 years ago, or, more troubling, he is trying to gloss over it. His language (that undisputed Paul uses the bishop and deacon terminology “not so much”??) is extremely troubling to me - it suggests he is aware of the fact that undisputed Paul addressed bishops and deacons, but wants to gloss over and hand wave this fact so that it won’t mess up the narrative. If undisputed Paul used the term “bishops and deacons”, then he was aware of bishops and deacons. It doesn’t matter if he used the term “not so much.”

“Whereas the authentic letters offer a message of gender equality…” … “there is a difference between Paul’s view of women and the viewpoint of women maintained in the Pastorals.”

This is a wild exaggeration at best. Would anyone go on record as to claim that the sentiment in undisputed Paul below is best described as “a message of gender equality”?

“For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head… Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?”

If one needs to so exaggerate the sentiment in undisputed Paul to establish the divergence, then perhaps the sentiments aren’t so different as Sparks would like to think. The basic viewpoint about gender in Corinthians (“neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”) simply isn’t that radically divergent from that of 2 Timothy (“For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”) If he can’t recognize at least some similarity there, then again I am extremely dubious that he is simply being “honest with the text”.

To make these kinds of basic errors does not inspire confidence to me. To make (or repeat) these kinds of claims, he either is ignorant of the facts in the text, which means he has failed to be critical of the narrative he has embraced… or, worse, he is glossing over these facts in allegiance to the narrative.


Now all that said, as Sparks lays out the scholarly argument against Pauline authorship of the epistles, he commits the same egregious omission that I have encountered in virtually every critical treatment of the subject that I have ever seen: He emphasizes the different nuance of words, the different vocabulary, the different tone, the different style, etc., etc., etc… without ever recognizing that these letters were addressed to personal friends and professional colleagues, rather than to the masses.

It is one thing to engage with this fact, and outline reasons for discounting its significance.

It is another entirely to not even notice or engage this glaringly obvious and extremely relevant fact.

Imagine if an investigator, perhaps investigating claims of plagiarism or academic dishonesty, decided to examine in detail a paper Professor Sparks submitted to an academic journal. In order to weigh claims of authorship, the investigator compared this academic paper to 5 emails Professor Sparks wrote to his mother. If the investigator seriously concluded that Professor Sparks did not write the academic article based on the difference in vocabulary, style, preposition use, nuance of certain words, importance of topics, etc., from the emails to his mother, we’d laugh - and conclude the investigator was either supremely inept or was fanatically pursuing an agenda. To not recognize that there will be differences in style, nuance, vocabulary, etc., when writing to two very different audiences would be classified as ineptitude in any other context.

But critical scholars continue to go on making these erudite observations about the differences in style, vocabulary, nuance of words, etc., and never address the glaringly obvious fact that the other epistles are addressed at large to the Christian masses, the pastorals were letters of professional advice written to individual, intimate colleagues and friends… They never even recognize that they should address the obvious implications of writing to such very different audiences? They never notice that people will change their vocabulary and nuance when writing to such disparate audiences? This fact is a proverbial elephant (if not a mammoth) in the living room, that no critical scholar, Professor Sparks included, ever seems to notice.

And missing that elephant confirms to me the words of Lewis as immortalized in the title of his great article, “Fern-Seed and Elephants”:

These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.


I agree with you, Daniel, that this insight is important and should be addressed. Moreover, I share your sentiment that much of the scholarship on epistolary authorship has been haphazard and conjectural.

However, I do not think it sufficient to rely on a defense that is similarly haphazard and conjectural: I.e., the observation that the epistles are written to different audiences at different times is not some sort of magic wand that can be waved over the question of authorship. The claim of Pauline authorship might indeed withstand a rigorous analysis based on the very best linguistic analysis; but we cannot assume that it will withstand that rigorous linguistic analysis until we do the analytical work.

Computational linguistics (CL), a field that I have professional experience in, provides a path forward. It has already been used to settle the disputed authorship of 12 essays in The Federalist Papers, and Wolfram provides excellent background on the statistical modeling techniques that can be used.

Once a CL model (perhaps based on frequency chaos game representation) is trained, it can be applied to the disputed epistles. Of course, there are factors other than linguistics involved in determining authorship, so a good CL model would not necessarily be dispositive. However, it would bring some much needed light to a situation where conjecture currently prevails.

Perhaps computational linguistics has already been applied to the question of the epistolary authorship? Do you know of any such efforts, Daniel?

Chris Falter


Whoa! How cool that would be !!!

Thanks, Chris, for mentioning the matter. I’m adding “CL and biblical authorship” to my list of interests now.

–Terry Sampson

Are there studies in Computational Linguistics applied to ancient texts in Hebrew and Aramaic?

I am sad that someone who claims to have spent large amounts of time studying the authenticity of the Pastorals is unwilling to provide any positive evidence Paul wrote the Pastorals or maybe 1 or 2 of them if they can be unlinked.

I’m guessing you have no positive evidence. If you did you could have simply listed it briefly instead of deflecting to a poor critique of Sparks and misrepresentation of scholarship on the Pastorals. This is par for the course as typical conservatives think it is enough to try to cast doubt on scholarly arguments without actually providing any evidence for their own historical claims as if all the events their holy book narrates, that they believe in, should be granted presumption until demonstrated otherwise. Positive historical statements generally require evidence. There were many Christian forgeries and false ascription outside the New Testament in Antiquity. This is a major concern. Paul would seem to be a prime candidate as well just based on his popularity. There are three Pauline forgeries outside outside the New Testament.

First of all, your conjecture that Paul could have written very differently to his educated friends Titus and Timothy than he did to the masses is only that, conjecture. It has been raised by Johnson’s careful treatment (who I believe Spark’s references) and was mentioned by Brown in his NT Intro. Scholars are aware but the only fact we have from this is that much of the material in the Pastorals (and we should treat each work individually) looks very different from the genuine Pauline corpus. What do we conclude from this? Its possible Paul completely changed significant parts of hs writing style? That is possible but we don’t know that this is the reason. The authorship of these epistles is under the gun here. If they are pseudonymous then there is no reason to actually assume they were not really intended for the masses. Either way, clearly based on instructions for communal worship the content of these letters was intended to be disseminated to the masses (1 Timothy 2 gives worship instructions).

We have two potential solutions to the language issue. We have to see first, if your argument can truly explain the divergence and then second, see if it can explain all the other evidences raised against Pauline authorship. You have not actually shown how your theory pf Paul writing to his educated friends can actually explain away all the language and style evidence adduced by scholars. Why? Because you have not actually engaged with their arguments. You are only responding to summary statements.

The very different vocabulary casts significant doubts on authorship but certainly does not prove it to all scholars. For some it is stronger evidence than others. Scholars are clearly aware of the different setting here. It does not also necessitate the very significant changes to style they see nor are they fully convinced it accounts for them. The subject matter in the Pastorals dealing with church structure is different from accepted letters. Scholars do recognize that some of the changes can be accounted for by things like this, but all of them? Many also recognize the shortness of the Pastorals precludes statistical certainty in some regards (e.g. Metzger). None the less, most still think the variations are so strong and abundant, that they still strongly suggest Paul did not write them despite all the known caveats…

You may try a divide and conquer strategy but most scholars think there is a large confluence of problems with Pauline authorship. As Brown quoted H. von Campenhausen: "It is not the individual arguments against the genuineness, important as they are, which are decisive, but their complete and comprehensive convergence against which there is no significant counter arguments."

Any historical theory has to be the best at explaining most of the data. Your idea that Paul changed his style does not deal with the theological differences, chronological differences, church structure differences, etc. In fact, you will have to divide and attempt to conquer all of these subjects with completely different speculations on how Paul could have still written them. You will end up with with a half dozen speculative assertions about logical possibility over and against one very elegant one that explains it all: namely that they are not from Paul.

Norman Perrin in his Intro to the NT summarized four reasons:

Vocabulary. While statistics are not always as meaningful as they may seem, of 848 words (excluding proper names) found in the Pastorals, 306 are not in the remainder of the Pauline corpus, even including the deutero-Pauline 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians. Of these 306 words, 175 do not occur elsewhere in the New Testament, while 211 are part of the general vocabulary of Christian writers of the second century. Indeed, the vocabulary of the Pastorals is closer to that of popular Hellenistic philosophy than it is to the vocabulary of Paul or the deutero-Pauline letters. Furthermore, the Pastorals use Pauline words ina non-Pauline sense: dikaios in Paul means “righteous” and here means “upright”; pistis , “faith,” has become “the body of Christian faith”; and so on.

Literary style. Paul writes a characteristically dynamic Greek, with dramatic arguments, emotional outbursts, and the introduction of real or imaginary opponents and partners in dialogue. The Pastorals are in a quiet meditative style, far more characteristic of Hebrews or 1 Peter, or even of literary Hellenistic Greek in general, than of the Corinthian correspondence or of Romans, to say nothing of Galatians.

The situation of the apostle implied in the letters. Paul’s situation as envisaged in the Pastorals can in no way be fitted into any reconstruction of Paul’s life and work as we know it from the other letters or can deduce it from the Acts of the Apostles. If Paul wrote these letters, then he must have been released from his first Roman imprisonment and have traveled in the West. But such meager tradition as we have seems to be more a deduction of what must have happened from his plans as detailed in Romans than a reflection of known historical reality.

The letters as reflecting the characteristics of emergent Catholocism. The arguments presented above are forceful, but a last consideration is overwhelming, namely that, together with 2 Peter, the Pastorals are of all the texts in the New Testament the most distinctive representatives of the emphases of emergent Catholocism. The apostle Paul could no more have written the Pastorals than the apostle Peter could have written 2 Peter.

You must understand that these above are just summary statements. In fact, all you are responding to really are summary statements. Scholars can defend their views and they do so in detail. You can read a more detailed treatment by Kummel in his NT Intro (262-271). He goes through five arguments.

  1. Language and Style:
  2. The supposed Historical Situation
  3. The Opposition against False Teahers
  4. The congregational situation.
  5. The theology of the Pastoral

For #1 The language between the pastorals and accepted Pauline corpus appear different. Lots of words are used there that not found elsewhere in Paul. Perrin’s statistics highlight this up above How does your theory that Paul is writing to educated friends actually account for all these differences? Does it cogently explain the changing vocabulary, the “lesser use of particles,”
the statistic about conditional statements in Greek and Semitic that suggest “the Pastorals exhibit ten to twenty times as many “Grecisms” as the Pauline Epistles?” Does it explain why many shorter words used frequently by Paul in his genuine writings are missing, including explaining Kummel’s charge that “the use of precisely such words takes place instinctively?” Or Paul using different words for the same thing? The word used for the owners of slaves (Col 3:22 and 4:1) differs from the Pastorals, a word used in Paul for spiritual powers is earthly rulers in Titus 3:1 repeated phrases in the Pastorals not found in Paul and so on. Kummel also suggest there may be a number of words and phrases in the Pastorals not attested elsewhere until the second century.

Brown summarizes language an style issues as follows (Intro NT 663-664)

“The Pastorals’ use of particles, conjunctions, and adverbs differs nota­ bly from Paul’s undisputed usage. Also roughly one quarter of the vocabu­ lary of the Pastorals does not appear in the other Pauline letters,28 but that cumulative statistic does not do justice to the fact that the vocabulary of II Tim is much less foreign to the Pauline heritage. By comparison with the undisputed Pauline letters, the collective vocabulary of the Pastorals is less Septuagintal and closer to that of the ethical directions of the popular Greek philosophers, and the style is less Hebraic and more colorless and monoto­ nous (longer sentences, less varied use of particles, etc.). More specifically, for instance, epithets from Hellenistic piety are ascribed exuberantly to both God and Christ in a distinctive way: “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2: 1 3); “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (I Tim 6: 1 5).29” . . . Moreover Pauline vo­ cabulary and style are strangely mixed with the nonPauline. Nevertheless, the statistics create a d

#2 Scholars are convinced the situation described in the letters does not appear to fit easily into Paul’s journeys before his Roman imprisonment (61-63). They require us to posit a second career of sorts in the mid-60s. Brown suggest Titus and Tim could not have been written before 64-66AD based on this. I’m sure you can quote Licona with some clever hypothetical way around all this.

#3 Kummel writes pg 267-268:

. . . in addition to the predictions concerning the appearance of the false teachers ‘in the last days’ (I Tim 4:1 ff; II Tim 3:1 ff, 13; 4:3 f), there are references to the present activity of the false teachers and instructions about combating them (I Tim 1:3 ff, 19 f; 6:20 f; II Tim 2:16 ff; 3:8; Tit 1:10 ff; 3:9 ff), so that there is no perceptible distinction between the teaching of the predicted false teachers and the present ones. But since nowhere in the Pastorals is there to be found any consciousness of living ‘in the last days,’ in the prediction of the End-time which evidently describes present phenomena it is clear that we are dealing only with a traditional literary motif ( vaticinium ex eventu ) which is now being employed by ‘Paul.’ Still more striking, however, is the matter of how the false teachers are opposed. Completely otherwise than in Col, the viewpoints of the false teachers are not contradicted by being confronted with the preaching about Christ, but they are countered simply by reference to the traditional teaching, from which the false teachers have erred and which is to be held fast (I Tim 4:1; 6:20; II Tim 1:14; 2:2 Tit 3:10 f). The lack of any substantive debate cannot be explained on the ground that Paul did not regard the prattle of false teachers as being worth contradicting and assumed that Timothy and Titus themselves knew what should be said in refutation of the false teachers. In that case there would be no necessity to make those addressed aware of the dangers of the false teaching in detail. This lack is much more readily explained by the fact that Paul is not writing these letters."

Now you are misinterpreting critical scholarship and misconstruing their arguments. You must be referring to something like Phil 1 which oddly enough, you actually think something so simplistic overturns the claims of critical scholars which you don’t understand or stop to actually examine. The argument is about the nature of the church structure supposed by the Pastorals. Sparks calls is a complex hierarchy or leadership that appears more prominent in the second century. This is not merely about the mention of the terms bishops and deacons. But not all scholars are fully on board here:

Brown writes:

Also in relation to dating, it is argued that the church structure envi­sioned in the Pastorals goes beyond Paul’s lifetime. True, none of the undis­ puted Pauline letters mentions presbyters; but church structure is not the subject of those writings, and so the silence could be accidental. Moreover, there is an equivalence between those called presbyters and the bishop (over­ seer) or bishops; and Phil 1 : 1 mentions the latter. (The claim that the episko­ poi of Phil and those of the Pastorals are very different is without substan­ tiation, since Phil supplies us no information on those figures.) Accordingly we cannot be certain when the presbyteral structure that was widespread in the last third of the 1st century (Acts 14:23; I Pet 5:1-4; Jas 5:14) became common. Although the oncoming death of Paul is mentioned only in II Tim (not Titus or I Tim), the concern with leaving behind an established church structure would be understandable as Paul’s consciousness of mortally pass­ing from the scene grew stronger. This concern would also be understandable soon after Paul’s death as the newly orphaned churches sought reas­surance."

But how is Sparks wrong here? The structure does look more like what we see more prominently in the later emerging church. Brown has to suggest “the silence could be accidental” but even he writes:

"According to Titus the principal structure to be inaugurated in Crete by Titus’ appointment is that of presbyter/bishops; I Tim supposes the exis­ tence in Ephesus of presbyter/bishops (with some specialization of the pres­ byters) and deacons. The bipartite structure is not far from that of Didache 1 5 : 1 (ca. AD 1 00?) which urges that people appoint for themselves bishops and deacons to take the place of wandering apostles and prophets, and that of I Clement 42:4,5; 44:4-5; 54:2 (ca. AD 96), which refers to presbyter/ bishops and deacons. It is distinct from the tripartite structure urged by Igna­ tius in most letters (ca. 1 1 0), namely, one bishop, presbyters, and deacons. Therefore, if one were to posit a linear progression (which is surely too simple a picture), the Pastorals would be placed in time before the writings of lgnatius.

Kummel after a page and a half of careful discussion on this issue (268-269) concludes: “Although it is questionable whether the Pastorals presuppose the distinction between between clergy and laity . . .there is nowhere anymore any consideration of an active cooperation and responsibility on part of the congregation. In view of these factors [including the silence on the official office in Paul and the ecclesiastical office of the widows] we see the Pastoral are the document “of an already rather highly developed canon law” in a church which is establishing itself in the world, a church such as Paul did not know.” Intro 269:

#5 Brown compares the language of the pastorals with their theology: “In general, a similar report would be generated by a comparison of the theology and ethics of the Pastorals with that of the undisputed Paulines. Familiar Pauline terms (law, faith, righteousness) appear but with a slightly different nuance. Overall the same differences can be found in the other Pauline letters but not in so concentrated a manner. In the Pastorals there is an unusual amount of polemic, often stereotypical.” Intro NT 663

Kummel points out that while there is a lot of stuff clearly in line with Pauline thought and usage, we also get “Hellenistic terms for the event of salvation which would be strange to Paul” and also for the gift of salvation, for God, for Christ, and for earthly appearance of Christ. Did Paul become a syncretist of the emperor cult after his imprisonment? (pg 269). Much of that section includes the Greek. I can upload a photo of that paragraph if desired.

We also know there were several Pauline forgeries outside the New Testament. That Tatian towards the middle of the second century disputed one of them. That Marcion list did not include them. None of these individual arguments are bulletproof, but when taken collectively, they very strongly point to pseudonymous composition.

You exaggerate in the opposite direction. It is a far cry from the disgusting misogyny and venomous hatred espoused in 1 Tim 2. The same that found its way into 1 Cor 14 as an interpolation.

Not to mention there are quite a few scholars (Trompf, Walker etc) who marshal out strong arguments that the passage you quoted is another interpolation.

Walker: “In short, 1 Cor. 11.3-16 neither logically follows 11.2 nor logically precedes 11.17-34. Moreover, without vv. 3-16, v. 2 leads clearly into vv. 17-34, both syntactically and logically. Finally, 11.3-16 constitutes a complete, self-contained unit that can stand on its own, independent of its present context. Thus, the passage may well be an interpolation.”

Walker also continues:

According to Trompf’s detailed analysis, 1 Cor. 10.1-11.2 and 11.17- 34 ‘hold together as a continuous argument concerned with eating and drinking’.29 I agree, although I would also include chs. 8 and 9 in the analysis. Chapter 8 discusses whether it is permissible for Christians to eat food offered to idols. This discussion leads, in ch. 9, to the related issue of Christian liberty. Then, beginning at 10.1, Paul draws a series of links between eating and drinking and various forms of unacceptable behavior: (1) Hebrews who ate and drank the ‘spiritual food’ and ‘spiri- tual drink’ in the wilderness but then fell into idolatry and immorality (10.1-13); (2) Christians who ‘partake of the table of demons’ and ‘drink the cup of demons’ and thus become guilty of idolatry (10.14-22);3and (3) Christians who irresponsibly exercise their liberty by eating food offered to idols and thereby compromise the conscience of their fellow Christians (10.23-30). The third section of ch. 10 leads to the following summary (10.31-11.1):

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all people in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

The connection between eating and drinking and unacceptable behav- ior continues in 11.2, 17-34. In v. 2, Paul ‘commends’ (eTraivco) the readers because they ‘remember’ (\i2\ivr\oQs) him in everything and maintain the (Eucharistic) ‘traditions’ (irapaSoaeis) even as he deliv- ered (Trape5coKa) them, but in vv. 17-34 he does not ‘commend’ (OUK eTraivco) them for their misbehavior in the actual administration of the Eucharist. Reinforcing the connection between ch. 10 and 11.17-34 is the fact that 10.14-22 already contains clear allusions to the Eucharist.

The proposed interpolation (1 Cor. 11.3-16), however, has nothing whatsoever to do with eating and drinking or, indeed, with such unac- ceptable behavior as idolatry, immorality and abuse of Christian liberty. Rather, it constitutes a complete, self-contained unit whose subject matter—the proper attire and/or hairstyle for men and women in Chris- tian worship—appears to be totally unrelated to that of the material both immediately preceding and immediately following. If 1 Corin- thians is divided into two letters, as Hering proposes, 11.3-16 interrupts an otherwise connected discussion of ‘the bread’ and ‘the cup of the Lord’ (10.14-22 and 11.17-34).31 Even if 1 Corinthians is regarded as a unit, however, 11.3-16 nevertheless interrupts an otherwise connected discussion of the relation between eating and drinking and various forms of unacceptable behavior (10.1-11.1 and 11.17-34). Thus, the passage appears not to ‘fit’ at its present location in Paul’s Corinthian letter. Indeed, if it belongs anywhere in 1 Corinthians, the most appro- priate place would appear to be somewhere in the proximity of ch. 12 or ch. 14, which deal with ‘speaking’ in public worship."

Sparks is aware of the views of people like Walker and Trompf. He mentions that he like many scholars see misogynistic interpolations in the genuine Pauline corpus that are more in line with the Pastorals. Many scholars have also noted the position on marriage and asceticism also seem to be a bit off between accepted Paul and Pastoral Paul.


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And if we challenge them, they seem to become defensive. We are dismissed as fundamentalists, conservative, red neck, uneducated, closed minded, dim-witted, slow, not cool, stuck in so yesterday, knuckleheads. Got me. Busted. I admit it. Doesn’t follow that I can’t ask some good questions that may reveal a few cracks in their Critical Conclusions.

This Jesus guy, He was an unusual fellow. Came from nothing. Got killed at a young age. Never published anything. Never made a dime. Had no political agenda. Didn’t hang with movers and shakers. Lived 2,000 years ago and came from a small town from an average family at best.
And, with the help of a few less than stellar characters, overthrew the entire world.
And, He still is overthrowing the lives of the broken everywhere he’s invited and the very best and the very brightest either ignore Him, try endlessly to do away with him, or go stark raving mad proclaiming He Lives!

Oh! Now I understand. You’re one of those Jesus zealots:) It’s always about Jesus with you guys:)

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Taste and see that the Lord is good.
How often He would have gathered your children together but you refused.
If you haven’t yet, check out Dr. Michael L. Brown, a completed Jew. He is an amazing apologist defeating handily Bart Ehrman in a debate. It wasn’t fair. Brown is a preeminent scholar not only in the Christian faith, he knows the OT like the back of his hand. He is a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from NYU and He is a gentleman, a kind, patient, witty genius who loves Jesus.

We can put them to the test. We can ask them to examine some documents, identify which ones were written by the same writer, why, and see how well they do. So far, no one has held these experts accountable. They make many claims and have a significant influence in the scholary world of biblical criticism. Yet, they are never asked to prove their competency, of which I’m aware. C S Lewis mentions that attempts were made to uncover various motives, conditions and influences behind the work of his friend JRR Tolkien all of which failed 100 percent. Let’s take it up a notch and make it official. We can make it a public venture. Personally, I am confident doing so will make their work product more realistic.

In academia, those who publish are certainly held accountable by their peers. It is a competitive environment, and errors are pounced on by others in the field. Now, as far as lay people who really do not have the training and knowledge of the experts, they can criticize and argue, but it is difficult to really consider that accountability. As far as determining who wrote what, I suspect there are many frequent contributors to this forum that you would reliably identify from reading their posts, and in fact I often read a post and know who wrote it before scrolling to the top to see the name. With Paul’s letters, it might well be more difficult as letters penned by a scribe may well bear evidence of that scribe’s wording and phrasing, as I doubt it was a verbatim transcription. And a letter written by a close follower of Paul at Paul’s direction may be considered Pauls even when authorship is another step removed.


C S LewisBut I should have expected that to be compensated for by other advantages which he has and the scholar lacks. After all, he lives in the same period as I, subjected to the same currents of taste and opinion, and has undergone the same kind of education. He can hardly help knowing—reviewers are good at this sort of thing and take an interest in it—quite a lot about my generation, my period, and the circles in which I probably move. He and I may even have common acquaintances. Surely he is at least as well placed for guessing about me as any scholar is for guessing about the dead. Yet he seldom guesses right. Hence I cannot resist the conviction that similar guesses about the dead seem plausible only because the dead are not there to refute them; that five minutes conversation with the real Spenser or the real Langland might blow the whole laborious fabric into smithereens. And notice that in all these conjectures the reviewer’s error has been quite gratuitous. He has been neglecting the thing he is paid to do, and perhaps could do, in order to do something different. His business was to give information about the book and to pass judgment on it. These guesses about its history are quite beside the mark. And on this point, I feel pretty sure that I write without bias. The imaginary histories written about my books are by no means always offensive. Sometimes they are even complimentary. There is nothing against them except that they’re not true, and would be rather irrelevant if they were. Mutato nomine de me . I must learn not to do the like about the dead: and if I hazard a conjecture, it must be with full knowledge, and with a clear warning to my readers, that it is a long shot, far more likely to be wrong than right.

  1. Another type of critic who speculates about the genesis of your book is the amateur psychologist. He has a Freudian theory of literature and claims to know all about your inhibitions. He knows what unacknowledged wishes you were gratifying. And here of course one cannot, in the same sense as before, claim to start by knowing all the facts. By definition you are unconscious of the things he professes to discover. Therefore the more loudly you disclaim them, the more right he must be: though, oddly enough, if you admitted them, that would prove him right too. And there is a further difficulty: one is not here so free from bias, for this procedure is almost entirely confined to hostile reviewers. And now that I come to think of it, I have seldom seen it practiced on a dead author except by a scholar who intended, in some measure, to debunk him. That in itself is perhaps significant. And it would not be unreasonable to point out that the evidence on which such amateur psychologists base their diagnosis would not be thought sufficient by a professional. They have not had their author on the sofa, nor heard his dreams, and had the whole case-history. But I am here concerned only with what the author can say about such reviews solely because he is the author. And surely, however ignorant he is of his unconscious, he knows something more than they about the content of his conscious mind. And he will find them wholly overlooking the (to him) perfectly obvious conscious motive for some things. If they mentioned this and then discounted it as the author’s (or patient’s) ‘rationalization’, they might be right. But it is clear that they have never thought of it. They have never seen why, from the very structure of your story, from the very nature of story telling in general, that episode or image (or something like it) had to come in at that point. It is in fact quite clear that there is one impulse in your mind of which, with all their psychology, they have never reckoned: the plastic impulse, the impulse to make a thing, to shape, to give unity, relief, contrast, pattern. But this, unhappily, is the impulse which chiefly caused the book to be written at all. They have, clearly, no such impulse themselves, and they do not suspect it in others. They seem to fancy that a book trickles out of one like a sigh or a tear or automatic writing. It may well be that there is much in every book which comes from the unconscious. But when it is your own book you know the conscious motives as well. You may be wrong in thinking that these often give the full explanation of this or that. But you can hardly believe accounts of the sea-bottom given by those who are blind to the most obvious objects on the surface. They could be right only by accident. And I, if I attempt any similar diagnosis about the dead, shall equally be right, if at all, only by accident.

The truth is that a very large part of what comes up from the unconscious and which, for that very reason, seems so attractive and important in the early stages of planning a book, is weeded out and jettisoned long before the job is done: just as people (if they are not bores) tell us of their dreams only those which are amusing or in some other way interesting by the standards of the waking mind.

  1. I now come to the imaginary history of the book’s composition in a much subtler form. Here I think critics, and of course we when we criticize, are often deceived or confused as to what they are really doing. The deception may lurk in the words themselves. You and I might condemn a passage in a book for being ‘labored’. Do we mean by this that it sounds ‘labored’.? Or are we advancing the theory that it was in fact ‘labored’.? Or are we sometimes not quite sure which we mean? If we mean the second, notice that we are ceasing to write criticism. Instead of pointing out the faults in the passage we are inventing a story to explain, causally, how it came to have those faults. And if we are not careful we may complete our story and pass on as if we had done all that was necessary, without noticing that we have never even specified the faults at all. We explain something by causes without saying what the something is. We can do the same when we think we are praising. We may say that a passage is unforced or spontaneous. Do we mean that it sounds as if it were, or that it actually was written effortlessly and currente calamo ? And whichever we mean, would it not be more interesting and more within the critics’ province to point out, instead, those merits in the passage which made us want to praise it at all?

The trouble is that certain critical terms—inspired, perfunctory, painstaking, conventional—imply a supposed history of composition. The critical vice I am talking about consists in yielding to the temptation they hold out and then, instead of telling us what is good and bad in a book, inventing stories about the process which led to the goodness and badness. Or are they misled by the double sense of the word Why? For of course the question ‘Why is this bad?’ may mean two things: ( a ) What do you mean by calling it bad? Wherein does its badness consist? Give me the Formal Cause. ( b ) How did it become bad? Why did he write so ill? Give me the Efficient Cause. The first seems to me the essentially critical question. The critics I am thinking of answer the second, and usually answer it wrong, and unfortunately regard this as a substitute for the answer to the first.

Thus a critic will say of a passage, ‘This is an afterthought.’ He is just as likely to be wrong as right. He may be quite right in thinking it bad. And he must presumably think he has discerned in it the sort of badness which one might expect to occur in an afterthought. Surely an exposure of that badness itself would be far’ better than an hypothesis about its origin? Certainly this is the only thing that would make the critique at all useful to the author. I as author may know that the passage diagnosed as an afterthought was in reality the seed from which the whole book grew. I should very much like to be shown what inconsistency or irrelevance or flatness makes it look like an afterthought. It might help, me to avoid these errors next time. Simply to know what the critic imagines, and imagines wrongly, about the history of the passage is of no use. Nor is it of much use to the public. They have every right to be told of the faults in my book. But this fault, as distinct from an hypothesis (boldly asserted as fact) about its origin, is just what they do not learn.

Here is an example which is specially important because I am quite sure the judgment which the critic was really making was correct. In a book of essays of mine the critic said that one essay was written without conviction, was task-work, or that my heart was not in it, or something like that. Now this in itself was plumb-wrong. Of all the pieces in the book it was the one I most cared about and wrote with most ardour.1 Where the critic was right was in thinking it the worst. Everyone agrees with him about that. I agree with him. But you see that neither the public nor I learns anything about that badness from his criticism. He is like a doctor who makes no diagnosis and prescribes no cure but tells you how the patient got the disease (still unspecified) and tells you wrong because he is describing scenes events on which he has no evidence. The fond parents ask, ‘What is it? Is it scarlatina or measles or chicken-pox?’ The doctor replies, ‘Depend upon it, he picked it up in one of those crowded trains.’ (The patient actually has not traveled by train lately.) They then ask, ‘But what are we to do? How led are we to treat him?’ The doctor replies, ‘You may be quite sure it was an infection.’ Then he climbs into his car and drives away. Notice here again the total psychological disregard of writing as a skill, the assumption that the writer’s psychological state always flows unimpeded and undisguised into the product. How can they not know that in writing as in carpentry or tennis-playing or prayer or lovemaking or cookery or administration or anything else there is both skill and also those temporary heightenings and lowerings of skill which a man describes by saying that he is in good or bad form, that his hand is ‘in’ or ‘out’, that this is one of his good days or his bad days?

Such is the lesson, but it is very difficult to apply. It needs great perseverance to force oneself, in one’s own criticism, to attend always to the product before one instead of writing fiction about the author’s state of mind or methods of work: to which of course one has no direct access. ‘Sincere’, for example, is a word we should avoid. The real question is what makes a thing sound sincere or not. Anyone who has censored letters in the army must know that semi-literate people, though not in reality less sincere than others, very seldom sound sincere when they use the written word. Indeed we all know from our own experience in writing letters of condolence that the occasions on which we really feel most are not necessarily those when on which our letters would suggest this. Another day, when we felt far less, our letter may have been more convincing. And of course the danger of error is greater in proportion as our own experience in the form we are criticizing is less. When we are criticizing a kind of work we have never attempted ourselves, we must realize that we do not know how such things are written and what is difficult or easy to do in them and how particular faults are likely to occur. Many critics quite clearly have an idea of how they think they would proceed if they tried to write the sort of book you have written, and assume that you were doing that. They often reveal unconsciously why they never have written a book of that kind.

I don’t mean at all that we must never criticize work of a kind we have never done. On the contrary we must do nothing but criticize it. We may analyze and weigh its virtues and defects. What we must not do is to write imaginary histories. I know that all beer in railway refreshment rooms is bad and I could to some extent say ‘why’ (in one sense of the word: that is, I could give the Formal Cause)—it is tepid, sour, cloudy, and weak. But to tell you ‘why’ in the other sense (the Efficient Cause) I should need to have been a brewer or a publican or both and to know how beer should be brewed and kept and handled.

I would gladly be no more austere than is necessary. I must admit that words which seem, in their literal sense, to imply a history of the composition may sometimes be used as merely elliptical pointers to the character of the work done. When a man says that something is ‘forced’ or ‘effortless’ he may not really be claiming to know how it was written but only indicating in a kind of short-hand a quality he supposes everyone will recognize. And perhaps to banish all expression of this kind from our criticism would be a counsel of perfection. But I am increasingly convinced of their danger. If we use them at all, we must do so with extreme caution. We must make it quite clear to ourselves and to our readers that we do not know and are not pretending to know how things were written. Nor would it be relevant if we did. What sounds forced would be no better if it had been dashed off without pains; what sounds inspired, no worse if it had been arduously put together invita Minerva.

I now turn to interpretation. Here of course all critics, and we among them, will make mistakes. Such mistakes are far more venial than the sort I have been describing, for they are not gratuitous. The one sort arise when the critic writes fiction instead of criticism; the other, in the discharge of a proper function. At least I assume that critics ought to interpret, ought to try to find out the meaning or intention of a book. When they fail the fault may lie with them or with the author or with both.

I have said vaguely ‘meaning’ or ‘intention’. We shall have to give each word a fairly definite sense. It is the author who intends; the book means. The author’s intention is that which, if it is realized, will in his eyes constitute success. If all or most readers, or such readers as he chiefly desires, laugh at a passage, and he is pleased with this result, then his intention was comic, or he intended to be comic. If he is disappointed and humiliated at it, then he intended to be grave, or his intention was serious. Meaning is a much more difficult term. It is simplest when used of an allegorical work. In the Romance of the Rose plucking the rosebud means enjoying the heroine. It is still fairly easy when used of a work with a conscious and definite ‘lesson’ in it. Hard Times means, among other things, that elementary state education is bosh; Macbeth , that your sin will find you out; Waverley , that solitude and abandonment to the imagination in youth render a man an easy prey to those who wish to exploit him; the Aeneid , that the res Romana rightly demands the sacrifice of private happiness. But we are already in deep waters, for of course each of these books means a good deal more. And what are we talking about when we talk, as we do, of the ‘meaning’ of Twelfth Night , Wuthering Heights , or The Brothers Karamazov ? And especially when we differ and dispute as we do, about their real or true meaning? The nearest I have yet got to a definition is something like this: the meaning of a book is the series or system of emotions, reflections and attitudes produced by reading it. But of course this product differs with different readers. The ideally false or wrong ‘meaning’ would be the product in the mind of the stupidest and least sensitive and most prejudiced reader after a single careless reading. The ideally true or right ‘meaning’ would be that shared (in some measure) by the largest number of the best readers after repeated and careful readings over several generations, different periods, nationalities, moods, degrees of alertness, private pre-occupations, states of health, spirits, and the like canceling one another out when (this is an important reservation) they cannot be fused so as to enrich one another. (This happens when one’s readings of a work at widely different periods of one’s own life, influenced by the readings that reach us indirectly through the works of critics, all modify our present reading so as to improve it.) As for the many generations, we must add a limit. These serve to enrich the perception of the meaning only so long as the cultural tradition is not lost. There may come a break or change after which readers arise whose point of view is so alien that they might as well be interpreting a new work. Medieval readings of the Aeneid as an allegory and Ovid as a moralist, or modern readings of the Parlement of Foules which make the duck and goose its heroes, would be examples. To delay, even if we cannot permanently banish such interpretations, is a large part of the function of scholarly, as distinct from pure, criticism; so doctors lab our to prolong life though they know they cannot make men immortal.

Of a book’s meaning, in this sense, its author is not necessarily the best, and is never a perfect, judge. One of his intentions usually was that it should have a certain meaning: he cannot be sure that it has. He cannot even be sure that the meaning he intended it to have was in every way, or even at all, better than the meaning which readers find in it. Here, therefore, the critic has great freedom to range without fear of contradiction from the author’s superior knowledge.

Where he seems to me most often to go wrong is in the hasty assumption of an allegorical sense; and as reviewers make this mistake about contemporary works, so, in my opinion, scholars now often make it about old ones. I would recommend to both, and I would try to observe in my own critical practice, these principles. First, that no story can be devised by the wit of man which cannot be interpreted allegorically by the wit of some other man. The Stoic interpretations of primitive mythology, the Christian interpretations of the Old Testament, the medieval interpretations of the classics, all prove this. Therefore (2) the mere fact that you can allegorize the work before you is of itself no proof that it is an allegory. Of course you can allegorize it. You can allegorize anything, whether in art or real life. I think we should here take a hint from the lawyers. A man is not tried at the assizes until there has been shown to be a prima-facie case against him. We ought not to proceed to allegorize any work until we have plainly set out the reasons for regarding it as an allegory at all.

Hi Ralphie -

Who doesn’t love a good C.S. Lewis quote? He was obviously gifted and insightful.

However: The practice of authorship attribution and of genre classification have advanced enormously since C.S. Lewis wrote this passage. For example, Lewis passed away before the first statistical methods for attributing authorship were developed to settle the debate over which founding father wrote the disputed essays in The Federalist Papers. I would speculate that Lewis, as bright as he was, would have recognized how recent methods have changed the game.

Chris Falter

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There are other noted differences between them and E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies (Studying Synoptics p. 5) summarize them well:

“In the synoptics there are short, pithy statements, aphorisms and parables which focus not on Jesus’ person but on the kingdom of God. The synoptics’ Jesus must ask his disciples who they think he is (Mark 8:27 and parr.), and it is clear that he has not identified himself explicitly. He refuses to give a sign to those who ask (Mark 8:11-13). When he is on trial, according to Matthew and Luke, he will not even give a straightforward answer about who he is when asked by the high priest. The Jesus of the Gospel of John, however, talks in long monologues, and the subject is usually himself: his relationship to God on the one hand and to the disciples on the other. He offers ‘signs’ in abundance (see, for example, John 2.11), and he says explicitly that ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10.30)."

The narrative presentation of Jesus is different. The types of things Jesus says, his focus and manner of discourse all appear different. Kingdom of God in John? Maybe one verse. Littered all over the synoptics. Exorcisms in the synoptics? All over the place. In John are there even any? If we look at all the material in John, all the self-identification statements of Jesus are inexplicably absent from the synoptic Gospels. Jesus doesn’t even permit anyone to speak of him in the Gospel of Mark. He commands everyone to silence. In John it seems he doesn’t stop talking about him self. That is a completely different portrayal from the synoptic version of Jesus. The first three gospels are radically different in their presentation of Jesus. On historical grounds, its implausible to suggest we have independent streams of tradition that somehow made it into the synoptics and into John and that we should just harmonize them all as if they were factual. That does a disservice to both John and the Synoptics and God’s Church. I also will not take the secrecy route where John told a while bunch of different stuff to a beloved disciple. John ends up becoming like a “gnostic” Gospel possessing the secret sayings of Jesus in that case.

John Dominic Crossan wryly observed: "If you read the four gospels vertically and consecutively, from the start to finish and one after another, you get a generally persuasive impression of unity, harmony, and agreement. But if you read them horizontally and comparatively, focusing on this or that unit and comparing it across two, three or four versions, it is disagreement rather than agreement that strikes you most forcibly. And those divergences stem not from the random vagaries of memory and recall but from the coherent and consistent theologies of individual texts. The gospels are, in other words, interpretations.” (JRVp.X)

If everything He said and did were written down, it may be true that all the books in the world couldn’t contain all of it.

“Short pithy statements.”
As George liked to say, “I am a short, stocky, dim-witted bald man” but even I know that short pithy statements do not rule out that the 4 gospels are the actual words Christ spoke.

“those divergences stem not from the random vagaries of memory and recall but from the coherent and consistent theologies of individual texts”

How do they know this? How can they say these things with their own certainties?

The men and women who followed Jesus hung with him for at least a year. Many more went in and out of his life, his daily preaching and teaching and healing excursions on foot. Guess what? He repeated some stories. He told the same stories differently on different occasions. He summarized some of them and developed them at other times. Some of the people listening to him, and repeating his words, and writing them down, worked on and with the easier or less developed accounts. John was different, or whoever is responsible for the GJohn. I’ve said this before: we have a Franklin Roosevelt type giving fireside chats responsible for writing John and George S. Patton, (who was terribly dyslexic), H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Harry S. Truman types writing the others.

Let’s give these people a break. My o my. Searching painstakingly to find differences in the gospels is a worthwhile effort, except when the same effort to find similarities is neglected. Critics miss the boat by failing to exert as much effort on both sides.

I asked repeatedly, “Who wrote the words attributed to Christ? No one ever spoke like He did or thought like He did. Not that we know. So, who placed the words attributed to him, in his mouth?” Silence.

{I love to learn. I wondered about Niels Bohr since I heard the story that his fiance wrote his papers for him. He is what’s called a dysgraphic. He couldn’t write. Einstein was a late developer, his words.} Two of the greatest minds of all time were using brains with less than100% efficiency.

Enjoyed the C.S. Lewis excerpt. He makes some good points, as usual. However, the thing that struck me was that most of that quote had to do with the meaning within the words, not the analysis of where the words came from. That is, it concerned the interpretation of the text. And, when he does address the physical attributes, he states that to determine the quality of the beer, you need to consult a brewer. Metaphorically.

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Who thought up the words attributed to Christ? Can you offer your best effort? So far, no one has.

Which ones?

John 15. How about that? If not, something else from the 13,14,15,16,17 chapters of John? Listen, the point is, could we actually have thought up those words to give Jesus to say. I can’t imagine that we could.

Who else can we go to Lord. You have the words of eternal life.
You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.


Ralphie -

Have you ever spent a long, long time in a non-American cultural context? Or you do have some other way, deep down in your bones, to grasp how the same gospel can put on different clothes and emphasize different stories in a different culture?

I had the great privilege of spending almost 5 years in NW Africa, so I do have some grasp of how different cultures lead to different literatures, music, and ways of communicating about history and philosophy. In other words, I’m not just making stuff up because I’m bored …



“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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