1. “Translated from dead languages…”
What dead languages? He certainly doesn’t mention any.
Does he perhaps mean Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) or Greek (the language of the New Testament)? If so, then Greek is clearly widely spoken today in places like Greece & Cyprus as well as in other countries where it is not the main language but is nevertheless present (Albania, Romania etc.). On the other hand it is true that Hebrew had ceased to be spoken (somewhere between 200 and 400 AD) as an official everyday language (1). However, it still is spoken in places today (for instance, in the USA there are some 220 000 people speaking Hebrew (2)) and it is also clearly understood in academic circles – in fact, it is often a requirement for scholars within biblical & Old Testament studies to at least be able to read the language. So, clearly Hebrew is not entirely a “dead” language. So, Cross’s claim here is detached from reality.
2. “Edited, then rewritten, then rewritten, then re-edited…”
Although the original biblical manuscripts were copied by scribes it was clearly not done in the way that Cross is suggesting here. What Cross and skeptics like to do is argue that the transmission process of our manuscript documents was like the game of telephone (GOT); in other words it was highly unreliable & that what we read in our modern day Bible is entirely different (that it bears no resemblance to the original manuscript). But this is entirely false & for good reason(s).
Although one can go into some detail here the key difference is that whereas the GOT has a single line of transmission our New Testament manuscripts have multiple channels of transmission. In other words the original New Testament manuscripts, or a gospel manuscript, would have been copied by several different scribes and then those scribes would give their copies to the next 20 scribes. At the end of the day we would have 1000’s of manuscript copies that could be compared to each other (in fact we have 5800 manuscripts in the original Greek & some of which are very early – altogether we have 24 000 manuscripts which puts our New Testament on an entirely different level when it comes to ancient history – Besides our New Testament the second best attested work in terms of manuscripts is the Iliad, a work by Homer, that boasts around some 2000 copies), thus, allowing us with great certainty to know what the originals would have said. As scholar Wallace explains that “the early copying surely wasn’t done in only a linear fashion: that is, the original manuscripts and other early copies were used more than once in making later copies. Textual criticism is not like the telephone game” (3).
One could say much more on this by focusing on intention (people playing the GOT clearly do not have the same intention as does a scribe whose life work was to copy manuscripts, for example), oral vs. written (the GOT involves oral transmission whereas scribes work with text based transmission – this means that scribes can recheck their work unlike those playing the GOT) and so on – but this should suffice for now.
So, all considered it would appear that Cross’s statement is simply beginning to look like weak propaganda more than it is sound historical methodology.
3. “All based on stories that were told orally 30 to 90 years AFTER they happened.”
This is the usual attempt to undermine the plethora of historical evidence that we have for the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Nearly every atheist or skeptic that I have conversed will bring up this line of reasoning somewhere along the line. Well, why do they?
Simply because they get their information from dedicated atheist websites & blogs; all of which have a clear axe to grind. I also wish atheists would stop recommending me to get my data on the historical Jesus from sites like RationalWiki as so many have done. Instead, such an atheist would do much better in consulting academic, peer reviewed journals & books (books written by actual scholars) on this matter – as I have for the last several years. But they won’t do that because, far more often than not, what they will read in scholarly journals will strongly contradict what they’ve read at RationalWiki. But that’s simply an attempt to approach history in a skewed, biased, & unfair way. That’s not even an attempt to be at least a little objective.
However, let us answer this tiring challenge again. Firstly, on his face Cross is mistaken when he claims that stories of Jesus were told “orally 30 to 90 years AFTER they happened.” In know and have read many non-Christian historians (from Jews to atheists etc.) who would laugh if someone in the academy were to say something like this. Firstly, stories were not circulated orally only after 30 years. Stories begun circulating the very day Jesus was hung on a cross & then later miraculously appeared to his followers in vindication of his message. That was when stories begun circulating in many early Christian Palestinian communities – not even a handful of days after the events let along 30 years later. Secondly, the fact that these “stories” agree on so much within our gospel traditions is a suggestive in of itself. It shows us that the traditions are almost certainly cemented in actual history – since no-one is making up false historical events as they all agree on them. This clearly illustrates the reliability of the oral transmission process in Jewish culture – that after many years the central narrative remains untouched.
But let us help Cross here since he clearly doesn’t know what he is talking about. It would seem to me that Cross is actually trying to undermine our historical data because the first gospel (Mark) was written 30 (or 40) years later and the final gospel (John) was written 60 years later. Now, I date the Synoptics (Mark, Mathew & Luke) earlier than 70 AD based on arguments made from the book of Acts, however, for our purposes here will accept a date of 70 AD which is the most popular date (again, I can’t help but see ignorance in Cross since he implies that there was a “30” year gap between Jesus’ death & the writing of Mark – that would put Mark at 60 & not 70 AD – Does Cross have historical reasons for that 10 year earlier gap? Of course he doesn’t, instead he doesn’t know what he is talking about). Firstly, this is very early and scholars will tell you that straight up. For the Buddha we rely on four main texts that date centuries after his death yet no scholar doubts that we can know things about him (the Buddhacarita, a poem, is our first major text on him that dates to around 100 AD – that is some 500 years later after he lived). In comparison a 30 year (for Mark) & a 60 year (for John) time gap is negligible at best. Take the Shiji, a source we have for Confucius. This is our first major text for him dated over 370 after he lived – do scholars doubt that he lived or that we can know things about him? No, they don’t. Do they doubt that we can know things about Jesus? Definitely not.
So, then why, considering this, does the atheist cast doubt onto the historical Jesus for whom our historical evidence is clearly abundant & early? That’s easy to answer. One: he will try every route to undermine religion; that means in the process he has to find a way to undermine Jesus (and often where Jesus cannot be undermined). Two: he gets his information from atheist websites. This doesn’t surprise me at all.
But then Cross fails to take into account any of the very early data that we have on Jesus that all pre-date our gospels. These come in several forms: creeds, hypothetical sources & hymns. In fact, we possess such a wealth of these sources that I made an argument for Jesus’ resurrection based solely on them (I didn’t even make use of the four gospels). These sources all date prior to 70 AD, and some date to within five years of Jesus’ resurrection (the creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, for example) while others into the 40’s (the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative), 50’s & 60’s (a primitive hymn in Philippians 2:1-18, Pre-John Signs Gospel, as well as the Q, L & M hypothetical sources). And since Cross does not appear to know of these then his entire argument is undermined – simply because we have data that well falls within 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death.
4. “To people that didn’t know how to write…”
Cross, I take it, is alleging that somehow people at that time (people who did not know how to write, which accounts for nearly all of them) were just so gullible that they would believe anything. This is something called ‘Chronological Snobbery’ (I won’t go into great detail since I have already answered the atheist John Loftus on this point – see point 3 here). But it is wholly fallacious to think that an ancient man was stupid, gullible or ignorant of reality around him simply because he lived 2000 or 10 000 years ago.
But Cross also clearly does not know that one cannot judge a person’s intelligence based on whether or not they can read or write. I’d put my money on the fact that there is a person in some Rwandan town (or any third world African country) in Africa who possesses a far greater intelligence than both Cross & I but who is also illiterate. Does that mean he is stupid? No, it means that he is unfortunate. One cannot assume that people who cannot read or write are stupid or gullible, as Cross does.
Secondly, Cross’s alleged criterion for intelligence based of whether or not one can write is falsified by biblical details. When Paul preaches the risen Jesus in Rome he succeeds in winning converts yet at the same time he also faces rejection: “Some were being persuaded by the things spoken, but others would not believe” (Acts 28:24). Since it was in the 2nd century when Rome opened private schools for the first time (4) it was likely that Paul (preaching around 60 AD – around 40 years prior to beginning of the 2nd century) interacted with a general public who had minimal literacy skills at best. Yet, since some rejected him it clearly illustrates that illiterate people can still think and comprehend reality & make their own decisions (also since only the Roman elite class could expect to have a complete formal education). Therefore, Cross’s argument fails.
It would be best now to tie everything up.
Firstly, that Cross tries to undermine the Bible because of “dead languages” is simply a non-sequitur – it says nothing about the reliability of our historical documents. It is also false to assume that Hebrew (which is the dead language that Cross is probably referring to) is not spoken or read today even though it clearly is in academic circles as well as in some populations. Cross is further wrong in his claim that the Bible is analogues to the game of telephone in its transmission process & we saw why. Then, in point 3, he was simply unfamiliar with the way history works and how historians can use criterion to determine whether oral & textual traditions are reliable or not. Finally, Cross espouses a fallacious method of reasoning (Chronological Snobbery) while at the same time assuming that ancients were ignoramuses. This we saw was simply false & that one cannot judge the intelligence of a person solely on their literacy skills.
Throw this propaganda into the Grinder!
1. Badillos, A. & Elwolde, J. 1996. A History of the Hebrew Language.
2. U.S. Census Bureau. Table 53. Languages Spoken At Home by Language: 2009, The 2012 Statistical Abstract.
3. Wallace, D. & Bock, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus, p. 89.
4. Harris, W. 1989. Ancient literacy. p. 158.