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August 20, 2013


Mr. Warner, it is always a pleasure for me to read your posts! You lay out your thoughts very logically and systematically, and deliver your message in a most articulate and polished fashion. This post presents the case for the reliability of the gospel accounts most even-handedly and graciously. Thank you for your excellent handling of this material!

1. I agree with J. Warner Wallace—one pericope containing errors does not discredit the entire gospel genre. However, errors do cause us to reassess the author’s credibility (exactly as Wallace questions Josephus’ credibility based upon contradictions). To be consistent in methodology, if we consider Josephus to be inaccurate (at times) due to contradictions, we must likewise (for the same reasons) consider the gospel authors inaccurate.

2. I did not listen to the podcast so I do not know what the Netherlands skeptic was claiming. If he was using the John the Baptist execution as one example where the gospels are not reliable, I would agree. If it was to claim ALL the claims in the gospels are not reliable based on this one incident--I would not extend the one example this far.

3. Mark’s account of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) violate Wallace’s Second and Third Principles. Mark is incorrect regarding Herod Antipas’ title—he was a tetrarch, not a king. Herodias was the wife of Herod II, not Philip. (Alternatively, if an inerrantist desires to resolve the contradiction by claiming Philip was called “Herod Philip” then, Philip’s wife was Salome, not Herodias. Pick your poison.) If Mark gets these very basic facts incorrect, shouldn’t we question the credibility on the remaining account?

4. Matthew’s account (Matt. 14:1-12) likewise fails Wallace’s Second and Third Principles, by incorrectly identifying Herodias. Additionally, Matthew is copying Mark, not corroborating, and therefore this is not a separate account, but a continuation from Mark. This pericope is a good example of fatigue—where Matthew modifies his copy of Mark, but through author’s fatigue retains Markan elements that make sense in Mark, but not in Matthew. An argument for Markan priority in the Synoptic Problem. There are three demonstrations:

a) Matthew initially corrects Mark by referring to Herod Antipas as tetrarch (v. 14), but later copies Mark’s reference to Herod Antipas as being “king.” (v. 9)

b) Matthew indicates Herod Antipas was upset when Herodias’ daughter asked for John the Baptist’s head on a plate. This makes sense in Mark, where Mark records Herod Antipas as liking John the Baptist. (Mark 6:20), but does not make sense in Matthew, as Matthew indicates Herod Antipas wanted to kill John the Baptist. (v.5). Why would Herod Antipas be upset if he was getting what he wanted?

c) In Mark, the story of John’s execution is a parenthetical statement, providing the reader some background. See Mark 6:7-13, then Mark 6:30-31 where Jesus sends out the Twelve and they report back. The execution story is an explanation regarding Herod Antipas hearing about the Twelve’s activities. In Matthew, this incident is placed in the same (rough) chronology, but Matthew has Jesus reacting to John’s death (v. 13) rather than reviewing it in the past.

5. Mark commonly utilizes Tanakh stories to model his own. Here we see elements from Esther—the erotic dancing, potentate being pleased before advisors, and “up to half my kingdom” being offered. (Another error, Herod Antipas did not have the authority to offer anything—he served at the discretion of Rome. Although one could argue he was being hyperbolic.)

In short, if we are consistent in the methodology proposed by J. Warner Wallace regarding historical accounts, Mark (and Matthew) fare no better than Josephus (perhaps slightly worse), and are demonstrated as equally likely to be contemporary to the accounts.

Josephus thought Hercules was a real person and claimed to have seen a ten-foot tall giant casting out demons. Yeah he's a real realiable historian. None of the stories in the gospels can be validated by independent sources. Had Herod actually murdered innocent children or had dead people actually come back to life, unburied themselves,climbed out of their graves and then appeared to many other people there would be some evidence to support these stories. None exists and that alone proves the gorpels are exactly what they appear to be: religious fiction and complete nonsense.

John P. Meier, one of the greatest living Jesus scholars (his 4 volume series on the historical Jesus - A Marginal Jew - is a modern classic in the field), talks about the literary traditions concerning the death of John the Baptist in Volume 2, pg.171-176. Meier is a Catholic scholar, so he is not trying to undermine scripture. But as a historian, he argues that Josephus is more accurate on the point of John the Baptist' death than the gospels are.
Josephus displays a much more detailed knowledge of Herod's genealogy. According to Josephus, Salome, not Herodias, married Philip, the half-brother of Antipas. Josephus also mentions that John was executed in the fortress of Machaerus to the east of the Dead Sea. All the events in Mark before the passion narrative take place in Galilee.
This information does not invalidate the gospels as historical sources. Just the notion that every detail in the gospels must be historically accurate.

Regarding these principles, the authors of the gospels most likely were not their in the first place. The author of Luke directly says as much. The gospels themselves are not consist at various points. The authors of the gospels have their own biases, so that argument cuts both ways.
Furthermore, eyewitness testimony is no guarantee of accuracy. Thousands of people can give eyewitness testimony to UFOs and Marian apparitions. Many people have been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony, but are later exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence. See the work of Elizabeth Loftus for more.

Again, none of this invalidates the gospels as historical sources. They are our earliest sources for the life of Jesus. But this does not mean they are accurate in every detail. They should be sifted and weighed using the criterion every historian uses to judge historical sources.

1) Josephus is the one who is wrong about who Herodias was married to before Antipas. Mark is far likelier to be right (being actually alive while the drama unfolded).

2) Herod Antipas was once named to the throne, but was busted down due to a late change to Herod the Great's will. No doubt this rankled. He argued that he should be king. Rome refused him this title. Shortly after Jesus death, at the urging of Herodias, Antipas applied again for the title of king, and was again rejected. In fact the plea resulted in his being exiled.

It is possible that Mark was using the title sarcastically. It is entirely possible that the sarcastic usage was common. Was Antipas strictly speaking, a king? No. Did people call him King Herod. It seems very possible that they did, that sort of thing happens all the time. Again, I'd assume that Mark is probably right in the usage, since he lived then and there. (That, of course, does not make Matthew wrong for using tetrarch most of the time).

3) Now Markan priority.

Editorial fatigue is a bogus argument. There's always one tired editor working on any writing...the author himself.

Because of this, you can never say that simply because a text show signs of editorial fatigue that the writer is editing someone else's work.


Let's move to the so-called examples of editorial fatigue

Starting with titles, the fact that Matthew wasn't totally consistent in how he chose to title someone proves nothing.

I sometimes refer to the Holy Ghost as the Holy Spirit.

And guess what?

I'm not consistent about it. Sometimes I don't even try to get the terminology consistent. Maybe that's all there is to Matthew's use of "king" and "tetrarch". No editorial fatigue at all. Just the use of two different titles for the same guy...just for the heck of it.

Sometimes I do try to get the terminology consistent, and I fail to do so. Horrors. I fall victim to editorial fatigue in the editing of my own work. Maybe that doesn't happen to anyone else....

And to get to the argument for priority, were someone to adapt something I said about the Holy Ghost Spirit, and successfully make the lingo consistent that would hardly prove that they wrote first.

Maybe Mark's lingo is consistent because he wrote second. Seeing Matthew's one lapse into sarcasm about Herod's title, maybe he decided to do it right.

The titles prove nothing.


As for the bit about Herod's being grieved over Salome's request, Matthew said that Herod wanted to kill John but was afraid of the people. Let's not leave out that minor detail. That's more than enough reason for him to be upset about Salome's request.

But, BTW, he might also have liked John. You can want to kill someone you like.

What's more, Mark doesn't even say why Herod was grieved. He says he liked listening to John. Later he says that Salome asked for John's head and Herod was grieved. This is not the same as saying that he was grieved because he liked John. For all that Mark said, Herod might have been grieved because he was afraid of the people, and for that reason only.

Of course, Herod might have been grieved because he liked John, and that would still be consistent with Matthew. The shocking truth is that one can be grieved for more than one reason.

Really, the simplistic approach to human psychology implicit in this argument is stunning. People have complex often contradictory motivations. It is quite laughable to even suppose that Mark and Matthew disagree here, let alone to infer the temporal ordering of their writings from this non-disagreement.


In both Matthew and Mark, the story of John's execution is told as background explaining Herod's desire to cast Jesus as John resurrected. The story is not presented as past in one and present in the other.

Jesus retires to a secluded place after he hears of John's death in Matthew. Matthew does not say that He retired in reaction to John's death (though, of course, He might have retired for that reason).

In Mark, Jesus retires to the secluded place after having heard what the disciples had to say about their mission. Mark does not say that He retired in reaction to the mission (though, of course, He might have retired for that reason).

Matthew records that one event occurred and then another one did.

Mark records that one event occurred and then another one did.

And that's all.

It goes without saying that Matthew and Mark do not disagree here. Event-A can occur after both Event-B and Event-C.

As already noted, Jesus might have reacted to both the good news about the mission and the bad news about John by retiring to a secluded place. But even if you read that into the text, you're not going to get a disagreement in the texts. Once more, human psychology is a wee bit more complex than that.

Needless to say, you are not going to get any help, based on a disagreement that does not exist, in determining who wrote first.


Now, you might assume that Mark is saying that the mission of the disciples motivated Herod to cast Jesus as John resurrected. If that's so (and I really don't think you can assume so much), then Mark is hinting at something that Matthew doesn't hint at...that the mission was somehow impressive to Herod.


Perhaps Mark hints at some things Matthew doesn't.

I'm still not seeing an argument for Markan priority.

In fact, if anything, shouldn't it go the other way?

I thought Mark was supposedly earlier because he always made the disciples less impressive. Here it is Mark that is making the disciples more impressive.

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