To the editors:
Thomas Sheehan's arguments in the April 21 Reader are so full of holes that it is hard to know where to begin. However, three crucial and questionable parts of his argument are:
1) Mark does not teach the deity or bodily resurrection of Christ
2) The other gospels are late (written AD 85-100) and therefore are unreliable
3) The world-view of Bultmann and similar German theologians is the proper way of interpreting the Bible
I will critique all three of these assertions.
First, Sheehan does not accurately assess the view of Jesus we get from Mark. I agree with him that the ending of Mark is questionable from a textual perspective (Mark 16:9-20), but there are several other passages in this gospel which teach the deity and bodily resurrection of Jesus. For example, Jesus in Mark 10:33-34 predicts that he will be killed and rise again after three days. In Mark 14:28, Jesus says that after he has arisen he will go ahead of his disciples into Galilee. Finally, in Mark 16:6, an angel states that Jesus has arisen. All of these passages come from parts of the gospel where there are no textual problems. Sheehan may say that they are all later additions to the text, but there is no evidence of this. Other passages contradict Sheehan more indirectly. For example, in Mark 2:5-10, Jesus claims that he can forgive sins. The teachers of the law call this blasphemy, since only God can forgive sins. Jesus does not deny this, but instead reiterates his point. In Mark 12:1-12, the parable of the tenants, he clearly implies that he is the heir of God. Thus, Sheehan's main point falls apart based on Mark alone.
Second, his arguments have other major flaws. For example, he accepts the 19th Century critical view that the gospels are late (written 50 or more years after Jesus' death). It's amusing that he calls the fundamentalists anachronistic when his own views are hopelessly out of date. It is commonly accepted that Luke and Acts were written by the same author, with Acts 1:1-3 clearly showing that it was written after Luke. Since Acts ends with Paul being alive, and the latter two-thirds of the book recounts his life in intimate detail, scholars generally agree that it must have been written before his death, probably in AD 61-62. Since Luke was written before Acts, it must have been written no later than 62 AD. Thus, Sheehan's point that the other three gospels were written after the death of the eyewitnesses collapses. In addition, he depends heavily on the theory of Markian priority. Most scholars agree with him here, but there are some ancient sources which claim that Matthew was written first. Practically everyone agrees that John was the last gospel written, and some scholars even argue that it was composed before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. During the 19th Century, many scholars dated John in the middle of the 2nd Century. However, the discovery of the John Rylands fragment, a copy of a small portion of John dated 125-135, exploded these theories. In addition, the discoveries of archaeologists such as Sir William Ramsey showed that the New Testament authors, Luke in particular, were extremely accurate historians. Everything considered, the time gap between the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels is much less than Sheehan asserts. Finally, he totally ignores the evidence from Paul's writings. It is generally agreed that when Paul states in I Cor. 15:3-4 that "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures," he is quoting an early Christian, pre-Pauline creed. In Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus, Gary Habermas states on page 125 that "numerous critical theologians date it from three to eight years after Jesus' crucifixion," and cites such authorities as C.H. Dodd, Oscar Cullmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Thus, Sheehan's fifty year gap evaporates along with the rest of his argument.
Third, Sheehan accepts the worldview of Bultmann and other German scholars, who dismiss any notion that the Bible accurately records history and generally devalue the importance of historical events. This view is similar to the Greeks and Eastern Religions, but it is foreign to the Old and New Testaments. Repeatedly, the people are told that God has acted in history and they have an obligation to remember this. The Passover is an example of this as is Joshua setting up twelve stones to remind future generations how God acted in history to dry up the Jordan (Joshua 4:20-24). As cited above, Ramsey's archaeological discoveries supported the authenticity of Acts. Another part of the Bible that has been fiercely attacked as unhistorical and late in composition is the Pentateuch (first five books). However, Meredith Kline has shown that its treaty format is similar to the Hittite format in the 13th-15th Centuries B.C. (traditional date for its composition by Moses) and differs greatly from the structure prevalent later (which is when Bultmann and others claim that it was written). Thus, the critics are often guilty of not being willing to adjust their theories to fit the evidence. In addition, the Bible asserts that it was inspired by God. Sheehan states that "no human being has a God's-eye view of historical events." Thus, his argument here comes down to saying that if you start out with a completely different set of presuppositions from those of the Scriptures, you end up with a different religion. Brilliant! I'm amazed that Loyola pays him to state the obvious. In many ways, he reminds me of the apostate bishop in C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, who considered searching for truth more important than finding it. However, I can congratulate Sheehan on one thing. He is a great expert on myths; unfortunately, the myths he knows best are his own theories.
Richard D. Easton