The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Peter J. Williams. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello. This is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today’s interview is with Peter J. Williams, the warden of Tyndale House Cambridge. He was educated at Cambridge University, where he received his M.A., M.Phil, and PhD in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible. Peter is an excellent communicator and competent to speak to a variety of Biblical issues, including the text of the Old and New Testament, moral objections to the Old Testament, and the reliability of the Gospels.
The purpose of this interview is to discuss the reliability of the Gospels, look briefly at Old Testament morality, and get Peter’s advice on the subject of apologetics.
Thanks for joining me for this interview, Peter.
PW: It’s a pleasure.
BA: First off, would you mind telling our listeners just a bit more about yourself and your present work.
PW: Okay. I’m 41, married to Catherine, got two children, and I work as warden, that means director, of Tyndale House in Cambridge, which is a Biblical studies research library and community where about 40 or 50 Biblical scholars work on a daily basis, researching all sorts of things about the Bible. We got one of the best libraries in the world, in fact.
BA: Very good. One of my questions, just starting off, would be what drives you into this area of Biblical scholarship and perhaps what got you interested? Could you tell our listeners more about the path you’ve taken in your work and studies?
PW: Well, I would say that for me, apologetics is something that I do on the side. It’s not the bread and butter of the scholarship I do, but I think if you’re a Christian, you can’t really avoid interest in the Scriptures.
I had a privilege of being brought up in a Christian family and being able to do Biblical languages which is…well, Greek, at least, at school; and so I wanted to go to university to become a Bible translator. That’s made me study Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic as my undergraduate degree, and then I found myself being very much drawn into Biblical studies, seeing that there was a real way of serving God there. I still believe Bible translation is very important, but it wasn’t my particular calling.
BA: I wonder if by learning Aramaic, you may be the only person on the planet who can actually watch The Passion of the Christ and understand what they’re saying.
PW: Actually, The Passion of the Christ, they had two different Aramaic informants. I’ve actually spoken to someone who’s in charge of the Aramaic for that, and you can hear, at least, three different pronunciations of the word, not. So there are lots of differences there, and it’s quite sort of Arabic-type Aramaic, which I understood meant that it could be widely understood in North Africa and the Middle-East when it was being shown there. So it’s not exactly the Aramaic that Jesus would’ve spoken. That’s not something we can absolutely be certain about in its details, at least.
BA: I’m sure it’s helped you in your studies having a broad range of languages that you’ve looked at. Many of us have heard some of the main reasons why we can trust the Bible. These might be the number of manuscripts that we have, or the quality of the manuscripts, early dating, and things that point to their reliability; but from someone who delves deep into the subject as you do, what impresses you about the Bible?
PW: My approach would be different I think from a lot of apologists in the sense that I believe that we are generally putting too much weight on external evidence for the Bible and too little on internal evidence for the Bible. I think that’s a habit that went back really to the 19th century and seemed to work very well for a while when Albright, the archaeologist, was digging nice things out of the ground and interpreting them as confirmation of the Bible. That seemed to work very well, but I think there’s basic problem in…if you say, ‘Well, I believe something ’cause something else confirms it’, that’s not really how we go about our lives generally.
When my wife says something to me, I don’t say, ‘Well, can you confirm that and then I’ll believe it’. I actually trust my wife and most of my trust of most of the people I know is based on internal evidence of what they’ve said. So I do think external evidence has a place, that sort of corroboration, but a lot of what makes the Scriptures trustworthy is evidence that they themselves show. I also think that explains text far better.
For instance, when you got the story in 2 Kings 22 about Helkiah finding the Book of the Law, which had been in the Temple and no one had seen for a long time, it makes a lot more sense if its possible to discover God’s law without it having lots of external attestation, without having lots of manuscripts, but on its internal basis, you accept its truth. I think that makes a lot of sense of more passages of the Bible. So I would say let’s use extra-Biblical evidence, but let’s just put it in its place.
BA: I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit more on what you mean by the “internal evidences”. Do you mean certain things that a text critic would be able to find by comparing passages or using different sorts of research tools in that regard, or are you talking about the actual content speaking for itself or one passage confirming or complementing another and cohering. How would you mean “internal evidence”?
PW: When we consider how we come to trust either an individual or a website or so on, we do take external factors into account as we build up trust, but a lot of the time, it’s actually the internal evidence. So you know, when someone can say something and saying “dry British humor”, you often don’t signal in your tone of voice that you’re just joking. It’s meant to be the content alone which the person uses to understand that you’re just joking about something. So I do think that a lot can be driven from the content.
So internal evidence in Scripture could include the Gospel, it could include the relationship between Synoptic Gospels, and you could have what John Blunt used to call “undesigned coincidences”—those sorts of agreements between different parts of Scripture—you could find prophecy very commonly used, of course, in the Early Church as an evidence. There are certain factors, for instance, with the books of the Old Testament, people might say, ‘Well, let’s look for confirmation of this history in Egyptian and Assyrian records’. The problem is that if we said, ‘Well, we’re only going to believe Egyptian records if we find them confirmed outside Egypt’, you’re going to basically throw out almost all Egyptian history.
What we find remarkably in the Old Testament where the chronology is most detailed is in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, and that’s exactly the time, of course, when it’s reporting that Israel had a state and, therefore, would have had people who were keeping time. Before that, the chronological statements aren’t so specific. After that, they’re less specific, when the Persians were keeping time in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, but at that particular period, they’re much more specific. So I’d say that fits with the history itself. So that’s the sort if internal…not a proof, but an indication, a bit of evidence that works very well. I would say there’s lots of that. The Bible is full of it, and it’s the sort of thing that we’re used to handling all the time.
BA: Very good. I think that’s helpful. One of the topics I’d like to talk about in the interview is the reliability of the Gospels in particular. First off, before we talk about that, when we talk about a gospel, say, as a literary genre, what are we talking about?
PW: Well, the word, gospel, is used in different ways, and I think in the New Testament, it’s not actually used in the sense that we use it now. When Mark begins his book and says, ‘It’s the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News’, he doesn’t mean one of those books that’s a history of Jesus. He means the “good news announcement”. That’s what is clear with this earliest use of “gospel”. Then it comes to be used particularly for the four Gospels, then of course it gets supplied to a wider group, and nowadays, people can have a whole list of so-called gospels; but actually, they often don’t have very much in common. Sometimes some 20th century scholar has called something a gospel, that’s the only reason it’s accepted as a gospel. Sometimes there was a title in the 3rd or 4th century calling it a gospel or even the 2nd.
But what I’d say is the four Gospels do rather stand out in the sense that they have much more in common with each other than the other ones have. They are all narratives about Jesus which climax on His passion and which link Him very much to the Old Testament. That’s an area where the four Gospels stand out from other so-called gospels. The amount to which they’re saying, ‘This is the good news, that we have the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy’. They’re Jewish gospels.
BA: When it comes to the authorship of the Gospels, a lot of contemporary critics would want to dispute that we know who actually wrote them. They claim they were anonymous writings. Bart Ehrman, also a textual critic, would wanna say that they’re forgeries. So how do you go about determining authorship, and what case can be made for the traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
PW: Yeah, just that word, determining. I’d be a bit careful here. I mean, if that means to anyone “proving”, I’d want to say that often “proof” in that sort of sense doesn’t exist. But what we can say is that Mark and Luke, if it weren’t for the Gospels of Mark and Luke and the Book of Acts, would be nobodys. They would be people that people haven’t particularly heard of like Aphroditis or something like that. (Well, I know people have heard of Aphroditis, but a lot of people haven’t.) So that’s really what makes them well-known. So what motive is there for anyone to ascribe the Gospels to Mark and Luke if they’re not actually by Mark and Luke. Neither Mark or Luke claims to be an eyewitness. No one claims that they were eyewitnesses. So there isn’t much motivation in that ascription. Now of course, if they are by Mark and Luke, then that does give you a certain date range when these books could have been written. The have to be written during the lifetimes of people who were connected with Apostles.
With the case of Matthew and John, you can say there is a motive for people to ascribe them to Matthew and John, because they are part of The Twelve and eyewitnesses and so on. But in the case for John’s Gospel, the evidence for it being by John is particularly strong, because we have Irenaeus in the last part of the 2nd century, who clearly has the fourth Gospel in front of him, he quotes from it, there’s no doubt about that. Saying that it really was by the John who he’s only two steps removed from. He had met Polycarp, who had been a disciple of John, so he’s really quite close. That’s far better attestation than we have for a huge number of classical works whose authenticity we don’t doubt. So if you think about Plato and so on, it’s not that we have someone two steps away from Plato reading a bit of a title of one of Plato’s dialogs and saying, ‘And I have the book in front of me’, and it’s the same person. Actually, the way we work out classical authorship is a lot more based on imprints.
With Matthew’s Gospel, the evidence for it being by Matthew is not so strong. I mean, I still think it’s still fair when compared to many classical works, but clearly the author does know the land of Judea and Galilee and these sorts of things. He knows Jewish customs. He can’t just be someone far, far away with no knowledge of the Judaism of the land. Again, that’s another factor to be thought of.
BA: What about the idea of eyewitness testimony? Is there a good case to be made that the Gospels can be considered eyewitness testimony by people who were actually there?
PW: Well, I’d want to distinguish between Mark and Luke—who are not eyewitnesses; no one claims that they were—and Matthew and John. And also distinguish between something by an eyewitness and something based on an eyewitness testimony. So I think that there’s a general case that can be made. You can’t prove it in every case. That’s the Gospels based on testimony. I’ve got a lecture out on the Web that you can make a link to which talks about that.
Essentially, the case can be built up on a number of different aspects that they have familiarity with the time and place, the ministry of Jesus—whether it’s knowing the language, the geography, the plants, what people used to be called, the social stratification, things about the layout of Jerusalem. They clearly have a lot of familiarity, and you compare those with a number of other Gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip. We clearly have no such familiarity and that’s a very striking thing.
It’s actually quite hard to get hold of that information if you are making up a story living in Turkey or Greece or Italy. We at least have to say that these people were from the land or had information which came from the land of the ministry of Jesus. We can also say something about the time frame on which they’re writing; that is, we start seeing bits of the Gospels. For instance, Matthew’s Gospel being quoted by Ignatius in the early part of the 2nd century. It clearly has to exist before then. If Luke uses Mark, then Mark clearly has to exist before Luke, and so on. So we can say that the Gospels clearly have local knowledge that’s not the sort of thing that someone living in another country could have had, unless they had access to eyewitness testimony. Also, we can say that they weren’t living that far away from the events in time.
So I think a basic case can be made for the reliability of the information. That can be put a little bit more strongly if you have more time.
BA: Alright. Well, we’ll definitely link to your lectures online about the Gospels and eyewitness testimony. I wanna ask you about certain cultural differences that we can see when people are recording history: today versus how things were recorded, say, back in the 1st century. Are there certain conventions that you see there that are not common to us that would aid us in understanding how the Gospel authors meant to record their histories?
PW: Well, there are a couple of differences. One is I don’t think that they have the category of historical fiction that we now have, as in if you write historical fiction nowadays, you try and research your details very well, and make all of the framework historically accurate and then you make up a fictional story that weaves in between those historical details. They didn’t do that back then, didn’t feel the need to. That genre hadn’t really developed.
The other difference is that in terms of the way we would write a biography, the Gospels are pretty different. Mark and John don’t tell you about the early life of Jesus. Matthew and Luke give you a birth narrative. Luke gives you a little event that happened at age 12 for Jesus, but they have nothing in between. That really is quite surprising. People sometimes assume that because something isn’t mentioned, it’s not known about…the problem there is you take the end of John’s Gospel and it has no explanation for where Jesus goes after the events in John’s Gospel are finished. Does that mean that the people to whom it was written or the person by whom it was written had no idea about that? I don’t think so. It just means that you’ve come to the end of what you want to relate.
So they are somewhat different from us. Also on the issue of chronological ordering, I think there’s an ability to order according to topic rather than strict chronology that can happen under certain circumstances.
BA: I wonder if you can talk a bit about what an oral culture is and also how literate were people in the 1st century. How much of what they learn was actually memorized, for instance.
PW: Well, it’s very difficult to say. There’s a range of different views that one could take still within the framework of holding that the Gospels are reliable. You could go to the view based on rabbinic text, or based on some archaeological evidence that Allan Millard might talk about to say, ‘No people would walk around with wax tablets and take down the words of Jesus as they were said’, or one could try and emphasize how much it was an oral culture and people memorized.
I am relatively agnostic about these things. I would say that back in those days, people did read out loud. That means, of course, that even reading is much more oral. They don’t read silently. Because it’s harder to refer to a book, people do try to memorize what they can, so I think memories are good. We also know that the disciples’ job—disciples, that means “students”—their job as students of Rabbi Jesus was to learn everything that He said. So they do actually have a job to memorize what He’s saying. We see this happening in the Gospels where He’s just said something and then they’re debating what exactly He means. They are going over those words again. So it’s not that someone is just having to recall distantly what someone might have said 30 years ago, rather that person speaks and then those words are discussed, and that really does give you a solidity to the tradition. Of course, it also explains why you might have what looks like the same saying of Jesus in more than one form, because in that context where He’s teaching them and they are mulling over His words, and He’s then speaking in another place and some of those same words are being used and mulled over, we do have a situation in which there will be multiple authentic versions of more or less the same saying.
The other thing is there’s very interesting work done by M.C.A. McDonald in the University of Oxford. He’s been working on north Arabia, and on the basis of graffiti there and just the sheer number of names scratched on rocks, he’s trying to argue that people in that fairly remote area at the time would’ve had an extremely high literacy rate. He uses the phrase, “almost universal literacy”. That’s some interesting difference. That’s rather different from what is often thought about within classical scholarship. I’m agnostic as to which way that would go, but I just think it’s something for us to watch carefully.
But I do think the case based on internal evidence for the reliability of the Gospels can be made whether you take a high or low literacy rate.
BA: What about the time frame in which the Gospels were written? Some people would say, ‘Hey, these have been written decades after the events’, suggesting that their reliability as recorded history has been distorted, exaggerated, and so on. What are your thoughts on that as far as their time of writing?
PW: Well, I think I want to move away from the question of times, the question of generations. How many generations are the Gospel writers removed from the events? I want to say I see no evidence why they can’t all be first generation writers. When I look at the patterns of, say, the use of personal names, I think a strong argument can be made that these are first generation writers, because if you had had the story repeated many times in different places, you wouldn’t get the same correlation with exactly the sorts of names that Jewish men and women had for Palestine that we have within the Gospels. So I do think that we got this at an early stage. It may well be as Early Church tradition said that John wrote his Gospel towards the end of his life. So let’s say he wrote 60 years after the events. That’s perfectly possible. It doesn’t undermine the reliability unless he was seriously senile, but I do think John’s Gospel is a work of literary brilliance, not of someone who’s senile.
With something like Luke’s Gospel, Luke has to be written in the time frame of the life of someone who can travel around the Mediterranean with Paul. What we see in the Book of Acts is the author in those “we” sections when he says, ‘We did this’, really seems to have a lot of local knowledge. Now how can that be gained other than by someone doing that trip? So if you say it wasn’t by someone who wasn’t a companion of Paul, then you’d almost have to have someone funding a similar trip 20, 30 years later in order to go and write a fictional narrative, and that doesn’t really make much sense. So if we say that Luke was active in the 50s and 60s, then it’s not particularly natural to say, ‘And his literary activity was in the 80s and 90s’. I mean it’s possible, but I think it’s more natural to put it earlier. If Luke uses Mark, then that puts Mark somewhat earlier. I would want to say I don’t think the gap is very big. Any numbers that you see in study Bibles or textbooks giving you the date of a Gospel are made up by scholars. We don’t have firm evidence for them, but I do think that we can say that these are able to be 1st generation documents. They are not very removed from events.
The other thing I want to say is that often the way the question is phrased is that the burden of proof is on someone to prove that it’s a first generation, authentic document; and provided there’s any gap at all between Jesus and the records, people make the assumption ‘Well, it all could’ve changed’. The problem with that is you could almost never disprove that something could’ve changed. You can have a photo of Moses coming down the mountain with the tablets of God in his hand, and you couldn’t prove it hadn’t just changed before he came around the corner. So I do think that puts the burden of proof in the wrong place.
Also, historically, it’s rather dubious. If, for instance, we went back three or four hundred years, our records of Early Christianity weren’t anything like as good as they are now, and the gap was even bigger between when the latest date for any of the Gospels and the accounts of Jesus. You could always make the case, ‘We don’t have any manuscripts from the first few hundred years, therefore the Gospels might be really late. They might be 3rd, 4th century. The gaps are really big.’ But of course, the gap gets smaller as we study more. So to say, ‘There is some gap, therefore, the Christian case is unreasonable’ doesn’t seem to me the right way of going about things.
BA: Alright. Well, if critics don’t find fault with authorship or dating or transmission of the texts, sometimes they’ll cite apparent Bible contradictions. From the viewpoint of historical assessment and text criticism, how do you approach some of these apparent contradictions?
PW: Well, I think there are two different ways of approaching this. Firstly, of course, if someone does show that a historical source is factually wrong in one point, that doesn’t prove them to be factually wrong in all points or generally unreliable. That could be a point that can be made. However, within the framework of maintaining the truth of the Scriptures, do these sorts of things challenge that?
Well, what I’d say is often what people talk about as contradictions are actually contradictions in a formal sense. We need to make a distinction between a formal contradiction and something that can’t possibly be true. So if someone asks me my opinion on something and I say, ‘Well, yes and no’. I just used a formal contradiction, but my “yes” is qualified by one thing, my “no” is qualified by another, even if I haven’t made those explicit. So every time you drop out footnotes and qualifiers and those sorts of things, you end up with formal contradictions in a text. Does that mean that the text is not true or isn’t coherent? I don’t think so at all.
So back in those days, well, Aristotle had been around for a few hundred years, but people didn’t use technical vocabulary. That means they used words in more than one meaning. That’s a great invitation to have formal contradictions in your text. You have writers of Gospels who weren’t colluding with each other and, therefore, sometimes seeing things from different angles. That’s another opportunity to have a conflict arise. Does that mean that these people aren’t speaking what is the truth if you’d just allow them some of the room of convention at the time? I don’t think so.
The other thing I’d say is if you go to John’s Gospel, you can have some very interesting things where clearly John is wanting there to be contradictions. I mean a famous one, I suppose, if you take John 3:16: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” and you contrast that with what you have in 1 John 2, where it says, “Do not love the world or what is in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father isn’t in him.” Well, of course, we know the Father wouldn’t do something like love the world, would He? There it’s using the same language in two opposite ways, and of course, we can say, ‘Well, of course, it’s using the word, love, differently. It’s using the word, world, differently.’
Now you go to John’s Gospel and you find out that in John 2:23, it says, “Many people saw the signs and believed”, and then we have John 12:37, “Though He’d done so many signs, they didn’t believe in Him”. Jesus says things like, “You know where I come from”. In John 8:14, He says, “You don’t know where I come from”. There are these sorts of things which are going on all the time. “If I bear witness about myself, my work isn’t true” and then on another occasion, He says, “and even if I do bear witness about myself, my witness is true”. Does He judge? Did He come to judge the world? You just look at John 12:47, John 3:17 that He didn’t come to judge the world, and then John 9:37, He says, “For judgment I came into the world”. So what these are is they are formal contradictions, and they’re clearly there to make the readers think more deeply.
So I think sometimes, what happens is apologists and Christians wanna say, ‘Oh, there are no contradictions in the Bible’ and in doing so, they are almost setting up a very easy target, because all that someone has to do is show what looks like, to any ordinary person, a contradiction, and then they have to say, ‘Oh, actually I don’t mean that sort of contradiction. No, that sort of contradiction is allowed. What I mean is something else.’
So I would prefer to say, let’s go back to basics. What do Christians maintain? They maintain that Scripture is true. So that’s a good word. We know that truth can’t be broad. It doesn’t give you an excuse to be picky when that isn’t someone’s intention. You really have to look at the intention of a document as you judge these things.
BA: Well, I think that’s really helpful. Thank you for that, Peter.
I wonder if we’re talking about contradictions if you could say there’s a toughest one or do any of these sorts of contradictions that we find or difficulties change or invalidate any sort of picture of Jesus within the Bible?
PW: You could have certain things which would be really impossible to reconcile. If you had one source saying that Jesus was born in the time of Julius Caesar, and another time saying he was born in the reign of Tiberius; you know, you can’t fit these things together. If you had Him being born in Bethlehem, and Him being born in Egypt, that’s not compatible. And we don’t have those sorts of defeaters across Scriptures.
Tough things could be the resurrection narratives where you got a number of differences. Of course, showing independence of the narratives, but you ask the questions such as, ‘Did Mary Magdalene hear about the resurrection from angels before she met Jesus as you might think of Matthew’s Gospel, or did she meet Jesus and what’s the relationship between that and the people running to the tomb which we have in both Luke and John? Those are difficult issues, but I do think when you take into account the way that people were writing in the conventions that some of those issues are solved. I often use John as a chronological backbone which surprises people, but actually John’s more chronologically precise than the other Gospels. I find that when you do that, I often find that things fit in reasonably well.
BA: Shifting gears slightly, you mentioned earlier how apologists will take certain approaches that might be helpful for the moment, but they could dig themselves into a hole later. Are there common errors or no-nos that you encounter that you’d want to correct as it relates to defending the reliability of the Gospels?
PW: I think we often tend to fail on the very basic things like where the burden of proof lies, the amount of evidence, and so on. So people can say things like, ‘Jesus is better attested than Julius Caesar’ and try and play what’s called “top trumps”, you know, where you start saying, ‘My car has a faster top speed than your car’. That sort of comparison. That’s not a good thing, and I think people do that with manuscripts. They say, ‘We’ve got more manuscripts of our holy book than someone else has of their holy book’. That just doesn’t work at all, and the reason why is there are more copies of yesterday’s newspaper than there are earlier manuscripts of the Bible. The text of yesterday’s newspaper is less in dispute, and so on. So playing top trumps isn’t the way to do things.
What’s more, we can say that in presenting in that sort of comparative way, it’s faulty. It begins with F.F. Bruce who doesn’t get it wrong. He compares the number of manuscripts we have of the New Testament with those we have on classical works. The structure of his argument is to say, ‘Well, people accept the validity of classical works, therefore, by consistency (to be consistent), they should accept the validity of the New Testament, because it’s got far better attestation’. That’s to work from a premise that people already accepted—namely, the classical works are broadly correctly transmitted—to establish another premise. That’s very different from saying, ‘The New Testament is better than the classical works ’cause it has more manuscripts’, because that isn’t involved in establishing premises at all.
Another that we can do is we can try and set too high an expectation for the amount of evidence that there could be. Clearly, there could be more evidence for Christianity than there actually is. I mean, at the Second Coming, there will be more evidence than there actually is. God could’ve given more evidence than He has. He could have made Himself clearer with writings in the sky and so on. So what we have to do is we gotta maintain a balance. You’ve got the fides who sort of claim that you don’t really need evidence. That’s wrong. No, we say that there is evidence, and it’s significant evidence. It’s substantial evidence that makes people who come across it morally responsible.We need to respond to it. But it’s not an evidence so overwhelming that it cannot be denied if someone chooses to deny it. So it’s working out exactly that sort of balance between those two extremes. That’s an important thing that we need to get right.
Sometimes people insist that we should be able to prove something when we don’t need to do anything of the sort. I would often want to ask people when they’ve come up with an alternative scenario where it says Christianity isn’t true. Can they prove that? And the answer is, of course, they can’t.
So I’d say watching out for those very basic parameters is important.
BA: One of your areas that you’re competent to speak to is some of the moral objections that we find people have towards events in the Old Testament. I wanna ask about how people compare that picture of Jesus that we find in the Gospels compared to the God we find in the Old Testament. For instance, they’ll say, ‘Well, Jesus is loving in the New Testament, but God is vengeful and wrathful in the Old.’ And we’ve all heard of Dawkins’s assessment of the Old Testament God where he lists every word in the thesaurus to tell us just how bad the Old Testament God is. You’ve encountered this objection before. Can you give a few overarching principles that should be taken into consideration when we’re comparing the “wrathful” God of the Old Testament with the loving Jesus of the New.
PW: Well, I think Dawkins is right. You can’t say that the New Testament is better than the Old. Jesus speaks a lot about judgments, so I would not want to have that sort of contrast. What I would says is people often don’t take the whole of the Old Testament story into account. The danger of atheists when they read the Old Testament is they say, ‘Well, I don’t believe in God’, and so they basically cut Him out of the narrative. And so they read the Book of Joshua as a story of a commander going in and destroying a whole load of people. The problem is about that—it’s that God is actually the biggest character in the narrative, so to do that is a bit like judging the Odyssey without Odysseus. You can’t judge the morality of text in the Old Testament without factoring in that according to the story, God had made all of these people, had made everything good, and told the first people what they should and shouldn’t do and so on, and this is all in that framework.
What’s more, it’s not that He whispers in someone’s ear and tells them to go destroy people. Actually this is done with a huge amount of evidence that this really comes from Him. So you have to divide the question about morality and the destruction of the Canaanites into, (1)Was it legitimate for the character, God, as portrayed in the Old Testament to order those things? and (2) If there had been such a character as God in the Old Testament and He really had told Joshua to do that sort of thing, would it have been moral for Joshua to obey? Those are the two questions about the morality of the narrative. Whether it’s true historically, whether there’s a God, and so on can be bracketed off from the question of the morality of the narrative. When people do that, you’ll see actually the narrative is very, very different from all sorts of things that people draw parallels with in terms of modern terrorism and genocide in Rwanda, and so on. It’s just a completely different thing.
BA: Sometimes I get the sense that sometimes these are not reasons why people reject God, but these are things that people go back and grab and use to justify their rejection of God, in a sense. I’m wondering, though, about whether the real punch from these sorts of objections comes from a rhetorical power of a quick God-is-evil-look-at-what-He-commanded sort of objection. Of course, in order to answer that, it takes 20 minutes maybe of a history lesson, but I wonder what sort of advice you can give as far as addressing these things where someone’s tied a bunch of knots but does take a lot of time to untie them.
PW: I think we find that when Jesus answers questions in the Gospels, He’s very interested in asking for commitment. He’s not interested in answering questions without there being a commitment on the part of the other person; and so what we can do when people have these questions is we can ask, ‘Is this your most serious question?’, ‘Is this your hardest question?’ and so on. ‘What would you do if I answer this? What would a good answer look like?’ And I think sometimes we can cut through the fog if we try and state firstly, what our commitment is with the person we’re talking with and asking what their commitment is to the conversation. These people really have an almost infinite list of objections. They have no intention of ever going to the end. Then quite frankly, they’re wasting your time, and you could wish them well, but ask them how they’re doing and off to pray for them, but I don’t see the point in continuing the argument.
BA: When you’re hearing these kinds of objections, say, about the slaughter of the Canaanites, and you do wanna give a good answer but you don’t have time for an extended answer, is there a way to responsibly address them in a practical, just conversation where someone really is concerned about reconciling these things?
PW: Well, if they’re really concerned, then it’s worth taking the time. If they’re really concerned, then they will give you the time. So if someone has an objection, let them do the talking, so you say, ‘Well, that’s an interesting objection, can you tell me more? What do you think exactly the objection consists in? What do you think Joshua should’ve done?’ You know, and so on. So I think what you could do is you can try to get them, in a sense, to commit their ideas.
Sometimes I might lay a trap, making sure they know it’s a trap, so that they have time to think about not stepping into it, but you could ask a question like, ‘So you’re saying the Canaanites didn’t deserve any punishment at all?’ or ‘So are you saying that no one could ever be authorized to take an innocent being’s life?’ And they might just hesitate before they say that because, of course, you only have to come back with one exception and things are rather are changed. An example of that could be 9/11—the scrambling of jets in order to set the plane that was flying and eventually crashed over Pennsylvania. Would we have held a president responsible if he had orders to shoot down such a jet if it really had been heading towards a much more populous area? I don’t think that we would, so there are cases like that and philosophers can debate about some of these and ethicists about these cases, but often people can assume that their moral intuitions are one thing and they can be challenged on that.
BA: Well, objectors will bring up things that they have moral issues with with God, especially in the Old Testament. I wonder, are we in a place to hold God in certain moral standards in the same way that we would one another?
PW: What I would want to say is God is not arbitrary, and God makes certain commitments. His promise to hold to His Word. To hold to His covenant is unbreakable. The phrase, “to hold God to something”, might be a bit presumptuous; although, you could say that there were figures in the Bible that do hold God to His promises.
God can’t do absolutely everything. He cannot lie. He can’t make a god bigger than Himself. You know, He can’t make Himself not exist. He can’t make Himself evil. There are sorts of things—in fact, an infinite number of things, that God can’t do. So we do have to define what we mean by God and also by His omnipotence. Often people misunderstand that—to think that means God can absolutely do everything that they might think of—and that’s not how God is revealed in the Scriptures. God can do everything that is good. God can do everything that He wishes to do, so He’s completely capable, but we do need to make sure people understand that—the idea that God isn’t mean and arbitrary. He can, therefore, be looked at within the light of His own standards.
The Euthyphro dilemma is, of course, the question of whether gods define what is holy or what is holy is independent of them; and that’s been put sometimes as an objection to Christian morality. Is it above God, a standard to which He has to conform or is it something that He arbitrarily chooses? The answer is neither. True morality is an expression of God’s character, so it’s not separate from Him, above Him. It’s not arbitrary and below Him. It’s something that just comes naturally forth from who He is.
BA: Shifting gears, Peter, as we are on our homestretch here, I’d like to ask you if you might expound a bit on your own philosophy when you’re approaching the Scriptures, defending them, and approaching apologetic issues that are common.
PW: Bear in mind the whole questions of salvation that we’re dealing with; that is, what we’re looking to do with apologetics is we’re not believing that we can produce lots of evidence which is gained to save people. Know that that’s the work of God’s Holy Spirit. We need to be faithful in witness. I do think God uses His Word to save. Faith comes through hearing, hearing through the Word of God; therefore, our aim as apologists is not to get in the way of God’s Word—in fact, to remove obstacles in order for people to have an encounter with God’s Word. That’s why I think the balance of using majority internal evidence-minority external evidence is good. It gets people into God’s Word in earlier stage and I think often that when people read that, they see whether through analysis or without analysis, they see that it truly is trustworthy, and that’s on the basis of the internal evidence, whether they know it or not.
BA: What kind of advice would you give to those who are listening who overall just wanna be better defenders of the faith?
PW: Well, I think you gotta be very honest. Face difficulties. If there’s something you’ve been defeated on, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, and people will respect that. I think if you say, ‘I don’t know but you know what, I’m gonna read up about that this week and I’m gonna report to you next time we meet’, if that’s the sort of relationship you’re in, then people will be happy for you to do that.
Be careful you don’t take too much of the burden of proof, that you are not lazy, but also equally that you’re not running around doing all of the legwork when someone else is just simply throwing idle questions at you and has no intention of reading or researching anything on the subject. Stick within your competence. You can get into quite a complex area like historical apologetics, provided you don’t get tempted to go to the point of thinking that you think you can answer every question. You can’t.
BA: Well, that’s great advice, Peter. As we wrap up, I wondered if you could point us to further resources maybe online or from Tyndale House that might be helpful for our listeners.
PW: We got some resources on www.bibleandchurch.com. We got some DVDs, some videos on the Tyndale House website. I haven’t written a popular book yet, though, lots of people tell me I should, so I’d like my next book to be a technical book on manuscript of the Bible in Aramaic. People might want more resources, but really as apologists, we need to spend a lot of time digging deep and doing thorough research, because there are lots of new arguments out there. We’re surrounded by mountains of new arguments that we haven’t really explored, so that’s what we should go on to do.
BA: Well, very good. Peter, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today. Thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
PW: It’s been great for me, too. Thanks.