Validity of Gospel Accounts
Bradley Bowen of Secular Outpost, argues William Lane Craig can't prove that Jesus died on the cross. His ultimate goal is to negate Craig's proofs of the resurrection, he does that by arguing that there is no proof that Jesus died on the cross. No death = no resurrection. There's a secondary issue of interpreting a Bible scholar whose works we used at Perkins (Luke Timothy Johnson), I'll deal with that in part 2. My point here is to argue that Jesus' death on the cross is well warranted for belief. That is the only point with which I will concern myself. Moreover, I will not defend Craig but come at it from my own perspective.
Bowen points out that Craig assumes that scholarly acceptance (of Jesus' death) proves the evidence for it is strong. He then argues that this is not proof that the evidence is strong, he then argues that Funk and Johnson doubt it. He uses them to leverage the idea that there are a lot more doubters of that point than Craig knows.  I doubt that that Craig doesn't know that, he studied with Ernst Kasemann who was a student of Rudolph Bultman and a major liberal himself. Kaemann also believed in the resurrection. (I will argue to defend Johnson in part 2). First, he's right, scholarly consensus as a whole is not "proof" of anything. Come to that I don't argue proof even in terms of God arguments. I do argue that the historical evidence is strong enough to warrant belief in the Res. While scholarly consensus doesn't prove the evidence is strong it is anindication. There is more important evidence and I'm abouit to get into it.
He then uses Johnson and Funk against Craig's assumption of "Historical fact" that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter morning." He specifically argues that the probability of a claim is relative to the information and assumptions one takes to it. Of course that's true but the evidence is not bound up in Funk and Johnson. First they are opposed to each other. Johnson wrote against the Jesus Seminar. Funk was a major member of the Jesus seminar.They make different assumptions. Nor does Bowen deal with all the evidence. The probability of an argument being true is also effected by using the right evidence or ignoring major portions of it. I will get to that presently.
Again he uses Johnson as though he were really opposed to the Bible. As I say above I will define Johnson in my own reading latter. I'm going for the the larger point here.
First of all, the typical Evangelical Christian will think that the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and death of Jesus are sufficient to prove that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross. But Johnson would not agree with this assumption, because he has a more skeptical view about the historical reliability of the Gospels. Johnson compares the Gospel accounts about Jesus with the accounts that we have of Socrates, and he finds the Gospels to be more questionable and problematic than the accounts we have of Socrates:.
I don't deal in "proof." The evidence warrants belief it is not proof. Proof would mean all must give ascent. Warrant means one is justified rationally in inferring a conclusion. I can be justified in faith and the skeptic not be compelled to join me. The proving is not strong but the warrant is. Secondly Bowen seems to make a neat dichotomy writing off all "evangelical scholars" by the use of all liberal scholars whom he sees as skeptical, so it appears, although I may be wrong. He brought Funk and Johnson into it because Craig used them in his example to Bowen. Major liberals such as Kasemann and Moltmann accept the resurrection, Crosson says the Gospels are enough to accept that the belief of the early church was in the Resurrection.
The problems facing the seeker of the historical Jesus are even more severe [than the problems facing the seeker of the historical Socrates]. Although the biographies of Jesus…were composed within forty to sixty years of Jesus’ death, that is still greater than the memoirs about Socrates composed by Xenophon and Plato. Socrates, furthermore, was remembered by disciples who were longtime companions and eyewitnesses. Although the Gospels undoubtedly bear within them evidence of firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses, such material is not identified as such, and the narratives as a whole were most probably composed by authors of the generation after that of Jesus’ immediate followers.
First he speaks of the gospel's as biography. NT scholars don't really think of them that way. They are their own unique genre. The expectations are different. They are sermonic not illustrative or historical, although much in them can be verified historically. Secondly, they are the memory of the community. I address the time differential between event and writing below. Bowen's statement vastly under estimates the role and extent of eyewitness testimony lying behind the communities. The community is the author not the namesakes. It was Johnson who first taught me that (through his bookThe New Testament Writings).I don't have that source now but I do have a quote by the same author from a different book that makes the same point:
"...Non narrative New Testament writings datable with some degree of probability before the year 70 testify to traditions circulating within the Christian movement concerning Jesus that correspond to important points within the Gospel narratives. Such traditions do not, by themselves, demonstrate historicity. But they demonstrate that memoires about Jesus were in fairly wide circulation. This makes it less likely that the corresponding points within the Gospels were the invention of a single author. If that were the case than such invention would have to be early enough and authoritative enough to have been distributed and unchallenged across the diverse communities with which Paul dealt. Such an hypothesis of course would work against the premise that Paul's form of Christianity had little to do with those shaping the memory of Jesus.".
There is little doubt that the community is laced with and started by the witnesses. Two of them show up being nammed 50 years latter by Papias(?) There are witnesses at all different levels. The witnesses do not have to be the name sakes. Johnson is right that we can't say witness X saw Jesus here and joined the Matthew community on August second, 37AD. We do know the communities were full of witnesses and they show up here and there. The personal relationships that emerges in John between Jesus and the family of Bethany, for example. How do we know they were in the community? Lazarus was said to be loved by Jesus, he's a good candidate for BD of john's Gospel. The story of Mary of Bethany anjounting Jesus is in all four Gospels that's a good indication. Buckingham makes extensive arguments along these lines..He also argues based upon names that the gospels are replete with eye witness testimony..
They were a real community. The Christian community began out of the mundane community of Bethany. At the end of Luke the risen Christ walks through the streets of the Little town where his dear friends lived. That not only links the eye witnesses of John to the Gospel of Luke but it also sets up a logic for the communal structure. Then when they moved in and had things in common many of them had known each other all their lives anyway, That could be the 500 Paul referred to as witnesses:
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. 43 Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46 And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added those being saved to them.
What were they doing in the commune? teaching and studying. That means telling their oral tradition. We all know the Gospel material was first oral tradition. Most people think oral tradition means wild rumors floating around at random, it is not so. Oral tradition is more like the Bardic tradition where a Bard such as Homer will memorize huge discourses the size of the New York phone book and spit them back word for word. I don't know if first century Jews could do that but they did have an oral tradition. They did have a practice of learning the teachers words and echoing them back. They probably told them orally before the group and with the witnesses present. How do I know that? That's how the Talmud got going. That's why the early church lived communally. They studied scripture together every day and it just stands to reason they would listen to the witnesses talk in front of the group. Of course the witnesses would correct mistakes. That's obvious, why doubt it?
As Stephn Neil said:
"No one is likely to deny that a tradition that is being handed on by word of mouth is likely to undergo modification. This is bound to happen, unless the tradition has been rigidly formulated and has been learned with careful safeguard against the intrusion of error" Tradition was controlled....[Neil adds in a fn:] "This is exactly the way in which the tradition was handed on among the Jews. IT is precisely on this ground that Scandinavian scholar H. Risenfeld in an essay entitled "The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings" (1957) has passed some rather severe strictures on the form cuticle method. 
As N.T. Wright tells us:
Communities that live in an oral culture tend to be story-telling communities. They sit around in long evenings telling and listening to stories--the same stories, over and over again. Such stories, especially when they are involved with memorable happenings that have determined in some way the existence and life of the particular group in question, acquire a fairly fixed form, down to precise phraseology (in narrative as well as in recorded speech), extremely early in their life--often within a day or so of the original incident taking place. They retain that form, and phraseology, as long as they are told. Each village and community has its recognized storytellers, the accredited bearers of its traditions; but the whole community knows the stories by heart, and if the teller varies them even slightly they will let him know in no uncertain terms. This matters quite a lot in cultures where, to this day, the desire to avoid 'shame' is a powerful motivation. 
Bowen demands an exactitude one should not seek in history.
If we knew that half of the information in a particular Gospel was based on “firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses”, then we might infer that at least half of the events or details in the Gospel were historically reliable (although without knowing anything about the personality, character, history, mental health and intelligence of the persons who were the supposed eyewitnesses, this would be a questionable inference), but since we don’t know which events or details have such backing, it would be the toss of a coin as to whether a given event or detail had such eyewitness evidence behind it. But we don’t even know this much. We don’t know whether 10% of the events and details of a particular Gospel are based on “firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses” or whether 30% or 50% or 70% of events and details are based on such evidence. Thus, the weak concession that Johnson makes here is of little significance.
That's a standard misconception about the nature of Biblical criticism and its a standard historians don't use. No historian tries to quantify the percentage of truth in a document. I realize Bowen is saying that metaphorically. He is right that we can't look at the Gospels as history books. But historical critical methods are better than just assuming that we can't know anything. He says we don't know 10% and that's ludicrous. We know much more than that. If we could quantify it, it would probably be more than 50%. Yet the idea is foolish. The apostolic father's truth tree gives us more than that. The concerns he raises about the pitfalls of not knowing the exact authors are just standard atheist message board reasoning that historians and scholars don't do. Moreover, when he says, "without knowing anything about the personality, character, history, mental health and intelligence of the persons" (previous quote) that really assumes one author thinking. The community is the author not one guy. Some may have been insane but not all. It's a community witness. We do know that apostles and eye witnesses had a closer link than that. It's not just a guy decided to write down the rumors. It was told carefully with the witnesses present and the original attempts at writing are done by witnesses.
Bowen says, "According to Johnson, the Gospels were NOT written by “disciples who were longtime companions and eyewitnesses” of the life or death of Jesus."
Johnson allows that the authors of the Gospels might well have used some information from “firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses”, but he points out that we don’t know when they are doing so. He does not say that in order to promote unbelief or to erode confidence in the text. Let's look at what else he says:
As I have tried to show, the character of the Gospel narratives does not allow a fully satisfying reconstruction of Jesus ministry. Nevertheless certain fundamental points when taken together with confirming lines of convergence from outside testimony and non-narrative New Testament evidence, can be regarded as historical with a high degree of probability. Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate, and continued to have followers after his death. These assertions are not mathematically or metaphysically certain, for certainty is not within the reach of history. But they enjoy a very high level of probability."
The important thing I took away from the book, The real Jesus, was (aside from the Jesus seminar sux) is an argument I've been making since the book came out. Namely, there are several different trajectories from which attestations to Jesus' career come to us. Some of them include the Gospels and new testament but not at all. I will not have time to lay all of that out but I don't have to because I've already done it. This is not the exact "trajectories" Johnson uses but the concept is one I learned from his book then did more research. I will give a basic outline then link to those pages on my site.
8 levels of verification click the link to documentation for each point in the outline.
1 pre mark redaction
2 P)auline corpus
....(a) what he got form people who were there
Quoting Paul himself: quotes James, the Jerusalem church's creedal formula and hymns.
....(b) his saying source.
synoptic saying source
........(c) the chruch tradition he learned in Jerusalem
3 extra canonical gospels
4 Oral Tradition
5 The Four Gospels themselves
6 Writers who write about their relationships with Apostles
Six major sources enumerated but 8 counting three levels of Paul's writings.
see these points fleshed out with quotations on my page: "Gospel Behind The Gospels", also,"Historical Validity of the Gospels Part 1"
So the mechanisms were in place to spread the word and control the telling according to eye witness testimony. Of course I'm not saying that happened. It did not. The communities began to proliferate, doctrinal differences developed, new communities sprang up, people got the story in bits and pieces. yet in all of that there is only one story of Jesus' death. It was established in the beginning that he died on the cross and that's the way it stayed. No other version ever came along. Even when Gnostics denied his death they still explained what appeared to be the crucifixion. Why? Because it probably really happened and everyone knew it.
In fact out of 34 Gospels found in whole or in fragment (about four theoretical such as Q) not one of them has any other death for Jesus but the cross..
The Gospel of the Saviour, too. fits this description. Contrary' to popular opinion, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not included in the canon simply because they were the earliest gospels or because they were eyewitness accounts. Some non canonical gospels are dated roughly to the same period, and the canonical gospels and other early Christian accounts appear to rely on earlier reports. Thus, as far as the physical evidence is concerned, the canonical gospels do not take precedence over the noncanonical gospels (in terms of history--they do in doctrine). The fragments of John, Thomas and the Egerton Gospel share the distinction of being the earliest extant pieces of Christian writing known. And although the existing manuscript evidence for Thomas dates to the mid-second century, the scholars who first published the Greek fragments held open the possibility that it was actually composed in the first century, which would put it around the time John was composed.
Ray Brown proved that the Gospel of Peter followed a tradition independent of the canonicals that dated to first century. GPete as it's called has Jesus die on the cross. It also has guards on the tomb. Not derived from Matthew. Independent tradition. Moreover, The versions we have of the canonical Gospels are only the final versions. There are older readings that can be traced to the first century even though they show up in latter copies. These early readings indicate a shared narrative used by the four canonicals and GPete. That much is fairly standard now. Koester, Rossson and several others date that "pre Mark Passion narrative" at mid first century. Jurgen Denker argues that the Gospel of Peter shares this tradition of OT quotation with the Canonicals but is not dependent upon them. Koester writes, "John Dominic Crosson has gone further [than Denker]...he argues that this activity results in the composition of a literary document at a very early date i.e. in the middle of the First century CE" (Ibid). Said another way, the interpretation of Scripture as the formation of the passion narrative became an independent document, a ur-Gospel, as early as the middle of the first century.(empahsis mine). The crucifixion of Jesus was circulating in oral testimony before it was written about, but it was written as early as just 20 years after the events, when there were still a lot of witnesses left. The witnesses weren't just running around unnoted and alone, they were living in the communities and teaching the gospel. Everyone agreed Jesus was executed and on a cross and one denied it. Hundreds of documents no counter claims.
We have every reason to believe Jesus was crucified. The Romans were not slackers about crucifixion. The inference is warranted that Jesus died on the cross. That is not proof. We don't need proof. The belief is warranted. That still leaves the possibility that Jesus was crucified but didn't die. As I say the Romans were not slackers in such matters. The Passover plot kind of scenario is, in my opinion, an extraordinary claim, we all know what atheists do with those. They can't prove that either. Maybe it undermines the big William Craig style apologetic. I guess my next move is to discuss the nature of apologetics.
 Bradley Bowen, "Response to Dr. William Lane Craig part 2" Secular out Post, (Nov 4 2015) URLhttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2015/11/04/response-to-dr-william-lane-craig-part-2/
 the real Jesus
 Bradley Bowen, "Response to Dr. William Lane Craig part 3" Secular out Post,http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2015/11/12/response-to-william-lane-craig-part-3/#disqus_thread
 Johnson,The Real Jesus,San Francisco: Harper, 1996, 1st paperback edition, 107, quoted in Bowen part 3.op cit
Ibid. first hard back ed. 121  Papias quoted in Documents of the Christian Church, edited by Henry Bettonson, Oxford University press, 1963, 27.
very famous quotation:
"I shall not hesitate to set down for you along with my interpretations all things which I learned from the elders with care and recorded with care, being well assured of their truth. For unlike most men, I took pleasure not in those that have much to say but in those that preach the truth, not in those that record strange precepts but in those who record such precepts as were given to the faith by the Lord and are derived from truth itself. Besides if ever any man came who had been a follower of the elders, I would inquire about the sayings of the elders; what Andrew said, or Peter or Philip or Thomas, or James, or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord's disciples; and what Aristion says, and John the Elder, who are disciples of the Lord. For I did not consider that I got so much from the content of books as from the utterances of living and abiding voices..."
 Richard Bu8ckingham, Jesus and The Eye Witnesses: The Gospels As Eye Witness Testimony, Grand-Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 2006, 39-40.
 Ibid 472
Stephen Neil, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1961, London: University of Oxford Press, 1964,250.
 N.T. Wright, "Five Gospels But No Gospel," Authenticating the Activities of Jesus,Netherlands Knoinklijke Brill ed. Bruce D. Chilton, Craig A. Evans, 1999, 112-113.
 Johnson, Real Jesus...op.cit.
 Charles W. Hendrick, "34 lost gospels," Bible Review, (June 2002): 20-31; 46-47
 Raymond Brown, Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave, A commentary on the Passionnarratives in the Four Gospels. Volume 2. New York: Dobuleday 1994 1322  Helmutt Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. Bloomsbury: T&T Clark, 1992, 218.