The Historicity of the Gospels–Can you trust the Bible?

Whilst at a Bible study on the Life of Jesus, a friend of ours recommended the book by former athiest and Chicago Tribune journalist Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (http://www.amazon.com/Case-Christ-Journalists-Personal-Investigation/dp/0310209307/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302372089&sr=1-1) Strobel is no light-weight thinker:  his Master’s degree is from Yale Law School and his contributions during his 13-year tenure at the Chicago Tribune often made front-page headlines, such as his report that broke the national news that Ford car manufacturers were aware of the possiblity of explosions if their car, the Pinto, was rear-ended (which explains why you can no longer find good deals on Pintos at used car lots!).  I was not even alive during the Pinto scandal and even *I* have heard of this.  In other words, like scholar C.S. Lewis, he is a person whose testimony carries some weight behind it.  He was not born a “cradle Christian” and his profession and personality was such that skepticism was a more natural inclination than belief.  The fact that he is now a Christian and a pastor at a large church outside of Chicago is enough to give one pause to wonder, “hmmm,” and to smile at God’s gracious mercy and sense of humor (much like the conversion of the Apostle Paul, who was literally called into faith by Jesus himself while he was on his way to kill yet more Christians).

Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, is anything but a dry read.  I’m still in the middle of it myself and can barely put it down.  What makes it interesting comes from his training as a journalist–unreserve in questioning his sources, looking critcially at the evidence, and then, once the facts have been established, constructing his arguments in engaging language.  Essentially, the book is divided into three sections in which Strobel talks with leading academic scholars specializing in the time period of the New Testmanet: Examining the Record (which is about the reliablitiy of the New Testament texts), Analyzing Jesus (which looks at Jesus’ claims to be God), and Researching the Resurrection (which criticlally examines evidence of a resurrection of Jesus).  Footnotes and sources are listed at the end of each chapter and in an appendix.

I actually thought that, if and when I have free time, I would continue updating this note with interesting tidbits as I continue my own reading–partly because I love to write and partly because Jesus’ question of “Who do you say that I am?” is as relevant now as when He first asked His Twelve Disciples 2000 years ago, and Pilate’s snide quip of “What is truth?” rings uncannily close to home in our current cultural climate of moral relativism.  I’ve generally found that far fewer Christians in our current age have a deep understanding of the Gospel, and even fewer non-Christians, so I’d like to do what I can to present the historical record as well as the Gospel that Jesus was who He claimed to be and did what He said He would do.  (Other good reads would be one of the leading Christian books of this year, Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: http://www.amazon.com/Christians-Hate-Filled-Hypocrites-Other-Youve/dp/0764207466/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1302365936&sr=8-1-spell and  The Jesus I Never Knew http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-I-Never-Knew/dp/031021923X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302372327&sr=1-1.)

In the first part of his book, Strobel asks the following questions to leading scholars of the New Testament period:  1. Can the Gospels–the biographies of Jesus–be trusted as sources? 2. Were the Gospel accounts reliably preserved and trasmitted? 3. Is there credible evidence for Jesus outside of the Gospel? 4. Does Archaeology confirm or contradict the Gospels? and 5. Is the Jesus of History the Same as the Jesus of Faith?

In the spirit of being upfront and forthright, I am only half-way through this first section myself, but I wanted to start writing about it for two reasons 1) I am very excited about this text, which I think is an excellent read, and 2) I have a chunk of time on the computer, which rarely happens.  In his dissection of the Gospel accounts, Strobel talks with Drs. Craig Blomberg, Bruce Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi, John McRay, and Gregory Boyd.  For specific details you will need to consult the text yourself, but some brief highlights of what I’ve read so far are the following:

a) Blomberg discusses that the New Testament books are not listed chronologically within the Christian cannon (meaning the New Testament of the Christian Bible).  Paul’s writings actually precede the Gospel accounts, which I thought very interesting because we actually get our theology mostly from Paul, not the Gospel narratives themselves.  This isn’t a conspiracy but rather a recognition of genre:  the Gospels were to be narratives of the life and teachings, and–even more importantly the death and resurrection (which account for 1/3 -1/2 of each Gospel, so these are the “main” events)– of Jesus whereas Paul’s writings were letters explaining the faith that had been handed down to him through the Twelve Disciples and the earliest followers of Jesus and Jesus Himself.  Paul’s writings can be dated to within a decade of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the Gospel of Mark, may have been written down as early as the late 50s, A.D.  As someone who has had some training in dealing with ancient source material, the proximity of the occurrence of the events and their recorded histories is amazing, especially for the ancient period in which orality was the primary means of dessimination.  For instance, the life of Alexander the Great was not written down until several centuries after his death, yet historians generally view this material as historically reliable.  With the Gospels we are talking a decade or two, and within a Jewish culture which was known for the accuracy of its memorizing abilities.  Rabbis, for instance, were known for memorizing the entire Old Testament word-for-word. And the Gospel writers’ listeners would most certainly have provided a check-and-balance system since many of them would have been alive during Jesus’ life and ministry.  If the oral account had been incorrect, it would have been checked and brought into alignment.  As an aside, one account from the Medieval period that has always interested me is the life of Joan of Arc.  It is interesting to me because we have incredible amounts of historical evidence that she was an unlearned peasant girl who was miraculously aided by God to become the Commander-in-Chief of the armies of France, and then by miraculous intervention led a successful campaign to begin the process of driving out the English armies occupying France.  We have accounts from her original trial transcripts and from the trial that was conducted soon after her death to prove that she was not either a heretic or a witch, and all of these have first-hand testimony in her behalf.  No historian doubts that Joan existed, or that the Holocaust happened (to insert a 20th-century parallel).  Joan of Arc cannot be explained by any sense of reasoning or logic, and yet we are taught about her life in every high school in America and Europe that I am aware of.  If we can accept this, then, why doubt the life of Jesus?

b) If it has been a while since you’ve even looked at the Gospels, I encourage you to visit Bible Gateway and look up the book of Mark: http://www.biblegateway.com/ .  One of the greatest testaments to the veracity of the Gospels is the fact that they include an incredible amount of detail (what Jesus ate, for instance) as well as embarrassing accounts of the Disciples that would normally have been edited out if there had been a conspiracy.  Throughout the Gospels, the Disciples are depicted as dull-witted, self-serving, and continually missing the point.  After Jesus’ death they had nothing to gain for “starting” a new religion.  In the compact Jewish community of ancient Palestine, they faced incredible persecution, exile, and death.  All but one of the original Disciples endured a horrific death, and by horrific, I mean crucifixion, being skinned alive, and decapitation.  This is not what happens when people want to gain from starting their own religion.  Not only that, but why start a new religion that has such exacting teachings, like those that equate lust with adultery or anger with murder?  If you look at the prophet Muhammad, for example, we have accounts from one of his wives who thought it quite convenient that he felt he should have more wives at the same time he received a divine revelation telling him to do so.  Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism (which most definitely does NOT proclaim the same Gospel as Christianity), benefitted in both power and in his own carnal desire when establishing his own faith, which at the time practiced polygamy and was an institutional spiritual hierarchy.  With both the Gospels and the Disciples themselves, you do not see any sense of selfishness or spiritual politics.  In the later non-cannonical apocryphal texts that author Dan Brown so likes to tantalize his readership with, you see a Jesus who 1) acts out of character from the way God is portrayed in any of the other Biblical accounts in both the Old Testament and the writings of Paul, as well as the Gospels, and 2) authorship that attempts to establish authority (such as the Gospel of Mary [Magdalene], a “big name” in Christian circles).  These texts were also written considerably later than the cannonical Gospels–by centuries!  In the original Gospels, only two are composed by Jesus’ original Disciples, and of those two (Matthew and John) Matthew was a tax-collector and would have been despised by his contemporaries.  Mark was written by John Mark who helped the Apostle Peter in his preaching, so a side-liner, and Luke was written by the Apostle Paul’s personal physician.  These are not “big” names that would attract a readership, which interestingly enough makes them all the more believable.

c) One of the more interesting points that Metzger discusses is that there are more than 5000 extant copies of the original New Testament in Greek.  He states, “The quantity of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity.  Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer’s Illiad, which was the Bible of the ancient Greeks.  There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today.  Some are quite fragmentary.  They come down to us from the second and thri century A.D. and following.  When you consider that Homer composed his epic about 800 B.C., you can see there’s a very lengthy gap.”  The plethora of extant manuscripts, meaning only those that happened by chance or by care to be preserved, is an incredible testament to the explosion of interest in the first centuries A.D. in Jesus, as well as the accuracy of consistency between the texts themselves.  (The Dead Sea scrolls are just as interesting for the Hebrew canon, and precede the latest extant copy of texts by a huge number of centuries, and agree nearly verbatim with the next extant copy that we have, which I *think*, if I remember properly, dates from around the 9th or 10th century A.D.)  Interesting stuff, huh?

So, since I have just had a phone call telling of the soon-expected arrival of my dear ones, I am leaving off here and hopefully will be able to continue more of this on another day.  Blessings!

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Karyn @ kloppenmum
    Apr 10, 2011 @ 04:33:49

    I would be very interested to hear what you think. I do worry about Paul though, he seems rather mysoginistic and much of what ‘the church’ teaches can lean toward Paulisms more than what Jesus said/did. The lost gospels are intriguing and I have an awesome book called, Jesus lived in India, which looks at his life between 12 and 30 and looks a little at the bits of the Bible which have been removed over time because of what some people in power wanted removed.

    Reply

    • Allison
      Apr 11, 2011 @ 10:31:07

      Hi, Karyn. I’d love to reply at length and will–when I have more than a few minutes because there’s a lot of interesting bits there. One of the things I love about the Case for Christ book is that it examines in depth the exact points that you bring up (actually, any Christian should be able to do the same, but so many people these days, Christian or not, seem uninclined to actually understand why they believe what they believe). One of the points that most modern people forget whenever they read or study history is that they are reading into these their own modern understandings and cultural ideologies. It is quite easy to dismiss Paul as a misogynist (this is based actually on the mis-readings of one verse in one of his epistles), and completely miss how egalitarian he actually was considering the patriarchal culture of which he was a part. Paul wrote both to and about women, acknowledges admiration for and friendship with women, and provides evidence that the early church had female leadership. Jesus is portrayed similarly in the Gospels. The fact that he would allow a bleeding woman to touch him was absolutely unthinkable, and then to draw attention to it before an entire crowd! That He had women followers and financial supporters, and appeared first after His resurrection to a woman–someone who could not even give legal testimony–was just unprecidented within Judaism of the period. The “lost gospels” are actually very silly books. I’ve read them. No serious New Testament scholar, Christian or not, gives them much weight. They are full of bizarre nonsense like talking crosses and Jesus killing off children. I call this nonsense because unlike the canoncial Gospels they have no basis in actual history (the Case for Christ actually looks at non-Biblical references to Jesus and archaeology of New Testament sites to examine the credibility of the Gospels). They come from a group of people called Gnostics, who believed that salvation came from knowing secret knowledge (a very un-Biblical stance to say the least!) and can easily be dated much later than the canonical New Testament by many centuries. In a later post, I can discuss this further–I’m very short on time at the moment–but I didn’t want to leave your comment completely hanging because, as I said, there’s some interesting things there that absolutely merit discussion. In the meantime, you may want to check out the links on this website that discusses many of the things you brought up. http://carm.org/ . Blessings to you!

      Reply

  2. Karyn @ kloppenmum
    Apr 11, 2011 @ 13:06:49

    “One of the points that most modern people forget whenever they read or study history is that they are reading into these their own modern understandings and cultural ideologies.”
    I really loved this line in your response, Allison. And I appreciate your response, I hadn’t heard about the aspects of the “lost gospels” that you mentioned – all very interesting.

    Reply

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