Sunday, January 1, 2012

Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

We have already stated in a previous blog post that our knowledge about God and reality rests upon the concurrence of three independent lines of evidence: nature, Scripture and conscience. Skeptics, however, have challenged all three. We have already devoted attention to the first, nature, involving science and evolution. What about the second, Scripture? In a recent comment on this blog Tildeb stated the objection this way: "All we really have is testimonials – often contradictory and out of sequence – in the form 'I know a guy who knew a guy who said he once knew of this guy who performed miracles.'" Making allowance for a certain amount of exaggeration on Tildeb's part, the statement does more or less reflect the thinking of modern critical scholarship on the issue. But is it true?

    Almost all of the information we have about the historical Jesus is contained in the four gospels of the New Testament. The "Gnostic gospels" of which we have heard so much about lately have little historical connection with First Century Palestine and are obvious attempts to recast Christianity in the mold of Greek philosophy.

    But how historically reliable are the four biblical gospels? Who wrote them, and how much did they know? The traditional view was stated by the Second Century church father Irenaeus, who tells us this: Matthew originally wrote his gospel in the language of the Hebrews (evidently either Hebrew or Aramaic). Mark wrote down what the apostle Peter had preached. Luke did the same with the Apostle Paul, and then finally John, a member of Jesus' inner circle, wrote his gospel. Thus while John gives us a firsthand eyewitness account, and Mark relates for us Peter's firsthand account, Luke is the careful third person historian, diligently gathering information and scrupulously weighing his sources, to give us a comprehensive biography of Jesus. Thus if the traditional accounting is correct, we are hardly dealing with hearsay evidence.

    All of this has been called into question in modern times, however. The chief stumbling block appears to be that all of the gospels record Jesus as performing miracles. Again, Tildeb states the objection. In order to believe the gospel accounts we have to suspend what we know about nature. Miracle do not happen; therefore the stories are implausible. The historical Jesus could not possible have done some of the things that He is reported to have done.

    How, then, did these stories get into the Bible? The modern critical answer is pretty much "I know a guy who knew a guy . . ." According to the modern critical reconstruction of events, the four gospels were written at a relatively late date by persons who were not eyewitnesses. Stories were handed down by word of mouth, and changed over time to meet the apologetic needs of the church.

    However, the methodology of the modern critics is questionable. They begin by subjecting the available evidence to intense scrutiny, and then conclude that it is either ambiguous or unreliable. One might suppose that this would leave us in a position of skepticism about the origins of the gospels, but surprisingly it does not. The critics go on to reconstruct the history of the gospels, relying very heavily on a subjective reading of the texts. But the reconstruction is mostly conjectural. What the critics have done, in effect, is to get rid of the evidence and replace it with speculation. O the marvels of modern scholarship!

    Ironically, confirmation of the traditional view comes from an unlikely source. One of the leading liberal theologians, Dr. John A. T. Robinson, published Redating the New Testament in 1976. Dr. Robinson was struck by the fact that not one of the New Testament writers mentions the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as a past event, which they almost certainly would have otherwise. Dr. Robinson went through and reexamined all of the evidence, and concluded that conservative scholars had largely been right all along. Most, at least, of the books of the New Testament had to have been written prior to A.D. 70.

    What the "I know a guy who knew a guy . . ." scenario overlooks is the role of the apostles in the transmission of information about Jesus. Jesus did not leave Himself without witnesses. He worked closely throughout His earthly ministry with a group of handpicked disciples. They saw Him alive after His crucifixion. The books that make up the New Testament are in the New Testament precisely because they were either written by apostles or by people who were closely associated with the apostles. The witnesses are so many, and they are so close in time to Jesus Himself, that they cannot possible all be wrong. Thus when we weight the evidence carefully and objectively, we are face to face with a crucified and risen Savior!




  1. What the critics have done, in effect, is to get rid of the evidence and replace it with speculation.

    The very best evidence on offer is the one least reliable: eyewitness accounts. Not only are eyewitness accounts highly unreliable in detail, the accounts themselves break the rules of physics. Usually, this is a pretty clear indication that we're being had, that we are witnessing something for which we do not have a good understanding. To then infuse these accounts that we know are unreliable AND are contrary to how reality operates with faith in favour of supporting our attributions for some supernatural causation means we have decided to reject the rules of reality we exist in and allowed a temporary suspension of these rules on the flimsiest of reasons - eyewitness testimony. This is why Hume argues successfully that:

    "When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should have really happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of the testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion."

    You then argue that The witnesses are so many, and they are so close in time to Jesus Himself, that they cannot possible all be wrong.

    Yes they can. And probably are. And we know this because we now understand the fixed rules of physics and chemistry and what effect they have on biological processes known as cellular decay. To believe these processes were magically suspended requires a faith greater than the reasonable probability that the witnesses are wrong in their conclusion.

    If god could suspend these fixed laws of nature to advertise his presence, then intervening on Jesus' behalf in that way at that time in that place under such obscure conditions is a terribly poor choice to convince anyone capable of critical thought. That's why when Bertram Russell was asked what he would say to God if he were to find himself confronted by the Almighty about why he had not believed in God's existence, he would tell god "Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence."

    Thus when we weight the evidence carefully and objectively, we are face to face with the extremely high probability that a crucified and risen Savior is obviously a fairytale!

  2. "Gerard Posner asserted in Case Closed (Random House, 1993) that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed John F. Kennedy. Witnesses, he wrote, often contradict each other.

    Posner footnote: "Human observation can be notoriously unreliable. A vivid example of the pitfall of relying exclusively on eyewitness testimony is that when the ocean liner Titanic sank in 1912, there were nearly seven hundred people watching it go down. The ship was almost nine hundred feet long, three football fields in size, yet the survivors were split as to whether it sank in one or two pieces." (It was two)."

    Eyewitness testimony is dangerously flawed. The human memory is fallible in all sorts of ways.
    And yes, lots of people can see something and be completely convinced of it and they can all be hopelessly wrong.

    Eyewitness Testimony Part 1

  3. The greatest obstacle to anyone believing that the FOUR gospels are historically reliable is the FOURTH gospel. Most people I think would be more willing to recognize the Synoptics as reliable, since they tend to agree. But John's gospel contradicts them not only theologically, but historically.

    1.) Theologically in that Jesus goes around giving soliloquies about being God, and that's all he does in John, whereas in the Synoptics he's more of a moralist (the sermon on the mount/plain) and parable spinner. There is nothing in the Synoptics anything like "I am the bread that came down from haven and unless you eat me you're all going to hell."

    2.) Historically. Jesus made all his disciples AFTER John B was cast in prison, according to the Synoptics, and he did this by the Sea of Galilee up North. In John, Jesus made all his disciples BEFORE John B was cast in prison, long before, and he did this down South by the Jordan River just a little ways downstream from where John was still baptizing. Can both be historical? Nope. And John loses, being the odd man out. And what of the good confession? Peter, in Matthew, rather late in the story, confesses Jesus as Christ and is told "Flesh and blood has NOT revealed this to you," while in John, in the very first or second chapter, Peter has it revealed to him by his flesh and blood brother, "We have found the Christ." Can both be historical? No. And John loses again as the odd man out. John, the gospel you need most to make Jesus into God, loses time and time again because he is in disagreement with the three Synoptics who at least were able to get their story straight.

  4. I haven't studied this particular problem in much detail, but I will make the following observations:
    1) As noted above, based on the testimony of the church fathers, I believe that the four gospels were written in the same order that we have them in our Bibles today. Thus I believe that Mark and Luke were both dependent on Matthew as their primary source. Mark would sometimes add details as he remembered them from Peter.
    2) John's gospel was undoubtedly written last. John was most likely aware of the existence of the synoptics, and generally avoids covering the same ground they did. He focuses on Jesus' Judean ministry, and the growing conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders there. John had a more intimate knowledge of the events than did any of the authors of the synoptics, and he sometimes adds detail or corrects misleading information contained in the other gospels.
    3) The four gospels agree on certain things: John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, Jesus called most of His disciples shortly afterward near the beginning of His public ministry, and Andrew and Peter were Galileans, although Andrew was evidently a disciple of John the Baptist, and was present at the Jordan River when John was baptizing there.
    4) The main discrepancy, then, was when John the Baptist was arrested. Matt. 4:12 makes it sound as though it happened at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, before He called His disciples. Mark simply repeats Matthew's statement (Mk. 1:14). Luke describes the arrest, but leaves the timing vague (Lu. 3:19,20).. John, on the other hand, places it later in Jesus' ministry, after He had already called at least some of His disciples.
    My conclusion? John is giving us more detailed and accurate information, based on his more intimate knowledge of the facts. Matthew tends to arrange his material in topical, rather than strict chronological order. He may very well have not known the exact sequence of this early stage of Jesus' ministry. It is quite possible that Matt. 4:18-22 may not have occurred after Matt. 4:12-17.

    1. "My conclusion? John is giving us more detailed and accurate information,"

      If John's information is "more accurate" than the Synoptics, you are letting go on inerrancy. You just screwed yourself. You're finished. Its over.

  5. As for the theology involved, each evangelist had his own "Tendenz" or editorial objective. In Matthew's case, he is addressing fellow Jews and specifically Jewish concerns -- the interpretation of the Torah and the coming Kingdom of God. There is relatively little about the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ, because when Jesus was engaged in His public ministry these events hadn't taken place yet. He didn't begin to address them until almost just before the Passion Week. Mark and Luke were largely dependent on Matthew, and so their theological perspective wasn't noticeably different, even though Luke was closely associated with Paul. I think this speaks very commendably about Luke's integrity as a historian.
    John obviously felt that something was missing. Again, faithful to the historical Jesus, there is relatively little mention of Christ's death as an atonment, but he does focus on the question of who Jesus is, which at that point had become the chief point of contention between Jews and Christians. He also had the specific apologetic aim of refuting Cerinthus, a proto-Gnostic. Unlike certain assertions I have heard lately from certain quarters, John's aim was to refute Gnosticism, not adapt Christianity to it.

  6. "Unlike certain assertions I have heard lately from certain quarters, John's aim was to refute Gnosticism, not adapt Christianity to it."

    I'll agree with you that John was composed last, since both Luke and John were written in the 2nd century. Matthew and Mark were written in the first and only slightly edited in the 2nd.

    As to Gnosticism, its clear both from the canonization of John and Paul (John coming from Valentinianism, and Paul from Marcionism) that the great geniuses of the 2nd century thought the way to defeat Gnosticism was to ABSORB what was distinctive in it, thus rendering Gnosticism superfluous. This is also the tactic that was used against Judaism. This can be described as the whole notion of "catholic" -- absorb whatever is distinctive in each religion, thus rendering them superfluous, and in the process making one "universal" religion out of all the pieces. Its how orthodoxy Christianity ended up being the tangled mess of incoherence and contradiction that it is.

    1. I am genuinely surprised that you still accept a 2nd Century date for the Gospel of John. The discovery of Papyrus 52, which can be reliably dated in the first half of the 2nd Century, effectively exploded that theory. "The assumption that Jn was written in the last decade of the first century is today almost universally accepted." (Werner Georg Kummel, Intro. to NT, Section 10.7)
      John wrote before Valentinius and was reacting against Cerinthus. The problem that the Gnostics had with Christian orthodoxy is that they could not see God, an infinite Spirit, could be man, with all of the physical limitations that implies. Cerinthus and others developed the theory that the divine Christ descended upon the human Jesus, and then departed before the crucifixion, the theory being that the divine Son of God could not suffer in the flesh. Accordingly John emphasizes throughout his Gospel and 1st Epistle that the Logos came in the flesh, and that he, as an eyewitness, had actually touched Him.

    2. Fragmentary MSS cannot be used to date entire books. Nobody would ever accept such an idea but the most desperate of superstitious partisans. 14 lines of John 18 only proves that John was under development, not that the text existed as a finished whole. It undoubtedly took the Gnostics a long time to finish this rather involved rewrite of the gospel narratives that is John.

    3. Also the church fathers misunderstood or purposefully oversimplified Gnostic docetism. They did not really deny that Jesus was corporeal. They denied that his flesh was like ours. They taught a celestial flesh theory. Some of the fathers do admit this at points, despite contradicting themselves. The idea was that rather than deriving his flesh from a human mother, he made himself a body out of heavenly material. It was never that he was just a ghost. Besides, that nobody said that the Catholics didn't update and revise the original gnostic John before canonizing it: the emphasis on Jesus being touched comes from the final redactor who put it in the canon, not the original author.

    4. So you think that Werner Georg Kuemmel was "the most desperate of superstitious partisans"? "Although the extent of the verses preserved is so slight, in one respect this tiny scrap of papyrus possesses quite as much evidential value as would the complete codex. Just as Robinson Crusoe, seeing but a single footprint in the sand, concluded that another human being, with two feet, was present on the island with him, so P52 proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century in a provincial town along the Nile, far removed from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus in Asia Minor). Had this little fragment been known during the middle of the past century, that school of New Testament criticism which was inspired and founded by the brilliant Tuebingen professor, Ferdinand Christian Baur, could not have argued that the Fourth Gospel was not composed until about the year 160."
      (Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, p. 39).

  7. It was the Gnostics who updated and revised the original "Catholic" or orthodox gospels. The classic case in point is Codex Bezae. The so-called "Western non-interpolations" in Luke can be traced back to Marcion himself. The overwhelming mass of ms. evidence supports the more traditional readings.

  8. This theory is made of straw. Codex Bezae is not a Gnostic manuscript. Its a Catholic manuscript. The reason it contains Marcionite readings is because it is older than our more sanitized editions, and in the earlier editions some texts from the original were left in that later Catholic councils had removed. So the final standardized text doesn't have some of these verses that an earlier Catholic text would have because of the fact that the Marcionite Paulina was used as the base text originally by the Catholics.

  9. Codex Bezae is most assuredly NOT a "Catholic manuscript." It is highly idiosyncratic and varies widely from the Byzantine Text, which IS the standard text of the Greek NT. Moreover it deviates widely from the Alexandrian Text, of which we have manuscript evidence that is much older than Bezae.
    The so-called "Western Non-Interpolations" are verses that were omitted from the earlier text because they showed Christ suffering in the flesh.
    And why on earth would Catholics use as their base text "Marcionite Paulina"?

  10. Why don't you list the verses you have in mind?

    One thing I will say is there are verses in some texts that are today called Marcionite, but which are in the KJV and left out in modern translations.

    The passage in Luke where James and John ask JEsus about calling fire down from heaven onto Samaria. You'll notice the KJV has Jesus' reply in Luke 9:55-56, "But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And they went to another village."

    The modern translations leave it out, so that verse 55-56 just says (ESV) "But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village."

    Modern scholars (I read a few scholarly articles on it last year, but I would be hard pressed to tell you who they were by) have identified the words in question ("Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.") as coming from Marcion's version of Luke. Somehow, coming from Marcion's version of Luke they made it even into the Byzantine texts. Check the NKJV footnoes. They always talk about M-text (majority text) says this, NU-text (Nestle-Aland, UBS, basically Alexandrian) says this. M-text not mentioned in the footnotes means they're following M-text, and look, they have these words! Words derived from Marcion's "Luke" made it into the Majority Text!

    And these are well respected words. But look, they do have a tinge of Marcionism, since they imply that Elijah did wrong. In fact, even bringing up what Elijah did in this context smacks somewhat of Marcionism. Given the limited data we have on Marcion, its only possible to identify these words as coming from Marcion, but probably the whole story in Luke 9 from verse 54-56 was entirely made up by Marcion for polemical effect, to show how mean and nasty that Old Testament is compared to the loving wonderful Jesus (who is asserted today as being so loving he'll damn everyone who doesn't accept him as the 2nd person of the Trinity to hell for all eternity.)

  11. The so-called "Western Non-Interpolations are found in Matt. 27:49; Luke 22:19,20; 24:3,6,12,36,40,51,52. In some cases the "non-interpolation" involves a phrase within the verse, in other cases the entire verse. Wescott & Hort put the material in brackets The RSV omitted those in Luke 24. They were restored in the NRSV.
    It is true that the passage to which you referred in Luke 9 is missing in both the Alexandrian Text and the Vulgate.but are supported by Marcion who may have very well used them for his own apologetic purposes. The Byzantine Text, as you may know, tends to give the benefit of the doubt to debatable passages. Metzger thought they were probably a gloss (Textual Commentary).

  12. I thought you were supposed to be arguing in favor of the reliability of the gospels. So why are you making such a big deal out of the Western Non-Interpolations? You lost me somewhere.

  13. The point was my contention that Codex Bezae preserves the Marcionite text of Luke, which you then denied. You late asked me to list the verses I had in mind, and so I did.

  14. Codex Bezae may preserve Marcionite additions/modifications, but not deletions, which demonstrates it is a Catholic manuscript and not a Marcionite one.

  15. I think I'm going to back off on this one. As I have looked into it a little more deeply it is less obvious that Codex Bezae (D) contains Marcionite readings. In some places D and Marcion agree; in others they don't. (They agree on some of the omissions contained in Luke 24). D also agrees with a number of European Old Latin texts. All of this raises some interesting, and perplexing questions about D. What is its relationship to the Old Latin (D, it will be remembered, is a bilingual ms.) And what is the relationship between both of them and Marcion? It may be that Marcion started with an old form of the Western Text, and then modified it, deleting passages that conflicted with his Docetic Christology. But this is only a guess!

    1. This survived. Just think how different all the earlier manuscripts that didn't survive were. In how many places did they still agree with the original Marcionite version? Probably in a lot more.