Thursday, October 23, 2008

History, Theology or Fiction?: Can We Trust the Gospels?

Book Review: Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by Mark D. Roberts (Crossway Books, 2007)

There a many people who do not believe that the four canonical gospels are reliable, believing that they were written to confirm what the Church already believed (and so do not present an accurate picture of the "historical Jesus") or that their texts have been rewritten or substantially changed over time. None of this is actually very new but it has found increasing resonance in our culture of suspicion, a culture in which not a few people are waiting to be told that traditional Christianity has been blown apart because Professor X has finally uncovered the "real Jesus" who actually was (take your choice) a pious Jewish rabbi, a radical advocate of social change, a first century skeptic or a great spiritual teacher. Whether one reads Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code or the latest book by a member of the skeptical Jesus Seminar, the message being given out as steady as a drumbeat is that the four canonical gospels are not reliable.
Mark Roberts, who is a pastor and has a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, makes a substantial case that there is no historical basis for this kind of radical skepticism; it is more a prejudice than a well founded position. Roberts adopts a helpful format in which each chapter is devoted to answering some important question about the Gospels. It should be required reading for all serious Christians.
The case for the reliability of the gospels is multifaceted and one needs to read the whole of Roberts' book to see it. A few of these facets are worth mentioning.
One facet of the reliability of the four gospels is the antiquity and multiplicity of manuscripts. Briefly put, the narrower the gap between original composition and later manuscripts and the more extant manuscripts we have in our possession, the more textual critics can establish the reliability of a text. The gap between the original composition of the gospels and our earliest manuscripts is about 200 years. While this may sound like a large gap, it needs to be compared to other ancient documents. For example, our oldest manuscripts of the writings of the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius date to the ninth century, representing a gap of about 800 years. And yet most classical scholars judge that we have substantially what these two historians wrote. As to multiplicity of manuscripts, we now have some 5,700 New Testament manuscripts which can be compared for variants. Once again, comparison with other ancient documents is helpful. We have only about 200 extant manuscripts for Suetonius and only 75 for the Greek historian Heroditus. Because of relatively small gap between composition and earliest manuscripts and because of the abundance of manuscripts, most textual scholars agree that our Greek text of the four gospels is substantially accurate and while there are textual variants among manuscripts they do not substantially alter our understanding of Jesus.
Those who embrace The Da Vinci Code notion that the early Church suppressed all gospels that it did not like and only accepted the four canonical gospels because they promoted its theological views can only do so in the teeth of the evidence. From such documents as Irenaeus' Against Heresies (c.180) and the Muratorian Canon (c. 170, which lists the books the Church regarded as authoritative) it is clear that the Church acknowledged only the canonical four gospels within 60 years of the composition of the last canonical gospel (John). The Church never weeded out or "suppressed" any gospels because it never acknowledged more than the canonical four to begin with. And Dan Brown's notion that the emperor Constantine created the New Testament canon is pure fantasy.
Much attention has been focused on the so-called "Gnostic Gospels," which were part of a manuscript find in 1945 near Nag Hamadi, Egypt (together these Coptic documents are called the Nag Hamadi Library). For many members of the Jesus Seminar and for scholars like Elaine Pagels, these "gospels" reveal an "alternative Christianity" not centered around Jesus' death and resurrection and not involving any established doctrine but focused on Jesus as a spiritual teacher who imparts enlightenment. While the picture of Jesus is certainly congenial to current culture, these "gospels" have far less historical value than do the canonical four. The latter were all written before AD 100 while the former began to appear until sometime in the second century and many appeared only in the third. What is more, the Jesus in the so-called gospels is not a recognizably Jewish figure; he appears to have been completely severed from the Old Testament. Both their date of composition and the fact that their Jesus is not at all Jewish argues against their veracity as historical sources. The world they portray is not the world of first century Palestine but the world of Gnostic Christianity.
One final facet. Roberts, following Ben Witherington and other scholars, makes the case that the four gospels fit into the genre of ancient biography. This give us some insight into the intentions of the gospel writers. Ancient biographies were short, focused on key incidents in the subject's life, were designed to convey something of the figure's character and not exhaustive knowledge, and tended to focus on the manner in which the subject died as the event which summarized his entire life. All this holds true for the gospels. If the gospel writers do not tell us everything we might want to know about Jesus, it is not because they have "suppressed" some information it is because they were following a genre. And if the Church was interested in completely controlling the picture of Jesus, why did it not advance Tatian's Diatessaron, which was a harmonized, sanitized version of the four gospels, but rather insist on the "fourfold gospel"?
The Church has placed her confidence in the four Gospels from the beginning and that trust was not a leap of blind faith. Thanks to Roberts and other scholars, we can now see that the historical reliability of the gospels has a strong foundation in historical reality. It is the radical skeptics who have taken the leap of (un)faith.


Blogger Unknown said...

There is a parishioner in our church putting together a book which discusses this very idea of the historicity of scripture--it is immensely fun to read her drafts!

My humble comment is how wonderful it is that the more archeology that is discovered over modern times, the greater the exoneration of the truth as Christians see it actually exists.

November 1, 2008 at 3:13 AM  

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Gods of War

Book Review: The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? by Meic Pearse (InterVarsity Press, 2007)

The standard atheist catechisms all make the claim at some point that "religion is the cause of all wars and the greatest motivation for violence". To an increasingly large number of people, whose ignorance of history is almost total, this sounds like a convincing claim. To give this claim a patina of historical respectability, the Crusades and the Inquisition are usually mentioned (darkly) with the assumption that no more need be said because the claim has been proved. Of course, the real thesis being advanced by such claims is that violence is caused by people believing in things as absolutely true and that the way to avoid war and violence is to adopt skepticism. Historian Meic Pearse finds this claim to be incredible and sets out to discredit it over the course of his book.
Pearse's argument does not involve the claim that Christians are completely innocent of violence and have had no involvement with warfare. Rather, he aims to show that the atheist catechism has a far too simplified view of history.
Looking back at the twentieth century, Pearse notes that the most destructive wars in human history have been caused not by religious faith but by the lack of it. It was the explicitly godless regimes driven by communist or fascist ideologies which engaged in destructive wars and genocidal campaigns. While many factors were involved, two are worth noting. These ideologies explicitly rejected the Christian notion of a dignity which applies to each person. Because Hitler, Stalin and Mao were out to "save" humankind they could justify huge injustices and endless brutality against individuals. Also, these ideologies denied Christianity but elevated the state to the level of a divinity--this meant that anything might be justified "for the good of the state". Christian cultures have always seen the state as limited in its claims since political authority was circumscribed by authority of God.
Pearse devotes some time to examining the causes of war throughout history and what he finds is interesting. In the ancient world, we know of no empire that conquered to spread its religion. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians and Romans all had quite secular motives for their conquests: the expansion of territory, enhanced security, trade and glory. While these empires would say that their gods favored empire, religion was not the actual cause of imperial designs. Much the same is true of the medieval period. Most medieval warfare was connected with fairly mundane matters such as dynastic succession and territorial expansion. Christian rulers might occasionally use Christianity to justify their actions but their actions did not really spring from religious motivations. This is true even of the Crusades which were finally a series of unsuccessful defensive wars against Muslim expansion into Europe (in 1529 the Ottoman Turks laid siege to Vienna). While the Crusades are hardly a glorious episode in the history of the Church, it is incorrect to picture them as archetypal "religious wars".
For Christianity, the problems arise not from the nature of the faith itself (as the atheists claim) but from the link being made between nation and the faith, when God becomes the "tribal god" of the nation. Pearse provides three case studies which demonstrate the ill effects which follow the identification of a nation as a "Christian nation", Serbia, Russia and England. In each of these cases, he shows how Christianity was used to give a patina of righteousness to what were essentially nationalistic and secular motives. The problem is not that Christianity is a violent faith which by its very nature involves war and conquest but that churches have allowed themselves to used to sanctify and justify war.
Pearse then enters into a discussion of how Christians might be involved in war. He rejects both pacifism and just war theory as being problematic. Pacifism inevitably leaves the innocent to be killed or savaged by the brutal and just war theory can not be applied in any coherent way to modern warfare. For Pearse, Christians may legitimately engage in war only to protect the innocent and to secure justice. The one thing they must never do is fight to "defend" Christianity. In this sense, Christiantiy differs markedly from Islam. For Pearse, Christians must never claim that they are fighting a "holy war," a war on behalf on God or the faith because such a war is not a defense of the Gospel but a complete denial of it.
In the final chapter of the book, entitled "The Relentless War Against Faith and Meaning" Pearse argues that the greatest cause of war in our own time is not religion but secular global capitalism. Wherever it spreads, it destroys traditional cultures and drives people to violence because their whole framework of meaning is under threat. This in no way justifies terrorism but it does remind us that while we may see the export of industrialized democracy as the greatest of goods, most people in traditional cultures would not agree. For Pearse, there must be a clear separation between American foreign policy and the mission of the Church because the two are not the same thing nor are they aimed as similar goals.
Is religion the primary cause of violent conflict? Certainly not and the reality may be that secular culture actually fill this role. But this does not get Christians completely off the hook for we have to guard against idolatry--against the tendency of turning the Father of Jesus Christ into the tribal god of our nation and its goals.


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