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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