September 22, 2007
Q & A on the Historical Reliability of the Gospels: Introduction to a SeriesBy James Arlandson
Christianity has always been the religion of the Book, the Bible. More specifically for this series, all Christians of all denominations cherish the four Biblical or canonical Gospels. But there is no pleasant way to put this. In the past decade - but also several before that - the Gospels have been assaulted by the Religious Left or liberal scholars and by other critics.
Two Gnostic scholars strip the historical and narrative (story) aspects in John and turn it into a sayings Gospel; in their Gnostic Bible they place John next to the pseudonymous Gospel of Thomas (not written by the Apostle Thomas), a sayings "gospel." Denying genres (kinds of literature) is common among postmodernists (see a series on Postmodernism and the Bible, below).
The Jesus Seminar was founded by Robert Funk in 1985. It consists of a group of scholars who meet twice a year to debate over the historical Jesus. They conclude that Jesus said only eighteen percent of the words found in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and John comes out worse (Five Gospels, Poleridge, 1993, the fifth being the Gospel of Thomas).
So what are the critics attacking? Reliability. Before the Gospels were written in their final form - the ones we have now - how did the earliest Christians transmit the traditions (to be defined in a future article) about Jesus? That is the subject of much of the entire series, along with explaining that the Gospels are founded squarely on eyewitnesses - many named - from the very beginning of Jesus' ministry to the very end and beyond.
It is no longer feasible - if it ever was - for web readers and TV viewers to ignore these criticisms, since they come across the mass media and the web seemingly from one month to the next.
Readers and viewers who take Scripture seriously can get confused. Many of them do not know how to research the right books so they can counter the destructive media messages. And when they find the right books, the jargon is technical - the scholars really write for other scholars, only sometimes with an eye on the wider public. Laypersons do not know how to sort out what they are reading, but they hear the negative messages clearly enough.
So what is the purpose of the series? There are many. But one is to bring onto the worldwide web scholarship that counters the critics. I hope libraries are not things of the past, but more ordinary people get their information first from the web than from books. And I do not see enough articles that uphold traditional Gospel scholarship available on the information super highway.
Suffice it to say here that the earliest Christians passed on the traditions reliably and accurately, according to the historical standards of their time. In fact, they did the same deeds that Jesus taught them to do - an often overlooked fact in the study of the transmission process from his ministry to their writings about him (see the series on miracles, below). Historical reliability is the thesis I endeavor to demonstrate in the series. If readers would like to investigate the opposite thesis, then they can find plenty of other articles and media claims elsewhere.
In addition to transferring onto the web the counterbalancing scholarship in an accessible way that is faithful to the books yet understandable to web readers, I also provide a "Further Reading" section at the end of each article. Web readers who are also book readers will then know where to look first.
Other purposes of the series go directly to the content of the articles. Since the articles are put in a Question and Answer (Q & A) format, it is used here. The articles seek to answer these questions and more.
Still another purpose of the series is to keep an eye on how the historical reliability of the four Gospels compares with the Gnostic texts. So a review of Gnosticism is in order.
The word gnosticism comes from an ancient Greek word for knowledge. A Gnostic is "someone who knows" or a "knower." But what does he or she know? She or he knows secret teachings that lift him or her above the mundane and the all-too-human (to use a phrase anachronistically). In the Mediterranean world many decades after Jesus lived and the church grew rapidly and the four canonical Gospels were written down, who was more qualified than Jesus himself to be the Ultimate Gnostic? ("Canon" means "measuring stick" or the "standard" by which we evaluate other writings.)
So what are the basics of Gnostic teaching? Jesus came to reveal hidden truths and secret knowledge. He discloses a way of escape from the world and the human body, if only a few special people would come to know this.
The Gnostic authors often borrowed the names of Jesus' disciples to attach to their texts, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Judas has been published most recently. Using the disciples' names or other Biblical names gives the appearance of authority, but it is deceptive. The original disciples or Bible characters had nothing to do with these writings. The teaching of Jesus, the names of his disciples, and the four Gospels traveled well. Gnostics capitalized on this fame.
All of these (late) Gnostic documents would not be a concern to anyone but a few specialists. Yet some scholars, who have access to the national media and who write their books for the general public, imply that Gnostic texts should be accepted as equally valid and authoritative as the four canonical Gospels. Or at least the Gnostic scriptures could have potentially been elevated to the canon, but were instead suppressed by orthodox church leaders. (Orthodox literally means "correct or straight thinking," and here it means the early church of Irenaeus and Athanasius, to cite only these examples).
This series challenges the claim that the Gnostic texts should be canonical or even a step or two behind the four Biblical Gospels. The Gnostic texts were considered heretical for good reason.
This series has two other features. Each article ends with these questions: What is the bottom line for the historical reliability of the four Gospels? And what does all of this mean to the Church of all denominations? Those questions and answers serve as a conclusion and an application.
I learned a lot while writing the series, which was much more difficult than I had thought. But I hope that I will make complicated issues and scholarship understandable to nonspecialists, so they no longer have to feel under siege. Knowledge is the best antidote to confusion.
Before we go on to the next article, you should know that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of passages in common, so they are called the synoptic Gospels (synoptic means viewed together). The authors are sometimes called Synoptists. Slashes // mean parallel passages among them. The writers of the four Gospels are also called evangelists.
James M Arlandson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Further Reading (annotated)
I have found these books to be very helpful while writing the series.
Paul Barnett. Is the New Testament Reliable? 2nd ed. Intervarsity, 2003. This one is intended for beginners. Start here second; go first to Roberts' book and blog articles (see below) and my own series!
Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans, 2006. I will refer to this excellent book very often. It has inspired this series. He was kind enough to correspond with me, offering encouragement and suggestions on my article on the Gospel of Mark. His book goes a long way to upset overly skeptical scholarship that has exerted a lot of influence on New Testament studies for a long time. But his book is not for beginners, unless web readers first read Roberts' (see below) and my series and have a lot of time to work through Bauckham's.
Craig Blomberg. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Intervarsity, 1987. This furthered Bruce's efforts and set a new gold standard. He is a fine exegete.
---. The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel. Intervarsity, 2001. Very helpful for my articles on John.
F. F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. Eerdmans, 1981. From a superior scholar, the early gold standard, and short, too. A fifth edition can be read online.
D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Zondervan, 2005. Excellent introduction from a conservative point of view. For me, the arguments in favor of traditional conclusions, such as the authorship of the four Gospels, are stronger than against, thanks in large part to this book. Highly recommended. Both are fine exegetes.
Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Traditions. Baker Academic, 2007. This has quickly become the best book on the historical reliability of the synoptic Gospels, but it can get very technical. Inexperienced readers may work their way through it after reading Roberts' book and my series.
Birger Gerhardsson. Reliability of the Gospel Tradition. Hendrickson, 2001. The clearest and best (and shortest) on the specific topic of the oral stage before the Gospels were finalized in their written forms. At first, his earlier works - some of which are summarized here - were not well received, but now the tide seems to have turned.
Donald Guthrie. New Testament Introduction. 4th ed. Intervarsity, 1990. Very good introduction from a conservative perspective. Highly recommended.
Mark D. Roberts. "Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?" 2005. His blog series has been turned into a book.
---. Can We Trust the Gospels? Crossway, 2007. Start here and his blog to be introduced to the issues - along with my own series! Roberts has been a pastor for a number of years, so he has a good "ear" for the laity. His book and blog is for them - you.
For students of the Old Testament - I have only glanced at these two books, since they do not relate directly to my series. But they appear to be excellent, not least because they are written by two superior Old Testament scholars who respect Scripture.
Walter Kaiser. The Old Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? Intervarsity, 2001.
K. A. Kitchen. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Eerdmans, 2003.
As for the Gnostic writings, go to the latest edition of the Nag Hammadi collection. Reading these texts will only confirm how different and outlandish they are compared with the four Biblical Gospels.
My modest scholarly contribution, though not directly related to the historical reliability of the Four Gospels, is here:
Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity: Models from Luke-Acts. Hendrickson, 1997.
I have also written three series that are intended to interlock and support this present one and others that I may write on the Bible.
New Testament Manuscripts:
Part One: The Basic Facts
Part Two: The Right Stuff
Part Three: Discovery and Classification
Part Four: The New Testament Is Reliable
Miracles and New Testament Studies:
Part One: Miracles and New Testament Studies
Part Four: Miracles and the Laws of Nature
Part Five: Do Miracles Happen Today?
The two series, above, have been updated and posted at biblicalstudies.org.uk (look under Authors A-B).
The third series is on Postmodernism and the Bible. The series seeks to explain why, in part, we have breathed in hyper-skepticism that influences our interpretations of the text, in a negative, destructive way.
Part Two: The Origins of Postmodernism
Part Three: Postmodern Truth Soup
Part Four: Deconstruction: A Primer
Part Five: The Deconstructed Jesus
Part Six: The De-deconstructed Jesus
Part Seven: Alternatives to Postmodern Hyper-Skepticism
Part Eight: Postmodernism and the Bible: Conclusion