Christian 'bias' in the NT Writers--
Does it render the NT unreliable or inadmissible as evidence?
[Updated 4/5/96; Note: See especially "Did the NT authors invent the miracle stories in the gospels?, for topics B and C below.]
A. Introduction to the Issue
- Introduction to the Issue
- Data often advanced to show that the NT writers 'made it up' or embellished beyond truthfulness
- Data advanced to show that the NT records are NOT embellishments or 'pious frauds'
- Data from the NT's setting in history
- Considerations from Historical Method
- The Status and Trends of Critical Scholarly Research today
- Concluding Remarks
The accusation that the NT writers were so biased as to render the NT useless as a source of evidence about Jesus is a common theme in popular skeptical literature. Phrases like "alterior (sic) motive" (The Atheist Manifesto) and 'bias' (some of the material collected in Lowder's "The Jury is In" Pages --not necessarily contributed by him) form an important plank in their epistemological foundation, for to make the case for the deity of Christ, his resurrection, etc. is very difficult (if not impossible) to do from the extra-biblical non-Christian references to him. (Of course, you also have to throw out all the Patristic writings--but that is another story altogether).
It should be pointed out that 'bias' actually has NO CORRELATION to 'truth or falsity'. One's pre-disposition to believe X has no logical bearing on the truth-status of X. (In history, this is known as the 'genetic fallacy'; in philosophy it is called the 'argumentum ad hominum'.)
For example, if there are two propositions X and ~X, one of which is true (and the other false); and if there are two proponents A and B, with A having a 'bias' toward X and B having a 'bias' toward ~X, then ONE OF THEM IS STILL CORRECT--in spite of 'bias'.
The 'bias' argument is typically leveled against the writers of the NT, that they 'embellished' or 'legendized' their leader for any number of reasons (e.g. enhance their status in the Jewish Community (obviously before they were 'excised' by Benediction Twelve after the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 AD, of course), defend their authority in the primitive church (before their violent martyrdom, of course). This position says that they either made up stories or radically re-interpreted mundane events in the life of Jesus into some kind of miracle-working "Divine Man" figure.
This charge of bias can be seen in at least two ways--the writers really believed it (and therefore 'saw' the miraculous and 'heard' the exorbitant claims of Jesus in events and words which otherwise did NOT convey that data; or they knew better and deliberately expanded the stories for selfish (or pious) purposes.
- In the first case of the two, we have the question of their adequacy as critical writers--did they demonstrate the ability to be discerning in their use of sources, to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction, to have an ethic to 'stay close to the sources', to be self-critical of their abilities? (In this case, the skeptic must provide a least SOME evidence for us to entertain this as a plausibility--the mere hypothetical possibility of it occurring is not evidence that it DID occur.)
- In the second case, the skeptic is accusing the NT writers of fraud--pious or malicious. The accusation of fraud, however, is even clearer as to who has the burden of proof--the accuser. The skeptic must adduce data (like in a courtroom setting) that demonstrates that 1) they knew X but they 2) said ~X. Again, the mere possibility is not evidence itself. (In defense of the skeptical position, it must be pointed out that we KNOW of many later cases in church history of fraudulent religious leaders, but we know this by hard triangulation data and before/after texts...The possibility of it happening is therefore proven; what is now necessary is to show it occurred in the NT writers. (Arguments from 'some religious figures create frauds' to 'ALL religious figures create frauds' is a serious 'no-no'...)
- [Think of how difficult it would be to prove that the writers 'knew better'...what data could you use other than OTHER writings of theirs that disclosed that?!]
B. Data often advanced to show that the NT writers 'made it up' or embellished beyond truthfulness
- The Anti-supernaturalist argument: miracles CANNOT happen, THEREFORE anyone, anywhere, anytime who writes that they did happen, must be 'making it up'. [If the skeptic merely stopped at the softer statement "miracles need extraordinary evidence" as they often profess, then I could agree with them--I DO believe the NT constitutes extraordinary evidence for them--but too often they push the word 'extraordinary' to 'extraordinary' lengths, so that legally adequate eyewitness accounts--multiple, independent, corroborating but not appearing too 'smooth' or contrived--cannot possibly penetrate the presupposition!]
Couple of points here:
- The modern world of technology/communications has confronted modern humanity with 'miracles' of a non-religious nature that defy our concepts of 'order'. Twentieth-century realities have humbled us all (from the phantom world of the sub-atomic to the detailed and scholarly recording of non-religious miracles in the modern world. See Geoffrey Ashe, Miracle , London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978)
- Skeptics who believe that Jesus did no miracles must explain how he quickly became portrayed as a spectacular miracle worker. The earliest strata of data in the NT (as identified by Form criticism) still has Jesus as a serious miracle worker. Compare the testimony of the very rigorous critical scholar J. Jeremias :
"Thus even when strict critical standards have been applied to the miracle stories, a demonstrably historical nucleus remains. Jesus performed healings which astonished his contemporaries. (New Testament Theology", SCM:1971, p21)
- There are two main approaches a skeptic could take here. They could
(and do) argue from the NT Apocrypha, that people over time attributed additional
miracles to Jesus (and his followers), so why couldn't the first writers have done
the same; and from the Greek heroes, who over time were invested with miraculous
powers (e.g. Alexander the Great).
- The argument from the NT apocrypha is actually seldom advanced in scholarly
circles, due to the radically different character of those miracles, over against the
NT miracles. Examples include the child Jesus miraculously lengthening a leg of a
bed made in Joseph's shop (Infancy Gospel of Thomas) or John effectively commanding
the bedbugs to sleep peacefully in a corner of his room so that he might rest well
(Acts of John 60-161) or the child Jesus turning other kids into goats because they
wouldn't play with him (The Arabic Infancy Gospel)! They differ so remarkably that the
processes which generated them are not considered to be the same as those that
produced the NT stories. What is most curious about these miracles, however, is that
they are all 'gap fillers'--they very rarely describe gospel miracles, but attempt to
fill in the time gaps in the life of Christ and his first followers. This pattern is
generally understood to mean that they recognized the authority and fixedness of the
miracle traditions and wouldn't take those head-on. (See the work of Achtemeier in
Fiorenza's Aspects of Religious Propaganda in Judaism and Early
Christianity, Notre Dame: 1976, pp149ff.)
Ancient Greek mythology is replete with examples of gods and men doing miracles,
some very much like the ones in the Gospels. Alexander the Great, for example, was
said to have been born of a virgin and to have been called a god (acc. to Plutarch).
The earliest sources on Alexander depict him as 'normal' (i.e. Arrian of Nicomedia),
but a millennium later he is a god. But in the gospels, the earliest strata still
portray Christ as a miracle worker. The process called the 'divine man' motif has
very few parallels with the gospel development (see Theissen's Miracle
Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, Fortress Press: 1983.), and many
doubt if we can speak of a clear concept of the 'divine man' before the 2nd century
A.D. --AFTER the NT was written (see David Tiede, The Charismatic Figure as
Miracle Worker, Scholars Press: 1972). And the sheer time element from the
events of Christ's life to the first writings (I Thess around 50 AD) concerning that
life are at the most 17 years! (some date James in the early 40's--placing it
within 5-7 years!). Not a lot of time for legends to grow from scratch. (More on this
(There are lesser-known parallels in some of the Jewish miracle workers in 1st
century Jewry, but the differences in the miracle patterns (e.g. theirs were mostly
rain-making and were done by God's authority, versus Jesus' wide variety of miracles[
on his OWN authority, without including rain-making] explain the general lack of
following for this view.)
- The argument that contradictions in parallel accounts render the events
dubious (especially the resurrection). The myriad of details (e.g. sequence, # of
angels, words) that are different in the accounts are advanced as evidence that they
must have been fabrications.
- What is interesting about this, is that EVEN IF one buys the line that they are
'real' contradictions, then that fact would be a major piece of data IN FAVOR OF THE
EVENT occurring! So the German Classical historian Hans Stier, cited by Staudinger
(in The Trustworthiness of the Gospels, Handsel: 1981, p.77):
"the sources for the resurrection of Jesus, with their relatively big contradictions
in details, present for the historian for this very reason a criterion of
extraordinary credibility. For if that were the fabrication of a congregation or
of a similar group of people, then the tale would be consistently and obviously
complete. For that reason every historian is especially skeptical at that moment when
an extraordinary happening is only reported in accounts which are completely free of
[Sounds like 'extraordinary proof' for 'extraordinary claims' to me! :>) ]
- And EVEN IF we allow a contradiction to exist, it would still not discredit the
historical basis of the NT record of the event--according to standard historical
method. (Cf. Mandelbaum in The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge, Johns
Hopkins: 1972, p.172), on where contradictions arise in presumably historical texts:
"they do not usually undermine the basic structure of the account that has
been building; they often contradict only specific items that a historian has
previously accepted, and do not force a change in the general outline of the account."
But even the 'contradictions' have multiple plausible explanations (as can be found in many a book on Bible Difficulties), and the most recent thorough work on this is Wenham's Easter Enigma: Do the Resurrection Stories Contradict One Another?, Zondervan: 1984. To assert that a contradiction stands is to assert that one can show that all of the possible harmonization's CANNOT BE TRUE--a formidable task to say the least!
- Some object, of course, that the Christian is doing the 'special pleading' thing when he or she comes up with 'harmonization' for these dissonant details, but it must be realized that this is simply STANDARD historical method--nothing 'weird' at all about it--especially in regards to ancient history. Commentators on Plutarch and Arrian (in the case of Alex) demonstrate this consistently (RF:207).
- A final argument that is often advanced to show that the NT writers were biased, is that the writers THEMSELVES claimed to be trying to 'prove' something or 'convince' someone of something. So Luke writes so that Theophilus "might know the certainty of the things which (he) has been taught " (Lk 1.4), and John says he writes his gospel so that we "might believe that Jesus is the Christ , the Son of God" (Jn 20.31). John also admits that he was highly selective in his data (Jn 21.25). How could they be considered 'objective' if they were trying to prove a point?!
- It should be obvious to any reader of history (or especially of historical method) that this is HOW ALL HISTORY IS WRITTEN--modern or ancient--without detracting from 'objectivity' necessarily.
- For example, the ancient historian Thucydides wrote to provide "an exact knowledge of the past" which would act as "an aid to the interpretation of the future." (Peloponnesian War , 1.23).
- And, Josephus, as a royal historian, wrote factually, but in the process explains an overarching motive:
"In my reflections on the events I cannot conceal my private sentiments...my country...owed its ruin to civil strife...it was the Jewish tyrants who drew down upon the holy temple the unwilling hands of the Romans" (Jewish War, 1.10)
- "An excellent modern example of this involves the aftermath of the Nazi holocaust. Some of the most detailed and reliable reports of that event were Jews who have been passionately committed to seeing that such atrocities never again occur. Yet it is not they who are falsifying history but the later revisionist 'historians' who play down the events of the debacle or even deny it ever happened. And in the ancient world, there was virtually no such thing as dispassionate history. The attitude then was: Why bother to record and pass on the story of certain events unless there was a moral to be learned from them? So if the Gospels were NOT ideological, they would have been unparalleled among ancient historical and biographical writing! " (Blomberg, JUF:36-37).
- In fact, there is an entire branch of scholarship that is devoted to using the writers' purposes as hermeneutical keys to their writings. (Redaction criticism)
C. Data advanced to show that the NT records are NOT embellishments or 'pious frauds'
- The writings never seem to legendize the apostles--they are consistently portrayed in 'normal' and often below-normal(!) ways. They are consistently shown to be hard of heart (Mr 6.52), petty (Mr 9.34), unimaginative (Mt 16.11ff), judgmental (Lk 9.54), unbelieving (Lk 24.25), failing (Mr 9.25ff), weak (Mt 26.40ff), disloyal (Mr 14.50), fearful (Mr 9.32). They (for the two that wrote gospels) and their followers (for those gospels written under their tutelage), under a 'bias' model, stood the most to gain if the nasty truth about the apostles' lives were hidden!
- The details of the text seem to reflect more an underlying eyewitness account, than a fabricated or glossed-over propaganda document. There are so many examples of vivid detail that would typically NOT BE PRESENT in a fabricated account. Time, place, circumstance words are a staple in the narratives...consider the italicized words in the passage below:
Mark 4:35-38: That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side." Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.
Or the vivid portraits of Christ's emotions: moved with pity, anger, grieved, compassion, indignant, loved, distressed, troubled.
The narratives are vivid, but uncluttered, full of incidental detail and minutia, realistic both contextually and psychologically, and focus on ordinary people...In short, they look much more like narrative history, than historical fiction and fanciful propaganda.
- The ethos of the early church was to distinguish sharply between reliable and unreliable reports. (Mt 28:11-14 and Acts 9:11-14). They knew the difference and opted for truth. And in 2 Thess 2.2, Paul warned against the acceptance of the teaching of a letter 'supposed to have come from us'!
This attitude against 'pious fraud' (including NT pseudonymity) continued in the early church. Numerous quotes and events from Eusebius, Serapion, Tertullian, and later writers shows that pseudepigraphic writings and the fanciful elaboration of the NT apocrypha--even for noble and pure motives--were NOT accepted by the church and carefully guarded against...The criteria of truth and demonstrable authenticity was too high.
The very manner in which the miracles are recounted provide an argument for their authenticity:
"The uniqueness of Jesus' miracles is itself an argument for their authenticity, by the criterion of dissimilarity [a criterion used by critical scholarship to judge authenticity of textual pieces]. This uniqueness extends in the majority of cases to the simplicity and directness of Jesus' style, the immediacy with which his power takes effect, and the restrained nature of the narratives which understate the sensational." (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, IVP: 1987, p.92; drawing upon A.E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History, Westminster: 1982, pp.98-119)
- The apostolic leaders had an 'anti-glamorizing' tendency, as evident by their experiences in Acts.:
Acts 3:12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: "Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?" (after a spectacular miracle)
[Perfect opportunities to aggrandize themselves--and they blew it! ;>) ]
Acts 14:11ff When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.
Most of the NT documents were written with minimal influence between each other (this is the basis for what is called the 'synoptic problem'--they share SOME data, but show a very independent development path, use of different oral/written tradition sources, manifest different levels of paraphrase, summary, interpretation, etc. ). As such they constitute 5-8 INDEPENDENT witnesses to the base set of miracles. For a 'bias' argument to work here, each author would have to develop the 'same' bias, in the same direction, at the same rate to produce the documents we have in the NT! The probability of that occurring (without a collusion process that would have at the same time 'smoothed out' the text and apparent discrepancies) is nil. The 'sameness and diversity' at the same time argues for historicity and multiple witnesses.
The data that critical scholarship yields in the Form Critical area, indicates a highly literal use of sources by the Evangelists (read: "no embellishment"). The studies of the Infancy Narratives in Luke, for example, show an almost wooden literal translation of some Hebrew or Aramaic document, in a way unlikely for someone trying to imitate biblical writing in a fabrication. (see Farris, The Hymns of Luke's Infancy Narratives, JSOT: 1985).
And the agreement of Luke and Matthew on the basics of the birth details (in spite of the fact that they drew on two different traditions) is a strong witness to the historicity of the event (and the early existence of available traditional material.)
- In the data that is shared between the various authors of the gospels, especially in sections of Matthew and Luke that are considered 'borrowed' from Mark, there is no tendency to embellish the narratives. The writers seem to function as responsible scribes, in an area in which it would be easy/natural to embellish or fabricate.
For example, in the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mr 12.5-7; Mt 21.36-38; Lk 20.12-14), the later authors add nothing to heighten the Christology in Mark.
There are SO MANY places where these authors COULD HAVE placed 'innocent' statements to heighten or embellish the depiction of their leader. For example, in Luke's unique story of the raising of the dead son of the widow at Nain, he records the amazement of the onlookers (7.11-17) in the mild terms of "a great prophet", when it would have been so easy to have them say something 'bigger' like 'the Son of God' or 'the Messiah' or whatever. Numerous such opportunities present themselves to the NT writers and either they 1) didn't want to do it or 2) couldn't do it because there were too many eyewitnesses and/or other 'check' documents in circulation at the time that would expose the fraudulence.
- Frankly, it is amazing the extent the gospel writers went to AVOID smuggling the post-Easter faith into the pre-Easter history! There are a number of observations which indicate the force of this:
- They did not 'eliminate' or 'soften' the "Hard Sayings" of Jesus! There are many passages that the Church has wrestled with over the centuries, that COULD have been excised fortuitously, had the NT writers not been slavishly committed to historical accuracy. For example, the saying of Jesus in which He did not know the time of His Return (Mrk 13.32) or his inability to work a miracle (Mrk 6.5-6)--these would have been ONLY 'LEFT IN' on the rationale of 'the Master said it, so keep it'!
- They did not retroactively INSERT 'answers' (or even the controversies themselves) to the early Church's controversies INTO the gospel stories. The early church wrestled with (1) whether believers needed to be circumcised; (2) how to regulate speaking in tongues; (3) how to keep Jew and Gentile united in one body; (4) whether Christians could divorce non-Christian spouses; etc. It would have been MUCH SIMPLER had the evangelists simply 'invented' an answer to these and put it on the lips of Jesus--yet they did not. Either they were too honest, or there were too many other witnesses to function as 'check and balance' to them, or BOTH. They were motivated to keep 'history as history--not smuggle the present into the past'.
- Lemcio (in a masterful work--LPJG) makes a detailed and very powerful case that:
The hardest available evidence from the gospels has confirmed the thesis that the Evangelists produced narratives about Jesus of Nazareth that were free of blatant attempts to infuse and overlay this story with their own later and developed estimates of his teaching, miracles, passion, and person...With a consistency that can be charted on virtually every page of text, the thought and idiom of his era are not reproduced in theirs. Or, more correctly, they do not retroject theirs into his. (pp. 108-109)
He does this by analyzing the differences between the teachings of the NT church and those of the pre-Easter narratives. By contrasting, for example, the post-resurrection teachings of Jesus in Luke or Matthew with the pre-Easter teachings of Jesus, Lemcio discovers that the EARLIER teachings are not 'painted over' with the LATER (more exalted?) teachings!
A couple of categories of these discontinuities should be adequate to demonstrate this:
There are scores of such examples given in Lemcio's work. His open methodological comment illustrates the extent (even beyond those Hellenistic writers to whom he compares them--pp.24ff) to which the gospel writers went to record 'history as it was':
- The Christological titles: "Son of Man" is used almost exclusively by Jesus of himself; the post-Easter community only uses it once of Jesus!
- The Well-defined term 'Lord' of the post-Easter community does not overlay the more 'vague' usages of 'lord' in the gospels.
- The obviously Christo-centric message of the post-Easter community does NOT obliterate the Patri-centric message of the pre-Easter Jesus;
- The pre-Easter Jesus talks about the gospel of "God" and of the "Kingdom"; the post-Easter message is that of the gospel of "Jesus".
- The focal command to go a make disciples, to baptize (in the name of the Trinity!), to obey JESUS' commands--finds NO place in the pre-Easter narratives of the life/teaching of Jesus. The evangelists have NOT 'pushed' that post-Easter teaching/mission 'back' into Jesus' past.
...the Evangelists, to an extent heretofore unrecognized, produced narratives distinguishing Jesus' time from their own. This effort transcended merely putting verbs in past tenses and dividing the account into pre- and post-resurrection periods. Rather, they took care that terminology appropriate to the Christian era does not appear beforehand. Vocabulary characteristic prior to Easter falls by the wayside afterwards. Words common to both bear a different nuance in each. Idiom suits the time.
- The almost excruciating detail and minutia of cultural data in Acts demonstrates a profound care for truth in every aspect of the narrative. All of the data we have about the Graeco-Roman world of the time demonstrates Luke's accuracy, lending credibility to his claim to have 'investigated carefully' the sources. Historians of all persuasions comment on his almost obsessive fidelity to true rendering of detail. ("Hey, but what about that big goof he made on the Census and Quirinius deal, eh?!")
The eminent Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White:
"Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd" (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Oxford University Press: 1965.)
"I have an interest here in the unimportant, in the nuances, which might betray a redactor's faulty knowledge of the context of a precise but unimportant statement. I submit that it is exceedingly hard to reproduce secondhand, in one's own style, intricate reports of fact. Yet we can check the trivia of Acts against the inscriptions: "town clerk" at Ephesus, "politarchs" at Thessalonica, "first man" at Malta...Less obvious but more pervasive are the marginal things, the incidence of personal names, the illustrations of the customs in verbal uses...And there is the factor of the subtle interlocking of pieces...the dates of the Gallio inscription...the expulsion of the Jews from Italy...There are in fact incidentals...which contribute unemphatically to the building of a picture which correlates with external literature and with archaeology" ("Luke the Historian" in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, No. 60, pp.36,37)
M. Hengel compared Acts with other 'histories' of the time, noticing that Luke also abbreviates, omits, elaborates or repeats when he writes:
"All this can be found in the secular histories of Greek and Roman antiquity. On the other hand, one can hardly accuse him of simply having invented events, created scenes out of nothing and depicted them on a broad canvas, deliberately falsifying his traditions in an unrestrained way for the sake of cheap effect. He is quite certainly not simply concerned with pious edification at the expense of truth." (Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, ET: 1979, p.61)
It is important to realize that this careful (and accurate) writer of Acts is the SAME PERSON WHO AUTHORED THE GOSPEL OF LUKE. This adds a heightened credibility to that document.
D. Data from the NT's setting in history
- The historical span, from events to gospel, is simply too short to allow serious embellishment. The fact that Jesus' ministry was largely a public ministry, with his sayings and teachings often repeated would have generated numerous witnesses (esp. among enemies of the early Christian movement) who could have refuted easily any fabricated claims of the writers.
[Interestingly enough, we get the opposite problem--too many people wrote COMPLEMENTARY accounts! The NT apocrypha, with all the elaborate mythical stories about the child Jesus, shows that 'uncontrolled' writing was OBVIOUSLY possible! The Jewish culture had produced 'inter-necine warfare' documents earlier in the pre-NT OT pseudepigraphic writings. A comparison of the pro-Hasmonean 1st and 2nd Maccabees with the anti-Hasmonean Psalms of Solomon will show that the Palestine of the NT was able to generate 'rebuttals' to its internal factions and groups. And, that the NT had circulation outside of the early 'Jewish church' can be seen from the fact that the Rabbis made references (and rules, of course!) relative to these documents in Talmud and Midrash (e.g. b. Sab. 116a,b; t. Sab. xiii.5; b. Gitt. 45b; t. Jad. ii.13). There is even some evidence that the Qumran community--before its destruction in the late 60's--had access to the gospels (cf. Thiede's work on the Markan fragment and the Pastoral fragment in Cave 7--TRKW.) All this leads up to the fact that there was ample opportunity, ability, and forum for rebuttal of inaccurate historical claims.]
The explosive growth of the Jewish church (1st) and then Gentile church, as demonstrated by (1) Claudius' expulsion of the Jews & Christians from Rome in 49 ad, only for there to be another group significant enough for Nero to blame the burning of Rome on in ad 64; and (2) the letter from Pliny the Younger to Trajan (c. 112) on how to deal with the Christian group composed of 'many of all ages and every rank and also of both sexes" in Bithynia (south of the Black Sea);
and (3) the growth numbers in the early chapters of Acts; JUST WOULD NOT HAVE OCCURRED if the early factual claims of miracles, and esp. the resurrection, would have been popularly known to be false (or could have easily been shown to have been false). The resurrection was the proof of Christ's messiahship and proof that God would 'raise' His people as well.
This too-short a timeframe for legendizing can be illustrated from the case of Alexander the Great. The early (and reliable) historians of Alex were Arrian and Plutarch, who wrote more than 400 years after his death in 323BC. Yet the legendizing of Alex into a divine figure only occurred in the centuries AFTER them! (Robin L. Fox, The Search for Alexander).
Similarly, the Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White demonstrated from analysis of Herodotus and Thucydides that "Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition" (RLRS:190-192).
Indeed, it can be shown that INSTEAD of embellishing the actually historical with ADDITIONAL 'supernatural' data, the tendency was to do the opposite--to abbreviate, to summarize, to condense (other than the gap-filling in the NT apocrypha). One can see this OUTSIDE the NT (e.g. summarized parables in the "Gospel of Thomas") and INSIDE the NT (e.g. parallel narratives in Mr/Mt and Mr/Lk).
With so much public data--much oral public, some probably written down--the fact that the NT writers had earlier documents to work with shortens the gap from event to recording. If Paul's earliest knowledge of the details of Jesus' life came from the 'traditions' he received (paradosis - cf. I Cor 15.3) and passed along (I Cor 11.23), and his earliest writing was approx. 50 AD. (again, if we assume James wasn't written in the 40's) then the 'traditions' he received which were in synch with the material that the synoptics used, were much earlier than that. They were probably a mix of oral and written materials, which were kept in Jerusalem (where most of all the 'corrective' and 'check' data was in circulation).
- This early core of teaching exerted considerable influence in keeping everybody honest. It was of course used WITHIN the NT documents (before being collected/written into gospels), as in Paul's quotes of Jesus in I Cor 7.10; 9.14; and 11.23ff. As late as the end of the 1st century, it was STILL used as a check on teaching. It shows up in independent (i.e. non-borrowing quotes), for example in I Clement (1 Clem 13.2) and Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians (2.3) there are versions of a section of the Sermon on the Mount, cast in parallel, rhythmic form (probably so phrased for easy teaching and memorization). The most detailed recent study of these (Hagner in "The Sayings of Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers and Justin Martyr" in Gospel Perspectives , vol 5, pp233-268) concludes with this observation:
"...although the sayings of Jesus are reproduced freely and adapted to special purposes, the amount of significant variation between the same saying in our sources is relatively small.
...if the tenacity and relative stability of oral tradition in the first half of the second century was as impressive as we have seen it to be, the trustworthiness of that oral tradition in the middle decades of the first century was, if anything, even more substantial." (p256, 259)
- There are many supporting arguments from the culture of the day that supports the extensive use of notes, shorthand, and memorization by pupils of famous teachers. The Rabbi's, of course, had their specific followers, and there is no reason to totally doubt that Jesus' followers did not emulate this in at least SOME sense. Jesus was certainly considered a prophet and his words were so understood, and just as many parts of OT prophecy are considered by even fairly skeptical scholars to have been quite well preserved, Jesus' utterances should be seen in this light as well. 90% of His teachings in the gospels are couched in forms which would have been easy to remember, using figures and styles much like that found in Hebrew poetry. (see Stein's The Method and Message of Jesus' Teaching, Westminster: 1978.) Even the separate missions of the disciples during Jesus' life (Mr 6; Lk 10) point to the fact that the disciples were EXPECTED TO LEARN and TEACH his message.
Rabbi's memorized the entire OT plus many, many oral laws. Education for many Jewish boys from ages five to 12-13 was mandatory and entirely by rote memory--studying only the Bible (Gerhardsson and Reisner, cited in JUF:32). All major Jewish groups had community prayers that they committed to memory. (Bock, JUF:80)
Shorthand and speed-writing was commonly used (in private) by Rabbinic disciples (JUF:33) and in Graeco-Roman writing (TRKW:80-83). For examples: Plutarch tells us (Cat min 23) that Cicero had stenographers placed around the senate to record Cato's speech, in 63BC. The emperor Titus (ad 39-81) was said by Suetonius to be a master of the art of shorthand (De Vita Caesarum, 8.3.2). Archeologists have found an early-2nd century leather mss. in Greek shorthand at Wadi Murabba'at by the Dead Sea. It has been advanced that Matthew/Levi, who would have had such skills for his job as tax collector/customs official, used those skills to take some notes during Jesus' longer sermons. His accounts are considerably longer than the other synoptics, perhaps betraying this use of more detailed sources.
- As noted above, the silence of the NT apocrypha on the NT miracles is an important piece of data (given that we already have grounds for believing their existence--and thereby precluding the 'reverse argument from silence' in this case.) Perhaps Blomberg says it best:
"Most of the New Testament Apocrypha show little overlap with the information found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This fact alone is significant; it means that even in those circles where early Christians apparently felt free to invent stories about Jesus, they almost never tried to deny the truth of the canonical accounts. Instead they went about 'filling in the gaps' in the historical record, imagining what Jesus' childhood was like, describing his correspondence and travels to other lands, and adding adventures of his disciples..." (op. cit. p 216)
- It is somewhat significant (in both general opinion and IMHO) that the earliest extra-biblical attestations to Jesus NEVER DISPUTE THE FACT of his miracles or the authenticity of the claims, but either simply report them (e.g. Josephus' Antiquities 18:63) or attribute them to evil (e.g. Talmud P. Ta'an. 65b; and the later Sanhedrin 3a.). The rabbinical writings do not, however, constitute a strong independent witness, since most of their claims are probably derived from earlier Christian information.
- Although the NT gospels are without precedent in NT times--the 'gospel' as a literary form did not exist--they reveal major points of continuity with the historical works of the day.
- Luke's gospel and Acts DO conform to the general category of a 'historical report', in Hellenistic historiographical terms. Writing to a more cultured and educated Hellenistic crowd, he follows the format of historia. For example, his preamble in 1.1-4 has the same format as that in Josephus' Against Apion, ii, 1.
- The most recent and authoritative analysis of Luke's preface--trying to place it into a historical genre--is that by Loveday Alexander (The Preface to Luke, Cambridge: 1993). She demonstrates that Luke's preface most closely resembles the technical prose of prefaces to medical and scientific treatises, and shows the substantial similarities between Luke and Graeco-Roman writings that describe the life of a founder of a philosophical or scientific 'school'. This genre gave careful attention to preserving the founders ORIGINAL ideas and traditions, although paraphrase and re-phrasing was common.
- The synoptic gospels manifest the characteristics of historical biography of the day (especially of religious figures) (cf. Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Cambridge:1992):
- Disproportionate attention to someone's birth and/or death;
- Grouping material topically and/or chronologically;
- Paraphrase rather than exact quotation;
- Summarizing and digesting long speeches or stories;
- General freedom to describe events from different perspectives
The 'net' of this: the gospels far well within the range of the historical genres of the day, and conform to the standards for accuracy for those genres.
- As this historical genre, Luke-Acts would have generally observed the STANDARDS of that genre--including NOT embellishing:
"'Without adding or deleting anything' is a motto some ancient historians applied to the accurate use of sources or facts (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 5, 8; Lucian, History 47; Josephus, Antiquities 1.17). This meant sticking to the general sense of the sources, not transcribing them verbatim..." (David Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Westminster: 1987, p.82)
- One final note on Luke as historian: in this genre the emphasis was on EYEWITNESSES, as Luke emphases in his quest for accuracy (Luke 1.1-4).
"Personal visual knowledge, i.e. eyewitness evidence (autopsia) was thought the most reliable historical source. (Herodotus 2.99; Polybius 12.27.1-6; 20.12.8; Lucian History 47)."
(Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment, Westminster: 1987, p 81.)
E. Considerations from Historical Method
In addition to the points made above on historical method (i.e. about 'contradictions' being a GOOD thing and about not throwing the data out for ONE mistake) the following issues are important to note.
History deals with probabilistic arguments; but this does NOT mean that the results are thereby uncertain--practically speaking. Consider one the standard research guides:
"The historian arrives at truth through probability" but "this does not mean 'a doubtful kind of truth' but a firm reliance on the likelihood that evidence which has been examined and found solid is veracious." (Barzun and Graff, The Modern Researcher, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich: 1977, p.92)
The 'burden of proof' issue is a major point in skeptical argument. But in the historical research arena, we have already seen that it is both unfounded and not practiced in the scholarly and academic realms. The skeptical criteria for acceptance is simply wrong. If modern historical scholarship would adopt the 'guilty until proven innocent' tact, the vast majority of accepted history would have to be discarded. In the words of historian McEleney, the opposite principle is
"...a presumption which one exercises in the reading of all history. Without it no historiography, ancient or modern, would win acceptance. Briefly, it is this, that one accepts a statement upon the word of the reporter unless he has reason not to do so" (CBQ 34 (1972), p.446)
This finds statement even in books on historical method:
"We may find...an event is known to us solely through an authority based entirely upon the statements of witnesses who are no longer available. Most of the works of Livy, the first books of the history of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, belong to this category. Since there is no other way of knowing the story they tell us, we must provisionally accept their version. This brings us back full sail to accepted history as the starting point for all investigation." (G.J. Reiner, History: Its Purpose and Method, George Allen & Unwin: 1950, pp90-91.
- Consider this abundance of historical detail, so close to the events, with such a varied cast of witnesses...in contrast to OTHER historical situations (RF:211):
Historians of the Roman Empire often refer to "Caesar's crossing the Rubicon" as an undisputed fact of historic significance, even though it is attested only by four ancient writers, two to three generations after the event, all dependent on one eyewitness account [long since disappeared!], and preserved in significantly different forms corresponding to the various authors' ideologies, including one which attributes Caesar's decision to enlarge his frontiers to divine guidance.
- The data of the NT, with all its buzzing detail and aura of 'dissonance' provide NOT a discouraging field to the historian, but rather one rich in historical worth:
"it is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn." (A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Oxford: 1963, p.187)
F. The Status and Trends of Critical Scholarly Research today
It is important to note what the critical scholarship community has to say about the trustworthiness of the NT documents, as well as the general trends in that scholarship.
- The first point to note is that whereas critical scholarship of a century ago discarded most of the NT (and esp. the miraculous elements) as 'bogus'--following the lead of German critical studies by Strauss, the trend has consistently moved in a conservative direction since then. Many of the quotes in the above, defending the miraculous character of the earliest strata of the gospels, for example, are quotes from non-conservative scholars. And the German contingent has actually provided several leaders in this movement (see Meyer's The Aims of Jesus (SCM:1979) for a description of this trend.)
- EVEN IF we do not begin with the standard historiographical starting point of 'innocent until proven guilty', there are enough 'criteria of authenticity' produced by the critical community to 're-claim' the vast majority of the NT--including the miracle accounts.
Critical scholarship has four 'tests' for the authenticity of a passage:
In a work that surveys what the application of the above critical principles has accepted as authentic (in VERY critical circles!) in recent decades, Latourelle gives this list: the linguistic, social, political, economic, cultural, and religious environments depicted; the great events of Jesus' life-baptism, temptation, transfiguration, teaching on the kingdom, call to repentance, parables, beatitudes, teaching on God as Father, the miracles and exorcisms as signs of the kingdom, the betrayal, agony, trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection; the controversies with the scribes and Pharisees; Jesus' attitudes of simplicity and authority, of purity and compassion; the Christology implied by the sign of Jonah, the sign of the temple and the 'Son of man' title; the rejection of a space- or time-bound kingdom; and the calling and mission of the apostles, coupled with their initial enthusiasm, subsequent lack of understanding and final betrayal and desertion. His summary:
- Does the passage find another attestation somewhere else in the literature (or external sources)?
- Does the Greek text of a passage reflect a fairly literal translation of a Semitic original (or describe events/concepts distinctive to first-century Palestine)?
- Does the passage reflect a view of Jesus that is somewhat different from the typical perspectives of ancient Jewish belief and of early Christianity?
- Does the passage 'cohere' well with passages authenticated by the other three methods?
"On each of the subjects enumerated, we can invoke the testimony of many exegetes. To the extent that researches go on, the material acknowledged as authentic grows ceaselessly until it covers the whole Gospel" (Finding Jesus through the Gospels, Alba: 1079, pp238ff.)
So the picture that emerges is one of increasing authentication of the text--by a wide range of scholars, from a very wide range of critical and skeptical orientations.
- The "Third Quest" (for the historical Jesus) movement illustrates this increasing conservatism on the part of non-traditional scholars. Blomberg, who follows this closely, describes it in RF:200:
On the one hand, there is what has been called the "third quest" for the historical Jesus...Numerous recent historical analyses of Jesus have moved in an increasingly positive direction, believing that we can recover substantial amounts of information about what he did and said. These studies tend to set Jesus and the gospels squarely within the milieu of ancient Judaism much more so than did their predecessors. Two prolific contributors to this third quest, E.P. Sanders and James Charlesworth, agree that 'the dominant view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.'
G. Concluding Remarks:
I have given tons and tons of detail to demonstrate the realistic and restrained and authentic character of the NT documents. I have shown from representative historians (of ALL 'bias' persuasions) that these documents are excellent material to work with in building historical understandings. I have cited professional historians to show that the 'skeptical' doubt is both NOT required and is, in fact, NOT admissible as proper method in scholarly historical research.
Yet for all this, the skeptic could still say "Yeah, so the NT documents DO look like authentic and realistic data...but the writers simply FABRICATED them to look like that--to trick us". This 'advanced level' of skeptical paranoia and conspiratorial thinking has EVEN LESS plausibility attached to it THAN the accusation of 'fraud'...it would require the NT writers to be brilliant beyond expectation to weave such a fabric of subtle detail and perspectives and 'spin'. Maybe advanced aliens from outer space could do it, but certainly not our less-than-gifted apostles! [Oops--I hope I didn't create a new skeptical theory with that last sentence! How would I ever carry the 'burden of proof' to show that Aliens DIDN'T WRITE the NT?!!! I can see it now--the skeptic uses I Peter 2.11 to come up with the 'YoYoDyne' theory of gospel formation...;>)]
There is much more that could be said, and indeed, many more issues that would need to be addressed to make this complete. And I would not want to leave you with the impression that there are no difficulties in this view (as in ANY viewpoint). But this should be enough data to demonstrate that the modern view (as opposed to the views of say 50-100 years ago) of the NT is that of high reliability in its portrayal of the life and times of Jesus Christ. [For the fairest discussion of the 'tough' questions, I refer you to Blomberg's excellent work -- The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, cited above, and JUF, RF, TJQ, CSSG.]
And as to that most difficult of all miracles--the resurrection of Jesus from the grave--I like the harsh, pragmatic words of Barnett (Is the New Testament Reliable: A Look at the Historical Evidence, IVP:1986, p. 172.)
"Philosophically and scientifically there are problems with a resurrection, and I feel those as keenly as most. But I cannot escape the historical question. Did the resurrection happen or not? If it happened, it happened--and so much the worse for my dogmas."
Glenn M. Miller, 4/6/96
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