“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life:For the life was manifested; and we have seen and do bear witness, and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father, and hath appeared to us:That which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship may be with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).
In the previous parts to our series responding to the mythicists’ claims that there is no good evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed, we looked at a couple non-Christian historians from around the time of Christ who mention Him and the influence He had, as well as His crucifixion under Pilate and that His followers claimed He rose again from the dead. We also looked at recent archaeological finds that shed light on the places and the culture in which Jesus lived, which corroborate the Gospel accounts—particularly in circumstances where up until these discoveries, scholars claimed that certain statements in the Gospels were untrue because such and such didn’t actually exist. While the archaeological data doesn’t provide a hard-and-fast link to the historical Jesus (unless one recognises the Shroud of Turin as authentic), they do serve to corroborate the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. It is to these accounts which we now turn.
With the advent of “Higher Criticism” in the last 200 years, the belief that the Gospels were actual, if supernatural, histories has eroded to the point where it seems that only those with a more “fundamentalist” best to their faith still believe this (in fact, Protestant fundamentalism began as a reaction to this liberal turn in biblical scholarship). In his three – volume work, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI praises many of the benefits of higher textual criticism, and the greater understanding of the original context, styles, and intent of the sacred authors. Yet he cautions against the limitations of this approach, not the least of which is a materialistic bias which tends to discount the miraculous incidents in the text as simply mythological (Jesus of Nazareth, Introduction. See also http://www.faith.org.uk/article/january-february-2009-beyond-historical-criticismpope-benedict-xvi-and-the-reform-of-biblical-exegesis). As G. K. Chesterton once remarked about liberal theology, “For some inconceivable cause, a ‘broad’ or ‘liberal’ clergyman always means a man who wishes to diminish the number of miracles; it never means a man who wishes to increase that number” (Orthodoxy, chapter 8). Modern scholars view themselves as somehow more scientific, rational, and objective because they a priori dismiss the claims of the supernatural. On the contrary, however, simply rejecting the supernatural out-of-hand does not eliminate bias, but is merely an example of bias. Thecircularity of this reasoning is humourously depicted in this video.
Allowing ourselves, then, to be open-minded enough to accept—or at least suspend our disbelief about—the miraculous claims in the Gospels, we can examine the texts critically, using the same methods of evaluating the Gospels as scholars use to evaluate other texts of antiquity.
In a recent dialogue with sceptic Bart Ehrman, Michael Licona lays out certain principles of determining the reliability of an ancient text:
- I want to have adequate certainty that our critical text — that is, the earliest text scholars can reconstruct in its original language based on the best manuscript evidence — is essentially what the author wrote.
- I want elements of the report to be corroborated by other independent sources, if possible.
- I will give additional value to unsympathetic sources that provide corroboration.
- I will give additional value to sources that are early and written by eyewitnesses.
- I will give additional value when a source reports something that would have been embarrassing to the author or the cause he favors, since it speaks to the matter of the author’s honesty.
- When appropriate, I will consider various hypotheses that attempt to account for the data and weigh them using criteria of inference to the best explanation (e.g., having greater explanatory scope and power; being lessad hoc; being more plausible).
When evaluating the Gospels with these questions in mind, and according to the literary styles and conventions of the time in which they were composed, Dr. Licona maintains that the Gospels do, indeed, deserve to be considered reliable historical documents—that is, they satisfy the same criteria of reliability that is applied to the works of Joseph us or Tacitus, or other ancient historians and biographers, namely:
- We can verify numerous elements reported by an ancient author to be true in their essence though not necessarily in every detail. (See the six tools above that historians use for this.)
- We have reason to believe the author was neither overly indiscriminate in his use of sources nor credulous.
- We have reason to believe the author intended to write an accurate account of what occurred notwithstanding his use of compositional devices appropriate for the historical/biographical genre and the occasional appearance of errors and legend.
- We have no good reasons to believe more than a very small percentage of stories reported by an ancient author are false.
When combined with the corroborating testimony of modern archaeological discoveries, there seems to be very little reason to reject the Gospels as history beyond simply a desire to avoid their theology.
Further, to the claims of sceptics such as Ehrman that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, but rather were written long afterwards (in the dialogue with Licona linked above, Ehrman even goes so far as to say none of the Gospels even claim to be eyewitness accounts—a claim confounded by St. John’s Gospel at least!) Biblical scholar Dr. Richard Bauckham, in his seminal work, ”Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, makes the point that the names dropping of various people in the Gospels (such as Jairus, Simon of Cyrene, Bartimaeus, and other otherwise “minor characters”) is actually a sort of bibliography—in that it indicates that these people were still alive and could be consulted to authenticate the Gospel claims. Moreover, Bauckham argues, far from being a willy-nilly oral traditions cobbled together from various anonymous sources, the Gospels in fact represent the codification of a carefully safeguarded oral history, governed by an authoritative body of witnesses (ie, the Apostles) who guaranteed that the stories recounted were indeed true recollections.
An authoritative body preserving an authoritative tradition and composing an authoritative Scripture—why, that almost sounds Catholic! If nothing else, if the Gospels are viewed with the same critical approach and standard given to the works of Cicero and Suetonius, we can be sure that they are at least as reliable as those historical works which no scholar questions. In our next and final instalment of this series, we’ll look at statements from scholars who do not believe in the Christian yet nevertheless believe that Jesus was a real, historical person, as well as logically pondering the ramifications of holding either belief.
Read the other posts of the series Was Jesus Real:
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