Opening Statement by Dr. Stephen Motyer


Does the New Testament provide a reliable account of the life and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth?

There are four separate aspects to this question:

(1) Do the New Testament accounts undermine their reliability, simply because they present Jesus in 'supernatural' terms?

(2) Were the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life (the 'Gospels') subjected to wholesale alteration during the 150 years after their composition - as Moslem apologists and others argue?

(3) Can we trust the authors of the Gospels as reliable passers-on of the traditions concerning Jesus, or did they themselves elaborate the stories?

(4) What about the time between the life of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels (30 to 50 years): were the stories of his life elaborated and changed during this period of mainly 'oral' transmission?

It is immediately clear that these are big questions. Christians have long been open to the challenge posed to the origins of their faith by these possibilities. However it is my conviction that the evidence well supports confidence in the broad picture of the life of Jesus presented by the Gospels, and in defence of this I shall present an outline argument responding to each of these four questions in turn.

(1) Is a 'supernatural' Jesus automatically impossible? This has been a widely-held view, and is still the instinctive feeling of many. Western culture and the western educational tradition have by and large dispensed with God as a 'fact' to be assumed within public knowledge, and have relegated God to the realm of private conviction. When studying history, therefore, and seeking the origins and causation of historical movements like the Christian church, many scholars have excluded the supernatural from the outset. Viewed through the spectacles of this presupposition, inevitably the New Testament picture of Jesus cannot be reliable, for it presupposes a different world-view.

But in seeking the truth about something as important as the existence of God, we need to cast our net wider than merely the western intellectual tradition of the last 250 years or so. Even within that tradition, there have been many voices ready to affirm the fact of God in human history. And beyond it, the chorus of voices is almost unanimous. Of course, these voices do not agree about God. There are great differences between eastern and western theism. But at the level of presupposition, the vast majority of thinking people in world history, so far as they have left records of their thoughts, have affirmed (a) the existence of divine beings of various types, and (b) the intervention of divine power into the course of human life.

Our western humanistic public consensus is in any case breaking down, now, under the impact of the New Age movement and 'postmodernity', which is much less ready to be certain about the explanatory power of science, and about materialism as a final description of human being. And so, at the level of presupposition, many people are now much more ready to be open to the possibility that Jesus was the extraordinary person portrayed by the Gospels.

Openness is all that is needed, to overcome this first objection. Why should there not be an openness to the possibility that God may have revealed himself in Jesus?

But the other three questions suggest that, even if we are open to the possibility, we might still have to conclude that Jesus was no more than an ordinary human being - even if a remarkable one - and that it was his followers who built him up into the miracle-working figure of the Gospels who rises from death at the end of the story. We tackle these objections in turn.

(2) Have the Gospel accounts been systematically altered? Moslem scholars argue that this is the case. They suggest that
* the original 'Injil', or 'Gospel', was spoken by Jesus in Aramaic, but that
* the first Christians abandoned this entirely in favour of a variety of Gospels written in Greek;
* that the four Gospels in the New Testament were chosen from a range of several hundred during the first 200 years, and that
* the earliest Christian scribes introduced extensive alterations into the text of these four.
So the Jesus of the New Testament Gospels, they say, is nothing like the real Jesus of history.

It is certainly true that some Christian scribes, copying out the documents of the New Testament during this early period, occasionally altered the wording in front of them to make it fit better one side or other of a theological debate. Steven Carr has given some examples of this elsewhere in the website, taken from Bart Ehrman's excellent book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford University Press, 1993). Ehrman shows how, particularly, debates about the identity of Jesus are sometimes reflected in the small variations of wording which appear when the many surviving manuscripts of the New Testament, or of parts of it, are compared with each other. Many of these variations arose by mistake, but some were clearly deliberate alterations.

However none of these alterations involve more than a sentence, at most. The manuscript evidence does not support the view that the whole picture of Jesus was reshaped by widespread alterations or insertions. Beyond these tiny variations, there is a remarkable consistency in the manuscript tradition. The oldest complete surviving manuscripts of the Gospels date from 200-225 CE, and if these differed greatly from the form in which they were actually written some 125-150 years earlier, there would be evidence of much greater confusion in the manuscript tradition than in fact there is.

Nor is there the slightest evidence for the existence of many other competing 'Gospels' from which the four New Testament Gospels were chosen. Luke, at the beginning of his Gospel, refers to "the many who have tried to draw up an account of the things fulfilled among us" (Luke 1:1), but he clearly did not regard these "accounts" as comparable to his Gospel. For he sets out to provide Theophilus (his patron) with a "certain and sure" account of Jesus in contrast to these 'many' perhaps conflicting accounts already in existence. From the very earliest years of the church, the four New Testament Gospels became the standard accounts of the life of Jesus, and no others were widely used. On the fringes of the church some Gnostic groups had their own Gospels, but these never convinced people generally that they contained an accurate account. The most famous of these, the Gospel of Thomas, contains simply sayings, with no records of Jesus' life and actions.

Nor is there any evidence that the transition from Aramaic to Greek caused a great change - but we will tackle this under point (4).

(3) Did the Gospel-writers themselves 'fictionalise' Jesus? The evidence suggests that they were keen to present an accurate account of the real Jesus. Luke's Preface to his Gospel sets out his motivation and technique (Luke 1:1-4):

"Since many have attempted to draw up an account of the things fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning, and who became ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, most excellent Theophilus, to follow everything carefully from the very first, and to write an orderly account for you, so that you might know the certainty of the message in which you have been instructed."

Luke here mentions a period of careful research underlying his Gospel, which he then describes as an "orderly" account designed perhaps to answer some of Theophilus' uncertainty about the truth of the story. Luke's qualities as a historian have been shown through study of his second volume, the 'Acts of the Apostles', where many points of incidental detail in the story have been confirmed by archaeology or by other sources outside the New Testament. It certainly looks as though Luke prized and sought accuracy through careful research.

We could object, of course, that this opening statement is political rather than genuine: Luke must say this, in order to convince Theophilus, but it could be window-dressing. In fact he could have deliberately inserted accurate, checkable details so that the fantastic presentation of Jesus would seem more convincing. But the accurate details which can be confirmed by outside sources appear in his second volume, rather than in his Gospel. He has not peppered his story of Jesus with such points. He has clearly gone back and researched Jesus' origins with great care, for instance rescuing from historical oblivion the personal poems of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon which he includes in his opening account of Jesus' birth.

But what about the other Gospels? Here John, in particular, presents us with a problem. There is much material in common between Luke, Matthew and Mark, but John's Gospel is very different from all three. Many scholars, including Christian scholars, have expressed deep scepticism about the historical reliability of John, simply because of these differences. In commenting on this we can make three points:

The three 'synoptic' Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) still present us with a miracle-working Jesus, portrayed as the 'Son of God' who speaks in God's name and rises from death. In this, they are no different from John. All four work with a similar understanding of Jesus' person, even if the stories differ.

The differences must not be exaggerated. Jesus' death and resurrection still dominate the story in John, and there are many points of overlap. Because John describes Jesus working in Jerusalem much more than the synoptics, it could be that he has - deliberately? - drawn on different sources, preserved in Judea and Jerusalem rather than in the north, in Galilee, where Jesus' work is concentrated in the synoptics.

In any case, all four Gospels are working with a particular understanding of history-writing which is different from ours today. Modern biographies tend to be big, sometimes enormous, because they set out to chronicle the subject's life completely, from cradle to grave. The four Gospels are all tiny by comparison, because their goal is different: not minute detailed accuracy, but a true presentation giving real understanding and insight - and, of course, leading to commitment.

We must not ask the Gospels to provide a kind of reliability which they didn't set out to give. So the question is not, Are they right in every detail, like a modern chronicle? but, Do they present a credible, convincing portrait of this remarkable human being? My answer is - Yes!

(4) But histories are no more reliable than their sources. Maybe the Gospel-writers, with great sincerity and concern for truth, put together their portraits of Jesus using materials which had already been gravely corrupted. If so, then however well-motivated they were, their task was already impossible because of the period of oral transmission during which the real Jesus sank under legendary additions. We noted above how Moslem scholars make this point, connecting it to the translation of Jesus' teaching from Aramaic into Greek. Many other scholars have said similar things, arguing that the 'real' Jesus was perhaps a wandering prophet, maybe a Zealot freedom-fighter, perhaps even a miracle-worker, but certainly not the Son of God.

In assessing this we can make five brief points:

The time-gap is not great. We might imagine devoted followers of Che Guevara (who died in October 1967) starting a project now, in 1998, to collect memories of him and write an official biography. It would not be difficult to sift fact from fiction, even though memories might have become hazy. Enough people who knew him are still alive to make checking possible. One of Guevara's closest associates, Fidel Castro, is still doing the same job!

But were the first Christians both keen and able to distinguish fact from fiction? It has commonly been argued that they were not. They were religious devotees, after all, and so (the suggestion runs) allowed stories to become more and more miraculous in the telling, and elaborated the memories of Jesus' teaching.

The so-called 'Apocryphal Gospels' (Gospels written later, and sometimes including fantastic miracles) show that such elaboration went on. But the New Testament Gospels are much more sober than these later tales. And in the Preface to his Gospel (quoted above) Luke emphasises earlier written accounts, and the role of the "eyewitnesses and servants of the word" who handed the stories of Jesus on to "us", that is, second-generation Christians like Luke and Theophilus who never met Jesus personally. Were the "servants of the word" those who were specially trusted for their reliable memory of Jesus' teaching and deeds? In the case of the New Testament Gospels, therefore, the evidence suggests that the pressure to add fantastic elaborations was resisted, and that eyewitness testimony was sought and prized.

The translation from Aramaic into Greek does not seem to have caused problems. Coming from Galilee, Jesus would have been bilingual in Aramaic and Greek (almost certainly speaking Hebrew also), and so right from the start memories of his sayings and doings would have circulated in both languages. Quickly the Aramaic versions faded, because Greek was so dominant in the culture. But little echoes of them appear in the Gospels, particularly in Mark (e.g.Mark 5:41).

Some have argued that the apostle Paul undermines the reliability of the Gospels. One of the earliest and most influential Christians, he seems to ignore the stories of Jesus' life in his letters, emphasising instead his own teaching about the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection. Steven Carr sets out the argument clearly elsewhere in this website. Is this true, and was he typical of the first Christians generally? But recent scholarship suggests (a) that the influence of Jesus' teaching on Paul was much more profound than at first appears, (b) that Paul did not regard his teaching as a substitute for Jesus', but presupposed it, (c) that he was quick to quote Jesus' teaching when it was relevant, (d) that, when he quotes it, he distinguishes carefully between his own views and Jesus' teaching: he does not ascribe his own ideas to Jesus, and (e) that he was not typical of the first Christians, because he regarded himself as an 'apostle' who could speak on behalf of the risen Christ. Oxford scholar Dr David Wenham has studied this in his excellent recent book Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1995).

Finally, it is worth commenting that the Gospels all present Jesus in terms which fit first-century ideas. When Peter said to Jesus "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16), he was not saying that Jesus was the Second Person of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity came along later, as Christians reflected on the significance of Jesus. Peter was recognising Jesus as the "Messiah", a Saviour-figure expected by first-century Jews. Similarly the Gospels portray Jesus as a Prophet, speaking words from God, and performing 'signs' to authenticate his message, and even (in John's Gospel) as an Agent acting for God, exercising God's power on his behalf, just as the Jewish philosopher Philo had already pictured God's "Word" acting on his behalf. So first-century readers, particularly Jews, would not have had difficulty in understanding the claims being made by the Gospels. They were not being asked to leap into an abstruse world of strange theological ideas, but simply to accept that Jesus was the Messiah.

It is more difficult for us, looking back at the Gospels through nearly two millennia of Christian theology and of cultural change. It is hard simply to allow the Gospels to be themselves, before we judge their quality. But in fairness this is what we must try to do.


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