Stephen Motyer's Concluding Statement


I have found this debate with Steven Carr a challenging experience. It is easy for us Christians to take things for granted, and people like Steven challenge us to think carefully about the foundations of our faith.

I have written this closing statement without reading Steven's.

COMPARING LIKE WITH LIKE ...

It's interesting that, in our opening statements, we both asked "What exactly is 'reliability'?", and both made the point that we can't require the Gospels to be something that they are not. We can't ask them to deliver 'reliability' defined in modern terms - this would be like criticising Henry VIII for failing to campaign for European union, or criticising mediaeval doctors for not using anaesthetic.

Steven went on to make the point that we must compare the Gospels with things they are like. He suggested comparing them with other religious works, like the Book of Mormon and the Qur'an, and other ancient works, like the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus.

He is quite right that we must find the right things to compare the Gospels with - or, to express it more technically, we must treat the Gospels as belonging to their 'genre'. We classify things according to their 'genre' all the time, rapidly deciding (for instance) whether we are listening to a joke or a public information announcement, and adjusting our expectations to match.

The trouble is, the Gospels are very different from all the things Steven suggests. I never responded to his comparisons with the Qur'an, partly because I am not an Islamic expert, but chiefly because any comparison of the Gospels with the Qur'an is not going to yield any information useful for this debate. They are just too different.

The same applies to the Book of Mormon - and also to the works of Josephus, though these are at least from the same time and broad culture as the Gospels.

In order to be fair to the Gospels, and judge their 'reliability' suitably, we must discover the 'genre' that they belong to, and let that guide our judgment. In spite of his wise words in his opening statement, I think that Steven Carr has consistently tried to squeeze the Gospels into an alien mould, criticising them for failing to live up to 'modern' standards.

THE GOSPELS AS ANCIENT BIOGRAPHIES

The fact is that the Gospels are all examples of the ancient Graeco-Roman genre of the 'Bios', or 'life', from which the modern 'biography' is descended. The connections between the Gospels and the 'Bios' have recently been studied by Dr Richard Burridge, in his book 'What Are the Gospels?' (Cambridge University Press, 1991). He outlines the six chief features of the 'Bios' as follows:

(1) They began with a prologue or introduction aimed at enabling a right appreciation of the subject.

(2) They focused on a single individual.

(3) They arranged material by chronology, by geography, and by topic. Often there would be a basically chronological framework, beginning with the subject's birth and finishing with his or her death, but within this broad framework material might be arranged topically.

(4) The aim was to build up a portrait of the subject, focusing on incidents that were typical or especially revealing. The purpose was to present the subject in a particular light - good or bad - through the ongoing story.

(5) The 'Bios' was generally a one-volume work - i.e. no longer than could be fitted onto one papyrus roll.

(6) Occasionally they were critical of the subject, but generally these biographies adopted a respectful tone and tried to encourage admiration for the subject among the readers.

It's immediately clear how the Gospels fit into this pattern:

* They all have an introduction which sets the theological, as well as the historical, scene: Matthew introduces Jesus as the son of David and of Abraham, Mark announces him as the bringer of the 'Good News', Luke has a traditional historian's introduction emphasising the truth of what follows, and John's 'Prologue' displays Jesus as the eternal 'Word' of God.

* They don't attempt a detailed, everything-covered account -unlike modern biographies. They are short.

* They choose typical incidents and seek to build up an overall picture.

* They are not deeply interested in details of chronology, timing etc

* They are not 'objective' but are written from a very committed perspective, and try to persuade us, the readers, to take the same attitude.

It is very easy for us, trained in a different way, to feel that the fourth point here - their lack of interest in the historical details that fascinate modern biographers - means that they are fatally flawed and therefore 'unreliable'. Steven Carr has laid emphasis on his exploration of details of this kind, criticising the Gospels for their differences of perspective, the way in which Luke and Matthew have apparently changed Mark, and the differences between John and the three others.

'THE FACTS' AND 'THE TRUTH'

But the Gospels work with a different concept of 'truth'. For us moderns (but not for post-moderns!) 'the truth' is more or less equivalent to 'the facts'. A Police investigation concentrates on gathering 'the facts', because (they believe) that's the way to get to 'the truth'.

But it doesn't take much reflection to realise that the truth is a much bigger, grander thing than just 'the facts'. We could imagine four photographs of a huge oak tree, taken from north, south, east and west. At first sight they look like photos of four different trees, because of the angles and configuration of the branches. When the three-dimensional tree is represented on four two-dimensional pictures taken at 90 degrees to each other, it's hard to tell how the branches all fit together to make one tree.

Looking at the photos carefully, however, you will gradually realise that it IS the same tree, and slowly build up a mental 3D image of it. You will manage to reconstruct 'the facts' of the tree.

It's just like this with the Gospels. Recently many studies of Jesus have been published, and from them emerges a broad agreement that the search for 'the real Jesus' is not a hopeless cause. First-century Judaism forms the essential backdrop to the picture, and against that background the four Gospels contribute their individual perspectives to building up a picture of Jesus as he really was. I would especially like to mention N.T. Wright's study "Jesus and the Victory of God" (SPCK, 1996).

But reconstructing 'the facts' like this still misses the point. Those four photos of the tree were taken, not to provide a brain-teaser, but because the tree is beautiful and the photographer wanted us to admire it. This is the grander, bigger 'truth' which we could miss completely if we concentrate just on the 'facts'.

The two are inter-connected. We need first to know that it really is one tree, on those four photos, before we can begin truly to admire its beauty. Our appreciation will be less than full, if we don't grasp the significance of the different perspectives from which the pictures were taken.

But ultimately the whole point is to share the photographer's delight in the tree. And it is just the same for the Gospel-writers. They want us to share their delight in Jesus Christ, who forms the 'truth' that they want to communicate.

ACCURATE CARTOONS

The portraits painted by the Gospels are more like political cartoons than full-scale oil likenesses. A cartoon of a well-known politician can be a 'true' likeness, even though it may consist only of a few lines and may exaggerate one feature of the face. Yet we all know straightaway who it is. It would be very easy to criticise them - "Mrs Thatcher's nose doesn't look anything like that! Tony Blair smiles a lot, but he never shows as many teeth as that!" But such criticism mistakes the 'genre' of the drawing.

Different cartoons of the same person may be quite different from each other, and yet no one hesitates in appreciating their often subtle 'truth'. Each cartoon makes a comment.

John makes a 'cartoon-style' claim about his Gospel when he writes that "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31).

In order to present Jesus as he knows him, in line with the norms of Graeco-Roman biography, John has selected material designed to achieve the response he wants to see in his readers. He is quite up-front about this. He is convinced that his readers will only truly understand his subject-matter if they "believe" - that is, accept his arguments for Jesus' Messiahship and become Christians. So he has deliberately chosen material to make this case - in much the same way as a political cartoonist styles faces in order to build in political comment.

THE GOSPELS' ULTIMATE RELIABILITY

But the cartoon can still be true! Opinions will differ, of course, as to whether it was right or appropriate to turn Margaret Thatcher's nose into a stinger. Is she that sort of a person, or not? Only those who know her best will be able to say whether this is an accurate comment on her personality! But probably even among her friends opinions will differ, because people are so complex and many-sided.

Similarly there is no ultimate 'proof' of the truth of the Gospels' portrait of Jesus. They are attempts by four of his friends to record for later generations the reasons for the huge impact that he had had on their lives. Between them they present a range of different features of a 'mammoth' personality, someone who towers over the subsequent history of our world.

Ultimately for Christians the 'reliability' of the Gospels rests in their relation to our faith. At the heart of Christian faith lies an experience of the risen Christ - the discovery of the reality of the power of his Spirit to forgive sin and transform lives. Such an experience creates a presumption that the resurrection really did take place, because the New Testament connects this experience of forgiveness and the Spirit to the resurrection of Christ and his continuing 'life' today.

Christians thus feel that they enter the same experience which motivated the writing of the Gospels, and therefore that the Gospels are 'true' in their fundamental portrait of Jesus. This does not, of course (as I said in my first email) provide a short-cut to validating all the historical details in the Gospels. But it creates a presumption in their favour. Christians disagree about 'the facts' in the Gospels, but fundamentally not about 'the truth' in them.

Steven Carr has had the easier task in this debate, because it is easier to criticise the Gospels than to defend them against the charges he has levelled. I hope that I have at least shown that it is reasonable to believe:

(a) that the Gospel-writers wanted to communicate a true picture of Jesus,

(b) that they sought to do this in line with contemporary (not modern) norms,

(c) that their use of each other reveals a creative desire to supplement each others' portrait,

(d) that the differences of detail between them are in line with ancient norms or simply arise from the process of transmission, and do not finally matter,

(e) that John presents us with a highly interpreted picture of Jesus which can nonetheless be 'true', because all history is interpreted and John has the same historical motivation as the other Gospels,

and (f) that 'the truth' is bigger than 'the facts' and is finally bound up with the wider issue of 'the truth' (or not) of Christianity.

THANKS, STEVEN!

I'd like to thank Steven Carr very much for the invitation to participate in this debate (which was entirely at his initiative). For anyone wanting to look into the subject further, I'd like to recommend the book by Craig Blomberg, "The Historical Reliability of the Gospels" (Intervarsity Press, 1987), for a clear and scholarly discussion of the issues which goes into them in much more detail than has been possible in this debate.

Stephen Motyer
London Bible College


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