Thank you, Steven, for your series of powerful challenges to the reliability of the Gospels' portrait of Jesus, both in your opening statement and in your long first email. I take my hat off to you, for the level of your information about the New Testament and early Christianity. We Christians certainly have to take challenges like yours seriously.
I'm particularly intrigued by your comments about Hume and miracles, and your point there about the 200 doctors who could convince you that a miracle had taken place. This, of course, is precisely the point that Paul makes about the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 - although in his case it is 500 witnesses, not 200!
I could try to respond to each of the points you raise individually, and there is certainly more to be said about each, I believe. But this would make my response far too long and probably in the long run would not be productive. For I know you will agree that we must allow the Gospels to be themselves, and not require them to conform to modern ideas of consistency, historical reporting, etc. Although you say this at the beginning of your statement, I think that many of your points then fail to apply this admirable principle. I'm going to address this broader issue in this email.
I think you fail to apply this principle, for instance, when you criticise the Gospels for their use of each other. This would not have been felt at the time to undermine their truthfulness - in fact, probably the opposite. You do it also when you argue that Paul would surely have quoted Jesus' teaching more often, had he been aware of it or interested in it. This is an argument from silence which depends upon reading our assumptions about apostleship back into Paul. It's better to listen carefully to what he actually believed about his apostleship, and then decide whether that meant he had no interest in the historical Jesus - although I readily grant that this is a complex question.
Sometimes you do it by pressing the evidence too far - for instance, when you require tiny credal fragments like Romans 1:3-4 to express all that the first Christians believed about Jesus; or when you assume that Jesus must have either told his disciples to love their enemies, or each other, but not both; or when you read the silence about Jesus in 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4 to mean that Paul and John were either unaware of or uninterested in Jesus' command to love.
You press the evidence too far, also, when you find docetic ideas in Phil 2:6-11 (docetics did not believe that the incarnate Christ actually died), and when you suggest that the omission of "son of God" from Mark 1:1 would make a substantial difference to the overall message of Mark's Gospel.
And you make the same mistake, I suggest, when you argue that, if it is possible to find a literary precedent for a story, its historical credibility is undermined. This is an argument you use quite frequently. Just to take one example: you point to parallels between the stories of Jairus' daughter in Mark 5 and the Shunammite's son in 2 Kings 4 (which I'd never spotted). They don't seem to me to be particularly close - they are not as close, for instance, as the parallels Matthew draws between the early history of Jesus' life (Matthew chapters 2-4) and the early history of Israel (Exodus, passage through the Red Sea, temptation in the wilderness, etc).
But in neither case do I feel that the historical credibility of the Gospel story is undermined just because the Gospel-writers tell the story in a way which reminds readers of something else, and thus points them to its interpretation, as they see it. Matthew wanted to draw parallels between Jesus and Israel - because both are God's "Son" (see the quotation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15), and Jesus succeeds where Israel fell into disobedience and unrighteousness. Doubtless Matthew spotted this correspondence himself, but it goes way beyond the evidence to suggest that he created the stories of Jesus' baptism and temptation in order to make the point.
However having made these criticisms I do want to agree with you that we Christians must not assume the historical reliability of the Gospels, just because they are in the New Testament. This is easy for Christians to do, of course, because we tend to fall back on a doctrine of inspiration to cushion us from hard challenges like the ones you have fired at me. But to do this is actually contrary to the fundamental direction of Christianity. Christianity is a historical faith, based upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and I don't believe that God has given us privileged access, across the centuries, to these events, so that we are somehow excused from seeking the truth about Jesus through historical research.
On the other hand this doesn't mean that Christian faith becomes weak and uncertain, because we depend upon the vagaries of historical research to build up our picture of Jesus. Christian faith rests upon a personal relationship with him now, a spiritual experience of his 'aliveness', and not on an exercise of scholarship. But on the other hand, again, if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead, as the Gospels testify, then I have no grounds for believing that I really have met with the living Jesus.
For us, as for the first Christians (including Paul), it is the 'aliveness' of Jesus which is the heart of things. Their (and our) interest in the historical Jesus arises from our conviction that, if he has really been "designated Son of God in power ... by the resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4), then his life before that point is of great interest and significance, too.
In order to find out about his life, we are dependent upon the Gospel writers, and we need to probe them critically. We may decide that their picture is unclear or even impossible, at some points. We will certainly ask probing questions about the relationship between John and the synoptics, and in particular ask how John was seeking to safeguard the truth about Jesus by presenting him as he does. (If it seems appropriate, I'll devote one of my other emails to this question.) But we will ask these questions with a basic sympathy, and out of a conviction that they were doing their best to present Jesus as clearly and truthfully as they could, because they too had discovered that he was alive from the dead.
Luke's little Preface (Luke 1:1-4), to which I referred in my opening statement, expresses this very clearly.
So they wrote out of deep conviction, and to this extent you are quite right to say that they were not interested in "dry, boring, old facts". Who would be interested in these? We never get the bare facts, anyway, whenever we seek to discover the truth about the past. All history is an interpretation, because historians select, arrange, and re-tell the story in a way that draws out the meaning or significance that they discern. This is completely unavoidable, part of the set-up of our world, and not actually to be regretted.
So the Gospel-writers sought to present Jesus through the spectacles of their interpretation - particularly, through their conviction that he fulfilled Old Testament expectation and prophecies, in different ways. They wanted both to persuade non-believers that this was true, and to encourage and instruct believers (perhaps the balance between these two purposes varies for each Gospel). It is interesting that this emphasis carries on: Paul, the author of Hebrews, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Justin Martyr - they are all, in different ways, primarily interested in showing how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures, rather than in recounting the details of his life.
Does this mean that the truth is unrecoverable, because it is so overlaid by interpretation?
It depends what 'truth' you want. If you want the truth as it would have been delivered by a video-camera recording every detail of Jesus' life (all the dry, boring facts), then we won't get that. But even if we had such a record, it wouldn't get us very far. Those who were around Jesus to observe all the facts still ended up divided about him. Some decided he was the Messiah, others called him a blasphemer deserving death. Both judgements were an interpretation of the facts, because the facts alone are never enough.
If we are going to allow the Gospels to be what they claim to be, and to criticise them in the light of their claim, then we must reckon that they are partisan documents, aiming to persuade readers that Jesus is the Messiah of Old Testament expectation - in spite of his untimely death at the hands of the Romans. Those who do not share that conviction (like yourself) may still use them as historical sources, of course, but will seek to find another way of interpreting Jesus and Christian origins. But those who do share this conviction (most, but not all, Christians) will be more sympathetically predisposed to accept the Gospels' basic portrait of his life.
The argument about the historical reliability of the Gospels is thus a broad one. It can't be proved, either way. If, like me, you are basically sympathetic towards them, then noticing bits of inconsistency here and there no more endangers their truth than my son's acne threatens his life. But if someone is predispositionally unsympathetic, then I can point them to the reasonable grounds for confidence in their broad picture (not insisting on all the details), but I am unlikely to convince them.
I'd like to finish this email with a few thoughts about the Gospels in the early church. You say quite a lot about this, responding to my opening statement.
When thinking about the acceptance and position of the Gospels in the early church, it's important to be aware of the role and power of oral tradition, for over a hundred years after Jesus. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis around 130 CE, wrote about this:
"If anyone chanced to come who had actually been a follower of the elders, I would enquire as to the discourses of the elders, what Andrew or what Peter said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples; and the things which Aristion and John the elder, the disciples of the Lord, say."
A great mass of oral tradition circulated for decades, alongside the written Gospels which gradually became more significant as time passed. Even Irenaeus, writing around 180 CE, reveals how significant oral traditions of Jesus' life still were, although by that time the need for authoritative, reliable written records was strongly felt. Irenaeus wrote in defence of the four Gospels, on the grounds that they were much earlier than any other so-called 'Gospels' around, originating from the apostles and their helpers, and that they presented the authentic Jesus as opposed to the Jesus imagined by various sects.
In a fascinating essay published last year in New Testament Studies Vol 43 (pp 317-346), Prof. Graham Stanton studies the growth of acceptance of the four-fold Gospel in the church. He points out how Christians made difficulties for themselves, by accepting all four Gospels, and that there were many pressures to accept just one as the 'authentic' Gospel. The various sectarian groups around all lived by just one - either one of the New Testament Gospels, or another. Irenaeus has to defend the four-fold Gospel in the light of the apparent contradictions between the four. Why did the Christians not accept just one, or a 'bowdlerised' combination of the four such as that put together by Justin Martyr's pupil Tatian?
The answer seems to be (a) that the four New Testament Gospels had proved themselves because of their antiquity, 'apostolic' origin and obvious superiority to all rivals, and (b) because Christians were convinced that, in spite of the differences between them, they all presented the same Jesus, in essence.
This is really what I had in mind, by my opening comments about the 'supernatural' Jesus. I wasn't so much thinking of his miracles, as of the overall picture of him as someone "from God", who reveals God by his words and deeds. I can well imagine that people might be sceptical about this or that miracle recorded in the Gospels, but this need not undermine a general confidence in their overall picture of Jesus as the Revealer.
I'm aware there's a lot to discuss here! Thank you again, Steven, for inviting me to debate with you. As you know, I shall be away for a week now, so my response to your next email may be a bit delayed.
London Bible College
Steven Carr's Second Email
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