Opening Statement by the Revd. Campbell Paget
Are the New Testament documents reliable sources of information about the historical Jesus?
I have been asked to make a case for the reliability of these documents as sources of information about the historical Jesus. In a nutshell, 'Can we believe what we read about him there?'. My own enquiries and discoveries have convinced me of their reliability. That said, it is of course vital for a proper understanding of them that we appreciate exactly what sort of documents they are and what kind of information it is they convey: it is important therefore we remember that they were written to challenge and to invite the reader to belief in the Christian faith.
The New Testament documents are theological as well as historical writings. We find different types, or genres, of writing - just as we do within the Old Testament - whilst we must realise also that they are necessarily interpretations of the person and events they record. What matters, how however, is what, after careful examination and reflection, we think of the information they convey. In doing this, we are simply making a judgement in much the same way as we would about any other person ; we need to come to a decision about the authenticity and integrity of the evidence before us. Some will say that this is axiomatic. It is. And yet it never ceases to amaze me how much more stringent (and on occasions unreasonable) are the criteria by which judgements about the historical Jesus and the reliability of these documents are made when compared with those for other historical figures and material.
I hope this debate will, as Steven Carr has requested, 'allow for a good exchange of views'. In this introductory piece I shall set out my my main thesis and produce some arguments and evidence to support it. These cannot be exhaustive, but may be expanded and elucidated later as required. I do intend to present my various points in such a way as to allow the non-specialist New Testament scholar to engage with us in our debate, for it is a conviction of mine born of my assessment of the evidence that the New Testament Documents were written by ordinary people for ordinary people in order to communicate an extraordinary event , and for that reason alone ought to keep me from the esoteric or arcane.
At the outset it is right I make you aware of certain philosophical assumptions I hold concerning the nature of truth, existence , history, language etc, without which , I believe, it would not be possible for us to have a debate such as this in the first place. Simply and briefly stated they are these. Truth is the correspondence of mind with fact, and language the means by which the truth about those facts may be shared. (This, it seems to me, is how we function in our daily lives and , in spite of difficulties and misunderstandings, make any kind of sense of them.) These facts are 'moments' in history and as such, where recorded in some manner or other, may be recovered through historical research. The extent to which that which is recorded corresponds to the facts - and therefore to the truth - will depend upon a number of things, not least the integrity and intentions of those who did the recording.
Scepticism about the possibility of knowing (in any sense accurately) today facts concerning the historical Jesus comes in many forms, and depends very much upon the approach taken to the evidence and on the kinds of presuppositions the enquirer holds. We all have such presuppositions. What is important to make this debate worthwhile is for us at least to be aware of them in so far as we are able. Those who take a wholly sceptical approach to history, who believe that the past is barred to us as a source of truth, will doubtless see this whole exercise as a waste of time. I would simply point them to Wittgenstein and others who have argued compellingly against such historical scepticism.... a philosophy of history which very quickly cuts its own throat!
There are those however whose scepticism concerns the quality and integrity of these documents specifically. I hope to show in the light of the arguments below the reasonableness of an a priori presumption in favour of their being reliable sources of information about the historical Jesus. That is my thesis. Put another way, it is up to the sceptics to prove otherwise.
The search for the historical Jesus may be said to have begun in earnest as a result of the European Enlightenment. With their sceptical approach to received Christian dogma about the New Testament, it was an assertion and presupposition of the extremely influential 18th and 19th century German 'Liberal' New Testament scholars that the real historical figure of Jesus could not be lifted straight from such documents. Not only, they argued, was there an 'ugly great ditch of history' between the 1st century and theirs, but also the documents about Jesus were written from a post-resurrection standpoint and therefore, 'distorted' by faith. Recovering, or discovering, the real Jesus - if that were in fact possible, or latterly for some, even desirable for Christian faith as they had come to interpret it - would require certain new literary skills and tools. There were always considerable differences of opinion as to the extent, possibility, or indeed necessity of such a 'Quest', as it became known; and this was further complicated by the advent of certain philosophical presuppositions - anti-supernaturalism, for example - which predetermined what was and what was not considered eligible as evidence in this quest.
For very many years British and American New Testament scholars remained in awe of - and often in thrall to - the brilliance of such German Liberal scholarship, whilst 'Conservative' scholars were viewed as little more than naive and idiosyncratic voices crying in the academic wilderness.
In recent years, however, the presuppositions and self-styled 'assured results' of this Liberal scholarship have been severely challenged and undermined by a growing philosophical, historical, and literary critical confidence on the part of Conservatives. Quite simply, a much more 'enlightened' approach all round towards the evidence has gained ground.
For example, with greater weight being given to purely historical, cultural and literary critical judgements of the documents than to the constraining philosophical presuppositions and, one has to say, highly speculative theories which for so long held sway in New Testament academic circles, the resulting dating of the documents now puts their composition much closer - in some cases very much closer - to the events recorded themselves. (See below for further discussion).
Also, there has come about the timely recognition that a post-resurrection viewpoint or interpretation does not automatically make the record unsuitable or unreliable as a source of information about Jesus. That non New Testament specialists, historians, literary critics, and people of other disciplines have recognised this for some while certainly begs many questions of many of the fanciful theories and mythical reconstructions that have been dreamed up in many erudite minds. Indeed I would argue that , in view of the nature of our subject, a post-resurrection interpretation (ie the documents reflect the faith of the early Christian communities) of the events of Jesus' life and ministry is the more likely, not the less, to be more accurate. (Again, see below.)
I remarked earlier that I believe the New Testament documents to have been written by ordinary people for ordinary people in order to communicate an extraordinary event; that extraordinary event being the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and continuing personal spiritual presence of the one whom they proclaimed - and who himself (if we decide to believe the evidence of their proclamation) claimed - to be God. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people choose not to believe the evidence not because of its unreliability as evidence but because they are sceptical about the very possibility of such events.
And the most that some will acknowledge, even if they believe the documents to be reliable as historical sources, is that we can only know about Jesus what a few early Christians wrote about him. But such a view is hardly reasonable, unless of course it is claimed that we know for certain from our privileged position - divorced as it is from the writers by almost two thousand years and in almost every respect at a much greater disadvantage to judge accurately on the matter than they - that in what they wrote they were mistaken or deliberately misleading us. It hinges very much upon what we think of the writers and what we make of the internal and external evidence.
Of course, we cannot talk here of certainties: but I believe that we may very reasonably argue from the evidence for a presumption in favour of the reliability of what the documents say about Jesus, and that it is up to the sceptics to prove otherwise. ( I would also just like to point out here that because the nature of the persons and events described in the documents have a transcendent, or spiritual, dimension to them, one may also perfectly rationally accept as true statements about that person and those events for which there is no conclusive - or even strong - available historical evidence for their authenticity, but which are confirmed by present experience, private or collective.)
Turning to the documents themselves, and remembering that the New Testament contains different, types, or genres , of writing, one is struck by a number of compelling arguments on a broad front in favour of their reliability. To my mind, foremost amongst these are the following:-
1) The Gospels, for all their interpreting of the persons and events they describe and the obvious fact that each author seems to be compiling his Gospel with a certain audience and the answers to certain questions very much in mind, can only reasonably be described as attempts to record and describe faithfully their subject matter. Certainly Paul, John and Luke are at pains to emphasise this fact, with their appeal to still living eye-witnesses issuing a challenge to any then contemporary doubters to gainsay them.
2) That there are four Gospels in the Canon (The so-called Gospel of Thomas, for example, simply does not fit the genre and is really a collection of sayings, some of which do just do not ring true.), four different perceptions, is not the problem it might appear to be at first sight. Rather, that the early Church decided to conserve all four is a strong argument in favour of, at the very least, their concern for integrity. And what is so very remarkable about them all is not only the degree of harmony between them but also the absence of embellishment, hype, or any other such poetic licence an author of less probity might take. The Gospels and Letters present a warts'n'all picture even of the pillars of the Church, and this at a crucial stage in its development. Such integrity is , I consider, a telling argument against those who would question it.
3) There is of course no such thing as presupposition-free scholarship, but a combination of archaeological, historical, and internal evidence has combined in recent years to strengthen the view that the documents were, with one or two exceptions (dato sed non concesso) written before the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Again, such an early date for their composition would argue strongly, if not convincingly, in favour of their reliability and accuracy.
4) Most interestingly, perhaps, when we consider expert comment from disciplines outside of the arguably too narrow domain of New Testament scholarship, is that renowned historians not with any particular Christian or religious axe to grind have long held the New Testament documents in very high regard as reliable historical sources. Meanwhile, from within the community of faith, the playwright Dorothy Sayers, when conducting an enquiry into the integrity of the Gospel account for her play 'The Man Born To Be King,' was told by her actors that it was the orthodox historical account rather than any ingeniously imagined reduced one which had about it the telling authoritative ring of coherence. Observations such as these complement and reinforce the findings from my own particular area of special interest in the Gospels, the Parables of Jesus. As an Arabist, I was curious as to their genre and cultural setting. Again, the verdict was overwhelmingly in favour of the coherence, integrity and authenticity of the Parables as they are found in the Gospel record, rather than as they have been imaginatively - albeit most eruditely - reconstructed as a result of the application of certain philosophical presuppositions, theological theories , and literary critical tools.
5) When the Church came to decide which documents could be included in the Canon of Scripture , the tests for authenticity were stringent indeed. Suffice to say here that the Church was so scrupulously careful to include the authentic that some scholars consider that they baby may well on occasions have been thrown out with the bathwater. Such rigour in the selection criteria is yet another argument in the documents' favour.
6) Something ought also to be said here about the reliability of the oral tradition in the Middle East and the culture of the time. For anyone at all familiar with that oral tradition (the handing on orally of stories, poems, accounts, etc.) its reliability is axiomatic. It was - and to a certain extent still is today - a facility the indigenous people possessed , the reliability of which has often been lost on Western scholars. It is cultural ignorance such as this - combined all too often, sadly, with academic arrogance - which has been responsible for much of the misunderstanding of the New Testament documents.
Equally well, when we consider the intention and purpose of the writers and their Gospels, the cultural and historical circumstances in which they wrote, the human psychology involved and the incredible endurance and growth of the Church in which those early years, these must on any reasonable reckoning speak volumes for the reliability of the facts as they are presented; facts which played such an important part in the Christian's faith. Though the writers wrote from faith (ie from a post-resurrection viewpoint) for faith, the pre-resurrection life of Jesus was of critical importance to them, just as it was to those seeking answers to the questions, Who was this Jesus? What did he do? What did he teach? What was he like? The idea promulgated by some leading 19th and 20th century scholars that the historical Jesus was either unimportant or even unnecessary for the faith of the Early Church just does not merit discussion: it does however serve to demonstrate their ignorance both of that culture and of ordinary human psychology.
For the reasons mentioned above then, there is I believe - in what I might call 'purely human' terms - a very compelling a priori case in favour of the reliability of the New Testament documents as sources of information about the historical Jesus. But for the Christian the role of faith as present personal experience of Christ is vital in bringing assurance about the reliability of the New Testament as containing the truth about Jesus not only as to how he was then perceived but also as to how he then was. And if I may be permitted to end on a contentious note, I would want to argue that because the historical Jesus is so much more - but never less - than the historical person whom we meet in the New Testament , he may be properly understood only through a combination of evidence and faith together; and the only proper place therefore to study the New Testament must be ,ceteris paribus, from within the worshipping community of faith. I look forward to debating these issues with you.
The Reverend R. Campbell Paget - 30th November 1998
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