Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable?
Volume 3 of 3 (printer-friendly format)
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
Do historical sources from the era of the gospels support their reliability? This question can be broken down into a couple of sub-questions:
Before I respond to these questions, I must first say that there is not a lot of evidence to go on here. For one thing, the biblical gospels refer to only a few people who are mentioned in extra-biblical sources, though we have more to go on when it comes to geography. Moreover, secular historians writing within a century of Jesus's death show only the tiniest interest in Jesus. This shouldn't be surprising, of course, because from the perspective of Roman historian writing at this time, Jesus was an insignificant blip on the screen, nothing more. He only became interesting to secular historians and critics as the Christian movement grew in size and influence. Nevertheless, where the biblical gospels do overlap with secular history, the net result is a positive one for the gospels.
When the gospels refer to people or places that can be identified from other sources, do these sources confirm what we read in the gospels?
Yes, this is certainly true when it comes to the prominent historical landmarks of Jesus's day. When the gospels identify major leaders, for example, they get the facts right. Jesus was born while Augustus was indeed the Roman emperor (Luke 2:10), and Jesus began His ministry during the reign of Tiberius (Luke 3:1). Furthermore, the gospels rightly identify the various Herods who impacted Jesus's life and ministry (for example, Matthew 2:1-22; 14:1-5).
The geography of the gospels is clearly that of first-century Palestine, not some first-century Narnia. Once again, the evangelists put the major landmarks in the right places. When they place Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, for example, this is correct. Certain geographical references in the gospels, however, can seem perplexing, though these can usually be accounted for by a combination of careful exegesis, up-to-date archeology, and an open mind.
When it comes to historical personages, the gospels get the main characters right. But, as in the case of Gadara/Gerasa, you'll find similar confusion regarding Quirinius, who was ruling during the time of the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-2). Luke refers to a census "taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (v. 2). Given the fact that King Herod the Great was reigning when Jesus was born, this census must have taken place around 6 B.C., since Herod died in 4 B.C. (Yes, our calendar is wrong by about 6 years.) But secular sources date Quirinius' term of office to 6-9 A.D., or about 10-15 years after the birth of Jesus. Some scholars have seen this as evidence of Luke's inaccuracy as a historian. Yet close attention to the grammar of Luke's claim in verse 2 and to the long career of Quirinius allows for several ways to view Luke as historically accurate. (I don't have time to get into the various theories right now.)
I don't mean to suggest that it wouldn't be nicer if Luke had named as governor of Syria the Roman who actually held that office in 6 B.C. It would be. But if you have done much study of ancient history, you know that apparent confusions like this are frustratingly common. So the tendency of some scholars to rush to judgment against Luke is unwarranted, both in this case and in others like it. When I was in graduate school, some (but not all) of my professors would summarily reject an evangelist's accuracy by saying things like, "Luke is wrong here about Quirinius' governorship" or "Mark has obviously confused the location of Gerasa." Arguments in defense of the gospel writers' accuracy were either not considered or were glibly rejected as a remnant of naïve fundamentalism. This seemed ironic to me, since these same professors often spent hours in class teasing nuanced meanings out of ancient texts. They were experts at this sort of painstaking exegesis, truly. Yet when it came to the possible historicity of the gospels, nuance and thoughtful exegesis was often rejected in favor of what could only be called fundamentalist-like literalism: "Luke says it. It's wrong. And that settles it."
I believe that if we work hard on understanding what the gospel writers really meant, and if we allow for the inherent imprecision of ancient records, and if we judge the gospels by the standards of their own time, then the overlap of the gospels with secular history works to their favor. When the biblical gospels speak of people or places, they get all the major items correct, as well as most of the minor ones. There are some places in which the gospels seem at first to be less than accurate, but none of these is terribly significant for the author's main purpose, and all of these cases can be interpreted in ways that uphold the historical precision of the evangelists.
Tomorrow I'll address the question of whether secular references to Jesus confirm or undermine what we find in the gospels.
Yesterday I began considering the relationship of the New Testament gospels to secular historical sources. I showed that when the gospels refer to people or places that are found in these sources, the gospels get the major facts right. Today I want to respond to a related question:
Do non-Christian writers from the time in which the gospels were written support the gospels' portrayal of Jesus?
As I mentioned yesterday, there is little about Jesus in non-Christian sources within a century of His death. From the perspective of Roman history, Jesus just wasn't all that important until at least a century later, when His followers began stirring things up across the Roman Empire.
Today's post will summarize findings from a 6-part series I did called: How Can We Know Anything About the Real Jesus? If you're looking for a more detailed conversation, please check out that series.
A Letter from Pliny to Trajan
Around 112 A.D. a Roman governor named Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking about how to deal with troublesome Christians. In this letter he mentioned that the Christians "sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god" (Letters, 10.96).
Jesus is mentioned several times in the Jewish Talmud, but these passages were written down several centuries after Jesus's death. The one early, non-Christian Jewish source of information about Jesus is the historian Josephus.
In one place in his Jewish Antiquities Josephus mentioned Jesus indirectly. His focus was on the killing of James, who was identified as "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ" (Ant. 20.9.1). In this context Josephus had no need to say more about Jesus himself.
The other passage where Josephus mentioned Jesus is disputed because it comes to us only by way of medieval Christian sources, and these sources appear to have doctored the original text. Josephus was in the process of describing Jewish conditions under Pontius Pilate when he wrote something like:
Scholars debate which portions of this description are original to Josephus, and which were added later. The portions I have italicized reflect Josephus's concerns and language, and may well have come from his pen.
Addendum: Other Jewish Sources
You may have noticed in that, in describing Josephus's writings, I used the awkward phrase: "the one early, non-Christian Jewish source of information about Jesus is the historian Josephus." This wasn't just convoluted style, but an important reminder that we actually have several early, Jewish testimonies about Jesus outside of the gospels. These come from the writers of other New Testament documents, most of whom were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. We'd call them Christians, but they would have thought of themselves as Jews.
The writers of the New Testament, with the exception of Luke, were not attempting to write anything like history. But occasionally in their writings they refer to Jesus in ways that help to fill in the historical blanks. Perhaps the best illustration comes from 1 Corinthians 15, a passage I referred to earlier in this series. It reads:
Paul wrote this in the early 50's A.D., referring to oral traditions he had received earlier. So we have in this passage historical information that comes from within 10-15 years of Jesus's death. You'll notice that there isn't anything here about Jesus's life. The tradition focuses on that which was believed by the early Christians to be most important for salvation: His death, burial, and resurrection.
Clearly this information is not coming from neutral observers. It was formulated by early Christians who believed that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah), and who believed that He was the Savior. So this passage doesn't help answer the question of non-Christian sources for Jesus. But it does reveal some of the earliest purportedly historical information about Jesus, information that is external to the New Testament gospels.
Notice, as I have mentioned previously with respect to the gospel writers, that the historical traditions about Jesus were shaped according to the early Christian theological perspective. Jesus died "for our sins in accordance with the scriptures." Similarly, he was raised "in according with the scriptures." These are theological statements, to be sure. But, contrary to the assumptions of some scholars, the fact that they are theological does not rule out the possibility that they are also statements based upon what really happened. In fact, this passage from Paul illustrates why history mattered so much to the early Christians. They believed that what actually happened to Jesus, His death and resurrection, was the locus of God's salvation. If Jesus had not actually been crucified and raised, then, as Paul said a few verses later in 1 Corinthians, "then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:14).
In this post and the last one I've considered the relationship of the gospels to more or less contemporaneous historical sources. In my next post I'll look at how archeology impacts our estimation of the reliability of the gospels.
Does archeology support the reliability of the gospels? The basic answer is: yes. The continuing search for ancient artifacts, documents, locations, and inscriptions has, for the most part, confirmed the accuracy of the New Testament gospels. In some cases, I'll supply an example below, archeology has helped to solve some of the perplexing riddles of New Testament interpretation.
Perhaps the best (and most interesting) way for me to illustrate the relevance of archeology to the gospels is to include several pictures and comment upon them. This is a tiny sample of what's available, but it does help to show how archeology aids our understanding of the gospels and supports our confidence in their reliability.
While these five archeological examples don't prove anything specific about Jesus, they certainly show that the gospel records fit what we know from archeology about the world in which Jesus ministered. In this sense they confirm the reliability of the gospels.
But, you may be wondering, haven't I left out the archeological discoveries that are arguably most relevant to the study of the gospels and, in fact, most controversial? What about the Dead Sea Scrolls? What about the gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi? Don't the documents from these two sites undermine the reliability of the biblical gospels? Do these questions I'll turn in my next post.
In my last post I showed how archeology supports the general reliability of the gospels. But I did not address two major archeological finds which, it has been claimed, actually undermine the historicity of the biblical gospels. Perhaps the most popular proponent of this view is Sir Leigh Teabing, the fictional scholar in Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code. Here's what Teabing says about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library:
Well that certainly lays down the gauntlet, doesn't it? So, is Teabing right? Do the scrolls found at the Dead Sea (actually, contra Teabing, in eleven caves beginning in 1947) and at Nag Hammadi (actually, they were codices, not scrolls) in Egypt in fact contain gospels that survived Constantine's purge? And do these gospels tell "the true Grail story"? And do they "speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms"? And do they "highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications? And do they "clearly [confirm] that the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda – to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base"?
I'm tempted to save us all a lot of time and answer all of these questions with a simple No. The Da Vinci Code, after all, is a work of fiction. And Teabing's "history" of early Christianity is also mostly fictional. The problem is that this information is presented in the novel as if it were the recognized historical truth which sets the backdrop for the fictional aspects of The Da Vinci Code. And many readers, unfamiliar with the actual history of early Christianity, have taken Brown/Teabing's view as if it were in fact true. Of course they've been led to this conclusion by the first page of The Da Vinci Code, which reads: "FACT: . . . All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." (p. 1). So we must deal with the question of whether or not what Teabing says about the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL) is, in fact, accurate, as Dan Brown claims.
Before I speak directly about the DSS and the books found at Nag Hammadi, I want to add a personal word. I spent a large amount of my time in graduate school studying the DSS and the NHL. One of my professors was on the original translation team for the DSS, and two of my professors were involved in the translation of the NHL. In one seminar I was required to read some of the unpublished DSS from photographs taken of the original scrolls, which if nothing else gave me lots of respect for those who did this for a living. I don't claim to be an expert on the DSS or on the NHL, but I'm quite familiar with these documents, and I have spent a lot of time interacting with those who are experts in this material.
The DSS are extraordinarily important for the understanding of Jesus and early Christianity – truly a monumental find. Yet I'm not aware of anything in the DSS that undermines either the reliability of the gospels or orthodox Christianity. This means, by the way, that nothing in the DSS relates to the fictional claims of Leigh Teabing. There are no gospels among the DSS. No Grail story. No historical discrepancies. And nothing in the DSS speaks of Jesus Christ. Insofar as they help us to understand His world, however, they reinforce our confidence in the reliability of the gospels.
In my next post I'll address the NHL and its relevance to our understanding of the biblical gospels.
This is the third post in which I've considered the implications of archeology for our estimation of the reliability of the New Testament gospels. Last time I launched the conversation by quoting a passage from Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code. Here, once again, is the passage:
In my last post I considered the relevance of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the New Testament gospels. Though they have much to tell us about the world in which Jesus lived, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain no gospels, and no information about Jesus. Thus, though they are relevant to the study of early Christianity, they do none of the things claimed by Teabing/Brown.
So what about the documents (codices or books, not scrolls) from the Nag Hammadi library (NHL)? Do these "speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms"? Do they "highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications"? Do they clearly confirm "that the modern Bible was complied and edited by men who possessed a political agenda"? In sum, do the documents from Nag Hammadi undermine our confidence in the reliability of the New Testament gospels?
Do the Nag Hammadi Codices Undermine the Reliability of the New Testament Gospels?
Unlike in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Dan Brown's fictional Leigh Teabing has a chance at being correct when he talks about the NHL. The codices from Nag Hammadi in Egypt do contain a number of "gospels," and these do contain a picture of Jesus which, for the most part, diverges from what we find in the New Testament. (In some ways, the Gospel of Thomas, the most important of the NHL gospels for the study of Jesus, actually supports the New Testament gospels, though its picture of Jesus is quite different from their's in some ways.)
Moreover, if you were to spend an hour or so perusing the NHL, you'd might be surprised by the picture of Jesus you found. Far from presenting a more human Jesus, as claimed by Teabing/Brown, the Nag Hammadi documents actually portray a much less human Jesus than the one we find in the New Testament gospels. The Nag Hammadi Jesus comes across as a very odd, other-worldly revealer, hardly the fully human being we find in the New Testament. This makes perfect sense, of course, since the NHL was collected by a group of Gnostics, who denied the value of the flesh and looked for a non-fleshly "spiritual" revealer/redeemer. They didn't value the human Jesus, but rather than spiritual, non-physical "Christ" or "Savior."
Here are a few passages from some of the gospels of the NHL. These illustrate the kind of Jesus found there:
From the Gospel of Truth:
From the Gospel of Thomas:
From the Gospel of Philip:
From the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene):
Lest you think I chose the oddest passages from the NHL, I'd encourage you to check for yourself. If you really want a wild ride, read portions of The Thunder, Perfect Mind or the Trimorphic Protennoia. Then, if you really want to stretch your mind, check out this part of the Gospel of the Egyptians:
After you've spent some time actually reading the documents from Nag Hammadi, the notion that they "speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms," as claimed by Teabing/Brown, will strike you not only as wrong, but also as verging on the ridiculous.
So, then, do the NHL gospels "highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications"? Since this post is running rather long, I'll save my answer for tomorrow. Stay tuned . . . .
In yesterday's post I began examining the relevance of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL) for our estimation of the reliability of the New Testament gospels. For the sake of argument, I was responding to a claim made by Sir Leigh Teabing, a fictional character in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. Here, once again, is the passage:
Question: Do the Nag Hammadi documents (codices, not scrolls) "highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications" when they're compared with the New Testament gospels?
Yes, they do, in a sense. The dominant picture of Jesus in the NHL differs considerably from the dominant picture of Jesus in the New Testament. If one image is historical, then the other isn't. And if one is authentic, then the other is fabricated. The key question is: Which picture of Jesus is most likely to be the historically accurate one? The key answer is: The picture found in the New Testament gospels.
Furthermore, the picture of Jesus in the NHL bears little resemblance to anything that fits within first-century A.D. Jewish life. Their vision of a Gnostic redeemer reflects the Hellenistic milieu in which the NHL gospels were written. So, any "glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications" will be found, not in the New Testament gospels, but in the gospels of the NHL. Thus the Teabing/Brown thesis is partly right, in that there are "discrepancies and fabrications," but completely wrong in its estimation of which gospels are credible and which are fictional.
I don't mean to suggest, however, that the NHL is not an invaluable find. It allows us to understand Christian Gnosticism with unprecedented insight. But the NHL has little to offer to the quest for the historical Jesus, apart from what might be gleaned from the Gospel of Thomas and a few other passages in the NHL that may be traceable through oral traditions back to Jesus Himself.
In summary, nothing in the Dead Sea Scrolls (as I showed in Part 24) or the Nag Hammadi Library undermines the reliability of the biblical gospels. In fact, the opposite is true. The Dead Sea Scrolls help us understand the world of Jesus, and they illustrate how well the Jesus of the New Testament gospels fits within that world, in contrast to the Jesus of the non-canonical gospels. Comparing the "Jesus" found in the Nag Hammadi Library with the Jesus found in the New Testament underscores the realism of the biblical gospels and their portrayal of a truly human, Jewish Jesus, unlike the other-worldly Redeemer of the Gnostic gospels.
Dan Brown's fictitious Sir Leigh Teabing made one more claim about the New Testament documents. Let me quote once again:
Though I've shown that the scrolls (and Nag Hammadi codices) don't highlight anything of the kind, what about the notion that the Bible was "complied and edited by men" with an agenda? Were the New Testament gospels written, edited, preserved, and canonized to promote the divinity of Jesus and thereby to solidify the power base of the orthodox Christian church? I'll begin to address this scenario in my next post.
Several times recently I've used portions of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, as a discussion partner for my examination of the reliability of the New Testament gospels. I have done so, partly because so many readers have taken Brown's fictitious "history" to be genuine, and also because Brown, as an engaging author, has a compelling way of putting the case against the New Testament gospels.
When I finished my last post, I quoted an objection that Brown puts on the lips of Sir Leigh Teabing, a character who "reveals" the truth about Jesus and the gospels. A part of this truth, according to Teabing, is:
What is the implication of this for those of us who have learned about Jesus through the biblical gospels? Teabing states bluntly: "What I mean . . . is that almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false." (p. 235).
I've shown in my last two posts that the attempt of Teabing/Brown to use the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library to prove the case against the New Testament gospels is unpersuasive. But it's still possible that the people who edited, and even who wrote, the biblical gospels were guided by an agenda that led them to compromise or even to hide the truth. In fact, we see this very thing happening in early Christianity and its "gospels."
Second-Century Tampering with the Traditions About Jesus
We have ample evidence that early Christians, or at least those who considered themselves to be Christians, tampered with the historical traditions about Jesus to fit their particular agendas. For example, in the mid-second century there was a man named Marcion. He claimed to be a Christian, and was an influential thinker and writer who emphasized the discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity. Thus he rejected the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John as being too Jewish, and included in his "canon" only a trimmed-down version the Gospel of Luke. This version was pruned of its Old Testament references. Though Marcion regarded himself as a true Christian, in fact he was denounced by the orthodox church as a heretic. His views were not adopted by the church, though, ironically enough, he may have forced the church to identify four authoritative gospels in a more clearly defined "canon" of Scripture. At any rate, Marcion's editing and treatment of the gospels clearly reflected his agenda.
Nevertheless, do we find in the biblical gospels the sort of agenda-driven editing that we find in the non-canonical gospels? And did this agenda have to do with power, as claimed by Brown/Teabing?
The Gospels Out of Synch with the Agenda of the Early Church
I've already explained that the four evangelists did have what we might call a theological or pastoral "agenda." And I've also argued that this "agenda" actually led them to care about historical accuracy as determined according to the standards of their time. (See three earlier posts in this series, beginning with the first "If The Gospels are Theology, Can They Be History?") Further support for this thesis comes from the fact that the biblical gospels are often out of synch with the needs and concerns, indeed, the agenda of the early church.
For example, if one supposes that the early Christians made up sayings of Jesus to address current concerns, then it's hard to figure why they didn't do a much better job of it. So many of the conflicts and challenges faced by the early church were never addressed by sayings Jesus, for example: the question of speaking in tongues; the issue of women in leadership; etc.
Moreover, some of the sayings of Jesus that were passed on orally and then incorporated into the gospels made matters more complicated for the early church, not less. For example, if anything characterized early Christianity, it was an evangelistic zeal that included the Gentiles. Yet some of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels seem, at first glance, to be contradictory to this very mission (see Matt 10:5, Mark 7:24-30). If the writers and editors of the gospels were motivated by their agenda to play fast and loose with history, surely they would have improved upon or even eliminated things in the Jesus tradition that were awkward. Yet this didn't happen with the New Testament gospels.
In fact, certain elements of the biblical gospels seem to undermine the political agenda – if you want to call it that – of the early church, rather than supporting it. I'll turn to these elements in my next post.
If you've been following this series for a while, you know that I've been responding to a charge that's found on the lips of Sir Leigh Teabing, a fictional character in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. Yet Teabing expresses a view that is proposed, not just in imaginative novels, but also among certain scholars who discount the reliability of the New Testament gospels. In this post I want to continue to respond to the charge that "the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda – to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base," and that for this reason "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false." (Da Vinci Code, pp. 234, 235).
There are many reasons to reject this Teabing/Brown thesis. For one thing, if you've read much of this blog series, you realize that there are lots of reasons to believe that what the biblical gospels teach us about Jesus is substantially true. For another, if the main point of the New Testament gospels was "to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ," then the gospels, apart from John, did a pretty mediocre job at best. Oh, don't get me wrong. I believe that we can see Jesus's deity in the pages of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But you've got to admit that, apart from a few unusual moments (Jesus's conception, The Transfiguration, etc.), the biblical gospels present the Jesus primarily as an inspired human being, not as God in the flesh. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke were willing to twist history or make up material in order to clarify Jesus's divinity, don't you think they might have added a saying or two in which Jesus actually said, "Verily, verily I say unto you: I'm God."
According to the Teabing/Brown thesis, the writing, editing, and collecting of the New Testament gospels was primarily about power. All of this reflected the effort of the orthodox church to establish power, especially over rival heretical groups, like the Gnostics. There was indeed a power struggle within Christendom in the second and third centuries. And the orthodox church did indeed claim, among other things, the power to teach the truth about the ministry and nature of Jesus. One of the church's key arguments was that their sacred writings, their ecclesiastical leaders, and their basic beliefs were apostolic. The writings were either written by the first disciples of Jesus (including Paul) or by their associates, and were consistent with apostolic teaching. The bishops could trace their authority back to the earliest disciples of Jesus, so their leadership was also apostolic. And what the orthodox church believed was consistent with the essence of the apostles' teaching. (Hence, many churches use the "Apostles' Creed" even today, an early Christian summary of apostolic doctrine.)
Given the centrality of the apostles, especially the first disciples of Jesus, in the church's claim to rightful authority, it's fascinating and telling to note how the disciples of Jesus are actually portrayed in the New Testament gospels. They are, after all, the first leaders of the church. They are the ones from whom the church draws its power. Yet they are the ones whom the gospels portray as . . . well . . . faithless, foolish, and unreliable. Not exactly what you'd expect from gospels that were written and/or edited to undergird the power of the orthodox church!
The disciples of Jesus are first seen in a positive light, as they leave their familiar lives behind to follow Jesus (Mark 1:16-20). But things go downhill quickly from there. For example:
If you read through the four biblical gospels, you'll find that the disciples are almost never pictured in a positive light, as paragons of faith or wisdom. Yet time and again they're portrayed negatively. This fact, all by itself, seems to me to disprove the Teabing/Brown thesis. Moreover, it strongly suggests that the early Christian tradition and the four evangelists were willing to pass on the truth, even if that truth portrayed their founding leaders (after Jesus, of course) in such an embarrassing light.
There is an even more surprising aspect to this argument, one that puts the final nail in the coffin of the "ecclesiastical power grab" thesis. I'll pursue this in my next post.
In my last post I was responding to the idea that the New Testament gospels were written, edited, collected, and preserved as a power grab by the early church. I showed how this theory fails to make sense of many features of the gospels, including their negative portrayal of the disciples of Jesus. Since the disciples were the ones upon which the power of the orthodox church was based, if the power-grab theory were correct, then you'd expect to see the gospels portray the disciples as paragons of faith and wisdom, the sort of people upon whom to base a church. But, in fact, the New Testament gospels picture the disciples as faithless, foolish, and unreliable. In a phrase, they don't get it.
What I've just explained is sufficient to disprove the "power grab" theory of gospel formation and collection. But there's even more impressive evidence against this theory. Remember that the church that supposedly played fast and loose with the gospels derived its authority, not only from the apostles in general, but also from Peter in particular. He was, after all, the "rock" upon which Jesus promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18). And he was believed to be the first bishop of the Roman church, that is, the first pope.
So how does Peter fare in the New Testament gospels? Worse than the rest of the disciples. He's outstanding for his foibles, especially in crucial moments of Jesus's ministry. Let me cite a few examples:
Can you imagine a movement that allowed such stories of a prominent founder to be told, even to be enshrined in its foundational documents? Usually a movement would make every effort to cover up the failings of its first leaders, to rewrite history in a more flattering way. For example, the official website of the Mormon Church includes a historical summary of the life of its founder, Joseph Smith. In this summary it's mentioned that Smith married Emma Hale on January 18, 1827. It is not mentioned, however, that Emma was the first of many wives of Joseph Smith, who believed that God had commanded the practice of plural marriage. One historian argues that Smith had thirty-three wives. Yet this is neatly left off of the Mormon website, for very understandable reasons. (The website does still contain, however, Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, in which God purportedly reveals to Joseph Smith His commandment for men to have multiple wives. And in a Frequently Asked Question section it's acknowledged that Joseph Smith obeyed God's command to practice plural marriage. But none of this shows up in the biographical material on Smith.)
I think the presentation of Peter in the New Testament gospels shows the folly of the "power grab" theory of gospel production and authentication. But it also shows something quite astounding about early Christian oral tradition and the writing of the gospels. Those who passed on and wrote down the actions and sayings of Jesus were committed to telling the truth, even when this truth was embarrassing to some of the most prominent leaders of the early church. Surely it was only a strong commitment to historical accuracy that kept such a negative portrayal of the disciples, including Peter, in the New Testament gospels.
With today's post I bring to an end this series on the reliability of the New Testament gospels. I must confess that when I started this series 37 days ago I was not expecting that it would end up with 30 parts. This is now my longest blog series on record, consisting of more than 35,000 words. Yikes! If you've been reading along, not only do you deserve some kind of prize, but also you know that I've simply been following a chain of thought to its logical (I hope) conclusion. Now I'm finally to the end of the chain, at least for now.
I do not believe that I've proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the New Testament gospels are historically reliable. In the end, I'm not sure that the "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" approach works with the gospels, though I'm not criticizing those who use this apologetic. Historical arguments about the 2,000-year-old past, it seems to me, are too complex and convoluted for verdicts declared with a ring of certainty.
Ironically, these days it's often the skeptical scholars who seem to have cornered the market on certainty. And as long as they write mainly for each other, and talk mainly to each other, and make sure their scholarly publications and meetings are dominated by each other's work, these skeptical scholars can pretend as if their "assured results of scholarship" are rock solid. In fact, however, they're often more like a house of cards built on the sand, if you'll pardon a badly-mixed metaphor.
I don't object to scholars holding views that doubt or even deny the reliability of the gospels. But I do object to scholars holding these views without ever taking seriously the evidence that would challenge or contradict them. This seems not only disingenuous, but also bad scholarship. I'm also concerned, however, that some conservative scholars are too quick to disregard the insights of critical scholars. For the most part, however, conservative scholars must deal with a broad range of scholarly input, while skeptical scholars can remain safely protected within their conveniently narrow worlds. If, for example, you're an evangelical New Testament scholar, you've got to interact with the Jesus Seminar material. If you're a fellow in the Jesus Seminar, you can have a successful academic career while pretending that credible conservative scholarship doesn't exist.
I first discovered this fact when I was a graduate student at Harvard, doing a Ph.D. in New Testament. Our reading lists almost never included conservative or evangelical scholarship, but were filled with hyper-critical German and Anglo texts. One time while I was home on vacation I went to the Fuller Seminary library to see if I could find some of my required readings. (Fuller is an evangelical seminary with a high view of biblical authority, though not high enough for some evangelicals!) What I found shocked me. On the reserve reading shelves for Fuller New Testament classes I saw many of the critical books from my Harvard list, as well as solid evangelical books. It was obvious to me that the Fuller student was being exposed to a much broader range of ideas than I was at Harvard. I wondered when "liberal" scholarship became so illiberally narrow.
As I've explained before, if your worldview excludes the possibility of miracles, then you have an intractable problem with the historicity of the gospels. But your acceptance of such a worldview is a matter of faith. There's no way you can prove that miracles don't happen, even as there's no way I can prove that the extraordinary events Christians believe to be miracles are actually works of God. There's an irreducible element of faith on both sides of this argument.
Nevertheless, my point is that one can approach the New Testament gospels as a theist and come up with a reasonable understanding of what happened: of who Jesus was and how early Christianity developed. Of course I believe that this understanding is not only reasonable, but in fact the most reasonable. Yet I'm willing to debate the pros and cons with those who disagree with me. What I'm unwilling to do is to accept the tyranny of "the modern scientific worldview," or to agree that historians must write as if miracles never happen, no matter what they might believe in their hearts. I'm happy to take my theistic understanding of the gospels and lay it beside all other options for careful scrutiny. At the very least, I think a fair observer would have to acknowledge that what I've proposed is reasonable, even if that observer isn't convinced. (By the way, let me hasten to add that what I've proposed depends upon the work of many, many scholars. A few ideas in this series are, as far as I know, unique to me. Most reflect the helpful efforts of many others, especially folk like F. F. Bruce, Craig Blomberg, N.T. Wright, and Ben Witherington.)
Throughout most of this series I've spoken of the gospels as reliable, meaning "reliable as historical sources of information about Jesus." Yet I believe, now speaking as a Christian more than as an historian, that the gospels are much more reliable than this. Aside from being trustworthy history, the gospels are also trustworthy revelation. I believe that the very Spirit of God inspired and guided the writers of the gospels. This means the portrayal of Jesus in Mark, for example, isn't only historically reliable. It's also God's way of helping us to know who Jesus really is.
Now I freely admit that what I'm saying here goes beyond historical inquiry. Yet I want to emphasize that what I have found as an historian doesn't imply that my faith in the inspiration of the gospels is really just wishful thinking. On the contrary, the more I study the New Testament gospels in the context of the literature and culture of their own time and place, and the more I compare these biblical gospels to the non-canonical varieties, the more I am persuaded that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are indeed reliable both as historical records of Jesus and as trustworthy facets of divine revelation.