Monday, December 22, 2008

The Gospels... ?

I have often heard of or come across individuals who simply do not believe anything the Bible teaches.  Before one can really delve into who Jesus was and what He came to do... he or she must believe that the Gospels (4 records of Jesus' life and ministry from different perspectives) are historically credible and able to be trusted.  Then and only then can one take the contents of these Biblical books as truth.  I recently wrote about the historical credibility of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).  The following is a BRIEF defense of the Gospels reliability.  For more information see either, On Jesus (Doug Groothuis), or The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Craig Blomberg) for more in-depth explanations. 

Jesus was a savior figure that was written about in ancient documents, however, there is historical evidence for the credibility of these writings and the claims He made.  Historically understanding the details of Jesus' life is vital for accurately assessing His message and identity.  The primary historical documents concerning Jesus are the four Gospels within the New Testament.  These texts portray Jesus through narratives that often involve discourses.  It is in these encounters, sermons, debates, prayers, and actions that we discover the message Jesus proclaimed.  However, Jesus' teachings mean nothing to someone who does not believe the Gospels are credible historically.  Therefore, two main problems that arise when ancient, historical documents are being scrutinized need to be addressed.

The first critique against the Gospels is that it is prejudiced.  Winfried Corduan explains this issue when he pens, "The authors were obviously believers in Jesus, so they wrote these accounts with the single purpose of promoting their point of view."  Individuals choose not to believe the Gospels content because of the author's seemingly biased perspectives, however, there is no such thing as a non-biased historical text.  Moreover, pointing out that the Gospel writers had a definite bias says nothing about their reliability as historical reporters.  Unlike other ancient historical writings that are credible, biblical storytelling is remarkably objective.  The Gospels are full of phrases that would turn off the reader to Jesus, which seems like the opposite of propaganda.  Therefore, it is unlikely that the author's prejudices got in the way of their historical accounts.

Another objection to the Gospels historical reliability is that the original manuscripts have been lost, therefore, leaving these texts unusable to assess Jesus historically.  Although historians do not have the original texts, they do have copies that have been through relentless criteria and procedures to decide their credibility.  Corduan gives a good argument concerning this issue,

"Take, for example, the status of the manuscripts of Gallic Wars, written by Julius Caesar in about 50 B.C.  Today there are ten known manuscripts of this book, none of which comes from before A.D. 900.  Thus we have ten manuscripts, all of which are about a thousand years removed from the original time of writing [...]  By comparison the New Testament was written in the first century A.D.  The very first undisputed manuscript, the John Rylands Fragment, stems from the first part of the second century.  Most of the other manuscripts are dated within just a few hundred years of the original writings."

Altogether, there are about five thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament known today.   No other ancient document equals the New Testament when it comes to preservation of manuscripts.  Thus, if one throws out the New Testament because it is ancient and does not have the originals, one must discard all ancient literature as well.  Not only is the New Testament credible as a historical document, there are also extra-biblical sources that attest to Jesus and His claims.

Though the New Testament documents are the most detailed accounts of Jesus, historical references to Him are not limited to these texts.  Doug Groothuis points this out when he writes, "The Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus twice in his Antiquities (A.D. 90-95), once in reference to James 'the brother of Jesus who was called Christ,' and once in a longer and disputed passage."  It can be argued that Josephus writes that Jesus existed, was known as virtuous, was crucified, attracted many followers, worked wonders, and believed to be risen from the dead.  Decades after Josephus, the Roman historians Tacitus, Thallus, Pliney the Younger, and Suetonius also note the existence of Jesus, facts about His life, and the beliefs of His followers.  Therefore, it is evident that Jesus did exist and many of His claims recorded by men who were not biased towards Christianity.

Not only is there external evidence for Jesus and the Gospels by historians, there is also internal evidence within the Scriptures.  Addressing one of these arguments Groothius references a historian named Will Durant, a man who was not a friend of religion, to prove what is known as, the principle of embarrassment.  Will Durant, observes that "mere inventors would not have concealed," such as the apostles' prideful competition for high places in the kingdom of God, Peter's denial of Jesus, and His despairing cry on the cross.  If the authors of the gospels were fabricating their writings they would not have included such embarrassing information.  This would include the Gospels use of woman eye-witnesses to the resurrection.  Females were not able to testify in a court of law, therefore, why would the writers include this in the Gospels if they were making it up?

Jesus made a radical claim, that He was God incarnate (John 1:1-2).  Jesus claimed explicitly or implicitly to be divine.  However, most people refer to Jesus not as God, but a good moral teacher.  This false notion is logically addressed by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him (Jesus): 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.'  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse."

The claims made by Jesus must lead any rational skeptic to either qualify HIm as a lunatic, a liar, or the very Son of God.  These are the options one has based on the historical reliability of the Gospels. 
 Hopefully, this gives the reader at least a taste of the research done to prove the historical reliability of the Gospels.  This post only scratches the surface of a huge subject, please do not think this is exhaustive in the slightest.  The Gospels contain the greatest news of humanity.  Jesus came to sacrifice Himself, to atone for His people.  I would encourage anyone that has read this to immediately go through the Gospels and read the account of Jesus... God incarnate!  
If anyone needs more books that discuss this subject... leave a comment and I will do my best to get you more material. 


Doug Groothuis said...

Good for you. Keep giving reasons for Christianity!

Win Corduan said...

Excellent piece, Bobby! You brought together a lot of good arguments into a very convincing essay.